By STEVEN NALLEY
Dorothy Bishop doesn’t let her lack of mobility stop her from encouraging Starkville’s black population to register to vote.
At 69 years old, after a stroke about 16 years ago and years living with diabetes, Bishop relies on a walker to maneuver around her home and a wheelchair to maneuver elsewhere. When she travels door-to-door with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on her voter registration drives, she said it is not always practical to get out of the vehicle to greet residents.
That’s why she carries a megaphone.
“I blow my horn and tell them to come here,” Bishop said. “I tell them, ‘I can’t walk, come here,’ I’m going to do what I’ve got to do. You can’t stop me now.”
Bishop was one of Starkville’s early civil rights activists and the first female leader of the Oktibbeha County NAACP, and she remains as much an activist today as she was in her younger years.
Eileen Carr-Tabb, co-chair of the Oktibbeha County NAACP’s youth and college division, said Bishop worked alongside such other Starkville civil rights leaders as Douglas L. Conner and Morris Kinsey to give black teachers equal employment and pay in city schools.
“Mrs. Bishop was instrumental in helping to hire the first black teachers,” Carr-Tabb said. “I (have) told her I couldn’t have done that. I would have been afraid for myself and my family. I admire her for what she does.”
Bishop said racism is still very much alive today, but race relations have progressed well past where they were when she was a child growing up.
“They had ‘Black’ and ‘White’ on the water fountains,” Bishop said. “You couldn’t go into a white restaurant. You had to order through a cubby hole.”
It was also a challenge for black families to make a living, Bishop said; she and her family would get up at 5 a.m. each morning to pick cotton for wealthier families, making about $7 per week. Once, she said, her white supervisor praised her for picking cotton faster than others and invited her to come pick watermelons instead.
The decision to start fighting to change Starkville for the better came through the same kind of door-to-door visits Bishop still participates in, she said. A visitor from the NAACP came to her grandmother’s house to ask family members of age to register to vote, she said, and later that day, assailants attacked the visitor at a service station, stealing his registration papers.
“Grandma asked, ‘Why did they whip him?’” Bishop said. “Later on, I said, ‘I want to help.’”
Bishop began her activism at the age of 17, and she still continues to this day. In fact, Carr-Tabb said, sometimes Bishop’s methods of protest today bear a closer resemblance to methods used in the ‘50s and ‘60s than those the NAACP and other organizations now use.
“Mrs. Bishop still feels there is a need for that,” Carr-Tabb said. “I can understand that. That’s a time we grew up in. Everything has its time, everything has its place. I think we’re at a time we can tone it down a little. In my opinion, let’s have everyone come to a common ground based on dialogue.”
Sometimes, Bishop’s methods work. A few years ago, Bishop protested state legislation restricting Medicaid recipients to five medications. With the help of her family, Bishop said, she moved her bed in front of the Oktibbeha County Courthouse and slept in it for several days. Later, Carr-Tabb said Bishop took the protest to Jackson without the bed, and the legislation was ultimately defeated.
Sometimes, Bishop’s methods don’t work. Last year, Carr-Tabb said, Bishop attempted to participate in a state program which funded home remodeling for people with low incomes.
Bishop’s home was infested with rats and squirrels, Carr-Tabb said, so she evacuated and requested assistance. Officials refused, she said, because Bishop had taken the house off its utility meters. Bishop ultimately moved into a trailer in much better condition than her old home, she said, but not until after an unsuccessful protest.
“She decided she was going to be homeless,” Carr-Tabb said. “She had some neighborhood people build her a little shack at the courthouse, and she slept in it several nights.”
Bishop said she does sometimes wishes the NAACP would act with the same intensity she saw in the early civil rights movement, but she does not ask that they follow her example.
“I’ll do anything for the NAACP,” Bishop said. “I’m not going to go in that office and fuss at them. The only thing (I ask) them to do is help me get people registered to vote. I didn’t do (the Medicaid and housing protests) with the NAACP. I did that stuff on my own. I did it as a concerned citizen.”
Carr-Tabb said she and Bishop share mutual admiration for each other. She said Bishop is currently organizing a dramatic re-enactment of several moments in Starkville civil rights history, performed by the Oktibbeha NAACP youth division and set for Feb. 26 at New Zion Methodist Church on Montgomery Street.
“(Bishop) is one of the ones they’re going to portray,” Carr-Tabb said.