[Edited transcript — participants may have corrected or expanded on their verbal remarks.]
|Elizabeth Gesse, MOAD|
|Charles Bonner, Selma student & SNCC|
|Maria Gitin, SCOPE & SNCC|
|Bruce Hartford, SCLC|
|Wazir Peacock, SNCC|
If you were part of the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call, you are encouraged to add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. (If you add a comment, please indicate where in the transcript it should be inserted.)
Introductions Bruce Hartford: We the People Wazir Peacock: Fighting for Voting Rights Charles Bonner: Selma Before Dr. King Maria Gitin: A Volunteer for Freedom Infiltrators, Snitches, Spies, & Provocateurs Selma the Film & SNCC vs SCLC
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Elizabeth Gessel, and I want to welcome you to Museum of the African Diaspora. Is it anybody's first time here today? Great, welcome.
Do we have any [museum] members in the audience? It looks like an opportunity for membership cultivation. If you would like to support the work that we do here, we would love to have you as members. You can get information downstairs at our front desk.
I want to tell you a little bit about what's on your chairs before we start. You have a what's happening flyer, which tells you about upcoming programs at the museum. We actually have a program tomorrow that's not on that flyer. It is a conversation with Lava Thomas and Jacqueline Francis. Lava Thomas is the amazing artist who's on view in the gallery right behind you. That's going to start at two o'clock tomorrow, and she's going to do a walk-through of the gallery and then be in conversation with an art historian. So, we'd love to have you come back and spend your whole weekend with us at MoAD.
But we're very excited to present today's program, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Voting — I'm sorry, Voices of the 1965 Voting Rights Fight. We have some panelists here who were intimately involved in the voting rights struggle. We have Bruce Hartford, civil rights activist and historian who is author of The Selma Voting Rights Struggle and March to Montgomery. We also have Charles A. Bonner, civil rights attorney. He's a Selma native and author of Tip of the Arrow: the Selma Student Nonviolent Movement, a Study in Leadership. And we have Maria Gitin, civil rights veteran and author of This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight. We have books by these panelists that are for sale, that you can look at and purchase after the program.
We are excited to be presenting this very important history, so I'd like to introduce our panelists.
She wants us, yeah. Oh, we're going to sing. We're going to sing? We're going to kick off with a song.
Okay, they want to start this meeting in the way we start all meetings in the Civil Rights Movement, and that's typically with song and prayer. We will just start with a song for now, because the struggle goes on. It's a constant struggle, so we just have to gear up and get ready the way we've always done it. So we decided to sing Oh Freedom! I think, everyone knows the song, Oh Freedom!? It's Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom. Everyone just sing it, and you'll catch on.Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom,
Oh Freedom over me, over me
And before I'll be a slave I'll be burled in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free
No segregation, No segregation,
No segregation over me, over me
And before I'll be a slave I'll be burled in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free
Well, before I start I want to introduce our fourth panelist — who while he may have been a couple minutes late today — was one of the very first field secretaries of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi and also the '65 struggle in Alabama. So, I want to welcome Wazir Peacock.
So the Alabama voting rights campaign of 1965 that the four of us were part of was not an isolated event. It did not spontaneously spring into existence. Rather, it grew out of a long historical context, and it can only be understood in that context. Back in the day, we used to talk about first-class citizens, second-class citizens. But today, Bob Moses of SNCC analyzes the voting rights campaigns in the framework of "We the people."
The very first words of the American constitution are, "We the people do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America." Notice that it does not say "We the states." It does not say "We the politicians." It does not say "We the 1%." It does not say we "The plantation owners." It says "We the people." But who are "We the people?" As a matter of practical politics, those who are eligible to vote and the people who actually do vote, are the members of "We the people." They are what we used to refer to as "full citizens." They are recognized as stakeholders in our society. As a practical matter, those who are barred from voting are not part of "We the people."
When we were founded as a nation, a fierce political battle erupted over who would have the vote. In essence, this was a fight over who would be included in We the People. We have been fighting that political war ever since, and we continue to fight it to this day. The issue of who has the vote continues to be a fight, because those who are well-served by the status quo want to limit the voting power of those who they fear have good reason to be dissatisfied with the way things are. Of course, the dissatisfied and disenfranchised want to have their voices heard and their votes counted.
Now let's go back to the presidential election of 1800, one of the first full presidential elections. It's been estimated that no more than 10% of the adult population in the United States were eligible to vote. 90% of the population was barred from voting. They were not part of We the People.
Well, who were they? Let's start with women, half the population. Women could not vote. For 133 years [after ratification of U.S. Constitution], women fought for the vote. They fought to become part of We the People. For their temerity, they were beaten, jailed, brutalized and demeaned, but they carried their battle into every city, town and rural hamlet in the nation. The women's suffrage movement was one of the longest and most powerful social movements in American history.
In 1800, Native Americans could not vote. Indians did not win legal voting rights until 1927, 140 years after the constitution was adopted. In many areas after 1927, white terrorism, legal tricks, official fraud continued to deny them the vote long thereafter, which is why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that we all fought for specifically included and covered areas in California, South Dakota, New Hampshire, and the entire state of Alaska, who had a history of denying the vote to Native Americans.
Let's go back again to 1800. In most states, only white men who owned property could vote. Renters, apprentices, farm tenants, sailors, factory and mine laborers, they could not vote. In New York City for example, 75% — three-quarters of the white men — were denied the vote because they did not own property. The struggle to end explicit property qualifications was fierce and often bloody. I'm a nonviolent protestor [but] that fight was not nonviolent. It lasted 80 years. North Carolina was the last state to end property requirements in 1856. North Carolina, last in so many respects.
But implicit income restrictions were not ended until the poll tax was outlawed in 1964. Many of us believe that these new voter ID laws that are being passed today are in fact a covert way to again limit voting rights of the poor and the elderly, and those who do not have driver's licenses or passports, or concealed gun carry permits.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war against Mexico. It promised that Mexicans living in the conquered territories would be free American citizens with full voting rights; did not happen. In Texas and California, legal rights were granted in theory, but Anglo-terrorism, legal tricks and official fraud prevented all but a few from actually casting ballots. In Arizona and New Mexico, Mexican-Americans were legally barred from voting until 1912. During those 64 years, their lands and water rights were confiscated by judges and legislators who were elected entirely by white voters.
Across the Southwest for more than 100 years, Latinos fought and struggled for the vote to be full and equal members of We the People. That's a little-known struggle that they don't make movies about, a struggle that in many respects continues to this day. One of the best-kept secrets about the Voting Rights Act is that it also won full voting rights for Latino citizens.
Today, we see a Republican party that's adamantly opposed to immigration reform. Personally, I believe that stems from a combination of just out-and-out racism, and the fact that newly-enfranchised immigrants tend to vote for Democratic candidates. In other words, immigration reform is in some respects a voting rights issue, because it impacts and defines who is included in We the People.
And not just Latinos. After the immigration act of 1870, and then the Chinese Exclusion Acts, Asians were denied the vote. Asians did not fully win full citizenship and voting rights until 1952. One of the reasons that Japanese Americans could so easily be rounded up and sent to concentration camps during World War II was that many of them had no vote, and therefore they were not part of We the People.
