Peter de Lissovoy was a SNCC worker in 1963]
Fifty years and a few months ago I dropped out of Harvard in May of 1963 to go to Georgia and join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and be in the Civil Rights Movement. I was quite aware of the significance of the Movement and SNCC in the history of the United States and of humanity, even if I but slightly and imperfectly appreciated the evil being addressed.I wanted to be a part of the noble fight. It was also the coolest thing happening in those days, in my view then (and even moreso, in my view now), and I figured it would be a grand adventure. I was right on every count.
Two years later I had done a little time in four Georgia jails, about a month and half jail time altogether, been on a hunger strike that lasted 20½ days (in Lee County jail), helped in the voter registration drives, marched and protested, been arrested for "mixin'" in a black nightclub (did a week for that), and been a staff member of the campaign for Congress of the first African American candidate for Congress from southwest Georgia since Reconstruction, C.B. King, Esq. Believe me there was some death and violence lurking in the shady groves of an evening as we went out to the little churches in the remote piney woods in "Terrible Terrell" County and such places on our campaign stops for Atty. C.B. to preach to the congregations about voting.
Southwest Georgia in antebellum days was that notorious "far South" and "remote South" alluded to by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe as being the worst nightmare of all slaves where the slave labor system operated in its purest hellish form. In the border states it was the thought of oneself or family being sold to such "far" places as Southwest Georgia that constituted an unparalleled anguish, until it happened. W.E.B. Dubois, a Harvard man, devoted two chapters to Southwest Georgia in his Souls of Black Folks, noting that the cotton fields around Albany, Georgia, had held the highest proportion of slaves to slaveholders of any region in the South at time of the Civil War, where the kind of death-camp agriculture was practiced depending on masses of enslaved humans toiling from pre-dawn all day in 100 degree heat into the night six or even seven days a week producing the corn and cotton crop. The only hope for escape from this primitive American gulag was indeed death, one way or another. This grim culture lingered in the white paranoia of Jim Crow segregation when I arrived down there in 1963.
Although I dropped out of Harvard, I feel that Harvard performed one of its traditional duties in my case, putting a student in touch with truth and things that matter. I heard about SNCC, after all, while a student at Harvard. It was this truth regarding the rights of man which the segregationists were determined to oppose in a losing battle. I never felt the sting of being in jail at all. I felt protected by being for the right. The segregationists were trying to lock up the truth about man. I felt like that truth was in there with me, and the segregationists had locked themselves out.
Before I left Harvard I spent about six weeks every evening in the dining hall of Leverett House (and elsewhere on campus) collecting donations for the Movement. By and large the Harvard guys were willing and generous and I collected about $1,400 [equal to about $10,500 in 2012].
[Note that Harvard undergraduates were still all male in 1963.]
Then my girl friend and I took off on her motor scooter for Atlanta. (It gives you an idea of the utter innocence and unpreparedness but good-heartedness and trustfulness of such kids as we were heading for the murderous jaws of Dixie at that time on a motor scooter, a Vespa.) We made it as far as someplace in North Carolina before the motor scooter broke down. The mechanic, an old fellow, took pity on us and said we could unroll our sleeping bag in his back yard until the next day when he would look at it. That night his son and a drunken gang rolled in and found us rolled up tight together in the sleeping bag and gave us a vicious kicking, sort of an initiation to the South. That $1,400 was in my shoe or even pants pocket I guess. The motor scooter was a lost cause, the girl's parents got wind of where she was, and I hitch-hiked alone to Atlanta and the SNCC office there with that wad of cash in my jeans, which I gave to Julian Bond, one of the SNCC leaders at that time, later a Congressman and president of the NAACP.
The very first thing SNCC assigned me to do the next day was go to Lester "Ax Handle" Maddox's restaurant in downtown Atlanta and picket the lunch counter. He was called "Ax Handle" because he gave out ax handles to his patrons to beat up the demonstrators with. On the strength of this reputation he became governor of Georgia later. Fortunately the day I was in his restaurant they had temporarily run out of ax handles. Shortly I was arrested and soon found myself in a 12-man cell in the county jail. A little later the work crew of 27 prisoners came in from the road gang and it became apparent I was sleeping on one of the less desirable pieces of the floor. On the ceiling, I'll never forget, an artist had painted a gigantic naked woman, arms and legs languishing down the walls. So we were all captive in her embrace. It was all quite different from my room in Leverett House.
Later that summer with a hundred black kids and several Christian Ministers from Albany, Georgia, I boarded the Freedom Train in Waycross, Georgia, and rode up to Washington for the March on Washington. At the train station in Waycross we were surrounded by a white mob, which gave us a rude shaking up, and I doubted we would make it, but we did.
Later by 1964 I lived a sort of double life because while I was a SNCC field worker and after that a campaign worker for C.B. King's congressional campaign, I also became a journalist for a time and wrote a little bit about the Movement. But at the time of the March on Washington, standing there in Waycross wondering if the mob was going to let us board the train, the experience of protesting and the raw racist response was so overwhelming it would have been impossible to collect my thoughts to write yet. We didn't know if we were going to survive, and the segregationists were so rabid and their system so entrenched we didn't think we were going to win either.
