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

Participants:

Wazir Peacock (SNCC), Facilitator
Linda Wetmore Halpern (SNCC)
Phil Hutchings (SNCC)
Fran O'Brien (Freedom Summer Volunteer)    
Mary Lovelace O'Neal, (SNCC, CORE)
Peggy Ryan Poole (SCOPE Volunteer)
Annie Popkin (Freedom Summer Volunteer)
Betty Garman Robinson (SNCC)
Jimmy Rogers (SNCC)
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (SRRP)
Bright Winn (CORE, SNCC)

Contents:

Introductions
Looking Back on the Freedom Movement
The Persistence of Racism
Remembering Juke Joints
Catching Up
Government & Social Change
Young and Old
American Gulag
Who's Running This Ship?
Remembering Jack Minnis
Our Bodies on the Line Made the Difference     
The Freedom Movement and the Cold War
Vietnam and the Draft
Who is the Power?
People Like Us
How the Movement Affected Our Lives
Bright Winn: It Set My Mind Right
Wazir Peacock: In the Movement
Peggy Poole: It Was Just Wrong
Jimmy Rogers: You Can't Eat it Here
Betty Garman: Going South
The Kennedy Assassination
Linda Halpern: Coming Back North
Phil Hutchings: Veterans & Depression
Mary O'Neal: We Earned Our Breath
Annie Popkin: I Was Waiting for Something to Happen
Fran O'Brien: When the Chance Came...
Betty Garman: Unpacking the Experience
Depression & Post-Traumatic Stress
Keeping On

 

 — MORNING SESSION — 

[Transciptionist's Note: I'm fairly certain they have the microphone upside down in the cup, and so the voices are rather muffled, hollow and hard to hear at times. For this reason, I could not trust myself to distinguish the white women when they did not give their names. I did the best I could overall, but there are a lot of holes. So sorry.]

Introductions

Wazir: Everyone, say their — go around the circle with everyone, stating their name, their organization, states and years they worked in the South, started in the South.

Good afternoon. I'm Wazir Peacock, and I worked in Holly Springs in 1962 to the late summer of 1962 and then from there I went to Greenwood and worked from that time, August '62 right on to 1966. And I worked briefly in Alabama. In 1964, I went back to school for awhile. I went to Tuskegee, and so you know, Selma was right down the road. So I was there every weekend. That's how I ended up working in those two states. So that's briefly. So the next person can ...

Betty: Peacock, weren't you born in Mississippi?

Wazir: I was born in Mississippi.

Betty: I think that's important.

Wazir: I was also born in Mississippi, yeah. That's why we would get agitated when they would call me an outside agitator. [Laughter]

Woman: An inside agitator.

Peggy: My name's Peggy Ryan Poole, and I was with SCLC, in the SCOPE project in the summer of 1965, {UNCLEAR} 1965. And I worked some in Atlanta but primarily in Sussex County, Virginia.

Jimmy: My name is Jimmy Rodgers, and in 1961, I went to Tuskegee University which was [known as] Tuskegee Institute. I worked on campus with the YMCA doing civil rights type of activities. And then from there I became part of a group called TILE, Tuskegee Institute Advancement League. Where as students we created our own university, I mean, our own organization, and we started out dealing with student issues on campus. And then hooked up with SNCC and Winky Hall and became part of SNCC. I met Stokely Carmichael, and I worked in Lowndes County [AL] for almost three years where I did voter registration work and also was involved with demonstrations. I spent a few times in jail, once in Hayneville and once in Montgomery. In Montgomery, I ended up in Kilby state prison for about a week.

Nancy: So, I'm Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and I went to Selma, Alabama to work with Don Jelinek's project that was called SRRP, Southern Rural Research Project. Originally it was called the Organization for the Rural Poor, and basically it was working with SNCC and getting data from visiting people in the Black-belt counties on malnutrition and hunger, essentially. And then also on their access to federal programs, FDA loans, cotton allotment checks, that sort of thing.

And it wasn't why I went to the South. I went to the South because I wanted to be involved in demonstrations, but it turned me into, I guess, a researcher. And so I went for about six months the first time and then went North to raise some money for our group, and then I went back again in '68 and then we finally did this lawsuit called People vs. Department of Agriculture, which I guess we'll talk about later.

Betty: So, my name is Betty Garman Robinson, and I started out supporting the sit-in students and so on, and then I came out here to graduate school. And I left from here in March of '64. I helped start the Friends of SNCC work in the Bay Area and then left in March of '64 to go South. I worked in the Atlanta [SNCC] office and then went for the summer of '64, I went to Greenwood to the SNCC office, and then I went back to Atlanta, and then I ended up working in the Washington SNCC office at the end of '65 into '66 before I went on to other things in D.C.

Linda: Linda Wetmore Halpern. I did voter registration in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is where I heard about the Mississippi Freedom Summer, and I went in 1964 to Greenwood, Mississippi — under Stokely and for Freedom Summer.

Phil: My name is Phil Hutchings, and I live in Oakland. And I got involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I guess, kind of in my home town of Cleveland. And I was Cleveland Ohio, [and I was later working in] Cleveland, Mississippi also. [Laughter]

Phil: We were doing support for the NAACP with the Youth Council of the NAACP for developing the sit-in movement which hopped off in 1960. I went to Howard University in Washington, and we had a group there called NAG, the Non-Violent Action Committee. And that's where I got to really actually meet people who were going back and forth from the South, and I learned more about the actual struggle.

And in '62 I was in Tennessee, because that's where my mother's family is, in the Memphis area, the small towns around Memphis. And so I was not so much on a SNCC project. It was more — or a Movement project, but just looking at what people were beginning to do, and in some ways — Fisk and Nashville are on the other side of the state, but they had heard a lot about the Nashville Movement, and so they were very interested in that.

And then in '63, I was working on the March on Washington out of the Washington SNCC office. And in '64, I worked in Mississippi with the Freedom Challenge, the MFDP, which went to Atlantic City. I think that's probably most of the South that I did. And then I kept on with SNCC up through 1968-69, which was the Black Power period.

Woman: {UNCLEAR}

Phil: Well, I was travelling around, because it was mostly in the Second Congressional District. And I went through Ruleville, Laurel, all those places. But it was basically trying to get information to be taken up to Washington, D.C. for the Challenge, because they didn't want all the information from people who were doing this mock registration to actually fall into the hands of state officials in Mississippi getting it up, but it helped me travel around. That's what I liked about it. I got to see different places. And I knew a lot of people from NAG who were project directors {UNCLEAR}.

Mary: My name is Mary Lovelace O'Neal, and in those days, I was Mary Felice Lovelace. I'm a daughter of the South. I was born protesting in Jackson, Mississippi. And that was sort of the beginning of my protest days. And I guess most of my young life involved in little acts of subversion like drinking out of the white water fountain and running through the doors that were swinging and having these salesmen and a in general chase us, and also on the bus. I grew up around two colleges, three actually, well in Jackson, Mississippi and Pine Bluff, Arkansas and at Tougaloo. My father taught in those places, and so we lived around there.

I was with Phil in the old days at Howard, a member of the Non-Action Violent Group.

Phil: NAG. Non-Violent Action Group.

Mary: Non-Violent Action Group. [Laughter]

Mary: I should've just left {UNCLEAR}

Phil: A very appropriate name.

Mary: NAG, yeah. And I worked in Mississippi. The only person that ever gave me a paycheck — well, actually a group, CORE gave me a paycheck and so did the Free Southern Theater. But I seem to be such a misfit that I worked on SNCC projects, and CORE projects in New Orleans, and in Louisiana. And that's all I can remember presently.

Woman: That's quite a lot!

Annie: My name is Annie Popkin, and I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi. I started doing Civil Rights support groups for the sit-ins in Woolworth's in my town in New York, at the same time licking envelopes with Stokely in New York City, and more will come out later. And I was there for Freedom Summer.

Fran: My name's Fran O'Brien. I was in Vicksburg, Mississippi also. That was my first experience. I jumped right in with Civil Rights. And I was also in Vicksburg the summer of '65.

Bright: My name is Bright Winn. I was in Sunflower County, Mississippi from June of '64 to June of '65.

 

Looking Back on the Freedom Movement

Wazir: OK, the second round, we'll begin with me. We'll talk about in this morning's session an evaluation of the Freedom Movement. That's pretty big. [Laughter]

An evaluation of the Freedom Movement. So I'll say something. We'll be all talking about it, Well, I'll just begin by saying that the Freedom Movement started out before the '60s. Those who came in the '60s, we were standing on the shoulders of those World War II veterans who came back and said, "Two Vs." Victory Abroad and Victory at Home. They came back, and they went to various states where they came from. In my case, we're talking about Mississippi. We're talking about the Amzie Moores, Steptoes, and the C.C. Bryants, Aaron Henry, and all these World War II veterans. They came back with the determination that if we can fight for freedom abroad, we definitely can fight for it at home. And so they were doing a pretty good job.

What they concluded when the sit-ins started in in North Carolina in 1960 — these veterans, they were connected, and they knew Ella Baker and all these kinds of — they knew each other. And they said, "We have families, and we work, and we have to get moving. These young people — we need manpower to get things spread. And we are almost half of the population in Mississippi, and we want to get manpower to come and do voter registration." But we knew at that time that most of the young people were excited about direct action.

And the first of the staff that came to Mississippi came as a result — they were getting out of Parchman from the Freedom Rides. They came to the bus station, and they just { — unclear — } buses, that kind of thing. And when they came out, like Stokely and all of those who came out of Parchman, when they were released, came to McComb. Bob Moses was already there, trying to follow the line of what the elders wanted. But you had the direct action people who had been in Parchman and that kind of thing, and weren't too interested in that door-to-door voter registration thing. And the young people in McComb wanted — they wanted some action. [Laughter]

So therefore, it got kind of — it was good, but it was all kind of off track from direct voter registration. Voter registration came across the state later on after that. So my evaluation of that part of the Freedom Movement is that things were happening all over the South and some parts of the North, but it seemed to me that the people who had been doing things all along, it had just come to a point where it was time to make full-force confrontation of the injustice of the system. I'll leave it right there and let somebody else say something.

Nancy: Well, by the time I got to Selma — I had originally signed up for Mississippi Freedom Summer. So I was at Queens College, and Andy Goodman was in my creative writing class. We decided we would sign up with this group. And at the same time, Sargent Shriver came, and so I was easily recruitable. I signed up for the Peace Corps. Peace Corps came in first. And then when I was in training for the Peace Corps, Andy was killed. And so I said at that moment, "I'll go back." But it was three years later by the time I got back from Brazil and traveled a little bit on the way back and got to Selma, not realizing that there was a real shift, and SNCC had become Black Power, and they didn't know quite what to do with the few white people that were there, Kathy Veit and I guess it was Mary Varela.

Woman: Maria.

Nancy: Maria, yeah. So they put us into two different — segregated — so we had the white Freedom House — though we were all in the Black community — and then there was the SNCC House. And I thought it was kind of humorous, but necessary for the time, or whatever. So what they said we could use you to do is work on gathering data door-to-door. You know, it wasn't what I wanted to do, but it was marvelous because we went in twos through all the Black-belt counties and did these surveys. I don't know where the regional surveys are. I went to Tuskegee to get them analyzed by social scientists so that we could actually go to court with them.

So at that point, Don Jelinek was the orienter, and he said that the time for maybe direct action, certainly not for whites, was not the time. And that it was really not so much important whether or not everything was integrated, but what was really important was economics. And I agreed on that basis, whether people were getting the rights that they had, human rights orientation. Because there were — everybody praised the federal government. The federal government was completely complicit in allowing federal programs not to get into the hands [of poor Blacks], by just allowing the counties to decide [that], "We won't have a lot of these programs. We won't have the food stamp program. We won't ..." Whatever the entitlements the people had were not going to people.

So I spent a lot of time in Gees Bend, Alabama, and that's where I wrote up a lot of the data. So, I guess it was in Spring — April of '68 that we actually went to Washington, D.C. and sat in the court room, and Don Jelinek was an incredible lawyer. We brought about 150 people that we had identified as people who had been defrauded, either of their cotton allotment checks — but then more importantly who were really hungry during parts of the year because the landlords wouldn't allow them to grow their own crops, and the company stores... There were all kinds of really feudal sorts of institutions.

[QUESTION FOR NANCY: Are you sure this was 1968? I know Don was involved in a Washington DC court case very similar to what you are describing in 1966. Were there two cases, or was the case you're talking about in '66?]

And the three judges — and I didn't know anything about the courts, and Don was very, very gentle. But so the answer to this was that we lost in the court because the courts said — one voted yes and two voted no, or two voted yes, and one no — but they said that the government couldn't force entitlements on counties. You know, a state's rights kind of thing. But essentially, we were correct, that there was a corrupt system, and it had to be addressed.

And so I'd like to think we sort of lost in the courts but won in the media, because there were a lot of reports, and then the Hunger in America film came to Alabama while I was there. We brought them to the houses of people, so people became aware of the fact that there was hunger in America, and it was man-made. I mean, it was made by the system. It was institutionalized.

[Hunger in America was an hour-long CBS documentary first shown nationally in 1968. It can be viewed on You Tube. ]

And then I always felt most strongly about a report that we did about the way in which people were defrauded of their federal allotment checks and things, and I found years later that that went back to court, and the tenant farmers did get some compensation for all of the years that they were not getting what every other farmer was getting.

So I think in the long-term, you can have grand visions of what you want in terms of the transformation of American society. Some things have changed, but economically, I don't think the changes have been what we would like to see. But a lot of things still we have to do, I suppose, make this adjustment. That would be all.

Betty: When I think about the bigger — starting from when the press began to pay attention to the South, I think for those of us who were in the North, we didn't know very much about Southern segregation. We didn't know about the denial of rights, the injustices, the oppression. And so I think for conscious people, the Movement really opened us up to, "Is this the country that we want to live in?" And if it's not the country we want to live in, what do we do to take action? So it galvanized a whole generation of young people. We can talk about that more later.

And I just think, looking back 50 years later from when I went South, it really had a profound impact on the country. And I think that's its lasting legacy. And it had lots of different pieces to that. One was opening up the Southern states for people in those states to take ownership of their own communities, to get engaged and to get involved. It really pushed those human rights and justice agendas forward. And I'll stop there, because I could go into detail, but I think this is a more general. Is that our charge, to be general right now?

Wazir: Yeah, this round. After we get through with this, then we're going to go into what you're talking about.

Betty: Just one more sentence. Thinking back, I think it had the most profound impact on the country of any movement in this space of time, except maybe the [Vietnam] Anti-War Movement. So I wouldn't put one above the other, but I mean, in terms of the actual change that was made in the country in response to organizing, I would say the impact was extremely profound.

Fran: I was in Vicksburg, and I think the Movement overall changed what we perceive as the norm, because 50 years ago, not only in the South but in many of the states in the North and certainly in the areas where I grew up in California, segregation was the law of the land. That's how it was. Not everybody liked it, but that was — and now, of course we do hear incidents of racism and discrimination, but that is always portrayed as something that's wrong, something that should not be done. And I have heard young people say, "Well, see, you guys didn't do any good. These things shouldn't happen." And I say, "Yeah, but people protest they're happening; whereas 50 years ago, you'd as soon think of protesting it's raining on a day when you wanted sunshine. It just was the way it was."

Phil: I did my homework a little bit. I've thought about it. I guess, two or three things. To me, when I think of the evaluation, it's like pluses and minuses. And the pluses stand large. I think it's kind of what something Betty and you just said — we ended apartheid, structured apartheid, in the United States. That's a really big thing. And that's major. So when anybody looks back on it, if this Movement hadn't happened, you know what would it be still today? It's very obvious.

A little side point on that part is that we also ended McCarthyism, which ruled in the '50s. People were afraid to move, afraid to talk, afraid of what their neighbor — afraid they'd get arrested. By having a Movement that said, "Let's put our bodies out there on the line. Let's not be afraid to be arrested. Let's go to jail and make the jailers crazy by singing songs and doing all these little subversive acts and things like that." We created a whole new ethos of how to do protest in this country which impacted, of course, the Anti-War Movement, the Women's Movement.

I mean, I consider — outside of the Labor Movement which happened at an earlier period — I think the Civil Rights Movement is the grandmother or the granddaddy of all modern movements. That's what I would argue. So that's the first piece.

The second piece is, which is positive, is that we enabled a lot of people — community folks, grassroots folks — after we left. In some states, some are still there, but most of us left in many different ways. There was a new grouping of people who were community activists, who became politicians, elected to state assemblies. I mean, a place like Mississippi more elected officials, Black officials, than any other place in the country. And that wouldn't have happened had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement.

So there's a legacy of people — Wazir was talking about whose shoulders did we stand on, and he's correct. The Amzie Moores and all those folks, but also there are people who came after us and what we all set up that are still going on today. And that's important to look at, because that's {UNCLEAR}.

And then the third thing I think we did, and I think that's of major importance, is — and this is a phrase that came later and not from the Civil Rights Movement. It's from some leftie friends of mine. We basically made a major, major, major dent in what was called the White United Front in this country. With the Civil Rights Movement, it was the first time you had masses of white people who were basically standing {UNCLEAR}, willing to get arrested, beat up, solidarity, with Black people. Always there had been individual white people, going back in history, the abolitionists, and in the early '50s and '60s, you have people like Anne Braden and all those people. So I'm not saying there aren't white individuals who weren't doing this, but having young people just wanting to go to Mississippi or leaving the campuses, battling their parents to take stands and all that, that was new. And it's the first time even in courthouses where you could have white people who would basically criticize other white people, about affairs dealing with African- Americans. So, when I think about positives, those are the three pluses.

Some minuses. Mississippi is still a poor state in the United States. What Nancy was saying about the economics and stuff like that. I mean, {UNCLEAR} and politics. I'm looking at it kind of cynically, in a cynical way, but it's true.

