I came from a labor union family. By going to South Carolina to both organize and assist people to register to vote, I thought it would better the lives of working class people. I was concerned about racism and the deprivation of basic rights of a large number of people.
I came from Somerville, MA, which was then the most crowded city in North America. Calhoun Country in South Carolina was a rural, agricultural area with a population of 12,500. I experienced considerable culture shock first by all thewhite and colored signs, even in laundromats. The segregation was total. The poverty was the worst I'd ever seen, even though I grew up in a poor place.
The first black I ever met was Malcolm X , who befriended me when I was a 14- year-old paper boy at Fenway Park. I always had books with me and he once asked what books did I think a guy like him should read. When I mentioned the Koran, he lit up, because he was in that stage of his intellectual development.
I was aware of the possibility of danger but I was not aware of just how much we actually encountered. Just after we arrived, we received death threats on an unlisted phone number. The Sheriff deputized around 10 locals to intimidate us.
We quickly began interviewing all the black residents of the county, partly to help them organize themselves. And, of course, we wanted to help them register to vote. They were receptive to us. Even the black kids were excited. They followed us around in the bushes. I was excited.
I was devoted to my work, but the threats turned into actual incidents. Immediately, I had a confrontation with a man named Bryce Porth. He was known as the most dangerous man in the county. We travelled in a caravan of cars and was once followed by the head of The KKK in Kentucky, who drove with his lights out. He was chased away by two of the local high school volunteers who aimed their pistols at them. Once our house was badly damaged by shotgun blasts.
We were working in Orangeburg on a voter registration day. Over 50 people were arrested. There were beatings and bloodshed. I was dragged down the steps of the courthouse and my back still isn't the same.
Once the South Carolina State football team went to a KKK meeting in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie in St. Matthews, SC. At gunpoint, the team broke up the meeting, and permanently drove the Klan from the county. I was there and it was exhilarating to watch.
One of our duties was to visit churches on Sunday. We were invited to speak before congregations. I will never forget one small church where the preacher sang the sermon and the congregation sang the hymns, while the others made a droning sound and stamped their feet. They sang "I Will Overcome," which became "We Shall Overcome.
Eventually, segregation was eliminated. People got jobs that were previously unavailable. The maids, who were making $10 for a six-day week, formed a union, leading to better working conditions. We broke the segregation at the Winn-Dixie, and the help of David Dubinsky, president of ILGWU, integrated the garment industry and strengthened the union.