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 Albany in 1963, when I arrived in town, events had a little passed
Southwest GA by, or so some people felt. When Dr. Martin Luther King had
been in town in 1962, people had felt themselves to be essential actors.
They also felt that they had made Dr. King. Probably a lot of little
towns felt this way and still do. The Albany fathers were pretty slick
(witness the sale of the pool [
see below]) and Chief
Pritchett was no Bull Connor, and some say Dr. King moved on to riper
vineyards. By 1963, after jail time and sacrifice, nothing had changed.
I heard bitter, dispirited talk, all protests had waned, and in SNCC
there was concern for how to reinvigorate the Movement in Albany, which
was expressed to us newcomers as a charge to get to know the kids and
stir things up.
There was a stalwart of African American professional people who had started the Movement years and years ago in Albany and kept it going over long hard years and times through their vision and sacrifice and by sheer guts and nerve — from the forties and well before that even. These were people such as Dr. William Anderson, C.B. King and Slater King, and of course their father before them, and Reverend Wells, Thomas Chatmon, Bo Jackson and his wife, and many, many others, deacons, teachers, doctors, whom we would eventually come to know a little, especially C.B., tireless in his quest to spring everybody outa jail! So these folks by their raw courage had created that nexus and spiritual and social infrastructure that were ready when Dr. M.L. King, Jr., arrived on history's stage, and Charlie Sherrod and SNNC. During the time Dr. Martin Luther King had been in town, the effort among this stalwart core must have reached a peak.
C.B.'s brother Slater King became the head of the Albany Movement at
this time. Slater was a well-off real estate man. Like C.B. he had a
ready smile and a booming warm deep voice, but if C.B.'s smile, whether
for us kids or for the cats on the corner through whose midst he had to
traverse to his Harlem office [
Harlem is one of Albany's Black
neighborhoods], always had a wry twist in it as if he couldn't
help seeing hard truths and sharp ironies, Slater's smile was just plain
big and warm and welcoming. (Sadly, very soon he would die in a car
accident.) Between these two men a whole contingent of SNCC workers felt
at home and protected and welcomed and that they really had some
powerhouses between themselves and death at the hands of a lynch mob.
"We did our part, we tried, God knows." Maybe it was time to readjust to reality — or do a little "waitin' on the Lord," as we often heard. "Oh no, not me! I aint gon be in that mess no more!" It was the attitude of the mothers sitting on the porches in the evenings with their paper fans in hand given out by the funeral homes, protecting their children when the SNCC kids came by. "Lea' my chillern outa y'all's mess!"
Just the same the Movement spirit had to be maintained, the fires fanned, and everybody do their part in national events and the broad challenge. This was the charge given to the SNCC volunteers. The truth was, that the efficacy of Dr. King wherever he was depended on the backdrop of rumblings in Albany and everywhere else.
In these circumstances, with people no longer fervent, the task of keeping the flame alive fell to those rocksolid preachers who would still lead the mass meetings now when other preachers had grown weary and no longer would — firebrand Reverend Samuel Wells was such a tireless one — and to the SNCC kids, led by Charles Sherrod.
Both of these men, one young, the other middle aged, filled me with awe and silence. Reverend Wells was short and powerful and somehow vivacious and solemn at once and black as coal and unsmiling. He preached fiery sermons at the mass meetings and never let up on people, always reminding them of what time it was — time for ever more sacrifice and "to keep their eyes on the prize."
The essential dignity and gravity of the man left me quavering. When his eyes touched mine I knew he saw what a no-account greenhorn I was. I don't think I ever exchanged a word with him, but I loved to listen to him preach. To say the man was dead serious was an understatement and he preached in an adamant, demanding fashion. Participation in the Struggle was your sacred duty. Your Christian duty in the last analysis. I was listening. His glance was withering. I respected that man so much, and if I had to be up close to him my knees knocked. In recent years Randy Battle and I went around looking for him, but his daughter had taken him to Atlanta to live with her. Even then, on the porch, with Randy and me both in our fifties, my knees knocked together at prospect of Reverend Wells.
Sherrod scared me just as much, though he was sweet and reserved and almost my own age. I thought of him as much older; at that age a couple of years means everything. He was a disciplinarian, and again I knew he could see right through any of us. He tended to control things through his assistants, like Faith Holsaert.
Charles Sherrod was the head of SNCC in Albany, one of the original SNCC apostles who had gone to various locations in the South to stir things up. He had always been in favor of having whites be part of the protests, according to what Randy Battle has told me. According to Randy, the disagreement in SNCC about whether or not whites should be part of things, which I had thought marked SNCC's later days, was part of the inner SNCC dialogs from the outset, and Charles Sherrod, whether from a larger vision or as a tactic, always believed in bringing in white kids and he did so in Southwest Georgia from about 1961. We'll have to wait Sherrod's writings to get a clearer insight into this.
