Transitions – I've Got the Light of Freedom
Payne, Charles M. 1995 Transitions In I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle. Pp. 284-316. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
I’ve Got the Light of Freedom
the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle
Before the summer project last year we watched five Negroes murdered in two counties in Mississippi with no reaction from the country. We couldn’t get the news out. Then we saw that when three civil rights workers were killed, and two if them were white, the whole country reacted, went into motion. There’s a deep problem behind that, and I think if you can begin to understand what that problem is-why you don’t move when a Negro is killed the same way you move when a white person is killed-then maybe you can begin to understand this country in relation to Vietnam and the third world, the Congo and Santo Domingo.
And those two murders, Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, really punctuate this little piece if the movement in Mississippi.
Happy is she who fights without hating.
THE LAY OF SUNDIATA
THE PERIOD FROM THE SUMMER of 1963 through the summer of 1964 appears, at first glance, to have been a time of stalemate. White power could no longer completely suppress Black activism, but Black activism could make no major dents in the structure of oppression. It was a stalemate punctuated by dramatic moments: the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Louis Allen, Freedom Summer, with its own assassinations, and the disillusionment of the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Ironically, as the fear that had initially made organizing so difficult began to wither, growing disillusionment made activists increasingly impatient with some of the tenets of the community organizing tradition.
It was June 1963 when June Johnson, Mrs. Hamer, Annell Ponder, Euvester Simpson, and the others were arrested in Winona and brutally beaten (see Chapter 7). As soon as he found out where they were, SNCC’S Lawrence Guyot called the Winona jail and was told that if he wanted to know their bail, he’d have to come over to find that out. He walked into one of the worst beatings of his life. He was forced to strip, and several policemen using gun butts and the like gave him a going-over for hours until a doctor told them he didn’t want to be responsible if they kept it up. When Guyot didn’t return to Green-wood, SNCC had friend from around the country Hood the Winona jail with calls: "Where’s Lawrence Guyot? I want to speak with Guyot?" The doctor and the phone calls may have made his captors nervous. Charged with attempted murder, he was taken to a cell where, oddly, the radio had been cut off. He found out why the next day, when they were all released. While they had been undergoing their own ordeal, Medgar Evers had been shot and killed down in Jackson. (2)
For a twenty-month period in 1961 and 1962, Evers had worked on the Meredith admission to Ole Miss. Meredith said later that he didn’t think the whole thing would have come off at all without Evers. As his responsibilities in that case were winding down, direct action was slowly getting off the ground in Jackson. Just before Christmas, 1962, after months of discussions and a false start the previous year, a vigorous boycott ‘had finally been launched against downtown merchants in Jackson. Initially, young people carried the spirit of the movement.
Dorie and Joyce Ladner (Chapters 2 and 5) were heavily involved. At a time when bail money was unpredictable and most Mississippi-born students were afraid of reprisals against their parents, Dorie was among the first to go to jail for picketing. Joyce’s work building support for the campaign on Tougaloo’s campus won her an award as Student Citizen of the Year.
The boycott held firm into the spring. By that time, a movement was in full bloom in Jackson. There were mass meetings, marches, and picket lines, and over six hundred arrests, much of the action initiated by NAACP youth members. A school-desegregation suit, with the Evers children among the plaintiffs, was pending. On May 28, Tougaloo students held a sit-in at the downtown Woolworth’s; it became a mob scene. John Salter, a Tougaloo professor, part white and part Native American, who acted as adviser to the student activists there, joined his students at the lunch counter:
Someone struck me several hard blows on the side of my face. I almost passed out and had to grip the counter for support. My face was bleeding. Then I was struck on the back of the head and almost passed out again. I was dizzy and could hardly hear myself talking, but I asked [Tougaloo student] Annie Moody what she thought of the final examination questions that I had asked in Introduction to Social Studies. She smiled and said that she felt they were much too tough. Joan [Trumpauer, another Tougaloo student] began to talk about her final exams. More ketchup and mustard were poured over us. Then sugar was dumped in our hair. We talked on. (3)
After it was over, Evers found out that several FBI officers had been in the crowd, observing. The violence generated national publicity and shook the local power structure. In its immediate aftermath, Mayor Allen Thompson, an unreconstructed segregationist, showed some signs of being willing to make concessions to the movement opening parks and libraries to Blacks, taking down segregation signs, hiring more Black policemen and crossing guards. Before the movement could celebrate, Thompson, who was probably being pushed from different sides, recanted. The boycott had generated a momentum within the Black community that continued, however. Roy Wilkins came to town and got himself arrested in a demonstration, bringing more national attention. That did not mean that the NAA~P national office was fully comfortable with direct action. They still worried about the financial burden of finding bail money and about the possibility that demonstrations would get out of hand. The national officers were able to pack the local strategy committee with people, largely ministers, who shared their more conservative viewpoint.
The success of the boycott and the media attention made Medgar Evers more vulnerable than ever; telephone threats were coming On an hourly basis. Evers often seemed drawn and worried that. spring. Several of his friends have said that he was unusually brooding and spoke frequently of his own death and what it would do to his family. When Myrlie suggested that he needed a new suit, he snapped at her, saying he wouldn’t get to use it if he bought it. A workaholic in any case, the increased pace of movement activity meant he was stringing together many workdays of eighteen hours or more. There was a great deal of in-fighting within the movement about pace and tactics, and he had to referee it. Several regional or national NAACP officers came to town late in the spring, so he didn’t have as much decision-making authority as he normally did, and he was caught again in the middle of the ill feeling between the people from the national office and local youth leaders and CORE and SNCC members. According to John Salter, Evers had half-a-dozen firearms in his home, he sometimes earned a .45 or a rifle in the car, and he had gotten a German shepherd to patrol the yard. Myrlie slept with a small revolver on the nightstand. The house had bullet-proof blinds. The children-ages three, eight, and nine-had all been taught to stay away from windows at night and to hit the floor or jump in the bathtub as soon as they heard anything that might be a gunshot. There was talk within the NAACP of getting him a bodyguard, but nothing ever came of it, even after someone threw a firebomb against the carport one evening when Evers was at a mass meeting. Myrlie put the fire out with the garden hose. Characteristically, once he knew the fa
mily was safe, Evers contacted the media before he went home.
