Chude Pam Parker Allen
Willie B. Wazir Peacock
Leaving & Loss
Isolation & Pain
Affirmations & Costs
Coming Back Together
|If you participated in the Southern Freedom Movement, and are listed in the Veterans Roll Call you can add your comments to this discussion by emailing them to email@example.com. If you are not listed, please add your name and information to the Roll Call.|
In July of 2005, some of us in Bay Area Veterans of Civil Rights Movement met with our children (now adults) to ask them how our being veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement affected them as they were growing up and how they felt about it. As narrated in this transcript, the following month we talked over our thoughts and reactions to the discussion with our kids.
Don: At [the previous] meeting, we talked about what the various reactions of young people were about the downsides of having their parents or families in civil rights and/or other movements.
Jean: I've heard it both from several young people as well as several of my friends who have no adult children. And it runs the gamut from feeling abandoned because we spent so much time and attention elsewhere, [to] the opposite of that [of[ one woman [who] complains to this day of there being too many people around, too many people in her life. Where was her space and where was her time in the midst of all this political activity? The most consistent [response] is what let's call, "Deferred dreams." A kind of concern, sometimes resentment, that parents had dreams of their own that the Movement interrupted and kept them occupied for decades.
And if the kids are saying that, then that says to me that we must be showing them that we must be expressing some kind of personal disappointments. And then the other, of course, is the material achievement that we, the people who did all this work, had such high visions, we never were able to earn good salaries, what anybody would call good salaries. We can't leave inheritances because there is nothing to leave.
Chude:I think it's an illusion to assume this is why what Tessa [Betita's daughter] said interested me so much that we would not be damaged people if we had pursued our dreams or careers. I think that's an illusion. I mean, there is too much alcoholism and drug addiction and illness for us to assume and you know women our age on anti-depressants, I mean it's horrifying.
And so we have to remember that some of what it is I don't usually like bourgeois therapy but I thought [think] that some of these problems would be there anyway. But I do think as an outsider to some of this, as well as being a participant that one of the things that happened to us as activists is that some things didn't get resolved and that meant energy was kind of pushing down this unresolved stuff. I've seen it in activists saying they care about people who don't have the time to notice the people sitting in the room. And kids pick that up like that [snaps her fingers], you know. That's where kids pick up the hypocrisy.
Jean: Uh huh.
Chude: "These people are elitists." I mean, they wouldn't use that word, but at some level, "They don't care about me, I'm a nobody." But I think that's only half of it.
Jean: Right, right. So that they then are affected as well as the parents being affected. I know some of those families are there. [And it] is not limited to the Southern Movement, because I've heard them in South Africa.
Don: I've heard it from the labor movement, 30 years earlier.
Jean: But I think it would be good for them particularly for them to talk about that, and to get that out, to get out whatever resentments, whatever anger, whatever confusion, and move on. It's not like things are going to change except that they will be relieved of the burden.
Jimmy: Last Sunday, Bill lent me a book Children of the Movement, and one thing that really struck me was the feeling of the King children and the Malcolm X children. Because both of them died poor. All of the money that King made he gave to SCLC, the Nobel Peace prize money, money that he raised through speeches.
Don: That money caused an enormous rift in his immediate family.
Jimmy: Right. And Malcolm X died poor. The Muslims wouldn't have a fraction of the number of people involved [then] without Malcolm X. All the things that he has written and sold and whatnot all went to the organization. So, when he left the organization he didn't have anything. When King died he didn't really have anything that he could say was his. Most of what he was able to put together belonged to the Movement. And both families thought that that really wasn't fair. And I think that brought about a lot of resentment.
Don: You might say that that is why Dr. King's family has been peddling his legacy ever since.
Jimmy: That's right.
Don: Jean, you also mentioned recognition.
Jean: Yea, that's another one. "Well, where are you? So someone writes a book, so where are you? Where is your name, where is so-and-so's name that was here two weeks ago. I don't see his name in the book." Yeah, a lot of that.
Wazir: And I picked it up and said that I know around me a couple of times I heard some grumbling from my children. It was always just kind of like, "You all were just the grunts anyway and the other guys got all the recognition."
Jimmy, I can look through your files and you ain't got one letter in your file from Julian Bond, you ain't got one letter in there from so and so, and all so close, what's up with that? Tim Jenkins said he was talking about all these guys, they started the Vanguard and he didn't have, he didn't have Jones, who was a big preacher down there and the guys were close, none of them, bar none, he didn't have a letter in his file from none of them. He spoke to me about how I don't have nothing in my file with a signature on it. That's the kind of stuff that my kid picked up on.
Chude: I think it's a double-edge thing that to some degree our kids have seen that we haven't had full attention for the present because we've had unresolved things from our past. And of course we live in a culture that wasn't going to help us with that. Since the dominant society, including the educational institutions, do not want to help us heal or tell our story. I'm not the least bit surprised that most of us don't exist in books and that grassroots people so much of the time don't get their full stories told.
I remember once, they used to have a program where I work at UCSF where they would do programs on women. I went to them a few years ago, it was after we first started organizing, and I said "I can give you a panel of women who were in the civil rights Movement, thinking of you, Jean, and Mary [Lovelace O'Neal], and since I worked there, they wouldn't count me. I could give them a good panel of women in the civil rights Movement. The organizers response was "Oh, you know I had a leaflet just the other day from a woman who wrote a book about ..."
The culture doesn't care about the people who actually did the work. The culture cares about the way it gets framed, etc. And our kids sit somewhere in there where they both see our pain and our confusion. But they also were educated into the system we are not important if we are not in the books, or we are not important if we are not being acknowledged. And we haven't necessarily known how to help them understand that it's not what the folks with the money say that matters. Because it's a culture that says that the folks with the money are who matters. And that is hard and nobody wants to be poor.
Jean: You are getting at something that I was trying to grasp. I guess you are saying that the children that whatever feelings, positive or negative, we carried with us out of the south it would have been our children who would have had to live with it.
Bruce: I agree with that but I also have to say for those of us who were in the Southern Freedom Movement, there is an element where we are responsible for some of that too. Because particularly among SNCC people who worked with Bob Moses there is a diffidence, a modesty, an attitude of "don't put yourself forward." We see this by the fact that so many people who we all know should be listed on the website's [Veterans Roll Call] but we cannot even get them to send in their name and address people who we are in contact with or who we know, but who don't want to put themselves forward as "I did this," because we were trained I mean you with SNCC were trained. The example I had in SCLC was quite different [laughter]
I was influenced by the SNCC example even though I was in SCLC. And I think a lot of SCLC field workers were influenced by SNCC's anti self-agrandizing ethos of what it meant to be an organizer. I think that's the difference the "organizer" mentality versus the "leader" mentality. The leader mentality kind of person would want to put themselves forward and gain the prestige and grab the book titles and mentions in the books and so forth. But the organizer mentality would not. So I think that this must have been very confusing for your children in that they must have picked up this kind of ambivalence in the sense that you were clearly proud of what you had done, and yet there was a diffidence about it as well.
Chude: We started this group talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and coming to the realization that to some degree or another we all had experienced something like that. And that the common theme that we all had of the enormous sense of loss when we left the south, when we left the Movement or the Movement left us, depending on our interpretation of it. And I would be really interested how that affected the children because any time you all were talking about the Movement some of that must have leaked through.
Jean: That's so interesting
Bruce: For those [of us] who could not talk about [our Movement experience], who suppressed the memory for decades, who avoided the whole thing for decades, those were the decades when those of you who had children those children were growing up. And you know the subject that children study the hardest is their parents. They become absolute experts in every nuance and invisible sign of the parents, and here we are carrying all this pain. We are not discussing the south.
Jean: But that's not true for all of us.
Bruce: Did you talk about the south [with your son]?
Jean: Yes, I talked about the south, about "Aunties and Uncles" who were with us in the south. I mean, that's who [my son] knows outside of this group.
Chude: But we all believed in the Movement and we all believed we were going to change things and be in a different society, we were against private property, we were against saving and hoarding for yourself and even for your kids. I think the problem is that to some degree we were not present with most of us had pushed the experience to some degree away because it was painful so what they got was not the direct sharing of what happened as much as seeing the damage that was done. We were wrestling with the loss of the Movement, Now maybe I'm wrong about others, but Jimmy and I and our children could play cards together for years and not know we were both in the Southern Freedom Movement.
Don: Is that true?
Chude: Yes! Yes.
Don: That's amazing
Chude: We saw each other every Christmas. We had kids around the same age. And I knew Caroline [Jimmy's wife]. But I didn't know he and Caroline had met in Alabama. I didn't know any of that.
Don: For me, the time somebody invited me to Stanford, which is the first time I met all of you I would guess I might have been invited other times but until that day that we went down there I had not attended a single reunion, never went back to the south, had no dealings with anyone connected to the south. I found it so painful to have left the south that I really couldn't take it. And I felt that if I met with anybody who had been there also, it would all come back, and I'd have all that pain again. And when I got the invitation to Stanford, I thought, well, maybe it's time to stop doing that, and I decided I would try. I was invited to join here and I am very happy I did. But, that's 35 years that I wouldn't go near anything connected... But do I regret a minute of [being in the Movement]? No.
Bruce: I had the same experience you did, Don, that once I left the south it was painful to think of the south for decades until this group started. When did this group start? Somewhere in the mid to late 90's?
Jean: mid 90's
Bruce: So, that's basically three decades where I rarely thought about the south I never had any contact. And like you it would have been too painful, or I feared it would be too painful. So, if others of us had that same experience, then you probably were not communicating to the children what those rewards really were.
