Meridian Star

March 9, 2014

Celebrating Women in History

Polly Heidelberg remembered as woman of character, courage and commitment

By Ida Brown /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Editor's note: The following story written by Senior Staff Writer Ida Brown was published in the Feb. 16, 1992, edition of The Meridian Star. Polly Glover Heidelberg, also known as "Miss Polly," was a local civil rights activist who befriended the three murdered civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael "Mickey" Schwerner.

    For Meridian's observance of Women's History Month, Ruth Jones, the National Women's History Project's statewide coordinator for Mississippi, felt it fitting to recognize Mrs. Heidelberg since this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the three civil rights workers' murders. From March 16-31, residents are asked to read publications about Miss Polly in conjunction with the Miss Polly Glover Heidelberg Read-Aloud/Read-In – Meridian, Mississippi, and Beyond. At Jones' request, The Star is republishing the article for residents to read.

    "They (Ku Klux Klan) spit on me, they told me they'd kick me in my back until my nose bleed. They called me 'bastard' and told me they wished I was dead and in my mama's grave ... But I never gave up; I never gave up the struggle. And I won't give up; not 'til everybody's free."

– Polly Heidelberg

Life no longer includes many of the obstacles it once did for blacks.

    The "whites only" signs placed in the windows of many restaurants and businesses are gone. Blacks not only patronize these operations, but also work in them.

    The playgrounds and corridors of once predominately white schools are now filled with children of all races and nationalities. Not only do they attend the same schools, but also received the same education.

    And the removal of the poll tax has made exercising one's right to vote less taxing. The only requirements to register and to cast a vote are identification and a signature.

    The freedom to exercise these, and other rights denied to blacks (particularly in the South), was the result of an activism for civil rights from the late '50s through the '60s.

    This movement included the application of non-violent protest action. At the forefront of local protests was one woman who, according to several black community leaders, really didn't have to participate but did so simply because she cared.

    "I'm going to keep on fighting for my people. I was in 'slavery' time. I don't have no need to let you stay there because I was there," said Polly Heidelberg, the woman who many affectionately call "Miss Polly" or "Mother."

    The Meridian resident, elusive about revealing her age, continues to have the fountain of enthusiasm and energy which propelled her to march with leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., picket businesses in the presence of Klansmen and even withstand a stay in jail.

    "I did what I did to make the world a better place for other people. They wanted the jobs; I didn't need a job. My children finished school at the Catholic school; I didn't have to march for my children to go to school ... I did what I did because I wanted to and because I cared."

    The youngest of three children, Mrs. Heidelberg is unsure of when and where she was born. Her mother died when she was 6 months old; she later moved to Meridian to live with her aunt, who worked for then Mayor Clint Vincent, whose term was from 1933-44.

    "He lived on Poplar Springs Drive. As he moved, he moved us. But I lived most of my life on Poplar Springs Drive."

    She began working at a young age, taking care of the family's household for a number of years. She also worked a number of other jobs throughout her early life. Resolutely nonspecific about her past, she, at some point, married a railroad porter from Heidelberg named Jesse Heidelberg.

    In the early '60s, Mrs. Heidelberg joined the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Based in Atlanta, the organization was geared to registering blacks to vote. According to the Rev. Charles Johnson, now pastor of the Church of the Nazarene who also was a COFO member, Andrew Young (former mayor of Atlanta and a right-hand man of King) and John Lewis (a Georgia congressman who was active in Mississippi's civil rights movement) came to Meridian when an office was established here.

    Mrs. Heidelberg later became involved in the civil rights movement through Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – the three civil rights workers slain in Philadelphia in 1964.

    "They told us they wanted to integrate. I asked Mr. Mickey what was integration. He told me, You're the first black person who's ever asked me that.' He said, 'You gonna go.' I said, 'Where I'm goin' go?' He said, "Lord knows where.' I said, "Where you goin' send me?' he said, 'Lord knows where.'"

    When Schwerner announced during a meeting at St. John Missionary Baptist Church that there was going to be a freedom movement in Meridian, Mrs. Heidelberg was the first to jump on the bandwagon.

    "I yelled, 'I want to join!' He (Schwerner) laughed. He said, 'Okay, what's your name.' I told him ... He asked me if I knew many people, I told him I knew lots of people. He wanted to know if I knew James Chaney. I told him my children went to the same school he went (to). He said, 'Ooh, you're what I need.'"

    That was the beginning of what evolved into a close relationship between Mrs. Heidelberg and the three slain workers – particularly Chaney and Schwerner.

