GREENWOOD, Miss. (AP) – William “Bud” McGee, a Mississippi civil rights activist who worked to register black voters in the 1960s, has died. He was 81 years old.
McGee died of heart failure on May 24 at his home in the Delta town of Greenwood, the Greenwood Commonwealth reported. A funeral was scheduled for Saturday.
In the small town of Itta Bena, three historical markers mention McGee’s efforts as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized young people to use nonviolent protests against segregation.
McGee and SNCC would hold voter registration drives and other civil rights meetings at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, led by the Reverend GW Hollins.
“It was the only church that allowed people to meet,” said Shannon Bowden, professor of speech and mass communications at Mississippi Valley State University. “A lot of people were scared at that time and wouldn’t allow people who were fighting for civil rights to meet because of fear.”
She said the meetings at Hopewell included voter registration, reading lessons and teaching people methods others could use to stop them from voting.
On June 18, 1963, days after Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, an attacker used tear gas against the church where Magee and others were holding an SNCC meeting. Attendees drove through Itta Bena to ask for help, and Sheriff John Ed Cothran arrested dozens of people, including McGee. Forty-five people were imprisoned for two months on trumped-up charges of unrest and breaching the peace.
According to one of the historical markers, in 1964 McGee and two Freedom Summer volunteers, John Paul and Roy Torkington, were canvassing in Itta Bena. A group of white men confronted them and forced them out of the area. Undeterred, McGee and the other activists continued their work.
Over the years, McGee has held a variety of jobs, including as a DJ at WNLA-AM in Indianola and as a tax preparer in Greenwood.
“I think I like Greenwood more than I like staying in Chicago. You talk to somebody in Chicago, they look at you like you’re crazy,” he told The Washington Post in 1999 when he and others shared memories of the civil rights era after Mississippi opened files from the Sovereignty Commission, a former state agency that spied on people to try to preserve segregation.
His son, Lou Jones, recalled his father’s efforts as a tax preparer and remembered helping someone with a court case and a problem with his disability benefits.
“He had a calm, gentle demeanor,” Jones told the Greenwood Commonwealth after his father’s death. “I’ve very rarely seen him express anything other than that.”