Don: When I say there was a price to pay I mean there was that enormous pain that went with the leaving. I was one of those that said actually when I came back I said to someone that this [the Southern Freedom Movement] was the peak of my life. That it can never be that good again. There was a young lawyer who had been an intern and he was telling some folks "Oh Don was the real one, he had the real people's law office." And I said "Cut it right there. I can't handle this. I don't want to hear this. And if you want to have any contact with me in the future, you have to deal with the present tense. We are both lawyers right now. We are both working. But I don't want to hear any of this." I was so protective.
Unlike the rest of you who really were dedicated and came down, I came down begrudgingly. I was what Kunstler would have called someone who "talked a good revolution." But when the time came to put your body [on the line] it was real difficult not to do it. So, I thought, "Well for three weeks, if I'm lucky, I'll survive it and then I will be able to say I did it." Only when I got there, and I experienced it, did I fall in love with every part of it that was going on. So, I didn't come with a dedication.
But I consider myself so lucky. If not for Aviva Futorian I would have gone back to New York after my three weeks. She lured me into staying that extra week that became three years which changed my whole life. And as a result I would just say it again I can't tell you how lucky I feel because I was the least likely to have had this opportunity because I didn't want to do it, I wasn't that involved until I got there.
Bruce: I don't think it really makes that much difference.
Don: It only makes a difference because I consider myself so exceptionally lucky because in the normal course of events I would never had had the opportunity.
Bruce: You know, doing these interviews, I find that it is not unusual for somebody to have come into the Movement from some place like you. Betty Mae Fikes, for example. Betty said the main reason she got involved was because she was living with relatives and had an unhappy family situation and she needed some way to get out of the house. She was 15. So I don't think how you came in really makes that much of a difference. Or I don't think you should say "I'm different than the rest of you," because you ain't.
Wazir: Like I said, when I came out here there was something happened that after that we didn't want to get too close to each other, that's the painful stuff to me, that's the hard thing to suffer. How we began to treat each other, how it manifested. Maybe you guys can answer that. I don't have no answer to that, I don't really have an answer.
Chude: Well, I was part of a "freedom movement," not a "civil- rights movement." I honestly thought that love could conquer all injustice. That we really were going to create a more loving society in which the barriers of racism would be destroyed and all the other ways that people didn't care about people would be destroyed. Not that people would even some of our own would become more and more self-centered and less and less concerned about what is happening to other people or the world. I thought we would become, you know, become bigger. I mean that's how I experienced it.
I come from the upper middle class white culture. It was a very dehumanized culture. You can't be in the privileged classes and not be dehumanized. I found among activists in particular, and amongst people in the south that I was privileged to know, a kind of humanity to change the world. To be a place where we treat each other lovingly. The question of getting the vote was important so people could love each other better; not so we could vote.
And the loss of the Mississippi Democratic Party challenge was devastating. I mean, I was an idealist and that was that challenge was so right, the idea that it could be defeated just knocked me over. I mean I think it is one of the reasons why I put that experience away for a while, you know, for many many many years.
But my trajectory is a little different I went and helped start the Women's Liberation Movement the question I still look at is the number of white women who had been in the south and yet we did not find each other. Betita and I were in the same women's group for a while. Even if we knew the information, we did not talk about it with each other, we did not build alliances and trust through sharing.
When I was out here in the 90's I took a writers group from a woman who is a Black writer. I had a piece I had written before about someone I had known in Holly Springs, and I'd mentioned it to this friend who is Canadian and who I'd known in the early women's movement here in '68, '69. And I told her about helping to organize the '89 reunion and I sent her this piece and her comment back to me was "I was on a Freedom Ride." Now, she was like my best friend.
Chude: [When] I then bring in an article about that to this writers group, a women who is younger than me whose father had been involved she tells me that this woman could not have been my friend because her father's friends came over all the time and they talked about it. Well I of course figured out they were telling adventure stories which I have become aware that men tell a lot of.
I think that sometimes, especially with men according to my husband Norris, this unresolved stuff gets into their story-telling because it is one of their ways they work on getting rid of it. Because when we did our first reunion back in '89, that was my question to Norris. "Why is everyone telling the same stories over and over and over again?" And he said because it's a way of dealing with the distress. It is a way of handling it. Now that we are really talking to each other, now that we are beginning to put some of these things up on the website, there is a way in which we are moving forward, very slowly, but we are moving forward. (Poor Bruce still wants us to finish moving through Alabama.) (laughter)
But this was not the case [with the women]. Cathy Cade said last week that it was 18 years before we spoke. Now maybe that's particularly unique about having been a white activist in the south you know changing in so many ways one's framework of society and who was your community and then not just leaving the south but separatism beginning and losing that interracial community. And in my case being married so that Bob and I are very isolated.
