Transcript of address by Vincent Harding to Freedom Summer volunteers at the training session held in Oxford OH before they left for Mississippi. This was one of many briefings given to the volunteers.]
The Negro in America
Blacks and Whites
How Do We Deal With These Issues?
A good part of the singing that is done in a movement, that has been done in most movements like these, is a kind of singing that is somewhat similar to whistling as one walks through the graveyard. Because it is obvious that when we sing "We are not afraid," we are really saying we are afraid and help us whatever power we believe in not to be afraid. And I think there is a sense in which you have probably already within the last thirty-six hours learned as much about what you need to know about Mississippi as I can tell you now.
And I think it would probably be helpful, considering the things that you must be thinking right now if perhaps Chico [Neblet] could lead us in singing, "Ain't Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around." Because obviously many of us want to turn around at this point, and perhaps some of us should turn around. But right in the midst of that kind of fear, and that kind of anxiety, we need to sing, "Ain't Going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around."
One of these days I imagine that somebody who has been involved in this movement and who knows something about psychology and psychiatry will write about such songs as that, and how in a sense they are a part of the process of exorcising the evil spirits because as you sing out the name it sort of helps you to deal with the people that we really fear in many cases.
I want to start out first by saying that those of us who have been talking about this project for six or eight months have always talked about it with a good deal of apprehension. And a part of the apprehension has grown out of the fact that we didn't quite know what kind of kooks would be coming down to take part in this revolution. And that is not too strong a way to put it as some people have talked about it. But from what I can see, I think that a great many persons who talked about this over the difficult winter and the spring that has just passed, and have seen you here at Oxford, have had a great sense of encouragement by your presence. I see Victoria Gray nodding her head, if she nods her head then you know it is pretty much okay. [Laughter]
I want to say that I feel very much the same way, that I am very much impressed with you, and with the kind of seriousness, and yet avoiding a somberness with which you take the assignment that is before you. And I personally, as one who shares this human condition with you, really want to tell you that I am deeply grateful for your participation in this experiment. And I am grateful not as a Negro saying to Whites I am grateful for what you are doing, but as I said I am grateful because as a human being you help me to know that there are still human beings who live for something else than being "cool" and dispassionate.
I want to say before going into the body of the morning's concern that if you are concerned about what or how you will do in the days and weeks ahead, I can in a sense testify to you that probably the most important thing that you will do will simply be being present. And I say this because I have found again and again in a thousand ways openings have come to have meaning involvement simply because I was present in Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. So try not to be too anxious once you have determined to be present.
This morning, as you have been told, I got my just dessert for being present. [Laughter] And you will too. I was all set to do a real boss job criticizing what somebody else had said. Now I have to say it. What I am going to say is, as you can probably tell, not really prepared for this kind of situation.
But what I want to do is to start off with a brief and sketchy job on the history of the Negro in America, a job that I happened to have with me for another kind of situation all together, and which as I share it with you, you will probably recognize it is for another kind of situation. But I thought that this would provide at least an adequate foundation from which we can take off. Then after talking about the history of the Negro in America, and of course the history of America's response to the Negro, I want to say something about what this means for the Negroes and whites of Mississippi at this moment in history.
Then I want to say something about what this means for you, who will be going to meet the Negroes and whites of Mississippi. At that point I hope that I will have bothered you enough that you will be ready to open into the discussion. and questions, and to be as honest as you possibly can in what you have to say and what you have to ask, because I think that one of the hallmarks of the kind of society that we are trying to deal with, and one of the hallmarks of the kind of society that we are trying to create, is honesty in facing one another. Those of us who come out of the tradition of the New Testament would put it "speaking the truth in love." And I think that this is the kind of society that we seek to build and obviously we can build it only as we practice it.
Let me then start with the background.
Ever since the first slaves were brought to the American colonies in 1619, the people of the new land have lived in the midst of a deep and frightening contradiction that goes to the heart of our society's life. Indeed this dilemma is so basic to our existence as a nation that it is impossible to understand the significance of what goes on today in Mississippi and elsewhere without serious consideration of slavery.
So by the time that slavery was officially ended in the course of the Civil War, that institution had set an indelible mark upon American life. And all who make believe that it doesn't really count are playing games. Its effect on our history is at least as [great as] puritanism in New England, the movement of the Western Frontier, and the rise of the Federal Government. So just as no one can really understand America today without understanding puritanism, or the frontier life, or the federal form of government; neither can we understand it without facing honestly the institution of slavery.
It was not that the practice of selling and holding men as property was new to the world when it began here on a large scale. Actually some forms of slavery had been in existence for thousands of years before the 17th century. However that was the century in which it was destined to become one of the great money-producing industries of the time. Before the trade was officially ended in this country it is estimated that anywhere from 50 million to 100 million African men, women, and children were forcibly taken from their own lands to be sold as slaves here.
Of course as soon as we mention the words men, women, and children we begin to get some idea of the nature of the dilemma. We begin to see the contradiction. For the question must immediately be asked how can rational civilized human beings justify a practice that allowed them to hold millions of their fellow human beings as mere property, often treating them like so many head of cattle. Here was the beginning of the contradiction — humans treating fellow humans as if they were less than human.