The movement ebbed and flowed in early June. The city obtained an injunction against further demonstrations, and movement leadership was divided about whether to defy it. The movement’s sagging spirit received a boost when Lena Horne and Dick Gregory appeared at a mass meeting, but that was hardly enough to make people forget the constant threats of reprisal. One of the activist ministers had shotgun blasts fired into his grocery store. Cars were driving by the Tougaloo campus firing randomly. Salter decided to send his wife and child out of state. The national NAACP office had recently taken steps to end mass demonstration in Jackson, working through the conservative local ministers. Mayor Thompson was also taking steps to divide Black leadership, with some success.
On Sunday, June 9, Evers spent the entire day with his family, something he seldom took time to do. On Tuesday, the nth, John Kennedy gave the strongest civil rights speech of his administration and asked the nation’s support for the civil rights legislation that he would be sending to Congress. Medgar was very pleased with the speech. There was a mass meeting that night, but it was not a good one. Attendance was poor, and the spirit was weak. Evers got home after midnight. Police officers frequently followed him home, but apparently they did not do so that night. Myrlie had let the children stay up to wait for him. They heard the car pull up and the door slam, and immediately after, they heard the gunshot. As he stepped out of his car, carrying a stack of "Jim Crow Must Go" t-shirts, he was hit by a shot from a high-powered rifle fired from a nearby vacant lot. Houston Wells, his next-door neighbor, heard the shot and Myrlie’s scream. Looking out of his bedroom window, he saw the body lying there. He got his pistol, ran outside and fired a shot in the air to frighten the gunman away. Evers died shortly after he reached the hospital. He had his new poll-tax receipt in his pocket. (4)
Many white officials condemned the killing, after a fashion. Governor Ross Barnett said, "Apparently, it was a dastardly act.” (5) Apparently. The fingerprint on the rifle found in the vacant lot belonged to Byron de la Beckwith, a Greenwood fertilizer salesman, son of an old Delta family, self-anointed defender of segregation and member of the Greenwood Citizens’ Council. It was proven that he had owned a rifle and a scope that matched the murder weapon. Two cab drivers testified that he had asked for Evers’s address a few days before the shooting. Beckwith’s attorney, Hardy Lott, past president of Greenwood’s Citizens’ Council, produced testimony from two Greenwood policemen who swore they saw Beckwith. in Greenwood-twenty miles from Jackson-the evening of the slaying. Beckwith contended that his rifle had been stolen a few days before the killing. The trial reflected both the old Mississippi and the emerging one. On the one hand, the prosecutor, to Myrlie Evers’s surprise, really tried for a conviction. On the other, Beckwith treated the trial as a royal Joke.
The accused killer appeared to enjoy himself immensely. He rested his legs on another chair while he drank soda pop, scowled at Negro newsmen, and waved gaily to white friends. At one point, a bailiff had to escort him back to his place when he strode over to chat with members of the jury. With a courtly flourish he offered cigars to Prosecutor William L. Waller. (6)
The trial ended in a hung jury. When he got home to Greenwood, the town gave him a rousing parade. Subsequently, a second trial also ended in a hung jury and Beckwith was freed.
The reaction of Jacksons Black community also reflected both the accommodationist past and the defiant future. The morning after the murder, Anne Moody-from the Woolworth sit-in-and Dorie Ladner decided to go to Jackson State to recruit students for a prote.st march. "We begged students to participate. They didn’t respond In any way," a reaction that enraged Moody: "How could Negroes be so pitiful? … I just didn’t understand." President Jacob. Reddix found them and ordered them off campus immediately. Dorie asked him If he didn’t have some feelings about what had happened. He responded, "I am doing a job. I can’t do this job and have feeling about everything happening in Jackson…. Now you two get off this campus before I have you arrested.” (7)
On the other hand, thirteen Negro ministers and businessmen, people who had been reluctant to march before, held a protest march of their own, getting arrested before they had gone very far. On the day of the funeral, perhaps three thousand people followed the casket to the funeral home, many of them not the usual movement types, young men more comfortable in a pool hall than in a demonstration. Things were supposed co end at the funeral home, but some of the crowd decided co march on the business district. They were met with police dogs and arrests, but the crowd wouldn’t be intimidated. Several observers felt that only the intervention of several civil rights workers and the Justice Department’s John Doar prevented the anger from boiling over into a full anti-police riot.
In Greenwood, there was a special edge co the sense of loss. If white people had spies in the Black community, the movement probably had a much larger number of eyes and ears in the white community. "Certain people," according to Willie Peacock, were afraid to do one thing but they weren’t afraid to do another. Like these people working in these big white folks’ homes…. We had allies in their homes" and, he might have added, in their places of business, including one janitor at the bus station, a man who had lost an earlier job for movement activity. Beckwith was regarded as a dangerous character, someone co keep an eye on. In the weeks preceding the killing of Evers, the janitor warned them "that Beckwith and some woman and a white kid of about 17 from Sidon were meeting at the bus station regularly … talking about how they were going to do this job in Jackson." The custodian was never able co catch any names, so there was no way to act on the information.
For years after Evers’s death, there were stories in the Delta about con men who raised money by claiming the funds were going to be used to bring Medgar Evers’s killer back co trial. It is a testament to the stature Evers held among ordinary folk; if there was one cause co which you could get people to contribute money they couldn’t afford, it was the cause of bringing his murderer CO justice. Many of Greenwood’s younger activists were in jail at the time of the killing. After the influx of out-of-town organizers had left in April, young people in Greenwood were, if anything, more aggressive than they had been earlier, leading to two mass arrests in June. By July, thirteen hundred county residents had attempted to register, unsuccessfully, of course, in all but a few cases. COFO found an alternative way of encouraging political participation. Some volunteer law students found a Reconstruction era law that allowed unregistered citizens co vote provided they submitted an affidavit asserting they were qualified co vote. On that basis, COFO decided co participate in the gubernatorial primary scheduled for August 6.
