Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Mimi [Feingold] Real was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. She attended [Swarthmore] college out of Philadelphia. She was a sophomore when she first got involved in the civil rights movement through the freedom rides. When she was invovled in the freedom rides in June 1961 she was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, and spent a month in the Mississippi State Penitentiary.]
Could you, please, first tell us some background information about your family and when were you born? Then you can move on to telling us anything else about the Civil Rights movement?
Let me tell you about my background first. I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941. I grew up in Brooklyn, went to public school and then I went away to college, Swarthmore college in Philadelphia. I was a sophomore when I first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Rides.
My parents had been very aware of injustice and prejudice. This was coming out of the 1950's, which was a period of enormous conformity and repression of any kind of independent thinking. It was the period of Senator McCarthy, from the great state of Wisconsin. It was a period of very little protest of any kind, against anything. If you tried to protest anything you were smeared with the label of being a communist. My parents, in fact, were labeled as communists and they both lost their jobs. But they believed strongly in equal justice and that's how they raised my brother and me, that certain things were right and certain things were wrong. You fought against what was wrong and fought to correct them, even if that meant getting yourself into trouble. It was not right to just sit by while other people were being denied their rights.
I was involved in the Civil Rights Movement for the next five years. I was first involved on Freedom Rides in June 1961. I was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi. I spent a month in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman as part of the Freedom Rides. As a result of the Freedom Rides, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the end of segregation in interstate transportation, so that included buses, bus stations, airplanes, and airports; anything having to do with interstate transportation. That was an enormous outcome of the freedom rides.
How did blacks and whites get along with each other in the movement you participated in?
Very well, there were no problems.
Did you ever feel like giving up while you were participating?
Never! I mean anything that was done to us only strengthened our resolve. Giving up at that point would basically be admitting defeat and giving a victory to the segregationists. That was just unacceptable. So, it did not matter if we were arrested or we were shot. We were arrested, a cross was burnt on my lawn. And it was — or if we were shot, and we were shot at. It just, as I say, strengthened our resolve.
What circumstances and events in your past impacted your decision to get involved in the Civil Rights movement?
Well, as I said, I was raised that way. My parents raised me to be aware of injustice and to fight it. Up to the early 60's there was virtually no way to express that because of the effects of the McCarthyism, but there were a series of events that culminated in the sit-in movement in 1961 that originated in Greensboro, North Carolina that galvanized something that we could really do.
As part of the sit-in movement, the NAACP organized a nationwide boycott of Woolworth's stores and five and dime Stores. This is where the lunch counters were in the South which they were intending to integrate. I was in college then, and we went to the nearest town with a Woolworth and we picketed Woolworth to try and get people to boycott. We did a number of things locally. Then, the Freedom Rides came along, which were organized by an organization called CORE: the Congress of Racial Equality. It was a no brainer for me to want to join that, because here was something that I could actually do.
[In the 1950s and '60s "five and dime" stores sold general consumer goods similar to large drug stores today. They were called "five and dime" because they advertised that a lot of their merchandise cost five to ten cents. The large "five and dime" chains like Woolworth, McCrory and Kress, often had lunch counters serving cheap meals.]
You said there was a cross burned on your lawn, was there any other violence when you were working in civil rights that happened to you?
Well, as I say, we were shot at. This was when I was working in Louisiana on voter registration from about 1963 to about 1966. We were shot at as we were in a car leaving the courthouse in the town where we were working. We had just escorted some people down to try to register to vote and as we started to drive away, there were shots fired at our car. Fortunately, they weren't very good shots, so they missed. I was arrested a number of times. We organized a lot of demonstrations while we were there and one of the demonstrations became very violent. Police attacked the crowd with cattle prods and high pressure fire hoses. They herded us all back into a church in a black community. In there, they threw tear gas at the church and arrested all of us.
Can you describe the Freedom Rides a little more?
