The Freedom Movement and Ourselves
Looking Back 50 Years Later
Group D
Oakland, CA. April 5th, 2014

Participants:

Miriam Glickman, (SNCC) Facilitator    
Tom Canterbury (SNCC, WFP)
Charles Hammond (SCOPE volunteer)
Janet Heinritz-Canterbury (SCOPE, SCLC, WFP)    
Sherie Labedis (SCOPE volunteer)
Carol Ruth Silver (CORE Freedom Rider)
Gene Turitz (COFO volunteer)

Contents:

Introductions
Evaluating the Freedom Movement
Achievements
White Peoples Projects
Expectations & Unexpected Results    
Someone Watching Over Us
It Was About the Money
MFDP & Political Organizing
Education & Opportunities
Freedom Rider
Name Dropping
Organizing Against Violence
Habits of Security
How the Freedom Movement Affected Us
Reconciliation?
Today's Kids
Leaving the Movement
How We Came to Participate

 

 — MORNING SESSION — 

Introductions

Miriam: Okay, I am so glad to have you here. I was Miriam Cohen. Now I'm Miriam Glickman. Okay. We're gonna go around and briefly, we're gonna say name, organization, states, and years we worked. I worked for SNCC in Southwest Georgia in the summer of '63, and then I worked in Mississippi for the mock vote in the fall of '63. I worked in the DC office in the spring, and then I was in Mississippi again for the summer until February of 1965. So, Jan.

Janet: I'm Janet. At the time, I was Janet Heinritz. Now I'm Janet Heinritz-Canterbury. And I was in Wilcox County, Alabama in 1965 and '66 and then in May of '66, I moved to Sevier County, Tennessee on the White Folks Project.

Sherie: I was Sherie Holbrook. I'm now Sherie Labedis. I was a SCOPE worker in South Carolina in 1965, and then I was a plant for the NAACP in that they supported me when I attended Allen University, a Black college in Columbia, South Carolina. I was the only white student on campus.

Gene: I'm Gene Turitz. I worked in Pinola County, Mississippi in the summer of 1965. I worked with Friends of SNCC from about 1963 to 1967 in the Bay Area.

Charles: I'm Charles Hammond. I went by Chuck in those days, and I was with [UCLA] Bruin SCOPE. We were in Macon, Georgia in the summer of '65. At the end of that summer, they relocated us down to Americus, Georgia.

Tom: Tom Canterbury. I went to the Atlanta office of SNCC first after working in '65 in the anti-war movement actually, Southern Committee to End the War in Vietnam. And then I went to the Atlanta office of SNCC, and then Selma, Alabama, SNCC and White Folks Project in Tennessee. After SNCC decided not — well, they had their convention and kicked out the white people. [Laughter]

Carol: My name is Carol Ruth Silver. And I started in the spring of 1960 to do picketing in Chicago in sympathy with the sit-ins in North Carolina. I then, in the spring of 1961, was a Freedom Rider and spent 40 days in Jackson, Mississippi jails. I then went back to law school, and in the fall of 1964, I became the first intern funded by Law Students Civil Rights Research Council to go to a southern African-American lawyer's office, and I went to Durham, North Carolina and worked for Floyd McKissick — McKissick and Burke — for a full year, after which I was recruited as part of that experience — Floyd sent me to Washington to lobby for inclusion of legal services in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1965 which was successful.

It was included, and I was then recruited by OEO Legal Services Programs to come and be the legal services lawyer since they knew that there were no experienced legal services lawyers since the law had just passed. So they were recruiting civil rights lawyers, of which there were very few and of which I was one. And I did that. I did legal services for the poor. I did California Rural Legal Assistance, and then in the summers I did LCDC, Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans, those two places.

 

Evaluating the Freedom Movement

Miriam: Okay, thank you everyone. What we're gonna do next is start talking about the topic, so what we're gonna do first is do a brief opening thought and then we'll continue from there. And it's an evaluation of the Freedom Movement, and if you need prompts about that: What was achieved? What did we fail to achieve? What lessons did we learn? What did it all mean? So who wants to start?

Tom: I came late to the Movement, so I don't guess I'll start. [Laughter] Well, I mean, a lot of people were there before me, and things had quieted down when I got there. The Voting Rights Act had been passed. People were allowed to sign up to register. And I was in Alabama. It was very quiet in Selma. The authorities were on their best behavior and no longer whacking people. So very quiet.

Carol: Isn't that, in and of itself, a victory? Because when I was in North Carolina — 

Tom: But not of mine. I mean, I didn't do it.

Carol: Well, it was your victory, because every person was there.

Sherie: Well, I came in late too. I wasn't old enough to leave California until after December of 1964. I remember watching some of you and others on television thinking: "Oh my God, this is what — these people are what real citizens of the United States should be. They're taking on the responsibility of changing a system that is wrong. And I sure want to be like them and do the same thing." I worked on voter registration in rural South Carolina.

In South Carolina I did some of the same things I'd seen on television, and I was very impressed at what was accomplished. In 2011 I went on the Solano College Civil Rights Travel Course. This is a nine day bus experience visiting Civil Rights Movement museums, Movement sights and veterans. I was blessed to meet Annie Pearl Avery who said: "Forty years ago we dropped the ball! We should've done more." The bus trip went through Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. Each state is full of powerful museums about the Civil Rights Movement. So, I figure the ball wasn't totally dropped.

I've been told that the Movement supposedly ended when Dr. King died. I have written a book about my experiences, You Came Here to Die, Didn't You. When I was looking for an agent I was told that the Movement is over and that no one would buy the book. In 1968, I thought, "Well, things are going to continue to get better even though Dr. King is gone." However, it seems that people in my California community don't care about other folks. I don't mean other folks that are black or brown, but other folks. That is a real eye opener for me. I believe that what I failed to achieve personally was the realization that things were going to get better in general because of who human beings are and that they don't always get along with one another.

Tom: Did you say you were discouraged? Or...?

Sherie: I became a high school teacher, and I taught Government and U.S. History because I wanted to mold minds to accept tolerance, responsibility and respect for human beings.

Tom: Nice!

Gene: Well, I'm just thinking. I think part of the question is difficult because I sort of would want to ask that question of people in the South. Do they think something was achieved? And I hope to go down this summer. I haven't been back there since then, since I was there in '65.

But I've been involved with SNCC from '63 and met many people who came up because the Bay Area was a place where a lot of people came for rest and recreation, as well as helping people stir up things here. So I got to know many people. In talking to some people now, I get the sense that yes, there were things that were achieved. Things changed in ways that I guess I would call better. Are they perfect? No. But I guess Mississippi has some of the best African-American representation electorally in the country, per population. And so things definitely changed.

In my mind, I keep going back and forth between what I had thought we were changing and what actually got changed. And there's a discrepancy in that, and I don't know if it's because I was wrong in thinking about what I wanted to see changed. I think many of us who went — I think there was a split. I believed, because I was working with SNCC, that the local population was who was most important, who was determining what would happen, that you were organizing people at the base to make all those decisions. Yet at the same time, we had national visions. You know, we were going to change the political structure. I mean, the Challenge of the Freedom Democratic Party and all that was a national — had national implications, and it certainly did. But those things didn't get achieved as well, as maybe stimulating what happened within the states. So I have a mixed sense of the achievements.

Charles: I'm Charles Hammond. I went by Chuck in those days. I guess I still do. I was in Macon, Georgia. I was pretty young. I was only 19. Bullet-proof. I guess I'll just address the first question about what we accomplished. SCOPE was supposed to be a community organization and political education, primarily voter registration. And Georgia was about 90+% white voters when we got there, and we registered a lot of people to vote. I don't know that we organized a community, but I think our presence there was some spark or initiative, and I think the people in the community began to see that they could organize and that they had strength in numbers. And certainly Julian Bond wouldn't have been elected [to the state assembly] if that Movement hadn't done what it did. The Voting Rights Act had an even bigger impact, but we did something.

Tom: When I went into SNCC, well I went through the Atlanta office where I just did general helping and then went to Selma. A lot of people in SNCC wanted to get rid of the college students and go their own way, but Alabama was the home of the Black Panther [symbol]. That's where it came from, and it was an exciting time to be there in '65. The push was to organize on a county basis and have independent political parties in each county, and that only happened a couple of times.

I'm not an expert; I don't know how many times, but it didn't happen in Dallas County where I was, Selma. It happened maybe in Lowndes County and Wilcox and a few other places nearby. So I saw my role as just maintaining a SNCC presence in the state. And Stokely Carmichael worked in the Selma office; that was sort of his headquarters. And a lot of people from all over the state wanted to have that Selma place to come to, to get away from the tension. So I didn't actually register any people to vote. I went out and talked to some people in the rural areas which was the ostensible job, but we're not talking about how I felt about it. That's what we did. We talked to people. And it was just a quiet time until the fall election that year in '65. And so we didn't accomplish any county things, but we carried on the SNCC name in the state.

Carol: Carol Ruth Silver. I came into the Movement, what I thought was late. I thought 1960 was late, because in the 1950s the NAACP, the Legal Defense and Education Fund and the lawyers had brought cases that became the basis for what we as activists did in the Civil Rights Movement. The Brown vs. Board of Education case, the Rosa Parks' cases, the case before the Interstate Commerce Commission ruling that interstate facilities had to be integrated, which was the legal basis for the Freedom Rides in 1961.

All of those things had been happening, and they started really with the induction of Black and African-American people, men, into the war effort, the Second World War which was in the '40s. And that's the history. So I felt that I was late, and it was 1960, and my Black friends in Chicago were very careful where they walked, where they went. They were living in totally segregated communities in Chicago which they still do, those of them that are still alive, because Chicago is one of the least housing integrated cities in the world.

So I came in saying: Gee, got to do this when I got a call from somebody in CORE in North Carolina saying: We are — and I also saw it in my newspaper every morning — we are picketing Woolworth's. And we want to have Woolworth's everywhere in the country picketed so that nobody will go and sit at a Woolworth's counter, and we will have this — I think that was one of the first efforts at a national boycott.

So I recruited a bunch of my University of Chicago friends, and we made signs — hand lettered signs — and in the bitter cold of a Chicago winter, and anybody who's lived in Chicago knows how bitter cold Chicago can be, the wind coming off of the lake, the humidity high, the cold, the chill factor down below zero — with our signs we went and we picketed Woolworth's. And we picketed very legally, on the sidewalk and so forth, and we were amazed at the number of African-Americans who passed right by our picket signs.

Miriam: Carol, I'm going to ask you to cut to the Southern part.

Carol: Well, that was the prelude. To the Southern part, because having had that experience of African-Americans in Chicago saying to our mostly white picketers: "We don't need to boycott Woolworth's because we have the right to go there. We're not involved with what's going on in the South." And I was really offended by that, but you know, we kept on picketing, and then the semester ended. We all went wherever we went for the summer. And that was the end of my first experience, but it was very, very present in my mind when the Freedom Rides started, and I heard on the radio, the call for going down to the Freedom Rides. And I said: "They talking to me. They are. They are. I'm gonna do it, and I did."

Janet: What was achieved? I used to think I knew what happened down there, at least to me, and then I read a book not too long ago, and I thought: "Oh my God, I didn't know anything."

Woman: Which book? I just finished The Children by Halberstam a few months ago, and it blew me away. It was just wonderful. And it actually gave me a much more broad understanding of the nonviolent roots. And I live in L.A., and I see Jim Lawson speak at events, I while I know he's attached to nonviolence, but I had no understanding of the depth of his involvement. I admire him tremendously. I did figure from my experience and from that book, we won the right to have a sandwich and shop in stores. Whether it was SNCC or CORE or SCLC, there were different things going on and I think the movement won the right to public accommodations and that's a huge achievement.

I also thing there are huge things that we failed to achieve, just to get onto the second question. I feel that if you look at Trayvon Martin, you go: "Oh my God, the racism is alive and still a phenomenal reality in our world."

[Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old Black youth shot to death by a security guard in 2012. The Florida youth was unarmed and simply walking home in a gated, predominantly-white community. The killer claimed "self-defense." He was acquitted by an all-white jury. In part, their decision was based on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law that permits use of deadly force in situations where avoiding it is both reasonable and possible. Critics of such statutes refer to them as "shoot first" laws that make it almost impossible to convict anyone who claims "self-defense." To many Movement activists, Martin's killing, the subsequent controversies, and the verdict, are all examples of persistent pervasive racism that motivates the killing of Black men by law enforcement officers based on racial prejudice. In the opinon of many, "Stand You Ground" laws are both enacted and invoked in a racial context of fear and suspicion.]

Charles: It's alive and well.

Janet: It's alive and well, and it's like: "We didn't get there." You know, maybe somebody could shed some light on that for me, but I look at that issue and get very upset. But I live in South L.A., which is the African-American section of Los Angeles.

Charles: South Central?

Janet: South L.A. It's Southwest, actually now. It's called Southwest, not South Central anymore. Leimert Park. And so during the Obama campaign, I ran the biggest phone bank in the country for Obama. It was right on Crenshaw [Avenue].

Tom: Excuse me, I think Central starts about four blocks south of us. South Central.

Janet: Every day we had dozens of African-Americans come in to make calls. And we called everywhere in the country. Many of these people had never registered and had never voted before so we registered a lot of people. It think they were voting for the first time because they had someone to vote for. I go back to Stokely's notion in Lowndes County to give people someone to vote for by teaching people the requirements of an office; form a political party that they can control; people will run; and people will know what they are voting for. There's a lot we accomplished and a lot we failed to achieve. What lessons can we draw, I guess we'll do that in a minute.

And we did that in Wilcox County, but this was actually where they were signing on the line, and they were doing it all. But again, it was like, "Here we are in Los Angeles, and these people are just registering." They're just voting for the first time, because they've never had anything to vote for. So again, I go back to Stokely's whole thing in Lowndes County which was: Teach people the requirements of an office and form a political party for it that they can control, and it will happen. Well, of course, we elected Obama, and the rest is history, but I don't mean to go there today. So I mean, there's a lot we accomplished, and a lot we failed to achieve, so what lessons we can draw, we'll do that in a minute. But just to get through the questions here.

Miriam: Okay, so I'm the last one. I didn't realize how much we achieved until I went back for the 30th reunion.

Carol: What year was that?

Miriam: It would've been 1994. And the reunion was in Jackson, Mississippi. There was a big sign in the airport welcoming us.

Janet: Oh my God!

Charles: What'd the sign say?

Miriam: Welcome back — 

Tom: Outside agitators. [Laughter]

Charles: A different kind of welcome. Oh my.

Miriam: And I've been back three or four times and see Black police officers and women police officers. And so, you know, when I left in '65, I thought the segregationists are just going to outlast us, and nothing will be better. I really did think that. I had been down there grinding away for almost two years and not seeing much progress. But when I went back, I realized we had achieved a lot.

And I also realized why they fought us so hard. We were asking them to change their way of life, and at least in Mississippi, it wasn't about lunch counters. There may have been some lunch counter demonstrations, but I was totally unaware of that. It was too dangerous. What it was about, to me, and what we changed, what we achieved — 

When I was in Columbus, Mississippi, the family I lived with talked about how two police officers (only white men were police officers back then) had stopped their car at night with the whole family in it. And the police ordered the 12-year-old daughter to get out of the car, in front of her mother, her father, her siblings. And the mother said — of course the police officers knew the family, because it's a small town. The mother said, "She's only 12!" And so they didn't make her get out. The father, had he said anything, would've been killed, so the father was helpless to protect his own children. We changed that. I think that's a huge achievement.

