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.]
Thank you all for coming. I guess our group is called "veterans" because, like veterans of a war, they have to be courageous under fire, and I'm very, very humbled by my comrades who are some of the most courageous people I've ever met in my life. They are sitting in this room. So, I guess I want to — I have so many stories to tell, I can't — there's clearly not enough time.
There is a picture on the web site with Don Jelinek, Stokely Carmichael, Hubert Rap Brown, a guy named Jimmy Lytle, and Thomas Lorenzo Taylor — who's known as Obaka — and myself. It was taken in Selma. We had been arrested in Selma because we were trying to urge people to register to vote and Obaka, who was with the Yoruba Temple from Philadelphia, had come down with a contingent of others from the Yoruba Temple to protect us. So they were heavily armed, because things were getting pretty bad after the Selma to Montgomery March. They took it upon themselves to act as our bodyguards.
So Obaka was my bodyguard, and he was in a sound truck driving around, telling people to register to vote. And the police, the Selma police, decided to stop him and arrest him. So he pulled over. He was parked in front of the office which was I think three stories up in the building, across the street from City Hall. And he stopped the vehicle, with the speakers on top saying: "Register to Vote!" And this was a Saturday, so most of the farmers and everyone in the rural area had come into town, so it was a good opportunity to get the word out: Register to Vote.
So the police pulled him over. He rolled up the windows. They were taking the butts of their guns, trying to make him get out of the truck. He wouldn't get out. Finally, he did exit the vehicle. They arrested him, and I had come from upstairs in the office, all the way downstairs, just as they dragged him off to jail. Now the truth. I actually was afraid that all of the folks from the Yoruba Temple were going to break him out of jail, because they were heavily armed. I didn't want that to happen. So what I did was I started addressing the people who were crowded around, watching what was going on, and I said: "This is the kind of thing we need to prevent. If we are registered to vote, we can have Black power. We can stop this kind of stuff. You need to register to vote. Get it? Register to vote." So I was then arrested for inciting to riot. [Laughing]
Literally. I was arrested for inciting to riot, for telling people to register to vote. You need to understand that, those of you who weren't a part of that struggle. Then Stokely came on the scene, and Stokely and Jimmy Lytle, they went in front of City Hall and started picketing City Hall. They were then arrested. So Stokely and Jimmy and I were all in jail, and Obaka was in jail. And we were found guilty of inciting to riot. Stokely had been picketing. This was his crime of inciting to riot, for protesting: Release our brothers from jail, or something like that.
We were sentenced to 60 days hard labor for inciting to riot. Thanks to our lawyer, Donald Jelinek — [Applause] — it was overturned by the federal court. In the wisdom of the federal court, they decided that telling people to register to vote or exercise another First Amendment right was not inciting to riot and was perfectly lawful to do.
I too want to say a word about a lot of people like the lady who fed me dandelion greens because she had nothing else to share, when she wanted to help the struggle. That's all she could do, but that's what she did, and I smiled even when I hated the taste of dandelion greens. .
I want to thank Phil Hutchings who performed a marriage ceremony for my wife and I in California. She was my childhood sweetheart, a friend of SNCC in Detroit.
I want to tell you that I started in the Movement when I was 13 years old, exactly 50 years ago. I was watching television. My family was, I guess Franklin called, the Black bourgeoisie. My family was very wealthy, and I was watching television and saw these folks in North Carolina sitting down and they were being arrested. And in my 13-year- old naive way, I asked my father who was an attorney. My folks divorced, my dad was a psychiatrist, and then she remarried the wealthiest attorney in the state. I asked him: "Why are they doing that? Why are they being arrested?"
And he said: "Well, there are white people who don't think that Black people are as good as white people."
And given the fact, you've got to get this, that I lived in a very — a totally bourgeois world where all the Blacks I knew were college educated and well-to-do — a lot of whites don't get this. There are a lot of whites in this room and their Blacks who don't get this either, but in my world, Blacks were the best. And I turned to my dad and said: "That's ridiculous! Everybody knows that Black people are better than white people." [Laughing]
And he said: "Uh, I think we need to talk." [Laughing]
So I got involved in the Movement, and I used to get driven to the demonstrations around Detroit, like some other people have talked about in their cities in the North. We desegregated the roller rink and the swimming pool and some other things that in 1960 were segregated. And so I used to go to all these different sit-ins, and I remember something called the Detroit Brotherhood Youth Corps, Friends of SNCC, and a lot of other groups that were protesting in Detroit. I remember in 1963 licking envelopes and making phone calls with little Stevie Wonder who was sitting right next to me, blind, but he's making phone calls and licking envelopes and stamps. And there were a lot of people like that who played a role in the struggle. Lots of people, thousands upon thousands of people.
We're having a get together in North Carolina in April. I don't know if you mentioned that, of all the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. There are going to be people there like Harry Bellafonte, and Harry Bellafonte was someone who helped give us that ten or twenty dollars a week that we earned as field secretaries and organizers for SNCC. And there were lots of other people, all across this country, who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement and marched in Selma. There were priests who died. I wanted to mention the fact that when I was recruited by Bob Moses in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was dragged there by Tom Hayden because I was working with the Northern Student Movement as a tutor. So I know there are a lot of lines of connections everywhere.
So when I went to my mom and I said — I had been admitted to an Ivy League college, I was President of my class, I went to a school for gifted children — I said: "I'm not going to Harvard, mom. I'm going to Mississippi." She looked at me — no, she glared at me — and she said "You're not going down there to work with that charlatan Baptist preacher, are you?" [Laughing]
I said: "Yeah, mom. I'm going to go down there and work with Martin Luther King and others." And she wouldn't give me permission, because I was 17 years old. There are some history books that say I was the youngest Civil Rights worker in the Freedom Summer of '64. I was there at 17 years old. And so my dad, my real father, wrote a permission slip for Bob Moses to be my legal guardian on a prescription.
So you know, in the intervening years, I've worked for John Connors, member of Congress. I've worked for the Michigan Senate. I spent 25 years building houses for Native Americans in the Four Corners area in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. And I remember Caesar Chavez coming to our [SNCC] meeting at Waveland. So the Movement touched many lives, in many ways, and I thank you for being here. And I thank all my comrades for the contribution they made in the struggle. Thank you.
Copyright © Stu House, 2010
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the this story belongs to Stu House.