Hardy Frye was a SNCC field secretary in Mississippi and Alabama from 1964-1967.]
Joining the Movement
At 64 I continue to be amazed at how I grew up differently in some ways. I grew up in Tuskegee Alabama. I spent a lot of my growing up days on the college campus of Tuskeege. It's now called Tuskeege University. We called it, "The Campus," because there was no place for us Black youth to go. You was either on the campus, or there was nothing else. About 10% of the town and county's population was white. They owned all the shit downtown, and we Blacks owned the rest.
I probably brought an ideology to my Movement work in Mississippi, and it was class based. Because I had grown up where they make a very real distinction between a Black Ph.D. and M.D, and Blacks with no degrees. I mean, I had a Black doctor. I knew the campus. I ran and walked through college labs all my life. I've been looking at all this stuff, but I was from the other side of the tracks in the local Black community. I couldn't date certain Black girls and all that kinda stuff.
But I had a very good sense of history because of my teachers. Sammy Young's mother was one of my teachers. She was my math teacher. They made me join the NAACP at ten I think nine or ten. You had to bring fifty cents to school. You had to pay whatever the fee was. You had to join. You didn't have a choice. Everybody belonged. [Laughing] And they would teach us Black history out of the "back door." It wasn't much in the main curriculum. I also remember Beulah Johnson a local NAACP member and Jacqueline Johnson's mother was one of my teachers.
And so I kind of grew up with this whole thing a sense of Black history. I lived so close to the campus, I mean I could hear the college band on the campus playing every goddamn day. You could hear them playing and stuff. It was about four or five blocks, or maybe half mile from my home.
But because of that experience I grew up with a whole 'nother mindset, and that mindset was to leave and go to the Army and go somewhere else, because the Blacks in Tuskegee made a real clear class distinction among Blacks.
Joining the Movement
When I was growing up, there was no Black movement in the local community that I was aware of. There was a Black movement on the campus though. But like the Black kids here in Berkeley say, "That's at Berkeley." A lot of kids where I lived in Tuskegee couldn't tell you a damn thing about that campus up there except maybe about the sports games played there. That's about all they could tell you.
I was around a little for the Montgomery Bus boycott. I joined the Army just as that was going on. My daddy and I talked about what was going on about the bus boycott and so forth. And when they blew up King's house and stuff like that.
I was kind of naive, I went in the Army and I had this great respect for people in the Civil Rights Movement. I read about it and everything in Jet magazine. That's all I read. You read Ebony, and you read Jet magazine.
After I got out of the Army, the first thing I remember that was significant was the "Tuskegee boycott" of local white merchants in Tuskegee. They had voted to gerrymand all of the Black voters in the town to be outside of the city limits thereby denying most Blacks the right to vote in city elections. During the gerrymander strike or boycott, people actually drove to Montgomery to get groceries some 40 miles away. And that wasn't easy for my father because he had no car. So it wasn't about just going down and not buying no groceries, you had to figure out a way to get to Montgomery and back, which is about 80 miles round trip or something like that.
When I got out of the army in Texas, I didn't want to go back to Alabama. I flipped a coin between New York and Los Angeles the coin was weighted to Los Angeles because I had some relatives there. So I came to California in '59, and I found myself on a picket line, picketing the 1960 Democratic convention held in Los Angeles at which John Kennedy was nominated. We were picketing for the Civil Rights Plank in the platform. It was so exciting, that I joined CORE.
The next month or so I was up at the state capitol in Sacramento California sitting in for a fair housing bill which was waiting to be signed on Govenor Pat Brown's desk. And we sat in for about a month on that damn marble floor up there in the rotunda. We slept on that marble floor. Eventually the governor signed the legislation, but it was repealed within a year or so.
I was married at the time, and my wife didn't want to have anything to do with this militant shit. And it was clear that my life was going one way, and hers was going' another way and I loved my mother-in-law better than my wife so we just split up.
At that time, L.A. was very segregated. I was living in South Central L.A and in Compton, part of Compton, southwest of Willowbrook. At that time the Willowbrook railroad track separated the white and Black community in Compton. I was in a black world. I was in a totally black world man, in the middle of L.A. I lived in a totally black world. Everything I did was mostly in a black world except my participation in the Civil Rights Movement through CORE.
So I was active in CORE, and then we joined a Friends of SNCC group, and I met Betty Garman and Mike Miller and all those people. And so when '64 came along, you know, I decided to go to Mississippi.