The idea was to encourage as many people as possible to vote by affidavit. COFO people would serve as poll watchers. People reluctant to go to the polls could cast a freedom ballot that would be collected and disposed of by COFO. For six weeks, they explained the idea through canvassing and mass meetings, teaching people to prepare sample affidavits, how to find polling places, and the like. Response was good. During the week before the primary mass meetings were held nightly with an average attendance of two hundred.
A few days before the election, the whole plan was threatened by state Attorney General Joe Patterson, who announced that those trying to vote under section 3114 would be "su
mmarily" arrested. He had waited so long to make the announcement that there was no chance to inform everyone of the possibility of arrest until the day of the election itself.
Mass meetings had been set for 7 A.M. on election day so that people could receive final instructions. In Itta Bena, just outside Greenwood, eighty-five people were gathered by that hour at Hopewell Baptist. After COFO workers explained the new threat, some people began co leave. Mr. Bevel-father of SCLC’S James Bevel-said he would go. When he came back and reported, "They scared …. They were so polite, I didn’t know how to act," a lot more people were willing to go. COFO workers ferried one hundred fifty of them to the polls. As more and more of them went down, the clerks became more hostile and the crowd of whites that had gathered became more threatening, eventually placing themselves so as to block the entrance, which wasn’t going to stop Stokely Carmichael, who said he "merely directed the group courteously through the middle of them," despite the cursing and swearing. "Two years ago," Carmichael noted in his report, "we would have been shot for a stunt like this:"
Things were tougher in neighboring Ruleville, where police quickly arrested three SNCC workers and turned Blacks away at the polls, which may have been less troubling than the groups of hostile white men aiming shotguns at them. Only a couple of dozen people got to vote. One of them was Joe McDonald, who had been among the first to welcome COFO workers and whose house had been shot into the previous fall: "I voted all I could," he said."
No one could know how the Greenwood police were going to act. The 7 A.M. meetings in Greenwood were at Jennings Temple, Union Grove, and Turners Chapel, and between one hundred and two hundred people showed up at each. Some early arrivals left when they heard about the possibility of arrest, and even many of those who stayed were clearly afraid but determined to go through with it. At Union Grove, Martha Prescod Norman and one of the SCLC citizenship teachers, spent an hour going over the affidavit procedure with people:
I was surprised to see so many people ready to go to jail. I imagine that there were more than seventy people in the church who had come expecting to be arrested. They were mostly old people, people with arthritis and things, that came to the church. Before we left the church we sang "Is That Freedom Train A-coming." One old man behind me on a cane said, "Here’s what hurts a man, if he’s scared; but the trouble of it is, I ain’t scared."
They weren’t all older people. The night before, after Bob Moses had asked for volunteers to go to jail, Billie Johnson, one of Lula Belle’s daughters, went home, took off her good clothes, and put out something suitable for jail, fearing the worst.
I had fear in my heart because as soon as morning came, I had to face a big problem. That was going downtown and getting a beating. I know when the police see me they will hit me. I had it all in my mind how it was going to be: one [policeman] would hit me on the head with a night stick, and the other would hit me in the mouth. Another was going to sic five or six dogs on me. I knew they were going to knock me down and kick me in the face. The moment came for me to go downtown. My mind was made up; I looked at the clock-quarter to nine. I was going at nine. If they whipped me for my freedom, I would not mind. And all at once Sam Block came in and said the police said they would not arrest anyone…. I said "Thank God" three times."
Earlier that morning, the police commissioner had found Block and promised him no arrests in Greenwood. The Reverend Aaron Johnson led the first group down and the police kept their word. The reception was actually polite at first, but a hostile white crowd gathered as Negroes continued to show up. Crowd or no crowd, once it was clear there were going to be no arrests, people poured in. Freddie Greene in the office answered a Hood of phone calls for information about what was going on. By II A.M., people were coming through so rapidly the staff couldn’t keep an adequate count. People were no longer waiting on a ride; they were walking. Between five hundred and seven hundred ballots were cast in Greenwood, and the polls closed before everyone got there. Those turned away "were extremely disappointed at being unable to cast their votes." (11)
The decision not to arrest seems consistent with a strategy of holding on to power through moderation. The Leflore Democratic party maintained that it had examined each ballot and found each invalid, preserving the semblance of legality without running any of the risks entailed in open police harassment. (12)
The night of the election, SCLC’S Andy Young and SNCC chairman John Lewis spoke at mass meeting that reflected the celebratory air of the day. "Difficult to capture," SNCC’S Mike Miller wrote, "is the mood of the day-the air of jubilation at going to vote, and the infusion of this spirit in the Greenwood staff." Willie Peacock’s brother, James, got so wrapped up in the people’s excitement that he forgot what he was supposed to be doing. He was especially struck by the fact that some of the same people who had been negative before had changed, including one man who had cursed him out just a day ago-"He even sounds different now, not much, but you can tell it’s a change in his voice, he is interested in what’s going on." (13) Registration attempts picked up after the election, with more people going down without COFO escorts.
