(The following memoir concerns the participation of Larry Mamiya, a Master of Divinity candidate at the Union Theological Seminary, in the Southwest Georgia Project in the summer of 1966. He was a member of both SIM and SNCC. He is currently a professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Vassar College. Note: Using the style of the time, the word Black is capitalized.)
The Student Interracial Ministry or SIM was established at the same conference as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina on April 16-17, 1960. Since SNCC consisted largely of college age students, the graduate level divinity school students who attended the conference decided to establish an organization that would fit their needs and specialty. Black divinity students from the Gammon United Methodist Theological Seminary in Atlanta and white students from Union Theological Seminary in New York City agreed to establish their own organization. The Student Interracial Ministry would be focused on pulpit exchanges between black and white clergy and churches. Although it sounds innocuous now, this practice of pulpit exchanges of Black preachers preaching in white churches and white preachers in black churches had its dangers, especially in the completely segregated churches in the South. It was particularly dangerous for Black preachers to attempt to preach in white churches. Jane Stembridge, the daughter of a white Baptist preacher from Georgia and a student at Union Theological Seminary, worked with Ella Baker in the summer of 1960 in Atlanta to put together an organizational structure for SNCC. She also did the same for SIM.
From 1960 until 1965, the Student Interracial Ministry, which was based at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, followed through on this plan of interracial pulpit exchanges. In the fall of 1964, Charles Sherrod, a SNCC organizer of the Southwest Georgia Project and an ordained minister, decided to complete a Masters degree program in Sacred Theology at Union. Sherrod and others led the tumultuous protests in Albany, Georgia which attempted to desegregate every aspect of the city from public transportation and restaurants to public schools, etc. More than 4,000 people went to jail, probably the largest number of arrests during the civil rights movement, including young students and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In late 1963 a federal court order put an end to the protests.
Charles Sherrod began to move the civil rights organizing from the city of Albany to the surrounding rural counties of Southwest Georgia. In June 1964, Sherrod was nearly beaten to death in Newton, the main town of Baker County (often nicknamed "Bad Baker") by a group of white men who came out of a hardware store with wooden axe handles. Shirley Miller Sherrod's Aunt Josey Miller, who was nearby, ran and threw her body over Charles. She was in effect saying, if you want to kill him, you would have to kill me first. Seeing her fierce determination, the men walked away. After spending the summer recovering from the brutal beating, Charles went to New York City and enrolled in a Masters of Sacred Theology degree program at the Union Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of the famous theologians Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. Moving constantly back and forth between New York City and Southwest Georgia, Sherrod began to get some Union students involved in field organizing with SNCC.
It was at Union that I first met Charles or "Sherrod" as everyone, even his wife, calls him. He was a persuasive influence and convinced a group of 25 divinity students from Union to join him in grassroots organizing in Southwest Georgia in the summer of 1966. Shirley Miller and Sherrod got married in the fall of 1966 to the delight of many of us. He met Shirley while he was investigating the death of Shirley's father, Hosie Miller, who was shot to death by a neighboring white farmer in a dispute over the ownership of some cows. The farmer was acquitted of all charges by an all white jury.
Prior to going down South, our group spent every Sunday evening reading, discussing, and learning about nonviolence, hearing speakers about the movement. We also went through nonviolent training, simulating incidents where people would be pushed and shoved, spat upon, etc. In late May 1966 a caravan of cars from Union drove to the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, N.C. for several days of preparation and training before we went to S.W. GA. Some SNCC staff members joined us to participate in the training.
It was a strange feeling being in the Deep South, knowing that you cannot count on the local police, sheriff and his deputies, state troopers, or FBI agents being on your side. The past experiences of other civil rights workers revealed that law enforcement was often on the side of the white segregationists.
