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Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Susan Klopfer

There is a very human side to the voting rights act that I would like to share. For the past two years while living on the grounds of Parchman Penitentiary (where my husband has been the regional director of mental health for Mississippi's prisons), I've spent my time learning and writing about Mississippi civil rights.

The end result has been two books, one of them 680 pages, the largest book that I've ever written. Twice during this period, I've come upon stories that have made me pause and cry. The first was the story of Medgar Evers, his engaging life and his untimely death.

The second story revolved around two older black women from a small, isolated and hateful county. This story was about their bravery, honor, dignity when they fought for the right to vote and ultimately faced the Klan.

It is an important story that underlies what the voting rights issue is really all about and why none of us can turn our heads the other way. This is the story of Birdia Keglar and Adlena Hamlett.

For over forty years, relatives living in separate parts of the country worked to learn what happened to these two women after they were told Keglar and Hamlett were killed in a car accident.

Now that the story of their torture, death and mutilation has been determined, a Michigan congressional representative will soon call for an investigation of the deaths. These words come from Adlena Hamlett's granddaughter:

“Adlena McKinley Hamlett was my grandmother. She had picked me to be a civil rights lawyer when I was a young girl – she and my grandfather, both – but my mother was afraid I would be in danger and so I became a professional secretary and then a teacher.

“My grandmother came from a family with land, and that was very important to them. After the Civil War, her mother Julia McKinley was given forty acres and a mule when she was freed. I have a quilt that my great – grandmother made. Her family acquired more land over the years and my grandmother was born and raised on their dairy farm near Scobey, Mississippi in 1888, where I am from, too.

“Grandmother Adlena was killed when she was 78 years-old outside of Greenwood, Mississippi when she and her close friend Birdia Keglar were forced off the road on their way home from testifying in Jackson about jobs and voting. Months earlier, they testified in support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; both were hanged in effigy and warned they would be killed if they continued.

"I know this because my cousin’s wife told me what he learned from others who knew them and I saw her body in the funeral home in Charleston.

"At Fox Funeral Home in Charleston, the manager told us that only one family member could view my grandmother’s body. My brother and I went into the room together and something was very wrong with her head and her arms. Her head seemed too small.My brother had to tell me that she had been decapitated and that her arms were severed from her body. There were knife marks on her face.

"There was a horrible expression frozen on her face and one of my aunts started screaming when she saw her, later on. I know that my brother examined her body, but he would not let me touch her. I have never let this go.

"Sometimes others tell me to give up the search for answers about my grandmother’s death because it happened too many years ago. But I know that she, like Mrs. Keglar, fought for the right to vote and this is why she died.

"One day when I was a young girl she took me with her to the courthouse in Charleston. She asked for a ballot and someone at the courthouse took it away and tore it up. She told me not to worry, because some day this would change and I would be able to vote.

"I remember my grandmother Adlena and sometimes I still want to cry.”

―Nina Black Zachary, 2005
(from "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited, 2005)

None of the men were removed from their car that was forced from the road in Sidon, a small town below Greenwood, Mississippi, and a known Klan stronghold.

The women, though, were marched to the edge of the woods where they were tortured, killed and mutilated in the style of the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan of Mississippi.

There was never an official police report; no one was charged in these deaths. "It was a car accident," their children and grandchildren were told. . .


When will it ever end.

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