Bearing Witness:
An afternoon with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement

De Young Museum panel discussion in conjunction with the
"Danny Lyon, Message of the Future" photo exhibit


Chude Pam Parker Allen  
Ron Bridgeforth
Bruce Hartford
Julian Cox, DeYoung Museum

Julian: Good afternoon ladies and gentleman. My name is Julian Cox. I'm the Chief Curator of the museum here and was the organizing curator of the exhibition, Danny Lyon, Message of the Future.

So great to see so many of you here. There's a break in the rain, and everyone comes to the museum. This is exactly what we want. Thank you for being here for what I hope will be a really fabulous and rousing event this afternoon — Bearing Witness.

Our three esteemed guests this afternoon are from Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and we're going to hear from them, their experiences, their testimony, and their reflections on 50 years on. So I am just so thrilled to be sharing the stage with Chude Allen, Ron Bridgeforth and Bruce Hartford. So please join me in welcoming Chude Allen, who is going to read one of her poems. Chude.

Chude: Thank you. Well, we vets had hoped we could also ask all the other veterans in the audience to stand up, but clearly we're going to have to wait until [the lights are brought back up] so at the end, please let's not forget to honor all of us who are here, because we are only three of many.


Whenever I've thought of that summer in 1964,
I've remembered Delois,
one of the students in the Freedom School.
So many images flood my mind, but the main memory
is of us walking along the side of her father's fields
when she brought me home to spend the night.

We walked on a dirt tractor road
in the quiet of the evening,
far from the prying eyes of racist whites.
We walked and talked the slow talk of friends
out for an evening stroll,
with the sounds of the birds and insects keeping us company.

It felt so normal. Normal? There was nothing normal
about two young women, one black and one white,
walking together in Mississippi in 1964.
Nothing was the least bit normal
about this young twenty-year-old white Freedom School teacher
visiting a black student's family.
There was nothing normal about the friendship
that had developed between us.

And yet, that is how I remember it.
Delois offered me an evening of quiet friendship
in spite of all the fear and tension
we faced challenging racism in Mississippi.
She wanted me to come meet her parents and see her home.

Oh yes, I remember dinner — not the food,
but the tenseness as I sat at the table,
all of us being polite
and trying to make conversation as we ate.
Her parents had a watchfulness.

I assumed it was a fear of racist whites
as well as their own ambivalence about us white Civil Rights workers.
Yet, when I think back to that dinner now
and see her mother studying me
over the bowls of collards and beans,
I wonder if it wasn't also personal.

What mother doesn't study the friend
her eighteen-year-old daughter brings home,
the girl who represents the world outside
the boundaries of family and community?

I don't know if her mother liked me
or whether that was even a question in her mind.
But I do think she was looking for what her daughter saw in me,
for clues about how her daughter was changing.
And I do think she was anxious
about what those changes would mean
for both herself and her family.

I've experienced enough of life now
to know that all change is difficult,
even when you want it, even when you know it is good.
And change, after all,
was what the Freedom Schools
and the voter registration work were all about.
Changing Mississippi.
Changing the relationships between black and white.
Changing ourselves.

Thank you.

Julian: I want to welcome the three of you to the stage. And could we just raise the lights just a little bit? Because I liked very much what Chude said when she invoked the audience. And can you identify yourself if you're a veteran of this movement? If you spent time working in the South?

[Movement veterans stand to applause]

Julian: So I'd like to maybe begin with Ron, but just to take the cue from Chude who took us sort of laser like deep into the heart of Mississippi 1964, which, as I understand it, is when you yourself, Ron, became involved. And I think from each of you, we want to hear, for the benefit of the audience, how you got involved, a little bit about your background, but if you could please sort of take us into the beginning of your personal involvement with the Movement?

Ron: It wasn't anything very thoughtful or sophisticated. I grew up in Los Angles, in Compton — South Los Angeles. I went to [college] in Sterling, Kansas. I was a Presbyterian boy. I thought about being a minister. I loved the philosophy and community service. But the school in Kansas was about 500 students. I think there were two Blacks. I spent three semesters there and found not very much of myself. It was difficult.

The fourth semester I went to Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee which is about 800 students. They probably had 10 white students. Kind of the story of my life, of extreme responses. I didn't find that I fit there, although I did discover Lou Rawles. Good stuff.

But Marion Barry, one of the founders of SNCC, was working on his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and came on campus and asked myself and Ike Coleman — he asked a lot of us, but myself and my roommate, Ike Coleman, volunteered to go to Mississippi. I knew something was wrong in America. I knew that what I'd been taught wasn't true. I didn't know what the shape of it was, and I certainly didn't know what Mississippi was.

My family originally came from Oakland, Mississippi in the Delta, but then the next few generations lived in southeast Arkansas across the river, and my mother and all nine of my aunts and uncles eventually wound up in California. They went as far away from the South as they could go until the water stopped them. So when I said to my Mom, "I'm going to Mississippi for the summer," it strikes terror in the heart of a mother.

So, that's about as much as I thought. You know, I'm going to go do this. College is not — I'm not finding anything there. I don't know what took me there. Certainly a lack of understanding of what Mississippi was. That's it.