When they were looking for the three Civil Rights workers who were murdered, they found, I believe it was, eight Black bodies floating in rivers, two beheaded. So it was a system, not so much in my mind of sitting at lunch counters but of who can be killed with no consequence. We changed that. There are now Black police officers and Black elected officials. That system's gone. I think that's a huge achievement.

What did we fail? When I went back for this 30-year reunion, I was told that in the small towns there are now a lot of drug problems and also a lot of unemployment and poverty. We didn't achieve a good life, but we achieved a safer life, a more equal life. When we were down there in the '60s, you could tell from a distance whether a car was being driven by a Black person or a white person because the Blacks always drove slowly so as not to give the police a reason to stop them, and that was gone. We really did an enormous favor for Mississippi. They didn't know it, and they tried to run us out every way they could. But the new companies from the North that came down in the years after couldn't have come down if they still had segregation. They didn't realize we were doing them this huge favor.

 

Achievements

Janet: Can we just do achievements for a second? Because I really would like to talk about whether we went beyond public accommodations to dig into that racism, I really don't know how far beyond public accommodations it went. I mean, granted, there may not be people floating down the river now, but if you have a Black person charged with something, they are gonna go to jail. They are gonna go to prison. Look at the prisons today. They're full of Black people.

Carol: But that's a different issue.

Janet: I know that, but what I'm saying is — 

Miriam: Let's stick to Mississippi.

Janet: Yeah, but even there, I believe that the public accommodations were achieved. I agree with that. You can go into a store. You can go shopping. And there are Black police officers. There are Black public officials. Yes, Okay. So Black people are voting. So we must've done something about or this all must've resulted in people registering and voting. But then you get to the basis of democracy, you know, people having the right to a free and open trial, and I don't think we got there. I think that there's every bit of proof that we didn't get there, whether we're talking about Mississippi or Los Angeles or California, we didn't get there.

Carol: I disagree. I think that we have to measure what we did in Mississippi, not against an idealized society in which every trial is going to be honest and fair, and every jury is going to be representative, etc. The fact that so many young, Black and Latino men are in our prison system has to do with drug prohibition which is a different issue that affects — should affect — 

Miriam: Okay, I'm going to cut you off. Rule number one was stick to the South. We're not to talk about what's going on today.

Carol: I'm sticking to the South. What happened in the South was that Black people were being sent to jail on trumped up charges, or they were being killed by vigilantes. That has stopped, except insofar as the poor white population has the same problem. So now you have a population of poor people and economically deprived people in Mississippi, in Alabama, in mostly rural parts of the country where there are bad things happening. But you can't say that we, the Civil Rights Movement, failed to bring the Black population to a nirvana of democratic life, because they got to the point where everybody is equally in a bad situation.

Sherie: I have another way of looking at achievements, because I know I sounded pretty negative, and in some ways I am. I want more. One of the greatest gifts of my going to the South was that I've gone back every two years since, so I've gotten to watch what happened in my community, and in particular in the families of the people who worked with us. One of the things they said at our training in 1965 was that you may not register any voters. The important thing is that you're going to prove that Black and white people can actually be together and have it be a very positive experience in doing all these things.

In South Carolina they still refer to me as "one of the good ones," because I was in a voting project. In 1965 it was not unusual for someone to say, "Can I touch you? I ain't never touched a white person before." They had never had the experience of trusting a white person. And of course it took awhile to get to that trust place.

One of the things that I found to be absolutely fascinating is how quickly the community I was in seemed to forget that there had been a Movement project there. I mean, I was this white lady, and nobody explains where I came from. And I say, "Well, did you know that so-and-so was in the Movement in 1965?" "No." Notoriety lasted about two years and then everybody got quiet about what they had done.

Carol: Now you're talking about Blacks or whites?

Sherie: I'm talking about Blacks, because I didn't know any whites. I was in an all-Black area. I found out later that there were a few families who had been there for generations, but they lived at the end of roads protected from us by gates.

Janet: Where were you?

Sherie: Berkeley County, South Carolina. There was a Black community improvement organization when we arrived, so we didn't start it. We left and the Black community went back to working through that organization. It's like they figured that, now that those white volunteers are gone, white folks here are going to be watching us even more, so we'll be quiet about what we're doing. Another reason for "forgetting" the voting project was they wanted their children to believe that Blacks were doing well. Adults didn't want to share with their children the past and how bad it was.

In 2000 I asked young adults, "Did you know that your minister registered voters? Or walked all these miles to gain the right to vote?" " No." I asked 18- year-olds who just graduated from high school to "Tell me about what they're telling you about the Civil Rights Movement." "I don't remember." They hardly talk about it at all in school.

Gene: I think one of the issues is what your expectations are versus what was achieved. And I never had an expectation that we were going to end racism. So where that is, is not part of what I think is either an achievement or a failure of the Movement. I thought that what we were dealing with were issues of power. And that what I think the '64 project, bringing all these white people from the North but also '65 and before, had to do with was opening space for those people who were already in motion. I don't feel like it was, we arrived and people started doing things.

There were all these people who were trying to do things. There was organization going on. And in a way, we gave them space. We made people look at it. So I know that in Panola County [MS], the leader of the Movement was a man named Robert Miles, and he had that space, in a way, because he had gotten enough money together to buy his own farm. So he couldn't be kicked off the land and all that. And there were a few farmers like that who were probably central. There were also sharecroppers. But the people who had some stability — they became able to operate in a statewide way when we were there.

I mean that's what SNCC did in the MFDP. They opened up a process where they said, "This is a statewide thing we can join together." It's not just that you're working in Panola County or in Amite County or wherever. I think that the Freedom Vote was very important, even though you can say that the MFDP Challenge to the [Democratic] Party wasn't successful, it was important that people got a notion that this was a statewide issue.

And it was the Movement. It was SNCC. It wasn't FDP. It was the groups that came in that gave the space to these people to move in that direction. And I think that was a phenomenal achievement. And we've not achieved it in other places in the same way, and that's a problem. I mean, in terms of lessons, I'm not sure also. You know, we can get into that this afternoon and what we learned, but for me, there was an achievement. It was worth it.

I went to jail for 10 days in Jackson. We protested [for] the Voting Rights Act. Now one would think that we believed, and SNCC believed, that the Voting Rights Act then led to the Mississippi legislature trying to avoid it, so we had demonstrations in Jackson, and we got arrested. Hundreds of us got arrested and spent time in jail there. But I think that we did achieve something. We did say to people, "You don't just accept these things because they come. You can speak about them. You can fight them."

And the fact that you had Freedom Schools, that people who worked in the fields from five in the morning until eight at night, that they would come after that to learn to sign their name, to learn to answer [the voter application] questions. That was an achievement. That said to people, "We have a right to do this." As many times as we were denied at the courthouse to vote; we could do this. And we were able to say to people: "Yes, you already read. You know how much the gasoline costs at the pump. You know there are things that you know. Use that." And we got them to think like that.

And in '65, and I don't know where the decision came from, we started talking about the Vietnam War, and so when we first talked about it, people said, "Oh, we should be in Vietnam." We said, "Why?" "Well, we have to fight the Communists." And we said, "Who are the Communists in Mississippi?" And people looked at us and said, "Well, you are." [Laughter]

So we said, "Well, what does that say?" And so we started that conversation, and that was an achievement. Now, I don't know if people refused to go to fight. I don't know anything of whether that was successful. But all those issues were changes. It was changes of consciousness. It was changes of a sense of what was possible. We failed around the whole country on that.

I mean, drugs, people supporting wars, doing all those things. We were a small group of people. We may have caused a lot of trouble, but we were an infinitesimally small group of people who caused a lot of stuff to be talked about and to be thought about. And I think that's a fantastic achievement, and there are young people today — my grandchildren, my own children, my son-in-law — are asking, "How did you do it?" To them who cannot think about how do you commit yourself? How do you do it? They want to know that. That was an achievement in itself. We were lucky there was a Movement, and we could become part of it. I don't know how that happened exactly, but that was an achievement in itself.

Carol: Well, Amen, and one of the things that's different about today's issues and the issue — One of the differences is — I was in the South at a different time than the rest of you. I was in the South in 1961 when I was in jail and then in 1965 as a lawyer with different organizations, LCDC and others, and as a result of those experiences, I have a view of what we did then and what we achieved. And I think what we achieved was very, very substantial as evidenced by the fact that people did register, that anybody did register to vote, when they were faced with the kind of discrimination and opposition — violent opposition — that occurred.

I did a lot of just door-to-door voter registration in 1964 and 1965 in Durham, North Carolina, because I would do my legal work during the day, but in the evening we would go out to the unpaved rural areas and knock on doors and sit around and talk to people about why they wouldn't come down and register to vote. And then having done that once, we would then come back on the registration day and say, "Okay, now we've got a van, and we want to drive you down to register." And sometimes they would, and sometimes they wouldn't. But it was like one teeny tiny step forward and sometimes half a step back, sometimes two steps back. But every one of those actions, every one of those conversations was a seed planted in the people we were dealing with which blossomed later, which blossomed.

I'm glad to hear about your 30th reunion in 1994. When I sponsored the 40th reunion of the Freedom Riders in 2001, we had exactly the same experience. We went into Safeway, Black and white together. We were kind of a boisterous little group, and the checker who had blonde hair and blue eyes and fingernails a mile long and was clearly a Mississippi white person who had been there for many generations, she said to us, without prompting, you know we didn't have signs that said Freedom Riders, but without prompting, she said, "Y'all must be from that Freedom Rider group, and we're so grateful. Mississippi is so grateful to y'all for bringing us out of the bad times." So, we did it.

And I think that anything — what we did was we made it possible. We made a place, as somebody else said, where Black people who lived there could raise their own expectations and where the white people of good feeling, and a lot of them are very heavy-duty churchgoers, where they could look at their Bible and say, "Hey, this was wrong. Slavery was wrong. Segregation was wrong." So we embrace the theory of it. We may not embrace every one of our African-American brothers and neighbors because some of them we don't like, but some of the white kids we don't like either. So I think that's, at a minimum, what we achieved.

Charles: We achieved some things, and we failed at some things, in my opinion. I'm only speaking for myself. Our little group, one of the things that I was most proud of, there was a drive-in restaurant that wouldn't serve Black people, not too surprising. And we occupied that restaurant. We all bought the smallest Coke they could get, and we sat there and sipped that thing for hours and hours and hours. And we wore the guy down. By the time we left there, he decided he wasn't going to make any money unless he started serving Black people. And he did. You know, other people closed their restaurants, but that was a small victory.

Miriam: This was in Tennessee?

Charles: This was in Macon, Georgia. You know, memory is so fleeting, I've forgotten so many things, and I've gotten together with some of — I had dinner last week with two of my co-workers, and they filled some blanks. Every time I meet with the guys, they fill some blanks in. It was after that first demonstration, one of the guys said, "Let's go play basketball." We didn't — no cops came. There were kids driving their cars around, local kids yelling at us, you know, and calling us names, but no cops showed up, and we were really surprised. We thought we would get beaten. That was later. [Laughter]

And then we went to play basketball, and a cop was outraged because we were an integrated group, that we were playing basketball, I guess. That's weird, you know? And Ken reminded me that I went up to the cop; I had a little notebook like this, and I looked. And he said, "What are you doing?" I says, "I'm writing your name down." He snatched that thing and threw it on the ground. He says, "I don't have to write your name down. I know where to find you." And I wasn't afraid. I should've been.

But what we didn't accomplish. I mean, I was from what I thought was a poor family. My family didn't have as much. I mean, I lived in San Fernando, California, and we didn't have as much as a lot of the other kids. When I went to UCLA I had to work three jobs, because we didn't have much money. I didn't know what poor was. Because we lived with the families there, and it was a real eye-opener. My family was richer than any of the families I stayed with, and I saw how hard they worked. They didn't have an extra bedroom. They didn't have an extra bed. Ken slept on the couch, and I slept on the linoleum, and then we switched. You know? And he got up before all of us, because he drove a Coca-Cola truck. Thank God for Coca-Cola to give a Black man a job. But he worked two other jobs to support three children. And I'd begin to think, the political part is really about the money part. And that's what we didn't accomplish, in my opinion. When I got back to UCLA, I looked around, and unlike you, I thought I was going to save the world. I was only 19, forgive me. I thought we were going to go down there and end racism. Dumb.

Gene: I was 25. [Laughter]

Charles: You were an old man!

Sherie: Wisdom of the elderly, yes.

Charles: And so I get back to UCLA, and I'm in a fraternity, believe it or not.

Woman: Oh no!

Janet: Go figure!

Charles: Oh, there's a whole story about that, but that doesn't fit here. And I'm looking around, and I'm telling my roommate who's a pretty smart guy saying, "This doesn't look right." He said, "Well, you dope. Look around. Do you see any Blacks in any fraternity? No. You see any Catholics? No. You see any Jews? No. Well, Zeta Beta Tau. Yeah, they've got to have their own fraternity. And what do we call 'em? The ZeeBee Heebies. We're all a bunch of bigots. And you are too if you're a part of this fraternity."

So, you know, I thought: Wow, the racism here is just different than it was there. It's a little more subtle. So we didn't end the racism. Okay, that's a whole other thing, but in the South, the economic equality, maybe it's better? But we didn't get that done in one summer. I personally registered hundreds of people to vote. Our group registered thousands, and now people are starting down that road towards equality.

And I'll tell you this nice story. My career is I work for the Red Cross, so every summer the hurricanes visit the South. And shortly thereafter, the Red Cross workers come in. And after Katrina, I was in Meridian, Mississippi, and I thought about Mickey Schwerner and James Earl Chaney. I thought it was a little different. And the next day, I was in New Albany, Mississippi, and there was a young couple, just like any other young couple, they were talking; they were on the main street. New Albany is a very small town, and he kissed her on the cheek, and she got in her car and drove away, and he got in his car and drove away. And nobody looked at them. He was Black, and she was white. And I thought, "Oh, my God. Nobody even looked. Forty years ago they would've hung him." So, some things changed.

Carol: And apropos of that, I was going to mention, I'm looking this morning, early when I got up to come here, for news of the vote in Afghanistan, which happened yesterday and today and is very important to me. So I turned on the television. I saw an ad, an ad for Cheerios in which a little African-American kid with goofy hair kicks up the Cheerios box and says to her blonde mother, "Are these good?" Or something like that. And the mom says, "Yeah, they're great." And so the kid takes them over and dumps them on their dad who is a distinctly African-American guy lying on a couch. Now that's major television 2014, and I was taken aback. I have to say it's the first time I've ever seen something like that, and I was amazed.

 

White Peoples Projects

Miriam: A couple of us worked in the White Project in Tennessee. Let's get a little feedback on this project.

Carol: Could you, or somebody, state what the project was? Because I had never heard of it before.

Janet: Tom and I were. It was a small project. When SNCC voted at its conference, I think it was in May of '66, not to have white people organize in the Black community anymore, Stokely met with Carl Braden from SCEF [Southern Conference Education Fund] and they agreed to ask the white SNCC workers to go to Tennessee and work with SCEF. I think SCEF made a contribution to SNCC as part of their agreement. So we volunteered to go to Tennessee and work on the SCEF project. I think there were six or eight of us on the project. We left from different places. I left from Wilcox County, and Tom left from Dallas County. Other people came from other places. The idea was to organize poor whites, of which there was no shortage in Eastern Tennessee.

Gene: Poor whites?

