Celebrating the Life of Margaret Block, Civil Rights Activist and Inspiring Mississippi Freedom Teacher

Published: June 23rd, 2015

Category: In Memoriam

4f1903da20561.preview-300Ms. Margaret Block, lifelong civil rights activist, teacher, and friend, passed away in June 2015. Her efforts to organize, agitate, and educate for social justice inspired men and women across the country to work together for freedom in America, including students of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program’s Mississippi Freedom Project, whom she led for many years.

Margaret worked as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee with her brother, Sam Block, in the 1960s, as well as the Black Panthers in California, where she taught school for more than three decades. When she recently returned to the Delta to care for her mother, Ms. Block met SPOHP Director Dr. Paul Ortiz and became involved with the Mississippi Freedom Project, leading groups of students each year to historical sites across the Delta and teaching civil rights history using lectures, poetry, and song. Guided by her directional insight, students visited the home of Amzie Moore, the Taborian Hospital, the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial, and other sites crucial to grassroots organizing for civil rights in the Delta.

Margaret Block was a great woman, an inspiration to our students, a freedom fighter who commanded respect all throughout the Mississippi Delta (and beyond!) as she taught countless people the traditions of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee! Margaret Block, presente!

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida will do all we possibly can to live the ethics Margaret taught us and to keep her memory alive. In honor of her revolutionary legacy and dedication to civil rights, SPOHP invites you to share lessons and memories from Margaret using the form below. Comments will be updated daily.

I’m outspoken, and if I see something wrong, I’m going to say something about it, because that’s my nature. You can’t sit up and see something wrong and not do anything about it, but I don’t consider myself a leader. I’m just a citizen that’s doing what you’re supposed to do, is being a citizen.

-Margaret Block, MFP-006B


VOTE OR DIE
A Poem Commemorating the Voting Rights Act of 1865-1965, by Margaret Block

Vote or die will always be my battle cry.
I cry for the slaves who are long ago gone
It wasn’t for the vote but t’was freedom they longed
And they cried and sang this sad song.

Woke up this morning with my
Mind stayed on freedom
Woke up this morning with my
Mind stayed on freedom
Hallelue, Hallelue, Hallelujah
Vote or die.

Vote or die was Mary Ann Cary’s battle cry
She was an attorney in D.C.
The year was 1880
She fought for the woman’s right to vote
She asked Hiram Revels if you can vote, then why can’t I?
Vote or die was always Mary Ann’s battle cry.
Vote or die.

Vote or die was Aaron Henry’s battle cry
He got in the battle early on.
He was a pharmacist and Clarksdale, Mississippi was his home,
They put him in jail and beat him up
And made him ride on the back of a garbage truck.
They tried to take away his dignity and
He told them that when he got the vote,
We will all be free.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Malcolm X’s battle cry
He asked LBJ in no uncertain way which will it be
The ballot or the bullet.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Hartmon Turnbow’s battle cry
He lived in Mississippi town in Holmes county
They put bullet holes through his front door
And they set his house on fire because
He said that he was going to vote in the fall
Because freedom was his desire.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Diann Nash’s battle cry
She fought for rights in Nashville, Tennessee.
She went to jail all over the land
She took a lot of young people by the hand
And said if you vote, it’ll set us free.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Rev. J. D. Story’s battle cry.
In 1962 he took a very brave stand
And he let the world know that he wasn’t a coward
But a god-fearing man
He said that “the doors of the church is (sic) open”
And he showed no fear because
The vote to him was crucial and dear.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Larry Rubin’s battle cry.
He came to Mississippi because he had a dream
But they locked him up in Holly Springs.
When he went to court he took a stand
And told the Judge, if you can vote, then why not every man.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Sam Block’s battle cry
When he went to Greenwood they beat him up and threw him in jail.
They told his attorney there would be no bail
He stayed in jail and stood his ground
And he turned Greenwood upside down.
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Jimmy Travis’ battle cry.
While in Greenwood he got shot in the head
The Klan thought that he was dead.
They were surprised he survived and when he awoke
He said in a voice very loud
My head is bloodied but unbowed
Vote or die!

Vote or die was Arnell Ponder’s battle cry
They almost killed her in the Winona jail
She told Euvester to hold her head high
Because when they got out
She would vote or die.

Vote or die was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s battle cry
They did her a favor when she got kicked off the land
She went to Ruleville and took her stand.
She told the world with force and pride
That she was sick and tired of being sick and tired
They beat her up in the Winona jail
When she got out she was strong but kind
And she would always sing this little light of mine.

This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Vote or die!

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“Vote or Die” copyright © Margaret Block, all rights reserved. Images from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program and Independent Florida Alligator, taken by Alex Catalano, January 20, 2012.