Another aspect of the contradiction was this — from the time that the slaves were stolen from the villages, gathered on the West Coast of Africa, and stuffed like livestock on board the ships, they were systematically robbed of their past. They were separated from family and tribe, they were penalized if they sang the songs of their homeland, they were beaten if they tried to communicate with each other in their native tongues, they were allowed no opportunity to practice the religion of their fathers. However at the same time that they were being forced to give up their African heritage, they were being told that they could never be truly accepted as full-fledged citizens of the New World. Thus they were caught in a cruel trap. Men and women without a country. Men and women behind a seemingly impenetrable wall.
Meanwhile the persons who held them behind the wall were building their own new nation. They were proclaiming that all had an inherent duty to rebel against oppressive government, especially where taxation without representation took place. These nation builders proudly proclaimed that all men were God's creatures and had been granted an equality that was only his to give. Not to be earned, but his to give. So while their slaves worked in the fields, and while the free Negroes of the North were denied the right to vote, these men boldly announced that all men were entitled by birth to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So the contradiction of words and deeds, of slaves in the midst of freedom lovers, was written into some of the basic documents of the Republic.
The contradiction went even deeper though. Many of the persons who were participating in this industry were members of Christian churches. A significant number of the owners and captains of the slave ships were New England Christians. And they faithfully contributed a part of their profits to the Church. Indeed, at least one of the slave ships was named "Jesus." Many of the slave-holders were also Christians, and sang sometimes daily of the love of Christ that filled their hearts with joy. Very often the slave auctioneers — who at the tap of a gavel sold mothers away from their children, and brothers away from their sisters — very often they rested from their labor on Sunday giving God thanks for the lovely family that surrounded them in their pews.
Therefore the institution of slavery helped to produce a split personality in the life of our nation and our churches. A wall in the heart of our land. It produced in Negroes a sense of deep distrust of white persons which still remains. It led to unnumbered attempts at rebellion, beginning with those who leaped off the slave ships into the ocean, choosing death over slavery. Rebellions about which we never read in most of our history books, by the way. That produced a culture in which both Negroes and Whites often lived two lives, one for whites and one for blacks, It led Negroes to live lives of destructive deception in order to exist. It led Whites to a myth of superiority in order to justify their actions.
Slavery made freedom for all a mockery, and justice was usually for whites only. A Supreme Court said that black slaves had no rights that a white man needed to respect. So as southern slaves and northern freedmen helped to build a nation they continued to be its property, or second rate citizens at best. The nation's practices were opposed to its declarations. Then when it had to decide whether or not it would continue in this path, North and West were divided against South.
However, the land was divided in deeper ways then simply section against section. It was divided against itself. Finally in 1861 the inner conflict came to the surface most vividly in war. Beginning at Fort Sumpter, but unofficially on the good ship "Jesus," two and a half centuries before. It was near the end of this war that Abraham Lincoln said in his Second Inaugural Address that:
"If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, ... Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
It is significant that a short time ago Gloria Richardson of Cambridge, Maryland, quoted the statement. And I think we need to be afraid. None of us, of course, can be sure whether Mr. Lincoln's interpretation was an accurate one. Only God knows that. However it was clear that before the war was over that the Civil War, like all other wars, had added great new reservoirs of bitterness and guilt to the life of a nation. Some 600,000 of the nation's finest young men, black and white, had been killed. Hundreds of thousands more had been seriously injured. Sometimes by their own brothers and fathers.
The South had been particularly visited with the terrible blight of marching, destroying armies. But the North had not been spared its own terrifying experiences. When it was done, slavery had ended. But the nation was no less against itself. It had lived with its contradiction for too long. And in spite of Constitutional amendments that sought to offer former slaves all the rights of citizenship, a war had not convinced America that its slaves were now fully citizens, fully human, fully brothers.
For a short, exciting period in the South the Freedmen were given a chance to participate in the political life of their community. In some places they were elected to important public offices, including Congress. Even more significantly they were able to work together with white persons, in some places in the Deep South, in an attempt to build a new kind of social and political community. However, this was all done under the generally watchful eye of federal power in the course of Reconstruction throughout the occupation.
When in 1877 federal troops were finally pulled out of the South, there was a great reaction. And every attempt was made to push the former slave back into his place. He had been tainted by thoughts of equality and freedom and of participation in government. And those who ruled the South were determined that the Negro be purged of such thought forever. Even if he had to be killed to purge them. Often he was. The South belonged to white men they said, and they would run it, and their Negroes with it, according to their wishes.
When it became clear that there would be no significant opposition to this policy from the North, a systematic effort was designed to guarantee that two results of the Reconstruction would never be repeated. One that Negroes would never participate in the government through voting or office holding. Especially in places where they were in a majority. And two, it was sought to be that Negroes and poor white persons would never join themselves together to solve some of their mutual problems. Basically the leaders of the white South were able to do a rather effective job of carrying through their objectives. Largely because they received substantial active and passive assistance from the white society of the North.
