I went by train with a CORE group from Los Angeles in July of 1961. I was 21 years old, a native of rural Louisiana, off on my own, finished with a year of art school and looking for something meaningful. The first group of Freedom Riders had just had their bus overturned and burned near Anniston, Alabama and I was one of those responding to the call to step up the campaign.
The town I grew up in, Natchitoches Louisiana, had a bronze statue on a marble pedestal at one end of the main street, a life-size negro with his derby in hand, looking humble, with a plaque beneath that expressed gratitude for the noble darkie. I was taught to be respectful to everyone regardless of race, taught that 'colored people' not 'nigger' was how we referred to blacks. ['Black', by the way, was not a term I ever heard in the nineteen forties.]
The inequality that existed was part of the way things were as I grew up and I never gave it a thought until I was thirteen and my father got a job that took the family to Ecuador. There poverty was easy to see, but the division of well-off and poor had less to do with skin color and I saw for the first time that the racial divisions I'd grown up with were not universal. I think it was this introduction to a slightly different culture while still in childhood that made it easier for me than for my peers to understand and accept the need to right these inequalities.
There were, I think, 26 people in my group. We came into the railway station in Jackson, Mississippi and, as expected, were immediately arrested on a charge of Breach of Peace. This was because we refused a policeman's command to 'move on and out of the station'. We spent a week or so in the Jackson City Jail and, after sentencing, 39 days in Parchman, the Mississippi State Prison Farm. The sentence for Breach of Peace had been set by the State legislature at four months and a two hundred dollar fine and raised from misdemeanor status to a felony offense. That way they could send us to the prison farm and keep us from packing the jails.
After our release from Parchman on an appeal bond a few of us stayed over in New Orleans to wait the couple of weeks before our next scheduled appearance before a Mississippi court. That was the only period when I encountered real violence. Three of us, all white, were staying with a black minister when a pair of sisters who lived up the block invited us for dinner. They were black, of course, and while they were in the kitchen and we three honkies were sitting in the living room, two cops walked in the front door, demanded to see our draft cards, decided they looked phoney and hauled us off as possible draft evaders. They booked us and transferred us to a paddy wagon with one other prisoner, a white guy. When we pulled in at the city jail he suddenly started swinging at us. The back of the van opened and cops grabbed us, threw us headfirst toward the pavement, ordered us to spread our arms against a brick wall and beat on us awhile with saps.
We were bailed out by CORE in time to show our bruised selves in Mississippi for arraignment, then we went back to help New Orleans CORE with demonstrations and other actions. My father showed up about that time. The two of us had a pretty intense meeting in his hotel room. He was convinced I had been misguided by a bunch of commies whereas I was convinced I was working to right a basic wrong. In the end I agreed to go with him through the state to visit our relations. It gave me an opportunity that in hindsight seems to me as useful to the movement as anything else I could have done: I argued my case for integration to my relations, most of whom wouldn't have given it much consideration otherwise.
My dad drove me back to Los Angeles, and the many years between then and now have been spent without much involvement in the movement. Though the term 'movement' has a larger meaning for me now. Economic deprivation was the basic condition that blacks suffered, and to the degree that it has been removed that part of our population has gained. On the whole though, the rich get richer and proportionally fewer and government by the people is made poorer to the point of unsustainability. It is in opposition to that that we do battle now.