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The Southern Front: 2 Weeks in Mississippi
by Bell Gale

Originally published in Village Voice, July 16, 1964.

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. Okay?"

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.

Lynch Street

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!"

Sifting Facts

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.]

Improvisation Rules

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 tie.")

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.

Tougaloo College

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.

Unsecret House

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.

Movement's Heroes

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."

Farish Street

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."

Doctor's Office

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 us back."

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.

Sexual Fears

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.


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