As originally adopted, the constitution defined slaves as property, not as people. In most states, free men of color were denied the vote. We all know that the Civil War was a war against slavery — despite what they try and tell you now.
But in a broader sense, it was part of a long and still-ongoing fight to include citizens of African descent as full and equal members of We the People. The Civil War did end explicit slavery, but it did not end the fight over We the People. That struggle continued through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the Square Deal, World War I, the New Deal, World War II, and the modern Civil Rights Movement that we were four were part of. And as Black Lives Matter reminds us, in many respects the struggle continues to this day.
When I arrived in Selma in early '65, I had only an abstract intellectual understanding of the importance of voting rights. I knew it in my head. I didn't know it in my gut. That changed early one morning when an errand took me down to the basement of First Baptist Church, which is a block from the famous Brown Chapel. In Selma [at that time], the public hospital, the taxpayer-financed hospital, would only see Black patients one day a week. They refused to treat civil rights activists at all, which is why Reverend Reeb, when he was brutally beaten by Klan, had to be driven 90 miles to a hospital in Birmingham before a doctor would even look at him, a distance of 90 miles and a trip of several hours that probably cost him his life.
After Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, volunteer doctors and nurses from the Medical Committee for Human Rights set up an emergency aid station for injured demonstrators. They set it up in the basement of First Baptist Church. But soon they were treating everyone who was excluded from public healthcare. The public healthcare that was routinely available to whites was not available to Blacks, [because they were not] part of We the People.
So on the morning I'm talking about, I'm down in the basement of First Baptist Church and a young woman comes down the steps. She's carrying a newborn infant, just a few days old. Sick — bad sick, even I could see that. And she was terrified, absolutely terrified for the life of her baby and also for herself. She lived on a plantation miles out of town. The master had refused to let her take her dying child into town to see a doctor. He forbade it, either because he didn't want to pay the fee or he didn't want her exposed to these dangerous and radical freedom movement ideas — or both.
Somehow through the grapevine, she heard about doctors who would treat Black patients in Selma. In the dead of night, like an escaped slave, she snuck off the plantation, trudged on foot carrying her baby through the bogs and fields and rural ravines, to the basement of First Baptist Church. She knew she could never return to the plantation. She had defied the master's edict, and would face his wrath if he ever saw her again.
She knew that no matter what he did to her, he would face no sanction or consequences from any elected official or court. He could brutalize her. He could rape her, even kill her, with no fear of punishment. She had no vote. She was not part of We the People. She knew with dead certainty that not only would white officialdom fail to protect her, they would turn her over to the plantation master. She had to give up her family, her home and her few possessions to save her child's life, to go in fear of being forced back into a form of semi-slavery.
She did not know these white doctors and nurses with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. She was terrified that they would send her back to the plantation. I heard her beg them over and over not to send her back. Of course, they would not send her back. I don't know what happened to her and her baby. My work was elsewhere, and I never even knew her name. But I never forgot her, because she taught me the human price of not being part of We the People, the cost of not having a vote to hold politicians, sheriffs and judges accountable.
So Wazir, you want to want to pick up from here?
I'm Wazir Peacock and my loving friend Bruce covered things quite thoroughly. But where do I come in in this picture? I was a student at Tuskegee Institute, which now is Tuskegee University. I went there in the fall of 1964. I had been kind of thinking about trying to get myself back up to speed to go to medical school, and I knew they had one of the best veterinary medicine schools there in Tuskegee. Their curriculum and the way they trained was as rigid as going to a medical school [for humans], so I thought I would go over there and take some courses there, and get myself back up to speed to go to medical school.
Then while doing so, I was very, very, very quiet about who I was there on the campus, because I wanted to get back in the swing of the academic. But that didn't last too long. Many of my friends, between Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia — the SNCC office was in Atlanta — and so they knew I was in school so they would stop by to see me. They would stop by to see me.
And after a while the students on the campus, such as Jimmy Rogers and a few others, they recognized that I must — "Were you a part of that SNCC thing?" I said, "Yes, I'm a SNCC member, yeah." They said, "Well, we're trying to reactive our organization on campus, TIAL, Tuskegee Institute Advancement League. Maybe you can come and give us some counseling and guidance on things." I said, "I'll gladly do that."
And so I did, and the next thing I know I was totally involved with TIAL. At that time, I think they had to have a faculty member who's just kind of like a sponsor of any organization like that on the campus. That person was Jean Wiley, who's not here today. She's kind of under the weather. So the journey began. The next thing I realized, I was down in Selma. I was down in Selma every weekend, every weekend, and that's where I got involved in voter registration again, talking to people about getting registered to vote.
And realizing, just coming out of Mississippi and working in voter registration there, I already knew — I had been duly baptized, already knew how dangerous it was and how important it was to get as many people as we could. Find the leadership in the community, people who could talk to the other people in the community, to convince them how important it was that they make the attempt to register to vote, advising as to how dangerous it was.
We would count the history of — We would say, "Well, you know — " I said, "Well look, going all the way back to slavery up to now, can you count how many people who've been lynched, who never even tried to do anything, just because they were Black, walking down the street somewhere and wasn't with somebody, and got off by themselves, hung, dragged behind cars and all that kind of thing?"
I said, "It continues to this day." I said, "You know why they can do it?" I said, "They can do it because you don't vote, and they don't want you to vote. They don't want to contend with your vote, because once you are able to vote they will have to recognize and respect you, because you'll be able to change the laws. You'll be able to send the kind of people to the legislature and to the state assembly and to the county and all that, county supervisors and so forth in the city of Selma. You can have people on the city council to speak for you." I said, "But as it is now, you have no representation. You're just living helter skelter like a rabbit. Anybody can shoot you, and nothing be done about it." I said, "That has to change."
That was my spiel to everyone that I talked to. When I woke up in the morning, it would be on my mind. I mean, I didn't have to think about it because it would become a total part of my whole being, to make sure that Black people got out of that precarious position that we had been in for all of those more than 400 years, and so we did. My greatest contribution I think was that after being recruited by the TIAL to be a counselor, whatever, kind of advisor, when things got kind of — Not kind of, but real bad in Selma, the marching and when SCLC came in with Dr. Martin Luther King, and they started marching to the county courthouse to get people to register to vote, and all that brutality taking place, people being killed.
Then to encourage whatever powers that be in the SCLC or whoever, to make sure that they did march, we at TIAL, we organized ourselves and we carried down to Montgomery, Alabama, over 1,200 students.[Referring to the Student Marches in Montgomery to support the people of Selma and open up a "Second Front" in the Alabama war for voting rights.]
We went there, and with the determination that we would stay there until Dr. King got there with the [Selma to Montgomery March]. They did everything we — The church, Dr. King's church right down from the capitol. That's where we dug in, and they did everything they could, the powers that be in SCLC and other people. We had jumped the gun. They tried to get us out of there. We wouldn't leave, you know? We wouldn't leave. We went on a hunger strike, and we went on every kind of strike in there.
Finally, one of the students — I don't know whether he was a plant or whatnot, but he made a convincing argument to the other students why they should not — Why we should leave and go back to Tuskegee. So that sabotaged and broke up our staying there [inaudible 00:28:14], so we went back to Tuskegee. We went back to Tuskegee, and waited a while.