Little did we know that there was a growing controversy within SNCC ranks about the role of whites in the civil rights movement. However, after we arrived at the SNCC office in Albany, this fact gradually became clear to us. First, we were called "Charlie's people" by some of the Black SNCC workers since Charles was one of the few SNCC leaders willing to work with whites. Gradually, we became aware of the incipient moves by SNCC members towards "Black Power." In the Spring of 1966 during the James Meredith march to the University of Mississippi, after Meredith was shot, Willie Ricks and other SNCC leaders like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown began to chant, "Black Power." "What do we want? Black Power!"
Although nobody knew just what Black Power meant, we spent long nights in the SNCC office in Albany discussing Black Power. Beginning at 7 in the evening and ending at 2 a.m., many of us were exhausted by the discussions and spent the night in the SNCC office sleeping on the top of desks or on the floor before heading back to the rural communities we had been assigned to. It was not until two years later that we learned that Black Power meant "Black control of the Black community" from Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. But the major focus was the question of what the role was for white civil rights workers in a largely black movement. This question would arise more sharply a year later when Stokely Carmichael and most of the black SNCC staff voted to ask white civil rights workers to leave the organization. The other major issue was nonviolence. Many SNCC staff felt that nonviolence was an intolerable position and began to gradually shift to the position of defensive violence under the influence of leaders like Malcolm X.
The divinity students were not the only graduate students in the Southwest Georgia Project. There also were a few law students who worked with the only black attorney in Albany and the rural counties, attorney C.B. King. I remember talking to a Black law student from Yale, who admirably described the courtroom tactics of attorney King. He had attended a trial in a rural courtroom where the judge was obviously displeased at having a Black attorney in his presence. At one point, as the court clerk was drinking water out of a clean glass, King asked the clerk for a glass of water. The clerk brought out a dirty, filthy glass and poured water into it and handed it to King. For the next half an hour King described in detail the filthy glass and the blatant racism of the clerk. He did this to teach the judge and the clerk a lesson about racial discrimination. Attorney King was a hero to all of us because he often worked to bail us out of jail. He also personally suffered a severe beating by a sheriff and his wife was once beaten and lost the child she was carrying.
It was two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and one year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet the city of Albany and the surrounding counties were still deeply segregated. I recalled going to a movie theater in Albany with an interracial group and we were ushered upstairs to the balcony, where Blacks were usually placed. We left the theater. It was also extremely difficult for Black people to register to vote because their jobs were threatened or they were refused outright. The old tactics of having a Black person say from memory the Constitution of the State of Georgia or pay a poll tax were dropped because of the Voting Rights Act. Thus, our major focus for civil rights organizing was voter registration in the rural counties.
The 25 divinity students were divided up and sent to rural counties to organize voter registration. I was assigned to the City of Cordele in Crisp County. Cordele called itself the "Watermelon Capitol of the world" and also the "Cantaloupe Capitol of the world." It was the transshipping point for fruit from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, which were brought to the Farmers Market and shipped north on trains and trucks. Local residents often got the fruit for free from Blacks working at the Market or for 5 or 10 cents. We ate a lot of watermelons and cantaloupes that summer.
David Hawk and I were roommates in the housing project apartment of Clemmie Gaston, his wife Pearl, and their two elementary aged daughters. We shared the living room couch and the floor, taking turns sleeping on the couch. When we arrived in Cordele, the kids began calling us "Freedom Riders", "the Freedom Riders are here!" We tried to tell them that we were civil rights workers and not the original Freedom Riders. But in the end, I guess the kids were right — all of us, local people and civil rights workers were riding to Freedom. We were on this long journey to Freedom in America, a pilgrimage that still continues.
Clemmie Gaston, aged 27, was a local leader, who was a hustling, hardworking entrepreneur with several jobs. He was the Black community's garbage man, hauling trash in his large cattle truck, cutting men's hair as the local barber, and a part time owner of a social club. He also led a Gospel quartet that practiced in his apartment on Saturday mornings. They toured different churches on Sundays. David and I would often be awoken by the strains of Gospel music on Saturdays.
