[PDF version of original hand-written letter.]
Dear Mom and Dad,
Sorry about not writing and I may as well let you know now that I don't know when I'll find time to write again. I've been busy, busy, busy since getting here and so many things have happed to me since being here that I just don't know how to begin this letter. I've got enough stuff right now to write a book about my personal adventures in Mississippi and the Rubins' — the family I'm staying with — really want me to write a book about Mississippi, 1967 style, and if I find the time, I just may.
Let me say one thing in the beginning, because I can ramble on for hours and forget many things I'd like to say — I am one of a vanishing breed and what I mean by that is that the civil rights worker fad is over. I am the only civil rights (white) worker in my county (Simpson) and in the various trips I have made around the state, I have met only one other white civil rights worker — a girl — who has been down here since '65. There are more than just the two of us (she works in Washington County, which is about 150 miles from here), but we are a definite few.
What I attribute our vanished breed to is two things: A) Civil right work was a fad and a fad which has bit the dust, like all fads, and B) I think most civil rights workers had the impression that they could change things down here and change them overnight and the result — disillusionment. To put it in capsule form = civil rights worker + Mississippi = disillusionment. Believe me, Mississippi has not changed and what change there has been is mighty superficial.
Let me explain this — although every damn white politician in Mississippi (and that's all there is, is white politicians) has denied that there is starvation in this state but by god, there is and I've seen it and heard much about it. Last Friday, a group of us went up into the Mississippi River Delta section of this "fair" state. The Delta, as it is called is the cotton capital of the world — that's all you can see for miles is cotton, cotton, cotton. Well, you should see the conditions some of these people are living in. As was described to me by my comrade, (the civil rights worker in Washington County) Margaret, 11 people in a one room "shack", with not one (not even a bed) piece of furniture in the whole blessed place and the husband has no job and can only get work on the cotton plantation at long intervals and with very little pay (sometimes 3 dollars a day — sometimes at the most $10 a day).
And they say people aren't starving to death in good ole Mississippi. Another thing to show you that Mississippi hasn't changed is the Ku Klux Klan. Believe me, they are the real thing. Last week sometime, the Klan had a big rally in Rankin County, which is the county next to Simpson. From what I heard, they were all out in their finery — white robes and all. Heck, Simpson County (my county) is one of the biggest Klan areas in the state and to show you how strong they are — every single one of the men — except for one — who is running for sheriff in this county, is known to be a Klansman and even one of the guys running for governor is an avowed Klansman. Enough with the Klan.
And murders!!!! Well, last week a Negro kid was found stabbed to death on the southern end of my very county — But I guess you have enough problems yourselves with Detroit being in a riot and all. Speaking of Detroit (excuse my wanderings), from what I gather from being down here 3 weeks is that the Negro in the north, although in some cases he may be as bad off as the Negro down here, (although I doubt it) is less afraid to act violently than the Negro down here, because Negroes in Mississippi, except for the Rubins and some others, are just plain scared of the white man (including me in many cases). The people here are scared, scared of me because I'm a civil rights worker and they're afraid that Uncle Charlie (a popular term for white man down here) will see them and oh, boy, don't hurt ole Uncle Charlie. Just
as an example of how scared these people are (and I could cite a lot of them) let me relate an incident of mine, while I was out canvassing on a voter education drive — Please excuse my wanderings again. One day last week, I was working in Magee (a town nearby) and I went up to the house of this woman and asked her if she was registered to vote — This was our conversation:
ME: Ma'am, my name is John Obee and I'm working with the Civic League of Simpson County. Are you registered to vote?
HER: No I'm not and I don't want to either.
ME: (Trying the old soft-sell routine). Well, Ma'am don't you know that through the vote, you, as a Negro, and all Negroes in general, can help change the situation here in Mississippi?
HER: Yes, but I don't want to register and I will not vote.
ME: Ma'am are you scared, because there is nothing to be afraid of.
HER: No, I ain't scared (like hell), but I just don't want to mess with that sort of stuff.
ME: OK, thanks for the time, but I do hope you'll reconsider.
HER: Well, I'll think about it [HUH!?!]
Well, I hopped back in the car a little discouraged (why I was discouraged, I don't know because she was about the 10th unregistered person I had talked to that afternoon) and I told Mrs. Rubin what had happened (I work with her most of the time) and she told me not to worry because she had tried to get the woman to register 3 times and she hadn't and besides the woman worked for a white man as a cook and if she registered and voted, 'ole Uncle Charlie might fire her (for all she is getting paid, she'd be better off if she did quit).