Janet: Eastern Tennessee, Sevier County, is the entrance to Gatlinburg, a major tourist stop in the mountains. We were going to talk to people who lived there about issues they were concerned about. We got a little house on a country road and we all moved in together. Then unfortunately Carl Braden came down from Louisville and got arrested and the front page story was, "The Communists are Here." To say the least, knocking on doors was precluded and we couldn't really talk with people about their issues. [SNCC Research Director] Jack Minnis came up and talked to us about doing economic research on the county since we really couldn't go out and knock on doors. Because of the article about communists and the fact that we were all living together and not married, we didn't connect well with the community. Jack's research strategy was to "follow the money" figure out who owns the county; who's connected to who' and who pulls the strings, and figure out the connections between Gatlinburg and Sevier County.

So basically that's what we did. I went up and got a job in Gatlinburg, and we spent a lot of time at the courthouse looking at records to figure out who owned the county and who made decisions. Eventually over the months, we actually did talk to people, they found out we weren't red, we weren't Communist, we were just people. And we found out they were just people. But we never built an organization. Tom and I wrote a report at the end saying we didn't accomplish a lot, although learning how to do the research was very valuable to me personally. We submitted our report to Carl and Anne, and we left. So that was the end of the project. I think they closed down the house, and everybody left. So it really went nowhere until a couple of years ago we were at the 50th reunion in North Carolina — 

Miriam: The 50th reunion of SNCC?

Janet: Of SNCC, in North Carolina. And so they had this room where authors of books of the civil rights movement were talking with people. I talked with one of the authors, a young woman, about our experiences in Tennessee, and she said that she had seen that report in her research for her book — Tom and I submitted all of our SNCC papers to an archive at Wayne State University in Detroit, Wayne State has catalogued them, and she had actually read our report.

I think that author was trying to figure out the white/Black dynamic. At the simplest level, I've always thought that Stokely and Carl were able to help each other and some of the white SNCC people were involved in the exchange.

Tom: I can add a few details. And Carl Braden owned a house in Tennessee. He happened to have a vacant house, a farm house, that we could move into. So it all dovetailed very neatly into a project. And the fact that he got arrested, and he was a well known southern Communist, kind of poisoned the project from the start. But that's the way Carl operated. I mean, that always happened to him. His wife was very nice, that's all I'm saying.

And SNCC, in my mind, always had an intellectual, political agenda, to diminish power of the Democratic Party. And in my mind, Alabama was set up to implement the idea on the county basis. And Mississippi implemented it on a state basis, with the Mississippi Challenge and the legislature. And that never happened in Alabama as far as I know. We tried to organize county parties. And this was based on an idea that Jack Minnis had on economic research, economic power. And I was all for it, because I was for anything that would reduce American imperialism. So, you know, fight the power. And Jack Minnis talked to us, and so we had the idea of implementing the county organizing in Tennessee among white people. And it would achieve the same result, to diminish Tennessee Democratic imperialism over the people.

But the people of Sevier County were mostly involved in tourism because of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And it was kind of an unusual county in Tennessee because of that. You had world populations descending on this one town every year, to be tourists. And so these people weren't really involved in the typical economic situation. They were involved in tourism which is quite a different lifestyle. Part-time temporary workers come and go, and you can always get a job, things like this. So I don't think there was a great future for that project.

Carol: Well, did you think that both the Black and the white locals were involved in this tourism business?

Tom: Oh, sure.

Carol: Or only the whites?

Tom: There were a few industries, but mostly that. It was open for everybody.

Carol: Both Blacks and whites were getting jobs?

Tom: As far as I know.

Janet: Yeah, I don't actually remember, because we really weren't there to talk to Black people or work with Black people. We were there to do white organizing, so quite honestly, I'm thinking of the place where I worked, there were no Black people working there.

Tom: I didn't see a lot of Black people in Sevier County.

Janet: Yeah, there were no Black people that worked there. They might've been cleaning motel rooms and stuff up there, but I don't know. I don't honestly know the answer to that question. But like I say, the project was focused on whites.

Tom: It was a county model for political parties.

Janet: At best, at best.

Tom: It came from Alabama, and it was actually getting some success in Alabama. So the idea was to spread that, see if it would work.

Miriam: I'd like to add for a minute about my own White People's Project. And I'll start out by saying it was a total failure. Dove Green, me, and two others. So the four of us. We planned this for months. We were working in Mississippi. We knew how to organize, and we decided we'd go out into the white community. So Thanksgiving 1964, we took off and went into the white community. But what didn't work was we had no contact in the white community, and whites in Mississippi were not about to talk to strange whites who showed up in their little town. So we came back two days later, cold and hungry. And that was the end of our White People's Project in northeast Mississippi.

Janet: And as an organizer now, I see that that project had no strategy and no plan and it was somewhat irresponsible for us to be there.

Carol: What did he get arrested for?

Janet: Oh, being a Communist or something.

Tom: Some trumped up charge.

Janet: Yeah, some trumped up charge. I mean, he was, like Tom said, he was a well known rabble rouser.

Tom: I think the purpose was just to get a story in the newspaper where they could expose Carl Braden.

Janet: Maybe SCEF could use the article in a fundraising effort and the money could help both SNCC and SCEF work in the South.

Carol: Well, you kept Stokely happy, because the whites were gone.

Janet: Yes, yes. And Stokely got money, and Carl got an ad.

Carol: And you kept this author happy.

Sherie: I would say you were very successful. It was a great project. [Laughter]

Janet: I learned a lot.

 

Expectations & Unexpected Results

Gene: You know, I had earlier brought up the thing about expectations. And I think it also had to do with the size of what you thought was going on. I mean, I think from my experience first in the Bay Area working around SNCC and then going to the South, it was very interesting, because when we were raising money, the idea was that everything would go through SNCC's central office. And it seemed totally reasonable to us that you had a Coordinating Committee, and that determined what SNCC would do. There was always struggle between the people in the field and the central office, as to how money was being spent. And of course when I got there, I got more on the side of, "We want the money to come to us," you know? We needed a car. We needed something like that. There were all these things that you needed.

Now, SNCC may have had and did have these general plans, whether it was Stokely's plan in Alabama or something else that came out. But I think one of the strengths of our organizing is that we would organize almost anything. The idea was to get people organized. And so we worked on organizing a maid's union, for the women who were working as maids. We worked on the sharecropper's union. We worked on a co-op for the farmers. We worked on voter registration. We worked on Freedom Schools. We worked on integrating the schools, and CDG, the Child and Development Group, was starting Head Start, and we worked on that.

So in a very short period of time, we would organize around anything. The idea was that people coming together had more power than they did by themselves. And these discussions like we're having now, in a sense, took place in general meetings. People would get together in Mount Beulah or wherever, and suddenly you would have these conversations, and you didn't really know what they had to do with what you were doing. Yet, in some way, I suppose they were important. I'm not denying that. But for me, that's why, when we talk about achievement, that's what I think got achieved, that a notion that as you do when you're organizing labor unions, that coming together makes more sense than being separate.

Tom: Twenty or thirty things were accomplished, with different groups, twenty or thirty different groups.

Gene: Yeah, well, it may or may not. Some may succeed, and some don't. But the idea is that what you're getting people to realize is that coming together is important. And certainly, the only place people had been coming together was in their churches, primarily. And I know there have been discussions about what the relationship between SNCC particularly was and the churches, I guess. And people talk about the oppositions that existed, and I'm sure there were. But I know I spoke in churches every Sunday, and while ministers weren't particularly happy with what I talked about, there was always someone in the church who had asked me to come there, a deacon or someone.

And so that was very important, but we were also clearly organizing in a way against the ministers. And one of the failures, I think, was that we didn't think about that. So when we were organizing for school integration, we didn't think about what would happen to the Black teachers. And the Black teachers were opposing school integration for the most part, because they knew they would lose their jobs. And we didn't really think about that when we were trying to organize the congregations away from the ministers, so that the ministers felt attacked as well.

Now as a 25-year-old or a 24-year-old or whatever it was, I don't think I cared about that at that time, but I think that was a mistake. I think we could've done something better. And I think some of that lack of thought led to what I think happened to the MFDP, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, because when the Challenge was denied at the Democratic Convention, and when the compromise was not accepted by the MFDP, which I thought at that time, and I still really do think, was the correct decision, it meant that once the Democratic Party did say we're going to have an integrated Democratic political party in Mississippi, it meant that those people who were not in our vein, they weren't the SNCC people, they weren't the people who were organizing at the base, that those people would float into the Party, and then power would flow out through them. And that created a great difficulty, and I think it probably has a lot to do with why the MFDP decreased its influence after that. So that would be a failure, in a sense, although I still think the type of organizing was correct. So I can think something fails and also think it's correct, and we should do it.

Carol: I think that's an example of the seeding of the actions of all of us, all the way from the '40s and the '50s, and the Tuskegee Airmen, and Jim Lawson's tremendous contribution. I mean, he is one of the least-sung heroes of the Movement. But Reverend Jim Lawson who brought nonviolence as a tactic to the Civil Rights Movement and particularly to the Freedom Rides, which was my most important contribution, but the seeds of what came later, the seeds of Barack Obama, the seeds of the things that we now enjoy were placed by your activities, by whatever the activities were that said, "There's something wrong here that has to be fixed." And the little kids that were running around the rural roads when we went to try to do voter registration in 1965 in North Carolina and couldn't get anybody to agree to do it, those little kids looked at us, looked at their parents, looked at what was going on, and they said, "Something's wrong here." And it may never have come to them again until they were already out of school and trying to decide how they were going to live their lives. But those seeds were planted, and I think that's an enormous utility of everything that anybody did in the Civil Rights Movement.

Miriam: I'd like to add to what Carol just said. I found out years later that there was an increase in Black kids going to college. They didn't know about it [college as a possibility for them] until all of us college students came down and exposed them to the fact that there was such a thing. And so we never, ever had on our agenda that the young five, seven-year-olds who we were meeting should end up in college, but that was an unintended good consequence.

Janet: You know one of the funniest things for me I mainly worked in Gee's Bend in Wilcox County. And so you know, Gee's Bend became a national icon, right? With the Gee's Bend quilts. So did I know those women were making quilts? No! I didn't. I used to go to their houses. I probably knocked on every one of their doors and talked to them more than once even. And when this public acclaim for the Gee's Bend quilts hit, and I bought the stamps and lined up to view the exhibit like everybody else, I was just blown away.

[To officials and map-makers it's known as "Boykin," but to local Blacks and Freedom Movement activists it was "Gees Bend," a community located within a large loop of the Alabama River. There are no bridges and only a single road leading in and out. Surrounded on three sides by the river, it formed a self-sufficient Black enclave in the heart of Wilcox County Alabama. Originally a cotton plantation owned by the Gee family (hence the name "Gee's Bend"), it then passed to the Pettway family, and then others. Prior to the Civil War, it was worked by slave labor and afterwards by Black sharecroppers mired in extreme poverty. The land was sold in the 1930s to the Farm Security Administration which set up Gee's Bend Farms Inc — an experimental cooperative that was furiously opposed by Alabama's white power-structure. The FSA built "Roosevelt" homes, and eventually sold land to the residents, creating a rare Black-owned region. Eleanor Roosevelt took a personal interest in the project as did notables such as Dorothea Lange. In the 1960s, the Bend became a center of Freedom Movement activity, and a safe haven for civil rights activists because the single road could be defended against KKK terrorists. The "Freedom Quilting Bee," an outgrowth of the Movement, begun as a way to bring a trickle of outside dollars into the community.]

When the voter registration started, the whites stopped the ferry that went across the river at Gee's Bend. So you' could no longer take the hour ferry ride to Camden to register to vote. You had to drive 3 hours to get to Camden.

I heard that a few years ago, they were debating putting the ferry back or building a bridge. And the white folks are buying the Black folks' land, these little bits of property, these little beautiful 25-acre beautiful right there on the river. I'm not sure of any details but it is a fascinating story. The Gee's Bend quilters felt their own power and they controlled their world as much as the possibly could. While I don't remember any of the conversations I had with them, I must have heard them talk and I'm sure it left an impression on me that empowerment is tangible and it really makes a difference in every way in people's lives.

[For more information on the quilts and related controversies, see Quilt Story: Black Rural Women, White Urban Entrepreneurs, and the American Dream — Linda Hunt Beckman.]

Carol: You engendered it.

Janet: Hey, whatever. I embodied it or something. I brought it into me, you know? 'Cause I'm not sure that I was all that empowered before I went to the movement. I was just a dumb teenager, you know? I'm from Appleton, Wisconsin, and my family was fairly conservative. When an exhibit of the Gee's Bend quilts came to Oshkosh, Wisconsin which is close to Appleton, one of my nieces who knew I worked in the South, asked me to speak at the museum about my experiences and I agreed to do it. My mom, my aunts and several siblings went to hear me talk. While none of these family members supported me when I left Appleton for Selma, they came to hear me talk about my experiences and they were very interested. They might have thought I would describe a quaint community and experience but I didn't. I focused on the idea of empowerment and the fact that we were in the middle of an exhibit of the Gee's Bend quilts helped me make the point. It's interesting that the civil rights movement and my being in Gee's Bend was going on at the very same time those women were making the quilts, that whole time. I didn't know about the quilts but I could feel the confidence and empowerment of people, especially the women, in Gee's Bend. Anyway, it's really a fabulous story and I am so thrilled to have been a part of that community.

Miriam: Let me interrupt to ask, we've been sitting a long time. We're old. Would anybody like to get up and stretch? Get a drink? Use the restrooms or anything like that?

Janet: I don't think I can get up. My knee won't work right!

[Break]

 

Someone Watching Over Us

Gene: ...but then I found out that people were always watching over us. And so that...

Charles: Well, that cop that stopped me in the park there? He did know where I lived. And he would drive by the house and just give me the nod, you know?

Gene: But all the Black people were also, so that when we went to the Sardis Resevoir — we had a situation where people were trying to integrate the swimming area which was at a federal dam. So it was supposed to be integrated, and they asked us, they said, "Well, you two white people, you go sit in the car with the Tennessee license." And be the observers to write stuff down. And the whole thing went just as planned. They got told to head off. We got all the information we wanted, and as we were leaving, I see a car full of people, Black people from Batesville who hadn't gone. So that evening, when we got together, I said, "What were you guys doing? Why did you do it?" They said, "We had the guns." They were making sure nothing would happen to us. But it wasn't part of the plan. [Laughter]

Miriam: You know, I've heard stories that — I don't know if it's true — that maybe 30, 35-year-old Black guys who were sitting around in the cafes, were actually protecting us.

Gene: That's right. I believe it. Because Black people in Batesville said to me one day — I was walking someplace, and they said, "Tell Chris" — who was another white worker — "tell Chris to make sure he stops when he's driving at that stop sign, because the sheriff is waiting to arrest him." You know, they were just aware all the time. People would make sure — they wanted to do as much as they could to make sure that nothing happened to us. And I mean, that's a whole other discussion to talk about, about the violence and nonviolence and how one dealt with it. What did one do when somebody said: Well, you have the gun. And you're going, "I have the gun?"

[Break]

 

It Was About the Money

Miriam: Okay, I'm going to open this up. We have a half hour, and as long as it's about the Movement in the South, you can say anything you want.

Charles: Well, I don't — we really talked about those last two, and that last one, I don't know how you — what lessons? What lessons did we learn? I guess I could talk about that. We all can. But what did it all mean? I don't know. For me, what I learned was, it's about the money. The political thing was about — the white majority or the white people used the suppression of the vote to control the money.

