|Hardy Frye||Betita Martinez (Elizabeth Sutherland)|
|Bruce Hartford||Willie B. Wazir Peacock|
|Don Jelinek||Jimmy Rogers|
Addition from Charlie Cobb
Down at the Grassroots
Not Everyone Was Afraid
Local Women and Local Men
Catalysts and Members of the Community
The Persistence of Power
If you participated in the Southern Freedom Movement, you can add your comments to this discussion by emailing 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.
"We are soldiers, in the army.
We got to fight, although we got to cry
We got to hold up the freedom banner.
We got to hold it up until we die.
A favorite Freedom Song from an ancient hymn.
We saw ourselves as young people inspired by a keen sense of social justice, determined to bring justice and opportunity to the Deep South. To the local whites we were "communists and outside agitators." But how did the local Black folk perceive the young freedom fighters who arrived at their doors and in their fields and churches in the 1960s? That they admitted us at all took tremendous courage in those dangerous days, for reprisal could be swift and lethal.
Everyone knew we were there to challenge the reign of terror and get black people registered to exercise their right to vote. Still, how we were perceived probably depended largely on the roles we played in different communities and even different households. We organized freedom schools and mass meetings, and busses to take people to the polls, but we did much more. For in those days, in the deepest of the rural South, among the impoverished sharecroppers, the needs were many, varied, and urgent. We were the people's advocates, so if it took organizing a boycott they wanted, we did that. If it meant accompanying a farmer to the local feed store to go over the loan records, we did that too. If it meant facing an irate sheriff pointing a loaded shotgun at our chests, well, we did that too.
We must have seemed a motley bunch: strange accents, weird hairstyles and clothing and tastes. Still, they accepted us and claimed us as their own. Mutual good will always transcends race, class, gender, geography. These are some of our stories.
Addition by Charles Cobb Jr (2/04):
What was totally unexpected, was the recognition that I had become part of something else besides a civil rights organization in Mississippi. Everywhere we went, I and other civil rights workers were adopted and nurtured, even protected as though we were family. We were the community's children, and that closeness rendered moot the label of "outside agitator." Indeed, if we had any label at all, it was "freedom riders." It did not matter whether we had arrived in that fashion or not. This identity was liberating, conferring respect in every community we worked in. By calling us freedom riders these communities were finding the most defiant image they could to signal their approval of our work, even if they crossed the street when they saw us, or were not yet prepared to brave the dangers of trying to register down at the county courthouse.
Importantly, as is always true in close families, our young generation was dynamically linked to a rooted older generation who passed on wisdom, encouragement, and concrete aid when possible. This was empowering, enabling SNCC and CORE field secretaries to move from county to county across a network that provided different levels of support, a network made up of people offering whatever they could within their means. We could show up, as I often did at Steptoe's farm, unannounced, and there were people ready to take care of us. We could be carried to a doctor, as I was after I was beaten in Liberty. Our Movement family saw to it that we had something to eat or a place to sleep. Inside this "family" was the true place where the Movement's moral authority was anchored.
So we had to know all these things so we could make a call to people and say, "Look how long this stuff has been going on. So you might as well do something." That kind of thing. It took awhile for people to see that we really meant business, and that we weren't going anywhere. And it was the local people, or what we called the "grassroots" people, right down on the ground who finally embraced us and pushed the thing through. See, the middle income and higher people, the teachers, they had something to lose, they would say, "We can't afford to get involved. We got too much to lose."
Some people saw us as saviors in terms of so many things that they were ignorant of and didn't know, and we brought it down to common language where they could understand the importance of certain things that they hadn't been able to grasp, because it had been kept
Betita: Like the voter registration test?
Wazir: Well, the voter registration test, but there were other little day to day things that was mystifying to them. Like showing them how to fill out money orders at the post office, it kept the white folks out of their business a lot, which was simple to us and we took for granted, but to them I mean, they'd have to go there to the white man And a lot of them [the white man], made money on them just because he could [by taking the sharecropper's money but not actually paying the bill]. The white man just said, "I'll take care of it for you." Because they [the whites] didn't think much of them [the local Blacks]. It wasn't like they were messing up another human being. The local whites, we did a lot for them by the way we moved and they really began to see that these people are really "They must think they're human beings." [Laughter]
Betita: Where'd they get that idea? [Laughter]
Wazir: Where'd they [the civil rights workers] get that foreign idea? And then after awhile they had to see it. They had to see that these people who they had been brought up to feel that we were some kind of sub-human beings were really human beings and could think and could feel and could do things and could move and strategize and work to free themselves of some of these things. So in that way, saviors, liberators. They saw us like that too.
Jimmy: Then there came a time because we had a similar situation in Alabama where the local people had to feel that they could do it for themselves too. That was very, very important.
Jimmy: I can remember one time when Stokely [Kwame Ture] and I went into this church in Fort Deposit, Alabama for the first time. And when we got there, there were about 100 people in church. And we walked in wearing these overalls, and it was about a second and there was only three people standing there, you know?
Bruce: Why? Because they were scared to be seen with you?
Jimmy: That's right.
