|Chude Pam Parker Allen||Don Jelinek|
|Hardy Frye||Betita Martinez (Elizabeth Sutherland)|
|Miriam Glickman||Willie B. Wazir Peacock|
|Bruce Hartford||Jimmy Rogers|
|Phil Hutchings||Jean Wiley|
|Miriam||Mothers in the Movement|
If you participated in the Southern Freedom Movement, you can add your comments to this discussion by clicking emailing your them directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please limit your thoughts on any particular topic to no more than a few paragraphs. Your comments will added to this discussion along with your name and email address.
Wazir: I'm Wazir Peacock, and I was Willie B. Peacock at the time when Bob Moses and Amzie Moore showed up at my door.
I had graduated from Rust College, and I had spent most of that summer on the campus taking summer courses. I was also working with Frank Smith of SNCC, who I'd been working with since '61. But anyway, school was out, and I'd finished up, and so I told Frank Smith, "Well, there's just one thing for me to do now, and that is to go home and get prepared to go to Meharry [Medical College]. But if you need me, I'll hang on, man." He said, "Well, I'm not the one to talk about putting people officially on SNCC staff."
You know, they weren't even paying the $9.64 a week at that time. So I took that as a 'Well, it would be nice if you could stay, but I can handle it from here.' That's the meaning I took from Frank. So I went home, and my aunt was there from Detroit. I had prepared to go and spend the rest of the remaining of the summer with her in Detroit because I figured that by doing so she was probably going to lay some money on me for tuition. [Laughing]
But lo and behold, Bob Moses and Amzie Moore showed up at my door after I was home for a week. They showed up, and I hadn't unpacked anything. Amzie said to my father, he said, "Well." Bob said, "We need you, man. We need you." And Amzie and my Daddy was looking at each other smiling and doing some other stuff, I don't know, because both of them I later came to find out were Master Masons and had known each other for years.
As Bob Moses tells it, Amzie came straight to my house. He came straight to my house [without needing directions]. And I bring all that in because my Daddy did a lot of stuff without, because he couldn't talk politics around my mother. My mother would just shut him up, you know? So he did a lot of stuff that she didn't know anything about. So [he was participating in] those meetings that were going on in Mound Bayou once a month, this Black town in Bolivar County that people came to from all over the state. They would have these meetings there and then they would go back to their respective communities. And so my Daddy had secretly been a part of that, secretly from my mother. [Laughing]
Anyway, so I had my father's approval, but my mother was quite, quite disappointed. So we went back into the bedroom, and I talked to her. I said, "Well, this is something that I need to do, I want to do. And I sure would like, I would like to have your approval." And she just looked at me, and she said, "Well, well, OK.' Because she knew me, when I was 15 years old I had run away from home one time, and I was probably going to do it anyway whether she said so or not. That was what she was thinking. But I would have had to think about it. With something that serious, I really wanted her approval. I really did. And I was thankful that she gave it, reluctantly. She reluctantly gave it to me.
And after that, she just sort of adopted anybody who came through from that point. Fred Mangrum stayed at my house, my parents' house. Anybody that came through. And my brother lived in Memphis at the time, when [civil rights workers] had to get out of Mississippi, they stayed at my brother's house in Memphis. So that was the reaction, the basic reaction of my family.
Bruce: Well, I think that in my case my family situation was probably a lot better than that of many of the other white Civil Rights workers, because I heard a lot of stories about people whose families disowned them. In my case, my parents were union organizers. The family friendship circle I grew up in was an integrated friendship circle.
And my family, my mother and my father, both totally supported the Civil Rights Movement. They sent money to SNCC. They sent money to CORE. They sent money to SCLC. They went on pickets in Los Angeles, and signed petitions, so they were complete and utter supporters of the Movement except that their line was, "The Movement is great Bruce, but you should go and finish your college degree and get a profession, [everyone laughing], and then you can really help because then you'll be a doctor or a lawyer or an architect."
In some ways I think they were so intense on that because they had suffered the red baiting. They had been fired from all their jobs. The FBI was always on their case getting them fired and so forth. So they were very afraid that this would happen to me. So they supported the Movement, they just didn't want me in it. Especially if it was going to be interfering with me getting my degree, which in fact it eventually did. I never actually graduated, I never got a degree.
So in that sense, my situation was a lot better than that of some of the other people I knew. But in another sense it was worse. I remember so vividly being in Freedom Houses in Mississippi and Alabama and listening as other civil rights workers, black and white, but particularly white, called home to their parents. And they would be saying, "Oh Dad, don't worry. I'm just doing voter registration. I'm not involved in those demonstrations. And voter registration is totally safe, how could you be more safe than doing voter registration? [Laughing] In Mississippi and Alabama!
Don: It's like a petition.
