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Collection Title: Komisar (Lucy) Civil Rights Collection

Collection Number: M 395

Dates: 1961 – 1964; 1991

Volume: .75 cu ft.

Provenance: Materials in this collection were donated by Lucy Komisar in 1998 and 1999.

Copyright: This collection may be protected from unauthorized copying by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code).

Biographical/Historical Sketch:

Lucy Komisar

The creator of this collection, Lucy Komisar, is a native of New York who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi while in college. Komisar’s grandparents emigrated from Russia to New York in the early 1900s. Her parents were non-practicing Jews born in New York. Neither parent had a college education. Komisar’s mother, Frances, was a housewife, and her father, David, was a salesman with Krasdale Foods (a canning company). The only girl among three children, Komisar was born in the Bronx in April of 1942. She attended public school in the Bronx and later on Long Island. In school, Komisar was bright and made good grades. Her parents assumed that she would use her intelligence to get a college degree and become a teacher. After graduating fourth in her high school class (1959), Komisar started Queens College. At the time she planned to teach; she felt her only real choice concerning future employment was whether to teach Spanish or French. She did not know the Civil Rights Movement would interrupt her college days, and that her participation in this movement would lead her to a career in journalism.

As the sit-in movement began in early 1960, Komisar found herself interested in the new social cause. She became involved with a group that supported the protest of segregated Woolworth stores in the South. She also protested Russian bombing tests with a group of peace activists. She and an African American friend were arrested for eating together in a segregated restaurant during the “Route 40 Freedom Ride”. At a National Student Association congress in 1962, Komisar met a lawyer from Mississippi, William L. Higgs, who was helping with a small alternative newspaper in his home state. He needed people to work on the paper, called the Mississippi Free Press, so Komisar took a leave of absence from school and boarded a bus for Jackson, Mississippi.

Upon her arrival in Jackson, Komisar discovered that the Mississippi Free Press needed help badly. The only other person working on the paper, at the time, was Charlie Butts. With Butts managing the publishing duties, Komisar wrote and edited much of the paper herself. She had worked on newspapers in high school and college, but as editor of the Mississippi Free Press the twenty-year-old Komisar began envisioning her life as a journalist. She maintained her position as editor of the Mississippi Free Press for one year before returning to college with a new goal in mind.

After graduating in 1964 and interviewing for different newspaper jobs, Komisar became aware of the widespread job discrimination women faced in the 1960s. She discovered that women were not hired or promoted with the same frequency as men and that men and women with the same jobs often had different duties and privileges. Komisar’s employment hardships coincided with the formative years of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She became active in NOW to push for tougher legislation that would enforce job discrimination laws. When Komisar joined NOW the national president was Betty Friedan. Friedan asked Komisar to work as the group’s public relations person. At the 1970 NOW congress, Komisar was elected vice president of NOW under president, Aileen Hernandez. After serving in this capacity, Komisar decided that working in an organization was not the best fit for her talents, so she focused on speaking and writing about feminism. People who wanted to start their own chapter of NOW or other activist organizations often approached her for advice at the end of her lectures. When feminism became a popular topic in American journalism, Komisar made foreign politics her area of inquiry.

As a journalist and activist Lucy Komisar has many credits. Her freelance work includes articles in: New York Magazine, The Nation, The Progressive, Village Voice, Saturday Review, Washington Monthly, Newsweek Magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, The Arizona Republic, and The San Diego Union. She is a member of PEN (organization of poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists) and was on the board of directors of PEN until 1996. Her participation in PEN included many years on the Freedom to Write Committee, which supports writers, editors, and journalists who have been censored, jailed, or persecuted for their writing. Komisar is the author of three books: The New Feminism (1971), Down and Out in the U.S. A.: a History of Public Welfare (1973), and Corazon Aquino: The Story of a Revolution (1987). Most of her recent writings deal with secret offshore banking procedures that relate to corporate money laundering and the funding of terrorist activities.

History of the Mississippi Free Press

The Mississippi Free Press was an alternative newspaper published in Jackson, Mississippi, during the Civil Rights Era under the copyright of Hico Publishing (1072 Lynch Street, Jackson, MS). Hico Publishing’s application for incorporation (dated September 30, 1961) lists the main incorporators as William L. Higgs and Reverend Robert L. T. Smith. Higgs was a young, white attorney from Jackson. Smith, an African American minister, had recently qualified as a candidate in the congressional race against Congressman John Bell Williams. At that time, Hico Publishing boasted a board of officers entirely comprised of African Americans: Reverend Robert L. T. Smith- president, Cornelius Turner – vice president, W. J. Thompson – secretary, and Dr. A. Benjamin Britton – treasurer. During its lifetime, the Mississippi Free Press had five editors: Charlie Butts, Aaron Henry, Henry J. Kirksey, Lucy Komisar, and Paul E. Brooks.