And of all the tools they had, the bridges, the literacy test — the literacy test was ironic. The test, in making it they gave — you had to be able, if you were Black. If you were white, you didn't have to do it. But if you're Black, you had to be able to read this first sentence from the State Constitution from the State of Georgia. And it goes something like: The protection of the people is a paramount duty of government. And you think about that particular choice of words, there's a lot of irony there. We got around that by — people who didn't know how to read, we had them memorize that. And the clerk there was not smart enough to pick another sentence. So we took a lot of people who were completely illiterate and registered them to vote.

But like I said, the tools that they used, the most powerful tool they used, in my opinion, was they put the people's name in the paper that wanted to register to vote. And why was that powerful? Because your boss, who was 99.9% for sure white, would see your name in the paper and so you had a choice: Did you want to vote? Or did you want to keep your job? And the only people that I saw — I mean, like I said earlier, I thought I was poor? I didn't know what poor was until I got down there. As far as I could see, there were few of the people that I was around even had cars. Everybody I knew — all my friends' families had cars. We had one, but we had a car. And the undertaker and the preacher were the only ones with nice cars. They were the only ones that had a secure living. Everybody else was just barely making it. So it was about the money.

 

MFDP & Political Organizing

Tom: Is it possible to ask where the MFDP came from? If people were that scared? How did those alternate delegates get elected in Mississippi? How did they get organized?

Charles: County by county.

Miriam: I can speak to a little bit of that.

Tom: I saw a movie about it recently, but they didn't cover that.

Miriam: In the fall of '63, we ran a mock ballot. And I don't remember whether it was 40,000 or 60,000, but that's the number of Black Mississippians who voted in it. It was not through the registrar. It was not through the white community. In fact, I think the white community was fairly oblivious to it. But we had — I was in Meridian working on that.

[See Freedom Ballot in MS and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Founded for background.]

Tom: What did you call it specifically?

Miriam: It was a mock ballot or mock vote.

Tom: Was this with mock registration?

Miriam: Yeah, everything was done outside of the white power structure. We had to explain to the people what it meant to vote. I was shocked by that, because we had voted in fifth grade for president, and in high school for prom kings and queens. They didn't have the concept that people say what the want, and the majority wins. We had to start from the beginning. But I think that might've been the beginning of the Mississippi Democratic Party. Many people did want to vote, did want to have a say, did want to take courageous steps and actually do something to make their lives better.

Carol: Their lives and their children's lives. That's always the motivation.

Miriam: Yeah, because the whites were saying, "They don't want to vote. Did you see anybody coming down here trying to vote?"

Tom: We'll take care of y'all.

Sherie: We sure will. [Laughter]

Janet: One of the tools — speaking of tools — that we used that just blew me away that I never — I don't know why it never occurred to me before, but probably because I didn't really know a lot of anything at that point, but SNCC developed comic books on the duties of the offices. This was for Lowndes County, and so we — 

Tom: County basis.

Janet: Yeah, we tried to use the comic books in Wilcox. They had one book on what does the Board of Education do? What does the County Commissioner do? What does the Sheriff do? What does the — I forget what the Treasurer down there is called, but anyway.

Tom: The Sheriff's where you buy your liquor.

Janet: Yeah! [Laughter]

Janet: Anyway, the notion being that if you teach everybody what the duties of every one of these officers are then anybody can run for one of these offices. And it worked in Lowndes County, because they were there long enough to actually teach people and get people to then run, so they actually had candidates. The comic books were amazing. I think we gave ours to the archive at Wayne State, so I don't have one.

One of the other things that's always just been fascinating to me, so the symbol they picked in Lowndes County for the Party, the Lowndes County Freedom Party, was the black panther. When we did mass meetings in Wilcox, in Gee's Bend, the participants would pick the Black Panther. I remember one meeting in another part of the county where they picked a white lamb for their Wilcox County Freedom Party symbol — very different message than a black panther.

 

Education & Opportunities

Carol: I wonder if we could have something from Sherie about her being an NAACP — what did you call it? Plant, or something.

Sherie: I didn't intend to go to a Black college. When I was in Pineville, which is where I spent three months...

Carol: Alabama?

Sherie: South Carolina. What was your question, Carol?

Tom: Being a plant.

Sherie: Oh, being a plant. Thank you, Tom. Near the end of the summer one of the students in Pineville, Berkeley County [SC], asked me, "Why is it you keep trying to talk us into going to white high schools? Have you ever been to a Black school?" "Noooo." "Well then how do you know they aren't as good?" " Duh. Well, I read about — you go to a Black school, and I'll go to a white school." I said, "You get me an application blank, and I'll go." I knew I was home free, because I was out in the middle of nowhere, cotton country, and I was leaving in three days. He showed up with an application the next day. I thought, "Argh! This'll never fly anyway, so I filled it out and sent it off and came home." Two weeks later, I called back, because I missed everyone. I had a letter from Allen University "Well, open it up," I said figuring here's my refusal letter. It wasn't and I'm still looking for him, because I bet he didn't keep up his end of the bargain.

Tom: How old were you?

Sherie: Nineteen. No, I was still eighteen. I turned nineteen at Allen. And my dad had a fit and said he'd never speak to me again. I guess my parents had trouble over me going, because my mom supported me. I didn't know that until about two years ago. But I didn't have any money, and I'd already hit up everybody I knew who was in favor of the Civil Rights Movement, so I contacted the NAACP. I said, "If they sponsor me, then I can go."

Janet: Oh my God.

Sherie: Well, they did, but I never saw an NAACP person.

Janet: How did you think of that idea?

Sherie: Didn't you ask the N-double-A for everything? [Laughter]

Sherie: I worked for the NAACP — 

Janet: Stokely did. I didn't.

Sherie: Ahhh. Well, see. We didn't have Stokely.

Janet: Whoa!

Sherie: It was just: I'm going. I've got to find the money. So where am I going to get it?

Carol: And this school — tell us about this school.

Sherie: It is an African-Methodist-Episcopal school. It is in Columbia, SC. It was founded in the 1880s. It's beautiful, all the brick and the white traditional columns. It was built and is supported by the AME church. It was/is a small school, and oh my God, the education. I went to U.C. Berkeley for God's sake, Okay? Now I'm going to this remedial high school college. I'm thinking: all these kids think they're really going to a college, and they're going here. Okay.Tthey had this beautiful library that some Northern person built for them, but we never went inside, because there were no books. The chemistry lab had equipment from decades before and in poor condition. I had a religion professor who was a charming old gentleman who gave the same lecture every day for a semester. And let's see, what else? Oh, and the insanities. I had a roommate who was handpicked because she could get along with white people. She didn't like me.

Tom: Oh wow.

Sherie: She did not like white people, but she could get along with them. They had just renovated a room in the freshmen/sophomore women's dorm so that moms and dads could see where their daughter was going to stay. That room was almost half the size of this room, two full-sized beds, two bureaus, desks, and a big closet. I mean, it was really much nicer than anything I had had at my dorm at Cal. They put me there because isn't that what you do with a white person? You give them the best you've got?

I hung out with the girls upstairs though. There the rooms smelled like hair burned for a million years. The rooms were very, very narrow, and they had bunk beds. You could stand with your hand on one bunk bed and touch the wall across the room. No dressers. No closet. No place to study. No nothing. So I had this very — I was very special, which was very uncomfortable. It took me awhile to get comfortable and at Thanksgiving, when I talked to my folks, they said, "You have to come home." And I said, "No, no, no. I made an agreement." But I knew I wasn't going to stay more than a semester, because I couldn't get an education there. I had a great sociology teacher, though.

Tom: What was your major?

Sherie: Survival.

Woman: You did have a great sociology teacher?

Sherie: She was great — she was young, and she had been educated in the North. Her name was Mrs. Cromartie and she was a crackerjack. She was also smart enough to know what I should do my class paper on, "I want you to do your project on the [SCOPE] Summer Project. And I want you to do all the research to back it up now," which was such a gift.

I was asked to rush for a sorority, actually for all of the sororities. I was anti-sorority because of some events at Cal and because I couldn't afford to. But I was looking forward to that mad week that came just before rushing where they had to spend the night in the cemetery. I knew I could do that easily. I knew they were going to be afraid.

I was on work study, but I have no idea how the money ever got paid for my tuition and room and board.

When I was in Pineville, by the end of three months, people knew me. They might not feel real warm and cuddly, but they knew me, and I had to start all over again at Allen. By Thanksgiving, I was tired of being a freak. I was like the sole Black kid in a white school, except it was flipped. And it was uncomfortable.

So at Thanksgiving I promised my parents I'd come home. Time changed my feelings about leaving. I got more adjusted and by the time I was supposed to go home in January, I didn't want to. But I had to. Allen was a great experience. But it's interesting to me that when I was in Pineville, I kept a journal on everything that happened. And my book is based on that journal. At college, I didn't except for the first week. I don't know why I stopped.

Carol: But I think the one very important thing about your comments, which I hope will make it into the record now, is what was the educational opportunity given to Black kids to go to all-Black schools like Allen University? And the result was an education, a B.A. that was like a shell. They got something that they could take and put on a wall, but there was not much content to it.

Charles: I can speak to that a little bit. When we left Georgia — When we got out of jail, we were given 24 hours to leave the state, and so we very quickly threw all our stuff together and got in the car. And one of the guys who was the head of the project, one of the really most active, together people from Macon was Willie Vaughs. He was a year older than us. He was 20, and Willie was bright. And Willie was there with a suitcase. We said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm going with you."

Carol: He's Black.

Charles: Yeah, he's Black. We said, "Why? We're going back to California." Now, he was leaving his family, his friends, everything behind. He says, "There's no future for me here in Macon." I'll skip a lot of the details, but when we got back to California, Joe Goldberg's family kind of adopted Willie. He stayed with me for awhile. He stayed with Ken Long for awhile. He might as well have landed on Mars, to come from Macon, Georgia to Los Angeles, California. I had dinner with him last Thursday, and he says, He'll never forget, we were on Mulholland Drive, and it was night, and he could see how big the San Fernando Valley was. And it just staggered his mind. He couldn't believe it.

But Willie was — I don't think he was the head valedictorian, but he was the brightest student in his school, had a high school diploma. And Joe's parents tried to get him into UCLA. He was woefully undereducated. He had to take almost another full year of high school subjects before he could get in to really a — you know, you could get into a JC [Junior College] at that time with just a high school degree, but his parents recognized that he's not going to prosper. He needs to catch up. So he had to go to high school, even though he had a diploma and was one of the high achieving students, he had no education.

And he talks about how he felt. He said his biggest struggle was not leaving he family behind or friends behind. He said he felt so "less than" everybody else. He said every time he would have a conversation with just regular guys — I mean, I'm not talking about academics — he said there would be a half a dozen words that he didn't know what they meant.

Carol: These are both Black and white kids.

Charles: No, they're all white kids.

Carol: They're all white.

Charles: They're all white kids. I mean, because now Willy is with all of us, and we're all white. We didn't have any Black friends, sorry. But he said he would go home every night, and he would try and write those words down as best he could. He would go home every night and look them up, which is a testament to Willie. He would write those words down and look them up to try and figure out what the hell we're talking about.

Sherie: May I ask what he's doing now?

Charles: Willie is amazing. He had a job bussing the tables at UCLA, which Joe Goldberg's parents — I'm not sure who got him the job. And he got fired for flirting with the girls. And he's told me the story many times. He told me again Thursday. He said he was walking across campus crying, saying, "What am I gonna tell my grandma?" And he was living in an apartment with three other guys, no car. So he cut across the VA grounds there at Sawtell in West L.A. because it was the shortest distance. And the HR office. He went into the HR office and says, "Do you have a job in housekeeping?" And the woman said, "Yeah, we do." She said, "But what we really need is psychiatric techs." And this is a quote. Willie said, "I don't want to work with crazy people." And the HR woman — he remembers her name, and he quotes her name. I don't. She told him, "The psychiatric job pays a lot more money than the janitor job. You take the psychiatric job, and you come see me in a month. If you don't like it, I'll give you the janitor's job at the reduced rate." Willie is [now] the supervisor of the VA clinic. He's been there 49 years. He's still working. He should be retired. He's an amazing, amazing success story. He's raised a family, has two grown sons who've gone to college. I love Willie.

Tom: He has people skills.

Charles: He's got great people skills. Willie is smart. Willie has always — even in those days — I mean, like Thursday night at dinner? I was wearing jeans, but he had a nice scarf. He was always the flashiest dresser, but in those days back in Macon, you looked — his clothes were ratty, but they were pressed. He was always just — and he's the kindest, most gentle, happiest man I've ever met.

 

Freedom Rider

Miriam: Now I want to interrupt us, because we have only five minutes left. Carol's the only one of us that was a Freedom Rider, and if I'm not putting you on the spot, your evaluation of the Freedom Rider part of the Movement? In five minutes or less, I'm sorry.

Carol: The Freedom Riders were 436 people like the people here. We were a little bit earlier than you. Most of us were — I was 22, 21 or 22. I had graduated from college. A lot of us were younger than that and were still in school. But what we did, by answering the call, I mean everybody thinks of the Freedom Riders and thinks of the burning bus in Anniston and the billowing smoke, and that's what's featured on the movie that was made out of Ray Arseneau's great historical book [Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice], 650 pages just on the Freedom Rides which took up about six to eight months of 1961.

From May of 1961, it was all done in November of '61. In that period of time, we 436 or so young people — Black and white — we demonstrated that the Civil Rights Movement was here to stay. That you couldn't out wait us, that we would fill the jails, that we would keep coming. And the jailers in Hinds County — by the time I got up to Parchman Prison, the jailers were more professional guards, and they didn't talk to us at all. But in Hinds County Jail — Jackson, Mississippi is in Hinds County — so in the Hinds County Jail, we were at one point, 20, 21 or so young ladies in this one cell that had four beds. Four beds, a toilet and a shower.

Tom: For 21 people.

Carol: I loved that shower. It was for 21 people. And I said to the jailer: How many people — when he sent somebody in — how many people do you think you can get in here? He said: As long as we can close the door. [Laughter] And I was particularly concerned about that, because I had graduated from college, and I had read about the Black Hole of Calcutta. I was more aware than some of the other girls about bad things can happen. But in any event, the jailers — 

Charles: Did you get sick?

Carol: Some of us did. Some people got sick, but not big time. Not big time. But we were in this jail, and it was because we had filled up the girls' side. There were two cells that were Black. Our cell was all white. Four bunks and a toilet. There were two cells of Black girls, four beds and a toilet. I never saw into those, but I believe they were the same. And then there were many cells full of boys. Full of white boys, full of Black boys. And so we kept coming. Every day there were four or five new Freedom Riders arrested at the bus station or on the train station. Or then the airplanes at the airport. And the people in Mississippi had this notion — they began to get this notion — of it's going to keep on going forever.

Charles: Yeah, yeah, that was the idea.

Carol: And that was the idea. And we convinced them of that. And that's why they sent us up to Parchman.

But that notion, the notion that the time has come. The Civil Rights Movement, the segregation of Blacks and discrimination against Blacks, it's over. It's time has come. It's time has gone. We now have to deal with the Civil Rights Movement, if you want to call it that, or the people coming up from Mississippi, because they were always — they kept talking about outside agitators. Half of the Black boys were from Mississippi. Just like half of the whites were Jewish. That was a big thing for the Jackson, Mississippi Jewish community.

Tom: Why is that?

Carol: Why is that? Well, you should read my book [Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes From Parchman Prison]. No, that's a different issue. But the fact that Mississippi kids were winding up in jail in Jackson, Mississippi is part of the Freedom Rides. Big, big lesson to the Hinds County officials, the Mayor of Jackson, the State Governor, Ross Barnett, and so forth. So I think that the Freedom Rides were very, very important in kicking off the things that you all did five years later in SNCC, in SCOPE, and the White People's Movement, and all these other things. But the Freedom Rides were so dramatic, and they were so out there.

