Our Mississippi Dilemma
Miriam Glickman
2010

      
[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.]

Hi. I want to share a story that belongs to the local black family I stayed with when I was working as a civil rights worker in Columbus, Mississippi. It was the fall after Freedom Summer of 1964. I stayed with a father and mother and their five children. The family owned a small house with several tiny rooms on a dirt road in Columbus. Neither parent had graduated from grade school, but both could read. The mother had worked for years as a maid for a white family helping raise their four year old child. She was fired after she tried to register to vote. There was a military base near Columbus, Mississippi, and she was able to find a job as a waitress on the base. The father worked doing heavy labor.

The mother told me this story several times, so it was on her mind. Two years before I stayed with them, when their daughter Cecile was 12, the family was driving at night. They were stopped by two policemen. At that time in Mississippi all police were white and male. After questioning them, the police told Cecile to get out of the car.

The mother spoke up, pleading to the policemen, "She's only 12!" As the mother told the story, the police knew the family as "good" and decided not to bother them further. During all this, the father said nothing. It was too dangerous for a black man to confront whites, let alone the police. I understood how it upset the mother so much that she told me this story a number of times. Here is a mother of five who knew she and her husband could not protect their own children. That was the reality of Mississippi.

The father worked for Weyerhaeuser Company, a big multinational company. In the U.S., there were over 35 different trade unions at Weyerhaeuser, but there were no unions at the Columbus site. Before I came to Columbus, two local black men who were employees of Weyerhaeuser had tried to form a union. They had been murdered. The local black community was certain they had been murdered for trying to unionize

So the big question this left us, as civil right workers, was: How can we help the communities we were working with bootstrap out of their second-class citizenship? There was nothing to grab onto. People lived at a poverty level on unpaved streets, there was no protection against police harassment and brutality, the education level was dismal, there was no job security or ability to unionize, and it was not possible to register to vote and thereby get better conditions. It was dangerous to try to change anything about this way of life. A dilemma indeed. At the time I worked in Mississippi, I was not hopeful about the outcome.

With the hindsight of nearly 50 years, it is clear that getting the right to vote was the way change began. When black voters could vote a brutal sheriff out of office or could win political office themselves, things began to get better. And we got this right because of the pressure our work and the work of thousands and thousands of other freedom fighters put on the federal government. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965. These guaranteed and enforced the right to vote.

[Applause]

Copyright © Miriam Glickman, 2010


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