The Freedom Movement and Ourselves
Looking Back 50 Years Later
Group C
Oakland, CA. April 5th, 2014


Don Jelinek, Facilitator (SNCC, LCDC)
Steve Bingham (SNCC)
Margaret Burnham (SNCC)
Mary Ellen Crason Johnson (SNCC)
Bettie Mae Fikes (SNCC, Freedom Singer)   
Charles McDew (SNCC)
Rev. Clarence Johnson (NAACP)
Nancy Elaine Stoller (NAG, SNCC)
Karen Haberman Trusty (SNCC)
Eleanor Walden (SNCC, SCLC, SSOC)


Looking Back on SNCC
What We Failed to Achieve
SNCC in Historical Context
Our History is Not Known or Taught     
SNCC's Five Year Plan   
Voter Registration vs Direct Action   
Liberal Racism
Bettie's Story
The Atlanta Klan Rally
Clarence's Story
How Did SNCC Affect Our Lives?
Steve's Story




Don: Okay. Shall we begin? The first round is we introduce ourselves in a brief manner and get acquainted.

Mary Ellen: I'm Mary Ellen Crason. I was Mary Ellen Johnson, and I brought a picture so that if anybody remembers me, that's what I looked like then. [Laughter]

Done: Great! We all should've done that.

Mary Ellen: But I was in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and I was not there too long of a period, about two to three months, something like that. Because in the process of going to Mississippi, I sold my Volkswagen Bug to a gentleman that I fell in love with, and so I had to go back to Sacramento, because I was in love. [Laughter] So it was a very enlightening period for me, because I was — I was there like '64, 1964, something like that.

Nancy: I'm Nancy Stoller. I worked in in several locations. I first worked primarily in Maryland and the D.C. area and Virginia with the D.C. Area Nonviolent Action Group, mostly out of Howard, starting in the summer of 1960.

Before that I was in Boston and started a Woolworth sympathy picket up there in February. And so that was starting in 1960 there, and then I was involved in various SNCC, D.C. area support work for people further South. Food drives, et cetera, and then I worked in 1962 in Prince Edward County Virginia in a summer project, sponsored by the Northern Student Movement and the Prince Edward County Christian Association. We had Freedom Centers there, and I also did initial voter registration there. And I continued to work with various SNCC support activities and in December 1964, I went to Arkansas as a field worker, a paid staff worker, to coordinate all our Freedom Centers there. I worked in the Delta and Little Rock until the fall of '65 and went on to other stuff.

Chuck: I'm Chuck McDew. I was in the initial meeting of the group that formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — 

Woman: Oh wow.

Chuck:  — That first meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, Easter weekend, 1960. Because at the time, Ms. Baker — Ms. Ella Baker — was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King. And the sit-in movements had started on February 1, 1960. I remember leading a group of students in Orangeburg, South Carolina where I was head of the local student group, the Orangeburg Movement for Civic Improvement. And we got a letter from Ms. Baker saying there was going to be a meeting of student sit-in participants at Shaw University on Easter weekend, 1960. So we all went.

And I remember at the time and thereafter, Ms. Baker in our minds, the students, was the one — the person — with the most credibility in the student movement, I mean in the Movement, the Civil Rights Movement. She knew everybody. She had been the head of the New York NAACP and was put out there — so it was an interesting time, because our decisions about issues of sexism — we had to deal with, at that time, and most of us were freshman and sophomores in college. In fact, what SNCC became made up of was freshmen and sophomores in college. And we — all our advisors, like we had some guy who was the head of the local AME Zion church — 

Don: Excuse me, Chuck, this is supposed to go rather quickly — and then to elaborate later on.

Chuck: Okay, so we trusted Ms. Baker. Ms. Baker invited us to North Carolina. Ms. Baker pointed out that they had decided — today being SCLC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was deciding what to do with the students but not including the students. We decided if they weren't going to include us, the hell with them. We'd form our own group, and the forming of that group became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

I was there at that meeting. And the second meeting of SNCC, I was elected Chairman of the organization. I was Chairman forever. Nearly! Well, okay, so after we — I became — the next thing that was significant was three or four of us dropped out of school and decided to work full-time building an organization: myself, Charles Jones up from Charlotte, Charles Sherrod. From that time, the first thing was dropping out of school to the last thing which was dropping out of SNCC. 19... Just before the March on Washington.

Margaret: No, it was before — which March on Washington? Which March on Washington?

Chuck: Well, the first March on Washington was by Phillip Randolph and those guys. That was in '42.

Margaret: No, no, I'm not talking about that.

Woman: In '63. You mean in '63.

Margaret: What March did you drop — when did you leave SNCC?

Chuck: It was in '63. I mean, I resigned the Chairmanship. I was still working. But I resigned the Chairmanship.

Margaret: But you were still in SNCC, right?

Chuck: Yeah, I'm still in SNCC.

Margaret: Oh yeah, Okay.

Chuck: Yeah, but I was no longer Chairman.

Steve: So I was a typical Northern college student at Yale, and Al Lowenstein came on campus with Bob Moses and persuaded a bunch of us to go to Mississippi to the mock election in October of '63. Aaron Henry, that whole thing.

[NAACP leader Aaron Henry was one of the Black candidates running on the freedom ballot.]

And I went and did press work, because I was on the student newspaper and worked for Julian Bond. Then I got totally wrapped up in it and helped to recruit students for the summer of '64 in the Northeast, dropped out of school unofficially, and we set up an office at Yale and were organizing different recruiting events. I actually got Martin Luther King to speak on a WATS line thing to eight campuses.

[Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) was a precursor to 800 numbers and conference-calling.]

It's kind of exciting to encourage students to come down, and then I went down in '64 to Mileston, Holmes County, between Greenwood and Jackson and did voter registration work. Hollis Watkins was in charge of our project there, and I had to quit early to take a make-up class so I could get my college degree, because I hadn't been going to class. I did that with James Silver who wrote Mississippi, the Closed Society. So it actually was kind of interesting.

Margaret: Margaret Burnham. Similarly to Steve's story, I was recruited by Bob [Moses]. I lived in New York City. Bob came to give a talk. Bob, Charlie Cobb, and Ivanhoe Donaldson came to New York to give a talk about Mississippi Freedom Summer in the fall of 1963 and recruited me. I went down to Mississippi, dropped out of college, went down to Mississippi and worked over the course of 1964 and into 1965.

Karen: My name is Karen Haberman Trusty. And in '63 I was an exchange student to Spelman for a semester and [a second] sit-in movement broke out there, and I ended up — James Foreman recruited me, and I ended up getting arrested in Atlanta and then I also ended up working in the office and eventually ended up working under Bettie Garman in that whole deal.

And then I went back to my school and came back for the summer, worked with staff in Oxford [Ohio at the volunteer orientations], and then went back to Atlanta. And I was the white girl that went into the Klan rally in Atlanta, Georgia, and then with Matthew Jones and Chuck Neblett and Wilson Brown, and somehow we all came out alive. I have no idea how. And then from there, I went to Mississippi and worked in the Greenwood SNCC office on the midnight shift from 12 to 8 on the WATS line. And I crawled out of there at the end of the summer, terrified. And happy.

Don: I'm Don Jelinek. I went to Mississippi in 1965, Jackson, Holly Springs, Lamar County. And after a year, I moved onto Selma, Alabama where I spent the next two years. Very rich time.

Okay, now, for more depth, we're going to deal with the topic which is an evaluation of the Freedom Movement and as you knew it in that time.

Margaret: We can't be governed by this thing, because we won't get anywhere. By this mic. So you know, I'm happy with the recording and all, that's fine. But I don't think — it can't — we can't be talking to the mic. We have to be talking to each other. We have to ignore the mic and talk to each other, figure out a way to talk to each other, to produce, you know, a discussion that's going to be fruitful for us. It's not for the mic. It's for us that we're talking. That's my view, Don. So I would just open it up. I mean, rather than asking each person to recite, like you know, a classroom.

Karen: In keeping with that, I would rather not go first. It could be the person who is ready to go first.

Steve: Right, I think that makes sense.

Don: Yeah, that makes sense.

Steve: And people can jump in and ask a little question, but not carry over the conversation too much.

Nancy: It says here in the schedule that in the morning we want to talk about the Movement, and in the afternoon we want to talk about ourselves. So it sounds like we aren't supposed to be saying immediately what was achieved. You might say, "This is what I saw and what I think was important." So, if we deal with these different questions, in the course in our morning discussion, we should be fine. But you know, obviously, Chuck's gonna have a really different thing to say than Margaret or me or someone else about what we saw and learned. I do agree with taking turns, and that you [Don] will keep us polite, in the sense of everybody getting a chance.


Looking Back on SNCC

Don: Right. Okay. Who would like to start? On the evaluation of the Movement?

Chuck: I would. Now I was taking you back when I first started, that what the sit-in — we all grew out of the sit-in movement. All of us grew out of the sit-in movement, the initial SNCC group. The meeting that was called was called by Ms. Baker by Dr. King. Ms. Baker was the Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under Dr. King. Ms. Baker came to us, us being the students, and said, "Look, the grown-ups over at the [Shaw University] President's house where they were staying, they are deciding on what y'all are gonna do. What we're gonna do. They are deciding what the students will do next.

And I said, "They can't do that. They're not us. We will make that decision." So one of the first things we got into very early is saying we were not gonna be affiliated with any of these groups that already had plans for who and what we were going to be. And the groups were represented. Many groups we had never heard of. Most of us had never heard of CORE, for example. The only thing we'd ever heard of was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Dr. King's group, which called the meeting, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, most of us had never heard of it. I mean, we knew that Dr. King was doing this thing in Montgomery. So just because you were involved in the Movement, you knew about what other things were happening in the Movement.

But we felt no allegiance to any of these groups, because we didn't know any of these people and what they represented or who they represented. So we started talking about that. How are we going to respond to this? Them having a meeting and excluding us? And then simply, the explanation or response was going to be, "The hell with all of them. We'll keep on, but we'll just form a new group, that's not under the leadership, rules, or nothing of any of these existing groups." And we said we'd call that group the Student Coordinating Group. Now, there were some kids, mainly from Nashville, who had studied under Jim Lawson before the sit-in movement had started, but the sit-in movement started spontaneously without those groups, without Diane Nash, without Bernard [Lafayette] — with the Nashville people — weren't the first people to start a sit-in. It was three kids from Greensboro who were affiliated with nobody also.

And we sort of said, "That's where we are." But, in studying with Jim Lawson, they were particularly geared and directed towards a nonviolent movement of creating a student movement that was based on principles of nonviolence. They knew it. They spoke it. Many of them believed in it, and so we talked about, well this group we were going to call the Student Coordinating Group should have "nonviolence" in it. I mean, that's all-American. I mean, you had to believe in nonviolence like you had to believe in motherhood and apple pie and the flag and all that. Nonviolence was cool, so it was a good group thing to aim towards. We are in a nation on the verge of annihilating the human species, so we should have that in there somewhere. So, instead of it being the Student Coordinating Group, it became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And that's how — 

So that's how SNCC got its name. And so without going into all of it, we just sort of said, The minute you no longer feel you can't adhere to nonviolent principles, then just leave. That's cool. Nothing has to happen. You don't have to, you know, dip your blood back or anything. Just say, "I'm done. I can't hang." And leave.

So we talked about — it was interesting, and this is a quick aside but I think important, so many of that initial group were young Black ministerial students. Their leaders, their deans, their teachers, the heads of their departments were all members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The person who took Ms. Baker's place, Wyatt Walker, for SCLC, was also the head of religion at Virginia Union in Petersburg. Charles Sherrod, one of the first people to join this group of four who — some of us dropped out of school — was under Wyatt Walker, was his dean. So very quickly you had to go — it was established you didn't just leave and do what you wanted; it had to with you graduating from college. It had to do with fulfilling your major responsibilities, academic major responsibilities, so you had to very quickly — you were in a confrontational situation with the head of your department. So right quick you had to deal with that, and so whether you were going to join this new group or if you were going to behave and do what you were told and join SCLC.

This was especially difficult, because we were asking SCLC for money, to help us sponsor this new group. We would like you, if you really believe in what we're doing, then give us the money to do it. And don't say that you have to be our advisors. We'll report to you. So from the very beginning, with the creation of the group, we were already in conflict with these other groups, with all of the other civil rights groups in the country. That was established when we said what we were going to be, and they said what we had to be. And we said, "We're not going to be that." So that was that, and then we went on.

Nancy: Nancy Stoller. Being involved with D.C. NAG during that period, the summer and then the winter and while SNCC was developing, I heard a lot of people talking about this conflict, because there were a lot of people who came from Howard who were in our group.

Chuck: Yeah, but when I saw — I was really — Nancy, when I saw NAG, I said, "Damn, I hadn't seen NAG" — we hadn't — I mean, it happened, and then after Cambridge and stuff, it sort of died out.

Nancy: But what happened was NAG basically became a SNCC chapter. You know, with Stokely [Carmichael] and Courtland [Cox] and all these other folks.

Chuck: Yeah, but they didn't get there until much later.

Nancy: I know.

Chuck: Much, much later. In fact, when the people from NAG — Courtland, Stokely, all of them — came — 

Nancy: Hank Thomas.

Chuck: Yeah, we were — we had already determined we were about to go out of business. When we set up SNCC, one of the first things we did was determine that — we planned the death of the organization as we set it up. We said that it wasn't going to last longer than five years. We said that the first — Okay, we're going to have a new group. It'll last five years. Bam, that was right out there then. And the rationale was we did not want to become like these other groups that we had already rejected, determining who and what we would be. We did not want to become an institution determining who and what we would be. So we planned that we would work for five years, and then it's over.

Margaret: Chuck, let Nancy talk, she was going to say something about — 

Nancy: Oh, I just wanted to say that what was so — that I thought was fabulous about SNCC from the beginning was people said, "We are going to do what we think is important. We're not going to be controlled by others." You know, we believe in this particular approach, and we will continue on it, even if you say, "Oh no, you should work with this group or that group, or something like that." And to me, that is one of the tremendous contributions that SNCC made, providing a place where people would act with their bodies together and mobilize that energy of people who were young and unafraid, or afraid but knew what to do. And to me, that's one of the most tremendous contributions. I mean, there are many other contributions I think that SNCC made, but to me, that is one of the most exciting right from the beginning, the way people stepped out and said, "We will make our decisions and have our group," and I just wanted to add it, because that was what was happening, I think, in that period that you were talking about, that kind of creativity. And also developing the networking so that one group would support another, and people began to be in communication in a more organized way. The South, the Upper South, et cetera. I just wanted to add that in.

Karen: I agree, and also it set the model of empowerment for young people. It was like, "We're not going to be determined by Martin Luther King's agenda," which was fine, but it was, "We have our own. We're smart enough, brave enough, determined enough to do it ourselves." And for me, that was just mind blowing when I started being with SNCC, because it was such a feeling of just empowerment and honoring who we were in the grassroots kind of organizing. You don't have to be important. You matter. You can stand up. I mean, it was just cool. It was totally cool.

Don: Anybody want to comment on that part? Margaret?

Margaret: Well, so yeah, I think Karen's onto something which is something — everybody in here seems to be from SNCC or had some mainly SNCC experiences, so we're really talking about our experiences as young people working with SNCC.

And it strikes me — a couple of things. One, what Karen said which is, unlike many of the other organizations, we saw a purpose as empowering and giving voice to people, giving them the ability to step up as facilitators rather than actual — we're setting the agendas. To key us into what you said too, Chuck, that we're not really setting your agenda. We're simply trying to do what we can to facilitate you setting your own agenda. So that was kind of fundamental to our organizing. It is a fundamental organizing principle which I think distinguished SNCC from a number of other organizations.

And then secondly, just in terms of our topic which is, "What was achieved? What wasn't achieved?" I think SNCC — well, the organizations of the '60s generally, but SNCC in particular, recalled a period of progressive, cross-racial organizing in the United States that had actually been buried because of the McCarthy period during the 1960s. So there was a period of time around the 1930s and around the labor organizing and around Civil Rights organizing in the 1940s, which Ella Baker was a young person doing her thing down all across Alabama, in which some of the approaches we ultimately adopted as our own were tested out and developed in that period.

And then all of those people were essentially silenced in the 1950s, and marginalized. And so it took a rebirth of a progressive initiatives in this country, either by looking at what had gone on during the '50s and rejecting it and saying, "We need a new left in the country." Or by pursuing the movements of the 1940s that SNCC found its moment, as it were, and exploited it. You know, the country was ready; the country was ripe. And so that's the second thing.

And then the third thing, I think, that we accomplished was opening up the South in ways that had not yet been done by the NAACP or SCLC or any of the other organizations. And by saying, This might be a closed society, but you belong to us; we belong to you. We have a right to come down here; we have a right to work with you folks and rejecting this idea that the South was an authoritarian region unto its own that could never be transformed or could never be a part of our country. And so just kind of opening it up and making clear that we were going to bring bodies, courage, new ideas, new strategies into this theretofore closed society, as Silver said. And then so that was the third thing. And then I did have a fourth thing, but I forgot what it was. I've forgotten now.