Okay, well, let's start with where things were in the late 1950's or early 1960's. There had been a Supreme Court decision that declared that segregation in interstate transportation facilities was unconstitutional. So, it was already the law of the land that buses, trains, and airplanes could not segregate seating; however in most of the South that was being ignored. So the organization CORE headed by a man named James Farmer decided to have a test of this Supreme Court decision. They organized a trip that involved an inter-racial group of whites and blacks that would rides buses from Washington, D.C., through the South, and ending up in New Orleans, Louisiana and see what kind of reception they would get.
The group started out in Washington, D.C. in May of 1961 and in the upper South, they didn't encounter any real problems. They did not really encounter any enormous problems until they got to Alabama. In Alabama it was clear that not only had the Ku Klux Klan organized massive activity against the riders, but that law enforcement in Alabama was fully complicit with the Ku Klux Klan. They knew exactly what the Klan was going to do and they stood by and let the Klan do it. Two things happened at this point, the group was split into two parts, with each riding in different buses. One of the buses went through a city in Alabama called Anniston.
Right outside of Anniston, what happened was the bus pulled into the bus stand and somebody slashed one of the tires. A crowd of white men had gathered around bus. They were talking to the riders and they said somebody slashed the tire. The tire did not immediately go flat, but as the bus pulled out of Anniston and on the road, out into open country, the tire went flat and the bus driver got out from the bus to examine the tire. The bus was instantly surrounded by a group of very angry Ku Klux Klan members who proceeded to throw a burning rag in the bus which set the bus on fire. They also attempted to trap the riders inside the bus. The riders were ultimately able to get out of the bus. So that's what happened in Anniston.
Meanwhile the other bus, I don't remember if it was in Birmingham or Montgomery, they were met at the bus terminal by another mob. They proceeded to beat the living daylights out of several of the riders, including John Lewis who is now a Congressman in Washington. Also the riders, when they were on the buses, sat it in integrated pairs, anywhere that they could. They'd sit in the front of the bus, some of the bus drivers objected, and sometimes they all ended up moving to the back of the bus. The idea was to stay on the bus.
At this point the Freedom Riders were pretty beaten up. They had a group that was in the bus that was burned and the other group who was beaten to a pulp. Finally, with the help of the federal government they got to New Orleans by airplane because no bus driver would take them. At that point, some people thought that was the end of the Freedom Rides, they had been destroyed.
The initiative was then picked up by the student movement in Nashville Tennessee. They organized the Riders to pick up where the CORE Riders had left off. They continued the ride and they were also beaten. Some reached Jackson, Mississippi and were arrested there. In the meantime, CORE decided to make this into a huge protest movement. They put out a call nationwide for people who were willing to ride buses as part of organized groups into the South. And then CORE added an element to it, sort of a "jail in." We would stay in jail in Mississippi as long as it was legally possible. We put pressure on the state of Mississippi by having to jail us all. That is what happened.
I joined the Freedom Rides in June. I had to wait untill after I was a sophomore in college. I finished my sophomore year and then joined the Freedom Rides. I was on the first bus to go through Alabama after the injunction expired. That was a fairly nerve-racking experience because we had no idea if our buses were going to get burned or if we were going to get beaten. We encountered no violence, but we encountered a lot of hostility. For example, when we drove in Montgomery there was a huge mob that was being held back across the street from the bus station. The mob looked like they were straight out of Hollywood central casting for rednecks. They had beer bellies hanging over their belt buckles and cowboy hats. They were waving their arms in the air and yelling and screaming. We couldn't hear what they were yelling because the bus windows were closed. We didn't think they were yelling, "Welcome to Montgomery!"
We spent the night in Montgomery and that is when I first really saw racism, segregation, in action, because I'm white. Just the mere act of a black family taking me in for a night and their act of driving me in a car was illegal. The blacks could have been killed, or arrested. I could have been killed. They made me lay on the floor of the car, not sit on the seats, so I couldn't be seen. I stayed overnight in their house. The next day, we boarded another bus to Jackson, Mississippi. I was then arrested in Jackson with my group. As the police were booking us they insulted us and accused us of doing a lot of things. A lot of white women loved to ask the question, "Oh, you date the n-word." They were trying to make it sound like we were sluts or prostitutes or something. They also accused us of being communists and all kinds of other stuff.