Julian: Just a footnote to that. You mentioned Knoxville. I know that Nashville was a really important center with the Reverend James Lawson teaching nonviolent philosophy. Can you say a little bit more about that? I mean, you were obviously quite moved by Marion Barry. Did you go to meetings and public gatherings?

Ron: No, I was foolish. Ike and I went to his home in Lexington, Kentucky for about a month, and then we went to Waveland for — I think I only had a week of training, because I was African-American. And so clearly I could be a project director at 19. [Laughing]

So the week after [I arrived in Mississippi], three workers disappeared in Neshoba County. Ten of us went to Columbus [MS], and we were divided up in groups of twos and threes and fanned out into adjacent counties. Mine was Oktibbeha County which is the home of Mississippi State University, and our goal was to find a place to live and begin to develop a movement in that area. I was 19; Steve Frasier was 18 — a Jewish kid from New York. We were well suited for the job, I think. [Laughing] And no, I didn't know anything, dude. [Laughing]

Julian: So you just jumped straight into the deep end.

Ron: Yeah, but I didn't know how deep it was. [Laughing]

Bruce: If I could just say one thing.

Julian: Please.

Bruce: Ron worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) "Snick" we called it. And there was a SNCC saying that the way you learned to do your job was like jumping off a cliff and learning to fly on the way down.

Julian: So we just heard from Ron how he sort of periscoped into Mississippi. Chude, tell us a little bit about your story and your background and how you ended up in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

Chude: Well, I'm from Eastern Pennsylvania. And in the summer of '63, I worked in an Episcopal Church day camp in North Philadelphia which was all Black. And that was my first experience being in a Black community. I didn't have the consciousness then that that was segregation, because it wasn't enforced by law.

I lived in a white community 35 miles north, and every weekend I would go home to the white folk, and every Monday morning, I would come back to this Black community. And I was changed by the people. And so then I applied to go to Spelman to be an exchange student at an historically Black women's college, and from there, I was recruited to be a Freedom School teacher. And in contrast to Ron, we were trained. There were a number of us from Spelman and Morehouse, and a number of the white colleges, Emory and the University of Georgia. So there was a whole group of us being trained in the spring before we went into Mississippi.

Julian: And that was the spring of 1964?

Chude: The spring of 1964, yes.

Julian: Could one of you maybe talk about the training a little bit more directly?

Chude: Well, I think that Bruce is best at talking about tactical nonviolence. In Atlanta, I was very influenced by the pacifists, Staughton Lynd, Vincent Harding, John Youngblood at the Quaker House, and so I had these idealistic illusions that somehow I could face any violence, and I would continue to love my enemy. I'm sure both the men on either side of me couldn't have cared less about loving the enemy. [Laughing]

But I was, as Ron mentioned, I was very spiritual. I was very much motivated by the belief that God wanted me to do this. And so I was trying as best I could to at least come with a loving attitude. So in those trainings we were basically both taking a look at what would it mean to be teachers in the Freedom Schools but also what nonviolence means. What it means to be able to hold your line if you're on a picket line. If you're alone, how you handle yourself when people are trying to hurt you. And you, Bruce, can talk more about the training, because you did trainings.

Julian: Bruce, before you do that, just sort of introduce a little bit of your background and how you come into this history.

Bruce: Well, what I've come to realize is that the big things you do in my life — that people do in their lives — can't be explained in one simple reason in a panel presentation. So I guess what I will talk about is the trigger that got me involved in the Freedom Movement.

All three of us grew up in the '50s, shortly after the Second World War. I'm Jewish, and as a teenager, I became deeply into the Holocaust, reading about it, talking to people, and I was just enraged. Of course, I was enraged at the Germans and the Poles and the people who committed the atrocities, but I was just as angry at those in the democracies, in our own country, who stood aside and did nothing and let it happen.

Now as a Jew — Jews are always asking each other, 'Well, what kind of Jew are you?' [Laughing] Reform, Orthodox, this, that, or the other. But none of those categories resonated with me, so I created my own sect. I called myself a "Four Nevers" Jew. Never forget, never forgive, never again, and never stand by while others are persecuted. So, one day, as a totally lost teenager, I was sitting in a Beatnik coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue in L.A. and a guy comes up and says, "Hey, stick around. Someone from CORE is going to show movies of the open housing demonstrations in Torrance."

Now, I knew Torrance was an L.A. suburb. I had no idea what a CORE was. It turned out it was a Congress of Racial Equality and they had this whacky idea that people should be allowed to live wherever they wanted to and could afford regardless of their race. So he shows his movies, and they're a film of maybe 10 nonviolent pickets walking up and down the sidewalk at a segregated housing tract, and they're under attack by 30 uniformed American Nazis in full swastika. "Kill the Jews," the N-word, throwing stuff at them, threatening them, and so on.

So I come up to him afterwards, and I says, "Look, I don't know who you people are, but if you're against the Nazis, when do I show up?" The next Saturday, I was on the line at Torrance. The Nazis were there. We were outnumbered badly. They were attacking us, and I learned about this thing called nonviolence.