The federal Reconstruction had left the freed Negroes almost completely economically dependent upon their former masters and other white persons. If the slaves had been given some land or other means of gaining an independent living, much might have been different. But as it was, their economic lives almost always depended upon white persons. That was an effective weapon in itself. So when Negroes had their names erased from voter registration lists — in some places more than fifty percent of the former slaves had registered to vote during the Reconstruction occupation — when they had their names erased from the list, both physical and economic threats could be used to keep them from trying to get back on. Both were used extensively, and Negroes were effectively removed from political life in most southern communities by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Then by an intensive campaign of racial antagonism, whites and Negroes were effectively separated. This period saw the rise of the Klu Klux Klan, originally a threat against whites who did not work hard enough in keeping Negroes in their places. One of the most effective aspects of this campaign however was a series of Jim Crow laws at the end of the 19th [Century] and the beginning of the 20th Century which legalized the wall of separation between Negroes and whites in the South. This also succeeded well. And in 1896 it became a part of the Constitutional law of the land, it was constitutional to separate men and women on the basis of race, the Supreme Court said. And it said it partly because this had been going on in the North for a long time.
Segregation had become part of the American way of life. The nation was still divided against itself. Segregation became part of our country's inner contradiction, one that showed up very clearly on the outside. It could be seen in all of the large and small aspects of life. It was apparent on trolleys and trains and buses. There were Negro and white waiting rooms everywhere. There were Negro and white schools, Negro and white communities, Negro and white waters. There were Negro cemeteries, restaurants for whites only. Negro jobs, Negro motels, Negro balconies. Sometimes there were separate entrances for Negroes, sometimes there was no entrance at all. Only a wall.
Then of course there were Negro churches and white churches. We lived in this divided house for years. For three quarters of a century after emancipation these walls were not effectively challenged. And we came to believe that men were meant to live with walls between them. The terms "your people" and "my people" became part of the general vocabulary. I hear it now in, "the white community," and "the Negro community," rather than the white and Negro members of the community. We had accepted segregation as part of the American way of life, even though we claimed to a great melting pot, color evidently didn't melt.
And even in places where segregation was not legally enforced it was often enthusiastically practiced. Wherever it was practiced it led to, with few exceptions, to unequal justice, indeed to injustice. For segregation had grown out of the dilemma of our legal and political system too. Segregation is partly the result of our making some people more equal under God than others. Therefore it was not surprising that segregation almost always involved injustice. The Negro jobs, the Negro sections, the Negro schools, the Negro balconies all were almost always inferior in number or in quality or both. This was natural, for segregation at its deepest level expressed our conviction that the Negro himself was inferior.
In its course it also convinced many Negroes of this fact. How else could we justify our having kept him in slavery for two and a half centuries. There was something more though for segregation, whether legally enforced or enforced by social customs, was unjust to white persons too. For it kept them away from persons whom they might have wanted to meet, to know, to love. It kept them away from their fellow citizens, their fellow humans, their fellow Christians. Therefore it kept them away from a part of themselves. It was unjust also in encouraging them to think of themselves as superior to other persons just because the shape of their nose or the amount of melanin in their pigmentation. So segregation involved injustice to Negroes and to whites. Walls are always impartial in their injustice.
Therefore it was not surprising that when the Supreme Court declared against segregation in 1954, it declared that it was unconstitutional because it was unjust. With that declaration a new age began in America, the age of racial revolution. In a sense though it wasn't new, the walls had been experiencing it for at least a generation. All over the globe men and women, mostly darker skinned ones, were rebelling against oppression, injustice, and the unjust rule of the white western world. Africa became a symbol of this revolution, but it has been worldwide. In some parts of the world communist forces have tried to control the revolution. In other places the western powers have made the same attempt. Neither has really succeeded though. For the movement towards life, freedom, and independence was too large to be captured by any one camp.
While the Supreme Court decision of 1954 was the symbolic beginning of the age of revolution and ever mounting protest in the United States, the rebellion against the wall of slavery and segregation had long been present. Ever since the first slaves leaped off the ships, ever since the first rebellions of Vessey and Turner, ever since the Underground Railroad, ever since the countless black suicides, ever since the Negro abolitionists like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, ever since the Civil War, ever since the beginning of the NAACP, ever since Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement, ever since the trade union movement, ever since a thousand events and movings of men, the racial revolution has been very much among us. Most often we choose not to see it, for it made our self-contradiction too painfully clear. And we said, "All of the Negroes like it as it is. They want to be with each' other."
However, when the nation's highest tribunal condemned the unjust wall of segregation we could no longer hide. It could no longer be hidden. Some men continued to try though. In the South they said quite clearly that they would not obey. And the first White Citizens Council was organized less than two months after the decision. When Negro children appeared at formerly white schools that fall, they were refused admittance. In the North men did not speak as loudly and frankly. And most thought that the decision didn't apply to them. And if it did it couldn't possibly mean their schools, their communities, or their churches. In the North there were no Negroes, so they had no problems they said.