Don: Steve, do you want to pick up on this?

Steve: I'll pick up a little bit, and just because nobody's mentioned it yet, I put on my little [name] tag, "COFO," and it sort of picks up from what you're talking about SNCC. One thing that I think is interesting with the Council of Federated Organizations — SCLC, CORE, NAACP and SNCC — the way it was put together, it was all SNCC. And so SNCC not only — and I think it's an important lesson, did what you were — 

Nancy: Which state? Or...?

Steve: Oh, in Mississippi. They [COFO] ran the Mississippi Summer Project. That's true. I don't think COFO existed before — maybe they did at the time of the Aaron Henry campaign, but they were really put together around those campaigns. But the interesting thing about SNCC's politics, and I admire, is that it could've been very easy, based on what you were talking about, in this sort of difference from NAACP and the other organizations, to just continue to go it alone. And in fact, and I'm sure you know more about it than I do about how COFO even came together, but SNCC wanted to leverage the minister-power and everything else that those organizations had, to do something truly huge.

I mean, it doesn't maybe seem that way in retrospect, but a thousand students in 1964, it was, as Bob Moses said on many occasions, it was the only way to get the rest of the country to pay attention. And it was tested in '63. That was one of the specific reasons why the small group was recruited for the Aaron Henry campaign, mainly students from Yale and Stanford, connected through Al Lowenstein, who had connections at those campuses and got to know Bob. The idea was to test out whether [white] students can work with SNCC and CORE staff people in a multiracial environment. And it was probably no more than 40 or 50 people at a time who were down there doing the fall campaign, and it seemed to work.

[See Freedom Ballot in MS for background.]

And so then the idea of leveraging the resources of the other organizations and building that into COFO meant that there were more resources. But somehow the other organizations were willing to essentially let SNCC guide the philosophical and practical direction of COFO and what it would look like. Because I never really felt any identity with the other organizations. I felt totally identified with SNCC. And for all intents and purposes, we were all working for SNCC, but I still think that having that organization gave added credibility for the national news media. Because even though King wasn't directly involved in anything we were doing, his organization [SCLC] was one of the sponsors. So I think it was an important strategy.

[Under the overall COFO administration, SNCC members staffed the organizing projects in four of Mississippi's five congressional districts. CORE members staffed the projects in the remaining district. Volunteers who worked on SNCC-staffed projects tended to identify with SNCC and volunteers who worked on CORE-staffed projects tended to identify with CORE.]

Don: Mary Ellen, do you want to join here?

Mary Ellen: Yeah, one of the things that I remember from Holly Springs with SNCC was that the emphasis was placed on having the Black man be in charge, and the rest of us be supportive, but not in charge. That came through very, very clearly with SNCC. I didn't see that in the other organizations. You know, those of us were to be supportive, but not take over. That's the thing that really — and I thought that was an interesting way of dealing with it.

Nancy: Having been involved as a white woman and a college student in a bunch of different places, I always felt that my role was to be supportive to Black leadership. And also because I also had different kinds of access to resources, I should bring my resources — like when I worked in Prince Edward County, somebody said to me, "Oh, you took a sociology course. You can do a voter registration survey." And I was like, "I can?" And they said, "Well, that's something you could do." And that was the first research project I ever did in my life.

And then when I was in Arkansas, we had a lot of struggles about racial issues and leadership. Our temporary — or at one point, our leader, the director of project was a guy named Bill Hanson. You probably know him. An extremely arrogant individual. And Bill was involved in a lot of struggles with another person, Jim Jones, who became our director. And we had a lot of issues about men and women, Black and white. And I felt that the people I had the most trouble with, I'd say, was the white men. Somebody like Bill who was very brave and always willing to put himself in front and be beaten up or whatever, but didn't really know how to step back and be the support person for the local leadership. And to me, I felt that in the whole history of SNCC, people did a really good job in trying to deal with these issues and local-national, northern-southern, male-female.

And for me, also, I did things that I never would've done if I hadn't been in SNCC. Like driving big trucks and doing whatever, all these different things. And I think that SNCC contributed enormously to kind of a cultural change in how white and Black folks work together in a kind of democratic organization. To me, SNCC was a model democratic organization that we learned from, how to work together. That was a huge contribution.

Don: I felt that SNCC was an amazing melting pot of concepts and ideas. Going back to '63 and then into '64, Jim Foreman, who was then the Executive Secretary of SNCC, had great reservations about whites coming down. On the other hand, as Steve mentioned, that was considered the only way, that people were gonna pay attention. But despite that plan, it was successful on the external, but not that successful on the internal.

As this Harvard psychiatrist, Alvin Poussaint who wrote on the subject, pointed out that the motivations were noble, but the inherent conflicts were inevitable. And for Black men, Black women, these were the first whites they'd ever been in contact with on a social basis. And the skills that you mentioned, that you brought down, were effective but also were felt by most SNCC leaders to be detrimental to Black internal organizing and the ability to operate the projects themselves. As Poussaint pointed out — this is quoting a patient — "If a white taught a Black resident how to operate the typewriter or the mimeograph machine, it was considered taking over. On the other hand, if a crisis arose, and he then took over, then that was resented, because it was a formal take over.

So it was somewhat inevitable, and of course there was a great resentment about the dispersed feelings about the two whites and Chaney — the killing. As a matter of fact, the white families were invited to the White House, but not Chaney's family. And this was, in general, all the publicity, the attention. And it was kind of a forming, at this point, I knew this would happen. And then came the issue behind it, was Foreman then wrote, "I never thought that the whites would stay." They were supposed to leave after the summer. But some 60 or 70 remained. It's a large number actually in a small state, and brought down other people to join. And this is when the trigger occurred that eventually led to not Black Power as much as the white exclusion.

So how do you evaluate? None of this experimentation was the basis for all the good things that happened afterwards. People learned that they could handle things on their own, that interracial items would work, but it would have to go slowly. And then with Black Power, it became more of a problem.

Nancy: I think you're a little more pessimistic than I am. I just wanted to say that. I think there were a lot of white people who came out of the Movement who were very supportive of Black Power and didn't find it so difficult. To me, I've never seen it as an exclusionary movement. I just wanted to say that.

Steve: Well, I mean, that's sort of been the narrative, a lot. A lot of the books that have been written have reflected what Don said, and I think the moment that those things were taking place it was very real, but I wonder, and maybe I'll ask Chuck to comment on it directly. Looking back after 20, 30 years at that experience and some of the negativity that Don was referring to that was felt and debated passionately, when all was said and done, and people moved on and were informed by that experience in their different ways, isn't it generally true that most people came out of that with a positive experience that helped them do better things with their lives?

Chuck: Oh yeah. See, I think that one of the things that happened, and you'll speak to the old guys who — there were many Black staff who were reluctant to have whites come in and join us. Along with that feeling, "They're just always trying to take over." That's one view. The other was something that is seldom said, but you were conscious of it. For example, most of our staff had come out of Black schools. And at most of those schools, there were white teachers. There were white teachers who had more privileges than the Blacks they worked for. So there was some of that. Good teachers, inspiring teachers, like Joyce Ladner's advisor, was a white teacher from Germany. In fact — 

Margaret: [Ernst] Borinski was his name. He was my advisor too. He advised a lot of us.

Chuck: Yeah. There were a lot of Jewish teachers who came to the United States during WWII or just before. Academics could get a passport out of the country. Most people know about {Helen?} and Einstein at Princeton. But most of those teachers, like 90% of them, went to Black schools in the South. About 90% went to Black schools in the South. So you had kids who could see. They had been in schools where the white Jewish teachers were now in positions of power when, you know, some years ago they were marching them off to Buchenwald. So there was some of that. And can't we — I mean, we have the ability to just do this Black thing.

And then there was the other argument, "No, we don't want to be like white folks. We don't want to be like white folks by rejecting somebody because of the color of their skin. Ain't their fault they're white. You know, I feel sorry for them, but they didn't do anything to deserve this." And so those who were more on top of the history, and there were a lot of us who were conscious of what we're doing. Every day we're making history. Like Steve, when you were talking, and I was really thinking of what's his name? The chaplain at Yale — Coffin.

Steve: Bill Coffin [William Sloan Coffin].

Chuck: Yeah, Bill Coffin. Because we own now — or one of us — Charlie Cobb has the land that Bill Coffin's great-grandfather had in South Carolina. It was the only place in the state of South Carolina where abolitionists could get you out of South Carolina. And it is on Hunting Island, and the land that Reverend Coffin — Bill Coffin's grandfather — he was the only abolitionist, public abolitionist in the state of South Carolina.

We were very aware of that sort of thing. Of whites who would — William Lloyd Garrison. I was talking just a couple of weeks ago with some students from Oxford about the foundations' involvement in the Movement and saying that the Taconic Foundation where we got funding for voting registration, I was telling one of the people the fact that William Lloyd Garrison III was on the Taconic Board was what got us to agree to go. That's what got SNCC — there were some people on the Taconic's Board, There were some people on it, like Garrison, that went back to pre-Civil War.

And so we knew about those people who had expressed, you know, a 150-year commitment to civil rights and the Movement. When Martin came up — but there were other whites who had given constantly. Plus, we went through a whole thing of, like I said, there was a whole thing, "We don't want to be like white folks, and discourage people because they're white." And we had gone through the thing and the hiring of Bob Zellner [as a SNCC staff member] earlier. That had been a big struggle in SNCC with the hiring of Zellner. And so we had, for the most part, resolved that discussion about whether or not we were going to have whites. We were going to have whites. And y'all who don't want it, tough noogies, we're gonna have 'em. They're coming. You've been outvoted. You're gonna have white folks. White folks will be here, and so you adjust.

Steve: Wasn't he brought in to do work mainly in white communities?

Chuck: Who?

Steve: Bob Zellner.

Chuck: Well, in fact, in fact it was SSOC [Southern Students Organizing Committee] later on. We had talked about whites — there's one problem we ran into. With so many people staying behind, 60, 70 — that is a problem. I mean, you feel comfortable in Black communities. I feel comfortable. Where you're welcome. People will lay down their lives for you. And two blocks away from there [in a white neighborhood], they'll blow your head off for just looking their way. So, they had some fear for white communities and had found the greatest comfort they ever had and acceptance in Black communities.

And so we were saying, "So, we've sort of gotten away from it, because we need the white folks to neutralize, at least keep them from shooting at us while we're trying to educate a few people." And the whites that we had hired, they didn't want to have nothing to do with white people, especially down there. White folks down there didn't want to have nothing to do with them; they didn't want to have nothing to do with them. So they found acceptance in the Black community.

Then there was also — and I'm about to end this quickly, we had gone back and looked, and when we did all this stuff, we had looked at the history before. What had happened with NAACP? What had happened with — there was a time when all Black intellectuals were Communist. I mean, if you weren't, you weren't doing shit. If you weren't a Communist back in the '30s, '40s, at least affiliated with them in some way, you weren't doing nothing with Black people.

So, there was that history, and there was that history of the Communists leaving them strung out in the '40s and the '50s. So a lot of really good-hearted good people, which had been Party members also, at some point and especially during the first March on Washington [1941], proposed march, was Phil Randolph and all those guys. The good Communists were saying, "No, no. What we should be doing is supporting the Soviet Union." Black people said, "Hell with the Soviet Union. We need jobs. We want discrimination in the Armed Forces dealt with. We need to do stuff that's going to help us. And if y'll ain't gonna help us, the hell with you." And so that's where the big split came, long before we ever — but we were of a mind, and that was due to in great part to Ms. Baker of sort of saying, "If you're going our way, come on and go. And everybody is welcome."

Don: What do you mean, keep going our way?

Chuck: If you're going in the path we were setting up programmatically. You know, if you want to get into voting registration, if you want to work at Freedom Schools, these are things we're doing. We're going about registering voters. We're going about Freedom Schools. See, because before, one of the things that happened, in going back now, before '63 when we first started, we were meeting with a lot of people. When we got in the Movement, most Black students were in Black schools, we were unfamiliar with all these other groups, white groups, Young People's Socialist League, YPSL. We didn't know. There were hundreds of political groups of white students. We figured they ain't doing shit except talking to each other. So, the way we differed from them is we're gonna do something. We won't talk about it all the time. Talk about it a little bit of the time, and then do it.

Don: Or talk about it a lot of the time and do it. [Lauging]

Chuck: Yeah. Yeah. But we would not be — we used to have people all the time come with suggestions, of SNCC should be involved in X, Y and Z. And I would say to them, "Look, if you want to discuss ramifications of Lenin's theories on revolution, cool. I will find you a field. I know just the place near McComb where you can speak for hours if you want to explain your theories on what's it going to take to have a revolution based on Marx and Engels' theories, cool. . I will set it up for you. I will even take the microphone and leave it there for you. I'll tell you where it's gonna be, because I ain't gonna be there, and none of the rest of us will." So we'd get these things and have to say, Since all y'all are doing is talking, because nine of out of ten times, these heads of YPSL, YSA [Young Socialist Alliance], all of them, weren't offering — weren't putting their bodies with their thoughts. And so we'd say, We will get other white folks who haven't gotten bogged down in the student politics of our universities, the only ones we knew of that were at all political were the groups in NSA [National Student Association]. They're a bunch of wimps; they ain't gonna do shit.

Nancy: I wanted to follow up on what you said, Chuck, because I think that was another huge contribution that SNCC made to political culture and organizing in the U.S. which is this emphasis on what people do versus what they say. And when you think of the movements, whether it's the Women's Movement or Gay Liberation or a lot of the other ethnic liberation movements that emerged starting in the '60s and the '70s, I think a big aspect of their approach was letting go of the theoretical stuff and creating new ways of thinking about what you're doing. Doing through action, valuing action, whether it was consciousness-raising or community organizing. We're gonna work on what's happening where we are, and judging people by their commitment to the movement and their activism.

When you were talking about somebody white being in a predominantly Black movement, the question is what is this person doing? And how do people relate to each other in the Movement? Do they show respect for each other? And to me, that was a huge contribution from SNCC — to how our politics have changed in this country. We've been talking about voter registration and changing the political environment in the South and opening up the South, people running for office based on their relationship to their community, where people are judged not by, "Do you have this degree or that degree?" But what is your community commitment that people can see? And ever since then there is less emphasis on degrees and so on and so forth. And I really think that the SNCC approach really created a lot of that culture which I think is still going on.

Steve: Yeah, I wanted to sort of say somewhat the same thing. I was with Mario Savio in Holmes County [MS]. We were in the same house together. And he comes back to Berkeley from Mississippi, and literally within a month of him leaving the state of Mississippi, he's standing on a police car.

[One of the key events in the rise of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley occurred when students staged a sit-in around a police car to prevent them from taking CORE activist Jack Weinberg to jail after he was arrested for handing out Freedom Movement literature. Savio and others stood on the car's roof to address the protesting students. A number of civil rights activists and Freedom Summer volunteers played leadership roles in the FSM.]

And you know, I can't help but think that the SNCC thing of let's talk a little and figure out what we're gonna do, and then we're gonna go and do it, just had this influence. And then you see this Stop the Draft Movement. I mean, people had been protesting the Vietnam War for years already, from '64, '65, and people in Oakland, a lot of them who [had been civil rights workers] in the South, not just Mississippi but in different places, all of a sudden they're saying, "Shit, let's just put our bodies down there and go stop it."

[Referring to Stop the Draft Week in December of 1967 when thousands of demonstrators used civil disobedience and mass protest in an effort to block the Oakland [CA] Induction Center from processing conscripts into the military. In the short-term, the attempt to halt the flow of draftees into the military failed. In the long-term, Stop the Draft Week played a key role in fostering widespread draft resistance and eventually ending the draft.]

And I think when history is written, this germ that Ella Baker inspired, the whole formation of SNCC, is pulling in the kinds of students who were then going to be those kinds of people who go out to organize. It's extraordinary how all of us, almost without exception, our lives were just fundamentally changed from what was as little as six or eight weeks in the South.

Don: We also had the assistance of the Mississippi law enforcement, to bring about those feelings. How many, "The policeman was our friend, the person who protected us, the person we could count on," and then suddenly we're in an environment where the police are openly lawless. They're openly punitive. And now, like Mario, you come back and suddenly the authority figures say, "No, no, you can't do that. These are the rules." But from the SNCC experience, breaking those unfair, un-American-type rules was what you had grown up on. And so the fact that people reacted, it may have been a surprise at the moment, but in hindsight, it's not a surprise. People had never had that kind of opposition before.

Karen: Also, I know for me, it was starting to understand, like watching the FBI collude with the local police chiefs. And in Greenwood, there was a situation where there was actually a demonstration after Silas Magee was shot, and the police blocked off the street and started up and down with their sawed off shotguns, and I was terrified. And what the FBI did was go up and shake the hand of the police chief. Well, that was it for me with the FBI. I was done. I mean, there was no friggin' way that I would ever trust them or believe. And yet, I didn't have that analysis or even thought before. And I was so struck.