Bruce: Oh, yeah, "It's just voter registration, Dad. I'm safe." And apparently they could get over on this. Because you could hear from, I could only hear one side of the conversation, but they seemed to be making that point. But I couldn't do that, because my father was one of the very few native white Southerners who was in the leftist and labor movements of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, so when the unions were organizing they always assigned him places like Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. And he was actually run out of more towns by the Ku Klux Klan than I was. He had a confrontation with the Klan in Tupelo and places like that, which I never knew about until years later when I came back out of the South, and he started to talk about some of this stuff.
I could shine my mom on, she was from Brooklyn, she didn't know. But my dad knew. [Laughing] He knew what doing voter registration in places like Grenada, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama was about. So they were always very afraid, but they were, in a way, trapped by their own, they could not run down the Movement. They couldn't say it was wrong because I knew they were supporting it.
So over-all I think my situation was a lot better. I have a lot of admiration for the civil rights workers who actually had to break with their families, and some I have heard that to this day still do not talk with their families. So in that sense, I was really lucky.
Well, in contrast to that, without exception, every single person I knew, who were all in New York, had total disdain for my going South. My parents, my mother told me, "The colored don't like Jews anyhow, so I don't know why you're doing it." My father told me that all these people are being killed because of this agitation in the South. "There's nothing good about it." My Wall Street employer said that going down on behalf of ACLU would not sit well with the clients. My lawyer friends thought that I was just crazy, because the whole idea is to make a lot of money and be very successful. And then it only got worse from there.
Having left [New York] with everybody very negative about my being [in the South], then comes Black Power. And then following Black Power comes the SNCC statement on Israel. And now I get a letter from a judge who was very friendly to me telling me that, Oh, this was at the point when the Stokeley trial was going on, and he was so prominent. And we get national TV on the trial, and I'm always standing behind him as we come out of the courtroom. The judge writes me the letter, and he says, "You're burning your bridges as to be able to earn a living in New York after you return. And that if you don't break off now, you'll never," saying that the lawyers feel this way, the judges feel this way. Your clients are going to feel this way. You're going to be ruined.
After the Israel thing, I came back to New York for a visit. My parents were always at the beach during the summer time with hundreds of friends who I had known all my life. They asked me not to come out to the beach but to meet in Manhattan at a restaurant lest I walk down into this group of all these Jewish people who would either attack me or curse me or do whatever. So they didn't want me to be seen by all their friends.
In the South, I'm sure you had the same experiences. The civil service was rather friendly to us, or to me; the local merchants, the post office, the bank. Somehow they were very, very friendly to us. And one time in Selma, the postman came to the door and he says, "I have a letter for you. It may be for you. I don't know. It may not be for you. And I don't want you to think that any negative thing or that I'm trying to insult you or anything, but I have to do something with the letter, and people think it might be for you. But if it's not, you can just give it back to me and hands me the letter." It's addressed to: "Judas. Selma, Alabama." [Laughing]
Don: Everybody in town knew who it was for.
Bruce: And was it?
Don: Yeah. [Laughing] Oh yeah. It had excrement in it and language to match it. And my name. And by the time the three years were up I was there three years and I was ready to leave, there was no going back to New York. My bridges were totally burned. And that's when I came out here [San Francisco Bay Area]. So I can say that with unanimity not one single person I knew favored my being in the South.
Well, my situation was kind of interesting because I grew up in the South. And my father was very political but very independent, because he was working class Black. To grow up in Tuskegee, you grew up in a whole different environment. There were about 90% Black and 10% white in the county, but the Blacks there, I've always seen doctors and lawyers that were Black, but they lived on the other side of the tracks [from us]. And they kind of made that clear.
But my father was very articulate and very strong in the community. I remember seeing my father and them sitting on the front porch with rifles. I asked him what was going on, he said, "The Klan said they were coming through our neighborhood." That's all he said. And they never came, so we don't know what would have happened.
I can remember asking him, "Why didn't Rosa Parks get up on the bus?" I mean, we always got up on the bus when we go to Montgomery. What the hell? Why didn't she get up? But then after the Rosa Parks incident, they had the Gomillion fight and [a merchant boycott in] Tuskegee. My father never owned a car until he was retired, but he would figure out a way to go to Montgomery to buy groceries, so he had to ride about 70 miles round trip just to go get groceries, rather than trade in downtown Tuskegee. The businesses in downtown Tuskegee were all owned by whites.
So when I got out of the military, I joined the organization [the Movement]. My mother didn't know I was in Mississippi. She thought I was in California. And she didn't know. My father had not asked. And she didn't know about '64. She thought that I was in California. She might have known and didn't let on, I don't know. But she found out when the troops were going to Selma , and I had somehow gotten over from Mississippi to come up to Tuskegee, and this whole crisis hit. And so I told her that, "Well, I think it would be a pretty good idea if I left, and got in between the troops who were driving to Selma." Because from my house you could actually see the U.S. soldiers going in, because I lived about a half a block from Highway 80. So if you've been in there, you know where it's at.