Another point is that basically we, in effect — it's kind of like Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — is that the South has become Republican. And so we went from basically Dixiecrats who were Democrats, and then we went into moderates running around there, to now states that are controlled by Republicans who are very conservative and the home of the Tea Party politics. And that's not just Mississippi; that's the whole South.

[In the 1950s and '60s, "Dixiecrat" was a commonly used political label for southern Democrats. While it was sometimes used to refer to any white member of the Democratic Party from a southern state, it was more often applied to staunchly segregationist, ultra-conservative, anti-labor, "states-rights" opponents of the federal government and the Supreme Court. The term came into common usage in 1948. In that year President Harry Truman established a national Committee on Civil Rights, ended racial segregation in the armed forces, and then allowed a civil rights plank to be included in the party platform. Southern delegates walked out of the convention and ran Senator Strom Thurmand [D-SC] against both Truman and Dewey, the Republican candidate. The Dixiecrats carried Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, but Truman won the election.]

And then the third piece I would say, which comes out of that, is the South is still, unfortunately, the home of most reactionary movements in this country. And Jesse Jackson and other people have been talking about the need to have Blacks and laborer and immigrants and other groups begin to form that thrust, and I've been, in more recent years, working around immigration, and working with people — having contact with people — who are doing that work in the South. And you still see it, the same forces that opposed the Civil Rights Movement back in the '60s and early '70s are the forces that are opposed to immigration and still don't like to see laborers, Blacks, women, gay and lesbian folks.

I say all these groups, because these are new things that have opened up more publicly since the Civil Rights Movement but has brought the empire, as I say, to strike back in motion. So I mean, to have real change in America, we still have to — the South is still key to that opening.

Woman: Good homework! I was thinking the same thing. You worked on that. [Laughter]

Wazir: Thank you, Phil, because you kind of keynoted a way whereby people can get their teeth into what we're talking about, evaluating the Freedom Movement in this country.

Bright: You know, in Mississippi, when I was there in June, it was a hot evening, sitting on Mrs. Hamer's front porch with her, and a woman came by, and she invited the woman to join us, Mrs. Johnson. And she said, "Mrs. Johnson, have you registered to vote yet?" And Mrs. Johnson said, "No, I'm afraid. If I register to vote, I'll lose my job. They'll bomb my home." And Mrs. Hamer said, "But if you register to vote, some day we'll have a Black mayor. Some day we'll have Black aldermen. Some day we'll have Black policemen." And that ended the evening.

Thirty-five years later, I went back for a reunion in Sunflower County, and we gathered all of the Sunflower County Civil Rights workers, and we gathered at Mrs. Hamer's grave. We were welcomed into town by the police on either end of the bus with their lights going, and I froze, you know? Because that's the way they used to do it, and some youngin' said, "No, no, no, Mr. Winn. They're escorting us into town." [Laughter]

So we get in, and we sang at Mrs. Hamer's grave, and over there were the Ruleville dignitaries, and I went over and introduced myself to the mayor, and I told her about what Mrs. Hamer had said about a mayor and an alderman and the police. And the mayor began to cry, because she was Black, and the aldermen were Black, and the chief of police was Black. And that really is a summate of my view on the Freedom Movement that we had. We did make great gains.

Another gain we made that I measure all of the time. My three children are of color, and they're in their, well, twenties and thirties now. All of this doesn't register with them. You know, they go out into the San Francisco Bay Area, and they just, you know, their color is not paramount for what they're doing for today. They all are accepted in the community, and they're accepting — 

Woman: For the content of their character.

Bright: — and that is another great thing that the Freedom Movement did. And granted there were things that it did not do, partly because it was too much for us to attempt and partly because I didn't understand economics. I thought we would get the vote, and we can go home, and all is well. Well, I didn't understand economics, and even if I did understand economics, if I'd included that, I would've been a "Commie" for sure. And that would've ended it.

Annie: I think a lot of what I would've said has been very eloquently said. But I think as part of raising the consciousness of the country, all that dredging of the Mississippi River when they were looking for the missing Civil Rights workers was something of great surprise to many people, to find out that this is nothing new.

[As part of the search for Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman Mississippi rivers were dragged by Navy divers looking for their bodies. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the remains of at least eight Black men, all victims of murder within the previous few months, were pulled from the waters. A paid informant eventually led investigators to where the missing civil rights workers were buried. How many other Black murder victims were secretly buried elsewhere around the state is unknown.]

And that I also — I don't know what we would've done differently, but I think economics could've been part of our movement more, would've been helpful. And I wanted to say that most of the founding mothers of the Women's Liberation Movement were in the South in Mississippi, so that definitely spawned other movements. I'd say the mother {UNCLEAR} the grandmother right away.

Betty: One of the things I wanted to say that I thought is important, and it kind of reflects on what others have been saying about younger people. There is a lot of study of SNCC especially and its organizing model, and Ms. Baker and grassroots and that kind of thing, and I think that's very healthy. There are a lot of young scholars who are lifting up the Movement work. I mean Peniel Joseph, there is a Hasan Jeffries who wrote Bloody Lowndes, and there's this young woman, Emily Crosby, who wrote about Claiborne County. So there's a lot of scholarship out there, and I think there's a lot of — I hope there are a lot of professors in universities that are teaching the Movement. And I think that is going to have a profound impact, that whole body of work that's being rolled out and worked on is going to have a profound effect on — hopefully on our future ability to organize and really change things.

Mary: I'm sorry that I can't be as cogent as many of you are, and it's just who I am. I'm really scattered. And I don't want to seem Pollyannish, but I am able to kind of dip in and dip out. I can remember being sent by Ralph Featherstone to teach kindergarten and to teach in the Freedom Schools. And I was so terrified being where I was that he decided to send me North to fundraise. I get the summers kind of mixed up because I was there most summers, except for — it doesn't matter, because I won't get it right anyway. But I ended up going to fundraise and be kind of an advance person at one point for the national Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. And you know, Fannie Lou Hamer's most famous statements there in front of the media.

 

The Persistence of Racism

But let me just try to stay focused long enough to speak to the fact that I may be one of the people that somehow can't acknowledge how much has not happened, because I can see so much that has happened. But there's still a big, big problem for African-American people, because the freedoms that many enjoy are not really enjoyed kind of universally by African-American folks. You are still, and I don't say the "N" word, I say you are still a "nigger" because that's the way you're treated. When you walk into a room, and I've taught now at several universities. I went to graduate school at Columbia, and I came west in that migration of us and taught at the Art Institute in San Francisco and ultimately at UC Berkeley.

And when I walked into a classroom, and I was always late as I was today. It's something pathological, really. [Laughter] You know, I've lost jobs because I couldn't be there on time. Once I got there, I was very good. [Laughter]

Getting there was the thing. But I would go into classrooms, and the one time when I would intentionally be late — the first day of class. And so all these kids would be assembled, and in those days, they were actually African-American students. There are very few of them now. When I left UC Berkeley, I was lucky to have one African-American student, and in many semesters, I didn't have any. But in the early days, in the '70s, when I walked in, I would say, "Who's class is this?" And these kids would look at me as if I didn't exist. And I would say, "Is this O'Neal's class?" Nothing, in general, would happen. And I got to — I knew exactly what I was doing. So then I would march up to the front of the room, and I would say, "This is O'Neal's class. I'm she." And kids would walk out. White kids would walk out. Out of my class. They never gave me a chance, which was great, because I knew those students that remained had an ability to at least hear me.

And I think I still find today that people literally, white folks, Asians, all of those who are not visibly African-American, have trouble hearing what I have to say. So I was wearing two hats in those days, that of an African-American woman which made me very valuable in these white institutions and that of an African-American. But I didn't really have the female issue. It was all about being African-American.

So I see on the one hand that there have been these marvelous changes. You know, we can go to these really famous and important institutions, few of us are there. But we made a way for white women who are major forces in the university. And I cry, because I didn't leave anyone behind. I tried from the moment I arrived there and rubbed people wrong, as they knew I would, but there was a time when the university could've been turned out. The Art Institute could've been turned out because there were no African-Americans. The Art Institute was always under threat of being burned down, because they didn't have people of color. But they managed.

So I don't know. I don't think this is exactly the time, but I wanted to put those things into this pot, that we've come an awfully long way. And I think we taught people how to protest. I think we learned a great deal from the Labor Movement, people like Bayard and Ella, those guys who had a different experience and who mentored us. So I think we are who we are, not just as individual people but as a country because of the Movement. I think students learned to protest because we were getting our heads beat. Anyway, that's as much as I remember, so I should probably retire for the rest of the day.

Phil: Hopefully the tape recorder got all of that.

Mary: That would be good. I wanted to come to this meeting, because my memory is so bad. It's so fragile, and I think one of the reasons I don't remember a lot is because so much of it was so bitter, so hard. And I just couldn't keep it all. Some of it was very, very personal, as Wazir and some others know, and you know, we lost a lot of people. We lost a lot of people to murder and to madness. And so those of us who have survived owe a great deal, owe an enormous amount to ours that were lost.

Woman: And AIDS, we lost — 

Mary: Yes. And we're still losing folks to these prisons. [Sounds of assent] All these great young minds, or younger certainly than we are. Are just in these — in San Quentin and the local jails, just being ripped off the street.

Linda: Everybody has said a piece of everything, I think. I don't know that I can even say it any differently, but I think what I think was achieved was about raising the consciousness, both personally and socially. I think from what I can see of everybody that was in the Movement there was a personal transformation and change, our entire way that we deal in the world and how we see things.

I did the reverse of what you did. I ended up going into the Peace Corps after graduation. I was a junior. It was in the summer going between my junior and senior year in college. And I became very active in Philadelphia SNCC and got that Northern experience which unfortunately was not that different from the South, once you get into seeing it. And you got just as beat up and called names and everything on the streets of Philadelphia as we did in Mississippi, basically.

But I think, for me, because I ended up teaching in Oakland at Castlemont High School — 36 years — loved every minute of it, but never — never saw anything but freedom as being a constant struggle. And as cliche as that is, it's such a complex picture, because we're fighting systems that are bigger than we are. I think my perception was that even now after 50 years, with my white skin, when I enter a room, I see myself as African-American, and I try my damndest to see like what you just said. I really try to see it through your eyes. And so every day it's kind of a constant struggle to get through, because you end up so bitter. And you end up so hateful.

And you see students coming in from all over the country now, and they're coming from countries that have the same perceptions as the white Southerner did, and it's not identical. And I agree; I mean, immigration is — I'm down for it. I'm with the Dreamers and all of this, but there's a lack of understanding when immigrants come to this country of what it is about, the depth of it, the profundity of the injustices that this country was built on, from Native American on up. We have not achieved that understanding among our own people who were here, and then all the immigrants coming in who have a very shallow understanding and are affecting our economics, affecting our culture in a way that — I can't evaluate that piece of it yet. I want us to — can't we all just get along? [Laughter]

["Dreamers" refers to young immigrants living in the U.S. who were fighting for immigration reforms that would grant them a path to citizenship. The name stems from the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) which was first introduced to Congress in 2001. It would have provided legal protection for undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents. While a few states had enacted state-versions of the DREAM Act as of 2014, most had not, and opposition by conservative Republicans was preventing the act from passing Congress.

Linda: I want that. But it's not there yet. And it scares me how fragile a foundation we have built. It's just like the biggest lessons for me were the personal is the political, and the political is personal. It's constant. It's complex. [Sigh]

Mary: I just want to piggyback on that. I really am not going to say much more. But when you talk about immigrant population and how they adapt, I mean from all over this world, even from blackest Africa, when they get here — whomever — they all figure out a way to distance themselves from African-Americans. And it is the most heartbreaking thing to know that essentially the Movement, the student Civil Rights Movement that brought in all of us is what ultimately affected the world. Because not one single country did what we did, have done, before we did it. I mean, apartheid in South Africa, but it's apartheid all over the world. Brazil. You can't name a country where people who are visibly blacker than others are treated equally. It's a simple fact of color, and it is alarming and it is — it forces me to be bigger than I am.

It's like I walk around like that, just ready to fight. Waking up with my fists balled to this day. Not finding a way out of that. So I feel that it is how I am and what I am, and it seems I haven't left behind at a place like Berkeley what it needs, because you cannot tell me that in the 30 years I taught there they couldn't find another African-American to put on the tenure track. I mean, even if they don't make it through the process, but you tell me that there's not another African-American. There are Filipinos and whites and Afghanis and everyone that you can imagine except another African-American. Maybe I acted very badly, and they don't want any more. [Laughter]

You know, you're very visible, and so everything you do is a judgment for all African-Americans.

Wazir: We can't forget that people like you and me were put in positions to fail. Do you see it? Do you see? And our skin is so thick that we can't feel that we are in these positions to fail. And it causes you to posture in a way. "Yeah, I'm super bad." [I have to have] five damn authorities, books on the subject before I walk into that classroom so that first of all, before I can get down to who I am and what I am going to teach. Like I used to sing acapella with the Rust College choir, but we had to do the three Bs and rock them with the classical stuff, before we [could] get into the — 

Mary: Get down.

Wazir: Get down. We had to let them know we — before you can listen to the Gospels, you've got to respect us, and that's what it seems — the only way you can do that, I have to show you that I'm just as good as you with your culture and your music before I can get to mine. So yeah. That was Wazir Peacock, piggybacking on what Mary Lovelace has said. [Overtalk]

We're still dealing with the evaluation of the Freedom Movement this morning, but it's inevitable that it's going to overlap into how it affected us. So it's OK. [Overtalk]

Peggy: I think there has been a lot of profound statements here this morning. Phil, I really loved your kind of overview, and Mary, bringing it also into the personal level was really powerful, but everybody — I can agree and feel for what everyone said. When I was looking at these questions, I was thinking just in terms of my experience. I was thinking about the bigger picture, but I think Phil you covered that beautifully. But in terms of my experience, what was achieved was a lot like what Bright talked about. Sussex County, Virginia was owned by one man whose name is Garland Gray, and he owned the {UNCLEAR} business. The majority of the population was Black, but less than 1% was registered to vote when we went in in '65. This was still in the days of the poll taxes, before {UNCLEAR}

So you're handed a piece of paper too, and you fill — answer the questions so you can register to vote, but they didn't tell you what the questions were. So that's why there was less than 1% registered to vote. So we did get people registered and organized the Sussex County Improvement Association. And when I went back in 1986, they had an office on Main Street, and it just really warmed my heart. I mean, I was just so happy for the people that lived there, because it's very rural, this part of Virginia, and there wasn't much there. And the mayor was Black which was phenomenal.

So in some ways, there was some community organization, and the power of organization, of even for us people without money or power. You know, with organizing, you could change some things. I think what we failed to achieve is what Mary, what you highlighted and other people have mentioned, is we have not achieved equality. We have not achieved equality, and we are a long way from it.

What lessons did I learn? I mean, I learned the obvious lessons which helped with the anti-Vietnam stuff about organization, but I also learned that money is important. [Laughter]

You know, I was 17 years old, and I was like, "Who cares [about money]?"

Woman: Our parents were right.

Peggy: Right. Money does matter, and the Supreme Court, just this week —  You know, we've got a long ways to go with that.

[A few days before this conference in April of 2014, the Supreme Court overturned federal campaign-contribution limits. In essence, their 5-4 decision in McCutcheon v Federal Election Commission opened the door for wealthy individuals and corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to sway elections. The court's vote was on party lines, the five Republican members out-voting the four Democratic members. While the ruling also allowed unlimited political contributions by unions, the financial resources of organized labor were miniscule compared to those of global corporations and individual billionaires. One clear effect of the ruling was to make incumbent officials and opposition candidates ever more dependant on the big-donors.]

And then what did it all mean? Well, I don't know that I can answer that. For me, it meant a total change in my life. It exploded my life in many ways, and nationally, it obviously meant a great deal. But that's a huge question, so that's all I have to say.

Jimmy: I think we were most effective around voter registration. And I say that because when I went into Lowndes County we did not have one Black registered voter. I mean, not one. Yet, [Blacks] were 80% of the population. Now, there was clearly something wrong with that picture. And you go in, they'd have this little thing where you had to pass a test, and you can laugh if you want to, but part of the test was, "How many bubbles in a bar of soap?" And of course, I don't care what you say, it's wrong.

[For years, the Freedom Movement held formal and informal citizenship classes that taught people how to correctly answer questions on the official literacy test. Some county registrars responded by making up their new questions on the spot whenever they felt like it. Some delighted in posing quesitons that could not possibly have a definitive answer. That allowed them to rule whatever answer you gave as "wrong." Therron Lynd, for example, the Forest County Mississippi registrar favored the, "How many bubbles..." question. When that became widely known through a federal lawsuit, other southern registrars also adopted it.]

Bright: That's an important question. [Laughter and cross-talk.]

Jimmy: And when you went to voter registration in Lowndes County, I knew a few people who said [to the registrar], "Look, I want to be just like you. I want to be smart. Now, how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap? I don't know why you need to keep this a secret. You won't tell us." [Laughter and overtalk] "Well," [imitating the registrar] "you got to learn that on your own. [Laughter]

So, you know what that was all about. They didn't want you to vote.

Now, if somebody goes through all this to try to prevent you from voting, there must be something to voting, right? OK, now, when the federal government became involved with it, we saw big changes, right? More Black people started voting because they had federal registrars coming into the counties and what- not.

[As a result of the Voting Rights Act, federal registrars were sent to a few of the most racist counties, such as Lowndes County, Alabama.]