And this is sort of the privilege that, as a white person, I was raised with, but I had never been somewhere where there was nobody to call. There was a time when I went to the laundromat, and this guy got out with a baseball bat, and I thought I was done, you know? And there was no — if he decided to beat me up, there was nothing. There was nothing. And I just think that powerless position, for me, really taught me a lot and gave me an empathy and an understanding. And also, when I was attacked at the rally in Atlanta, that gave me an understanding of the hatred that was really involved. Those guys wanted to kill me. And there was no doubt. And just that 15 or half an hour — I don't know whether it was 15 minutes or 45, I don't even have any idea how long it was, but it taught me what viscerally — not in the head — and that is what I think is so — for me, it was so alive to not have this intellectual stupid conversation but to have this real was so based in what was happening and what our experiences were, so for me, that was a lot of it.

And the other thing I wanted to say is that I find it really disgusting that the country did not pay attention to Mississippi until white students were there. It still makes me really mad and the Ella Baker quote of "When a Black man's death is worth a white man's death, then we'll be free." Of course, it's something like that. Sweet Honey [in the Rock] sings it. And yet, I think that because, in a sense, that was used, the explicit racism of the country was sort of used to open up. And when Schwerner and Chaney and Goodman died, that started breaking down the police state of Mississippi.

And I would like to ask you, I always felt like if there were 1,000 Black leaders in Mississippi, they could get away with killing 900. You know, just continually bumping off the Herbert Lees and the Medgar Evers and everybody. Whereas, because of the racism of the country, when that happened with white students, as disgusting as it is, that's what focused the attention. And it seems very sad to me that that was the case, but I also feel like that was the beginning of the breaking of the police state.

Chuck: Well, there's a wonderful play on Broadway now about President Johnson, and in fact I'm on my way out there next week — what's the name of it? The guy from [Dept. of] Justice. John Doar. I won't take him to it; he's not been well. But in this play with Johnson — 

Don: All the Way.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah. All the Way. Wonderful play. Very well done. I just watched last week before that, where a movie is being produced on the NAACP and COFO and the whole voting rights thing, where you see it in that, and the movie footage where Johnson talks about, "What are we gonna do about these niggers?" And so he's hardly pure, his hands are stained with blood, but he did the right thing. At the end, he did the right thing. And we always said, "Well, Johnson at least is doing something. Kennedy ain't doing shit. He talks a good game. But Johnson is getting stuff done." And in the play, they have Bob Moses' speech and Dave Dennis' speech. I see a lot of plays — Fannie Lou Hamer's speech. And in most of the plays and movies, SNCC doesn't exist. SCLC — Martin does. And that's it.

Nancy: Rosa Parks is also known.

Chuck: Yeah. But I've seen, now with the thing in Minneapolis with Fannie Lou Hamer, we are just starting to exist, SNCC, in the arts now. But it was for so long, and I think part of that has to do with the little King, what's his name? King's — 

Don: What do you mean? His children?

Chuck: Yeah, yeah. Little King snakes. The little King snakes. Marty [Martin Luther King III?] and his brother [Dexter King?], who won some prize and all sorts of — 

Don: The people who were selling the "I Have a Dream " speech.

Chuck: Yeah.

Margaret: Snakes might be a little strong, but Okay. I follow you.

Chuck: Yeah, the King heir.

Don: They are despicable.

Chuck: But, with this other stuff, especially the {UNCLEAR} thing, like {UNCLEAR} things about Fannie Lou Hamer in the last three months, it just didn't used to exist. And it's starting to exist now.

Nancy: I was going to say, a musician/composer from the Bay Area, Mary Watkins, has made an opera about Fannie Lou Hamer which is going to be presented at, I think, Mount Holyoke this spring. It was already shown here. It's another great example of someone ringing Fannie Lou Hamer to another public.

Margaret: So I want to say two things. I want to pick up on two points that have been put out there. First of all, following up on Don and Karen's point about police violence and the fact that each of us, at some point in our experience, was subjected to some sort of police violence and what transformative consequences it had for us individually. You know, as far as the African-American community is concerned, it's very different from the white communities' prior experiences. Those of us who came to Mississippi from urban areas in the North or who came from other states or who were in Mississippi who lived in these states, this was not new. I mean, this was a continuum. Nobody was ever — none of us ever grew up trusting the police. None of us ever grew up trusting the FBI. That just was not part of our experiences. I mean, they were always seen as hostile forces in our communities from the very beginning. So this certainly had reinforcing consequences, and I'm not saying that it was anywhere — that Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Black neighborhood of Brooklyn NY] was anywhere close to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I'm not saying that. They were far different. And there was nothing like having a police gun shoved into your belly in Mississippi. There were no experiences to compare with that, for a 20-year-old, that's for sure. And so I think that every single one of us who experienced that — and that had to be everyone who came down there. In some form or another, everyone had a violent experience — a personal experience or they saw someone close to them beaten up nearly to death.

I worked in the COFO office for a long time, and we had these people come in from the fields who were beaten. I was beaten. I remember Mickey coming in — Mickey Schwerner coming in reporting violence from the fields, so life-threatening violence was like a constant feature of your existence down there. And then necessarily it defined the kind of relationship that you had with authority and that you took back with you wherever you were going. And I also think that the continuity from those experiences, not just to Mario [Savio], which is important, but also to the development of the Black Panther Party here in the Bay Area and ultimately across the country. And with the new focus on police violence, a lot of that came out of the experiences of people who had been in the South and not just Mississippi. So that's one thing.

And then the other thing, someone mentioned the internal/external divide, that there were ways in which we communicated within, among each other, that put difficult issues on the table, as far as racial differences and certainly gender differences and class differences as well, all came on the table and all were a part of the way we tried to develop an essential part of our strategizing. And as much a part of our strategizing as thinking about what people in these smaller groups had formerly talked about, which is kind of larger political questions. But it was also true that in addition to trying to develop meaningful working relationships across these divides that we were also trying to understand the nature of leadership and who can be a leader? And who should be a leader? And when should we abandon old theories of leadership to look at new ways of getting work done?

And those were all pretty much original with SNCC, you know, the non-hierarchical, or at least the effort to be non-hierarchical, the tip of the hat to a non-hierarchical style of working, where every voice was valued. Now of course, in the reality, it was a deeply sexist organization, like most were at that time. And I have a photograph that I was just looking at that I'll share with you. Someone just gave this to me. I'll just pass it around. So this captures a lot of what we're talking about. It's, you know, us deep in conversation, deep into the night. It's like this is about four o'clock in the morning at one of the Atlanta offices, but if you see who is standing up at the board, it's the guys. So trying to sort of understand what all of those meant to actually getting the work done I think was something that carried over to other organizations that we worked with. People picked up on it; they brought it to their new work, and that was also uniquely SNCC.

Nancy: In one of these questions here — I don't know how long we have?

Don: About one [hour, left in the morning session].


What We Failed to Achieve

Nancy: It's the lessons, "What did we fail to achieve? What did it all mean?" I don't think we've talked about those. Or maybe we don't want to; I don't know.

Steve: No, I think it's good to talk a little bit about what we failed to achieve, because actually one of the key things I wanted to say, even in coming here today, I'm about two-thirds of the way through Michelle Alexander's, New Jim Crow, which probably everybody's already read a long time ago, but I'm just struck with the fact that the whole purpose of the Mississippi Summer Project was registering people to vote. And yet we now are in a situation where we tolerate the total disenfranchisement of just a huge segment of the population [Ex-convicts].

Nancy: Five million people.

Steve: And they're almost all people of color. And nobody's paying attention. I mean, it's just profoundly, for me, thinking about it, it's almost like the Civil Rights Act finally came. LBJ [said], "We Shall Overcome," and so forth from the White House, and everybody said, "Oh, we've won," and I don't know, fold up the tents and go home. And didn't realize that in fact we really only got onto the surface of things and just begun the work.

And you know, one reason is probably that the Vietnam War sort of interfered with the continuation of that effort, and to the credit of the civil rights struggle and the effect it had on people, we were able to wage a righteous campaign — it was pretty amazing — against the Vietnam War. And I don't think that would've happened in that way before. But nonetheless, it distracted people from the continuity of the other struggle that was happening. And the hardest part of it is the consciousness — the lack of consciousness that's happening. And I'm hoping that's something that may come out of today is beginning to reflect on, "What is that lack of consciousness?" Because if there isn't consciousness, there isn't going to be struggle. And there are people struggling, of course. There's a small group of people around the country who really are committed to {UNCLEAR}. But for most people, it's not there. And somehow, I feel that we failed in some sense in having been so on top of something so huge, and then letting it go.

Nancy: I have a kind of different take on the organizing around Vietnam. The way I felt coming out of the Movement, I was married to an African-American man, had a kid, I was more, I think, connected to the African_American community. I didn't go back into just a white world. And I felt that a lot of people I knew that were very active in the struggle against the war, they were and it was an overwhelmingly white movement. And then the white people who had come down south, they learned from SNCC and from the Movement and they applied it to something that directly impacted them in various ways — the draft for the war in Vietnam.

But I felt like there was a lot of organizing happening outside of the white world and the universities that wasn't all about fighting the war. And the movement against the war gave a place where people who had gotten their skills in SNCC and learned a different way to organize, they were able to become important leaders, and they promoted this notion, "Okay, the [Freedom] Movement is over," because they were involved in another movement. And [then] the war was over, and that movement was done, and so one with other movements.

So again, I don't have as quite a bleak a view. I don't think "the Movement ended in the 1960s." Or maybe you don't, in fact, have a bleak view. But I think that the struggle against racism in the South and the North has been alive continually. It's just that this group of [white] people who maybe kind of felt that they were working together with African-Americans, they as white people were discovering new things about racism and so on. Then they went away in different directions.

At the same time, we have the repression of the '70s and the growth of the prison industrial complex, et cetera, et cetera, all of that as a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and the changes it brought — and a transformation, kind of like what you were talking about in Michelle Alexander's book and so on. But I don't think that it was a letting go of these issues throughout the country. There's still an altogether strong liberation movement addressing issues of racism and discrimination.

Chuck: I agree with Nancy, because I see that the do-nothing white folks took from the Movement and started doing. The Movement — now we hear of — you go in separate rights for disabled people, for blind people; we're conscious of rights for women. So when people ask, or raise the question, "How did the blind, the crippled, and the non-hearing, handicapped person get on the road to fight for freedom?" We can point back to the Movement, because before that, there were a thousand and one YSA, YPSL, those were all the names, that weren't doing anything, that were talking about the game but never getting in there and struggling and baring their chests to the sword. And we've gone from that point to now it is expected that you bare your chests to the sword, that activism is expected among people today.

And so even if they — like I have a daughter who is 28, 29. We're talking about — she's a big shot executive with the corporate, capitalist world, but we're talking about a [SNCC] legacy project which is to carry on the legacy of us all, how do we get younger people in? How do we bring others in to continue this? Because clearly, and I see it as one of the failings, going to the points, is we did not deliver the messages of how this worked and how it can work. That we did not — some of it we teach here and there, but there's no real unity in that. You might find a couple of people on the West Coast, two or three people on the East Coast, a few in the Midwest, but there's nothing unified about it. But when my Eva, my daughter, talks with Bob Moses' daughter about how she can help with the latest project that Bob's come up with, the universal education for all American people born in America. Period. That's it. Quality education for every person born in America.

Margaret: Every person in America. Not born in America. Because that excludes a whole bunch of people if you say born in America. Quality education as a Constitutional right.For everyone.

Chuck: For everyone. Agreed. I stand corrected.

Margaret: No, no, that's an important correction to make, because we see ourselves as also part of the immigration — as fighting against discrimination against immigrants.

Chuck: Well, we were talking — like I said, I'm on my way next week to see John Doar.

[John Doar was a Justice Department official who played an important role in supporting and aiding the Southern Freedom Movement (to the degree he was permitted to do so.)]

He's 94 and sick. And I want to see him before he leaves or before I leave. So, last time we talked, which was at his 93rd birthday, and he was saying, "Well, what are you going to be doing?" I said, There's a new project that Bob has been thinking about, and that'll certainly take at least a half a century. [Laughter]

It took 75 years, really, to get where we are with this. You know, to get a Constitutional Amendment is going to take at least a half hundred years or 75 years like this time. And some of y'all won't be around. I'll be here, but some of y'all are gonna be gone. [Laughter]


SNCC in Historical Context

Margaret: I just wanted to pick up on that, Chuck, and say a couple of things. First of all, we all were part of a particular movement. We had the honor and privilege of being a part of a really important movement and in the making of our own country. And that's great, and what we can add to history is an accurate portrayal of what that movement was and how we experienced it individually. And now through these discussions, talk about if there are collective similarities. I don't think it's right to say that the world started with SNCC. It didn't start with SNCC.

Don: I'm sorry, what didn't start with SNCC?

Margaret: That the world — that progressive America started with SNCC and that before that, there were just talk shops. People were armchair revolutionaries. You know, Ella Baker came out of something. She came out of the field in Alabama. She moved all over the field as an NAACP activist during the 1940s, and she was taught by somebody. So, there were people doing field work long before SNCC discovered the field.

My own parents worked for an organization called the Southern Negro Youth Congress in the 1940s. They left New York City, and they went to Alabama. They spent six years in Alabama until Bull Connor said to my father, "This town is not big enough for both of us. You're gonna have to go." And kicked him out, and in 1950, they moved back to New York. So this is part of a long — SNCC came out of all of that.

And so when we say — but in celebrating our own contribution, it has to be part of understanding the continuum of work. Not only from the back, but also from the front going on. Which we're proud to do. We're proud to say, if there's a differently abled movement it came out of SNCC, or it owes an indebtedness to SNCC. All of this is true, but our job has got to also be to acknowledge that we all came from somewhere. I never would've been in SNCC had my parents not been involved in progressive affairs in this country for years. And that's true of a whole bunch of people who came into the Movement. We came in there with something, you know? It was just not blank screens that came out of college classrooms.

You know, these are people who came in to the Movement who brought something. So that has to be acknowledged, and I say that because if you look at the shelves in college libraries, there are thousands of books on SNCC. Everybody — your story is important, and it's going to be among them — everyone has told their SNCC story. They've talked to one of these things, or they've had somebody "as told to" — everybody has had their SNCC movie. And these earlier generations never got their due. They never really got their — no one has ever really told those stories, and so to the extent that we continue to talk about things as if they started in February of 1960, we really erase an important aspect of it. And I don't want to ...

Steve: The labor movement, for example, to which we all owe an incredible debt of gratitude — 

Margaret: Which is the only reason that those of us who work are here on a Saturday. [Laughter]

[Referring to the fact that it was the labor movement which fought for, and eventually won, the 8-hour workday, 40-hour work-week, and weekends off.]

Steve: You can keep going back further and further. I mean, there were revolts — slave revolts — and so forth. I mean, there's a continuum in all of our history, and it does need to be threaded together in a way that really hasn't happened.

I will say, just as one small correction, because you say you wouldn't have been in SNCC but for your parents. That's an amazing story that I hope you're going to tell about your parents some time. But some people actually, mainly white probably — 

Margaret: That's true. Fair enough.

Steve: My parents were pretty progressive and had an interesting history, and I would probably say the same thing as you did but for a different history. But there were surprisingly quite a lot of primarily white students who truly had this revolutionary thing just explode on them when they set foot in Mississippi, and like you were saying, "Oh my God! This isn't the way I was brought up!" And so it was a mix. And that sort of was a cauldron, you called it a melting pot. I mean, really, just in terms of the experiences we brought into it, they were so different.

Karen: I certainly — but when I speak in classes, and I've been assisting in a 20th Century African-American Experience class in Portland, Oregon, and these kids have never heard of SNCC. They have never heard of SNCC. They don't even know that the Civil Rights Movement was young people. I mean, literally. And these are juniors. And my only beef with COFO is that it sort of covered that SNCC was the main deal during Mississippi, during Freedom Summer. So we didn't get — that history was dropped.

And I know for myself, I couldn't talk about it for 30 years, so I didn't carry on the history. It took me a long time to talk about my Civil Rights experience. I'd have nightmares every time I read anything about the Civil Rights Movement. I'd wake up yelling and sweating, and I just couldn't even read about it. And so, I take responsibility for that 30 years that I never talked about it. But I feel like there's — I just feel so sad that our story isn't told. And I agree, it certainly goes back to the other movements, but this is a hidden story. I mean, it's appalling. The Civil Rights Movement is seen as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and that's it.

Mary Ellen: One of my primary things that has come from my experiences is that now I make these cards, and I pass them out at libraries with information about the person so that at least some people, hopefully, will take these cards and read them and then go on the internet themselves and find out even more. I mean, here, this lady in 1862 she was born. And hardly anybody knows about Ida B. Wells.