Anyway, what happened was there were so many Freedom Riders that we overcrowded the local jail in Jackson and they had to rent some jail space in the State Penitentiary in Parchman. We were all sent there and were kept in the maximum security unit. The excuse given was that our lives would be in danger if we mingled with the rest of the prison population; this was a lot of hogwash. The real concern was that if we were allowed to mingle with the rest of the prison population we would have given the rest of the prison population bad ideas about equality. I spent about a month in the State Penitentiary in Parchman. We could only be in there a month because of Mississippi law. If you stayed in there any longer you lost the right to bail.
We posted bail after 40 days. Over the course of that summer there were only 150 Freedom Riders. Most of them only went through Jackson, but others went to cities in the Deep South and were arrested. This put much pressure on the federal government, and it was on TV every night. Everybody knew about it. It was an embarrassment to the United States. President Kennedy was president at that time, and he was about to meet with Nikita Khrushchev. He was premier of the Soviet Union and this was at the height of the Cold War. The Russians were using civil rights as propaganda against the United States. So, to make a long story short, the justice department and federal government ordered the Interstate Commerce Commission, the federal agency which regulates transportation, to enforce its order desegregating all interstate bus facilities and train facilities. In early September, the ICC came out with this order to desegregate all transportation facilities. In the Deep South, very reluctantly they did so. The Freedom Rides put an end to segregated seating in buses.
After that, a lot of other things were happening. One of the things that people were starting to realize is that Freedom Rides and sit-ins were very ineffective because they only target one thing. Freedom Rides only target interstate bus transportation and sit-ins only target lunch counters at five and dime stores. At that rate it will be another 300 years for everything to get desegregated. So everyone put their heads together and thought what could create change across the board that would eliminate the entire city from segregation. What everyone agreed was that the only way that would happen was through the democratic process, through voting.
At that point, the South had large parts of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia having populations that were more than half black. In some counties there were more black people than white, and there was not even one black person allowed to vote because they were systematically kept off the voting rolls. If they were on the voting rolls the [Registrar looked] for an excuse to get their names off the voting records. No blacks were registered to vote.
At that point organizations turned to voting registration and I got involved again with CORE. I went to Louisiana where I was working in two counties where the black population was larger than the white population, but no blacks were registered to vote. We basically worked to try to get blacks to vote. It wasn't easy because Louisiana had complicated systems which made you fill out a lot of forms. The forms included a citizenship test and you had to take a test on The Preamble of the Constitution. You are talking about people that had a third grade education, so these were very difficult requirements. We would teach people how to fill out these forms of voter registration and we would go with them to the voter registration office. That would be a long, slow process. We were lucky if one person got registered a day. In both counties that I worked, after a couple of months the register of voters shut down the office on some excuse because he claimed he didn't know what to do. No matter what he did it was wrong, so he shut his office so nobody could register to vote.
At that point we got involved in other community organizing. We tried to integrate the local public libraries and we got sweet potato farmers to help. That kind of effort was repeated all over the South. That was also the time when the three boys were murdered in Mississippi. I knew one of them because he was a CORE worker. They were doing voter registration in Mississippi.
We all faced the same kinds of dangers and enormous resistance. While I was doing that work I was living in one of those little towns and a cross was burned on my lawn. Another time when I was with a group of people downtown, helping and waiting with people who wanted to register to vote, everyone left and we got into our car. When we were pulling our car away someone shot at the car and missed. The local people who tried to register to vote were beaten, some lost their jobs, and some lost their land. There were enormous repercussions to voting and trying to vote.
It was like something from another century. It was hard to believe it was happening in 20th century America where everyone was free and had a right to vote. It is in the Constitution where no one could be denied the right to vote on the basis of their skin. That was being violated and nobody was doing anything about it. The federal government again moved in and the Justice Department had people down there investigating but it was very slow going. Finally, under President Johnson, who succeeded after President Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson got Congress to apply the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Voting Act made it possible for people in the South to register by just signing a form or just putting an "x" if they didn't know how to write. So overnight, everyone became registered to vote.
