Fear and the Freedom Movement
A Discussion
July, 2011

Hardy: I can remember about 40 years ago, I remember 40 years ago, everybody told us: "Man, you can go to Kentucky. You can go to Virginia. You can go to all them places and do your Civil Rights. Don't take your ass to Mississippi. Don't take your ass to Alabama. Don't take your ass to Lowndes County. Ain't no way you can win. Black folks are scared. Black folks won't do this. Black folks won't do that." All I know is I'm in Mississippi, and a woman named Rita Walker said: "Where the hell y'all been? I've been waiting for you!" [Laughter]

Chude: I want to say one thing. This is like what Bruce has said over and over, and I think it's something, in terms of speaking, it's just something little: Social movements are only about 5% of the population.

Hardy: Always.

Chude: So the issue for people when they say: "What should we do?" Is really: Well, what matters to you? And how much of a risk are you willing to take? Right now, you know, we're not in a position, most of us, to even to go to jail because of our various health problems, but the point was that there was a point and time when everybody who went to Mississippi was willing to die for that. Literally.

And I think that's the level. Everybody's like: Oh, what's wrong? I mean, even about small social issues is that people have to be willing to take risks.

Mike: A related, though distinct, point. [Chude] observed that you only need 5% to make a social movement. Alinsky's measure was that all you needed was an organized one or two percent. But it had to be a one-or- two percent who were deeply rooted in, and representative of, the rest of the constituency, otherwise when your issue gained popularity the power structure would coopt it and bypass you. I think that's what happened to SNCC. I think it's what Charles Payne is talking about toward the end of his book when he says SNCC lost its roots in Leflore County. I'm now reading a lot of county studies of that period, and it is what every scholar who looks closely at what we did concludes — though perhaps not in these terms.

Miriam: I want to disagree with what [Chude] said. I did not go to Mississippi willing to get killed. And neither did, according to his Mom, Andrew Goodman. His Mom said that he was willing to get beaten up and put in jail, but had not considered...

Chude: You hadn't considered it? Having come from Southwest Georgia?

Miriam: Not at all. I was 21, and I was invincible.


Hardy: That's me walking down the street in Oakland — invincible.

Phil: I'm not sure I think that the verb you (Chude) used there is the right way to say that. I'm not sure most people were willing to be killed.

Chude: OK, maybe not willing — 

Bruce: I think they were willing to risk being killed.

Chude: There you go.

Hardy: I was scared shitless when we got off of that truck — that bus...

Chude: Right. But maybe being a volunteer in that second group out of Ohio makes a difference too, because the three were already killed.

Hardy: They told us, right.

Chude: And so we knew — I mean, Sally Belfrage says in her book — called Freedom Summer — that, "that's when all of a sudden I got it." And I'm thinking: All of a sudden, you got it? I mean, I came from Atlanta. I already knew. I've never forgotten that she wrote that. But yes, a whole lot of people got it. Now maybe it's true — I mean, not everybody had a Messianic Christ complex like the Christian me did. But certainly you knew that dying was one of the things that was on the table — 

Bruce: A theoretical possibility.

Phil: Yeah, a theoretical. I mean, you've got kids going to Iraq right now who don't think about themselves dying...

Bruce: Someone else is gonna die...

Phil: Someone else is gonna die.

Chude: And the odds are that's true.

Jimmy: I wanted to say I was scared every day I was in Alabama. [Laughter]

Jimmy: And I mean every day. And in my opinion, everybody who says that they weren't afraid was a fool.

Bruce: Or a liar.

Chude: See, when you speak, you need to tell people this. They need to understand that there are not super people that do these things while they sit home too scared to move. They need to know that people were scared, that people did dumb things, and that people made mistakes. I mean, they need to know all that, because if they think that activists are a different breed from themselves, then they will never choose to join a movement.

Miriam: No, wait, wait. One could've been afraid in Mississippi, but I wasn't afraid of being killed. Maybe I was in denial; that's what's true for 21-year-olds.

Hardy: What hit me was when Wayne Yancey [on our project was killed]. When that body was laying there, and I had to go in that pocket to try to get that information out of his pocket. It was clear that they would kill us then. And they was parked in front of the Freedom House, with the body.

[The "information" refered to above was a contact list of local Movement supporters which would have endangered them had it fallen into the hands of the Sheriff or Klan]

Bruce: And I just want to say one thing, I was scared every day I was in Alabama and Mississippi...

[People laughing] Hello! Hello!

Bruce: ...but, like Miriam, I also felt I was invincible. I knew I was taking a risk of being killed, and I was willing to take that risk, but I didn't think it would happen to me. Not even when the head of the Crenshaw County Klan had his pistol to my head saying he was going to blow my brains out, I still didn't think he was gonna do it.

[General laughter]

Phil: And he didn't! You're here!

