Impact of the Sit-Ins
Going to Howard
Howard Students & the Movement
Into the South
A Challenge in Jackson
Gunfire in the Night
Families and the Freedom Movement
The Food Blockade
Educations & Organizing
Lessons of the Freedom Movement
See also Charlie Cobb Discusses the Freedom Movement
Impact of the Sit-Ins
Bruce: Why don't you start with where you grew up and how you got involved in the Freedom Movement?
Charlie: I was born in Washington, D.C. I spent part of my early life in Washington, D.C. and another part of my early life in Frankfort, Kentucky where my father was an AME minister. And I spent my junior high and high school years in Springfield, Massachusetts after my father broke with the AME church and moved there to pastor Springfield's historic St Johns Congregational church.
I was in high school [11th grade] when the sit-ins erupted in 1960 in Greensboro and then spread across the South. And that [news] was reaching us via newspapers and television. Especially dramatic and important in their impact on myself and other young people like me were the Nashville sit-ins and protests led by Diane Nash, because those were given a great deal of television coverage. To a lesser extent sit-ins in other southern cities were reaching us the same way. We were seeing people more or less our own age involved in, and actually leading, civil rights struggle — kind of a first in the sense of realizing that you didn' have to be a grownup to engage in serious civil rights struggle.
The sit-ins were a part of the conversation in different kinds of ways among the adults and among us. There was adult support for the protests in the North and in the South, and encouraged by older people, we mounted support demonstrations at Woolworth's in Massachusetts — [though] we obviously could eat at the lunch counters in that state. At the same time we young people were talking to each other about these southern young people we were seeing on TV.
Bruce: You're the first person we've interviewed who participated in Woolworth's support protests.
Jean: In the North. Who's actually been interviewed by us.
Charlie: Really? I'm a little surprised at that.
Bruce: Could you tell us a little bit more about those? Were you asking people to boycott the Woolworth's?
Charlie: No. It was not a boycott. At least in Springfield, it was not a boycott. It was simply picket lines. Our signs said. "End Segregation in Woolworth's," "Support Southern Students." I think it was organized by the NAACP and the college students; I can' say that I'm absolutely certain about this because I wasn't involved in the planning.
Now, I'm coming out of a politically active church. My father was a politically active Congregational minister in a historically significant church, because this was John Brown's church in Springfield, Massachusetts and one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. It had a political identity.
There was discrimination in Springfield, a lot of it. Unlike the South, in Springfield it was subtle, hidden, but still present and felt by Black people nonetheless. My mother, for instance. My mother's field was romance languages, particularly French and Spanish, and her specialty was the African tradition in French and Spanish literature. She had studied at the Sorbonne, so she thought that she would teach French at Classical high school where I went to school — a college-prep public high school. But they had trouble believing that she was qualified. Never mind that she had a master's degree and was working on her doctorate and had studied at the Sorbonne. And remember, this is the North. They had trouble getting the fact of her education and ability in their heads — the "they" being the school board or the decision makers of this Massachusetts school. And so they offered a position as an English teacher, to test her capability.
These kinds of things were a part of the conversation at the dinner table. My father was encouraging students, Black students because we lived in a Black community and the church was predominantly Black, to go to college and was taking them on trips to historically Black colleges and universities in the South.
He was a friend of Malcolm X. They became friends, or perhaps acquaintances is a better characterization, because Malcolm, among other things, was the founder, and editor for a time, of Muhammed Speaks, the Nation of Islam's newspaper. And the Nation in Springfield — and I assume in other cities — did a very smart thing with respect to the selling of their newspaper. They sold the newspaper on Sundays in front of Black churches, as the churches were being dismissed. If you want to reach a large number of Black people, it makes a lot of sense to do that. Well, as you might imagine, the Black ministers were up in arms about this. These are Muslims, and they're selling this "heathen" newspaper in front of their churches and they didn't like it. But my father defended Malcolm X's right to do this. So Malcolm and my father started a dialogue with each other.
It was years later that my father reminded me that Malcolm would come by the house, and they had their discussions — the Christian minister and the Muslim, although they weren't, by any measure, in agreement theologically. I was away in college during these dialogues (1961) and I don't know how many took place, but their exchange reflects the kind of household I grew up in — open, educated, and politically active.
And so the pickets were really were organized by a politically alert community that my father was a part of. Largely, I think, NAACP. I don't really have a clear fix on whether or not there was a student organization on those college campuses but certainly local college students were involved.
Bruce: The NAACP Youth Councils?
Charlie: I don't think that the students, who were predominantly white coming from the Springfield College and American International College would've been members of the NAACP Youth Council. All of the NAACP Youth Council members I've ever met have been Black, but I don't know. I was what? Seventeen.
Jean: So the young picketers in support came from the white community as well as the Black community?
Charlie: Yes, there were a set of us who were high school students who participated in the pickets. And then there was a set of young people who were in college. They weren't people we knew or hung out with — they were in college and they were white; so, quite frankly, we wouldn't have had very much in common with them as Black high school students.
Bruce: Would you picket every day? Or just on the weekends?
Charlie: Oh no, for us, just on the weekends. But not every weekend. We were told, "There's going to be a picket line this weekend." And it wasn't calling for a boycott as far as I can recall. It was a picket line of support, support for the [southern] students. And it was a picket line of protest in the sense that the leaflets and things called for Woolworth's to take action, to desegregate, permit all people to eat at Woolworth's lunch counters.
Bruce: What was the reaction of the people who were going into the stores?
Charlie: Well, I think they were supportive. I mean, there were a few people — I remember one guy stopped. His position was that private business is owned by whoever. They have a right to serve anybody they want to or not serve anybody, is what he thought but that wasn't a typical attitude in my experience, not that I was engaged in lengthy or regular conversations with patrons going in and out of the Woolworth's. My sense of it is they were sympathetic — I mean, how could you not be sympathetic? The images in the newspapers and television were sympathetic images. The students in the South, they had shirts and ties and sport coats —
Jean: The women were wearing gloves. And hats!
Charlie: Necklaces! You know, you looked at the pictures and said, "What in the world would possess anyone to deny these people...?" I mean, it wasn't as if they were kicking down the door and saying, "If you don't serve me..." These were highly sympathetic images, and as far as I can recall, the people [of Springfield] were supportive.
My high school history professor, Mr. Black — I had two history teachers; one I think was secretly a Communist. I know he got fired, and I think that's why. And the other, Mr. Black, was really encouraging. His position was: "Well, it's about time something like this happened." That's what Mr. Black felt. And he sometimes came to these demonstrations. There was no overtly hostile reaction to these pickets that I remember — I don't know even that the manager of the Springfield Woolworth's was hostile.
Bruce: Was singing Freedom songs part of the —
Charlie: No. None of that. It was simply walking the picket line and handing out these leaflets. That's all that was done on these lines.
Going to Howard
Charlie: So, if you were — and I tell this often to students in particular — if you were Black in 1960, and in high school and watching the sit-ins, and planning to go to college, in addition to seeing and admiring people of roughly your own age who were sitting in, you were also confronted with a challenge. Because, you probably would be going to a historically Black college or university. There were Blacks who went to schools like Brown, [Bob] Moses did Hamilton and Harvard, but more or less, if you were Black and young in 1960 or 1961 when I entered college, you were likely to be going to a historically Black college or university. And if you were going to a historically Black college or university you were going to be going to school in the South, with one or two exceptions — Lincoln in Pennsylvania or Wilberforce and Central State in Ohio. And that meant you were going to be confronted with [segregation and protests]. So a part of what's coming through is — Well, what are you going to do? Were you going to be like them? [Like] Diane Nash or John Lewis or Julian Bond, all the people you were seeing on TV? — Or not?
And, of course, that's not a question that could be answered until you got there. And actually, it wasn't a question that lingered in my mind or, as far as I know, or anybody else's mind who was planning to go to college. Undoubtedly though, it was tucked somewhere in the back of my brain.
So I went to Howard, which, though located in the nation's capital, was completely surrounded by segregated states. And in fact, Washington, D.C. hadn't been desegregated for too long, because desegregation didn't begin in Washington until 1953, as a result of the protests that Mary Church Terrell and Pauli Murray, in particular, had led.
Even though I was aware of the sit-ins, had seen them on television as a high school student, when I got to Howard in the fall of 1961, the protests, sitting-in, is not at all in the forefront of my mind — I'm a new student after all.
What really began to pull me into the Movement was the first issue of the school newspaper, the Howard Hilltop. Mike Thelwell was the managing editor. And it had a story in it about the Howard students who had participated in the Freedom Rides. I remember I was sitting on campus reading this story when somebody comes up to me — I'm sitting on the grass — and he gives me a leaflet. It says there's going to be some demonstrations, protests — similar to what I was familiar with in Massachusetts — in Baltimore. And a bus would be leaving such and such a place, and everybody was welcome. I decide, maybe because I'm reading this article at this particular time, to get on this bus.
And I go, and I think it was at Union Baptist Church. Juanita Jackson Mitchell —
Jean: That's a name you know —
Charlie: Juanita Jackson Mitchell was [NAACP leader] Clarence Mitchell's wife. And Juanita Jackson Mitchell was in that first or second group of Black students to get into the University of Maryland Law School after Donald Gaines broke the color barrier way back in the 1930s. And I think she was the first Black woman to actually become part of the Maryland bar. Now her husband, being the NAACP lobbyist in Washington — and the family itself, [both] the Mitchell family and the Jackson family, those are big-time Black —
Jean: Dynasties. One of the families who owned the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.
Charlie: Yes, all of that. Juanita Jackson Mitchell's mother, Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, was really the one who breathed life into the NAACP in Maryland starting in the 1930s. She was called "That NAACP Lady" or something like that. [Laughing]
Juanita Jackson Mitchell was the lawyer for the sit-in people. When I got there she was clearly in charge of this gathering of people at the church, most of whom were students like I was — I guess from Morgan, Coppin State, and other historically Black Maryland schools. And I'd come over with this bus of people from D.C., mostly, but not entirely, Howard University students.
