|Indianapolis||Blacks and Whites|
|Brandeis and Civil Rights||Washington, DC|
|Summer in the South||Freedom Summer|
|Joining SNCC||Columbus, MS|
|In Jail, On Hunger Strike||White Women, Black Movement|
|Day to Day in Albany||Forced to Leave Columbus|
|As a Jew||Alabama vs Mississippi|
|Guns and Nonviolence||Leaving the South|
Bruce: Why don't you start with either with how you grew up, or how you got involved in the Movement, or wherever you want to start.
Miriam: When I started first grade in Indianapolis, around 1948, the schools were legally segregated. I think they changed that in 1949. It didn't matter, because the neighborhoods were segregated. So until high school, I was in an all-white school.
I went to an integrated high school, Shortridge High School, in Indianapolis. It wasn't my neighborhood high school but it was the high school where the Jewish kids went. The school was in the middle of change. It had previously been all-white but at the time I was there it was integrated.
Bruce: You grew up in a Jewish family, right? So why would you have to go out of district to go to the school that had Jewish kids?
Miriam: My family didn't live in the Jewish neighborhood. We were poorer. There was just one other Jewish kid in my elementary school class.
Bruce: What did your parents do?
Miriam: My Dad was editor/owner of a Jewish newspaper that came out weekly in Indianapolis and also had local editions in St. Louis, Louisville and Chicago. And he had a national edition in New York. My mom wrote a weekly article for his paper and raised eight kids.
Bruce: So you had seven brothers and sisters.
Miriam: I have. Indeed.
Bruce: So what was it like going to — was there anything notable in your experience going to an integrated school, as opposed to an all-white school?
Miriam: It was interesting, because each sub-group in the school ate in its own section of the cafeteria. The Jewish kids ate near the Black kids.
And the Jewish kids and the Black kids had in common that we were both excluded groups. The cheerleaders were never Jewish or Black. Also the Junior and Senior Prom Kings/Queens and the class officers — those were all limited to the wealthy white (non-Jewish) kids.
Bruce: And what were the numbers?
Miriam: I don't remember the numbers, but it was a pretty good mix. There were 3,000 kids in the school.
Bruce: So the Black kids wouldn't be just like 10 or 15.
Miriam: No, it wasn't token. And in the '50s in Indiana, basketball was a big sport, so the coach would play the four best Black kids and one white guy.
Bruce: So as to not have an all-Black team.
Miriam: Yep. And then the white guy would be the one who was the Junior or Senior Prom King that year. Now, I should add to that, to give a fair picture of the high school, the school was good academically. In all the other aspects, the music club, the band, the newspaper, all that other stuff, the Jewish kids were well-integrated..
Bruce: And what about the Black kids?
Miriam: Also. Yeah. The school had a Junior Class Vaudeville, and different acts tried out, and all five acts that were selected one year were white. And there was an uproar over that. The school handled it by having Black kids do things in between the acts, and the students handled it by — my friend Fletcher Wiley and I — Fletcher being Black, I being Jewish, formed a Human Relations Council. I heard from somebody who went to school maybe six, seven years after I did that the Human Relations Council was still there.
Bruce: Why did you get involved in that?
Miriam: I think a lot of us were pretty outraged by some of the stuff that was happening. I'm not the only one who noticed who did and didn't get nominated. The woman gym teacher for the girls used to use the "N" word, and I told you what the basketball coach was doing. I think the reason I did it was that no one else was doing it, so I stepped up.
Also, in Indianapolis they had an amusement park, Riverside Amusement Park, that was segregated, and the Black high school kids were not happy about that.
Bruce: Segregated in the sense of no Blacks ever? Or Black days and white days?
Miriam: No Blacks ever.
Bruce: Do you have any idea of the proportion of Black population and Jewish population within the city around that time?
Miriam: The Jewish population was small. I'm going to guess 10,000 in the city. But we were pretty tight knit. I mean I saw the same kids at high school, Hebrew school, Sunday School, the Jewish Community Center, Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties... We had our own Jewish social clubs. I never went to the school proms, I went to the Jewish dances.
Bruce: So any other thoughts in terms of as a high school student in terms of political involvement or race issues?
Miriam: I mentioned that I was friends with some of the Black kids in school, right? I did not feel free to go to their houses or invite them to mine. The one exception was when Connie Brooks lost her father in high school. I went to her house, because everyone was gathering there to support her. But that was the one exception.
Bruce: Were other whites there?
Bruce: So you were the only white.
Bruce: Did you notice that?
Miriam: Did I notice that we couldn't go to each others' houses?
Bruce: No, did you notice that you were the only white person in that gathering?
Bruce: But you didn't have any particular feeling about that in terms of uncomfortableness.
Miriam: No, I wanted to be there for Connie.
Bruce: What about interracial dating?
Miriam: You jest! Surely you jest! [Laughing]
Bruce: Well, you're speaking here for posterity.
Miriam: I liked one of the Black basketball stars, Ray Satterfield. He and I did not ever meet out of school. One of the teachers who was friends with my mom saw us talking in the hall and told my mom. My mom's friend wasn't the only teacher who noticed and I got kicked out of Honor Society. I went and talked with my favorite teacher and I was holding back tears. It was too hard to say I liked a Black guy so I didn't tell this teacher what I knew the real reason was. The teacher intervened and I got reinstated.
Bruce: When they kicked you out of the Honor Society, did they say that was why?
Miriam: They said it was because I lied. Fortunately for me, I was pretty idealistic in high school. I wouldn't even tell a white lie. So I knew I hadn't lied.
Bruce: That you had lied about what? Your grades?
Miriam: No, no. They had records of our grades. I don't remember what they said I lied about.
Bruce: So for the Honor Society, it was more than just a question of getting all A's or whatever the grade requirement was, it was social honor of some sort, right? And which you would violate by being attracted to a Black kid?
Miriam: OK, so first off, I want to make sure to note for posterity, I did not make all A's in high school, OK?
Bruce: A Jewish girl like you? Not all A's?
Bruce: So you got a "B" once in awhile?
Miriam: My family's memory of it is that I made all A's. That's inaccurate. [Laughing] OK, I think you had to have not only good grades but also acceptable behavior.
Bruce: See my family memory of me is that I got all D's, and that's not true. I got some C's. [Laughing] But they never put me in the Honor Society. I don't even know if my school had an Honor Society, but if they did, I wasn't invited. Anyway, so they reinstated you.
Miriam: They did.
Bruce: But you didn't go out with this kid.
Miriam: I couldn't. I am meeting him for coffee in a couple of weeks when I'm back in Indianapolis.
Bruce: Oh, he's still there?
Miriam: OK, so I went to Brandeis —
Bruce: What is Brandeis?
Miriam: Brandeis University was a Jewish university on the East Coast. I wanted to be in a college with other Jewish students, but I had no clue that the entire East Coast was like that. The only school I knew about was Brandeis.
Bruce: What do you mean "the entire East Coast was like that"?
Miriam: I could've thrown a dart and picked any school on the East Coast —
Bruce: And found other Jews there.
Bruce: So it wasn't that you wanted to go to a predominantly Jewish school, you just wanted to go to a school where there were some Jews?
Bruce: And you had no trouble getting into Brandeis.
Bruce: OK, so you're at Brandeis.
Miriam: I started in '59. It was far more progressive, more liberal than my high school in Indiana had been. I was a freshman there in February 1960 when the sit-ins started in the South. And right away, the students organized picket lines in Boston in front of the chain stores like Woolworth's and Howard Johnson's that were integrated in the North but segregated in the South. And so I started picketing with them, but I was uncomfortable picketing. I'm still a Midwest girl. So I didn't do it for too long, but I had stuck my toe in.
One of our picket signs, and I just saw the classmate who thought of this one, was: "Howard Johnson's serves 32 flavors but only one color."
Bruce: That's a good sign. But why did you picket?