People were able to register to vote, and once they were able to register to vote, they were able to run for office. Now with 80% of the people in Lowndes County being Black, they were { — unclear — }, and before you know it, {UNCLEAR}, took over the whole thing. And where whites used to ride through the county, you know, with them shot guns in back of their car, and when the Blacks started registering and what-not, they started coming up with shotguns in the back of their cars, right? And so then , whites started putting umbrellas and { — unclear — } putting in { — unclear — }, so the Blacks — Yeah, it's true. Blacks started taking out their shotguns and putting umbrellas and { — unclear — } [Laughter]

And things started to change. OK, I was out of the South for maybe about two or three years, and I went back to Selma, and I saw all these Black people and white people sitting together and what-not. I said, "Whoa, where am I?" [Laughter]

This isn't the Selma I knew a few years ago. And I saw a whole lot of change. But the thing that really struck me was when I went there, and I was on Highway 80, between Montgomery and Selma, and I saw about 20 or 30 police, highway patrol and what-not, and I didn't see one white one. They were all Black. What in the world? I mean, I was so flabbergasted, I got to sit down and take a look at this, because I just don't believe it. But I think that all started with the vote and some of the progressive work that — so I think we were very effective in what we did, but there still are some things that we need to do. And I think, in time, they will be done. We have to work with the young people to keep it moving. That's what I think. [Overtalk]

Woman: I think they were { — unclear — }. Anyway, maybe when I was 21, I thought it was possible to create a perfect society. I don't think that's going to happen now, but there's always going to be something.

Jimmy: You will never have a perfect society.

Woman: Right, exactly.

Woman: So, we're going to take a 5-minute break. And then come right back.

[Short break]

 

Remembering Juke Joints

[Conversations continue while others are taking a brief break.]

Mary: Did you go to the juke joints — that you had been in?

Jimmy: Oh yeah.

Mary: That was the biggest change for me. I couldn't believe it.

Jimmy: What were they like?

Mary: The juke joints — well, there was this totally integrated situation, and I was just like — In Jackson and outside all — you know, all of those roadside clubs where — because Jackson, Hinds was a county that was dry. And so you had all of these clubs outside that bought off — in the county. But then there were others where it was still illegal — but it wasn't. You know, you paid off the sheriff.

Jimmy: The sheriff, they made grand theft money.

Mary: Big money, big time. Thank you.

Bright?: I was at — we went and bailed a guy out, one of our workers, Chris. He was sitting out in front of the jail, and I sat down next to him. I had bail money, and the sheriff told the turnkey, who was Black, to get something. The turnkey goes in the sheriff's trunk and brings out a case of vodka and puts in the highway patrolman's truck. And then the highway patrolmen hands him some money, and everyone's happy, and { — unclear — }

Phil: You learned more about the politics than any book will ever tell you.

Mary: Do you remember the set-ups [in the juke joints]? You know, you would be given a pitcher with the alcohol in it, and then there would be — you'd get ice or sometimes, if you brought your own, you would just buy the set-up, which would be ice and lemons and — 

Phil: And Coca-Cola.

Mary: And Coca-Cola.

Phil: A bowl of ice with an ice pick.

Woman: With an ice pick! [Laughter]

Bright: We would stab ourselves in the hand now, they wouldn't let that — 

 

Catching Up

Bright: So what have you been up to?

Jimmy: Oh man, I've been kicking back. I worked on the same job for 32 years.

Bright: What job is that?

Jimmy: I was a probation officer.

Bright: But you're retired now.

Jimmy: I've been retired 10 years.

Bright: And how did you get in? Did you come in from being a cop to becoming a probation officer?

Jimmy: No, I graduated from Tuskegee, and then I came here, took the exam, passed it. And I was on my way. But I went to law school for awhile too.

Bright: Peggy, where did you work?

Peggy: I'm still working. I'm a nurse practitioner. I worked with San Francisco General in the ER. I retired from the ER, and I work at San Francisco VA {UNCLEAR}, and I teach. I'm on faculty at UCSF.

Bright: And what do you do now [to someone else]?

Woman: Well, I used to teach Women's Studies and Ethnic Studies, and now I'm a counselor. How about you?

Bright: Public school system?

Woman: Actually, {UNCLEAR}. What about you?

Bright: I'm a retired {UNCLEAR} [Overtalk]

[Much general cross-talk]

[Group reconvenes]

 

Government & Social Change

Man: What's next?

Wazir: What's next is that everybody has gone around, now we'll just talk in general about — you don't have to be in any particular order. Just, what was achieved? What did we fail to achieve? What lessons did we learn?

Phil: I'd like to make a point about something Jimmy said { — unclear — }

SNCC was notoriously known for being the bad boys of the Movement. Then and now. Based on what I call political logic of the times. And what made me think about it was what Jimmy was saying about Alabama. And it was true of the Civil Rights Movement in general, I think, that a lot of it was — we were going into the South to basically show the people of the South that they had rights, under the U.S. Constitution. They were U.S. citizens. Interesting dynamic, because working with immigrants, that's not true today.

And when we were doing it in most of our work, because even the laws in many cases were on the books already. Some of them were after Reconstruction. So it was a question of enforcement. And the damn government wasn't enforcing their own laws, for all of the reasons that we know. The little illustration that you gave right as we were leaving the room for the break was where the real power was. So our job was basically to get the government to come in, against the bad sheriffs, the bad highway patrols, the bad mayors, the bad governors, and so on, whatever {UNCLEAR} and so on and make the state governments which had been run by the Dixiecrats, basically fall in line and obey the federal laws.

So the problem were the Southern, racist Dixiecrats. The solution was the U.S. federal government and the Constitution of the United States. That was the logic. And what we began to develop and see what has happened, both in the Movement but also in terms of what, in some ways, was always there is that the real problem is the government itself. [Sounds of assent].

{ — unclear — } the solution. Whether it was like what happened this week with the U.S. Supreme Court — remember the Supreme Court was progressive back in the day. In some ways, the modern thinking — the important thinking of the Civil Rights Movement began with the '54 Supreme Court decision [Brown v Board of Education]. So we looked to them for allies. There are these things called progressive liberal Democrats which really helped us out in Atlantic City to a great degree, and then we had the split. Lyndon Johnson had some other ideas of when to put pressure on people.

But all I'm saying, to use this illustration to say, is how far the political divide has changed in terms of how the progressive movement has to move. We don't have an answer yet for the government being the problem, because we are used to the government being the solution to all of the bad guys running around. And that's where we're stuck. And so when Martin Luther King in his last book asks, "Where do we go from here?" that question is still pertinent. And there hasn't been a real figuring out, whether internationally, whether from the grassroots, whether it's from labor, or all the little isms, people who are victims by the isms coming together.

But the solution has got to come from somewhere to deal with the problem if the government is in control of the political economy and increasingly through the media, which {UNCLEAR} a lot increasingly of how we think. I mean, we use to have Black Liberation Movements, or Women's Liberation Movement, or Gay Liberation Movements. And then that "L" got dropped, and it was the Women's Movement and so on.

And then those movements had their internal splits, and now we look at it today, I mean there are more people who have more consciousness than ever before. There are a lot more people doing stuff in the United States than were doing stuff in the '60s. Some of that is thanks to the non-profit {UNCLEAR}. But we were part of spawning that, so the question is, at this point — and that was a positive. I mean, it was like good reform — but at a certain point, the other side learns that we have to keep it moving to figure out how do we move beyond that. Because the answer is no longer as it was when we were doing the '60s. And I don't know the answer right now. I'm just raising it as a question, saying that the political logic has changed. We're no longer trying to take our problems to the government to basically get the answers. That's all.

Betty: One of the things we talk about in Baltimore, which is where I live, and I'm involved in local grassroots work, but we talk about the difference between transactional and transformative work. And the transactional work would be what we — many of the gains of the Southern Movement where we were able to replace white police with Black police, or the white mayors with Black mayors, and to have people engaged and involved in their communities where they hadn't been before. I'm not trying to minimize the transactional, but the transactional is we've simply shifted some of the openings in the system.

And the transformational would be what we don't know what that looks like, or what it means. And I wanted to use the realignment of the political parties, because I was a political science student out here, and so one of my motivations was, yes, to make sure that people in the South had their rights, but we also said, "Realign the political parties." We were like, "Get [Mississippi Senator] Eastland. Get [South Carolina Senator] Strom Thurmond. Get all of those right wing, racist Democrats out." You know, what was wrong? I was naive, right? I don't have to say it; I was young, and I was naive. And I grew up in a right-wing family, so I didn't have the background that people who had grown up in left families had and understood stuff. It took me a long time. Dottie Zellner used to say to me, "You're just liberal." And I would like, "No wait, I'm {UNCLEAR} this very radical movement. What do you mean, I'm just a liberal?" [Much laughter and cross-talk.]

Right. So here I am thinking that if we realign the Democratic Party that the country can live up to its ideals which, you know, and Phil spoke very clearly about where we're at with the so-called realignment of the parties, right? We've got the Republicans dominating the South, and that's where all of the really outrageous movements are based. And then we have the Democrats moving to the right, so we don't have what we thought we could do. And so I don't know.

That's just one thing, I think, because I remember seeing my Friends of SNCC memos saying — and I wrote this in my piece in Hands on the Freedom Plow which is a book about women in the Movement which, I think, was an important contribution. But I wrote that, instead of telling — when we wrote for money, we didn't tell people a sob story. We didn't say, "Support the poor Mississippi sharecropper who's starving." We said, "We are changing the country. We are going to make the country better for all of us. We are going to realign the Democratic Party." But well, so here we are today. Back to our — 

["Friends of SNCC" was a network of student and community groups in the North who supported SNCC work in the South both politically and economically. Many of activists who later formed the backbone of the Anti-Vietnam War, Womens, Farm Worker, and other movements got their start and initial training through Friends of SNCC.]

 

Young and Old

Linda: But I do think that when you speak of liberation, I think a lot of — You know, we who went into teaching, whether it's a high school or elementary school or colleges or whatever, it seemed we went from being an oppressed person as a victim to an oppressed person as being an organizer for his rights. Like I never spoke about liberation movements without oppression resistance, oppression resistance. And finding resistance movements has always been difficult, because the history books are written by the victors. And they deny fact that there was so much resistance to every aspect of it.

But I think even among young people now, there is a consciousness that coalitions have to be built. Like when I was in Greenwood, Mississippi, it was like SNCC was it. Stokely! Yeah! We're SNCCers! And it took me a long time to see that CORE was there, and COFO was there, and SCLC was there, and the NAACP was there. And these were all organizations that came together for that transformative hope and  — 

Woman: Wholly transformative, yeah.

Linda: And I do think the younger folks that are into change see that they have to network with each other. And when the call goes down or the call goes out for folks to come down to Fruitvale Station, it isn't just one group that's calling it. We're all here.

["Fruitvale Station" refers to the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black youth, by transit police at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. A number of mass protests were organized to demand justice and raise issues of police racism and official violence.]

And every time there is a protest, in Oakland anyway, you noticed — I used to think, "Are we ever going to get rid of the gray hairs?" [Laughter and cross-talk] We're still in there. We're still with the picket signs. We're {UNCLEAR}. And then all of a sudden, the youth are there. They are there. And they are beating the drums, and they are. It skipped a generation or something. It went through a kind of — but they're coming back.

Nancy: And that's a very hopeful — I saw something similar when — the Central Latin American Studies was celebrating [Ceasar] Chavez through a film that was made by a Mexican filmmaker for Americans, but very bilingual. So it was a very, very smart thing to do, and not one administrator came, although all of the Chavez family was there, and Dolores Huerta was there, and you know, it was incredible. And I was heartbroken, because we had this giant auditorium. This was just a few weeks ago. There was no one from the university there, but then the youth, some of whom, you know, mostly Latino but also Black, they were surrounding the Chavez family. They were just clinging and yelling out, and you know, things that I hadn't seen in a long time, even though they weren't exactly clear on the movement.

 

American Gulag

Nancy: But I think it's this whole question of solidarity, because people are so Balkanized. I mean, you're giving a very positive — but from my view, a small-world university — although I've worked elsewhere — I've just seen this pretty much Balkanization of people working with their own groups and own problems.

And if there's one thing that we could maybe somehow — it seems that those of us in California could really put pressure on the whole prison system, because that's really as egregious as what we found in Mississippi and Alabama in terms of the apartheid nature of it. It's just unacceptable. Plus, the solitary confinement, as you all know about it, I've just written a piece that's called the "Madness and Militarization of American Life," saying that what we do abroad in all these endless wars comes home to haunt us. And so our prisons become military, and we're using torture, and it goes back and forth. It's like this continuum of violence that's circling around and around.

And I realize there are so many movements, the resistance to prisons, and Angela Davis has done — so I was part of that group for awhile. We visited all the prisons and things. But we could really put pressure on this last term of Governor Brown to just get his attention and make it into a Civil Rights Movement. I mean, I think it's the most palpable. There are so many ways you could go, but if we had one thing to organize around, I would say, you know, just storming those prisons and just saying, "Let 'em out! Let 'em out! This is ridiculous! This is a gulag in the United States!" And it's a racialized gulag.

[ "Gulag" is a Russian acronym for the extensive network of prisons and labor camps where political prisoners in the Soviet Union were (and are) incarcerated.]

You know, we have to figure some — I guess we fight. We've got to figure out what it is. You know, it's not the whole United States. I mean, right now, I think Louisiana and even Mississippi passed laws that were better in recent years about prisons. And we've just — so they have limits on how long you can be in solitary confinement or whatever, and we don't. We have people 30 years in solitary confinement. Do you know what that does to somebody? To somebody's head?

And then when I talk — I talk to Jerry [California Governor Brown], and I say, "Jerry, I don't understand this. You know, the Supreme Court's after you. You're trying to move people from the prisons into jails, so it's like one gated community to the next. And then where do you go after the jail? Where do you put them after the jails?" And he says, "You don't understand. You know, it's so dangerous in those prisons, and there's all these drug gangs, and there are really crazy people in there." I said, "Well, you know why they're crazy? You made 'em crazy! You put them in solitary confinement. You have all these lock downs constantly, and then we have the crazy war on drugs which has created the gangs and whatever."

And you know, California is like a nation-state. And we should have some concern about it. I'm just putting it on the table as one way to bring back a movement across the board to say, this is as big as the Civil Rights Movement. This is inhumane. This is a country we don't want to live in. we can't identify with it. We don't want our children born into this, and I feel that way about our prison system. Because I think it's our  — .

Woman: It's a legacy of some sort, I think.

Nancy: A legacy. Yeah, of everything, you know, and people just end up — because they built those prisons so far out of reach that you don't have to see them. You really have to travel. You go into the desert, or you go off into the Sierras or whatever, and then you find all these gulags with people who don't know anything else except life in prison.

Woman: I would just say, { — unclear — }for someone we all know, and that is that Rap is in — 

Woman: Prison.

Woman: — solitary. Not just prison, but solitary confinement, yeah.

["Rap" refers to former SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin.]

Nancy: And he's far from Georgia too, isn't he?

Male: He's in Colorado.

Phil: Actually, the only person who's seen him that we all know, Don Jelinek, went out, I guess maybe two plus years now. And he's basically in a super-max prison, and he's basically below ground 23 hours a day.

Nancy: I mean, it's unbelievable. It's like in a rat hole.

Phil: Yeah. And so I told {UNCLEAR}, and the guards { — unclear — }. He goes, "Nobody is going to break in or {UNCLEAR}"

Many: Yeah, right.

Phil: But somebody, in terms of the system you're talking about with the Civil Rights Movement, is suffering that and has been, I guess, for the last couple of years.

Betty: We just had in Baltimore — there was just a Black Panther released in Baltimore, Eddie Conway, who had been convicted of killing a cop and maintained his innocence for 40 years. And he was just released, so that was like a big victory. People worked to support him and bring him out, and he's giving some talks. He did fabulous stuff in prison, mentoring younger prisoners and keeping people connected to their families and that kind of thing.

 

Who's Running This Ship?

Wazir: The government — who runs our government — I was saying that, who actually runs our government? And whoever the hell they are, they are viciously attacking our youth. It stands out with the Black youth; you can see that, but people don't see the "subtleties" of how it's affecting all of the youth of our country. That means to me, I don't who they are, but somebody don't have the best interests of the United States of America at heart. They want to incarcerate people who are pro-America, who want to make this their home and be identified as, "This is my home" and say proudly, "I'm an American."

But when you're looking deep down and seeing what the — whoever is running our government putting it out there, it's just something you don't want to be identified with. And the youth don't want to be identified with it, and the youth don't see this as being anybody caring about them, and you've got more youth suicide across the board, even Black youth are doing it. Suicide {UNCLEAR} in the history of this country or anywhere.

Mary: And these kids that are coming back from these wars — [sounds of assent].

Woman: Are traumatized.

Mary: Yeah, who is running this ship? I'd like to know that.

Betty: Congressmen Cummings said in that Michael Moore — Elijah Cummings is my Congressman — he said in that Michael Moore film — I don't remember the name of the film even {UNCLEAR} our age — but Cummings said in the film that there were forces that he is afraid of that are running the country. So piggybacking on what Wazir said — 

Mary: Do you remember all of the things that Malcolm said just about that subject? You know, like, "Who's bringing in the guns? Who supports all of that?" So it was recognized by him, and that voice was silenced.

Wazir: And whoever they are — whoever it is, they need to be exposed. And people who are affiliated with him and working for him, they don't know that they're working for him. See there are people working for these — whoever they are — don't even know that they're working for them and never have. There are people that are doing research for them. They think that the research is going to help, better things for the people. But whoever they are, I'm sure, they use this research, "OK, this is what they can do to { — unclear — } the opposite we can do to keep in power and stay in control."

 

Remembering Jack Minnis

Because it's not — I'm not going to use the word conspiracy; I'm going to use — this is a direct, intentional thing happening about whoever is running the damn thing, whoever they are. And I think at some point, they need to exposed. One of our people who worked directly with us, Jack Minnis, was on the trail, trying to help expose whoever that is. And he brought a research element to the Movement, working directly for SNCC, but it was through the Movement. Especially those who have the means to be active, we need to know who they are. But I'm getting ahead of the thing of — 

Phil: You were mentioning Jack Minnis, and I have two fond memories of him. I'm sure there could be others, but one is the practical thing. He was the main person who did the research on the State of Israel, which had to do with SNCC coming out basically saying that Zionism was a form of racism. Jack Minnis was the main person from the SNCC research department that did that. The other part was that he loved good whiskey. [Laughter]

Right. Wazir knows that.