Prior to our arrival in Cordele, SNCC staff members were involved in a flag controversy at the local high school. They were pulling down and taking off the State flag of Georgia, with its Confederate stars and bars, which was flown with the American flag. This controversy stirred things up racially before we arrived. The civil rights movement also included a struggle over important symbols like flags because they communicated a message to people.
The divinity students immediately mixed in with the local SNCC staff members, who included Jean Baptiste, Ramona Lockette, and Rev. Ulysses Fullwood. The Lockette house became the local SNCC house, where we often ate our meals since Mrs. Lockette, Ramona's mother always had a pot on the stove. From my experience, I always considered the local people to be the true heroes and heroines of the civil rights movement. They took us as strangers into their homes, fed us, and put their homes as collateral to bail us out of jail. Above all, after most of us left the area, they had to deal with the brutality and abuses that we had stirred up with our protests.
Since my host Clemmie was such a hustling entrepreneur, he decided to take a truckload of watermelons and cantaloupes north to Atlanta to sell. On Friday afternoon he filled his truck with the fruit at the farmer's market, paying 10 cents for a watermelon and 5 cents for a cantaloupe. At 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, Clemmie and I started out on the 4-hour drive on the interstate to Atlanta. It took that long because Clem's old truck couldn't reach 50 m.p.h. except when it went downhill on the rolling hills of Georgia. About one hour out of Atlanta we stopped at a gas station.
While Clem filled the truck, I went to use the bathroom. The men's room was integrated, both Blacks and whites used it. However, there was a large sign with a hand and a finger pointing down to the next toilet door, which said, "White Ladies Only." I looked at the sign and thought it was illegal. So I reached up and with all my weight pulled down on the sign and it came off. I took off my jeans jacket (part of the civil rights uniform during those days) and used it to cover the sign and took it to the truck. I showed Clem my souvenir and we both laughed. We drove to the Vine City section of Atlanta, which was populated by working class and poor Blacks. We made a number of stops and from the back of the truck we began selling the fruit — $1.00 to $1.50 for a watermelon, depending on size; and 50 to 75 cents for a cantaloupe. Word spread quickly and by noon we had sold out the truck and began the long drive back to Cordele. I had kept the "White Ladies Only" sign for couple of years but I began to get tired of dragging it around whenever I traveled so I finally gave it to a friend in the movement. Looking back now, I wished I had kept it because it would make a nice donation to the civil rights museum in Albany. But in the heat of the action, one never thinks about things like that.
Our major tasks were focused on voter registration with secondary efforts at organizing on housing and welfare issues, which we carried out during the week. On Sunday afternoons, after attending church, which let out at 2 p.m. (as organizers all of us attended different churches because that was where the local people were on Sundays) we took the local leaders and kids to the Veterans Memorial State Park which was about 8 miles from Cordele. The park like all Georgia institutions was segregated; Blacks were consigned to a swamp hole at the far end of the park. The State had built a large and beautiful swimming pool and concession stands, which were off limits to Blacks. So every Sunday afternoon there was a caravan going to the park — which included Clemmie's large truck and several cars, usually about 40 to 50 people, a racially integrated group of young kids, local leaders, and civil rights workers.
As we neared the park entrance, white teenagers would begin throwing rocks and beer bottles at the approaching caravan. As we parked and walked across the parking lot, crowds of whites would shout at us and spit on us, besides throwing stones, bottles, and sticks. We just covered our heads and moved forward to the swimming pool. As we approached the pool, white mothers would pull their reluctant kids by their arms to take them out of the pool; they certainly did not want them to be in an integrated pool with Blacks. Our group entered the pool and began splashing around. Since most Black kids did not know how to swim, as an Asian American from Hawaii, I began teaching them. David, who was a champion NCAA diver at Cornell University, got up on the diving boards and began a series of somersaults and high twisting dives while all of us applauded.