Miriam: Well, I had been, since high school, pretty interested in integration, race issues.
Bruce: Hm-hmm. Why did you feel uncomfortable picketing?
Miriam: It wasn't something a Midwest girl would do. I got over that.
Bruce: Well, I know you did, but were you uncomfortable — you said because it's something a Midwest girl wouldn't do. Is it the girl part? That girls don't do that sort of thing? Or is it the public demonstration, breaking the social tranquility?
Miriam: I went down to the South the summer of 1961 after my sophomore year. My Dad knew the different newspaper editors around the South, and I traveled by myself. I went to Prince Edward County where they had closed all the public schools rather than integrate.
I went to Atlanta. I met Julian Bond and James Bond. I went down to Florida for a few days because my family was vacationing down there, so I visited with my mom and dad in Florida, and my brothers and sisters. And I went to New Orleans and stayed in the "Y" [YWCA] where I made some connections and was in a demonstration picketing there. Then a Jewish woman I had met at the "Y"and I went to Jackson.
Bruce: This is the white "Y"?
Miriam: Yes, I was in the white one. The woman I was with remembered this, but I didn't. She says that when we arrived at the Jackson bus terminal they asked us if we were Freedom Riders. Wisely we said no, because if we'd said yes, no one would have expected us or —
Bruce: Known that you were arrested.
Miriam: Right. We met with the rabbi in Jackson, Rabbi Perry Nussbaum. He was outspoken in favor of integration and his home was later bombed. Jackson, Mississippi was dangerous.
Bruce: So it sounds like you spent the summer doing — or at least visiting places of Civil Rights activity: Prince Edward, Atlanta, New Orleans.
Miriam: Yes, that's what I was doing.
Miriam: I think at that point I wanted to be in SNCC, and I had probably applied. And they likely threw the application in the waste basket.
It wasn't until my senior year when all the students at Brandeis who were organizing support for the southern civil rights movement had graduated and things weren't happening that I stepped up. I, along with another student, ran a petition campaign for Clyde Kennard who was in jail in Mississippi. And also, my senior year Chuck McDew came to Brandeis as an exchange student for spring semester. And so when I applied again to work with SNCC, they accepted me.
Bruce: But let's go back to first summer you traveled in the South. When you went on that trip, you said that you went to New Orleans, and you participate in sit-ins?
Miriam: Marlene Nadle, the woman that I met at the "Y" is writing a book, so she recently called me and wanted to know what I remembered, which wasn't much. Apparently I took her to a meeting where they were planning the picketing and then she and I joined up.
Bruce: So how would you do this? I mean, how would you just show up in Atlanta or Jackson or New Orleans and make those contacts? You'd just go down to the office?
Miriam: OK, let me give you some background. My mother was raised in Tampa. My father was raised in Louisville. They met at a party in Atlanta. My Dad had contacts with every rabbi and all the Jewish newspaper editors around the country. So he gave me contacts. In Virginia, I stayed at the home of a fraternity brother of his from the University of North Carolina. So it wasn't like I was just taking off on my own. It was a planned tour.
Bruce: You had family friends or connections or contacts for where you would stay, but how did you get in contact with the Freedom Movement people in those places? I doubt your father would have an introduction to that.
Miriam: I don't know. I was young. [Laughing] I don't remember the details.
Bruce: That's pretty much the way it worked for most of us in those early years. You could just show up at the CORE office, or the NAACP, and say: "Hi, I'm with CORE in Los Angeles," or something, or, "I'm active with the Support SNCC in Boston." And people would respond "Oh, hello! Welcome." That's how it worked for me, wherever I went.
Bruce: So in your sophomore year, you apply —
Miriam: Yes, I applied to SNCC, and that didn't go anywhere. I may have applied again after junior year. That didn't go anywhere.
Bruce: Why do you think it didn't go anywhere?
Miriam: Well, let me say why I think it finally did. I think they were impressed with the number of signatures we got for Clyde Kennard. We had a system at Brandeis. There were just two dining halls each with a table in front of the food line. So every student on campus had to go by one or the other of those two tables, every day, right? So whenever there was a big issue, you'd just do a petition there, and you could get —
Bruce: And anybody can choose to sit at that table with any petition?
Miriam: Any student could.
Bruce: How many signatures did you get?
Miriam: Hundreds. The student body was like a thousand two hundred.
Bruce: Oh, that was half the size of your high school.
Miriam: Yes. So I had done that, and the SNCC folks knew that. And then Chuck actually has said that one of the reasons he chose Brandeis was that the white kids coming down to the South were very often Jewish, and where could he recruit more than at Brandeis? So that was where he went. I didn't realize at the time that he was recruiting, but I was told later that the fact that I had not linked up with him helped.
Bruce: Linked up romantically?
Miriam: Right. Now, I do want to mention that he was engaged. There was no chance whatsoever.
Bruce: So when did you go South?
Miriam: The day of my commencement, senior year.
Bruce: Which was June of '63? So you were a college graduate. You weren't a drop out.
Miriam: I was a college graduate. Two weeks later I was in jail for vagrancy. [Laughing]
Bruce: A good progression! If only all college graduates went from commencement to jail for vagrancy. [Laughing]
Miriam: But let me backtrack. OK. So I didn't know it at the time, but Sherrod, Charles Sherrod, project director in southwest Georgia, had deliberately set up an integrated project, and I also didn't know why he did that, because other people weren't doing that, but I heard him say 45 years later why: It was that people around the country didn't seem to care what happened to Blacks in southwest Georgia. But if it was a white person, well the uncle and the grandfather and the parents up North — they cared a lot about what happened. Second, the press wasn't covering what was going on down there, but they were reporting it if whites were involved. And third, he knew of no Blacks who had uncles that were millionaires or grandfathers who had trust funds, but he knew some whites did. So those were his reasons for trying an integrated project.
Bruce: And yet those reasons would've applied to any SNCC project in any state at any time.
Miriam: Yeah, he was the one that thought this through. So it was a bit of a trial project.
Bruce: Do you think that his decision, from quite early on , to have an integrated project, do you think the presence of Koinonia Farm influenced that as well?
Miriam: I don't know what influenced him other than he was a bit up against a brick wall. They'd had a strong civil rights movement in Albany in 1961 and '62 with mass arrests. People were feeling angry and frustrated because they'd suffered so much and they'd been promised some improvements but nothing had changed.
Bruce: There'd been massive arrests and marches and protests, and nothing had come of it.
Miriam: And Martin Luther King had gone to jail in Albany. So I think Sherrod was trying to think outside the box.
So it's June of 1963 and I missed my commencement in Massachusetts, because I was on a bus that day traveling to Georgia. We were summer volunteers and we trained at Koinonia Farm just outside Albany. I think it was a week's training. We were an integrated group of Northern and Midwestern college students along with the SNCC staff from Albany. And there were some kids who had come down earlier and been down there for awhile. Joanie Rabinowitz and Faith Holsaert and her sister, Shai, had been down there. And some others too.
Anyway, what I remember was that while we were there that first week, Medgar Evers was killed in Mississippi. I had never heard of Medgar Evers, but I did see how upset Sherrod was. And then the week after the training we were in Albany, and bless their hearts, Sherrod and whoever else was making the decision decided that all us newcomers should go to jail. So I think of it as a baptism by fire.
Bruce: And a test.
Miriam: Well, I think there was a lot of resentment that we came down with money in our pockets, no holes in our shoes or patches on our clothes, and they'd been through so much, and so they wanted to make us suffer since they'd suffered so much.
So I didn't want to go to jail. I didn't really come down there to go to jail. I came down there to help get rid of segregation, get rid of Jim Crow. So I stayed a bit hidden in the Freedom House. Sherrod found me there and made me go to the mass meeting that was in the middle of the day at the church. Well, I didn't make it into the church, because two police officers came on either side of me at the bottom of the church steps, lifted me up by the shoulders, put me in their squad car.
