Written sometime between 2003-2006]
Peter de Lissovoy was a SNCC worker in 1963 and worked in Atty. C. B. King's campaign for Congress in 1964.]
In 1963 in Albany, Georgia, Jim Crow was alive and well and completely intact as if it had been 1923 or 1893, white and black everything, restrooms, totally separate movie theaters, etc., blacks were discouraged from voting, could not go into a restaurant or even walk across town without a legitimate (i.e., subservient) reason for doing so (naturally the same was true for "outside agitators"). Perhaps nobody born after that time can quite comprehend the police state or apartheid atmosphere of life back then in Georgia.
Of course blacks in south Georgia had been quietly working at undermining the Jim Crow system for decades, particularly people like the King family of Albany. If blacks got uppity, like C. B. King deciding to become a lawyer and actually practice law in south Georgia, they were likely to get their heads split wide open, as when Sheriff Campbell caned C. B. and split open his head on the courthouse steps when he first had the audacity to begin his law practice in south Georgia. When I was with C. B. my eyes always went to that scar on his forehead.
I had been to South Africa, and south Georgia was not distinguishable from South Africa in my perception and experience in 1963. You could viscerally feel the previous condition of slavery in the daily habits of life and in people's common attitudes in south Georgia. It seemed that slavery was very recent. All you had to do was step outside the customary and prescribed racial modes and roles and you would become aware of this history and present reality at a thousand points. Of course if you stayed within the prescribed limits maybe you could kid yourself that all was mighty fine and satisfactory, which is how Southernors (well, Americans generally) lived in their historical bubble.
This was the rent in the social fabric the SNCCers were always tearing.
It was when we wanted to walk into that diner, swim in the swimming pool, and so forth that the trouble began. Anthropologically speaking this was extremely provocative, no matter what the Constitution had to say. That is when you saw the violence, the hysteria, and rage in the white people's souls on vivid display. In fact that is when you saw the violence and force that underpinned segregation come right out on the street for all to understand. Then you would see in the eyes of white people their need to be considered superior beings, the wild confusion on this point so that you knew some of them would kill you if they could get away with it because you threatened the core of their being, their deepest beliefs and values that were touched off by our strange behavior. What exactly those beliefs and values amounted to is sometimes addressed by southern historians, and chroniclers of the "southern mind," and the northern mind for that matter. Racism in this country manifests itself differently in the different regions. You could smell slavery in the air. If you provoked the system of things, all the ugliness and violence that demanded people know their place just surrounded you like a curtain and struck back at you at a thousand points from everywhere.
Now that the Civil Rights Movement has rightfully become an icon in the American pantheon, it is hard to remember that in the heat of those nights and days in the 60s we simply had no way of knowing how the story would play out and whether we would succeed or not. Segregation and the racists seemed very formidable and damnably, fearfully invincible as far as we knew.
However, perhaps even better than we did, Albany GA town fathers understood change was in the air, national civil rights legislation was coming, it was the handwriting on the wall, and in 1963 they resorted to the subterfuge of selling the municipal (i.e. white) swimming pool to James Gray the publisher of the Albany Herald to forestall integrating it, as would have been brought about when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights legislation the next year.
In protest of this subterfuge SNCC in Albany organized marches that summer against the sale of the pool, the first broken up before we even crossed Oglethorpe Avenue (the racial divide) but one later in the summer managing to make it to the pool. The first night scores of SNCC workers and local kids wound up in jail, JoAnne Christian (whom Dennis Roberts visited in jail as his first assignment for C. B. King), Lucille Mormon, James Daniel, Phil Davis, John Perdew, Pete de Lissovoy, and many others. Maintaining the appropriate legal underpinning for the Movement so that all the protests did not just disappear into the oblivion of south Georgia's jail system, C. B. King and Dennis Roberts prepared trial defenses and arranged bail.
Later in the summer a march culminated in the memorable jump into the waters by Randy Battle, James Daniel, and Jake Wallace. I believe a number of the marchers or even most of them had contemplated jumping into the pool that day but only those three did it. Their jumping in the pool like that was an electrifying and inspiring bravado act for the black kids in the community that summer. We coasted on the joy and energy of that for some time and it was like a statement had been made and it had been a leap into the future as well as a leap into a pool, even though the future was still some time away.
This march was something of a stroke of genius organizationally, in that one body of marchers did not head for the Tift Park but rather numerous small groups filtered out of the black community and approached from all sides. So it was a sort of guerilla march.
The idea was to make it harder for the cops to round everybody up and this idea succeeded. I remember this event as vividly as any I participated in. I was the only white in my little group. I remember this day so intensely I even remember what I was wearing. In this respect it was a singular experience, for we surely had "no thought of what we ate or put on" in civil rights days. We lived on the pure Spirit alone. I was wearing all black — black T-shirt and black trousers and wearing shades. Maybe some symbolism was intended, I don't know. We were every one of us in our group dressed like that; I think what we intended to communicate was dead seriousness.
Finally arriving at the poolside, somewhat in shock not to have already been arrested, I had an almost out of body experience it was so intense. My memory of it is actually to see us all and me among the group of eight or nine black kids standing across the fence from white kids in their bathing suits as if I were looking down on it from above. Our approach to the wire gates of the pool against which a lot of white kids stood staring at us was one of confrontation with Hatred so intense it was like a shining miasma in the air. You know those kids were staring straight at me with a hatred I had never experienced before so strong it was like — you are a race traitor, sort of thing. They stared at me with a mixture of incredulity and violent anger in their contorted faces. A few catcalls rang out and the usual epithets. There were cops around the pool but for some reason no arrests were made. Maybe Chief Pritchett had made another genius tactical decision to let this blow over. I stared back at the cops and especially the white kids (who were after all my age, my class, my race, and were looking at me like "what the hell are you doing over there on that side of the fence you damn — ") with my own message of hey kids can't we do any better than this? and the times they are a-changing and things aint gonna ever be the same again, you fools.
It was two visions confronting each other, the admixture producing an emotion that completely took my breath away. There was no question of jumping over the fence, as every ounce of my energy went into maintaining my vision of things against theirs. Actually I do remember rationalizing to myself in this fashion: "Wouldn't it be gilding the lily so to speak if a white guy jumps over and dives in? Let's be serious here, this is dead serious, not a game to prove I am black or something." Of course even by this time I had already absorbed black consciousness so thoroughly that inwardly I was to all intents and purposes black. This process went on some time and produced a lot of crazy experiences and mixed up emotions in my life. But everything that for black Americans is a perception of living in a terrorist police state which is their bedrock heritage I totally imbibed. So at this moment as far as jumping over the fence was concerned in addition to just being there and not keeling over out of stone cold fear — well there was no danger of that, and I certainly understood at moments like that what it has been to be black in this country for I felt raw fear and yet I didn't just take off like a rabbit. Actually that would have taken more energy than I had by that moment.
Standing at the pool and just holding our ground let alone doing any jumping took so much energy we were drained afterward. It was one of those moments of definition in a life, after which whatever happened nothing was going to be quite the same again. This I understood was taking sides. It wasn't like after something like that you would always be brave and pure or anything like that, in fact it could be the opposite, who knows, although I hope not. It is just that something like that is so strong a sensation and experience that it alters your sensory apparatus and thinking powers and you can't ever forget it. It's part of your makeup from then on do what you may and come what may.
Copyright © Peter de Lissovoy
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