As head of the Jackson MS NAACP Youth Council, Hunter Bear played a leading role in the Jackson MS, Movement 1962-1963, and then worked as a field organizer for SCEF in North Carolina and elsewhere.]
Names Upon the Mind
North Jackson NAACP
Mississippi Free Press
Meredith Integrates 'Ole Miss
The Jackson Boycott
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
The Mass Movement
Political Pressures & NAACP Role
The Low Point
Assasination of Medgar Evers
Funeral of Medgar Evers
Ambush by Automobile
Going to Work for SCEF
Relations With SCLC/SCOPE
After the South
Teaching & Organizing
Names Upon the Mind
Hunter: My name is Hunter Gray and Hunter Bear, formerly I was John R. Salter, Jr. I come from a racially mixed marriage, my father an essentially full blooded Indian from the Northeast, and mother an Anglo, mostly Scottish, from an old Western family. My father was adopted and partially raised by a family named Salter, who changed his name from Frank Gray to John Randall Salter. And I in due course became John Randall, Salter, Jr. But many years ago, I legally went back to the name Gray, which you would see as our basic family name obviously, and did a legal name change.
Bruce: And Hunter Bear?
Hunter: Hunter Bear has been with me most of my life. It came early from the Indian direction. Dad was Micmac, St Francis Abenaki, St. Regis Mohawk. Upstate New York, Southeastern Canada, Northern Maine, that region. And eventually he and mother connected.
Bruce: You use the word "Indian." Is that the term you prefer?
Hunter: Well, I'll use "Indian" and "Native" back and forth. "Native American," "Indian." I tend to use "Native," because it's also a common term in Canada, but sometimes I'll use "Indian." If I'm writing something, I don't want to use "Native" over and over again. So it's sprinkled around, whatever.
For the most part, I grew up in Flagstaff, AZ, and would consider that my home town. And our family was deeply involved with the Navajo Nation, and still is. And Laguna Pueblo, and we still are. So that's basically where that got started. My father was the first Native person hired on the faculty of Arizona State College at Flagstaff, which is now Northern Arizona University.
Bruce: What did he teach?
Hunter: Art. He graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago and got two graduate degrees, a Master's and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, over a period of time. He'd never had any high school, so he didn't do too badly.
Bruce: So where did you go to college?
Hunter: Well, basically, University of Arizona, then very much at Arizona State University, in Tempe, and later the University of Washington in Seattle, much later.
Bruce: And you got what, a Doctorate?
Hunter: No, I didn't. In fact, all the work for a Doctorate was completed at the University of Washington, except for the final formalities, and we never went that final step. All the course work, virtually a straight "A" average. The book was to be the dissertation (Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism. Other formalities had been completed and we just never went the extra half a mile to finish the thing up. I never worried about it too much. I always liked the poet John Beecher's comment, "Conscientious objector from the Ph.D."
Bruce: I had never heard that, but I certainly sympathize with it.
Hunter: We knew Beecher very well.
Bruce: Oh really? From the famous Beecher family?
Hunter: Oh yeah, an excellent poet. And he was a free spirit too.
Bruce: So how did you get involved in the civil rights movement?
Hunter: Well, I was born into it. Flagstaff was very small in those days, a remote Northern Arizona town. With some saving graces, but the saving graces were particularly the wilderness areas around it. It was racist as hell. There were signs on restaurants, "No Indians or Dogs Allowed". One really low-brow movie theatre would take in anybody as a viewer, but others insisted that certain groups of people sit in the balcony, etc, and so on. You couldn't view Flagstaff as a traditional Southern racial complex, because you had all sorts of exceptions here and exceptions there. But the basic ethos of the place when I grew up there, and that's really as I say where I did grow up, was just plain racist as hell.
And so [I was] born into it, lots of prejudice, lots of discrimination, a small Black community. I was just starting high school when a white man named Oliver Wood, who'd been on a drunk one Saturday night, was going home and was driven out of his house by his wife, who was enraged at his drinking, and instead of going after her, he went down on the South side and shot down a Negro minister and his deacon in cold blood. Killed them. He was never taken into custody.
There were other things that occurred. Navajo Indians particularly were singled out for very discriminatory treatment, forced on to chain gangs to fix streets and shovel snow, it's a heavy snow fall area. Mississippi was characterized by a total segregation complex. This applied to much of the South, it wasn't just Mississippi, as you know. A place like Flagstaff, it was more of a border South type thing. As I say, one movie theatre would admit anybody.
My parents were very active in social-justice endeavors. It didn't make them particular popular in some quarters, but they really didn't care, fortunately. And I grew up in that tradition. One man that they worked very closely with was the principal of the small Negro grade school. He was Wilson Riles, who later went to California and became State Superintendent of Public Instruction. When we knew him in Flagstaff, he was certainly a colleague of my parents.
Bruce: When you say a Black elementary school, were they legally segregated, two separate school systems?
Hunter: Yeah, the elementary school thing was as far as Blacks were concerned. They had one school system, but they had a separate elementary school for the Black kids.
Bruce: What about the Indians?
Hunter: They could go to school anywhere, and this held true for others, Chicanos. This didn't mean everything was sweetness and light. What it probably meant is that there wasn't enough money to build a whole bunch of schools, or the zeal to do it, as far as that goes. But Black kids, until 1954, went to a small Black elementary school, and Wilson Riles Sr. was principal of that school.
In other schools, it was pretty well mixed. The high school was very well integrated. But none of this necessarily meant that the beloved community was right around the corner, because you had a lot of police brutality, a lot of brutality from some of the sheriffs and deputies, very unequal patterns of quote "justice" unquote. Restaurants that were closed, one restaurant would serve Native people & Chicanos, but wouldn't serve Blacks. Another restaurant would serve only Anglos. At that particular point, you had a federal law, which wasn't repealed until about 1954, which prohibited the sale of alcohol to Indians. And so you had a big bootlegging thing going on and payoffs to law enforcement officers.
Bruce: It does sound familiar.
Hunter: It was an interesting atmosphere, you know, to grow up in. Some of this is captured in the, not really that far away situation in Silver City, NM, by the excellent film Salt of the Earth.
I went into the Army, and I got out of the Army in due course, served a full hitch honorably. There's no particular point even going into it except that I got out early in 1955, and at that point I was just turning 21 years old. I had volunteered when I was 18, and I was barely 21. And things had changed.
One sign of that was the fact that [after Army discharge] I joined what was left of the old IWW, Industrial Workers of the World [also known as the "Wobblies"], and remained a member of that from the beginning of 1955, when I joined it about the time I got out of the Army, all the way through until 1961. By that time most of the old time IWW was pretty much gone. But what weren't gone were a lot of old timers with whom I had spent a great deal of time listening. And they had lots of fascinating things to tell me, and they had a great many lessons to give. At the same time, I was involved going to school and things of that sort.
Bruce: So you started going to college after you got out of the Army, on the GI Bill.
Hunter: That's right. I had done a little bit beforehand, but not very much. So it was mostly after I got out that I was on the GI Bill. I became involved very quickly with the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union, which needed committed volunteer help, and then at various points I worked as what's called a "development miner," which involves basically starting new mines. I can't say that my career as a development miner was particularly noteworthy, but I did know a good deal about the use of explosives, and still do. So I went to school, worked at various things, including development miner, and did a lot of volunteer work for Mine Mill, a union with which I maintained a very close relationship all through many epics, until it merged with the Steelworkers' Union in 1967, a merger that many of us are sorry occurred.
Bruce: A few Mine Mill locals in California merged with the ILWU.
Hunter: And the Falconbridge local in Sudbury, Ontario, nickel mining, remained independent for years, and then eventually went into the Canadian Auto Workers, but still maintains a Mine Mill identity.
I think to sort of pull this together, before I went in the Army I'd been a great forest firefighter in Northern Arizona, lying about my age, I was 18 when I was 16, 18 when I was 17, and so on. It was after I got out of the Army that things began to come together in what I'd call a homegrown radical vision. For that I'm indebted to the IWW and to its offspring, the Mine Mill Union.
[After getting] a masters' degree in Sociology, I went off to my first college teaching job [at Wisconsin State College at Superior]. It was run by a Texan "Bircher" by the name of Jim Dan Hill, who was a commander of the Wisconsin National Guard, and somebody who certainly was out of the dinosaur era.
[Background: In the 1950s and '60s the "John Birch Society" was a major right-wing extremist organization obsessed with "anti-communisim." Financed by corporate interests, they considered all unions to be Communist organizations, racial integration was a Communist plot to undermine America, the ACLU was a tool of Moscow, any questioning of the status quo was Communist subversion, and so on. They even considered Republican President Eisenhower to be a "Communist dupe."]
I knew a great deal about organizing techniques and things of that sort. I'd learned a lot. In Wisconsin, I met Eldri and we were married as I was finishing my year there, and I say my year because I tried to organize the AFT (American Federation of Teachers). [And when General Hill] suspended student government and did some other things, I helped organize the students and we had a big fight.
The fight saw me non-renewed, not surprisingly. It also saw me marry Eldri at the end of that year. And the fight also saw General Hill told that he would only two more years there, and then he would have to leave into some sort of arranged retirement.
At that point it was the spring of 1961, and we read about the Freedom Rides, which of course were major national news. At the same time we read a little about the Tougaloo library sit-in, where nine kids from a college I'd never heard of, Tougaloo College, sat-in at the white-only library in Jackson [MS], and were arrested.
We began to get interested in what was obviously happening in the South, and I wrote to an acquaintance, Glen Smiley of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). I knew that organization and respected it because Wilson Riles had been a member of that in Flagstaff in the old days. I wrote to Glen Smiley, who was the top official of FOR, and I said to him we're interested in going South, maybe to teach at a Negro college, what would you suggest? And he wrote right back, he knew who I was, and he was very cordial. He had been involved in the Montgomery bus boycott with Martin King, and knew the South well. He was a Southerner, a white Southerner. And he said there are two colleges that I'll suggest. One is Claflin College in South Carolina and one is Tougaloo in Mississippi. He said at either one of those it will get as rough as it could ever get, something to that effect. So I wrote them both. Claflin was full up in social sciences, Tougaloo needed me, and we went there. And so we arrived in Jackson.
Bruce: Tougaloo is a bit north of ...
Hunter: Yeah, the town of Jackson has expanded and I don't know if there's much distance any more, but there was then. And Tougaloo had informally incorporated at least as a village in its own right. I don't think it was even incorporated as a town, but just a village with a college there, about five miles north of Jackson.
And the county line split [the campus], you read my post (A Magnolia Tale) about going to get the license plate. Most of the college happened to be in Madison County [the rest is in Hinds County]. The sheriff [of Madison] was fully as bad as Lawrence Rainey that's the best way to put it. [Neshoba County sherrif Lawrence Rainey arranged the assasination of the 3 civil rights workers in the summer of 1964] And [Madison] county had a close relationship with Neshoba County.
When I went there I didn't know a hell of a lot about the South. I had a few relatives on my mother's side who'd been sprinkled around through it, mostly in Alabama, one or two in Mississippi, but they hadn't stayed there forever. Eldri knew nothing about it. You know, we got there on the first day of September 1961, and it was ungodly hot and humid. Furthermore, I couldn't seem to understand anybody, white or Black, and it took about four or five days before I was able to do that. You may have had that experience.
Bruce: I know exactly what you mean.
Hunter: We were, however, greeted very cordially by students and those faculty who were there at that point, the school year hadn't quite begun. And by Dr. Borinski, who was very much a fixture. Borinski was prominently featured in the excellent PBS film From Swastika to Jim Crow.
Bruce: Is he one of the ones who had come from Germany?
Hunter: Yes, he was a [Jewish] refugee who was fortunate in making it out. A very good friend, we remained good friends until his death in the early eighties. Joyce Ladner was a special friend of his, as were were many others.
Borinski was Chairman of the Social Science Division. He maintained a center in the middle of the college, where he lived and cooked excellent luncheons for lots of people. Every month he had a social science forum in which he brought down illustrious people. While we were there, for example, Martin King came, Otto Nathan (old leftist and civil libertarian from the East), and Pete Seeger showed up, having been brought there by Bill Kunstler, who was making the rounds even at that early point. This was about 1962.
Bruce: The Tougaloo faculty, how did it break down racially?
Hunter: Oh, I'd say mostly non-Black. And non-Black in that sense would also involve people like me who weren't really white. It would involve a faculty member who was Chinese.
It would also involve a faculty member who turned out to be a first class SOB and a spy for the [Mississippi] Soveignty Commission, who was a Cuban refugee. His name was Jose Cid. He wound up as a fink for the Sovereignty Commission, it became clear when we got the papers opened. Some of us were able to view those documents.
Bruce: The Tougaloo student body, obviously it was a historically Negro college. But there's a fairly significant Indian population in Mississippi, were they...?
Hunter: No. At that point, the Mississippi band of Choctaw Indians, located in Neshoba and Leake Counties, remained very reclusive. We know a good deal about that because my grandson Thomas, who is in many respects a son too, is one half Mississippi Choctaw, and has just started medical school at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, just started his first classes three weeks ago.
However, many of the students were part Indian, and interested in that, and I talked a lot about that in class and also in informal sessions with students, in which we talked about all sorts of other things too, everything from evolution to God knows what.
North Jackson NAACP
Well, we hadn't been at Tougaloo more than a few days, and I was teaching a wide variety of courses, you did that in those days in schools that needed people. One of my courses was American government. And I gave this talk on American government to my Black students about how we needed to become involved in the world outside the campus. I mean, obviously Eldri and I hadn't gone to Tougaloo just to teach. But on the other hand we weren't pushing the issue, I mean, we felt things would come in due course, as they did indeed.
