Recorded & transcribed by Peter de Lissovoy sometime between 2001-2006
[Randy Battle worked for SNCC throughout the 1960s]
[SNCC project director] Charles Sherrod gave me my education — I mean my formal education now, not about life, life took care a that! I love that man. You know when we stayed at the SNCC office on Madison Street, it had that little back bedroom. I was staying around there more than anyone. Sherrod wasn't staying around there much if at all. He come around now and then in the evenings when the day's work was done and give me my tutoring lesson. Sherrod was my mentor and I owe him a lot. I would read things he gave me to read and I would keep track of words I didn't know and he would tell me their meaning. Or I'd look in the dictionary. Actually, I learned to read then, in the Movement. The Movement was my whole course of education, it sure was, because I didn't get far in school. But Sherrod taught me to read — and I read every book and novel the white kids brought down South with them, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, everything, I read every one I saw.
I couldn't go to school much when I was little. I started picking cotton when I was six years old, seems to me. Or maybe it was before. Everybody went to the cotton fields then in my neighborhood. There was very few people who didn't go to the cotton field or the pecan field or the peanut field and shake peanuts. I mean it was a tradition. When you first went to the cotton field they started you off with 2 cents a pound. You picked a hundred pounds of cotton you made two dollars. And then when the cotton get kinda dried out, they go up to two and a half cents, and when it really got rotten they might give you 3 cents a pound.
In the beginning it took me a month to pick two, three dollars of cotton. But after a few ass-whuppings, I could pick about seven, eight or nine dollars a day. After a few cotton stalks were wore out on my ass. Them old women used to snatch up them stalks and put em right on your butt, burrs and all, and beat the shit out a you. You learned how to pick cotton ... Right there I could do 300 pounds, 350. You go out there in that corn field and get you four or five big rocks or a couple of citrons or whatever you can find. And keep on watering it down all day. You put about two sacks in a sheet and you water it down and cover it up and keep it damp, it weigh more than it would if it was dry. What they gonna do about it? Tell you not to pick no more cotton? They had to get the cotton picked. And they saw you got away with it. Everybody didn't do it, but some folks did.
I got to where I could beat my mama pickin cotton. They made a deal with us — all over 200 pounds you could have it. If you picked 250 pounds, you got what? A dollar and a half or a dollar and a quarter or whatever they were paying at the time. And when I got up to 300 pounds, they went up on me, they made it 250, but so I still had that fifty pounds or more a day. That mean I had a dollar and quarter a day, but shoot I could party for a month, a kid my age. And then on Friday, all a that were yours. Whatever you made on Friday were yours. They got four days, you got one. Your parents.
So, the upshot, I usually started to school — why I was so far behind, fourteen years old in seventh grade — I started school in January. January to June. That was all the school I went to. Then as a kid, all you do, you pick cotton, the first one, then peanuts, cotton, and then in the wintertime up until December, you picked up pecans.
My job, I climbed up in the pecan tree and shook the pecans. They had an old tractor out there with a long cable on it. It had something on it that would beat the cable and go back and forth and shake the limbs, man on the tractor would back up and tighten up that cable — it would go boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom- boom! — so what my job was was to go up in the tree, and the end of the cable had a hook on it. You go on and catch the cable round like that there — so I go up there and hook it round the limb, and put this water bucket over my head. And them pecans just be beatin down on me — boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop-boop — we didn't have no hard hat back then, that water bucket be the hard hat.
They didn't have no modern day stuff like they got now. They got the real thing now, they walk up to a tree and shake the whole tree, but back then you had to climb from limb to limb. You're up there holdin on. It'd be shakin the shit out a ya! Then you got to turn one limb aloose and climb onto another limb and hook onto that. They gave me two dollars and a half a day to hook the cable. You had to keep a look on that cable too just in case it pop, cause if it pop it could knock your head off. If it break.
I had that water bucket, I think it was about a two-gallon water bucket, or a gallon bucket. And I take the bale — the bale was the handle — and hook the bale up under my chin and put the bucket on my head. And boy — I don't know how to describe it — it was just like somebody put a tin tub on your head and beatin like a drum.
Well I learned a thing or two out in the field, but not how to read. When my day come, and I jumped in that pool, and committed myself to the Movement, that's when my schooling began, because Sherrod got me to reading. In those years in SNCC I got my education. You know, some of the white kids say they got an education in the Movement too. You know, John Perdew put on his one-man play over at the center there, what used to be the Ritz Theater in Harlem, and he spoke of how he got his degree in life itself, so to speak, in — what did he call it — "Southerology!" When he went back to Harvard he already had his doctorate in how they do things down south, how they did to the Americus Four over where they locked them up for sedition! So there was a kind of trade-off educationwise. They learned about black folks' things, and I learned to read, you know. I read every one of those books I could lay my hands on that the summer volunteers hadn't even read themselves.
This reminds me of a favorite memory of mine about Stokely. You know, Stokely Carmichael came to my defense one time, I never will forget it. A bunch of them middle class folks was making fun of me and he let them know about it. I was at a conference in Atlanta trying to give speech to some middle class folks and I kinda froze up, I couldn't lay my hands on just the right words I wanted, and I sort of was drawing a blank and probably fell back on some downhome kinda talking, you know. I had never been to no conferences or that sort of thing.
You know, Sherrod took me in the back room there in the SNCC office on Madison and got me to reading, and what I didn't understand I'd make a note of it and he'd come back and tutor me on it and so on. He'd hand me a book and say read this and if there's something you don't understand remember which part and we'll go over it. Eventually that gave me confidence.
So the first big conference I went to was at Union Theological Seminary up there in Atlanta. I was kind of gung-ho, and I had done got up and made me a nice little speech, and what do I see but them middle class folks done started laughing at me, and all of a sudden before I knew it I was standing up there crying. Stokely was up in the balcony. The balcony wasn't too high up, you know. Stokely jumped up. He jumped from up there right down to the floor! He come down there and snatched that microphone and put his arm around me and the tears were running down my eyes I'm so embarrassed.
Stokely shouts, "Goddamit!" — that's what he says — "Goddamit, I'm going to say the same damn thing this man just said. I got me a degree in talking! I want to see you laugh at me, you — " he called them motherfuckers, just like that right there.
And he said now come on Randy and let's go. And I promised myself right there that the next time I got up in front of a crowd I'm going to know how to address them. I sure enough put myself into learning then, you know, I had been kind of half-ass at it while Sherrod was trying to teach me, but after that I grabbed every book I could find and read it. And if I didn't understand something I'd go to somebody who did. But Charles Sherrod was the main one I would go to, because he would spend about two hours a night with me, and I got to where I could read a book in a day. And then there were a lot of words I might not know but when you read the whole sentence you understood it.
I hung out on many occasions with Stokely and we became good friends. Stokely was my man. Then Stokely married Miriam [Makeba] and went to Africa and I never saw him no more. He went to Africa and stayed over there a long time.
Copyright © Randy Battle
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