To judge from the reports Sam Block submitted, Greenwood by early fall of 1963 was a stabilizing situation. By October they had opened a library, a better library than anything available to Negroes in that part of the Delta, and it was bringing new people into contact with the movement. Billie, Lula Belle Johnson’s daughter, was in charge of it. More older people were canvassing regularly. The staff was also experimenting with what amounted to passive canvassing, sending postcards to people who had gotten food the previous spring announcing that the office was signing up people who wanted food in 1964 and was also asking them to try to register again. Block was pleased with the response. On the other hand, he was getting complaints about having too many mass meetings. He admitted that he was so happy about having five churches regularly open to the movement that "I guess I went Mass Meeting crazy." They were broke again; there wasn’t even money for food. In that respect and others, Greenwood staff felt they weren’t getting enough support from the Atlanta office, a long-running complaint. One staff member had been transferred to Jackson. His heavy drinking was getting the best of him, and he was embarrassing them with the local people. Another had written $147 in NAACP memberships and failed to turn in the money, so SNCC had to cover for him. The Citizenship Schools had more people applying for teacher-training than they could handle. SCLC’S Dorothy Cotton urged Annell Ponder to take advantage of that and be a little more selective in the people she sent for training at Dorchester. "There were some in the last group who couldn’t hear, and one who couldn’t see so well or write." The reports suggest a genuinely dug-in movement. There were problems, large and small, but with the high drama of the spring behind them, there was a still-growing core of people who were making some kind of long-term commitment to being a part of the process of change. (14)
Against the backdrop of steady growth, there was one exciting initiative, the continuation of that summer’s Freedom Vote. Encouraged by the participation in the primary, COFO decided to take part in the election that fall by holding its own registration and running its own candidates. The Freedom Vote was intended, first, to show that the masses of Negroes did in fact want to vote. (Polls at the
time showed that forty percent of white southerners did not think Negroes really wanted to vote.) Second, it was intended to mock the legitimacy of the regular election by making the point that the candidates elected did not represent hundreds of thousands of Negroes. Aaron Henry ran for governor, with Ed King, a white native Mississippian and chaplain at Tougaloo, as his running mate. If Henry had suffered less than other leaders from repression in the 1950S, he made up for it in the sixties. He was arrested for leading a boycott of Clarksdale stores, his wife lost her job, he was arrested on allegations of child molestation, his home had been either firebombed or hit by lightning, and in July 19~3 he spent a week on the chain gang for parading without a permit.
Those who were registered-fewer than twenty-five thousand Negroes statewide-were encouraged to vote in the regular election and write in the names of the Freedom candidates. Everyone else was encouraged to vote in COFO’s mock election, allowing them to register their opinions without exposing themselves to much danger.
There was nothing mock about the way capo approached the election. They set up an elaborate statewide campaign organization, took out newspaper and television ads, and held rallies across the state. By October, Aaron Henry was making a speech a night. In mid-month, the campaign received some extra manpower. Eighty to ninety college students recruited by Allard Lowenstein from Stanford and Yale took two weeks off to help with the campaign. Previously, it was thought that having whites work openly in the Delta was likely to be too dangerous for all (though exceptions had been made), and not everyone thought it was a good idea now. Sam Block and Willie Peacock were opposed to the idea from the very beginning. When the students assigned to Leflore County showed up, they promptly took them over to Indianola in neighboring Sunflower County and got them arrested.
Registration workers were harassed across the state. Greenwood’s police department engaged in its share of harassment, but beyond that, it is difficult to gauge the state of mind of local law enforcement officials during the fall of 1963. While the movement was constantly evolving new tactics, the powers-that-be frequently seem to have continued almost ritualistically with the same old responses.
On November 2, for example, Dick Frey and Jane Stembridge setup a ballot box on Johnson Street in downtown Greenwood, hoping to catch people corning downtown to shop, being careful not to block the sidewalk. While they manned the polling place, local high school students, including June Johnson, Dorothy Higgins, and Willie James Earl, did most of the "floating"-
moving about and talking with the people …. For the better part of an hour we had people voting constantly. Then the police showed up … and finally parked just across Johnson Street and watched us. The crowd thinned. We started singing freedom songs to keep the spirit up. A few people kept coming up to vote. Chief Curtis Lary appeared in his car and parked in front of the first police car. … We sang "Ain’t Gonna Let Chief Lary Turn Me ‘Round" and Chief Lary walked up to Dorothy Higgins and said something like "You’re asking for it."
Most of them were arrested, although someone got away with the ballots so the police couldn’t get the names of those who voted. At the station, they were cursed, threatened, and shoved around. No one told them what the charges were. They spent the weekend in jail, and Monday morning Sam Block, Chico Neblett, James Forman, and Willie McGee came to bail them out. As Sam was paying the bail, Captain Ussery, who had a reputation for being especially aggressive about harassing movement workers, started cursing them and told the others to leave.
They started out the door. … Forman was in the rear. Just as he got to the door, this Captain Ussery reached for his pistol and cursed the goddamn niggers … [and] then all of a sudden he kicked Jim-kicked him just as hard as you can kick a man and said, I said get out. … niggers. Forman stopped … and looked at the man … for a split second, looked like he was deciding whether to kill him or what … [and] then Forman just walked out and got in the car. No gesture from Forman-just his eyes …. After [the] Captain had kicked Forman, Dick walked up to him and looked at the nameplate …. The Captain said, "That’s right … get my name. I don’t give a goddamn … " then something about not giving a goddamn about any of us and niggers and cursing some more… It was unintelligible.
Police response seems almost petty in its meanness. No doubt they had originally expected to be able to stamp out the local movement pretty quickly. Almost a year and a half had passed and the movement showed no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. It would not be surprising if they were frustrated and confused. They were certainly not all of one mind. After the incident cited above, the police did not follow the workers back home, a switch from the usual pattern. Jane Stembridge thought it might have been because Chief Lary ("He is at least sane most of the time") drove up as they were leaving. Lary seems on several occasions to have restrained some of his more aggressive officers. (15)
The vote was a great success across the state. Perhaps eighty thousand Freedom ballots were cast in COFO’s first statewide organizing campaign, less than half of what COFO had hoped for but enough to make the point. National media coverage was considerable, due in no small part to the media’s considerable interest in the white students from Yale and Stanford. Given that, why not bring an even larger number of students into the state for the following summer? The idea was first fully broached at a meeting in Greenville in November 1963. More media attention could lead to a greater degree of protection for civil rights workers. Most COFO staff, including MacArthur Cotton, Charlie Cobb, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Hollis Watkins, Willie Peacock, and Sam Block, opposed the idea. Even before the idea was raised, there had been some discomfort among veteran staff about the slowly growing role of whites in the movement. It contradicted the principle of developing organizers where they found them. Given their education, whites coming into the movement were going to gravitate to leadership positions, supplanting local people, who were beginning to take on more leadership responsibility. If lives were at risk, it was largely the lives of COFO organizers, and most COFO staff preferred continuing running that risk to risking the long-term viability of their community-building efforts. Tactical issues aside, there were some who just plain didn’t want to be bothered with a bunch of white folks on a daily basis. For that matter, the idea of bringing in outsiders, had that been Black staff from the Atlanta office, didn’t sit well with some veteran staff members, mostly southern Blacks, who had done the most and risked the most to build a viable movement.