Finally, it came through that the [Selma to Montgomery March] did take place, and then we went back again to meet them there. And so it was a — And you know, from that there was still killing going on. Ms. Liuzzo got killed transporting students back, people back from Montgomery to Selma.
They never let up trying to intimidate and keep Black people from attempting to register to vote. And by the grace of God, we never let up, because "let up" was not on the agenda at all. By that time, I mean everybody had already realized, as young as we were, we already realized — And I see the baby over there, Stu House. He was determined. Somehow he got his parents consent, and he was down there, just I mean doing — I mean, my goodness gracious, he took over The Selma Project eventually, and he did great things.
Anyway, we never let up. CORE, SCLC, SNCC, all of them, we never let up. We kept on, and one of our signature songs, because it was out during the time, "We kept on pushing," because it was a "heat wave." We was "doing what the spirit said," and the spirit said we're going to do, oh lord, we're going to do what the spirit said. If the spirit said vote, we're going to vote. There was no turning back. There was no turning back.
And finally, I will just stop here and say that I'm glad to be here to share with you my experiences. Whatever questions that you have for us in the panel, we are here to answer, to clarify some of the things that may be out of — Told the wrong way. We'll tell it our way. Okay, so thank you.
Welcome, everybody. I definitely have to say hello to my dear friend Stu House. He was one of my mentors in the Movement of SNCC, and Jimmy Garrett, another SNCC organizer. He and I were in jail in Mississippi together. You know, this is back in 1963 to '65, when nobody's lives mattered if you were a civil rights worker.
Everybody knows about Dr. King's powerful story. You know about all the other icons; John Lewis, Jimmy, Brother Jesse Jackson, Ms. Boynton. You know about the icons. What I want to talk to you about is Selma before Dr. King, and how a movement is born. How do you organize?
It was a Sunday afternoon. It's March, just about this time, a little bit earlier. The sun is just about to set, and my buddy Cleo and I were 16. We were pushing my mom's green '64 Ford down Church Street, going south, because we've run out of gas probably, because it had broken down for some reason. I'm pushing and steering, and my buddy Cleo is pushing in the rear. As I'm pushing, I can see right coming towards me this man in a yellow shirt, black tie, beige coat, black trousers. He's walking towards us, and he's passing this lady — Church lady, white hat and white dress and white shoes. He walks right past her, and he walks right up to our car and he starts pushing. The car moves a little faster.
As he starts to push he says, "My name is Reverend Bernard Lafayette, and I'm from SNCC." And we keep pushing. That didn't mean anything to us, other than we knew he was not from Selma because we knew how people walked and dressed in Selma, and he was not. He didn't fit the mold. We pushed the car on around onto Small Street, and we start heading west, and then up into the driveway in my big yellow house. We had a yellow house right on the main drag on Small Street.
We invited him up on the porch and he said, "You know, my wife Colia and I, we just got here. They told us that Selma was dangerous, but we have been involved in direction action, which means we've been sitting in. We've been demonstrating up in Tennessee, and we've been beaten up. I was on the Freedom Rides on the bus, on the Greyhound buses, to integrate them. I was beaten bloody, and there were white people and Jewish people and Black people all with me, and they were beaten badly. I'm here to organize you all, and you all are going to engage in direct action, and you're going to be beaten."
And Cleo and I are looking at each other. We go, "Who is this guy? What is he talking about?"
And he said, "But you know, you're going to be nonviolent. You can't hit back. They're going to hit you. They're going to spit on you. They're going to kick you. They're going to pour hot coffee on you, but you can't hit back. You're going to be nonviolent."
And Cleo and I again said, "Man, you know you in Selma! We don't know where you came from, but this is Selma, Alabama, and it's run by the KKK and a very mean sheriff named Jim Clark. And he will kill you. We don't bother white kids. They hassle us all the time, but if they should touch us, then it's on. We will fight."
My buddy Cleo was a boxer. He had been training in boxing, and he was quite skilled. I was not. I was from the country, a sharecropper. I could wrestle, but I couldn't box. But my buddy Cleo would always protect me. He was a short guy, but he was really, really fierce. He told Bernard, he said, "Listen. We are not going to let anybody hit us and not defend ourselves."
And Bernard, sensing that we were not persuaded by this concept of nonviolent, and we were not persuaded about this concept of direct action, so he said, "Well, you must be nonviolent because that's the only way we can survive."
He said, "Do you know who Gandhi is?" We said, "Yes." He said, "Do you know the name of the man who killed Gandhi?" We said, "No." He said, "You know Jesus Christ?" We said, "Yeah, we just left Sunday school. They teach us about him every Sunday." He said, "Do you know the name of the man who killed Jesus Christ?" We said, "No, they didn't tell us that in Sunday school." He said, "The reason why you know Gandhi, you know Jesus, and you don't know the name of the men who killed them, is because those men were men of violence. They were men of hate, and their legacy faded from the pages of history. But Gandhi and Jesus are known the world around, because they were men of nonviolence and they won, even though they died."
That was a gamechanger for us.
So we said, "What do you want us to do?" He said, "We want you to go to Hudson High, go to your school, and tell all of your classmates to meet us in the basement of Tabernacle Church tomorrow." And we said, "That's fine. We'll do that," and he went on to explore. He said, "Tell us about life in Selma. We understand that Selma is 50% Black, and there are less than 200 registered voters. You all have to change that. You have to go out and teach people how to pass a literacy test, and get them registered to vote." Well, the voting was not an important concept to us, but the injustice going on in Selma was very important. We didn't like the idea of segregation.
And he said, "Yeah, you're going to go out and you're going to integrate everything. All of the libraries, all of the restaurants, all of the cafes, all the hotels." And so I went to my girlfriend's house. It was Sunday night. That's what we always did on Sundays and Wednesday. We'd go to our girlfriend's house. I told Viola, I said, "Listen, we just met this strange cat. He said we're going to go out and demonstrate, and they're going to beat us, and they're going to spit on us, and we're going to be nonviolent. What do you think?" And she said, "That sounds good."
And so we did. The next day, we went and we organized everybody in the school. We took them over to Brown Chapel ... Not Brown Chapel, but Tabernacle Church, a big yellow church right on Broad Street, Broad and Minter in Selma. We went in the basement, and Bernard began to teach us various songs. He had written a song called Dogs, he and James Bevel. (singing) Just fascinating songs, and he taught us Oh Freedom!, and he taught us Ain't Going to Let Jim Clark Turn Me 'Round. And then they taught us how to go limp when we get beaten, how we would curl up in the fetal position and we'd protect our head.
And then he divided us into three groups. One group would be the cops. The other group would be the demonstrators, and the third group would just be the spectators on the street. Everybody's beating up the demonstrators, the spectators and the cops, and so we would take turn. We did this from beginning of March, every week. We would go to school. We would go to our algebra classes. We would go to our debutantes. We'd go to the football practice, go to the basketball practice. We did the stuff that we need to do, but every day we would go to the basement of Tabernacle and we would learn these songs. We wrote songs.
