By Hunter Bear (John R Salter, Jr.)
As head of the Jackson MS NAACP Youth Council, Hunter Bear played a leading role in the Jackson MS, Movement 1962-1963, and then worked as a field organizer for SCEF in North Carolina and elsewhere.]
The Northeastern North Carolina Black-Belt Project, which burst forth with rapidly growing claws and feathers in the mid-1960s, had a major impact on that far-flung racist and poverty-stricken (Deep South in every sense!) multi-county section of the state as well as on the entire state itself and the region well beyond. Yet it received, aside from much often hostile local and regional press coverage, little enduring publicity. One of the reasons was that it, in an obscure corner of the South, was frequently overshadowed by events in more publicized regions of the Deep South.
Another especially to those academic and popular historians deemed revisionist is that its primary sponsor was the left Southern Conference Educational Fund and its principal organizer was myself. I should add that, from the point that I was honorably released from the United States Army after a full hitch at the beginning of 1955, just turning 21, I have been my own kind of ecumenical socialist with consistency. I belonged to the IWW from the very beginning of 1955 well into 1960 and have remained always a rather quintessential Wobbly. At the same time, my deepest waters have always been Iroquoian with its traditional bent toward careful organization with democratic form and structure and ethos.
In any event, the public mention of this critical and sometimes wild crusade has been relatively minimal. In my own book, Jackson Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism (1979 and 1987), my necessarily trenchant epilogue, covering my life since Jackson to the end of the '70s, spends the better part of three pages on our Carolina Black-Belt struggle. Willa (Johnson) Cofield, who with other members of her family, was among the key leaders in Halifax County, our starting point and the most major of several related battlefields, contributed a chapter containing a discussion of our saga in a quite interesting anthology (Cathy L. Nelson and Kim A. Wilson, editors, Seeding the Process of Multi-Cultural Education (Plymouth, MN: Minnesota Inclusiveness Program, 1998.) These editors and Willa all honored us with a long visit at our Idaho home in 1998.
I, myself, have written some pieces on the Project e.g., the J.P. Stevens Textile boycott and its background in the Halifax County mill town of Roanoke Rapids, the United Klans of America, Jesse Helms which have been published in good and honorable radical journals. This website of [mine], Lair of Hunterbear, contains much stuff on the Black-Belt fight. But, despite the strong commitment of the grassroots people (mostly Black but many Indians as well), the high drama, the firm backing always of our SCEF executive director Jim Dombrowski and the often involvement of Ella J. Baker (herself a SCEF staffer at that point who had grown up in Halifax County), the (non-violent) War in the Black-Belt has received little notice.
I joined the staff of SCEF as its Field Organizer in late Summer, 1963. Jim Dombrowski asked that I be based near the Eastern Seaboard part of the South, and encouraged North Carolina. We moved into an all-Black neighborhood at Raleigh and set up shop. From there I traveled into various Southern places of civil rights significance, spoke in a few Yankee settings such as the annual meeting of United Negro College Fund up in New York, had with Ella Baker as my fine colleague a splendid "Western trip" into the Midwest and Southwest. (A year later, I did a shorter solo run in the Mountain States.) On the Virginia Southside, I spent a week assisting Moses Riddick in his successful run for a key Nansemond County office against the Byrd Machine. I traveled to various arenas in the Deeper South.
And then I got to Halifax County in the Northeastern Carolina Black-Belt, initially taken there by the intrepid Rev. A.I. Dunlap, who had been a major figure in the hard-fought 1963 movement at Danville, Virginia well to the northwest.
In very early 1964, I launched a major SCEF-sponsored project: cracking the rigidly segregated, thoroughly repressive, Klan-infested northeastern North Carolina Black Belt containing some of the most poverty-stricken counties in the United States. This hard- core region had been isolated from the main currents of the Civil Rights Movement. Our SCEF Director Jim Dombrowski backed us to the hilt; as did the SCEF President, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Valuable support was provided by Ms. Ella J. Baker, a nationally known Black activist and Special Consultant to SCEF, who had herself grown up in that particular locale. The editor of the SCEF newspaper, The Southern Patriot, Ms. Anne Braden, provided valuable regional and national publicity for us. Up North, the SCEF fund-raiser, the Reverend William Howard Melish, was extremely helpful.
We started with Halifax County. Opposition was tough and violent. With hard work (among other things, at one point I spoke to over 120 community meetings in 90 days), boycotts, non-violent demonstrations, and litigation in Federal courts and, in time, political leverage we were increasingly successful. And then we moved across the Black Belt, county by county.
Clyde Appleton led the singing at our large and historic Black Belt conference ("Civil Rights and Anti-Poverty") at Indian Woods Baptist in Bertie Co., early March 1965, which drew about 1,050 people from 14 Black Belt counties plus several from some outlying areas. Ella Baker was keynote speaker.