When it became clear to the courts that there was little meaningful positive response to the 1954 decision, it spoke again in 1955 and said that — desegregation "must come with all deliberate speed." This evidence of determination on the part of the Supreme Court strengthened the resolve of those hundreds of thousands of persons who were convinced that the walls of segregation should come down. Now it was clearly stated that the constitution was on their side. So a strange revolution developed, a revolution in which the Negroes in the South, and increasingly in the North, were committed to overthrowing the existing illegal, unjust system of segregation in favor of the constitutional system of desegregation and justice.
So these revolutionaries worked to bring state, local, and community laws and practices in line with the national law. They sought to end the external contradictions between America's democratic ideals and its racial practices. They tried to end the international contradiction between America's self-proclaimed leadership of the "free world," and the deprivation of the right to vote experienced by millions of its own citizens. They tried it through the courts as NAACP brought school desegregation cases in more than forty communities immediately after the 1955 Supreme Court order. They fought it in the streets as thousands of Negroes walked to work in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955-56 rather than ride on segregated buses.
They tried it in 1957 as civil rights supporters tried to fight against the filibuster to get a hesitant Legislature to pass the laws necessary to support the decisions of the Supreme Court. In the North men discovered that they were not immune when in 1959 a group of Negro parents refused to send their children to their home ghetto school, complaining of discriminatory educational policies. For those who told themselves that the Negroes were satisfied with segregation, the revolution came as a shock. But there was more coming.
In February, 1960 a group of college students at one of the predominantly Negro schools in Greensboro, North Carolina appeared in the five and dime store where they had shopped many times. Only this time was different. They sat down at the lunch counter quietly, politely, saying by their action we are tired of being relegated to the back of the society, we have come to be served, we have come to be human. What will you do?
They went to jail, for the new spirit of protest had soon spread to the Negro college campuses. And in two months sit-ins had been introduced in 65 southern and border cities. Before the end of the year more than 200 cities were called upon to face the young men and women who were determined to break down in their lifetime the walls that had been constructed by centuries of injustice, apathy, guilt, and fear. One hundred years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, and they were determined to be free.
Of course the college students and others knew that there was a price to be paid for the breaking down of walls. That had been discovered ever since the days of slavery, that had been discovered ever since the days of lynchings. In this decade of revolution it was discovered when the Negro children tried to obey the Supreme Court and attend formally all white schools. They were harassed, spit upon, and sometimes beaten. Their homes and schools were bombed. Again and again it took the force of federal power through marshals or troops to lead them through the small breach in the wall.
In Montgomery they had discovered it soon after they stopped riding the buses, when the house of Martin Luther King, Jr. was bombed, endangering the life of his family. Then when the question, the all too common and inevitable question, of retaliation was raised by an angry crowd of Negroes outside the house, King sought to set the theme for the entire revolution. He said, "We can not solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. Obviously, to many of you this is going out of style. I wonder if it is going out of truth.
He told them to protest actively against the wall of segregation. But to let love for their brothers be the compelling force. For only such love could bring black and white together after the walls were gone. As the revolution continued, the capacity for love was often strained as the bombings and resistance continued. Often local officials as high as Governors and Senators openly defied the rule of the Supreme Court. One entire county closed all its schools rather than desegregate. The students were often dragged from the lunch counter stools and beaten and then taken off to jail. And one of them said, "The greatest progress of the American Negro in the future will not be made in Congress, or in the Supreme Court, it will come in the jails."
Meanwhile the force continued to mount and men continued with fervent determination to hammer at the wall. In 1961 buses were burned, men beaten, and the jails of Jackson, Mississippi were filled with Freedom Riders as the local laws of segregation were pitted against a Supreme Court ruling. By the end of that year there had been almost 700 jailings in Albany, Georgia, with 500 more coming the following summer as that city became a symbol of the protest against America's inner wall. Throughout the South, Negroes attempted to register and vote. And in many places met only further intimidation, resistance, and sometimes death.
In the fall of 1962 death again accompanied the breaking of the walls, as two men were killed in the course of James Meredith's entry into his own state's university. The wall was high and hard it seemed. In Birmingham, Alabama, police dogs and fire hoses defended the wall, but Negroes continued to assault. Indeed in that very spring of 1963 scores of communities knew the experience of men storming the walls of segregation. Sometimes the price was jail, sometimes it was broken skulls. In Jackson, Mississippi it was a man's life, Medgar Evers.
For some persons it grew harder to listen to Martin Luther King's call to love, it was easier to retaliate with bricks and curses and guns and hate. In Washington, D.C. two hundred and fifty thousand persons gathered from every part of the nation on a day in late August 1963. Black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, they marched to protest the wall, they marched to plead for a new community without walls. Less than three weeks later the wall was defended again with dynamite, and the death of four girls in a Birmingham church building, and two boys outside. Meanwhile Congress debated whether the wall should be assaulted with a civil rights bill.
The wall was high and hard and many lives had been lost against it. And more and more persons were growing bitter and impatient. Not simply against the wall itself, but against the millions of Americans who by their apathy and passive cooperation allowed it to stand. So they challenged Martin Luther King asking, "Why? Why do we have to love? Why do we have to love, even after beatings, and rejections, and deaths? Why?"