We did that up until September 16th, 1963. That was the day the Selma Movement was born. That day was important because of the day before, which was Sunday. Again, my buddy Cleo and I were now in his mom's car, a green '58 Chevy, and we were leaving Morning Star Church. We turned on the radio to listen to some Motown, and there was a big blast on the radio, an announcement. Four girls had just been blown up in Birmingham. Two other people were killed and injured. We go straight to Bernard's, over to the Freedom House. It's one block from school. We knock on the door. There's no one there. We go in, because we had access. No one is there. We got the word that Bernard had gone to Birmingham, because his then wife Colia was pregnant and had been beaten and hosed by Bull Connor in Birmingham, and he had gone.
So we called the SNCC office 8 1/2 Raymond Street. That's where I first met Stu. We said, "We want somebody to come down to Selma and lead us in a demonstration. Somebody come. Send Julian Bond or someone down." There were no adults. But one thing Bernard and Colia taught us is that they were not there to lead us, they were there to teach us to lead ourselves. All the while we were practicing down in the basement of Tabernacle Church, Bernard related a story about the importance of organizing. It's a story that actually had been told by Ms. Boynton, who is now 103 years old. She marched on the bridge with President Obama just recently when we were in Selma.
But she told the story to Bernard, who related it to us, that there was this slaveman, a slaver, who was driven by his slave every day in his fancy buggy. This slaver was a master with a whip. Every time he would drive along, if he saw a fly in the air, he would flick and kill the fly. If he saw a butterfly, he would flick his whip and he would kill the fly. Anything that came around, he could with his whip flick it out. One day, a hornet came by and the man didn't do anything. The slave turned around and said, "Master, that hornet. Why didn't you flick it out of the sky?" And he said, "Because they are organized. You attack one of them, they will attack you in swarms."
And that was the theory of Selma. We were going to organize the students, and we were going to pack — and we did — every church and every jail in Selma. And every jail in the surrounding counties. Every time Jim Clark the sheriff, or then Chief of Police Baker would arrest us, we were going to be there. So we didn't get any adults to come down, so we decided we were going to go out.
We went down. There was first about 20 of us. Four of us went into Carter's Drug Store, the little green stools. All the white kids are sitting there with their Coca-Colas and their strawberry milkshakes, and their little white socks with the red and blue ring on the top, having a great time. We weren't allowed to sit there, and that always pissed me off.
So Willie C. Robinson — He was a bit older. I was 16. He was probably 18. He went over to the candy store, at the counter, and bought a candy bar, paid for it. We were standing back, watching. We had never done anything like this. Then he went over to the counter; the hamburger counter, the soda counter, and he ordered a Coke. Down at the end was this white man who began to turn red, and he began to walk up to Willie C. and say, "You know we don't serve any niggers in here. Why are you in here?"
And Willie C. Said, "Well sir, why is my money good over here at the candy counter, but it's not good over here at the soda counter?" He reached under and got an ax handle, and came down on Willie C's head. Bam, busted his head open, blood is splattering everywhere. We'd never seen anything like this. This was unlike anything we had rehearsed.
We scattered. They arrested four kids. We went back to the church and unbeknownst to us, Julian Bond and Worth Long had come to Selma. They had left. They'd gone from Atlanta to Birmingham, and then they had come to Selma because they had heard that we wanted adult leadership. We had assembled — There was 77 of us who had assembled, and we started lining up two by two just as we were taught by Bernard, and we were getting ready to go. Worth Long went up to the front of the line, gave his wallet to Julian Bond, and we all — Because he had seen these yellow school buses that they were preparing to arrest us and put us in. We all went to jail. In the jail was one of the most phenomenal things that I have seen.
Incidentally I have Worth Long's story here, in both a tape and a little booklet. But this tall white man with a cigarette hanging out of his lip called Worth Long up to him and said, "What's your name, boy?" And Worth Long stood very erect and said, "Mr. Worth Long." Bam, knocked Worth Long down. Worth Long was short with little wire-rimmed glasses, much like the Gandhi glasses. He fumbled around, put his glasses back on, stood up back to the white man. The white man again said, "Now, what is your name, nigger?" "Mr. Worth Long." Bam, and that went on and on, Worth's face bloody, his eyes swelled up. We were packed in the cells like sardines, watching, terrified. Finally, the white man stopped beating him, told him to go sit over in the corner by one of the prisoners.
Bernard had taught us the philosophy and the importance of nonviolence, but Worth Long taught us the power of nonviolence with his own blood. So that was the beginning.
Then we had Freedom Day, which is October 7th. Bernard — Worth Long organized that. In the book that I have written called The Tip of the Arrow, there are two things that's in it. One is the organization that Bernard and Colia had put together. One thing about SNCC, they documented everything. So they were writing reports back to Atlanta, and this is a report from Colia dated April 6th. It showed the organization. I was the president of the Selma Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Selma Student SNCC. My buddy Cleophus Hobbs was the group leader. We had typists. We had kids who were in charge of communications. We had an entire structure. It's in my book here but we were — And we did everything by consensus. We were more effective than the U.N. So it wasn't just a haphazard movement, it was very well organized.
On the front of this book — The Tip of the Arrow — is a picture of me standing in front of Jim Clark and it's autographed to me. [At that time I'd] been to jail now probably about four times, so I'm a veteran. I'm standing singing, I'm Not Going to Let Jim Clark Turn Me 'Round. (singing) And of course, he proceeded to beat the crap out of me and all of us. But the point is, I found Jim Clark two years before he died. I had been looking for him back in 2005. I wanted to have a truth and reconciliation moment with him. I wanted to do what Mandela had done. They told me he had died. That was unacceptable.
So I found him in a rest home just by happenstance, and we interviewed him. I had a white filmmaker with me, and I sent him in to get him to talk about the Korean War, with the camera. And then I walked in with this picture and I said, "Sheriff Clark, do you know who this cop is there with the gun and the billy club and the helmet?" He said, "Yes, that's me." I said, "Well, you know who this little skinny 17-year-old kid is?" He said, "No." I said, "Well, that's me, and this is about truth and reconciliation. Can I ask you some questions?" He said, "Yeah." And then I deposed him for two and a half hours, and that's the interview.
Bloody Sunday is the roof on the Movement, but people like Stu House, Jimmy Garrett, they were there at the foundation. They were there when it was not popular. Also in the book is an interview with Judge Thelton Henderson. He sits right here in the federal courthouse. He had been sent there by Robert Kennedy on Freedom Day, October 7th, 1963, to monitor the abuses to both us students and to the adults who were trying to register to vote.
He has a fascinating story, and then I'm going to conclude. He had been told by Dr. King that he should not pull out his wallet and show his federal ID, and show that he was a U.S. attorney. Because Dr. King had told him that, "You would do more good if you would get upside the head just like the rest of us, and let the world know that they don't care what your degree is or what your position is. That you're a Black man, they're going to abuse you."
So Judge Henderson — And I just interviewed him in his chamber recently. He said as he was coming from Birmingham in his rental car, and he was coming through a little town called Clanton, he got pulled over. He was mindful of what Dr. King said, so when they pulled him over and they took him to jail, he took out his California driver's license. He just flashed his California driver's license and the cop went, "Wham," with the billy club across his head and said, "Nigger, don't you know how to take your driver's license out?" And Judge Henderson said his hand was bleeding. He was trying to wrap a bandage on his hand at the same time he was trying to struggle to take it out.