This fine statement by a key and extremely capable Halifax Co. Movement leader and old friend, Willa Cofield, is in our website and has been on our Tribute since soon after its inception early in 2004:
". . .I'd like to share my own impression of John Salter, whom I first saw on a 1963 television newscast being mercilessly pummeled by a group of white men. The attack took place during a Black student demonstration in Jackson, Mississippi. A few months later, John appeared in my rural, eastern North Carolina community, where we Black people were staging our own demonstrations.
Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona and part-Indian, he was young, intense, smart and completely committed to social justice.
Salter's civil rights record, his obvious sincerity, as well as his willingness to take on the local racists, soon won over the most skeptical among us. For over a year, he worked in our community, facing daily death threats, abuse, and the virulent hatred of local white people.
With John Salter's help, we initiated a countywide voter registration drive, and when local officials set up obstacles, John convinced a battery of topnotch lawyers to challenge the county board of elections in court. Our side won. For the first time since the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the late nineteenth century, thousands of eastern North Carolina Blacks registered.
In the 1980s, those voters helped send two Black men to the North Carolina Legislature. In 1992, they sent Eva Clayton, a Black woman, to Congress where she served for many years.
John Salter was not present for the victory celebration or for the happy bus trip to Raleigh for the inauguration of Thomas C. Hardaway as Representative from our District, but many of the bus passengers recalled Salter's courageous work during the 1960s. He had helped break the fierce Southern wall of resistance, thereby setting the stage for the Voting Rights Act and the election of Black people to local, state, and federal legislative bodies.
John drove with us the morning six of our children, including my own six-year-daughter, integrated the local white school. He found lawyers and financial support, and we successfully battled the school officials and politicians who tried to kill our movement by firing Black teachers.
In communities throughout the South, John Salter is remembered for his selfless leadership and courage and as a man deeply and passionately opposed to injustice.
Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I have met many of his former Tougaloo College students. All remember him with the greatest respect and admiration.
John has never flinched from taking unpopular positions. Those of us who benefited from his determination to act upon what he believed right consider that very quality a key factor in making him one of the truly great leaders of our time. Sincerely,
Willa M. Cofield, Ph.D. Enfield, North Carolina and Plainfield, New Jersey
In due course, we moved into adjoining counties and our organizing work area broadened greatly. As this statement of mine from a final report to the SCEF Board indicates, even our basic heartland (not even counting the further frontiers of our activities) encompassed a very wide region indeed: "From Littleton in Halifax County to Windsor in Bertie County is about sixty miles straight (as the crow flies) and about seventy-five miles by road; Severn in Northampton County is about thirty-five miles straight and about fifty miles by road, from Enfield in Halifax County; Hollister in Halifax County is about sixty-five miles straight and about ninety-five miles by road from Colerain in Bertie County."
A recent response of mine to an excellent question by William "Bill" Mandel: From Hunter:
Briefly using Halifax County, NC as an example, a Black county with a fairly substantial number of American Indians therein, the time came in latter '64 during our One Hell of a Fight on several fronts when I got a surprise telephone call from former State Senator Lunsford Crew, representing the state Democratic Party. He was in Raleigh but his home town was Roanoke Rapids in the northern part of Halifax County. That was also the home of a huge JP Stevens textile plant whose later unionization provided the direct basis for the fine labor film, Norma Rae. (We have always held that our Movement helped lay the basis for that unionization which came some years later.)
With the exception of Sam Mitchell (Black), a fine lawyer based at Raleigh, our lawyers were all from out of the South: Bill Kunstler, Arthur Kinoy, Phil Hirschkop, Morty Stavis, and others. One of our Federal lawsuits, eventually won when USSC denied cert to North Carolina, was Willa Johnson (Cofield) vs Joseph Branch et al. What made this especially interesting was that Joe Branch, of Enfield, was State Campaign Manager for Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Dan K. Moore. We were suing him along with the school board, for which he was attorney, since they all had fired Willa, a long time and award-winning high school teacher at (Black) Inborden High School in Enfield, in obvious retaliation for her consistently effective civil rights activities.
Anyway, Senator Crew wanted to do business directly with me to the effect that, if the Halifax Movement would agree to support the Democrats, and especially at the state level (the Republicans were becoming powerful), he could guarantee that a number of concessions would be made by the official leaders of Halifax County. We had many brand new voters indeed and we also had the Image which would influence other minority communities in the state. He wanted me to handle that matter and indicated he would be quite satisfied with my word (plus appropriate Movement leaflets as the election drew nigh.)
Pleasantly, I told Senator Crew that we didn't function that way at all and that, in no sense, could I the Organizer make that kind of deal. I told him he would have to come directly to a meeting of our about 36 County Chairmen (several were women, btw), and make his offer directly to them. To give him credit, he pluckily accepted my proposal to set the meeting up if our Chairmen wanted to go that route.
