Walking the walk, then and now – An afternoon with Clarence E. Magee, president of the NAACP – Forrest County Branch
by Christopher Young,
Reflecting on the death of Vernon Dahmer at the hands of the Klan 57 years ago led to this interview.
Dahmer’s house in Hattiesburg was firebombed. Numerous sources report that he fought off the Klan with a rifle when his wife and children escaped through the back.
He had been a successful businessman, NAACP president, and voting rights activist.
“In 1992, Dahmer’s widow, Ellie, was elected election commissioner for District 2, Forrest County. For more than a decade, she served in that position, supported by black and white residents, in the same county where her husband was killed over his right to vote,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
After I found the NAACP in Hattiesburg on the Internet – the Forrest County Branch, it was a breeze to find Clarence E. Magee – he is their branch president.
First I spoke to his wife Carrie, an inspiration who was quick to let me know that she was ninety-four. In short, she quoted from Ephesians 6 and 1 Timothy. Then my dam burst when she said, “The Lord loves us and I love the Lord and I love you too.”
Magee agreed to the request for an interview The Mississippi Connection. When I inquired where we could meet, assuming it would be the NAACP meeting place or his church, he said “no, you can come to my house.” We visited him for two hours in his warm cave; the walls and bookshelves appear to be lined with awards and plaques recognizing his distinguished service life and his wife Carrie’s significant contributions to the community as member chair of the Forrest County Branch and much more.
Magee was born on May 14, 1932 in Marion County, Columbia to Glossie R. Magee and Orabell Leggett Magee, the son of a sharecropper and the eldest of ten siblings. He farmed about forty acres of corn, cotton, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane. Then there were the cows, pigs, goats and chickens.
“We grew everything; we never went hungry, he says. His father made it through the sixth grade and his mother kept house and could often be found in the fields well after sunset. During the winter months, his family was often able to remain in the Master’s home when it had been vacated by him for another home near the school complex where he also presided. “At Master’s house we could hear the wind outside, but at our house we could feel it and we could see the pigs and goats through knotholes in our ground.”
Much emphasis was placed on his father as a “coach,” a deeply loving man who found practical ways in everyday activities and chores to educate his children and put everything he had into their education and nurturing.
Magee graduated from Alcorn Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1954 with a major in biology. Alcorn is the oldest historically black public land granting institution in the United States. Thirty days after his arrival in Alcorn, his mother died in childbirth. A month into his second semester, his father went into a diabetic coma but survived and set about living a sugar-free life, living to 84 with the diabetes in remission. He was classmates with Myrlie Evers and after graduation he was eventually taken home to Columbia by Medgar Evers. He enlisted in the army soon after and spent 11 months and 14 days in Germany over the next two years.
He and Carrie got married while on vacation. She became a teacher and with his father’s help and the money he had saved while serving, he and Carrie bought a house in Hattiesburg. He knew money then – on the farm he made a penny a pound of cotton and quickly learned to pick two hundred pounds a day – two dollars of his own money. Knowing that education was vital, he also began teaching, although he intuitively knew they could be unemployed at any time, just at the whim of the headmaster. In time he settled on a position with the Department of Agriculture and they left Hattiesburg for Mobile, Alabama, where they raised their two daughters and stayed for twenty-one years before returning to Hattiesburg.
When asked about discrimination and oppression, he indicated that his first awareness of race was around the age of eight or nine. He reported that he didn’t really understand poverty until the advent of television. He denied facing direct threats to his life, but did acknowledge making ugly phone calls and sometimes being followed in his car and having chemicals sprayed on his front yard in the shape of a cross.
He has been an NAACP member since 1956, 67 years, and served as president of the Forrest County Branch from 1970 to 1974 and again as president since 2001. He says, “Nobody else seems to want it.” He believes it’s the largest branch in the state. If you go to the Mississippi NAACP website – http://naacpms.org, the first words you see are When We Fight We Win. In addition to his focused, kind and generous demeanor, Magee was and is a fighter for equality and justice – a man of importance.
Magee’s oral history is recorded in the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The interview was conducted by Dr. Emilye Crosby at the University of Southern Mississippi on December 1, 2015 and can be viewed at https://www.loc.gov/item/2016655404/.
How often do we come across someone whose life story is archived in the Library of Congress?
Speaking about freedom, he shared, “We use the word freedom kind of loosely; did we know then what it meant? Freedom from Harassment? We’ve been terrorized – we’ve lived our lives like this. Freedom is not free. Freedom brings with it immense responsibility. Too many people have a wrong idea of freedom. Today we live in a society in which everyone feels comfortable. Most people get what they want or someone will give them what they need. Where is the incentive to do better? But we are free.”
When asked what he thinks people should know about the civil rights movement, he said: “The courage. The legacy of courage that we must carry on against all odds. Don’t miss the opportunity. We have long invested in what we call freedom. If they don’t keep the investment going, what will our future generations have for inspiration?”
Recognizing Magee’s life and work is a privilege and not in the least difficult. Nor should it be for us to follow his example – to dig deeper, to invest time and energy – for, as we are sadly reminded every day, freedom is not free, and it is fragile too.