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The Southern Front: 2 Weeks in Mississippi
by Bell Gale
Originally published in Village Voice, July
See 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer
Events for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer
for web links.
There's a homemade cartoon in the Council of Federated Organizations
(COFO) headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, which shows a skinny Negro
on this back. He's saying to a big, teeth-gritting,
billy-club-brandishing police officer, "You're under citizen's arrest.
Like much of the humor in the civil rights movement, the cartoon
counteracts the sense of helplessness by making a joke of it. But it
also represents the nature of the battle most of the civil rights
workers find themselves fighting. In one's first few days in Jackson the
range of life contracts immediately and racially. The narrow economy of
Negro experience is imposed on and adopted by the white sympathizer.
George Greene, a Negro SNCC worker, is stopped for gazing with humility
at a police car ("You looked at us like you though we was a pair of
goddamn fools") and arrested for public drunkenness. Similarly, Mike
Starr, a white law student who is driving suspiciously near the Negro
college, Tougaloo (dubbed "Cancer College" by Jackson's hysterical
newspapers), is arrested for stealing his own car and not stopping at a
non-existent stop sign. No white movie theaters are attended by civil
rights workers, and — as the experience of Dick Jewett,
a white New Yorkers, testifies — one goes to the Negro
movie house at the peril of arrest and beating.
In such a state of siege, certain areas become effectually citadels
(even for a two-weeks observer like myself). The COFO office Lynch
Street is the major one. Its outer limits are the two nearest eateries.
On one side is the next-door Streamline Cafe — about as
modern as its name — and on the
other — a short walk past sagging porches, unpaved side
streets, and broken bits of yard — Smackover's where
milk for your coffee is served in plastic mustard bottles. The office
itself, a storefront covered with plywood (the insurance company backed
away after the second night of flying glass), is a big, barn-like room.
It is papered with maps, clippings, Chagall prints, a cartoon of Lincoln
in his monument holding his head in his hands and a sign that reads:
There's a street in Itta Bena called Freedom
There's a town in Mississippi called Liberty.
There's a Department in Washington called Justice
The office sometimes buzzes with reverbations of other revolutions. One
summer volunteer says, "No, my parents think it's great that I'm here.
My father always regretted he didn't go to Spain." A girl arrived in the
spring after a thwarted effort in Algeria to get sent to the Angolan
front. And a Negro from the Coast with a colossal armful of tattoo tells
about how a man may be coming from Los Angeles to do a film on how the
Bohemian element functions in the movement.
But the office accommodates the stenographer as well as the [pcaro?].
The presence of Ruth Schein, a middle-aged New Yorker, represents a
different sort of awakening. She has behind her years of experience as a
legal secretary and editorial assistant and no civil rights experience,
but "it suddenly dawned on me that my daughter was 21 and I could do
anything I wanted, I was free!"
Most of the summer volunteers are students in their later years of
college, and more than four-fifths of them are white. They have been
much more carefully screened than is general
known — both at the application stage and at the
orientation sessions in Oxford, Ohio. (No well-meaning late arrivals are
being taken on.) Those who were found to be stable and responsible and
to have a certain degree of understanding of the situation suffered
retrial by fire after June 21 when the three
civil rights workers
disappeared. They had then to bear the soul-wearying experience of
sifting fact from rumor, real danger from shallow threat. The actual
discovery of the burned-out car on June 23, for example, was preceded by
a report from a woman on the street that three bodies had been found.
The office sometimes appears to be an immense switchboard and city desk
designed to sort out facts in the obfuscating atmosphere of Mississippi.
"Coordinating" is as essential a factor in SNCC as "nonviolent." An
elaborate discipline of checking-in from all over the state keeps
Jackson apprised of all problems, dangers and news. News of harassment,
arrests, or newly-concocted local ordinances (sometimes just bluster)
against the civil rights workers is immediately relayed by Hunter Morey,
the legal co-ordinator to one of the two volunteer legal staffs across
town on Farish Street. This and other news is written up and dispatched
daily to all the local COFO offices by the communications staff, which
this month is getting the expert assistance of Bob Beyers from Stanford
News Service. Beyers says that he came drawn as much by the unique
"structural difficulties" challenging the newsman in Mississippi as by
conviction. To "tell it like it is," in the parlance of the movement, is
for the press an unmatched task in research.
[See Freedom Summer WATS
Reports for daily COFO reports during Freedom Summer.]
In the first tense week of the summer program, the daily pressure was
heightened by the failure of the air-conditioner and the influx of the
press to interview arriving leaders from the movement and from
Washington. Most impressive was the sight of 20 reporters hovering
respectfully for the almost whispered but compelling press conference of
bob Moses, summer project director. Equipment was often lacking, and
improvisation was the rule. ("We need a lawyer!" someone called. "Yes?