Bruce: Sherrod didn't just arrange to have the white summer volunteers arrested, there was some ongoing protest —
Miriam: Yes, Sherrod planned something, maybe a demonstration, that would provoke the police into arresting us. Almost all the summer volunteers were arrested along with about 100 members of the Albany Movement.
Bruce: And you were what? About five foot-two?
Miriam: Close, I was five-one. And when they arrested me, I weighed about 106, 107 pounds. So there are three of us in the back of the car. All white and part of our group.
Bruce: Well, what did they arrest you for?
Miriam: Well, I didn't know then. But I mean, I knew I was being arrested, because —
Bruce: You were white with Blacks.
Bruce: But what was the charge?
Miriam: The charge was vagrancy. Chief Pritchett said that the vagrancy statute said something about suspicious persons, and they thought it was very suspicious that whites were living in the Black community.
Bruce: OK, so you were just arrested walking to Mount Zion Church?
Miriam: I don't remember the name of the church, but it was right out front where everyone who was on the steps could watch what was going on.
Bruce: Right. There were two churches right across the street from each other that were both Movement-activist churches. So you were just arrested there on the street?
Miriam: Yeah, and the police, when they were driving us to the jail, were cussing and saying the most vile things. And I took no offense at that at all because I had two big brothers who could talk like that. I was not intimidated.
Bruce: They were cursing at you? Or just —
Miriam: Just saying a lot of cuss words and stuff to each other. But it wasn't until years later that I read that it was a standard police practice.
Bruce: By standard you mean that's the way they talked all the time? Or they talked that way when they had Civil Rights prisoners?
Miriam: The latter. I have no idea what they did in front of others. Anyway, the guy who was in the back of the car with me was a med student who had something like 52, 53 dollars in his pocket, which was an enormous amount of change [equal to about $400 in 2012]. He still got charged with vagrancy.
Miriam: The med student told us that if we went on a hunger strike that was fine, but we had to drink water or within two or three days we'd do permanent damage to our bodies. So that was important. Then I get booked and put in the jail cell, and that's when I found out that the other white women are on a hunger strike.
Bruce: And they'd been arrested previously.
Miriam: Yes, remember I'd hidden out for a day.
Bruce: And of course this is the typical four-way segregation: Black men, white man, Black women, white women, all in four different cells, right?
Miriam: Yes. Yeah, totally segregated. Our cell was built for four. There were steel bunks, one above the other on one wall and another two the facing wall. And I think there was seven or eight of us.
Bruce: Who else was in there?
Miriam: Wendy Mann who later became Dennis Roberts' wife. That's not the usual way to meet your husband. He was the law clerk who came everyday to our cell.
Bruce: Yes, his Journal is on the website. He talks about that. Did you read his story about meeting you all in jail?
Miriam: I well remember his coming. He was very tall. And when they took away our toothbrushes and our personal items, he said he'll bring us new ones and we should keep everything above the cell because that was taller than the police officers' eyesight. And that's what we did. We stored our stuff out of the cell on the top of it. Anyway, so Wendy Mann, me, Sue Wender and Cathy Cade, Joanie Rabinowitz, Felicia Oldfather, Penny Patch. Penny and I shared — since there were just four steel bunks — we slept two people head to toe on a mattress.
It was crowded and I swear I restrained myself from strangling one of my cellmates because she drove me crazy.
Bruce: How did she drive you crazy?
Miriam: Her comments about stuff, just drove me nuts.
Miriam: Anyway, so we were in there and they said to me, it was my choice whether I wanted to go on the hunger strike. [Laughing] I personally didn't feel I had a choice. So I went on the hunger strike, but I did drink tea. It was very, very sweet tea, and ever since I drink my tea plain.
So we talked about food for days. And I had cramps the whole week. I wasn't hungry after the first 24 hours. It was a very upsetting experience for me.
Miriam: OK. And while we were in the cell, Chief Pritchett came back with lemon meringue pie.
Bruce: That he was eating.
Miriam: That he was eating in front of us. That was one of my favorite pies. He offered us some. That was mean.
There was nothing to do. Basically, we were just stuck there. There was a commode off in the corner of the cell but no privacy when you used it. The police officers could come by and look in any time. I wouldn't do it again. [Laughing] It was very unpleasant. There is a little story involving Dennis Roberts, the law clerk. Apparently my feet were cold, and I talked him out of his socks. And so he came to the jail to visit us wearing his socks and left without any. I don't remember that, but he wrote about it. That sounds like me.
So three fathers came down. My father came down. Felicia's father and Joanie's father were both lawyers, and they came down for the trial.
Bruce: And Cathy Cade's dad also came down.
Miriam: I don't remember that.
Bruce: Well, he didn't come down as supportive as the other three.
Miriam: Anyway, the judge fell asleep. He put his head down and took a nap for about 40 minutes out of the hour trial.
Bruce: Did the trial continue while he was asleep?
Miriam: Oh yes. C.B. King was our lawyer. Watching him was like seeing a hero in a Hollywood movie. He was that good. And the judge found us guilty, gave us a suspended sentence, told us if we got arrested again that summer, we would spend eight weeks in jail.
My Dad broke the story because when people from the North were calling down, the jail denied there were any arrests. There were over 100 people in jail. My Dad knew the editor of the Jewish news on the New York Times, and they talked and broke the story nationally.
Miriam: I lost 10 pounds, so I was weighing in the 90s when I got out. I was wearing someone else's T-shirt which was huge on me and it was hanging really loose. My Dad was very upset.
Bruce: Evoking memories and pictures of Europe.
Miriam: I just saw how upset he was. So I went home with him for the weekend, but I came back early the next week and finished out the summer.
Miriam: When I came back to Indianapolis right after the trial, I was interviewed by the local paper with an article that included my photo. It went national over AP. So that was my 15 minutes of fame. It was after this that the Klan sent me a horrid threatening letter, which I still have, and burned a cross in front of my parents' home in Indianapolis.
Bruce: So what was the summer like? What did you do? Other than the week you spent in jail?
Miriam: We canvassed in pairs. I was teamed with Bob Cover. I've put something on the website in his memory. He was an undergraduate then at Princeton. He and I went door to door in the neighborhood. We talked with people and we listened to their concerns. We listened to hear what changes the people who lived there wanted. That was an important part of our work. And we encouraged people to come to the mass meetings. If they came, then at the mass meetings the leaders would try to get them to join the marches that went right out the door of the church that night. So that's what we did. Bob and I spent the day going door to door, talking with people.
Bruce: So this was still — the marches were still oriented around segregation as opposed to voter registration issues?
Miriam: They wanted to desegregate including the swimming pool and the library. And maybe, I don't know if they were thinking of it yet, the colleges. We were also looking at job discrimination.
Miriam: You know, The other thing about Albany is I remember going to temple.
Bruce: Oh, really?
Miriam: And being told not to come back.
Bruce: [Laughing] Did you go alone?
Miriam: Probably. Yes. And probably my Dad had encouraged me to do that, but the Jewish position was pretty precarious there.
Bruce: How so?
Miriam: Well, in the Black community, if the Jews treated the Blacks with some dignity, Jews weren't thought of as white. And often Jews owned little stores, the corner stores that people went to. In the white community, if Jews did things helpful to Blacks, they'd put themselves in danger of Klan action. I'll jump ahead, in Meridian [MS], I remember visiting a Jewish family, and they got a call from the Klan, and the Jewish guy said: "Come on; I've got a gun." But I mean, you see how precarious it was.
Bruce: Was there a large Jewish community in Albany?
Miriam: No. Not in any of these places.
Bruce: So what? A couple of families, two or three families?
Miriam: Well, in Albany, enough to have a small temple. I want to say one other thing about Albany. The only white people that spoke to us, the Civil Rights workers in Albany, were the police. The librarians would let me check out a book, but they wouldn't speak to me. There was no spoken language going on.