Well, because I didn't know anything about sit-ins or anything, I got into a conversation with a group of people who seemed to have more experience than me. I had met some people on the bus, and they had been doing this for a year or whatever. And later at the church, with Bill Hanson who was a SNCC field secretary. I think he had just come up from Albany, Georgia. So I got into this conversation. And they decided, I think at Ms. Jackson's request, to go to Annapolis instead of Baltimore. And I decided to go with them, and we went to a place called Antoinette's Pizza which was a popular place with Naval Academy midshipmen.
I thought they were going to picket. I had come over there to kind of look at this and maybe join a picket line, but instead they went into Antoinette's Pizza. They sat in, and I'm there with them. [Laughing] And of course the manager asked us to leave, and we — or our group's spokesperson, I forget who — refuse. And the manager calls the police. And the police place everybody under arrest — me too. This was not in my plan. [Laughing]
And they go limp, something I had never heard of. But I could see what it was. Maybe Bill Hanson started this, I don't know. Anyway, they go limp. Their body became dead weight, and they have to be dragged out. I clung — I grabbed the biggest person in the group, who was actually a female Howard University student — Janet — I don't remember her last name and she's now passed away. And I just [thought], 'Oh, the thing to do, if they're going to drag us out. is to make it harder on them. I'm going to hold onto Janet.' [Laughing]
I wind up in the Anne Arundel County Jail where I start to hear stories about SNCC. I vaguely knew about SNCC, because I had read a story about Bob Moses getting beaten up in Amite County, Mississippi. There was a little story in the New York Times; and I had heard something about Albany, Georgia. But Bill Hanson was the first person I ever met who had actually been there and been involved with SNCC. There was somebody else in the group who had been involved in Monroe, North Carolina, with Robert Williams. Anyway, in this jail I'm hearing all of this Movement conversation and song which effectively is introducing me to SNCC.
Bruce: The gathering in Baltimore, and then the dispatching, who was organizing that? Was that CORE or the NAACP?
Charlie: I don't know. I never asked.
Jean: I think it was probably both of them. They worked together during those —
Charlie: Yeah. Well, Juanita Jackson Mitchell was clearly the NAACP, but you had the Civic Interest Group which was in Baltimore, which had also been organizing sit-ins. But I never asked. Perhaps it was the Civic Interest Group which was affiliated with SNCC I think. Reggie Robinson was associated with this group but I didn't know him then. All I know is I had gotten this leaflet. It didn't identify itself as being issued by such and such an organization; it said, "The bus is going to be leaving from such and such a place, Saturday or whatever day it was, and if you're interested, get on it." At that point, I'm not asking what organization is doing this.
Bruce: Was there any nonviolent training at the church?
Charlie: If there was, I didn't get any. [Laughing] That's the only thing I can say. I simply — I got arrested because I had decided, starting on the bus trip to Baltimore, to hang out with this particular group, because they knew stuff. [Laughing]
So the question of training for nonviolent action hadn't entered my mind. I was going to go — My purpose was just to get a closer look at people who were doing this and maybe walk a picket line, not to go into a restaurant and sit-in. So if there was training, I missed that. [Laughing]
Bruce: How long were you in jail?
Charlie: Just three or four days. It wasn't a long time. And then — I don't even know who got us out.
Bruce: Was there ever a trial?
Charlie: Not that I — There was a trial, but I didn't attend it, and there was some reason I couldn't attend it. There was a trial in the Spring. And I was in Massachusetts, I think. Anyway, Mrs. Mitchell said, "Don't worry about it." And so, I never followed up on it. I don't know if we were found guilty and some kind of fine was paid. I don't know if the charges were dismissed. I never asked the people I continued to associate with — Janet, Bill Hanson, who — our paths would cross frequently as I got involved with SNCC. But I never asked Bill, 'You know, what ever happened...?' [Laughing] I just forgot about it. It was something I did that Fall, early in that first semester at Howard. And I continued to participate in the sit-ins in Baltimore, and mostly picketing.
Howard Students & the Movement
Bruce: Why were you, out of a student body of thousands — ? I mean, the bus couldn't have had more than 50 people —
Charlie: Yeah. It was one bus. As far as I know. If they had more buses, I was not aware of it. But, you know, I tell people all the time, it wasn't like masses of students rose up on a lot of these campuses. Stokely [Carmichael] told me once that when he used to go around to get people from Howard's campus he would go around telling them they should come and do this sit-in, or picket, or whatever, on a weekend, because after, for everybody that was involved, there's going to be this great party. [Laughing] He said he would get a lot of people.
You know, this is 1961, and the majority of the campus was not involved in those sit-ins and was not involved with the nonviolent activity, whatever their sympathies were. Certainly in my dormitory, I can't name another person on my floor, for sure, maybe even in the whole dorm, that ever went to Baltimore or Annapolis or someplace in one of the surrounding communities to sit-in.
Bruce: What was their attitude towards those of you who did?
Charlie: Oh, they were supportive. My roommate, a guy from New Jersey named John Houston wondered, "Are you non-violent?" [Laughing] "How do you do that?" That question came up, but nobody was hostile.
Bruce: How did you answer the nonviolent question?
Charlie: I would say, "Well, you know, you got arrested so fast, there wasn't time to do much of anything!" [Laughing] I mean, I don't remember any incident where I was sitting-in in which we were surrounded by a swirling hostile mob, the way they were in Cambridge [MD]. So if you're not surrounded by a swirling, hostile mob, then the question of non-violence is moot.
Bruce: Because you're not going to attack the cops —
Charlie: Yes, so it was a moot question for those of us who never faced the kind of violent reaction to sit-ins that they had on the Eastern Shore, and since I was never involved with the Eastern Shore protests, I didn't have to struggle that hard with the question of nonviolence.
[While at Howard] I got arrested once more. In Easton Maryland, but that was deliberate. Again, attorney Mitchell asked for volunteers to sit-in, I forget the name of the place there, but she asked for volunteers who were willing to get arrested. [Easton] is almost the first town of any significance that you hit on Highway 50 going toward the Eastern Shore. It's now a big-time kind of resort kind of community with historic homes and the like. [Laughing]
[In an eerie historic echo, former Bush administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who initiated and defended the Bush policy of torture in military prisons such as Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo, now has a vacation home near Easton. The property he chose was the Mount Misery plantation once owned by the notorious "slave breaker" William Covey whose business it was to torture unruly slaves into submission. It was Covey who repeatedly beat and whipped young Frederick Douglas in a failed effort to tame him to a life of servitude. Shortly thereafter, Douglas escaped to the North and dedicated his life to abolishing slavery.]
And funnily enough, all of this was happening independent of Howard's Nonviolent Action Group [NAG]. I never went to a meeting. I didn't even know — I mean, Michael Thelwell was the only person I knew [in NAG] — and that had to do, not with the [NAG] sit-ins, although I was aware that Michael was involved in NAG — it had to do with the fact that he was the managing editor of the Howard Hilltop, and that's what interested me about him.
Jean: And you began to write —
Charlie: I wrote a couple of things for the Howard Hilltop. They were sort of about Civil Rights, and about the sit-ins. I tell Mike all the time, when we're together, I say, "This is the first guy I ever wrote for."
Then I met other people; Bill Mahoney, who was also involved with NAG, and another guy who was also involved with NAG — Jan Triggs who would later become a Muslim. [I met them] not through NAG, but because they were protesting ROTC on campus. And I went — early in my campus life , I was going to the administration building. I think my parents had sent some money down to pay for something, and when I got to the building, these two guys were sitting on the steps with a sign saying "End ROTC."
Charlie: And I asked them — what did I know? — "What's ROTC?" [Laughing]
Bruce: A fair question!
Jean: It sure is!
Charlie: And we talked for awhile — So I got to know them. I didn't know any of these people were also involved with the Civil Rights Movement. I was meeting them in a kind of independent way. And I was going to Maryland protests simply because I was — there were always leaflets or signs saying, "This bus is going to Maryland." But it was never identified with an organization. It was just the bus that goes to the protests in Maryland. So I never went to Nonviolent Action Group meetings. I didn't know Courtland [Cox]. I didn't know Stokely and all of them until after I had gone to Mississippi.
Jean: I was just learning this the other night. I couldn't believe that I never knew that you hadn't been a part of NAG.
Charlie: I wasn't a part of NAG. I mean, they kind of incorporate me into it now. But really, I never, ever went to a NAG meeting. [Laughing] Never.
Bruce: During the time you're at Howard in 1961, were you involved in the Route 40 protests?
Charlie: Well, the Easton Maryland protest was a part of that — I'm glad you reminded me. That was the context in which I wound up getting arrested in Easton. And that's rooted — that's triggered by the kind of discrimination African ambassadors are encountering — The time frame is that at the same time the sit-ins are erupting, African and Asian nations are becoming independent from colonial rule. And as you might expect, they're setting up embassies both in Washington, D.C. and New York City in terms of the United Nations. So there's a lot of back and forth between Washington and New York. And it's along Route 40, which in those days, before I-95, was a major route to New York City.
So these Africans, and I assume brown-skinned Indians and other non-whites, were encountering much the same kind of discrimination we were. They would stop for refreshments, or perhaps to use the restroom, and they were being refused service. In fact, Malik Sow, the then ambassador from Chad actually got beaten up at one of these places, and when asked about it, the manager said, "Well, he looked just like an ordinary nigra to me."
Well, this is embarrassing the new Kennedy administration, because we're also at the peak of the Cold War. And there's this competition for influence between the Soviet Union and the United States with these newly emerging, essentially non-white nations. And they tried to solve it in various kinds of ways. Their dilemma is that they want to solve the problems that Africans are encountering without having to tackle what Black people, who are native to the United States, are encountering. So they're trying to figure out how to get service for Africans without opening it up to service to anyone without regard to color — which is not possible.