Wazir: When we got together and talked politics, we had good whiskey, yes.

Betty: I have a Jack Minnis story that involves Jimmy Rogers. We were at a SNCC meeting in Selma, and I was driving, and I think Jack was sitting in the front seat. And Jimmy and Cynthia Washington were in the back, kind of, you know, low, right? And these white guys started to follow us in a car. I don't remember if it was a pickup truck or it was a car, but they were threatening us. They clearly were threatening. And Jack said to me, "God, move the car! Gun the engine!" I'm a little bit scared, so Jack jumps in the back on top of Jimmy and Cynthia, and he moves over. He jumps into the front seat, and I move over. I'm holding the car like this, and luckily we didn't crash, and we went fast. He got the car up to 100 miles an hour or something like that. That was when cars could go that fast, right? Even though you weren't supposed to.

Woman: And before seatbelts.

Betty: But I hadn't seen Jimmy I don't think since that time. [Laughter]

Betty: So I always remember that story about Minnis and Cynthia and Jimmy.

Jimmy: He was one of my favorite people.

Betty: Who? Minnis? Yeah.

Jimmy: In fact, I talked to him right before he died, because we were trying to find some information about his involvement with the Black Panthers that we had in Lowndes County.

Betty: Like the symbol.

Jimmy: Yeah. And then the next time I tried to call him, which was about three or four days later, he had died.

Bright: How old was he when he died? How recent?

Jimmy: I don't have any idea.

Woman: Five years ago or something.

Wazir: Yes. But he was in the Jim Foreman age bracket. He was Jim Foreman's {UNCLEAR}

Woman: Yeah, he was like eight or nine years {UNCLEAR}

Wazir: { — unclear — } We used to — Phil made me think about it. When we say we used to go to the government as a court of last resort, and it's going to be our ally, but they're not the go-to person anymore, whoever it is that's running it. The Supreme Court is not the go-to court anymore. And they're not supreme. They're not what they're supposed to be.

Woman: Wise.

Jimmy: Not in Clarence Thomas.

Woman: They're not.

Wazir: And I'm not going to propose anything. [Laughter]

Woman: I hear a little voice. [Laughter]

Phil: But you know, going back to where the government was. I mean, that had a lot to do with our so-called coalitions. The Big 6 of the Civil Rights Movement. Because people like Whitney Young [Urban League] and Roy Wilkins [NAACP] saw the government, particularly when Lyndon Johnson became President {UNCLEAR} John Kennedy, as their main ace in the hole. And SNCC never felt that way. And I mean, we had enough run-ins with the Department of Justice not doing anything, watching our people get beat up, and all that. CORE also felt the same way, is that we could never have that same idea of even thinking of trust in the government as the solution, because our direct experiences were totally opposite of that.

Peggy: I think from what I remember from the summer of '65, we made a distinction between the local government and the federal government, and the federal government could be used to enforce change in the local government. And certainly the Voting Rights Act, where I was in Virginia and other places in the South, getting rid of the poll tax and getting rid of the literacy exam and stuff really opened up registration. Now the federal government didn't help with registration at all, but by changing the law, that did make a difference.

So there was some impact that I think we looked to the federal government for, and it did have an effect on voter registration. It had some effect on school integration. Again, not across the board positive or anything; I wouldn't go that far, but now, the way I feel, is I don't trust — I feel much more alienated now than I did then in terms of any government at all.

 

Our Bodies on the Line Made the Difference

Wazir: Let's look at how did we make — get them to make that move to send federal registrars to Mississippi and other places where the federal — what preceded that? What — 

Mary: Death. Death. You know, I mean, the people that we lost, in most public ways. And I'll say this. It's a bad thought, but it was true, the way we sold those deaths. I can remember that Feather [Ralph Featherstone] sent me to New York to raise money, and the Schwerners had me stay with them that evening after I raised money at this cocktail party. But it was, I think, one of the worst nights I've ever spent, in Mickey Schwerner's room, all of his little trophies. And it was just — and I really didn't even know Mickey. And I guess I'm confessing to this. I acted as if I did, so they took me in in a way that was meaningful for them. And I let myself be used in that way and in another way by speaking of those kids as if I really knew them, and I didn't.

But we learned some pretty hard lessons about how to make our suffering public in such a way that we could gain. And it was a hard thing for young people as we were to look that reality in the face and say, "Oh yeah, I get it. You know, we're selling caskets here." And there was that realization throughout our numbers, so that in a sense no death went for naught, I guess, in those days. So I think a lot of the burning, the killing, that as much as anything, our bodies being on the line made the difference.

You know, I don't think we could've had the impact that we obviously did have if we hadn't lost our numbers in such a public way and if no one had spoken about it. And by that time, people like Roger Mudd and those young journalists got into, and they talked about it, and the consciousness of the country was raised. And when you start killing young white people, you've got some problems. And I think there was some of that, "Well, you can kill these Black people, but wait a minute, baby, you can't kill our children. That's not gonna work." So I think that change was called for by what happened to individuals. I mean, just little people, you know?

Bright: I think as the Vietnam War was "the first television war," our movement, the Civil Rights Movement, really was the first television social movement in America. The Labor Movement — television hadn't made it in. So we were on screen at 6 o'clock — Cronkite every night, and there was no denying the validity of our presence.

["Cronkite" refers to CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite.]

We also hit it right, timewise, with the court, the Supreme Court, the liberal court was there. Liberal Kennedy was there. All of, as we would say, the stars were aligned correctly for our movement. Those powers that be that would prevent it couldn't prevent it. It really was a social movement that carried through for a long time. That was the good of it. That was the success of it. And the press. We had the press on our side for a moment in time. Whatever you can say about the press, we were good copy, and maybe some of them were very earnest, honest individuals, and they said, "We're gonna get this word out." So we owe a lot to the television and a lot to the press and a lot to the validity of our movement to get us where we were.

Jimmy: I think one thing that really, at least in Alabama, with Mrs. Liuzzo {UNCLEAR}. When Mrs. Liuzzo got killed, I think that really had a big impact on Lyndon Johnson to do something, and I think that opened up a lot of {UNCLEAR}.

Phil: I want to follow up on Bright's thing. I totally agree with you. A lot of times when I talk about the Civil Rights Movement when we go to classes and are speaking, I always talk about the fact that we were the first generation, political generation, that benefitted from television. We didn't actually have to convince people that Bull Connor was bad. They could just turn on the TV, and they could watch him. In the discussion, and that was [much overtalk].

Woman: The dogs and the hoses...

Phil: Yeah, they could see the morality of segregation right there.

 

The Freedom Movement and the Cold War

Phil: But the other point I wanted to raise, a different point that we sometimes forget, is that there was a Cold War going on. And the United States was in a very active struggle with the Soviet Union for the so-called "hearts and minds" of all the poor little cousins in Southeast Asia and Africa. Well 99% of them were colored. And having racial segregation, apartheid, in the United States, while they were the major democracy, "land of the free," fighting against these bad Commies from Russia just wasn't a good equation for them. And so I think that also, in a lot of ways, I'm not going to say that one is more important than the other. I think it depended on the situation, of which of these things were important, but that was clearly there all the time.

And being at Howard University in Washington, D.C. during the early '60s, you could see this in terms of the government and the Congress and so on, and much later, reading some of these biographies or autobiographies of these Congresspeople after they had retired, and what they were thinking about and what were some of the political motions, you can see that the Cold War was very much on their mind because they were the U.S. state power. I'm sorry, they had to deal with what was the perceived opponent to that which is the Soviet Union, and all the little things in terms of making up people's minds to fight for or favor U.S. democracy, and the Civil Rights Movement played right into that in a way that forced their hand.

 

Vietnam and the Draft

Betty: I wanted to maybe focus on the Anti-Vietnam War Movement in thinking on the [public] impact it had versus the Civil Rights Movement. I'm now thinking it had much of a less impact because the current kind of thinking about war and the U.S. involved in war is not as robust maybe, or the young people are not thinking about the anti-war stuff as much as they are thinking about oppression and racism and the Jim Crow era and that kind of thing.

So I'm thinking for what — and I'm not a scholar, right? I mean, I don't have a lot of — but I'm just thinking that the Civil Rights Movement was a much more profound movement, and its legacy is still so evident today. I mean, I don't think young people really even study the Anti-War Movement, you know? I mean, so much of it was about privilege too because of the draft. And so the same thing, the young white people who were going to war, they were engaged in the Anti-War Movement whereas there was no draft for Iraq and Afghanistan and so on, so that's a whole different dynamic that's been changed.

Wazir: Speaking of the way the war is going on, and the way that they get people now, the young people {UNCLEAR}. My grand nephew has his Master's degree. He taught school in my hometown, Charleston [MS], for a few years. Then he wanted to branch out and go deeper into what his real field was. He passed his tests and all that kind of stuff, and they wouldn't give him a job. And they just {UNCLEAR}, couldn't get a job. So he got married, and he had to support his family. So he ended up volunteering and going into this Army, the way it is now. And I've heard this story over and over and over again by young people like him. We can't — they won't — they're forcing us by not employing us, to go into the military.

Woman: It's one place to get a job.

Wazir: So when I think about "Tricky Dick" Nixon when he talked about getting rid of the draft, I see what he had in mind. Making mercenaries out of our {UNCLEAR}. That's the way I see it.

Mary: It's either the Army or jail.

Wazir: Army or jail, that's right.

Mary: I mean, that's where our young men are. You can't even get married these days. You know, and everyone's talking about, "Oh, well these women need to have husbands, and we need fathers for these children." Sure. If you didn't put them in the service in some foreign land or put them in jail so that they can rot. I mean, it's deep. [Sounds of assent]

Wazir: It is deep.

 

Who is the Power?

Mary: Whoever those powers are have got something for us.

Wazir: Yes, indeed.

Mary: And we need to wake up somehow.

Wazir: I'm not even talking about {UNCLEAR}, but we need to find out who they are. Then we can talk about what do you do when you find out.

Mary: How do we find out?

Woman: Scandal. You watch Scandal. It's one man. [Laughter]

["Scandal" refers to a popular TV series on the air at the time of this conference.]

Wazir: It's not one man.

Woman: No, it can't be one person.

Betty: I mean, I don't know that we should beat this horse, but I think it's the corporate structure and system, and so it's greed. And it's capitalism, and it's all those things that we were aware of and have thought about all through these years. But we've never had — we don't have now, let's put it that way — we did in the '60s have enough power to shift the system. So when this young woman who was doing a ban-the-box campaign in Baltimore wrote me last week about, "Let's bring back the Movement days." And I wrote her back, and I said, "You know what?" And she said, "Just like when you were in the South." And I'm like, "Yeah, but we don't have the power and the force." Because the city council was — the businessmen came in, and they said, "Oh, we can't ban the box," meaning what you check [on a job or credit application] when it says if you've ever been incarcerated. And they're trying in Baltimore to get rid of that box.

Woman: Get rid of the {UNCLEAR}

Betty: Yeah. In some places it's been gotten rid of, but we have — and it's been gotten rid of in Maryland before, with contractors, to the state, but not locally. So the businessmen are saying, "Well, we have to have a box, and we can't..." So they're up against the business establishment, which they never really understood they would be. So, there's that whole — but anyway, I said to her, "We don't have the power and the strength to do what the Movement did at its peak, to really shift the consciousness of the city or the country or the state, whatever it is."

So one question is, how do we build that force to combat what Peacock is talking about in terms of this whole institutional structure? Which has people in it who could be targets, but force them to change? But sometimes their own company forces them down, because they don't make enough profit or they don't make enough whatever.

Wazir: I'm not talking about them people.

Betty: You're not talking about them people, OK.

Fran: I just wanted to make the point that the thinking of the country did not change all at once. Maybe ours did, because we were on the front line. I know mine did. But most people at the end of the summer, say September 1964, thought exactly the way they had in May of 1964. And it's now that we see the great changes, but I have found, even one woman who grew up in Mississippi and was there was not able to tell me exactly when the segregation signs came down in her home town. She said, "Well, they changed." "Was there some sort of edict, everybody take down the signs?" "Well, no. But they did." And it happened.

I doubt very much that all of them came down — maybe one person was brave and did it first, and some other business thought, "Well, maybe I better do that too." But when you look at it over 50 years, you see that the thinking — even people who call themselves conservative are saying they think the Movement — and I have had conservative people come to me and say, "Oh, I think what you people did was such a great thing." Well, 50 years ago, people of their political persuasion thought what we were doing was a terrible thing. They thought it was Communistic and disruptive. So, I don't think we can expect to see any change come about immediately, but hopefully, maybe give them another 40 or 50 years. [Laughter]

Phil: This is Phil again. But I guess { — unclear — }I think the challenge of our time is to wake up. Because all this stuff happens if we're asleep. And there are all these new problems out there, global warming, you name it. It didn't exist back in '60, to our awareness. And the only way people can do something about them is if they wake up. And there are people — and people don't just wake up spontaneously. Just like those signs didn't come down. We have selective memories, in many cases because we've been programmed to have selective memories. I mean, I was thinking about the Vietnam thing and the Civil Rights thing. Civil rights has basically been appropriated by the establishment of the United States to be a successful movement. We did it { — unclear — } So there's truth to that.

But the point I'm raising is that we have a sense — because Martin Luther King has been accepted. It's a national holiday. Even Time magazine put him on as one of the founding figures of this country. That's been accepted. And in that sense, the Civil Rights Movement was successful, because it's fit in with the needs of what the establishment had, even though, like you said, it { — unclear — } But that's not true with Vietnam.

Most people don't know how the Vietnam War ended. I was teaching over at the former New College in San Francisco. Grassroots Movements. And this student, a young African-American student, wanted to do something about Vietnam, so I said, "Go ahead. Write a term paper." And he gave me the term paper. I read it. And he started back in 1946 and Ho Chi Minh and the role of the CIA and all of this stuff. And then he just kept writing it, and I actually said, "You know something? What you didn't say? Who won the war? [overtalk]

You know, wars have two sides. How'd it end?" That wasn't in his paper. He got all this — but the meticulous research through the '40s, talked about the '50s, the hamlets, the Strategic Hamlets, blah-blah-blah. But he didn't say how it ended. And the problem is, the United States lost that war. And I ask even my radical friends, what happened on April 30, 1975? Anybody who watched TV saw those helicopters hovering over Saigon, people frantically trying to get out, as they fly out — 

Wazir: They pushed the helicopters into the water to lighten their load [on the aircraft carriers].

Phil: {UNCLEAR} the Viet Cong, as the North Vietnamese are coming into Saigon. We lost that war. That's not a message that the U.S. system wants us to remember. And they haven't quite found an [evening] to appropriate, to even make it look comforting as they have in the Civil Rights Movement. So, and given the move since that time of the U.S. industry, the government, to go along with what's called "globalization," there's a need for that — what's the word? Obfuscation?

 

People Like Us

Phil: So oftentimes it's purposeful. So just like there had to be a bunch of people like us and the people before us in the South who began to say, "This is what's really happening." Or, "That happened. There are people who get lynched in Mississippi, and our churches get burned down." We have to say the equivalent of that for today, or encourage people who are doing that to do that, to actually begin to tie those things together.

I mean, one of the things that I talk about a lot is how this country is a mix, how African-Americans as a group, not individually, but as a group are worse off than they were in the '50s. All economic statistics, health statistics, criminal justice, show that. Right here in the liberal Bay Area, San Francisco, probably being the worst having those stats. And then I say, "Let's forget about Black people. Let's forget about Latinos. Let's forget about Asians. Look at white people. All the statistics show that your generation will be the first generation in American history that will not do better than your parents, or the preceding generation.

And the economic inequality that's widening every day in this country, much more than it was back in the '60s." It's making it impossible to think about how they're going to catch up. Industry is not going to come back. Detroit is not going to come back, in the way that it did in the past. So I mean, maybe I sound like [Grace Bobs] here, but because we have to rethink things in a way that our generation began to do in the late '50s, early '60s, mid-'60s, early '70s, because there have to be new answers, which means that we have to ask new questions and begin to organize, not to sit around and pontificate about them. And that's where the young people come up, because we're getting old. I mean, I'll be 72 next month, and I make 72 look good. [Laughter and overtalk]

I was one of the younger people in the Movement. But I mean, I know our days are limited, a friend of mine [Overtalk]

Well, he put it in a nice, more poetic way. Somebody who's younger than me; I think he's 68. He got up and made a speech, and he said, "I'm in the winter of my life."

Woman Shit! [Laughter]

Phil: But the important thing is, we have to figure out the people who are going to be around longer. Our generation is going to muddle through, to use a little British phrase. We'll muddle through. We'll get through Social Security and all that stuff. That's not true for anybody under 40 and even lesser for people in their 20s. To me, that's the new target generation that we really have to get to think about what's happening in this world, what's going to happen to them, what they're future is going to be like, because it's not going to be pretty.

And any legacy that I think we have, I mean, in some ways, our shoulders will be the ones that they're standing on, and we have to make that ourselves. That's why, to me, the history of our Movement and what we did is so important to these younger people, because they have to know that it is "right to rebel" — a Chairman Mao quote. And you can fight and win a lot of fights. I mean, sometimes they're small; sometimes they seem to be insignificant at the time, but they add up. Yes, they add up and bring in new people. And that's the logic. I think that's what we have to teach. That's what's there.