Jimmy: Church was over. I mean, they locked up everything, and we were standing outside talking to three people who later became the Lowndes County Freedom Organization representatives from Fort Deposit. Everybody else didn't want to have nothing to do with us, you know? And then little by little by little, we were able to
Bruce: So how did you go from the place where the whole church was afraid to talk to the Civil Rights workers except for two or three to the place where they see the Civil Rights workers as, what did you say, the saviors?
Betita: Yeah, liberators.
Bruce: The "liberators." That's a big change. And I know that it wasn't just in Fort Deposit that people were afraid.
Jimmy: No, it happened all over.
Bruce: It happened all over, right. So how did the local people, the grassroots people, not the Amzie Moores, Amzie was a Civil Rights leader but the grassroots people, the people who were afraid to talk to you and Sam Block in Greenwood, who would cross to the other side of the street for fear they would be seen with you, how did they ?.
Jimmy: See, there's an element that we haven't even really approached, and that's those people who weren't even afraid before we got there. And I met them all over the South. There was a guy down in Fort Deposit by the name of Sam Jones. Black folks respected Sam Jones, because they knew that if you messed with him
Wazir: He's going to kill them.
Jimmy: He's going to do whatever he has to do, right? Policemen beat up one of his kids, and Sam went down to the police station like he owned it and looked around until he found who he was looking for and whipped them from one end of the police station until he got tired. They went home, and it was over.
Don: That's amazing.
Jimmy: Oh no, it's not amazing. There were things like that that happened that you didn't hear too much about.
Hardy: I want to give you an example, Jimmy. My father was blue black. He grew up in Tuskegee, and the people in the community they knew him. I remember when I was a kid I killed this man's dog, and my brothers were there too. And the man came around and said [to my father], "What you going to do about it?" My father said, "Well, I'll pay you for it." He said, "No. I want you to the only way you can satisfy me is you take your boy and you whoop his ass." And my Daddy said, "Let me tell you something." [Laughter] "You don't come here to tell me to whoop I'm not going to whoop the boy. I'll pay you for the Goddamn dog, but I'm not going to whoop the boy. And if you say [anything more] you going to get your ass blown away. Right now." And my Daddy came on back to his house and sat on the porch. That was always there. The cops knew who to pick on.
Bruce: Right, I think that in every community, at least in all the communities I worked, there were people like that. When we went into Crenshaw County, we were the first civil rights workers ever to be in Crenshaw County, which is just south of Montgomery. There was a guy named Richberg, he was a guy who would get in the face of the police, and he was known for that. There was another guy, a Korean War vet, who they knew, "Don't mess with this guy."
But all that was personal in the sense that they knew not to mess with them. They knew if these guys are in a confrontation, they're going to fight back. But it had not gone from those people saying, "I will defend against an assault," to "Let's go down and register to vote. Let's go and integrate. Let's go and deal with issues in a political way."
Hardy: But you see, I don't want to be academic with this stuff, but there were two or three sets of people in these communities. I remember, the first woman I canvassed [in Holly Springs, MS]. Her name was Rita Walker. And I remember knocking on her door and saying, "I'm here from the Civil Rights Organization, blah, blah, blah." She said, "My God! I thought you people would never come. Yes, I'm ready to go downtown and register to vote." [Laughter]
Hardy: So we walked her down to register her to vote. She attened the Freedom School in the summer of '64. Then she joined us, and she worked in the office.
Betita: She was ready.
Hardy: So there was this element of people that was ready to challenge the things up front, some forms of the system, but they had no local leadership that they were willing to go with, or rather, that was willing to go with them.
Don: She was also young.
Hardy: Yeah, she was also young, right. She was in her twenties. So there was that set of people.
And at the time, parts of the black community that were, not hostile to us, but made snide comments that we were dirty. Because the role that they had played was challenged by us, because we were openly saying stuff. So I think that there was a few people that thought we were antagonistic against them because they were more committed to the old model of "this is the way we are going to make some change," particularly at the black colleges.
And then on the other side were those who I would call the social bandits for lack of a better term, they were the ones who always came to the mass meetings, who were always the rabble rousers. They were a whole section of the community. They were young. It was always a set of young people who were willing to talk the talk, but there was always a kind of a solid level there.
Sometimes these people [who supported the Movement] even belonged to unions, especially in northern Mississippi, because they worked in Memphis. They had been in the labor unions. I led a march from Fayette County, Tennessee to Somerville, Tennessee, and my God, man, I mean I had people around me who were labor union people. So it was a variety of responses,
Don: The first thing you said, Hardy, about that there are multi-levels of this is why it is so complicated. It's like blind men touching different sides of the elephant. We all dealt with very many different types of people, and it doesn't fit any one description.
Hardy: I can think of Miss Trotten[?] [in Holly Springs] and all those people that were just basically dirt poor people. People in the grassroots who were not afraid. I think what we did was to a certain extent legitimated their challenge. Because I don't think they were that afraid. Black people had been shooting it out with white folks for a long time before we got there. But those people, for whatever reason, might not emerge unless you look for them. Miss Modina, you know her.
Hardy: There was also a set of black women, at least in my experience, who were always there [at Movement activity], more so than the men.