Bruce: So basically then mostly what you did was canvas to build the mass meetings.
Bruce: In the early days of the sit-ins there would be integrated groups that would try to sit in at a restaurant or something. Was that done?
Miriam: I remember going to the library, and I blew this, Sherrod told me later. I had called the day before to see what their hours were. So when we got to the library, it was locked. [Laughing]
Bruce: How did they know?
Miriam: Well, I guess I had a Northern accent. [Laughing] I thought it was pretty innocuous making a phone call.
Bruce: Well, you know, Indianapolis accents are not as well known as Brooklyn's, so it seems a little strange.
Miriam: Anyway, it was an integrated group of us that went to the locked library.
Bruce: And you only canvassed within Albany. You didn't go out into the rural?
Miriam: I did not. Some of the guys did. Well actually, let me backtrack. The white women had our trial a week after being in jail, a week to nine days, because some people were arrested before me. And we thought that being on the hunger strike had helped speed that up, but the white guys were on a hunger strike for about 20 days before they had their trial. And the white guys got more mistreated in the jail. The only time I cried that summer was when Ralph Allen came out of jail. We knew that they'd taken him out and beaten him up before they took him to jail. And he'd had stitches in his head, but when I saw his puffed up swollen face, I went out on the back steps and cried. And Bob Cover told me that they offered his ...
Bruce: His white cell mates?
Miriam: His white cell mates a few days off their sentence if they would beat him up.
Bruce: That was not uncommon.
Miriam: Yes. There's something about the Freedom House in Albany. Sherrod taught us never to stand silhouetted at night in front of a window so we wouldn't be a target. For the next 30 years I could not bring myself to do that.
Bruce: Uh-huh. To this day, whenever I buy a car, I turn off the dome light so that the light in the car doesn't go on when I open the door. This is 50 years later.
Miriam: That sounds right. [Laughing]
Bruce: OK. So what happened when the summer ended? Did you stay?
Miriam: They sent us North to raise money, without any training mind you. So I think I raised about $170 which in those days was [equal to about $1,200 in 2012]. I spoke at a Black church, but I heard afterwards that I didn't speak loud enough, so no one heard me. But they still passed a hat. And I remember being taken by a local woman in Indianapolis to a friend's house, and the friend wrote a check for $25. You know, so I tried.
Bruce: Well, who would've trained you? They had no training. No one else had any training either.
Miriam: Yes, I guess.
Bruce: You know, I started to become active at exactly that same time, early '63. And we had to go out and raise money. Nobody knew how to do it. So, you know, we did what we could. Actually, you know, the best thing we ever did — this was in L.A. with CORE — the most effective fundraising we ever did is something that would have never occurred to me, I don't know how they came up with the idea — they had a fashion show. And we raised several hundred dollars.
Bruce: Who would've thought?
Bruce: So after the summer, they sent you North to raise money.
Miriam: In October of '63, I called [Mississippi project director] Bob Moses and asked him if I could come to Mississippi.
Bruce: So you were working as a volunteer in southwest Georgia for the summer, and then you go North and raise money. And then you want to go back South to Mississippi. Why?
Miriam: I thought that making the world a better place was my purpose in life. And I was very clear with myself that if there had been a prison reform movement or a care of the mentally ill movement instead of an end of segregation movement that I would've joined whatever was there. I wanted to make more of a difference than I could working by myself doing something.
Bruce: And did you associate that specifically with the Jewish Tikkun Olam concept?
Miriam: Yes, I believed how I was raised, which was that the reason God put us here was to leave the world a better place than we found it.
Bruce: Did you see that as explicitly religious, or that's just simply the way you were raised? OK. See the reason I ask is that, for me, getting involved — in my mind, there was a clear connection between being Jewish and getting involved in the Freedom Movement. But I was surprised when I went South, or even when I was active in L.A, that at least half, maybe more than half, of the whites were Jewish, but almost none of them felt that they were active because they were Jewish. Or that their Jewish upbringing was what motivated them to become involved. And many of them felt that they were politically active in rebellion against the bland assimilationist Judaism of their parents and of the kinds of bland, suburban, don't-make-waves, temples they went to as kids. So they saw what they were doing as rebellion.
Miriam: I guess in a way my parents had assimilated, because they were born here, Americans. But in another way, they were very — my Dad was very involved in Jewish stuff. We had a picture of [Zionist leader] Theodore Herzl in our living room. My parents named my older brother Teddy, Theodore, after him. My Dad was President of the Zionist Organization and very active. And of course his life's work was running a Jewish weekly newspaper.
Bruce: Right, and many of the Jews active in the Freedom Movement that I've encountered in the South came from backgrounds like that, yet they saw what they were doing as a rebellion against their parents and against the culture they had been brought up in which they felt had talked about Jewish concepts of freedom and justice but did not practice it. And a lot of them went South, and their parents and family and friends were outraged. It ran from either outrage to horror or opposition of some sort.
Miriam: Well, maybe it was a little different for me because of being at Brandeis which was very much at the forefront of progressive stuff.
Bruce: So the fall of '63, you asked Moses if you could come down to work in Mississippi?
Miriam: You had to have his permission to go into the state. So he said I could come and visit for two weeks, but I couldn't work there. So I took a bus down. And I stayed at the Freedom House. So what happened was I was staying in the Freedom House in Jackson, and somebody stole my money.
Bruce: That happened at a lot of Freedom Houses. All kinds of people were always coming and going, in and out, at all hours. There were thefts. Nobody talks about that. When I was in Grenada, Mississippi, I had a very nice Barretta pistol that got stolen. And I was very upset about that.
Miriam: You had a pistol?
Bruce: I did. And I was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King's organization. And the pistol was stolen by someone else on the staff!
Bruce: And then somebody got arrested with it, or it was in the glove compartment of one of the SCLC cars when they got arrested. Nobody claimed it, so —
Miriam: Oh my. In Mississippi, we had a lot of discussion about nonviolence, and we were well aware that although we didn't carry guns that the people we were living with were usually armed. So now we talk about it as nonviolence, but there was a lot of talk about the subtleties of all this.
Bruce: Absolutely, yes. And my position, and a lot of the SCLC staff's position — some of them took the King position that self defense outside of a demonstration was not to be done. Nonviolence means non-violence all the time, all the way. But a lot of others, like me and others, said we're nonviolent on a protest, but if we encounter danger in some other context, we make our decision as to how to handle it depending on what looks like the best tactic at the time, and that might include self defense, or it might not, depending on the circumstances. So I was not the only staff person who had a gun.
Miriam: Well, I want to make clear you weren't in SNCC. You could not have had a gun if you were SNCC staff.
Bruce: A lot of the Black SNCC staff had guns. As I recall, the SNCC rule was the whites could not have guns, because the whites were far more likely to be stopped and frisked, or their cars searched. But I know there were Black SNCC staff who carried guns when they were not engaged in protesting, or other public Movement activities like a mass meeting or going with folk down to the courthouse to register.
Miriam: You know, when we canvassed homes or we talked with people in cafes for every Black man who agreed to come on a demonstration or go stand in a line to register to vote, there'd be about five men who would turn us down because of the nonviolence requirement. They'd say: I'll come if I can defend myself when someone starts beating up on me.
Bruce: We encountered that too wherever I was. And I always felt that for some of them that was a sincere position, but for others, it was a convenient excuse. And that if we'd said: "OK, you can bring your gun," they still wouldn't have come. But, "I can't be nonviolent," was macho and manly way of saying: "Well, I won't go down to the courthouse." Of course, for some it was a sincere position.