There is a sort of illusion of history that because the outcome was favorable to the Cause, to the Christian future of the nation, to the Constitution, to betterment of all, and the Good won out finally, then we must have known it at the time that it would turn out that way. But believe me, in spite of singing "We Shall Overcome," by late 1963 it did not seem that way to me, and I saw no hope of winning against the police state in the South. One could have faith in "God's supreme design" and the "scaffold sways the future," but the scaffold still stood strong.
Looking back on it all, perhaps the most amazing thing I did in those days, to me, in the sense that I can barely fathom, imagine, or even remember clearly how I, or we, could have carried it off, was that hunger strike of 20½ days in Lee County jail. There were two guys in the jail cell with me, John Perdew and Phil Davis, who also went without eating for 20½ days, as I did. They were white guys of course, back in those days. Back then it was the southern view that miscreants and criminals (which we of course were in the eyes of the segregated system) must be separated along with everybody else on the outside.
Now many people, many of the kids, who helped the civil rights Movement have been forgotten. John Perdew is not one of them, as he had the misfortune to go through an even much worse period of incarceration later that summer in Americus, where he, Ralph Allen, Don Harris, and Zev Aelony were held for "insurrection," a crime punishable by death according to the Georgia statute, and he became quasi-famous on this account. That charge of "insurrection" being one of those truly hysterical reactions of the system to those of us trying to change it, it has not been forgotten, nor those boys who were sitting there for months in the summer and fall of '63 charged with a capital offense — on the very day of the March on Washington in fact they were in jail in Americus facing the death penalty. I don't believe some of those wonderful people at the march from the northern states had any idea of such a thing. Unlike me, who had dropped out for the duration, John had been intending to return to his studies at Harvard until the authorities in Americus decided to keep him, so it was a fateful turn of events for him, giving him that "Education" in the title of the play that Curtis Williams wrote about him.
The third guy in the cell with John and me, Phil Davis, must have been forgotten, but not by me. Yes, so many thousands of black people risked their all in those days in the struggle, and were forgotten, but not a few white kids did the same and no one remembers them either. Phil was a great guy, a boon companion, and very amusing to me as he was not a liberal college kid like John and me, but a radical working class guy, an iron worker and member of the Socialist party from California, a motorcycle rider who combed his hair like Elvis. Whatever our backgrounds we all three went without eating for 20½ days, and that is something I no longer can imagine at all. I just can't conceive of being able to get through that hunger strike any more, but the fact is we did it. Not that it got any publicity or did much good, but few individual acts among the millions of such small acts of protest and noncompliance got much notice back then, but altogether they made a menacing rumble or nagging doubt in the body politic that ultimately worked its black magic.
After I protested at "Ax Handle" Maddox's restaurant in Atlanta, SNCC sent me down to Albany, in southwest Georgia. It was a hot summer and the hot issue was the segregated swimming pool. The first march to protest segregation at Tift Park Swimming Pool in Albany, GA, was in June 1963. An untold number of us, perhaps a hundred or more, started out on the march from the school grounds where a rally had taken place, but when the cordon of squad cars and paddy wagons became visible this side of Oglethorpe Avenue, most bailed out and took off back the way we had come or up the nearest alley. About thirty or so of us hung in there, sat down, held our own, went limp, and got hauled to Albany city jail that night, Lucille Morman, James Daniel, JoAnne Christian, Phil Davis, John Perdew, and me, among others, whose names I can't recall.
Lucille Morman, who was not really "with the movement," but whose mama's porch we used to sit on with James Daniel and plan things (or not), whose sullen pout and smoldering eyes went deep into my heart, went to jail with us. I say that about "not with the movement" advisedly to make the point that on a given day, so many people, young and old, had suddenly sacrificed themselves, their time, their safety and comfort, without ever making a big deal out of it, and Lucille was like that.
James Daniel had led this march. All the way in the paddy wagon, he shouted at us to leap en masse to the inside wall on the turns, causing the wagon to tip enough that once the cops stopped and got out and banged on the doors with their sticks and yelled at us to stop doing that. (At the Southwest Georgia Movement reunion in 2011, I learned from the Homecoming Queen who was kicked out of Albany State College for being in the Movement in 1961 that James Daniel's nickname was "Blue," something I wish I had known back then. I would have asked him about it. She worked with James too. When he canvassed with her on voter registration drives, he always walked about six steps behind her, I suppose it was a class thing. James was a wild character, well known to the cops as he had a side job driving moonshine delivery trucks in the country. He definitely was "with the movement," but not hardly in such a way to make the official roster. For much more on James Daniel, including his picture by Danny Lyon, see our book The Great Pool Jump.)
[Police] Chief Pritchett had a system in place to move out the demonstrators to other Southwest Georgia jails so that he would always be ready for more. So John Perdew, Phil Davis, and I were taken over to Leesburg, after a night of singing in the Albany city jail. On the ride to Leesburg, the countryside looked alluring and fresh even after only one night in jail and at the same time the agricultural vistas were so ominous and mysterious because we didn't know what was coming. Do you know they plant the pecan trees in straight ranks, like tombstones, as far as the eye can see, under their limbs deep in shadow even in bright day. It is strange when the sights can look sunny and nice and at the same time deadly and dreadfully strange.