They were having all kinds of problems. There was also the question of housing for Africans. I talk about it in my book [On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail]. The State Department did a survey, and they found that only a tiny fraction of the housing that was quote "considered suitable" for diplomats was available for Africans. And an even bigger concern for them was the Soviet Union was offering to rent housing in Washington for Africans.
Bruce: To sub-let to the Africans?
Charlie: No, rent housing for Africans. It's a fairly standard tactic. If you want to desegregate housing, you get a white couple to buy a house, and then you sign it over, or you work out a deal with a Black guy. Well, the Soviets were offering to do something similar to that which, again, is alarming the [Kennedy administration].
They actually set up in the State Department a special protocol officer and office to deal with this African problem. It was run by a Cuban, Pedro San Juan. He was out there negotiating with all these Maryland restaurateurs. And his position was impossible, because they would say, "Well, if we let the Africans in, does it mean that we have to let any Black person in?" And how do you tell the difference between an African and an Afro-American?
Kennedy was really flippant about it. John Kennedy, I mean. And again, I run the quote in the book; he says: "Tell these African ambassadors to fly. You tell them I wouldn't think of driving from New York to Washington. It's a hell of a road, Route 40. I used to drive that years ago. Why the hell would anyone want to drive down on Route 40 when you can fly there today? Tell them to wake up to the world and fly." And he hangs up the phone. [Laughing] This is in a telephone conversation with Angie Biddle Duke, the Chief of Protocol in the State Department. Kennedy is not interested in ending the racial discrimination these diplomats are encountering. No. If you want to solve the problem, "Tell them to fly."
For years, Kennedy's only interest and concern with civil rights and racial discrimination centered on whether the Soviet Union gained any advantage with African and Asian nations because of it. That's his attitude. And of course, all of this was helping to fuel protests in the Eastern Shore of Maryland as well as along Route 40 because obviously the plight of the African diplomats, or the non-white diplomats, is resonating with students.
Jean: I'd completely forgotten that. It was a big topic.
Bruce: Wasn't there a thing where the State Department said — or told the Africans — or told the restaurants — that if customers were in traditional African garb that they would get —
Charlie: Well, see there was. Basically, if Africans or anybody that was brown —
Jean: That could prove —
Charlie: — that could prove that they weren't American by wearing a turban or whatever, a robe or whatever, yes. [Then] it was cool — the restaurateurs were prepared to seat and serve foreign non-whites.
And I don't know this from experience, but there were stories that floated around about Black people from the U.S. putting on head wraps and robes and faking accents to get service. I don't know the truth or veracity of that, but yes, definitely, that was one of the things that Pedro San Juan was negotiating. But again, you know, it's impossible [for him] to do this. There are a couple of articles that were done in the early 1960s, I think the Washington Post editorialized on the ridiculousness and futility of trying to somehow make a separation between Black people who weren't from the United States and Black people who were native to the United States. Not to mention how insulting it was — for both sides. I mean, Africans wouldn't accept it, nor would Black people who were native to the United States.
Bruce: So how did it finally end?
Charlie: Well, I suspect, without having researched it or studied it, as I-95 becomes the major corridor north and south, really from Florida to Boston, these restaurateurs who are now losing business as they're being bypassed, have second thoughts about who can and can't eat in their restaurant. And by that time, you have the Public Accommodation's Act [Civil Rights Act of 1964], so these kinds of barriers that people encountered in 1960 and '61 are starting to come down through force of national law and the economic pressures being felt by Route 40 businesses that are now being bypassed because of I-95.
People forget that segregation is relatively new in the United States, and in the South. It's really a phenomenon of the early part of the 20th century, late 19th and early 20th. It's not natural, although there was certainly southern white hostility to integrated social relations and to the emergence of any significant Black power. But if you go back to look at southern newspapers when segregation was coming in at the turn of the century, there were a lot of editorials saying, 'This doesn't make any sense. It's bad for business. What do you mean you're going to have separate entrances for whites and Blacks. What sense is that? And if you think about it, the South was always more "integrated" than the North although this integration was based on master-slave/servant relationships that were definitely hostile to anything coming close to Black-white equality. The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward is worth reading in this regard.
So once the law forces it, segregation in public accommodations goes away pretty quickly, except for a handful of hard core places like the All Star bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Judy Richardson has just completed a powerful film — Scarred Justice — about the Orangeburg massacre that took place when students were protesting that bowling alley's "whites only" policy. But most places, especially chains like Howard Johnson's began desegregating pretty quickly. My father, however, never went into a Howard Johnson's because one time he brought us in, and they refused service.
Bruce: In Springfield?
Charlie: No. This was in Kentucky. We were traveling. He swore he would never, ever, enter one. As far as I know, for the rest of his life — and I was about six years old when this happened — he never, ever, set foot in a Howard Johnson's again. So for these chains, causing that kind of anger doesn't make business sense.
Into the South
Charlie: Because I was involved in [the Maryland sit-ins], CORE — and I don't know how I came to CORE's attention, but they were involved with these sit-ins and protests — they invited me to participate in this Youth Civil Rights Workshop, or a Youth Civil Rights Leadership something. I forget what they called it. They invited me to this workshop in Houston, Texas, in August of 1962 — after the school year.
Bruce: You weren't active with Washington CORE or Baltimore CORE?
Charlie: I wasn't active with anybody's organization. I still don't do much with organizations.
Bruce: Did you ever run into [DC CORE leader] Julius Hobson?
Charlie: I met him only because my cousin, who was a lawyer, knew him. We were a Washington, D.C. family, and in those days, D.C. was little more than a small town. My grandmother was the publicist for Mary Church Terrell's National Council of Colored Women's Clubs. DC was such a small town, a small southern town — it's gotten a lot bigger now. And you met these people, but you didn't associate them with Civil Rights particularly. Like Wiley Branton [who helped desegregate the University of Arkansas law school, was one of the attorneys for the Little Rock Nine, and who later would direct the Atlanta-based Voter Education Project that funded projects across the South.] As Dean of Howard Law School he was close to my Uncle (my father's brother) who was counsel to the National Alliance of Postal Workers, a Black union and his son — ,my cousin, also a lawyer.
I'm now 19 years old, so I decided to take advantage of CORE's invitation to see as much of the South as I could and bought a bus ticket from Washington, D.C., through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and on into Houston, Texas. And you know, I'm just — it's a kind of a tour for me. Looking around. I tested a few bus terminals and didn't get in any trouble.
Jean: You went alone? You didn't go with the others?
Charlie: I went alone. I went by myself. [Laughing] Taking this bus ride.
Jean: Let me interrupt. Your parents — they know you're doing this?
Charlie: Well, they were okay with the bus trip. They were okay with the sit-ins. Like I said, my family, going back for generations had always been engaged —
Jean: No, I mean this specific trip to the Deep South.
Charlie: Yeah, they were all right, or at least they did not fight me over this. And they had said that they expected me to be involved in Civil Rights. There were no surprises about being involved in the sit-ins. There were no surprises about being arrested. And of course this is all happening — it has to be said, in the Upper South. It's happening in and around the environs of Washington, D.C., which is not viewed the same way as Alabama or South Carolina or Georgia or Mississippi. And the comfort level is higher, [than] let's say, with the parents of Hollis Watkins in Mississippi. And the workshop seemed — they were okay with that.
And bus was the way a lot of people traveled. I mean, it didn't even occur to me to fly. It just wouldn't even have occurred to me to figure out how to get an airplane ticket, you know? It would be either bus or train. And I decided to take the bus. I think maybe because CORE gave me some money, and it was enough for the bus and maybe not for the train. [Laughing] Although, I'm sure if I had asked my parents for the money, they might have given it to me. But you know I wanted to see the South and flying over it wouldn't have worked in any case.
So I went rather uneventfully through most of the South. And because I was aware of SNCC now I would've stopped at the SNCC office in Atlanta, except when the bus got to Atlanta, it was midnight or something like that, some ungodly hour that didn't make it possible to go to the SNCC office.
A Challenge in Jackson
And the bus gets into Jackson, Mississippi in the morning, and I decide I'm going to get off the bus because there had been sit-ins in Jackson. And of course, for us — us being my friends in Massachusetts and at Howard — Mississippi was the worst place on earth for a Black person. It's one thing for students to be sitting-in in Baltimore or Annapolis or Virginia or someplace. But it was hard to get a mental fix on students having sit-ins in Mississippi.
Jean: No shit! [Laughing]
Charlie: — on students sitting-in in Mississippi. You know, that was really hard, and for us, that state was completely defined by the murder of Emmett Till. So I really decided I wanted to at least lay eyes on these people.
I made my way to their office with the help of the NAACP. The NAACP was listed in the telephone book, and I called them up from a phone booth from the bus station asking, "How could I meet the sit-in students?" And they gave me the address of what turned out to be the office that SNCC and CORE shared down the street from them, on Lynch Street. And then I asked in the bus station — on the white side of the bus station — how I got to this address. And they gave me directions. As it turned out, it's not far from the bus station. You could walk it pretty easily, and I did.
I introduced myself to the people who were in that office. And I said, "I'm on my way to Texas."
And that's when [Lawrence] Guyot who was there — he had just graduated from Tougaloo or Jackson State College — he looked at me disdainfully. He stood up, and challenged me. "Texas? For a workshop? What's the point of that when you're standing right here in Mississippi." His tone was totally dismissive, disdainful. He's a big guy and was hovering over me.
And I got the message right away, you know? [Laughing] It was a challenge."If you want to be serious, you don't need to be going off on some bus somewhere to chatter about Civil Rights. We're getting ready to organize something up in the Delta. We're doing stuff here in Mississippi. So you need to stay here."