One of my favorite stories was when I was back in Louisiana after the summer of the Voting Rights Act. There was a meeting in the town I had worked in. The meeting was in the hall where we held all of our meetings and our classes when we were teaching the people how to vote. There was a room full of mostly black farmers who were running for sheriff. Among the people running for sheriff was the person who was sheriff for many years. This was the guy who had openly told the white people in town to beat up all the black people who tried to register to vote. He refused to protect the people waiting outside the courthouse trying to register. He had done everything he could to hurt the black community. Here he was at this meeting and he gets up and tries to convince the people at this meeting to vote for him. He is telling them that he has experience and knows what to do blah, blah, blah.
To me that said everything. This guy tried to do everything to keep blacks from registering to vote. The federal government with a stroke of a pen made it possible for all these blacks to vote. Here was this white, racist bigot begging for the black people's vote. It was such a beautiful irony that here he was after doing everything he could to make them not register. Here he is begging them for their vote, a couple hundred black people. To me that was a symbol that we had won and that this little backwater town had entered the 20th century. The sheriff lost the election. There were more blacks than whites in this county. To me that was the ultimate justice.
When I was in Louisiana there were other demonstrations that we were part of and there were other towns that were a little more advanced. They were demonstrating to get the black part of town incorporated with the town itself, so they could get very simple things like sidewalks, street lights, and underground sewage drainage. We would have demonstrations and marches on the town and picket the downtown merchants. The response from law enforcement was very violent as they tried to break up the march on horseback and used high pressure fire hoses and cattle prods. They finally herded us back into the church and threw tear gas into the church. They then ran around arresting us. That was one of the many times I was arrested.
So you were part of the Selma March?
No, I never worked in Alabama. The only time I was in Alabama was when I was on the Freedom Rides on the way down.
Did you have any children during this time?
No, I wasn't married. When I was on the Freedom Rides I was still in college. The voter registration stuff I did after graduation. I immediately went south; a week after graduation I was in Louisiana. I was actually going to spend the summer there. I was supposed to go to graduate school in Wisconsin at UW Madison in American History, which was my field. Madison, at that point, had one of the best departments in the country and I'd already been accepted. I was supposed to attend in the fall but I was turned on by what I was doing in Louisiana. I deferred my admission into Wisconsin for a year. I stayed in Louisiana and actually I'm glad I did because the work in Louisiana led me to my focus in my graduate work. When I finally did go to Wisconsin, the following year, I changed my main professor and all the courses that I was supposed to take. When I was in Wisconsin, there were a whole bunch of us there that had been active in the Civil Rights Movements and we all had a lot of papers, letters, and pamphlets. We talked to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin about establishing a collection of Civil Rights papers. They did that. So, that's another thing I did. That collection is still there; actually it is very prominent, very big. They have all the court papers and a bunch of other documents.
So, you mentioned earlier that people took you in, while you were on the Freedom Ride. Did you know them at all before that?
No, CORE had set the whole thing up ahead of time. They were people who were active in the NAACP in Montgomery, and CORE had been in touch with them. They had indicated that they would be agreeable to hosting a Freedom Rider or two overnight.
Do you still know them; did you keep in touch after sharing such a frightening experience together?
No, I never did.
Do you regret anything that you did during the movements?
Absolutely not. You know, this is the 50th Anniversary this year of the Freedom Rides. We were honored by Oprah Winfrey and she had us on her show.
We saw that!
And we had a big reunion in Chicago at the same time, and that just renewed in me the sense of pride that I had in what I did. It's an interesting thing when you're in the middle of what I was doing because I felt it was the right thing to do. I wasn't thinking, "Oh how is this going to look in history books?" But I look back on it now knowing what the impact of the Freedom Rides was and I am just enormously honored to be a part of it. In my own teensy, weensy way I had a part in making history, and for good by fighting evil. I just feel very, very blessed that I had that opportunity.
Do you feel that the world is fair now and people are treated equally?