So said that I had to go to my parents and I left. She said, "Where are you going?" "Well, I'm going to go with them." So I drove to Selma with the troops. I just got in my little Volvo, and we got right in the middle of the troops. We drove right into Selma. [Laughing]
After that, my mother, once she found out, she would allow SNCC people to [stay there], our house became a house where, Jimmy and all of them [stayed].
Wazir: Yeah, you and me and Sammy ran together. She knew what it was going to be used for. You let us have the house.
Hardy: And so that was about it in terms of my family. My brothers and sisters thought I was kind of crazy. I mean, they had grown up and they had all either moved to St. Louis or somewhere else, and they were making their living, and asking, "What are you doing?"
At that time, a lot of folk did think I was a Communist. A lot of Blacks thought I was a Communist. I hadn't read one page of Marx at that time. I hadn't read none of that. I don't know what they think now. [Laughing]
Jimmy: Were you born and raised in Tuskegee?
Hardy: Right there in the house where you guys stayed.
Jimmy: Okay. Do you remember when the Klan did come through Tuskegee?
Hardy: Yeah I remember. They were supposed to come.
Jimmy: There were a bunch of veterans and people at the university that were in ROTC and all that. And they issued out weapons, and they lined both sides of the .
Hardy: Well, you see, they had a big ROTC contingent on the campus. It was like a military base. From where I grew up, I could literally hear the guys marching in the afternoon.
When my family really knew I was crazy was in 1965 when I went into Watts, went into the riot area, and wound up on the front page of Time magazine or something. [Laughing] No, it's Life magazine? One of them. Yeah, Life magazine. The cops were shooting at people, and there's a picture of me standing there with a news pass on when I was a newspaper reporter. I was reporting, supposedly, for the New South. The New South? And I was taking 2,000 feet of film and all that. And they had [a picture with] a shotgun in my face. [My family] had a shit fit when they saw that. But other than that, my family left me alone. They all had decided that he's going to do that kind of stuff.
And my mother, until the day she died, she lived to be 93, she didn't tell me about these guys. I just kind of knew they were there. I told her who they were, and our house became, .
Hardy: My father was dead by that time, but he was involved in the Masons and a lot of little stuff that he didn't talk to me a lot about. They had backed Gomillion and all these people. They were strong, I think, in a lot of [ways], more than Gomillion and them were doing. It was easier to back them in Tuskegee than it was perhaps in Selma or some other place, because the income for Black families came from either the federal government, the VA hospital, or the campus.
My analysis over the years has told me that's a big difference, when you didn't have to worry about, It would have been interesting to see if my father had been in Selma. but it probably would have been just as crazy, because they came out Mobile and the whole experience in Mobile and working in Mobile.
So I've always had support, but I was the smallest child of five, so I was expected to do things that they didn't do. But they were very supportive. But she didn't know. She acted like she didn't know. She didn't know that I was, I didn't tell her, because I knew she'd have a heart attack. [Laughing]
I'm Miriam Glickman, Miriam Cohen in the Movement. I had just graduated from college and I didn't ask my parents. I was 21. I probably told them. Two weeks after starting in the Albany (GA) Project in the summer of 1963, we were all arrested. I did not want to be arrested, and I tried to stay in the Freedom House. Sherrod said, "Go to the church [ Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the Movement headquarters]." He knew exactly what that meant. I was arrested on the way to church. Two police officers came on each side of me, picked me up, and put me in a police car.
My dad came down for the trial. My dad was a newspaper man. The jail had been denying to the press that they had arrested us, even though they had arrested more than 140 people. It was my dad who broke the story up North, because he called a friend on the New York Times.
And he was pretty upset, because I had been on a hunger strike for a week. When he saw me, I weighed less than 100 lbs. I had been the last one put in a tiny cell with the other white women who said, "We're on a hunger strike. You can do what you want." In that situation, I didn't really feel I had a choice.
So I went back home with him, and I don't remember why. The judge had said to leave or they'd make us serve two months. But I knew when I went back home with him I was coming right back, and I did. I think I went back home on a Friday and came back on a Monday and stayed out the rest of the summer.
The thing I remember about my mom's reaction is I was home when the three guys were killed in Mississippi. The story made front page headlines in the local paper. My mom showed it to me. She wanted me to see it, but at the same time, she was aware of how upsetting it would be for me.
So basically what I remember about the reaction was not that they forbid it, and in fact, they kind of helped me. But I knew they were worried. And with the callousness of youth, I didn't care. I remember we used to talk about 'not my son or not my daughter' type liberals, just dismissing our parents' concern. [Laughing] It's come back to haunt me as a parent. [Laughing]
Betita: On us all. [Laughing]
Miriam: One other thing though. When I was back in Indianapolis, I was interviewed by a television person, and that was my 15 minutes of fame, because it went national. And so, as a result of that, the Klan burned a cross on my parents' yard, in Indianapolis, Indiana. My father just took the charred wood and put it away. I saw he was disgusted, but I don't remember our ever discussing what happened.
