I wrote this in the fall of 1963 for my college newspaper. I had just graduated from Brandeis University, a predominately Jewish college near Boston. I knew students there would want to know what was happening in the South. There was a group of Brandeis students supporting the southern civil rights movement, as was true at many colleges around the country. This included picketing chain stores that were integrated in the North, but segregated in the South. I remember we picketed Howard Johnson's ice cream stores with a sign, "Howard Johnson's serves 32 flavors but only one color."
I am sharing this now because it reflects how hard it was to be a civil rights worker, how discouraging it was and how vulnerable African American women and men were in the South. After the summer I describe here, I worked with SNCC in Mississippi. These things were true there also.
I've been asked why I continued doing such difficult work. I believed the purpose of one's life was to make the world a better place. I was doing what I thought was the most important work I could do.
Note: When I wrote this in 1963 we used the word "men" when we meant "men and women". I've made some minor changes so this will read more smoothly.
Miriam Cohen Glickman, Lafayette, California, June 2008.
Integration in the Deep South: Death Goes On
EDITOR'S NOTE: Miriam Cohen is a 1963 graduate of Brandeis University who spent her summer in the South working for SNCC.
On the day of my Brandeis commencement, I was already on a bus traveling deep into Georgia to work as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The Problem ...
The next day, the groundwork of my orientation to the Deep South was laid. That very day, in Sumter County (Americus), Georgia a 17-year-old Negro girl named Ronnie was raped by a white man.
My summer in Georgia ended as it had begun. On one of my last days there, the SNCC staff learned that another Negro girl in Sumter County had been raped by six white men.
In the interim between the first and last days, I lived and worked for SNCC in Albany, two counties south of Sumter County. I was in Albany when they brought in the body of a Negro farmer from Leary, 20 some miles away. The story: The sheriff and another white man had gone out to the Negro's house. The sheriff handcuffed the Negro and the other white man took out his gun and killed him. The parents of the dead man were too frightened to go out and remove the body, so they left it in the yard until nightfall. The explanation given for the shooting: the Negro and white man had gotten into a fight and the Negro had won.
There was a white Marine stationed in Albany who decided he "wanted to shoot himself a nigger." And he did.
There were the countless incidents less serious than these. In July the police arrested 12-year-old Larry Brooks who had asked for a ticket at the white swimming pool. Six of them took Larry off by himself in the police station, slapped him and threw lighted matches on his arms and legs. Willie Ricks, SNCC field secretary, was forced to work on the street work gang where he was fed nothing but four slices of bread each day for 13 or 14 days, while we waited, day after day, for bond money to come down from somewhere in the North. And Ralph Allen and Bob Cover (of Brookline, MA) were beaten up in jail... And later, Ralph was beaten by the police and needed stitches in his head...
Every few days, an incident until I felt I could no longer endure what was happening. And then, another incident. At first we would hear part of the story, and there would be waiting, then more details, sometimes contradicting the first ones, and at last the story.
Like the last time Ralph was beaten: midnight Thursday we learned that Ralph had been arrested in Americus, Georgia. On Friday we heard that the police had taken him and two others out into the country and had beaten them. There were reports from inside the jail that Ralph's nose was broken so our attorney (the only Negro lawyer in southwest Georgia) went up to the jail, but the police did not let him in. Tuesday when the attorney was allowed in, he came back and told us: Ralph had needed stitches in his head. The day Ralph got out of jail and I saw all the swollen and bruised places on his face, I sat on the back steps and cried.
The day the Movement in the Deep South deals only in trivial issues like the right to sit down at a lunch counter to drink a cup of coffee, that day the real struggle will already be over.
About Nonviolence ...
We do not make laws against something that people would never do anyway. Similarly, Martin Luther King would probably not be spending so much time preaching nonviolence and love if the Negroes in the South accepted this. The Negro community in Albany was almost unanimous in its hatred of the white man. Negroes differed only in their degree of hatred. Even the Negro members of the SNCC staff had hatred for the whites on the staff, something I was totally unprepared for. Yet, within a month's time, each of the white students working with SNCC, themselves hated whites. Given the situation in the South, though, maybe only an extraordinary person could feel otherwise.
Many Negroes in Albany seemed unable to identify with whites as human beings. I have the impression that if a white child were run over by a car in Albany, the Negroes would not care. (Similar, perhaps, to our grandmothers who are not much bothered by misfortunes happening to Gentiles.)
I fought off these feelings and, in fact, denied having any hatred of the white man. But once I was back in the North and around white people again (the whites in the South, other than the policemen, did not speak to us), I noticed how uncomfortable I felt and how little I trusted what white people said, including white liberals. Even looking at the pictures in the Brandeis Yearbook '63, I had an uneasy sick feeling inside. The picture that bothered me the most was the one of the two blond girls talking and laughing. I still resent their carefree laughter. I do not want to feel this way. I think it is silly, but I do.
Perhaps what appeared to be arrogance in Chuck McDew was instead his uncomfortableness around us. His attitude was that because we are white, we cannot really understand the sufferings of black men. Once I felt this was snobbery, but I feel, now, that he is right. (Chuck McDew, a SNCC leader in the South, spent a semester at Brandeis as an exchange student.)
The Movement in the South is nonviolent, but the Negro community is not. For every person who agreed to be in a demonstration, at least five told me they would come if they were allowed to defend themselves when the police began beating them.