Oh well!!! While I am rambling (which is about all I've done in this letter, let me say this. This job can be terribly discouraging. Oh, I must admit that the rewards for my work are great and I'm terribly happy most of the time — things can get mighty discouraging. Let me explain. Actually, in all truth, I am a misfit down here. What I mean by this is I'm not a misfit because of me personally, but because of what I represent. I am not accepted completely by the Negroes (there are many exceptions) because no matter what, I am white. There were times in my first few days down here, where I wished I could shed my skin for some dark skin, but I got over that. I am white and there isn't a whole hell of a lot I can do about it.
I am here to help. In my three weeks, I've grown totally color-blind. I love these people and they love me and I look on them as I'd look on and love any human being. But to get back to where I started (and stop sounding preachy), there are many times when I am not accepted and even hated by certain Negroes. As to the white community, Ha!!!!! It is all one way there. They just hate me.
Again, here I could go on for hours relating incidents where I've seen real hatred for me personally. As Mr. Rubin keeps telling me "White people hate you because you're white and you're trying to help the Negro. Negroes are afraid of you because you're white and many of them just can't believe that any white man would want to help them". That's it in a nutshell. Oh, don't get me wrong, not all white Southerners are the same. No, only about 99-44/100% which in my rough estimate is quite a sizeable number. I'm sorry, but I am just too tired to go on.
By the way, this is Wednesday night, not Sunday night. I started Sunday, but people kept coming over asking me to show them how to vote and I couldn't continue and haven't had a chance since then — Sorry, but will try to continue tomorrow, if all goes well.
July 30, 1967
Well again I must really say that I am sorry that I just haven't been able to find time to write, because I imagine that you are probably quite worried about what's happened or happening to me. It's almost 12 midnight and I have to get up at 6, so what I write tonight will be all I write and then I'll start another letter as soon as possible. First of all, before I get started, let me say that I am not sure when I'll be coming home and it's not because I don't want to come home, but because I'll probably be needed down here very badly until August 29, and since the need me so bad, I really figure that I should try to help. I hope you understand
Well before I finish this letter let me just briefly sketch out for you the events that occurred yesterday, because yesterday was the most interesting and scary day of my life. Before I begin, let me explain that I know that you probably worry about me because I am prone to do some awful rash things, but as I learned fast here, you have to be reasonably careful down here, because believe me this is another world. And I am careful, but due to the nature of my work and the fact that I am a Northern White Civil Rights Worker, there are certain dangers in my job. Now with all that rot, I probably scared the heck out of you, but don't worry, as Mr. Rubin said the me the first night there, "John, this is the way it is when you're in trouble, we're in trouble. Most of us who care and appreciate what you're doing will stick behind you no matter what may happen". And believe me that is a comforting thought sometimes.
Anyway, before I rambled, I planned to tell you about yesterday — Saturday, I would say that Saturday was quite a big day for us. To start from the beginning, I was supposed to go to a meeting in Columbia, Miss. but decided to go with a group of Negro kids into the booming metropolis of Mendenhall (pop. 1,900) to integrate the cafi's in town (3 of them). There were 7 of us — 2 whites, 3 guys and two girls and believe me, although the oldest one is only 18, they are the nicest and bravest bunch of kids I've ever met in my life.
Anyway, the group of kids was already to go, but were a little afraid at first until Tony (a white newspaper photographer) and I got with them. I just looked at them and said (excuse me if it sounds like I'm bragging), "Man, I'm getting hungry. (I had no breakfast and it was around noon.) So let's go find a place to eat. So off we went. The first cafi was fine. Not a speck of trouble at all. They served us and served us well. Of course, all the other whites in the cafi just sat and stared at us giving us what I call the "hate-stare" and people passing by kept staring in the window like there was a zoo inside, but you get used to getting looked at as if you were a monkey or something.
Well everything went well and I figured we'd have smooth running for the rest of the day — Uh-uh. The second cafi we went into was where hell began to break loose. Tony and I had gone into this cafi the night before (before they knew we were involved in civil rights work) and were served well. Well yesterday was a different story. We had all planned to go in and order malts, but since they didn't serve malts, we all ordered Cokes. We were served and the girl pushed the bill on the table and left — in a hurry. Well, I casually picked up the bill and my eyes almost popped out. We had ordered 4 Cokes and can you guess what the bill was ---- $2.00 (2 dollars) — no kidding.
I looked at it and almost broke out laughing and said to the other guys in our group,:"Man enjoy this Code because this is the most expensive Coke you ever drank in your whole life". Let me explain, (this is no joke; we paid two dollars for 4 Cokes. That's what these white so and so's do when a Negro comes into their place — overcharge.) Even though this is strictly illegal, they do it in hopes of scaring the colored people away from their places. My god, just think if you had to pay $.50 for a Coke (and a small bottle yet) — you wouldn't want to go back either.