 

Name Dropping

Charles: Can I name drop? I lost contact with — intentionally or for whatever reason — with everybody in our project. You know, our lives went 19 directions. And then like during the '80s, I used to watch — do you remember that movie, critic Joel Siegel? He was on TV a lot. Joel Siegel. And I used to tell my wife, "You know, the leader of our project had that same name." And it wasn't until after he died that I found that that was that Joel Siegel.

Janet: You're kidding? I don't remember that show.

Charles: He wrote the humor magazine at UCLA and was into communications kinds of things and went on to be — I didn't even know it.

Miriam: I want to pick up on one comment. I did a program for an all-Jewish group that I'm, in just last month. It was a discussion: Why were the percentage of Jews in the Movement so high? What was it?

Charles: Yeah, our project was about 50% Jewish, of the white people.

Miriam: Yeah, what was it about growing up Jewish in that era that made more Jewish kids come down? So it was an interesting discussion we had.

Carol: And it's not just them. I think that if you look, if you scrape the surface of all of the movement-type things that are going on across the world — in Afghanistan, in Turkmenistan, in all these places — you'll find a very high percentage of Jews.

Charles: One of the most interesting people — we trained — did you go to Emory University?

Sherie: No, we went to Morris Brown [for SCOPE orientation].

Charles: The SCOPE project — Dr. King went around in the spring of '65 and spoke to all the different colleges to recruit all of us, and then we all reported to Atlanta for like a week and a half of training, and it was intensive.

Sherie: Yeah, the one we had was just — Whoa!

Charles: Yeah, and we stayed at the dorms at Emory, and it was nothing but business. But the person who made a big impression on me and has kind of been lost in history was Bayard Rustin. You don't hear his name mentioned.

Carol: Well, he's coming back, but ...

Charles: Well, I hope so. He was amazing.

Carol: Yes. He was gay.

Charles: Openly gay.

Carol: He was Black.

Charles: He was the first person I ever heard — I didn't know what gay was, and it caused me, sort of years later, to start thinking, "It's no longer Okay to discriminate against Blacks, but we can always make queer jokes."

Carol: And he was anti-Vietnam before anybody else.

Charles: Yeah, he was way ahead of the time. I think he was the brains of the operation.

Carol: Yes, absolutely. He was. And there's some book that I read — I can't remember what — 

Tom: There was a play done about him.

Carol: What's that? I don't remember the name.

Gene: Yes, a guy who used to be in the Mime Troupe did a play on him.

Carol: Yeah, but you're right. He was the brains of a lot of this.

Tom: I always thought of him as a union man, union person.

Sherie: Many of you knew Stokely Carmichael in 1960. In 1967 he spoke at a high school, in a small room in West Berkeley. The audience was Black, mostly male teens. I was there with my boyfriend, also Black. One of the teens said something like, "We need to get rid of her. She shouldn't be here." And Carmichael looked at me and said, "Who are you here with?"

Janet: What year was this, Sherie?

Sherie: This was '67. And he said: "Who are you here with?" And I said, "Him, my boyfriend." Carmichael looked at the guy who had asked the question, and he said, "We may not trust her, but we have to trust our brothers. She can stay."

Carol: Interesting.

 

Organizing Against Violence

Gene: I think one of the things I wanted to go back to is I think it sort of, to me, links a lot of stuff together. You had mentioned the question of economics and how that played out, and the importance there. And to me — and I think it's curious that SNCC's name was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, because later on, I began to think it wasn't about whether we were personally nonviolent or not. But to me, the issue was that what everybody was dealing with in Mississippi and probably in Alabama and Georgia and all, was violence. Whether you call it economic violence or educational violence or personal violence, violence was a big part of our lives.

And we were talking just in the break, Charles and I, about why weren't we scared. And there was a certain aspect that we probably were always scared, but that wasn't how we approached things. But we did approach things to try and diminish the violence against people. And to me, I have a mother-in-law right now who is demented, and she's dying, but she says she's scared all the time. And she used to be an organizer, and I say, "Do you remember? We always organized when we were scared." So, you know, you should. And she goes, "But yes, we didn't always succeed," in her demented state. And she's right. But on the other hand, it was, to me, the meaning of what we did. And we were trying to organize against violence. We did want it to stop.

I was in Bellzoni [MS], and people would tell me, There was a lynching in Bellzoni in the '40s, you know? And we were trying to make sure that those things would never happen again. We weren't always successful. People did get killed, but that 800 people would go into Mississippi after Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were killed was a testament to the fact that they believed in some part of them that they could end that violence, or at least help. And I think that's an important part.

And the economic part. So there were people on the plantations who organized, sharecroppers, they organized because they believed, and in some ways they were successful in keeping their places. They weren't going to be successful farmers. They weren't going to be rich, but they were going to stay alive. And they were going to have some dignity. And if you think of those people, whether it was Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker, or you go down the list of people who we admired, they were proud people who had courage and could stand up. And they were the examples that we were trying to make everybody be. And that was hard.

So when you said to people: Integrate that school, and they'd go, "Why?" My kid is going to be — you were trying to convince them that that was the way they would actually prevent violence, was by doing this. I think that's what we were trying to do. And I think, to me, that's the nonviolent part of SNCC, not that we wanted to say, "There should not be violence." So I think that was another important thing that would happen.

Carol: That's a very unique and important insight that I've never heard before, but I like that. Amen.

Miriam: And one of the things in Albany that I thought we did was we made decisions about controlling violence. So if there was an incident of bad police brutality, we could choose to calm the community by getting everybody together in a mass meeting and having a march. So people had some outlet for their hurt and outrage. So it wasn't so much that we personally were nonviolent but that we could help with the level of nonviolence in the community. And there was violence; there were incidents of throwing Molotov cocktails at police cars. It wasn't theoretical; it was something actually going on.

Janet: So I'm wondering, can you do that again for me? Because my brain doesn't work well. So, just do the whole violence thing again. Short and sweet.

Gene: I think what people suffered from was incredible violence, in every part of their lives. And I think that by being there and the organizing we did — I think what Miriam just said about organizing people not to respond violently, but my take on it is also that you were also saying to the police, "We could be violent. We could respond." We were saying, "You can't do this to us, because we are going to organize more and more, every time you do it. And if — "

Charles: We can fight back nonviolently.

Gene: But I believe that in fact, personally, that when you bring on a march 2000 people, that's an indication of your power.

Charles: That's a flexing of the muscles.

Gene: That's right. And the implication is that you can do something. And I believe the ultimate thing that you can do is violent. I'm not saying the ultimate good thing, but that is the ultimate — and so you show your strength.

Janet: I get it. So now I'm gonna ask Carol, so why — because to me, as an organizer, that's what we do, right? All of us. Whether we're organizing seniors or unions or anybody. So now, what in that is new to you?

Carol: What's new is the concept that the violence named in SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council, is not to coordinate us as the movement people so that we will remain Jim Lawson's nonviolent responders, so that we will be able to sit there and have our heads bashed in and not respond, but rather, that the objective is to reduce the violence against the Black people in the South that we were there to confront. And that the summary of what was wrong with the South and with apartheid and with segregation is violence, the kind of violence both physical, mental and sociological and educational. Giving people schools that had no books is a kind of violence.

Janet: Interesting. Okay, thank you.

 

 — AFTERNOON SESSION — 

The SNCC Cars

Gene: His name I can't remember, but there was a guy who repaired SNCC cars, the Sojourner Truth fleet of cars. Because there was a whole lot of money raised to get all these cars, and then they were always breaking down. Then we raised money out here for this guy, he got a panel truck, and he filled it with tools so he could go around in Mississippi repairing the cars. And then when I was in Batesville we had a panel truck which somebody let us use, and I remember sitting in backyards working on the truck. It was part of the time I spent there, to keep it running. [Laughter]

Miriam: We should have a topic on cars.

Gene: Well, I always did — I mean, to me, it was wonderful. When they got the money to buy this fleet of cars, I don't know if it was 35 cars or so, they went to Memphis — people went to Memphis to buy them, and they'd go and say, "We want to buy 35 cars, what can you offer?" And they'd talk, and then they'd say, "Do you have any Black salespeople?" And they'd go, "No." They said, "Well, we could buy 35 cars, but we won't from an all-white dealership," and left. In two weeks, everybody had hired a Black person. [Laughter]

Miriam: That's a good story.

Gene: Because it was a lot of money. Thirty-five cars.

Miriam: I was sitting in the back seat, and Stokely was driving in Mississippi. And he was driving about 120 miles an hour, and I'm sitting back there thinking, "How can I phrase this so he won't brush it off?" So I said something like, "Cool it, man." And he slowed down.

Gene: Well, so I had the experience — we were driving from — 

Miriam: [To the others coming in] If you have any car things you can add, we're just kind of telling car — 

Gene: We were driving from — I don't know if it was — well, we were driving up to Hattiesburg [MS], and of course in the car were six people, four of whom were Black and two were white. And the Black person was driving. And in Wiggins, we were all talking, and the driver, at a stop sign, ran into the back of another car. And it was right by a gas station. This was in the middle of the day, and in short order, what seemed like 100 people but maybe it was 25, got around the car, just rocking the car. And I mean, we thought we were dead.

And after about an hour, the sheriff came. He took us to the police station, and then we still sat in the car while he decided what to do. And somebody got out of the car and got a call out to Atlanta or wherever. A little while later, we were released. We were told that the Justice Department had called the Governor of Mississippi, and he said, "If these people aren't in Hattiesburg by 6 o'clock tonight, we'll send in the marshals." And I thought, "Oh, my. That's a waste."

Did you drive in cars integrated exactly as we were told not to do?

Tom: Of course.

[Break]

 

Habits of Security

Miriam: How did our participation affect us? And I'll just share one story, but I won't be starting. I'll let one of you start. When I was at the 30th [reunion] in 1994, I overheard Dorie Ladner say that [to this day] she did not ever let herself be silhouetted in front of a window at night.

[A standard Freedom Movement security rule was never to stand silhouetted in a lighted doorway or at a window because you would be an easy target for KKK snipers. See Security Handbook for additional information.]

Janet: She what?

Miriam: She didn't let herself be silhouetted in front of a window at night. And I thought to myself, "I still don't do that either." It's been 30 years. So I just did little baby steps to get over that. You know, at first, I went away after the first second. I slowly cured myself from that. But that was certainly an effect on me, being able to stand in front of a window, silhouetted, and not worry about getting shot, in Lafayette, California.

 

How the Freedom Movement Affected Us

Gene: Well, I actually thought when they sent out the thing, I hadn't thought about it that much. When we got the emails, you know, and what the topics [of these discussions] were going to be.

Janet: Our homework.

Gene: I really hadn't thought about it very much, you know, in a very specific way. And I found it very useful to spend some time and talk to a few people.

Miriam: This is actually, I think, a more interesting question. It's, How has [our Freedom Movement experiences] affected us? And we're doing a short go-round, but we'll have lots of go-rounds. Who wants to start? And you don't have to remember everything all in one turn. We'll have lots of turns.

Sherie: When I came back from civil rights work in the South, I avoided white people. I just didn't participate in anything other than going to classes. After I graduated from Cal, I tried to get a job teaching, and the only place I could get a job was in El Dorado County, California. It is a conservative place, cow country. I quit my first job simply because I couldn't continue to be around all those folks. But I was lucky. I don't think I had some of the experiences you all had, so I didn't have any ongoing physical kinds of behaviors to get over. I just didn't want to be around white people. [Laughter] But other than that...

Gene: One of the things that happened to me in Mississippi, which I don't think has anything to do with the Freedom Summer, is that I got diabetes. And I've thought about whether it was connected to Mississippi or not, but I've never talked about it, so I don't know if it ever happened to anybody else. And within a year, I was hospitalized, because I was pretty sick. But I've lived with it quite well ever since.

So in thinking about the effects of Mississippi recently, when I was thinking about, "Well, what did you do when you came back from Mississippi?" A whole lot of what I did for that year had to do with being sick. But the experience of taking on organizing was very important to me, and I started working as an organizer and everything. We were organizers of Stop the Draft Week which was a major anti-war activity in the area.

[During Stop the Draft Week in December of 1967, thousands of demonstrators used civil disobedience and mass protest in an effort to block the Oakland Induction Center from processing conscripts into the military. In the short-term, the attempt to halt induction of conscripts into the military failed. In the long-term, Stop the Draft Week played a key role in fostering draft resistance and eventually ending the draft.]

And in the early '70s I became a tenants' organizer and worked with the Berkeley Tenants Union for eight or nine years. And it's sort of like everything I've done has to do with kinds of organizing, although there have been periods I haven't done any. And I think it was primarily the experience there [in Mississippi]. And I did work on electoral campaigns, although I was not — I mean, I worked to get Ron Dellums elected [Berkeley City Council 1967-1970, House of Representatives, 1970-1998] and before that John George and Bob Scheer and various campaigns that I worked on. And I was very intensely involved in a lot of Berkeley politics up through the '70s. And I think that the experience of being in the South did affect how I was in those contexts. I think it offered a different perspective than a lot of other people had. So that was very important.

Tom: From my perspective. I guess I got wrapped up in the county strategy in Alabama. At least intellectually, I thought it was great to go for a complete local power — local independence, controlling participatory democracy, controlling your own daily life. I have more or less withdrawn from conventional politics ever since. I guess I hadn't thought about it a lot, but it had an influence on me. You know, if you can't control your economic destiny and your political participation at the local level, why bother? So I mean, I'm still interested in national issues, but I have not felt a great need to participate in them. Like electing another congressman doesn't interest me. Whatever. Changing the structure of local politics would be interesting, but the whole society's changed now. I don't know how that would be done. So I'm kind of out of it. For the moment at least.

Miriam: Carol, do you want to...? The question is, How did our participation affect us?

Carol: How much time do I have? [Laughter] Well, I guess the answer to the question, How did the Civil Rights Movement affect me, in my life afterward? Is 100%.

Before, I was a young lady from Boston, and that was my identification. I was a young lady. I was from Boston. I was an intellectual. I was going off to college. And I had, at that point in time, only one ever friend who was African-American. There was one young lady who was African-American who came to the school that I was going to in Worcester, Massachusetts. And she was there, and it was a college prep school, so the fact that she was there meant that she was very smart and so forth. But anyway, she was my friend. But she was the only Black person I had ever, probably in addition to her family, ever met, although I was very aware of the international implications of white imperialism in Africa and elsewhere.

So, I went off to school. I participated first in a CORE picketing of Woolworth's. I participated in student government issues, in a whole bunch of things. But in college, I had maybe two college friends who were Black. And in law school, I had one Black person who was in my entire law school class, in which there were 5 women out of 120, and my best friends in law school were actually not members of my class but a couple of African students who were in the graduate school and a Chinese woman.

So I got into the Civil Rights Movement with very, very little association with Black people. I had a great theoretical idea of why it was important that we break down segregation, apartheid, whatever you want to call it, but I'd never experienced it. So on the Freedom Rides, which were my first big thing, I wound up in jail with young Black girls or young women. Girls. We called ourselves "girls" in those days, but we were young women. I wound up with a lot of verbal interaction, because we were separated into different cells, but verbal interaction with young, Black women who expressed the Black, Southern, Christian religious view of nonviolence and love and a set of things that I had never before in my entire life heard of.

Janet: Where was the prison?