Bob Moses, Lawrence Guyot, Mrs. Hamer, and CORE’S Dave Dennis were among the proponents. Mrs. Hamer told opponents, "If we’re trying to break down segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves." 16 Other proponents saw real risks in the idea but thought that the potential benefits outweighed them and that some way had to be found to offer some protection to the local people with whom they were working. Older local leaders were generally very much in favor of bringing the students in. The debate, in SNCC style, went on over the course of that winter. (17)
SNCC’S initial community-organizing venture in the state had been brought to a halt by the murder of Herbert Lee. Another series of killings in the same part of the state, the Southwest, ultimately ended the arguments over Freedom Summer. Anne Moody, who had grown up in that part of the state, was touched by some of the murders. When the Jackson movement began, college students there were afraid
that their participation would bring reprisals against their families at home. These were realistic fears. Anne Moody was from Centreville in the Southwest. After she started doing movement work in Jackson, the sheriff visited her mother back home in Centreville and told her it would be a good idea for Anne not to come home any more unless she changed her ways; they didn’t intend to have any of that NAACP stuff in Centreville. After Moody took part in the Woolworth sit-in, the sheriff paid her mother another harassing visit. A group of white boys cornered her younger brother, and he was saved from a beating or worse only because a friend came by in a car and got him away from the scene. Her uncle was not so lucky; a group of white men caught him alone and gave him a good beating. Moody spent that spring of 1963 waiting to hear that a member of her family had been killed. (18)
Three Negroes in the area were killed in December 1963, found dead in their car. The local paper at first stated that Eli Jackson, Dennis Jones, and Lula Mae Anderson had all fallen asleep with the motor running and been poisoned by fumes. In fact, two of them had been shot and one had had his neck broken. In late February, one of Anne Moody’s relatives was killed. As he was coming home from work one night, someone ambushed him; buckshot took off most of his face. Bob Moses believed the killings were simply terror killings intended to keep the Negroes in their place. (19)
Against the backdrop of the other killings, the murder of Louis Allen from Amite County had the greatest impact on the ongoing discussion about white volunteers. Allen was a logger with a seventh grade education who had served in the South Pacific in World War II. A witness to Herbert Lee’s murder in Liberty in the early fall of 1961 (Chapter 4), he initially told the coroner’s jury-which was held in a room full of armed white men-what he had been told to say that Lee had a tire tool in his hand and had threatened E. H. Hurst with it. That had not been true, and Allen was willing to change his testimony-"to let the hide go with the hair," he said-in exchange for a promise of federal protection. The Justice Department told him in no uncertain terms that no such promise could be given. Word about Allen’s willingness to recant apparently reached some local whites, including the sheriff. Allen knew he was a marked man and thought about leaving. Unfortunately, he had elderly parents who were very ill, and he had debts to payoff. The next couple of years alternated between periods when whites harassed him and periods when they left him alone. He had trouble selling his logs, was arrested twice on dubious charges, and frequently received direct or indirect death threats. The second arrest was in November 1963. While he was in jail, a Negro trustee heard that a lynch mob was forming. Allen managed to get word to his sons, Henry and Tommy, who came to the jail and stood guard outside all night. When he got out of jail, Allen decided it was time to get out of the state as soon as he could. His mother died in January, releasing him from one responsibility. He determined that he would leave February 1 for Milwaukee, where his brother lived. He spent the last day of January trying to get his business straight and get some letters of reference to take with him. The latter proved difficult. By evening, he had not found anyone willing to write a letter for him, and he decided to go ask one more of his former employers. His son Henry suggested he take a pistol with him and volunteered to go with him, but Allen turned down both suggestions. He got back home around 8:30 that evening and got out of his truck to open the gate to his property. He must have suddenly realized he was in danger and tried to dive under his truck. When Henry returned home that evening, he found his father under the truck, hit by two loads of buckshot. (20)
Talking to Mrs. Allen made up Bob Moses’s mind about the Summer Project. They had watched Herbert Lee get gunned down and couldn’t do anything about it. Now at least they were in a position to force some national attention onto Mississippi, thereby putting pressure on the federal government to protect Black life in the state. It was self-consciously an attempt to use the nation’s racism, its tendency to react only when white life was endangered, as a point of leverage. Moses and Dave Dennis put all of their authority behind the Summer Project. (21)
As the plans for the summer evolved, Mississippi officialdom geared up for war. In early June, Sam Block, Willie Peacock, James Black, Charles McLaurin, and James Jones set off for a SNCC meeting in Atlanta, with Black driving. Heading West from Greenwood, they realized that they were being followed. Several efforts to shake their company failed, and the car, a white and black Mercury, was still behind them when they approached Columbus, playing cat-and-mouse games, roaring right up to their rear bumper and cutting its headlights, falling back, catching up, passing and pulling over to the side of the road until the SNCC workers caught up. Finally, the car turned off onto a side road. In Columbus, they were stopped by a police car and asked why they had been trying to run that Mercury off the road. It was clear that one of the officers, Roy Elders, knew them as "the niggers who are going to change our way of life." On the way to the jail, James Black was separated from the others. When he showed up twenty minutes later, "one side of his face was swollen out of shape; one of his eyes was blackened and bloodshot, and blood was running from his swollen mouth. His clothes were also torn and disarranged."
