Bowed in gracious prayer for her loved ones, spiritual silence permeates the docile child's aura. The Lord is surely good. He will watch over this fragile child, over her family and their congregation gathered in unison in this Holy Church. The preacher's steady voice roaring strongly for brotherhood is stilled in holy prayer for his people. Sacrosanct silence suddenly broken by consecrated ground exploding into flying inflamed rubble; hallowed halls desecrated by satanic minds and bloody hands. Timbers crafted by God himself tumbling down over human beings. The child's head flies through scorching air against a white-washed wall.
"It was't meant to hurt anybody; it didn't go off when it was supposed to," said Robert "Dynamite" Chambliss, in the presence of his 14-year niece, Elizabeth Cobbs, as they heard the Birmingham news report about those murders that day, September 15, 1963. Fourteen years later, Cobbs repeated these words to a court, and what her uncle had told her just days before the bombing: "Just wait until after Sunday morning and they'll beg us to let them segregate."
I excerpt from the United Press International (UPI) dispatch the day after the bombing:
A bomb hurled from a passing car blasted a crowded Negro church, killing four girls in their Sunday school classes and triggering outbreaks of violence that left two more dead in the streets.
Two Negro youths were killed in outbreaks of shooting seven hours after the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, and a third was wounded.
Four hundred persons, including 80 children, were in church when the bomb exploded, "sending stone and debris flying like shrapnel into a room where children were assembling for closing prayers...Bibles and song books lay shredded and scattered through the church...The only stained glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out."
One of the dead girls was decapitated. The coroner's office identified the dead as Denise McNair, 11; Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins," all 14 years of age.
At least 20 persons (one white man) were hurt badly enough by the blast to be treated at hospitals. Many more, cut and bruised by flying debris, were treated privately.
This was the fourth racist-motivated bombing in four weeks in Birmingham. Twenty-one bombings had been set to black churches, homes and business in eight years.
As I recall, in 2008, this cold blooded massacre prompted me to take the step to join the upcoming SNCC organized freedom summer project in Mississippi.
In FBI files kept on me at the time, and released some to me more than a decade later. Its dossier of 12 pages, dated September 14, 1964, read:
RIDENOUR attended a meeting of the West Los Angeles Du Bois Club on May 11, 1964 at the Student Union, UCLA. Ridenour announced he was leaving Los Angeles for the summer in about two or three weeks.
I took the step. I was excited and tense. Jim Dann was easily convinced to come south with me. I needed to do something more tangible than be a member of the CP. It was too conservative and over-weighted with old people, who couldn't or wouldn't be activists. Through my civil rights work, I saw information about the upcoming Mississippi Summer Project. I had to work CORE with in Los Angeles. Now I took the big step to struggle in the lion's mouth.
Jim and I applied for the required training in non-violence, which the National Council of Churches was sponsoring for the Voter Registration Project. COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) would implement the project, also known as Freedom Summer. SNCC had taken the initiative two years before. CORE, and to some extent SCLC and NAACP, committed their organizations. The actual field secretaries and summer volunteers were mainly SNCC workers. CORE took charge of one of Mississippi's five congressional districts. There was also support from the Southern Conference Educational Fund and lawyers groups, especially the radical National Lawyers Guild.
I read material about the project and a new SNCC staff memorandum explaining itself.
"SNCC is a group of organizers (who work with people and groups) who feel the same needs (and who) join together for strength...We organize in a way that allows local people to take the lead...with as much staff democracy as possible...We want a world where people grow up learning to care for others...rather than growing up learning to hate and being very limited..."
Jim and I were accepted for training, which was to run for a week beginning June 13. We drove in my 1953 Chevy to the private Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. We were 250 volunteers converging on this campus. There would be two sessions. Our session would be followed by others. We would be guided by 90 of the 150 SNCC staff who would be with us in Mississippi. About 80% of the staff was black and 80% of the 750-800 volunteers were white. Most were northerners, but there were quite a few southern staffers, even a handful of whites. There were also a few volunteers from Canada, England, New Zealand and Australia. There were about 100 ministers, mostly black, and 120 outside lawyers, mostly white, to support us in Mississippi. Three of the four black Mississippi lawyers offered to help us with legal work. The Mississippi project would involve about 1000 activists and supporters and tens of thousands of local people.