Carol: Parchman Prison in Parchman, Mississippi, north I think about 90 miles from Jackson, out there in the countryside. But so I experienced for the first time Black culture, American Black culture. And I was very, very intrigued, and not just intellectually, but interested in it, but I found it emotionally grabbing. I found that these young women that I was incarcerated with had a hold on life that was better than mine, and they had a better story to tell about their incarceration, about the bad things that were happening to us, about life, than I did. And I began to think about these things and to experience them.

So on a spiritual and a personal level, the experience of these Black girls that I was in jail with was very important to the rest of my personal life. But in terms of what I did with the rest of my life, I was on a track when I was on the Freedom Rides, when I was in Durham, North Carolina as a Civil Rights lawyer with a Black firm, I was on a track that just continued on. I was a Civil Rights lawyer. I was a poverty lawyer. I ran for public office. I did all these things. I adopted a Chinese child. I started an early education program that became a Mandarin school that is now very important and big and so forth. But I have been a "do-gooder," as somebody said very disparagingly, all of the rest of my life as well as my life during the Civil Rights Movement. So I guess the answer to, How has it affected you? It has validated and supported all the things I have done in my life.

Janet: I would say the movement definitely affected me. You know, maybe 100%, maybe 100,000%. In many ways my life has been a completely different life than I ever, ever, ever would have imagined growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin. I'm third oldest of 18 children, and my family is a huge factor in my life. I always say I've been organizing since I was in diapers, building coalitions and figuring out allies and targets. I could naturally do organizing or politics, but I would never, ever have imagined that I completely go away from my life in Appleton and do it.

I had rarely known a Black person before I got on a bus to Selma [AL]. And when I got off the bus, I was blown over by every thing. The food, I had never had greens and I didn't know what they were. Never had a baking powder biscuit. Never had fried chicken like that. Never sat in a kitchen and drank moonshine, which isn't called moonshine in Alabama; it's white lightening, I think.

But it was the most incredible thing I've ever done getting off the bus, I was afraid and remember thinking, "Oh my God, what have I done? Where am I? What did I do? Why am I here?" And utter terror. My mom and my dad saying "Don't call us if you get in trouble," and "don't ever come back," was right there in my head.

Everything blew me away. I mean, everything was stunning at so many levels. From food to spiritual to songs to realizing that Black people were so different. You know, the Selma library didn't allow Black people in the library. I mean, stuff like that which I didn't know anything about. I've been an organizer for all these years since the movement. When we left Tennessee, we decided to get married so that we could organize poor white people in West Virginia. Tom was from West Virginia, so it was one of these political marriages. So it's lasted 47 years so far, we don't need to go into that today.

Tom: Forty-nine years ago.

Janet: Yeah, no I think it's 47, but who's counting? Really. For me — different than Tom — for me, my upbringing because we had a limited income and a lot of mouths to feed, but like Chuck said, I didn't know poverty until I got to Alabama. Poverty was amazingly different from anything I had experienced. It was just incredibleno streets, terrible schools, so many things people couldn't do or get or be because they were black.

I knew how to do stuff. I knew how to get a job. I knew how to make money. I knew how to babysit. I knew how to clean houses. I could do all that. So when Tom and I arrived in Charleston, West Virginia, that's what we did. We met some anti-war folks at SANE and started getting involved in that, we met a couple of guys who had worked in SDS and over the years, I moved into one organizing issue after another. And so I have spent the last 40 years of my life organizing various constituencies, and I love it. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Sherie: May I add an addendum? My experiences — ou've done my experiences for me, except I became a teacher not an organizer. I would add hog head stew.

Janet: Say that again?

Sherie: It is real. I have a picture of the hog head in my book.

Janet: Okay, that's one I don't know. Is it real?

Sherie: It is real. I had a picture of the hog head in my book.

Janet: Is it from Alabama? No, it's from South Carolina.

Sherie: South Carolina.

Janet: Wow, okay.

Sherie: I went into teaching. My father said to me, probably in the late '70s, early '80s: "We're so disappointed in you. We sent you to the best school we could afford, and you're not hanging around with lawyers and doctors. You're hanging around with karate people and mountain climbers." My husband was into karate and mountains and that is one reason I found these activities interesting. But I'd the crap scared out of me in South Carolina and risk-taking was part of who I'd become. Climbing mountains and rocks in the Andes, Alaska and other places was exciting.

Carol: Did you enjoy it?

Sherie: In the beginning, no, but then I can't say I liked hog head stew at first bite either. I got so that I was crazy about it, because — it was similar in that what you were saying. I could do it, and I got good at it. And when I got as good as he was, it was like, "Yes!"

Eventually I get older though and I changed husbands, so I lost my climbing partner. I wanted to write a book about my father, but a friend of mine saw a video I had of my Black family in South Carolina. She said, "They are your book. You've got to write this book," and I did. I tried to sell a lot of books, but I'm not a marketer. I'd decided, "Maybe this isn't what I want to do," because they didn't sell as I'd hoped. Maybe I should just let it go.

Then I realized that, as my friends in South Carolina say, I was "called" to write and sell it. The Lord wanted me in Pineville, South Carolina, and he came back and grabbed me again. So it's like, "What are you going do? Are you going to print more books and sell those?" Probably, because I can't get out of it. It is part of, or most of, who I am. And I'm sure not climbing any more mountains.

Miriam: Let me take a stab at this.

Sherie: Lean back, folks. This is gonna be — 

Miriam: This is Miriam. I'll start with the negative one. My parents never made a deal about cleaning your plate or finishing all your food. Never. It wasn't an issue. When I was in the South, and I didn't know where the next meal would come from — although in fact, a meal always did show up, the community took good care of us. But I didn't know, so I started cleaning my plate. And I cannot — it's 50 years later — I cannot leave a bite on my plate. I just can't break the habit. So that was a negative.

But a lot of how it affected me is in how I perceived things. For example, Jack Minnis got a hold of me too, as he did other people, and had me doing some research for him, and I learned from him to ask, "Who benefits? In whose interest is this?" When there's a new law, when there's a new proposal. "Who's really going to be the one benefitting?" And a little cynicism has lasted for a long time.

I also learned — like Chuck said, like Janet said — my mother told us we were poor. And we were poor for the Jewish community we lived in, in Indianapolis, Indiana. One car, old car, my father worked seven days a week. I didn't know until I worked in the South what poor was, so that was an eye-opener. I came away from SNCC with a different attitude toward money. I had been kind of raised where making good money correlated with success, and in SNCC that got thrown out.

I liked the religious stuff, and we went to church every day. You know, they had mass meetings every day in the South. I actually liked that better than the Jewish service. The fact that the women would be pleading to Jesus, "We need you, Jesus. Come here, Jesus." That made emotional sense to me. Where reciting — "Here, Oh Israel, the Lord our God." You know? It doesn't clutch you the same way. I apologize to anyone I just offended.

There was — and I'm not very good at articulating this — there was a different way that the Black guys approached a woman than I was used to with white guys. So white guys won't say, "Oh, you're beautiful, and you're so nice." Black guys will come on with those compliments. So it was like being in a different world with whole different values. I think of it — well, I just don't know the words to describe it. I've read about that kind of difference.

I learned how to be an organizer. I was trained at being an organizer. That's what I did in the South. So [later] I'm out in the suburbs. I've got a couple of toddlers. And the cars are speeding down our street, so I organized my community, and we got stop signs to slow down the traffic. And I knew exactly how to organize them. I got a friend, and we went door to door. Found out from the city council how many people we needed at which meeting and who we needed to talk to. I did everything. I mean, I had been taught well. We had gone up to [SCEF leaders] Ann and Carl Braden's for some special organizing training. Anyway, that's enough for now. I have more on my list. But I want to say that those couple of years had a huge impact on my life. All right, somebody else.

Gene: This is Gene. One of the things that was a great effect on me, I mean, in two different ways, I guess. I grew up in New York City, and I didn't find a lot of stuff so strange. It certainly was very different. It was rural, and I had grown up in the city, but I knew all kinds of people growing up in the city, and so none of that was strange to me.

But I had also grown up in a certain way very nonviolently, you know in the sense of I sort of knew how to — if kids in an Irish gang were coming down the street, on one side of the street, I would just cross over to the other side. I had no reason to fight with people. And going to the South was very different, because we were, in a certain way as I was trying to say to you before, starting a fight. I mean, the fight was going on, but we were not shying away from that fight.

And for me, it became — and before going, I thought, "Well, I want to be a CO [Conscientious Objector] and all this kind of..." because I was draft eligible. The Vietnam War was going on, and there was all this stuff. And I realized I couldn't exactly be a CO, because I couldn't answer all those questions that they wanted, especially, "Did you believe in God?" Which at that time you had to believe in to be a CO. And here I get into the South, and I realize I'm in a fight. And I took it on, and that was very — what do you call it when you change yourself? I don't know. Trans something — transforming. And of course it has more of an effect than just a tactic.

You start becoming that way in some ways, and in some ways it was survival. I mean, I'd think about going to pick up the mail in Batesville. So when you go to pick up the mail at the post office, you have to walk past the town green, and of course, all the white people are sitting around the town green, and they know who you are. And are you going to walk around the outside? No. If anybody came down the street, I'd walk right into them. And I wanted them to think I was the craziest person, and that if they messed with me they'd get killed, or something. I can't say "killed," but that I was willing to take them on. And I did that when I was in jail, and after one time, they didn't mess with me at all. And not because I was constantly like that, but they just thought it wasn't worth messing with me.

Well, when I got out of the South, I didn't want to be that way anymore, and it was very hard. How do you change? How do you become the kind of person that you sort of want to be while still maintaining that notion that you're still a fighter, but the terms are different. The terms were different in the North than in the South. And so that took a long time to come to grips with, so it wasn't being afraid to stand in front of a window, because I didn't really think about that, but it was more about how to get back to being a different kind of person. Because another thing I had learned was to try to listen to people, which I had a hard time with before. So much of the training was about how you go and sit for 20 minutes or half an hour or an hour on a porch with somebody, trying to get them to send their kids to school but try to listen and understand what they're saying.

Carol: And why they're afraid.

Gene: Right, but also just to take the time, because people [in the South] didn't do things quickly. And you had to be able to sit there, and that was so hard. And when I came back North, I couldn't believe how fast everything was. And I had to relearn how to do that. So those were kinds of things that I found very difficult personally.

Tom: One thing that affected me was music. I started to get things out of music. Mass meetings, singing, and freedom songs, and Stevie Wonder. I had never really cared for it before, but I enjoyed it. And this is another thing we were talking, Gene and I had talked about, whether music is a spiritual thing or just an exercise of participation, that the most important thing is participating, singing. I don't know really. I still don't know. I think listening is great. And the message, taking in the message.

Even writing about it, you know? I got into movies also after that, later. Of course, I didn't have time to go to movies when I was in SNCC, but later on. Independent movies came around in the '70s. They seemed more interesting than they used to be. I can't remember anything in particular, just I guess the style. You learned a different style in the South.

Carol: I think that style was that slowness; that for a lot of people in the South, it just is the style. And I remember also that just taking the time to just greet people. You know, "Hi, how are you? Nice to see you. Great weather we're having. Hmm. I came by to ask you a question." But you couldn't just, "Knock, knock. Hi, I have a question." Unh-uh. Unh-uh. That was not gonna fly. And maybe that's a better way of living. Maybe it is at some human level the better way of living one's life. Not so much.

Tom: I guess the first movie that I went to was probably Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Sherie: Appropriate.

Tom: And you know, there was a lot of freedom of expression in that, that I had never experienced in the movies. I was all for that. I still don't do a lot of reading, I guess. Reading — 

Carol: Movies are just as good?

Tom: And songs. I mean, song writing amazes me. A song like The Sound of Silence or something.

Miriam: You know, I went to a demonstration in Sacramento [CA] a few years ago. It was for single-payer health care, and there was not one song. There was zero music, and I was offended. You couldn't have a demonstration with no music.

Gene: When you started to say that I thought you were talking about an anti-fracking demonstration. I was in Sacramento for an anti-fracking demonstration, and I am a musician also, and we have a marching band that has existed for about 40 years that plays at all sorts of political demonstrations. So we played in Sacramento, and I thought, "Oh, you heard us there." But it was the anti-fracking. Because we did play for the march there, and there was a lot of singing.

Carol: For the anti-fracking?

Janet: Carol, one of the organizations that I work for, California Alliance for Retired Americans? We write songs for everything. We write Social Security songs, Medicare songs. You give us an issue; we write a song to it. And it's to the tune of This Land is Your Land, or you know, America the Beautiful or whatever, but we do a lot of singing. Lots and lots of singing.

Carol: That's great. That's great.

Tom: And one I liked was from West Side Story.

Janet: Oh yeah, Never Get Sick in America. Yeah, that's just great. One of the things that I learned in The Children book, the Halberstam book, the Halberstam book, he follows 20-25 different people who were all involved in the sit-ins. And he goes into their family histories; he goes into the time they're in the Movement, and then he follows them through their life. And over and over and over, so many of the people — he describes issues that they have going back to middle class America and becoming what they saw and didn't like while they were in the Movement. And it was so hard for many of them to readjust to middle class society.

I actually never went through that in part because my family is hard working farmers of German descent and whatever path I made for myself, it was in my genes to get a job, car, have kids, a house, and all the middle class trimmings. But I really appreciated Halberstam's point because I could see some of that difficulty that Tom had in readjusting to a more ordinary middle class life. But then he also had to fight the draft. I don't know how many times he was drafted, but — 

Tom: I just faked all those questions. [Laughter]

Janet: But I think that's an interesting question that I sort of would like other people to talk about. Did anybody else experience that? I was just really — Halberstam did an incredible job describing this phenomenon for the people in the book.

Miriam: I'll talk to that. First, that's one of my favorite books.

Janet: Cool.

Miriam: I had what Peace Corps volunteers labeled a "reentry crisis." When I left the Movement, I was up — on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I had a bachelor's degree from Brandeis that I was very proud of. I was unwilling to work for any of the major corporations because in Columbus, Mississippi they had a Weyerhauser tree farm, and they had murdered the two Black men who tried to unionize it. And it just left me really unable to work for a big corporation like that. So I went to grad school and got a degree in early childhood education. But it also made me unwilling to date guys who were businessmen, which limited my dating pool. But I just wasn't. I would only date a guy who was doing something that I thought was helpful for the world and society — a teacher, a doctor, a Social Security worker, or something like that. So that was part of my reentry.

Janet: I've never worked for a corporation. I remember one time someone recommended that I be a plant in a large corporation I actually thought about it for awhile but finally decided that I couldn't do that. So I have never worked for a corporation. I only worked for non-profits and unions. It's hard to work for a union, because they can be corrupt and undemocratic. Anyway I can totally relate to what — it sounds very similar to what you went through and how you experienced it, Miriam.

Sherie: I did it kind of differently. I walked out of my college graduation, because they [named] the theater Zellerbach Hall, after Zellerbach, the ...

Janet: Oh no!

[The Crown-Zellerbach paper chemicals, and timber corporation (today, part of the Georgia-Pacific conglomerate) owned and operated Bogalusa Louisiana as a classic "company town." One that was thoroughly segregated from top to bottom. CORE and local civil rights workers in Bogalusa faced savage violence from the Ku Klux Klan and police who operated with the knowledge and tacit support of Crown-Zellerbach. See Confronting the Klan in Bogalusa With Nonviolence & Self-Defense for additional information.]

Sherie: At Berkeley. And here my parents...

Tom: Right after the boycotts ...