Our spell in jail this time in Leesburg lasted twenty days and some fraction of another, so three weeks. I remember this with precision as we were on a hunger strike. You may count the days in jail, but on a hunger strike you really count them. You may have little to pass the time in any case, but when you don't eat there is almost nothing to look forward to, in fact nothing, except getting out of course. By now I find it hard to believe we fasted darn near three weeks (but for a few hours) on a hunger strike, but we did. John Perdew can attest it is so. Phil I have been told was killed in a construction accident some years ago, but I am sure he never forgot our hunger strike either. We fantasized endlessly about the meal we would have and outdid each other inventing endless delectable dishes and sides. I understand John fixed himself a huge mess of grits and eggs when he first got out and made himself very ill. He was already getting to become a southerner and went for the grits and eggs. I had a large hamburger with everything with similar results.
Three weeks less a couple hours. When we got out we ate everything in sight and were sick puppies. I can't imagine a three-week hunger strike now, I'm sure I would have more "sense." So we had a real taste of the penal code and nothing more. At mealtimes we would look at the food, smell it, and even pick it up and touch it, so long as we didn't eat it. Even dull prison fare started looking good, and once or twice the sheriff brought in real good vittles from the cafe across the street to entice us, tempt us, and torment us. I believe he was afraid we might die on him in fact.
This was when I first met Attorney C.B. King, through the bars. He showed up with his trademark sardonic, knowing expression that later I would get to know well and understand as characteristically expressing his opinion of the benighted state of things, but even at first it was reassuring because somehow it indicated that although all was not good, all was more or less under control, or likely would be, eventually. As soon as he showed up wearing that cynical smile and started to talk though, the seriousness came through and we were clear we would be in here for a while.
Phil Davis liked to lie on his bunk and talk endlessly about riding his motorcycle, as if this epitomized freedom for him. He was a union guy from California, an iron worker, a Socialist Worker. He was a tall handsome guy with his black hair slicked back fifties style like Elvis. He was a union organizer, not a college kid like most of the rest of us "Freedom Riders." Phil nearly got me hurt one day, although he wasn't even with me at the time. Being a Socialist he was more purely nonracial than any of us. He was always pointing out how poor white people were in the same boat as poor black people, about the last thing the poor white people cared to hear, however, as we learned daily, although Phil refused to accept this. He was always talking about his plans to bring them together. Perhaps because he was from California he couldn't understand the South at all in this respect. He had an even crazier idea. He used to try to persuade me to go over with him to some cracker bars and hang out with the whites and make friends and get some white girl friends and get them to join the Movement. I think only a handsome guy from California would have been this hopeful and dreamed up something like that.
This insanity I was thankfully immune to or we would have gotten killed for sure. But one time when several of us were out canvassing the neighborhoods for likely new voters, trying to persuade folks to go down and register, we suddenly accidentally crossed into a white area (the neighborhoods in the southern towns could be like a checkerboard and Albany was this way) and it gave me an idea. I thought of what Phil was always talking about how we should be organizing the white people too. In the poor neighborhoods you crossed a little street and suddenly found yourself among white people for a block or two. "Say let's register these poor white people too. Let's explain to them how they are in the same economic boat as black people." Phil Davis had given me this notion. You often heard this rhetoric in the Movement and in SNCC, but Phil had really latched onto it and used to push it.
So up on a white family's porch we went and I knocked on the door. After a while a white guy came out and stood on the porch eyeballing us with extreme dismay and astonishment waiting for us to explain ourselves. I tried to remember just how Phil Davis had explained his idea, which he could put persuasively and at length, but when I got to the part of asking the white guy if he was registered to vote and if we could arrange transportation for him to go down to the registrar, he leapt back inside his door and came out swinging a baseball bat at our heads. Up the street we flew.
John Perdew and I had known each other for several years by now, as when we were both about fifteen we had been selected by a private school out east (Pomfret School) to go on a summer trip to Africa, he out of high school in Denver, me from Evanston (Illinois) Township High School. The summer trip took us first to a seminar at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where we were supposed to glean something about race relations in this country and segregation. I think I was too young to fully understand, only fifteen. I just thought we were hanging out with some cool black college kids in Mississippi. I had had black friends all my life, starting in the Cub Scouts in Evanston. In high school I was on the track team, and I used to go down to the Sutherland Lounge on the South Side of Chicago and listen to jazz and sometimes to parties over there with a black buddy of mine named Woody Clay, later Woody Kee, a half-miler, as I was. It didn't occur to me at that age that there was such a thing as segregation, I mean I did not register it, as what segregation existed in Evanston was muted, if no less insidious. Like most whites I had no conception of it, as a kid.