But back to the American government course, this is a fine speech for me to make, in a sense identified with the college and thus an enemy of the state. We were still, however, not as vulnerable as Black students who were living, for example, in Jackson or Canton, or places like that. And so it was a nice speech to make about how we should become involved. And I didn't have much of a chance to rest on that because that's when Colia Liddell grabbed me after class and said that was a wonderful speech, and we'd like to invite you to give a talk in North Jackson on the Interstate Commerce Commission and the meaning of its desegregation order.
Bruce: She was working with Medgar at that time or was this before?
Hunter: Well, she was, but she was still a student. And she explained that she was President of a small group called the North Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP. And she wanted me to come and give a talk to the community at a church. And I said I would do that.
And at that point several faculty, who were white faculty from the North, warned me about doing that. They said once you do that, it'll become known and you'll be having a lot of trouble.
Of course, that didn't deter me. I mean, we'd been through some tough times, I've skimmed over those times, but I mean from the day I joined the IWW, which was listed as a subversive organization for some odd reason by the Attorney General, my Mine Mill involvements, coordinating strike relief for Mine Mill in the Phoenix area, Mine Mill defense activities and everything else. You know, we'd been battered back and forth, and I'm a pretty tough thug. And had been in jail and kicked around and hit and so on, and I was not one to wilt, quite the contrary.
So I didn't pay any attention to those faculty members at all, and I went off to that evening and I spoke. And it was a well-prepared speech. The Interstate Commerce Commission had just issued an order desegregating interstate bus traffic as a result of the Freedom Rides. And on the basis of that there was a little chink [in the social walls of segregation] here and there, but there wasn't much. Mississippi's approach, and that of much of the hard core South, was to just ignore things. But anyway, that was my pioneer voyage into the Mississippi civil rights waters, and everybody was very pleased. So pleased that Colia asked if I'd be the adult advisor to the North Jackson Youth Council. And I said I would.
Bruce: What did that mean?
Hunter: Well, it meant that we had meetings as often as we could have them. We had nine kids who were scared, but not so scared that they didn't come to meetings.
Bruce: So that would include Colia and the Ladner sisters?
Hunter: No, [the Ladners] were part of the Tougaloo group, which we later rejuvenated and worked with.
Bruce: So this was separate, these were not Tougaloo students?
Hunter: No, not at that point, although eventually everything began to merge. There had been several NAACP Youth Councils in Jackson, West Jackson and so on, but those dried up. The atmosphere was obviously poisonous. And the one remaining group was in North Jackson that had nine or ten kids in it. Cleveland Donald was a major figure, he eventually got his doctorate in history, he has taught Black studies, things like that.
Bruce: By "kids," you're like talking high school or college age?
Hunter: Mostly high school. Pearlena Louis is a major figure, I heard a few years ago that she died, but I heard from her sister the other day. Colia was certainly a major spark plug. We had meetings, but it was hard to find things to do at that point.
Bruce: You mean things that could be done safely, or at least surviveably.
Hunter: Yeah, with some even faint hope of effectiveness.
Bruce: How did NAACP higher leadership feel about you becoming advisor?
Hunter: Well, we're coming to that, if you read my book, (Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism you'll read about some of those things. Medgar Evers, who I had not yet met, had expressed great pleasure to Colia that I agreed to do it. He'd heard of me, knew something about my labor background, things like that. I hadn't yet met him. So he was all for it. Before long I met him, and we became good friends and remained close colleagues, comrades you would say.
Bruce: And he was State Director at that time?
Hunter: Field Secretary. They had nothing called the State Director, but that's what it amounted to in a way. And he was based in Jackson on Lynch Street, at the Negro Masonic Temple.
Medgar was an interesting person who, in addition to being substantially African-American, was also Choctaw. And we found we had a good many things in common, including the fact we were both [military] veterans, me of one era and he of an earlier one. Actually, to jump ahead a bit, when he was shot to death on June the 11th, 1963, the two of us were making plans with National AmVets, the veterans' group, to try to organize an integrated veterans' group in Jackson. And unfortunately we were never able to do so.
So in any case, he was very much in favor of my doing this, and I liked him and respected him enormously all the way through. Before long, I was elected a board member of the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP Branches. This brought me into contact with Dr. Aaron Henry of Clarksdale and others. Now this was an early period [Fall of '61]. As I say, the world had not yet discovered [the Civil Rights Movement].
Bruce: Bob Moses [of SNCC] was just about to go into McComb at that period to start SNCC's first voter registration project.
Hunter: That's right, and things were just starting. We hadn't been in Jackson very long at all before Herbert Lee was shot to death in Amite County in front of the courthouse at Liberty for trying to pay poll tax. And you know, it was the cruelest situation that I'd ever seen in the United States. And I must say that [Mississippi] was another country. I mean, it was absolutely unbelievable.
We weren't without a few interesting pipelines here and there. My mother's youngest brother and my favorite uncle on that side was one of several Southern Vice-Presidents of Union Carbide out of Birmingham. We disagreed on a number of things, but remained always good friends. He interacted on occasion with portions of the Mississippi power structure. I give him full credit for always indicating at every point that I was his nephew, and in fact, his favorite nephew. And he never backed up on any kind of an issue. But from him we occasionally got, in a perfectly ethical way, certain bits of information that were useful.
Bruce: And he was living in Birmingham?
Hunter: Mountain Brook, a choice suburb [of Birmingham]. He was always a friend. No matter where we were in ideological counterpoints.
Mississippi Free Press
You know, when we were thinking about what to do, Medgar and I and several other people launched the Mississippi Free Press, an "underground" paper.
Background: In the slang of the 1960s, "underground" newspapers were non-traditional, non-mainstream, anti-establishment publications that provided alternate points of view to that presented as the "official news" by the pro-status-quo mainstream media. Usually published weekly or twice a month, often distributed for free by volunteers, with little advertising support, they were primarily supported by donations of money and labor. The "underground" papers of the '60s were originally highly political, taking strong civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and "counter-culture" stands. By the late '60s all major cities and many small towns and military bases had one or more "underground" papers, most of which folded in the '70s for lack of funds.]
I've read several accounts in which this person or that person has tried to take credit for having started it. But actually, none of those particular people who so endeavored to take credit for starting it were ever in on the ground floor of it.
The ground floor was pretty broad, there were a lot of people that helped get the Free Press going, Medgar certainly, Dr. Henry, one of the very few courageous white journalists, Hazel Brannon Smith of Lexington [MS], a very good person, I knew her well. Tom Johnson, a white fundamentalist minister from the North who worked with Black sharecroppers out of Canton. Bill Higgs, a white lawyer in Jackson, later driven out of the state. And others.
We got the Free Press going, it had to be printed in Memphis and smuggled into the state. Hazel Smith played an important role in some of those mechanics. She was certainly none too popular with the segs [segregationists], one of her branch newspaper offices was blown up very close to Tougaloo when we were there, dynamited.
We went into the spring of '62 and there were [new] things that people were trying to do. SNCC was was getting started [with voter-registration projects], CORE had people coming in and out and finally settled on Dave Dennis [as CORE's leader in Mississippi] based in Canton. But he also worked for a while in Jackson.
You know, things occurred that certainly gave the measure of Mississippi's intransigence. The shooting of Corporal Roman Duckworth, Jr. at Taylorville, Black corporal, military police, five children, wife getting ready to give birth to the sixth child in Laurel. He was asleep in the bus when it crossed from Tennessee into Mississippi. And in Tennessee you could sleep fairly safely in the front of the bus. And the only reason he did that, I think, was a space thing, but in Mississippi, He was sound asleep in the front of the bus, and they went all the way down and pulled into Taylorville, where a marshal named Kelly shot him to death in broad daylight in front of 30 witnesses.
Bruce: Was he in uniform at the time?
Hunter: Yes, he was. And the Army sent a color guard, an integrated color guard, to his funeral. The Free Press, pioneered in that story and many others stories. But these things were happening with a dreary frequency.
At the same time, Meredith, James Meredith was making his bid to enter 'Ole Miss. And that was beginning to heat up. I mean, the word was that he just might make it.
Earlier efforts by [other] people had come to nothing. Medgar had once made an effort to get into 'Ole Miss and was turned down and became NAACP Field Secretary. Clyde Kennard tried to get into Southern [Mississippi Southern College, now Univ. of Southern Mississippi] at Hattiesburg and was framed up, Joyce Ladner with her sister Dorie played key roles in eventually getting him out, when he was dying of cancer.
[Background: Clyde Kennard was framed on phoney charges and sent to Parchman prison to prevent him from integrating the school. Today, in belated recognition of that cruel injustice, the school's Office of Registrar is housed in a building named after Kennard.]
Anyway, Meredith's thing showed signs of maybe making it. All through this period the Kennedys were fair weather allies, to be blunt about it.
Bruce: I would say that "fair weather allies" is overly positive about it.
Hunter: That's about it, yeah. They were a long way away. And they weren't really, they were difficult people to reach on this issue. They were far beyond my world. You know, the people who had tried to approach Robert Kennedy, for example, found him pleasant but evasive, hamstrung in at least his own mind by political constraints and things of that sort.
Bruce: Well, it was later that year that Robert Kennedy had them indict the people in Albany [GA] on federal charges to appease the Southern senators. It was just a total frame-up.
Hunter: Kunstler referred to that as a, "Bone thrown to the segregationists." In the fall of '62, however, things were beginning to bubble. I met Bill Kunstler because his daughter Karen had become a student at Tougaloo. And she was a student there for that year. Joan Trumhauer had come the first year and was Tougaloo's first white student. Also Charlotte Phillips from Pennsylvania, who was also white, was there in the fall of '62. But the real contact for us was made by Karen, bringing her father and Pete Seeger over to our house. And we had a long talk. He said he'd help us in any way he could if we could get something going. We were already planning to get something going in August, almost six weeks before Bill and Pete Seeger and Karen arrived on our doorstep.
I had started writing a small mimeographed paper called "North Jackson Action." Volume 1, Number 1 was done on August 22nd, 1962. I told Eldri we were going to build something that would crack Jackson, and Eldri said "Well, I hope so, but I don't think you can".
Our [NAACP] Youth Council was meeting and it had gone from probably nine kids to possibly two dozen. One thing that we did decide to do was to eliminate the requirement that people join the NAACP. In other words, if a kid came to a meeting and continued to come to meetings, we'd consider him or her a member. And we didn't worry about the membership card thing, which the national office was particularly concerned about.
So the Youth Council was beginning to show some signs of growth. I was putting together the little bulletin and the Free Press was helpful, but it had fallen under the editorship of somebody we didn't like, Charlie Butts, a young white guy from the North who was tied in too much with respectable union labor, particularly the UAW. And he didn't want to antagonize them and worry them with too much civil rights talk.
When we looked at things in late September of '62 we saw that the state was inflamed by the imminent admission of Meredith. People were being knocked off, Blacks, in such things as cars hitting them at night when they were walking along the road, things of that sort. It was a very dangerous time. I mean, these weren't accidents, this was deliberate murder.
Bruce: And around this time SNCC had now gone in to Greenwood?
Hunter: It was starting, you know, but it wasn't to flower though for some months.
Bruce: Willie Peacock, he goes by the name Wazir now, is in our group. He's told us a lot about going in to Greenwood in '62. I don't know if you ever met him.
Hunter: Oh yeah, good person. We knew him pretty well. And [Bob] Zellner came through every so often, people like that.
But the problem in Jackson was that for one thing it was the center of White Citizens' Council activity. For another, it was a city, which meant that it didn't have rural cohesion. You know, you had a certain amount of interpersonal urban alienation there. But I think the real problem, when you got down to the nitty-gritty, was that the NAACP didn't want other groups coming in. This wasn't Medgar's personal policy, but this was the policy of the national office, which would be Roy Wilkins, and particularly the Director of Branches, Gloster Current. Current, as it turned out, was no friend of any of us. That took a while to transpire.
Bruce: But weren't Jim Bevel and Dianne Nash working in Jackson [for SNCC]?
Hunter: Oh yeah, they were in and out, definitely. And Dave [Dennis] with CORE, and so on. But [Jackson] was still viewed as the NAACP's province. We were willing and very happy to be ecumenical about this whole thing. I mean, I've never bought the idea it can only be one group, if everybody's going in the same direction, why, let's work together. Ultimately, Medgar felt that way. SNCC people wrote for the Free Press, so did CORE people such as they were. CORE didn't have a great deal of staff in that region.
Meredith Integrates 'Ole Miss
When Meredith entered the University of Mississippi he was accompanied by more troops then General Washington had ever commanded during the Revolutionary War. The White Citizens Council was [distributing] stickers that were plastered on cars, "Get the Castro brothers out of the White House," and so on. The Council Field Director was haranguing crowds with a bullhorn, "Go up to Oxford, fight for freedom" [that is, fight the troops to prevent Meredith from integrating 'Ole Miss.] and so on. Well, the University was partially destroyed [in the ensuing riot]. Two people died, a hundred injured, Meredith got in.
But in the wake of that, there was a reaction. The Council organized even more assiduously to tighten things up. Meredith's entrance was a major thing for the Black people of Mississippi and elsewhere. It was a sign that even the center of the iceberg here could be cracked.
But Meredith had a terrible time up there. Medgar was on the phone constantly bolstering him. I was sitting in Medgar's office while he was doing that. Meredith was befriended by a few courageous white people on the campus, notably Jim Silver of the History Department, who later became a very good friend of ours and wrote the book Mississippi, the Closed Society.
Meredith was in Old Miss, surrounded by troops and guards. The state was in a permanent froth, the papers were screaming constantly about communism. And all the while I was in the South I don't recall meeting any bona fide Communist who was based in the South, to be candid about it. For whatever that may mean. But anyway, you wouldn't have know that from the Jackson Daily News and the Clarion Ledger. They were just absolutely rags. And making wild charges of all kinds.