Well that, of course, again, like getting arrested in Annapolis, hadn't been on my mind at all. But recognizing what Guyot was saying I felt I really had to stay and think about it and gave myself a few days to stay and learn some more about what was going on. They had a Freedom House in Jackson behind — not far from the SNCC office. I think the backyard of that Freedom House ran into Mary Lovelace's backyard. [Laughing]
And so I'm thinking about what Guyot is saying, and also I'm talking to a lot of other people who are involved with the Jackson Movement: Jessie Harris, Charles McLaurin. There were a whole bunch of students — they had had sit-ins that had come off the Tougaloo campus. There had also been sit-ins emanating from the NAACP Youth Council that Medgar had organized. And Jackson State students had organized a boycott. So there was all of this activity in Jackson, and they were all coming in and out of this office that SNCC and CORE shared, and were in and around it. So I met Dorie Ladner. I met Colia Lidell. I met Joan Trumpauer. I met all of these people who were active, and so I'm talking to them.
That's when I first met Bob Moses. Tom Gaither was there from CORE. And a set of those McComb students like Curtis Hayes, Emma Bell, Hollis Watkins, Bobby Talbot and others who had decided they would stay with this movement. Curtis and Hollis, I think, had already gone to Hattiesburg, because I didn't meet them in Jackson. Emma Bell was getting ready to go up to Greenville, Mississippi.
Bruce: So this is around the time that Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was being formalized in Clarksdale?
Charlie: This is all slightly before that. COFO existed, because COFO had originally been formed within the context of the Freedom Rides, but it was pretty much a latent — I mean, it wasn't active in any meaningful way. It was SNCC, NAACP and CORE as organizations that were active.
And SNCC was just beginning its Delta project. Sam Block had already gone over [to Greenwood] from Cleveland [MS], and Guyot was getting ready to go up to join him. And Landy McNair, Charles McLaurin, James Jones, and Jessie Harris had already committed to doing some work in the Delta. And then there's me. [Laughing]
I'm meeting these people, and I'm in the midst of their conversation — and then while I'm there, that's when this mob [in Greenwood] gets after Guyot and Sam Block and Luvaugn Brown who had also come out of the Jackson Movement. And Sam makes a telephone call [to Jackson] that these people are kicking down the door, or whatever. They had called the FBI, and the FBI said they couldn't do anything. If anything happens to them, to call them back. And so my reaction is, well I can't just get on a bus and go to Texas without finding out what's happened, because I had been talking to this guy. So I needed to know personally, not via newspapers or telephone calls, what had happened to him. So I go up [to Greenwood] with everybody else. [Laughing]
And I wind up staying. As it turned out, they had escaped. It's a well known story.
Charlie: So I wind up staying with Charles McLaurin and Landy McNair in Ruleville, Mississippi, for the second Delta project.
That's where I meet Amzie Moore. We got to Ruleville, and it's like midnight. And you know, back in those days, they had a curfew in Ruleville for Black people. You were supposed to be off the street after dark. So we're sneaking through this little town, and Bob [Moses] is driving. He decides to take us to Amzie rather than trying to deal with the town, and we stay overnight with Amzie. And it must have been a Saturday [night], because the next morning I remember Amzie brings us back and he takes us to this church, Williams Chapel, and introduces us to the church, as people who were going to be in town, working on voter registration.
And then we're handed over to this elderly couple, Joe and Rebecca McDonald, who were going to put us up. And Joe and Rebecca McDonald were part of that tiny, tiny group of Black people who had somehow managed to get registered to vote in the 1950s. There were about — what? — twenty-five thousand Blacks in Sunflower County, and only a hundred or so were actually registered to vote. It was very tiny. So we stayed — and now I'm there for the next long while.
Bruce: And at that point, had you decided not to return to Howard?
Charlie: Well, no. Because, you know, it's August. And I'm thinking I've got time. I mean, the idea that I would not return to school was not in my head. It's summer. I'm on summer break. I now planned to stay in Mississippi for the rest of the summer, I could do that. But then one thing very quickly led to another. Between — let's see, this is early August, or it may even have been late July. Between early August and the end of September, I reached the conclusion that I couldn't leave because of a whole series of things.
I mean, we had been in Ruleville two days, and were walking down from — the McDonald's lived at one end of this dirt road in town in what we called the Sanctified Quarters — and we were walking down the road in front of their house when this car comes to a squealing stop at our feet, and out jumps a white man with a pistol. And he says, I remember these quotes, he says, "I know y'all ain't from here, and you're here to cause trouble. I'm here to tell you to get out of town." And he's waving this pistol.
And he orders us in the car. Me, McLaurin, Landy. He turns out to be the mayor, who's also the constable, and the justice of the peace, and the owner of the biggest business in town, a hardware store, and who broadcasts agriculture news on the local radio station. At his hardware store, he continues to rant. And his thing is, we're from New York, are New York Communists, and here to cause trouble and need to go back there. And McLaurin's trying to say — Mac was really the leader of our little group — and Mac is saying something like, "Well, no, I'm from Jackson. I'm from Mississippi, and he's [Landy] from Mississippi." They don't say anything about me. And I'm not volunteering anything. [Laughing]
But the man goes on and on. And then at some point, Mac says, something like, "We're just here doing voter registration. And the Constitution..." He gets into this thing with the mayor. I'm just surprised, because remember, I have my image of Mississippi, so I'm just — I can't get a hold of this back-and-forth between the white man and McLaurin. At some point, the Constitution comes up, and Mac, within the context of voter registration, says something like, "But the Constitution gives us the right to do this." Something like that. And the mayor says, another one of these phrases you never forget, he says, "Well, that law ain't got here yet."
And this continues. Finally, he orders us out of the hardware store. Obviously, it was an attempt to intimidate us. And then, to my absolute, total amazement, McLaurin argues with the guy saying, "Well, you need to bring us back where you picked us up." Me — I'm willing to walk but the Mayor actually brought us back.
[Later] I asked Mac, "Why did you insist that the Mayaor bring us back to where he picked us up?" And Mac said — and it was a valid organizing point — that we had been picked up in the Black community, and all of these people were peeping out of their curtains and so-forth. They knew we had been taken by the Mayor. And from their attitude, likely thought we could've been killed or whatever, so it was really important for us to have this white man who had taken us from there to be seen bringing us back. That it was important in terms of the organizing dynamic in the community. Mac recognized that, I didn't. And that's why he said he insisted on this.
And at this point it's beginning to occur to me that — unlike, say a sit-in — this might take a little longer. [Laughing]
Bruce: And possibly be a bit more risky.
Charlie: Yeah, definitely a little riskier. And this was going to go a lot more slowly. Because what you begin to see, and it doesn't take long — two or three days — what you begin to see is that as much as people are afraid of white terror, a part of that fear is that you're going to be in these little towns and their communities, you're going to get something going, start something, and you always have the option of leaving. And they can become involved with you, and they don't have the option of leaving. And because they don't, they're vulnerable in a way that you're not, to reprisals and violence.
It doesn't take you long to recognize that that's part of what you're dealing with. So, you then have to decide to leave then, or if you stay much longer, you really have to stay and dig in. You don't have much choice. And that's what I was beginning to see. And there were a whole sequence of events involving violence and reprisals that kept me, because you know, if I'd thought about it much longer, if these events hadn't happened so rapidly, I don't know if I would have stayed at all.
Jean: What are some of those?
Charlie: Well, not long after this, Mac brings three people to register to vote [to Indianola, the county seat of Sunflower County], and all these threats begin to surface. Anybody that supports us is going to pay the price. And then we bring the next group which includes Mrs. Hamer, and the reprisals escalate.
Bruce: Bringing Mrs. Hamer, that was that incident with the bus? When they arrested the driver because the bus was the "wrong color?"
Charlie: Yeah, we had brought 17 or 18 people down from Ruleville. Amzie Moore had rented this bus that's used to carry day-workers to the cotton fields. It was an old school bus, black and yellow. And we came to Indianola. And the registrar and the circut clerk's office saw a few people, and then they shut down. And it took a long time. We waited for a long time on the steps of the county courthouse. In fact, Bob and McLaurin went walking around town. I remember not being able to figure that out either. They went walking around town somewhere, and I'm on the steps with this crowd. And these white people are gathering. And so [the registrar] shuts it down, and everybody gets back on the bus.
Well, now it's getting late. And the driver starts to head back to Ruleville which is about 18 or 19 miles away, where we picked up people. And he gets stopped by the deputy sheriff who arrests the driver for driving a bus of the "wrong color." And he tells us if we're prepared to pay a fine right then of a hundred dollars, he can be released. Well, we didn't have a hundred dollars.
And that's when Mrs. Hamer emerged, because she starts to sing. She's singing these Freedom songs: This Little Light of Mine and all of that, I Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. We hadn't really noticed Mrs. Hamer ever before, although I'd find out later she'd been at the mass meeting where we were organizing to bring people the night before. And then she started — And really, I always thought her singing kind of shored up everybody — even us. I mean, 'cause, you know, you really don't want to be stuck on the road in Sunflower County at sunset and identified with Civil Rights. It was pretty scary.
Bruce: And driving a bus of the wrong color —
Charlie: Well, what would happen to the next person who tries to drive the bus? You're kind of stuck there. So there's this whole question of what to do. And as I said I think Mrs. Hamer singing kind of shored up the group loosing up the fear in the group — when I say the group, I mean not only the people there to try to register to vote, I mean us too: McLaurin and myself and Bob, Dorie Ladner and I think Landy was with us too — so that we could have a coherent discussion about what to do.