I was stupid, even though I loved jazz. At the Sutherland Lounge they would let us sit in a certain section and drink cokes. That was segregation of the young, normal I guess. We heard Cannonball Adderly and Nat Adderly, Miles Davis, and Bobby Timmons. The first time I heard Mose Allison was on the juke box at the Sutherland, singing "Seventh Son." As a kid in Evanston, it never occurred to me anything was "wrong." To me the great athletes and the genius musicians who were African American (the term had not been invented yet) were SUPERIOR, untouchable, the greatest, universal geniuses like Coltrane and Eric Dolphy who were the only ones who expressed my view of life, so lyrically, so poignantly and violently, and I only admired them. I did not dig the roots of it yet. Actually the only music to me was jazz, and black Americans gave me my deepest insight into life at that age. I actually didn't catch on yet that some of that genius came out of a lot of suffering. It took being in the Movement for me to begin to understand that, although that trip to Africa I took with John Perdew first hipped me to it.
We were on a tour bus as fifteen-year-olds in Johannesburg in 1959. We had gone to a game park and we were being taken to see one of the "better" townships or "locations," not Soweto. All the time an Afrikaaner cop who was the guide was telling us how great the "natives" had it in South Africa. This was going in one ear and out the other until the Afrikaaner at a stop went off to the can or something and the African driver, another cop, of a lowly rank, turned to us and said, "What he is telling you is ALL LIES." He then proceeded to spill the beans about oppression in the Republic, all us kids' mouths were hanging open, and as the Afrikaaner returned to the bus, the black cop finished: "I am going to be taken away and questioned and God knows what else for talking to you. He knows I have been talking to you."
Indeed in front of our eyes this guy was hauled away and replaced by another driver. At that moment we knew there was something really rotten in the world. Our adolescent take on life was dealt a curve, and we recognized evil. Why they take kids on trips like this I do not know. I don't know that they intend them to be educational in this fundamental way, but knowledge comes. I think the adults leading us had a similar experience actually. But the Afrikaaners certainly did not plan on this digression on our little tour in Jo'burg. It was truly as if a veil had been stripped from our eyes. Funny, talking to John about it when we were in the Movement, when we were in the Lee County jail together on the hunger strike, he was affected in exactly the same way I was by this moment and he dates some of his understanding to that incident as well.
So in Lee County jail on our hunger strike of twenty-plus days we spoke of many things as there was nothing else to do. We also of course speculated nonstop on the fantastic meal we would eat later (and get deathly ill). The sheriff accused us of secretly having Atty. C.B. King bring us nutriment in the shape of some pills, whatever that would have been. The sheriff had some dubious notions of modern science and various other things. For me, C.B. did smuggle something out — notes I was taking on toilet paper for a book.
The amazing thing to me was that C.B. would show up to see us, that there was this support, because we had "never paid it no mind" — never gave the consequences of our march a thought. The Struggle and the Movement had a long history and a stubborn foundation, going back decades, of course, and C.B. King and family were in a long line of fighters going back for who knows how long. But the SNCC kids were not especially conscious of this, the black kids no more than the whites. We thought us kids were the be-all and end-all ('course we were).
You don't know a whole lot when you are twenty as I was in SNCC. In spite of schooling, it took a while for me to appreciate how I was an inconsequential interloper in a freedom struggle that went back to Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Garrison, Phillips, Nat Turner, W.E.B. DuBois, the hundreds of black people lynched in southwest GA since the Civil War, the decades-old NAACP, the Albany Movement, the King family itself — and of course far back into the centuries-old abyss of the American slavery gulag when no telling what remote and dim hopes stirred among the kidnapped to be free some day.
When C.B.'s father came up from Florida to a relatively progressive Albany, GA (wow!), and got a job as a letter carrier and the whites he worked with tried to intimidate him, he pulled a gun on them and told them they were all going to die. There were all sorts of people like C.B. and his brother Slater King already in Albany when Sherrod and the first SNCCers showed up. It does amaze me that people existed to feed the SNCC kids, to get us out of jail, but at the time I sort of took it for granted. I looked around at the horror show of Jim Crow in Georgia and discovered it as though it had just come into being and I had to do something about it. By the set expression in his eyes C.B. King seemed to think it was his duty to try to spring the SNCC kids from jail, but I'm sure he knew how hopelessly shallow we were.
The first few days of a hunger strike are the toughest as you are getting used to it; but after that it gets weirder and weirder as your mind starts going to strange places not held down by the usual fare. There seemed to be nobody else on the white side of Lee County jail at this time; perhaps they had isolated us somehow, or everybody white of a thievish bent was being good in Lee County. I had the impression there was a park nearby as happy voices trailed in distantly on the breeze now and then. One thing about the three of us and I am sure the black kids too wherever they had ended up (in other Southwest Georgia county jails) is that later it is possible that we all romanticized the experience or imagined we had risked or sacrificed something in some way, but not at the time. We had no doubt we were in the midst of the Noblest Cause, but it never crossed our minds or lips we were doing anything special. We were just doing what we were meant to do.