Bruce: And he didn't, and I am here. Thanks to nonviolent training, I was able to survive that situation. So I think what we have to tell people is: Yes, we were all scared, but what we were willing to do was take a risk that we knew was a risk. Whether we faced up to it that it was a risk of dying, or we only stopped at the risk of being beaten or jailed or whatever, we were willing to take a risk for what we believed in even though we were scared. And I think that's the key thing.

Jimmy: One thing I want to say, and I'll never forget it as long as I live. I remember right after Jonathan Daniels got killed, his Senator [from New Hampshire] came to Alabama, and he had about 20 bodyguards around him and he was scared to death! The whole time he was down there, Stokely Carmichael and I just laughed. You could actually see his fear.

Hardy: I was scared coming over there from Jackson with them fools driving a 100 miles an hour to go there. Why do we want to go there? Man, this guy got killed!


Chude: Why we racing there?


Bruce: Well, that's what we did.

Don: The guy that wrote the book on the Freedom Rides, three or four years ago, he was interviewed recently, and he said: "I just want to correct one thing that I wrote in the book. I said how remarkable it was that 400 ordinary people could take on so much and accomplish so much." He said: "I've changed my mind. These were extraordinary people."

Mike: The observation that we were "ordinary people" is often made by us to dispute the "we need a great hero to lead us" theory of history. It's that theory that dominates present accounts of the civil rights movement: "a poor, tired woman wouldn't give up her seat on a bus, and Martin Luther King led a movement for freedom." Rosa Parks is then one of the "ordinary" foot soldiers led by a charismatic Martin Luther King. But just as Rosa Parks, JoAnn Robinson and E.D. Nixon were far from ordinary people, so is it true that we were far from ordinary people.

At the same time, the possibility to be extraordinary is open to everyone — and that's what's different in our view of history. Each person can make a choice to cross his or her Rubicon. Every single Black person who decided to go to the Courthouse to register to vote was, in this sense, extraordinary, as was every single northerner who decided to go south to be part of The Movement. And I think Chude's parents were extraordinary too, given who they were and their history. They made a decision that they didn't have to make because it was the right thing to decide.

I think that it's one thing to say: Yeah, we were afraid. We were this. We were that. But we did not represent anything close to a cross-section of America. I've always wondered: Would I have gone to Spain for the Spanish Civil War? Who knows? Jean wondered if she would get on the Freedom Bus. We don't know, but we were extraordinary. And it's not easy to find extraordinary people, particularly when the economy is bad, particularly when you don't have a good situation like we had in the South, and where you don't have a single movement that everything can coalesce around. It's very difficult. If there is a way of doing it, I'm all for it.

Bruce: But it has been done in the past. I think that the Labor Movement of the '30s was certainly in a worse economy, and there were multiple movements. Movements around — not just movements for unionization, but movements around unemployment, Social Security, farm issues, race issues, war issues. So there was a multiplicity of issues in the '30s, and yet a people's mass movement did exist then.

It's interesting, you know, to contrast the way our culture as a whole, to some degree, reinforces and glorifies the Freedom Movement and still historically absolutely refuses to discuss the Labor Movement of the '30s. I mean, it's wiped out of our culture in a way that the Freedom Movement has not been. But it was as powerful, or even more powerful, and certainly had a broader breadth of active participation than the Freedom Movement did.

Phil: But I mean, how much of that is because — 

Chude: Oh, I just wanted to go back to one thing, again the more subjective thing about the quality of the people we worked with and just remind people that people like my parents, they were not activists. They were good Eisenhower Republican Christians. They had to give me permission, and I wrote them and said: "You may be giving up your daughter." I mean, the dialogue that happened in the letters about my getting permission to go included: I might die.

Bruce: And why don't you post those letters up to the web site?

Chude: I was just thinking about that!

Phil: You've got to be careful with Bruce around!

Chude: But I've been thinking very — Because I have to write an article for a textbook in Ohio, and I've been thinking about doing it on my parents, so this has been helpful because I've been thinking like: Here are these very good-hearted ordinary people, you know, who get challenged, and in a way, their challenge is, in some ways, stronger around this question of willing to let their daughter go because she might die than our little 21-year-old — You know, because it was clear. And remember, I'm in that second group. Monday morning, we go to the meeting, and three are missing. We are told to go and call our parents, have them contact their Congressmen. The Congressman calls my father, my apolitical father and says: "Get her the hell out of there!"


Chude: I'm 20 years old. I mean, he could've gotten me out of there, and this man says: "It's not about my daughter. It's about all of them." It's about the people, yeah. I mean, it's just amazing that these moments come.

Phil: But they come from how, though? I mean they don't just manufacture themselves.

Chude: Well, I think what — yeah, I think with all — the thing about movements, when they begin to rise up, is that people are faced with essentially issues of integrity. But my first husband, Robert, said about resisting the draft — I mean, when all the arguments were done, and it was in here. It was in his heart. You know, it ultimately wasn't that — you know, you're either gonna move, or you're not gonna move. And denial is big on all those — 

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