    "James Chaney and Michael Schwerner loved Miss Polly, they really did," Johnson said. "She was their surrogate mother."

    The three men's deaths took its toll on her.

    "They claimed they put them in jail in Philadelphia, but when they went to the jail they weren't there ... They were gone 30 days. When they found them they were in bags, buried in one place," she said, trying to maintain her composure.

    As the movement continued, so did Mrs. Heidelberg. When local black community leaders met with those from other locales – such as King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy – she was there. Although she didn't know King very well, Mrs. Heidelberg did have an opportunity to speak with him.

    "I met Dr. King during a preacher's meeting. He spoke to the people about moving up, voting, education and learning about their freedom. He said everybody had a freedom ... I told him I wanted to join. He asked me what I did, I told him nothing much. He asked me if I had an education, I told him no, but I had a good memory He said that was even better."

    Her activism, though voluntary, did not come without costs. While picketing the then Bill's Dollar Store on Fifth Street (currently Metro Plaza), Mrs. Heidelberg and several other COFO members – Agnes Smith, Catherine Crowell and Annie Gathright – were arrested.

    "We were put in jail for trying to integrate the store (which was located in a black business community, but had no black employees) ... We stayed down there eight days, slept on the floor, eat out of a dishpan and we sang 'Swing Low, Swing Chariot.' Come that Sunday, I asked for a broom. He (jailer) asked, 'For what?' I told him we were going to have church. He said, 'Church?' I said, "Yes sir. My pastor will be here.' And you better believe (the Rev.) Charles Griffin was standing at the door knocking.

    Serving time in jail wasn't Mrs. Heidelberg's only retribution for demanding equal rights. A confrontation with a Klansman during a picket rally frightened her. Several years later, she met the same man during a political meeting at her church, as described by Obie Clark, president of the Meridian NAACP:

    " ... That same Klansman was running for justice court judge and he (along with several other candidates) was at Miss Polly's church during a public meeting. Miss Polly was sitting at the back of the church while they were making their presentations ... She asked for permission to speak and I can see her like it was happening right now. She took her time and walked all the way up the aisle up to where the candidates were. She looked up at him (Klansman) and described the situation and all the fear that went through her at that time (Heidelberg and other COFO members were picketing the then Winn-Dixie on 18th Avenue – currently Peavey's – for not hiring blacks. The Klansman threatened to kick her).

    "And then she said, 'And now, behind all of that, you are now asking me to let you be my judge?"

    Mrs. Heidelberg's roots in the local civil rights movement are firmly planted. She is recognized not only locally, but also state-to-state and nationally.

    "I like to refer to her as a 'trailblazer,'" Clark said. "She went through the jungles of racial prejudice and was involved in the knocking down of barriers so that others could come through with less pain and effort ... Miss Heidelberg should have the same national recognition as Fannie Lou Hamer because she's of the same mold. But where Fannie Lou Hamer followed through on things she saw as wrong, Mrs. Heidelberg would put together a situation and turn it over to the local leaders. They, more or less, received and claimed more recognition than Miss Polly did. But she was one of the ones that got things started."

    She also is considered an invaluable resource.

    "I don't think you could put a value on the contributions Mrs. Heidelberg has made," said state Rep. Charles Young. "She played a very instrumental role in creating change. God has many different kinds of messengers who come in many different forms and fashions. Mrs. Heidelberg has delivered a very unique message.

    "During the movement, your most highly educated people weren't the persons that created change. They were basically symbols of the status quo because they were afraid they would lose what they had ... When others thought they had too much to lose, she would step in and do whatever needed to be done."

    Still, some felt that she is not always given due respect.

    "When Miss Polly is at a meeting and begins talking, people try to sit her down," Johnson said. "All those intelligent, educators sitting high, who want to sit her down and tell her to hush – she's the reason many of them are where they are today. I want them to know, Mrs. Heidelberg has paid her dues. And for those who want to quieten her, I want to tell them to 'hush.'"

    Although she isn't physically able to do many of the things she once did, Mrs. Heidelberg is not, by any means, sitting on the sidelines.

    "The civil rights movement is not over; we ain't free," she said. "To a certain extent, things are better. People have jobs, but a lot more of them don't have them.

    " ... I don't think other people understand what black people want. We don't want to be over anybody, just equal. We don't want to take over, we just want to be treated right; the same as everybody else. We don't want all of Meridian, just an equal part. We don't want all the jobs, just a share of them. We just want to be treated equally."