Then they told him to get in the car, and told a homeless-looking white man to get in the car with him. The cop started following him through the woods, and he didn't know where he was going. He said, "I was thinking that, how can I murder this white man, throw him out of the car and get away to civilization? Because they're going to kill me in these back woods." And just as he was fomenting this idea in his mind, "What is going to happen to me? I'm going to go to jail. I'm going to lose my job," they came out into civilization. They took him into a jail, and there was a derelict Black man in the jail and a second bed. They said, "That's your bed over there."
He looked at that bed, and there was puke all over the bed. He said he thought about what Dr. King said, and he said, "No. I can't take this any longer." He showed his ID that, "I'm a U.S. attorney working for Robert Kennedy," and they let him go. They said, "Well, why didn't you tell us? We would treat you like any self-respecting white man." But Judge Henderson got fired, because a couple of days later he had to loan his car to Dr. King. He had pulled into the A.G. Gaston hotel, the Black hotel. Dr. King was leaving out, and Dr. King asked him if he could use his car, because the tires on the car that Dr. King was being chauffeured in, the tires were bad.
Thelton said, "Well yes," and then Dr. King got stopped. It was revealed that this car had been rented to the Justice Department, and all the Southern senators went berserk that Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy was assisting Martin Luther King. Of course that was a "no-no," and they fired Judge Henderson [from the Justice Dept]. He's now here, a federal judge. Thank you very much. I hope you've enjoyed that.
There were probably, I don't know — Bruce Hartford is our statistician — Probably a couple thousand people who lived in the Movement like my brothers here. Wazir and Charles were basically born in the Movement, being born in the South, and joined and spent years and years in it. People like Bruce Hartford also; there were white allies who came and stayed for years and years and years, and these guys are amazing. I'm just honored to even be here with them.
You, too. You were there. She was out in Wilcox County with me, so don't let her —
— I'll be telling my own story, Brother Charles —
Yeah, she was there.
We met when we were 19, so we still go there like teenagers. I do want to mention, just a quick plug for everybody, is that Mr. Wazir Peacock has a fabulous, wonderful video with both his great singing and storytelling, and it's on YouTube, which he has generously made available. Wazir Peacock, it's on your program or online, and you can find it on YouTube. Charles Bonner has excerpts from his book, as well as the CD of the interview with Sheriff Clark, which is quite a thing to see. We've seen that. And myself, have this book, which is about the county where I was assigned.
What I represent are the thousands of people who came and did a short project. This went all the way back to the Freedom Riders. There would be — I met a guy recently in his mid 70s who was asked to leave school at San Jose State, go down and take a jail cell for six weeks, eight weeks, and then go back to school.
The project I worked on, and why I'm speaking last, is chronologically it was last. All of you who were either in Selma originally, or have seen the movie Selma, or as my brothers were all literally in Selma along with Stu and some others. There is a scene in the movie — I was so glad that Ava DuVernay put it in, because it's in my book and she probably copied it from me — it was the footage, the grainy footage, the black-and-white footage of Bloody Sunday is on the screen, and then you see Dr. King in color. He says, "We need you to come South," and that was exactly my experience and how I got there.
I really represent hundreds of temporary, short-term white allies who joined the Movement and found that we benefited far more than we gave, but it also changed our lives forever. Many of us including myself went on to do a lifetime of anti-racism and social justice work.
My background, I'm from Penngrove. Does anybody know where Penngrove is? Three or four people? Between Petaluma and Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. I came from a low-income rural family, which did me good when I got assigned to Wilcox County in Alabama, which is 37 miles from Selma, and was rural and low income.
I didn't know what low income was until I got to Alabama, but I also had a rather difficult family. I did not come from a supportive family or a political family, but they were active in the United Church of Christ, which was then the Congregational Church. That was a very strong, progressive, supportive influence in my life, although I converted to Judaism at age 22 and have lived my entire adult life as a proud, progressive Reform Jew. I just want to make that clear, especially right now. My temple is welcoming, affirming, diverse, and has the [Gay Rainbow] flag out and everything else.
The time and place for me was spring 1965. The scene I just portrayed happened to me. I'm at San Francisco State. I was actually at Alan Freed's, who is a well-known, now sadly deceased too young, very radical progressive person at San Francisco State. He and I saw this incident on television. I went over to the SNCC office on campus to see what I could do, because I was completely outraged that innocent men, women and children would be teargassed and beaten. I didn't know how many of them I would get to know, both very soon that summer and then over the last 10 years of going back and putting together my book.
I heard about this project. It was a project of Dr. King's organization [SCLC], called SCOPE; the Summer Community Organization and Political Education project, SCOPE, directed by Reverend Hosea Williams. The idea had been to model it on the Mississippi Freedom Summer the summer before, where the three young men were murdered. The events that you've heard about today had already all transpired; Bloody Sunday, Viola Liuzzo had been killed, Reverend Reeb had been killed, thousands of kids had been to jail and beaten repeatedly.
SCOPE, that summer of '65, was the last large integrated voter registration drive of the Civil Rights Movement. Wilcox County, where I was assigned, we worked cooperatively with SNCC, which is how I met Charles Bonner, because Selma was just 37 miles away and so there was a lot of crossing back and forth, them coming over to support our actions and vice-versa. And so he had been involved in that for some time, and I was thrilled to belong to both, to be with Dr. King's group, the respected reverends, and also to hang out with the cool radical youth, so I loved being on both lists.
We had some training in Berkeley, and then I drove south, or I didn't drive. I was only 19. You had to be 21 to drive a rental car. I went with some guys from Berkeley, and we went to a very intensive orientation in Atlanta, which I cover in depth in my book because it really has not been written about, the phenomenal training we had.
Virtually every now-living legend and deceased legend was there. Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams, Dr. King himself led some sessions. Women were sadly underrepresented, as they were in leadership positions, but Dorothy Cotton was there. Mrs. Septima Clark taught us songs, how to drop our Gs on tryin' and cryin'. She'd have us practice so we would sound a little more Black. We were trying to work on that. We learned how to protect our kidneys. Everything that these guys had been learning in the trenches, they tried to teach us in five and a half days, 14 hours a day.
And then there were the parties.
We were assigned to our counties. There were about 600 of us. We were sent out to 60 counties [in six states] in small groups in the middle of the night.
In my county, Wilcox County, as I mentioned near Selma, was considered one of the most violently segregated in the South. Students from Camden Academy had been out marching and demonstrating in parallel with the marches that Charles didn't have time [to talk about] today, but sometime you should have him give his two-hour talk, because he really can break it down for you. They had been out all spring also, in the children's youth marches. SCLC had already sent some paid organizers to Wilcox County, although previous to that Bernard and Colia Lafayette and Worth Long had also been there, along with other organizers.
They were very, very active, and [the SCOPE] project went to counties that were what they called "ready," meaning that there were local activists on the ground who just needed us as extra arms and legs. This photo on the book jacket, is the cover of one of the demonstrations that took place shortly before I arrived. The mayor was lobbing the tear gas at the kids, not the sheriff. It was so amazing, so I'm going to just share a very few, like one or two stories of mine and one or two of some other people before we take some questions, and then we'll sing a song, and then we have books for sale in the back.