That was the issue with the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana. At least when they said it, they said: "All right, we will carry our guns and we will protect you nonviolent people." And then CORE wondered: "Well, what should our stand be?" But the only real controversy was from the CORE ideologues up North like Jim Farmer. The CORE people in the South said: "Oh, good! Thank you!" [Laughing]
So I would never carry a gun if I was taking people to the courthouse to register; I wouldn't go armed. But in my briefcase at the Freedom House, under by bed, which is where it was stolen from, yes, I had a pistol. And if I was driving around the county canvassing, I didn't carry it. But if I was driving from Grenada to Memphis or someplace, I might.
Miriam: So my two weeks in Mississippi are over by — I don't remember how much over, but they were over. Bob Moses walks in and asks me how come I'm still in Mississippi. I explained that someone stole my money from the freedom house and I didn't have bus fare to get home. And Bob shrugged his shoulders and walked away. So I was there and very soon after that Flukey (Mateo Suarez), who was not SNCC — he was CORE — came by and asked if I would come and work on his project in Meridian. So I went with him, and we worked on the Freedom Ballot.
I think I was the first white woman to work in a small town in Mississippi. And Flukey didn't bother to mention to anyone that I was white. He let everyone assume that I was a light-skinned Black woman.
Bruce: Well, you have kind of curly hair.
Miriam: Yeah. Flukey said the word for a light skinned Black person was "bright." And I think it was in Flukey's best interest to let that pass, right? It would've been more dangerous for him and the community if it had been known I was a white woman.
Bruce: You mean he let it pass within the Meridian community as opposed to the Civil Rights community?
Miriam: Neither the whites nor the Blacks knew and he didn't bother to mention it to me until afterwards.
Bruce: Although, you know, CORE was — at least through most of those years — much more open to whites working in the South, in rural projects, than SNCC was. In Louisiana, there were not only whites working on the CORE projects in Jonesboro and Bogalusa and other places, they were project directors in some cases. And when the Deacons for Defense were first organized in Jonesboro, the CORE Project Director, was white. And the initial CORE organizers in Bogalusa were white.
Miriam: I didn't know that. I guess what I'm saying is if it was known I was white, that would put Flukey in more danger.
Bruce: It would put the whole project in danger. Which was SNCC's argument, their rationale for limiting whites in general, and white women in particular.
Miriam: It makes sense. Anyway, I was surprised when we talked to Blacks in Meridian that they didn't understand what voting was. I was a bit shocked, because I had known what voting was since elementary school where we'd voted for class officers. We had to explain voting to everyone. And of course the project went well. It wasn't threatening to the white community.
Miriam: You know, I had one other thought I wanted to say about Meridian, that Flukey and I had come to Jackson, probably for a meeting, and we went back on the bus, sitting together. He was very light-skinned [Black]. I was dark for a white person, but it was still a bit stupid, but nothing happened.
Bruce: If we added up all the stupid things we did! [Laughing]
Miriam: Yeah, we weren't trying to demonstrate. I just preferred to talk with him than sit alone for the bus ride.
Bruce: Yes. For our meetings, I usually give Chude a ride, and we talk, and she's always amazed when I tell these stories about the stupid things we used to do. You know, she's constantly amazed by it. [Laughing] Because she definitely followed the rules. [Laughing]
Miriam: That fall after the mock ballot I went to the SNCC meeting they had in Mississippi when they talked about Freedom Summer.
Bruce: The one in Hattiesburg? That would be around January of '64, or the one before that in Greenville?
Miriam: I think it was in Greenwood or Greenville in the delta. It was the fall of 1963. And I remember that a lot of guys who were Black project leaders were against having whites come in.
Bruce: Now were you, at that point in Meridian, paid COFO staff or were you CORE?
Miriam: The Meridian project was a CORE project, so I was CORE volunteer there. I'm not sure when I started being on SNCC's staff, whether it was in the summer in southwest Georgia or whether it was some time in Mississippi. SNCC was paying a subsistence wage. And the Atlanta staff was sending my checks all over the place, so I got about half my checks or half of subsistence. It was a sore point, but at some point, I was clearly on SNCC's staff.
Bruce: Were you only working in Meridian? Or did you go out in Lauderdale County?
Miriam: I don't remember.
Bruce: What was that work like?
Miriam: My memory is that it was somewhat like southwest Georgia where we just talked to people during the day. So we would go where people were — cafes or to homes. Our goal was to get people to vote in this mock election.
Bruce: And you'd be paired with someone.
Miriam: I would have to have been. I wouldn't have gone alone.
Bruce: Right. Where did you stay when you were Meridian?
Miriam: Either with a Black family or in a Freedom House which either way meant the community was taking some risk. When we get to my time in Columbus, I'll talk a little bit about the family I stayed with, because I remember them the best. And we were fed by the community — older women would bring food in. And that's where I learned to clean my plate, which is still a bad habit, because we didn't know for sure where the next meal was coming from.
Bruce: That's right.
Miriam: In fact, they took good care of us.
Miriam: I had a Mississippi driver's license. That was something I was very proud of. They had forms A, B, C, D and E, and the one they gave to Civil Rights workers was "E." And they asked maybe 25 questions. Each question would be like: Name the 18 cities in Mississippi that have a Highway Patrol Radio Station. All the questions were like that. It had nothing to do with how to drive safely in Mississippi. It had to do with: How are we going to keep this person from getting a Mississippi driver's license?
Bruce: Modeled on the voter registration test.
Miriam: So I took the test and I failed it. But I remembered all the questions and went home and memorized all that stuff. Went back, and they only had one form E. [Laughing] So I got a Mississippi driver's license.
Miriam: Flukey claimed that Bob called about four or five days or so after I started there, to check up on me. Bob was watching everything going on in the state. OK, so this comes from Flukey. I didn't hear it directly from Bob. Flukey said he asked: "Was I working? Or working out?" So was I working? Or was I sleeping around? And I was working. By the way, that's when [name withheld] came through. After about five minutes of being on our project, he propositioned me. I don't even know if he knew my name.
Bruce: And he probably propositioned all the other young women too.
Miriam: I didn't know that until later, but I took a hearty dislike to him.
Bruce: So talk about that. Talk about that whole Black/white sexual — both in southwest Georgia and in Meridian and elsewhere in Mississippi.
Miriam: Well, in southwest Georgia there wasn't much of a problem. Sherrod was firm that he didn't want any hanky-panky going on. I know at least one person who left the southwest Georgia project and went to Mississippi because of it. But in Mississippi, for me the relationships with other staff women was a big problem. First, I had made friends with Jean Wheeler and Martha Prescott —
Bruce: Both of whom were Black.
Miriam: Black and on the southwest Georgia staff. And we were like a pledge class. We had started together. But when I went to Mississippi, I never made a Black woman friend in the movement again. There was just lots of hostility. There was a big deal about interracial dating among the staff. I remember one of the Black women went out with a white guy, and the story I heard is that the next day there were five Black guys over at her house criticizing her. On the other hand, the Black guys didn't seem to mind dating white women. So it was very tricky.
Bruce: So you attended a meeting where they were debating the Summer Project?
Bruce: And many of the Black SNCC leadership, on the ground leadership, were opposed?
Miriam: I remember Jessie Harris, the tall Jessie Harris. He said that when he came back to his office, there were whites in there that were able to do things he couldn't do. They knew how to file and make long distance calls, stuff like that, or type or work the mimeograph machines. And he didn't want them telling him how to organize. And he was reluctant to bring in a lot of whites because of that. Because he knew that there was a whole skill set that they would have, but they would not know how to do his job.
Bruce: And not just the skills, but the assumptions, the cultural assumptions.
Miriam: Yes, so he was against doing it.
Bruce: So, what happened after the Freedom Ballot?
Miriam: I ended up that spring  in the Washington, D.C. SNCC office, and Mike Thelwell was there. And I did some work for Jack Minnis who was trying to collect information that would be helpful to SNCC. One of the things I did was I went undercover, pretending to be a college student in the district of this Mississippi Congressman that they were challenging, Jamie Whitten.