Betita: Miriam, what year were you in the South? What year was it that you were arrested the first time?
Miriam: I was down there in '63, in the summer of '63. Sherrod did a project where he had an integrated staff. And so
Betita: And this is in Albany?
Miriam: In Albany, yes. I stayed there for the summer of '63. I was in Mississippi in the Fall, then up in the Washington, DC office in the spring of l964. I went back to Mississippi for the summer project and worked there until February of '65. I left then, not by choice. I was made unwelcome enough as a white woman that I left the SNCC project.
Jean: And in '65 from where? You left?
Miriam: I had worked in Mississippi in Indianola in the summer and then in Columbus in the fall.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I was aware of discrimination in New York at a very early age, but discrimination in New York was not as flagrant [as in the South]. One could not fail to notice the differences in employment and housing. However, at an early age I didn't experience discrimination in places of public accommodation, but that was only because I didn't attempt to go to many places that were primarily patronized by whites.
Both of my parents came from the South, and I can remember my first experience [with Southern segregation] with a trip in North Carolina with my mother to visit my grandmother. When we got on the train we were fine until we got to Washington, DC where we had to switch trains going to Danville, Virginia. Well, between New York and Washington, DC you could ride anywhere you wanted to on the train. But when you got to Washington going to Virginia, they had a special car for Blacks called the smokestack, and that was right behind the engine. And we rode that down to Danville. My family was from a little town called Roxboro, which is about an hour away from Danville.
So my mother took me and my brother into this little grocery store, no a drug store, and we ordered some ice cream, and they told us that you can't eat that here. And my mother said, "If we can't eat it here, we can't eat it." And we left. And we were very upset, because we couldn't understand why. We might have been maybe about four or five years old. We couldn't understand why we couldn't have ice cream.
So my parents had had a lot of experience in the South, because both of them were from North Carolina. And after graduating from high school, I went into the service. When I came out of the service, my mother had some political connections in New York, so she got me a job working in the mail room for a state agency called the New York State Commission Against Discrimination, which was down at 270 Broadway, right across the street from City Hall.
Most of the people there were lawyers and field representatives. And what they did, they would investigate complaints in housing and public accommodations and other things. So while I was there I decided I would go back to school. I decided that I wanted to go to a Southern school. And the experiences that I had at the New York State Commission Against Discrimination really opened up my eyes as far as racism and discrimination is concerned.
So I decided that I would get involved. And one of my first experiences once I got to Alabama, was when I went to a football game over in Montgomery [described in interview].
My parents, they were both from the South, and they really appreciated the Civil Rights Movement, but they didn't really appreciate me being involved in it. Because their primary concern was that they didn't want to see me get hurt. I know that was the reason. So what they would do, instead of saying, "Well, we're worried about you. We think you might get hurt," they would say, "Oh, you went down there to go to school, and you've been down there almost five years now, and you haven't graduated. When are you going to start placing more emphasis on your school work?" But the real thing was "Go back to school and leave the voter registration and the Civil Rights work to others."
They really didn't want to see me be involved in it simply because they thought, But they were very supportive. In fact, when Jonathan Daniels* died, I didn't say anything to them about what had happened. And fortunately, I was on TV, because they taped a program in Montgomery that night. They didn't see it, but everybody else in the neighborhood saw it. And they kept running to my house and calling my house asking my parents, "Did they see me on TV?" "What was he doing on TV?" And when they found out, telegrams started flying and phone calls and everything else.
And I even went to New York, but I was afraid to call my parents, because I didn't want to hear what they had to say. So about a month or two later, I called them up and they felt somewhat relieved. They tried to get me to leave the South, but I wouldn't do it.
Well, certainly in this group, I'm the only one that had to have my parents' written permission to go South. You know, because I was only 20, and for the [Freedom Summer project] of '64, females under 21 could only go if they had gotten their parents' written permission. And I gathered, many years later from my mother, that there had been some discussion between my parents about it.
But there never was any question for me. I came back from Spelman, before going to Mississippi, and I remember talking with my father, and he was raising the question with me. We'd gone for an evening walk. You know, he had to make this decision, and I told him he didn't have any decision. And in that sense, even though I come from Republicans and good Christians, it's a similar thing in that for my parents to be consistent with who and what they said they were and how they had taught me, to have prevented me from going would have been to contradict everything. Because I completely and totally believed that I was doing God's will.
Bruce: Did they see that?
Chude: Oh, absolutely. There was no question that they understood. I mean, it was a moral movement. And it was a very strong, I mean, from the point of view of that Southern Christian. There was nothing I was doing that was against what they firmly and fundamentally believed in. So I mean, my attitude was that cocky young person of 'You had no choice. You couldn't say no.'