Black, Elders explained, had fallen getting out of the car. Sam Block was taken out for an "interview." As he remembered it, "Elders hit me on the cheek with his fist. I staggered and fell back to the window and he grabbed me and hit me in the groin with his fist very hard. I fell down and he kicked me hard in the shin." Block passed out when he got back to his cell. Peacock, McLaurin, and James Jones were beaten in turn. The next day Black was charged with reckless driving and running a stop sign, fined $28, and they were all released. (22)
The Greenwood staff had the feeling that national SNCC didn’t particularly care about the fact that they had been beaten, which is a measure of what staff morale was like in Greenwood that spring. They were frustrated by a lack of money, saw themselves as being taken for granted by the central office, and not exactly anticipating the summer project with joy. (23)
The beating was reflection of the hair-trigger temper of the state’s official and unofficial forces of repression as they contemplated the summer "invasion"-Mississippi newspapers hardly used any other word in referring to the Summer Project. In just the first two weeks of the summer project, in addition to the murder of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi, there were at least seven bombings or fire-bombings of movement-related businesses and four shootings and a larger number of serious beatings." The state was clearly primed for violence, and the final tally might have been far worse had it not been for the hundreds of federal officers who swarmed over the state after the Philadelphia murders. (Once, that is, the FBI took the murders seriously, which took a while.)
Since the summer involved large numbers of white people, we have a great deal of literature on it, far more than on the three years of organizing that preceded it. 25 Two aspects of that period are especially interesting here: Freedom Schools, and the reception given volunteers by local Blacks. The schools offer another example of the developmental aspect of the community-organizing tradition; the response of local people to the volunteers suggests another way of thinking about the influence of southern Black culture on the movement.
EDUCATION FOR ACTIVISM
When Ella Baker first went to New York in
1927 she organized a Negro history club for youngsters at the Harlem Y. This may have been her first "political" act in the city. No doubt, she saw it as a way to raise consciousness, to help people develop themselves. The Freedom Schools in Mississippi were an experiment in the same tradition. By late 1963, strategic thinking in SNCC was increasingly concerned with "parallel institutions."
If existing institutions did not meet the needs of Black Mississippians, what kinds of institutions would? Freedom Schools were one reflection of that thinking, but they also exemplified a much older tendency within the community-organizing tradition. During one of the early planning sessions for the summer, Charlie Cobb, the Howard University student who had first come to the Delta in the fall of 1962, proposed a summer Freedom School program "to fill an intellectual and creative vacuum in the lives of young Negro Mississippians, and to get them to articulate their own desires, demands and questions . . . to stand up in classrooms around the state and ask their teachers a real question." The schools were expected to be "an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities and to find alternatives and ultimately, new directions for action." (26) Cobb envisioned the schools handling perhaps a thousand students of high school age. In fact, somewhere between twenty-five hundred and three thousand students actually showed up, and their ages ranged from seven to seventy. Cobb’s original idea of having one teacher for every four or five kids had to be dropped, and the number of schools was increased from twenty-five to forty-one.
Part of the classwork consisted of traditional academic subjects. In Mississippi, though, traditional subjects were often not available in Black schools. Publicly supported Black schools tended not to offer: typing, foreign languages, art, drama, or college-preparatory mathematics. Apart from whatever intrinsic interest they held, these subjects were popular with students partly because they symbolized equality.
It was the Citizenship Curriculum that made the schools distinctive. It was built around a set of core questions, including:
1. What does the majority culture have that we want?
2. What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?
3. What do we have that we want to keep?
One unit of the curriculum asked students to compare their social reality with that of others in terms of education, housing, and employment; one section called for them to compare the adjustment of Negroes to Mississippi with the adjustment ofJews to Nazi Germany. Another unit was intended to convince students that "running away" to the North wasn’t going to solve anything. The "Introducing the Power Structure" unit tried "to create an awareness that some people profit by the pain of others or by misleading them." The unit on poor whites tried to help students understand how the power structure manipulated the fears of poor whites. "Material Things and Soul Things" was a critique of materialism. The last area of the curriculum was a study of the movement itself The section on nonviolence made sure to present it as something beyond a mere refraining from doing anyone physical harm; students were admonished to practice nonviolence of speech and thought as well. The curriculum reflects how far discussion within SNCC had progressed beyond a narrow concern with civil rights. A full analysis of society was embedded in ~he thinking behind the schools, an analysis that went beyond racial problems and public policy about them. What was actually taught and how it got taught varied from situation to situation. Teachers were encouraged to use a Socratic style of teaching, asking questions that drew on the experiences of students and trying to help them develop a larger perspective. Volunteers who were professional teachers often had more trouble adjusting to the teaching style than did the inexperienced.
At their best the schools were an electric experience for teachers and students alike.
The atmosphere in class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about-real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer ….
If reading levels are not always the highest, the "philosophical" understanding is almost alarming: some of the things that our II and 12 year olds will come out with would never be expected from someone of that age in the North ….
Classes in voter registration work and political play-acting were a success everywhere. With innate sophistication about their own plight, the kids pretended to be a Congressional Committee discussing the pro’s and con’s of a bill to raise Negro wages and "the con’s" would discover neat parliamentary tricks for tabling it. Or they’d act out Senator Stennis and his wife having cocktails with Senator and Mrs. Eastland, all talking about their "uppity niggers." Sometimes they played white cops at the courthouse, clobbering applicants with rolled-up newspapers. (27)
The schools were more successful in rural areas and in those urban areas where the movement had been strong. With so little for youngsters to do in rural areas, the schools became the focal point of teenage social life and an activity in which whole communities felt invested. ("When the Freedom School staff arrived in Carthage, the entire Negro community was assembled at the church to greet them; when, two days later the staff was evicted from its school, the community again appeared with pick up trucks to help move the library to a new school site.") In urban areas with little movement history and alternative ways for young people to spend their time, places like Greenville or Gulfport, it was much more difficult for the schools to have an impact. (28)
There is some suggestive anecdotal evidence about the political effectiveness of the schools. In August, students from around the state held a conference at which they worked on the platform for the youth program of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and according to one observer "the kids did a fantastic job of it." They developed guidelines for housing and health programs, suggested that repressive school districts be boycotted, and after a particularly bitter debate decided not to endorse a boycott of Cuba. There were other expressions of political consciousness in the fall. In Philadelphia, where Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman had been killed, students returned to school wearing "ONE MAN, ONE VOTE" buttons. In Issaquena and Sharkey counties, after the principal told them they could not wear their SNCC buttons, students launched a boycott that lasted eight months.
