As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
I'm not going to talk about the beatings and the shootings and the jail. Everybody has done that, and every Civil Rights worker had one part of it or another — me less than others. I'm not going to talk about the fear which was always there, and you've heard a lot about that.
I do want to say a word about Stokely Carmichael who, for me, was my idol. About a week after he had proclaimed Black Power, my mother had telephoned me and written me, written a letter, and I was riding with Stokely. I said: "My mother made a reference to you. Can I read it?"
And he says: "Sure."
I said: "If you ever see this person, Stokely something, would you ask him what Black Power means?" So I say: "Well, Stokely, do you have an answer for my mother?"
He says: "Tell her, when I find out, I'll write her a letter." [Laughing]
In 1965, I took my three-week summer vacation from my plush job on Wall Street as a lawyer, and I went down to Jackson, Mississippi for ACLU to lawyer for them. It was supposed to be a very special experience, but somehow, it seemed like I was back on Wall Street, only doing pro bono work. I never got to see anybody who we were working for. I mostly dealt with white lawyers and white judges, and I spent a lot of time in the library. Well, this wasn't very satisfying.
In my last week, I had an assignment in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which is four hours north of Jackson, right on the Tennessee border. And a SNCC worker asked if I could drive him, because he's going three-quarters of the way. So I drove him up, and of course in 3 1/2 hours he was able to tell me what his life was like, what SNCC life was like, talked about the fear, talked about his concern over death or beatings of the people, and I thought he meant SNCC people. But no, the people were the sharecroppers; those were his people. That was part of his family.
When we finally got there, he asked me to say hello, and I got out of the car. And before I could greet the elders, I saw the children, and there they were, malnourished, wearing rags, and so lethargic that they couldn't even brush the flies from their face. And I met the elders, got in the car, and drove back on the way to Holly Springs. I said to myself: This is what I should be doing. This is where I should be.
On the way back, I stopped off where I'd come earlier, and I met my rider and his friends, and I said: "I want to join SNCC."
He said: "But you're only going to be here another day."
I said: "Well, let's say three weeks," which meant I was out of a job.
He said: "All right." So they talked about it, and they accepted me.
Now, I had to go back to Jackson and tell my boss that I was — by their lights — I was changing sides. And I was going to be SNCC, and [my boss] said: "Nope, nope, out of the question."
I said: "I know we deal with slavery, but I'm not a slave to ACLU, am I?" [Laughing] He said: "Well, everyone knows you as a lawyer, and anything you do will affect all of legal work in the Deep South, and so, you can't do it."
I said: "I'm doing it."
He said: "All right. I'll make you a deal. You can do it if you keep your lawyer suit on the whole time. White shirt and tie, the whole works, every minute you're there, you wear your suit." [Laughing]
It was brilliant. It was brilliant of him. There was the total separation. It didn't matter what color I was. The color was my black suit. Of course, I agreed with my fingers crossed behind my back, and when I got up there, my coveralls were waiting for me — extra large. And eventually, the three weeks became three years before I knew it.
I'm going to tell about the two cows. I was living in a sharecropper shack, no electricity, no plumbing, and living as a guest of the bravest people I've ever known which is every single person who put us up, fed us, slept us, and risked their life —
— risked their life, thrown off plantations, crosses burned, beatings, killings — I mean, these were brave people. And I was living there — doing some writing, some work — and one day, his son comes running in and he says: "The sheriff! Don, Don! The sheriff! He's taken our two cows!"
I said: "That's absurd." And I just got up, and I headed out the door.
I didn't get five yards before a SNCC worker grabbed me. He said: "No, go back and put your suit on." [Laughing]
So, I put my suit on. It wasn't easy, because it was so filled with red dust and sand that people were brushing me off as I was heading out the door. I finally go up to the sheriff, and in my deepest Wall Street sound: "What are you doing taking these two cows?" And he says that I got a legal paper here. It's a judgment. And of course, I guessed that he'd be right, and there was this legal paper. And I'm stymied. Everyone's watching me, all the sharecroppers, everybody is watching me. Now I've got the suit on, you know. What is this suit going to do? And I said: "Sheriff, take those cows if you will. Treat them like your own children, because you'll be bringing them back in a few days." [Laughing]
Well, he grunted and left. And it was a very minor legal issue, terribly minor. And no time at all, it was all solved, and four days later, there's the sheriff, walking these two cows back to the sharecropper's shack. He said: "Happy, happy that you straightened this out. Thank you very much." And he left the cows.
I checked them for damage, but they were fine. You know, of all the things that I did while in those three years, and all the accomplishments that went on, this perhaps was the greatest, because an entire community — and then the word spread to other communities — I'd stood up to this sheriff and made him back down. And that's the story of the two cows.
Copyright © Don Jelinek, 2010
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the this story belongs to Don Jelinek.