I would almost say that the men weren't involved, but I think too much has been made out of talking about the roles of black women and black men. It was two different roles they played. Black women were primarily the ones that you could always find at the house when you showed up to talk to them. Black men were out there in the field driving the tractor, but they played a very important role in terms of guarding us at mass meetings at night. They were always there, and they were always sitting in their truck, talking slow, etc, but they were a base of security for us. That night we were chased out of Oxford, Mississippi, we found out how much of a big security they were for us.
Don: And I remember one night I needed to go out to use the outhouse, and I went out to the porch, and there was the man of the house rocking holding his rifle. I mean, he knew he had crossed the line, and that was now going to be one of the leaders of that community.
Wazir: And while he was sitting there, he felt, since he invited you into his home, he had an obligation to protect you, to make sure you were safe.
Don: We are really talking about that first meeting with the rank and file who barely knew that we were coming, much less the implications. Now, even though I tried to pose as a black sharecropper [Laughter] I didn't do it very well. Somehow they saw right through my disguise [laughing]. But in part, I always felt that part of the reason that we committed people is that by virtue of showing up on their door, they were already doomed. The moment that we knocked on their door, and that Southern graciousness
Wazir: It came out.
Don: It was very hard to turn someone away, and they were already hooked because they had no place to go any longer. Now they were going to get all the shit that's going to fall on them, and they kind of knew it. And they were titillated by the thought that maybe some change could come about, especially now that they're stuck anyhow. And then all the extras came into play. Then the resources that we had and the people that they knew of but hadn't had any immediate contact with.
And out of that came the Fannie Lou Hamers and many others who had been uninvolved before and might not have gotten involved. And so I really think it was the very distinct SNCC door to door approach really was the key to bringing these people in. And eventually a leadership cadre arose from them and then yes, eventually it was time [for the civil rights workers] to leave.
Hardy: I think I agree with you 99%, A lot of these people, Victoria Gray is my cousin. Two sisters, right? Now Vicki had always been Vicki. Well, Vicki had a hell of a lot of experience, because she had lived in Germany for I don't know how many years before she came back, because her husband was a military guy. So, Vicki, was somebody that would have challenged the system anyway.
Don: But she's not your rank and file.
Hardy: Yeah, she's not your rank and file. But I think what we don't know is how many of these rank and file people that we knew had kids off in Miles, Jackson State, all those black schools. I mean, there was a lot already going on. After World War II and the effect of World War II, and we kind of showed up, you're right. But I don't think I know how I feel about this notion that they were stuck. Because they could have turned us away. A lot of people did turn us away. A lot of people said, "We don't want to be bothered. Don't come." A lot of people squealed on us. A lot of people told the cops we were coming
Bruce: "I don't want to get involved in that mess."
Hardy: Don't want to get involved in that mess.
Don: To play it out, certainly of course we got turned away, but there was a significant group that accepted us.
Don: They didn't accept us, I think, because they were brave and courageous. They accepted us because they were willing to listen.
Hardy: Right away, yeah right. Okay.
Don: Once they listened, they were hooked. I'd ask somebody to put me up, and that was another commitment. And so I'd stay overnight. And it didn't matter that those all around him didn't join in.
Hardy: But the question would be for me, did [they put you up] because they were hooked? Part of it would have been just basic courtesy. Black folk didn't turn you away.
Don: That was the point. I think that in the northern area, they'd just say, "Sorry" and just slam the door in your face.
Hardy: That's right. That's what I mean by that kind of common courtesy thing. "Okay. I invited you in now. We'll give you floor space. We're not worried about food." See, in the North, we've got to worry about food and a whole lot of other shit. [But in the South] they're not going to worry about food, because the food that you're going to eat is what we eat, and the food we get we'll get out of the garden out there in the back and there's a surplus of that.'
Betita: You're catalysts.
Bruce: Right. We helped, but it was their movement. Yet it hadn't happened until some civil rights workers came to that county. In some kind of way we released a tension that had been building for a long time, or our very presence somehow enabled people to do what the spirit had been saying to do for a long time.
And they felt about us, at least they told me what they the grassroots people said to me and the others is, that we were their Civil Rights workers. They owned us. They were proud of us. We were something that they wanted to protect and that they treasured. We were something they valued."
We got run out of Brantley by this big Klan mob and got chased for 10 miles across the roads. When we came back to Brantley the next day, the guy down there, the Korean War vet said, "You are our Civil rights workers. They ain't got no damn right to run you out of town." He was hot.
Don: Yeah, they talked about "Our Civil Rights workers," well I think a lot of the beatings that we took recruited people, because they felt [that way] about their Civil Rights workers.
Hardy: We were [part of the community], because look, in the communities I grew up in, we had people living next door to me who were whiter than anybody I've seen in Berkeley.
Jimmy: Same here. [Laughter]
Hardy: Sammy Young's mother was my school teacher, and in New York [she could] pass for white. Now part of it was the social definition of who you were. See, the black community took everything that the white community didn't want or rejected. So if you're living on the our side of town, you damn sure was part of us. It was like, once you stayed over there on the other side of the tracks, you were part of the black community. And so part of what I think you mean by "Our Civil Rights workers" was both a cultural affinity with you, but as well you were doing something for the community.
