Two years after the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, civil rights activists John and Viola Harris McFerren led voter-registration drives in Fayette County. Unyielding proponents of the right of African Americans to exercise the franchise, the McFerrens were among those who organized Fayette County’s Freedom Village, a makeshift community of army tents. Better known as “Tent City,” the village assembled when white farm owners evicted hundreds of African American tenant farmers who had registered to vote.
The modern Civil Rights movement thrust the mantle of leadership upon many unlikely leaders. In Fayette County, African American World War II veterans assumed leadership roles. Having tasted democracy in their experiences outside the South, they found the county’s discriminatory racial practices and disfranchising tactics intolerable. John McFerren–Fayette County native, World War II veteran, farmer, grocer and gas station proprietor–came to the forefront (along with Harpman James and others) to lead African Americans in the fight for civil and voting rights. McFerren explained that after the war he “came back here and made a home,” and he believed the battle for African American rights was “just as important as World War II.” (1) Although Viola McFerren initially attempted to dissuade her husband from active participation, she soon joined him. The McFerren home became the center of the Civil Rights movement in Fayette County, and Viola McFerren furthered the civil rights cause as she provided for the needs of workers and fulfilled her domestic obligations.
In 1959 John McFerren became a founder of the Original Fayette County Civic and Welfare League (OFCC&WL). In June and July, League members persuaded a number of African Americans to register to vote. In the August Democratic primary, however, registered African Americans were barred illegally from casting their ballots. On November 16, 1959, League members filed a federal lawsuit against the Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee, and in April 1960 the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
John McFerren reasoned that economic independence held the key to the acquisition of African American civil rights, but as leaders in the Fayette County voter-registration drive, the McFerrens themselves endured many economic and physical hardships. Until the Tennessee Council of Human Relations threatened to prosecute, for instance, the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company refused him sales, and Tennessee agents for the major oil companies denied him gasoline for his station. When the White Citizens Council banned African Americans from the marketplace, McFerren traveled fifty miles every other week to stock his store. The McFerrens were also forced to travel to Memphis for the birth of their third child after local white physicians stopped offering medical services to blacks.
The steadfastness of the McFerrens and their neighbors was rewarded on July 26, 1962, when a federal consent decree permanently enjoined the defendants from interfering with the voting rights of any eligible voter. Motivated by their victory in the battle for voting rights, the McFerrens became successful plaintiffs in the county’s school desegregation cases. When African Americans continued to encounter racism, they initiated a refusal-to-purchase offensive against local white merchants. Ever vigilant for the cause of racial justice, the McFerrens became stalwart soldiers in the Fayette County campaign for human rights in the modern civil rights era. The McFerrns divorced in 1980.
Robert Hamburger, Our Portion of Hell: Fayette County, Tennessee: An Oral History of the Struggle for Civil Rights (1973); Linda T. Wynn, “Toward a Perfect Democracy: The Struggle of African Americans in Fayette County, Tennessee, to Fulfill the Unfulfilled Right of the Franchise,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 55 (1996): 202-23