As soon as we were shown to our quarters and had a meal in the cafeteria, we began the week with an orientation meeting, in which we learned many facts about Mississippi. The average annual income was $1300, just half the national average. Whites earned an average of $2000, while blacks earned just $600. Unions kept blacks out of the best paying jobs and positions. The violent right-wing John Birch Society and the KKK were strong in the racist-controlled labor unions. There was open segregation in jobs, housing, education, social services, in shopping, recreation — everywhere.
During the week of training we were taught and observed by educators, psychologists and activists. A national SNCC leader, James Foreman, spoke on the state's history of keeping blacks from voting. The 1875 Constitutional Convention took away civil rights won during and just after the Civil War. At that time, in Amite County alone, there were 4000 black registered voters. In 1964, there was one. Every form of legalized and extra-legal intimidation had been used to keep blacks from voting, to keep them down. While there was no longer a specific law forbidding black people to vote, white customs prohibited this right and citizen duty in practice. Bureaucratic obstacles, special paperwork, and a 1955 rule that one must be literate in order to register had kept 95% of the black adult population entirely out of the democratic decision-making process. About one million of the 2.1 million population was black and yet only 20,000 voters were black. But not even these few registered voters could attend political party meetings — there are only two parties, Republican and Democrat, and most blacks vote democratic — nor become delegates to conventions where it is the delegates, and not the direct voters, who cast the presidential votes.
Not only is the voter registration and the voting system itself undemocratic for black people it is for whites as well. First of all, the very institution of forcing the citizenry to "register" in order to vote is meant to discourage voter participation. One must take the effort to get the application forms, which can be cumbersome, even difficult to fill out. After filling them out, one must send them in. An applicant can not change address within a few days before voting time without loosing the right to vote. In the south, at that time, one must come into the county registration office so that the clerks can determine one's race. To apply to vote, one must be able to read and write. Prisoners and former prisoners having spent felony time are denied the right to vote. If one does make the effort to register, and is accepted, then on voting day one must go to voting polls to cast a ballot. Yet the ballot does not go directly to the candidate of choice rather to a "delegate". In a close race, delegates can cast votes to a candidate who is not the voter's choice. Explaining this undemocratic-democratic voting system to a foreigner, and to most Americans, is impossible.
SNCC and the other three organizations decided to focus on voter registration, first in Mississippi and then spread the campaign throughout the south. The decision was based on the assumption, which we are taught in schools, that "democracy" is defined by the right to choose political parties and to vote for one of several candidates to executive, legislative and juridical offices. Voting, then, constitutes the parameters of the democratic decision-making process. If I vote, along with a majority of 50% plus one, for X person or Y party, once every four years, then whatever this party and its leaders do in office is my responsibility, or my "fault". Yet voters are not consulted by the party and its leaders over policies. We are never asked if we wish to war on another people. We know that most people are manipulated and not objectively informed about "the issues." Nevertheless, the general assumption — even among most civil rights people — was (is) that the USA is a democracy, and that national and international policy can be determined by the vote. So, COFO sought to end the apartheid system by getting enough black people registered to vote, and then get them to vote, but not just for the status quo leadership.
At that time, very few imagined that in their lifetime a black person could become president of Amerikkka. Yet today, a black man with a foreign name is the most likely candidate to be the white man's land's president. Progress and fraud.
COFO began to organize the few black voters there were, and those we hoped to get registered, into the Democratic Party but as Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) adherents. The MFDP was begun the year before with a three-day alternative voting plan, in which thousands of blacks and some whites signed up for that fraction. Organizers would ask the Democratic Party national executive to recognize the MFDP at the planned convention in August. Before then, we would be registering people in all 82 counties to join the MFDP fraction.