And I never once really, really thought about them. I mean, how could I? Twenty-year-olds cannot conceive of what their parents' fear is. But I still have always found it very interesting having met people who came from either radical white or African-American families whose parents did not want them to participate. I find it very interesting. And I came from non-activists. And I've always wondered, I mean, I know full well, I would never have been able to forgive my parents. I cannot imagine ever having forgiven them if they had prevented me from going. I mean, I might have gone through motions. I might have at some point begun to have something to do with them again, but it would have been such a fundamental betrayal of everything that they had raised me to be if they had said no to me out of such, what to me that age would have been, a selfish fear that I might die. Other people were risking their lives, and to prevent me, it simply
And I wonder sometimes. It's one of the questions that interests me: is how, especially the females, that couldn't go that summer, how they forgave their parents? I also know a woman who was manipulated into not going for reasons similar to 'You should get your degree first.' But it was someone, a political parent manipulating her into thinking that the real action was going to be in Chicago. And I wonder about, how do you forgive a parent who goes so against what they state as their own beliefs and values? Because they can't handle the fact that it's their own child.
But on the other side I will say now that I have phenomenal respect for my parents, just phenomenal respect for two very, in many ways, ordinary upper middle class white devout Christians who took a stand. And I remember my mother saying to me at some point at the end of the summer that my six-year-old brother had come up to her and said, "Pam may not come back, huh?" And they had thought all summer they had kind of protected him from knowing what was going on, which of course is never true. But my sister said that my mother was less than 100 pounds, and she was the one that didn't eat out of fear.
But they became activists for that summer, that's the other, One of the profound things about the Mississippi Summer Project is that one of its purpose was to galvanize the rest of the country into action. And I can tell you that from my own little experience in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania that the whole community knew I was there and that my parents met with parents from the Philadelphia area, and they raised money, and they wrote letters, and they did things. And my parents had never done anything like that. And I think I already told you that my grandfather who was up near Buffalo, New York, wrote his Congressman, and I have a letter that he wrote my parents saying that only the Congressman who was up for election answered him. [Laughing]
But it spread. It spread. I mean, the whole family was involved. And of course I wrote letters, and the letters were reproduced, as we'd been asked to do. And they were sent to friends and family. So it was. I'm one little tiny person, and you think about if there were almost 1,000 of us there, and if even half of us had families doing that, this way in which it was going out was a grassroots thing, that it was taking what was basically a grassroots movement in the South and carrying it out. And I'm still profoundly touched that my parents and my community were behind me.
I happened to be one that told them everything. I mean, I know that some people that didn't tell them, but I tended to. Plus I was a Freedom School teacher, and I was mostly in Holly Springs, so I had a relatively safer place than a lot of people. I lived on the Rust College campus, which had an armed guard, so it was safer, but it still was dangerous. And it was still very much an attempt on my part to share as much as I could and to focus people on what was going on there, which is a different question than we had before. It was incredibly hard then to go back, but I think I can't even imagine it if you'd been with parents who didn't support you. I mean, I can understand why you couldn't go back to New York, Don.
And just to add one thing I don't think I've ever told. I don't know. Maybe I did. But the time that we were chased after we'd been at Ol' Miss. And I'd written about being chased and almost killed, it was the editor - I think I did tell you this, of this small, [town newspaper]. He was saying, "Don't give up. Some of us care."
And yeah, there were people that did not have that kind of support. People whose parents really did tear away from them.
I guess what I would say is that how my parents reacted to me being in the Civil Rights Movement could be summed up in one word, Badly.
They were not too happy about it at all. And I think it's probably one of these things that you understand a little bit better in hindsight than when it was happening in the actual process. I mean, my folks were in many ways shaped by both the Cold War as well as the Depression.
My parents were both from the South. My mother was from Tennessee, a small town outside of Memphis going towards Mississippi. And my dad was from Macon, Georgia. So they had some sense of the South and its segregation system. The first six years of my life I went down to Memphis on trains. And it wasn't until I got older that I began to realize this thing about the change of cars as you go across into the South and us sitting in the back cars and having to ask my Daddy why that was happening.
My father basically worked for the post office most of his life. That was the one secure place he felt he would always have a job. My mother was interested in becoming a professional. She became a social worker and eventually a lawyer. She became very close friends with Carl Stokes, who became the first Black mayor of Cleveland. She saw her upward mobility and the family's through the Democratic Party. Both my parents were very political but in the 1950's liberal sense. They liked Adlai Stevenson, then Hubert Humphrey, and that was the extent of their "liberalism".Which for those days in a Republican state like Ohio wasn't bad.
But when things got more militant in the `60's, they got scared. I mean, the three things that I remember my mother used to pound into my head were, "Philip, don't get a girl pregnant." [Laughing] Not so much because of the girl, but she didn't want anything like a baby, or a kid, having to get married, that would get in the way of my future career. That's what it was really about. "Don't get in trouble with the police and get in jail and locked up, because you'll have criminal marks on your record." And the third was, "Don't hang out with any Communists." So I did two out of three. [Laughing]
So that's a quick over-view. The other thing was just that my parents were always more into the form of something and they weren't activists. My dad, eventually, was to become a lifetime member of the NAACP a big thing for him. My mother was always working to get more Black people in political office and making connections through that route.