Somewhere along the line I spent several days conducting what are probably the first poverty surveys conducted in certain rural Mississippi counties, Tunica, Coahoma, Madison, parts of Yazoo and so on, on the whole matter of [expulsion] of sharecroppers [from the land] as a retaliatory thing against the movement. This in the context of speeded up automation, but it was really a retaliatory thing. I gathered a lot of data. In Madison County, Dave Dennis went with me, and I did it with other local people in Tunica and places like that. Hard to believe, Tunica is now a suburb of Memphis. Then it was one of the most remote and desolate rural counties I've ever seen.
Bruce: I know. And viciously racist.
Hunter: People told me they had killed every rabbit for ten miles around [for food]. I mean, the economic privation was awful.
[At that time] the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights included the Tougaloo President as one of its members, and I testified regarding my surveys and findings before that group. They gave it broad publicity in the Federal Context. I was gratified to learn not too long after that, that had been helpful in laying the basis for beefing up the commodities programs and at the same time laying the basis for the Food Stamp thing, which came in.
Bruce: Which a lot of counties refused to participate in as retaliation for voter registration.
Hunter: That's right, but in a number of cases, we were able, in other hard-core parts of the South, to force those counties to participate in it.
The Jackson Boycott
We decided we had to do something in Jackson, and we developed the idea of an economic boycott [of white-owned stores]. And if all of this preliminary stuff would be considered to be getting the lay of the land for the Jackson Movement, when we started planning for the boycott, that would be the formative period.
Bruce: The boycott was around what kind of demands?
Hunter: The boycott's demands were very simple. There were four basic demands:
They were really far from revolutionary by any yardstick. In Mississippi they were considered very subversive demands.
Bruce: Well, in Mississippi they were revolutionary.
Hunter: Yes, they were. And in other parts of the South too. Later I saw other parts of it just as bad. So we started talking about the boycott. We didn't just jump into it, there had been jump-in efforts before, those had come to nothing. A boycott was called, and it was dead within two days. You had to work at it. So we started touching base in the Black community, all over Jackson, and also eventually in some of the surrounding counties, like Rankin, Madison, Yazoo, places like that, from which people came in to shop.
There seemed to be good sentiment for this if we could actually show that we were serious. And to show that we were serious, we decided we had to do two things. We had to distribute masses of leaflets, which like the sale of the Free Press was a "subversive" activity, punishable by arrests and fines and things of that sort. [Under Mississippi law it was a crime to boycott, or advocate boycotting businesses].
And we also had to put ourselves on the line publicaly. And so Eldri and myself and four Black students, one of those was Betty Ann Poole, planned to picket on December 12th in front of the Woolworth's store on Capitol Street.
The area of the boycott were very broad. It included most of the downtown area and also certain outlying branches of stores that were based in the downtown area. There were some exceptions. One motor company, McKay Motor, from which I had bought my car and was to get a second car after mine was destroyed in a rigged auto wreck, had refused steadfastly to contribute to the Citizen's Council. So we exempted them. Medgar agreed, I mean we all agreed we'd exempt McKay.
[Background: Though it blathered endlessly about "freedom from government tyranny," the White Citizens Council (now called the "Council of Conservative Citizens") enforced a ruthless campaign of economic terroism against Blacks who participated in the Movement or tried to register to vote, and also against any white person or business who in the Council's opinion was not sufficiently pro-segregation, or who refused to make "voluntary" donations to the Council.]
There was an interesting target of the boycott, a half-blood Choctaw who ran a store in downtown Jackson, I can't remember his name. Mississippi was basically a two color state. If an Indian lived on a reservation, the Indian would be counted as an Indian, but often if he lived off the reservation, he'd be counted as white, but he wouldn't be treated as white. The Mississippi Chinese were classified in all sorts of creative ways. It's an interesting story that Jim Loewen has gone into. Chicanos found themselves in an odd netherworld. They were usually classed as white, but weren't treated as white.
Bruce: La Flor County was named after...
Hunter: Greenwood LeFlor, the Choctaw leader. Anyway, this [store owner] was half Choctaw, half white. He was a great football player. And they wanted him on the 'Ole Miss football team back in the early '50s. And so how were they going to handle that? Well, they handled it very quickly by officially classifying him as "white." They were pragmatic about these things, I mean the rules.
He wound up running a business in downtown Jackson that which was discriminatory and we boycotted him too. I was always struck by the fact that the great Creek war chief, Billy Weatherford, was one-eighth Creek and seven-eighths Scottish. He and his warriors destroyed Fort Mims in Alabama and killed Colonel Mims, who was half Choctaw and half white, but considered himself an American. So these color lines can do interesting things indeed.
Anyway, the boycott had a broad and ambitious focus. And on this 12th of December 1962, Eldri and I and our four Tougaloo students, all picked because their parents either lived out of state or were otherwise not especially vulnerable to reprisals. We went down into Capitol Street to picket the Woolworth's store, it was the coldest day of the year, and the streets were virtually deserted, except for police. There were police cars that lined one end of Capitol Street to the other, from the area around the governor's mansion, the state offices, all the way down, there were cop cars parked.
Bruce: You had notified them in advance?
Hunter: Yes, we had. We did that through Bill Kunstler, who agreed to defend us. Bill hadn't notified the police, he had notified the media, UPI, AP, and so on, that's all he had to do. The word spread rapidly [and the police] knew something was going to happen.
Now this was complicated and a harbinger of what lay ahead in the way of difficulties. The NAACP locally had promised bail bond [money] and the national office killed that. They killed it at the last minute, otherwise the picket would have occurred right after Thanksgiving Day.
Bruce: And what were their stated and real reasons for killing it?
Hunter: There was no reason given. It hit Medgar pretty hard. He was paid by them, he was their Field Secretary. But his loyalties went with the people of Mississippi. This was a dichotomy of strain that was to appear a number of times as the saga wound its way. But we didn't have to worry too much. Kunstler came right into the thing with the money from the Gandhi Society, which was Dr. King's legal arm. The Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF) put up a fair hunk of bail bond, and some other bail bond monies were put up. Bail bond was $500 apiece.
Bruce: Ann Braden was with SCEF at that time.
Hunter: That's right, and the Bradens were very helpful at that point. But Jim Dombrowski, the SCEF director, was a good friend of good friends of mine. He was a good friend of Nigel Hampton of Birmingham, who was connected with the Chemical Workers Union, who was a good friend of mine and so on. So we knew Jim through those people, and Jim knew us. And he would have been helpful in any case whether he knew who we were or not. But SCEF was a great help, and the Gandhi Society. Victor Rabinowitz put up a bond, the left lawyer.
So we went down Capitol Street on that coldest day of the year, there were hardly any pedestrians, but it was full of police cars, Jackson's police force, 600 white cops. And we got out and started to picket and we were able to picket for about 35 seconds before we were engulfed by a massive number of police, around 100 by a conservative estimate. And they blocked traffic up and down Capitol Street. Newsmen were there, it was a big thing.
Eldri very thoughtfully took her sign which said "Negro customers, don't buy on Capitol Street", and put it forward to the cameras while I was being arrested by Captain Ray. So there we were, arrested, and taken off to jail. We couldn't afford a mass demonstration, but the police had made the mass demonstration.
Bruce: What were the charges?
[Background: Under Mississippi law at the time, boycotting someone's business was considered a civil crime for which you could be sued. Any act of protest such as a peaceful picket line or non-violent marche was an illegal breech of "public order" for which you would be arrested.]
Hunter: Obstructing the sidewalk.
Bruce: The six of you?
Hunter: Yes. Though the police obstructed the entire downtown area. Well, these were the humorous twists. Okay, Eldri and Betty got out of jail very quickly by prior arrangement, we wanted the women out. The men agreed to remain in for a day or two. Somebody, some white guard, brought this paper which had this tiny little article, "Mixers Arrested on Capitol Street."
Bruce: "Mixers" (short for "Race Mixers").
Hunter: And the implication [of the article] was we tried but we didn't pull it off. Well, he didn't show us everything. Soon enough our lawyer, Jess Brown, who was one of the four Black lawyers in the state, one was a fink, two worked for the NAACP, Jack Young and Carsie Hall, and Jess was a freelancer who had a lot of courage. And he agreed to work with Kunstler, who needed a local lawyer, and Jess was very good. So Jess came and got us out, and we no sooner got back to Tougaloo then Medgar arrived with a newspaper, and there was a banner headline, "Thompson Threatens to Sue Pickets," he wanted to sue us for a million dollars. It was a major story in the Jackson Daily News. The mayor had shot his mouth off.
Bruce: What was he suing you for?
Hunter: Restraint of trade, but he never did. Though they [later] did try that against Aaron Henry in Clarksdale.
Bruce: They did that to us in Grenada. It was a $900,000 suit for a boycott.
Hunter:Yeah, I think in Port Gibson, too.
But anyway, what happened was that Thompson had lost it. And ever the man for the public eye, he had spread [news of the boycott] all over. The whole world knew there was a boycott, anybody who read the paper. Meanwhile, we learned that the air waves had been full of it. So our picket had been a success. Meanwhile, thousands of boycott leaflets were being distributed concurrently. We'd raised the money and we got those privately printed, there was a faculty member who had a printing press. He printed those for us, more or less at cost.
Bruce: But that had to be done fairly clandestinely, both the printing and the distribution...
Hunter: Well, the printing was done on campus, but the paper had to be gotten clandestinely and brought to the campus, and then it was printed. And the paper and the leaflets certainly had to be distributed in a clandestine fashion. And we distributed 120,000 leaflets without anybody being arrested, which was pretty good.
The boycott was effective almost immediately. It killed the Christmas shopping season from that point on. And then we had to keep it going, which we did. We had two more pickets. Charles Bracy and Dorie Ladner Joyce's sister [were arrested].
At night somebody shot up our house. A bullet missed my daughter Maria, went through her crib, just barely missed her. There was no point depending on the Madison County Sheriff's office for anything other than trouble, and so a number of us stood armed guard on the Tougaloo campus, something which we were to do on a number of occasions. There were points where we even fired a shot or two, in fact, we fired more than a few shots. But we didn't publicize that part of it.
But the point I'm making is that we just kept going. Kunstler tried interesting legal techniques, such as removing our cases into federal court for trial. And just tied things up and so forth, and so on. And we went on into 1963, through the winter and into the spring.
[So] we still had our boycott going, but we weren't cracking anything visibly. There were a few changes. Some businessmen went out of business. There were a few cases where very privately they made certain partial accommodations, but it was too private to take seriously. There was a case where a Black worker was suddenly identified as an "assistant manager," but nothing seemed to have changed when we looked into it. You know, devices like that.
Bruce: Nothing that would cause you to remove the boycott on those particular businesses.
Hunter: Yeah. So the boycott remained with its original focus. And every so often we would have pickets. We raised enough money to bond people out. Bill [Kunstler] and Jess Brown, provided the legal defense at that point, and the boycott was quite effective. The other side refused to negotiate, and it went on as grimly as [the strike depicted in the film] Salt of the Earth. And in fact, during this period I showed that film in a number of parts of Jackson to our people.
Our Youth Council was growing. By March and April of '63, we could pull together over 100 kids. We began to maneuver to find the resources to ... We were impressed with what Martin King and Fred Shuttlesworth had accomplished in Birmingham. In Birmingham, things were a little bit different than Jackson. Jackson had at that point no heavy industry from out of state. Birmingham had Union Carbide. I knew of some of those maneuverings through my uncle.
Bruce: And the steel factories.
Hunter: And U.S. Steel. And Beecher came out of a U.S. Steel family, so I wasn't the only one who had a wealthy relative on the other side of the class fence. But my uncle was well aware of the role that corporate business had played in eventually being able, along with direct-action, to effect the beginnings of positive social change in Birmingham.
[Background: "Direct-action" was the general Movement term for protests and confrontations such as sit-ins, Freedom Rides, picket lines, mass marches, and so on.]
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
But Jackson had nothing like that. You had no U.S. Steel, no Union Carbide. What you had were very much local regional stuff, and if there were national stores, they were chain stores that weren't about to get deeply involved in those issues. So we had a tough nut to crack. The Citizen's Council refused to let any businessman, white businessman, consider any kind of negotiation. They threatened to boycott them out of business. [In other words, if a store eased segregation in response to the boycott by Blacks, the White Citizens Council would coerce their suppliers to boycott them, and the banks that held the mortgages would foreclose.] Years later I learned about some of those things through Bob Ezelle, who had been President of the Chamber of Commerce. So the point is, we had to get backing for a major campaign in Jackson.
Bruce: A major direct-action campaign?
Hunter: That's right. Now remember, I got an awful lot of tutelage from the Wobblies [IWW]. The Wobblies were not too deeply into political action anyway. And direct-action was clearly the order of the day in a place like Jackson, where virtually nobody could register to vote, let alone participate in mainline politics. So direct-action made a lot of sense, in other words basically syndicalism, pure and simple.
The problem was where were we going to get the backing? King's treasury was exhausted [from providing bail money and legal defense for the thousands arrested in the Birmingham campaign], SNCC never had any money anyway, bless its soul. CORE was very limited. [James] Farmer was very sympathetic to us, and sent a couple of good letters, things like that, and I thought highly of him. But they had their hands full, and were small. The NAACP had money, but the NAACP didn't like to spend money.
Bruce: Well, they also did not like direct-action.
Hunter: That's right, we're coming to that. Yeah, we very much are. So, you're quite on target. So we began to maneuver. In the national office [of NAACP] there was an ally, Laplois Ashford, who was the National Youth Secretary. He was sympathetic to us. Medgar was all for this, but his position was difficult. So we began to lay the basis for something.
In the meantime, the boycott went on. We desegregated, however temporarily, the Christian Center of Millsaps College, when we arrived to hear Eudora Weldy speak, and she was very gracious when she saw us come in, and things like that. But our real target was the downtown business thing. If we could crack that, if we could win things there, then we could also force the business sector to put pressure on the politicians. That was our basic analysis. And I worked pretty hard on building support for a broader [campaign] that would be lots of pickets, sit-ins, maybe mass marches.