Bruce: And living in the community.
Hardy: And living in the community. I remember that movie, one of the movies I saw that they did on the '60s, when the [white Freedom Summer] girls were using [outdoor] toilets and all that kind of shit. You know, we had never seen white people using [outdoor] toilets, man. Not outdoor toilets.
Wazir: I never saw one.
Hardy: I think the catalyst role was important here, because I think growing up there, I know a little bit of this shit that I'm talking about, and I'm talking about joining the NAACP at 12 years old. All the kids at my school joined the NAACP at 12 years old. You brought your 50 cents to school, and you joined. You were a member.
Bruce: Of course that was Tuskegee, not Crenshaw County.
Hardy: But it was also across a lot of Alabama. Now what I'm saying is, I agree with you that we were a catalyst when we went in. [But] I think there were a lot of [other] things that [also] legitimated [their activity]. Probably the biggest thing that legitimated it was the Supreme Court decision. I can remember precisely asking my father what the hell the 1954 Supreme Court decision means for me, because I wondered why I [might be] going to the goddamned [white] school. I had never even thought about it in my consciousness. And all of a sudden I'm going to be told that I got to go down to a white school and that all hell is going to break loose. But I wasn't afraid to do it.
Hardy: Yet, I think what happened is that [in addition to] the catalyst part was We also did one other thing, I think. We did a lot of the spade work for the political activity that would take place. At least we did in Holly Springs. We did a lot of the spade work. What I mean is a lot of the work in the daytime, going to the phones, and all that kind of stuff. And people just kind of acted, and they had a leadership to stamp it, and then we took them to the streets.
Jimmy: See, a lot of people we even led by the hand. [Laughter]
Hardy: That's right.
Don: Right. We got school buses to take people in to register in Holly Springs.
Hardy: Right. I mean that spade work was like the work we were doing for those people who had to go to the field all goddamned day and who had to go to Miss So-and-so's house. All they had to do now was come down to the church that night when they get through with their work, because we got everything set up.
[Like when] I was here in California. When I was organizing for Chavez and the farm workers, the grape workers. Well, I remember when Chavez didn't have that many people, and I didn't know a damned thing about grapes. I'm up there in Sacramento running the whole grape [boycott] operation for him. He didn't have anybody else. So a lot of what we did I think was fill in, and that's why we were important, I think. We filled in for the things that they didn't even have time to do or for whatever reason didn't want to do, or didn't know how to do, or didn't feel comfortable doing.
Wazir: [During] my sojourn in Mississippi, the leaders said, "We need manpower. You all are the manpower. You put the feet to walking what we've been talking." And we did fill in. We did a lot of filling in. We gained a lot. We did things that we didn't know we could do, because we had to do them: bailing people out, learning to fill out bailing papers, because no lawyer was there and all that kind of stuff. You figured it out, and you did it.
Hardy: In Alabama, I grew up around all those people in Tuskegee. They were doing stuff. But I think what we did was we gave two things. We did legitimate what they were talking about doing, and we also were a resource. When we came into the state we just didn't bring Civil Rights workers. What we brought was lawyers, the media, a whole [lot] of that stuff followed us.
Jimmy: I don't think I could ever commend lawyers enough, because we used to use them like they were going out of style. Every time we get threatened by some white person down there while we were trying to register people to vote, we'd get in their face and say, "Are you violating our Civil Rights? We're going to have to sue you!" [Laughter] And one thing, even the people with money, the one thing that they didn't want was to be sued. I mean, they did not want to be sued. And one guy said, "I don't care what you do. You can bring people down here to register to vote. You can do what you want, but please no more lawsuits." [Laughter]
Bruce: That's true, but I don't think we should over-emphasize the lawyers and the media. We never had a single reporter in Crenshaw County. Not one reporter of any kind. Not ever had a lawyer in Crenshaw County. Not one of any kind. And yet there was a movement that developed in Crenshaw County.
Hardy: I mean, I go to jail in Holly Springs, and one of my friends have [California Governor] Pat Brown, the good one, Jerry Brown's father, [send a letter]. I still got the letter. The guy was my professor in Tennessee, so he was working on going to Brown who wrote this letter to the Governor [Johnson] of Mississippi talking about "You got one of my citizens named Hardy Frye in jail down here." Boy, they got my ass out of there so fast. [Laughter] And I got a copy of the letter. But I didn't know Pat Brown from here. But somebody had wrote it, and he signed his name. He wrote Paul Johnson, who was the Governor of Mississippi. Paul Johnson called the County and said, "Let that boy go!"
Bruce: That kind of thing developed a certain kind of a mystique about the Civil Rights workers that actually went deep into the white community, the Southern white community. And what brought this home was this Did I ever tell you the Luther Boggs' story? My friend Richard Thompson was on a CORE project in Louisiana in Claiborne Parrish, and one day this old car drives up to the Freedom House, and this guy gets out of the car. He's a white guy, clearly like a rural farmer guy, the kind of guy we were all usually sort of scared around.
Betita: Yes. [Laughter]
Bruce: And he comes up to the Freedom House, and he says, "Are you the Civil Rights workers?" And Richard and the others kind of looked at each other, "Well, yeah."