They weren't militants.They thought that getting all this preparation like education was necessary so that white people would accept us. And that the kinds of things that had kept us (Blacks and whites) apart in the past, if we were educated, had positions, could talk intelligently and present ourselves well, and knew how to dress and all that, then what could white people say to keep us from not being equal in society? So that was a lot of how they looked at the over-all racial situation.
And as I got more involved [with SNCC and militancy], that became very threatening for them. As a kid, I was in this group called Jack and Jill of America, which was a very elite group for kids of Black professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc, and who usually were very light skinned..it was a very exclusive club., I always felt that we were always the poorest of that grouping, because we were renters. We didn't own our own house. I didn't have a car and all that, like other kids [in Jack & Jill] my age did. Plus only one of my parents was a professional. Plus my dad was kind of dark-skinned.
And it was always very interesting for me, and I couldn't analyze it very well at the time, was how my parents would always tell me that my " best friends" were always the kids across town and up in the Mount Pleasant area of Cleveland and not the kids who lived right next door to me and who I played with every day. I knew something was not right but I never could quite figure that out. Of course it was a class thing, something I would understand better later.
As a young man I was very programmed into a certain kind of life- style and it was about upward mobility. My mother actually wanted me to go to Howard University, so I would get into a fraternity and get to know Black people who were educated and I would have friends beyond just the four years but for the rest of my life and maybe hopefully I would meet a nice lady there, get married, start a family, and etc, etc etc.
And they were very much into that 'get your degree now and not later,' that whole "noblesse oblige" stuff. And so I always say, one of the big earth shattering things about my first year at Howard University was to meet young Civil Rights people who were my age coming up from the South who weren't waiting all their lives to do all this "preparation" and "giving back" and were changing laws in the South right then and there.
It was the contrast between all the verbal stuff versus real activism, being able to go so far and also not wanting to alienate white people too much. And so that was a constant tension among us as I got more politically involved.
I guess I would say my mother and father were different in one sense. My mother was always trying to understand what was happening in the bigger world and to understand me at the same time. So while we often didn't agree, we always were able to talk and I tried to educate her about the movement. . I'd send her stuff from the different Civil Rights groups. Plus I used to send her Carl Rowan's columns, and one time I sent her James Baldwin's books and even Michael Harrington's book about poverty in America back in '61. I sent her some of the SNCC papers, and we tried to have a dialogue. She would never quite understand it, but she was trying to be there. She even flew down for the 1963 March on Washington.
My dad, at a certain point, we couldn't talk at all. And it had a lot to do with the fact that like I was the first person in my family who was supposed to go to college and get a college degree, and I was fucking up. How would I be a man and be able to take care of a future family? And he didn't understand that at all. And as the sixties wore on, it got worse, because once we were no longer in the South, I was in Newark, New Jersey. And I came to visit my parents in early July of '67, spent a few days there, went back to Newark, and of course the riots started a day or two later. And I called my dad and mom just to let them know I was all right, and my dad got on the phone and said, "Well, you got back just in time to start the riot, didn't you?" And then he hung up the phone.
At a certain point of his life, he just couldn't really connect. And he said to me, he actually said this to me, "If it wasn't for my mother, he would really, if he had his druthers, he wanted to move to Spain and just get away." Now remember, Spain was under Franco at that time, so that says a little bit about, here's a Black man who spoke no Spanish, but basically wanted to get out of this country where Black people who looked like him were running amok, and he wanted to basically be in someplace where it was socially quiet, like Spain and just live out his life.
My mother was slightly different, because Carl Stokes did get elected mayor. He gave her a nice appointment, which was, I realized a little bit later, very controversial because it was in the Civil Service, and they basically dealt with police and fire people. It was at a time when there was an attempt to get more Black people into the police department and the fire department, So it was a very political job, because it was going through an all-white fire department, token Black policemen, and trying through examinations and Civil Service exams, to basically change the old system. Thus she was in a hot box, I mean, one that was a little bit over her head, but she was very abreast to what was going on.
One way I had developed to deal with the political differences between my parents and me was not to be in Cleveland. (Except for Holiday visits). I had always told myself that the U.S. is a big country. I don't have to take my politics to Cleveland and throw it in my parent's faces where they had worked hard all their lives. There were certainly a lot of places to do political work elsewhere.