Some people remember Bob doing this. I remember just the group selecting some kind of spokesperson to approach this deputy and say, "Well, we don't have a hundred dollars. We have..." We had counted out the money, and I think it was 40-some-odd dollars. "We don't have a hundred dollars, so if you can't accept this money we have, 41 dollars, the best thing for you to do would just take everybody to jail." That was sort of the decision, which to me, looking back on it, was quite an amazing thing for 1962 Mississippi. We're up in the Delta, in the birthplace of the White Citizens Council, in the very town the White Citizens Council was born in. And these are sharecroppers, day workers, and so for this group to reach this kind of agreement in that circumstances was quite an amazing thing. And the deputy took the money and let the bus driver go. I tell people I don't really know if that money ever made it to the coffers of Sunflower County. [Laughing]
Jean: Oh, please! [Laughing]
Charlie: But he did take the money, and everybody went home. And then of course, the story is very well known insofar as Mrs. Hamer is concerned, because she gets back to the plantation and the plantation owner, Mr. Marlowe tells her she has to give up this ambition of getting registered to vote, and she refuses. She tells him in what is now a famous response: "I didn't go down there to register for you. I went down there to register for myself." She's kicked off the plantation that night, and she — we helped her settle with friends that she had in Ruleville. I forget the name of the family now, but she gets settled. Less well known are the other reprisals that occurred. The church, Williams Chapel, where this group had left from, the county threatened to withdraw its tax-exempt status.
Bruce: On the grounds that registering to vote —
Charlie: Is political action and so forth. And other people were threatened in different kinds of ways. Lafayette Surney's parents ran a dry cleaner and laundry, and the county threatened to yank their license. Those kinds of threats went out to people who were vulnerable to those kinds of things. And its funny, although most people think in terms of sharecroppers, there was a little tiny group like the Surneys and the Blacks that had little businesses that exposed them to reprisal in some ways that sharecroppers were not.
Gunfire in the Night
And it's important to understand by way of context in Mississippi, that this effort to register to vote is happening as James Meredith is seeking to enroll at 'Ole Miss. So the governor, and the politicians, and the big time newspapers in the state like the Jackson Daily News are whipping up the entire state into a hysterical fear of Communists, northern agitators, and charging that the federal government was engaged in the "interposition and nullification" of states rights.
And we're seen as a part of this. I sometimes wonder if James Meredith hadn't been trying to enroll at 'Ole Miss with all the violence and fanning of irrational fear that surrounded his effort whether we would have been confronted with as much violence as we did that fall.
Bruce: Given the level of violence that continued month after month, I suspect you would have.
Charlie: Yeah, we probably would have, but I think the statewide hysteria was an important part of what's affecting us in Ruleville and in Greenwood that fall. The night-riders came through a week or so after we had brought Mrs. Hamer and the 17 people [to register]. There is all this shooting, and again, I get arrested by the Mayor who hands me over to the brother of one of the men who killed Emmett Till — one of the Milam brothers.
Jean: But you didn't know that.
Charlie: I didn't know that then. They just hand me over to this white deputy town Marshall. He puts me next to this big dog in the back of this car. I was told that on that one night there were 40-some-odd shooting incidents [into peoples' homes], all believed to be related to us bringing down this group of people [to register]. And this is September. This is the next month. And in those shootings, two young girls got badly wounded. I think one is still crippled as a result of that shooting. The bullet hit her ankle and traveled up her leg. Years later, one of the white officials said, "Well, the shootings weren't as bad as they could be, because the shooters used shotguns instead of a rifle. If they'd used a rifle, it would've been worse." That was his thing.
Bruce: Why were you arrested?
Charlie: I was arrested during the shooting — I remember it differently from almost everybody who has written about it. Everybody has me being arrested at the hospital in Ruleville. I don't remember it that way at all. I remember Mac [Charles McLaurin] and I were both out of the neighborhood, for different reasons, and both of us heard the shots. I could hear the shots. Ruleville's a little town. There were only 1,100 people that lived in Ruleville when we were there.
So I'm on the other side of town. I think at Mack's Colored Cafe or someplace like that. And I could hear the shots. And I recognized it as gunfire immediately. Hearing the shots, noting the directions of the shots, I thought, 'That's in our neighborhood' or 'That's where we're living.' I mean, it seemed to be coming roughly from that direction, and I raced across town.
And what I remember is stopping very briefly at Joe and Rebecca McDonald's house where we were staying and them saying they were all right, but they think there's a problem down the road at the Sisson house which was about four or five houses down from the McDonald's. And I remember rushing into that house, through a crowd of people, and the Mayor was there. The deputy sheriff was there. And I remember seeing this blood on the floor, and I remember almost slipping on the blood and just recapturing my balance before I fell into this pool of blood.
The Sisson's had a telephone. I remember going to the telephone to call the Jackson office. And I might have even spoken to Bob. I don't remember. And then I remember starting to ask the Mayor and some other guy, "What happened? There's blood. Who got hurt?" That kind of thing. And it's at that point that the Mayor arrests me. He says I was going around asking a bunch of silly questions. Other people have me doing this in the hospital. I have no recollection of that. I remember going into the Sisson house. And the Mayor hands me over, once again, to the brother of Till's killer. And he never — I asked him, I said, "Why are you putting me under arrest?" And I'm sure he just placed that in his category of silly questions. [Laughing]
And I'm handed over to this deputy who has this dog in the back seat, and I'm carted off to the little town jail — which is still there. Which is scary, because it exactly fit my stereotype of a Mississippi jail, because the cells open up to the outside. You can stand outside and talk to somebody in the two or three jail cells they have there. Which means anybody can come in and get you from the outside. They can just yank on the cell bars and drag you out. Or someone can shoot you from outside. And I spent the night.
Well, again, like that first time, when the Mayor, you know, ordered us at gunpoint into his car this was more an attempt at intimidation than a serious charge. I mean, at some point, the Mayor accused me of doing this shooting, he said, because our campaign was failing, and I was trying to generate publicity by gaining sympathy by pretending that white violence was responsible for these injuries. But he lets me go the next morning, so I stayed in jail just over night.
The important part of this story happens then, because I come back to the McDonald's house, and as it turns out, somebody — I guess the deputy sheriff — had taken Mr. McDonald's shotgun as part of the evidence in this shooting. He had confiscated Mr. McDonald's shotgun. So now, Mr. McDonald is sitting down worrying about what he's going to do without his shotgun, because he had three of us living with him: Landy McNair, McLaurin, and myself. For him to be able to go out hunting for food was an important part of how he and his wife, Rebecca, were able to do that — as well as the issues of self defense and the like.
So for him, it was a worrisome question of — this shotgun is vital and it's been taken from me. "What should I do?
And I told him, "Well, you can go get your gun."
And he said, "I can?"
I said, "Yes. The Constitution gives you the right to bear arms, and the Mayor or the Sheriff or whoever it was has no right to take your gun." He asked me if I was sure of this. I said, "I'm absolutely sure." We used to have these little copies of the Constitution, and I read him the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
And Mr. McDonald got up, right then, and he walked out the door, with McLaurin and me following along behind him. He marched right down to the Mayor's hardware store and leaned in the door, and he said — I remember he said, "I come to get my gun." He kept repeating that over and over again from the door. And the Mayor gave him his gun back. I remember, he put the gun on his shoulder, Mac and I are behind him, and he's walking back up the road.
Years later I began to realize that the gun thing transcends race in some respects in the South. It's a part of the culture. And whatever they think about Black people registering to vote, and whatever they think about Black people sitting next to them in a restaurant or a lunch counter, there's kind of a consensus that every guy has a right to his gun. I mean, it's real deep. It's real deep in the South. And that's why the Mayor —
Bruce: And I'm sure the mayor was the one who sold him his shells every month.
Charlie: Yeah, not to mention that! [Laughing] I'm gaining all these little tiny insights into this —
Jean: And who was wounded that night?
Charlie: It was two girls. It was the niece of the couple whose house was shot into and a friend of hers who were simply wrong place, wrong time. They were visiting the aunt. She was visiting her aunt, Mrs. Sisson. And she just happened to be standing in the window. They happened to be in the way when the gun shot. I mean, they didn't live in Ruleville. They were college students. They were visiting, and they weren't involved with the Movement as far as I know. And it was literally just wrong place, wrong time. And those were the ones who got wounded. The McDonald's, when the first shot came through, jumped into the bathtub. It was really smart. For protection.
Bruce: So this is September...?
Charlie: This is September of '62.
Jean: This is a full September. [Laughing]
Charlie: That's what I'm saying. That's my point. This stuff was happening so fast that it's eliminating any thought of leaving now. You're in the middle of this now. And it becomes — Once the people who have put you up have been shot at, once the people who have been helping you have had people in their house who've been wounded because they were helping you. Once these people you've been talking to have suffered various kinds of reprisals, it becomes almost impossible to leave. Because you know that will just confirm their worst fear. You're really undermining the Movement. That yeah, Charlie can go back to Washington, D.C, but we're here in Ruleville, in trouble now because we did all the stuff that he and McLaurin and Landy asked us to do. They're back in Jackson, and he's in D.C. You know, by this point, you couldn't leave. You had a certain obligation to this community.
Jean: That's interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way. Ever. You know, that kind of obligation that you — that any organizer has to have once they're there and they witness what you just did. It's quite —
Charlie: That's what I felt. I'd be able to leave at some point but clearly not then. It didn't work for me.
Families and the Freedom Movement
Bruce: So how did your family take it when you told them you're not going back to Howard after being in school for only one year? And you're what? 19?
Charlie: Yeah, I was 19. They were — you know, they never raised an objection with me. Partly, I think because they were confronted with a fait accompli. I mean, it wasn't as if I sat in the living room the way we're sitting in this room right now and saying, "Well Mom, Dad, I think instead of returning to Howard, I'm going to go to Mississippi and stay there for a year or two." Then I would've gotten — [Laughing] They had said, "Okay. Go on this trip to Texas." And the question of me not returning didn't occur to anyone — including me. So they're confronted with a fait accompli. My sisters told me later that there was a discussion in the family. The family had decided — the grownups in the family had decided that broaching my return to school was not something a grownup could do. So it was a question of which one of the children would approach me, and to their credit all of them refused to bring it up. It would be my sisters and cousins my age, they took the position that they shouldn't be asked.