You will meet men and women in Mississippi that are asking that question. And I would like to fold this over with three approaches to what you will meet in Mississippi. Something about the black men that you will meet who have come out of this history, something about the white men that you will meet that have come out of this history, and something about how you might possibly respond to these men and women who shall not be known unless you know out of what they have come.
There are black men who say "why" in Mississippi, for there is a bitterness deep within them that must not be denied. It must not be encouraged, but it must not be denied. A bitterness against their white rulers, a bitterness against the white man. You hear it again and again. You have heard it here many times. The "white man." There are dangers involved in calling people the "white man," calling people the "redneck" for these stereotypes are just as dangerous as the "Negro," and the "colored" man. But men and women live within these stereotypes as a result of their history. Whether you like it or not, you are the white man to many of them.
Therefore as you meet them, you shall meet them with them having very mixed feelings about you. Make no bones about that. For they will meet you with gladness and with fear. They will meet you with hope and with distrust. Let me give you an example. The staff people who are in Mississippi and who have worked, and who have gone through much of the foul and burden of the movement, many of them have not known the kind of college experiences that you have known. Therefore when you come into the meetings; when you come with all of your well articulated ideas; when you come with all of your high flung theory about how it should be done; when you come with all of the answers one through ten, quickly written up on the blackboard, they will hate your guts.
In spite of the fact that they know that some of these things may be right, they will still hate you because they can not speak in the same way, because they can not think with the same kind of accuracy, because they can not move with the same kind of objectivity. And you must go recognizing that this is how they will feel. They have known white folks being in charge for a long, long time. And it is impossible for many of them now to believe that any white folk could possibly be qualified to be in charge. And so they will know deeply within themselves that you have the qualifications in many situations to be in charge, but they will not want you to be in charge. And they will not let you be in charge.
You will meet a strange mixture of love and hate as a result of this kind of history. You will meet a situation like the one that James Baldwin so beautifully delineated in Another Country. Rufus James Baldwin in the beginning of the story remember was making out with this white girl from Alabama. And if you remember the scene that took place on the balcony outside of the apartment, it tells a great deal about what I think what is going to be involved ... (Break)
... And just as Rufus entered into sexual intercourse with this girl from Alabama, both loving her and fighting her, both desiring her and wanting to sever apart, both seeking to hold and kill her, these are the things that you are going to find. You are going to find it as I say in a certain kind of sexual aggressiveness, both in the form of Negro fellows and Negro girls towards you. It grows out of the love/hate response, but it grow's out of some other things. It grows out of that curiosity which is inevitable when people have lived on opposite sides of walls.
And not only are they curious, but obviously you are curious too. So be aware of that fact. This kind of aggressiveness and this kind of really mad and mixed up relationship between white and Negro that you will meet will come also because people want to prove that they are in a new age. They want to prove that the South can no longer tell them who they will go out with, and who they will lie down with. And because this is the way they think will prove it, they will be out after you. And you are going to have to determine how you are going to meet this.
They are going to do it in a sense to try to prove that you are really with the movement. Unfortunately some people think that the only way that a white person can prove that they are with the movement is to go to bed with a Negro. You will have to deal with this. And you will have to deal with it quite honestly.
It will of course come because of other things. Sometimes simply the release of tension, and the desire to forget all of the hell of Greenwood and Ruleville and Neshoba county. But you will meet this. You will also meet black men and women who have been caught up in this identity crisis that the nation has brought upon us all for the last 300 years. Who have been told in many ways that they are no longer Africans and they are neither Americans; and therefore they do not know who they are in many cases. And in an attempt to deal with this factor they have come to a point which one can almost call a kind of black racism. In an attempt to say, "Yes, I am Good because I am black." You see for a long time the nation said you are good because you are white, and you are bad because you are black. Now there is a kind of racism involved that says you are good because you are black and you are probably not so good if you are white.
You must deal with this, you must confess to yourself how unnerving this is when you come to Mississippi to create a new integrated society and these cats are talking about black supremacy. But you will meet this. You will also meet people who like to sing the song, "I have been down so long that down don't bother me." You will meet people whose spirit has been broken. And whether we like to admit it or not, both dealing outside of Mississippi, the majority of Negroes in Mississippi are not freedom fighters. It would be impossible under the conditions in which they have lived.
You will meet them and you will have, I think, a strange kind of reaction to them. Because these will be the Negroes of Mississippi who out of the habit of generations of survival techniques will always be agreeing with you. Nothing that you say will be wrong. They will never be honest with you, and therefore they will never be able to be human with you, until they are able to be honest with you. But underneath their "yes siring" and "no Ma'aming" and "sure that is right," there will be a deep distrust, and probably a hatred of you because they have to act this way towards you. You will meet that. And there will be some people who will be very upset about it.