Mary: I was just going to say, I think a lot of us at 72, you know, even though I wake up in the morning, and I get out of bed and something — 

Woman: Something new is creaking. [Laughter]

Mary: I don't mind the creaking; it's the pain. It's the cramp, and you go, "God." And your neck — well, anyway, but I'm still ready to get in the street. And I think that is ultimately the answer to any of it, to put your body in it. And I don't think there is a way around that. I think we were co-opted. I mean, I think that's what happened. We were co-opted. Martin has his big holiday, and Ceasar Chavez has his big holiday, and we are still being fucked royal. So it means that if we want these kids to see how it's done, maybe we need to get in the street again while we still can so they can get it, so they can see what it looks like. You know, I don't have the ability to organize, but I still have the ability to get out there if somebody can organize it.

Annie: Likewise. One thing that the Occupy Movement did was make the gap, the wage gap, more obvious to more Americans, but then it didn't use that. It didn't go anywhere.

["Occupy Movement" refers to the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests against income inequality and for economic justice that took place in the Fall of 2011.]

Woman: They didn't know how. [Overtalk]

Mary: What they didn't know was how to sustain it, because that was — I remember the earliest days of my involvement in the Movement, I thought, "Wow, we can take care of this shit in about two years." [Laughter]

And I wholeheartedly believed that, and maybe that's why there was so many of us, because we did think that if we put all of our energy towards it, then we'll handle it. And it wasn't until we had been involved in the struggle for a couple of years that wore on into five years, and we married, and we had children, and you know, we got co-opted by the War on Poverty, because we had to feed children. They had to have a place to sleep. All these little babies, what are you going to do with them? It's not the Soviet Union. You got to deal with it.

Bright: I would be one to put my body back out there by any means necessary, but I think in seeing the Arab Spring and other things going on around the world with the young people today, I think this is the greatest organizing device we have seen since the television.

["Arab Spring" refers to a wave of largely nonviolent, pro-democracy mass protests and uprisings that challenged long-entrenched authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Mideast. Grounded in political and economic grievances, the wave began in Tunisia in December of 2010 and quickly spread to Egypt in January of 2011 (the word "Spring" was used metaphorically as contrast to the "Winter" of oppression, rather than to indicate when the events took place). Demonstrators then took to the streets in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria. Arab Spring protests inspired economic-democracy protests in Spain, Israel, and eventually the Occupy Wall Street movement, first in the U.S and then globally. One common thread shared by both the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement was the use of social media such as FaceBook and Twitter to mobilize participation. While most Freedom Movement veterans supported the political goals of Occupy and Arab Spring, some questioned the long-term effectiveness of social-media mobilization strategies as opposed to the face-to-face community organizing approach used by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.]

Wazir: That's what I speak when I go to classes.

Bright: Yeah, the young folks and people that can do this can organize. They don't have to go half a continent to Mississippi to be in it. They're in it right here, and really what is needed most is the focal point. You're saying we white people don't have what we used to, and neither does anyone else. The focal point is, it's out of hand with the greed in the rich half, and I am not a Communist. I am a capitalist, but the rich got too damn much, and the best way to get it is to organize people through this generation.

Betty: I think the key though is not just the mobilizing of putting people in the streets, but the deep organizing, the conversations, the vision of what it is. What kind of a country do we want? What does that country do and not do? And then committing people to that broader vision so that then being in the streets here and there — I mean, that was the key about Mississippi. These students I spoke to last week said, "What was the greatest protest event you went to?" And I said, "It wasn't about one event. It was a whole, deep, community organizing process that those things that you saw on the TV were just the culmination of bringing people together and having those deep conversations."

Woman: Well, { — unclear — } I don't have faith in the social networking, because I think it creates these flash mobs. I have students in Egypt. I've been there. And where else? In Turkey. And I'm heartbroken, because they're in the streets. They were doing it, but then the police came, broke it up. So it's too fast. It's too — you know, it doesn't have the face-to-face quality to it that you almost need. So yes, you can reach so many more people with so many things, but you can't create relationships and, you know, loyalties.

So, we stayed in the Movement because somebody got hurt, or we stayed in the Movement because this happened. It was personalized. It wasn't just an abstraction. And I think the problem is is that it's gotten too abstract, and you can't sustain that. And I was thinking about why the Vietnam War — you know, your student. I know why, because I had my students tell me that. Well, in fact, that's not true. We did win the end of history argument. Because look at — the Viet Cong were there, and now it's all capitalism. So, in fact, we won. It just took a little — so they've actually rewritten things.

Male: Yeah, they rewrite it.

Woman: They rewrite it. And you know, that's — 

Mary: Well, there's the power then. You know, the pen.

Phil: {UNCLEAR} the Movement too though, because they can't quite do that because {UNCLEAR}

Mary: I have to say one last point. I think, if you get people in the street, you get them excited. Because they would ask us, "Well, what does freedom mean to you?" And you'd go like — You know, it was like a trick question. But when you put your body in the street, then there were people who could articulate it for you, because you knew where you needed to be, and you knew what you weren't getting. And so you need a group of folk who can articulate and do the deep analytical stuff. And that's what happens. It becomes academic. We're teaching you. We're teaching the Movement in schools, but we need those people in the street again.

Woman: Yes, definitely.

Mary: Even if they're out there just jumping up and down. But then you know you've got some people to work with, and you say, "Well, look. This is what's going on." And then you find out who — You know, you set a group of them off to look for who's running the country, or the countries. Where's the money going? Where's all of this wealth? You know, why are people having to have food stamps, and then they have to give their first child to get food stamps? They can't even — and why are people voting and doing things against their self interest? That's what's wrong.

Woman: With Kansas, right.

Mary: Yeah, what is wrong with you? Why would you vote for a thing like that? [Overtalk]

 

 — AFTERNOON SESSION — 

 

How the Movement Affected Our Lives

Wazir: How did our participation affect us? Why did we participate? What did it mean for us? How did it change us? How has it affected our lives since? We kind of touched on that some in the morning session. It was inevitable that it had to overlap, but for all intents and purposes, that's what we're supposed to be dealing with this afternoon. How did our participation affect us?

 

Bright Winn: It Set My Mind Right

Bright: It totally changed my perspective of the world. I had grown up in white middle class society. I had read the textbooks. "Everything was right in River City." It's like growing up and discovering there is no Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and your father's a fraud, to suddenly realize that your whole nation is systematically wrong. That there was an entire conspiracy of acceptance throughout the United States government to allow this horrible, horrible political system to perpetuate itself.

So by the time I left Mississippi, after a year, I was shattered, personally shattered. I had been a Christian, but I saw that Christian people — white, Christian people — did horrible, horrible things. I had been a true blue American and saw that America did horrible things, and it took me a long time to come to grips with it. I saw white, male, American, Christian capitalists doing wrong, and of course I was all of those things. So in returning from the South, I had assumed a huge burden of guilt that I carried for a long time, as a white, male, Christian, American capitalist. There wasn't anything in there that I was doing, in my perceptions, correctly.

It took me, I don't know, decades and study and realization that all of the sins of the aforementioned were not the sins of white people, capitalist people, Christian people, but were the sins of humanity and what we and humanity do to our fellow people if we are not checked. And that was a relief. It was a release and a relief to see in Africa, Black people doing horrible things to Black people. That was a relief to me, because they could do it too, and in Asian and in Europe and everything. So going to Mississippi, being there for a year, and coming back tore me apart.

I considered myself to have been PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. We didn't have the word; we didn't have the phrase then, but I was. I had the condition. At the same time, I went out into the world, and I was able to associate with my neighbors at a better level. Because of Mississippi, I was able to vote and concentrate at a more egalitarian level. I went into business. I became a plumbing contractor, and I brag to say that in the segregated plumbing industry, when a Black person came to the counter — to the wholesale counter to buy goods — they'd just say, "Oh, you're Bright Plumbing, aren't you?" Because I was the only plumbing company in San Francisco that hired people of color for a period of time.

Now things have changed. So Mississippi did good things for me. It set my mind right as to how to live and to be inclusive and to, in fact, accept and love. It took me a time to get through that, because Mississippi beat the shit out of me. Now, here I am, 50 years later, and I have wonderful children, and they live in a better America because of the Mississippi that I endured.

 

Wazir Peacock: In the Movement

Wazir: As Winn said, this systematic system, the way our country, the United States of America, was designed, it started affecting me when I was 11 years old, to the point where my brother, { — unclear — } that he was incarcerated. We were just two years apart.

And they treated him — in Tallahatchie County, in Charleston, Mississippi — they treated him like an adult, working on the street, because at that time, they didn't hire people to deal with the sanitation and thrown the garbage. That's what they depended on, incarcerated people to have them to do it. And so that was embarrassing. And to him, his peers to have to see him doing that, and it was really heartbreaking for my father. My father did everything he could to get him out as a juvenile. They wouldn't let him because he was Black. So that ended me.

We ended up — the plantation owner, which many of you are familiar, H.C. Strider, who was the sheriff when Emmett Till was killed — we ended up on his plantation when I was 11 years old. And there I saw — we had just been studying slavery — that was sixth grade — and what it was like, and to my amazement, I was witnessing slavery firsthand on that plantation, so-called sharecropping situation.

I ran into people who their great-grandparents and grandparents had always been on that land. When the land changed hands, they went with it, whoever the new owner was of that plantation. And we were just six miles away, from little Charleston, Mississippi, and it was dramatic. I mean, they talked different from us, other Black people. They talked just like people who had been forced to speak a foreign language, you know, English. And it was amazing. And it affected my childhood. It made me start thinking in terms of how something had to be done to change this system. This was not right. Slavery is supposed to be over.

And so when — you know, I left. I ran away. I left the plantation at 14 years old. I left my family and my parents. And you know, I ran away, the same way runaway slaves had to run away. People who left the plantation, that's what they had to do. They had to run away. Leave everything, whatever they had in the house, leave it on. Made it look like they were still there, but they were gone to Chicago, Detroit, wherever, gone.

I ran away, and me being so young and babyfaced, it worked against me. And I knew if I was going to ever do anything that I was going to have to go back home, go to school, and I couldn't do nothing by myself. I had made a determination, whenever I met other people who were doing something about this that I was going to join them.

And I started doing little things when I was in high school, little things. I guess I was getting ready. And then when I got to Rust College, I ran into a bunch of people who were thinking the same way I was thinking. The budding SNCC people who were getting out of Parchman and that kind of thing, some of them heard about us up there, and they came.

[Referring to the Freedom Riders who had been incarcerated in Parchman prison.]

And they sent representatives up there to talk to us, and so it was 1961 when I first ran into a SNCC person. I didn't join SNCC, but we started doing — we were doing stuff. The first SNCC person that I met was Dion Diamond. He came, and he made the mistake of going back, answering a summons from Louisiana to go to court, because he had worked in Louisiana. And he ended up in Angola [Louisiana state prison]. I ain't talking about Africa either. Worse. The worst prison — 

Jimmy: — in the United States.

Wazir: Yeah. And a whole lot of things happened to him, I've learned, from while he was there. So the next person that came in the spring of '62 was Frank Smith, and I started working directly with Frank Smith. And after I graduated that June of '62, I stayed on at Rust. I took some, as they called it, "Mickey Mouse" courses so I could stay on campus and work with him, organize with him. So when that ended, Frank asked me, "What you gonna do, man? Otherwise, I'll take you on as a [SNCC] staff person."

I said, "That's OK." I said, "I've got to complete my goal." I said, "I'm going to Meharry this fall." I said, "I'll be going to Meharry Medical College." He said, "OK."

So I don't know. There are two versions of how Amzie Moore and Bob Moses knew I had come home to Charleston, Mississippi. Amzie Moore worked all through the Delta, and he had contacts, some of these old soldiers and everything, and they heard I was home. And Bob said, without anybody giving him any directions, he drove straight to my house. And that's when I got the connection about how my father had been going to Mound Bayou, going once a month, like there was a meeting there, some talking.

[Mound Bayou was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War and was one of the first all-Black towns in America. Known as the "Jewel of the Delta," it was a haven for Afro-Americans in times of violence and repression. It was one of the few, somewhat "safer," places where civil rights meetings could be held in Mississippi.]

He kept it away from my mother, because everything he would get involved in, my mother said, "You need to leave that mess alone, George." You know, that kind of thing. So he was doing. But Bob came straight to my house, he and Amzie Moore, they knew each other. And while I was trying to make it OK with my mother for me to leave and go with them, promising her that I was going to be back in time, just going to finish the summer out with them, and then when school opened up in Nashville at Meharry, I would be ready to go, which, as you know, it never happened. I never got back. So it affected me.

I got affected early in the game of what needed to be done. I didn't know how to move on it, but I knew that something had to be — but I knew that I could join with whoever was doing something, who had some angle on how to work with it. And it affected me in a good way. I kept planning to go back to school. I even went to Tuskegee and took all my courses on veterinary medicine, so I could kind of get back up to speed to go to regular medical school, because I had heard the intensity of the "dog school," as I called it, was the same as it was at medical school. So that's why I ended up at Tuskegee, and it was intense, and I loved it.

But the thing of it is — the problem with that was that every weekend I was down in Selma. So they made like that movie, "I thought I was out of it, but they pulled me back in." There'd be some guys from this TIAL, Tuskegeeans Institute Advancement League, "We just want you to come, and we [just] want you to be a consultant." [Laughter]

[TIAL was a student activist group aligned with, but not formally affiliated with, SNCC.]

And there I met Jean Wiley and everybody else who's so, you know, {UNCLEAR}. So it affected me in a good way. I learned that it was a lifetime struggle, and whatever else I did, I had to figure out different kinds of ways to support my family, at the same time figure out how to keep myself doing what I could do. It's like when I speak at these schools, I tell people, "You can't do everything all the time, do the same thing all the time, but there is something we can all do all the time." You know what I mean? So that's what it is. I've found a way to be, as we call it, "in the Movement."

 

Peggy Poole: It Was Just Wrong

Peggy: I was 12 when John Kennedy was running for President, and that was the first time I got involved politically, as a 12-year-old. But I was very passionate, as only probably 12-year-olds can be. And I really believed in — I mean, I was 12. I was very naive. But that kind of was what got me started in terms of being interested in politics. The people that lived across the street from me were both survivors of the Holocaust. He survived Auschwitz when his family had been killed. All of them had been murdered there, and his wife had been in hiding in Amsterdam for the duration of the war and survived. And their stories made a big impression on me in terms of right and wrong and doing something, being active.

So when — it was the summer of '65 that I went down South with SCLC and a SCOPE project. I had just completed my freshman year at Chico State. So that was, I think — I mean, it was just, you know, there are some things in life that you just know are wrong, and it was just wrong. And so I — and it was also something — I don't know, Mary, if you said or someone said it this morning about, "I knew that if I went, if I died, it would be for something." Because they would be able to make use of that, and it would make change. Now that was the 17-year-old me. [Laughter]

The 67-year-old me may not be quite as cavalier with my life. [Laughter]

But anyway, so that's what got me down South. And of course, in Atlanta, I listened to Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy and Bayard [Rustin] and James Bevel. I mean, it was just incredible. It was amazing. I went by myself. I wasn't with a group. When I got off the train in Atlanta, and I was in the train station, they said, "Well, you call this number, and we'll tell you where to come." And so I called the number, and the man told me — I identified myself, and he told me. I couldn't understand him. And I asked him again, and I couldn't understand what he was saying. I finally asked him to spell it, and I couldn't understand him. I got in a cab with, of course, a white cabbie, and I said, "I'm not sure where I need to go." It was Morris Brown College is what the man was saying, but it came out to me something like [Garbled: Morris Brown Cow]. I mean, I could not understand a thing. But when I said, "Martin Luther King," he took me to Ebeneezer Baptist Church and dropped me off. And I said, "Thank you." [Laughter]

Woman: That's true in reverse too.

Peggy: Yeah. But anyway, I was assigned to Sussex County, Virginia which was a very interesting place. And what it meant to me was it was life changing for me. I mean, it was doing something that had value, and you know, when you're 17, and people talk to you like you're an adult and listen to you, you know? And such committed people. And we lived with local — I was the only girl at that time. I was like, "Oh, I'm the only girl." And so I lived with various families that were very poor, and there was no running water. The streets weren't paved. Outhouses, you know, the whole — it was very different from my suburban upbringing.

And I learned a lot about dignity. I learned a lot about faith, which I had never truly appreciated before. When I came back to Chico, I got very involved politically. I got death threats. It was just awful, and I was a total fish out of water. So I dropped out of school and kind of went into VISTA [Volunteers In Service To America], hitchhiked around Europe, lived in Israel, did all this different stuff, and then finally ended up becoming a nurse practitioner.

So one of the things that it did for me, I think, is that although politically I'm not as active now, but it made a real commitment, my commitment, to treat every human being with dignity. And when I worked at San Francisco General in the ER, and taking care of a lot of mentally ill, homeless people that may be cracked out, maybe just smell like shit — literally — it's a little something, to be able to treat — to be respectful. I think it's a little something that you can give. So I've carried lessons that I learned from the South and learned from the people there with me, all my life.

 

Jimmy Rogers: You Can't Eat it Here

Jimmy: I think I first met with discrimination when I was about five years old, you know, that I became aware of. That was during a trip to Roxboro, North Carolina, near Durham. Maybe some of you might be familiar with that particular city. I was with my mother and my brother. We were going down to visit my grandmother. And on the way down, my mother said, "Well, when we get to Virginia, I'm gonna buy you some ice cream, for you and your brother. And we're gonna get on a bus and go to Roxboro." So we went into this drug store, and she told them that she wanted some ice cream for us, and he said, "Well, you can't eat it here." So my mother said, "What?" "You can't eat it here." She said, "Well, if we can't eat it here, we don't want it." And we left.

We didn't understand what was going on, see? So we kept asking about the ice cream, because we were {UNCLEAR}. [Laughter] She kept trying to explain it to us, but it just didn't work. But anyway, that always bothered me. So you know, I never had that problem in New York. So I carried that around for a long time.