This [was from] my first night in Camden:"On wobbly legs, we crept into Antioch Baptist Church at 2:30 am, using as little light as possible. Major Johns, a short, solidly-built 30-year-old who was one of our two SCLC field directors, greeted and hushed us. We got so quiet I could hear the cicadas again. Everything about Major said no nonsense.
He surveyed us with stern eyes and took a deep breath. 'Y'all gonna have to sleep here tonight. A certain local who was going to house some of you got visited by Sheriff Jenkins and had his mind changed.' We made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the wooden pews. Major shut out the lights. I was wondering where we'd sleep tomorrow night and hoping it would be more comfortable, and then I heard truck doors slam, and booted feet outside the church.
Major shouted in a low voice, 'Get down. Stay down til I say.' Bob Block, a white field worker from California who I'd just met 10 hours earlier, he and I rolled under the same pew and squeezed together. 'What's going on?' 'Oh, probably some crackers out there trying to scare us.' 'It's working on me,' I said, trying not to think about the men outside. Then there were shots. I clung to Bob, who didn't seem to mind our sudden closeness. He whispered, 'They won't kill us tonight. Welcome to Wilcox County. That's all.'"
Bob had been down there. He had come for the march, and marched with Charles all the way to Montgomery, so they were already friends, which is how we all became friends.
Wilcox County, as I mentioned, was already very organized. 79% of the residents [were] African American, and only 50 had gotten through the arcane, ridiculous, expensive, difficult registration process. And yet in every area, there was a pick-up and drop-off point [for going to the courthouse to try to register], a place for mass meetings, usually a Baptist church, and a safe house, places for us to sleep. Mostly they wanted us kids as extra arms and legs, and also to attract — They thought if we were there, which had happened in other communities, we would attract federal protections, media attention, and our parents' money — none of which happened [in Wilcox].
We did have these very experienced field directors, Dan Harrell and Major Johns, who had been working in the county since February of 1965. The primary inspiration in Wilcox, though, was Martin Luther King himself. He had gone to Morehouse. He was a classmate with Reverend Threadgill, who was the chaplain at the Black Camden Academy, which was a Presbyterian school that was taken over by the Wilcox County school district because the students became active. Before that, it had been a private school. They took inverse condemnation and they just took over the school. All the fundraising and everything had been by northern Presbyterians, and they just took it over right before we got there.
But Reverend Threadgill was undaunted, and although he suffered greatly and in fact lost his job and his house because of his activism, he stayed active. Because of that, Dr. King visited Camden and Wilcox County several times a year until shortly before his death. He was actually in Wilcox County one night when his stalker was laying wait for him in Selma, and he didn't go over that night because he was detained in Camden, but [James Earl] Ray got him in Memphis a few weeks later.
Charles, as I mentioned, was already friends with Bob Block, who yes, became my boyfriend immediately. Experience under the pew, these things happened fast. And [Charles] put us on his roll so we were kind of double-dipping SCLC and SNCC. We worked together. We learned a lot from each other. We also partied at The Chicken Shack, may it rest in blessed memory.
My local coworkers were amazing, and really that's what most of my book is about them and their experience. My favorite local canvasing partner — we originally signed up one Black, one white together — was 16-year-old Robert Powell. We've spent the last several years reminiscing about our adventures together, and we were always being chased. It was like if people saw a white girl and a Black boy together, they hated it and they also knew we were civil rights workers. They would just take — They would try to run over us, and we'd have to hide in ditches, or they'd take after Robert with a gun and then I'd have to run, not really sure how to get back to the church. This kind of happened over and over again.
But most of our days were just real long walking house to house, being dropped off in these very rural areas, having other local youth even younger than us — 13-, 14-year-olds saying, "Mrs. Robinson isn't registered yet, this family over here." Going there — Our spiel, the SCLC spiel, was to knock on the door and say, "Dr. King sent me to help you find your freedom." So, so bad. It's so bad, but you know what? It worked, and so people would — At least you'd get a foot in the door.
So one day there was this lady, and she was just looking at us. She was elderly and lived alone, and she just shook her head and slammed — She was starting to slam the door. We had been trained at the training to try to find something that people could relate to. I said, "You know, I noticed when I was coming up, your pump is broken. If you vote, you could get on the county water and you would have running water like the white people do." She just looked at us like, "Phh," and slammed the door. But the next Monday, on registration day, she was sitting out at the waiting place on the bench with her best Sunday hat on her head, and her purse on her lap. Robert and I were going by. We were riding his father's mule that day and we were going, "Freedom now, freedom now," so we had these moments of victory.
One of my other local leaders who I really admired and was probably the closest to as far as females was a 24-year-old single mom named Ethel Brooks. She was fearless, tireless. She was trained by SCLC, and she was one of the several that was on the little nominal payroll of $5 a week, $10 a week, whatever it was. But she had carried dozens of students over to march in Selma. She had been on the bridge on Bloody Sunday. She had been on the March to Montgomery, and everybody looked up to her, including me. One day, we were driving back a group of integrated civil rights workers from her place in Coy, which is a very active little village outside of Camden, the county seat of Wilcox. We started getting chased by some white men in a pickup truck, with a shotgun, which just seemed to happen all the time.
They started running up on us, but she sped up and she pulled into a side track behind some bushes, behind a store. I was so relieved like, "Oh, thank you. We escaped again." And then it was like she just snapped. She just pulled out behind them and started chasing and tailgating them, and screaming wildly. We were laughing, and we were also completely, totally scared. And then finally she backed off, and they just waved their fists at her like, "Crazy lady, we'll get you next time." We had many adventures like that, and we got arrested and chased and all the things that happened that you have heard about in the Civil Rights Movement.
My dear friend Ethel Brooks died sadly, very, very much too young. In fact, all three of our main adult leaders, Dan Harrell, Major Johns and Ethel all died in their early 40s. Dan was murdered. Although it was by another African American male, most people think it was a setup, although there was never any investigation or trial. The summer of 1965 work, which went after the Selma marches, which you haven't heard very much about because the media spotlight moved to Selma and the Chicago Movement with Dr. King. And yet, work went on in Lowndes County certainly, where Stu and Wazir, you worked over in Lowndes too, didn't you, in Lowndes County?
Jimmy [Rogers] did.
And Jimmy Rogers and others. Jonathan Daniels was murdered just a week after I left. Most of our workers were arrested more than once. Many were beaten. Our church was broken into. One of our wonderful 16-year-old workers, Frank Connor, almost died from head injuries. He was in the hospital for six months. And despite all this harassment, we registered 500 new voters before the Voting Rights Act passed in August, and thousands afterwards. But the Voting Rights Act did not change attitudes or practices, just laws. Many of us returned to our home states feeling very discouraged, and we doubted the value of our contribution, especially those of us who were there eight, 10 weeks like I was.
But when I returned more than 35 years later to gather stories for my book, and also just to resolve the feelings that I had of wondering, "Did we do any good?" The local activists had a lot more positive view. Bob Crawford, Jr. was the son of the Crawfords who kept a safe house where Charles Bonner and my boyfriend Bob stayed, and this is what he said. "We had been working trying to get folks organized for a long time, but we couldn't get any support until you showed up. Then we got cars, materials, plans. You made a huge difference. It would never have happened without you. There was just too much going against us."