Many of the whites gathered by the pool's fence to watch in disbelief. Most of them had been ingrained with the belief that being in the same pool with Blacks would somehow contaminate them. In fact, after we left, the pool was drained, scrubbed down, and filled again. Since it took a couple of days to drain the large pool, a day to wash it, and a couple of days to fill it again, the white patrons did not have much time to enjoy the pool since our group came back again every Sunday afternoon.
After a month of going to the pool, the SNCC staff decided that it was time for the local leaders to take the kids to the pool by themselves since the civil rights workers wouldn't always be there. Coincidentally, two SNCC staff members, Jean Baptiste and Ramona Lockette, decided to get married that Sunday. So while the local people went to the pool, the rest of us attended the wedding.
Unfortunately, this time the whites at the park began to physically attack the kids and local leaders. They began chasing everyone and began beating them. The kids ran all over the park. Clemmie who was being hit jumped into his truck with some kids and began to drive out of the parking lot. On his way out, he accidentally clipped the car of the Sheriff of Crisp County, Earlie Posey, who would later charge Clemmie with attempted murder. A few of the older teenagers ran the 8 miles back to Cordele. Some SNCC staff members and local leaders armed themselves and drove out to the park to pick up the rest of the kids who had been scattered throughout the park.
As word spread of this vicious racial attack in the Black community, hundreds of Blacks left their homes and went to a main intersection, which led to the Interstate highway. At this intersection, there were four gas stations, two white and two Black owned. The crowds of Blacks milled around the two Black stations. During the early evening, a number of cars and pick up trucks began to gather at the white owned stations. The whites began unloading a lot of weapons, high-powered rifles, automatic assault rifles, machine guns, and an assortment of pistols.
David Hawk was walking to the intersection with Ramona Lockette. A pick up truck with two white farmers followed them. One of the farmers took his rifle out of the shotgun rack in the truck and was aiming at David. An interracial couple walking together was anathema in the Deep South. Out of the corner of her eye, Ramona saw what was happening. She carried a 22-caliber pistol in her bra, reached in, whipped out the pistol and fired into the air. The errant shot was enough to make the farmer with the rifle duck. As the truck passed the couple, some Black teenagers down the road saw what was happening and began to throw stones at the truck as it sped away. By her quick actions, Ramona had saved David's life.
As the evening went on, there was a tense standoff between the Blacks and whites. Several Georgia State Troopers were there on the white side. About 9 p.m. Charles Sherrod called for a mass meeting in a local church in order to ease the tensions. About 300 people attended the mass meeting , which ended a couple of hours later. As the meeting was dismissed, everyone headed back to the intersection again. At one point, I saw a pick up truck cross the intersection and pull up in a lot behind the Black gas stations. Two men with high-powered rifles were mounted on the back of the truck. I went up to Sherrod and told him that they were going to catch us in crossfire. Sherrod went to point this out to one of the state troopers, who then ordered the truck to go back to the white stations.
It was close to midnight, when an innocent white teenager was driving his sports car to the Interstate. As he passed one of the Black stations, a Black teenager picked up a bottle and threw it on his windshield. The bottle shattered the windshield and the white teen pulled into one of the white stations. A few minutes after that the shooting started. With several others I dove head first through the door of a Black social club behind one of the stations. I could hear the bullets zing past my head and hit the doorpost — pap,pap,pap,pap. As I lay on the floor, I said to myself, these are not warning shots, they are shooting at us!!!
For the next two days and nights, one could hear the almost continuous gunfire as the whites shot up the Black stations. It was called a gun battle because a few Blacks went to get their old hunting rifles and 22-caliber pistols and tried to shoot back. However, for every bullet fired by a Black man, 100 bullets were fired back. Ninety nine per cent of the shooting was done by whites. It was then that I began to see the wisdom of nonviolence as a strategy for the civil rights movement. Most rural Blacks did not have the kind of weapons and firepower to counter that of whites. If the strategy was all-out violence, it would have been a bloodbath for Black people.