An example. You will go out some of you with Negroes to help recruit people for the Freedom Schools or for the community centers. And when you and the Negro walk into this Negro's house again and again and again this Negro will be looking at you and talking to you and saying, "Yes sir, yes ma'am, that is right." And paying no attention at all to the Negro that has walked in with you. That Negro is going to be pretty angry with you as a result of that. You must realize that this is the case.
You will be meeting of course Negroes whose spirits may not be quite broken, but who are very much afraid. Who are afraid, and who are seeking at any costs to stay on good terms with white people. And they will stay on good terms with any white people that they can find, you see. Then this is going to be hard for you. And I am going to say a little bit later on about how I think it might be dealt with. But recognize that it is going to be there.
But thank God you are going to meet some other Negroes too, some that you have already met here. You are going to meet some that have been freed, and some that are in the process of being freed. You are going to meet some who have been freed in their old age, and who are some of the great saints of this movement. You are going to be living in the house with some of them, as a matter of fact; who could not be having you in their house unless they were freed, unless they were somehow able to even transcend their history.
And you will be meeting these people who are determined to act out their freedom in every aspect of life and you must stand beside them and walk beside them. For these, some of them have even been freed from the need to hate, which is one of the greatest freedoms of all. You will meet them. Some of them will have been freed from the need to deceive. Some of them will be freed from the need to hide. Some of them will have been freed to be able to associate and to be honest. And many of them have found this freedom out of their own deep sense of religious conviction. Whether you believe it or not, you had better take their conviction quite seriously. Well, I would say when you find these kind hold them tightly. Or more likely when they find you, hold them tightly because they are souls of great price.
Let me say a bit about the whites that you will meet. It is impossible to imagine that this kind of history could have been lived by white persons without, well, without a certain kind of national mental illness being involved. Bob Moses calls it the plague, perhaps that is as good as any term. From what I have seen among those who are white in the state of Mississippi, the best single word that could be used to characterize their condition at this moment especially is fear. I want you to really understand this. And I won't get you to understand this in five minutes of course, but I hope that you will try.
It is a fear approaching paranoia. And indeed it probably is a kind of paranoia. Because for a long time Mississippi has lived in a state that has encouraged paranoia from within and without. Everything threatens many of the white people of Mississippi. Everything that is new, everything that is strange, everything from a Negro voting to a white girl in a hip-length shift dress. Anything that is new threatens the white Mississippian. For everybody is against them you see. The whole nation is against them, the United Nations is against them, the world is against them. And they are fighting a lonely, noble battle as they understand it. In many cases this fear is the predominant feeling. And remember, I think if you remember this fear I think it will have something to do with how you approach people who are caught by fear even more than they are caught by hatred.
This fear, this paranoia is a result of their poverty, it is a result of their sense of their paranoia. It is a result of their state's stunning attempt to keep blacks and whites apart. It is a result of the controlled press that is there in Mississippi. You have to see it to believe it. It is a result of the white pressures and terrorist groups that are there. And you know when you sing, "I am not afraid, I am not going to let the Klu Klux Klan turn me around, or the White Citizens Council," to a large degree the Klan and the Citizens Councils isn't mostly worried about the Negro in Mississippi, or even those of us who come to work with the Negroes of Mississippi. The Klan and the White Citizens Councils are worried about the other white people of Mississippi. And these white people in Mississippi live under constant fear of these organizations. And many of them are convinced that they can not stay in Mississippi unless they kowtow to everything that the Klan and the Council says and does. So remember this, and think of how you might be operating in Ohio or California if you felt that your economic and physical life depended upon going along with segregation.
Therefore, I would say whether the door is closed or locked or both, remember that whether, whichever one it is, or whatever combination it is, that it closed and or locked for the usual reason that people close and lock things. And that is fear, deep pervading fear. And this fear has a lot to do with the kind of Christianity that has been talked about in Mississippi. The kind of Christianity that does not deal with life in the society as it is; a kind of Christianity that can not bring men into facing the new and the strange. Therefore because of this fear and because of their past, every time they see Negroes and whites together they are going to be threatened, they are going to be frightened. And people who are frightened and threatened most often respond in violent ways. Either inwardly or outwardly or both. And you are going to have to decide what to do about this. Because of their fear and because of what has been done in the state of Mississippi, because of the great myth that has been cast through Mississippi about how eager Negro men are to get at white women, they are going to be deeply troubled each time they see a white woman in the company of a Negro person, Negro men especially.
And you have to realize that this is not simply because they are foolish, but because they have been poisoned in many cases. Because you know that some people are poisoned up in New York City and Chicago on this same issue, so don't be surprised about Mississippi, it is just in Mississippi they are less sophisticated in their responses to it.
Because of this fear, and because of this history, there is a tremendous sense of threat about Negroes achieving political power. Listen very closely to the statements that are being made. These statements are becoming clearer and clearer over the last couple of years, especially after a period of quietness. And Eastland and Stennis and a number of other people are saying — you know quite honestly now even in Congress — "but my goodness in counties where the Nigras are 60 or 70 percent of the population, how can we let them get into political power?" They are afraid. And of course you know why they are afraid. They are afraid because they know what happened when whites were in control of the Negro minority. Therefore, they can't imagine that they think that hell could result when the Negro gets in control of the political situation. Well, its simply like the man who killed, being afraid of every man who he sees near him after that.