[Jamie Whitten, Democrat, represented northern Mississippi in Congress for 53 years (1941-1994).]
Miriam: So I went to introduce myself and interview him, pretending I was a Northern college student going to school in his district, because SNCC wanted to know how inconvenienced, upset, concerned they were about what the Movement was doing. And they figured if I was there, I could see if he kept getting interrupted.
Also Jack Minnis wanted to know how come Senator Stennis from Mississippi, was turning down federal programs that would help the poor in the Delta. And I found a Black government worker who was willing to leak to SNCC the documents about why, and it turned out it had something to do with Stennis' sister being against some of the federal programs. I also remember interviewing some kids who wanted to come down for the summer in '64, and Mike thought I was way too nice, and he re-interviewed them and bullied them a bunch. [Laughing]
Miriam: I met all the NAG people, and I remember there was plenty to do. I was in the office every day, all day.
[NAG was the Nonviolent Action Group at Howard University, out of which came many SNCC activists and leaders.]
Bruce: Oh yeah, that was a very busy office, and they had a lot to do. And at that time, there was still a lot of local activity. Cambridge was still going full blast, and Danville was happening. Did you ever go to Danville?
Miriam: No. I didn't. I may have been in Danville in that summer tour I did after my sophomore year, but never as a SNCC person. You know, I was barely getting paid, and I lived with a CORE family. They tapped our phone, which we knew because the repair guy said: "Whoever tapped it didn't do it right." [Laughing] And we never could figure out whether it was because of what she was doing, or whether it was because of what I was doing.
Bruce: Or both.
Miriam: Or both.
Bruce: Well, you were clearly a bunch of subversives, what difference did it make?
Bruce:That's one of the things I noticed a lot is that the lower you were in the organization, the less rivalry there was between the organizations. And as you went up in the ranks, the rivalry between CORE and SNCC and SCLC intensified, because where I was, you know, CORE, SNCC, SCLC — on the rank and file level — nobody really — I mean, yeah, we did pay attention to it, but it wasn't that big a deal. At least in my experience. I Mean, when I was SCLC in Mississippi, I'd go over and visit my friends on the CORE projects in Louisiana. There was no, "We're CORE, and you're SCLC!" There was none of that.
Miriam: Yeah, I don't remember any of that in Mississippi. I mean, we had COFO.
Miriam: Then after D.C, I came back to Mississippi for the Summer Project. I was on staff; I was getting paid by SNCC. And I went to both of the trainings, and between the two —
Bruce: Why both?
Miriam: Because I was on staff. Between the trainings, I went back home to Indianapolis.
Bruce: Because it was very close to where the trainings were held?
Miriam: Yes, Miami University is in Oxford, Ohio. And I must've been in Indiana when the news broke about the three missing civil rights workers. I remember my mother bringing me the newspaper with the headlines. I had been swimming with Mickey the week before, at the first training.
Bruce: Had you known him in Meridian?
Miriam: No, no, There was a long period after Flukey and I did the mock ballot in the fall of 1963 before Mickey and Rita came to Meridian. I think the Klan didn't realize there was a white person working in Meridian until Mickey and Rita came.
Bruce: Where did you work during the summer?
Miriam: I worked in Indianola, in the Delta. I worked in the Freedom School teaching adult literacy which I had no training for. I have since learned how to do that. [Laughing] And the older women who came to my class, every night, they were good about that, they came after working in the cotton fields all day, and they did not remember what we did the day before. So we'd start again with A and B.
Bruce: Over and over.
Miriam: Yeah, and I don't remember getting to C. So I didn't feel like I was helping. And I must have been canvassing during the day, but I don't remember a lot about it. In Mississippi we weren't talking with people about integration because that was too dangerous. We mostly focused on getting the right to vote.
I also remember wanting to see what it was like to pick cotton and going out and doing it, taking one of those bags and working in the hot sun. I didn't last very long. [Laughing] Probably 45 minutes.
Bruce: Yeah, it's about how long I lasted, too.
Miriam: I can say that I have picked cotton.
Bruce: I never picked cotton. I went out and chopped for a little while, and I didn't want to do it, but someone, I think, dared me. I said: "All right, I'll do it for a half hour," or something, because I knew I wasn't going to be able to do that! So yeah, it was chopping, which is easier than picking.
Miriam: Anyway, I knew the other people working in the towns around us. By the way, I didn't go to Atlantic City, which I've regretted. I stayed and worked phones in the Greenwood office, but nobody was making any calls for those weeks.
Bruce: Right, but there was still some staff in state and there were local people, and there could've been, you know, some crisis.
Miriam: Nothing was going on. I should've gone. I didn't understand the importance of the Convention Challenge, even though I knew all about it.
Miriam: So after being in the Delta, I went to Columbus, Mississippi which is in the northeast part of the state, by the Alabama border.
Bruce: And what were you doing in Columbus?
Bruce: Organizing what though? For the Congressional Challenge?
Miriam: No, just the same thing I'd been doing all over - trying to get people to come to mass meetings, and then from the mass meetings, the leaders would would lead everyone out on a march.
Bruce: All right. So you're in Columbus doing organizing which would make you a "community organizer."
Miriam: That's what I was. I remember the family that I stayed with. So it was a mom and a dad, and —
Bruce: What was the family name?
Miriam: I want to say Ponder, but I could be remembering wrong. They had five kids. And the mom had worked for a white family for years. This family had had a baby, and she'd taken care of that baby for four years. And they fired her when she tried to register to vote. But Columbus was right by Columbus Air Force base, and she got a waitress job. Neither the mom or dad had graduated from elementary school, but they both could read. And I remember they had a very small house on a dirt road, probably with no electricity and no water inside.
A story I remember, because I wrote about it when I was back up North, was the mom told me that two years before I came that the police had pulled them over at night. Now, of course, the police knew everyone in town, so the police knew them. And they'd asked Cecile, who was then 12, to get out of the car. And the police at that time were all white males. And the father said nothing, and mother said: "She's only 12!" And so they didn't make her get out, but it was such a typical situation where it was too dangerous for the father, for a Black man, to say anything.
Bruce: And the implication is that if the daughter had been a little older, getting out of the car meant subject to rape?
Miriam: I don't assume that they would've raped her. I assume they would've teased her and touched her but not go all the way to rape. Her parents were right there. Sadly, while I was canvassing in Columbus, my teammate and I went to a house, and there was a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by a white man when she was 12. And the mother talked about it to us. And the one thing that was clear was the white man got away with it. There was no consequence for him. And I thought it was probably helpful to the daughter that the mom was open about it and not keeping it a secret.
The other thing about Columbus is they had a big multinational company, Weyerhaeuser, that had a tree farm. And two of the Black men who worked there had tried to unionize and had been murdered. The whole Black community was quite sure it was because of their union work.
Bruce: How many years previous? You're there in late '64. Was that contemporary?
Miriam: No, it had been at least a few years before. Everybody still remembered their names.
Bruce: Again, not unusual. I told you my father was a union organizer, right?
Miriam: You said both your parents.
Bruce: Both my parents, right, but it was rare to have a white Southerner active in the Union Movement. And since he was from Kentucky, they kept assigning him to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. So he had his own run-ins with the Klan. In fact, he got chased out of Tupelo — I'm sure you remember Tupelo — for exactly that sort of thing, yeah.
Miriam: That was more dangerous than what I was doing, by a long shot.
Bruce: Yeah, being a union organizer. You know, it's interesting. We have this website, and there's students doing term papers on the Freedom Movement, and institutes and museums and all of this other stuff about the Civil Rights Movement, yet there's almost nothing anywhere about the Labor Movement in the '30s, which was just as dramatic, had just as profound an influence on American society as anything we did, had as many arrests and as much, or more, violence and protests and dramatic moments. And yet, it's never talked about the way the Civil Rights Movement is. And they don't have institutes at Stanford and Emory and stuff like that.
