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Mississippi hanging exposes Black struggle for land

By Minnie Bruce Pratt

Roy Veal, a descendant of African American farmers who was fighting to hold onto his family's land, was found hanging from a tree on April 23 in Woodville, Miss.

Woodville is in Wilkinson County just south of Natchez. It was the childhood home of Jefferson Davis, president of the slave-owning Confederate states, and site of his plantation, Rosemont.

Veal's relatives are emphatic that his death was a lynching. "They hang one and scare the rest, that's the way they do it in Mississippi," family member Willie Brad ley told Brooklyn's Daily Challenge newspaper.

Veal had returned to his home from Seattle to help his family fight a land-grab attempt by whites who alleged title and timber rights to acres that had been in Veal's family for three generations, since the late 19th century.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesperson Warren Stain declared the death as "consistent with suicide." But there are serious and troubling contradictions to this explanation, including the fact that Veal had been hooded in a pillowcase before his death. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Theft of Black land

There is a long history of white vigilante violence against Black economic independence and land ownership in the region.

At the close of the Civil War, a few Union generals began to allocate the plantations of the former slave owners to freed African Americans, part of the "40 acres and a mule" land redistribution.

In Wilkinson County, Davis' 10,000-acre plantation, Rosemont, was declared a "home colony" under the protection of a Black regiment. The land was farmed cooperatively by newly freed people who set up a self-governing community there. (James Allen, "Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy 1865-1876")

Their hard-won freedom was pushed back by an alliance of the old Southern slaveocracy and Northern capital eager to profit in the region. A horrific wave of legal and extra-legal violence against African American people attempting to exercise basic democratic and economic rights swept through the South.

This violent assault on their self-determination was accomplished through torture, sexual humiliations and mutilations of men and women--similar to the torture of Iraqi resistance fighters by U.S. soldiers holding them as prisoners, as reported by Amnesty International and news media worldwide. And these were the same kind of tortures that were used against Native American people resisting colonization of their lands. (David E. Stannard, "American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World")

Black resistance

The Black community in the South mounted ferocious resistance to the white ruling class's attacks on their freedom.

During a gubernatorial election in 1876, white night riders in adjoining West Feli ciana, La., raided a section of the parish where they thought African Americans "hadn't come into line as they should" and hanged their leader, Tom Rice--not before, however, he, "hearing the horses' hoofs, hid in the brake back of his house and killed Mr. West," one of the white vigilantes. ("Eyes on the Prize" documentary)

The struggle for Black people to gain and retain land ownership was central to their survival in the South. If they could not win redistribution of the land, through outright occupation or through reparations legislation such as the "40 acres" grants, then newly freed Black people had no material basis for survival and no way to stand against the seizure of their newly won rights by a resurgent slaveocracy.

All other bourgeois democratic rights--the right to vote, to testify in court, to form civil contracts such as marriage--were completely, inextricably and openly linked to this fight for economic justice.

Roy Veal, in his life and death, was part of the heroic struggle for Black independence in Wilkinson County.

Preceding him in the fight were such ancestors as noted author Richard Wright's maternal grandfather, Richard Wilson, who farmed in Woodville. Wilson escaped out of the fields of slavery to enlist in the Union Navy. He returned to the county after the war "to stand armed guard in front of ballot boxes to protect blacks who were voting." (Hazel Rowley, Richard Wright: The Life and Times")

During the civil-rights battles of the 1960s, state-sponsored white vigilantism continued in what activist Bob Moses called "symbolic acts of terror"--the attempt to intimidate the Black community through assassination of its leaders. In Wilkinson County, Lewis Allen and four other such leaders were killed in 1964.

Speaking that year, Moses said: "But while that was happening, what kept people going, and what still keeps people going, was that you were able to reach and make contact with the Negro farmers, with the people in the cities. You were able to actually grab a hold of them. There was some feeling that you had hit some rock bottom, that you had some base that you could work with and that you could build on, and as long as you had that, then maybe there was some hope for making some real changes someday." (Bob Moses, Voices of Freedom Project)

Defeating the Monolith

The fight to keep land in the hands of Black people in the South continues in the face of a system Moses characterized then as "the white citizens councils, the governor, the state legislature, the judiciary--one monolithic system."

In 1920 over 925,000 Black farmers controlled over 15 million acres of land. Today there are only 15,000 to 18,000 farmers, with less than a million acres.

A 2001 Associated Press study documented "a pattern in which Black Amer icans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder. In some cases, government officials approved the land takings; in others, they took part in them. The earliest occurred before the Civil War; others are being litigated today. ... Today, virtually all of this property, valued at tens of millions of dollars, is owned by whites or corporations." (Dr. Raymond A.Winbush, "The Earth Moved: Land Theft and African Americans in the United States")

The taking of these lands continues with the complicity of the U.S. Depart ment of Agriculture, which denies loans to Black farmers, thus furthering the interests of corporate agribusiness. Resistance also continues, however, as shown last July 4 in the dramatic takeover of USDA offices in Tennessee by 300 Black farmers.

Speaking for Roy Veal's family, Willie Bradley says: "This is not over. We want to find out what happened, and the fight will go on to keep the family land." (Daily Challenge)

Reprinted from the May 13, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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