Then, when I got older, I went into the military. I went through school in New York. Went through the military. When I got out, I went to work for the New York State Commission Against Discrimination, and I worked in the mail room; I worked with some of the lawyers and what-not who were there. And they sent me to this barbershop, because somebody had made a complaint against the barbershop, that they wouldn't cut their hair. In New York, there was a law that if you were a barber, you had to know how to cut everybody's hair. So what do they do? They sent Jimmy undercover to go down to the barber to try to get a haircut, right? So, I went in there into the barbershop, and this was an Italian barbershop. And I grew up with a lot of Italians and whatnot, and I know some of them can be kind of crazy, you know? I don't know if I want to go in there. So they told me to get on in there. "We can't cut your hair. We don't know how to do it." Fine with me! I rush back to the office.

Woman: Made your notes.

Jimmy: So when I got there, I thought that was the end of it, right? So they asked me when I got back, "What happened?" So I told them. They said, "Jimmy, that ain't good enough. They got to be able to tell you, you know, that you can't get that haircut, so you're gonna have to go back." [Laughter]

I walked back there and told them I wanted a haircut, and they knew something was up, see? They cut my hair, and I went back. Everybody in the office was inspecting my head, you know, looking at my head. {UNCLEAR} [Laughter] That wasn't a bad job! They pumped me up a little bit, to know that I got a haircut and didn't get my throat cut. [Laughter]

Woman: And that they didn't mess it up. That's what I thought you were going to say. [Overtalk and laughter]

Phil: And the government paid for it.

Jimmy: That's right. They're paying for it. So you know, that really made me — but then they would send me places like — somebody would go and try to get an apartment or something, or they'd send me to try to go get an apartment. And they'd tell me that they didn't have any more and all that sort of stuff. Then they'd send a white person down there to get an apartment, and they'd get one. And that's when it would start. [Laughter]

Fran: Busted!

Jimmy: That's right! Busted!

Wazir: Busted, so busted.

Jimmy: So you know, that was the kind of work. And that's what I really enjoyed. So when I got back to — no, when I left working for the state, I decided that I wanted to go back to school, so I applied to schools. And the first one that accepted me was Tuskegee, and I went down to Tuskegee. And I went to a football game in Montgomery, Alabama, and on the way back, I had on this brand new suit, you know? And hat and trench coat, and I looked like I came out of New York. [Laughter]

And when I walked up to the station, there were two police officers outside. And they said, "Hey, boy." And I looked around, and I didn't see anybody else but me, so I was trying to figure out what to do, you know? I didn't want to just walk away and not say anything. I said, "Are you talking to me?" They said, "Yeah, boy. You." "So, what's the problem?" "Do you live here?" I said, "No." "Where you from?" I said, "New York." "New York? What are you doing down here?" I said, "I go to school here." "What school is that?" I said, "Tuskegee." "Don't they have any schools up there in New York?" [Laughter]

I said, "Yeah." They said, "Why are you coming all the way down here?" So I said, "Because I like these down here better." They said, "Well, these schools are a little better than they are in New York." [Laughter]

He liked that. So about that time, a Black man walks out of the door, and I don't use the "N" word, but they said, "Hey, nigger. Let me see your teeth." And he cussed them out, told him he didn't — I forgot exactly what he said, but he cussed them out, and they started laughing. And they said, "You don't have any teeth." So I just said, "Oh." Then they asked me what my mother did and my father did and all that. And they said, "Well, you seem like a good nigger. You can come down any time you want to." And it took me two months to go back down there. [Laughter and crosstalk]

But then I got used to it, and after awhile, I started relaxing and paying attention to what was going on. And then I started challenging them a little bit. And that's when I met people like Bill Hall and some of the other people. And we had started our little organization and {UNCLEAR} with SNCC and really started getting into it. And I think it was the best thing for me to do what I started doing, because I really felt offended, and I really felt that I was being taken advantage of, and I didn't like it. So I think it helped me as a person, to do the kind of work that we were doing.

Wazir: And it all led to a county, Lowndes County. [Laughter]

Jimmy: The worst. The worst of the worst.

 

Betty Garman: Going South

Betty: So I grew up in New York. I was born in the City, but I grew up in the suburbs, and both my parents were the first in their families to go to college. So they were trying to be as middle class, and as move up as they could. And as a result, they had some pretty — I thought, later on reflecting — definitely some racist habits and feelings, and so I had a Mexican Godmother because my father had written a book with her husband, and my mother called her a "dirty wetback." And I'm like, "I loved her. I thought she was great." She fed me; she did all kinds of stuff.

And then my first boyfriend had a truck-driver father, and I was in love with my first boyfriend, right? And my father said he wasn't "good enough" for me. And I'm like, you know? So all this stuff was being thrown at me about class and race, and then I had a Black friend also, and I wasn't supposed to associate with her. And I had a friend whose parents were from Germany, and I wasn't supposed to associate with her. So all of this was very confusing, but I also pushed back against it.

And so then when I went to college, and the Civil Rights Movement began — well, there was some other activism that I got involved in, but the Civil Rights Movement began, and I'm like, I guess I was primed and ready after feeling angry about these words and language and the rejection of anybody that didn't look like them and wasn't going the same path as they were going type of thing.

So I organized a demonstration at Skidmore, which is in upstate New York, with some other women in support of the Woolworth's sit-ins in the South. And that was a teaching moment, because we learned about organizing. We learned about opposition. People put notes in our rooms saying that we shouldn't be doing this. The newspaper said we were not ladylike. The police picked us up, not the first day, because we had 200 students that walked around the Woolworth's. But the second day, we sent four students down. The police picked them up and said that they were violating a union picketing statute, so you start to learn all the connections, right? So that was what I did.

And I was involved in NSA, National Student Association, and that was one of the Northern groups along with SDS which wasn't really formed yet, but SDS, Northern Student Movement, Young Christian Students, and the National Student Association — those were the four student groups that began to fundraise for SNCC, basically. For the Southern Movement, but mostly for SNCC. So I got involved with them, and then I did a bunch of other things, then I came here to graduate school [U.C. Berkeley] and started, with other people, the first Friends of SNCC support — 

Well, it's interesting. I came out here; I worked for a year in Philadelphia with NSA, and one of my staff members was really into all this Left stuff, and he kept taking me to these socialist meetings. So I was getting an education. And I came out here, and I went to all the Left people in Berkeley to say — because I was getting these letters from Tom Hayden and Paul Potter who were in McComb [MS], so that was the fall of '62. So, I'm getting these letters saying, "Support the students, and money, blah-blah-blah." And I go around to all these Left people in Berkeley, and they're like, "We're too busy. We can't support. We can't do that. You do it."

So that was the challenge to support, to build some kind of a support organization for the Southern Movement. And I did that, and Mike Miller is one of the key people that I worked with, and Mario Savio was in our little group at Berkeley. It was called the Provisional Committee for Civil Rights? Some unknown name. And then we became Southern Student Freedom Fund, because there was a national network of student organizations on campuses that were actually focused and sending things South. And then I went to the Howard meeting, the SNCC meeting at Howard in November of '63 and decided — I mean, people said, "Come South. We need you in the South. Come South." And I went.

But I don't think that I had an understanding of the depth of the oppression. I definitely didn't have that. I knew that what was happening in the South was wrong. It was unjust. I couldn't believe it. It wasn't my country. All those things. But I think when I went, I was really green and naive, even though I was a little bit older, because I was a grad student. And I went to Atlanta, and I worked in the Northern Coordination Office where we related to the groups in the North and got them to go to federal buildings and picket and demonstrate, or to call the press in their local area.

Certainly for Freedom Summer we did a lot of that support to get people to act locally so that the full impact of what was happening in the state could be heard. I'll stop there, because it's kind of like I went because I — oh, one other thing I think was important. Out here at Berkeley, I was in a reading group with a group of graduate students, and we read about social movements in the history of the U.S. and decided that the only social movement participants who hadn't sold out — this was our language back then — was the African-American community, and so if we were ever going to make radical change in the U.S., because African-Americans knew the depth of the oppression and the injustices, that we needed to support that movement. And a couple of us went South. So I'll stop there.

Phil: {UNCLEAR} I was at that November — 

Betty: '63 SNCC meeting at Howard, yeah.

Phil: I guess I didn't know you.

Betty: Yeah, you probably didn't know I was a recruit. You know, [James] Foreman and Casey [Hayden] were bugging me to come and work in Northern support, and I was pretty taken by the intensity of the meeting and the singing. The singing is really what got to me. I mean, that was like, whoah! There's this incredible community of courage and care, and I'm going. So I came back here and got ready and went down in March of '64.

 

The Kennedy Assassination

Phil: Can I {UNCLEAR} real quickly? A rejoinder. That was a very important meeting. Because if you remember what had happened in November '63, John Kennedy got killed.

Betty: Kennedy was killed, exactly.

Phil: So we were in the city that he was, in theory, the head of when he was President.

Betty: Right, but he was dead.

Phil: Right. He was dead, so there was all this chaos, and who did it? And we were thinking maybe Johnson was behind it, you know?

Betty: Yeah, exactly. We didn't know, right.

Phil: But also, it was the time when there was a tremendous amount of pressure because of that, not to do the Summer Project. I don't know if you remember that.

Betty: Oh, right.

Phil: And that this was not the time to do it. We don't know what's going to happen in the country. This is what the government people were telling us in D.C. And they were right there, so it wasn't like they had to go anywhere, or we had to go anywhere. And there was just a tremendous amount of pressure. Obviously we decided to do it, but I mean, that was where — that meeting was where that got taken up. And Foreman played a really major role in that.

Mary: And do you remember the day of the Kennedy assassination that we all decided that we needed to immediately get passports, and do you remember that it was said that they found chicken bones at the site of the gun. And so we all — many of — we became concerned because it seemed, "Well, that must've been a Black person." Yeah.

Phil: A Black person, right? Leaving the chicken bones. I don't remember that.

Mary: I do. And I remember — 

Phil: Well, you remember— when they told us that Kennedy — no what happened is they — remember, we were at Howard that day. They told us to come out. They stopped the classes, and they didn't tell us what was going on. It could've been a fire drill. And they told us to come out on the campus.

Mary: I was in the infirmary. Yeah, because they made you take some {UNCLEAR}

Phil: Yeah, 'cause all the NAG kids kind of stood together. We were all huddled together, like "What was happening?" And then they told us that Kennedy had been shot and killed. And it was like, "Well, what's going to happen now? Are we going to a dictatorship?" Or you know what? Because {UNCLEAR} speculation and all that. It was a very heavy time, and then the meeting came right after that.

Betty: Like a week. It was Thanksgiving week.

Phil: Yeah. So that's why I'm saying it was a really key meeting.

Mary: And that Thanksgiving — That was such a scary time in D.C. because — and it was like there was this pall over the — I mean, you couldn't get away from what had happened. You couldn't get away from the sadness, the anger. And because many of us in those days didn't see that John Kennedy was the savior that other people thought he was, so there was — I remember being hugely conflicted about how I'd feel about what was obviously a national tragedy, but I can remember you couldn't get away from it, because immediately Os — what was his name?

Many: Oswald.

Mary: Oswald. So, it was like, you know, it seemed that it kept happening, and you couldn't contain it. It was all over television. And I think we were all at Stokely's place. Yeah, we all went there. I think we drank a bit.

Phil: Probably.

Mary: Yeah. And it was a very, very eerie, eerie time. And a very scary time, because the chicken bones did point to us, and we all thought, "Well, we better try to figure out how to get out of here, because this is it."

Woman: What was going to come down.

Mary: They have a plan for us. And they're going to enact it.

Bright: This is the first time I've ever heard about the chicken bones.

Woman: Yes, me too.

Bright: Did that carry on for very long?

Woman: No, because they caught Oswald almost immediately.

Wazir: And the killed him too. [Overtalk]

Yeah, it came. We heard it came out about the — about two or three weeks later that he apparently had been camped out there, and that was his station. And there were other stations too. In other words, John F. Kennedy was not to leave Dallas alive. He wasn't just there. Where Oswald was stationed out wasn't the only place that was stationed out. He was to be on post, so to speak. And maybe somebody was bringing him in lunch, I don't know.

But what happened to me four days later, we had a place in Greenwood we would go to called the Brass Rail, and I just stopped in there to have a drink, because we were going to talk about this thing real good. And there was a Black man who came in, and he had on — he had a sport coat on or that, and he was angry, and he didn't pull his pistol out either. He said, "Y'all got that good man killed. Y'all came here with that mess and — " [Laughter]

I said, "I didn't get that mother fucker killed, man!" I mean, I was speaking from how we felt about that. [Laughter] "I didn't get that mother fucker killed, man." I had to plead with him. "Man, I didn't do nothing."

[When President Kennedy arrived in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, he was met with a wave of ferocious public hostility from white segregationists who called him a "race-mixing integrationist" and a "Communist sympathizer." Prior to his arrival, thousands of "Kennedy — Wanted for Treason" leaflets were distributed by right-wing extremists, and racist hate groups. The Dallas Morning News ran a black-bordered full-page anti-Kennedy ad. White protesters heckled and dogged the President's motorcade as it traveled through the suburbs and into the city. For that and other reasons, many Blacks beleived he was killed because of his support for civil rights. The national power-structure swiftly promulgated a different view. They attributed JFK's assassination to a leftist "lone-gunman" who was then quickly shot to death in a Dallas police station before he could speak to reporters. To this day, many Freedom Movement activists believe that Kennedy's murder was actually the result of a conspiracy by white racists, or right-wing fanatics, or federal agencies, or some combination thereof. ]

Mary: There was a lot of that sentiment in the Black community, now that you mentioned it. You know, it's like "You SNCCs, you people, you agitators." And I had forgotten that in a way, but yeah, the Black community was not entirely in love with us.

Wazir: With us, at that time, for a period of time, yeah.

Mary: I had forgot about that.

Wazir: They point the finger right at us. You know, "If y'all hadn't been doing what y'all are doing..." Because it's still — this top down power thing, it still felt the heat, because some incident like the incident that happened in Ruleville where they shot in at this woman's house 16 times, looking for Fannie Lou Hamer, and one place they shot in a couple of times and they wounded a couple of them, a couple of girls. And Kennedy was on the next evening, and he was on the television talking about it. And that made Black people in Mississippi feel like he was definitely in their corner, and that he was really on the case, and possibly really going to do something about it. And this just overshadowed what we were trying to do, when he would do that kind of stuff. And so when he got killed, it made them think that we had something to do with it, you know? Setting up the atmosphere for him to get killed.

 

Linda Halpern: Coming Back North

Linda: I'm just going to pick another question. Because we may not get to everything. I'm just curious, because I think we all had relatively substantially significant, similar reasons for getting involved, whether we had been active or not. We all kind of knew something was wrong, and we wanted to correct it. But I'm just curious as to really immediately after, how it affected people. Not so much in the long term, and we started — that's why I appreciated what you said how many years it took you to get it together, because on one level, when the oppression is felt so personally for so many years, there is a resilience that gets built up.

That's why the Southern leaders were all African-American. They knew what it was about. But to have this kind of naive, deeply patriotic, "my country is the best country," and then to just have it shattered, that sense of disillusionment that can be so significant. If I can like really, really — I had such a hard time coming back, and coming back to a small town that even to this day — I mean, this is Massachusetts, and you think, "Yeah, we're all {UNCLEAR}." I was brought up in a Republican home. But the town, even to this day, 50 years later, the town I grew up in is one of three towns from Boston to Martha's Vineyard that voted for [Republican presiential candidate] McCain. I mean, when I went home to visit my mother, it's like all these signs up for Romney and Sarah Palin. I'm like, "Oh, Jesus, where the hell am I?" And [now] I'm in the Bay Area for a very good reason. I like it here. [Laughter]

But to go back that summer, immediately after Atlantic City, to go back home and have people all around you, either — I mean, literally people I babysat for all my life, having their children come up and spit on me, in Massachusetts! I got that in Greenwood. I understood that — there. But they really — they said, "You don't speak to her." And I could see them, "But she babysat for us for like 10 years. What is she?"

Go to my own church, which is really part of the reason I was in it anyway, right? Because of all this commitment to righteousness, and to have them just like, "Ugh!" And to hear the "N" word that I never heard before, right in the church. Like, "You lived with niggers down there?!" I'm like, I'd never heard that word before, but it brought it out. It brought all the hate out of everybody. I was so glad to get back to Philadelphia and get to school. And I got immediately involved in Philadelphia SNCC, and I got active, but I was a mess. It was like, if there was a word for it, like we didn't have "post-traumatic stress." We didn't have that word, right? [Laughter]

Woman: No, but that's what it was.

Linda: It was so hard, you know? And looking at everybody and everything like they're just — looking at all white people like they're the enemy. Not feeling guilty so much as just responsible and hateful and mad! I mean, and standing on soap boxes. We would stand on boxes. SNCC — we'd read the Constitution in Philadelphia, and we'd get tomatoes thrown at us, you know? The "City of Liberty," the "City of Brotherhood."

Woman: Brotherly love, yeah. [Laughter]

Linda: And then, because my — I mean, I went to an all girls school, and when I entered the college, there was one person of color on the campus — well, two people of color. My roommate who was Puerto Rican, and she ended up being an elitist. She would not speak to me when I came back from Mississippi. She would not. When she walked down in Philadelphia, she wouldn't even speak to the Puerto Ricans she saw, because she was {UNCLEAR}. [Laughter]

And then there was one African, from the Congo, right? She was on the campus when I started there. When I finished, there were 17 folks. And they started the SNCC, so it happened. [Laughter] It happened. You know, we bonded, but when I went there and I became part of SNCC, and then there was a young militant group. We call ourselves the Young Militants. And I would just be in Philadelphia every weekend, get on the bus, go out to the school.

