In 1962 I was selected to participate in a summer voter registration program in Raleigh, North Carolina, administered by the National Students Association (NSA). I was 18 and had just completed my freshman year at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. A number of influences played into my decision to go south to join the civil rights movement, but the most immediate was the galvanizing force of the Freedom Rides the previous summer.
I'd never been to the south before. With the tight rhythms of James Brown's "Night Train" rocking and whistle-stopping through my head, I rode the Sunset Limited to New Orleans, then made a side trip to Atlanta to spend a few days with Walter White's relatives, the Martins, before going on to Raleigh. Our families were old friends. Walter White, a co-founder of the NAACP, died in 1955 and I'd never met him, but spending time with members of his family seemed a fitting way for me to be introduced to the Old South and to forge a direct link to the civil rights stalwarts of the preceding era.
Our group, led by Dorothy Dawson (Burlage), wasn't large and the project was active only for that summer; but during the short time that we were in Raleigh, we managed to register over 1,600 African Americans, which, along with other voter registration programs in the state, surely helped pave the way for Obama's 2008 victory in North Carolina. It is disheartening to reflect on the fact that in 2016 as I write this, voting rights are again under siege and North Carolina is again a focal point of that battle.
During this time, our group was invited to Monroe, then a seething, frequently violent nest of racial strife and Klan activity, to spend a day meeting with members of a local black self-defense group to learn about their philosophy and activities. They were associated with Robert Williams (then in Cuba), a complex and controversial figure, a civil rights activist who also believed in the necessity for armed self-defense.
This was well before the days of Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, who in fact drew inspiration from Williams' political and social philosophy as articulated in his book, Negroes With Guns. I knew precious little about the existence or history of African Americans who joined together and armed themselves for self-protection. I was curious and so went along for the ride — which almost proved to be my last, when late that afternoon as Susan Schwartz, another student in our program, and I were being driven back to Raleigh by three armed young men from the self-defense group, on a lonely stretch of two-lane highway, a car that had been barely visible in our rear view mirror for some miles, began to gain on us in a curious manner, speeding up then dropping back, but gradually narrowing the distance between us.
Ever on the qui vivre, the young men quickly determined that we were being tailed. They sensed that the occupants of the other car were up to no good, that we were their target, and concluded that they were almost assuredly members of the Monroe Klan. It was taken for granted that our group had been under surveillance from the time we hit town. Even though elaborate precautions had been taken to try to prevent the Klan from detecting our presence and suss out that we were meeting with the self-defense group, an integrated bunch of strangers moving about, however furtively, through Monroe's Negro neighborhood, must have stuck out like a sore thumb.
The men who were driving us didn't want the men who were stalking us to know that they'd been spotted, so kept a respectable distance ahead without leaning too heavily on the gas. But as signs of habitation grew sparse and woodland began to dominate the landscape, the other car drew ever closer and it seemed as if ours were the only two cars on the road. It was apparent that the men in the car behind us were playing a cat-and-mouse game, angling for an opportune moment in which to pounce.
It was late in the afternoon but still broad daylight, not yet twilight; no gathering darkness could shroud our movements, or theirs. At a critical juncture, our guardians arrived at an advantageous place of concealment, where we hid for a time, while they lay in wait defensively, prepared to ambush our pursuers should they come upon us. I considered the grim probabilities and concluded, nonviolence be damned in this situation — I'd learned how to shoot a rifle and though my skills were rusty, I was ready to grab a gun and blast away if it came to that. If we died that day, I'd rather go out guns blazing — perhaps even plug one of those bastards myself — not hogtied and jerking my life away at the end of a rope over a bonfire.
My bravado notwithstanding, as we waited in that blind with our hearts in our mouths for them to pass by us not once but twice, I was in abject terror and under my breath I was crying, "Mommy! Mommy! Daddy! Mommy!" Those could well have been my last words.
But our protectors knew their adversary well. That we made it back to Raleigh, quaking in our boots but unscathed, was due solely to the brilliant strategizing of these young men and the tactical defensive driving skills of our man at the wheel. They gauged that they couldn't outrun these predators; they had to outwit them. They correctly calibrated the degree of the Klanboys' stupidity, converted it into miles and minutes, factored in the terrain, the time of day and a few other crucial considerations, and turned those calculations into our saving grace, our driver turning on a dime. The men in the other car never found us; they behaved exactly as our guys predicted and we were able to make a clean getaway, leaving those sanguinary bozos in the dust, to burn rubber up and down the highway looking for us, though we were long gone. I wish that I remembered the names of these courageous young men. Susan and I owed our lives to them that day.
And if Susan Schwartz is still alive and kicking, I would very much like to get in contact with her to have her recollections of that summer, especially of our hair-raising ride from certain death to life. She was from Brooklyn and a student at Radcliffe.