[Note that $.50 for a Coke in 1967 is equivalent to $3.50 in 2014.]
While we were in the place, the owner tried to put her curtains down so that no one would know that she was serving colored people, and boy, did we laugh when the blinds wouldn't go down.
Anyway it was in this place that people began to curse us rather violently, but just like the hate-stare, you get rather used to it. So after we got out, we decided to hit the last place and this is where the action really got wild. We went in and sat down and were served, but the man who served us was really trying to give us a hard time. Well, then the customers start to let loose. Some old guy (excuse the expression old — Dad) who was 56 really started to get hot. He started calling Tony and I "skunks" and bastards and a few other friendly expressions not fit for anyplace but the walls of some public toilets. The old shit-head wanted to fight Tony and I and wanted us to go out in the street with him.
Well, we ignored the pig and got out and soon as we could, only on the way out we made our big mistake. Willie, one of the Negro kids got up to pay late and when we left, thinking he was right with us, he was still inside! What was happening we were to soon find out was that the owner charged him double and he didn't have enough money to pay, so the guy called the cops. We realized our mistake and Tony and I headed back to see what was wrong. Just then the friendly Mississippi cops pulled up. They got in before we did and the owner pointed at us as being the troublemakers. Meantime a crowd started to gather around us and the cops. Well, we paid the extra money and while all the people (esp. the old man) were telling the cops all about us.
For just about 1/2 a second, I thought that the cops were going to help us. Wow!!! What a fool I can be!!! The cops broke up the crowd and then one leaned over to me and started whispering. I'm not trying to scare you and excuse his filthy tongue, but I'd like to quote his conversation to you in whole:
Cop: You filthy low-down mother-fucking son-of-a bitch.
Me: No reply. (What could I say to such a cordial greeting?)
Cop: Where are you from, you bastard?
Cop: What are you doing down here? Stirring up trouble?
Me: I'm with a voter education drive.
Cop: You son-of-a-bitch — you're just down here to get you some Nigger women.
Me: No reply.
Cop: You know I'd like to take your head and smash it into that brick wall. (I was leaning against a brick wall.)
Me: No reply.
Cop: You think I won't do it?
Me: I'll believe you'll do it.
I doubt if he would have, although you can't tell, but just then the manager called him over and so Tony and I took off and hopped into our car and took off. We didn't get more than 5 blocks before the same cops pulled us over. They made our driver, a Negro kid named Reggie get out. They cursed him soundly and arrested him on a trumped up charge of reckless driving and took him off to the court house. They also made the rest of us go up to the court house and when we refused to answer any questions before seeing a lawyer, they let us go.
About two hours later, we got Reggie out on bond and he has to be in court Wednesday morning. We're all hoping that he gets convicted, because then we can appeal to a federal court and with six witnesses in his favor, we've got a good chance to really get these cops. Well, after than, I thought that nothing more could happen, but again I was wrong. The Klan struck last night. I won't go into detail, but Tony and I and a large group of Negroes waited outside a Negro home with guns waiting for the Klan to re-appear. We waited until 2:30 and when they didn't show up again, we went to bed. Since its election time, we expect to have many more sleepless nights.
Reading over what I just wrote, I don't really know whether I should mail it or not because it may just scare the heck out of you. But I guess I will not to make myself look like a hero, which I am not, nor to show you how bad I have been treated, but to give you a mild view of what a state of hell each and every Negro in Mississippi goes through. I am white and that makes all the difference in the world. I can go home and get a good job and be treated fairly just because I am white skinned. There is no such advantage for the Negro. I only with that there was more I could do to help.
Gotts to go. Please, please don't worry about me. I am well and eating like a horse. I haven't had any "TARAPIN" nor grits but have had butter beans, black-eyed peas and watermelon, watermelon, WATERMELON (The people here are crazy about it — I am not). If you would like to pass this letter on to anyone who may still remember me back up North, or better yet, read it to them so you can fill "hecks and dangs" for some of my rather coarse language. I know (and it really hurts me as it must you) that it was very thoughtless of me not to write sooner and I won't excuse myself, just please, please remember that I love all of you from the bottom of my heart and being here makes me love you more.
Regards to Tom, Aunt Edna and Uncle Alfred, Grandma and everyone else including the gang at good ole Yale Rubber — I hope all is well and fine with you all (part of my Southern drawl). Pray for me.
With all my love and a million apologies —
P.S. Save this letter.
Copyright © John Obee, 1967.
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