He says, "Good. Maybe you can help me." And the CORE guys are wondering, "What the hell is this?"
And he says, "Let me tell you my story. My name is Luther Boggs. I own some farmland up at such and such a place. And they're going to put in a new dam, and there's going to be a lake. And the lake shore is going to be on my property. And the mayor come, and he wanted to buy my property, and I wouldn't sell it. And some other big shot in the county" I forget who it was wanted to buy his property. But he wouldn't sell it. And he says, "They told me I better sell it, and I wouldn't sell it."
So I forget exactly how he told the story, but he had a Black guy who was like his handyman up on that land. They killed him and then burned the house down on top of him. And Luther says, "I went to the sheriff, but the sheriff was in on it. I went to the mayor, but the mayor was in on it. I went to the state troopers, and they wouldn't help me. So I've come to you, because I know you help people."
And then he said, "I don't want you to just take this on faith. I want to show you my evidence." And he gets out the map, and he showed where his land was and everybody knew about this lake. He said, "See, here's my property. Here's where the lake is going to be." And he had a clipping from the little local newspaper about how there was a fire, and this guy was killed. Of course they didn't say anything more about it than that, nothing about a murder.
Then he said, "Now, come out to my car. I'll show you." They went out to the car and he opens up the trunk, and in one of those white enamel dish pans he had the charred skull and bones of the dead Black guy who he had been carrying around to show as proof of his story.
So he had come to the Movement. It's a little sick, yes. This is like Faulkner country, you know, this guy driving around with these bones. But he came to the Movement because even in his community he had heard that we were the people who would stand up.
Don: And had power.
Bruce: Well, I don't know about power, but at least willing to try and help people.
Hardy: But that was more than you get from anyone else.
Bruce: That's for damn sure.
Don: Well there's a story about Henry Reeves. The local movement organization had a little newspaper, the Benton County Freedom Train, and the leaders of the movement, including Henry Reaves, were sued for libel for attacking the school system and the black principal. They went to court and got a large verdict for libel against Henry and everybody else.
Well, I was up there as a Civil Rights worker, but the lawyers in Jackson filed the bond for the appeal a day late. So while I was telephoning Jackson, telling them how they fucked up, the sheriff comes to take away Reeves' tractor, because they can now execute against the judgment. And the tractor was the main thing that he owned, that he had to have the tractor.
I was taking a shower at the time; it was the only shower around. I was taking a shower, and his son came running out that the police, the sheriff is here. I got dressed, ran outside, and I said, "What are you doing?" And that's when I found out about that the appeal had not been filed and that they were executing. I said, "Well, you take care of that tractor, because you will be bringing it back within a week. If there's any damage, we'll sue you directly." And it was just sheer bluster. [Laughter]
Because I didn't know that you could still undo the [late filing of the] appeal. Well, they did undo the appeal, and a week later they brought the tractor back, and everybody was convinced that we had this enormous power that we could make the sheriff do this. And it really got A large number of people joined. I said, "You'll bring it back," and they brought it back.
Don: The Reeves.
Hardy: The Reeves, yeah. They stepped forward and joined hands with us. And they were willing to ignore, and this is very important I think, they were willing to ignore all the little other culture habits that we had that upset a lot of other people.
Hardy: Because there were some strong feelings about white girls dressing all kinds of ways, you know. There was strong resentment to that, but there were, in fact, those people who were willing to overlook it.
Betita: Well, there are other angles to that subject in terms of somebody said something about white girls and hippie girls turning people off.
Hardy: I talked about how they responded, a lot of the middle class blacks. In fact at Rust College and a lot of other places, I mean it was more than sandals And it's got to do with more with [culture than race]. A [Black] friend of mine came down to Tupelo. And I told him, I said, "Man, you're used to walking around with dashiki's and sandals. I mean, you can't do that shit down there." He lasted about six months there.
Betita: In Letters from Mississippi, which is, except for you Hardy, white volunteers writing about their experiences in the summer of '64. So they mention a lot of things about the reaction of the people in Mississippi to them.
For example, they say they really felt, they didn't know how to deal with the fact that their hosts, their Black hosts, were so, "Yes ma'am, No ma'am." I mean, all this sort of super respect for white people that they continued with these volunteers who were trying to smash the racism that produced that. So there were those problems that were talked about just from the volunteers' viewpoint. And maybe I think, because Chude is not here, because she would probably have run into some of those things, we're missing that piece, but I think it is another piece and maybe some people have heard stuff about it.
Betita: [Another question] I was going to ask "How did folks in the South react to people from the North?" What about the white folks? Or the Northerners? The black Northerners?
Wazir: I was from just 35 miles away, but given the activity I was doing, even the local people didn't believe that I could not be Black people couldn't believe that I could be
Betita: That you were from
Wazir: That I could be from Charleston, Mississippi.
Betita: Oh wow. OK.
Wazir: Especially from the Mississippi Delta.
Wazir: And doing that kind of stuff out in the open.
Betita: There were problems like that, because some were Northern. They were white. And more middle class, as you said. So
Don: There was even a language problem.
Betita: Yeah, right.