Within the movement, Freedom School work always had relatively low status value. In part this was because women did much of the Freedom School work and because it wasn’t as dangerous as other work. Voter registration was the prestige assignment. Looking back at the Freedom Schools with the hindsight of the last three decades is disturbing. Of all the models generated by the movement, it seems tragic that this one, an institution specifically attentive to the developmental needs of Black youngsters as a movement issue, was accorded relatively little respect. At the time, though, for young people with a sense of urgency, Freedom Schools seemed a long, slow road. The school in the small Delta town of Shaw, for example, got off to a horrendous start. Discouraged, one volunteer wrote:
Furthermore [the kids] don’t see how we can help them to be free. At this point, neither do we. Slow change is unthinkable when so much change is needed, when there is so much hurt …. Things are so terrible here that I
want to change it all NOW. I mean this as sincerely as I can. Running a freedom school is an absurd waste of time. I don’t want to sit around in a classroom; I want to go out and throw a few office buildings, not to injure people but to shake them up, destroy their stolen property, convince them we mean business …. I really can’t stand it here. (29)
In part the Freedom School model got lost in the desire to do something bigger, something that would have more impact sooner. This was emblematic of a larger impatience. Just as Negro communities were shedding their fear, some in SNCC-COFO were losing their patience with the pace of change. At least implicit in the thinking behind the community-organizing tradition has been a warning that big, dramatic actions may not produce the most substantial change over the long term. Miss Baker, for example, was not a big fan of demonstrations because she thought the gains they produced often proved short-term. In the politically tumultuous years after 1964, that kind of skepticism seemed to hold less sway in the movement, and that may have something to do with the inattention to the slow processes of helping people develop their powers. (30)
AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO SPITEFULLY USE YOU
The first essay in James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time takes the form of a letter of advice to his young nephew. There is, he tells the boy, no reason for you to become like white people
and there is no basis for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. (31)
Much of the literature on Freedom Summer gets part of the story backwards. Every work of any length comments on the racial friction within the movement, and particularly on the hostility volunteers encountered from some of the SNCC-COFO workers. It is frequently discussed and explained at some length; that is, it is treated as an intellectual problematic. The fact that some young Blacks were distrustful of whites is not one of life’s great puzzles. Intramovement racial friction is less surprising than the fact that the volunteers were so warmly received by so many of the local residents across the state, especially the older ones and children. The volunteers were generally accepted, and accepted with affection.
Batesville welcomed us triumphantly-at least Black Batesville did. Children and adults waved from the porches and shouted hello as we walked In a few days, scores of children knew us and called to us by name I found it difficult to be cynical. Sometimes when we pass by the children cheer. …[From Gulfport:] Fifty times a day people come up to us and thank us and tell us what we’re doing is so fine, so good. [From Greenville:] The Negro community has been so receptive and welcoming. The other night, a woman who has 17 children invited 20 of us over for dinner. It was a good dinner, too. [From Canton.] When we go walking with [the two] widows [we’re staying with] one of them invariably greets each passerby with "Have you seen my girls yet?" [From Meridian:] There are the old men and women in old clothing whom you know have little money and none to spare, who stop you as you are leaving the church … and press a dollar into your hand and say, "I’ve waited 80 years for you to come and I just have to give you this little bit to let you know how much we appreciate your coming. I prays for your safety every night, son. God bless you all." And then they move down the stone steps and disappear along the red clay road lined with tall green trees and houses tumbling down. [From Gulfport:] Time and time again we go into a restaurant or bar, we start to pay, only to be told that the bill has been taken care of. People bring over a dozen eggs or cake or invite us to dinner. [From Hattiesburg:] Sometimes I think that all the decency the Mississippi human contains is encased in black walls. They’re slow and talkative, but they’d shake hands with a mule if it came up to speak to them; if they had one cigarette left, they’d offer to halve it with you before they’d smoke it in front of your face. All this from people to whom $20 is a fortune. (32)
In southern tradition, many of the volunteers were "adopted" by the families to whom they were closest, and some of these relationships lasted years after the volunteers had left the South. Why were so many local residents willing to accept the volunteers at face value, substantially more willing to do so than young adults in the Black community? After all, the older people had suffered a good deal more at white hands than had their children. In other historical circumstances, even leaving aside the particular nature of racial oppression, we would expect an older, rural population with minimal education to be a group prone to prejudicial feelings. It certainly wasn’t the case that the volunteers were entirely free of ugly racial feelings themselves; some of them could be patronizing, some thought themselves the great white saviors and communicated that, some were indifferent to local mores concerning sexual and religious behavior, some were by local standards not particularly mannerly.
Perhaps the older people were just more practical than the younger ones. They had seen more of Mississippi racism at its worst, and they were grateful for help wherever it came from. Given the history they had lived through, they had pretty low expectations of white people, and by those standards the volunteers looked pretty good. There is probably some truth to this, but pragmatism doesn’t necessarily explain the affection and love so often extended to the volunteers. Being grateful to people is one thing; accepting them with affection is another. Their acceptance was in the spirit of nonviolence, but that is not a plausible explanation. Nonviolence as an ideology never penetrated that deeply into the older Deep South rural population. The one thing that is certain is that some of the willingness to accept white volunteers at face value can be attributed to a kind of worshipful servility that still existed among some of the older people. White would always be right for them. They thought so much of the white volunteers because they thought so little of themselves. It was for this reason that some COFO workers found the ready acceptance of whites offensive.
None of this, though, offers a very complete explanation. The volunteers were interacting largely with the strongest, most self-regarding individuals in the community. Susie Morgan and Lula Belle Johnson and Dewey Greene were proud people, capable of being quite critical of whites as a whole and critical of some of the behavior of the volunteers as well. Whatever they thought of whites as a category, whatever flaws they saw in the volunteers, they were still willing to accept them into their hearts and families. Their ability to do so is certainly in part a reflection of how Black southerners saw God. In a conversation with me, Lou Emma Allen, after recounting some of what she had suffered from whites while growing up, ended the discussion by saying she still couldn’t hate whites: "Of course, there is no way I can hate anybody and hope to see God’s face.”