Miriam: The other thing I did in Mississippi is with the shorter Jessie Harris. I did a lot of research, and I was looking into government programs that would help. It was just at the time that they were mechanizing the cotton picking, so we were trying to figure out how to help people who would soon have no jobs.
Bruce: When was this?
Miriam: When I was there between the start of Freedom Summer in 1964 until February of 1965.
Bruce: So while you were in Indianola and then in Columbus?
Miriam: I remember doing some of that work in Jackson, so I must have also been in Jackson.
Bruce: Among other things, did you research the ASCS elections? Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service?
Miriam: You know, I don't remember the specifics of that research, except that it was about federal programs. One of the things we were looking for was ways to get food for people who were going hungry.
Bruce: Well, I know that I used some of Jack's research in Grenada MS. One of the things I did there was try to set up a welfare rights group, and the other thing was the ASCS auctions, and both of those utilized research that had been done the year before.
Miriam: It would be nice to think that some of that was useful. I thought for many years that all that time I spent looking into these federal programs and doing research was wasted, but I found out years later that some of it got used. I was doing research partly for Jessie Harris and also for Jack Minnis.
Bruce: I know there was something about the Mississippi welfare system, the rules and regulations of how do you do it and how do you work within it that. I got it from some place in Jackson, probably the Freedom Information Service.
Miriam: In October of 1964, I went to Israel to visit my brother and some relatives on my mom's side who I had never met. I have a picture of myself in my SNCC uniform, which was the bib, but for a woman, it was a skirt not overalls.
Bruce: Blue denim. Skirt with a bib, like overalls.
Miriam: Yes. I have a picture of me in Israel with that outfit on. I was so proud of having that outfit.
Miriam: I remember going up at some point to Highlander Center in Tennessee, and I know that Ann Braden talked with us. It was part of our training as community organizers.
My younger sister, Debbie, worked for a little while with a civil rights group in Tennessee and things weren't going well for her, as for many white women in the Movement. And she says that I came up from Mississippi and talked to the people on the project and smoothed things out.
Bruce: When you say "as for many white women," explain about that.
Miriam: I'm thinking what Dr. Poussaint wrote about how lots and lots of white women didn't stay. I talked a little bit before about the hostility of the Black women and the ambivalence of Black men. It was a very fine line we were walking, trying to be useful but not put other people in danger, and dealing with a lot of hostility and ambivalence.
Bruce: And all the Black/white sexual stuff too. Before I went South, I read all kinds of stuff, a lot of political stuff, but the only two things that really helped me once I was in the South was having read Faulkner's novels about the craziness, and Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream, about white women, Black women, all that psychosexual stuff. The Faulkner novels and Killers of the Dream helped me understand a lot of what I was seeing in a way that the political stuff never did.
Miriam: You know, I still don't understand this part. I knew that Southern whites put white women on a pedestal, and I knew as a white woman that attitude was protecting me from some of the violence. Almost all the white guys I worked with got hurt, but the only white women that I knew at the time who were mistreated at all were the women who were Freedom Riders in Parchman Penitentiary. I never quite understood why putting white women on a pedestal was protecting me, but I knew it was happening.
Bruce: Well, that's what she writes about. That's what that whole book is about. And she goes into a lot about that whole "on the pedestal thing," both its positive aspects but also how it was incredibly oppressive to the white women who had to live with it.
Miriam: I am reminded of something about Stokely [Carmichael]. When we were in the North, in DC, he knew who I was. I knew who he was. We'd say hello and talk for a minute. When we were in the South, anywhere in the South where we were together, he would not talk to me, which I assumed was smart on his part, that it was protective.
Bruce: Protective in what sense?
Miriam: Well, he's not being seen interacting with a white woman.
Bruce: In terms of violence from whites.
Miriam: Yes. One time, he and I were in Mississippi driving somewhere. He was driving, and I was in the car. He put me in the back which then meant he could be legitimately seen as a chauffeur, right? Driving me. And he was going 120 mph, and I'm sitting back there thinking: "How am I going to phrase this so that he doesn't get offended and he slows down?" I think I said something like: "Can you cool it a little bit?" Or something on that order, and he slowed down. But he didn't talk to me, because we were in the South.
Bruce: Yeah, I can see that. I remember we would occasionally have to go to some meeting in Atlanta from Selma. And I used to have this habit that I couldn't sleep in a car unless I put a bandana over my eyes, because to this day light bothers my eyes. And they did not want me to be a white guy in the back of the car with my eyes blindfolded. [Laughing] And when we went through a couple of those towns — this was before the freeway was completed, and you had to go through the town streets — there were a couple where the whites had to get down, get hidden, so it would only look like Blacks in the car.
Miriam: OK, so in February of 1965, I was forced to leave Columbus. The project director was a young man named Cephus Hughes who I have not heard of since. And he accused me of cussing at a Black women leader in the community — which I wouldn't have done.
Bruce: Anybody who knows you knows you're innocent of doing that.
Miriam: Anyway, so they said I had to leave. And that was at the time that I was aware that white people were being kicked out.
Bruce: And is that why you think he did that? Because you were white?
Miriam: I don't know, because I don't remember a whole lot about him. I don't know if it was some kind of personal thing. But anyway, I would not have left. I would still be there if I could've stayed, because as I said, I thought it was the most important work I could be doing.
Bruce: How did being falsely accused and driven off the project, how did you react to that?
Miriam: Well, I was upset because I wanted to stay. I was upset, because they were mean about it. And I didn't have a choice.
Before we go into what happened after you went North, how do you feel about the work you did in the South? Did you enjoy doing the Civil Rights work?
Miriam: No. And for the record, if somebody asked me to do it again, at my age now, I would just laugh. I wouldn't do it.
Bruce: Why not?
Miriam: There wasn't much that was pleasant about it. I mean, the work was stressful and I was being slightly mistreated by some co-workers. Unlike some people, I didn't see any progress from all the suffering I'd seen around me. I thought that the segregationists would put up with us for a couple of years and then go right on doing what they'd been doing. And I saw a lot of really bad things. The Freedom School I taught in in Indianola, a few months later was firebombed. And of course I knew Mickey Schwerner. And you know, I told you about when Ralph Allen came out of jail.
I went to a Black elementary school once in Mississippi and I heard children crying from every door I passed. The teachers had paddles, and they hit the kids. In the families I stayed with, I watched how they'd hit kids if they didn't know an answer to a question. It was so opposite of what Jewish families did, even if the kid said something that wasn't so intelligent, the grandmother would proudly state: "Oh wow, isn't he a smart little boy!" You know, it was turned on its head. It made me really sad to see it. It was distressing.
I've written a little about how we'd hear that something had happened, and then we'd wait and hear a different version and you know, it could take 24 hours or more before we'd finally find out what really happened. And plus we felt very isolated. I wrote about what happened with the kids in Americus, Georgia, the summer I was there. The FBI came in and investigated and said nothing wrong had happened. So C.B. King went up and asked four of the teenagers for their bloodied shirts and sent the bloodied shirts to Washington. It wasn't fun. It wasn't pleasant. It wasn't gratifying, and I would never do it again. In fact, Dr. Poussaint says lots of white women who came down left.
Bruce: Why didn't you?
Miriam: Partly maybe I had more connections, because I had been in the South that summer. And I knew Julian Bond, and I knew people ...
Bruce: Yes, but as you've described — the work is hard. The work is stressful. You don't have good relations with some of the people you're working with —
Miriam: Some of them.
Bruce: Some of them. So at least there's some mixed comradeship and hostility. You're not seeing any progress. It's dangerous. You didn't mention the heat in the summer and the misery of the cold winters, so I'll throw that in for you. And yet, you start in the summer of 1963, and you go through a year. And then almost another year. And then it's February of '65, and you're kicked off the project, and you're unhappy you're kicked off the project.