In a strange sense I felt right at home in jail, and not because I was a juvenile delinquent as the sheriff liked to imply in his daily talks with us. It just seemed like the logical place to be under the circumstances. But we knew full well we had just showed up here and wound up in jail because we had felt like it. It always used to amaze me that anybody was paying us any attention, that C.B. King showed up to check on our whereabouts and well-being, because we (or at least I) had never counted on that, expected it, or even contemplated it. Never occurred to me, don't know what I thought would happen.
I think the central part of it for us was being in a standoff with the Man, with the authorities, whom we disliked specifically and on general principles. The sheriff returned the favor. The Civil Rights Movement by now is of course recognized as one of those purely good and heroic epochs in the country's history about which nothing bad can be said whatsoever with a straight face unless the Constitution to say nothing of the Bible means nothing to you. But naturally the sheriff of Lee County at this time had no remotest conception of such an eventual outcome. He was a man of the world in a small town who knew what comes of things. Any Cause or Ideals were just patent nonsense. Anyway what would that have to do with us — to him we were just some low-down, shiftless rascals, and he told us this daily. The sheriff generally tried to impress on us we were simply juvenile delinquents who should go to the chain gang.
This preposterous sheriff in his spectacles and cowboy hat came to see us daily and admonish us for not eating. I imagine he was concerned we might die in his jail from starvation and cause him trouble."Martin Luther King is ridin in his Cadillac, boys, where y'all's Cadillac, hmm? You sorry-ass fools, you aint hurtin nobody but yourself. You think anybody knows or cares about you sittin up here not eatin yo meals?"
He was probably right, by now our march was all forgotten and so were we. We never thought about that either, just getting through the day trading recipes for fabulous dinners. Later when we asked him about it, C.B. told us point blank everybody had forgotten about us, in the same breath that he reassured us bail was getting up and we would be out soon. It did take three weeks. I think he would have liked us to eat too. I think we didn't eat because the three of us didn't want to let each other down.
One day the sheriff did not lounge in chewing on his toothpick to exchange some banter on the subject of our ignorance and to impart his worldly wisdom as was his custom, but rushed in with that cowboy hat on the back of his head and his eyes behind his glasses very bright. He had a snapshot in hand that he showed to us. His voice was fervent like a man who has been in on something.
"Look here what we done this morning boys." His excitement promised some first-rate diversion from hunger and I was ready to see. For once his words came not with the expression that we should listen to good advice, but that here was something from the center of the world that we should just plain see. It was a dead white guy in the weeds with quite a few bullet holes in his chest bleeding through a dirty white T-shirt. It was like a Polaroid photo — not a police photo — but a personal memento the sheriff had claimed. "We killed him this morning." He was an escapee from a state facility. The sheriff had been in on it, probably tagging along. Any ideas we might have contemplated about escaping were banished at this moment.
On another occasion the sheriff brought some local folks in to see the "freedom riders" or however he described us or they thought of us. They had never seen any up close I guess, and they gawked at us through the bars. We stared back. I guess we were supposed to feel like vulnerable animals in the zoo. I imagined that I had an idea of how the animals regard some of the lowly critters who gaze at them stupidly.
Later in the summer we had our day in court with C.B. King representing us. They tried us in batches. I was tried with Lucille, James, and Phil. I didn't know of C.B. before I marched, and I would have gone to jail whether there was a Movement lawyer or legal arm to help us or not, let alone one of C.B. King's caliber. It seemed a sort of miracle to me, in the sense that it was a wonder there could be such a perfect meshing of my own impulses and those more general moral ones of the Movement infrastructure and C.B.'s law practice in particular. This was the bedrock of our experience in the Civil Rights Movement, that we were working in a framework that went back to Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison and beyond. In the immediate past, C.B. and Slater King's family, their father, the NAACP, many ministers, G.D. Searles, editor of the Southwest Georgian, and many other notables had been fighting for the rights of African Americans since before the Great War, so all us kids showing up was just another episode, nothing new, except for the novelty of a bunch of wide-eyed white kids.
The Civil Rights Movement (like wars) is often understood through its highlights and the central truth forgotten that it was a massive uprising of thousands of souls across the land from every walk of life who responded to one another's anguish in a mighty harmony or spiritual chord or human wave. The Albany Movement and the many citizens in it had been working to overthrow segregation for decades. In 1961-62 Martin Luther King and SCLC came to town and with the SNCC kids and Charlie Sherrod and the Albany State students (and their Homecoming Queen) and the whole Harris family stirred up some of the first massive demonstrations in the South.
The Movement was a spiritual awakening spreading across the land like a forest fire. A fire may require a spark but it is not a top-down affair, although the effort to put it out comes from the top. An effective soul force and support group of hundreds of citizens in Albany were ready to take care of, feed, spring from jail, post bond for and otherwise nurture and defend the kids who were willing to throw their bodies on the line and get beaten up and go to jail. Most of the kids who went to jail or worked on voter registration had no idea about this until this embedded infrastructure came to their rescue in a pinch. To understand the Movement through its highlights is to mistake the crest of the wave for the primal surge and long-building momentum and structure from the depths.