I was a very angry young man. Thank God I encountered nonviolence as a way to channel that anger. I'm still — now, I'm an angry old man. [Laughing] But I have a way of channeling and using that anger.

Julian: Talk about nonviolent training. Tell us what the benefits were.

Bruce: Well, that's a huge topic for a short panel talk. I'll tell you a quick story, though. When I went to Selma to work on the Selma Voting Rights campaign, I had been running nonviolent training sessions in Los Angeles for CORE, and then I went to work for Dr. King's group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And one of the first things they asked me to do was to run nonviolent training sessions for young Selma students — junior high and high school students. Now, in Los Angeles, we always had a hard time in L.A. getting the people being trained to hit each other and hit each other hard so they could learn how to nonviolently handle that. So, I was used to really pushing that.

So, the first person to come up was a young girl about 15, named Margaret Griffin. And so I'm saying to her, I'm saying, "Now, hit me hard. Hit me hard. Don't hold back." And she looks at me, and she says, "Are you sure?" I says, "Yes, yes. Really hit me. And I want to show you how to handle it." This huge grin came over her face. [Laughing] And she hauled off and slugged me in the chest, knocked me across the room. I still have a scar on my back from scraping the skin. And then she jumped on me and was pummeling me and kicking me. And of course I was all curled up, and so she wasn't really hurting me.

And of course, that was the point. We ended up all laughing. Afterwards though, I did many other training sessions, but in Selma and other places in Alabama, I never really made such a point about "hit me hard." [Laughing]

Julian: But you used this important word, Chude, tactical training. And I want to sort of understand a little bit more from each of you maybe, you and Ron there, about the sort of reality on the ground. You were saying, for example Ron, of being — coming into this very green, not really being that prepared. And here you are, you end up in a small rural county in Mississippi. Tell us how this works, how you encountered, how this was within those communities.

Ron: Well, luckily I didn't have to practice tactical nonviolence. You know, I was a good sized kid. I had been playing football for the last X number of years, and we did get attacked early on by a gas station attendant who happened to be Black and happened to be mentally diminished in his capacity to understand what was going on, and he was essentially sic'ed on us. And so he came after us with a rubber hose, and he went after Steve, and then I went after him and snatched him up and threw him across whatever distance.

And so other than getting arrested and jailed, no one ever came after me personally to beat me. And I wasn't in Jackson when the demonstrations took place there. I did get caught out in a place called Maben, Mississippi which is about 30 miles from Starkville. Had about six, seven hundred people there. We were organizing in that area, and there was a lady by the name of Sarah McBride-Graham. She had seven kids. She lived in a two-room shack, and it was papered by newspapers across the chinks between the boards. One potbellied stove, lots of soot up around the ceiling. She was really very poor. Yet she was determined to vote.

I got there late one evening, and it got dark, and I had to get back to Starkville. It was two of us, and what we noticed is she lived on a cul-de-sac called a porter back then. There were four carloads of white men who were circling the entrance to the cul-de-sac. They would not come in, but I had to go out. And so I get ready to leave, and she stopped me, and she asked her 18-year-old son, James, to go with me, and he brought a shotgun.

He sat behind me; I'm driving. He sat behind me with the shotgun butt on the floor, and we started out. And we got out onto the dirt roads between the town and the highway. One of the cars pulled up beside us, as an attempt to run us off of the road. And when they saw that shotgun barrel in the window, they thought better of it. And we got home safe.

But the thing I carried for I'd say 50 years was the sense of guilt. Because after a year in Mississippi, I got to come home, but James had to go back to Maben. It's interesting. I did see James again in 2014 at the 50th reunion. I went back to Starkville — he still lives in Maben; he's got grandkids — I talked to him about that. And it wasn't nothing ... he became a tough man over time, carried guns, all kinds of stuff like that. But I walked away from Mississippi believing that I would not have survived except for local people, and they were not tactically nonviolent. I don't know what to do with that except — yeah.

Julian: So that's, I think, a very powerful dichotomy that you're bringing up, the sort of gap, if I can say in a crude way, between the philosophy of nonviolence as you were sort of taught it and the reality of navigating the situations on the ground.

Ron: I think if you were in a demonstration, and you were doing that for purposes of bearing witness — and I love the name of this, because I believe that's exactly what we're doing — then nonviolence is certainly appropriate. If you're on a back road in Mississippi, I don't think so. Whatever you've got to do to survive.

Bruce: Yeah, I wanted to say that's the essence of tactical nonviolence, that on protests when you're actively trying to make social change, what is effective is to do it nonviolently. When you're by yourself or you're at home and confronted with terrorism, you deal with terrorism in the most effective way, and that might very well include self defense. The first six months I was in Alabama, my life and health were threatened by the Klan five times. Four times I protected myself with nonviolence. Once we fired back.

Chude: And I would mention that when you were going to go on a picket line, be part of a demonstration, it was asked of us, could we be nonviolent? And people were encouraged not to go if that wasn't right for them. There are other ways to support a demonstration. There are other ways to support a picket line or voter registration than going down and being public carrying either your signs or at least as a group making demands. So that's, I think, the real distinction.