After the registration program was over, several members of our group, including Susan; Ray Raphael, who was at Reed; Tracy Rodgers (sp?) from Talladega, who, if I recall, had braved Bull Connor and his dogs; and a few other students, whose names unfortunately escape me, stayed on in Raleigh for a few weeks before our respective fall semesters began, to engage in independent direct action strikes just to shake up the status quo. At times we were in some danger, but tensions were de-fused and no violence occurred.
Our most notable escapade was to desegregate Pullen Pool, the well-maintained municipal plunge reserved for whites. Chavis Pool, the pool for Negroes, was more akin to a swamp. In this endeavor we joined with some young African Americans from Raleigh. I made the first sortie into enemy territory to soften up the target by taking a cue from Walter White, who could pass for white, and who risked his life traveling as a white man through the Deep South to investigate and report on lynchings and racial unrest during the early part of the 20th century.
I am African American and identify myself as such, but usually, though not invariably, at first blush, so to speak, I'm perceived to be Caucasian. While on the one hand, from an early age, I was aware of the fundamental stupidity of these matters and of their pernicious implications and consequences; on the other hand, in my daily life, there was a necessary compartmentalization and I rarely gave such considerations, shall I say, a passing thought. This by no means is to imply that I wasn't deeply troubled by these things, or that no psychological toll was exacted — to the contrary, it was profound and profoundly destructive. But given my racial liminality and that of my parents, in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the north, we weren't challenged or constrained as to where we could go and what we could do; one could say that we passed situationally, frequently without even realizing it. I found that I was presumed to be white in the south as well. However, "passing" below the Mason-Dixon line was another matter altogether.
With that and with the spirit of Walter White in mind, I decided to use my racial ambiguity to have a bit of fun and in the process subvert the system, so we concocted a scheme, whereby I purchased a ticket to Pullen Pool and gained entrance without being challenged; then after I was in the pool, swimming and enjoying myself, a couple of people from our group who were unmistakably black, attempted to buy tickets and when refused, announced that there was already a Negro in the pool. This made for some yee-haw, knee-slapping, Southern-fried, corn-pone comedy, when the lifeguard suddenly blew his whistle and picked up his bullhorn to sound the alarm: "There's a Neegro in the pool! There's a Neegro in the pool! Everybody get out of the pool!" Swimmers had to scramble out of the water, join those who were lounging poolside, and wait for what seemed an eternity, while an employee came around to scrutinize each person for the tokens of Negro genes.
In this instance, I wasn't in anywhere near the kind of peril that was a constant presence in Walter White's travels; nonetheless, it was a very edgy thrill. My heart was racing but I tried my best to act nonchalant, meet my examiner's gaze, and project just a hint of impatience and irritation that "we" were compelled to interrupt our recreation in order to be subjected to this rude physical examination, which had the effect of putting every lily-white patron of Pullen Pool that day under suspicion of being spurious: potentially guilty of polluting both the gene pool and the swimming pool. If I were called out, I was determined to respond with indignation, but my examiner gave me only a passing glance and moved on to the next suspect. So much for the profiling expertise of the Raleigh Negro-detection police.
I recall pulling this ruse twice. On the first occasion, after the employees weren't able to find the "nigger in the woodpile," we were allowed back in the water and the incident was undoubtedly dismissed as a hoax. If I recall correctly, the second time we pulled this caper, the pool was closed at least for the rest of the day. But it soon reopened; and shortly thereafter, Ray, who is white, and Tracy, who is discernibly black, along with some local African American students, orchestrated a ploy, whereby Ray purchased several tickets and gave them to the African Americans, who then presented them for admission. The staff, completely bamboozled, accepted the tickets, and the entire group was soon horsing around in the water, triumphant but surely with great trepidation, before the stunned white folk could even drop their jaws to gape. Fortunately, someone snapped a photo of the scene, which made it into the papers. After this, Pullen Pool was shut down for the rest of the summer and until further notice. When it did reopen it was officially integrated; however, I was told that it remained effectively all-white for quite some time.
I wasn't part of this splashy finale, though, because events were happening in quick succession, and around that time I found myself behind bars in the Wake Co. Jail. On the spur of the moment I'd taken part in a CORE-sponsored sit-in at the local Howard Johnson's as part of their Freedom Highways program, which took place the year after the Freedom Rides. The objective of Freedom Highways, which did not receive much national attention, was to conduct sit-ins to test the implementation of federal desegregation statutes regarding private facilities, such as restaurants and hotels, along interstate highways. CORE had come to town seeking recruits for the sit-in. I joined and was arrested along with Winston Lockett and Alfred Jones, two CORE organizers who were not from Raleigh.