And I had a Marxist perspective. One of my professors had taught me all this Marxism and economic shit in school, so when I got to Mississippi, I came with a lot of "naivete" but a lot of history and social science behind me.
But I think that we must never forget how strong the '64 volunteers believed in this idea of civil rights for Southern Black people. The fact is that the night before the volunteers rolled into Mississippi in masse, a day and a half or two before, was a very important event for all of us conscious-wise. All of a sudden somebody was dead or missing, and we knew they were probably dead or hurt seriously.
You cannot underestimate the effect that had on us. I don't know how you measure it, but I know that all of a sudden we were in that auditorium, and Bob and Cleve's there, and they're whispering and all this, and then they tell us: "Hey man, these three people were missing: Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney." We all walked out of that room and got on the bus the next morning for Mississippi.
My experience in Mississippi was limited in the sense that I was in Holly Springs, and Holly Springs was a very different project. It was in the northern part of the state. Now I understood that Holly Springs was not Tallahatchie County. It was not McComb, Mississippii. It was influenced by being so close to Memphis Tennessee and there were two Black colleges in Holly Springs, Rust and Mississippi Industrial. I used to hear all this stuff about McComb and Tallahatchi County and all that and God that scared me to death. But then I had to drive down there a couple of times, and it didn't bother me after that.
But you know I had no idea we was about to make history. It wasn't clear to me that we were on the verge of making history. I guess I can understand, psychoanalyze myself at some point, but the reality was I had come out of the middle of Watts, I mean out of South Central L.A and Compton segregated by race, a totally black world. That was why I wasn't upset when I saw Mississippi. In L.A, they never told you you couldn't do nothing. You just never did. You never did, right? And I was perfectly happy, perfectly happy in that black world.
But the fact is, in Holly Springs I remember when they shot they shot this guy, I forget his name. They had a little strip of cafes right after we leave the Freedom House, before you get uptown, with all the fried chicken you can get, all the greasy fish you wanted on Friday night, right? And this white cop (there were no Black police at that time) told this cat to run, and they shot him! They shot him. They pulled out a gun and shot that boy in the leg. That happened.
I remember the first person I got registered to vote was Rita Walker. Bud Walker's wife. Both Rita and Bud became civil rights workers on the Holly Springs project. I remember when we knocked on the door and we said, "We're here to take you to register to vote." She said, "Well, my God! I've been waiting on y'all to come! Come on!" And shit, we went downtown. [Laughing] And from that point on, she was one of a number of Blacks that were not afraid of the white power structure in Holly Springs.
I remember being in Holly Springs and people had to go uptown to register to vote, and we were only about three blocks from downtown to the courthouse. At the courthouse was dogs, fire trucks, and police with guns, every goddamn thing that we had no protection from. And we had had to work all night and the day before that morning to get people ready to go and try to register. We were just going down there, right? [Laughing] They put me in a straw hat and gave me a two-way radio like I was bad, and I walked the streets of Holly Springs talking to Black folk about registering to vote. The cops were scared to bother me because they thought I had some connection. But I had no connection, the damn radio didn't even work. [Laughing] We were bluffing, man. I mean, hell, if there had been an attack I would have come down from downtown fast and gone back to the Freedom House.
So anyway, my ideas about equality and democracy and all that kind of stuff came with a tinge of Marxism, because I had been in college and discussed Marxism with many of my professors. And all the while I would go to school for six months and go to Mississippi for six months. I did it off and on for several years. And in college I took all the radical professors I could find, and anybody who wanted to talk about shaking this system up. So I came in with that ideology.
My biggest shock during this period, in terms of feeling hurt, was this fight between the Alabama faction who supported Stokeley and the Mississippi faction who supported John Lewis. I had spent about eight hours in jail with John Lewis, and at that time to spend eight hours in jail with John Lewis was like being in jail with the Lord, you know? [Laughing] I mean, I couldn't reach the Lord, and Charlie Evers had left Mississippi and gone to Chicago to give a speech to raise money. So I supported the John Lewis faction.
Fundamentally, I think people are afraid of vision makers like we were in SNCC. They're fundamentally afraid of them because it threatens them to a certain extent. I mean we were tough, man. I mean, we were tough. We went into places where others were afraid to go, man. And we went a little nuts, and we challenged conservative Black folks very harshly sometimes. We were really angry with them, in some cases we said: "You ain't nothing. You scared."
And so what happened, what I think happened is that we ran with the vision. I don't think we would have made very good politicians because we were not prepared to compromise.