Mrs. Hamer used to say that as well. During the beating at Winona, before Mrs. Hamer was taken out of her cell for her beating, she could hear the beating being administered to Annell Ponder-the blows falling, Miss Ponder screaming, the demands from the officers that Miss Ponder call them "sir" and her refusal to do so. Then she could hear Miss Ponder start to pray. "But anyway, she kept screamin’, and they kept beating on her, and finally she started prayin’ for’ em, and she asked God to have mercy on ’em, because the
y didn’t know what they was doin’." (33) Shortly after, Mrs. Hamer was beaten herself and then returned to her cell. She could tell when the jailer and the other men went out for something; the jailer’s wife and the jailer’s daughter would bring them cold water and ice.
And I told them, "Y’all is nice. You must be Christian people." The jailer’s wife told me she tried to live a Christian life. And I told her I would like for her to read two scriptures in the Bible, and I tol’ her to read the 26th Chapter of Proverbs and the zorh Verse ["Whose hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness shall be showed before the whole congregation"]. She taken it down on a paper. And then I told her to read the [rzth] Chapter of Acts and the 26th Verse ["Hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth"]. And she taken that down. And she never did come back after then.” (34)
Annell Ponder always understood evils like those she had endured as "examples of man’s separation from God and from his own truest self." It followed that people like the ones who beat her weren’t hopeless, but they did, in her words, "need training and rehabilitation." (35)
If there was a specifically Christian tradition of southern Black humanism, there were secular forces reinforcing it. The structure of racial interaction in the old South taught some Blacks how superficial racial differences were. On the one hand, the traditional system was designed to convince them of their inferiority, and the sheer weight of it necessarily defeated a great many people psychologically. When a man with Amzie Moore’s strength of character says that he was once convinced that the inferiority of Blacks was ordained by God, that is testimony to the power of the system. Still, no system crushes everyone. For many older Blacks, the system also meant living much of their lives in constant and complex daily contact with whites. They saw white people under every conceivable circumstance, and they were able to see them change over time, to see weaknesses as well as strengths. That density of contact would have allowed, .in B~dwin’s terms, some of them to understand whites as trapped m their own history.
Consider the complexity of Aaron Henrys relations with white people. Henry once ordered by mail a copy of Black Monday, the famous racist tract of the Citizens’ Council. Late one evening, the book was hand-delivered to him by Robert Patterson, founder of the council. Patterson was afraid that a mailed copy might fall into the wrong hands, and some of Henry’s people might misunderstand why Henry would be reading Council literature. It was the same "Tut" Patterson who as a youngster had been Henry’s best friend growing up in Clarksdale. Apparently, enough of the memory of that friendship survived that the head of the Council cared a little about the reputation of the head of the NAACP. Myrlie Evers, who tells that story, says there is nothing unusual about it; one could find similar stories in small towns across the south. (36)
If, as was suggested earlier, Henry seemed to have an especially acute sense of white folks, perhaps it was because his early life could provide the material for a textbook on the complexities of interracial relations in the Delta. Part of his education came when he worked as night clerk at a Clarksdale motor inn. "I saw white people do things that I had been told were done only by Negroes, I heard prominenr white men who stood staunchly with the system tell me to stand up and be a man, although I’m sure their advice did not mean for me to consider myself their equal." 37 The owner of the motel encouraged him to go to college and helped him learn to do simultaneous equations, in itself an enormous breech of the racial norms, yet the owner himself was a firm believer in the existing racial system. On the other hand, some white men thought it so insulting to have to hand their money to a nigger clerk that they refused to do it; others took personal pleasure in publicly degrading Henry in front of their friends. He found that the very poorest whites, contrary to their redneck image, were often willing to get along with Blacks. When he returned home from the service, the registrar refused three times to let him register. He was able to get a white veteran to help him register. His first business partner was white, and the two of them always maintained a generally egalitarian relationship, with his partner willing to stick out his neck a little in Henry’s defense when Henry was accused of being a communist. Henry knew white people who pretended to be friendly to Blacks because it was good business and others who acted more racist than they felt because they were in situations where that was expedient. Aaron Henry had seen white people from a variety of angles; he had seem them change for the better and for the worse. It is not a background that easily lends itself to thinking that race, in and of itself, is determinative. The rich, complex experience with whites that Henry had is very much a generational experience. With each succeeding cohort, urbanization, the changes in the structure of work, the increasing tendency of younger Blacks to keep white contacts to a minimum, meant that fewer Blacks had the complexity of interracial experience Henry had been exposed to.
In the evolution of African American culture, the most influential form of sustained and complex interaction with whites may have involved black women domestic workers. Few jobs offer such potential for personal humiliation and sexual abuse, few are so obviously exploitative. On the other hand, the sheer frequency of contact meant that domestics acquired enormous amounts of information about their families. They knew far more about their white folks than the white folks could ever know about themselves. It is also true that reciprocal affective ties sometimes developed between domestics and their families (if hardly with the frequency and depth southern whites liked to assume). Domestics were in the position that Patricia Hill Collins calls "outsider-within," forced to see the world from two very different social perspectives. (38) As with any form of social marginality, we may be sure that some of the women thrust into such a position found it disorienting and confusing, but it is equally sure that many others were able to use their position to develop a profound understanding of race and social behavior.
One of the people sociologist Robert Blauner interviewed for his study of American racial attitudes was Florence Grier, a Black woman who began doing domestic work at the age of eleven during the Depression. Even at that age the experience quickly demystified white people for her:
It didn’t take me very long to learn that there was nobody … better than Negroes . .As a girl, I’d walk into [white people’s] homes, and they didn’t know how to cook, they didn’t know how to talk, they were more stupid than I. And it just didn’t take me very long to find out that the only difference in this particular woman and myself was that she was white-and that she had the opportunity to live on the other side of town-and she could have access to better jobs.
The work gave her a perspective on class nuances among whites. Once upper-class women knew you were qualified, they would give you your instructions and leave you alone. Women who had just clawed their way into the middle class were all wrapped up in their possessions, so they watched everything the maid did with them. Poor whites were the worst, keeping their foot on your neck all the time, always reminding you that they were your betters.
Florence Grier helped to raise many a white child, which gave her a perspective on how racial contempt was systematically nurtured: