[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
This is a brand-new book which I'll pass around (Student Activism and Civil Rights in Mississippi ... 1960-1965, University of Louisiana Press). Not mine. I wish I had written a book about all this. By James Marshall, who some of you may have known. He did this as a dissertation 40 years ago, so there's a lot of detail in it that he would've forgotten if he'd waited until now. I encourage people to check it out. It's really well documented.
I want to start by just mentioning [that] I got to know Ron [Bridgeforth] fairly recently. I never knew him in Mississippi, and I just hope all of you who don't know Ron will meet him. He had an interesting life away from his ordinary life as I did, although his period underground lasted three times as long as mine did, so he was not in the area for many, many years. He is definitely somebody worth knowing and is one of my heroes.
I want to talk about different types of unsung heroes. I had been on the Freedom Vote the previous fall, recruited by Al Lowenstein and Bob Moses when I was at Yale. I was part of the first group that went down that fall to kind of test whether northern students could work alongside SNCC workers. And [after that] I had the bug and basically dropped out of school the following spring to help recruit students for the Mississippi Summer Project.
[For the summer] I was in Mileston in Holmes County [MS] doing voter registration with such luminaries as Mario Savio who we shared a house with and Carolyn Craven who some of you may know. And one place I want to start in terms of unsung heroes is the people in that house Hollis Watkins who was our SNCC leader and to transform ourselves from middle class life to living in an abandoned farmhouse off a dirt road for the summer. [We] lived together, worked together, cooked together, stood guard all night long.
There was a sharp bend in the road 50 feet from where our house was set off from the road, and it was all gravel, and what I remember most clearly in terms of our fears, we occasionally would hear cars driving and slowing down to go around that curve, and every once in awhile the scrunching of the tires on the gravel would just stop out there, 50 feet away. And we had no idea what was happening, and fortunately, we never had that house shot at.
But the other unsung heroes who housed a number of people in Freedom Schools who didn't live in the voter registration house that we were in. They lived in individual houses of people who lived in the area who incredibly, courageously took people who they didn't know — mainly white people — into their homes for the summer. The security was incredibly well organized; I think probably most white people in the area did not know where the students were living.
Our greatest hero was someone that some of you probably know, Hartman Turnbow. He was willing to be the front person for all of us in Holmes County. Like someone else mentioned earlier, although we SNCC volunteers all ascribed to non-violence, with Hartman Turnbow, that was not part of the deal with him. And it was very well known to the white community that he meant business if anybody was gonna mess around with any Civil Rights workers. They were gonna have to deal with him. And I think that made all of us feel more secure as a community of outsiders living in Mileston and surrounding communities.
The wonderful website of Bruce's recently put up a letter — I was only 50 years delayed in getting it to him — that I wrote. [It was] a letter that I wrote essentially to family and friends in the North, pretty much after the summer, but to raise money and get support for what was an ongoing struggle.
And one of the things that letter reminded me was an incredible high school movement, the Lexington Action Movement of high school students. It wasn't very open, because it couldn't be. And there were students in several other communities in Holmes County, and they did the voter registration work with us often, because they knew the communities; they knew the safe ways in and out. Some of them were courageous enough to wear Civil Rights buttons in high school and even got suspended.
You know, sometimes — lthough there are exceptions — but sometimes we wish that high school students were more involved in social struggle than they sometimes are, and this high school group is just a reminder that you're never too young if you have the motivation. And presumably they had parents who were courageous and supported and encouraged them.
So we did the day to day work of voter registration throughout Holmes County. The county courthouse is in Lexington, the County Seat. Just your typical Faulknerian town with a square, and there was a Freedom Tree where people would gather to collect before going in to try to register to vote. And I did get beaten up once in Durant. We would go to do voter registration in a carload of people, but as I remember, we would split off from each other, so at the time I got beaten up I was all by myself even though there were people just a block or two away. And so I did my little nonviolent posture and it's sort of interesting, because for this huge guy to kick something that was not moving on the ground, I think it sort of disgusted him after about 15 or 20 seconds. And he didn't really hurt me much.
What's surprising about the story is that I actually was able to get the license plate as they left and filed a complaint. We were trying to get, as many of you were part of this, trying to get the FBI and the Justice Department to do something, because they weren't doing anything. And the local authorities were beginning to feel the heat a little bit, and the surprising thing about this story is that they actually prosecuted this guy. It turned out to be somewhat of a sham, but there was a court date set, and so a carload of us went to the courthouse which was a somewhat terrifying thing to do, but we went in I think two carloads, seven or eight people — protection in numbers. And it was sort of a ridiculous event, where the prosecutor was the judge. It was the same person. [Laughter]
The other prosecutor was out of town, so the judge decided he would be the prosecutor. But what was most surprising is that without even hearing the guy who'd hit me defend himself, after I told my story, this judge/prosecutor fined him $60. But of course, he appealed, knowing full well that I wasn't going to come back for an appeal in three months, and I'm sure nothing ever happened to him. But it was, I suppose, they a way to make it look as if they were somehow following the law in Lexington. And then as soon as it was over, we ran for the cars. I had done some practice driving at 100 mph, and so we went back to Mileston at 100 mph and nobody followed us.
It was an amazing community experience of people in Mileston. And I just always remember that community as very special, and as Ron said, we all got a whole lot more out of it than we put into it, and it changed our lives.
Copyright © Stephen Bingham, 2013
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