You might say everybody had a bit of a problem with Sherrod, because that was partly what he was there for, to keep a pack of boisterous SNCC kids in line. Even Randy was always fighting with him, who loved him. It was a game between them every night to see if Randy could steal the keys to one of the SNCC cars somehow or other. There is a famous Danny Lyon photo of the two of them sitting together on a ramshackle porch as Sherrod admonishes somebody in a screen door to go "redish" (register to vote). Sherrod taught Randy to read, who became a voracious reader, and read all the white kids' Kerouac novels and C. Wright Mills books in 1963.
At John and Pat Perdew's wedding reception in 2004 at the Art Center, I said to Sherrod: "Everybody remembers how you didn't let them have any fun at all Sherrod."
"I was trying to keep you alive!" he laughed.
SNCC brought in a contingent of college kids from up North in the summer of 1963. Now all the kids would get an indoctrination and be sent out to the little towns, John Perdew and others to Americus, Wendy Mann to Dawson, Phil and I assigned to CME (after the CME church, but it also meant Crime, Murder, and the Electric chair). And so we all attended a big meeting for the sake of enlightening us.
Some of the old volunteers were leaving and going back to college or perhaps being transferred by SNCC elsewhere. I remember that changing of the guard, sitting at the feet so to speak of the veterans, white and black, whose time was up. We had a big meeting and the idea was to pass some wisdom along to the newcomers.
Prathia Hall, who had the unenviable task of inducting us into black culture so we could "move with the people" (Prathia's phrase, who was a middle-class Negro herself I suppose, but so brave and beautiful, yet there was to my eye anyway a comical aspect of us white kids from up North trying to learn about black mores before heading off to jail); Faith Holsart, radiating kindness and calm and courage and competency; Ralph Allen, the smoothest white dude, with a little coterie of girls around him — he told us it was uncool to do any kissing in the street; bluff, blunt Don ("Kiss My Ass") Harris talking trash; Jack Chatfield, whom I admired for having published something about the Movement in the New Republic — to remember just a few names.
You could see in their faces and bearing that they had been through something. There was that in their eyes of knowing the score that was just like the locals', having seen suffering and having suffered, something gentle and knowing, beyond perplexity now. I wondered if I would measure up to these people, and of course I never did. You could see how the people in the town loved these kids, and in turn their love for the community.
I remember that first SNCC indoctrination meeting, where handsome gang leader Eddie Brown displayed his credentials by impulsively pulling up his T-shirt to shamelessly show off his bullet wounds, grinning like a charming scoundrel, showing his gold tooth. We middle-class white kids from up North obliged by admiring the bullet entry scars. The Movement in Albany, in unheralded times, in the doldrums, needed these gang guys who could reach all kinds of kids, who had the guts to march in obscurity now that Dr. MLK had split town, kids who maybe didn't even recognize it as obscurity, for whom society and the sanctioned life were always totally obscure, who understood their own wild deeds and joy and glory as the only possible light in obscurity.
Now that the Movement has been correctly understood as American as apple pie and rightfully placed up their on the mantelpiece with the other Great America Events and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King are perceived as saints and stuck up on a pedestal so as to be out of reach, remember that the Civil Rights Movement was the work of thousands and thousands of real human beings who did their bit and had their heroic day just as any regular Americans would have done in their situation. Daily life and the Movement were all mixed up and the heroic work was being done by ordinary people who just felt like doing it and saw the need for doing it.
There is a natural tendency, known as the "great man theory," to explain broad social movements from the top down, easier for the popular media to understand events using this approach, political society finds stability in establishing a pantheon, and even rightwing conservatives can embrace MLK from this point of view which implies that everything possible has been done. But you and I and everybody else know this is not true. Taking nothing from the genius of individuals who put their remarkable stamp on events, they expressed a vast sentiment otherwise they would have been hung from the highest lamppost early-on by the authorities. Was Moses greater than God? Depthless wellsprings of Truth fed the Movement, and Christ put all his faith and hope in "the least of these." By 1963, in Albany GA, the Civil Rights Movement work was mostly being done by the kids, sometimes very young ones.
In a July 1963 field report for SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, I wrote:
When I arrived in Albany, somebody or other told me to go to work in CME [after the CME church there — and Crime, Murder, and the Electric chair]. "This is a very tough area. There is a gang there. These are some bad cats. See what you guys can get together."
So, a couple days after we arrived there, Phil Davis, an iron worker, Socialist Worker, who combed his black hair back in a ducktail like Elvis, from California, and I were hanging around the baddest part of Albany, CME, trying to get gang leaders interested in integrating the swimming pool — talk about the nightmare of the southerners coming true, all their suspicions about us "northern agitators" (a favorite cracker fighting word) were all too true. In these SNCC field reports, I affected what I hoped was a sophisticated irony, in order to disguise from myself that I had fallen in love with Albany, GA.
These days since our arrival in Albany, Phil Davis and I have been canvassing in CME. Our original contact was R. B. King, a local gang leader. We are now working with James Daniel, another chieftain, as well ...
In 1963, the town fathers of Albany, GA, had sold the municipal swimming pool to Albany Herald publisher James Gray to avoid integrating it. They had their finger to the wind and it was a slick move by the segregationists because President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Law not much later.