But when I was in Atlanta, I was with people who were pacifists and who believed that no matter what, they would not raise their hand. And there's a wonderful story about James Farmer who was the head of CORE who was down in a demonstration, and the Klan surrounded the church he was in, and he was a pacifist. And he said, "No, you can't have guns as you try to get me out of here." And they told him to shut up and sit down in the car, and they were going to get him away alive. And he wrote about that being a contradiction.

But the thing is, when you're with the local people, the local people believed in the right of self defense. And it wasn't our job to tell them that they shouldn't believe in self defense. But they knew enough not to go down to the demonstration with their guns and break windows and think that the repression of the state wasn't going to come down on them. They were protecting their communities. They were making sure that those violent racist white men didn't come into their communities.

Julian: You know, I want to explore this idea or sort of the concept of the inside and the outside a little bit, because you, Ron, used that term of sort of even having a little bit of guilt that after a year you were heading back out of Mississippi. I think you came back to the Bay Area then, but you know, could each one of you talk a little bit about that notion of being sort of both being embedded in the community, being inside it, being active, you know working on issues like voting rights and other community initiatives but yet having potentially the freedom to disappear back to where you came from and to have that sense of relief which the locals in these communities didn't have. I mean, could each of you speak to that a little bit.

Chude: Well, I have never met a person who felt relieved coming out of the South. The reintegration into the dominant society was very, very difficult. We've heard people talk about suicide, you know thinking about suicide, it was so hard. It was difficult to come back, but at the same time for many of us, it was necessary that we leave. Both things can be true. So I think in that sense, it's more the question — I've never met anyone who was privileged enough to go South and be part of the Southern Freedom Movement who doesn't say: One, it was one of the most important experiences in their lives, and Two, that they learned more and were given more than they gave.

Ron: You stole my line, didn't you? [Laughing]. I've been thinking about this ever since Mike Miller walked into the room that I had not thanked him. He welcomed me to San Francisco in 1965, a pretty shell-shocked, 21-year-old, and he welcomed me again in 2011. Thank you. What was the question?

Julian: It was just about you had earlier on — I just wanted to pick up on, you used the term guilt of sort of leaving the South. I just wanted to get into a little bit more of that, the back and forth of coming and going from that part of the country.

Ron: You know, when we went into Starkville, most of the adults kind of stood back. You know, they had mortgages or something equivalent. Because I think they rightfully considered that we were just gonna come in there and start some mess and then leave them to have to clean it up. And they just weren't doing it. But young people were excited. I don't know that we registered very many people to vote. We did have a Freedom School that began with young people. We integrated the theaters — a theater — because that's all we had.

But more than anything, I think I was a symbol, and I kind of understood it. The question was, could you stand up to Mississippi as an African-American man and stay alive? I stayed alive with a lot of help. I mean, I got put in jail in Columbus, Mississippi along with Ron Carver, and he's a kid from Boston, and they put me in an all-Black cell, right? You might as well have put me in a briar patch. They put him in an all-white cell. We had to get him out of there.

I think I did my job. You got tired of looking back over your shoulder, of riding around in the dark with your little light switch off so they can't see your brake lights, and you switch off the [dome light] of the car, so they can't see you open the door, because people would hurt you. And you didn't drive too far south in that county, because the next county down was Neshoba County — Philadelphia, Mississippi. And you could just feel the difference in who you were seeing and how people looked at you as you drove toward Philadelphia. So if you had good sense, at some point you stopped and turned around.

So, yeah, I carried that guilt for 50 years, because I didn't go back to Mississippi for 50 years. And at Mississippi State University, they now have a Black Studies Department, and they hosted a conference that Chude and I went to. The professor who runs that department, I told him this story about feeling like I had not accomplished much, while he was driving around with James and I, James Graham, and he says, "James, Ron thinks he didn't accomplish very much here. What you think?"

Oh Lord. James kind of went off on me. He said, "Think a minute. Do you feel the terror?" I said, "No." He said, "That's what you've accomplished." [Applause]

Julian: Chude, take us through the work a little bit that you did in the Freedom Schools, sort of so people can understand the kind of activities that took place in the Freedom Schools and the contributions that you made and your other comrades made in the Freedom Schools.

Chude: Well, the people who thought up the whole idea of the Freedom Schools understood the importance of young people being given the opportunity to learn and think. And one of the key areas of course was to learn about Black history. But none of us knew anything about Black history, so when we went to Oxford, Ohio for the training before going into Mississippi — I was in the Freedom School training, which was the second training. We were given a big stack of mimeographed papers to help us through the various information we needed. And I was like one lesson plan ahead every day. I taught Black history, and I just think it's very important for us all to remember that in 1964 most colleges in the United States that were white, were predominantly white-run, did not teach Black history. I knew nothing. I went to one of the best liberal arts colleges in this country, and I knew nothing. But then, I knew nothing about racism period when I went South. I mean, we just didn't know our history. And so that was my morning class.