The Mississippi Free Press was published weekly during the years 1961- 1973. State residents paid $3 for a yearly subscription, and out- of- state subscribers paid $4. In the early 1960s, it boasted an average circulation of 2,000. While much of the paper’s writing and organization occurred in the back of a supermarket in Jackson, Mrs. Hazel Brannon Smith first printed the Mississippi Free Press on her printing press in Lexington, Mississippi, and received threats from the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission in return. There were many other instances of, “police interference with the distribution of the journal and surveillance of the staff [of the Mississippi Free Press] by the Sovereignty Commission,” (Thompson 74). The printing of the paper was later moved to Memphis, Tennessee.

While the paper’s audience was primarily African American, the Mississippi Free Press claimed it was for all Americans who believed in, “freedom of speech, worship, movement, and freedom from intimidation,” (Mississippi Free Press dated 16 Dec. 1961, p.1). The paper’s aim was to, “secure these freedoms for those Mississippians who have been denied them,” (p.1). The first editor, Butts, sold his first subscriptions to northern whites who were interested in racial clashes in Mississippi. He asked them to donate money to pay for the subscriptions of poor African Americans in Mississippi. The advertisements in the Mississippi Free Press represented the support of African American owned businesses in the Jackson area.

Sources: (Lucy Komisar)

Altman, Julie. Interview with Lucy Komisar, 16 October 1991, photocopy of transcript, Tully – Crenshaw Feminist Oral History Project, Radcliffe College.


Sources: (History of the Mississippi Free Press)

“A Newspaper Is Born.” Mississippi Free Press. 16 December 1961, 1.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “Sovereignty Commission Online.” http://mdah.state.ms.us/arlib/contents/er/index.html. accessed September 1, 2004.

Thompson, Julius E. The Black Press in Mississippi 1865 – 1985. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 1993. 62, 64, 73-74, 76-77.

Scope and Content:

The Lucy Komisar Civil Rights Collection brings together nearly four years of news stories by an alternative newspaper in Mississippi during the early 1960s and an historical/ biographical sketch of the creator of the collection. Most of the collection consists of photocopies of issues of the Mississippi Free Press (an incomplete run) that were published in Jackson, Mississippi, between the years of 1961 – 1964. The collection includes an interview with Lucy Komisar and two articles from other newspapers that refer to Komisar and the Mississippi Free Press. To aid researchers in using the collection to its fullest potential, a "Guide to the Issues of the Mississippi Free Press", "Suggested Research Topics in the Mississippi Free Press," "Persons of Interest in the Mississippi Free Press," and an "Inventory of Business Names in Advertisements in the Mississippi Free Press," were created and added to the collection’s finding aids by the processor.

Other collections of issues of the Mississippi Free Press are accessible through Kansas State University, Kent State University, Wisconsin State University, Tougaloo College, Millsaps College, and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.


Related Collections:

M 373 Michaels (Sheila) Collection

Container List

Folder 1 Tully-Crenshaw Feminist Oral History Project (interview with Lucy Komisar, October 1991)
Folder 2

Mississippi Free Press 1961

Dec. 16, 23, 30

Folder 3

Mississippi Free Press 1962

Jan. 6, 20
Feb. 24
March 10, 24
April 14, 28
May 5, 26
June 9, 16, 23 (1st page only), 30
July 7, 14, 21, 28
Aug. 4, 11, 25
Sept. 8, 15, 22
Oct. 6, 13, 20, 27
Nov. 3, 10, 17, 24
Dec. 1, 8, 22, 29

Folder 4

Mississippi Free Press 1963

Jan. 5, 12, 19
Feb. 23
March 2, 9, 16, 23, 30
April 6, 20, 27
May 11, 18, 25
June 1, 15, 22, 29
July 6, 20, 27
Aug. 3, 10, 17, 24, 31
Sept. 7, 14, 28
Oct. 5, 12, 19
Nov. 9, 16, 23, 30
Dec. 7, 14, 21, 28

Folder 5

Mississippi Free Press 1964

Jan. 11, 18, 25
Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, 29
March 7, 14, 21
April 11
May 16, 23
June 27
July 4, 11, 18, 25
Aug. 1

Folder 6 News Clippings: "Press Story" (Apr. 23, 1963) and "Young Negro Editor Walks Tightrope in Mississippi" (undated)

Other Finding Aids:

“Guide to the Issues of the Mississippi Free Press
“Suggested Research Topics in the Mississippi Free Press
“Persons of Interest in the Mississippi Free Press
“Inventory of Business Names in the Mississippi Free Press"


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Revised: February 24, 2010