Don: Good for you. You know, I thought that one could almost introduce a subject by having an imaginary application process to go to Mississippi Summer. A person would say, "We want to go to Mississippi, and we're going to turn things upside down." Now, that's the good news. The bad news is that they [the white power-structure] have the guns. They have the militia. They have the judges and the governors. They have the money. And we don't have any of it. But we're going to go down and accomplish all this. Well, amazingly, we did. And one has to back up and say, Who could imagine that that could occur? Moses said that, and people kind of scoffed. You know, you're all crazy, but noble. But we did accomplish it.

I went South — I went to Holly Springs two or three years ago for a reunion, and as I'm driving from Memphis, I see a police car behind me. And he's sort of flagging me down. And I thought: Oh my God! It's starting already. [Laughter] And he goes by, he's a Black guy, and he waves. You know, he knew where I was going. I mean, it was hard to believe that that had really happened. And before we beat ourself up too much about how the future didn't pan out as we would've wanted it, what we went down there for was to deal with a tangible object, a target. And that was the Deep South. And by God, we accomplished it. And one has to keep that in the background, in the backdrop whenever you think about the experience.

Nancy: I'd like to follow up on what Margaret said, that I think that it is so important for people to see this history, kind of like what you're talking about Mary Ellen also, that was happening in the South as well as the North but particularly in the South, and to incorporate that into our understanding of the fertile ground for the Movement. At the same time, we can talk about the innovations that SNCC made, what those innovations were that SNCC brought into southern organizing. And we also need to understand, which we haven't talked too much about, is how the communities in all of the places where people were working, the leaders, the regular folks, provided the protective network for SNCC to survive, and they created the depth of the support that was needed.

And some of those people, I think part of what you're getting at, is that people had been working for years to create some kind of safety or push-back or whatever you want to call it. And that, I think, really needs to be an important part of the history of the Movement. When SNCC kind of pulled back, disbanded, lost a lot of its funding, those communities — and maybe people who were there more afterwards can say more about that — were there. It was kind of a combination strengthening, of this new infusion of different kinds of energy and organizing together with that solid base that already existed, so that these real changes — the voter registration, the elections, the other stuff — were able to survive due to these two different factors — the historical movement and the contemporary infusion of young energy.

Margaret: So just picking up on Nancy's point about our place in these communities and the lasting effects, so one of the things that has haunted me very recently is a case that I came to work on involving two young 19-year-old kids who were killed. Chuck has heard this story, so I apologize, Chuck. Two 19-year-old kids who were killed, who were lynched basically by the Klan in Franklin County which is in southwest Mississippi on May 2, 1964. We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of their lynching.

[Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. See Natchez MS — Freedom Movement vs Ku Klux Klan for some additional background.]

And they were walking along the road, and the Klan picked them up. Two Black youth. The Klan picked them up, and one of them had just been to Chicago, so they thought they were Civil Rights workers, and they picked them up and they killed them, threw them in a river. And the case was recently reopened, maybe about four or five years ago it was reopened, and I happened to have a card in the case. But these kids were exactly my age. They were 19. They were two counties away from me in Franklin. I was in Jackson/Hinds County, two or three counties away. Nobody knew anything about them until about four or five years ago. So when Mickey and those guys were killed, and the FBI sent all their people down there, and they started pulling the bodies out of the river, these were two bodies that got pulled out of the river in July.

Don: Oh, they were in the river.

Margaret: They were in the river. They got pulled out in July, and they called the local press. They [FBI] called the local press, and they said, "Oh, we got the bodies." And they looked at them, and they said, "No, it was two white guys and a Black guy, so these aren't the bodies." And they forgot about them. Nothing happened. They didn't prosecute. They did nothing. Until, as I said, four or five years ago when the Justice Department finally prosecuted that case.

Now I say that — I call that case to mind, because that's a community where we didn't have anyone. You know, there was local civil rights infrastructure. There was a guy, a minister of a church who did civil rights work on his own, but there were no workers in Franklin County. The closest workers were down in Amite and Pike County, further down South. Or even Natchez, somewhere in Natchez, but we had nobody in Franklin County. And so when these two guys — talk about not knowing who to call — these two guys get picked up by the Klan and get killed, their parents didn't know who to call. They didn't even know that they could call Jackson, or call Macomb, right? Or call Natchez. They had no idea that there was a way to get that story out and to get some help with finding out, finding the people who killed their kids.

And so I'm thinking about what we didn't do — I mean, that's just by way of, you know, Okay, where we were? We successfully plowed some ground. And to think about the difference we made, just think about that. And the fact that, you know, it's taken this long — 45, 47 years before they prosecuted anybody.

Steve: Well, the whole Southwest — because I was supposed to be part of a group that was going to go into the Southwest [section of Mississippi].

Margaret: It's the most dangerous part of the state.

Steve: And we didn't leave right away, because Bob [Moses] and others were concerned. The Klan and actually, the Klan had publicly invited civil rights workers to go into the Southwest and promised that they'd kill anybody who went down. And the threat just seemed too credible, and so we ended up not going. And it was that whole Southwest area. Because you said Amite and Natchez. And the torsos in the river did become part of — I've heard that story sort of like the shame that bodies were discovered. "Oh, we don't care about them." But nobody connected it to what you just said. This is the first time I've even heard of it.

Margaret: And the fact that — so, you know, we called them collateral damage. I mean, these were young men who were starting their lives. They didn't know anything about any Civil Rights. They weren't associated.

Nancy: They were walking on the street.

Margaret: Walking down the street.

Nancy: They were alone, yeah.

Margaret: And one of them had just come back from Chicago, and he had what they called the conked hair style. And the Klan said, These guys must have some relationship to civil rights. Let's get 'em. And so there's that too. You know, the collateral damage was visited upon the folks who were there and were going to stay there, and then a full accounting of that has actually not yet been made.

Nancy: I just keep thinking about Marshall Jones' song, "In the Mississippi River," and talking about that very thing. And that was the only way it was really broadcast. And I know when I've played that in classes, people don't — I mean, the song helps to make it real. That's how I feel about it, but you're right. I mean, there were countless bodies that they pulled from the rivers when they were searching for primarily the two white guys.

Mary Ellen: I don't know — I'm sure that you guys are all aware of the Southern Poverty Law [Center]. And how they're still currently investigating all these kinds of things that are going on which, yeah, we did a lot. But there's so much more we need to do. So much more we need to do.


Our History is Not Known or Taught

Don: In the 15 minutes we have left, before the luncheon and afternoon session, part of the list was, What lesson did we learn? What did it all mean? Anybody want to take up on that?

Steve: Well, I was going to start out on that. We did have the start of a discussion about the continuum of history, which I think was kind of interesting and informs that question, just in terms of what does it all mean? You know, Frederick Douglas, "Nothing is gained without a struggle." I think we kind of all learned that, and it's a continuum.

It's unfortunate that it's not become part of the bedrock of what happens with young people in this country. I give talks a lot to different groups, and partly because of my notorious history that had nothing to do with Mississippi that some of you may know about, but I'll go in front of 40 law students, and I'm lucky if two of them have ever heard of Angela Davis. And one of the things that I constantly do, because it's simple, is I tell people to read People's History of the United States [by Howard Zinn], a single book that hopefully makes people realize they're not being taught about our country and a thirst to learn more. There's lots of other books too.

So one of the things I think that I've learned is it's such an extraordinary thing that happened, and it's astounding on some level. How many times every M.L.K. Day do we hear the same speech? Nobody knows that he was working with garbage workers. I mean, the whitewashing of our history. And how do we successfully push back? Because we've got this unique experience that gives us, our voice, authenticity. And the website actually is a great tool. I talked to several people already today who had the same experience I had when people reach out and so forth. But it seems like it's such a drop in the bucket, and that somehow history informs how we think about going forward, and somehow we have to figure out ways to do that better.

Don: Talking about history, when I speak in a school, very often someone will say, "That was during the New Deal, right?" I say, "Actually, no. It was about 50 years after that, or 30 years after that." And they're very confused with timeframes. This is sort of unrelated, but one kid asked me, was I ever killed? And I said, "No, no, that didn't happen." [Laughter]

Steve: Asked what?

Don: Was I ever killed? [Laughter]

Margaret: Not as far as I know. [Laughter]

Don: He was confused. But mostly, they can't connect Lincoln and MLK. There's a whole chronology problem that they face, and it kind of blurs.

Chuck: Well, that's just American students' lack of interest in history, or lack of knowledge. I get a lot of phone calls, emails, from other countries. I looked at if there were things that have to be answered when I was last home, which was last Monday. And like three of them were from England, one from Denmark, two from Italy, all of which were more interesting and showed more depth than any of the questions I got from American students. I may have had two dozen from American students that were not nearly as insightful as like two of the ones from England.

One was on the Taconic Foundation. It was entitled, "What was the role of foundations and how did they support you?" One was on white churches, "How did they support you? What changes were you helped with by white churches?" And I sent them Martin's letter from Birmingham jail first, and then say, I used to say in SNCC if you want to commit suicide, go to a white church. But the reform in the white church is not nearly as effective as the reform in the other sides of society. But I'm making the point that all of the questions that came from Europe were more insightful and interesting than the ones that came from students in the United States. I just talked to Bruce about stuff they get on on the web. I think you'll find the same sort of — in fact, I meant to ask Bruce about that.

Margaret: Who the visitors are?

Chuck: Yeah.

Karen: I feel like it's partly lack of interest, but it's also — like I had a student once tell me, "We had a week in the eighth grade on the Civil Rights Movement. And since third grade, we've learned every movement, every inch of what Lewis and Clark did when they came through Oregon. So I feel like it's a conspiracy actually, so that young people in particular don't know these histories.

Chuck: Well, learning Sacagawea won't cause you problems. Knowing Ella Baker will cause you problems.

Steve: Barbara Lee actually is taking — she's the Congressperson from here. She's taking students this week on the Freedom Trail trip, and there should be more of that.

Woman: Totally.

Nancy: I want to go back to something, what lessons did we learn from SNCC? And one of the things I think was that, I think we learned something about direct action and demonstrations that's useful for all kinds of organizing, that there's a difference between a rally, for example, and actually having a sit-in and blocking the wheels of power or whatever you want to call it. That's one of the messages we want to get out, that people can do things — there are these direct things that we can do. To me, that's one of the crucial lessons from SNCC. You know, not waiting around, When I teach my students about nonviolence or direct action, I always try to emphasize that. I think that is a really important lesson from the Movement that needs to be repeated again and again and again and again.

Don: I think you've put your finger on it. That what we learned is that you can really accomplish something by fighting it. That the idea it can't be done, can't fight City Hall, can't buck all the power, but we did. And it's hard to ever — you can never forget that. You had that experience...

Margaret: I think Nancy's also saying something in addition, and I think it's an important point. So let me say how I understood it, which is that there are various forms of organizing, each of which has its own imperative and own mission. So it could be a sit-in, or it could be a rally, or it could be a voting campaign, or it could be some sustained educational project, and that all of these fall under the large umbrella of organizing. And figuring out how to deploy each one of these in different situations is part of what we learned, whether intentionally or whether just by being exposed to all these various forms of activist activity.


SNCC's Five Year Plan

Nancy: And if I can just add one more thing. When I think of early SNCC, like the first three or four years, and then later, the transition to more of the voter registration, it's like a move out in some ways from that focus on more of the direct action and into more of the community organizing. And I'm not sure if that was what really happened. I'd love to hear people talk about that. What were the losses and gains of shifting the organizing strategy?

Chuck: Do you want me to answer?

Nancy: Of course! Or anyone.

Chuck: Well, what it was — remember the earlier thing I said was — and if I didn't say it, I was certainly thinking it — I think one of the most important things we did when we formed SNCC was to plan its demise. It will end. The end of the organization. Because we figured — we did this for several reasons. One, most of us — we were the first of our generation, in our families, to go to college. So, in saying I'm going to be involved in this, whatever this is, we had to say to our parents that, I mean, we couldn't like white kids — we couldn't say, "Well, Dad, I need to find myself." I can hear my old man saying, "I'll find your ass, Okay? You ain't got to look when I'm done with you."

So you had to give them some understanding that I'm going to finish college. So we had to give a date. And so that's when we came up with — remember now, we're all old enough to remember, everybody back then had five-year plans. The Soviet Union had one. We had one. Everybody had a five-year plan. From the man in the big brown suit, everybody had a five-year plan. So we had a five-year plan. Five years, we were going to do what we were going to do, and then five years, we'll come back, and we'll finish college.

Don: That's cute.

Nancy: Nice fantasy. [Laughter]

Chuck: Yeah. So after saying that, and knowing we were going to sort of stick to it, because then we sat down after we said these things to our parents, saying, you know, "All of us ain't going to make it out of this; some of us gonna die." But that wasn't something we were going to talk to our parents about. So we all said, "In five years, we're going back." The little group, we said, "How many of us will make it?" And shit, I don't intend to do this for the rest of my life. Plus, you can't do it for the rest of your life. I mean, there's too many of them. Everywhere. And then you go crazy dealing with these people.

So the five years was to give also a definite time that you could go all out and do everything you wanted to do with the feeling that you are giving it your all. So when you left, you didn't probably have to apologize to anybody about what you did not do. Because everything you felt you could do or you should do, you had the opportunity to do it. And if you lived through that five years, then you should have lived through it with an idea that one day you could leave. One, you won't have to wake up every night, scared and concerned. So plus, we had to give ourselves the thing. We wanted an out. We said, "All right, if we say we'll do this for the next ten years, that ain't going to work. If we say five years, we'll have a five-year plan, like everybody else." Then in five years, we can measure what we've done by how many of us are still alive. [Laughter]

Margaret: That's would've been '65, right? The end of five years would've been '65.

Chuck: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. So we figured, "Well, we can do that."

Nancy: But wasn't the shift to voter registration to try to make this change in — You know, a change in the political world.

Chuck: Well, what it was — it was like say at the end of two years, but in that first two years, we were sort of freelancing, everybody do what they wanted to do sort of thing. But then at the end of two years, you said, "Well, I only got three years. What can we do that will make a change that will be long-lasting? What can we do in the next three years to make something that is going to last long after we're gone?" That's when we started talking about more voting and less direct action. That there will be less direct action and more voter registration. If we get this particular problem clarified, ironed out. And the Civil War, when it ended, did not clarify this. So if we get this, the act of the right to vote clarified and established, we will have done something that's going to last for a long time. We thought it would be a bit more than 50 years. We figured it'd be at least 100 years, but we don't know the Republicans would resolve it so very well.

Nancy: And that was a huge accomplishment. That is another thing we learned, that we could do that, or that people could do that.

Chuck: Yeah, and we did what we said we'd do. And we said, "By the end of five years, we will have acceptance {UNCLEAR} this general white bullshit of denying the right for people to vote. The bigger problem will be done, and we can do that, and that we know we can do. And in three years we had. Because it really began, because we went back to the founding of SNCC. And part of the founding then was that that summer, the summer of 1960, both the Democrats and the Republicans were having their national convention. And we wanted to put a [civil rights] plank — 

Nancy: In the platform?

Chuck: Yeah. On why we were doing what we were doing. So we started with the question of what's going to be the planks in the Democratic and Republican Party about the citizenship of Black people in this country. At the end, we can look as one of our achievements as that we really could influence how this is going to happen.


Voter Registration vs Direct Action

Karen: Maybe I've been reading the wrong books, but I had understood that there was a demonstration in McComb, early on, and that first, there was actually a split in SNCC, like Diane Nash wanted to continue direct action and demonstrations, and then there was the voter registration thing. And that one of the reasons to not do demonstrations in the Deep South was because it was just — in Mississippi, it was something akin to suicide. And so did that play in too to the...?

Chuck: No. That split had already taken place during that two-year period. The voter registration — I remember we talked about we were going to have — that {UNCLEAR}, and we had a little office on Raymond Street. And it had two doors. It was like a "V." One door is here, and another door is there. So what we should do, we will have these two doors. On this door, we'll say, Student, Nonviolent. And it'll show a dove with a leaf in its little lips, flying along. Student, Nonviolence. And then on the other door, we'll have Coordinating Committee, with a male fist with a sword. And so with the first one, the door is the direct action, let's ask the white folks to let us be free one more day. And on the other door, either do it or we'll chop the fucking door down and your arms trying to hold it shut.

And so that was the thing. So that split between — and so we split up. The direct action was going to be Diane and Marion Barry. Marion Barry was going to be — and the voter registration was going to be Bob. And that's the way that it was going to be. And so that thing was — we're going to do the voter registration, because we had been asked by the local people to do that.

Nancy: Amzie Moore, right?

Chuck: Yeah, Amzie and what's his name? Who got killed up in — 

Margaret: Oh, it was Herbert Lee, but he — 

Chuck: Not Herbert Lee, no. They had the gas station.

Margaret: In Hattiesburg?

Chuck: Yeah.

Margaret: I know who you're talking about. [Vernon Dahmer.]