And then in '68, it got kind of interesting, because that's when I became head of SNCC, and I went to Cleveland, where there was a guy named Ahmed Evans who was in jail for supposedly starting the riots. So I went to visit him in jail, and the press of course, went straight to my mother and everybody was asking her, "What's your son going to do when he comes to Cleveland? Are he and Ahmed Evans going to get together and start the rebellion in Cleveland?" And things like this. And my mother would say, "Oh well, Philip is not like Mr. Brown. ("Rap" Brown the previous head of SNCC) Philip had better home training. He won't do those kinds of things." [Laughing]
The FBI came out to her house one time, and of course asked about me, and she said, "Well, Philip, you know he's a good kid and blah, blah, blah." She was saying all those nice things. But it was also partially about trying to preserve her own reputation in Cleveland. Of course like any parent she was always afraid that I might get hurt somewhere being so active in demonstrations, organizing and being noticed by the Police. I didn't even tell her the first couple of times I got arrested, because I knew that she and my dad would just hit the ceiling and freak out.
The last thing was just around the cultural stuff, which was kind of funny. You know, the Afros, dashikis and all. I used to come home with an Afro, and we'd have these conversations about what was happening in my life and I could just feel her looking at me from my fore-head up. [Laughing] Because she was always looking there. It wasn't like she was looking at the eyes. It was always from my forehead and up. And it wasn't until Ebony magazine, somewhere around '68 or '69, something like that, had a whole cover issue on the new Afros where they had, It was like a checkerbox thing, all different kind of Afros on the cover page of Ebony that she finally realized that it was actually a real popular style, So she looked at me, and she said, "Well, as long as you keep it trimmed, it's OK." [Laughing]
That gives you some flavor of my family. With my dad, it got to the point where we couldn't talk about it, politics at all. And as I say, he was somebody who was very political. I should mention that he was a postal clerk, and they were covered by the Hatch Act, which meant that you couldn't be active in politics. But what they had during the fifties in Cleveland and probably elsewhere around the country, are groups called civic associations. And he was the head of the Saint James Forum, which was basically a black civic club, meeting in a prominent Black church. Of course It was not about religion; it was basically about politicians, particularly white politicians who were coming to town and wanted to talk to and campaign for the Negro vote. That would always be one of the stops, and so for about five years, he was the head of the Saint James Forum. I remember Senator Robert Taft from Ohio, when he was running for the Republican nomina-tion for President in 1952. He came to speak to the Forum in the church. Afterwards I shook his hand, and I said to my dad, (who was a staunch Democrat) "Boy, Senator Taft has a really soft hand." And my dad said, "That's because he never did a day's work in his life." [Laughing]
And it was also my dad in the fifties, in the late `50's, who really sat down and talked to me about the importance of what a labor union was and why a labor union was important for working people.
But as I say, this was the man who by '67 was ready to go to Spain, to the other political side. It was a side of him I could never touch. Of course in those days I was a bit arrogant myself, so sure that I was the one in the family who was "politically correct."
We could talk about baseball. We could talk about the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, anything else. But we couldn't talk about politics.. I think he saw himself protecting the family against my politics. He never could get why I wanted to go to Cuba "to work for Mr. Castro ".
"Wasn't there enough work to do for people in the United States?" But not the way I was doing it. So, that's a quick story of me and my family during "the war years" of the `60's,
[My family reaction] is similar to Phil's, but I was also struck by your opening, Don, which made me kind of go through the faces. And I think I can honestly say that there was nobody, including friends my own age, who was supportive of me heading to the deep South. They just weren't.
And I think part of that is due to how Baltimore is, I was in Baltimore at this time, and also people who grew up in Washington really have the same thing, where they don't know whether they're North or South. They're damn sure, if they're Black, they don't want to be South, but the white people don't want to be South either. So they know they're kind of in this nether land, right? And the real South in Baltimore is just 50 miles away, on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay, and it's called the Eastern Shore. So you're real clear about whether you're from the Eastern Shore or whether you're from Baltimore. And I think if even I had said I was going to Cambridge, Maryland, which is on the Eastern Shore, you guys remember Gloria? [Sounds of assent] she headed [the Movement] there,
My family was concerned, of course, about getting killed down there, but they seemed more concerned about, They couldn't understand why I would go off to someplace else to subject myself to the kinds of indignities that hopefully people were struggling against. They really did not understand that, you know? Having tried to protect us, all of us, all the kids, from the indignities. But the Deep South is something else. I mean, I came up from a Black working class family who wouldn't even think about going to Richmond, Virginia, which is the closest Southern city. I mean, wouldn't even think about it. What's that city in Delaware? That was bad enough. Wilmington. And that was North. [Laughing] North of Baltimore.
So they had a real, they had a problem with it. And I had these conversations, which pretty much ran the same way. "Why would you go there? When there's so much to do right here? Or over there? The mid-West? Or up there? In the North?" I mean, it's like, "What is in your mind that you would be thinking that the only way you can help the Movement is to go to Mississippi and Alabama? It's crazy!" And frankly, I quite understood. I really did understand their reaction.
I wasn't struggling against their belief because what they were saying did make sense. There was a lot of work to do up the street. But I too was the first college graduate in my family, and therefore, I was the first person with a graduate degree in my family. And so nobody could tell me what to do, but people were more trying to understand, "What other than this book stuff is in her head that she would make these kinds of choices?"