On the 12th of May, 1963, the state [NAACP] board had a meeting in Jackson. I was a member of that. I was also chairman of the strategy committee of the Jackson Movement, as well as advisor to the Youth Council, and Eldri and I were both advisors to the Tougaloo group, and so on.
By prior arrangement I had a resolution which I developed and Medgar had given his approval, Dr. [Aaron] Henry had made a constructive suggestion or two, we'd incorporated that. This was not coming out of the blue, even though it appeared to. The reason it appeared [to come out of the blue] is that there were national staff there who weren't friendly to the thing.
I got up and I made this motion, that we call on the NAACP national office and the President and Attorney General to back an all-out desegregation movement in Jackson, Mississippi. It went into some detail, and it was unanimously passed. And at that point, Clarence Mitchell, who was a national staff person, objected to some of the language. And I said this is a resolution that people passed, it's one we knew met with the approval of people before we submitted it, and they passed it. And that's how it is. Frankly, he wanted to gut it. It talked about mass demonstrations and things like that.
He looked at me, and I'll never forget this, Mitchell said, "We don't do things like that in the Association." And that wasn't the thing to say to me, and it wasn't the thing to say in such a way that others could hear it. Basically, he was saying whatever you want down here, what we don't want to do trumps you. "This isn't the way we do things in the Association." Well, it may not have been, but it's the way we did that. Out of deference, we made a few changes but they were cosmetic. Personally, I didn't even want to do that, but this was important in the interest of unity, as long as you didn't have to dig too deeply.
So that night Medgar, and myself, and Mrs. Doris Allison, who recently died, met at my home at Tougaloo. And I typed out 12 letters on my old Underwood typewriter, the one I later did my book on. And those letters went to the political and economic power structure of Jackson and Mississippi. And they took the resolution and put that in the form of a letter, which called on these people for good faith negotiations and so on. Medgar and I signed the letters, he as Field Secretary, I as advisor to the Youth Council, and Mrs. Allison signed them. She was very much a part of it, she was President of the Jackson branch of the NAACP, which was important, because these were the adults. So we had three signatures on this historic throwing down the gauntlet. Medgar as Field Secretary, the good Mrs. Allison, and myself.
And the other side reacted to this with can only be described as complete hysteria. They denounced the whole thing as a "Communist plot," as usual, and moved to mobilize. No negotiations, no nothing. The Mayor said he was turning the state fairgrounds into a [prison] camp, he didn't use the word "concentration," but that's what it boiled down to. Governor [Ross] Barnett indicated the penitentiary would be available for overflow.
Bruce: That would be Parchman.
Hunter: Yes. And the 600 white Jackson police and the thousand-member white Jackson police auxiliary were all brought to a fever pitch. Sheriffs and deputies pledged to come from every one of the 82 counties in the state. Colonel Birdsong pledged the Highway Patrol. Constables were brought in. In addition, you had all sorts of thugs and Klan elements. And at the same time, Governor Barnett promised the National Guard, should that be necessary.
Bruce: To repel this "Communist" subversion of the "Southern way of life."
Hunter: That's right. I think it may have been [Jackson Mayor] Thompson who, maybe he didn't intend to be fully quoted verbatim on this, but he said, "We can handle 10,000 niggers and reds."
Bruce: We have a photo on the website with him standing with his tank and so on, saying, "They'll never have a chance."
Hunter: So they were really intransigent. Some businessmen wanted to negotiate, but they afraid to, no one businessman would move unless a number would do it. They were too afraid of the [White Citizens] Council.
Bruce: Did Mississippi have the kind of posse system that Alabama had? In Alabama, a sheriff like Jim Clark could deputize Klan members as members of the sheriff's posse, and they got a little badge. Did they have that in Mississippi?
Hunter: No, actually they didn't. Arizona had that. We had a sheriff's posse in the Flagstaff setting. But what Mississippi had would be the sheriff and deputies for every one of the 82 counties. And Highway Patrol, and the whole works.
So the things then went on from [meeting of] the 12th of May to the 28th. On the 28th we had the sit-in. At Woolworth's. [photos]
Bruce: Was this Jackson's first sit-in?
Hunter: This was the first real sit-in in downtown Jackson. There had been a couple of trial things that we never had heard much about, we're not even sure they were able to occur.
Bruce: And there had been the things at the bus station with the Freedom Riders.
Hunter: Yeah, but this was the first real sit-in in the classic sense.
Hunter: It turned out, as you probably know, to be the most violent and prolonged sit-in of the sixties. It was also the most televised. We had expected instant arrest, which had been the policy. But this time they didn't follow that. The police let [encouraged] a mob to gather.
When we heard that Memphis Norman had been knocked off his stool, and stomped, and hauled off to jail, I immediately went to the sit-in and joined it. So I was there almost from the beginning. The sit-ins were split up into two groups. Pearlena Lewis and Lois Chafee and several others were either there at the beginning or joined it. All of this within about a half hour, the first half hour or so. Medgar had wanted to go, and I persuaded him not to, because I said you're really a marked man.
I went down in to the downtown area with Mercedes Wright, who was Black, but who looked white. And she was the Georgia field secretary for the [NAACP] Youth Councils. And she and I walked on opposite sides of the street. I had sunglasses on, and Captain Ray didn't notice us. She stayed behind in the crowd to observe. And I went to the [lunch] counter, where things were beginning to show signs of great ugliness. And at that point, it was Joan [Trumpauer] and Annie Moody, who later wrote Coming of Age in Mississippi, sitting there, and I just sat down with them, they were very glad to see me.
On a comical note, as I was moving to the front of the thing, an old white man who was sort of a Klan type, who didn't spot me for what I am, said, "Hit them, boy, hit them hard." And then I sat down.
Then people suddenly realized who I was, and I was a lightning rod, I drew the wrath of the [mob]. I was struck many times, burned with cigarettes and things. I have a very thick skull, believe me, incredibly thick. And I have a high pain threshold. So I was cut with broken sugar glasses and cut with brass knuckles, different things like that. The young women had condiments poured all over them, and I had some poured on me, but mostly I was hit.
Down at the other end, why a lot of stuff was dumped on people too. Walter Williams was hit, but got up and rejoined the group on his end of things. You know, we stuck it out, it went on for about three hours. It was a horrible Goddamn scene when you stop to think about it, but actually Annie and Joan and myself talked about an exam that I'd given, which they thought was a little hard, and I said, "It was really very fair because I gave you all the questions before we had the test, you just had to ...."
Bruce: [Laughing] So that's what you were doing while they were attacking you?
Hunter: That's right, yeah. I didn't feel any great venom toward the attackers, although there were a few points where I did. But in any event, what happened then is that they began to tear up the store after about three hours, and we went outside. There were a lot of newsmen all over. We hadn't realized it at that point, but this had gone all over the world. Outside there was a huge mob waiting. We also had people who were picketing, but they were arrested immediately. The police grudgingly gave us safe passage. We went off to our respective physicians.
Hunter: Now we're talking about non-violent demonstrations, but we're talking "tactical" non-violence, because none of us were really Gandhians. Don't fall apart, but I happen to be a life member of the National Rifle Association.
Bruce: Well, I was too until I disliked their support for right wing politicians.
Hunter: Well, I'm also very disturbed about their stance to the point we're not giving them any money at all. But the point is, I've had firearms ever since I was seven years old. We have a whole bunch of them in that closet over there. When we stood guard on the Tougaloo campus, we knew what we were doing, and we made certain that the students who came to help us were mature, sensible people.
Bruce: But you were tactically non-violent in terms of demonstrations and pickets and sit-ins.
Hunter: I think I personally demonstrated that at that damn sit-in.
Hunter: But my instincts are not non-violent. I grew up in a rough and tumble atmosphere. Mine Mill had to fight tooth and claw to even survive in the Arizona of the copper bosses. You know, you had tough times.
The Mass Movement
That night [after the sit-in] there was a community mass meeting at Pearl Street AME [Church]. The turnout was huge, like about 2,000 people came. We weren't sure how the Black community would react to [the sit-in], but they turned out extremely well, around 2,000 people showed up at the church, which couldn't even accomadate them all.
In a sense [the sit-in] was the beginning of the massive phase of the Jackson movement. After that, we had a variety of demonstrations. Lanier High School kids demonstrated, police were called in to quell the "student riot," which was really very peaceful. "Student riot," quote unquote. You know, things like that.
And then at the end of the week, we had the first of the mass marches. About 600 or 700 of our kids, our kids in that sense. We'd been meeting for months with Tougaloo students, meeting for months with the Youth Council. And in the end, when the call went out around 600 or 700 kids assembled at Farish Street Baptist to have their march. They were surrounded by masses of police. Some were clubbed, all were loaded into dirty, stinking garbage trucks, and hauled off to the fairgrounds concentration camp, which is now beginning to get a lot of people.
Bruce: Well, when you say "mass march," this is actually people walking two by two on the sidewalk in a line, obeying traffic lights, and so on?
Hunter: Two by two, three by three.
Bruce: But it was not like filling the streets and blocking traffic.
Hunter: No, very orderly. But they didn't get very far. The church was surrounded by hordes of police. Blue helmets, city police, Highway Patrol had their helmets, constables they had brown helmets, so and so. By this time, masses of vigilante types, Klan types, had come, from all over the South. Confederate flags were everywhere, the American flag was persona non grata, and any American flags were being destroyed hither and yon [by the Klan and cops].
Bruce: Or grabbed off, taken from the demonstrators?
Hunter: We had some flag demonstrations later where they were all grabbed. But in this case, it was mostly kids from our Youth Council and the Tougaloo group, which we had met with regularly too.
Meanwhile, in the shadows, the NAACP national office had sent down Gloster Current. We had learned in the days following the May 12th meeting and resolution and letter that they would put up some backing. When I asked Gloster how much money is there, he had simply said, "Enough."
We had that demonstration, the next day we had another one, but at that one, which started from the Negro Masonic Temple on Lynch Street, [NAACP National President] Roy Wilkins tried to stop it. He didn't want any more [mass marches] at that point. There were rumors about federal involvement, things of that sort. John Doar [U.S. Dept. of Justice] was meeting with people behind the scenes. Not meeting with us, but meeting with others.
Bruce: To cool things down. To get the Movement to accept a "cooling off" period.
Hunter: That sort of thing, yeah. There were several Justice Department people, St. John Barrett, but Doar was their leader.
We were able to have a second march that Saturday, but it was smaller, and it was marred by Wilkins' interference, [he tried] to block the march but we were able to send it past him. Like the other marchess and demonstrations, there were instant arrests and a lot of brutality.
Bruce: Had the people arrested on the first march been released and were able to attend the second, or were they still in the fairgrounds?
Hunter: Some refused to come out, but the national office wanted them out. And they wanted to stay, many wanted to stay in and did. But there were splits around that issue.
[Background: At verious times and places the Movement adopted a "Jail, No Bail," strategy. When protestors refused bail and stayed in jail, the police were forced to guard and feed them (more or less), which cost the cops and city a lot of money which they didn't have. And having hundreds or thousands of citizens in jail for demanding their human rights was a powerful political message if the media reported it. In effect, "Jail, No Bail," also put the detainees on a strike because they couldn't go to work or attend school. That in turn put pressure on employers and the school board who counted financially on per-pupil-per- day funding from the state.
On the other hand, if everyone was in jail the Movement would die
on the streets for lack of participants. So the "Jail, No Bail" strategy
had to be weighed against the necessity of having supporters educating
and organizing in the community and maintaining the momentum of the
direct-action protests on the street.
Strategy aside, this also became a profound moral question. Many
Movement activists believed that putting up bail amounted to
acknowleding the legitimacy of the system that had arrested them. Since
their arrests were unjustified violations of their human rights, they
would not pay the cops bail money for arrests which were illegal and
immoral, nor would they sanction the system that was
oppressing them by participating in its operations. On the other hand,
some activists felt that staying locked up in the slammer instead of
being out in the streets carrying on the struggle was also passive
acceptance of a system that maintained political oppression by
imprisoning anyone who protested. For them the moral imperative was to
get back on the streets as quick as possible to keep on keeping on.
These questions generated many lively
discussions, particularly in crowded jail
Politics Pressures & NAACP
Medgar's position was very awkward and difficult for him. He was certainly on our side, but on the other hand, a lot of pressure was being put on him by Wilkins and Current. I go into some of that in my book, in several oral histories too. But the point I'm making is that we obviously had problems, that the national office had been unhappy about this from the beginning. They were now beginning to do their best to reduce the thing to scattered demonstrations. The mayor had already made it clear that he wasn't worried any longer about scattered demonstrations, six pickets weren't going to faze him. Now he was worried about the big stuff, the mass marches.
Bruce: What was Roy Wilkins' argument? What did he tell you was the reason you couldn't march?
Well, they had several arguments, one was that these tended to "incite violence." They were worried about spending money. And they were scared. Gloster Current was personally scared. (He insisted, for whatever it's worth, in receiving his copy of the Wall Street Journal by special delivery in the middle of all of this, which people found odd.)
Bruce: A newspaper that was not normally available in Mississippi in those days.
Hunter: Of course not, I mean, it was a "Communist rag," everybody knew that. [Laughing]
Through friends such as Mercedes Wright from Georgia, and Laplois Ashford who had to be very careful himself as the National Youth Secretary, and some others, we learned that the Kennedys had put the pressure on, that was pretty obvious already, with Doar around and so on. We gathered this at different points, not necessarily all at that point, but as we went along. Bruce: And the reason that the Kennedys were trying to suppress, not only Jackson, but the Movement everywhere...
Hunter: It was the election of '64 that was coming up, and they were worried about it.