Chuck: Well, anyway, Diane was pregnant, and she was talking about having a baby in jail. And that was part of it. Because we were just going to have Marion at voter registration — I mean direct action. Bob was going to be head of voter registration. But Diane is pregnant and talking about having a baby in jail, and the foolish thing — you think these white people are going to give a damn if you're gonna have a little pick-a-ninny among 'em? Shit, you're crazy. But Diane wanted to have her baby in jail, so we put Diane on direct action staff. You got a need, and somebody willing and wanting to fill it, Diane then became part of direct action staff.

Margaret: Well then also Bob was — and this goes back to sort of the back story that connects with all of history is Bob was being really — working with Ella Baker, and Ella said, "Okay, well why don't you go on over to Mississippi and talk to Amzie and — there were two or three other — I can't remember — talk to these guys." And maybe Bob — you know, you were there, but maybe it was like, Talk to these guys about a voting campaign, but it also could be, "Talk to these guys about what they need." And what they needed at that point or what they were involved with at that point was voting campaign. So it sort of came from the field as well, and then he ends up in '61 down in McComb.

Margaret: There was another guy though. Besides — [E.W.] Steptoe was down — Steptoe was also part of it.

Nancy: Can I add something else? About the direct action and voter registration? It seems to me that in some ways, voter registration — the direct action about public accommodations and that voter registration in some ways seems to me like it was also direct action, in the sense that in some ways it was more dangerous. It was more diffuse, and people had to go down to vote, to organize, and it unleashed, I think, it seems to me a tremendous amount of greater violence than like beating people in a restaurant. So it was the same courage and difficulty.

Chuck: Nancy, you get the A+.

Nancy: Thank you!

Chuck: No, that's exactly what we concluded. That voter registration is as, if not more, direct than anything.

Margaret: Those terms don't really work, as violent and more violent. Because the violence was so overwhelming in both of those, in all of these settings. So you can't — even as we think about it now — well, you certainly couldn't think about it strategically at the time, which is going to be more violent? But even as we look back at it now, the violence was pervasive. It was across every single activity, and yeah, people got killed for voting — and they killed for trying to — 

Nancy: Integrate the theater.

Margaret: Exactly. Right. Really, they did.

Nancy: So there was no real difference in some ways. I mean, it was a different area of work.

Margaret: Maybe. It could be different. Maybe it's different in the sense that it attracted a different kind of attention outside of the staff, because voting is like — everybody's supposed to be able to vote. But eating in "X" restaurant, even though we had the Civil Rights Act in '64. I mean, people, okay, of course they have a right to hold onto their restaurants. But the voting thing, I think, really had a lot more traction in terms of kind of outside of the States. I think that. Even as I'm saying that, I'm thinking about the Freedom Rides, and they certainly got plenty of traction.

Chuck: Well, I remember when they went to the stadium. I remember when they came in the office, I said, well shit {UNCLEAR} ass kicked, any of 'em killed? That was {UNCLEAR} at least they weren't voting people.

Nancy: At least they weren't what?

Chuck: Voting people. Voting, working on voting rights.

Margaret: Where? Where, Chuck?

Chuck: In Atlanta.

Margaret: Oh, oh, yeah.

Chuck: The day they went to that Klan rally. I remember that, but I thought it was that the white girl was [Name Withheld].

Karen: No, it was me.

Chuck: And it was you.

Woman: Oh wow.

Chuck: Just now, today was the first time I learned that it was you.



Liberal Racism

Steve: We're involved. It's amazing. In fact, in some ways now that I'm more retired and have time to get involved politically, where I live instead of San Francisco, Marin [County] is I'm convinced the most hypocritical place of liberals in the whole United States.

Karen: Uh, Portland's right up there.

Steve: Well, maybe. But people that I know and I trust in politics, and we get along but you start talking about affordable housing and poor people getting a chance to live in Marin County, and they go ballistic. And of course they'll never say it straight up. You know, you're not allowed to talk about race, about anything anymore. We have the US-101 corridor, and that's where all the plans are to build multi-unit housing for people who can't otherwise afford to live in Marin. And so they'll say, "Oh, so you want all the poor people to live next to the freeway where there's all the pollution!" I mean, sure, that's true. That's a bad thing, but that's the only place that you can build out there. And they're winning. Like the county and city have developed what are called priority development areas. It's a whole statewide process for building affordable housing, and one after the other, they've rescinded the votes they took.

A year and a half ago, Tea Party people come in from Concord and all these places, there's like 200 of them. They go to every meeting in the Bay Area. And they are an effective force, and they yell at people. I mean, they're scary. I've been to several of their meetings. But they suck in well-meaning liberals who don't understand what's really going on. So it's beginning to consume me. I didn't even want to get into it, but the pushback has been so ineffective by progressive people up there.

So Portland, you say?

Karen: Portland. It was just named the most racist city in America.

Steve: It doesn't have a big minority population.

Karen: It doesn't have a big population, but it's just like — the white people there refuse to acknowledge racism or their racism. It's sort of this patina of liberal arrogant bicyclists. I think it's probably somewhat similar to Marin.

Steve: Yeah, well I've been getting involved in bike advocacy, for reasons I won't get into, but one of the things I've been pushing — it is beginning to happen in some places, is to reach out to minority communities, because you're right, the bike community generally is very white — in Detroit and certain places, they're putting bike lanes in and there's pushback from the African-American community.

Karen: Well, it's through their community.

Steve: Bike lanes going through their community are the first indication of gentrification that will move them out. The bike coalitions have done a lousy job at reaching out.

Karen: It's perfectly true in Portland. The whole Black community, which is very small, has been completely gentrified, and the bicyclists have been — A lot of that. And when they had this big meeting to not turn one of the main streets down the Black community into a bicycle — there's like no comprehension that there's anything valid being said.

Steve: Well, that is changing. The National League of American Bicyclists and the California Bicycle Coalition are much more attentive to that issue now. Like there's a great bike group in Richmond [CA], founded by somebody who came out of Oakland and moved to Richmond.

[Like Oakland, the majority of Richmond residents are nonwhite.]

Don: Why? How do you explain — what about the bike group? I mean, I know what they're doing, but why are they different from other people? I mean, what do they bring with them?

Steve: Which bike groups? You mean generally?

Don: No, the bike groups in Marin, for example.

Steve: Well, they're a reflection of the community which is overwhelmingly white. And we have Marin City, and we have the canal, and they're just true ghettos.




[Additional people joined the group for the afternoon session.]

Don: The reintroduction.

Mary Ellen: OK, I'm Mary Ellen Crason, and I was in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1963-64.

Nancy: My name is Nancy Stoller. I worked in Virginia in Prince Edward County and in Maryland in the D.C. area with D.C. area NAG. And then I worked in Arkansas in 1964 and '65.

Steve: I'm Steve Bingham. And I worked in Mississippi in Jackson in '63 and Holmes County, near Greenwood in '64.

Margaret: My name is Margaret Burnham, and I worked in Mississippi, mostly in Jackson but also just traveling around the state in 1963 and 1964.

Eleanor: I'm Eleanor Walden, and I was a singer. I was a cultural worker in the Movement, and I worked a little bit in the SNCC office — in the SCLC office. I sang a little bit with the SNCC singers whenever we had to do a big concert or something. And I was with CORE — not CORE — I get these acronyms mixed up! [Laughter]

Eleanor: SSOC, which was the Southern Students Organizing Committee. And we did what I heard, or was told, the first integrated tour of southern college campuses with singers. Pete Seeger joined us at a part, when [Len] Chandler was part of his — Cordell Regan, Bernice [Reagon]. So that was my role as a — I don't like saying that I was an entertainer; in fact I find that very disgraceful. And I call those of us who did things like that cultural workers.

Bettie: My name is Bettie Fikes. I'm originally from Selma, Alabama, and I'm what you would call a Field Secretary and Freedom Singer. I traveled around the Southern states of Alabama and — I traveled the Southern states of Alabama and rural counties teaching the less fortunate how to read and write and understand a ballot. And those are the things that brought me into what we call today — it started out as a Civil Rights Movement, and today, but even back then, it became a Human Rights Movement, not just for Blacks but for all people who were oppressed.

Karen: I'm Karen Haberman Trusty, and I was an exchange student to Spelman College in 1963 and got involved in the sit-in movement in Atlanta. Got arrested, and then I went back to my school and came back for the summer of '64 and worked in the SNCC office in Atlanta. And was involved in going into the Klan rally in Atlanta, Georgia with Matt Jones and Chuck Neblett, and were you there?

Bettie: Yes.

Karen: Yeah, Okay. And Wilson Brown. You [Bettie] were behind me and you didn't come in.

Bettie: Yes. You the one.

Karen: I'm the one.

Bettie: I've been trying to find out for 50 years who was that white girl?! [Laughing and excited overtalk]

Bettie: As a matter of fact, oh Lord. I just spoke with {UNCLEAR} in Minnesota yesterday...

Karen: I'll be damned.

Bettie: ... Who was the white girl? I've been trying to find her for 50 years.

Karen: You just found her. [Laughter]

Karen: And so a couple weeks after that, I went to Greenwood and worked on the WATS line, the midnight to eight shift. And I left after that summer.

Bettie: Oh my God! [Laughter]

Bettie: A day I'll never forget.

Karen: Yeah, me either. I won't forget that one.

Don: Between 1965 and 1968, I operated out of Jackson, Mississippi and then Selma, Alabama. Okay. And Chuck McDew will join us at some point. This afternoon, the topic is, "What happened to all of us as a result of the Movement?" And I was discussing with somebody during lunch it definitely cost everybody a lot of money. We know that. And I'm sure we'll get to that a little later. Who wants to start?

Nancy: Can I read the question? In case you haven't seen it. "How did our participation affect us? Why did we participate? What did it mean? How did it change us? And how has it affected our lives since?" And personally, I would love it if I could hear people talk a little about their participation to start, like I don't know, just some stories or where you were or what you did, if we don't know. That is just my personal ...


Bettie's Story

Bettie: Well, Bettie would like to start, because I'm trying to popcorn to all the groups to get as much information from everyone that I can, because now I see how God has just profoundly shown grace on me to meet Karen today.

But how I got involved wasn't intentionally. I just thought that would be a way that I would not have to go to church so much. I had no idea the significance of the Movement. I had never heard of it in a sense, but I come from a long line of preachers, deacons, and good Gospel singers, and I remember as a child, my mother died when I was 10 years old, and I was an only child. But I used to hear them after church, you know how the preachers — there was always Sunday dinners, and the preachers would be at the house. And I guess at that time, that was their Freedom meeting.

And I would hear them discussing things that were going on that I did not understand. And then they would even talk about the war. And overhearing all of that, it put a little fear in me, because I was thinking, "Something is going to happen." And I didn't understand what was getting ready to happen. But anyway, years later, my mother had moved from Selma to Detroit, and that's where she died. And my family — my mother's family and father's family got to fighting over me, and I ended up back in Alabama in the thrust of the Movement before it became worldwide.

And in seeing that, I met the young man, Bernard Lafayette, that came to Selma, and his car had broke down. And we were coming home from school, and Charles Bonner and Cleophus [Hobbs] started helping him. And he asked a question, if they knew that our parents did not have the right to vote? And we were thicker than thieves at the time, and I was the only girl that always hung out with the fellas. And they came to me and was telling me, so Bernard had given them pamphlets to pass out in the community about these mass meetings.

Now still we had no idea of anything happening. And we passed out the leaflets and had to slip down to Brown Chapel and First Baptist, because it first started at Tabernacle, and slipped in without our parents really knowing, and it was a way we could do it on our way home from school, to get as much information as we could. Truly not understanding. So that led me into the Movement, and it began to get bigger and bigger. And then everyone was saying the Freedom Riders are coming, and it was just like they were saying in the olden days when the war was getting ready to break out. And I didn't understand, and I just thought it was kind of funny. You know, they're not serious. Nobody's doing anything.

But anyway, we began to congregate, and from congregating, then they started to teach us how to protect ourselves from brutality. And I didn't even think anything would happen in the brutality, because Selma was a calm town, and to a point, the way things were, that's the way we thought things were supposed to be, up until that time. And that pulled me right in the thrust of the Movement, without understanding until I saw the bloodshed. And without understanding that, after going in rural counties, Camden and Silas, Alabama, and parts that I had lived there practically all my life and had never been before, until as they called the Freedom Fighters came to town. And to teach the people, all the men and women that could not read and write, how to read the ballot. And that was unsuccessful. And it just broadened my eyes.

Then I went from there to the protests and sit-ins [in 1963], and I tell people today, you know, I can only tell you from a child's eyes at the time. And when I saw that even at the first place they protested was the Thirsty Boy, and my godfather was white man. That's why I thought white and Black got along. I didn't understand until my mother moved to Detroit, and when she placed me into elementary school that I had white students in the class, and that was odd to me. And I felt very strange about it. So, going back, Thirsty Boy, I thought that everybody could go there. My godfather carried me there, and he picked me up and sat me on the stool and they were known for their foot-long hotdogs. And he would always order me a foot-long hotdog and tell them to give her tea with no sugar. He wouldn't let me have sugar. So, I thought when we got ready to protest this place, the picketing — no, y'all can go in there if you want to. [Laughter]

But then my eyes became wider and wider. Then when they got ready to go across the street to Carter Drug Store, when they were picketing there, and it was only a dear friend of mine who was much older — Willie C. Robinson went in to say to Mr. Carter, "Why is it that I can come in and buy your products, but I can't sit at your counter and order a hamburger and a Coke?" And there was no response. And we're outside holding picket signs. Now I'm on the outside, but I'm still not knowing anything is going to happen. And Willie C. went on and sat at the counter. And the next thing I knew, Mr. Carter had taken a billy club and laid his head wide open.

First time Bettie Mae was able to see bloodshed in the Movement. And I said, "Oh God, these people are serious." You know, I just took it not as a joke, but I just thought we were getting ready to — I had no idea we were making history. So these are the things that brought me into the Movement.

And when people ask me today — students ask me today, "Why am I still doing what I've been doing for 50 years?" I started as a child, and I should be doing something else. I always tell them that well, somebody did it for me. And if had not been for those somebodies, where would my life be today? So these are the questions I ask myself. These are the questions that I give to everybody, and in traveling the country and looking at how times have changed, even Selma.

Selma's in a worse place now than it was in the 1300s — to me. It has gone so far back that when I was a child there, we had three theaters, two drive-ins. And even though on television they show where we had to go through back doors, the only people who went through back doors were people who wanted to go through the back doors. We had the best cooks in the world, Black people. The only thing I didn't understand was the fountains, the colored and Black, and they were this close to each other. So when you got ready to drink from the fountain, you had to look in each other's face. So as a kid, I said, "Well, the water must taste different. It has to be something that we cannot drink out of the same fountain." So we used to slip into Kress [five & dime], and you know how children were. We had a lookout. Where we slipped in and test the water, and especially from the white side. It don't taste any different! [Laughter] It's just as hot as ours! [Laughter]

So those things I didn't understand. Those things brought me into the Movement, not so much of the things I didn't understand, but after I began to see the bloodshed and how serious that was, and the brutality and the bombing, and even though my family had taken what they called Freedom Fighters into their homes, even though they had paid their light bills and gas bills, those were just cut off. And there was nothing you could do about it. And I began to get upset about that. And with my great-grandmother that raised me, that died in 1984, was 113. One made 113, and one made 117, and she stated, "She never told me to give up." She said — she never called me by name, but, "Girl, you do what you have to do. Go on."

So in that, those are the things that got me where I am today and still doing the things that I'm doing. Even though I was not understanding a lot of things. And I should, because I wanted to go as much as I could to the questionnaires on that {UNCLEAR} and I have to be able to see it. Because I want to hear — but those were just some of the things that brought me into it.


The Atlanta Klan Rally

Bettie: And what I got out of it is too long to understand, because I tell this story so often about — The Freedom Singers had just come from Rosalyn, New York. I had heard of New York — 

Eleanor: Hear the back story, thank God! Go ahead.

Bettie: We had just come from Rosalyn, New York and flew into Atlanta, Georgia, and on the way from the airport to the Freedom Office on Raymond Street, and I was a little young kid, and everybody protected me. I used to tell them — I called today, Julia Burnham, my babysitter, because when we came off the road — 

Woman: How old were you?

Bettie: I was about 17 then. And on the way, they had the radio on, and all you could hear was this great advertisement — I forget what stadium it was in, I used to know.

Woman: Stone Mountain.

Bettie: But all you could hear was this advertisement, "Everybody come! Everybody's welcome!" And we had always been taught to always — well, when and where, to stick together. Mr. Chuck Neblett, oh I tell him today, I said, "Boy, you know, if they hadn't killed you, I would." [Laughter]

Bettie: We got to the Freedom Office, and we dropped off the luggage, and by being the Fourth of July, we took out thinking it's going to be a big gathering, and everybody's going to have a good time. And it was so packed when we got there that we couldn't find parking. Chuck, Matthew [Jones] and all of them parked their cars and went on in. By the time — 

Karen: I must've been with them.