And the way we divided in Holly Springs, which was a large project, was that the older students were divided by men and women or guys and girls as we called girls then, rather than women. So I was with the young women, and I would share whatever it was I learned, and then we would talk. And the whole point of the Freedom Schools essentially was to help people learn how to think and talk. Your ideas are important. You have value. Take a look at your community, and what do you think? These are important questions that of course, as we well know, are problematic now in education. So it was radical. If your job is to know the right answer on a quiz — A, B, C or D — you're not thinking.

I also, because I was a religion major, taught a class in religion in the afternoon. That was my big mistake, and I'll just say very quickly, you know, I was in many ways an arrogant little 20-year-old. So I thought, 'Oh, it would be fun with all these Baptists and Roman Catholics — because that's what they were — Oh, let's start with atheism.' [Laughing]

And so one of the workers, Peter Cummings, was an atheist. He was a New Yorker. So I started there. Well, of course, basic bottom line principles of organizing is you start where people are. And in a world view where you can go to hell if you haven't been baptized, you don't start with atheism. [Laughing]

So the students that went to the Roman Catholic school, they ran to the nuns, and two of the nuns insisted I come over and talk to them. So I had to go talk to the nuns about how did I have the right to teach religion. I mean, this is all in the middle of the voter registration and everything else, but the whole point is our job was partly to encourage people to think about new ideas. And as I say to students when I tell that story, of course where I should've started was, "Let's talk about the principles behind people who are Baptist and Roman Catholic," and then let's talk about others, and then maybe Hindus and Buddhists and maybe at the end, we could mention there are even people that don't believe in God. So, you know, I was young.

And then I had the very great privilege of assisting a professional teacher who was coming from New York, Debbie Flynn. One of the things she did with her New York students was help them write plays. So the teenagers did a play on Medgar Evers, and they wrote all their parts and acted them, and then they gave the performance for their parents. And then there was to be a Freedom School convention at the end of the summer, and so the people organizing that — Staughton Lynd was the head of the Freedom Schools — they invited the students to come to give their play to the Freedom School convention, so we went and did that. And that was a real privilege to watch someone who knew how to help students really do self expression in theater.

And they weren't historically accurate by the way, in terms of some of what they had Ms. Evers saying, but it didn't matter, because what they were doing was, 'What would I do? What would I say if my father was coming home, and he was shot dead in the driveway?' And so the boy playing the son was very, very bitter. And the girl playing the mother was very reasonable, because that's how they thought they would do it, but it was very powerful. Very powerful.

So I hope that gives you just a sense. There were people who taught concrete things. We had a nurse who taught nursing skills in the morning. There are kids in some of the schools who wanted French. They wanted to learn about — to hear new languages, because most of them didn't have good education.

But before I finish, I want to say that doesn't mean there weren't some very excellent Black teachers in those segregated Black schools, because there were. And one of the white women who was there in the summer of '64 lived with a retired teacher, and she then became a professional teacher. She said she learned more from that woman than from all her classes, getting a master's degree in education. Because those teachers, since they weren't given the best books, and they weren't given the best things, they had to dig deep in their own abilities to teach the kids everything they could, so those students would have self respect as well as knowledge. And that's an interesting contradiction I just said, because I said we came to help kids learn how to think, and I also just told you that there were Black teachers that were doing that really, really well on their own. Both things are true.

Julian: Bruce, what about you? Tell us about what issues you got most involved in when you headed down there, as this sort of bristling young guy? In what were you most engaged? Was it voting rights? Was it education? What was it that you became most involved with?

Bruce: Well, after two years with CORE in California, I went to Selma to participate in 1965 in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign which actually had started two years earlier in 1963 when SNCC first came into Selma. So voting rights was the issue for the first year that I was in the South and actually the whole time I was in the South.

Voting rights — people think today about voting rights as a somewhat narrow issue, but in the South at that time, it was absolutely fundamental. Bob Moses — who was the genius behind the Mississippi Voting Rights Campaign — today he analyzes that whole issue in terms of 'we the people.' That the very first words of the US Constitution are, 'We the people do hereby ordain this Constitution.' It's not we the rich people; it's not we the politicians; it's not we the elite; it's we the people.

The issue then becomes who is included in we the people, and in the South at that time and in many places in the country at this present time, people who are denied the right to vote are essentially excluded from being part of we the people who are the stakeholders in our society and have a voice. And without that voice, the people were subject to abuse, exploitation, humiliation and deep injustice.

I remember one time in the basement of First Baptist Church, where the Medical Committee for Human Rights had doctors providing free care for people active in the Movement. A young Black woman had escaped from her plantation out in the rural, carrying in her arms her dying baby. Like a fugitive slave she had fled in the night to cross through the fields and bogs to come to the church because her plantation master would not let her go into Selma where all those dangerous ideas were — and where the doctor might charge him a dollar for seing her.

She knew that if the police caught her they would turn her back to that master. And whatever he did to her as punishment for disobeying his command there would be no consequences to him at all — because he was rich, white, and politically powerful and she didn't even have the right to vote. So the right to vote was — and still is, in a sense — really the right to be a human being, to be respected as part of 'we the people.'