[Boycotts of Crown-Zellerbach paper products were organized around the country in 1965 to support the Bogalusa movement.]

Sherie: Yeah, and my parents — I was the first child to graduate from college in my family.

Janet: Oh no!

Sherie: And my parents were thrilled to be there. The Zellerbach speaker approached the platform and I walked out with a host of other graduates. Oh my God! I think that was worse than going to the South in their minds.

But then I went on — I didn't just climb mountains. I went on to teaching at-risk kids. I expected to teach in some ghetto someplace, but the only job I could get was in my home town which was lily white. I found out that was okay, because although I wasn't getting the ongoing Black culture that we've discussed as being something we want in our lives, I was getting at kids who knew nothing about Black culture. After having me for a teacher, they were curious and willing to learn. And so that's what I did with the rest of my life was worked with white kids.

Miriam: You know, as part of my training as an organizer, they taught us to find out what people in the community wanted done, what changes did they want to see? What was important to them? So they taught us to be listeners. And I remember Bob Moses saying, "The people you'll be working with speak very slowly, so slow down. Don't show off your college vocabulary. Speak so they can understand." That's helped me. My son, when he was in college, fussed at me for not using those words, but I've always, since I was trained that way in SNCC, felt it was better to say things in the clearest, simplest way. Anyway, that's one of the ways the Movement affected me. I wanted to add a couple more. I am the third in a large family, not as large as yours. I was one of eight kids.

Janet: Oh, that's nothing. [Laughter]

Miriam: But my dad was extremely proud of me [being a civil rights worker], unlike dads that said they'd never talk to you again. And as he got older and his memory got worse, my position in SNCC got higher. I was a field secretary, and before he died in his late nineties, I was national secretary.

Sherie: Oh, that's sweet.

Miriam: I've got a brother who's a hotshot scientist, and I always thought my dad was equally proud of both of us. My brother thinks my dad was prouder of me. Anyway, another thing I wanted to add was my grandmother used to say if something happened, if a mountain lion was spotted, she would say, "How does this affect the Jews? Is it good or bad for the Jews?" [Laughter]

Carol: Is it good or bad for the Jews?

Miriam: Anyway, I learned to understand that when I was in the South. And this is not going to sound nice, but I also learned to have an understanding of why something like Rwanda could happen, because there was a day in Albany when we heard that a 6-year-old boy had been hit by a car. And we knew nothing more than that. We didn't know if the child was fine, if the child was dead. We just knew nothing more. And so there were rumors around the community. Everyone was very upset. And later that day, we found out it was a white boy. The interest went away. It wasn't one of our children. So I learned to understand how one group could share the land with another group and consider them outsiders. And to whoever is reading this, I apologize, because it sounds terrible. That was one of the things I took away from it. I have, all my life, tried to understand or come to terms with the Holocaust, and I've never been able to. How could you murder the whole community? How could you do genocide? But then I think back to my experience in the Movement, and it helps a little bit.

Janet: Having to watch, just to see the — or reading about the scenes around the Freedom Riders, just the mass hysteria — 

Carol: Yeah, the whites in Alabama were trying to massacre the people who were on that bus. It's very clear from the statements that were made, that they were energetically trying to keep the doors closed and waiting for the big explosion. So we would've had the Anniston Massacre instead of the Anniston bus-burning. And my 90-year-old aunt expressed it best. She said, "You mean they burned up the whole bus?" Yeah, the whole bus and everybody inside was what they were trying for.

 

Reconciliation?

Carol: So those white folks in Alabama get no sympathy from me when somebody says, "Well, if it was a white kid, we don't care." I can understand how Black people in Alabama, how Black people in the South, could take on that kind of racist view when they were subjected to this kind of physical, violent racism on a continuing basis, because that's what — we came in, and we experienced it once, twice, three times. People who lived in the South, Black people who lived in the South — every day. They remembered their grandfather being lynched. They remembered people being trashed time and time again.

And yet, as I said before, I learned from the Black girls, the Black young ladies who were in jail with me, a mantra, which was, "I hate the sin, but I love the sinner. I will extend my love of humanity, and I will not tag with sin or with badness any of these people, because they are human beings, children of God, et cetera, et cetera." That was very hard for me to accept. It was hard for me to understand let alone accept. It was very hard. Once I understood it, I still had a hard time accepting it.

Gene: I think there are levels of things that I don't think I can understand. And I think I've tried, but I don't. I mean, I went to Vietnam in 1995, and I was fascinated that there were Vietnamese who wanted to meet me, just on the street or whatever. And this was true both in the south and the north.

Carol: This is long after the war.

Gene: In 1995, yeah. And I had a Vietnamese friend that we traveled around a bit with. But at one point we had been in a place, and there was — our friend who had come to the United States during the war and became a fighter against the war, and there was a guy who was still in the National Liberation Army who was like a guide at this place, and then there was our guide who had actually been an interpreter for the United States Army. So three different positions, sort of, and at one point, they were all sitting and talking, friendly, you know? And it was incredible to me that they were able to do that. They were talking about an individual they all knew who had been killed by the CIA, but it was just very interesting that in that culture, people could — 

Janet: Forgive and go on.

Gene: Well, I don't know if they forgave or not, but they could treat each other in a decent way, and that's why I say I may not understand or have to support the thing you're saying about being unconcerned, if it is a white kid. I don't have to exactly support it, but I can go, "It's perfectly reasonable to me." Even though there are people who could say, "Well, no, we have to have reconciliation." I mean, that's one of the — how are the South Africans having truth and reconciliation? Does it really work? If you accept the crimes that you committed, can the other side really forgive? I don't think I could forgive.

Carol: Yes, you can.

Gene: Oh, I don't really think that. I think I can work with that.

Carol: Yes. But that's all that you're asked to do.

Gene: Well, but that's not forgiving. And I was fascinated that in Nicaragua, where I went also, that there would be in one family people on both sides of the Contra/Sandinista struggle, and they recognized each other. But then I found out that in my family there were people who were Communists and people who work for the State Department. And they would get together for special occasions, even though they both had to report to their bosses that they had met with the other one. So people do that in families, and it doesn't mean that they approve of what the other one's doing.

Carol: And not just in families.

Gene: Well, I agree. That's what I'm saying.

Carol: And the Truth in Reconciliation Commission that was generated by Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest gifts to humanity that anybody has ever made. Here's Mandela, 26 years in prison, and he comes out, and he says, "Reconciliation. Truth in Reconciliation." You know, the alternative was that there would be something like Afghanistan, which when the Russians were tossed out, all of the different ethnic groups began to fight against each other, and it totally wiped out the infrastructure of the country. So Truth in Reconciliation is really, really important, and it's important for the South, like my Safeway clerk lady who, when we came back for a reunion of the Freedom Riders in Jackson, Mississippi, was able to say, and I have no doubt that in her family there were Ku Klux Klansmen and she comes from that hardcore of white slave owners and so forth, that she could say to us, "Thank you for bringing an end to the bad times in Mississippi. Thank you for being a Freedom Rider. Thank you for the Civil Rights Movement." Even if she didn't fully believe it, she was able to reach out in that way. And I think that is a very important part of the human condition.

Gene: But the question is in the other direction. I mean, I think in South Africa it's the Blacks who said we should reconcile.

Carol: Yeah, and white. You had to have two sides.

Gene: Yeah, but what I'm saying — no, I agree, but the question I thought you were asking is about the Black people saying, "Well, if it's a white person, we don't care."

Miriam: It wasn't part of their community. It wasn't one of theirs.

Gene: That's right. I agree. But can people do that? I mean, can you reach out? I mean, that's where I'm curious to go. We're talking about going back to Panola County, and somebody has proposed as part of the reunion in Panola County to talk with the white people. And it's being discussed right now whether it will happen or not, but that part of our getting together again is to find out where the white people are at now. And I don't yet have a sense whether or not the Black people want to do that or not, who are there. And so that's going to be an interesting thing, I feel like waiting to see.

Carol: At our [Freedom Rider] reunion, we had the guards, the prison guards who were guarding us. They were very old, but they came to this reunion in Parchman as well. And they were giving us guided tours, showed us where the electric chair was, right around the corner from where our cells were.

Miriam: Okay, I want to do a little round back on the topic of how did our participation affect us? And I'm going to add one more thing about me. It took me years to be able to go out to a restaurant. I had seen so much hunger and so much dire poverty where there wasn't enough food. And I just felt overwhelming guilt being served platters of food. So that was part of my reentry crisis. For the record, I now enjoy it. [Laughter]

 

Today's Kids

Carol: I'd like to just say something about who we were, or are, and the kids that came after us, the succeeding generations, the generations of kids that are today having their Bar Mitzvahs and their study abroad and so on and so forth. And I am thrilled to see so many of those kids at the teenage level imbued with the notion of making the world a better place. That I and you were told, "God, you're crazy! What are you doing? Why are you taking all of the world on your shoulders?" These kids — lots and lots and lots of them — are doing exactly that. They have learned from our generation and I don't know what else, but they have learned that the entire world is their responsibility.

And that when they go to do a project in high school, then I get called, you get called, somebody gets called to talk about the history of the Civil Rights Movement or the Peace Movement or the Green Movement or some of these, Let's Make the World a Better Place kind of things. And the kids then get assigned a research paper or to do something to tell about either the history of that or what can be done in the future. And lots and lots and lots of them do fundraisers, the lemonade stand kind of thing or Pennies for Peace. There are lots and lots and lots of little fundraisers going on in the schools that, you know, they don't raise a lot of money, but the kids get the idea. The kids say, "Why should I give you any money?" Well, here's the reason. Here's the why. And I'm very, very high on American kids right now. At least the ones I come in contact with, including my own grandchildren, are imbued with what, in my day, was very unusual. And I think that's a great and wonderful thing for the world.

Janet: Were any of you at the SNCC reunion a couple of year ago? [Shaw University, Raleigh, NC, 2010]

Tom and I were. The meeting was amazing in a lot of ways including the fact that there were many young people attending, high school kids. The SNCC veterans treated the young people like royalty! They asked them to introduce themselves, dialogued with all of their questions, and acknowledged their strength in being there and being interested.

Apparently these kids were from Chicago, a civil rights vet who teaches recruited the kids. They were learning so much from this interaction, and the veterans learned from the young people. They asked us questions like, "Well, how did you figure it out? How did you know what to do?" And people didn't dismiss their questions. People actually engaged and had conversations. I thought it was fabulous.

Carol: They were reaching out for things that we think they should already know, but things they obviously didn't know and we — you — needed to bring yourself down to their level in order to accomplish the effect of transmitting your level of knowledge to them.

Sherie: But that's sort of it, because they seemed like stupid questions.

Carol: They seemed like stupid questions.

Janet: I know, it was just amazing. And you know, it taught me a lot.

 

Leaving the Movement

Gene: Miriam, you said something which was curious to me, because you said about leaving the Movement, and I guess for me, I never thought of it that way. Now I wasn't in the South for the three years, so maybe it was different. But to me, it just continued. I've never thought that we left the Movement. And things changed, but I still think we're in it.

And when you bring up grandchildren, I mean, I have a grandson who is 15, and he's a mixed [race] kid, and he has lots of questions, and you know, he'll stop over on Friday night at 9 o'clock to ask me — he'll be walking home past our house, and he'll say, "Can I come in and talk to you?" And they were talking about something in class, and he wants to know, "Well, how did you do these things?"

So there is that side, but I also feel there is — I mean, one of the difficulties is there's also the other side. They are living in a terribly different world. And there is an influence — I mean, it's part of what I think we failed at, in that we didn't change the government. We didn't change the economic system. The capitalists still have all this power. Money still — my grandson still thinks it's all right — although he'll ask me questions about civil rights and about Communism and about all sorts of stuff, but he also thinks it's all right for a basketball player to make $150 million. He thinks that's perfectly reasonable.

Tom: So does she [referring to Janet].

Janet: I'd rather have it be him than Bill Gates.

Gene: I don't want anybody making $150 million.

Sherie: But you're a communist. We know that already.

Gene: But I'm just saying that — 

Gene: We have to understand that they [kids today] are in a different world. We have to be able to talk to them about that. And I think your notion of listening to the questions — it's not only whether or not you think the questions are stupid, but they do come from someplace, and there is a part of the question that I find I have to understand. I have to try and figure out — and I've had to figure that out with him from the time he was two years old, when he would ask me, "How does the blood get around the body?" And I would go, "Where is this coming from?" But I would try and answer it as seriously as I could. Or he asked me one day, "Why don't your dreams come true?" And I said, "Well, what are you talking about?" He said, "Well, I have dreams, and they don't come true." [Laughter]

So we had a conversation. He was all of six at the time, and we were bike riding, and I'm thinking, "Why is he asking...?" So I have to try and figure that out. And I think I learned how to think about how he — from going to the South. I think that that part of what I did got me to try to say, "What do people mean when they ask me these things?" When they look at me and they go, "Well how do you do that?" And I have to take it seriously.

 

How We Came to Participate

Miriam: We haven't talked at all about why did we participate? So you can handle it by sharing whatever you want, but what was it that made you different than your friend who didn't go? Or your sibling who didn't go? What was it in you that drew you to this?

Janet: You know one of the things you mentioned before was just the whole sibling issue, and for me, I think a big personal effect of this whole experience, is the effect that it had with me as a person in my family. Like how I relate to my brothers and sisters and my parents, what experiences do we share, what political values do we share? When I went South, I left my family in many ways not just in distancebut in life experiences. While that disconnect has softened over the years, it has never completely gone away and there are discussions about values and history that I don't have with my mom or most of my siblings.

It's not that I was a star family member before I went to the South; I mean, I think I was always kind of not. I never felt I was a favorite. I don't think I got a lot of kudos for anything, so going to work with black people didn't help my place or make me any more popular in the family.

Carol: But you reconciled with your family.

Janet: Yeah, I mean, we talk, but there's a lot of stuff we don't talk about. Tom and I have three kids and I want my kids to love my mom and I want them to know their cousins and aunts and uncles. But there are a lot and it's hard for my kids to connect with so many. My mom and I were talking a few years ago and she said, "You know Daddy and I never tried to dictate what anybody was doing or we didn't criticize them when they made their choices. We just tried to help them when they told us what they wanted to do." I said, "Really, Mom? That wasn't my experience." And she said, "Really? What happened to you?" And I said, "Well, when I told you I was going to go to work with black people in Selma, you said, 'Don't call me if you get in trouble, and don't ever come back.'" She was shocked and said, "Why would I say that?"

I didn't say anything and then she said, "Oh, you know, it was Daddy. You know Daddy felt that way about things like that." I said, "Mom, I think it was you and Daddy." She said, "Wow, why would I say that?" And you know, for me, just to have this conversation with her meant everything. I was happy that we were having this conversation at all. So after awhile I said, "You know, Mom, we say a lot of things to our kids we don't mean. I'm sure you were mad because I was going to help Black people and you needed help around the house."

My point was that going to the movement had a significant effect on me as a member of my family, with my siblings and with my parents.

I know one time I was reading some letters that Tom and his mom and his sister wrote to each other, around the time that you must've just told your mom he was going to leave Stanford and go to I think he was first going to Atlanta to work against the war. His mom was completely against the war, and nonetheless, she encouraged him not to drop out for the movement. She lives in holler [a small rural valley] in West Virginia, and her son is on a scholarship at Stanford, and he's going to give all that up to drop out and go and work against the war. And she was trying to convince him not to, in a very respectful way, but nonetheless very respectful. I mean, I just think it's an interesting thing that all of us probably went through. I'd love to hear other stories.

Gene: How did you choose to go?