Bettie: Yes.

Margaret: What year was this?

Karen: 1964, July 4th. Stone Mountain, Atlanta, Georgia.

Bettie: Girl, when we — as soon as we got to the door to step inside, this white woman came out, and her face was red as fire. She said, "Don't go in there. They're killing them." And all we could hear was, "Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers!"

Woman: Oh my God!

Bettie: I mean, folding chairs were coming over the walls like plates. Choom! And when I looked inside, Chuck was trying to get Matthew up off the ground. And in order to do that, he had to get a cot and put a bear-hug on him in order to bend down and pull Matthew up. And the cops were just walking around like nothing was happening. And the Governor, Ross Burnett, of Mississippi was on the mike speaking. Ross Burnett, and all you could hear was, "Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers!" And James Peacock, Wazir's brother, was with us. And going in, we should've felt something funny, because they were selling the Confederate flags and stuff, and James had bought a little Confederate flag and put it in the binding of his hat. And while we were in New York, the house that he stayed in, this white fella had given him some shoes that were hurting his feet. And as we turned around to walk out, three white fellas came up behind us. And one looked at — didn't say anything to us, he says to James, "Run, nigger." And James didn't say anything. We just kept walking. And again, he said, "Run, nigger!" And James still didn't say anything. And finally he said, "I said, run, nigger!" James looked back and said, Yes. And so — [Laughter]  — we got out. Peacock — 

Man: Did he run? [Laughter]

Karen: He must've still been able to hear the insult.

Woman: And you all were still in there?

Karen: Yeah.

Bettie: Yeah! I had to go to Grady Hospital. James Foreman told me, he said — I got to the phone; I called James to tell him what had happened, and he sent me to Grady Hospital, because we had to find out which hospital that Chuck and all of them was coming in. And when I got to Grady, it was by then Fourth of July — for the first time in my life, I had never seen so much bloodshed. They were rolling bodies in, and that emergency light — just like we say in the song, "Mississippi River," you don't count them one by one. And by me sitting by the door, I never forget the four — they pulled Matthew and Chuck in. They pulled this Black fella in with a towel over his face, and as soon as he got by me, the towel fell off. And his face was just — he had been shot in the face. And then here comes Chuck and Matthew, and when they came in, I went to the phone and called Jim and told him what hospital they were in.

And less than four hours later, I was on a bus back to Selma. I started to give up right then. I said, "This is a little too serious. They're trying to kill us." And I had seen in Selma how the cops would just walk away like nothing was happening, but to see a governor standing on a platform speaking, and to see a place that was packed and not knowing we had walked into a Klan rally.

Margaret: So you all didn't know it was a Klan rally?

Bettie: No! No.

Karen: Not really. I knew it was a rally. I knew Barnett was speaking there, but I didn't realize the Klan were out. There were groups of claverns that drove up from different — from Columbus [GA] and from all over in Georgia in the South. I had no friggin' idea.

Bettie: She's supposed to have been dead, because you know, back then, they were worse on white than they were with us. Because they were always, "Kill the niggers! And the nigger lovers! Kill the niggers!" And oh my God. Lord, I'm telling you the truth. I went home, and when I got off that Trailways bus in Selma, Alabama, I sat in my Grandmama's rocking chair on that front porch, and I just rocked. I had never seen so much blood. But the thing is, it wasn't so much blood, I had never seen that type of hatred before. But that was you.

Karen: That was me.

Bettie: 50 years later.

Karen: I'll tell my little part here, since we're — I know you love to hear this story, but — Anyway, I was last in. There were people behind me, and Marshall [Jones] was behind me. And when he saw what was happening, he said, "I don't want my mother to lose two sons today," because his brother Matthew was already in there.

Bettie: Marshall.

Karen: Matthew was in there, and Marshall turned around and didn't come in. He was behind me. And so when I went in, Marshall and Chuck and — I mean, Matthew and Chuck and Wilson were further in than I was, and I honestly still don't remember a lot of it. I've gathered this from newspapers and stuff. I went to Columbus, Georgia and looked up the original microfiche stuff, and so I'm in there, and they started attacking me. They picked up metal chairs, and they were attacking us. There's a picture of Chuck with a metal chair, using it as a shield, as they're coming at him.

So I'm like, "Oh my God!" You know, and so I just went into the nonviolent training that I'd had. Because I'd been arrested and stuff, and it was in Atlanta, I didn't think this would be that different. Sorry, but I didn't. And so I just — I remember, I said, Oop, you know? And I took off my glasses which meant I didn't think I'd ever get out of there, because I'm really blind without them, and I remember saying, "I guess this is it." And I covered my head, and I went like this.

And all of a sudden, this guy grabs me, a white guy, and he's a White Citizen's Council. I learned this from the paper. And he's leading me out of there, yelling at the people, "Act like white men!" My joke is they were, but anyway, and so I got out, and I came out the other way. The other guys went out the front. I mean, they went all the way through. And really, the police saved some of them. And some of the police were injured. And so I got out there, and I remember the sun hitting me, and me going, "I guess I'm alive." I mean, I really — But this white guy, he went back in and pulled people. I was really glad to see it wasn't just he wanted to save the white girl, frankly. But he pulled people off. Matthew — 

Woman: How many people were in there?

Karen: Ten thousand people.

Woman: How many Black folks? How many of you?

Karen: Three. And me. There's four of us. And I've actually — when I did the microfiche, I saw they had photos of the rally.

Woman: Ten thousand people!

Karen: George Wallace and Ross Burnett were speaking. And when I saw that, how many people there were, you know, you don't — yeah. And I almost threw up. But anyway, I came out, and then somehow I got to the hospital, because there's a newspaper picture of me looking at Matthew's — he had 16 stitches in his head.

Bettie: Couldn't button his shirt for over six weeks. And he was just beaten around the mouth.

Woman: How did you get to the hospital? Did you have a car?

Bettie: I have no idea how I got there. Well, I was with Wazir. I can't even remember who was driving us. You know, it wasn't the fear, and it was the fear. I guess, like I tell when I speak at schools today, I say that today when students go through things like that, they send counselors.

Karen: Post-traumatic stress for years, right?!

Bettie: When I think of some of the things that happened 50 years ago, I still shake. But I can't remember everybody that — I can't even remember who was driving the car. All I know is we were in a station wagon. I know that James Peacock and I, and it was another girl with us. But I was just so elated to get out with my life, because after I was able to stand and look inside and see what was happening, and then when you turn around and walk outside, the grounds were still just as full with vendors selling their Confederate flags and all of this, and we got to walk through all of this.

So in that, I mean I guess I just blacked out. I really — 'cause I thought I was going to lose it. I was going to lose my life that day. And I just knew on the inside, when they later said, "Don't go inside. They're killing 'em." And when I looked inside and just could hear the folded chairs coming over this brick sliding wall, just like planes. And then when I find out — and I didn't find out for years later that it was a Klan rally.

Man: Why were you there? Why were you going to this particular place?

Bettie: Check Neblett! [Lauging] Didn't know what we were going to. We had just come off the road, and it was just on the radio, "Everybody come!"

Margaret: That would be some of Chuck [Neblett]'s foolishness. I mean, really.

Chuck McDew: When I walked in, and Foreman said that Neblett and Chico and one of the white staff went to the Klan rally at Georgia stadium, I said, "They did what?!" I said, Are they crazy? It's like running through a whole ring full of bulls and waving a red flag. A red flag. He said, "Well, what are we going to do?" I said, "Bury the mother-fuckers in an unmarked grave. You don't want nobody to know we got anybody that damn dumb — "

Margaret: Thank you!

Chuck: — to walk into a Klan rally on a hot afternoon.

Margaret: They thought they were gonna sing their way out of there.

Chuck: I said, The hell with them. They're already dead,


Bettie: Well, they came very close to being dead, and by us being so dumb and following them. Didn't know. It was all we heard, because all that was in the car coming from the airport, "Everybody's welcome! Everybody's coming! Everybody's welcome!" And Chuck talking about, "Let's go! We going!" So when we get to the Freedom Office, all we did was to carry our luggage up and drop them off in the Freedom Office and following Chuck like a dummy. Every time I see him, I say, "Ooooh, boy!" [Laughter] I had no idea. I would never forget that day.

Karen: It was — I mean, I didn't — 

Margaret: So they probably didn't even really know that you all were Civil Rights people.

Bettie: No.

Chuck: No.

[Much overtalk]

Karen: I was actually beaten quite a bit as a child, and so I actually — and always it was blamed on me. So I actually, for years, thought it was my fault.

Chuck: Well, it was. [Humorously]

Karen: Thanks!

Chuck: It was!

Karen: But I said — this is funny — I said to Matthew, "I always thought it was my fault." He said, "You think we would've followed you in there?!" But I have to say that almost the hardest thing, besides all that, was when I came back to the SNCC office, everybody was mad at me.

Bettie: Really?

Karen: That's how I felt. Yeah. And that was so hard. I know you're joking about it, but it was — I don't know what to say. It was really hard, and when they wrote it up in the Student Voice, and I found this out only about six years ago, so I have a box of Civil Rights stuff, you know? And I was never mentioned. It was written up with the three guys, and not a word. And I worked in that office. I worked with Julian Bond and the people that put out the Student Voice.

Margaret: That's Julian.

Chuck: No, they were protecting you, because that's why I said, until this afternoon, I didn't know — 

Woman: That's why everybody thought it was somebody else.

Woman: Did you leave after that, Karen?

Karen: No. I stayed. I went into Mississippi then. And what Matthew said is he actually tried to find me, but nobody would tell him where I was. And I went into Mississippi, and I was put on the midnight to eight shift.

Margaret: On the WATS line.

Karen: On the WATS line. And kind of hidden, I guess. I don't know what — I don't know. But I'm just saying, from a 19-year-old, you know, someone out of that, and then feeling like anger. And Judy Richardson later told me, she said, "We were mad at you." Finally, somebody acknowledged it.

Woman: What? Why?

Karen: She said, "Well, we thought that white guy had just saved you." They didn't know that he went back in after Matthew and helping him. I'm just saying. You know, it helped me, "Oh, it's not all my paranoia." It was very complicated.

Chuck: And the reason, I thought it — I didn't know it was you until a few minutes ago, because they were always protecting [Name Withheld] from me, because I was on her case because a lot of the guys in Mississippi would not drive with her, would not ride with her. Because she was the sort, you'd be driving through this little raggedy town in Mississippi, and you'd get downtown, and then there'd be the driver. She would be sitting over here, and as soon as like you stopped, at a stoplight in Greenwood, she'd move over [snuggle close] — 

[Collective gasp]

Karen: I never did that, man! I swear to God.

Chuck: Hear me now. She'd lean over and that, and so the guys would say, "Chuck, I'm not going back to Mississippi with [Name Withheld]." So I thought it was, "Who else — what other white person on our staff would be fool enough to walk into a Klan rally with three Black men?"

Karen: We didn't know. Honest to God, we didn't know.

[Much Overtalk]

Chuck: How'd you get there in the first place? How did y'all — how did you get there?

Karen: I don't know. I don't remember how I got from — I don't remember at all. I have no memory after feeling the sun of how I got to the hospital.

Chuck: No, no, how did you get to the stadium?

Woman: Why did you go to the rally? What were you told?

Chuck: How did you get to the rally?

Bettie: We all went in cars from the Freedom Office.

Karen: We all went in cars.

Woman: From the Freedom Office?

Chuck: No, I asked you: How did you get from the Freedom Office?

Karen: In a car.

Chuck: With who?

Karen: I don't know.

Chuck: With Matthew and Chuck.

Karen: I must've been in the same car as them.

Chuck: So y'all were just ...

Karen: We were the first ones to get there.

Chuck: We didn't know about you getting — it was Matthew and Chuck — 

Karen: Chuck, Wilson Brown. Wilson Brown and me.

Bettie: Because I couldn't even remember Wilson. You know, because memory fades.

Chuck: Right, yeah.

Karen: There's a picture of him.

Chuck: I didn't remember Wilson either, because what I heard when I came into the office is Matthew, Chuck and one of the new white staff members.

Karen: Yep.

Chuck: I said, "Did what?" [Laughter] Today was — Shit. They're already dead.

Bettie: No sense going looking for 'em.

Chuck: We'll get the bodies when they show up, throw them in an unmarked grave. That's what — They committed suicide. What else can we say?

Karen: I just say, God didn't want me to die that day, because there was no reason.

Chuck: God didn't. I did. [Humorously]

Margaret: That's interesting what they said is, you know, something about, "Be white men." In other words, "Don't kill her."

Karen: Yep. Well, and later, when I read this stuff on him, he actually quit. He was a member of the White Citizens Council, and he went up there with — there were people there with their families, and he said, They were leaving because of the violence. And he said, I'm not going to do this anymore, because I don't believe in violence. So like I said, God didn't want me to die. That guy happened to be next to me, along with — 

Nancy: I think that what this shows is some of these really complicated stories and events that we were all involved in — we're here, years later, we're finding out about some of the — like the tremendous pain and fear and confusion and misunderstanding, and things that we've all carried with us. And your talking about this reminds of me of things that I saw when I was in SNCC where there was like violence within SNCC and bad things that happened inside that we couldn't really talk about because of our sense of how we had to present ourselves.

And I would like to, for myself, talk about an experience of being raped, not by anybody in SNCC but by somebody in a local community when I was working in Arkansas. It was an African-American student at a local college, and so what could we do about it? Obviously, you can't go to the police. And we had a process within SNCC through which we decided what to do and so on and so forth. But for years, I couldn't talk about that. I've been a teacher at a university for years. And then finally, I had to figure out how to talk about that, to acknowledge the things that happened, and also not to feed into some of these terrible racist responses that you could feed into.

But I think that like your story is another example of also the stresses that people were under. I remember I was at the SNCC Waveland meeting [November, 1964], and a lot of terrible things happened there. Some fabulous things, but some really terrible things happened. But people couldn't talk about them. And so to me, this kind of conversation is really, really valuable for that — 

Don: So in connection with the topic, how did this all change you?

Karen: I've never talked in public about SNCC being mad at me, because I didn't want to say anything bad about SNCC, because it was my life. And so I mean, I don't even know, when I get the transcript, if I'll include it, because I've been trying to decide that now. But it's because — it just feels — and yet it's history. You know, there were all those issues between us and all the things that happened, and many feelings were hurt. And so it's an interesting struggle. I mean, I don't think I idolize SNCC, but I think that I treasure what they stood for and my lucky participation with them, and how it changed my life. And so, to say something ill of them seems like I'm being a traitor, you know?

Margaret: But you know, if we took a look at that incident, I think a lot of us had these experiences on the road with Matthew and with what's his name?

Karen: Chuck.

Margaret: Chuck and his brother, Chico. Chico and Chuck. And you know, they were fun to be on the road with. They were handsome guys. They were carefree. They liked to enjoy life, they really did. And there was always something exciting going on around them, always something going on with them. And so, if you looked at it today, you would say, "Well, there is some indiscipline in that whole incident that should've been caught at some point. There's a box that was not checked there. There's no blame to be cast or anything like that, but if you're putting people in that kind of danger, where you're going to lose your life, or we could've lost people.

Karen: Easily.

Margaret: You know, something clearly went wrong there in the operation so that that kind of thing — because I traveled with Chuck and with these guys in New York, and I know how they act. And we were all kids. We were all kids. But you know, I can kind of see that happening without someone back in the office saying, "Wait a minute, what did you hear on the radio? Can everybody go? And how many people are going to be there?" And I mean, that was just reckless, I mean, incredibly reckless.

Steve: It's such a contrast with — 

Margaret: And then to put some blame — and then to switch it around.

Bettie: Yeah, put the blame on her.

Margaret: So that, you know, she's the one who gets the blame is also just — something went wrong there too, because there should've been some processes so that Judy doesn't come out of that thing thinking, "Oh, that stupid white girl is the one to blame." So we missed a couple of steps in there.

Steve: Yeah, it's an interesting incident, but I don't think it should be generalized too much in terms of what we're doing here. It's such a contrast in terms of the safety and other things. I mean, I was in an area with Hollis Watkins who was in charge, and one of things that was a constant throughout that whole period was an exceptionally careful sense of the extreme danger we were in. We had a guard at night. We were in an abandoned farmhouse on a gravel road, and there was a right angle turn right near the driveway — which was completely covered with trees. I think most white people probably didn't even know that house was in there. But cars would go by, and we had somebody up all night long, because we were afraid something was going to happen.

I compare it a little bit to people who were soldiers in Vietnam or something. It was like you thought ahead of time what you were going to do, who was going to go with you, when you were going to check back with each other. We had the famous guy in Holmes County who received us, Hartman Turnbow. He lived right up by the road. And he was famous for saying, "Well, with all these young people down here, they're coming in, and they say they're nonviolent, but don't count on that from me!" And everyone knew, the law enforcement, they all knew that he had shotguns in his house, and he had a different attitude towards dealing with threats.