 

9 Responses to “Celebrating the Life of Margaret Block, Civil Rights Activist and Inspiring Mississippi Freedom Teacher”

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  1. Breanne Palmer

    I met Margaret Block in 2012, when Dr. Paul Ortiz graciously made room for me at the very last minute on the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program’s annual field research trip to Mississippi. Meeting Margaret Block revolutionized and radicalized my life. I met her at a time when my formal education and internal identity formation had converged and had begun to form a sophisticated understanding of the world through the lens of Black womanhood. Yet, on that trip, I was meek and mild compared to the petite yet giant figure of prophetic Black womanhood that is Margaret Block. Meeting Margaret was serendipity, destiny, ordained–all of the above. Margaret was intimidating; her voice was like sand and gravel, but every word or breath or laugh was sweet, sweet fire. We traveled with her throughout the state, taking oral interviews, being introduced to other members of SNCC, other Freedom Singers, other leaders of the Freedom Summer. I watched her in awe, soaking in her mannerisms: the way she looked people in the eye, the way she ran her eyes over a room–always watchful, always aware.

    I distinctly recall one evening, sitting on the porch of her home, when a handful of us students recorded Margaret’s stream of consciousness about her life and times as an activist. We sat for hours, utterly riveted, some of us scribbling and scrambling to write down every word she said. We sat until the sun set and darkness surrounded us. After she had finished all that she had to say, I remember sitting back and wondering how one can achieve the fullness of life Margaret had achieved, and was still achieving at that time.

    Margaret was a singer, and she gifted us with her songs throughout our trip. She sang for us at Fannie Lou Hamer’s grave, taught us freedom songs, and when I dared to sing along softly near her, she called me out of our small crowd. At that point, I didn’t even think she knew my name. But she told me that she liked my voice (she labeled me a soprano, which was flattering), and I was all at once flushed and embarrassed and delighted and terrified. It was akin to being knighted by the Queen: what Margaret says is law. She made me sing with her during a visit with schoolchildren in the HistoryMakers program. When Margaret visited the University of Florida perhaps a year later, she addressed a crowd of students, local Gainesville activists, and professors. I arrived late and stood in the back, certain she could not and would not remember me. Yet she called me up to the front (to my complete dismay), and made me sing and clap with her as she performed freedom songs for the crowd. That would be the last time I saw Margaret in person.

    Margaret made you feel special. Margaret made you feel safe. Margaret made you feel worthy of love, of knowledge, of wisdom, of truth. Margaret embraced righteous anger. When we left Mississippi, Margaret gave us gifts, and she gifted me with a book, as she’d likely done for many students she had met. Her signed copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is sitting on my bookshelf snuggled next to James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. Her gift will remain on my bookshelf until I have a child whom I can tell all about the time I met the giant known as Margaret Block.

  2. Dianna Freelon-Foster

    Ms. Block came to Grenada, MS several years ago to share her poetry with us in our 1966 Grenada Freedom Movement Celebration. All of the young people were inspired by her poetry and her youthfulness. She gave so much and always kept faith and confidence in young people. She was truly a freedom-fighter.

  3. Wyatt Kanyer

    People like Margaret Block are the forces that lie somewhere at the core of my desire to be about the Cause.

    She led a handful of college and students (me included) in a tour of the Mississippi Delta as part of the 2012 TCU Civil Rights Bus Tour. She sang freedom songs as we trekked through the Delta. Each song carried with it a story of her life as an activist, both in the Civil Rights Era and her modern-day activism.

    I am forever grateful for her. May she rest in power.

  4. Sarah Blanc

    Margaret is immortal. This is something I was convinced of after many years of visiting Cleveland, Mississippi with a dozen or more students and staff from UF. We would pull up in two vans and pile into her tiny living room so she could be sure to learn everybody’s name and story before kicking off the busiest week of our young lives. Margaret certainly had the sleep habits of a college student- staying up until the early morning hours reading or writing and griping at me if I scheduled anything before 9 am. But once she got started, she used every second of daylight to show us the lessons and landscape of the Mississippi Delta, and let us stay on her porch late into the night sharing stories with each other.

    I never really referenced Margaret’s age because she surrounded herself with young people, new ideas, and the exhausting task of seeking justice and equality in the state of Mississippi. I remember one night during a community panel, a friend of Margaret’s was trying to recall the age of Ms. Janie Brewer, the matriarch who housed Margaret in Tallahatchie County during Freedom Summer. “Was she 70?,” he asked. “Oh yeah, she was ancient!” Margaret scoffed. The room erupted in laughter. I thought Margaret would live to be 100. I certainly thought we would spend a lot more time together. We all knew she was burning the candle at both ends, but she made it look so easy. Like she said, it is in her nature to fight injustice wherever she sees it, and in her lifetime Margaret saw injustice everywhere.

    I can’t even begin to measure how much Margaret has given me as a scholar and a human. On the first day of my internship at SPOHP six years ago this week, I was assigned to transcribe Margaret’s first oral history with SPOHP. Upon finishing that transcript, I ran out to buy a card to express how inspired I was by her bravery and commitment to justice. Little did I know I would be spending my 21st birthday with her about a year later on my first trip to Mississippi with SPOHP. Since then, I’ve watched Margaret befriend and mentor generations of students through our week-long trips to gather oral histories in the Mississippi Delta. All we have to do is get our students to Margaret’s house and she takes it from there. Throughout the week, she sets our students up with powerful interviews that are only possible with Margaret’s unparalleled memory and reputation. She shows us important sites in Mississippi’s struggle for equality – sites that often fall into disrepair – such as the home of Amzie Moore, Taborian Hospital, and Bryant’s Grocery Store.