Early Wednesday morning we could no longer hear the shooting. The Georgia State Troopers finally stepped in (they had been there the whole time) and sent the white gunmen home. At 10 a.m. all of us went to the intersection and saw that the two Black gas stations had been totally destroyed by gunfire. One could see the large holes in several inches of concrete that the high-powered bullets made. Everything was destroyed. We later found out that the two Black gas station owners did not have the insurance to rebuild. Apparently, the two white owners knew this and had their friends carry out the destruction. I'm sure they also paid for the thousands of bullets expended. The white owners now had the monopoly of gasoline sales in the Black community of Cordele.
In the course of civil rights organizing, sometimes what was planned as a sideshow (like integrating the Veterans Memorial State Park) suddenly becomes a main event. After the gun battle, we knew that we could not back down; we could not let the violence, beatings, and gunfire stop us from going back to the park.
The United Klans of Georgia decided to meet us in the park. Little did we know that the "Veterans" to whom this park was a memorial were the Confederate Veterans from Georgia in the Civil War. So to the Klan and to many racist whites, this park was "sacred ground." However for us, this was a State park and Black people were taxpayers and had a right to use this park. We called the FBI (the Georgia Bureau of Investigation) to inform them of our intention to return to the park. But they already knew since our phones were tapped. We also called the Georgia State Troopers.
Sherrod rented a yellow school bus and filled it with civil rights workers brought in from other counties. If violence were to break out with the Klan, he did not want the children or local people there. He warned us not to carry pocketknives, which could be considered weapons.
As our school bus pulled into the entrance of the park, we could see that the State Troopers had about a dozen Klan cars pulled over on the side of the road and they began to unload the rifles and weapons they found. For the first time, the state troopers were doing their job. They also boarded our bus to search for weapons. They took our tire jack because they said that it could be used as a weapon. After the search, we pulled into the parking lot and headed to the pool. We soon found out that the authorities had drained the pool so we could not use it. So we walked around the park for a few minutes. One could tell who the Klan members were because they wore shirts and sometimes ties with "KKK" embroidered. They were some of the meanest looking whites I had ever seen. Before any kind of trouble could break out, Sherrod called everyone to the bus and we left. Although we couldn't use the pool, we had made our point that we would not back down to the United Klans of Georgia or anyone else.
On the next trip to the park, Sheriff Earlie Posey was there. After we had disembarked from Clemmie's truck and the cars, the Sheriff called out to Clemmie in the parking lot, "Clemmie, come here." Clem said, "Yes suh, Mr. Sheriff, what do you want?" Without any warning, Posey pulled out his Billy club and struck Clemmie across his mouth. The unexpected blow shattered Clemmie's front teeth. Blood was splattered all over and one could see some of Clemmie's teeth hanging by their nerve endings. "What you do that for?" Clem asked spitting blood. The sheriff arrested Clemmie and charged him with attempted murder. We followed Clem to the jail and made sure he received proper medical care. Clemmie's encounter reminded me that I saw more blood spilled during the civil rights movement than I have seen for the rest of my life.
My time in Southwest Georgia also taught me two important lessons. The first was my struggle with my own racial and ethnic identity and the second concerned my struggle with nonviolence.
During one of the many trips to the park, as we disembarked from the truck and cars in the parking lot, I remembered that a Georgia State Trooper shouted, "Hey look, there goes a half breed!" I looked at the Blacks and whites around me, and I knew that the Trooper was referring to me. To him, I looked like a Native American since the term "half breed" refers to the Native-white mixture. This incident shook me up personally because through all of this time in participating in the civil rights movement, I thought I was doing this to help Black people. However, I soon realized that I was doing this not only for Blacks but also for myself and all people of color. This incident also reminded me of the need to affirm my own ethnic heritage as an Asian American (third generation of Japanese descent).