[Background: As far as most Movement activists were concerned, the Kennedy administration was uninterested in civil rights issues and wanted them to go away, the status quo was fine with them. The Kennedy focus was on foreign policy, anti-Communism, Cuba, Vietnam, Berlin, not the human rights of America's non-white citizens. To the Kennedy administration the Civil Rights Movement was an annoying distraction, and possibly a Communist ploy to discredit the U.S.
The Movement had to force the Kennedys to take what little action
they did. When mobs attacked the Freedom Riders in Alabama, public
opinion forced the administration to provide protection as they rode the
busses into Jackson. When the Klan organized a huge lynch mob to kill
James Meredith at 'Ole Miss, in the full view of the
world press, JFK had to send in the troops. Pitifully
inadequate as the administration response was, the segregationists of
Mississippi and Alabama reacted with hysterical fury, reviling the
Kennedys and equating them with the hated Yankee invaders of the Civil
At that time Mississippi was a one-party state (Democrat), but
"Southern Democrat" not "national" Democrat. Only whites were allowed to
vote in Mississippi, and to them the Republicans were still the "party
of Lincoln." But since the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party was
segregationist to the bone, they would not support the national
Democratic candidate unless he endorsed
segregation, which Kennedy would not do for fear of
losing the Northern urban Black vote that was critical to his electoral
victory. It was the Black vote in Chicago (and some finnagling by the
Daley machine) that give him the margin of victory over Nixon in
But in Mississippi in 1960, the state's electoral vote went for
Byrd of Virginia who was running as an "independent" on a segregationist
platform. At the time of the Jackson Movement, everyone assumed that
Mississippi in 1964 would again support some "Dixiecrat"
pro-segregationist, 3rd-Party candidate in 1964.
As it turned out, in 1964 Mississippi, along with
Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, went
for Goldwater whose vitriolic attacks on the Federal government were
widely understood in the South to mean a repudiation of Lincoln's legacy
and endorsement of the pro-segregation "states rights" stand. Thus was
born the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" that today sees the South as
solidly Republican as it was once solidly Democrat.)
Hunter: I don't think the Kennedys were that concerned about the Mississippi part of it [because they knew they wouldn't carry Mississippi in '64], I think what they were worried about were the other Southern states. The point I'm making is that the Kennedys were worried about political repercussions.
They were also concerned about [the Movement being] something they couldn't control. I mean, in Birmingham, Union Carbide & US Steel could go their own way pretty much, they didn't give a damn for the Kennedys anyway. But by the same token, they could be dealt with quote "reasonably" unquote, at least most of them could be. But we had a different situation [in Jackson and Mississippi].
Glouster had been putting conservative ministers on the strategy committee one by one, these were people who had actually opposed the boycott. So we were having those problems. A lot of factionalism and so on. But we kept going.
By June the 6th the movement had dipped because bail bond had been cut off largely, and lots of other inhibiting things were being done. Some of us were talking about making an invitation to Martin King, which enraged the NAACP people. In the middle of all of this, we were hit with an injunction [prohibiting Movement activities]. The injunction was called "The City of Jackson, a Municipal Corporation, versus John R. Salter Junior, et al." Et al embraced all of Tougaloo College, all of the NAACP, CORE, a number of named individuals, including Medgar and others.
Bruce: So up until June, you were still teaching at Tougaloo?
Hunter: Yeah, in fact, I was still teaching right in the middle of this. I had this loyal little group of Black school teachers who were taking a course from me called "Teaching Social Studies in the Secondary School". And they were meeting in my home. And the poor things never knew from one day to the next whether they were going to see me or not. They were nice ladies, they were all ladies. I gave everyone an "A" at the end. They were there when Sheriff Noble's chief deputy, Jack Cauthen, arrived with eight other deputies, to serve me with this injunction, much in the fashion of presented holy writ.
Bruce: But the Tougaloo administration didn't put pressure on you, threaten to fire you? Because the Tuskegee administration sure did when people got active.
Hunter: Tougaloo was like Talledega in Alabama, where Dr. A.D. Beittel, had been President at one time. Beittel was white, [he was] basically a Quaker at heart. He was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was cut from a different piece of cloth. He was named in the injunction which I have on my website (www.hunterbear.org), I'm rather proud of it.
I've referred to [the injunction] as my "graduate degree." I completed all the doctoral course work, the book was ultimately to be the dissertation, and so on. I just never went through with the final formalities and paid the big hunk of money that was the next installment. But I do have an excellent degree in The City of Jackson, a Municipal Corporation, versus John R. Salter Junior, et al.
But the [NAACP] national office thought should comply with the injunction.
Bruce: Oh, my God!
Hunter: Yeah, it was viewed very quickly by legal scholars as the most sweeping thing that had ever been handed down so far in the Civil Rights Movement. It may still take the record, it was incredibly....
Bruce: Like the injunction they issued in Selma prohibiting more than three Black people meeting anywhere, for any purpose, at any time.
Hunter: It had three levels [of prohibition]. [First was] actually doing something like picketing or demonstrating, sit-ins or pray-ins, or things of that sort. Then conspiring to do those things. And then the third level was doing anything to consummate conspiracies. Of course, we had no intention of complying with it, and we began to immediately violate the thing as much as we could.
The Low Point
But the bail bond was basically cut off [by the NAACP] at that point. Some was allowed, but they were really turning the faucet way down. They were confused too, because there wasn't unanimity in their ranks. Bob Carter, their general counsel, liked what we were doing and he was supportive of us. He's now a federal judge in New York, or at least he was. Medgar was certainly on our side but was caught.
Bruce: Let me ask you what you mean by their turning down the faucet. Does that mean if six people were arrested, they would say we'll bail out Mary and John but we won't bail out...
Hunter: No, they'd bail out the six. But they didn't want any mass marches. And by the same token, we weren't sure from one day to the next what was happening. I mean, things were moving very quickly. At the same time, the weather was getting very hot. We were into June. And if the weather seems hot right now in Idaho, it was getting to be over 100 in Mississippi and very humid.
I mean, you know very well about that. So the point is that the strategy committee was split. The Youth Council was strong for continuing. Many of the younger ministers were strong for continuing. Many of the younger Black businessmen wanted to continue, but the old guard ministers were with the national office, and the national office was on a puppet string with the Kennedys, or at least they had a string on each other.
And the point is that it was a very confusing situation. I go into it in some detail in my book, as much as I can. And that may be one of the strengths of the book. The book drew many fine reviews, and often the reviews concentrated on the fact that the internal life of the movement was discussed in detail.
Bruce: Where can people order the book? Can it be bought via Amazon?
Hunter: Well, you can get used copies on Amazon. You can get it on ABE, American Book, the book thing on the Internet. But it's pretty hard to get one now. The hardback was sold for ten dollars, and I've seen it now as a used book being sold for everything from $50 to $99.50. The 1987 expanded paperback costs much less.
But the reality was that it was a completely fucked up situation in every possible way. Here was Gloster in his Goddamn business suit with his Wall Street Journal. Medgar was being pulled hard. He remained a very good friend all the way through, let me make that very clear.
But it was very difficult. The Youth Council couldn't quite understand until we'd gone a ways why the national office, which was supposed to be all for these things, was turning into an albatross.
The other side figured we were about done for. [On the] Flag Day demonstration, the flags were all confiscated, the kids were arrested, you know, that sort of thing. We had a National Flag Day, and we had about 15 kids with flags. [Photo].
We were reluctant to get a large number of people arrested unless we had some guarantee of their getting out at some point. And at the same time, the NAACP did not want Kunstler involved. Bob Carter had nothing at all against Kunstler, this became clear months later in some other situations. But generally the NAACP Inc. Fund, Jack Greenberg and others, didn't like Kunstler at all [because of his leftist associations]. And Kunstler was teaming with a new man that we'd never heard of, Arthur Kinnoy, a very capable person who later with Bill represented me in other cases. And different things were happening. Jess Brown, our gutty lawyer, was being pushed to the sidelines by two NAACP lawyers, Carsie Hall and Jack Young.
The point is that you had that kind of interaction going on. What it did do is functionally slow the movement. And the movement had hit a very low point, and we decided we'd better contact Martin King.
By that time I'd sent Eldri and Maria, my oldest daughter, out of Jackson under an assumed name. Threats were being made to blow up our home at Tougaloo. Lug nuts on my car had been loosened while it was parked at the airport. Things like that. There is a scene in the film based on John Grisham's book A Time to Kill, which is based in Canton [MS], in which the young liberal lawyer sends his wife and kid out of Jackson. I've wondered if Grisham read my book, as I describe the scene, and that's the scene he's got. But anyway, it's a logical scene, you know, if you don't want your wife and kid killed. Eldri didn't want to go, but I made her go. And so she was in the North.
I went home on the night of June 11 to an empty house. We'd had a small mass meeting, they were getting smaller. Medgar had loaned me his old 44-40 [rifle], I had other firearms, but I liked the idea of a Winchester 44-40, I'd had several. And I'd just barely gotten to sleep, when somebody was pounding on the door, it was George Owens, the business manager of Tougaloo. And he said Medgar has been shot, he's probably dead.
Assassination of Medgar Evers
I've never been one to cry when people died, even if I'd felt terribly about it, which I did. I can deal with those things. I suppose if something happened to Eldri it would be an exception, or my children. But I don't think that I showed any great emotion, I certainly didn't show any great surprise. But it did cut me up inside badly. We had been very close.
We had had a conversation, just the two of us, that noon. And it was a very good conversation. And then we went to a strange little meeting together. The NAACP national people had all gone home for the moment, thinking it was over. Medgar had been told to sell NAACP T-shirts. You aren't going to read this in any official histories, but there he was selling T-shirts.
Bruce: That was his assignment, from the national?
Hunter: That was his assignment. And then he was shot right after that by [Byron de la] Beckwith. And died technically on June 12th. His last words were "Turn me loose." In that situation, we moved immediately to build...
Bruce: Before we leave the assassination. I forget where I read it, but killing Medgar was actually part of a three-state simultaneous Klan plot. They had targeted a CORE guy in Louisiana, and Bernard LaFayette of SNCC in Selma.
Hunter: That doesn't surprise me.
Bruce: They were all to be killed on that same evening. For some reason they couldn't find the CORE guy, but Bernard was almost beaten to death on the street in front of his house in Selma at exactly the same time they killed Medgar.
Hunter: That doesn't surprise me a bit. There are many unanswered questions in that whole situation.
Our role was clear. Our militant group met immediately. We were up all night and into the next day. The national office people came back, but for the moment we had the momentum. We began having very substantial demonstrations. And all of this was pointing ultimately toward a funeral, which would be held on Saturday, June the 15th.
On one of the demonstrations the police charged several of us who were standing there. Most of the demonstrators were Tougaloo students of mine or Youth Council kids, or their parents. It was on Rose Street. I was standing right next to them. The police charged me particularly, and several people with me, but not the demonstrators, who had been arrested. Several people who were with me at that point ran, but I refused to run, to be frank about it. This is all on a TV film which I've got a copy of somewhere. But the point is I refused to run. And I faced them, they surrounded me and clubbed me into unconsciousness in a bloody mud puddle on Rose Street.
And again, I have a very thick head, and I was thrown into a paddy wagon, and there was a kid in there who wanted to try to escape and I said don't do it, they'll kill you. And so I kept him from doing that, which would have been very foolish, ill timed.
Steve Rutledge was arrested, he was a white kid who was at Tougaloo then. And lots of people were arrested in that Rose Street march. The police had turned out en masse, and so as they were arresting [the marchers], you also had this flying wedge of cops who focused on me. And we all wound up together in the fairgrounds.
An odd thing happened. I was lying in the paddy wagon and they turned the heat up, closed the windows, turned the heat up as high as it could go. And a man came and opened the door to let air in. It was M.B. Pierce, the chief of detectives. And he said to me very quietly, he said, "Professor, I'm sorry about this whole thing." And this was the first indication that something was reaching the other side. We were weren't Gandhians, but this was too much for him.
I was then taken to a hospital and later to the city jail and bonded out pretty quickly, many stitches and bloody shirt. I made a very dramatic entrance at the Blair Street AME Church and spoke briefly to a cheering throng. But the real action occurred in the pastor's study, when Bill Kunstler and I called Martin King and asked if Dr. King could come to the funeral. And Dr. King said he could and would.
There were already signs that the national office was very unhappy about this resurgence [of the mass movement]. The other side was scared to death. The killing of Medgar had a sobering effect on many white Mississippians. Others, of course, like the man who called up Medgar's phone that I answered in the NAACP office, he just laughed and hung up. So you had different reactions, but things were beginning to perk again, very visibly and very dramatically. And you could hear deep chugs in the coffee pot, I mean the people were moving.
Funeral of Medgar Evers
On Saturday, I picked up Dr. King at the airport. Kunstler rode with me and Dr. King, and I think Ralph Abernathy was in our car. Wyatt Walker and some others were in another car. We were given a grudging police escort, it was two miles to the Masonic Temple on Lynch Street where the funeral was being held. Jackson was inflamed, the whole state was inflamed, everything was ablaze, so to speak in that sense. Metaphorically.
As I drove my little Rambler with Dr. King sitting on the front seat, I was struck by how cool he was, how cool we all were. The police hated us with a passion. The escort was very grudging. Snipers could be anywhere. We had a very interesting, matter of fact conversation. We might have been driving from say, Salina Kansas to Abilene or something like that. So we were all very cool. What else could we be?
Bruce: The ones who couldn't be cool, they had left.
Hunter: Long ago. So I let Dr. King off at the Masonic Temple, and the street was full of Black people going in. I let him and his party off, and Kunstler and so forth, and I went down a ways and parked and came back. By the time I got there, there was no space for me. I went upstairs, where a number of our militant wing of the strategy committee were gathered in a kind of attic that could look down and so we could see the situation. What we didn't see was this deplorable scene where the NAACP national officers tried to keep Martin King off the platform.