And that's why what we used to call the "White Power Structure" fought so hard and so viciously to deny nonwhite people the vote because people without the vote could be economically exploited, socially suppressed, and sexually abused. They had all of these tricks and all of these things like literacy tests and the voter application itself, all designed to prevent non-white people from voting. And not just Blacks. Out here in the West, Latinos faced the same thing. Asians, Native Americans. So that was the issue that was sort of the foundation issue. And I regret to say that it looks like we're going to have to have that fight again because in my opinion the voter supression tactics of today's Republican Party have the same goal of disenfranchising those who might vote against the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Julian: Yeah, yeah. I think that's a very poignant moment to maybe open it up to the floor. It would be great to hear from all of you. Maybe you can raise the lights up a little bit. And if you have any questions for our three guests from anyone on the floor or comments from the other veterans who might want to add. Madame here in the front row.

Woman: I was thinking of just what you said and wondering if in today's world the philosophy and methods [of nonviolence] can effect change today?

Bruce: Well, I'll say "Yes." As I look at history, all of the effective social movements of the last 100 or more years in this country that have succeeded in making significant social reforms have been essentially nonviolent — though not necessarily totally, philosophically nonviolent every moment of every time because sometimes some people did defend themselves from terrorist or police attack. But those people who tried to make change through aggressive violent means — attacking other people, destroying property, vigilante retaliation, setting fires and so on — they were always suppressed and always have been suppressed.

The Women's Suffrage Movement, the Labor Movement, the Environmental Movement, the Women's Movement, the Gay Rights Movement and so on. All of their achievments — which are the achievements today's Republican Party is trying to roll back — were all made through nonviolence. That is, through non-aggressive strategies and tactics. So, yes, I still feel that that's not only one way; I think it's the only way — said he in an opinionated way. [Laughing]

Julian: We expect nothing less from you.

Woman: I have a question. As you look at the landscape of what is going on now, do you think that there is a leader or a group or a message that would establish a good counter balance to this administration?

Chude: Good question.

Julian: Yes, the question is, can anybody on the panel identify a person or a movement that could be a counter balance to the present administration? That was the question.

Chude: Well, I'm not gonna answer that directly, but what I am going to say that we feel, pretty much I think we can speak, is that movements are created by people and that leaders are made by movements. So the first question is, how to get involved and that there are numerous ways to do it.

I will, in terms of the question before about whether the techniques we had in the past are valuable, I would say I think right now self-discipline is one of the key things people in this country need to learn in order to create viable social change. And that is one of the things that nonviolent direct action requires, that we learn self discipline, that we don't just run off and do whatever we want whenever we want to.

So that doesn't answer your question directly, but I think the idea that there is going to be some leader — maybe this time even a woman rather than the male god as there was in the past — that is immediately going to solve all our problems, no, I don't think it's going to be that way. I think it's going to start with lots of people in lots of places, as we already can see in terms of what's been happening, doing things.

And one of the things that everyone that's been involved in actions of any kind have to deal with this, are we going to allow the disruptive violence to be part of these demonstrations? And I've asked Bruce numerous times, like what did you do when somebody in the middle of a nonviolent demonstration wanted to start beating up one of the people that was throwing stones at you, or what did you do? And both Ron and Bruce have commented about how you can surround a person; you can make it so they cannot dominate your movement, because right now, that's what happens.

But truthfully, I think it is the importance of us starting to learn to take responsibility for our own actions and our own lives.

Ron: I'd like to sort of follow up on that is the idea that I believe, and I don't know if I can be clear enough, that oppression requires the cooperation of the people being oppressed. I really wanted [to win] this election [of 2016]. I really wanted the Supreme Court. I really wanted someone to come and save us, and I didn't care what gender they were, but it didn't happen. No one's coming to save us. I think probably we're the ones we've been waiting for.

I have a young man I have breakfast with once a month on a Saturday morning, and he's a therapist. He's 35 years old, and we were talking about the election last month. He used the analogy of — and it's not really a forest fire, but it's a fire that gets struck in the forest; it burns off all the undergrowth and allows for new trees to grow. And he said, 'That's what I think this election is.' And I said, 'There it is.' From the mouths of babes.

Joseph Ruggiero: I'm a Civil Rights veteran, and when I speak, one of the things that is the most powerful thing — I didn't know it 52 years ago — I am the voice of all of the people brought from Mother Africa. They lost their children; they lost their wives; put in chains in slavery, {UNCLEAR} and all of that. This is not a Black problem. This is a "We the people" problem.

It is up to the white folks to come clean on it, and it's {UNCLEAR} a little bit different from what Ron said {UNCLEAR} is the point of this election, but to me, it is a thing that all of us need to make sure they did not die in vain. And we do that by getting on the Freedom bus. {UNCLEAR} going everything is happening right now. Go out and do one good thing a week, and we'll get to where we need to go. Thank you. [Applause]

Man: Were roles segregated for lack of a better word in the Freedom Summer? Specifically, those who were teaching, were you also involved in voter registration? Or was that a separate group?