It's easy to forget what time it was. These were the days when you could catch a bullet for sure for what C.B. King was doing. Or for what Sherrod and the others were doing in 1961. Emmett Till had just been murdered. The three boys in Mississippi were not even yet murdered then, nor Viola Liuzzo. C.B. had been often threatened and at least once beaten up and his head split open in or near the courtroom. He was standing in the pit jawing at these crackers using tactics that were almost like performing magic — just a moment of "disbelief" and it might have been all over for him, and us. These whites in the courtroom were tied into all sorts of hidden White Knights levels of society, and the subterranean "southern mind," if there is one. But they were awestruck when C.B. began spinning out them Big Words.
In the Movement, the whites and the blacks were taking totally different levels of risk, although any of us could have caught a bullet. For that matter all of us kids, black or white, had plenty of heart, but men like Slater King and C.B. King or Charles Sherrod or Reverend Samuel Wells, or any of the older people, had to be operating from the head and the heart. They had to be knowing what they were doing. We kids were not really conscious of all we were up against. They had it calculated fine, they had the margin measured just so, and knew it was too close to call. That took true courage. It had never occurred to my boyish mind to wonder how we were going to get out. C.B. appeared before the cell bars like a deus ex machina.
The psychological mountains C.B. King must inevitably have had to climb with sheer spiritual strength, as he challenged a powerful caste system, as well as the physical dangers to his own self that he provoked, just by plying his trade, come through in an interview by Marlise James in The People's Lawyers:
It was a practice of lawyers to use the auxiliary jury box. So as I proceeded to wittingly exercise what had heretofore been the exclusive right and privilege of white lawyers, to sit and observe the law at work from close up, those that were in proximity to the seat I selected took flight to the far reaches of the courtroom in horror. The second day I again sat there and upon this occasion the sheriff came over and told me, "Go sit with them other niggers." I was numbed by my embarrassment and by the surrealism of pretended oblivion and snickering of lawyers and other court officers which, to my mind reasserted my almost forgotten identity. This encounter abrasively reasserted an identity I was in the process of forgetting. I explained to the sheriff that, as an officer of the court, I had a right to use the jury box as did the others.
At this time it was close to the time of the trial of my client, the boy who had been charged with resisting arrest whom I was yet to defend. I left my seat attempting to convince myself that in so leaving I was not yielding to the sheriff's threats but rather recognizing my duty and concern not to prejudice the case against my client. I walked out into the rotunda with the sheriff and protested this patent differential treatment. The sheriff said, " e ain't had no trouble before you come here, we ain't going to have none now." I walked to the outside of the courthouse in an effort to overcome a sort of drowning that is common to humans who have been stripped of a sense of self. Yes, I cried a bit as well. I justified my leaving, on command of the sheriff, upon concern for my yet untried criminal client.
Then he came back and sat in the white jury box again. The moral and psychological courage of Attorney King in "asserting his identity" is something that fills me with stark awe mixed with sadness. The mental discipline to do what he did! (White people in this country generally have had no occasion to even imagine this scenario, sad for them.) At the time he was a hero to us kids, he really was the Man, the plug-in to the intricacies of the law and the Constitution, whom we depended on unthinkingly to hold the ground. We could not know the nature of his inner fight and could not imagine all that he had won his way through, in order to show up outside the cell bars in Lee County. We were simply too young and innocent yet.
The other thing that must come through even in this short excerpt from the interview is Attorney King's way with words, which was on display every moment in the courtroom and outside the courtroom; words were his weapons, more powerful than firearms in the long run, his powerful means of coping with a troublesome, mercurial, and dangerous social reality. What touches my heart now in the interview is the delicacy with which he used the English language, while keeping a robust, manful objective balance, as in the phrase "in an effort to overcome a sort of drowning which is common to humans who have been stripped..." A sort of drowning ... who can fail to hearken to that and understand with the heart? ... and yet he continually fought his way to the surface, and saved many of his fellow humans from going under, sometimes for the third time.
So back to our trial for the first march on Tift Park Pool in 1963, the D.A. began querying my background, where I was from, was I a communist, had I been to Russia, the usual Dixie prosecutor stuff. I glanced at Lucille, whom I thought so beautiful. She gave her scornful smile.
From the "Official transcript taken August 2, 1963 in Recorders Court, Albany Georgia, in the trials of City of Albany v. James Daniel, Jr., Lucille Morman, Peter de Lissovoy, Philip Davis (#s 336987; 36992; 37177; 37178) (Arrested while walking from Negro church to downtown area. Charge: disorderly conduct. Convicted: 30 days or $102)
THE COURT: We're going to exclude you if there is any more laughing in the audience.
MR RAWLS:If your Honor pleases, I wish you would have these parties over here at counsel table to stop sneering at me.
THE COURT: Well if they are sneering, I don't know what their sneering means.
MR KING: I think that it should, the record should appropriately reflect as to what opposing counsel means with reference to law clerks at the table for the defense sneering at him.
THE COURT: For the record, let defense counsel identify the people with you and their purpose in being here.
MR KING:If your Honor pleases, starting from left to right, Mr. Dennis Roberts, who is serving presently as law clerk of counsel.
THE COURT: All right.
MR KING: Miss Elizabeth Holtzman, who is also serving as law clerk for defense counsel.