I was a mess. I just don't even know how I got through college. That's how much of a — I just felt like I was anger on steroids, you know? And I started writing to Stokely, and he graciously wrote back and just said, "Just read. Just keep reading." And I just did. I just read everything I could get my hands on. Any book. He said, "Read this. Read this. Read this." And I really educated myself and joined the Peace Corps, only to get to Africa. There was no way. It was like, "Where do you want to go? Do you want to go to Brazil? Do you want to go here?" "No, no, I'm going to Africa." And it was like, that's the reason I went to the Peace Corps. None of the — but I was in with a bunch of idealistic folks, and my idealism had already been shot to hell. And so I didn't even fit into the Peace Corps mode, you know? [Laughter]

I went in there, and they said — I got to Togo, and they said, "There's one village that has no Westerners whatsoever. You will be totally alone. You will not be with any other Peace Corps people." And by now, I hated all the Peace Corps people. [Laughter] And I said, "I'm going there!" They said, "I don't think we should send a girl." I said, [smacks hand on table] "I'm going there!" [Laughter] It was way out in the boonies, and there I sat for two years. And had an experience — I'm not saying it was — It was a great experience, but that was not the experience that changed my life. Greenwood, Mississippi changed my life.

And then I came back, and it was even worse. I had more post-traumatic stress. I got into NYU in grad school, because I figured at this point the only thing I could really do is teach, because that's what I had done in the Peace Corps. And I love the classroom. I love being in it. I love teaching. I love being a student, whatever. I just love schools, so I saw this as a way of liberation.

NYU, again, I was in grad school with this woman, and she came with a different engagement ring on every single — [Laughter] She had {UNCLEAR} that just drooped. And I [had been] in a village. You know, I was — I didn't have running water or electricity. Nothing. I'd been in Mississippi and {Unclear}, and then I'm sitting with this — "Oh, {UNCLEAR} just bought me {UNCLEAR}." I said, "If I see one more fucking piece of glitter on you, I'll go crazy, you know?!" [Laughter]

And it just like — get me out of here! So I was living in Newark, New Jersey, and we were trying to [elect] Carter, the first African-American mayor there, and I had worked hard to get Armiri Baraka to come to my college when I was there. And he had come, and I had showed him around, so I felt like — you know, we spent the weekend together, he and I hook up. I go down to his theater, right? And it's like I can't get in, because I'm white. But I'm not really white! [Laughter] And he came to the door, and he goes, "Oh, Linda, I'm so sorry, but this is, you know, it's our time now." And I understood it. I understood it up here, but my heart. Oh my God! Those were the worst — 

So, I started teaching English as a second language, because that's what I did in French West Africa, to adults. And I married an Iranian, and I moved to Iran. And that's when I felt guilty. It's like, "This is not my fight." I'm never going to know Farsi well enough to be a political contributor here. I better get the hell back and do it, right?" And then I came to Oakland {UNCLEAR} [Laughter and overtalk]

That's {UNCLEAR}, but how did people survive all of that? Because I was a mess.

Woman: Bad memory.

Linda: Yes!

 

Phil Hutchings: Veterans & Depression

Phil: So how do I follow up that? [Laughter]

I guess I was going to talk about something a little different. And especially around the question of depression. And I remember — the specific question for the second is Wazir, Jimmy and Mary here is, because we have this group called the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, and I remember a meeting that we had maybe about five or six years ago at Jean Wiley's house. It could've been longer away, whatever. But we talked about, what did we do after the Movement? That was the focus. And while we talked about a lot of different things, the thing that came out very clear is that we had all been, in different ways, depressed coming out of the Movement.

I remember one person said they had somehow lost their voice, not their physical voice but more the voice to be able to talk about who they were in the world, what they were trying to do and so on. And I think we had just lost our places, in the sense of not knowing where. And it came out in different places. One was the real kind of post-traumatic stress piece. What's interesting about that is that the people I found who I can talk about that with — who were not in the Movement — are Vietnam veterans. Not that we agree on everything or that they're specifically different, but to talk about what it was like to be in Mississippi and what it meant to be in the jungles of South Vietnam, we could actually have a conversation.

My best friend is a Black Puerto Rican from New York who lives out here until very recently. He actually decided he couldn't deal with this country anymore, so he's now in Costa Rica. But he had been in Vietnam twice and then got involved in the Movement when he came back to New York City. He got involved in the Young Lords when he saw how badly the veterans were being treated coming back, and looking at El Barrio with new eyes for the first time and saw a lot of shit. And so he got involved in the Movement and was in '68 with the camp that was set up after King got killed.

Woman: Oh, Poor People's Campaign?

Phil: Yeah, he was in Poor People's Campaign. Anyway, he's the one who I remember getting together a group of veterans, a small group, maybe about five or six people, and there were some people from SNCC. This happened in New Jersey. And we just sat around and talked about how we felt, and it was really amazing how the kind of trauma from Vietnam had some similarities to the trauma of being in Mississippi. Totally fascinating. And so that helped me a little bit to think about that.

The other piece which was quite different — I was one of the few people in SNCC who was also active in SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, and I saw Tom Hayden just recently. He was out here. But Dick Flacks who had been — he lives down in Southern California but he'd been active. He wrote a book called Making History, Living Life. And his message was talking about a generation — and this was mostly white, but I would say maybe certain middle class Blacks also are involved in this, who grew up in the '50s, who grew up in the United States after World War II was becoming the grand super power. We were having all this economic abundance. The good days, which would pretty much last through the mid-'70s were upon us. And we thought we could do everything. And we were basically brought up to believe that, as kids.

And I was. I was a light skinned, Black person. I always knew I was going to college. My mother grabbed me out of a pool hall one day, and she said, "You ain't going to be in here! Your life is somewhere else." She just grabbed me. And I was in the Jack and Jills, which is the kind of privileged group with Blacks. So that upward mobility thing was very, very apparent. And I can identify with being a part of a country that was feeling its Cheerios after World War II, and like anything was possible.

And OK, there was poverty. You know, we read Michael Harrington's book [The Other America: Poverty in the United States]. OK, we will deal with it. We'll knock it out. You know, there's segregation in the South. And we will deal with this. Like you were saying, two or three years. We'll knock this out.

And so, of course when that doesn't happen and the idealism gets turned around, and you really begin to see what's happened to this country, you begin to think about it very differently, and you see your role in it, most importantly, in a very different way. I mean, I was totally, in many ways, fortunate to be in Washington, where a lot of this was happening, a lot of people going through, met a lot of key people. I was totally fortunate to be in NAG. NAG was a very interesting group of Black and white people who were in different colleges, not just Howard but in different colleges around D.C., Northern Virginia, and Maryland. And we had mentors like Bayard Rustin who would come down. People like Stokely who was not so much our mentor but somebody who grew up in a different country, at least for the first six years, and a different way of thinking, but we had a really clear West Indian impact.

There was a kind of world sense that we were in a little space called D.C. on Howard University's campus, but then as people discovered it, the Movement began going South during the summers and come back in the fall and take courses. It was a blessing that NAG, despite our attempts, never got recognized by Howard University, so we could never get co-opted and absorbed and so on. So we were always on the outskirts. But it caused us to learn the city, and so we started a group in Maryland called the Civic Interest Group and other stuff.

But anyway, what this book basically put out was that after you have spent a good part of your time making and changing history, how do you come back into normal life? Be a family person? Go to school, get an average job? Go back into the "America that was" before you burst out into the Movement and did all these great things? And probably went to other countries, as SNCC was beginning to do, especially in Africa and some other places.

And I realized that was another part of my major depression, because I couldn't quite figure out where I fit in, because the revolution that we had tried to make didn't happen, particularly after Atlantic City. I mean, it just kind of seemed to go down, down, down. And then we saw the internal decay in SNCC. I mean, summer of '65 in Mississippi was really, really hard and in other places. And you could see the organization beginning to unravel for all kinds of reasons. We didn't have any money. People's enthusiasm was going. We were losing allies. As I say, after we did the thing around Zionism. Yeah, they split. The white people were no longer there, and some of them were mad. I remember Abby Hoffman was denouncing us in the Village Voice for throwing us out, for years on.

So I guess it was a very tough period, and I guess, for me, an additional one was being the last Chairman of SNCC, at the same time that SNCC was basically alive but falling apart. And it took me a long time to not feel that I was responsible for that.

Mary: Well, you {UNCLEAR} so you could preside over the demise. [Laughter]

Phil: That's what some people said.

Mary: That's what they did to women. [Overtalk]

Phil: So I guess that's the kind of stuff I was going through, and there are several even {UNCLEAR} of that today. I mean, I think probably more than most people in SNCC, I've still been active and continue to be, whether it's in immigration. I work for a grassroots group called Causa Justa, Just Cause, which is in Oakland and San Francisco. But still, am I in the right place where I should be? What should I be doing with myself? Given my background, given what I know, how can I give back? Is this the right place?

By the way, I don't have a real job, and I'm not making too much money here. I'm trying to figure out how I'm getting to survive, so I mean, I've had a certain degree of a downer, I guess I'm saying from that whole period, which is launched by all these different {Unclear}. That's why I kind of gave them at your {UNCLEAR}.

So what I wonder, going back to my first point, and we never really followed up on it too much, around the people in the Civil Rights Vets group, feeling depression. How that manifested more individually? What people were doing about it? Where we were getting help? Or doing any kind of healing? Or even how did we engage civically or politically in the '80s, '90s or 21st century? Given our history back in the '60s.

I mean, to me, that's still an open discussion that we haven't really had, because we're still alive, and we're still interested and participate, or watching sometimes in a lot of things, whether we do or not. So I guess that's what I just throw out, in some ways, and I just think it's still a burning question. I mean, I will say for myself, what has been useful in a major way is I've been doing Buddhist meditation, and it's caused me to think differently about politics. I always try to think about, if I was like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, how could we do politics like Miles Davis does music? Or a ballad or something? Or even an angry piece? How could we translate that into politics? Or Coltrane doing his different variations on themes. How could that be done in a flow that's political?

And I think the same thing about Buddhism, in terms of trying to match the spiritual here in terms of what's in your heart as well as dealing with the material reality which is in front of us and which we live through which gets worse and worse in many ways every day. So it's — {UNCLEAR} try to find ways to come together, heal, transform, and reinvent ourselves.

 

Mary Lovelace O'Neal: We Earned Our Breath

Mary: OK. I would say, how did it change us? All of it is so relevant. But I think two major changes in my life have made me who I am. One was kindergarten, which was a tremendously traumatic experience. I hated it and everything having to do with school since. And the other thing was the Movement. I think that the Movement, more than anything else, has shaped who I am. I relate to the world, even at 72 years old, through the Movement. I see how I am to vote. I see what I am to support. I see what I am to fight as a result of those days in the Movement. I know that I am to share. And it was funny, I was thinking about the peanuts and that during the Movement days, whatever it was we had, whatever little bit or great bit, we knew that you had to share that.

And you talk about depression and all that. I was thinking, I just started getting married, and — [Laughter] — and I went to graduate school. That and the Free Southern Theater dissolved my marriage with John O'Neal. And my marriage to John had been greatly protested by the SNCCs because of my relationship with Carmichael all those years when we were in — 

Wazir: No, we would've got married in Atlantic City. If Carmichael hadn't come to town. [Laughter]

Mary: Wazir, please! [Laughter]

But, you know, I chose the men I chose. The friends I had, the men that I had endearing — enduring relationships — both endearing and enduring — have been Movement people. My greatest friendships go back to those days, those people. And you can get a call from somebody you haven't seen in 30 years, and there's no time. It all collapses into the moments that you are together.

And I think in terms of depression, one of the things that may have saved me ultimately is that my memory is so bad. And I know that that is so because of a number of traumas I suffered very early on, as a very, very young child, including kindergarten. So a mechanism for me was to sleep. I don't know how many of you remember David Driscoll from Howard. By this time, I was in the art department, and I was living this kind of double life, being on the Eastern Shore [of Maryland], and always under threat that we were going to get kicked out of Howard. That they would blame us for Howard not getting its proper money. What do you call that? There's a name for it.

Woman: Appropriation.

Mary: Yeah. And that it would be our fault if the whole school, you know, dissolved into the earth. And you're young enough to believe that, and not "young enough" because it could happen. It would happen, and many of those Congress-folk tried to do that. I don't know how we survived that. But my art eventually, I think also, ultimately protected me, because I could go into the studio and work when I couldn't understand how to deal with the positions that we were taking, those splits.

And I ended up in graduate school some time around that time, and then there was the influence of the mosque. This is such a long story, but I think we survived. And I feel so privileged to have been a part of the Movement because it has made me who I am. It has made me strong. And whatever it is, the loss of family, the loss of friends, SNCC always — I can't think of a situation I couldn't figure out through some lesson from the Movement, some attitude that I developed. And again, one of the mechanisms — I used to be able to go to sleep. I can't any longer. But I can forget, so one improves the other. [Laughter] You know, when you can't sleep any more, you can forget that.

Phil: I guess, Mary you can help me break out this book on NAG. Not just me, but whoever, and so we never get it together, and now I realize what's happening. [Laughter] NAG? What did we do? [Laughter]

Mary: One of the reasons I wanted so much, as I said, to come here was to try to have my memory put back together, and it's like it's so ephemeral. You're almost there, and it just kind of slides away, that memory. And I keep looking for people. Does anyone know — now I can't even think of her name.

Woman: The name you said before?

Mary: Yeah.

Woman: Judy Nusbaum?

Mary: Judy Nusbaum, who was in New Orleans CORE. Anyway, I don't want to take more time, except to say again that I am so blessed, so privileged to have met all of you, one way or another. What's that you just — what is it — six — ?

Woman: Six degrees of separation?

Mary: Yeah. And so we just know each other. I wish that young people now could have the fellowship, the fights, the love, the heartbreak, because it really, I believe, makes you a person. It gives you reason and license to breathe, what we went through. I mean, we earned our breath. And there is an earning. So that's it.

Wazir: It was true, but I was just throwing a joke out there. Mary was sitting on the steps at this particular hotel that she had gotten for the people who were going to be coming from the South.

Mary: Mary Lovelace O'Neal interrupting. Y'all still owe me. [Laughter] Y'all owe me for Atlantic City. Believe me, you owe me. [Laughter] Just remember Mr. Edgehill. You owe me. [Laughter]

Wazir: So when I came there, she was sitting down there, and so I just — because I had ridden out where they were painting signs and doing art stuff on the {UNCLEAR}. And she just — I guess she was sitting there on the end, and she said, "Peacock, take me home." And I said, "Oh!" She said, "I'm not talking about taking me to bed. I'm talking about taking me home." I said, "OK. I guess I'll get married," and take her to Greenwood. The only place I know where to take her. [Laughter] We never did get back to {UNCLEAR}

Mary: No, we never did get back.

Wazir: Carmichael came in town.

Mary: "Starmichael." [Laughter]

Mary: Do you remember "Starmichael?"

Jimmy: Oh yeah. [Laughter]

["Starmichael" was a pointed nickname sometimes applied to Stokely Carmichael as he became more and more famous with the mass media.]

Wazir: But it was showing you that that community, how close we were. You know, because I wasn't that crazy, but I just knew that this was — we were the kind of people, we could've gotten along just fine, even if she left the next week after we got married. We still {UNCLEAR} [Laughter]

Mary: No, I agree with you. I do. I mean, those relationships were that special because they were born out of struggle. For real and for truth, so you might be able to weather it, and the Free Southern Theater ate up the marriage I had with John O'Neal because it was struggle from the moment you got up, you know? The same with Carmichael, with all of us. With Lolis [Elie], I mean all of it. And coming out here is like running. You know, it was like, California! Freedom!

Bright: Getting away from all that.

Mary: Yeah. And then it turns out that half of us were out here. Q.R, and you know, the whole migration that happened that happened at the end of '69. And then going back to D.C. for Feather's funeral [Ralph Featherstone], and everybody was so paranoid. You know, you couldn't talk to anybody. You couldn't say anything, and I thought — and Feather had called me two days before, and said, "You don't need to be out there smoking all that dope and eating. You need to come back to D.C. And do something worthwhile. So I said, "OK, Feather, I'm coming home." And two days later, he was dead.

[SNCC organizer Ralph Featherstone and Black activist William Payne were killed by a bomb that exploded their car in March of 1970. The cops quickly claimed they were enroute to blow up a Maryland courthouse where SNCC leader H. Rap Brown was to go trial, and that the device they were carrying exploded prematurely. But most Freedom Movement activists and many Afro-American political leaders viewed the bombing as part of a continuing covert campaign to kill effective Black leaders who threatened the status-quo. Examples including, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, Dr. King, Fred Hampton, and others. They argued that the bomb was secretly planted in the car to assassinate Brown, possibly by Klan terrorists known to be operating on Maryland's Eastern Shore, but more likely by law enforcement agents.]

And so when — of a bunch of SNCCs, a few migrants who were here, I was the only one who didn't have a job, so they put their money together, and I went back to represent the California group. And I was terrified, because it seemed — I mean, the invasion of us by whomever, those people, you know? And you were afraid to talk to your mother? You didn't know who it was. It was just that frightening. So I determined — I didn't. Somebody called me about a job at the Art Institute here in San Francisco, and I thought, "OK, I'm getting out of D.C. I'll go back. I'll stay out there a couple of semesters, and then I'll come home." And this is now forty-some years later. Or more. What is it? I came here in '69, '70. How many years is that?

Betty: That's 44. Because I've been in Baltimore 42.

Mary: Yeah, and my intention has been each semester to go back, so it's like 44 years later.

 

Annie Popkin: I Was Waiting for Something to Happen

Annie: I'll go next. So I'm going to answer a few different questions, but I came from the Nassau County in Long Island, and at that time, the towns were segregated, white and Black separated. And I remember driving with my parents and saying, "Why in this neighborhood are there sidewalks and grass, and in this neighborhood, there's just dirt and parked cars and refrigerators?" And my parents were progressives, and they wouldn't answer me, the true answer, and it really upset me. I mean, I knew that something was wrong with it, and I wanted to find out what happened, why it happened. And then later, about six or seven years later, a Black family tried to move into the white neighborhood, and their house was burned down. And I went with my mom on a picket line to protest that.

