Plaquemine is a small town south of Baton Rouge on the Mississippi River. It was chosen two years ago by CORE Field Secretary Ronnie Moore as headquarters for voter registration in Lousiana.
It was in Plaquemine that the Louisiana group met to prepare for the summer's activity. For a week, we 60 workers got up early and met, with only food breaks, until 9 p.m. Our leaders warned us of new dangers; we were beaten in mock hatred; we spoke to mock potential registrants; we spoke to non-existent church crowds; and we spent time in mock jails.
With this thin veneer to protect us, we were sent out into the parishes. The training session couldn't have warned us about the Louisiana sun and terrain. A sugar plantation is hot and dusty. Dust or mud, depending upon the weather, make up the roads, which are lined with sewage ditches. But the training sessions did prepare us to work, to register voters.
"Good afternoon, Ma'am," the interracial team says. "We're from the Congress of Racial Equality and we'd like to know whether you'd be interested in registering to vote?"
If the answer is yes, there begins the long process of teaching [the] application. In Louisiana, a Negro applicant may be failed for not dotting an "i" or for circling something which should have been underlined or for many other minor errors not related to his ability to vote.
The worker becomes accustomed, if he is white, to having little children timidly reach up to him to touch his skin, and then draw away shyly. Flies buzz freely through a screenless door. As the worker teaches, drops of sweat fall on the form, smearing the ink. The city is a little better in that the houses are close together and local clinics may be set up at night.
Registration clinics are held from morning until the last person leaves at night: "How old are you Ma'am?" One old woman who'd never thought of it before, spent 10 minutes recollecting. " Your exact age, Ma'am, is 64 years, six months and seventeen days? The application wants it just like that."
Marked on clinic tables, scrawled on old envelopes and paper scraps are words of the Preamble [to the U.S. Constituion]: "... in order to form a more perfect union." Spellings have to be known by Negroes in Louisiana.
Speaking in churches is also a part of the task force worker's job. In our week's training session in Plaquemine, we were told that in certain parishes, if you wore a suit, you would offend the people because you would appear to be showing-off. In other parishes, if you didn't wear a suit, you'd be embarrassed. The worker must be prepared to spend hours socializing with people hungry for talk after spending an isolated week.
Sometimes it's rougher:
About two weeks ago, I was in Clinton, LA., 20 miles from the Mississippi state line. I was there to assist Negro registrants to the registrar's office and to question them on their treatment by the registrar.
Things were going all right, with only minor incidents until the afternoon, when three local toughs jumped me while I was talking to a successful applicant. "Get up," they screamed after they had knocked me to the ground. All I can remember now is that the pavement was warm and that maybe if I covered my head, I wouldn't be badly hurt.
They pulled me to my feet. By now, there was a crowd around, yelling at me.
I thought, "I have never even talked to them before; what is making them hate me?" I tried to go away, and somebody ripped off the back of my shirt. As I went down the second time, I thought, " There it is, baby," But then somebody yelled, "Stop it. Let him go back to Niggerville."
I can remember the dust grinding in the abrasions on my back and the voice addressing me: "You got off lucky this time, son. Don't let me see your face around here again."
I walked back to what they called "Niggerville" alone.
One day six people were shot-at as they left a registrar's office in St. Francisville, West Feliciana parish seat. (Feliciana means happy land.) Four of our workers had accompanied two Negro women to the registrar's office. A man waving a gun approached them and shot at their retreating car. The police made no arrest, although our workers identified the gun-toter.
Nearly everyone here admits of being scared. No one wants to become a martyr. But still people come down — no pay, sweating the long, hot rides, the long walks and the long hours.
The northern office in Monroe, LA., is a little larger and a little cooler than the main office in Plaquemine. But the air still hangs tensely about it. A week before I arrived, a group of workers were driven out by a bomb scare. Crank phone calls come over the wires, keeping the lines tied up continually.
West Monroe, tense twin city to Monroe, has been the scene of numerous harassments of our workers by the police. Two were arrested for vagrancy, three were arrested on an obscure solicitation ordinance. The word came from the police department not to canvass interracially, but CORE doesn't compromise its principles and finally we won the argument.
Stories come back after work finishes in the evening.
One person tells of an old gentleman who at first played the part of a slave, saying "Yassuh" and scratching his head. Then, upon hearing the canvasser's reason for knocking at his door, he lost his grin and his face wrinkled and he said, "See that ditch out there? It smells of manure. I wake up every morning smelling that and I never get used to it. My little girl had hepatitis from it. For 25 years I've voted to get rid of it. But what's the white man going to give me?"
Another story is of a Negro woman in Clinton, Mama Jo, who takes care of all the CORE workers there. Outside her door is a sign reading: "It is time for you to take a stand and become a first class citizen. A voteless people is a hopeless; people. Register and vote."
Back in the main office, a sort of 10x10 box in a frame hotel in Plaquemine, sits a volunteer worker, amidst two mimeograph machines, four typewriters, a file cabinet, supply cabinet, a folded cot, a desk and a pay phone. A small fan is on the desk. Its only job seems to be to blow the humidity around. His job is toughest, for along with it comes the boredom. The office hours: 9am to 9pm His pay: food to eat and a roof overhead.
But there is some time for fun. On the weekends, the workers go into local Negro cafes — "Black, white, gray and every other way," as a local Negro citizen observed. Over a glass of beer, the workers discuss home, politics, responsibilities, school and the big one — the Negro's problems in America. In the black cafes ring out words which the walls will never hear again. The students learn new dances. Sometimes a group will hop around the floor in unison hollering, "We want freedom."
Around newstime, everything comes to a hush and a crowd gathers around a portable TV, straining to hear of news of Mississippi and St. Augustine and Tuscaloosa and Cambridge. A lot of us have friends out there. Talk dwindles and we leave together, remembering the warning that we must never travel alone and always in a car at night.
Almost invariably. every time a group gets together waiting for dinner or resting afterward, we sing freedom songs. They range from old Negro spirituals to modified rock and roll. When a group breaks up, the final song sometimes drives the people into a thoughtful silence:
"May be the last time, May be the last time, May be the last time we sing together. May be the last time, but I don't know ... "
Copyright © James Van Matre. 1964.