We had a quick meeting of our County Chairmen at Enfield. They voted to give Senator Crew a solid and fair hearing. We also, thoughtfully, prepared a long shopping list of that which we wanted. It ranged from official anti-Klan action to acceptance of surplus commodities and a promise to participate in the forthcoming Food Stamp plan when that was enacted, substantial desegregation and minority hiring in county offices, and much more. And then we scheduled a meeting for the Senator.
Senator Crew came by himself to the Cofield Funeral Home (Willa's family) at Enfield and he was there for three long hours. He met our demands and we all agreed to support the Democrats and, in due course, we issued sample ballots with the Democratic candidates (all of them) properly Xd in the appropriate boxes. The Democrats won. The Other Side in Halifax County honored the agreement we all had reached. There were many more miles to travel in that tough county, and then in all the other tough counties involved, but we had a Big Beginning.
In Solidarity - Hunter (Hunter Bear)
The Southern Conference Educational Fund (The Good Realities)
Eldri and I, who had come into Mississippi in the ominous Summer of '61, left the South in the Summer of '67 and went into the Pacific Northwest and then, for an academic year, to Coe College in Iowa. From 1969 to 1973, I directed the large-scale grassroots organization of block clubs and related groups (mostly Black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano) on Chicago's very bloody South/Southwest Side. Also active in Native affairs and issues on the Northside, we organized the long-enduring, all-Indian Native American Community Organizational Training Center (of which I served for a number of years as Chair doing so for some time after we left Chicago.) Later, we were in Iowa again, then up-state New York, then the Navajo Nation and then to the Northern Plains and now to Idaho. The organizing trail is very much a Romany trail.
SCEF, very broadly Left in a completely non-sectarian fashion, grew out of the very fine Southern Conference on Human Welfare a courageous and interracial group of Southern liberals and some radicals originating in the New Deal era. SCEF had its most effective period from the onset of the 1950s to the retirement of its excellent executive director, Jim Dombrowski, at the end of 1965.
During that period, its splendid newspaper, The Southern Patriot, was very capably edited by Alfred Maund and later by the equally capable Anne Braden. ( Al Maund, a good friend of mine, is a noted Southern writer and author of a great novel, The Big Boxcar, and was also editor of Labor's Daily and later a key staffer of International Chemical Workers Union.) The SCEF board was a fine interracial cross section of sensible Southern activists religious and labor and general social justice folk and its advisory committee extended into Arizona. Aubrey Williams (a major Southern leader with a highly placed New Deal background) served as its President for years and was later succeeded by the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth of Birmingham (President of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and National Secretary of SCLC.)
My own activist links with SCEF began soon after Eldri and I arrived at Tougaloo in the Summer of '61. Almost immediately I became Advisor to the Jackson Youth Council of NAACP and a member of the board of directors of the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP Branches. When we launched our historic Jackson boycott in late 1962, SCEF especially through Jim and Anne Braden and Carl Braden gave us a great deal of invaluable assistance. The very effective Jackson Boycott Movement became, in due organizing course, the massive and historic Jackson Movement in which youth played a major role at all points. I was Chair of its Strategy Committee.
At the conclusion of the very hard-fought, super-dramatic and extremely sanguinary Jackson Movement era, Jim Dombrowski offered me the position of SCEF Field Organizer with the understanding that I could do my own thing pretty much in any way I wished. I was pleased to accept. We set my salary at the precise salary figure drawn from NAACP by my very good friend, the recently murdered Medgar Evers: $6,500.00 with some expenses and benefits. At the same time I joined SCEF, my very good friend, Miss Ella J. Baker, founder and Advisor to SNCC (who had been SCLC's first Executive Director), accepted Jim's offer of an ongoing position as Consultant. I was instrumental, with Jim's enthusiastic concurrence, in securing the New York law firm of Kunstler, Kunstler and Kinoy (known affectionately as KKK) as SCEF's counsel. (Bill Kunstler had already represented me in several key Mississippi cases.)
Much was certainly accomplished by SCEF during the next two years or so. I worked in grassroots civil rights and anti-Klan organization in several very hard-core Deep Southern areas. Ella played a critical role in liaison work with SNCC and other projects and gave me much assistance at key points. Carl Braden did a great deal of valuable, on-going work with Northern supporters and was much involved in Appalachian affairs. A key fund-raising role was carried by Howard Melish. Through The Southern Patriot, Anne Braden reported Southern civil rights news much of which would otherwise have been obscure to a national and international audience and gave much media-linkage assistance to a wide variety of grassroots civil rights projects.