    Sometimes Margaret would rake me over the coals about the day’s schedule, and then after making sure nobody else was listening, she’d reassure me, “I’m just mean to you because I like you.” I remember one day she was ridiculing one of the Mississippi Blues Trail sites, and I unwittingly said, “Well that’s important history, too, right?” Without skipping a beat, she asked me, “What if I told you that honky tonk music was your history? What if I told you that Hank Williams, Jr. was your people’s history? I remember when they called the Blues ‘race music,’ and now you’d think that’s the only history we have here in the state of Mississippi.” This isn’t the first time Margaret kept me on my toes – indeed, there are far too many times that I am embarrassed to recall here. It pains me to know that there were probably so many more lessons we could’ve learned from Margaret, but she never passed up a teachable moment.

    While the Bible says, “pray for those who persecute you,” Margaret’s philosophy was “educate those who persecute you.” Giving people an education was how Margaret showed love to friends and enemies alike. I feel so fortunate to have received her love in such an empowering and accessible form. Margaret truly is immortal, as her lessons will live on in each person that she touched during her rich, meaningful life as a freedom fighter, teacher, daughter, sister, mother, and dear friend.

  5. Dorie Ann Ladner

    I remember Margaret as a very strong and committed person, who spoke well and did not
    bite her tongue when it came to Truth and Social Justice. Her Pen was Mighter than
    The Sword.

  6. Dr. Stacy J. White

    Ms. Margaret Block attended several of our civil rights reunions in Sunflower County, Mississippi hosted by the Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization often times leading us with a freedom song or reciting her beautifully written original poetry. We will surely miss her!

  7. Diana Dombrowski

    Margaret Block worked from an inexhaustible wellspring of purpose as a teacher for the Mississippi Freedom Project, fearlessly speaking truth to power in volumes so loud and unforgettable, I can recall the sound of her voice in an instant. Her songs, her poetry, her sarcasm and unforgettable laugh all told the truth. I’m so grateful to have heard her in these moments, to share her front porch on late nights and listen to her wisdom. She revolutionized so much of what I thought I knew about history and about people; she could shake it up and hand it right back to me with just one poem.

    The story of Margaret’s own heroic life was a mandate for anyone who heard it to do better and be better, but she also had other histories to tell on behalf of her family, friends, and fellow organizers in the movement. She spent most of her time teaching us to understand their legacies. All of her energy was dedicated to uplifting and educating people, for her whole life; that’s the community she came from, and the world she wanted to teach us to build, as well. Her radical courage and enduring strength inspired me every year. It is an honor to carry on her memory.

  8. Jennifer A. Lyon

    Perhaps the most common trait between SPOHP-ers (be it current students or alumni) is the desire to see meaningful social change. We record, study, and teach the past, all in hopes of contributing to a better future. In other words, we aim to accomplish a fraction of what Margaret Block did throughout her entire life.

    I did not know Ms. Block as well as others. My time was limited mostly to chauffeuring her around Mississippi during the 2012 SPOHP trip—an arrangement she declared a “better version of ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’” Yet, even from that single week, I am better for having known her. We passed the time in that rental van telling jokes, discussing art, music, politics, and of course, the movement. Margaret seemed at once deeply optimistic, pragmatic, and at times cynical about change—could anyone who survived the Mississippi Freedom Struggle be any different?—but most of all, she was a clarion call. She leveraged her own experiences to galvanize others, and taught anyone who wanted to learn, regardless of their age, gender, race, or background. Including me, a white farmer’s daughter from Kansas.

    I will always treasure our “off the record” detour to a local antiques shop (after we bonded over a shared love of antiquing), and the cup and saucer she gave me when we left Mississippi. Perhaps Margaret’s greatest gift to us all, though, are her teachable moments. She once told us to use whatever skills we had to do good. “If you’re good at math,” she said, “help someone who isn’t.” We can honor Margaret Block’s memory and continue her work by living that mantra—be it in the classroom, courtroom, online, or in the streets. She will surely give us an earful in the afterlife if we do not try.

    May she rest in power.

  9. Synovia Ann Jackson

    I am Synovia Ann Jackson a friend of MS Margaret Block, I had the opportunity to tour various Civil Rights Sites through the Delta areas such as the Emmitt T. Museum in Glendora, MS, conference with students attending Texas Southern Christian University, attended conference at Delta State University students diversity, conference at Indianola, MS., through her I got a chance to meet a numbers of great Civil Rights Workers of the 60’s, Margaret Block was given the key to Georgia in which she never receive from her own town of Cleveland Bolivar County MS, she was a great poetry writer, she often told about how she didn’t like to be in Charleston, MS after dark because she had to hide in a hearse for her safety, she was a great teacher. Although I didn’t travel outside of Cleveland Bolivar County MS during the Civil Rights Era but I did get a chance to do voters registration.

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