The evening of the sit-in, the three of us were driven to Howard Johnson's. We hoped that conditions would be optimal for our purposes, and they were. Standing outside, we spied several unoccupied seats at the counter that were adjacent to one another. Passing for white once again, I entered alone, sat down and ordered a cup of coffee, which was quickly set before me. Shortly after I'd been served, Winston and Alfred came in and sat next to me but gave no acknowledgement that we were together. They attempted to place their orders, were refused service and told to leave. When they refused to leave, the waitress summoned the manager.
There was much tense palaver between Alfred and Winston, who kept insisting on their right to be served and the manager, who repeatedly refused to serve them and insisted they leave. The sheriff's department was called and when deputies arrived, there were more demands and refusals. During this time, I sipped my coffee and silently observed the unfolding drama. No one had connected me to Alfred and Winston. As they were being handcuffed, I debated whether I should get up and join them or sit there and remain "incognegro" until I finished my coffee, and then reveal my identity, though that wasn't part of the plan. Before I could make up my mind, almost as an afterthought, one of the deputies turned to me and inquired if I was with them. I said yes, was handcuffed, and the three of us were taken away. But the Raleigh Howard Johnson's was integrated that night.
Our trial was held the next day: a kangaroo court, convened in a close back room of the sheriff's office, presided over by a little weasely-faced justice of the peace who spoke with a pronounced hillbilly twang. We were represented by Floyd McKissick, the only rational, intelligent person at either side of the bar that day, and it was an honor to have him argue our case, though he was thwarted at every turn. The Raleigh News and Observer reported that "Manning [the prosecutor] and McKissick both held 100 percent averages at the close of the hearing. Manning never had an objection overruled; McKissick didn't have an objection sustained." I had to bite my lip to suppress laughter at this mockery of justice. Our conviction was of course a fait accompli. We were given the choice of paying a modest fine or serving 30 days hard labor in prison; but the objective was to serve the time as prisoners of conscience, and so we did. In deference to my gender, I was sent to the Wake Co. Jail.
After I was taken to jail my racial status again came to the fore, when the jailer first escorted me to the white women's cellblock and I had to tell him that I was Negro. I was extremely apprehensive that I'd be mistakenly locked up on the white side of the jail and left alone to face the consequences when the reason why I was there became known and it was discovered that not only was I a Northerner, but a counterfeit Caucasian to boot. Contrary to what I expected, the jailer seemed bemused. "Well, whatever you say, gal," he replied, and conducted me to the Negro quarters.
Ensconced in the black women's cellblock, my racial identity was not contested, though I feared it might be, because I'm not always accepted as African American by African Americans. However, the matter of the pool closure became a problem, when a woman on my tier asked me if I had any connection to those events. When I assented, she glowered at me, grew thuggish, and began derisively calling me "Pool Girl." To my dismay, I learned that she was angry and extremely resentful because Chavis Pool had also been closed and now her children had no place to swim. Though I didn't see how anybody could possibly swim in such stagnant water, it hadn't occurred to us that the city might invoke the "separate but equal" doctrine and close both pools.
The woman slowly worked herself into a sullen lather and kept inching closer, menacingly, itching to throttle me; but in the nick of time, an unlikely savior intervened. An older woman named Rosa, who had been arrested for murder and made no bones about declaring, "I killed the cocksucka," jumped in, and with an air of bodacious regal authority, without lifting a finger, instructed my would-be assailant to cease and desist immediately. Rosa then gave her a hard and colorful tongue-lashing and a lesson in civil rights, telling her that what we had done was a good thing; that we were helping Negroes in Raleigh, including her and her children, but she was too short-sighted and uninformed to understand; and if she laid a finger on me she'd have hell to pay. Thus began a totally captivating 30 days — an immersive intensive in which I got the kind of real-life education I could never have obtained otherwise.
It cannot be forgotten and it must be stressed that the civil rights community in Raleigh was extremely encouraging and actively supportive of all our work, from voter registration to our later independent actions. When I was in jail, their solicitude was humbling and those dear, good people demonstrated their support in numerous ways. In addition to notes and care packages that were delivered to me, upon my release I was presented with a painting that Mr. Hinton, an African American who owned a photography studio, had lovingly rendered from a news photo that was taken of me behind bars. Money was raised for a plane ticket so that I could fly back to Los Angeles.
I incorporated some of my experiences and impressions of that most memorable summer into a novel set in Raleigh, Mojo Hand, later reissued as Mojo Hand: An Orphic Tale.
Note: For more detailed information on the NSA voter registration project and the situation in Monroe, NC at that time, see Dorothy Dawson Burlage's reminiscences in Deep in Our Hearts, Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement.
Jane (J.J.) Phillips / Berkeley / 17 August 2016
© 2016 Jane (J.J.) Phillips
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