Bruce: No shit?
Hunter: No shit. And eventually they had to let him go up there.
So it was a dramatic funeral. As it developed, there were 5,000-6,000 people who had come from all over the state. Many notable luminaries from afar, Ralph Bunche was there, others. We had a march then for about two miles, from the Masonic Temple to the Collins Funeral Home on North Farish Street. It was very hot, there were police at every intersection, every juncture.
Bruce: This was a march in the street?
Hunter: In the street, and it was a legal march. The Mayor had grudgingly, the day before, announced that he'd give a parade permit. It was the first quote "legal" unquote civil rights march in the history of the state. And in its own way, it was a milestone.
We marched for two miles, there are many photos of it. I was in one of the very first ranks, Dr. King was pretty much right in front of me. And Kunstler behind. I'm wearing bandages from the police beating. It was very hot. When we went through the Black neighborhoods, people were out in force. Some joined the march. They certainly were not intimidated by what was happening.
When we went through the white neighborhoods, the people watched up from their porches, they were scared, frightened. For our part, we were a well-dressed group of people, there just happened to be five or six thousand of us marching through Jackson, Mississippi.
We got to the Collins Funeral Home and people had massed in front. Space was limited on Farish Street, but there were people on all the side streets. Nobody wanted to go home. Bill came up to me and said Dr. King had to get back to where he was, and so Bill borrowed my car and took King and the others to the airport. It was obvious that there wasn't going to be any chance of his joining us.
Bruce: And that was because of the opposition from [national] NAACP?
Hunter: That's right. That was too bad, but at least King had come, and that was very important. We conjectured, to give you some idea of the dynamic, that he was heavily dependent for legal aid on the Ink Fund [and that the national NAACP had threatened to cut of that legal aid if King joined the Jackson Movement].
[Background: Founded by Thurgood Marshall in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc. was originally the legal arm of the NAACP. In Movement circles everyone called it the "Ink Fund." Technically, the Ink Fund became a separate organization in 1957, but it continued to be very closely associated with the NAACP. During the 1960s, the Ink Fund provided lawyers and took cases for many different movements and Movement organizations, particularly when cases had to go to the Supreme Court. In 1963, Jack Greenberg was head of the Ink Fund.]
Bruce: Well, they were also in beginning negotiations for the March on Washington [August 28, 1963], and if there had been a split, it would have had bad consequences.
Hunter: But we did appreciate his coming [to the funeral]. And he went off in my car with Bill driving to the airport, along with others, Wyatt Walker and other people. And we stayed. It was very hot. You had several thousand people gathered there and it was very hot. You had the police all around the edges.
We started to sing, "Oh Freedom," and then everyone began to sing. And then one large group broke from the mass, and we, I say "we," because I was part of it, left and went down Farish Street toward Capitol Street. Now we moved down toward Capitol Street, with the police running from our demonstration, running...
Bruce: Running to get in front of you?
Hunter: Away from us, they were scared. The police were running and then they massed down there. When we had crossed Capitol in the funeral march, the police were massed on both sides so we couldn't turn onto Capitol Street, they were afraid of that. And in this second demonstration there was a great deal of interaction. There was very little violence in the mass crowd. There were hundreds, there may have been much more than that, I can only give you a sense that there were a hell of a lot of people but not the whole group that had been in the funeral march. And the police were heavily massed down there in all kinds of blue helmets, brown helmets, this and that, and so forth. We had a large, singing, surging demonstration.
[Rev.] Ed King, who'd been actively involved in things was there. The police massed down there, and they began to start pushing us back. They couldn't arrest everybody, they picked out 29 people, including me and Ed King, and 27 others and threw us in the paddy wagons. So from the paddy wagon I was able to look out this little barred window and had a bird's eye view of what was occurring.
I saw hundreds of police coming now back up Farish Street to regain lost ground. I watched police dogs, which were inflamed, biting the policemen. Tear gas was all over, the cops were firing shots. All sorts of things were happening. It was not a riot on our part. Non-violence had been preserved even if by the barest of threads sometimes, but we encouraged non-violence, and fought for tactical non-violence. We certainly didn't want people to play into the hands of our enemies who were only too happy to have a Sharpeville if they could have had it. That's what they wanted. [In 1960 police in the South African township of Sharpeville opened fire on a peaceful protest march and killed 69 men, women, and children.]
Suddenly here was Bill Kunstler back from the airport, standing, leaning against this lamp pole with this huge smile on his face, watching this whole thing going on. It was interesting to see and I yelled out at him through the little barred window, "Bill, Bill! And he said, "John where are you?" I said, "I'm in this paddy wagon," and I wiggled my fingers [through the iron mesh covering the window].
And he came over to the wagon, and then these sheriff's deputies with shotguns moved between the wagon and Bill, and poked shotguns into his stomach. And they said, "Who are you?" He said, "Gentlemen, I'm William Moses Kunstler of New York City. I'm a lawyer. I have clients in your wagon." And they pushed him away, and he wisely avoided arrest, because we needed him on the outside.
We were carried off to the fairgrounds where things were unpleasant, particular for people like myself. Among other things, you had to lean against hot buildings in the hot sun, for a long time. The police accused me of inciting to riot and things of that sort. When we got out early in the evening and got back to Tougaloo, we learned that there had been an emergency strategy meeting, which the national office had nominated. And I had been blamed, along with Ed King and some other people, of inciting the "riot."
Bruce: Inciting the demonstration?
Hunter: Yeah, which had been very spontaneous. It was a very non- violent demonstration, with all that had happened had been that a few kids had thrown some stones at the police. At that point Doar had come forward in something that was later grossly exaggerated to his advantage, and quote "calmed the throng" unquote. All this had been just a few rocks thrown by some angry kids. No matter what anybody may say to the contrary, that was it, it was not a riot. And the kids were throwing rocks only after people had been beaten and slugged right and left. And horribly mistreated, and as far as they knew, people had been shot, I mean, it could have happened. I don't think it did, but given the shooting that was going on, it was only by a miracle.
So Doar persuaded people to disperse and go home. And from that point on, it was clear that we had profoundly serious problems. Many people were afraid of what happened, the Governor sent the National Guard into Jackson that night, and they were patrolling the streets along with the other hordes of folk, enemies. There was an uneasy strategy committee meeting on Monday, where we heard about Federal involvement very openly, that the President and the Attorney General were going to become involved.
Bruce: What does that mean, "get involved?"
Hunter: That was what we tried to find out. We couldn't get any answers, but it was clear that they weren't going to be involved as militants.
Bruce: Yeah, I think we can safely assume that.
Ambushed by Automobile
Hunter: And so the next morning, Ed King and I were notified by our NAACP lawyer in town, Jack Young, that he needed to confer with us immediately. We drove in, and he informed us that the Hinds County Grand Jury was going to indict us for inciting to riot.
Bruce: At this time Ed was the chaplain at Tougaloo?
Hunter: Yeah, that's right. He came in February of '63, and became actively involved in the movement after May 12th, around the time of the sit-in. During that interim period, he was getting started at Tougaloo, his father died, he had his hands full. Then he became very much involved, probably from about just prior to the sit-in. A few days before that, he tried to talk to other white ministers with not too much success.
So in any case, according to Jack Young we were going to be indicted for inciting to riot, which didn't surprise us. All Mississippi needed at that point was a criminal syndicalism law, which later they got, as a matter of fact, although they never understood what it meant. This was the law that was used against the Wobblies in the West in the old days. But in any case, having been told that, we headed back to Tougaloo. There had been police all around Jack Young's office waiting for us. On the way back we were intercepted in a rigged wreck and we were almost killed on Hanging Moss Road.
I was driving. Lunging in from a side street came a car driven by a white youth, and a couple of others with him I think, and he was the son of a prominent Citizen's Council activist. In the maneuvering a third car was forced into our car, this car was completely innocent. This was basically a rigged wreck.
Interestingly, the police had followed us all the way from Jack Young's office to a point about half a mile before that, and then when we were on the one road that went right back to Tougaloo, Hanging Moss Road, they turned off. So [the cops] were nowhere to be seen. And the guy lunged, the third car was forced into our path, my car was totally destroyed. Ed went through the windshield, nobody had any seat belts in those days. My face was smashed. I describe this in the book. But what it boiled down to was that we were left there in a totally wrecked car, this was a week after Medgar had been shot. Dr. King had ridden in this car no more than a few days before. The car was totally gone, I thought Ed was probably dead, we had part of his face on the windshield.
Bruce: That's where we got that big scar?
Hunter: That's where that came from.
I was barely conscious, I could see a group of people gathering, white people, with police and some young people, who even in my groggy state I figured were part of this whole thing. They took a good long while before they came over, and they asked me, the only conscious one, "What hospital do you want to go to?"
I said "St. Dominics," a Catholic [hospital]. But they took us instead to the Southern Baptist Hospital. We were put in there under armed guard, not to protect us but to keep us from going anywhere or anybody coming to see us. I was able to call one of my brothers in Arizona and told him what happened. He was enraged, wanted to come with guns. I said it was too long a drive. I was operated on extensively that night, I was the first to be operated on. Everything was broken all the way from the right side of my face all the way down, ribs and everything else. And Ed was badly cut. They spent several hours with me and then several hours with him. He later had many follow-up plastic surgery sessions.
The next morning the door opened and there came a man who outwardly looked like a janitor. It was our intrepid lawyer, Jess Brown. Tough little Jess, our good friend, loyal all the way through. He'd borrowed a broom from a janitor, and since he was Black as well as Choctaw and Scotch Irish, he was taken as just another maintenance person by the sheriff's deputies and police who were hovering outside.
And he just pushed his way to the door, and they opened the door, and he came in and closed the door, head down, and so forth, and then whipped out a yellow pad and then took our statements. And so we got that story out. But significantly, the national NAACP never said anything about that.
I was in for several days and then fought my way out, I hate hospitals. I had the satisfaction of standing on Lynch Street a few days later completely bandaged, and the police went by and saw me, and screeched to a halt, and turned around in the middle of Lynch Street and raced back downtown to give a report. You know, one of those satisfaction moments that you get. But Ed was still in the hospital.
But it became clear from that point on that the active phase of the Jackson movement was over. In the interim, these are some of the things that happened. On Monday and Tuesday, Monday being the day before the wreck, Tuesday being the day of the wreck, and then maybe on Wednesday too, both the President and the Attorney General were busy on their phones to the Mayor of Jackson. John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, these were direct phone calls. The paper reported much of this, probably not all of it.
In the course of the whole thing, what was left of the strategy committee, clergymen, nice, but for the most part scared, [they] followed the NAACP suggestion of negotiating a quote "settlement" unquote which involved a few Negro police who at that point couldn't arrest white people, some crossing guards hired, a few pie-in-the-sky promises, and that was about it. Officially, that was where that stood.
The reality was that [segregation in] Jackson had been badly cracked in a positive way. It never recovered from that, particularly following Medgar's death. There were massive upsurges when there were too many demonstrators for too many police to arrest, the police simply couldn't handle it.
Bruce: Despite Thompson's brags.
Hunter: Yeah, they couldn't handle it. Jackson was cracked. The boycott went on, that lasted for a long time, there were concessions that were made. Different things happened. When the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] was finally passed, Jackson was quick to comply.
Going to Work for SCEF
In the meantime, at the end of the summer, the Southern Conference Educational Fund approached me and asked if I would become its field organizer. I had a high regard for it. I liked Dumbrowski. The Bradens and I got along pretty well. Ella Baker was joining the staff as a special consultant, and of course she was already legend.
And at that particular point, the Youth Council had been converted into the Medgar Ever's Freedom Choir by the NAACP national office. Charles Evers had taken things more or less over, much had changed. So I went with SCEF, which offered me a full time civil rights organizing thing. "Educational fund" is a misnomer, I mean, it was a grassroots community organizing outfit, anti-Klan work, voter registration stuff.
Bruce: And when did you start with them?
Hunter: I officially started with SCEF over the phone in August of '63, and assumed my duties in early September. There was no interruption.
The Jackson thing had more or less settled for the moment, unhappily, Eldri and I took a quick vacation in Flagstaff, this would probably be about July 20th. On the way, we happened to stop at my mother's father's home, he was frankly capitalism incarnate. And sitting at his roll top desk, he was very congenial to me, I was his oldest grandson. He had gotten his tutelage from John Hays Hammond, the infamous brains behind the organization of the Mine Owners Association in North Idaho.
At the same time, my mother was there and also my two uncles, the Union Carbide uncle and another uncle who was with Western Electric. These were hardly what you call "left-wingers." But you could probably call them "Rockefeller Republicans," because they viewed Goldwater, who was already becoming somewhat known, as a fool. And the call [from SCEF] came, reached me there. I'd given that number to Tougaloo. And I was offered the job of SCEF field organizer sitting at my grandfather's roll top desk, surrounded by the entourage of my mother's family.
I told Dombrowski, "Well let me talk it over with Eldri, I'll get back to you, we're inclined to do this." He was very pleased. And I remember my two uncles, they were right there, I said, "I've just been offered a job as full time field organizer for one of the more left-wing civil rights organizations, the Southern Conference Educational Fund. And my uncle from Birmingham said, "I think you should do that." The one from Western Electric said, "I agree, you should do it."
My grandfather smiled. I suddenly realized that he had left his situation and had gone off to work as a mining engineer in North Idaho. When the frontier beckons, go. I did. And I would have anyway, but I was interested in that blessing, which I hadn't expected and which I got. Which is very interesting. The family always stood together.
My father very much approved of it when he learned about this. So I spent two years with SCEF, working various parts of the South. Increasingly, I came to focus my efforts in a bunch of hard-core Klan-infested Black belt counties in Northeastern North Carolina. SCEF wanted something on the Eastern seaboard and this was a hard-ass area, very Klan ridden and poverty stricken.