But it wasn't about stopping me nor was it about breaking ties or even freezing ties while I was down there and when I went back. In that part of the country, the mid-Atlantic, there was a kind of ambivalence about the Southern Movement anyway. Everybody was glad to see it. Everybody was for it of course, but there was a lot of ambivalence about this non-violent stuff. I mean, that's just not going to work up here. There was some grudging respect. Some grudging respect for King and for, I guess it was the Albany Movement that was the first where all the pictures started flowing out of the Deep South.
But by then I'd been a sit-in student, and we'd followed the sit-ins carefully. And it was such an affront to the adults around me to see children [brutalized]. And I also heard a lot of criticism as I was growing up of Southerners, Black Southerners, allowing their children to be brutalized like that. I mean, what was that about? So there was grudging respect for it, because there was a beauty about it. But people strongly felt there was also something not, something almost sick about it.
And quite frankly, the first time I read or heard the letter from King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail, that still, even today, that letter makes me sick, and I know that it's coming from the kinds of attitudes that swirled around me and my own ambivalence about the kind of philosophical non- violence that was taught in the South. I went to the South being totally ambivalent about that, totally willing to do whatever I was told to do, and since that was one of the things I'd be told, I'd do it. But I was completely ambivalent even then.
So my family was not happy. They kept in very close touch. My mother and I had a regular time that we would call each other and talk. Well, we were in constant talk during the summer of 1964, after the disappearance of the three workers. And when Pettus Bridge happened, the first thing I did, it was on a Sunday, and my only thought was, "I have to get to a phone to let them know I'm not there. I'm going to tomorrow, but I'm not there." [Laughing] I know that I'm going tomorrow, but I'm not there now, so they can stop, And we did go.
Wazir: There was about 1,200. We took 1,200. Well, there weren't that many students in town, but the influence of town influenced the whole campus. 1,200 students went to Montgomery.
Jean: And that's the part of the Movement that I've never seen people, including myself, try to grapple with. That it wasn't all terrific from Black people's point of view. But they would never have called it, you guys quote people calling some of the Movement activity "mess," no, they had much more regard for it than to have thought it "mess." There was much too much regard for the heroism to have thought of it as a mess. But there was a watchfulness, a reluctance, just a far more nuanced point of view than you saw in the South, and for that matter, than you saw in the more Northern areas: the New Yorks and the Bostons and the Chicagos.
It was a very interesting period. But none of the literature that I've seen gets at that other sense, those simultaneous feelings about the Movement that were sometimes totally contradictory held by Black people. It wasn't ambivalence. Everybody cheered for the success of the Southern Movement, everybody knew it was their fight too. There was genuine pride in the sit- in demonstrators and near ecstasy at the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But going to the deep South was taken as a kind of heroic, dangerous madness.
Can I add a little interjection here to what you're talking about? This ambivalence? I have seen the same thing in the Chicano movement, the same thing among working class people. It's the same thing. And there was a mixture of fear, pride, the whole thing. Anyone who experiences the racism of this society is likely to have that ambivalence, I think. That's my big historical observation of the day.
I was already working for SNCC in '64. I went down as a staff person. And my parents, I don't remember any opposition at all. I was trying to think, "Why not?' [Laughing] "Why weren't they more scared for me?' [Laughing]
I think that was probably because I was already doing it. I was older anyway. But also, I think maybe, my father being from Mexico and being dark? He understood racism. And he was in a sense supportive of me, even though he didn't say a lot about it. I think that's maybe one of the things that was very important to him.
Chude: Did you have a child by then?
Betita: Oh yeah. I had a daughter, a little girl.
Chude: So talk about that, because that's the opposite. You're leaving a child, risking your life and leaving a child with somebody else.
Betita: My grandparents in a suburb [of Washington, DC] in Bethesda. I mean, I was a total monomaniac. There was no question about my doing this. I had to start the revolution. I had to expel those mother fuckers. You know, the whole thing. I mean, I had to do it. So it was a little bit like a religious compulsion. There was just no question about it. But I've been to Cuba. I mean, there was a whole revolution in the air, and it only intensified.
Chude: But nobody said to you, at any point, "This is not what a mother should do'? I've often thought about that, because there were people that came that had children they left places. And I've always wondered about the pressures on them, the particular pressure of, I mean, Viola Luizzio who was killed? She had children.
Wazir: Annie Pearl Avery somehow handled that. Good mother, but she was always wherever the action was.
Jean: And Ruby Doris. And Bernice. And Diane.
Wazir: That's right. Somehow you all handled that thing somehow. I never asked.
Jean: It couldn't have been easy.
Bruce: Wasn't Diane Nash pregnant when she was in Greenwood and on a demonstration when the police attacked her?
Wazir: That was in '62.
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Last Modified: June 5, 2005.