But, on the other hand, he kind of set the tone for us, "You guys don't realize what you're getting in for, so you could put all of us in danger." And I think one of the things that we learned from the way the summer was organized is anything we do not only puts ourselves in danger but it puts in danger the local people who were courageously helping — like Freedom School people were living in people's homes. Nobody knew in the white community what homes they were living in. I mean, the security was just tight. And that sense of security and responsibility for your own life and the people around you, SNCC, was my little universe. That was how I viewed SNCC, and I really admired that, so I'm listening to this with my mouth open, because I can't believe it. And I didn't hear of things like that, and drawing you [Bettie] into it at age 17, the whole thing just kind of — 


Clarence's Story

Don: Clarence, we haven't heard from you yet. Would you tell us both who you are, what your involvement in the Civil Rights was, and maybe you want to comment on what's being discussed.

Clarence: Well, first of all, it's good to be here. I didn't expect this level of emotion when I came in, but this has been powerful stuff. I was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. I grew up in Greenwood. My brother was the pastor of our church, which was East First Street Christian Church. It had been First Christian Church, but because there were two First Christian Churches, we had to change our name, because the one across the river said we don't want this publicity. And I, at 11 years old, joined the youth chapter of the NAACP, and I did go to the March on Washington in '63 as a 13-year-old. But we were enamored in Greenwood by SNCC. You know, Stokely Carmichael was our hero. And we just thought the world of the students who came down. Before SNCC arrived, I think Sam Block and Willie Peacock who is now Wazir Peacock. So they were the two that were the most visible. Mike Miller from San Francisco was also there.

Don: He's here.

Clarence: I didn't meet Mike until much later. But I grew up there in the Mississippi Delta, and I was a part of some of the rallies that took place. In 1964 I was arrested as a 13-year-old. We were picketing the courthouse, and they took us in jail there. There were probably, I guess, maybe 30 or so of us in this. They had taken all of the mattresses off of the bunks, and there was a guy there who was basically in charge of the jail. His name ironically was also Johnson. And we had these Army boots that we would wear and the jeans, the bib overalls that we'd wear. It was part of our uniform. And so I had my little hat on, and he was walking through there. He had this crabapple switchblade knife, and he said he was the king of that cage. He was not, you know, with our group. And he came to me and said, "That's a nice hat." I said, "Well, this is your hat. You wear this hat. Go and enjoy it!" [Laughter]

My mother came up about 6 o'clock that afternoon with one of our executives from the Christian Church, the Disciples of Christ, in Indianapolis. And I was released after being there for about maybe eight hours or so. But I was happy, you know, to get out of there, and I was never arrested again. But I did participate in a number of events over the years, but we were basically SNCC people. All of the youngsters that I hung out with, we would go to the — they called them mass meetings in those days. We would go to the mass meetings.

Woman: Thank God for the mass meetings.

Steve: Can I just ask, what about your parents — did they know that you were associating with the SNCC people?

Clarence: My father was not alive, but my mother did. Yes, she knew. My oldest brother was the minister of our church, and our church was the first African-American church to allow mass meetings to take place there. And he took a pretty heavy hit for that. As a matter of fact, he was a barber as well, and the business just sort of dwindled. People stopped coming to church, stopped paying. And he was subsidized by our national office out of Indianapolis. The only way that he was able to make it financially, and it was pretty difficult. But you know, we persevered and were able to get through.

But there were some pretty — we went in 1964, we went to Meridian, Mississippi for the memorial service for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner which was a pretty harrowing experience as well. We got to Jackson, Mississippi, and we decided, not like Chuck and the group, we decided to go and sit at the counter at the Greyhound bus station. And this guy came in, and he said some pretty horrible things. We were youngsters, but we left, and we went out and sat on the little baggage cart until the next bus arrived. We didn't go back in there again.

I met A. Philip Randolph, and I met Bob Moses and some of the others before. But I met A. Philip Randolph, and I was so impressed with him, because I had never seen a person quite that distinguished. He stood, and he had on white shirt, and a black suit, and nice tie. And he stood sort of like this, you know? And for the next two or three years, I was A. Philip Randolph. [Laughter] But I was really blown away by the courageousness of the youngsters who were a part of SNCC. There were many of them who were in Greenwood.

Woman: I was there.

Woman: Did you know Jessie Harrison from SNCC? He was one of the organizers of the young people.

Clarence: Didn't know Jessie Harrison. Silas McGee and his brother were very active in that time as well.

Karen: I arrived there just about 10 days after Silas got shot. And there was a demonstration in front of the SNCC office, a week or so later, and the cops blocked off the street and marched up and down with sawed off shotguns, six of them. Were you at the demonstration?

Clarence: I was not at the particular demonstration.

Karen: It was terrifying.

Clarence: Yeah. So I am a local pastor here in Oakland at Mills Grove Christian Church. We are in East Oakland, just around from Mills College and just delighted to be here to hear some of the — it's one thing to read this, but to hear the stories, it's a different.

Chuck: Did you know — you all have a ministerial alliance of course.

Clarence: We do.

Chuck: But is your ministerial alliance connected with the San Francisco — 

Clarence: No. I know clergy in San Francisco. I lived there for about 20 years.

Chuck: We had — what's his name? I met Reverend Brown.

Clarence: Amos Brown at Third Baptist?

Chuck: Yeah. Amos was one of the first SNCC people. He was at that first meeting. Amos Brown was at that first meeting that became the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Clarence: Amos was from Jackson, Mississippi.

Chuck: No, Amos was from — when I met Amos, he was at Kentucky, Kentucky State. And the Movement — and Amos was — and then he went to Jackson State.

Clarence: And Morehouse.

Chuck: And later came to — no, before he came out here, he was at Pilgrim Baptist in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Clarence: Right.

Chuck: And so Amos — in fact, Amos turned me on to something that I exploited years later when he was at Pilgrim. Pilgrim was a — slight drifting apart. All the Black people in Minnesota originally were on their way to Canada when winter set in, and they couldn't go any further. And they were — [Laughter] They were all ex-escaped slaves on their way to Canada. And Canada had a system where they would take whoever to guard their southern borders against the United States invading them and taking more Canadian land. So they would be used. So they had been in Canada essentially since 1776. They went back that far. But when I came to see Amos, like I said, there weren't that many original SNCC people. I went to St. Paul to see him, because so much of the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement came out of St. Paul. Whitney Young was from St. Paul. Roy Wilkins was from St. Paul. All of Roy's little minions were from St. Paul.

Margaret: And that's it. You haven't heard from Roy Wilkins, but that's Okay. Who else you want to try to claim?

Chuck: No, there was no — Whitney, Roy, Jim Farmer. So there were five Civil Rights organizations, and the leadership of three of them were from St. Paul.

Don: Ahhh. I didn't know that.

Chuck: And that goes back to the Niagara Movement when there were 19 people at the Niagara Movement. Two of the 19 were from St. Paul. So it goes way back. Philip Randolph came out there when the first strike of anything was going to be union was the sleeping car porters, and they hired Phil Randolph.

Margaret: Are you on topic by the way?

Chuck: Yeah, you betcha.

Margaret: OK, just checking. [Laughter]

Chuck: Getting back to that with Amos Brown, because I think he's one of the best leaders — 

Clarence: He's done a great job over in San Francisco.

Chuck:  — in this part of the world.

Clarence: He preached my installation sermon by the way.

Chuck: Oh yeah?

Clarence: Amos did. Yeah. But I just want to say too, all of the SNCC folk and those who are connected, thank you for coming to Mississippi. You changed our lives in very positive ways, and we will always be grateful. I had a friend who was in the Army, and she was trying to decide at some point — she was with the Army Corps of Engineers — if she should go to Iraq. And she sent out a little email, because we stayed in touch from high school. And everybody else said, "No, you shouldn't go. You don't have to. You ought not go." I said, "Well, you know, when we were teenagers in Mississippi, there were a lot of people who didn't have to come to Mississippi. My mother was not a registered voter until after 1965 when the Voting Rights Bill was passed. And everybody in our home town had a piano as a status symbol. Maybe nobody ever played the piano, but on the piano there were pictures. One of the pictures was always of Jesus Christ, because we were Christians. And when JFK was assassinated in '63, then his picture went up there. But she had her voter registration certificate on the top of the piano, and she was so proud that she could go and vote." And I was amazed at how young these SNCC workers were. You know, 19, 20, 21. It was just amazing. So I just want you to know that we're grateful for the sacrifices that you made and for the challenges that you had to deal with, coming down.


How Did SNCC Affect Our Lives?

Don: We're grateful that you welcomed us. Now, total anarchy has broken out, but I've been enjoying it. Let's hear something about how being in SNCC affected all of you.

Bettie: Well, mine was, like I still say through a child's eyes, people like this young man, I had never met but had heard so much talk about. And even though in those days — you know everything today is telecommunication and you can get the history of someone in less than two minutes, but it was like news traveling like wildfire of these Freedom Fighters. Mississippi, Birmingham, Shuttlesworth, C.T. Vivian. And on Sunday evenings and through the week, I would hear these names.

And then, you know, when I used to hear people that had done great things in our history, they were mostly older men and women. But the Freedom Fighters were young men and young women, and putting their lives on the line, and I wanted to be a part of that. And even though I was in R.B. Hudson High School, when they came to Selma, Alabama, and I was asked to pass out the pamphlets, I felt that I was a part of something. That's when my voice came. I mean, I began to be able to speak again, because after my mother's death, I had withdrawn and didn't understand. What made me began to read was people would say about me, because I was so withdrawn, that she has an inferiority complex. What is that? Am I crazy or something?

And it was the Freedom people that brought me back to life and gave me the love that I needed and pushed me to the singing and things like that that I had withdrawn from. And I'm so thankful for SNCC, because if it had not been for the young men and women that stepped into my life — and not just stepped into my life but truly loved me, something that I was in a lack of since my mother had died. And loved me like a family. I put my life on the line with them.

And today, when I think about it, they would get up every morning, because I was so afraid of Mississippi. When I hear that this man down there in Mississippi, and even when they — Whew! It brings tears to my eyes today. Even when I was working in the Atlanta office, when I heard — I had never met him, and if I had seen him, I still didn't put the name with the person. But when I would hear how they were burning homes, and to know that they would get up every morning with the idea, "I might not make it through the day."

So I want you to know that that's my part of SNCC. When people ask me, "Why is it that you're still doing the things that you do?" I stand very proudly, and excuse the expression, I've always wanted a big chest. You know I wanted to look like a woman, you know? [Laughter] I always had that little girl atmosphere. But when people ask me today, "What sorority did you pledge to?" I say, "SNCC." But when I think of that today and think of John Lewis, Chuck McDew, Worth Long. People that I knew were beaten and just brutalized. And I stand and talk today, and say, I am the Chuck McDew. I am the Rosa Parks. I am the Harriet Tubman. And I wonder today what my life would have been like if it had not been for people like you that made me put my life on the line and still doing it today.

And when they ask why, I say, Because somebody did it for me. And I am just so, so proud of that, because I think some time now that all the things that my grandmother, when I was a child, I didn't want to do. I find myself doing all those things today. I try to do all the old spirituals, because I don't — that old Biblical saying, "Lest ye forget." I don't ever want to forget what you all brought me from and what you brought me to. I just cannot thank you enough. And that's not only for Chuck, that's for everybody that put their "Hands on the Gospel Plow." And it's an old song, as I say, but I know I, "Wouldn't take nothing from my journey right now." Two wings and I would fly away somewhere.

So I just thank you. I can't thank you enough. And I know what you've been through. And thing was, to see them as children, young men and women, and to see them here today, you know, professors and attorneys. And they didn't forget me. That's the most important thing. You find some people when they grow up and get it all together, they forget. But y'all didn't forget me. And Chuck told me, when he wrote me to his retirement — he had called years before and said, "When I die, I want you to come and sing for me." So when he got ready to retire, he called me, and I said, "This is not the funeral!" [Laughter]

Bettie: Well, I want you to know that you've been in my life a loooong time. Way before I knew you, boy. So I'm thankful for it.

Eleanor: Eleanor Walden. I think that what encouraged me about SNCC was we were all young people. And it was the naivete. I mean, as much as you could wake up in the morning and know you might die, you also believed you were going to live forever. And that was the naivete that got you to follow Chuck! [Laughter]

Karen: Plus, I had a crush on him. So, you know — 

Margaret: Now it comes out, you are to blame! [Laughter]

Eleanor: What I saw was youth and imagination and impetus to jump in and do things...

Bettie: Without thinking.

Eleanor: ...without thinking. And even though you say that SNCC had regulations, and there should've been boxes checked and so forth, well, that doesn't happen all the time. It didn't happen then. It didn't happen with Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney.

Don: Well, it did.

Margaret: Actually, it did.

Eleanor: But they didn't call home.

Margaret: Actually it did.

Eleanor: They didn't call when they got out of jail.

Margaret: I think they tried to call, and the WATS line — or something with the WATS line.

Steve: Yeah, I think they tried.

Margaret: They did. That's not true. They tried.

Chuck: No, we had the text there, and so like Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, it was also supposed — if you got in a wreck, especially, you were supposed to let somebody know that. And when you got released, you were supposed to let somebody know that.

Margaret: But you know, we were all gone at that point.

Chuck: So we didn't know.

Margaret: Everybody was in Oxford, Ohio.

Chuck: Yeah, and so we didn't know firstly that they had gotten arrested, and by the time we found out that they had been arrested, they had been released. So all that time, the four hours or so, between the arrest and the release, we didn't know where they were.

Margaret: Because I monitored the WATS line. I didn't mean to interrupt you.

Eleanor: No, that's all right. I'm glad to know.

Margaret: We were monitoring the WATS line in Jackson at the time, and Mickey was religious about calling. And he always called, and he came in. He stopped in. I mean, the other two, I don't know. But certainly Mickey was absolutely religious about letting people know where he was, so it wasn't that. It was something else.

Eleanor: Because that's what I had heard. That's what the story is, that they didn't call in.

Chuck: No, no.

[At the time Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman disappeared, the WATS line was being manned (or, more accurately, womaned) around the clock. Standard search procedures were immediately initiated when they missed their check-in time. The Neshoba County jail was called, and the cops lied, falsely claiming that the three were not being held there. Once the Klan ambush was set up on the road out of town, Sheriff Rainey shoved the three out the jailhouse door around 10:30pm. The assumption is that he refused to let them call the COFO office in Meridian, and there were no other phones available (outside telephone booths were not common in rural areas, and all the stores were closed).]

Eleanor: And I think my point is to say that accidents happen. This was an accident and unfortunately one that no one survived. But I mean, my own story was that I was nine months pregnant, or eight and a half, when the one with the baseball bat — 

Karen: Lester Maddox?

Eleanor: Yeah, that one.

Karen: The picket. I picketed his restaurant.

[Lester Maddox owned the Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta. He was famous for having a barrel of baseball bats and ax handles for his white patrons to beat any Afro-Americans who tried to enter his establishment. He filed suite to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and closed his restaurant when he lost that court case. He was widely acclaimed by white segregationists, and rode their support into the Georgia Governor's chair in the election of 1966.]

Eleanor: Right, and we were picketing the restaurant, and the police came in. And I was ready to go to jail, big belly or not! And I thought, "Well, they'll take care of me. It would be fun. I'll give birth under ...

Woman: That was cuckoo!

Eleanor: But my husband wouldn't let me go. I've never forgiven him for that actually! But yeah, you do impetuous things, and sometimes you survive. And the younger you are, I think the more possibility there is. But these — I hung around with the Freedom Singers, and Cordell Reagon was crazy too. [Laughter]

Bettie: I think all the Freedom Singer boys were crazy.

Clarence: Did anyone know Willie Ricks at this table?

Chuck: Who?

Clarence: Willie Ricks.

Bettie: Oh Lord, crazy!

Chuck: No, I was thinking Peacock. No. Yeah, we know Willie.

Nancy: Were you going to say how it affected you being in SNCC?

Eleanor: Oh, well I felt that I belonged.

Nancy: But, in your life?

Eleanor: In my life?

Nancy: That's one of our questions.

Eleanor: I still sing. I still sing for nothing. [Laughter]

Clarence: So the burning question is, was it a boy or girl? [Laughter]

Eleanor: It was a girl, and she still sings! And follows in my footsteps, which is rewarding. See, I came down from New York City. I was born and raised in New York. Greenwich Village. My father was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World [known as the "Wobblies."]. So I came from a radical family, and my cradle songs were the IWW songs. So when the folk music revival came around, I thought, "This is it. The Christ, the Messiah!

Woman: The resurrection.

Eleanor: Right! Good. Because my naivete led me to really believe that there was going to be justice and equality.

Chuck: See, that's why that was the goal. That's why you wanted to go to prison with that baby. [Laughter]

Eleanor: I would've been nuts, but yeah.

Chuck: See, y'all don't understand. These people are not like regular people. Your being pregnant doesn't mean anything except a bigger target than

Don: That's just what I was going to say. Right.