Jim Dombrowski, severely crippled by illness (but he marched in the SCLC demonstrations at Danville, Virginia), continued to very capably hold down the SCEF national office on 822 Perdido Street, New Orleans. (My old Chicano Mine-Mill compañeros were always intrigued by that address since it, of course, translates into "Nowhere.") During this period, we were constantly Red-baited and attacked on many fronts including the notorious Louisiana Un-American Activities Committee/State Police raid on the New Orleans SCEF office in October 1963, the arrest of Jim and two other SCEF officials, the seizure of the SCEF records and their illegal shipment by train into Mississippi where they were then taken by Mississippi Senator Jim Eastland and his U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. SCEF sued and, in 1965, won a total victory at the USSC level: Dombrowski v. Pfister.
At the end of 1965, Jim retired as SCEF director and Anne and Carl Braden became co-directors. At the point Jim retired, Ella and I both left. She, of course, continued to work with SNCC and related projects and I continued my organizing work in the South in radical grassroots anti-poverty activism (much support from Highlander Research and Education Center.) Ella and I and Jim kept in very close touch, always, both during this period and thereafter all the way through. Jim died at New Orleans in 1983 and Ella passed away in NYC in 1986. I miss them much indeed.
After our departure, SCEF hired a much larger number of staff people than had formerly been the case essentially on subsistence "Movement wages." In time, internal difficulties developed.
The major SCEF papers are at State Historical Society of Wisconsin: Jim's collected papers, those of the Bradens, and mine including my organizing reports plus much secured from FBI via FOIA/PA. (My papers are also held by Mississippi Department of Archives and History.) A very good biography of Jim was done by another good friend of mine and I strongly recommend it: Frank Adams' James A. Dombrowski: An American Heretic (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.)
I personally have copies (many of them originals) of my basic organizing materials and detailed reports from over these many decades.
I regularly and with some frequency filed very long, detailed letter/reports to Jim Dombrowski on my organizing activities in the Black-Belt. These, along with related materials from the somewhat later "anti-poverty wars," have been an invaluable resource for me over the many, many years that have followed. Initially, they dealt with the formative organizing period (for a time I was assisted by J.V. Henry and Doug Harris of SNCC but mostly I was the sole "professional".) Quickly, succeeding reports move into the exciting realms of massive voter registration campaigns, economic boycotts, non- violent direct action, our litigation in a number of cases (almost exclusively in Federal courts), and bitter resistance from the Klan, Birch Society, and the North Carolina Defenders of States' Rights (White Citizens Council.)
Two of my major latter reports not only provide summarization but also give a specific category-by-category breakdown of our specific action areas and their successful development:
For the SCEF Board Meeting of April 15-16 1965 at Atlanta, I presented a detailed five page single-spaced report.
At Jim's request, I wrote again for the SCEF Board a long and detailed wrap up on the whole Black-Belt project which, with a long covering letter, I sent on October 5 1965: 12 double spaced legal sized pages. (In addition, I also attached the previous report to the Board of April '65)
An important piece of my writing during this period is, "Organizing The Community For Action," March 1965 and several subsequent editions (six tightly spaced legal-sized pages) part of the basis for my much later Combined Community Organizing catechism in January 2004 (With Addenda). That "catechism" has now been widely reprinted in various print journals and websites. www.hunterbear.org/my_combined_community_organizing.htm .
In my long covering letter to Jim with that final report, I expressed our great appreciation to the SCEF Board and its officers and to the staff. And I explicitly noted, "This work in the black-belt counties would not have gone as well as it did had it not been for the whole- hearted backing of SCEF. We are mighty indebted to you and to Ella."
And, years later, Jim wrote an extremely strong, kind statement for my career reference file at Arizona State University. The original is shown in the bloc of North Carolina Black-Belt material on our website and is also on the large Tribute:
"Mr. Salter is an unusual and many talented person. He is a careful scholar, writes and speaks well, relates easily to all kinds of people, understands and practices the art of listening. He has few peers as a community organizer.
For those and other reasons, I hold Mr Salter in the highest esteem, professionally and socially."
James Anderson Dombrowski, PhD, Executive Director, Southern Conference Educational Fund (Ret.)
The basic sections in my report to the SCEF Board, April 15/16 1965:
Black-Belt Counties Workshop/Conference
The basic sections of my report to the SCEF Board, October 5 1965:
We have a great deal of Mississippi material on our Lair of Hunterbear website. What follows here is some SCEF and North Carolina material:
HUNTER GRAY (HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR) Mi'kmaq /St. Francis Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk. Protected by Na`shdo`i`ba`i` and Ohkwari'
In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the high windy ridges and they dance from within the very essence of our own inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then it is as bright as day but in an always soft and mysterious and remembering way. (Hunter Bear)
Copyright © Hunter Bear (John Salter), 2006
Copyright © 2006
Last Modified: March 11, 2006.