My next struggle was with nonviolence, something which most civil rights workers have difficulties with because it goes against the natural tendency to strike back or at least to defend oneself. Growing up in Hawaii, I learned a lot about the uses of violence. My father was a martial artist, specializing in judo. He also believed in teaching his two sons how to shoot a rifle properly, buying us BB and pellet guns. We learned how to aim with both eyes open. These home lessons were supplemented by required military training in high school and college. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor, all males who attended public high school and the University of Hawaii were required to take ROTC for two years each. So by the time I graduated from college, I had four years of military training. Our military instructors gave us extra training because they saw Hawaii as the first line of defense on any attack on the U.S. They taught us how to shoot, use bayonets, throw hand grenades, and took us to demonstrations of the use of heavier weapons at Schofield Barracks, a large army base in Hawaii. All of this emphasis on the uses of violence formed my background. The philosophy and practice of nonviolence was new and different for me.
Throughout most of my time in SW GA, I was able to work nonviolently. However, there was one incident where I had difficulty keeping the practice. As I mentioned above, if we were not doing voter registration or protesting at the park, we were given other organizing tasks. My job was to form a welfare rights committee that would help poor people get on the welfare rolls and to monitor the aid they received in order to ensure that they received the full benefits due to them by law. I did this kind of welfare intervention as a community organizer working out of a Black church in Harlem for two years prior to coming to Georgia.
On an extremely hot South Georgia day where the temperature reached above 105 degrees, I walked down a dusty dirt road to meet members of my committee. I passed on the other side of the street where a white owned car repair place was located in the Black community. A white teenage attendant always threw stones at me as I walked past and shouted racial slurs. Since he had a poor aim and arm, the stones he threw usually fell way short of their mark. However, on this very hot day when I wasn't feeling too good, he threw a stone that fell right in front of me. Without thinking and acting by reflexes, I reached down, picked up the same stone and just flung it back in his direction. Since I played a lot of baseball in Hawaii, I had a fairly good arm and without really aiming, the stone I threw went right past his head by a few inches. The teenager looked stunned at my reaction; his jaw dropped. Immediately, I felt two conflicting reactions — one was the triumph of revenge — got you back — and the other was a feeling of great disappointment that I had broken the discipline. Nonviolence is very difficult to sustain, especially in regards to reflexive actions. However, since that incident, that teenager never threw another stone at me as I walked by. No one else except that teenager and I knew about what had happened. But I still was deeply bothered that I broke the discipline.
The controversy over nonviolence also affected other SNCC workers. Some of the SNCC staff in Cordele carried guns for self defense like Ramona in the incident described above. In Lowndes County, Alabama a local group formed a chapter of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, arming themselves with rifles for self-defense and to protect civil rights workers who chose to be nonviolent. Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown always carried shotguns with them in Lowndes.
In 1967, the two issues of SNCC's interracial work with Black and white civil rights workers and the role of nonviolence in the movement led to a split in the organization. The influence of the rising Black Power and Black Consciousness movement, influenced by Minister Malcolm X, led the majority of Black SNCC workers to vote for the elimination of whites from the movement. Stokely Carmichael was elected as the Chair of SNCC and began to radicalize the movement. Both Charles and Shirley Sherrod resigned from SNCC because they did not agree with the policy shift. To explain their actions, Charles Sherrod said, "I didn't leave SNCC, SNCC left me." He meant that SNCC had abandoned its founding principles.
Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, the next SNCC Chair, also led the organization to abandon its emphasis on nonviolence. Its name was changed from the Student "Nonviolent" Coordinating Committee to the Student "National" Coordinating Committee. After Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, 1968, Carmichael and Brown became members of the Black Panther Party. Stokely eventually left for self-exile in Africa, changing his name to Kwame Tour (after his heroes Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Toure of Ivory Coast), and Brown spent time in New York State prisons, converting to Islam and changing his name to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. By 1970, SNCC collapsed due to the lack of funds, loss of members and leadership, and a shift in the political mood from civil rights to the anti-Vietnam War movement.
