October 29, 2018
From Dorie Ladner:
I am heartbroken over the recent pakssing of my friends Mattie and George. We knew when we joined the movement that life would not be a bed of roses and that death awaited us all. But maintaining this philosophy makes dealing with the pain of loss no less difficult. The following are but a few of the fond memories I have of Mattie and George.
Like so many movement people native to the state of Mississippi, Mattie and I were related. We were actually cousins and both our families hailed from Wayne County Mississippi, a particularly tough part of the state as far as race relations goes. So that basically meant you had to be tough to survive if you were a Black person. My mother was related to Mattie's father through the now famous Woullard family. At least they're famous in that part of Mississippi. During the movement, we talked all the time about being related and having come from a family as large as ours. During those days, I'd spend as much time with Mattie as I could. At the time she was married to Dave Dennis and we often found ourselves at their house because they always had room for movement people. Her connection to Dave reminds me of a great story. It goes something like this:
Mattie, Colia, and I were the first females working for SNCC to be exposed to Mississippi's Sundown laws. It must have been some time in 1961 or 62 because we were leaving the founding meeting of COFO in Clarksdale. Apparently, it was against the law to be caught outside in certain towns after sundown. Having left Clarksdale, we were trying to get further south in the Delta to go to Amzie Moore's house, where we hoped to spend the night. Well wouldn't you know it. The police stopped us on the road and questioned us at length about who we were, where we were going, and who we worked for. They took Dave, who was driving, out of the car and put him in the police car. And I don't know exactly how long it was, but it seemed like an hour. If you can imagine a very dark road, with no street lights, and a big scary looking white man with a gun in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, you'd probably think time stopped too. Well at some point, Dave came back to the car and told us they were asking him all kinds of questions and apparently he wasn't giving them good enough answers because they were going to take him to jail, which they promptly did. But before they could whisk him away, Dave told us to follow them to jail.
Now you have to remember we're teenagers, and even though we're activists, we're Black and it's the middle of the Mississippi Delta, a place most of us had only heard aboutwhether it was from the newspapers or through stories people told. So, we have to figure out how to deal with this fear and at the same time, we need to come up with a plan to get Dave back because we were sure they were going to kill him if they got the chance. Well through lots of deliberation and eventually the process of elimination, me and Mattie came up with the idea that when we got to the jail, we were going to proudly walk in, present ourselves to the head deputy, and tell him that we were attorneys. And that's what we proceeded to do.
We parked the car, gave them some time to get Dave inside, and eventually Mattie and I found the nerve to go inside the jail. We thought the fact that were well dressed from having attended the COFO founding meeting would show them that we were serious customers and would work in our favor. Well, we sauntered in, heads held high, and demanded to speak to the man in charge, who as luck would have it, turned out to be the man we were actually speaking to. We proceeded to tell him that we were attorneys and that we were David Dennis's lawyer and that they needed to tell us why he was being charged or let him go immediately. I personally thought we'd done quite well. The man we were speaking to looked at us for what felt like a long time, then seemingly out of the blue, he yelled, "You better get the F@$*K out of here before you need both a lawyer and a coroner!" He said it with such meaning that we didn't wait to see if there would be more. We high tailed it out of the jail, jumped in the car and left poor Dave to his own devices. Of course, we were quite sad about having to leave a fellow movement worker behind but we were also genuinely afraid and decided to obey nature's first law of self-preservation.
Well the problem is that we had no idea where to run to. When we left the jail, it never occurred to us to see if they would allow us to ask Dave for the directions to Amzie Moore's house, which was our destination. So, we decided to figure it out on our own. What that meant is that we spent the rest of the evening and all the wee hours of the morning aimlessly circumnavigating the Delta because we had no idea where we were or how to get to where we were going. We did get lucky around daybreak though. We saw a sign that said Ruleville, MS and we knew then we were close. We were also afraid because we'd heard that one of the men who killed Emmett till lived in Ruleville. We cautiously made our way around town and eventually asked some field hands who were on their way to work that morning if they knew Amzie Moore. Of course, they did and they directed us to his house.
You never saw a happier group of movement soldiers when we pulled into Amzie Moore's driveway. When we got there, James Bevel and Diane Nash and their newborn baby were all there and of course we told them what had happened and Amzie immediately started making plans to get Dave out of jail, which he managed to do later that afternoon. But I never shall forget that long scary night I spent with my cousin and friend Mattie. Of course, what most people don't know is that Dave had taken a liking to her, and her to him, and not long after that they got married. I can remember when they were blessed with their precious baby Erika. Mattie exhibited a happiness that I had never seen before. They truly loved their beautiful baby girl. That was a lot of years ago because today Erika is a wife and mother of two sons. There were great moments of laughter in Mattie's Hattiesburg home. Through the years we did a lot of eating, talking, and reminiscing. I will always love and miss my Cousin Mattie.
My good friend George Greene is also someone I will never forget. He was just about one of the bravest people I knew. Of course, he came from a big family up in Greenwood where his father had been an activist. In fact, activists were always welcome in the Greene home. WE stayed there more than once but I particularly remember the time I me, Stokely and H. Rap Brown stayed there. Mr. Green was kind of an independent business man so he didn't have to worry about being fired from his job. I think he painted houses and did other kinds of handy work. Both Black and White people liked and respected him. And they respected him because they knew he was not one of those kinds of Black people who was afraid to fight back. Well George was the same way.
I remember we were told explicitly and in no uncertain terms by members of the Justice Department that we were absolutely not to go into Natchez, Mississippi trying to organize a voter registration campaign. They thought it was just plain ole too dangerous. There had been people there doing work, attempting to organize, and in response the Klan let loose with a lot of bombings. Justice Department officials, who we thought supported our work, were under the impression that we would be killed if we went there and all but ordered us to stay out of Adams County. Well, of course we were SNCC workers, and there was work to be done so we couldn't let something as simple as the threat of a theoretical death stop us from doing our work. So, me, Chuck McDew, and George decided it might be off limits to the feds, but it wasn't off limits to us. Despite their pleading with us to find another town to organize in, it was especially George who was not deterred.
Just as in every instance when we went to new towns there was reconnaissance work to do. It was George who went into Natchez to open up the community for us. Not only was he brave, George was one of those people who made friends easily. He also happened to be an excellent organizer. He was the kind of person that would spend as much as time as it took to explain things to you. He was very patient. So, if he had to spend several hours getting his point across, he would do it. If it took him several weeks, he would do that too. He was just very patient and he loved people, so he was always very understanding of whatever shortcomings a person might have and he would answer any question you asked him about the movement or politics or organizing. In that way he got a lot of people to join us and help with the voter registration project. Doing this work of course put us on the Klan's list of people to be eliminated. To this day, I believe George must have given somebody the impression that we were staying in the house next door to the one that we were actually living in because the Klan came and bombed that house. Well, they bombed the wrong house because we were actually next door. So that's something I will always be thankful for. There's nothing wrong a little misdirection every now and then.
Like a lot of SNCC members, I'm familiar with the stories of George's mind boggling driving skills. He made a habit out of leaving Mississippi cops and Klansman in the dust. There's one story that stands out the most to me and that was the time in the Delta, I forget the year but it might have been 1964, when some sheriff's deputies finally caught up with him and put him in a trap. Well they thought they trapped him, but George just threw the car in reverse and high tailed it out of there. From what I'm told, he drove 80 or 90 miles per hour in reverse until he could whip that car around and leave them for good. They never did catch him. Not that night or any other night. He has earned the crown of one of SNCC's best drivers! I already miss my friend.
Copyright © Dorie Ladner
In Memory: Mattie Bivens
In Memory: George Greene
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