Freedom Songs - My Journey through 1964
I never heard back from my application to SNCC so I just went to Mississippi by bus from Fort Worth Texas and arrived unannounced in Jackson in the spring of '64 with a trunk load of books to give away. A Presbyterian minister had given me the name of a minister to look up there so when I arrived I left the trunk at the station and stupidly walked to the nearest Presbyterian church and announced I was there to help register black voters. Their reaction led me to run into a black neighborhood where I found a minister who drove me to the COFO office.
People didn't know what to do with me since I hadn't been accepted. I forget names, but since I was from Texas the guy in charge of a special program for white Southerners took an interest in me and was whom I related to from then on. I was pretty crazy and he was understanding and patient with me. I remember the office was on Lynch Street and there was a blackboard or something on the wall with the names of people arrested and what they were charged with — like burglary and rape. I remember sleeping in a dorm at some school. I also slept in graveyards sometimes at that time because I felt safe there.
I had an introduction to a minister in Meridian and he got me together with Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney. I respected what they were doing a great deal, but they said they would choose someone who'd been accepted into the program by COFO I guess. Probably they had other good reasons as well. I saw both of them several times after that and I really liked them both.
I was sent to Natchez to scout things out on the sly. I was told it was the heartland of the KKK and too hostile to set up an office. I spent a frightening week there but got to know the mayor and a lot of young people. When I returned to Jackson, I refused to write a detailed report — just that everyone I met said right off, "Have you heard they're invading us this summer?" and then followed that by saying that they didn't like the Klan but that they'd be on their front porch waiting with their shotgun for any uninvited meddlers.
The large picture window in front had been broken and I volunteered to stay there to guard the place. The only staff person from the Southwest where Natchez is, a local black guy named Cookie as I remember it, drove up that night. We talked about the ridiculously unsympathetic situation in his area and then he loaned me his car so I could go get something to eat.
Unfortunately I got arrested and charged with drunk driving and his car was towed — I hadn't even started driving it yet — and I hadn't been drinking. The results of my sobriety test at the station were that I was too drunk to take the test. The cops were playing around with me like a cat with a mouse. I hung out and talked to them for awhile and tried to get as personal as I could. When one of them put me in the drunk tank he told me not to let the others in there know why I was there. As I understand it this was rare. I was there three days and didn't say anything to anyone. I think I was the only civil rights worker I met who wasn't beaten up back then. As a result I, who'd been a spy for them, was now thought by some to be a spy for the bad guys.
I went to the training program in Oxford Ohio at Western Women's college as I remember it. I remember playing We Shall Overcome on the guitar with everyone singing as the first bus that took off to go South. I remember being with a drama group and trying to write a play. I remember some reporter playing bad Mississippi sheriff as we took turns being arrested civil rights workers.
I was a bit of a problem because I was keeping a lot of people up drinking and singing all night and didn't like classes. I was causing controversy by mouthing off stuff just to irritate some people who struck me as being a little over serious and righteous. My bad. I was young and thoughtless and I guess ADD. The board discussed me and, as I understand it, was somewhat split about whether to let me go back to Mississippi or not. They nays won. A great now deceased fellow named Charlie Smith got on the phone and got me accepted to SDS in Ann Arbor.
I seem to remember rumblings about James and Mickey and Andrew Goodman who got the position I wanted being missing while I was still there. In Ann Arbor I learned about the deaths of our three co-workers and was very sad. I didn't talk about that for over a decade.
My best friend in Ohio was a black photographer from Chicago named Stanley. He was older. He and I would go to restaurants and he'd loudly call me boy and boss me around. We were ready to go on stage. I visited him later that summer when I was with SDS in Chicago.
I salute all who went to Mississippi that year and applied themselves surely more maturely than I did. I still remember many of the wonderful people I met that summer. It was truly an inspiration. Robert Moses was truly an inspirational leader.