There is a saying in the Black community that "what goes 'round, comes 'round." In other words, life is a circle. What happened in the past can catch up to your present. This is certainly what happened to me in regards to the city of Cordele, Georgia. As mentioned above, I did civil rights work in Cordele in the summer of 1966, encountering a lot of its racism and violence. Later in my professional life as a sociologist of Black religion at Vassar College, focusing on Black churches and African American Muslim movements, I learned about the historical background of a major leader of one of these Muslim movements.
Elijah Poole moved from Sandersville, Georgia to Cordele at the age of six. His father was an itinerant Baptist preacher (called a jack leg preacher due to his lack of education) and a sharecropper. Elijah had to drop out of school at the third grade to help his father in the fields. When he was a teenager, he witnessed the lynching of his best friend, Albert Hamilton. Like the majority of lynching of Black men, a white woman complained that a Black man raped her. Hamilton was one of the Blacks in the area so he was picked up and arrested. A lynch mob formed and took Hamilton from the jail to a tree in the Black community where he was hanged and his body was shot 300 times. The Hamilton and Poole families took care of the body and the burial.
Elijah also met and married his wife, Clara Evans whose family also moved to Cordele from Macon. In 1923 before Elijah and Clara and some of their relatives moved north to the automobile factories of Detroit, another lynching occurred. A Black man was tied to the back of a pick up truck and dragged to his death around the city.
When Elijah Poole became "the honorable Elijah Muhammad," head of the Nation of Islam, he ordered that a picture of a Black man lynched on a tree be placed in the front of every temple of the Nation. His action reminded me of Blues singer Billie Holliday's famous anti-lynching song, "Strange Fruit Hanging from the Poplar Tree."
It is a strange coincidence that I did civil rights work in Cordele and later on began to study a movement led by a leader and his wife who both grew up in the same rural city. However, it was the extreme racial violence of Cordele that tied both periods together. As they say in the Black community, "what goes 'round, comes 'round."
I close this section of my memoirs with an essay,"Without Dr. King," written by Charles Sherrod, reflecting on the country and the movement after King's assassination.
Copyright © Larry Mamiya. 2011
"Without Dr. King"
By Rev. Charles Sherrod
April 15, 1968
Two weeks ago Dr. Martin Luther King was here in Albany to push the 'Poor Peoples' Campaign in Washington D.C. He accepted the role of advisor to our Project, and I spoke honestly with him as to my personal openness to all possibilities while having non-violence as the basis of present formulation of strategy. We talked for about ten minutes, and those were our last words together.
It could not be but a personally hurting experience to have heard of his death. I was some sixty miles into the wilderness of Clay County when I heard the word. I walked down a long winding dirt road and stood at a fence, looked into a field of cleared land lit up by a full moon and a basin of stars. Then I pondered what had happened. I saw fire and blood throughout the land, a many colored blood and a many caused fire. I saw the opening of many an eye too late. I saw in this moon lit field, the tears of those who have hoped to love, who thought in fact that they had only love for everyone. I saw the hope of a single method to achieve Freedom doomed.
I also saw the possibility of a more meaningful alliance between black and white fighters for freedom, for perhaps the reality of Dr. King's death had prompted the tears to wash away the blinders from the eyes of many who saw only the dream when the nightmare was everywhere present.
For us in Southwest Georgia, it has meant the rebirth of the non-violent action, and for those of us who believe and work for the beloved community, it has demanded first, a re-evaluation of our goals and a long range commitment to them, and second the acceptance of other possibilities for other people.
Perhaps the kind of movement that Dr. King looked for will blossom from the seeds of his death, with violence, the threat of violence, and non- violence. For now thousands will not come simply to hear a thunderous speech and return to the status quo. His lips will no longer move to express their mood. They must now themselves speak for themselves. Joshua is here to stand for Moses who has been to the mountaintop, to lead us into the Promised Land, but we must speak and work, walk and love and hate for ourselves. This is the challenge.
Copyright © Charles Sherrod. 1968
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Larry Mamiya.