You read about the bricks and bottles thrown at the police in Birmingham, maybe you did not know that in Albany this summer the bricks and bottles were embellished by Molotov cocktails. One night, following some especially bad incidents of police brutality, a street intersection was ablaze with flames from gas bombs thrown at police cars. Before I worked in the South, I thought the "threat of violence by Negroes" was just something dreamed up to try to push the country into faster desegregation.
The importance of the SNCC workers came not so much from our own nonviolent acts as from our control of the nonviolence, or rather levels of violence, in the Negro community.
The Federal Government...
Each case of police brutality and each case of irregularity in voter registration (and these were numerous) was reported by affidavit to the Justice Department. The FBI investigated, nothing was done. The police used electrically charged cattle prods on the children in Americus. They used water hoses and they beat the children with clubs. The FBI investigated and found no evidence of police brutality. So our lawyer went up to the jail and asked four of these children for their shirts. We sent the four bloodied shirts to Washington. Still nothing was done. The mighty arm of the U. S. government has reached out to protect three Buddhist monks in Viet Nam. But where is the federal government while three SNCC field secretaries (one a Harvard student) face the death penalty on insurrection charges in Americus, Georgia?
The federal government does worse than nothing; in Albany the federal government itself discriminates. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) employs 26 people in the Social Security office, all whites. The Post Office employs 157 workers of which 18 are Negro (Albany is 1/3 Negro). The number of Negro postal workers is the same as it was 20 years ago.
The government ignored us until August. Then, the Justice Department indicted nine desegregation workers, some for perjury and some for conspiracy. As someone in Albany aptly put it, even the Justice Department is a white man.
Perhaps a large part of the bitterness and hate comes of the knowledge that we are alone. Just us and the segregationists.
Our Good White Brothers...
Whites will go to great lengths to stop violence. Violence disturbs them. Suffering and injustice do not. When SNCC workers make decisions about controlling the level of violence in the community or whether or not to demonstrate, it is with the knowledge that no one does anything about young girls being raped by white men and no one cares how many local Negroes are murdered, as long as it is done quietly, but the idea of open violence disturbs the white man. It is with this grim knowledge of the white man's callousness (and I include the federal government here) that we make decisions to put our bodies in the streets. (Note: Martin Luther King has written about this.)
The Children ...
People in the North have criticized Southern Negroes for putting their children in the front lines of the battle. Those who criticize do not realize that these are not the protected middle class children of the North. The eight-year-old boy who was arrested twice this summer in Albany takes charge of his two-year-old brother while their mother works 60 hours a week as a cook, for $20 each week. This boy participated in demonstrations because he decided he wanted to go; his mother did not send him. I know of no case in which parents sent their children. If the children are in the front lines, it is because they have put themselves there. Perhaps this is partly because they have not yet learned, as their parents have, to go along with the horrors of the System.
The summer in Albany was the first meaningful religious experience in my life. I must have prayed hours each day for what else were my thoughts about my friends in jail, but prayer? Too, there were the mass meetings when an old woman cried out with wild passion (In good Baptist tradition), "Jesus, Jesus, we need you Jesus! Come to Albany, Jesus! Please Jesus, please Jesus . . . Have mercy, Jesus!" Again and again she intoned her plea, to Jesus the symbol of suffering. A part of me was with her, for I too cried out to something outside myself, my own suffering (in jail) and my reactions to the suffering of others were more than I could bear within. The unrehearsed cry of those who have suffered too much had a meaning for me that prayers of rote recitation never had.
SNCC has a concept of leadership in which we try to learn what the people want to do and how they want to do it and then we help them. Think of the political leadership in our country today, and you will see how different our concept is. Also, in the South, we work with all the people, the unemployed, the working class, on up. Yes, the gangs too. In the North, at least until recently, it seemed that only the middle and upper class people were participating in demonstrations and other civil rights activities.
From the North it looks as if progress is being made down South. In the Deep South there is little feeling of progress and no feeling that progress inevitably will come. How can one feel this when four SNCC workers who have spent all week in Terrell County (a few miles away from Albany) and are encouraged for having convinced a total of seven Negroes to attempt to register to vote, with no assurance that even these few will be permitted to register or that they will not be thrown off their land, or worse, for the attempt. And so what if all seven are allowed to register, and so what if we can overcome the fears of seven more Negroes next week and the next week ...?
We are going painfully slowly. In two years of demonstrations and jailings, Albany has desegregated one bus terminal and the library. In Americus the Negroes have asked to use the front door of the city's only theater and this is all they have asked. There has been a lot of noise down there, many demonstrations, horrible police brutality, high bonds — but no progress.
Along with the tiny bits of progress which we have made, have also come some setbacks. In the Mississippi Delta area it is predicted that 95% of the cotton harvesting this year will be done by machine. What about the people facing starvation in the Delta this winter? And what is there for young Negroes? The 18-year-old girl who works as sales clerk in Cohen's Department Store in Albany's Harlem for $15 a week told me she wants to study journalism. The odds are stacked against it and I think she knows that. I knew it, too, when she told me her dream.
Listen, my classmates, listen. Does it ever occur to you that the white Southerners may be winning?
Copyright © Miriam Glickman
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Miriam Glickman.