Charlie Cobb Discusses the Freedom
Charlie Cobb Interview
SNCC at 50
Fred Shuttlesworth: Civil Rights Lion
Books by Charlie Cobb:
No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000
On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail
Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project
I hadn't intended to get arrested; hadn't even thought about the possibility. It was the fall of 1961 and I was a Howard University student, a freshman, and had gone to Baltimore, Maryland with other Washington, DC student who were mostly members of NAG — the Nonviolent Action group — to join picket lines protesting segregation. At the church where assignments to demonstration targets were being given out, I began conversation with a group of experienced protesters (Bill Hansen among them who had come up from Albany, Georgia, I think) because I had none. And when this group volunteered to go to Annapolis, Maryland, I decided to join them.
We went to a restaurant called Antoinette's Pizza — popular with Naval Academy midshipmen. But instead of setting up a picket line as I expected, they entered the restaurant, sat down at tables, refused to leave when asked, were arrested, and then "went limp" and had to be carried into a waiting police paddy wagon. This definitely had not been in my plans. But caught up in all of this now, I just held on to the biggest person in the group as we were dragged out of the eatery.
Over the next few days in the Anne Arundel County jail I began to hear stories about SNCC's work in Albany, Georgia and Mississippi. I was 18-years-old.
Almost everyone I know in my generation who became deeply involved with the southern civil rights movement has an I-didn't-plan-to, then-one-day story of first involvement. For me, the sudden leap into direct action was like plunging into the ocean for the first time. The expanse seems so wide and you feel so small. Tentatively sticking a foot into it, the water can seem cold; and you might worry some about unfamiliar creatures you've heard about. After taking the plunge, however, your body adjusts, and so does your comfort level.
I sat in and picketed regularly for the rest of the school year. Because of this involvement, CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality — invited me to a civil rights workshop for young people it planned to hold in Houston, Texas that summer.
This, I thought, now having reached the age of 19, would give me a great opportunity to see the "real" south and I bought a bus ticket for a journey taking me from Washington through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and on into Houston. In Jackson, Mississippi, however, I got off the bus and made my way to the office SNCC and CORE shared. Jackson students had been sitting in for a year, and because as far as I and all of my friends were concerned, Mississippi was the worst place on earth for a black person, I wondered what kind of black people would be sitting in in Mississippi. I wanted to meet them, lay eyes on these unimaginable people.
One of those students, Lawrence Guyot, who later became chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, confronted me when I explained that I was just passing through, and why.
"Civil rights workshop in Texas!" roared Guyot — giving me a hard look. Now Guyot is a big guy, and he hovered over me, forceful, totally disdainful. "Tell me; just what's the point of going to Texas for a workshop on civil rights when you're standing right here in Mississippi?"
His challenge was clear. You can chatter about civil rights in meetings or you can do something to get those rights. If you want to do something, then the thing to do is join our effort here in Mississippi.
Again, like getting arrested in Annapolis, staying on in Mississippi was nowhere in my mind. Faced with this challenge now, I felt I had to at least consider staying; and soon felt I had to stay because not long after our conversation, Guyot was almost killed by a Ku Klux Klan mob in Greenwood. I just talked to this guy! I remember thinking. Leaving now, I thought, would be flight, not continuation of a planned journey.
And so, with Charles McLaurin and Landy McNair, two other Jackson movement people, I wound up in Ruleville — in the blues and cotton heartland of the Mississippi Delta.
Bob Moses used to say, "When you're in Mississippi, the rest of America doesn't seem real. And when you're in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn't seem real." And indeed, in those first days I didn't know what universe I had entered.
Ruleville was scary enough for me to be thinking about leaving as fast as I comfortably could. On my second day in town, the Mayor — who also owned Ruleville's only hardware store and was Justice of the Peace — and broadcast the agricultural news on the local radio station, came to a screeching stop in front of me and Charles McLaurin. He jumped out of his car, pistol in hand. "I know y'all ain't from here and you're here to cause trouble. Best you get out of town." Then he ordered us into his car and took us to his hardware store where he continued his rant. After finishing his attempt at intimidation, he ordered us out of his place. Mclaurin argued with him taking the position that the mayor should bring us back to where he picked us up! I was willing to walk.
I might have left the state after this, but I got arrested. We brought a group to the county courthouse to try and register to vote. A few nights later, night riders shot up the black section of town, wounding two girls in one home. The mayor, this time wearing his pistol instead of waving it, arrested me. I'd done the shooting to get some publicity, he said.
Great fear quickly settled in across the black community and I knew couldn't leave. One of the biggest fears in black Mississippi, then — slowing the movement as much as direct intimidation in those early days — was that civil rights workers — "freedom riders" — would start something, and when the inevitable violence and reprisals began, leave, with local supporters who could not leave, remaining behind to face the terrible consequences of making white folks mad.
I finally did get out of Mississippi — in 1967. And I finally got to Houston for the first time when my goddaughter got married there a few years ago.
Copyright © 2009
Last Modified: January 25, 2009.