Because of what Mississippi has been, and because of its history, there is a threat of any thought of Negroes achieving economic power, for it has been economic infancy that has in many cases kept Negroes in their place. It has been the threat of a telephone call that says if you remember you have a mortgage don't you, or sorry but you didn't just weigh that bale right, or you know you will have to move off the land now. It has been that that has been able to keep Mississippi as it is. And so therefore any kind of suggestion that there might be people who are working to help change the Negro's economic situation is a tremendous and fearful thing to many white persons in Mississippi.
And let me give you an example of the way that Mississippi simply does not conform to the usual Marxist interpretations of what goes on in our society. I was talking to a white person in Greenwood, Mississippi, some months ago about the manufacturing forces in Greenwood. Greenwood in its own little way is quite an industrial center for small manufacturing outfits, Baldwin Piano being among them by the way. And this person told me that the sense of fear is such, and the strange kind of factors that play are such, that you can not understand this from the usual economic interpretations. He said for instance, the small businesses of Greenwood and the small industries of Greenwood do not have enough white persons in Greenwood to hire there. There is simply not enough white persons to hire.
But rather than hiring Negroes from Greenwood, who would spend their money right back in Greenwood, and make it a far more profitable venture, these persons, because they are afraid first and business men second, go out into the rural areas and bring in a white person from those areas, pay them, and know they will take their money away from Greenwood to spend. So you see economic interpretation doesn't work there. People are afraid first before they are economic. I think that in many cases we may have to deal with this conviction of ours that the people of the world and the people of Mississippi are political animals first or economic animals first. I challenge this, I think there is something else first before their allegiance. And that will have something to do with how we must deal with them.
Two more things that I would like to say about the white people that you will meet. One of course is that part of this fear of Negroes achieving some kind of status is a fear simply among many persons that there is not enough wealth in Mississippi now for really both whites and Negroes to live on a good level of life. Now the fact is as Mississippi is presently situated there isn't enough. And so therefore people in a sense have a justified fear. But therefore — rather than trying to find ways of building up the situation of the economy so that there can be enough for both to live on — instead the solution is to keep the Negro down, or put him out so that we won't have to worry about him any longer.
But the final thing that I would say about the whites that you will meet is that you will meet some white people in Mississippi, believe it or not, who have not been backed up against the wall; who have not been allowed, who have not allowed themselves, to lose their humanity through fear. Some people will tell you that there are no such white people in Mississippi. All I can say is that I know that there are. And you had better look for them because Mississippi will not change until there are white people who are working with Negroes to change it.
How does one deal with this? I am not sure. This is the last thing that I will say before we take a break. I think we have to recognize that we are dealing with a situation that is somewhat out of keeping with our American way of life at this point. Because we have now, especially in our generation, we have now moved into the cruel world, in which men say there are no ideologies, there are no causes. Anybody who gets excited about anything is kooky. Anybody who thinks that there is a cause to live and die for must be nuts. And so we are going into Mississippi for a cause in the midst of a society that doesn't believe in causes except the saving of one's own skin. I think that we had better recognize that we are not going to be heroes, and go not expecting this even if we do wrap the gauze around our head and go out.
I would suggest a few things that you must talk about some more after the break. I would suggest that as you meet the black men who are filled with bitterness and who will be sitting in the same room with you and the staff in Ruleville or Greenwood ... (Break) ...
Somehow you have got to be able to build up enough of a sense of assurance about your relationship with the Negro people that you work with that you don't have to prove for them that you hate white people. Because we have got enough haters on the scene right now. We don't need 250 more to go down there.
In terms of this matter of the different backgrounds from which we have come, and the difference between Radcliffe and Mississippi State — I would say, just as a general policy, be somewhat hesitant at first to throw out too many ideas at once. In the first place it will amaze you how much you can learn by that process because there is a great deal to teach. And these cats that have been on the scene can do a great deal of teaching. But you know not only must you be hesitant because there is something to learn; not only must you be hesitant to throw out too many of the well-formed, prefabricated ideas too quickly because of the resentment that it causes, but remember that most of you are going to be there for six, or seven, or eight quick hot weeks. And therefore, the important thing must never become your ideas. The important thing must become the ability of the people who you are leaving there to struggle through with their own. And if you are throwing out your own all the time they are not going to have much of an opportunity to develop leaders.
This is going to get pretty slippery and pretty tricky. But I simply want to try to bring some of these to your attention. Now in this love/hate business — and I am not going to give you a course on how to respond to propositions — because some of you aren't interested in such a course in the first place. And because you can't give it. But I should simply like to put the general kind of fabric around the whole thing in terms of the ideology that we are involved in now. I am not simply talking about techniques and strategy at this point, I am talking about the philosophy that sends us to where we are going.
