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Family recalls uncivil battles for civil rights

WAUKEGAN Tuesday Jan 15 2013
RosLee  Shields (middle) stands with granddaughter Tammy Moore (left) daughter Johnnie Cox. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times

WAUKEGAN Tuesday Jan 15 2013 Rosa Lee Shields (middle) stands with granddaughter Tammy Moore (left,) and daughter Johnnie Cox. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media

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Voting in Vicksburg, the only city in Warren County, Miss., went smoothly for the Nov. 6, 2012 presidential election, according to resident Rosa Shields, who was once arrested there for protesting impediments to voting for black citizens. Vicksburg native Myrlie Evers, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, will deliver the invocation at today’s public inauguration of President Barack Obama.

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Updated: February 22, 2013 6:25AM

When Rosa Shields left her children on the day before Mother’s Day nearly 48 years ago to join a civil rights protest in her hometown of Vicksburg, Miss., she had a feeling she wouldn’t be coming right back.

“I left home that Saturday morning and I’ll never forget,” Shields, 88, said. “I had a little Bible. I put my bible in my bosom, I put my medicine in my bosom, because I felt that I was going to jail.”

Shields, who is visiting her daughter, Johnnie Cox, and granddaughter, Tammy Moore, both of Beach Park, is one of a dwindling number of people who lived through the most tumultuous years of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. She spent 1964 and 1965 taking her nine children to nightly church meetings where they were educated about the injustice of segregation and the tactics used to prevent blacks from voting. They also learned the principles of non-violent resistance.

Her brood in tow, Shields saw and heard Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on July 24, 1964, at Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church in Vicksburg, as he toured the state to protest the political disenfranchisement of its black citizens.

“He was trying to get us to understand about segregation, that God didn’t want us to live separate because we’re all of us God’s people,” Shields said.

Cox, who was 8 at the time, recalled standing on the church pew and straining to see King, who would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following October.

“We all went to NAACP meetings,” Cox said. “We knew what was going on. My sisters and brothers and I went on the picket lines like we were going to work every morning.”

Around that time, the Freedom School — housed in the Baptist Academy in Vicksburg and where black children, including three of Shield’s daughters, were taught things “contrary to what was in history books” — was firebombed. No one was injured.

Freedom Summer, when young volunteers from the North descended on Mississippi in 1964 to help register black voters, cracked open the door to change, and the murder of three volunteers by the KKK helped pressure the passage of the Civil Rights Act on June 19, 1964.

But African Americans still faced barriers to the vote. They had to pass a literacy test and pay a poll tax, and those who attempted to register were fired from their jobs, beaten, even murdered. By August 1965, two months after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, less than 7 percent of black Mississippians could vote.

Shields, emboldened by the courage of the civil rights activists she met through church, told her children that she did not fear jail, as long as she wasn’t alone. Cox recalls watching from the window as her mother left on May 8, 1965, and headed for downtown.

While an employee of the Vicksburg Post said the newspaper had no immediate access to 50-year-old archives, Shields still has a vivid memory of the day she was arrested for “doing nothing wrong.”

“We were walking, singing ‘We shall overcome,’” she recalled. “The president of the NAACP had told us not to raise our signs. A policeman came up the street, and he saw us and he stopped that car at once and just went to grabbin’ those signs and told us we was going to jail.”

Shields was locked up with about 20 other marchers. She and the women in her cell sang and prayed.

“They treated us like dogs,” Shields said. “The guards kept yelling at us to shut up. ‘Hush that noise,’” But we kept singing and praying. The next morning, they brought us food on old tin plates and tin cups and slid it across the floor. We just slid it right back.”

Good food prepared by NAACP volunteers finally arrived along with a new crop of arrested protestors. Shields was booked on Mother’s Day on “nothing charges.” After two nights with little sleep, she and the women arrested with her were bonded out on a Monday morning. They went back to church that night and raised enough money to set the men free on Tuesday.

A retired Head Start cook, Shields volunteered for many years as a poll worker. She makes sure all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren vote.

Moore said her grandmother took her to register when she turned 18.

“The right to vote is the power to bring change,” Moore said. “She went to jail for that right. We can’t take it for granted.”

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