Don: I mean, I found that in the early months, I had Civil Rights workers translating for me, both ways. I mean, I'm speaking a mile a minute from Manhattan
Wazir: And they knew nothing about what you were saying.
Don: Not a word. Also
Bruce: And then you go to the Sea Islands off of South Carolina, and you really needed a translator. When I was at Frogmore it was like that.
Don: Also, the Northern style has a lot of exaggeration and hyperbole, and white Southerners had no sense of that.
Jimmy: Very straightforward.
Don: Very straightforward.
Hardy: Well, they're not as straightforward as the Blacks in the Caribbean. When I was down in Guyana, I thought for the first three or four weeks Most of my staff was all Guyanese, and the way they talked, man, how could they hate me so? Because they're so direct. And I hadn't seen that, except when I was in South Africa where they people would be very direct. In America, we kind of go all around the issue and soften things up before we say, and they just kind of get Woop!. I said, "Jesus!"
Hardy: I think that's what a lot of A lot of what we did was bluffing. I know when we led those people downtown [to boycott] in Holly Springs, we had no way of shutting Holly Springs down. But the merchants didn't want to hear it, because if the police had arrested us, the black people are the ones who buy on Fridays and Saturdays and if they don't come to town, they're hurting.
Wazir: They don't make any money.
Hardy: They don't make any money.
Hardy: And think about it, they could have gone to Memphis too.
Wazir: Easily. Folks in my home town of Charleston [MS], they went to Memphis to shop. It was 90 miles away, the black people were [the customers for those] those businesses.
Hardy: I remember one white merchant, a Jewish guy, he'd say to me all the time, "I can't talk [to you]. We don't want no problem." Because in most of these towns the population was about 80% Afro-American, in most of those places. They didn't have large white populations. When I was in Tuskegee, there were none [Black-onwed stores]. [The whites owned all the stores] but they were only about 5% of the population.
Jimmy: The black people with the money didn't go to Tuskegee to shop. They shopped right there in Tuskegee Institute.
Hardy: Right, right.
Wazir: Every Friday and Saturday was like a Christmas for the merchants [when the rural Black folk would come to town to shop].
Bruce: Right, right.
Don: You raise a major point, Hardy. The economics of the Civil Rights Movement. I remember that we Every month we would integrate the movie theater, and the whites would go into the balcony, and they would throw beer cans down, and we'd sit downstairs. And it was just a monthly thing that we would do. So I knew the head of the theater because I would have sued him in court on other things.
As a Civil Rights worker, I'm organizing this, integrating the theater. I had to sit through [what's playing], and [one time] it was Helter Skelter with Elvis Presley. Oh God, that is really above and beyond the call of duty to sit through an Elvis Presley movie. Had to do it. So we integrate the theater, and they throw the beer cans, and then they eventually all leave, and he has to give them the money back. So I'm leaving, we're all leaving, and as I say, I know the movie owner. And he comes over to me, and he's red-faced. But this has been happening every month. And he points; he puts his finger right on my face, and he says, "You did this on purpose." I say, "Well, of course we did." [Laughter]
[He said:] "You picked the opening night of an Elvis Presley movie, which is where we make our most money, to hurt us." I said, "No, I didn't. I didn't know this was the Elvis Presley movie, the opening night. I didn't know any of that."
And he says, "Well, you'll pay a price for that." Well, after that, they raided the Freedom House. Rita and the rest of the gang, everybody got arrested for having alcohol, which they [the police] brought in with them, since we had been complaining all night that we didn't have any. They brought it in through the back door, and they arrested everybody. And eventually it turned out that it was all a revenge thing because of how we integrated that night. They didn't care about the normal integration.
Since I knew the District Attorney since we always had cases, and he told me what was happening, he says, "If you apologized, they would call off the vendetta." So I did. I said, "I really, really did not know, and we will check now whether it's opening night on a big thing." So economically, we made that peace and then went on to our own war within the realm where that was permitted. The economics were really very important. You had to know the rules.
Hardy: The most interesting thing about this [upcoming] reunion [in Holly Springs], you know who one of the major sponsors to the Goddamned reunion is? I mean, one of the leading guys who is going to be there? Mississippi State Assemblyman Flick Ashe. Flick Ashe was the sheriff who busted us. [Laughter]
I can't wait to see this dude. This was a guy who was the chief law enforcement officer for the whole county. He's up there now. He's going to come. He's going to be one of the guys walking with us. [Laughter]
Don: Flick Ashe arrested me. I never dreamed Flick Ashe was still there. I can't wait to see that. [Laughter]
Bruce: Well, what's really significant though, is this guy is still in political office 30 or 40 years down the
Wazir: 40 years down the line.
Don: Well, Smitherman [former Mayor of Selma Alabama] just lost.
Bruce: Yeah, Smitherman just lost after 40 years. I mean, this is one of the things about the Southern political system that hasn't really changed even though there's now voter registration.
Hardy: Well, they changed. You've got to be careful. He got elected, but [Rod Deberry?] is a State Superintendent of Education. He's Black.
Bruce: And he'll probably be there for 40 years. Well, thank God somebody like Jim Clark at least just went to prison like a decent segregationist. [Laughter]
Wazir: The white folks turned against him.