Here we are! What's up?" answered an eager pair. "I need a coat and
Relief takes the form of a quick glass of ice-water at the Streamline,
bags of berries picked by local women, and sandwiches from Womanpower
Unlimited a strong and loyal group dating from the days of the bus
strikes, when it worked underground. At night a core remains manning the
phones and preparing perpetual releases. Someone sits, drained,
robot-like, typing stencils all night. Another call come in that a
church is fire-bombed (four the first week), while the roosters next
door crow inanely all during the lazy dawn. And in the front of the
office a few workers try to keep out the light, lying desks, on the
floor, on a bit of blanket.
COFO's hope of housing volunteers with local Negro families is less than
completely fulfilled because of the unwillingness of Negroes to invite
still more harassment. Some women become frightened by a few days of
complaint from the neighbors; a few become more firm. Some volunteers
live the chaotic and overcrowded "Freedom House." Still others drive out
of town, past fields and elegantly blooming mimosa, to Tougaloo. Three
houses are rented by people in the movement, and I rented a bed in one
of them in a steamy field opposite the gate of the college.
Tougaloo College is a good place to be near if you're in the movement.
The Reverend Ed King, the college's chaplain, is one of the most
cordially hated men in Mississippi. As a white son of Vicksburg who ran
for Lieutenant Governor on the Freedom ballot with the Negro Aaron Henry
last year, he is regarded as a traitor by fellow citizens and treated
with corresponding gentleness. This summer on campus is particularly
stimulating because the summer sessions have been taken over by 21
enthusiastic and ambitious graduate students, mostly from Harvard. (The
regular faculty has been given grants to study in the North.) John Mudd,
who dreamed up the project last summer with Bob Moses, teaches political
sociology; his students prepare a Marxian analysis of the south and then
do a Weberian critique.
Because of its flexibility and hospitality, the house of Helen O'Neal
and Cynthia Washington where I stayed is used for sleeping, for singing,
for battle conferences, and sometimes as refuge for people being
followed too fast and close at night. It's subversive function are no
secret to the State Highway Patrol, but it was a pleasure to leave them
parked opposite all one sweltering day to watch nothing but the comings
and goings of the innumerable cats. sitting up with the arrivals night
after night, I saw the movement in its more verbal and speculative
aspect. Here I heard Gil Moses and John O'Neal thrash out their plans
for the Free Southern
Theater, which is scheduled to begin touring the state in the fall.
There is a small group of near legendary heroes, Negro SNCC
fieldworkers, nonviolent desperados whose last several months have been
a chain of narrow escapes. These are the men who range into new and
dangerous territory, little outlaw frontier towns in the Southwest and
Delta, and begin to organize them toward voter registration. "One you
get the nerve to go in the first time, it's not so hard the second,
third, fourth," one of them muses. While workers stationed in Jackson
are the most scrupulous driers in town, seeking to avoid genuine charges
(one girl volunteer says, "You can always recognize a civil rights
worker: he's the only one who stops at the railroad tracks"), members of
this cadre of advance scouts won't drive a car that can't make 120 MPH.
They don't get arrested for speeding simply because they don't get
caught. And sometimes they come by Helen's for couch after a hard drive.
In the movement such adventures become raconteurs with lavish gifts of
mimicry and ironic patter. Stokely Carmichael, one of the most vivid,
adopts an elaborately inverted bravado: "You want to stay alive, stick
with me. I love myself and I'm going to stay alive. Like I always remind
myself, I'm my mothers only second child." He carries on a parody debate
with George Green who claims that if you keep looking them in the eye
and refusing to say sir, they back down. "I used to believe that,"
counters Stokely, "till once the man asked me as I a Negro or a nigger
and I said 'Negro' and he gun-whipped, and I said 'Negro' again and he
gun-whipped me again, and then I was down on the floor and they were
whipping me, and I said, 'I'm a nigger! I'm a nigger! Hell! I'm a black
nigger bastard! I'm a coon!'" This tight-rope-treading talk, this
underground humor is one of the by-products of the general fear and also
what keeps the workers from giving themselves over to it.
Stokely is a sometime chronicler of the movement's progress: he tells it
like it is. After Dulles insisted on enlargement of the FBI in
Mississippi and the FBI had for the first time arrested three white men
for threatening volunteers distributing pamphlets in the town of Itta
Bena, Stokely talked about how things had eased up. "You can see the
difference already. Two years ago in Liberty, a cop held a gun to my
head and said, 'Get the fuck out of town, nigger.' Last night in
Hollandale, the Mayor asked me to sit down at a table with him to talk
and said, 'You're not going to move in on this town because I'm not
going to let you.' There's been a change."