So I settled in to work in those Black belt counties. It went very well. For one thing, the NAACP would not come, [they were] finky as hell in North Carolina and wouldn't come east of Durham. It stayed out of that area altogether.
We had a good little group there, and for a while I had SNCC assistance through Doug Harris and J.V. Henry, but mostly it was a SCEF project. And some of the finest grassroots people I've ever worked with. We started in Halifax County, won a major federal voting order which saw thousands of Blacks enfranchised for the first time.
Bruce: This was after the Voting Rights Act [of 1965]?
Hunter: No, this was before the Voting Rights Act. And we were a well organized, county-wide movement in Halifax County. We were met on the registration days, North Carolina had very limited registration, by a great deal of violence. Voter intimidation, economic reprisals, all that crap. We went into federal court with Kunstler, Kinoy, Morton Stavis, from New York and New Jersey, and Phil Hirschkop. And won a massive order from federal judge Larkin, who had his eye possibly on political things.
And then we went on to make many other breakthroughs, and went into a number of other counties. And we took the counties one by one, Bertie, Northhampton, Hertford, we were also in Nash and Edgecomb counties.
We had a massive Black Belt conference, with Ella [Baker] as the keynote speaker, which drew about 1050 people from 14 Black belt counties plus others from other counties. I worked very closely with her all the way through. We went on a speaking trip in the far West in late 1963 to support the Civil Rights Bill [of 1964]. The two of us traveling together for six weeks at one point. So Ella and I were very close.
In the course of [the work], we broke the hard lines of resistance to social change, thousands were enfranchised, forced desegregation, massive school desegregation, and then integration as things went on. We drove the United Klans out of the northeastern North Carolina black-belt
Relations With SCLC/SCOPE
The sour note came when [SCLC deployed] a bunch of SCOPE kids into our area, in what was basically a raid. [SCOPE was SCLC's multi-state 1965 summer project.]
Bruce: A "raid" in the union sense?
Hunter: Exactly. It might has well have been that they were the Steelworkers and we were Mine Mill. And there was a lot of talk about "Communists." I heard on good authority that [an SCLC leader] was very troubled by the fact that the movement in Savannah, which was primarily SCLC, had met in a Mine Mill and Smelter Workers Hall, one of the few remaining Southern locals that Mine Mill had before the merger with Steel in '67.
[The SCLC leader] apparently red-baited Mine Mill badly, from what I heard. At the same time, he seems to have tried to do the same thing with SCEF, even though our SCEF President was Fred Shuttlesworth, who was National Secretary of SCLC. And on our Board was C.T. Vivian, and we had a very close working relationship with Fred and C.T.
They floated a bunch of SCOPE kids in there. Our local leaders were enraged, and every Black church was closed to SCOPE in that entire region, except one minister, Reverend Petteway. And you'll appreciate this twist. In the end, there was a stand-off. We liked the SCOPE kids and they liked us. By that time, Buddy Tieger was working with us, and Ginny Tieger and other young people.
Bruce: From the famous Tieger family?
Hunter: Yeah. And they were well aware of who Ella Baker was. The SCOPE kids couldn't understand what was going on, and we couldn't either frankly, because I didn't know all these weird twists and turns. I agree with your policy [of avoiding personal attacks on named individuals] on the website. But who should be sent down there finally to deal with this complicated situation but [CORE leader] Norman Hill.
He flew down from up North, rented a car in Norfolk, drove over torturous roads to a meeting where we had our group gathered in A. J. Watford's farm house, in at a little hamlet called Colerain, and he came down and discussed our problem with the SCOPE and [SCLC leaders]. I found Norman Hill very easy to do business with. We didn't have to explain things very much.
Bruce: And he was with the League for Industrial Democracy at that point?
Hunter: Yeah. But he was part of a group that was putting money into the SCOPE thing, so he was a funder of SCOPE, or at least a transmission person.
Bruce: Probably a lot of the UAW money.
Hunter: That's right. But anyway, it started off badly, when he got stuck in this ditch, and we all rushed out to push him out. But then that turned into a camaraderie getting Norman Hill's rented car out of the ditch. And so we met in Mr. Watford's home. Watford was very good, he was very cool, a sort of a big man, you remember him, Eldri, you met A.J. And he didn't go off the handle, we had people who did, but he didn't.
And I was cool, and I said we found this very regrettable. There were enough counties to go around. What about all these other counties that SCOPE could go to? We had our thing, and we were working in our deal, doing what we were doing.
Norman Hill agreed completely. And there were actually no problems with him. He said I'm going back, and he said you won't be bothered anymore. Whatever he did, he did. They pulled all the SCOPE kids out and they went on to other things.
After the South
Hunter: By putting in two very fine years with SCEF, I got around a lot of the South. My big monument would be all of those counties in Northeastern North Carolina. I appreciated Floyd McKissick's comment to me, made in '69, he was a very good friend, and his daughter Jocelyn, who died recently, was a good friend of Eldri and myself. But he said there isn't a Black home in that region that you wouldn't be welcome at as long as you wanted to stay.
In those Northeastern Black belt counties in North Carolina we drove the Klan out, the Klan was very powerful in North Carolina, United Klans of America and spin-off groups. We drove them out.
Later I worked in the poverty programs, at the militant end of that, and so we fought the official poverty things to get more bread and butter gains for grassroots people. And then I went on to other things, teaching, still organizing, and so on.
The next big period came '69 to '73, I directed for four years a grassroots community organization on the South and Southwest side of Chicago, an area which was so violent it was unbelievable. We worked mostly with Black, Puerto Rican, and some Chicano people, and those whites who would work with us. I worked for a group called the Chicago Commons Association, an old private social service group.
We helped people organize 300 grassroots block clubs and some related organizations in two large umbrella groups. We fought the [Mayor Richard] Daley machine, we fought the Republicans, we fought the police. I was pretty much on my own, but I had an excellent staff, we hired many community people.
I went to an independent Democratic judge, Judge Hubert Will, who was trustee for a fund that hadn't been spent, and I talked him out of $350,000 to fund a massive extension of our project and hire grassroots people in staff capacities. It was very successful.
In the course of it, we prevented what probably could have been some of the most dangerous riots that Chicago ever had, because we were operating on residential frontiers that were changing as white people fled to Cicero, and so on. And we had all sorts of things happening.
The police were generally enemies. There were a few exceptions, the Human Relations section of the Chicago Police Department was pretty damn good, all in all. But we had some very close calls, and we were tested again and again on non-violence, which we practiced.
One of the few staff people I fired was somebody who was making statements that we're going to have 10,000 armed men marching up and down Halstead Street. And so I got rid of that person, and I don't really regret it, I mean, I'm not somebody who does that very much, if at all. How serious the threat was I don't know, but I do know the person was unhinged, that was a local person who, whatever the circumstances, was not an asset.
But we went through some very tough times, we had an alliance with the Disciples youth gang, who protected us and worked with us, worked with us when we unseated a Daley Democrat and put in Anna Langford, a Black independent woman lawyer, who served very well as alderperson. And that was a coalition that we had with the Disciples youth gang.
We made peace between the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Black gangs. And so those were four very productive years.
Later I was director of Catholic social justice activities for the Catholic diocese of Rochester, New York. A very large diocese, 12 counties, metro Rochester, then all these other areas. Organized strikes of migrant workers, Algonquin Indian migrants, everyone else. Eventually, probably to my credit, I was fired by the bishop for insubordination, but we got a lot accomplished. And again, we had many good staff as well as some finks. The finks, I inherited them when I took the job.
Bruce: You're so clearly a labor background, using words like "fink," because nobody else even know what it means.
Hunter: Well, I'm old Mine Mill man, right. In fact, in the middle of the Southern thing, Mine Mill brought me to Arizona to give a major address under the aegis of the Arizona Mine Mill Council, every local sent large delegations and I spoke all night.
Bruce: It's just good to hear, because I grew up with all of those terms. But if I used that language with most people today, nobody would know what a "fink" is. [A "fink" is a traitor who poses as a member of a union but reports to the boss and sabotages organizing.]
Hunter: They should listen at least to the song "Goons and ginks and company finks", yeah.
Bruce: "And the deputy sheriffs who made the raids."
Hunter: But in any case, I've been an organizer all my life, that's been my primary vocation. And I'll consider myself that until the day I die, which I don't intend to have that to occur. You might be interested to know that I'm committed to immortality in this physical form. And we'll see if I make it.
Bruce: Well, let me know how that works out.
Hunter: But I want Eldri to be with me, and she's not so sure she wants that kind of ...
Bruce: Yeah, I think I'm more on Eldri's team on this one.
Hunter: But anyway, that's my statement.
Bruce: And you're sticking to it.
Teaching & Organizing
Hunter: Yeah, I've been a full time professor who organized.
Bruce: Well, did you ever go back to teaching?
Hunter: Oh, yeah. At different points I taught. I was a professor for several years in a graduate program in urban and regional planning at the University of Iowa. And I worked with the Indian programs around the state on the side. In Chicago, I should add, while we were doing the South Side thing, I was one of the people who organized the All-Indian Native American Community Organizational Training Center on the north end of Chicago, North Side. I was its long-time chairman for years, even when I was at Iowa. So I've mixed these things back and forth. I taught at Navajo Community College now called Dineh College, on the reservation, at Tsaile and Shiprock in the Navajo Nation. "Dineh" is Navajo for the people.
Anyway, I taught there, was much involved in good causes, anti-uranium work and so forth and so on. I've gone back and forth. Sometimes it's been full-time organizing, part-time teaching, sometimes it's been full time organizing, which is double-duty work in its own way, sometimes it's been full-time teaching and organizing too, full time organizing, full time teaching. Whenever I could, I've organized.
In the Northern Plains, we cracked Devil's Lake. At that time, I was a professor in the Indian Studies Department at the University of North Dakota, Chair of the Honors Program. And actually formally retired from that as a full prof and former Department Chair, former Honors Chair and so forth.
But wherever we've been, we fought. And it's in my blood, and it's never going to go. I do have several conclusions. If you want to make a lot of money, that's not the role to take, not the route to take. If you want to test how thick your skull is, and how resilient your soul is, why that's the way to go. All right, if you fish for trout, you have to expect to be bitten by mosquitos.
I've worked with all kinds of people, Indians of many tribes, many different ethnicities. And I've learned an enormous amount from grassroots people, whoever they were. I've always been impressed by the great courage and resiliency of grassroots people, whether it's Jackson, oppressed Indians in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, or wherever the hell it is, and it's well worth it. I have no regrets.
I also have an FBI file that goes beyond 3,000 pages. And I was on many different agitator lists, including the rabble rouser index.
Bruce: My FBI file is almost all blacked out except for "the," "and" ...
Hunter: I know. Why did we pay our ten cents a page for...
Bruce: It's all blacked out. I was so disappointed.
Hunter: Eldri and I together have a big Sovereignty Commission file. But to all of those files, they're actually in the end rather dull, as you probably noticed.
Bruce: We had a meeting of our group, Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement last Sunday. And this was a meeting with our children to talk with them about how did they feel, how did they react being the children of activists? And you were describing, you go to Jackson, you go to Chicago, you go to North Carolina, to North Dakota, and you're bringing your family with you...
Hunter: And a million other places.
Bruce: And a million other places. How did your children, how did they feel about all this?
Eldri: I just think they just saw this as, you know, as normal.
Bruce: They didn't mind being uprooted every two or three years, new school? Eldri: No. When they got a little older though, it was hard moving Maria from Iowa City to Rochester.
Hunter: Rochester, yeah. Maria was born in February of '62 in Jackson. John the Third was born in Raleigh in 1965. Peter was born in Chicago in '69, Josie was born in late '79 in Gallup, New Mexico. Then we have Thomas, our oldest grandchild, who is Maria's son, half Choctaw, who is like our offspring. And then there are others.
I think they've all taken a great deal of pride in all of this. John is an accomplished writer. Peter is a key editor in Lee Brothers newspaper chain. Maria works with kids in the school system. Josie's a social worker. And her very steady steady, permanent steady, is Cameron, who is an IBEW electrician. And everybody has taken this in very good stride.
Eldri: Yes. Josie was not moved around.
Hunter: Not as much, no. Her big move was from North Dakota to here [Pocatello].
Eldri: She spent a fair number of years in North Dakota.
Bruce: But a lot of the children of our generation of activists, many of them still deeply resent the fact that their parents were always at meetings, were always off doing other stuff, were off as they put it "saving the world," and didn't have any time for us. This came out quite clearly.
Eldri: I think we picked up a little of that.
Hunter: Well, we always had an odd kind of stability. I mean, Eldri and I have been married 44 years. This is probably one of the few, our marriage preceded the Southern movement, but not by much.
Bruce: That's unusual.
Hunter: Yeah. And we've, when I came into the South, and she too, we were a little bit older. Not all that old, but we were a little bit older. And we stayed together. And we made certain that the kids stayed in school, although actually they didn't. John dropped out after the 7th Grade, went on to get a Master's in English, and actually is a successful writer who's just had a novel accepted and headed for publication in New York.
Bruce: Mazel tov.
Hunter: Yeah, he's done all sorts of things. Peter finished high school, Josie finished, Maria dropped out as a sophomore. But again, as I pointed out at the beginning of this, my father never had any high school education at all. And so we don't see the public schools as sacrosanct, but if kids were going to leave the public school system, which I never particularly liked anyway, we insisted that they be exposed to a wide variety of things, right? All our kids graduated from college.
Hunter: And they themselves wanted to do that. And so we always had books, we always had magazines, we had all kinds of stuff. If they wanted to read something conservative, I at least had the American Rifleman, they could read that.