Bruce: That was a pretty progressive attitude on your parents' part, because a lot of other Civil Rights activists parents' had no hesitation whatsoever —
Charlie: Well, they didn't, and like I say, there's some history of struggle in our own family in that regard, so I never got a direct demand. And other people didn't. I mean, Hollis Watkins — Hollis who grew up in a little community north of McComb, Chisholm Mission. It's the name of the Chisholm AME church. The way the Movement reached him was that when Bob Moses came to McComb [in 1961] to work for voter registration with Rev. C.C. Bryant — a Pullman Porter and NAACP leader — a "friend-girl," says Hollis, told him that Martin Luther King had come to McComb.
So Hollis, Curtis [Hayes] and two other guys set out from Chisolm Mission to McComb to meet Martin Luther King, and they're directed to Bob. Hollis asks, "Are you Martin Luther King? " And Bob says, "No, I'm C.C. Bryant's voter registration man." And then Curtis asks Bob, "Well, are you Martin Luther King's brother?" [Laughing] They're now in this conversation with Bob about voter registration, and they commit. And they're 19 too. And they commit to stay to do this work. And there wasn't a huge objection from Hollis's father. I never asked Curtis about this.
And of course, this ultimately leads to Hollis becoming president of the — they formed a nonviolent group in McComb. I forget the name of it now. Anyway, Hollis was the president, and Curtis was the vice president. This group was formed not to work on voter registration but to do sit-ins in McComb. And they selected a day and a place. It was the public library, and everybody agrees to do this sit-in, but when the day and time comes, there's only Hollis and Curtis showed up. And they go to the library, but it's closed. And Hollis says, "Well, we decided this was the day we're supposed to be arrested," and so they head down the street to the Woolworth's where they do get arrested.
And I asked Hollis the same question you did. I said, "Well, what did your parents say about...?" Because Hollis had deferred his decision to go to school. Hollis was headed — Before the Greensboro sit-ins happened, Hollis was planning to go to school in California or had been in California and came back because of the sit-ins. In any case, there was this delay of going to school. And Hollis said, "Well, I told my father, once we had decided on it," — his father was okay with the voter registration stuff — "I told my father, when we decided to do the sit-ins and get arrested, that I was going to spend a few days with some friends." [Laughing] And he said it wasn't exactly a lie. But he said if his father had really objected, he probably wouldn't have done the sit-in. So he phrased this very carefully. "I'm going to spend a few days with some friends."
On the other hand, Anne Moody, when she decided to become involved [it was] in a place geographically distant from Wilkinson County where she grew up and where most of her family lived. So people come at this in different kinds of ways. And I think Danny Glover's film Freedom Song portrays a different kind of dynamic in which I think you get more objections like that than you get from someone in my situation. Partly because my family's not exposed in a way that a Mississippi student's family would be exposed if they decided to work for the Movement. So the pressure to pull out is less on me, even though my parents, and certainly my grandmother would very much have liked me to be back in school that semester, I'm not getting the kind of pressure that's portrayed in Danny's film.
Bruce: And Anne Moody's family was harrassed, even though she wasn't —
Charlie: And there were reprisals directed at her family when it became known that she was involved in Canton in Madison County, even though that's quite some distance from Wilkinson County. Again, this is different from my situation. Her family was living in Mississippi; my family was in Washington, DC, essentially untouchable.
The Food Blockade
Bruce: Tell us more about working in Ruleville and what happened going forward.
Charlie: After the shootings and after the reprisals, everything just shut down in the sense of what people were prepared to do. I mean, we couldn't get any more people for a long time to try and register to vote. It just was not possible.
And then, as the winter rolled in, even though people weren't even making much of an attempt to register to vote, the reprisals continued. And the big reprisals that winter were the shut down of the commodities distribution program. The same thing was happening in Greenwood, although I wasn't working there.
Before Food Stamps, there were Federal "surplus commodity" programs. Under these programs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided food supplies — flour, rice, beans, canned goods, dairy, etc — to states, counties, and private welfare agencies who distributed them to poor and hungry families. These surplus commodities were also used for school lunch programs. Begun in the 1930s under the Roosevelt administration, the stated purpose of these programs was to provide subsidies and price support for farmers and agri-business corporations.]
The commodities were vital to making it through the year, because the way the plantation system worked, there were essentially two seasons. One is called "furnish," and furnish season is when you're getting ready to plant — start your crop. And unlike tenant farming, with sharecropping half your crop goes to the plantation owner, and half you sell for yourself. Furnish is when you go to the plantation store and buy the seed, what clothing you need, the food, the things like rice and other staples, all the things you need to make it through the bulk of the year, before you turn in your crop for sale all on credit, or more accurately, debt to the plantation owner. That's called "furnish."
And then "settle" is the other end, when the plantation owner opens the book and says the clothes you got for the winter, the supplies you got for the winter, the implements, whatever it is, come to this amount. And what you got for your cotton comes to this amount. And often you owed money instead of made money. So the plantation system was divided into these two basic seasons related to money or income; and what helped get you through between furnish and settle — winter were these federal surplus food programs. This is before food stamps.
And the trains came down, and they had this stuff: cheese and tin food, and whatever. It was distributed by the county, even though it's [a federal program]. And what Sunflower County did, and Leflore County, and Greenwood did was cut that off [by refusing to distribute the commodities].
And it was in clear reprisal for the voter registration — never mind that most of the people in the county had not tried to go down to register to vote. All the Black people were made to pay the price for this. And that launched a new phase when we tried to seek supplies from outside of the state in the North. And that winter — this is the winter now of 1962-1963 — was a colder than usual winter. So the whole need for food and clothes — And the cotton prices were depressed, so a whole bunch of things converged to make the surplus food really needed, even more so [than normal]. And it made the reprisals more painful than they might have been in a year in which people were better off.
And a lot of this came to center on Greenwood. I was beginning now — I was easing out of Ruleville a little bit and had opened up a project in Greenville, Mississippi and had a peripheral involvement with Greenwood, where Sam and now Willie Peacock, as well as Guyot, were still involved.
And something happened in Greenwood that never happened in Ruleville or Sunflower County. People in Leflore County were really angry about this cut-off of commodities, and Sam Block, the project leader, got arrested. It must have been about the 20th time he'd been arrested, something like that, in Greenwood. And this time, people came from all over for Sam's trial. And they were doing stuff we had never seen in Ruleville or any other place. The trial was being held at the courthouse, and they were doing things — I think it was because they were angry — like deliberately drinking from the "white" water fountains and talking back to white people. It was kind of a protest as well as an observation of Sam.
And at this trial, Sam said something that went immediately all through the Black community. The judge was giving Sam a lecture. "You need to stop doing this. You need to get out of town." Something like that. He's giving Sam, from the bench, this lecture. And he ends his lecture by saying, "If you agree to leave town, I think conditions will improve," something, I forget the words now; it's too far back. And when the judge finished, Sam looks at him, and he says, "Well, judge, I ain't gonna do none of that." [Laughing]
And that's when, "Did you hear what Sam Block told the judge?" And it converges with this anger that people have, because these commodities had been cut off. I asked Bob once what he thought about it, and his response was that it was [as if] for the first time people were making a connection between food on their table and political participation. That's what he thought had happened when the county cut off the surplus food distribution. They recognized that the people who did this were people who were elected to office.
And in a way that we had had never been able to articulate, talking about the value — If you're depending on this food, and it's not there because in reprisal for what really is a handful of people trying to register to vote, then you better do something about that. And what you noticed was an upsurge in the number of people trying to register to vote. And our decision to make an effort to meet the needs that the county was no longer meeting resulted in a campaign in the North to raise food for the South.
As you may remember, Dick Gregory comes down with a plane-load of food. I mean, just the fact that Dick Gregory came in a plane with food — you have to imagine the reaction in the Delta. [Laughing] seeing this black man stepping off an airplane that he had chartered in Chicago.
Gregory was hilarious. You know, at one point — this is later on in this story I'm telling you — at one point, there were all these deputies and possemen around the county courthouse, and all these Black people were coming down the street to try and register to vote, and the deputies are talking about the niggers this, and the niggers that. Gregory walks up and wags his finger in some posseman's face. He says, "Who you callin' nigger? You ain't nothing but a nigger yourself!" And goes "Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger!" [Laughing] I thought Gregory was going to get killed. But I think this poor white posse guy was so startled by this Black man wagging his finger in his face and calling him "nigger" that he didn't know what to do. That's how Gregory was. [Laughing]
But that campaign began — we really made [the connection that] you're not only here to get food, but you're also here to fill out this registration form. We didn't have the equivalent of that in Ruleville. I'm not sure why, but we didn't have something to compare. If you ever talk to Charles McLaurin, I mean he's the one who can really elaborate on that, what was going on.
Bruce: But was some of the food from the North distributed in Sunflower County? Or was it only in Leflore?
Charlie: No, there was food that came to Sunflower County too. The food came to both places. It didn't come by airplane ... [Laughing]
Jean: Ivanhoe [Donaldson] drove the truck down.
Charlie: Ivanhoe drove the truck. This is when I first met Ivanhoe. He was a student at Michigan State. And he and his roommate, Ben Taylor, I think. The drove a truckload of food and [over-the-counter medical] drugs down for Coahoma County, Clarksdale, to Aaron Henry. We had re-formed COFO by this time, and Doc [Aaron Henry] was the head of it. And then Ivanhoe gets arrested driving this truck. They say he's "smuggling drugs." That's when I first met him, going up there to get him out of jail. [Laughing]
So there was food coming in different streams. Not everybody was like Gregory, with an airplane to fly food in. But it was going to Sunflower — essentially to Sunflower and Leflore County where we had our major Delta project. It wasn't a significant need in Greenville where there was another project, and Mac and I were working both of them. We were in Greenville together and in Sunflower County together. And then Ivanhoe stays down after he gets out of jail.
