Local African American Activists Emerge as Dynamic Leaders

Since the mid-1800s, John McFerren's extended family had lived in Fayette County. After returning from World War II as a veteran, McFerren and his wife, Viola, farmed the land owned by his family for generations. As a private in the Army, McFerren reported to Estes, then a staff sergeant at Camp Atterbury in Indiana,during his boot camp training. Attracted by the spectacle of Dodson's trial and Estes' courtroom appearance, McFerren, along with his childhood friend, Harpman Jameson, also a World War II veteran who farmed his land with his wife Minnie, attended all the trial proceedings. This experience changed the course of their lives and the course of history in Fayette County.

Attorney Estes discovered that selecting a fair and impartial jury from a jury pool that basically included no African Americans was a monumental challenge. Although the county was approximately 70% African American, few blacks were registered to vote, a requirement for jury duty. Estes quickly engaged the black community both to aid in his defense of Dodson and to register blacks to vote. Estes first asked McFerren and Jameson to raise money in the African American community to hire a court reporter to record the proceedings of the trial court. Estes then persuaded McFerren and Jameson to create a formal organization to spearhead a voter registration drive among blacks. This action thrust Fayette County into the national spotlight as the demand for civil rights gained traction in cities and towns across the nation.

John McFerren on Estes and Trial

2002. From documentary project on Fayette County, Tennessee. Source: Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

Estes provided legal and organizational assistance to Fayette County activists as they formed The Fayette County Civic and Welfare League (referred to as "the League"). The League's name provided a direct explanation of its mission—to advance the civic welfare of blacks—but its mission was difficult and dangerous to execute. In 1959, the initial incorporators of the League were McFerren, Jameson, Rufus Abernathy, Ed Brooks, Roy Brown, Isaiah Harris, John Lewis, Houston Malone, Levearn Towles, and William Towles, Jr. Voter registration efforts, now spurred on by a formal organization, met with organized resistance by whites.

The Fayette County civil rights movement was sustained by local African American leadership. While outside assistance contributed much-needed monetary, legal, and other support, the fact that the movement was led by local people reassured frightened sharecroppers and other blacks that their leaders understood their particular hardships and hopes. Additionally, the black community saw that their leaders suffered the same, if not worse, treatment as they did as a result of their activism.

Charlie Butts Discusses Indigenous Leadership

2002. From documentary project on Fayette County, Tennessee. Source: Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries

McFerren emerged as a forceful and charismatic leader of the movement. McFerren, Jameson, and others, with guidance from Estes, registered to vote but then were denied the right to vote in the August 1, 1959, primary election. Despite this setback, registration efforts led by McFerren, Jameson, and others continued. However, whites expressly and openly discouraged black voter registration by changing the hours and days for registering without notice. They harassed and intimidated blacks standing in voter registration lines in various ways, such as by spitting, by throwing coffee or hot pepper on them from the top floors of the courthouse, and by arresting them if they stepped on the courthouse's grass. Finally, in an effort to deal the movement a fatal blow, the white leaders in the community organized to punish those who registered by evicting black families who had been sharecropping on white farms for decades.