Janet: Well, I think a lot of it was because of my family, because it was really hard to be in that family. I worked hard and I wasn't gigantically happy being where I was. I thought it was horrible to watch the police use dogs and water hoses on the people trying to register and yet my dad said he supported the police.

I had an internal gut feeling that being a racist was wrong. I also knew that our family wasn't perfect and if they thought the black people were awful for trying to register to vote, then maybe it was ok for me to disagree with them. I had a lot of mixed feelings about my life, getting out of Appleton, and I was still a teenager! Then there was just an opportunity. I saw some people speak at my college about the movement, I also wasn't doing well in school and I didn't like my classes.

Sherie: You were raised in a huge family. No wonder you weren't doing well in school.

Janet: Actually I had two jobs. When I saw these people speak about needing books for Selma Free Library, I went up after their speech and said, "I would like to go back to Selma with you. It sounds like something I would like to do." They said, "No way," and were completely negative about my going to start with. But we talked about my interest more over the next several days and they said it was alright for me to come back to Selma with them. I got money from my friends and the people I babysat for and bought a bus ticket to Selma.

Miriam: Thank you for sharing.

Carol: Thank you for sharing. So I can only say my experience was exactly opposite.

My parents were — my mother, when I called and told her I was going to be a Freedom Rider, she said, "Oh no, my heart, my heart. You can't do this to me." But once I was safely in jail — [Laughter]

[Meaning safe from attack by violent mobs of white-racists as experienced and endured by the first Freedom Riders. And safe from the threat of deadly Klan retribution. But not necessarily safe from abuse by police and guards.]

Sherie: What they didn't know about jail!

Janet: This was before Parchman ... It's when you get to Parchman ...

Carol: So first off, my whole view of race relations and so on and so forth — race and people-hood — was created by and formed by my parents whose view of the world was — everybody's heard of the Ten Commandments? You know, in Judaism, there are actually 613 commandments, most of which I am pretty happy to ignore. But the one that I chose to not ignore is called "Tikkun Olam" which means "repair the world." And the concept is that this benevolent God gave us this world, and whatever is wrong with it, we as the people chosen by God to be its stewards are responsible for fixing whatever is wrong with it. So Tikkun Olam could mean picking up trash from the street and putting it into the receptacle, or it can mean being a Freedom Rider.

So I explained that to my mother in one of these conversations and that this is what I had been taught at her knee and that I was onward. I was going on. So by the time I got into jail, my mother was calling the Congressman for our district, the Senator for the State of California, the Governor of Mississippi, the Congressman from Mississippi, and she had a list. And in those days, making a long distance call was a big deal. It was expensive, and there was an operator on each end and so on. My mother, for the 40 days that I was in jail, made those telephone calls every day. And she browbeat her sisters who were a little more affluent than we were, and she called all of her friends and my friends and her employers and so forth, and she raised my bail, which she duly turned over to CORE for, so that I could be released on appeal at the appropriate time.

[As a matter of principle, and as a way of continuing the protest, the Freedom Riders arrested in Jackson refused to post bail. This strategy was known as "Jail No Bail." But under Mississippi law at that time, if you served 40 days of your sentence you lost the right to appeal the unconstitutionality of your arrest, trial, and conviction. So most of the riders posted bail and filed an appeal on their 39th day in jail.]

And I credit my family and my mother and my two sisters and my father for all that I am or will ever be in terms of a morally righteous person, including as a Freedom Rider.

Sherie: I come between you. I was the star of my family. I was the first born. I'm six years older than my brother, and I was the reason my parents were around. But my mom just thought that you had to be fair and you had to make things better for other people.

And this is a real aside, but I had always wanted a horse, from the time I figured out what they were on TV. Hopalong Cassidy was a big deal. I finally got my horse Smokey when I was 10. I needed to find something I could stand on to get on his back, and I could put a bridle on him, and then I was gone. They had no clue what I did all day. I would get on early in the morning, and I had to be home before dark or they took away my riding privileges. Now why was this important? Because on some days I spent eight or ten hours a day alone with this creature that would let me cry and talk, and somewhere along the line I got this idea, which Smoky and I discussed, that I wanted to feel — I have changed my mind since then — but I wanted to feel what everybody feels.

I had no idea what it would be like to be wiped out by a Hurricane Katrina. I had no idea about all the horrid things that happened in life, but I was really very curious about finding out. I went through a religious stage of about three years, and I was going to be a missionary. My junior year in high school we were studying "On Civil Disobedience" by Thoreau when my teacher asked, ""What are you willing to die for?" I've talked to other people in the class who remember him asking, but they thought, "That's just the kind of questions teachers ask."

Well, I had to know the answer for myself. I started looking for what that might be. Freedom Summer and the loss of Schwerner, Goodwin and Chaney really got my attention. Then I went to Berkeley in 1964. Oh my God. The Free Speech Movement, civil rights, pro-communists, anti-communists, ROTC, young socialists... You remember.

Then Selma got me. That was when I thought, "No! You can't do this in my country. This is just totally so far out of..." And my History teaching assistant came in one day and said, "I'm going to Selma. We aren't meeting next week. I don't know if I'll ever see you again. Have a good life." And he walked out. I thought, "He's only a few years older than I am. If he can do it, I can do it." I talked to my boyfriend who said, "Yeah, I'll give you the money."

"I'm going. Aren't you coming with me?" Which is the question my dad asked, "What kind of a boyfriend do you have that's going to give you money to go off and do something like Schwerner, Goodwin and Chaney? Why doesn't he just go?" He wasn't the only one to ask why you or why not your friends? I was serious, and they weren't. They were still teenagers and I was already looking at, "Okay, I have to be part of making this place better." A month after Selma, Martin Luther King invited us for a second Freedom Summer. Finally I could say, "Okay, I know this is something I could die for, because I've seen other people do that or heard about them." I believed that the happenings in the South couldn't continue to go on. I wasn't quite thinking of dying, really, but I knew that this would fit the category my teacher had asked about.

My parents adjusted when I went to South Carolina the first time. They even talked to their friends about it. I survived and came home whole. The second time my father said, "I'll never speak to you again." They let everyone believe I was back at Cal rather than at Allen.

About a week before my mother died in 2004 I apologized that I had made life so difficult for them. The first time I went south I explained that someone had to go to make things better. Her response was, "Yes, but not my child." As she neared the end of her life and I apologized she said, "Honey, its okay. Somebody had to do it."

All of these events and conversations occurred before I went to the south except when my father refused to speak to me between my trips south. The other exception is in the last paragraph. This one was with my mother about nine years ago.

Janet: Awesome.

Sherie: Yeah, my whole life has been...

Gene: Well, I don't feel like I had a conversion. [Laughter] I had moved out to California in '62, so I was far from my parents. I didn't have much to do with them anyway. And I started, like I said, working for Friends of SNCC in '63, and I was going to San Francisco State as a graduate student to avoid the draft at the time, but I was married, and then they weren't taking people who were married, but I guess by '65 they were taking people who were married, and I had to go for a draft physical or something. But I was working for Friends of SNCC, and I was very involved. I mean, I knew. I was looking at it and reading. I was reading all the WATS line stuff. I was seeing what was going on.

[Before there were "800" numbers there was Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS). A WATS line allowed a company or organization to make unlimited long-distance calls in a specified geographic area for a flat monthly fee. At SNCC, CORE, COFO, and SCLC offices in cities such as Jackson, Greenwood, and Atlanta, the life-saving WATS lines were manned (or, more accurately, woman-ed) around the clock, 24 hours a day, recording incidents of violence and arrest, dispatching doctors and lawyers to aid the injured and incarcerated, alerting organizers of danger and need, notifying media and Justice Department of abuses and outrages, and coordinating support and assistance nation-wide. WATS calls were logged as they occured, and these logs — known as "WATS reports" — were distributed to Friends of SNCC chapters and other northern support organizations for information sharing and fundraising purposes.]

We were having people come out. You know, we were very close to it all, so that part of it wasn't at all a surprise to me. I think I know when I got there that — I was in this town called Bellzoni [MS], and it was the poorest town I had ever been in, and I remember it was over the July 4th weekend, and I sent an article back, or I sent a letter, I've been looking for it — to people in California, and said, "Welcome from July 4th, from Bellzoni, Mississippi which must not be within the United States." You know, it had nothing to do with what anybody, except maybe if you lived there, thought the United States was. And I described it. [Correction: Since this discussion I have found this letter in an archive at the University of Southern Mississippi. And of course my memory of it was not correct. It was written June 13, not July 4, and more complete in its description of what was going on. It is now posted here on this website. — Gene]

And so in a way, it was more than I could've imagined, in a certain way. I mean, mostly how much the police were on you, were constantly watching you. And the fear that people had, although they were still willing to do stuff. That I had not experienced. Although people talk about it, I guess you don't sense it.

But I went because I thought you had to go. And I didn't think about whether other people went or not. I mean, I had helped organize in the Bay Area for the '64 project. We had workshops and things like that, but I didn't feel like I could go at that time, not because of anything in particular, but I was just busy and doing this stuff. And so by '65, I said, "This is the time to go." I had regretted not going on Freedom Rides. When I read about the Freedom Rides, I thought, "My goodness, why couldn't I have done it?" And I don't know. I can't exactly — at that time, it was a question that I posed to myself, and I decided not to. And maybe that bothered me or not. I don't know, but by the time it came, and I was working for Friends of SNCC, it seemed perfectly reasonable to go.

And I was married to a woman at that time who I'm no longer married to, but she lives in Boston, and I saw her a couple weeks ago, and I asked her, I said, "Did you think about why we went?" And she said, "Well, truthfully speaking, I don't think I would've gone if you hadn't gone, but since you were going, I said, 'Yes, let's go.'" But we never talked about it after that. It was sort of like all the things we went through that were terrifying or whatever, and she went to jail too. We just did it.

And how did we make the decision? Well, we just did it. I don't remember struggling with it. I didn't talk to my parents about it. In fact, I went to jail, and my father got a job in Australia. It was like, her mother worried a little bit and wrote the Congressman and got money, but I didn't feel abandoned by them. I didn't expect them to. Although they supported it, it wasn't that either way. I sort of, unlike you, it wasn't a crisis in any way whatsoever. And my father wondered at one point after being disturbed that I wanted to be a musician, by the time I was going South he wanted to know, "Well, what happened to you? Are you going to become a full-time revolutionary? What happened to being a musician?"

But it wasn't that he would say no or that he had any right to say no. But so these weren't exactly — I wasn't facing those questions, and I thought that's what we did. And some people went South, and other people didn't. I still feel the same way. Some people do certain things. Other people do others, and hopefully you can work with the other people, because they're doing — if they've got the same principles, they're organizing their stuff too. And you just have to figure out a way to make them work together, because then you build the size of what you're organizing. But it wasn't a crisis in that way.

Carol: It wasn't a crisis for you, and it wasn't really a crisis for me. I just heard that voice. I heard [CORE Director] Jim Farmer's voice on the radio saying, "We need you to come to Mississippi, to join the Freedom Rides." And I looked to the right. I looked to the left. And I said, "Who's he talking to? Who's he talking to? I guess he must be talking to me." So I said, "Okay, I guess I'm out to go to the Freedom Rides." And that was it. It was a decision that was very, very — it was just there. You know, the decision was not — it wasn't that I agonized over it. It was, "I can go. I therefore must go."

Sherie: That was my case. I can go. I couldn't go before, because I wasn't old enough to go. My parents would've said, "Look, you're going to college. You should continue to go to college. We told you we would pay for four years. If you go, then you will be using up your time." I was too young as far as my parents were concerned and SCLC said we had to be eighteen. So I went as soon as I could.

Tom: I'm the youngest child of three children. My oldest sister was gone, as early as I can remember. She married someone at DuPont and moved to Delaware. I grew up in West Virginia by the way. And my brother went to Germany in the Army. My sister eloped and married a guy in Charleston. I lived in rural West Virginia. My dad was a newspaper editor. He sold the ads; he wrote the articles. He probably passed out the newspaper, I don't know. But he upheld the standards for the community, basically. That's the way I grew up. And my dad was the spokesman for the whole county. And he died when I was young in high school. I went to Stanford because I was a National Merit finalist, got a scholarship. It was a very corporate place, Stanford. Corporate culture. There was a lot of enthusiasm, but a lot of greed, I guess you'd call it, behind people being there. And there was a lot of anti-Communism, and I just got basically turned off. But two things I got involved in were the March to Delano with Cesar Chavez [of the National Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers union]. It was about 100 people, 150 people. And we marched from like San Jose to Delano.

Carol: That was '65, '64-'65, right?

Tom: I think so. The other thing was I spent a summer with a lawyer in D.C. working on the Mississippi Congressional Challenge which is after the convention in Atlantic City. For Mississippi, they were asking the Congress to throw out — 

Carol: The Congressional hearing.

Tom: The whole Congressional delegation.

Carol: Yeah, that was great.

Tom: And earlier there was a meeting in D.C. at the same time the Assembly of Unrepresented People and I guess it was apparently SCLC and CORE and SNCC. I think it was the first time there was a mass demonstration and arrest against the [Vietnam] war. We sat down on the Capitol steps. This was summer of '65?

Miriam: I was there. The Catholic pacifists from the Northeast came down and joined the Civil Rights activists from the South. We were the second demonstration tho'. SDS had held a big anti-war rally that spring.

Tom: And we had meetings on the Mall in Washington. It was very cool.

Miriam: I assume you went to jail.

Tom: Yeah, I went to jail. Briefly. My sister at that time had moved to Washington — Alexandria, Virginia. Her husband got me out of jail, and they took me into their house. But then I worked for this lawyer, against the Mississippi [Congressional] delegation.

Miriam: This is Bill Higgs?

Tom: I think so, yeah. Bill what?

Miriam: Higgs.

Tom: Yes, definitely. And you know, I was outraged that it didn't work. It just started perfect. But it just seemed like a major {UNCLEAR} at the most important political party in the world, and they failed. And so later I got involved in the anti-war movement and went to Atlanta, tried to organize it in the South against the war. I got a lot of rocks thrown at me in mid-Florida at different demonstrations. So that was very difficult working against the war in the South, so I decided SNCC was the best way to go, so I went to the Atlanta office. I was in Atlanta anyway, so I worked with SNCC in Atlanta, and they sent me to Selma, Alabama. And the Voting Rights Act had passed, so it was that quiet period when the authorities were on their best behavior. But generally speaking, I wanted a simpler life than I would find at Stanford. [Laughter]

Miriam: That's the first time I've ever heard someone say they ended up in SNCC, because it seemed safer than what they were doing.

Tom: No, simpler.

Janet: I always think that — Tom took Fannie Lou Hamer home from where?

Tom: She came to the Mississippi Challenge. She had a brother in West Virginia, and I drove her down there to visit.

Janet: So you had like five hours or something from D.C. to West Virginia.

Tom: I drove her in my car. I had my brother's car, because he was in Germany. And I was driving his car around, so I took Fannie Lou Hamer to southern West Virginia. And that was very sweet. She was a really nice person. I enjoyed that trip.

Janet: I always think that's what got you out of the anti-war movement and into the — 

Tom: Yeah, {UNCLEAR} on Civil Rights Movement.

Janet: She definitely got to your heart strings.

Tom: People like her. I don't know what else to add. I think that's — 

Miriam: I'm not going to try to add mine. I have an oral interview on the website where I talked about what it was that inspired me to go down. We have just a few minutes left. I want to thank you. It's been an amazing day to spend together.

Carol: Yes, it has.

[END OF TRANSCRIPT]


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