If you're looking for someone involved with COFO in Jackson and don't
see him either in Tougaloo or on Lynch Street, you can usually find him
on Farish Street. Clustered within a block are the offices for both the
Lawyers Guild and the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. The LCDC
offices adjoin the Mississippi Free Press, started in 1961 when SNCC
freedom riders emerged from prison and decided to work in the South. The
offices themselves belong to Jack Young and Carsie Hall, two of
Mississippi's three Negro civil rights lawyers. Carsie Hall looks on the
current excitement with the eyes of a veteran. "Yes, there are agitators
in Mississippi all right, but they're not all outside agitators. We've
been agitating from within ever since the NAACP started working here in
1918." Mr. Hall knows well the cost of agitation: "To work in
Mississippi you have to be crazy, I don't mean asylum-crazy. I mean
crazy so that you stop thinking of the things that can happen to you."
Carsie Hall and all of the volunteer lawyers eat downstairs at Stevens
Kitchen, where refugees from Smackover's on Lynch Street also turn up
for some of Stevens' $1.45 T-Bone. It is in restaurants like these and
cafes that you get indications of what the movement means to the local
Negroes. A white person will be offered a drink or will find that lunch
is paid for and the benefactor gone. Once I was approached by a shy-eyed
man who said, "I've been a letter-carrier for 10 years and I'm a coward,
but I think what you folks are doing for us is wonderful. Please take
this quarter and pick out three tunes you like on the jukebox." And in
Clarksdale, a coffee-shop proprietress said that even if things should
be a lot rougher for Negroes after the volunteers leave and national
attention dies down, she'd be glad they had come. "Oh, yes, I feel good.
I've been a slave all my life and I'm going to be free."
A piece of good fortune in disguise was the infection and swelling of my
foot which made me turn to one of the handful of Negro doctors in town
and go to his office several times for antibiotic injections. His
waiting room provided an inquisitive but guarded sampling of the Negro
community. An exuberantly friendly student from Jackson State sat next
to an impassive woman who only grew blanker when I asked her if she was
familiar with the summer project. A school principal combined nostalgic
pride in the efforts of his veterans committee to get voters to register
in the late forties with current pride in his separate but equal school.
The latter form of pride was dismissed by the doctor as "what's holding
The doctor's story is a private saga of the movement, doubtless one of
hundreds that can't or won't be told. Having studied medicine in
Washington, he returned to Jackson and was taken on the staff of a
state-controlled hospital in 1961. In his first week he had trouble
because he dictated a letter to a Negro woman whom he addressed by Mrs.
and her full name. The secretary said she couldn't send a letter like
that, and he replied that he couldn't sent it any other way, and he won
his point. He was able to serve great numbers of Negroes who, having
actively entered some civil rights group, had been committed as insane
to the hospital. By giving them sanity tests, the doctor was able to get
most of them released. then he went further. As he put it, "Until they
run me out of the state, I can't help being a physician." He started
paying medical calls to the politically condemned Tougaloo College, and
he was an active member of the civil rights group formed at the
AMA convention last
summer in Atlantic City. When the hospital called for a hearing on
his case ("I would have lasted one minute"), he resigned.
Deeply interested in the psychology of the racial problem, the doctor
enjoys speculating with his patients. New Yorkers who have followed the
debate on "Blues for Mr. Charlie," on the validity of Baldwin's view
that the Negro is sexually superior to the white man, might be
interested in his remarks. "The white man fears this is true. The
southern aristocrat is so used to having everything done for him, hand
and foot, that eventually all he can do is hold the whip-handle. He
really lacks self-security, and because the Negro does everything for
himself, the aristocrat suspects him of superiority." He chuckled and
added, "The southern aristocrat releases the Negro for the weekend,
tells him, 'You go on and have a good time now,' and on Monday he asks
him what he did. The Negro tells him all about it and embellishes it a
little, and the white man is frightened and impressed. Then, too, he
sees the Negro's enormous families." Asked how the Negro regards
himself, the doctor said that although his constant humiliation takes
its toll in psychological ways, the Negro still tells himself he has it
over the white many sexually. "Of course, the white man tries to
desexualize the Negro by calling him 'Uncle Tom;' 'Uncle
Harry' — and 'boy' till he's old enough for that."
When I was about to leave, the doctor would not let me pay him for his
services. He said he was trying to take care of everyone who came down,
everything short of hospitalization, because "You've all made big
sacrifices." I said I admired the principle for the students' sake but
that I was self-supporting and had only come for two weeks. "That
doesn't matter," he said. "You came here, and it's our war."
Copyright © Bell Gale, 1964.