THE COURT: Let me say this to you, the lady has been in court before and she hasn't been a defense counsel. I don't know whether defense counsel needs three law clerks or not.
MR KING: I don't think it is appropriate, your Honor, for the Court to determine how many law clerks I need.
THE COURT: I can determine how many are going to be admitted to the courtroom on some pretense. What is your purpose for having all these law clerks?
MR KING:I would like for the record to show that counsel in his place indicates to the Court as a matter of fact that the three persons sitting immediately to his right are law clerks of counsel. I would further submit that there is [no] effort, deliberate or otherwise, under any pretense at all, to deceive or otherwise mislead this Court as to the prior assertion.
THE COURT: What is the next person?
MR KING: That is Mr. Frank Parker. I might indicate that Mr. Roberts is a senior law school student at the University of California.
THE COURT: I am not interested in that.
MR KING: I believe the Court did indicate that counsel may be under pretense.
THE COURT: ... we are going to maintain order here and they certainly will follow the proper decorum as long as they are in here. Now proceed with your witness.
MR KING:I do think this your Honor, that counsel, the opposing counsel, has said something about sneering, and this represents the extent of such suggested impropriety as was alleged to have taken place, and I think that counsel should be, in the name of honesty, required to characterize what he means by sneering.
MR RAWLS: I don't care to characterize it any further. Sneering is generally defined and people of ordinary intelligence know what sneering is.
THE COURT: Well proceed with your question.
MR KING:I think it may become an appropriate subject matter for the Court to determine what it is.
THE COURT: Let's proceed. ...
C.B. was always giving the court crackers a hard time like that at every little opportunity, and the dangers of the era need to be borne in mind to properly appreciate his sheer audacity, or from their point of view, malignant segregation-busting impertinence. C.B.'s forehead still showed the scar from the vicious caning he had received at the hands of pusillanimous Sheriff Cull Campbell. (Caning is an old southern habit of malicious intent, remember the Massachusetts senator caned on the Senate floor and nearly beaten dead by some Dixiecrat, they liked to come at you with their heavy-headed cane, and C.B. is shown bleeding copiously in newspaper photos of the time.)
C.B. was always a Daniel in the lions' den, a one-man circus operating with no whip, no net, no protection at all, except his fast mouth, his ability to constantly reference the system under which these legal crackers supposedly operated and probably did feel a little bound by occasionally, or otherwise he would not have survived at all. (And in days gone by of course he would not have survived, or even surfaced, or been imaginable or conceivable; see W.E.B. Dubois's description in Souls of Black Folks of southwest Georgia and Albany circa 1900, within the ambience and relic of the slave system; no black law students need apply, as the law did not apply to black students, of which there were none — what a past we have so recently come out of!)
Meanwhile I was sitting in the dock, and Mr. Rawls had elicited that I had been a teacher in Africa previously. The transcript continues:
Q: Were you arrested down there in South Africa on account of your activities?
MR KING: If your Honor pleases, whether he was or whether he was not arrested is certainly not appropriate. It is not germane. If he is attempting to impeach the credibility of this witness, the mere fact that he has been arrested is of no moment.
THE COURT: The court is going to permit the question ...
MR KING: If your Honor pleases, this was at the special instance on cross examination of the opposing counsel. He is the one who —
MR RAWLS: I withdraw the question ... your Honor ... What subjects were you teaching down there in South Africa?
A: I didn't teach in South Africa. ... I was on a vacation from my teaching job in Tanganyika. ...
As a matter of fact I had been arrested while in South Africa for sneaking into a Bantustan to interview Chief Albert Luthuli, head of the African National Congress, who had just been awarded the Nobel prize. I was getting paranoid at this point as to how Mr. Rawls might or might not have really known about such a thing.
Q:Where is Tanganyika?
A: Tanganyika ... is on the East Coast of Africa.
[By then the name had become Tanzania, but while I was there it was Tanganyika, and I felt Mr. Rawls was bearing up to capacity at that point, so I didn't mention it. It goes without saying that C.B. would have not only mentioned it but expostulated on it had he been in my shoes.]
Q: What were you teaching?
A: English and Swahili literacy.
Q: Swa-who? How many visits have you made to Russia?
A: I have made no visits to Russia.
Q: You have never been to Russia? ... Have you ever had any Communistic affiliations?
MR KING: If your Honor pleases, it seems to me that we are presented at this time with something akin to the rack.
THE COURT: Akin to what?
MR KING: The rack, the premedieval method by which information is extracted in form for purpose of being used in another, and I submit that it has no relevancy in conjunction with the assertions counsel here makes. ...
THE COURT: I will just ask counsel this without any reflection, ... if any witness here is an active member of the Communist Party, would that be material?
MR KING: No I don't think it would, your Honor, whether he is or whether he isn't a member of the Communist Party.
THE COURT: The Court disagrees with you just exactly one thousand percent.
MR KING: The charge that is brought against this defendant is disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct, in my opinion, your Honor, has nothing to do with his political economical, social, or other religious affiliations.