Chude: Well there are two ways to answer that. First of all, if you're a white woman, you brought danger to your project, and most of the time you would not be going off into the rural areas, because you could, being in the car with Black people, bring death. You know, white men were pathological around the question of white women, and therefore, we were dangerous. So most of us were Freedom School teachers and/or in the offices doing voter registration work.

[In the Deep South of the 1960s "voter registration work" did not mean actuallly registering people to vote as it does today. Back then it meant encouraging people to go down to the courthouse and defy white authorities by asking to register to vote, confronting the so-called "literacy test," and risking very real threats of arrest, economic retaliation, and violent terrorism. So "voter registration work" was a form of community organizing, long conversations, getting people to attend meetings, signing them up as members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, political and social encouragement, keeping and typing lists, coordinating transportation, and so on.]

The caveat is two-fold. One is within the town like Holly Springs, we would go out in the afternoons, students and teachers, and knock on doors to at least encourage people to sign up for the Mississippi Democratic Party, because the challenge [at the Democratic convention] was that fall. And the other thing was you needed a car to go out into the rural areas. And so if you were — in our case, we had a white woman with a car, and so she went and started a Freedom School in Benton County and that was fine. We needed them.

But it tended to be the guys who had the cars. That's just one of the things that happened. If there were SNCC cars, they tended to go to the men rather than the women on the whole. But I will also say that on our project in the fall, Ivanhoe Donaldson, who was our project leader, sent two white women to one of the counties, I believe Desoto, because it was too dangerous for any of the men to go — any of the Black men. And so the women were saying, "But we're white, and we're supposed to go teach the kids Black history." Because that shift was starting to happen that maybe whites shouldn't be teaching it. And his attitude was, "Look, if they'll let you do it, go and do it."

So even though most of the time white women were kept more at the offices and stuff, in this case, Marjorie and Gloria were out there teaching in Desoto County. So it's mixed. But when we first started doing reunions and stuff, I discovered that a lot of people thought voter registration was a lot more important and that Freedom Schools were just girl-work. But since I came out of Atlanta, and I'd been recruited by Staughton Lynd who was running the Freedom Schools, I didn't know that. [Laughing]

I thought we were doing really important work.

Mike Miller: My name is Mike Miller, and I was a SNCC Field Secretary in 1962 to the end of 1966, and I want to add a dimension that Chude touched on when she mentioned Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We were — however uneven the work was — we imagined ourselves as organizing people to gain political power. We were not simply demonstrating, though that was part of the Movement, but the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sought to contest who would represent Democrats of Mississippi and it mounted a challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention that made national headlines.

In Alabama and Lowndes County, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization ultimately, after the passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act, took over the county. Its candidates were elected to be the majority politicians of that county. So organizing and gaining power is a dimension that needs to be part of the discussion of both what happened then and what we do now.

Julian: Thank you, Mike. It's great.

Ron: Spoken like an organizer.

Woman: I just want to say, 'God bless every single one of you veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, whether you're in this room or elsewhere.' Ron, you mentioned the three young men. I was 16 at that time, and I remember — you said your mother was afraid when you mentioned you were going South. I remember when the news came back that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner died and how they were found, and as a {UNCLEAR} person, even today, it comes back. It's a visceral feeling of dread. You all sound very naive at the beginning, but once you were down there, did that just visceral form of fear come once you realized what you had stepped into?

Ron: You know, I was gonna be a minister once, and then I became a materialist. [Laughing] And now I'm a spiritualist. [Laughing]

I try to understand what was going on in those buildings, in those churches when we sang freedom songs. That we really — I don't know. Maybe it was some sort of — you know psychologists would probably tell us bonding together, but it overcame our fear. We indeed did walk into stuff that's not reasonable to walk into. Maybe it was — I don't know. We were bonded together, and you did it.

There's a quote from Howard Zinn's book, The New Abolitionist, where he quotes Bob Moses as saying, 'The young people who were part of SNCC were not brave because they were not afraid. They were brave because they were afraid, and they acted anyway.' The feedback that you get from that, the outcome is that all of us were changed in ways that we could not have been changed otherwise. And it's given us a life that's worth living, so it's not a sacrifice; it's a privilege. [Applause]

Bruce: Well, I just want to say that I was scared every minute of every day. Absolute. When I first went into Mississippi having been in Alabama for a year, Mississippi was even scarier than Alabama. I wasn't able to urinate for two full days. [Laughing]

Ron: Much, too much!