Miriam: It's the most important work I thought I could be doing. And I was right. You know, when I went back North I would teach a class for a year, I'd help 25, 30 kids for one year. Important, gratifying work, but work that never had the impact that the Civil Rights work did. Now, my part of the Civil Rights work I thought was insignificant. I didn't think it really made a big difference that I was there, but I believe that Gandhi quote that what you do will be insignificant, but you should do it.
Bruce: When you were forced to leave Columbus, couldn't you have gone to another SNCC project?
Miriam: I don't think they were welcoming white women on other projects.
Bruce: You could've gone to Selma. All kinds of shit was breaking loose in Selma.
Miriam: Wait, wait, wait, I need to say this about Alabama. At the SNCC meetings, you'd see these kids come in with quarter-sized white spots all over their skin from cattle prods. I wasn't going to Alabama! [Laughing] I had to go through Alabama, but I didn't mess around. I didn't sit with an integrated group. I put my head down and went through as fast as I could.
Bruce: I'll tell you something. When I was working in Alabama and I'd be talking to local Black folks and Movement people, everybody would go: "Oh, God, this is so terrible here in Alabama. Police are cattle prodding us and tear gassing and jail, and the Klan, and they're shooting people, but thank God, we don't live in Mississippi!" And then when I worked in Mississippi, they had the same litany, ending in: "But thank God we're not in Alabama!" [Laughing] Everybody thought the other state was worse.
Miriam: Uh-huh. Yeah, and in fact, my guess is that in fact Mississippi was worse.
Bruce: See, I don't think so.
Miriam: You don't?
Bruce: I think they were different, but I don't think you can say one was worse than the other. And Don Jelinek, he just absolutely disagrees. Don is definitely, Mississippi was worse. But I don't think there's a dime's worth of difference between them. They were a little different, the police and the Klan were was a little bit different but I don't think it's possible to say one was worse.
Bruce: What was it like for you, leaving the South and going — you went to New York?
Miriam: Yes. Well, it was a big, big adjustment. So I was in San Francisco for the summer of l965 and then lived in New York where there were a lot of ex-SNCC workers. I went through something that returning Peace Corps volunteers talked about, a reentry crisis. I told you it took me 30 years before I'd stand silhouetted at night in a window. It took me years before I could enjoy eating at a restaurant where there was plenty of food. We had been so worried about people having enough. It was a big, big, hard transition.
Bruce: Did you miss the South?
Miriam: I don't remember it that way.
Bruce: Did you feel as though a great sense of loss?
Miriam: It took me maybe five months to be able to feel comfortable that I wasn't doing that important work. And I had to then try to figure out how to get a marketable skill. So I worked on my Dad's newspaper a little bit in New York, and I babysat for an agency, and I was good at it. Better at that than the newspaper stuff. The kinds of jobs that were available to me — as a college grad — were working for the big corporations like Weyerhaeuser, and I wasn't going to do it because I knew what they'd done in Mississippi. So eventually I went to graduate school and actually got a marketable skill. I got a Master's in Early Childhood Education.
And I was with a group of ex-Civil Rights people who were up in New York.
Bruce: And this group of ex-Civil Rights people, so you socialized with them, is what you meant.
Miriam: Well, that and I made new friends.
Bruce: And with those Civil Rights expats, or refugees, however you would say it, did you talk about Movement stuff at all in the South? Did you talk about what you had done in the South? And how you felt about it?
Miriam: I don't remember.
Bruce: The reason I ask is that for me and a number of other people I've talked to, going back North was very wrenching.
Bruce: A great sense of loss. The loss of that community, that sense of community, that sense of participation, that sense of doing meaningful work. For the first week after I left the South, I was freaked out in the absolute literal sense, to be surrounded by so many white people. In the South, safety was being in the Black community, whites were a threat. I felt constantly in danger. It was scary.
After I got involved in the Left, I never talked about being a Civil Rights worker, working in the South, the Civil Rights Movement, the work I had done, until I joined our group in 1998. So from 1967 to 1998, 30 years or so, I never talked about it. Was that the same for you?
Miriam: I have to remind myself that while Civil Rights workers are much admired now, at the time, the movement was very controversial. A lot of people supported the end of desegregation, but thought we were pushing too fast and we were causing the violence.
Bruce: We broke the social compact. We did things that were taboo. We were trouble makers, yeah.
Miriam: So it wasn't like I was withholding information that would make me admired.
Bruce: Well, in the Left, that was also true, because in the Left, the Civil Rights Movement was held in contempt because it was nonviolent and integrationist as opposed to Black Nationalist.
Miriam: Anyway, I want to add something about post-SNCC. When I went back home to Indianapolis, it turns out the Black maid that had worked for our family for years was from Columbus, Mississippi.
And she wanted to talk to me. She knew what Columbus, Mississippi was like. She wasn't working for my parents anymore but she came over to our house to talk with me. She wanted to hear about what I'd done and she was so grateful for my work there.
Miriam: After I was no longer in the South. Bob Moses asked us to come to Washington in August of '65 to protest the Vietnam War.
Bruce: The Assembly of Unrepresented People?
Miriam: yes. And so I came for this, and got arrested. And that was my second arrest. I had avoided jail after that first experience. We had been always given the choice, and I had always taken the choice not to go back to jail. But I did for this.
Bruce: And how long were you in jail?
Miriam: Just a couple of days.
Miriam: I want to say something about when I went back to the 30th reunion, which was the first time I knew of that SNCC invited the white workers back.
Bruce: This is the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer?
Miriam: Yes. So 1994. In Jackson. Anyway, when I went back for the reunion, I get off the plane in Jackson. And in the airport, there is a "Welcome Back" sign for us.
Bruce: An official sign?
Miriam: Yeah. Big. And it just blew me away. I mean, they did everything they could to run us out of the state. [Laughing] And make our lives miserable.
Bruce: And now Civil Rights tourism is a big part of the economy.
Miriam: I heard that.
Bruce: Yeah, I was surprised when I went to the Raleigh reunion, the 50th Anniversary of the founding of SNCC in Raleigh, NC. At the hotel, all the check-in clerks were wearing SNCC T-shirts. There were banners, and stuff like that. I was surprised. A couple of years before that, I had gone to 40th Anniversary of Selma, and that was not like that. The Selma thing was — the Black community had a Jubilee, and the White Power structure and the white community grudgingly allowed that, but there was no sense of welcome, not from the whites. From the Black officialdom, yes, but from the white officialdom, just sort of hostile toleration.
Miriam: Interesting. You know, I also want to say that as much as the white community hated what we were doing, we did them a favor.
Bruce: Oh yeah.
Miriam: They couldn't have the economic progress they've had if we hadn't helped end segregation.
Bruce: You know, that strikes me so strongly, every time I've been back South — well, first of all, I did not go back South until 2005. So from '67, about 40 years. Going back South, what strikes me every time is that the main economic beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement were whites. Because you see all over all of these chain stores, chain restaurants, corporate investment — none of that would have happened under the old Jim Crow system. They employ Blacks in the menial, low paying, clerk-waitress-assemblyline positions. But the upper positions, the upper middle class positions, are predominantly — though not exclusively — white. Yes, college-educated Blacks can now find middle-class positions, but whites have benefited even more. Had segregation continued and things had not changed, none of that would have happened.
Miriam: I agree. We did good by them.
Now, I want to say one more thing about the standing in front of the window thing. It was Dorie Lander at the 30th reunion who said she couldn't do that after 30 years, and I overheard her, and I said to myself: OK, you're not the only one. It's time for you to get over this. You've got to figure this out. So I kind of forced myself gradually.
Bruce: Well, good for you. But I still don't let the light in my car turn on! [Laughing] And I still hate talking politics in a public place like a restaurant. It still makes me nervous.
So, anything else?
Miriam: No, that's enough. I'm not telling you another thing! I want to thank you for interviewing me.