Educations & Organizing
Bruce: Around this time, '62-63, did you ever encounter, or do you have any thoughts on the Citizenship Schools?
Charlie: Septima Clark's Citizenship Schools? We were aware of them. We were aware of them for two reasons. One, Septima Clark herself had a considerable prominence within the Movement. And there was enough interaction between organizations — I tell people this all the time — once you get past the national leadership of these organizations, everybody's pretty much doing the same thing. And you know who they are.
And in Mississippi's case, Annelle Ponder — really against a lot of objections from Andy Young and others in SCLC who felt Mississippi was too dangerous and felt that you couldn't do very much in the state — Annelle Ponder had come over to Mississippi specifically to develop Citizenship Schools. And that meant she was working with us because she needed us to locate or recruit people. She had schools she was doing in Greenwood and Leflore county, but she was also taking people to workshops at Penn Center [SC] and other places for workshops.
So we were aware, partly through Annelle, and partly just through the natural interaction of Movement people. And that's one of the roots, obviously, of the Freedom Schools that would emerge in 1964. We were certainly aware of the Citizenship School program in SCLC. We didn't really know the history of it in the sense of its history as originally being a program developed by Septima Clark when she was at Highlander Center.
Bruce: I was just wondering in terms of its role of developing local leadership. As I recall, Mrs. Hamer was involved in that to some degree.
Charlie: Well, in the sense that it was part of this process of organizing. It was a piece of the organizing in Mississippi. What you learn as an organizer, in part, is that people aren't going to be willing to do everything that you want them to do. So the person who is unwilling, for lots of reasons, all legitimate — fear of reprisal, of violence — the person who's unwilling to go to the county courthouse and walk into the circuit clerk's office and ask to be registered to vote may be willing to participate in a Citizenship School. Or may be willing to do this, that, or the other thing. Or, like Mrs. Hamer, more than one thing.
So from our vantage point, I mean, it's all a piece of the same organizing. We're up there — what you're trying to do, because what you see, again, right away is what the system of white supremacy has done up there in the Delta is, for most Black people, has just frozen them in place. So they're afraid to ask a question. They're afraid to make a challenge. They're afraid to do anything. They're just stuck in place, and so you're always looking for ways and means to get them in motion, looking for anything that will get them in motion.
We even tried to do a program-learning class with some sharecroppers. We had this — the literacy test was a big part of getting registered — so we were experimenting a little bit with how you tackle literacy. Illiteracy itself. And Bob had entered in some discussions with somebody, I forget, somewhere up North about program-learning — in other words, they were using symbols to move people to literacy, just associated with alphabets and ideas.
But the problem with what they had designed in the way of program-learning — the problem with all of the stuff that had been developed was none of these symbols would be recognizable to a sharecropper. If you're developing a symbol to deal with illiteracy in Chicago or New York or Boston, they don't immediately apply to Sunflower County or Ruleville. So Bob had gotten some money for us to try and do this and come up with symbols that worked for sharecroppers and poor people in rural Mississippi. And most of those people there, even though they were interested in becoming literate, were not particularly interested in going to the county courthouse. We paid them. We got some — we had enough money to pay them like a dollar a day to participate in these classes. I mean, they probably came there more for the dollar a day than any political — But you know, it was another device to try and get people in motion.
Jean: And that's the forerunner of the Freedom Schools? In terms of the education —
Charlie: No. Thats one piece of it. Well, what's the forerunner is that we quickly recognized that you had to tackle this whole — You had this problem that we were never going to be able to solve as a tiny group of organizers, and that is you had a state system designed to keep people ignorant. And each time we tried to do something to grapple with the problem of illiteracy, we recognized right away we just weren't enough people. We didn't have the resources to solve this. You had to really tackle head-on the system itself, in this case the educational system. And the Freedom Schools evolve out of this, in part.
The only way these other efforts are connected is they're forerunners in the sense that they reflected efforts to grapple with — I mean, Annelle Ponder, by herself, in the state of Mississippi is simply not, through her citizenship program, going to be able to do a lot in terms of the numbers of people who need to be reached — even Septima Clark for her whole network of Citizenship Schools [across the South], the Citizenship Schools are not able to tackle that problem with the breadth and at the level it needs to be tackled.
But, you know, we were inching up to this idea that we have to organize for more than just voter registration. You saw these schools. It was a little bit surprising to me, because if you drove through the Delta you'd see a lot of new schools for Black students. And again, I'm coming from outside of Mississippi — Washington, D.C. and Massachusetts — so I'm thinking, if I see schools for Black people in Mississippi, they're going to be shacks. And they weren't. They were, in many instances, these new brick schools. But when you walked in them, the libraries didn't have many books, and if they had laboratories, they didn't have test tubes or microscopes or slides. All this stuff.
Bruce: These were the new schools built after Brown to pretend that separate was equal?
Charlie: Well, there were two phases. Some of them came after Brown, but then there were two phases to the state's approach to education in Mississippi. The post-Brown activity in the state is better known than the pre-Brown activities. What the state tried to do really, as the Brown cases made their way to and through the Supreme Court, the state actually made — adopted the position that we should really try and have separate and equal schools. And they had a whole group of Black people they were in discussions with about this. Even the NAACP was a little bit involved in this discussion. And their position was, in order to head off integration, in order to head off desegregation, we needed to do something better with these Black schools.
There's a guy, Todd Moye — you can read his book [Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945- 1986]. He's an historian, he used to be at Tuskegee. He used to direct, I think, the Airmen's Museum at Tuskegee, and he's now in Texas, I think. He wrote a book on Sunflower County and the Civil Rights struggle in Sunflower County. And he goes into some of this history, paying particular attention to Sunflower County.
And so the state, prior to the actual handing down of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, they read the tea leaves and said, "If we don't really boost these Black schools, we may be forced to desegregate them." So there was a whole state commission, and it was an integrated commission, having this discussion in 1950 and '51 and '52. And some of these schools were built then. And this accelerated after the 1954 Supreme Court decision. Of course, then the state made a U-turn and just abandoned the idea of separate but equal, and moved toward having academies for whites and just abandoning Black schools entirely. Basically abandoning public schools.
The state that led the way in that was Virginia and not Mississippi, but Mississippi quickly picked up on this. It was called "massive resistance." So we were very aware — I mean, here students were reading history books where a chapter on the Civil War is entitled "The War of Northern Aggression against the South." [Laughing] So we were very well aware of the problem.
Up in the Delta, of course, they shut the schools for Black people down and sent the kids out to the field to chop cotton which means clear the weeds away from the cotton plants. And then they shut the schools down again so they could pick the cotton. So we were very aware of not only the inadequacies of the learning inside the schools, but we were also very aware that the system itself assumed that the only role for Black people on earth was a menial role as cotton pickers or maids or something like that.
So we had always been trying to figure out a way, but we didn't have anywhere near the number of people or resources or power to tackle something like that. We could do a little literacy here, and do a little — but in no way did that even begin to tackle this edifice that was just systematically generating inferiority among Black people. We still haven't really, in my view, meaningfully tackled that particular problem.
And the Freedom Schools, in part, grew out of that. But they also grew out of some more practical things like what to do with some of our volunteers when they come to Mississippi. What to do if you have a whole bunch of people who don't know the state — and do you really want to go from Greenville to Greenwood with a carload of white people? Better to plant them somewhere and use them in a way that's helpful to you, and taking advantage of their education. It was just a logical thing to do. For whatever their inadequacies or lack of qualifications would be in a school system in Boston, or New York, or wherever, they were more than enough for the people we were working with in Mississippi. So in some ways, the Freedom Schools grew out of that too.
I tell people we were just practical people. We were trying to solve practical problems as best we could with very limited resources and very limited numbers of people. That's all.
Bruce: So the rumors of an International Communist Conspiracy with a vast strategic plan for subversion were overblown? [Laughing]
Charlie: It was more than overblown! I wish we had a strategic plan — Communist, or otherwise. Jim Foreman and Stokely would say they had the plans, but other than Jim and Stokely, I don't know. [Laughing] It was really playing it by ear. We could recognize problems, and then you try and test things that might lead to a solution of those. Some were more obvious than others. Obviously, if you could get enough Black people registered to vote, and if they could cast a ballot, they could change at least parts of the political system and begin a restructuring of how government responded to people's needs — That's fairly obvious. It gets more complicated when you struggle with how to do this in the face of violence and economic reprisals that keep people from trying to register to vote. We could recognize the inadequacies of the school system, but that's an even harder problem if you don't have any political levers that you could pull. I mean, you have no Black people on the school board.
Bruce: And there's not much money even if you did have —
Charlie: Exactly. Mississippi was the poorest state in the union. We didn't have large — I mean, yes, you could make a case that the MFDP was a large strategic idea. Replacing the state Democratic Party on the basis of the rules that the state party itself laid out, was something much larger than just getting somebody down to the county courthouse. It's much more human, and this idea of using a party that you had created to really formally dislodge [the official party] by making a challenge to it at the national convention of the Democratic Party, that's a strategic move there. One of our larger ideas.
Jean: And internal to the SNCC organization, and later COFO and MFDP, all of these ideas you're discussing, you're actually trying to talk through and figure out the —
Charlie: Right. And talk through at various levels. We were talking through it. So there's the conversation that say McLaurin, Landy, McNair, and myself are having in little bitty Ruleville. Then there's the larger discussion we're having as a group of — in those days, if you talk about COFO in '62 and '63 — as a group of 20-some-odd organizers working in the state or maybe a little larger if you count CORE, which is working not in the Delta but sort of in the eastern side of the state and southeastern side of the state. So say 30 people, that's a bigger discussion.