We were trained to help black would-be voters how to understand what the voter registration application forms were all about, assisting illiterates to read and understand the two-page form by making our own "freedom registration forms" as a trial to the official form. The forms included questions of the person's age, address, any arrests or convictions. The county circuit clerks could ask any applicant to interpret any one of the 265 sections of the Mississippi constitution. In practice, the clerks only asked black people for interpretations. Once the application was filled out, the county clerks decided if one had passed the test, a test to determined simply if one could vote. But before that the applicant's name was listed in the local newspaper for two weeks. Another two weeks was given for any registered voter to come forth with any critique of the applicant's "moral character". The literacy test was for all persons having less than a sixth grade education. But for blacks the test was given regardless of what education one had. After this month-long process, the county registrars passed on the application. The racial double standard was blatant!
Other COFO tasks were to help establish community centers and offer classes in voluntary Freedom Schools we would set up. Many youths felt a need for this, because the apartheid school system for blacks (and whites for that matter) was atrociously inadequate. One could certainly go through the motions of attending school without learning to read and write, much less learning about the world beyond one's own town.
We were cautioned about keeping sexual contacts to ourselves and out of sight, about not drinking or, at least, not getting drunk, no drugs whatsoever, no public displays that flaunt the local customs, about being polite and honest.
After the orientation meeting, people broke into song. In the following days, meetings and workshops were often interrupted by song: gay and sad songs, songs of folk in struggle sung off-key by some and exquisitely by many, but always sung with vigor. Some would break off singing and recount a story that signifies the song, while others would hum and clap in the background, and everyone would join in on the chorus. One word — Freedom — stirred and captivated everyone there. The old "negro spirituals," with roots from the time slaves found solace in them, gave new meaning to demonstrators struggling for freedom today, braving the billy clubs and jails.
At plenary sessions, we heard people who participated in the struggle, putting their lives on the line. Among the leading Snickers, Bob Moses was one of several who had often been beaten and jailed for his activism. Yet the man was still mild-mannered and self-confident with no trace of arrogance. He explained that racist segregation in the south was profitable for many companies and even educational institutions in the north. Harvard, for example, owned industry and agricultural lands in Mississippi, and benefited from the super profits excised from the sweat of underpaid black hard laborers. Ed King, a white Mississippi chaplain at Tougaloo College in Jackson was running on the FDP ticket for vice-governor. He spoke to us of the dangers facing us. He knew first hand. His face was terribly scared from white terrorist knives.
We heard that a handful of prominent whites had begun to oppose segregation. Three Mississippi congressmen had voted against segregation laws, but then they were not reelected. A Mississippi newspaper women, Hazel Brown, had won a Pulitzer Prize for her brave reportage on segregation. She spoke of Mississippi as "a Nazi state." On the other hand, two statewide television stations were owned by the White Citizens Council, a mixture of the right-wing John Birch Society and KKK. And five blacks had been killed in the last five months because of the struggle for civil rights. In 1961, a black farmer in Liberty (sic) Mississippi, Herbert Lee, was shot dead by a Mississippi legislator, who hated Lee because he had encouraged other farmers to register to vote. The year before we came, Reverend George Lee was murdered in Belzoni, because he refused to remove his name from a list of registered voters. Of course the murderers were not punished. So, it wasn't just us "outside agitators" who were at risk. The very people we were encouraging and training simply to register to vote were the "easiest targets". We were told that four or five black leaders would be killed that summer. This was one of the vicious rumors circulating, and it was not only a threat.
We prepared for our tasks in the workshops. There was a lot of role playing about what to do when being attacked. Protect your most vulnerable parts without hiding your face. Look your attackers in the eyes. Spot natural leaders and stare at them without intimidation, but let them know that you are a human being. Ask them, "What have I done to you? Do your know me to be a threat to you?" This training would come in handy for me and many others.
