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Indianola Struggles To End Boycott

April 23, 1986

INDIANOLA, Miss. (AP) _ Bill Coleman moved through the empty showroom of his family’s furniture store, away from pickets who have kept customers away almost a month in a boycott of white-owned businesses in this Delta town.

The protesters want to force Indianola’s school board to replace a recently named white superintendent with a local black principal in a school system that is 93 percent black.

The reasons for the boycott began long before the March 25 appointment, said Coleman, one of the town’s five aldermen.

″I think this is a combination of a lot of issues in the past,″ he said. ″I think the blacks here have sat back and taken some slaps to the head and now they’re asking for the city to be fair with them.″

Coleman said the boycott has cut his business by about 30 percent and other owners’ by up to 95 percent.

″I always felt that a black educator should have been chosen by the school board,″ he said.

On April 14, the aldermen unanimously approved a Coleman-sponsored resolution urging the school board to reconsider its appointment of W.A. Grissom as superintendent.

Lawyer Tommy McWilliams, representing a group of 16 businessmen, made the same request to the board Friday.

Businessmen had offered to pay part of Grissom’s three-year, $45,000 annual salary, but he refused. His lawyer said his client plans to begin work July 1.

As hopes for a quick settlement turn into bitterness, McWilliams continues talking with protest leaders in search of a compromise.

″The depth of this boycott and what it indicates about the depth of feeling about the black community convinces me that we (the white community) have to take a step with which we might disagree and trust that the same type of issue will not pop up in a week or two,″ McWilliams said.

″But even if that should happe, we’ve got to solve this issue now or our city - its quality of life, its tax base, nice places to shop - could ultimately be destroyed,″ he said. A filling station closed last week due to the boycott, the lawyer said.

Sixty-two percent of Indianola’s 8,000 residents are black, but many have traditionally been shut out of economic and political opportunity, Coleman said. In 1968, blacks staged a successful two-month boycott for more jobs in downtown stores.

″This is the only way we have to express our feelings,″ said protest organizer Augusta Newell, a veteran of the 1968 boycott. ″We sent a mountain of letters to the school board a year ago, but until we started boycotting, nobody heard us.″

The school board voted 3-2 along racial lines to appoint Grissom over longtime Indianola Principal Robert Merritt.

Protesters say race was the only reason that Merritt wasn’t ruled qualified for the job, a charge the board majority denies.

Boycott leaders said they would take the protest statewide if the stalemate isn’t settled in the next few days.

Businessman Walt Gresham III, whose family owns two local service stations, said the only people that could change the situation are Grissom and the three white board members, who have stuck by their vote.

Coleman fears the issue will end in federal court, where the city has already spent $150,000 in legal fees dealing with charges of violations of the Voting Rights Act. City officials said the controversy may cancel a planned centennial celebration.

Essie Burnett, who brought her 1-year-old granddaughter to the picket line, said the boycott is necessary ″for my dignity.″

″If I have to sit out here another month, I’ll sit out here another month,″ she said.