Bruce: That's a true story. But I want to talk about another kind of fear. The fear you're talking about is the fear of violent terrorism and the fear of being arrested and so on. And those were very serious and legitimate fears. But laying underneath that fear was a deeper fear that I think everybody who was politically experienced back then and is now experiencing today, whether they're in Mississippi or in California. And that is the fear of standing up in society and saying "No!" That is the fear of taking a stand, the fear of standing out, of being thought a troublemaker, of being somebody who steps aside from that consensus, that quiet acceptance, and becomes a troublemaker. That is very difficult because you have to, in some ways, stand against your friends, your community, and the established custom. The fear of publicly saying, 'No, I will not accept that' is a fear that holds everybody in conformance and acceptance of the status quo. And that kind of fear has to be challenged first. Daring to say "No!" Daring to defy the social norm comes long before dealing with terrorism from the Klan. [Applause]

Gene Turitz: I want to put another side on some of this, because I think not only is it these exciting, the terrorizing, all that. There's some very basic hard work that was done, and it's not glorified or work. When you talk about knocking on doors, we had to walk for miles every day on dirt roads, past vicious dogs, just to go to talk to people. And you would spend with each family that you talk with on a front porch half an hour or an hour, just to get one idea about maybe why a child should go to a new school or why to register to vote.

And I think that's the work that's also necessary today. It's not going out on every demonstration that's called, and we're all getting notifications of 35 every day, but the work of going and talking with people and sort of what Mike said about organizing people which is not getting them to a demonstration; it's getting people to consider the changes that we need and how to make them. And that's the work that we really did day after day after day. [Applause]

Julian: Yes, ma'am.

Carol Ruth Silver?: I just want to say I disagree little with what Bruce was saying bit about with the situation, because I think what is most dramatic about the current situation — the Women's March, the demonstrations at the airport [against the Muslim ban], is how many people are not afraid. And I agree completely with Gene, talking to your neighbors and organizing and so on. I think that's vitally important.

The other thing I want to say is I really appreciate this and thank you for it, and I would hope that [maybe the] Museum would consider doing something about the local Civil Rights Movement, because in 1963 and 1964, there was a Bay Area Civil Rights Movement under the auspices under the "Ad Hoc Committee" for I don't know, was it Civil Rights? I think it was "To End Discrimination." And it challenged racist hiring policies of the Oakland Tribune, at the Fairmont Hotel, on auto row where I was personally arrested, and it was a dramatic moment locally in response to what was going on in the South. And it was not dangerous in the same way; it didn't have the same kind of drama, I think, but it was very important. And it's right here, and there's lots of information about it, lots of veterans. And I think the museum would do a real service to the local community to look at that movement as well.

Julian: Thank you. We'll think about that. [Applause]

Julian: I really like the fact that Bruce spoke about his involvement early on in Los Angeles and CORE there. And there is a lot of focus within this country, especially in the education system, on the Southern Civil Rights Movement, but we know that there are these shock waves all over the country, and every community really has its own history around this issue. So thank you for making that point. Maybe just one more question before we wrap it up. This on the right hand side, madame here, yes.

Woman: Oh, thank you. Actually, {UNCLEAR} because we have social media now, and that's a huge piece of the mobilization, but with our generation, I think one of the things I regret is we don't have one {UNCLEAR} centralized force, like a SNCC that gives us one message we want to send across. So to the panel and to the veterans here, what organizations are you still a part of or would you advise to our generation now, to send a message across and be more effective in our contributions?

Woman: Can you repeat it please?

Julian: Yes, the question is asking the panelists here, can they suggest some parallels — this woman referred to SNCC as being highly organized and centralized is I think a word you used. [General laughter from Movement veterans in the audience]

I don't know if it's the case, but it doesn't matter. The important aspect of your question was to get any thoughts from you all about ways that today's younger generation of activists can get organized? Is that a helpful way of paraphrasing?

Man: She wanted to know specific organizations.

Julian: Yes, specific organizations that she could get involved with.

Ron: Don't know. However, start one. You know, I've become fascinated of late about the movement from the Southern Freedom Movement into the Free Speech Movement into the Women's Movement into the Anti-War Movement, into SDS — well, they were there before, but there's one more — Gender Equality.

Now, Lowndes County, Alabama is where the [Black] Panther was born. It was a symbol of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as opposed to the white rooster that was the White Democratic Party in Alabama. So, I think it was Mark Comfort in Oakland, we asked if we could use that panther. So we see these movements moving back and forth across the country, through generations.

I would not — what does the future hold? You know, there's enough energy, and you see it, to change the country, to make the society we have dreamed of. And maybe this is the moment that it takes. One of the reasons that Bob Moses relented and allowed SNCC to bring white students into Mississippi in '64 was something very subtle. Mississippi was going to keep killing Black people, and nobody was going to care. And the only reason that people began to care was that white folks had skin in the game. He invited students from Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, Cal, from some of the wealthiest families in America to live and work side by side with some of the poorest people in America.

Even me. My mother owned a pharmacy in Los Angeles. When the put me in jail in Columbus, Mississippi, she called the governor's office. I didn't get out of there by myself. So when those students came to Mississippi, they bore witness, and they brought the press with them. They brought the FBI with them. They brought legislatures with them. And we were able to focus on Mississippi as an anomaly, and the whole country turned against it, and we cracked it open. What we have found now is that it's all Mississippi. So what do we do now? [Applause]

Julian: I want to thank our three panelists for their passion, their commitment, their energy to the yesteryear and today. We really appreciate it. It's a model for how we need to move forward in our present situation. And thank you all for joining us.



If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to (If you add a comment, please indicate where in the transcript it should be inserted.)

Copyright ©
(Labor donated)