Dorie Ladner: Eyes Always On the Prize

Charlie Cobb & Dorie Ladner
Charlie Cobb & Dorie Ladner

By Charlie Cobb

There are certain words that come immediately to mind thinking of Dorie Ladner: courage, commitment, purpose. Her family roots explain part of the reason why. “Mother started training us not to let anybody abuse us or mistreat us, and to always look white people in the eye when you talk to them,” she recalled in a Southern Quarterly interview. “‘Never look down, never look back.’”

We met when I was 19; she was 20. Growing up I had heard stories of and from women in my family like my grandmother or my Great-Aunt Hattie Kendrick who in the 1940s took on the racist city of Cairo, Illinois to fight for equal pay for Black teachers and who joined SNCC workers in the 1960s to fight for desegregation in that city. Dorie, however, was the first woman of my generation I actually met with the same kind of qualities I have associated with such women. So strength is another word that comes to my mind thinking of Dorie. But I am getting a little bit ahead of myself.

Dorie Ladner at Freedom Summer training in Oxford, Ohio. Photo by Herbert Randall, USM Collection.
Dorie Ladner at Freedom Summer training in Oxford, Ohio. Photo by Herbert Randall, USM Collection.

Dorie and I met in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the summer of 1962. I was traveling by bus from Washington DC to Houston, Texas where I was planning to attend a conference for student activists organized by CORE. I had been involved in the sit-in movement as a Howard University student. I got off the bus in Jackson because in that city students were sitting in and I wanted to meet them. I thought It was one thing for me to be protesting in Maryland and Virginia; something qualitatively different, however, for students in Mississippi to be sitting-in. From my point of view and I think the point of view of many of us “up north” so to speak was that Mississippi was the worst place on earth, perhaps in the universe, for a Black person. This was where Emmett Till had been murdered and I wanted to see close up this movement that had developed there. What kind of black people would be protesting in Mississippi? I wondered. The photograph of Till’s mutilated and bloated body that we saw in the Jet magazine was etched in my mind; it even remains in my mind today. I thought everyone in Mississippi, every Black person that is, was subjugated and silent so I wanted to meet those who were not.

After getting off the bus in Jackson I made my way to the headquarters that SNCC and CORE shared. I introduced myself, and after meeting Dorie, Lawrence Guyot, Jesse Harris, and Colia Liddell explained to them that I was on the way to a civil rights conference and workshop in Houston Texas. I was immediately challenged and Dorie was right in the middle of this challenge. Somewhat disdainfully they basically responded: Yeah you can go off to Texas and chatter about civil rights if you want to, but we’re getting ready to do stuff here in Mississippi. A Junebug Jabbo Jones saying comes to mind here: “Mr. say ain’t nothing; Mr. Do is the man.”

This is a moment that you can only look back on. You don’t recognize it right away but I know now that it was life changing. Dorie suggested that I stay over for a few days explaining that they had a “Freedom House” nearby and I could stay there where we could talk some more. Although even now I cannot say with certainty what the qualities I was seeing in these people I had just met were, I did agree to stay and continue our conversations. I didn’t know I was already on a life changing road and Dorie had put me on it although sometimes in later years I used to tease Guyot and Dorie saying “Y’all kidnapped me.”

At the Freedom House I met Bob Moses who suggested that I might find it useful to go up into the Delta with them where SNCC had just begun working. It was summer. I did not have to be at school and Mississippi seemed to be a more interesting place to be than a conference, So why not? I did the very next day, getting into Bob’s car with Charles McLaurin and Landy McNair which was headed to Ruleville in Sunflower County. I didn’t know what I was really getting into; I was just curious.

Ruleville had a curfew then, at least for Black people, and it was past the curfew when we hit the town limits so we went on to Amzie Moore’s house in nearby Cleveland Mississippi. He brought us back to Ruleville the next day, a Sunday morning, and we were introduced to the congregation at Mount Galilee Missionary Baptist Church and then handed over to an elderly couple: Joe and Rebecca McDonald. And I realized then that whatever I had planned or thought, I’ve been thrust into the middle of a registration campaign just beginning in Sunflower County.

Dorie joined us just a few days later. I like to think she wanted to keep an eye on me but I never asked her about it. In any case she was the first of the young women of Mississippi to plant both feet into grassroots organizing in the delta. I was happy to have her there. There is a lot more to Dorie’s story, of course. Others will tell of its various other pieces.