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.]
You know, it's kind of nice to see an audience like this. I appreciate it. I'm a politician, and like a lot of politicians, I find myself speaking to unfriendly audiences, but this isn't one. I came today from Seattle. I guess I get the prize for coming from the longest distance, but I'm really here to visit with my daughter and son-in-law and grandkids.
I entered political activities as a freshman, sophomore, when I first went to the South. The South to me was Baltimore. I'm originally from New York State — Peaksville, New York. But I got to Baltimore and I got to see that it was real — the stuff in the magazines was real. There were white and colored entrances at restaurants. White and colored at the swimming pool or anywhere else. And it grated on me. It always had. My parents were pretty progressive people. My mother's family was pretty left wing, actually. And we knew this wasn't the way our country was supposed to be. And I guess I felt that it was my generation's — our generation's — job, simply having been born at that time, to finish it. Or to work on it.
I remember the first — maybe not the first, but one of the big demonstrations and activities that I got involved in as a student at Johns Hopkins in the SDS chapter. It had to do with the Northwood theater across town, outside the front gate of Morgan State College, predominantly an African-American college then. It's a university now. And they had the Buzzard's Roost upstairs where African-Americans were allowed to go, and it was white-folks downstairs, which was standard fare for Baltimore in 1962-63.
A group of students from Morgan, joined by a group of students from Coppin State College, ultimately from Johns Hopkins and a bunch of other colleges around, decided: No, that was not the America they were going to live in, and they stood in the lobby. We ended up getting arrested. By the end of the week, there were [hundreds] of us, more than the Baltimore City Jail could hold, and so they just released us. I don't think we ever even got tried. I think they just dropped the charges. But that was Baltimore. That was not Mississippi. This was the relatively softer side of segregation in this country in the '60s.
I remember deciding in 1964, I guess some time in the spring, that I did want to go with SNCC to Mississippi and to see what I could do down there. We ended up, as a bunch of you have mentioned, going to Miami University of Oxford, Ohio for training, learning how to not be violent, how not to respond violently. And I remember talking to some of the folks, getting a flavor of what we were all in for. We were all kind of apprehensive.
Later, my dad was to send me a photo that appeared in either Life or Look magazine of a group of us holding hands, you know, folding together to resist violence. It was part of the training we went through. There was a circle around one of them. It was Michael Schwerner. I was the guy next to him, holding his arm. And I got that feeling. This was, of course, after their murders, that feeling of there but for fortune. It could've been me. I could've gone to Neshoba County instead of Leflore County, Greenwood. I could've been the guy in that Chevrolet, along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. It's one of those things. Life is that way.
But getting down to Mississippi. I remember that bus took us from Ohio all night down South to across the Tennessee line, and things begin to look a little different around dawn. We're all kind of woozy. And oh, this is the way it really is. People got a little quiet. I remember getting off the bus at 708 Avenue N in Greenwood, which was a little too close to Highway 82 for anybody's comfort, because a car could come around, shoot, make the quick turn around the block, and be on the highway and out of there before anybody knew it.
And I remember the work I did was just knocking on doors. One of the two or three or four white guys in what was mostly, I think, about two dozen of us, almost all African-American, from all over the country. People that we met — in fact, one of the earlier speakers today, was somebody I hadn't seen in 46 years, Linda Whetmore, who I'm sure going to look up. Just knocking on doors, talking to folks, and getting people to sign up for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, meaning that they would ask to vote, that they were going to be a member of a political party and they would be asked to register to vote.
It wasn't until I'd say midway through that summer that Willie Peacock decided, we really — if we're going to call ourselves a political party, we do really need to emphasize the act of registration to vote. And asking people to be there on a Monday or a Tuesday — mind you this is June — this is when people would be chopping cotton if they're at work. Asking people to take a day off and line up in front of the courthouse on a weekday and stand there in the hot sun, knowing that they would be given a test as slow as possible, that would make sure that they could read the Mississippi Constitution and cross every "T" and dot every "I." Not intending, of course, that they'd register to vote at all.
It was, on one of those days, that we decided — I'm sure Willie decided — that some of us — and let's be very blunt — some of us, particularly white folks from the North, needed to be arrested. Because if it was just Black folks being arrested, it wouldn't be covered in the press. It would not be on the cover of Newsweek. And we understood. Okay, that made sense. It made sense then. It makes sense now. We did. We were. And it was covered on the cover of Newsweek. And I think more attention was paid that way to the price that Americans had been paying in Mississippi for generations, and nobody thought much about it.
I remember my boss, Stokely Carmichael — by the way, one of the things — the first thing that struck me about Stokely was when he learned my name, and we shook hands, and we were just introduced, and he had few words of Yiddish. You know, it took me back. Stokely Carmichael speaking Yiddish. Well he did. A little bit, from fundraising in New York, as he put it, but it made perfect sense to me that Stokely would speak a little Yiddish.
I spent that summer there. I enjoyed my work. I stayed with a family that lived on Avenue T, I think it was, over by Taft Street. And I came back with my brand-new law degree eight years later in 1972. I stayed in Greenwood, practiced with what was then called the Office of Economic Opportunity, Legal Services. And our office was 1909 Johnson Street which, for those of you who have been in Greenwood, is right where Johnson crosses the railroad tracks. Carrolton Avenue was the one parallel to the railroad tracks, and that was right in front of the spot where back there in '64 I had been cold-cocked one afternoon. Just beat up, quick, by somebody who — I didn't even see him. He hit me on the side of head and apparently left. It was kind of nice to know that I was now practicing law on the same little street corner, and I kind of enjoyed that.
My last trip to Mississippi was a few years after that, just six years ago in 2004 on the 40th anniversary of the death of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. And I want to tell you it was a wonderful sight to see the mayor and the aldermen of Neshoba County. It was a wonderful sight. Even Governor Barber was there. Well, thank you. I appreciate the time, and thank you all. You guys take care.
Copyright © Adam Kline, 2010
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