Don: The whites turned against him.
Bruce: Well the Drug Enforcement Agency caught his ass smuggling in cocaine.
Don: But it was the whites that turned against him that cost him his job.
Hardy: But look. The Civil Rights Movement probably liberated the South more than it liberated black folks. It liberated the South.
Wazir: That's what I was getting at when I was saying about
Hardy: Interstate highways and the Civil Rights Movement caused the South to blow, man, right open. Otherwise, hey, that's why when you go on the interstate, you drive through there now, man, they ask, "How are you?" Because [before] they were isolated, small, agricultural economies in which one or two people own the whole damn thing.
Hardy: And there were no jobs. And so I think it's very
complicated. But I think it's part of all the things we've said.
I'm sure there were some people that saw us as liberators. I'm
sure that a lot of people saw us as buffers. A lot of people saw
as all these other things that we're joining sides with them.
Wazir: [In regards to years later, the Blacks who ended up with the government and non-profit jobs and political office.] Whatever compromise and stuff that they made [to win elected office or obtain the good jobs], they didn't want us [civil rights workers] around looking over their shoulders. They definitely didn't want, wasn't going to bring us into any employment situation, and they didn't want us rocking their boat. (laughter) They didn't want us messing with their thing. It's like, "We got it now, you can go on back wherever you came from," you know.
Hardy: That's been the history of a lot of Movements. I mean, I wrote something once where I said that one of the things that appeared to me, the people who kick the legs off the table everybody wants you to kick the leg off the table but when I was trying to look at who was getting elected, none of the people that was getting elected after that first go-round were anywhere near the Civil Rights Movement.
Wazir: That's right.
Hardy: And Black folks will tell you in some interviews, "Well he's all right, but he's too radical."
Wazir: In 94 when we went to Ruleville [MS], when we went back for that [memorial to Fannie Lou Hamer], the sister there who was the Mayor of Ruleville, she said, "I did everything I could to make this a fitting affair," she said, "but I didn't know the lady." That's how far removed [she was], she did not know the lady.
Bruce: But they have a sign in Ruleville now, "Home of Fanny Lou Hamer." I have it on the web site.
Wazir: It wasn't up there in 94.
Bruce: It's up there now. And I think it's part of this
Hardy: Let me ask Mike a question. Mike, you and I have been involved in Bay Area politics, a lot of California politics for a long time, I don't see that much difference in terms of when I look at the people who in '63 and '64 and farmworkers and all the other shit that we was doing, I don't see none of those people in positions I think most of them would be good for. I ran into George Ballast, man, George Ballast is still going around with a button on him, long hair and beard down to here.
Am I wrong? I don't know, I don't see it. They're not the ones who get elected and they're not the ones who are being brought in. At least brought in as a key element in most of the politics. Even in Berzerkeley. They don't want you if you're Black and smart in Berkeley. They don't want you. I was told, basically, "Hey. We don't know what you're going to say. You're going to raise the Israeli question." Now I might be wrong, but I'm gonna say how many people do we know who was in those struggles with us who are doing things now in a key, some kind of key position?
Mike: Not many. Well, the ones who are still community based I think
Betita: Non-profits will get you,
Wazir: You're right, it's no difference in Mississippi. Attorney R. Jess Brown, couldn't get elected to justice of the peace. His mentor, the person he mentored, Fred Banks, the young upstart that he mentored, got elected instead.
Don: Well, I don't know exactly where this fits in, but I'm thinking of the Native Americans [who had seized] Alcatraz Island [in San Francisco Bay in the early '70s]. I lived out there with them for 19 months. While they were there, the federal government couldn't take it back. It could only be done violently. Kent State had just occurred, they didn't have the nerve to do it. And so they tried to negotiate, and they offered $5 million, which was a lot of money at that point, to build a Indian Museum out there and school, and do all kinds of wonderful things. And the Native Americans met and just unanimously they said, "You realize what happens, we accept this money, we're out and the Indians who were never part of any of this will take over. So we will reject the money. And they saw it instantly."
Hardy: I just know one thing I went back to Sacramento and took a look at all the people in those organizations working up there [back then], right? They're people who put a lot of shit on the line, even kind of people like bail bondsmen who got us out jail, all of those people got pushed aside when the door opened. In the Black community, they weren't concerned about their history. They were about the business of electing Mike: When I look at, for the most part if I look at what I was involved in, like in the Mission Coalition in San Francisco, we just did not have the depth of talent, leadership, organization, whatever, to stand up to $3 million of Model Cities money coming into the neighborhood in the second year of the organization's history. Some of the strata of leadership got in, and the people who were the base were kind of left where they were before.
Hardy: Well, anyway, one thing I can say, you know that you were there because you're in the books. (laughter) Even Mike Miller, oh shit, I know him. Do you know who he is, yeah I know Mike.
Mike: What book?
Hardy: In that book on, um, by the lady in the, healthcare organizing and,
Mike: Oh yeah, Meredith
Hardy: She described this whole thing, and my students love to know that I knew you.. (lot of laughter) "You really knew him?"