THE COURT: The Court might make it plain that if a person in good faith maintains that there is a certain amount of segregation which he is opposed to, that is one thing; if it is inspired, led, or furthered by a Communistic tendency, then the Court, the public should know it and it would certainly be material. ...
MR KING: I don't think that there has been any foundation in which there has been any suggestion, unless, of course, we say that anything which violates the norm of the status quo bears implications of Communism. Now, if you are saying that, your Honor, maybe this would be relevant.
THE COURT: The Court is certainly not saying that. ... Is there anything further from this witness?
Q: Have you ever been present at what is known as the Highlanders School —
MR KING: If your honor pleases, this is not an appropriate forum ... this Court is being used inappropriately ... maybe the Grand Jury ... I think this would be the appropriate forum ...
[C.B. went on, parsing on and on, mercilessly here ... ]
... here this defendant along with others has been charged with disorderly conduct and the fact of whether he has been present at the Folklanders — what did you say, counsel?
MR RAWLS: You heard what I said.
THE COURT: Just tell him.
MR RAWLS: Highlander School. He heard what I said.
MR KING: That is not germane or relevant. In other words whether he is a member of the Klan, this would not be relevant, or whether he is a member of the White Citizens Council would not be relevant.
THE COURT: If it came out it might be.
MR RAWLS: I ask you again, have you had any contact at all ... any connection whatever with that Highlander School ... or whatever it is up in Tennessee?
A: I never heard of it.
Q: Never heard of it?
A: I have never heard of it —
Q: How about the Darkester school over at Hinesville, Georgia?
A: Never heard of it ...
Q: Ever been to any kind of school by any name out of Hinesville?
A: I never heard of Hinesville, Georgia, sir.
Q: You never have?
A: No I haven't ...
Q: Now, your activities here in Albany, they are under the supervision of the group that is being led and fomented in the United States by Martin Luther King, aren't they?
A: No that is not true. My activities here are under the supervision of my conscience.
Q: Well, you do work, you do work with Martin Luther King's group here don't you?
A: No, I don't.
Q: You work by yourself?
A: No, I don't.
Q: Well who do you work with?
A: I work with local people in Albany. I work with members of an organization known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Q: Known as SNICK, S-N-I-C-K?
A: No, not known as SNICK, S-N-I-C-K.
Q: What is it known as?
A: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC.
Q: That is under King's jurisdiction, is it not?
A: No ...
Q: You don't know anything about the Communists he had up in New York in the New York office in the hotel?
A: No ... I don't know anything about the Communists ...
Q: You don't know anything about anything much... How did you ever get a scholarship to Harvard University not knowing anything? ...That is all I care to ask the gentleman. We rest, your Honor.
THE COURT: Under the evidence, it is a clear violation of the law, and I am going to demand $102 and 30 days in each case.
Maybe the old judge and prosecutor really believed the communists were after them. Maybe the communists, if there were any, which I doubt, were after them, in which case, good for them. Reading the transcript now, it is striking to me that the judge would say, "if a person in good faith maintains there is a certain amount of segregation he is opposed to" — like what amount? — how would you measure an "amount" of it? — no, such a distinction was a smokescreen. The crackers characteristically displayed this absurd craftiness, indicative of a possibly existing southern mind. They could split hairs and could side-step too if it helped their image, up to a point of course.
We "agitators" had to have come from someplace exotic and far away, like a Harvard, a New York hotel, or at least Tennessee. As a matter of fact, it was true, we did. But the ultimate truth that all the southern white man's problems had actually begun far, far away, and very close to home too, in the far-fetched criminal felony kidnapping of an entire race of people from Africa, that is, a crime against humanity beggaring the imagination, one so monstrous it could never be accounted for let alone remotely punished, but will just have to be forgiven probably after that last drop of blood from the overseer's lash of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, that would never have occurred to anyone, certainly not the judge or prosecutor, they would have just looked at you like you were insane and a juvenile delinquent, nobody white could ever get their mind around that one, not now either, not even now, and in any case, in the present instance, this would not have been "material" in the courts we were tried in and that C.B. King plied his dangerous trade in. But occasionally he would throw in a few offhand remarks to that end — getting them to contemplate the extremity of their crimes, just outrageous stuff they would shudder and shut their ears to, admonishing him "to get on with it, C.B."
Probably in the southern "mind" the demise of Jim Crow segregation was (and perhaps is) indistinguishable from communism. This gives you an idea where those people were at, and many of them still are. The judge gave us "time served."
The fact that we had been on a three-week hunger strike did not impress anybody, it was another black mark against us, and further evidence we had no "sense." At that age I forgot about it at once, as soon as we stopped throwing up from eating hamburgers like mad on getting out. But now I look back on this youthful endeavor or adventure with some degree of amazement at (and pride in) myself, but inability to imagine how we did it, how we passed the time, without making much of it, with no concern whether anybody knew about it or not. But that we did do it makes me realize how it was possible, after all, for all of us kids to stick up for people's rights and our own rights as Americans and go against the whole entrenched Jim Crow system, and why revolutions are almost always assigned to the young to carry out.
Copyright © Peter de Lissovoy
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