Victoria Gray Adams
Victoria Jackson Gray Adams (November 5, 1926 – August 12, 2006) was an American civil rights activist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She was one of the founding members of the influential Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Early life and education
Born on November 5, 1926, in Palmers Crossing, just outside Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the daughter of Mack and Annie Mae (née Ott) Jackson, Victoria Jackson was raised on a farm by her grandparents; her mother had died when she was just three years old. She attended Wilberforce University for one year, but money for tuition ran short. She later studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and at Jackson State College in Jackson and qualified as a teacher. She went on to serve as a campus minister at Virginia State University and to teach and lecture at schools, colleges and universities across the nation.
Civil rights activist
In the 1960 elections Adams taught classes in voter registration. In 1962, she became field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and led a boycott against Hattiesburg businesses.
While registering voters, Adams encountered many challenges. African Americans were required to be able to read, write and interpret parts of the Constitution before being allowed to register to vote. Precinct meetings that were set up in order to facilitate registration were also troubling. Scheduling conflicts presented many problems, and people were denied entrance to meetings. At this, Adams decided to create the freedom registration where elections would be held in active countries. After this, participation in elections increased.
In 1964, Adams, a teacher, door-to-door saleswoman of cosmetics, and leader of voter education classes, decided to run against Senator John Stennis, the Mississippi Democrat who at the time had been in the Senate for 16 years. She announced that she and others from the tiny Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, of which she was a founding member, along with Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine, would challenge the power of white segregationist politicians like Stennis. The time had come, she said, to pay attention “to the Negro in Mississippi, who had not even had the leavings from the American political table.”
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Adams helped open the Freedom Schools that pushed for civil rights in Mississippi. She went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Mississippi Democratic Party had withdrawn support for President Lyndon Johnson because of Johnson's work to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and sent an all-white delegation to the convention. The three women fought to be seated among the delegation, but were unsuccessful. The incident, however, led to racial integration reforms within the party.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
The main difference between the regular Mississippi Democratic Party, Adams stated, was that it didn’t represent all the people, something the MFDP promised to do. Another difference between the two parties according to Adams was that the MFDP’s election process was more evenly open to the entire constituency. Whereas the Mississippi Democratic party would often deny constituents entrance into the party. Adams calls the MFDP the true Democratic Party and boasts its accomplishment of tearing down the “curtain of fear in Mississippi for African Americans demanding their rights.”
Adams also stated that 30% of the citizens of Mississippi were African American, yet only 50 of those people were allowed to register to vote. Through her work, today Mississippi has the largest number of African American elected officials in the nation.
Adams also referred to Fannie Lou Hammer as an inspiration to the movement itself. Adams states that Hammer was a critical figure in inspiring other leaders of the movement. Adams described Hammer’s courage of giving up her job while registering future voters.
The same three women (Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine) were honored congressional guests in 1968, and were seated on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Adams moved to Thailand with her second husband and worked on behalf of African-American U.S. servicemen for several years.
Adams said she learned in 1964 that there were two kinds of people in grass-roots politics, “those who are in the movement and those who have the movement in them.” “The movement is in me”, she said, “and I know it always will be.”
Adams also noted that people made a discovery while in Atlantic City. People realized there was a way out of the lives they had been living in for so long. She explained that the way out of that life would be through “the execution of the vote” and getting representation. In an interview with the Virginia Organizing Project, she says, “We were going in the face of the Mississippi Democratic Party, which included some of the most powerful members of the U.S. Congress, to demand that we be recognized to have representation at the Democratic National Convention.”
Adams recalled 1964 as a very proud moment of her life. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) recognized that the convention wasn’t helping with their representation problems. The convention presented the MFDP with “meaningless” compromises at which Adams proudly didn’t accept. She also said that one of the most significant lessons learned from the 1964 convention was that when people are presented with the resources such as education, people are able to organize around an issue in order to create change.
Founding of Council of Federated Organizations
Adams also founded the Council of Federated Organization (COFO). COFO was a coalition of all the freedom organizations working during the Civil Rights Movement. COFO was the main organization responsible for leading all the other umbrella organizations. Adams states the umbrella organizations, which include but are not limited to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, didn’t have enough resources to invest into the Civil Rights Movement. COFO combined all the resources from the organizations and was able to generate large successes. One of its biggest successes was taking 68 people to the Democratic National Convention.
Adams has received many awards for her courageous work. Two of the most noticeable include, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award and the Fannie Lou Hammer Humanitarian Award.
Her first marriage, to Tony Gray, produced three children – Georgie, Tony Jr. (who died in 1997) and Cecil – and ended in divorce in 1964. Other survivors include her second husband, Reuben Earnest Adams Jr. (to whom she had been married for 40 years) and their son, Reuben III; a brother, Glodies Jackson; and eight grandchildren.
On September 9, 2006, a memorial service was held in her memory in a Methodist church near her hometown, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
- Obituary in SunHerald
- Biography from The History Makers
- NY Times obituary
- Victoria Gray Adams papers
- Eyes on the Prize interview
- McCain Library and Archives at the University of Southern Mississippi.
- "Victoria Gray Adams," One Person, One Vote