Eldri: When we got out to the [Navajo] reservation, the school was miles away. I think John had just finished 7th Grade and Maria had finished 10th. And many of the faculty kids were [being taught at home]. And then if they move on to somewhere else, usually they'd take some kind of a test to establish their [grade] level. When we got up to North Dakota, [at John's school] they had a new superintendent and assistant superintendent, and they absolutely refused to give an inch on giving him credit. So he just didn't go, he started audted some classes at the University, started [university] as soon as he was old enough to take the GED. But he is sort of a loner anyway.
Hunter: So our kids wouldn't exactly be the kind of situation that some left parents faced. I'm not sure how "left" I'd be considered, really. I mean, I'm a member of the Socialist Party, I've never been a CP, but I'm a member of CCDS.
Bruce: What's that?
Hunter: You know, the Committees of Correspondence, that broke with the CP. I'm a member of Solidarity. And you know, we keep our hand in on these things. But I wouldn't consider us a typical left- wing family. We haven't had the situation that some friends have had a generation ago, when some of their kids to out-radical the parents became Weathermen. That occurred with some people that we knew. [The "Weathermen" were a radical faction of Students for a Democratic Society who turned to violence, bomb-making, and other extreme tactics.]
Bruce: I had no love for Weathermen, and I was in SDS at that time.
Hunter: Leonard Boudin has been a lawyer of mine, he died some years ago, in fact quite a few years ago now, but represented me in the eighties on different matters. And his daughter, of course, was well known. Howard Melish, a fixture in SCEF, Reverend Howard Melish, had a son who became a Weatherperson. But that is not my cup of tea.
Bruce: Eldri, how did you feel about being moved from place to place?
Eldri: We'd just pack up and go. There was always something interesting about moving, too.
Hunter: In a way, Eldri didn't move that much as a child. Her father, who died a few years ago at 95, was a main line Lutheran minister. I don't mean in some fundamentalist thing, but very main line. He was a clergyman and and he did move to different posts.
Eldri: We moved from Moose Lake to Minneapolis when he was a chaplain in World War II, and then we moved to Nebraska. And I finished high school there. I never had a place that was like home, you know, this was where everybody comes back to, because of changes.
Bruce: One of the things that's on the website that you guys might find interesting is we had a long discussion about how our parents and families felt about us being in the movement. I think you'd enjoy reading it. And there was quite a wide variety. And it did not necessarily break down, as you might think it did.
Hunter: I think I can say that, my parents were very supportive. Mother had her flaky side, to be frank about it. She lived to be 95 or something. But she was extremely supportive, wasn't she?
Hunter: And her family, which as I've said, was very conservative.
Eldri: She wasn't as conservative as the family she came from.
Hunter: Mother was not conservative, and my father was very supportive, but they worried. They worried a lot. And dad may have worried more than mother did. Eldri's parents were very supportive. I took my father all over Eastern North Carolina one night, meeting people, telling him the Klan meets here, this and that and so forth. You know, he took it in good stead. Eldri's father came to Mississippi, right?
Eldri: Yes, and he came to North Carolina too.
Hunter: Yeah, your mother.
Eldri: They were just easy-going people. This is what we were doing, and it looked okay.
Bruce: How do you feel about Black Power?
Hunter: Well, that's a very good question. If you're talking about grassroots power, that's really what all this is about. And if you're talking about separatism for the sake of separatism, that's where some of it began to go, the people that began to make a business of separatism, no I don't buy that at all. But I don't think it affected the grassroots that way.
But I think we do have to recognize the importance of self-determination. This is very important in a Native American context. But what I've noticed is that if a person is a good person, and has something to offer and is willing to listen, underlining that about a hundred times, they can find themselves working with all sorts of people.
In Chicago, in the period of '69 to '73, we worked mostly with Black people, but also with Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and others, down in that area. One of our most successful community organizers, in fact my senior community organizer, was white, a red-head with a master's in social work. He worked with Black ghetto youth very, very successfully. When it came time to arrange the peace parley between the Young Lords and the Disciples and the Black P. Stone Nation and so forth, he was one of the key figures in that. Everybody trusted him.
So my sense of this is that your question is complicated. I think we're all for self determination. I don't think we like people who come in to a situation, whoever they are, and announce they have all the answers. But I'm wary of people who make separatism a vocation, a career.
I'm very supportive of grassroots people, whoever they are. I like a situation where people, whoever they are, can recognize that there are people who might be a little bit different, who are still good people, and who may have some worthwhile ideas. I don't know if I've answered this.
Bruce: We have a section on the website called "Frequently Asked Questions," in which different Movement veterans give their views on questions such as Black Power, non-violence, and so on. But those are not questions that have definitive answers, different veterans have different opinions.
Hunter: We don't have an orthodoxy in that sense. But my thing is going back to the people. Black people in Jackson showed tremendous courage against the greatest odds, the cruelest repression anybody could imagine. The people in Eastern North Carolina, lonely and isolated, the Klan very much a threat, to say nothing of [White Citizens] Council, and "Birchers," every other Goddamn thing, they showed tremendous courage.
So basically, I go back to the grassroots people, back to the concept of self-determination, of democratic social movements. But I like the idea of people being able to work together. And ultimately, I think we're all going to have to work together if we're going to save this wretched world. And I think we're going to see movements come that learn from the mistakes of what's gone before. Every damn movement you can point to has been built on the wreckage of preceding movements.
Bruce: And the reason you're stressing everybody work together was that there was an element of some Black power advocates who said whites should not be involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
Hunter: That's right, yeah, which made no sense, particularly if those so-called whites had risked their lives. In my case, it's kind of an interesting situation, with a white parent and an Indian parent. In that sense, I'm half and half. I move back and forth and all sorts of things. You know, I could go to the Navajo reservation and fit in very nicely. A lot of people know me. I could go here, I could go there.
So I've got a white side and an Indian side. If you have to ask where does the loyalty go, I'd say the ultimately loyalty goes to the human race, but probably the immediate loyalty goes to the Native side. In other words, I stand with the Indians. But I'm also quite aware that there have always been plenty of people who helped Indian people who haven't been Indians.
Bruce: Talk about non-violence, how you saw non-violence.
Hunter: The Wobblies had an old adage, "Watch the man who advocates violence." The sense was that this was either a nut who was dangerous, or a police agent.
Bruce: A provocateur.
Hunter: Yeah, and I always remember that. I've never been a Gandhian. I don't know if you know David McReynolds of the War Resisters League and the Socialist Party. He's a good friend, and very much a non- violent person in the deepest sense.
Bruce: As was Dr. King.
Hunter: Oh definitely. McKissick was not. McKissick was a gun man, like I am.
Bruce: But not on a demonstration?
Hunter: That's right. And we had nothing like that in that sense. Defending one's home at night, as happened in Eastern North Carolina and so on, against the Klan, would be one thing. But tactical non-violence was our hallmark. The Gandhian thing left me cold. I didn't feel that it made much of a difference with much of the other side at that point. I respected people who held that view. I'm proud of the fact that we prevented riots in Chicago that could have been horrible.
Bruce: Just to pursue this a little further, speaking for myself, I also was pretty much exactly the same as you in terms of tactical non-violence, not a Gandhian. But I respected and liked and worked well with the Gandhians. I believe that one of the reasons that the Movement, which had grown so large and powerful by the late '60s, by the mid-'70s had pretty much shrunk and died, was because it abandoned tactical non-violence for violent rhetoric. How would you feel about that?
Hunter: I see many reasons for the Movement's problems. One would be the [Vietnam] war, that was certainly one. The poverty programs tended to erode and funnel things to the Democratic Party. We were able in some areas to organize people in such a way that we got a lot out of those, but those were still dangerous things. And I think to some extent, I'd say to a good extent, you're right. I mean, I think the visionary dimensions of the Movement, saving the world, even saving your enemy, just began to go on the rocks.
Bruce: Began to go on the rocks because people abandoned it or because it failed?
Hunter: Well, not that it failed, because these things don't come overnight. But because certain events were moving too fast, the war. Class schisms, in the Black movement particularly. It was very difficult to interest much of labor in joining, even in situations that had been largely pacified by the Movement, pretty hard to get them. I could tell you some interesting stories involving the Packing House Workers, Chemical Workers, and the International Woodworkers, things like that.
I think there was a lot of, CoIntelPro, it took its toll, there's no question. [CoIntelPro was the FBI's secret and illegal campaign to disrupt the Movement, destroy Dr. King, and defend the racist status-quo from any change.]
But the thing that I'll always remember would be people singing "We Shall Overcome" on the eve of a great crisis, which involved their putting themselves on the line the next day, or even marching out into the arms of the police, singing that, convinced that ultimately a better world was coming. Well, things certainly improved.
Bruce: And it was singing songs like that that gave us the courage and community in order to do that.
Hunter: Exactly. I agree, I'm basically agreeing with you, but I'm just seeing a number of sociological factors, some of them politically machiavellian,.
Bruce: Right, I'm not saying it was the only reason.
Hunter: I know exactly what you're saying, and I think we're on the same wavelength. I think when people gave up on the vision, and settled down to purely pork-chop things, I think at that point something...
Bruce: And identity politics as opposed to common dreams.
Hunter: Exactly. A good organizer, as you well know, I mean I'm preaching to the choir here with you...
Bruce: Well, no, you're preaching to the website, and a lot of the people who read the website are students.
Hunter: Okay. A good organizer keeps one eye on the here and now, and one eye over the mountain yonder, to that bright new world that lies over there, and is able to show how one furthers the other and how the other furthers the one. You see what I mean?
That these are interconnected. And you have to have both. This is the power of something, like the movement certainly that I saw in Mississippi and North Carolina and many other places, and that you saw in Alabama and wherever other places you've been. And it's the power of Mine Mill at its peak, where it could deliver the pork chops, but it could also take a working stiff and make him feel, as is genuinely the case, that he was important, or she, as an individual. And that they were part of something that was a great crusade. The Wobblies could do that.
But the problem was also that there were a lot of people who would agree with us, if their ghosts could come here and join us, but who never put it on the line, because the time for labor to have gotten into that, however belatedly, was before the sixties ended. And they didn't, they didn't do it, they were afraid too. I mean, if we're talking about labor as a major force for significant social change.
Bruce: Eldri, do you have any thoughts on non-violence or comments?
Eldri: I sort of agree with John. Although I think I'm just naturally non-violent. You know, more non-violent than violent. I think as a tactic it was good, but I think also as a philosophy that it's very good. And I'm not completely philosophically non-violent, but much more so than John is.
Bruce: You know, one of the things that I've thought about often regarding non-violence, and one of the reasons I'm so glad we were part of a movement that at least was tactically non-violent, is that having worked with Marines in the war, and then with veterans who came back, so many of whom were mentally and emotionally crippled by the things that they had been forced to do. Nobody that I know in the Civil Rights Movement lies awake at night in anguish over anything that we did to anyone else. There are people who are anguished about brothers and sisters who were killed, maimed, dispossessed, jailed, beaten, our people who we remember and mourn, but we never did anything like that to anyone else, and we came out of it so much better for it. One of the things we talk about in our group is that civil rights workers in the South experienced post-traumatic stress disorders, just as combat veterans, in a similar way. But not over anything we had done, and that's a big difference.
Hunter: That's a very good point. Someone once referred to A.J. Muste, as a man who had lived a life that was very full, fascinating and very productive. And, among other things, there were no eyes that he was afraid to look into. [A.J. Muste was an advocate of non-violence and a leader of the peace movement in the 1950s.]
I mean, in a way there was some force that may have trained you. Some force, somewhere. Forget about God and all that business, and the Virgin Mother and so on, but there's some force that I think trained you to play a non-violent role, tactically speaking, in those big urban situations, which were powder kegs. You know, a killing on a street corner could ignite a whole damn thing, and you've got dead people all over, and the reactionaries gloating to high heaven.
I took an Anthro course and we had a good professor, and he talked about "marginal man," he was talking basically about half breeds, to use a term I don't use, but I'll use it right now. People who were on the margin of things. But the reality of the thing, and he wasn't saying this in a denigrating way, he knew all about my background, knew my father and everything else, but the point I'm making is that I think the people who are in that kind of a position are sometimes in a position to do certain unique things.
The reason we're in Idaho is because of a great, great, great-grandfather, whose name is John Gray. He was half Mohawk and half Scottish. He was a leader of the Iroquois fur hunters in the Far West in the first part of the 19th century, came into the West in 1816 with a 16 year old Mohawk wife, left in the late thirties, came back again in the early 1840s. Gray's Lake in Idaho, Gray's Hole valley, Gray's River, all named for him. His basic winter camp is right behind this house, up half a mile. That's why we're here and that's why we're in this very house. He's the family culture hero. He killed five Grizzly bears in one fight while a Jesuit priest sketched the whole thing.
Bruce: I won't tell my Greenpeace friends that story.
Hunter: Well, I'm a hunter, but I'm getting more gentle as the years pass. But the point is that in a study of John Gray, done decades after that, some of the most astute people studying the fur trade came to the conclusion that his great contribution was representing the Indians very, very effectively. No Mine Mill organizer, no Wobbly walking-delegate, could ever do a better job. But at the same time, he could communicate with the whites. You see what I mean? And he could bridge that.
Bruce: He could bridge cultures.
Hunter: Yeah, and that was probably his greatest single contribution. And I'd like to feel that somehow I've able to do that. I've worked with people of all kinds, what I have seen is a common humanity. I can't escape that, it would be impossible for me even to hate people. I certainly couldn't hate on the basis of race. I'm not sure I could hate anyway. And I sense that you're very much in that mold.
Bruce: Well, there's some people, I have a little list which actually isn't quite that little...
Hunter: I could spend my remaining years, which I hope are many, but we never know any more now, I could spend my remaining years, as I told Eldri, going through the Social Security Death Index. How many of my enemies are gone? But I actually feel that my time is more productively spent organizing.
Copyright © 2005
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Last Modified: September 19, 2005.