We are going to Mississippi for one thing because men in this country have spent a long time using other men for their purposes. Remember that. That has been one of the troubles. Men and women have used other men and women as things, as objects, to get what they want. Now the question is if we are going to fight in a struggle against this kind of thing, against men using other people, then can we go and fight in that struggle and at the same time be involved ourselves in using other people. You will never win that way baby. You see, because we will simply be perpetuating what supposedly we are fighting. And I think personally that using other people politically and economically is no different from using other people sexually. You are still using them for your goals, however you may rationalize it.
Now I think you know that we have to say am I in this situation, and am I getting myself involved, and am I listening very closely to this proposition because I want to have my summer Negroes. You know, to have a summer Negro is a rather despicable kind of thing in many ways, because people aren't met for summers. They are meant to dealt with in the entirety of their humanity and yours. So I hope that you will think about — and this is just my opinion, of course, and you probably have some other ones — but of course, I would say the same thing for all the cats who want to prove that they can have a white girl. So if you are going to be fighting for freedom in Mississippi I don't think that having a white girl will have anything to do with it. Because you know, my summer Negro and the white girl that I make, there is no difference from the token Negro in the school. It is still somebody who is just there to be seen, to be had, but not really being experienced to know.
And besides, on this whole deal of our relationships along the line of our sexual expressions, I want those of you who are white and those of you who are Negro who really feel that you are with it — say Dottie are you going to be able to stay ... okay because I would like you to enter in after the break, okay — I want you to think about how for instance the Negro girls in Jackson or Meridian or Greenwood or Greenville feel — you know, here come these sweet chicks down from Radcliffe and the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan and as soon as they walk in all the fellows drop all around over them. And there have been these gals who have been struggling to make it, you know, for the last eighteen or nineteen or twenty years here in Greenville, Meridian, and Macon. And all these chicks have to do is walk in, and the guys just fall, often down in bed. How do you think these gals are going to feel? And I would like to tell you that they know ways of getting at you for that. [Laughter] I think that we are really going to have to deal with human feelings and human experiences if we are supposedly involved in a movement that does deal with humans.
And also we talk about the conservative Mississippians. Most of the Negroes in Mississippi are just as conservative as the whites. And especially the older people that many of you will be staying with. They may not have been as, you know, released from sexual inhibitions as you have been. And how you deal with their feelings concerning this matter is a very, very important issue. We will not be able to walk as if we are alone in this situation. We will not be able to walk as if we are secluded and separated entities in this situation. We are a part of a movement, and what we do had better have something to do with the movement that we are a part of. That for now, you can throw your books at me if you would like to.
On this matter of how you respond to black racism, all I can say is, well, recognize where it comes from, recognize why it is there, recognize that one of the reasons why it is there is because people have not been accepted, people have not been told that they are good and therefore they have to tell themselves that they are good, especially good. And maybe one of the ways of dealing with it is to let them know that you think that they are great simply because they are human. Secondly, in dealing with black racism recognize that black racism is there because of your white racism. And recognize that no matter how many times you come to Mississippi you are probably bringing some along with you. And you have to admit this. The plague, as Bob [Moses] said. One of us in .... So if we can say, yeah baby I know that you think that black is great but there is a little bit in me that thinks that white is great too, and you know you can get a dialogue going and the Indians may win. [Laughter]
On the broken spirits that you are going to meet there. Please, as much as you can possibly do it with honesty and courtesy do not let them treat you the way that they treat Mr. Charlie. Do not let them scrape to you. Do not let them be dishonest with you. Try to find ways in which you can make it clear the kind of relationship that you really want with them. Because the more that you let them go on in this kind of pattern, the more that you are killing them. Don't participate in their death. Recognize, of course, how hard it is for some of them not to immediately have Pavlovian responses to a white face. Recognize that, but still work with them.
But recognize this too, that there is something very pleasant about being treated like Mr. Charlie. And that you probably like it sometimes, especially after some of these white racists cats have hit you over the head a few times. You will want to find some Negroes that think that you are pretty good. All right, that is true, you are going to feel that way but don't give in to it too often. Because that is why the situation is as it is now because there are a lot of white people all over the South and the North who want to feel that way. And feeling that way at the expense of somebody else is bad.
As I said, for the Negroes that you meet that have been freed, think very seriously about what they have gone through to be free. And appreciate who they are. And at every moment have a deep concern for their feelings, for their opinions, and a respect for their safety. And remember, please, that they have been living there, and that they are going to be living there when we get back to the white, free, liberal North. And we must take that quite seriously.
They have already in a sense risked everything to have you there. Because after you move out of that house it may be less than a few days later that there will be no more house. It may not happen while you are in there. People may be a bit too shrewd for that, but it may well happen after you leave. Somehow in every thing that we can possibly do, we must see to it that we don't unnecessarily bring that about.
I was going to say something about how to deal with the white fears but I won't because we can talk about that in the discussions after the break. Except to remind you again that what you are facing is fear. Fear is not overcome by threats, fear is not overcome by defiance, fear is not overcome by the promising of more. Fear is never gotten rid of that way. Until we find ways of dealing with their fear we are not going to beat Mississippi.
Copyright © Vincent Harding, 1964
Copyright © 2010