Non-violent activism is not just the opposite of violence but is a positive counterpart which challenges violence. As such, it is a weapon. As a non-violent practitioner, I am a catalyst to bring evil to the surface so that the whole world (hopefully) can see its grim face and reject it. Reading about or seeing on television the ugly violence unleashed against us helps awaken a new mood in the nation, one of sympathy, if not empathy, for the black people's plight, and encourages the "average American", at least in the north, to apply pressure for legislative change. Unlike many older civil rights members, SNCC as an organization and most of us volunteers viewed non-violence as a practical tool and not as a pacifist or religious principle. It is a tool worth using for its positive affects, and due to the reality that our violent opponents had all the lethal weapons and ammunition they desired.
We were informed that 40,000 automatic weapons had been imported into Mississippi in the past few weeks. And, of course, all the police and sheriffs were well armed and could shoot at us or beat us, often without fear of reprisals.
Stokely Carmichael, who would later become internationally known for his self-defense advocacy and for Pan-Africanism, was one of the leading SNCC staffers who spoke of non-violence as an effective tactic due to the positive publicity we receive from its use and because, "the majority of people are not prepared for a revolution".
We also had workshops on group dynamics, and the psycho-sociology of the people in Mississippi. We should not expect that all black people would embrace us with equal gusto. We whites must understand that the alienation all black people felt and lived with caused some to acquire hateful attitudes towards whites, all whites, at least until proven that they need not hate a specific person.
"We are all victims of segregation," our instructor told us. " It is a beautiful and sacrificial action on the part of blacks who accept whites, and especially white activists, in their homes. This is a sign of a major breakthrough in general discrimination, and a breakthrough in fear."
We were warned about informers and the few black cops and jailers in the state. In the area where I would be sent — Pascagoula/Moss Point — there were 15 blacks on the police force, ten percent of the force. But no black policeman could arrest or in anyway handle any white person, no matter their criminal offense. They must also buy their own weapons and uniforms. If they worked in a jail, they must refer to the white prisoners as "Mr...." and "sir", while the prisoners referred to their jailors as "niggers" and "boy". Neither the whites nor the blacks liked or respected these "flunkies" and "Uncle Toms", as they were referred to. They must have hated themselves, too, which could make them very dangerous to our black colleagues, because they could beat and kill black people with impunity, which did happen.
We were told of the many hundreds of thousands of dollars that had been raised for bail, $250,000 alone for the 1961 Freedom Ride arrests. And the money had been kept tied up even after the cases were dropped. This was one of the officials' many harassment tactics used against the civil rights movement. Another was ticketing us for alleged traffic violations, which were often trumped up.
We were informed how much one racist, Senator James Eastland, was The Establishment. He owned 2000 hectares of land worked by black labor, and he refused to let them off the plantation without his say so. It was common knowledge that he or his overseers had killed black workers. He saw to it that no white lawyers would take any civil rights cases, that no bail bondsmen in Mississippi would provide bond for civil rights workers. This complicated our work. We were jailed until someone came to our aid with cash. The police invested the cash in stocks instead of putting it into a state or local government treasury, which could be used for collective benefit.
I took the workshop on research and communications: gathering newsworthy information and getting it to the media; recording daily developments at our projects; recording attacks on us and the community people; gathering background information and data on the local structure and leadership, learning how key individuals relate to the economy, politics, violence; how to communicate effectively with various sectors; keep in contact with COFO's district and national offices; know how to reach lawyers when needed. Communications people were to make duplicates of daily reports, hiding one copy away from the office. We were to watch out for wiretaps on the telephones and in the office.
"It is important to let the racists know that someone always knows where you are," our instructor told us. A communications person could be a security "guard" for the project. It was important for the communication people not to get arrested so that this important work would not be interrupted.
Towards the end of our training, Bob Moses and other staffers made it clear that there was no place for red-baiting in SNCC. This was a big relief for Jim Dann and me.
The last day was spent evaluating the training, asking questions, and getting our individual assignments. I was one of the last to learn of my assignment as the communications person in the gulf area. Someone had raised a question of my ability to hold to the non-violent discipline required. I was interviewed by a psychologist, who concluded that I could.
Copyright © Ron Ridenour, 2008