Then I'll skip a few years, but I just knew — I was waiting for something big to happen, to help change that. And when I was in ninth grade, the sit-ins were happening, and I with a slightly older friend organized a picket line in support. And we got hate letters, and people said, "You're gonna make my husband lose his job!" And that's when I, nice little girl from the suburbs, I learned you can't always be nice. And you fight for what you believe in.

And of course, more things happened, but in college, I was in the Civil Rights Coordinating Committee my freshman year, and we got a call saying, "C'mon down." So of course, I did. And my parents supported me with the cocktail parties and the money and the clothes, and I'll just say one time at seven in the morning, my parents got a telegram, and I heard later, he just started crying, because he was sure of what that telegram was going to say. It was just an appeal for funds, but why they had to do that at seven in the morning, I don't know. So I, you know, had this very intense time, as you all did, and I just was there for the summer, which I hear from everyone talking is much too short.

I came back to my college campus, and there were three or four people in SNCC overalls singing songs, and one of them — they were all Black — and one of them was the daughter of my parents' best friend in college, and she and I were very friendly. So I just went up to start singing with them, and the guy said, "Unh-uh, white girl." And it was before I knew about Black Power. It was September —  [Laughter]

Woman: You sit down there. [Overtalk]

Annie: And Doreen and I just looked at each other, and I could tell that she felt {Unclear}, but she wasn't moving, because she was with her brothers. And then, I was in SDS, and they said, "Oh, that's such do-gooder stuff. That's so liberal. Don't even talk about it" [referring to the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Summer]. So first, I had my Black Power experience, and then I had "liberal do-gooder," and so I never talked about it for maybe 20 years or 15 years. It just all went underground. And it was like, the memories went away. That's another reason I came here [today] is because it was underground for so long, it was very hard to keep the memories alive. I mean, I talked to my best friend from high school and my parents, and it wasn't correct. And I was in Boston. It was a very racist town, and it's not surprising that SDS also was infiltrated by racism, I think, even though they were trying to do good things. So it took me a long time to ever talk about it to anybody. And I just found out — I met several people who I knew, who we never knew we were both in Mississippi. So that's part of it.

Woman: What college did you go to?

Annie: Radcliffe.

Mary: Did you go to an SDS conference in Ohio? In Columbus?

Annie: I went to one in Clear Lake.

Mary: This was in Columbus in about 1962, I think.

Annie: I wasn't in college yet. [Laughter]

Annie: Us babies.

Woman: She was in high school.

Wazir: When were you in Radcliffe?

Annie: '64 to '67. And I had to get my parents to sign, because I was too young to go to Mississippi.

Woman: And they signed.

Annie: Yeah.

Woman: Did we drive across together?

Annie: I drove with Heather Booth.

Woman: That was an experience, I bet.

Annie: Yeah, well she's my good friend from camp, summer camp. And then there was one more thing I was going to say — No, I can't remember. I'll say it later. But so it was very traumatic in a different way. It's just like it was unspeakable, and then Heather and I were sort of separated by a town, and we didn't talk about it much either. So that's all I'll say for this turn.

 

Fran O'Brien: When the Chance Came...

Fran: A lot has been covered about why we went. It was more or less what other people have said. I had been intellectually in favor of the Movement ever since high school, but when I heard about Mississippi Summer and heard that it was not just voter registration, but there would be an educational program too, as one of my former students would say, "There went that excuse." So I was kind of putting my money where my mouth was.

But what I would like to talk about is how it affected me as a teacher afterwards. I was very, very fortunate in my assigned hostess. She was Black, and I don't know how she did it, but she did not treat my roommate and me like white folks. She treated us like grandchildren. And if we did something stupid, we heard about it. And she shared many of her teaching experiences, and when I came back to her one time complaining about the lack of materials for younger children — of course there was Black history in the high schools, but I was working with children 3 to 13. And I said, "Oh, this history book I have is terrible. It doesn't even mention any Black person, dah-dah-dah." She said, "Fran, when I first started teaching, I did not have any text books. You find out the material, and you teach it." And I said, "Yes, ma'am." And that's what I did. [Laughter]

And because of that, when I started teaching in Bakersfield, by 1967, the textbooks were a little bit better but not much, and so I just taught what I knew. Never mind what the textbook says. And among other things, I taught that in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was all very well and good for white people, but it didn't mean a great deal to people who were enslaved. So you have an English master or you have an American master, that's supposed to make a difference?

And this was something I had never thought about until I had seen the same confusion — some of the children I taught in Mississippi would actually confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Emancipation Proclamation. And I thought, "Gee, they're 100 years apart, how can that happen?" Well, Mrs. Garrett straightened me out. [Laughter] And when she said it, I thought, "I've had straight A's in history, and how could I have been so stupid?" You know, that that had really not occurred to me.

And I strongly suspect that if I had not had that experience in Mississippi I would've taught American History exactly the way I learned it, which would've been a loss to the students. As it was, I was able to give them a much more balanced picture and hopefully get them thinking. That's a positive. And a negative was that in Bakersfield at that time I definitely had the feeling that I was doing underground work in enemy territory. My colleagues at the school were not at all sympathetic with the Civil Rights Movement. There were a few African-American children in the school. No African-American teachers. They were all white.

And when Martin Luther King died, there were a lot of opinions expressed, basically "good riddance." And I heard my students expressing the same opinion, and I talked to the other special education teacher and said, "Could you use an extra aide this afternoon?" She said, "I can always use an extra aide. Send her over." So I sent my aide into the other room and closed the door. [Laughter] And I said, "Martin Luther King was not a Communist, and I know, because I met him one time." Well, of course that grabbed their attention. And I think the less said about that presentation the better. [Laughter] It was something I hadn't really — well, of course it had just — this was actually 50 years ago yesterday. We didn't know that — we had just found out that it had happened.

But because of this, I had a feeling of isolation which I think unconsciously I kind of passed on to the children, and everything was always great as long as they were in that class. Some of them had a lot of difficulty adjusting when they went on to high school. In fact, I had one of my former students completely throw one of his teachers by saying, "Could I have a fake test?" Well, what he meant was, "Could I have a practice test to see if I'm ready enough for the final one?" This was the kind of jargon that we had used. Well, he'd been calling — she said, "We don't give fake tests here. We give real ones." But you know, that's what he'd called it for eight years. He thought everyone called it that.

That's just an extreme example, but there was that for all of them, and I feel that unfortunately it was rather late in my career when I began to realize that I was not being fair to the students because I created this sort of sheltered environment where we could say anything we wanted to. It was safe. We accepted each other. And I could stay in that until the cows came home, but they couldn't. They had to go out and go to different schools and adjust to different situations, and that was when I really began to make an effort to get them mainstreamed into regular classes. Before that, I thought, "Oh, unless a parent actually insisted, I can teach them what they need to know. They don't need regular classes."

And partly due to the mindset of the time, for many years, parents and students were willing to go along with that. And academically, they may have gotten a good education, but I think socially, I shortchanged them, and that is a regret I have. But to finish on a positive note, what helped push me to the final decision — I'm going back to April of '64 now — after I had been thinking about the application for awhile, I saw the movie, Judgment of Nuremberg . And there's a scene where an American judge is just casually talking to his German housekeeper says, "What was it like living under Nazism?"

"We were not political. We are loving people. We couldn't do anything." He said, "I didn't say — I'm not putting you on {UNCLEAR}. What was it like?" He said, "We couldn't do anything. We didn't know." And I thought, "Suppose 30 years from now, somebody asks me, "What did you do about segregation?" That's what pushed me over the edge, and at some time, I think it was 1970-something, I know it was less than 30 years, one of my students asked me exactly that question. And the way he phrased it, when I'd been talking about {UNCLEAR}, he said, "Well, Ms. O'Brien, you knew it was wrong. What did you do?"

And I could tell it did not even occur to him that that might have been a very embarrassing question. He just assumed that I must've done something, and it was nice to say [Laughter], "Well, when the chance came to go to Mississippi, that's what I did." Sometimes I imagine, what if I'd had to say, "Well, um — um — um. That really wasn't my business."

 

Betty Garman: Unpacking the Experience

Betty: I'll say a little bit, just a little bit, because I know we don't have much time left. After SNCC. I moved to D.C. to be part of the Washington, D.C. office, and then I resigned from there. But I think there was a community of Movement people that I hung out with, that I was in connection with, and so I didn't go back into a non-welcoming environment. And then I continued on in D.C. to do different things. I taught school for a year. In fact, I was castigated for teaching too much about the Movement, but that's what the students were lapping up. I was teaching social studies and English.

And then I was still searching for, How are we going to change the country? So I got involved with all these Left sectarian groups, and I worked in a factory in the '70s for eight years. And one of the things that I think — and then I had kids by then, and I couldn't — one had a birth defect that I couldn't manage. My kids are African-American. And I married a Black factory worker, actually.

But one of the things that I think I was able to do was to leap across the boundaries of expectation that had been laid out for me by my parents, who were moving up and came from working class families, but had helped me really connect with people who were working class. And so I saw parts of the U.S. that I had never imagined seeing, so it gave me a sense of how the country works and the hands people are dealt. Everybody says, "Oh, you have free choice on your profession." I'm like, "No, these folks who work in the factories, they walk down the street to the closest factory, because they didn't have a car, and they got hired there."

And so they did whatever. They worked in the steel mill. They worked in the machine shop. They worked in the auto plant. They worked in the Proctor and Gamble factory, whatever it was. So anyway, it really, really changed my class consciousness as well as my race consciousness. But I also think it gave me the courage to step out, to go beyond the boundaries that had been set. And I think that's a very important thing for any young person, is to find a way to take a step way, way out there and experience something that is not in your normal everyday kind of life. And I wish for every young person that they had a social movement, because that would help propel them into that direction.

But anyway, you know, of course it made me aware of how far we have to go and what the rollbacks have been and yet what the victories have been. So I wanted to speak to your question of how did it affect us right afterwards?

I think like Anne I lost my voice for a long period of time, mostly because people couldn't relate to my experience. So all these Lefties that I was with in the factory, the white Lefties, the sectarian Lefties who went into factories, they were like, "Civil Rights Movement? Huh?" You know, it was like the SDS folks who were not — and many of them had come through SDS or through the Anti-War Movement, so that was a shock.

And then I worked at Hopkins at the School of Public Health, and in 1988, which was when Reagan was just leaving office at that point, we organized something called Schoolwide Proponents for Action on Racial and Cross-Cultural Concerns. And I felt like I met people who I had similar karma with or felt the same values as they. And anyway, so it was a long journey to kind of unpack what the {UNCLEAR} — 

And working on this book, Hands on the Freedom Plow book, that was 15 years of six of us meeting every three months to edit the stories — first find people. We didn't find everybody, right? And then have people send us the stories, and then edit the stories, and then look for a publisher. And then we did a lot of speaking at colleges after the book came out in 2010, so that in itself helped me, me personally and other women too, I think, to reclaim what we did.

Mary: And it's a wonderful book.

Betty: And unpack the experiences.

 

Depression & Post-Traumatic Stress

Peggy: So Linda, to address your {UNCLEAR} question, I definitely went into a depression immediately afterwards and it contributed to me dropping out of school. You know, I was young, and I didn't realize that that was depression. I mean, school was irrelevant. It was like, "What the hell are you talking about? This has nothing to do with life." [Overtalk]

But it wasn't a direction, and it took me years. Annie, like you, I didn't talk about my involvement with anyone for probably 30 years. This is the first time I've ever come to anything like this, and I can't tell you how much it means to me. Talking about depression, it was like, "Wow!" And the PTSD, it's like — and I was talking with somebody out there [during lunch], and he was talking to me about PTSD, and it's like it's liberating.

Woman: And you know you weren't the only one.

Peggy: Yeah, it wasn't just me. It wasn't just that I was weak, or that — yeah, exactly.

Betty: I just want to make a final point about the relevance of the evening discussions that we used to have around Greenwood, anyway, when Stokely would stay there until 10, 11 o'clock at night, just talking about politics. I mean, really, I had so little information to develop my political philosophies, and just having some folks there, Stokely being the main one, I guess, and then there was Eli Zaretsky, remember him? I mean, just the depth of the political discussions that would go on.

It really — it's part of what you were talking about. It isn't just enough to organize. You have to have that vision, and you have to have that layered understanding of what's going on, because one of my husbands was an ex-Vietnam vet, 100% Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome paycheck every month. He was African-American, and I thought we had so much in common. We met at the Berkeley Black Repertory Theater. We were in the same play together by Alice Childress. We were both trying to escape in our own way through these creative forces, but in the end, there wasn't that political savvy. Yeah, he was on the battlefield. Yes, he did things that horrified him. He saw things that horrified him. He went into Post-Traumatic Stress, but it wasn't quite the same. I could never — the pain was the same, but the political commitment to social change wasn't there. That's what I found to be very different.

Mary: I think we've learned. There were things that got us there, and then we learned. We learned about politics, and we learned about ideology. I hadn't come from a particularly ideological family. It was about race with us and culture and stuff like that that you couldn't control and really be a part of but not about political movements. And I remember hours at Bayard Rustin's house learning to drink vodka — it didn't take much time for me to catch on. [Laughter] — in pewter-like chalices.

But he talked about the Friends [Society of Quakers], and these were things I had not grown up with. I think there were others like Carmichael who had come from schools and who had an intellectual — not only that passion but had an almost academic attitude about it, because he had read all of it and had come to much of what he thought from books.

I think another thing we did to cope — I think we got sick. I think a lot of us got sick. I mean, I think I did. I mean, the stress of Berkeley — that university — was someplace I ended up because of who we were and are. But I think that still is another coping mechanism for us, lots of us. You know, you just go, "I'm sick. I can't {UNCLEAR}." And it may be a vacation of sort from the "must-do." You just go, "I'm too sick. That's why I can't deal with it." Not that your energy has — you know, you get to that place where it just seems so fruitless, that it's just — you know, you're banging your head on the wall, again and again and again. And you say, "Well, I'm ill. I can't go to that meeting, or I can't contribute. I can't write another story or stuff like that."

 

Keeping On

Wazir: OK, what are we doing? Wrapping it up? [Overtalk]

Mary: And what do we do after a day like today?

Many: Yeah, yeah.

Mary: What do we to tomorrow? [Overtalk]

Woman: But we do keep on keeping on, right?

Woman: We were all called in our own communities and trying to be agents of real change.

Mary: I think we're just waiting for to be called into action again, to know where to go or where to put our bodies. And I think — I hope it won't take a real tragedy that the world seems to be setting itself up for in various ways. {Unclear} change and whatever, but that we find a way to — it's like we're cells sleeping. What is that?

Woman: Sleeper cell, yeah.

Mary: Just kind of waiting for another — 

Fran: I thought of one thing that we might do. We could think of all the things we've learned and heard today, what would be most beneficial to the people we know? And then when someone comes along and says, "Well, what did you do over the weekend...?" [Laughter]

Woman: I thought of having more conversations with my daughters. Certainly, I have conversations with my grandchildren, but with my daughters especially, because I don't have these kind of conversations with them a lot.

Woman: I'm the same way. My grandkids are more engaged in that struggle than my own kids are.

Woman: I think it's a difference in time and history.

Mary: So is it the generation skip that {UNCLEAR}

Woman: I think that was a good observation. There was a — and I kept saying I want for my daughters who were in college in the '90s, "I want a Movement for you guys. You know, you got to be involved in one," and nothing happened, right? Now, at least there's stuff. There's local organizing, and there's stuff in every city, I'm sure, under the radar. Like there's a Just Cause in 50 or 60 cities, right? That do similar kind of stuff.

Woman: And there's still voter registration going on.

Woman: Absolutely.

Jimmy: I think no matter what, that it's very important that we continue to talk to young people and other people that don't vote, to go out and vote. And I think this Congressional election is going to be very important because we need to get more Democrats in office, in my opinion, and to put up the best fight that we can, you know, against the Republicans. And I think the only way that we are going to be able to do that is to increase the number of people.

Mary: How could we put together a really tough voter registration and get out the vote thing? I mean, so that you know you're responsible to pick up six people and take them to a polling place? There has to be, when you talk about it, that seems to me like something we could all do something that's clear and simple. You know, it doesn't take a lot of understanding to do that. And that might be the biggest thing that could ignite us, kind of a fire — to fire us again.

Betty: One thing I think about is telling young people to go live in Oklahoma and go live in rural downstate Illinois and all the places where the Republicans have gotten their toehold, to do the organizing, to change those places. Because I don't think — California or Maryland is a totally Democratic state. I mean, there are no races at stake. It's like — 

Woman: Central California.

Betty: Maybe Central California, yes. So wherever you pick your battles, but I just think that — and maybe that's another piece we have to — we have to have people all over the country, not just on the East Coast or the West Coast.

Fran: We need a project in every state. We shouldn't have stopped with Mississippi. There's 49 to go.

Mary: If we could talk about in really graphic terms what it means. You know, I don't know how you get that much money to get it on the air. Maybe you just put it on the radio. The radio ads are not as expensive, I guess, as TV. And you know, the churches still are viable if we — as a place where it gets talked about.

Woman: Twitter, Facebook.

Mary: Cocktail parties. [Laughter] I registered to vote in a bar here in California. That's how I got registered to vote.

Woman: But you know, my son signed up with Covered California [health plan], and they sent a voter registration. He's already registered, but with our — [Overtalk]

Betty: A voter registration organization. We do health insurance and voter registration.

Woman: So everybody who is under Covered California is getting a registration. That's pretty cool, I thought.

Woman: That's great. Yeah, that is really good.

 — END OF TRANSCRIPT — 


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