And then there's a bigger discussion that happens at SNCC meetings in Atlanta, or conferences. So there's all kinds of different levels. And then there are discussions that take place that are not exclusive to SNCC or CORE, but involve local people, organizations like the NAACP, or Black lawyers. We only had three Black lawyers [in Mississippi]. So there are lots of different levels of discussion. The only thing you could say about it is we were all more or less on the same page. It's when you get to New York and Atlanta that you find there are these people who are not on the page with you. And they're the organizations you're also associated with even if the association is tense as was the case in our association with the national headquarters of the NAACP.
But down there in Mississippi back in the day, you know, Annelle Ponder and Dave Dennis — Annelle being from SCLC and Dave Dennis being from CORE — and Bob or Frank Smith or Charlie Cobb [of SNCC], we're all right with each other. We had to be, given the nature of the State. And those conversations were constant, in one way or the other because you just try and figure out how to deal with this state. I think people have trouble visualizing that today, an entire state that mobilizes all of its resources to deny a group of people the right to even minimal participation in the political decision making that affects their lives. I think it's hard to see nowadays. And in not seeing it very clearly, it becomes very difficult to understand the discussions and unities of grassroots organizers and why they often transcended their formal organizational affiliations.
People have disagreements, maybe, say in California today, or pieces of the state. "I don't like what Arnold Scwarzenegger is doing here or there or the other. I don't like the fact that they slap down rights related to sexual preference, or something like that." But consider Mississippi in those early years of the 1960s: Here's a whole state that has organized its Highway Patrol, its state legislature, the Governor's office, the sheriffs, the county boards of supervisors, all the boards of education, every single aspect of the state, whatever they do is all geared to repressing Black people. I think people have a lot of trouble getting their head around that.
Bruce: And doing that in partnership with the whole economic system: the banks, the insurance —
Charlie: Well, not only that, not only in partnership with that whole economic infrastructure but also vigilante groups. Here's the sheriff of — what's his name? Sheriff Watkins of I guess that was McComb, Pike County. R.R. Watkins. And he's speaking to a group in McComb that thinks the Ku Klux Klan is too liberal. So they formed a group: the Association for the Preservation of the White Race. And at the end of his speech he says, and this is an exact quote, "If we can't handle COFO, I'll call on some of you." And this is the sheriff. See, I don't think people can get their minds around that kind of system. That, from top to bottom in this state, what that does to people. A system like this that has been in place for a hundred years.
And it's all being ignored by the federal government which effectively means it's being aided and abetted by the federal government. I mean, even the FBI was local in Mississippi back in those days. They were the cousins of the Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan or somebody. It's hard to understand that from this distance of time and place. And Alabama was the same way. Even I have trouble when I think about it.
And they knew everybody. You know, state sovereignty commissions set up — a state organization solely for the purpose of spying on Civil Rights people. State sovereignty. In the name of preserving the sovereignty of the state. [Laughing] They're like the White Citizen's Council. They grew out of the business community. I mean, the history of the White Citizen's Council is fascinating in Mississippi in the sense of how it saw itself and who was — A lot of those guys are still around, but if you [confront them] they'll say, "I wasn't in that." But they were.
Bruce: They call themselves the Council of Conservative Citizens now.
Charlie: Yeah. But that whole state was — I used to wonder what universe I was in when I was in Mississippi sometimes. Just the way it was constructed. Criminal syndicalism laws, and all of this. It was alien. I mean, I knew about police brutality. Washington, DC's or Springfield, Massachusetts' was nothing compared to Mississippi.
Lessons of the Freedom Movement
Bruce: Students come to this website because they're doing their homework assignments. But some people come because they're facing problems today. They want to be active. They're trying to be organizers, and they come to this site. What lessons can they learn from the Freedom Movement? What would you want to say to those people about lessons that you learned from being an organizer in the Southern Freedom Movement?
Charlie: The part of the Freedom Movement I've written about and know the best, I dub the Modern Movement which is roughly the start of World War II through the assassination of Martin Luther King. So when I point to lessons, it's lessons that emerge within that time frame.
The first lesson is the lesson Ella Baker taught us which was to organize from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down. Because one of the things that makes the Modern Movement unique, it seems to me, and important to understand is that for the first time in a significant way, in my view, voices of people who were usually spoken for by other people began to speak for themselves in a way which you could not ignore them. And what the Movement did was continually cultivate those voices. I think that's the symbol — that's what Fannie Lou Hamer in the final analysis symbolizes. So we need to try to do that today. That's as valuable a thing today as it was then, it seems to me, especially with an Obama presidency which needs to be kept constantly aware that the grassroots energy that got him elected has now taken the form of grassroots organization that intends to hold him accountable.
The second thing, if I was talking to young people, I would say — because not enough attention is paid to it — is that a lot of the Movement was led by young people. So you don't have to be a grownup to begin working for change. You need to look at the Movement, in part, in terms of how young people got together. Even though the conversation in 2009 is not going to be the same conversation that took place in April of 1960 say at Shaw, the real important thing is that these young people began talking to one another, and they figured out ways to make their way to one another. So I think today this kind of conversation is still needed even though it's a very different time. Maybe that's happening with YouTube and Facebook; I don't know. I'm not — I'm in Facebook in the most limited of ways, because there are things about it that make me uncomfortable.
And the last — maybe last great lesson, well, the second to last thing is that it doesn't take a lot of people to trigger a movement for change. Remember, it was four students who sat in in Greensboro, North Carolina, not the entire student body of North Carolina A&T. And while you can't predict that the action of a few will always trigger a movement, you can say that almost all movements have been triggered by the actions of a few. So I think that's an important lesson to draw on, because once you realize that, then it takes away an excuse for not doing something. That's what you get from that.
Bruce: It doesn't take a lot of people — the four students in Greensboro, or even the small number of students at Howard who were involved, compared to the whole student body — to start with. But there's a flip side to that though, it seems to me. In that, yes, you don't have to have a thousand people to start with, but you do have to have as your end concept that you will have a mass movement. Because I think for some activists, at least here in the Bay Area, there's an attitude of: "Well, we'll just have our little small group, and we don't care about appealing to or winning over or mobilizing or organizing or activating large numbers of people. We'll do small provocative actions that make us feel good." And they sometimes say, "Well see, you know, small groups of people in the Civil Rights Movement — "
Charlie: I know there's this notion of vanguard movements and vanguard parties. I'm certainly not arguing for that. I'm not suggesting that. To me, when I say it doesn't take a lot of people — I'm speaking to you with a kind of shorthand — if I say, "Organize at the grassroots and don't worry about huge numbers ," I'm not saying organize the six people who agree with you immediately —
Charlie: Nor am I saying that if others don't agree with you in the first 30 seconds they're the enemy. No. It's probably worth stating, because that is a problem that I've seen over years, here and abroad in fact. And the hard thing is sticking with the grassroots organization after you win something, in particular.
Bruce: And sticking with the grassroots even when they don't agree with you —
Charlie: Yeah, well that was the argument in SNCC, you know? Take the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which after the Atlantic City convention still decided to campaign for Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. Inside SNCC there was a lot of disagreement with that choice. But here I agree with Guyot. Guyot was the MFDP chairman and he said, "It's our organization. Thank you very much for helping us get organized, but it's our organization."
And Stokely went to Alabama precisely because he didn't want to fight Guyot. Stokely's idea was an independent political party, so he went somewhere else, to organize that, to Lowndes County, Alabama where he, Bob Mants and others organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization which was the first Black Panther Party. But the key point to understand is that when you organize people you have to recognize that once people get organized and decide to do something, it may not be what you want them to do. And SNCC's internal argument was whether or not it should organize groups of people to be a part of SNCC, or whether it should be what it more or less had always been, an organization of organizers organizing people who would be in control of their own organizations and who would determine their own direction. And even when you didn't agree with everything, or anything, they did, still accepting their right to do that, and you organized something else. We never really resolved that in my way of thinking.
Jean: Because that one's a toughie.
Charlie: Yeah, I mean, you create these things, and you want them to reflect you. Well, no, they're not always going to do that, not if you seriously — If you're saying people have a right to make the decisions that affect their lives, and you organize something to help them do that, then you can't turn around and say, "But it's my decisions that are the most important to your lives!" You can't do that.
Bruce: Well, once we left the South and got into the later "60s, I think that was a lesson that a lot — many areas of the left and progressive movement completely forgot.
Charlie: Yeah, I mean, well I think SNCC's organizing tradition was harder to understand above the Mason and Dixon line than below the Mason and Dixon line. There's not much of a tradition above the Mason and Dixon line of that, even going back to the 1930s when we had a lot of left activities. But in the South, I mean, this was a stronger tradition, but even being with a stronger tradition, we — "we" now being SNCC — really never resolved that, and it's complicated with the emergence of Black Power, and Stokely's charismatic leadership of the organization which really makes the organization something different in some respects.
And the last [lesson], which is closely related to this, is that if you think of struggle as a political equation, then you have to work the demand side of the equation. You have to make a demand for what you want. If you want to reform the schools, for instance— and by reformed, I mean change them so that they actually educate students, and I'm talking about public schools here — when students make a demand, and their parents. I wouldn't wait on the school boards. [Laughing] Or the city councils, because I don't think they care.
What were the sit-inners doing? They weren't just protesting; they were making a demand. Efforts by people like Mrs. Hamer, or Hartman Turnbow over in Holmes County, were demands to participate in the life of their town, county, state and country.
This happening across the South and this is what caused the Movement to have such great impact. Demand. It came from the grassroots. It's the demand side that you have to figure out how to fashion in this equation. And that's what the people who hold you down don't want you to understand. As long as you're not making a demand, they're cool. You know, you can complain all you want. That's what I talk to my class about. We go through it through reading and writing. And it may be why the Movement is not very much or very well taught in the public school systems.
Jean: That's a very good distinction between complaint and demand.
To be continued ...]
Copyright © 2009
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Charlie Cobb.
Last Modified: May 21, 2009.