Bettie: A lot of lessons learned back then, hopefully.

Eleanor: Yeah, I'm finished. I just wanted to say that.

Margaret: Yeah, I wanted to say that in terms of how it has affected me, I think one of the things that made the experience so piercing and memorable for most of us was that we were living on the edge. We were living with violence, and we were living with life and death questions. And it's only when you're in those circumstances that you can really have these experiences that place a mark on your life for the rest of your life. And that's what this did.

And for me, as a young woman, there weren't that many opportunities for young people — young women in particular — maybe young guys they can go to the service, they can do whatever. But for young women to have these kinds of really, really intense experiences where what we did mattered, and we were targets of violence, helping people avoid violence. All those things, we were in it. So I think that that, for me, is what made it memorable.

In addition to the fact that when you're 17 or 18 years old, what have you done? You've sat in a classroom, so you have a classroom experience. If you had church experience, then you might've had that. Or you had your family. But you never had anything like this. Never had this kind of experience where people are coming from a completely diverse community. You know, all we had in common was that we were all Americans, basically, not to be soppy about it or anything, but that's what we had in common. And we had our commitment to freedom in common. And that was enough to create lasting ties. And the sense of safety among us, and also to create a sense of "we" and "them," in which local people were also a huge piece of this. They were absolutely essential, a part of who we were.

So that kind of growing up at that kind of time, it was something that you could never get in any classroom. You couldn't get that in your own communities, staying in your own community. You had to get out of your own community to get that. And so I think obviously — I stayed with the Civil Rights Movement all my life. Never left it. I still consider myself a civil rights worker, 50 years later. Never planned on leaving. I plan to die with my civil rights boots on. [Laughter]

Don: I mentioned earlier about Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatrist who was part of the Mississippi — the medical Civil Rights Movement [Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR)]. And I was complaining to him about somebody who was acting totally irrationally and erratically in the group. And he says, "Well, what do you expect? I mean, you're all crazy, or you wouldn't be here!" [Laughter]

He said, "Did you ever hear about the self preservation mode? It's what most people are dominated by." He said, "You people have lost it. You're all crazy!" So you shouldn't be surprised at anything. I had had this situation [1967] where I got a phone call from a SNCC activist who told me that Stokely had made a speech in a town called Prattville [AL]. And the next thing you know, the police and the National Guard are shooting at them, and he said, "Could you go there? You're the nearest." And they're shooting at me — and you want me to go there ...? [Laughter]

Karen: Yeah, thanks.

Don: He said, Well, you're the nearest. I said, "Oh, that makes sense." And so he gave me a message to deliver. I was to give it to the commanding officer. So, I drive up there, and on the radio they announce that Stokely has been killed, been assassinated. As we're approaching the National Guard barricade, the two National Guardsmen, with their rifles, and they're getting ready. And I pull up the car, and he says, "What do you want here?" I said, "I want to see your commanding officer. This is important." He says, "Get out of here, or we'll shoot you dead. Right now." And I'm not getting out, "call your commanding officer. This involves his family." And so they called; somebody went to find him.

And at this point, I stepped out of the car, acting very careful. And my knee buckled from fear, and I fell. Well, the Guardsman thought I was coming up with a gun after I'm falling. I said, "No, no. No, no. Just tripped on a rock." And the commander comes, and I said, "Oh, here it comes." And I said, "I've got a message for you from Rap Brown." I gave him the phone number if you need to call to verify it. I said, The message is, "Your wife who lives on" — I gave the address — "will be killed if anything happens to this group in the house. Your children who go to school" — I gave the address and the name of the school — "they will be killed if anything happens. And {UNCLEAR} they're shooting into this house. There are about 20, 30 SNCC people there. And of course we think that Stokely's dead.

And then I added — "I'm not saying this. It's coming from Rap. I want you to know that. To see what good would that do me.

Man: I'm just saying...

Don: And he says, "Well, they're shooting at us."

I said, "Well, then let me drive my car in, and I'll get them out, and they'll surrender all their weapons. He said, "They'll shoot you." I said, "Look, assuming they're crazy enough to take on a whole army, they're not going to shoot me." And I said, "You've got to let them out." And at that point, he told me — I said, "If Stokely is dead, that's gonna be a problem also." And he said, "No, that was a mistake. The radio got it wrong. He's in jail." And so, he says, "Now it's time to leave." I agreed.

[The standoff ended in arrests with no one being shot or killed.]

And I drove back to Selma, and the next morning, I went to see Stokely in Prattville. He didn't know he'd been reported dead. Nobody had told him. And it was just one of those experiences that afterwards, I thought, "What did I do? What did I do!" Not seriously though, because that was the meat of being SNCC. You knew you were offering your life, and you would do it for what mattered to you.

And to our topic, you can never undo the effect of having that kind of experience. It stays with you for your whole life. And somebody [here] said thank you, thank you for the people who came down. No, thank you, for being there and letting us come down, because all of us, I believe, have had a far better, richer life than we ever would've had.

Bettie: I tell you, I didn't get the money, but ooh, am I so rich. [Laughter]

Don: I was telling Steve over lunch, that the [Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement] group that's sponsoring this, we had a discussion once. The issue was, "How much money do you think you've lost because you joined SNCC." [Laughter] Everybody went for how it affected their lives and the income they could've earned. And large sums of money, large sums of money.

Margaret: But there are a lot of our folks who did go out and earn a lot of money afterward. We didn't, but a lot of people did.

Bettie: Yeah, we stayed true to the cause, didn't we? [Laughter]

Don: Well, if they're out there, I've never heard of them.

Woman: I've come to feel like that basically — and I don't know whether I would do it again, at this tender age of 69, but I kind of feel like that that was a really — I mean, I don't know if I would have — if I knew what I know now, if I would — well, I don't know if I would go to the rally, but anyway, so — but what I'm trying to say is that it was a spiritual experience.

Bettie: Oh, it was.

Woman: And I feel that by somehow at 19 I was willing — I remember that phrase, "If one of us falls, a thousand will take our place." And that was really my creed. But by putting aside that sense of safety and how we all fight to feel safe, and we're not going to get — our bodies are strong, and you know, all that stuff. I think you enter into a different place spiritually. I mean, that's my belief is that your — all those regular things that most people focus on are no longer the issue. I mean, they are, because God knows there was the terrified part of me, but there's that other part that just — did other people feel that?

Nancy: I want to follow up on something that you said. To me, in the first things that I was involved in where I was really terrified and came through that, as opposed to people I knew that came out and walked on a picket line and never were in that really frightening situation, after the frightening things, I felt like I always knew there were other people who would do and did do the same kind of thing. I felt I was part of a bigger world of people who I could always turn to who understood that and had that bravery and that commitment. And then when I would face other things later in my life that seemed impossible, I would just say to myself, "I can do that." And I always felt that sense of a kind of internal power that comes from facing something huge in front of you.

And so for me, I've been political in various ways all my life and involved in different kinds of movements. I've always been involved in different kinds of direct action and stuff like that. I always felt that there were other people out there. If they weren't in my exact same movement, they were my reference group. My basic reference group wasn't the academic world where I worked, that was a part of or some other job or organization. I always felt — and I still feel — sustained by those same values that motivated me when I was part of SNCC.

To me, the values that SNCC expressed, whether it's the human rights values, the commitment to democracy or some of those things we talked about this morning or bravery. Those are the values that have really sustained me, and those are the values I want to communicate to other people, to let people know. And that's why I think it's so important for us to tell these stories and pass this on, like we were talking about the [SNCC] Legacy Project. People think, "Oh, you did that then." And they don't realize that they can do that and are allowed to do that right now. They can do that, and we would be standing with them in whatever ways we can. Like we were talking about calling SNCC together. So to me, it's those experiences that you all have been talking about that are the ones that really the most sustaining to me.

Steve: Yeah, that last thing you said is one thing that affects me a lot and makes me want to communicate with the next generations, because one of the things that connects me with younger people who are wondering what they're gonna do. There was a moment in time when we had a choice to make, to drop out of school or just kind of continue on the expected path. And there was something about SNCC that defined itself even before I became part of what it was doing that was so strong that it pulled me away from a very linear path that my life would've otherwise taken.

My family was sort of well known in Connecticut. I would've probably gotten involved in mainstream politics in Connecticut and been a good liberal Democrat and that kind of shit. And interestingly enough, something similar happened to my own father which was surprising, and with his background that he got involved in the labor movement back in the '40s. And that had always affected me a little bit. And so when I speak to the young people, I talk like it's a transformative moment in time in your life when you have a choice to make, because there will be opportunities. Because it's true. A lot of young people say, Oh gosh, I wish I lived back in the '60s. It sound like — gosh, when you look at everything that's going on right now, the '60s is like a sandbox, I mean in comparison with the problems we have now.


Steve's Story

Don: Steve, your Civil Rights experiences led to this other dramatic moment in your life, and I doubt if most people of the people here know about it. Would you give a brief ...?

Steve: Well, it's hard to be brief, but SNCC did lead me — I mean, I was already committed to going to law school to become a social justice lawyer. SNCC helped me along, but I kind of already had that. I didn't go to law school to become a lawyer. During law school actually, I helped set up legal defense committees at San Francisco State and Berkeley when they had these knock-down drag-out battles over ethnic studies programs which didn't even exist back in the day. And tear gas and Hayakawa and all of that stuff.

[S.I. Hayakawa was president of San Francisco State College during part of the historic 1968-69 student strike for ethnic studies and increased admissions of non-white students — the longest student strike in U.S. history. Hayakawa became infamous for his use of expulsions and violent police repression to defeat the students and their faculty supporters. A massive police presence and more than 900 arrests failed to break the strike. Eventually, the students won a majority of their demands, inspiring similar student struggles across the country at institutions as diverse as U.C. Berkeley, Cornell, and Tuskegee Institute. Hayakawa's authoritarian tactics made him a darling of conservative white voters who elected him to the U.S. Senate on a "law & order" platform in 1976. He served one term.]

And the work I did was through the National Lawyers Guild. Then that led me — sort of all connected — I took two years out of law school and went to Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps, and something just about the experience of being in the South, the land where slaves had arrived, I just wanted to learn more. I won't go into what I felt about the Peace Corps, because that taught me some things about the U.S. government that I didn't like, but as a personal experience, it was amazing.

But what Don is talking about is that with other people in the Lawyers Guild, I worked with the Black Panthers here in Oakland as legal support in the late '60s and early '70s. And I probably would not have done that kind of work but for having been involved in Mississippi, and like [SNCC Chairman] Phil Hutchings was somebody that I knew then. But anyway, my experience was helping George Jackson. Do you all know George?

Clarence: At Folsom? That George?

Steve: He was originally at Soledad and a guard was killed. There's a great book — there's a single good book about this period if any of you want to locate it. Melancholy History of Soledad Prison by Min Yee. There are about 40 books written about the experience. It's the only one I recommend.

Don: Me too.

Steve: Anyway, he was accused of killing a prison guard with John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo. They became the "Soledad Brothers," and probably most of you read that book (Soledad Brother). And I was helping George look into filing a Civil Rights lawsuit about the living conditions where he was being held. He got transferred to San Quentin for the trial, and on August 21, 1971, there was a massacre inside San Quentin. Jackson was killed at San Quentin with two other inmates and three guards.

Don: He'd been there visiting Jackson.

Steve: I had been visiting Jackson, and I visited him there that day and then went to my uncle's for lunch and did some other routine things before returning home and learning of the massacre. Because I had been the last visitor, I got accused of bringing a gun in to Jackson.

Clarence: Angela Davis was ...

Don: Well, she was charged with felony murder.

Steve: That was a year earlier. It's interesting you say that, because my prospective jurors, when we questioned them, blended those two incidents together. So it's part of the problem with history. That was a year earlier. So I fled for 13 years, most of it — 

Clarence: The underground years.

Steve:  — in France. And came back in late '83 and was acquitted after a trial in '86.

But it's a trajectory that if you knew more about my early life, you'd never imagine how it ended up there. But I've kind of kept involved, like Nancy said. I just keep doing the same — It's like you don't have any choice, once you make these choices earlier in life. A lot of people have said, "God, I admire you so much. You're still doing stuff." It's sort of like they don't expect it. Instead I should drop out [of political work], "I've done my duty," you know, "I've paid my dues," and now I can go off. And people who don't do this work don't realize you can't do anything else. Even underground in France, I got involved in making political documentary films about steel workers and farm workers and things like that.

Don: Always underground.

Steve: All of it underground.

Woman: Yeah, you have a new community.

Steve: Well, you said it. You were so beautiful when you were talking to Chuck before. I mean, that was just a precious moment, because the humanity of what this is all about. I mean, bottom line, we are all alive. We just saw this film last night, this immensely rich guy who loses his job in a corporate layoff and ends up being a construction worker, with Kevin Costner. I don't know if you've seen it, but the whole movie is about the lack of any value in the way most people live their lives in this country.

Chuck: Well, you know, Miss Baker — Ella Baker — Miss Baker's favorite song — Bettie Mae talks about walking around the house singing, to pass on the tradition she learned during the struggle. I think we all do that now. I do it now, because I wanted to do I before I had my daughter. Now I do it all the time. Miss Baker's favorite song was "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest until It Comes." And she was always singing that.

And you realize at some point — I don't know, it happens at different points for all of us, but you realize because you have walked in that swamp of denying rights and gone to jail and struggled in this freedom, that that's it. You are committed now until the day you die. And had there been a time, a long, long time ago, prior to professorships, prior to licensure, prior to some other important stuff we took on the road, you realize, "Well, if it doesn't relate to the Movement, I'm not going to do it."

So whatever I do, be it teaching or preaching, has to relate to the Movement. So my life is going to be what I can do to structure my being on this earth, because I'm not going to rest; I'll still be involved in it till I'm gone. And even now, I'm 75, so I accept that I'm in the fourth quarter of this particular journey. But I know that in the fourth quarter of my life, that I've got maybe a few more years, but whatever it is that I'm going to be doing, will be related to the Movement, a part of the Movement, or establishing — 

And telling the story. We used to talk about in the early days of SNCC, what is important for us? Like, a lot of us aren't going to live to see the end of this, but we have to tell the story of who we are and why we did what we did. Because it's important for those who will pick up the baton after us. And that we who believe in freedom will not rest until it comes.

Clarence: Well, "they say that freedom is a lonesome struggle. You struggled so long, you must be free."

Eleanor: Can I say something in regard to, I guess it was what Steve said. The conventional wisdom is that you can be a radical in your youth, but then you change and become a conservative. And they use that over and over and over and over again until what you just said is almost apologetic, that that didn't happen to you. Whereas, I submit that we have to fight that as hard as we possibly can. And every time anybody interviews us, that we're moved to join a movement that never leaves us. And that we never leave.

And the other thing I wanted to say, Clarence, is that as naive as I say I was when I went to Mississippi, the first time I really understood what people were risking, how they were risking their lives, was when we stayed in the homes of Black people in Mississippi. And they took us in, and they fed us, and they put their lives on the line. And I would never have understood that had it not been for the testimony of the personal behavior of those people. So I cannot thank them enough in my lifetime.

Nancy: I wanted to add one other thing which is — it's not just the things that happened earlier. When we think about motivating young people and helping them get over that idea that as you get older you get more conservative, we want to remember this. When young people see older people who are on the line and doing things, then they know that older people really are active.

I remember being involved in some of the anti-nuke work in the '80s and becoming part of an affinity group of activists. The affinity groups are connected by being part of a network and each group sends someone to a central meeting to make additional decisions, have discussion, etc. I was able to be part of a group called the Salt and Pepper Shakers. They were all over 65 or 70, and I was 40. I learned what they had done and saw them out there, getting arrested, organizing, doing all these things. And to me, that's also something that we can give, because we're not afraid to do that. We can continue to be on the front line and not be afraid and we show that. It doesn't matter what your age is. You don't just sit back.

Don: We've got about five minutes. Anybody want to wrap up?

Karen: I just want to thank everybody, because obviously the [Klan] rally was really traumatic and hard to talk about, and I just am really grateful. I can't believe you're here. But this has been really helpful, and I would say it not only influenced my commitment but just my feelings, my feelings state. And I mean, kids are always, when I'm talking in classes, "You're so passionate." They're not even used to passion in adults. You know? They're used to boring adults. And so I just think it's really — I'm just really grateful to all of you. To the whole damn thing.

Don: Steve said to me over lunch, he said, I assume the other [discussion] groups have great people like us. And we got better after lunch.

Bettie: Alleluia.

Don: Alleluia.

Woman: Alleluia.

Bettie: One more time.

Don: One more time.

Bettie and others: [Singing and clapping]

One more time! One more time!
One more time! One more time!
I'm so glad to be in the service one more time! One more time! One more time!
One more time! One more time!
I'm so glad to be in the service one more time!

Over my head, I see freedom in the air.
Yeah! Over my head, I see freedom in the air.
Over my head, I see freedom in the air.
And I see freedom somewhere.


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