So the white kids would keep their now private pool, and the black kids would go on swimming in muddy Flint River. It was a hot summer and it was easy for us SNCC agitators to agitate the kids about the pool. " Gonna be a march tonight on Tift Park to protest the pool. You gonna be there?" And kids say sure — but it depended how things went down — who would be there — and who would lead.
A frank and grim tradition going back centuries to another watery conveyance, the slave ships, the tall ships, undergirded the separation of the races at the intimate pool where "amalgamation" might happen (another multisyllabic cracker horror-word). The pool was an obvious reminder of the unfairness that was the social norm, but so was everything — you couldn't open your eyes or turn around without seeing Jim Crow everywhere, white and black schools, drinking fountains and the rest, with a police state to back it up. So the irony was that the "to do" list of SNCC and the Movement was endless, and it was the town fathers' selling their town tool to publisher Gray that made Tift Park swimming pool a potent symbol for us.
Th[ese gang] leaders [do] seem to wield an ill-defined influence ... over the age group that smokes cigarettes with great flourish and rides souped-up bicycles ...
Saturday afternoon an old gentleman with a cane said to me — as he turned his back ... "Seems to me we ought to've got something by this time ... Maybe we ought to try a little waitin on the Lord."
Our job was to discourage the latter sentiment in favor of the kids' readiness to "raise sand," in that metaphor I used to love so well.
So it had been after dinner of corn bread and fried chicken at the home of Deacon and Mrs. Wooden, who often fed us SNCC kids, especially Randy and me, in Box Bottom, or perhaps we had picked and then shared a pot of greens at Lucille Mormon's mama's house, for we were often found at both places in the evenings. We met in a school playground. Round and round the block we marched, gathering momentum, to call the kids down, off the stoop, off their bikes, from behind the houses and in the alleys, past their mothers rocking on the porches holding funeral parlor fans, calling shrilly their objections — "No, no, y'all! Don't y'be in that mess no more!"
The kids eluded mothers and fathers sometimes flailing at them with those paper fans, with no more efficacy than using a flyswatter on a laughing stream to make it stop. To have pictured the boisterous scene, truly, the festive, family scene, would have taken a Norman Rockwell, to have captured the Fourth of July atmosphere of parade and jubilee, the pure Americana of it all — as he did when he painted those four little pig-tailed girls blown up in that church by villains a year later. Wayward and pigtailed, the kids followed after James with a strand of his process sticking straight up like an Indian feather, and R.B. King, whose words had started it all, like two pied pipers or drum majors, in front of the growing column.
There was awe and purpose, but also experiment, among the kids who struck out toward downtown and Tift Park with that forbidden swimming pool, next to it a statue overgrown in verdigris of Confederate Tift himself, founder of Albany, who sold salt pork to the Rebel army. Despite the bloody pictures, the black kids in Albany, GA, were never cowed or bowed down, but full of hilarity, gaiety, and irreverence. We were naturally afraid. That was when centuries of slavery and night rides of the Klan were finally waning. The misconception among outsiders was that the kids marched because they needed to get something but it was just because of who they already were.
Shortly we were in jail again, in Albany, after the march on Tift Park pool, originating from CME. There were no cameras on for that march, no media attention, few spectators at the end, the local folks in the streets and on their porches at once moving back for safety into the obscurity of their doorways, as we never made it past Oglethorpe Avenue, and the cops of course, hauling us away in a weird night and moon-drenched obscurity, quietly cursing as they threw us in the wagon.
John Perdew, although he was at the back of the march and a city block away from it, a Harvard man, was charged with heaving a rock or brick hitting a squad car. On the way to jail, when the paddy wagon went around a corner, James Daniel made us all jump up against the inside wall of the wagon, causing it almost to turn over. When we did this, the cops braked and one jumped out and beat on the side of the wagon with his club.
Phil Davis, Lucille Mormon (whom I thought so beautiful), John Perdew, James Daniel, JoAnne Christian (whom Dennis Roberts visited in her cell after she was shipped out of town as his first legal mission), and the rest of us that night found ourselves in stinking Albany city jail. Shortly we would all be shipped here and there around the country to yet more obscure prison facilities to wait out weeks till bail could be raised.
In the dim yellow light that left the corners of the cells in shadow, the night seeming to tower away from us as if it were the grief-soaked past of this land, we sang freedom songs into the early morning. I've never enjoyed singing so much. It kept the loneliness and horror of the steel cages we were in at bay. But it was more than to keep up our spirits. Our singing transformed the degradation of the cells to which we had been consigned by the Powerful. The singing seemed inevitable, a culmination; you would have had to put tape over those kids mouths to stop them singing through the night. We felt jubilant and on a road to something. Southern jails were segregated along with everything else, cracker jailbirds were still — white. Some of them protested forlornly a sad protest of their own that they wanted some sleep. "Sheddap! You goddam freedom riders!" Freedom songs rang from one end to the other and integrated the joint and kept the jailbirds wakeful and almost raised the dead.
Paul and Silas bound in jail,
Had nobody to go their bail ...
Hold on ... hold on ...
That tune was my favorite. I loved singing that one.
Copyright © Peter de Lissovoy
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