[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.]
I was an exchange student to Spelman College in the fall of 1963. I had no idea what I was doing. I was mostly trying to get away from the school that I didn't like in Connecticut. [Laughing]
I had no ambitions to change the world or help anybody. This was in Atlanta, Georgia where the sit-ins renewed in November, full force with lots of sit-ins and lots of action. And one day — had decided that I wasn't going to get involved in the demonstrations — but I saw this little sign. You know how SNCC does it? You know, just a little sign on a wall somewhere that said if you're interested in talking about the demonstrations, come to this meeting at 7 o'clock.
So I went, because the demonstrations were cool, and I thought they were — you know, I liked the idea, and so I went there, and Jim Foreman was the leader of this meeting. He was the Executive Secretary of SNCC. And so I listened to people talking about the demonstrations, and then I raised my little 19-year-old lily-white hand and said, "Well, I want to be a psychiatrist, and that's how I want to help people. And I feel like I shouldn't get involved in the demonstrations, because if I do, it will mess up" — I don't think I used the word career — but what I wanted to do with my life.
And thank God Jim's a great organizer, and he didn't laugh at me, and he said very kindly, he said, "I think it's really great that you want to help people." And then he said, "But the problem is is that nobody in this country can really be helped until there's a fundamental change, and we get rid of racism and segregation." And this was like a thunderbolt to me. I had worked in a mental hospital the summer before, and I saw a lot of racism and that it was a pill factory.
And so when he said that, I knew — I actually was able to open to it, and I knew that it was totally the truth. And the next day, I got on the picket line. And it was the best thing, you know? The best thing.
I started demonstrating and was arrested twice. Once at Leb's [Deli] and once at the Pickrick, which was the Lester Maddox restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Good ol' Lester Maddox with his pick axe and you know, he became governor. I mean, he was this rabid segregationist for those of you who don't know who he is. And he also helped organize a rally that happened on July 4, 1964 at which a number of us were beaten.
[Maddox kept a barrel of thick ax-handles in his Pickrick restaurant that he said he would use to beat Blacks who tried to eat there. On July 3rd, 1964, the day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, he and some of his white patrons used them to drive off three Blacks attempting to implement the Act by integrating the dining room. The Klan rally that Karen mentions below was organized by Maddox and others to express their defiance of the Civil Rights Act.]
When I got arrested, I had training where if somebody was like jumping on you or hurting you, you should yell. That was the thing. You want to make it really visible. Don't just take it, but just yell. So we were all being non-violent, and they were carrying us into the paddy wagon, and then carrying us out of the paddy wagon to the elevator to take us up to get booked. In the process these two cops were carrying me to the elevator, and in the elevator, got on top of me, and were kneeing me and stuff. And I started yelling. And so Judy Richardson, who was a SNCC staff person and also really helped with the whole film, Eyes on the Prize — later of course — she came barreling out of the paddy wagon and just started yelling at these guys. You know, get off her, and so they got off me. I was like: What?
They stopped. Of course, this was Atlanta and not Mississippi, so that helped, but then they took me and they booked me. Now with white prisoners that are Civil Rights demonstrators, it's a very dangerous situation actually, and I knew this somehow. I don't remember how, but the situation is that they often would take us and throw us in the white cell with white prisoners and say basically, "Here's another nigger lover." And we'd get the shit kicked out of us. I was terrified. I don't remember how I knew it. They put me in isolation for I don't know how long. But in there, I either went crazy, or I decided to act crazy. I'm not sure which. [Laughing]
But I went crazy, and I just started screaming and pounding on the walls and lifting up the bed and slamming it down as much as I could. These were double steel beds, but I could lift up the corner. And you know, I just went nuts. And they put me on the Black side. And I was so damn glad. I mean, I was just like — I mean, they just came and got me. And I guess they thought I might hurt the white people. I don't know what they thought. [Laughter]
But they put me on the Black side, and I got to sing, and I felt safe, and I was so glad to be there. And so that's one of my little stories. There was another exchange student, a white student, Mardy Walker, who ended up on the white side. She didn't raise hell. She just went. And they did. They beat her, and they poured ice water on her. They wouldn't let her sleep. They ended up going after her legally. I mean, once I was over on the Black side, I guess they thought I was Black. I don't know. They didn't do anything to me after that, to me. But her case actually went all the way to the Supreme Court. And so it was one of those aspects of the Movement that I don't think a lot of people hear.
So, thank you very much. The Movement was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Copyright © Karen Trusty, 2013
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