Chude: You know, I think this also has to do with us. I mean, come on, there was a period where none of us would have voted for each other in anything because we all thought we were crazy (laughter) right? I mean, most of us were out there in some kind of way. At some point. And I think to be on an edge takes a toll. And I think at times you go a little far and then you kind of right yourself and some people give up, some people get scared and they leave, they pull back in, and some people pay a high price and stay out there.
And there was a period of time for I think a lot of us, where part of the problem was isolation in a variety of different ways. Even if we were in groups, we were isolated. And to some degree this is a discussion also about separatism. Because many of us who are white, as well as are Black, really came to political maturity in an integrated Movement and then all of a sudden, we who had been helping each other, moved apart for awhile and some of us were lucky enough to keep connections and others weren't. But I know for myself that my maturing as a human being had to do with coming to terms with the fact that: #1 I was not a "normal average American," and you know, some of you in this room always knew you weren't normal, average Americans.
Bruce: Or we were told so.
Chude: Or were told. (laughter) But I'm not. I'm from a white anglo-saxon protestant middle class milieu, and that's what my father told me I was.
Hardy: You don't qualify, it's been a long time since you've been that white anglo-saxon protestant. About 40 years.
Chude: But you see when I went to the south, I just thought I was a right, normal, you know, white anglo-saxon protestant American. I mean I thought [what I was doing], that's what we should all be doing. I didn't get it that I probably never was normal, but certainly was on a fringe and was never going to be, ever, in a place where I, you know, I fit in with the majority.
Bruce: My experience has been different than that.
Chude: Yeah, but you started out being out there. Being different and odd.
Mike: At Berkeley in the period from my beginnings at Berkeley to when I left Berkeley, we became the majority and took over the student government, basically. And Berkeley gave birth to a big, broad-based
And in the communities that I worked, the organizations that I was involved in building became majority voices in their communities. So I didn't have, my isolation was from the people in this room, not from the communities that I was working with.
Hardy: But you remind me of one thing my wife said to me after we did our voter registration [at San Francisco's Carnaval, May 2004]. I thought it was great. Sit there and register to vote and everything. And my wife says, "Gosh, one thing about you guys, you all got some kind of commitment and will never stop. Look at you." We came in, and [she asked me] "Where you going?" "I'm going out there to take my seat" [at the table]. For her, this is like, "God damn. You're all a strange sort of people (lot of laughter) you're gonna never stop." It was kind of amazing, 'cause, I ain't thought about it that way. You know I just dragged my ass out there [to the table] and sat my two hours, you know (laughter).
Bruce: Because that's the normal thing to do.
Hardy: It's the normal thing to do. But the way she saw it, she saw it as having a commitment for all this time. And you're not even young, [yet you're still] register people to vote. You see it as part of an ongoing thing. I think maybe a lot of people see us in that way. It was interesting that day what happened. People were [acting like] we were getting ready to go to Mississippi or some shit. I'm just here. Sitting down for two hours. (laughter)
Bruce: Well you know I think that there are some people who are the ones on the edge, the ones who, I don't know how to characterize it, but that is the kind of people we are.
I get people who talk to me about my mother. My mother who is 90 years old, who is still being asked to speak before organizations, who is still excoriating Bush, who just started a campaign to have price-controls for drugs, who led a movement that ran Enron out of town [Pompano Beach, FL], who has been doing political fighting all of her life. It's normal [for her], she cannot conceive of anything else. She's not happy about it, she's probably one of the most neurotic people I've ever known. But she is just like us, or rather, we are just like her. And I think that that's just the kind of people we are. We are Movement people.
And we are not the people who get elected. Partly because of the way people see us, but also because we are not people who would make the compromises that are necessary to be elected.
My mom told me that a few years ago the Democratic party came to her and said, look we need to find a candidate to run for Congress in Broward County [FL]. And you're a senior, you're Jewish, you're a woman, would you consider being our candidate? And she said, "Oh? Okay, well that's interesting. Would I have to agree with " I forget what it was, it was something Clinton was doing that we were all terribly opposed to. And they said, "Well, yes of course you, would have to, you would have to support the leader of the party." She said, "Would I have, do you expect me to " and there was some other thing I forget what it was, and they said, "Yes of course." She says, "Well why are you bothering to ask me? I'll pay for my own lunch. Good bye." (lot of laughter)
And that was the end of that. And we are the same. So if somebody came to us, if somebody came to you and said, "Hardy, with your history would you run for such and such, on a platform of supporting a Kerry administration's continuation of the Iraq War?" You would say, "No."
Hardy: Exactly. Cause there's no way I can agree that that's what we should do. That I don't give a shit what [Kerry] says, the only way out of this whole [Iraq] mess, is to put it in reverse and back out.
Bruce: And I think that's true for us, for Movement people, what we call "Movement people." We have a vision, and beliefs, and commitments, and they are more important to us than power.
Chude: Or acceptability
Bruce: Or status, or whatever. I mean we would love to have power but we're not willing to make the compromises that are necessary to be elected.
Don: Well we also put ourselves in communities where we're not such outsiders.
Bruce: Well we built a little community in this room, I don't know
Chude: But it wasn't easy. Let's be clear. It took us many years to really be able to start to talk to each other. Because I think the isolation has been heavy on all of us.