And Jesse Smith, who was a teen leader from one of the very active Wilcox County families recalls, "That spring, we began to become militant, the students and even the teachers who we thought were Uncle Toms. One day, some young SCLC workers, 19-, 20-year-old Black youth, came around and began singing freedom songs outside the window. When we heard that, we just got up and walked out of class."
This is still Jesse speaking. "That summer, I remember Bob Block real well. We were sort of like brothers then. It felt real good. I admired Bob's never-give-up attitude. Somewhere in Pine Hill he asked this man, was he a registered voter? He said, 'Son, that ain't none of your business.' We made a U-turn. No sense talking to him, but we kept on going. We were working out in Peach Tree, where I lived, and we'd been trying to get people to go to sign up for the food commodities."
These were federal commodities that the local state and county people wouldn't tell people that they qualified for. It would be like not telling people who qualified for food stamps, so they couldn't get them. "So Bob got Mr. Campbell," and this is Jesse again. "Bob got Mr. Campbell and his wife to sign up, after he wouldn't listen to me or other Black students. They needed that food for their family. Then after Mr. Campbell signed up, a bunch of other folks went over and got signed up. You helped a lot."
When I asked people in Wilcox, "What was the biggest benefit of getting the vote?" They said that they now feel safe when they're walking down the street, or driving on a rural road. Early when I was there, I met a young woman who was working with us. She was 16 years old, Gloria McDole. She reminded me when I went back 35 years later, that there was a siren that went off in downtown Camden every Saturday night at eight o'clock. That siren meant if you were Black, you had to get out of downtown or else. It was open season to attack, harass, sexually assault, any Black woman or child.
She had said to me, "You know, growing up hearing that siren, knowing it's meant for you," she said, "That's the kind of thing that got us organized. It was this everyday discrimination, oppression and segregation. Yes, all the right to vote and the outside organizers, everything helped. But it was the way we were mistreated constantly that made it possible for us to do these seemingly impossible brave things, to be these kids who were going out on these marches." The Camden Academy kids also went out without adult leaders, before they got adult leaders.
The feeling that she has now where she said, "You know, the sound of that silence, that the siren doesn't go off any more. We have Black sheriffs. We have Black elected officials. The majority of people who are in positions of power — sadly not economic power but in other kinds of power — are African American."
We'll just ask you to either direct your question to a person or to say, "I'd like to hear from all of you," and we'll share. I just want to say in closing that serving in Wilcox County with Charles, Bob and my other coworkers, and then going back over the last 10 years and staying in touch with many dozens of people, is one of the greatest privileges of my life. So just because you can't give your entire life to something, don't think you can't step up and make a difference. Thank you.
Okay, we'd love to take some questions from the audience now. If the panelists, just for recording purposes, if you could repeat the question, since the audience isn't mic'd, that would be great.
One of you mentioned about the infiltrators or plants. I haven't heard enough about what that impact had on anything.
She wants to know, what is the impact of plants, people who were there to betray the Movement. That's essentially what you want to know. And we didn't really pay a lot of attention to them. We knew that they were there. One of the interesting stories that Jim Clark tells in this interview that I did with him is that on one of the occasions, the first occasion that Dr. King came to town, Dr. King went into this little restaurant on Broad Street, the main street in Selma. Within five minutes, the owner of the restaurant called Jim Clark and said, "You wouldn't believe this, but Dr. Martin Luther King is in my restaurant." Of course, Sheriff Clark was down there with his posse all around, and that was constantly happening.
If you go back and look at some of the FBI recordings, the secret recordings of Dr. King, many of which were authorized by Robert Kennedy, you'll see that every move that SNCC made, every move that SCLC and Dr. King made, was being recorded by the Justice Department. Now I mentioned Judge Thelton Henderson. Judge Henderson was there to do legitimate recording in order to make a pitch to the president, then President Kennedy, to try to get his then 1964 Civil Rights Act bill passed, which we now know as Title VII. But in addition to the legitimate recordings that was going on through Judge Henderson, there would be secret illicit recordings going on, and the plants, and those Judases who were among us. But you know, that didn't stop the Movement.
To follow up on what Charles said, in every community that I worked in the South, there was a whole network within the Black community that reported everything we did to the white authorities. Jim Clark was famous for having one of the most extensive spy systems of any Southern community. He bragged about it.
So we knew that everything we did was done in a fishbowl. One of the powers of nonviolence is that we would tell them in advance what we were going to do. So it didn't matter what their spies reported, because we already had told them.
The other thing is that — All right, there's two things. A lot of the people who reported and acted as spies had no choice. They were [coerced or] blackmailed into doing it. They were blackmailed either through violence or — In one case, there was a well-known civil rights worker whose name I won't mention who had gotten a young girl pregnant. Jim Clark offered him a deal. He said, "You can spend the rest of your life in Atmore Penitentiary for statutory rape, or you can report everything that goes on to me." He made the sensible choice, he acted as [a spy].
But he also continued to do really good work for the Movement. There were a lot of the people who came to the mass meetings to spy, and stayed on to become participants in the Freedom Movement. Because they were inspired by what they heard, and they hated being forced to be spies on their own people. So one of the powers of nonviolent organizing and struggle is that you don't rely on secrecy, and you can turn enemies or adversaries into allies. So [having plants/spys] was just the normal thing.
I was the first civil rights worker to ever go into Crenshaw County. I was there about 30 minutes and the chief of police pulls up, calls me over, says, "What's your name?" I say my name.
He's got a shoe box on the seat of his car. [The] shoe box is filled with four by five filing cards. He goes through them. They're alphabetized. He goes through them, pulls out the card with my name and photograph on it, where I was born, everything about me. He says, "This is you?" I looked at the picture. I said, "Yeah, that's me." He says, "Okay, I know who you are," and off he went. So we just lived in that kind of police state environment, and we made it work for us.
Hey, how you doing, Michael? Very good to see you, yeah.
Back in SNCC when they called you "doctor something," they were being sarcastic, unless it was Dr. King. I got to Alabama in August of '65, and I started working for SNCC starting in November, so I was not a part of the Selma Movement even though I ended up obviously being involved in Selma and Crenshaw County. By the way Luverne — I organized in Luverne after you did. [Luverne is county-seat of Crenshaw County.]
So anyway, just a quick comment about the police infiltration thing. Some of it was in the middle in terms of innocence. In other words, I saw people talk to the FBI on a, if you will, friendly basis. Because a lot of the times in Movement mobilizations, we wanted the FBI there because the idea was that they would take notes — if nothing else. That's all they ever did was take notes, but at least it gave us some sense of cover.
That in turn would induce them to be friendly and to start debriefing the people who would talk to them. I knew people who were actually getting paid $50 a month to talk to them, and they did not see themselves as spies or informants. In fact, they were. They had no idea how damaging it was.
Also, a lot of demobilized African American soldiers in the war would come back. More of them worked for the FBI. The FBI didn't have Black special agents around '63, '64, '65, but many demobilized African American soldiers came back and were informants, and became agents provocateurs. So a lot of things went on in that regard, but the wisdom that you guys are passing on is really the important thing. A mass movement is not going to be stopped by police informants. They can be dangerous, but it will not stop the mass movement.