We were not prepared to compromise. We have to face that. But part of why I think we were not prepared to compromise is that we didn't win that much a lot of times. When the issues were really tough for us, we lost. The Mississippi Democratic Challenge, 1964, and then in the winter of 1965 when we challenged the Mississippi congressional delegation. That was an effort to cut the number of the Mississippi congressmen based on the fact that so many people had been denied the right to vote. We did all that work and went up there and stood in front of them sheriffs and got them to sign all them depositions and all that stack of shit, and the shit lasted about five minutes at the Congressional hearings in Washington. I mean, you know that took a lot of nerve for you to go over and tell people like Eastland, "I want to subpoena you." That's what we did. All over the state.
And people in power in the national Democratic Party told us they were going to support us. And they told us they were gonna support us in '64 at the convention, and they told us they were gonna support us in '65. And they didn't. As a result we had tension within SNCC between Blacks and whites around the direction that the organization should take to continue what we had been doing or move towards Black Power with white SNCC workers organizing whites in the white community to end racism.
But what we did, what we got to accept is that if we hadn't done it Reverse the question. What if we hadn't gone down to Mississippi? What if we had not been the visionaries? You think Roy Deberry, a local Black youth who had worked with us in Holly Springs, would be a major player in Mississippi politics today? No goddamn way.
Fundamentally, we are still the visionaries. But the point we got to remember is that if we hadn't done it, that's the question we have to ask. Remember, we are talking about around a thousand volunteers. We ain't talking about no big army.
One of the most interesting things when I went around the country recently was where people were 30 or so years later. A lot of the people that were involved in the summer project experience were strong in the women's movement, and other people that you find in the environmental movements were some of the early people involved with SNCC. There was a spring off from what we did that spread itself fairly wide. Look, childcare, affirmative action, all these things emanated from some of the fundamental questions we were raising.
My book on Black Alabama politics Black Parties and Political Power: A Case Study came out in 1980. So I must have been doing the research for it in about '73 or '74. While doing research I was riding on them rural roads. And they have little service stations and shit, and I still was afraid at night to go in and get me a cup of coffee, I still had a little chill or fear from the old days. You know, I couldn't shake that stuff.
I heard that George Wallace got shot and I had to go to Lowndes County, from Tuskegee that day. I was sleeping and my mother woke me up and said to me, "Are you going over to Selma?" Everything was Selma for her. She said, "You going over to Selma?" I said, "Yeah." She said, "George Wallace just got shot." And I had to drive over Highway 80, right? And it ain't that far. But it's far enough if you remember 1963, 64, 65, right? [Laughing]
So I'm riding along. I'm going down to Lowndes County, man, the place where the first Black Panther Party was started. I'm going to interview Sheriff Hewlett. I mean, to get in your car and realize that you're going to interview the sheriff of Lowndes County and he is one of the few Black sheriffs in Alabama. In fact, most of the people I was interviewing in the Lowndes county courthouse were Black. Okay?
I had a blowout down there, and the white Highway patrol pulls over, and he says, "Sir, can I help you?" And the first thing I said, "I can get it done. I can get it done. Don't worry about it." I could not move myself from the fact that a common courtesy could happen to me, a courtesy that we would not think nothing about today. It happened to me then, and all I could see was myself hanging from some goddamn branch somewhere. And it was so funny, because he asked me where I was going, and I told him I was going to interview Sheriff Hewlett. And about two hours later after I got my tire fixed, and arrived at Hewlett's office, he came in to check in with the county sheriff. Same guy.
When I was going around the country interviewing people I would ask them "What were you doing in '64? What are you doing now?" And they were all still involved in civil rights activity and social justice causes. If you take and put them all down on a list, you can probably find the people easy who were the ones who sold out the biggest and ran away from the Movement. But Movement people are still doing it, still carrying the struggle and vision. So there must be something about this vision that we had that we are still interested in pursuing it. Only now we realize it ain't going to happen in our lifetimes in most cases.
But look at what we're doing! I mean, look at what we're doing. I looked at a list the other day of the '64 volunteers that they sent me for the Holly Springs civil rights reunion, and it's kind of funny. You read a list and see an attorney, I forget the name of that attorney I used to write and talk to, and what is he doing? He's still in New York stirring up shit. The people are still out there. We're still doing it. So it wasn't like this was an experience that happened here, and then it stopped. It happened here, we had a great experience, and we moved forward in the different movements, etc, and we're still out there. We're just older and grayer. That's all.
Copyright © 2003
Last Modified: December 7, 2003.
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 Hardy Frye.