That's a very sweeping question, but basically no. I think that there are still lots and lots of problems. I think that we've come an enormous way. It still amazes me that 50 years ago there were still parts of this country so totally, unbelievably segregated, and so totally, totally racist. That was only 50 years ago. The fact that existed in the United States of America 50 years ago is mind boggling. Having said that, I still think there are enormous problems. I don't think that we've reached perfection by any means. All I can say is there has been enormous progress. It's certainly better than what it was. This is a cliche by now, but I think it's very, very interesting if you look at the last presidential election. In the Democratic Primary you had a black man running against a white woman. Those are two minorities who have never, ever held the highest office in this country. And to think that women didn't vote in this country until 100 years ago in the United States of America.
It is very interesting to me that when push came to shove it was a black man who won the nomination. Now, there was a lot going on in the message they had, how they presented it, who they appealed to, and all those kinds of things. But there's an enormous prejudice among a lot of people in this country against blacks and women holding office. It says something that enough people overcame whatever prejudice they had to vote for a black man, that he ends up as President. That says something, whether you agree with his policies or not, it says something.
How did you feel when Barack Obama won? Was it a moment that you felt victory and that your participation in the movements really paid off?
Well you know, that's a very difficult question because I would like to think that — I look at things on two levels. On the one level, the sort of idealistic level, I'm glad to see progress. Then, I also look at things on a very practical level, where I want to discount race. I don't agree with Obama about a lot of things that he's done and it has nothing to do with race. I mean, if he were purple, or green, or white, it wouldn't make any difference. I disagree with the policies and I disagreed with him when he was running for office. So on the one hand, I was very happy to see that a black man was able to win. I felt that was an indication of a lot of what I had been a part of. Then we have to move to the next level, we're not electing the man because he's black or white or purple, presumably. We're supposed to be electing him because of what policies he proposes.
Well, can you tell us about your life now. You're a school teacher, how does what you did back in the Civil Rights time impact your life today?
That's a very interesting question because after I left the South I was involved in a number of other protest activities. I came back to California and that was right during the Vietnam War. I became very involved in the draft resistance movement. At that time the civil rights movement sort of spawned a whole bunch of offshoots, one of which was the Draft Movement and another one was the Women's Movement. I became active in that also in California. What I began to discover was that although I was enormously proud of what I'd done in the South and always will be, ultimately the responsibility of what goes on in the South is in the hands of the people who live there. I was somebody from the outside coming in to help them, but I was not one of them. I was not going to stay there. I could go join in and do my thing, and the situation would get all stirred up. The people who really, really got hurt, who lost their jobs, who got beaten up, were the local people. They were the ones who were going to continue to live there and they're the ones who I think are ultimately the real heroes in this story. They are the ones who are unsung, unheralded, who continue on day after day living in these conditions and protesting; doing what they could, no longer taking things lying down.
It became clear to me that one needed to address problems that were closer to home, so to speak. So, in some sense, the women's movement was made for me, because I'm a woman. I knew firsthand what people were talking about and what it meant to be a woman, how we were put down and not valued. So, as I said, I was part of this movement.
Then I sort of parted ways because the women's movement began to get too radical for me. It was no longer addressing issues that I felt concerned about. And so that brings me to where I am today, I am teaching in a Jewish school in San Francisco. I'm Jewish, and that to me means everything. I am still fighting for the rights of my people and my people are Jews. The particular group of Jews I am associated with in San Francisco is very, very much a minority, very harassed and hated by the Jewish establishment in San Francisco. There's a fight going on right now, in the present day.
The school is really being mistreated and to a certain extent, efforts are still being made today to destroy it. So, it isn't like I'm teaching at any old school. It's my involvement in this school in particular that's really important. The vast majority of the students in our school are Russian-Jewish immigrants and that's another group that has had a very difficult time. This is because of their background in the Soviet Union. That's another part of the issue that I'm involved in and actually that is me also, because my parents came originally from Russia. To make a long story short, I am now teaching high school. I teach 10th, 11th, and 12th grade Social Studies. I teach American history, European history, economics, and US government.
Mimi Real currently lives in California and has a son. She teaches high school social studies at an independent school, specializing in serving the underrepresented immigrant minorities.]
Interviewed and Transcribed by: Krupaa Patel, Nicole Rabvosky, & Noah Plautz
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013