The thing that I wanted to ask you guys to comment on, and you Maria, if you will comment on it, would be related to the film Selma. I saw the film, and I worked in SNCC I said for four years, mostly with Jim Forman. I thought Jim Forman was treated pretty poorly in that movie, and I think SNCC was misrepresented in the movie. But since I wasn't in Selma at that time, I would like for some of you to comment on how that movie portrays the relationship of SNCC and SCLC.
You know, John Lewis was chairman of SNCC but he was emotionally attached to SCLC. Hosea Williams was attached to SCLC, but he was emotionally attached to SNCC. Am I right?
That's right. That's right.
Right. So anyway, if y'all comment on that, I'd appreciate it.
Sure. Oh, okay. Good to see you, Michael.
Thank you for that. As the shortest person with the least information I'll make the shortest comment. Which is I saw the film Selma when it came out, not with some of my brothers here who got to see it at the San Francisco Film Festival premiere, because I was on the road at the time. But I saw it with Bob Fitch, who was Dr. King's photographer for three years from '65 to — Well, actually for two and a half years I think, until near '68. He and I saw it together, because we wanted to see it so we could have the same reaction and not have to deal with other peoples' reaction. We had our significants with us.
We both agreed that considering that the director and screenplay writer decided to make it a movie about Martin Luther King, that it did a good job.
It was not a film about the Movement. It was a movie about the role of Dr. King in Selma, so we felt it was pretty accurate. We also were really sad that many people we wished were more featured, including the ones that you've just mentioned as well as more people like Charles Bonner. I would have liked a lot more about youth, but it was a Hollywood film, not a documentary. Which means for all of you, and for any students who are here, that that movie is yet to be made, and it should be made.
Yeah. Yeah, Michael ... I should say Dr. White as I've always known you, that's an excellent question. The tension between SCLC and SNCC was real. It was not really that severe as the movie portrayed it, and certainly Jim Forman was a very scholarly leader. He was not this kind of hotheaded, radical, unthinking person. This man — One, he was the same age as Dr. King, and he was very thoughtful. The tension between SCLC and SNCC, was not about whether to march or not march.[Referring to tactical disagreements between SCLC and SNCC over the first march ("Bloody Sunday)" and the second march which came to be known as Turn Around Tuesday]
SNCC had been organizing Selma, as I mentioned, since the day that Bernard Lafayette and Colia Lafayette encountered Cleophus Hobbs and myself in Selma. They had started organizing two years before Dr. King came in in January of '65.
There was a sense that people would be killed. Dr. King would not be there. We called him "The Lord." There was not the kind of organization that we wanted in place before we engaged in such a venture, but it was very clear that we were going to march. The tension was about how we were going to strategically carry this out in a way that people wouldn't be slaughtered.
The movie itself was kind of the Lone Ranger version of the Movement. But it was brilliantly done for what it was purporting to do. [But] it was not a history book, and it was not intended to be a documentary per se. It was the Martin Luther King story.
That is why I'm writing now this book called The Tip of the Arrow, because people like Stu House, and people like Jimmy Garrett — I don't know if he's still here — The people who were organizing, and not knowing if we were going to live or die, you know? I mean again, I was a country kid from the outside of Selma on a cotton farm, and I had gone to one of those trade programs they had. Following the Booker T. Washington school, they told us we all needed a trade. The bourgeoisie Black kids, they got to go to the college prep, but I cut hair, and my friend Cleo was an electrician. We had people who were tailors.
Until I went to SNCC, to 8 1/2 [Raymond St.] Atlanta, and I started seeing intellectuals like Stu, and Stokely Carmichael, and Julian Bond, and all these people who were reading books like Frantz Fanon and Cormian Couma and Julius Nyerere. I go, "Wow, this is mind-blowing. These are young college students who are very intellectually adept." And so SNCC's approach was to organize from the grass root level up. Dr. King's organization was to organize from the pulpit, and organize the adults. So there was always tension between SNCC and SCLC because of the approach to organization.
SNCC came in and organized us kids, with the idea that if we organize the kids they have nothing to lose. Once they go to jails, the parents will get involved. First the teachers will get involved, because there will be nobody to teach, and then the parents will get involved. But the parents had a lot to lose. They had their jobs, they had their livelihoods, they had their lives. We had nothing to lose other than the shackles of injustice, and we were willing to lose that.
So the movie did not portray the Movement in the way the Movement evolved, but what it did do, it did a good job. It should have gotten an Academy Award.
Well, first of all I totally agree with what both of you said.
As the one SCLC person up here, to go into SCLC versus SNCC, we could spend a good — I don't know, three or four days debating that. I think that looking at the film, the only points I want to make is first of all, the film Selma got a lot of it right. It got the heart right. It got the politics right. It put the center of the struggle in the Black community. It talked about Black leadership. If you compare Selma with that abomination Mississippi Burning, [a film that] made the FBI the heroes, you have to look at Selma as one of the finest movies about the Civil Rights Movement that has ever been made.
I will disagree slightly with what Maria said. The movie about the organizing that Charles talked about, that movie has been made. It was made by Danny Glover. It's called Freedom Song. Almost nobody has ever heard about it, but it's a terrific movie and it exactly describes and depicts the original SNCC organizing in a town called McComb, Mississippi. [About] how they came in and began the first of the SNCC-style voting registration campaigns. It will never show in theaters, but you can probably get it through Netflix, or online, or something like that.
The last thing I'll say is that I had one big criticism of Selma. All right, it's not going to be the last thing I'm going to say. But the one criticism I would make of Selma is that it did not show the singing. There is no freedom singing in Selma. There's one beautiful song at the end by a performer. But [performance singing is] not what we did. I was on some of those marches [the film] showed, and we were singing our hearts out because we were scared shitless. That singing is what carried the Movement forward, and Charles was one of our main song leaders, and still is. I can't count the number of picket lines and marches I was on, when his singing kept us going. For some odd reason, possibly having to do with copyright clearances, I don't know, [the film] did not include any freedom singing. That's all I'll say.
And on that note, because we have got to clear out the room because we got a 50-minute late start —
Okay, well let me close.
No, we're singing. We'll do singing.
Okay, but let Wazir [inaudible 01:31:45].
No, no, no. I know you guys. I have worked with you guys. Wazir can say his piece, and then we're going to lead the people in some singing so that they have time to go back and look at the books, and the CDs, and we're not intruding on this beautiful room that's going to be used by another beautiful group in a beautiful little while. All right.
Well, so we're out of time? Is that what you're saying?
Oh man, you guys. Wazir going to say his piece, and then we're going to sing.
We Shall Overcome?
Sure. We're going to sing one everybody knows. Michael, can you make a — ?
Okay [inaudible 01:32:36].
We Shall Overcome, okay? [Group singing]
Yeah, all right. Whew, thank you, thank you.
Thank you all for coming, and thank you for sharing your beautiful stories. Please do, just outside the doors we have books, pamphlets, CDs for sale. Support all of the wonderful work that these folks have done.
Thank you. [inaudible 01:35:25]