Don: I feel depressed even thinking about these things. I remember that the only job I could get because I wasn't licensed in California was with the Indian Legal Services program that was in Santa Rosa, so I had to drive each day round trip from San Francisco to Santa Rosa. And one day I was driving back and all I could think of was "What if I drove the car off the Golden Gate Bridge?" I didn't realize there was no place you could do it. But I just kept thinking about that. What if I just did that? And then all the pain would stop and I wouldn't have to go through this anymore. No I didn't do anything about it. I wasn't suicidal. But the fantasy of escaping from all this pain was the most dominant emotion I had. At least in those days
Chude: For me the most devastating thing about my young adulthood was dealing with isolation. Was dealing with the fact that I wasn't like anyone else, I never could fully trust the white women because I didn't trust them around being anti-racist. I did not feel for many years that I had access, or a way, to again know Black women as I had.
And in some ways, in some ways you can't be a fully mature human being until you can deal with the alone-side. Some of you were loners. I mean like you Bruce, [you] were always a loner I wasn't. I came from a big family into the community of the Southern Freedom Movement and I was home as far as I was concerned. And I was, of course, a devout Christian and so its Christian quality was very meaningful to me, and then to have to come out into isolation was part of it too.
And so I listen and you [all] talk about coming out of the south and I think, well, to some degree in the early women's liberation movement the same thing happened to us in the sense that when we started there was all these ways of connecting, and the movement grew very fast and you felt like things were really gonna change in good ways in terms of women's liberation not in terms of upward mobility for [just] some women. And then the splinters started happening, and the disagreements like you talk about Wazir, where people you were once so close to that you didn't even find the line of separation between the two of you, and all of a sudden you are in completely different places. And I think that's because, [for me] at least, I had never been raised with the concept of contradictions.
You know, I mean it sounds absurd, when I think about it now. I think, of course, it's a given that any time you anything you do the contradictions are gonna manifest and you are gonna have to deal with differences as well as places of unity. But I didn't know that. I thought we were all going to love each other and solve all our problems. And you know, the odd thing is I still believe in that. I just know that you have to come to terms with the fact that some times you are together, and some time you are apart, and you have to somehow believe that that ultimate unity is still there or might be there.
Don: I remember I went to Florida in 1966 to get some rest with a civil rights friend from Mississippi. And I had what seemed like a beginning ulcer and so I went to a doctor he knew down there and he realized I was in the South and so he started asking me some questions. What life was like, and he says "So basically you always fail. You lose all your cases, in the communities you organize people who then get beaten up or shot or run out of town and you wonder why you are getting an ulcer?" [Lots of laughter]
I'd never thought about that until then. It wasn't simply the stress or the danger; it was the immediate failures. Now if we had any discussion we would all say we know that this is what you expect as you are building toward a conclusion, but we are the ones that had to live with the day to day failures and so our children would have to pick up on that.
Then there is the recognition factor. The NAACP would only fund a major case going to the Supreme Court if my name was taken off of it because of my being part of SNCC. My ex-wife who was there in the south with me was appalled; she wanted the recognition that came from everything that was going on. And it really bothered her tremendously. (When I was working at Attica [defending the prisoners involved in the Attica revolt], I was the chief counsel and had 70 lawyers coming and going and one of them was Bill Kuntsler who I enormously love and admire. On the eve of his coming to argue in court, a reporter for the Buffalo daily news, Bob Buyer, said "So, how do you feel, you are doing all this work, you've been successful and Kuntsler will get all the credit." I said "I'm used to it." [laughter]
I just accepted it as a given. I almost think he deserved it because of all the other things he did that put him in that spot. As to the money thing which I was glad was mentioned I really feel in my position I was already a lawyer I don't believe for one moment I would have gone back to law school if I didn't already have the license. But I could probably add up a bill, if there was a SNCC to sue, how much it cost me in income over my career, because once I was a part of SNCC I could never think of money without being ashamed. So I worked 60-70% pro bono work to rationalize earning any kind of money.
When we came back [from the south], on the one hand people would say how wonderful you/we were and I would say, "No I wasn't. Other folks were wonderful, especially the sharecroppers themselves. I was just the lucky one who had a part in it." (This leaves out those who would say "I think what you are doing is sort of stupid and radical, communist, whatever" and I would argue that it wasn't.) But the thought of acting like a lawyer who says, "Boy, am I a great lawyer and I do wonderful things, I am Beowulf, slayer of many dragons." It was something that SNCC just took out of us. I still love the impact of it. I also know there was a price to pay for it.
And the modesty thing. Even in the south I so wanted a photograph of me with Stokely. Wanted it terribly. I don't think there was anything I wanted more. But I couldn't do something for myself that was just my own ego gratification. And so, gratefully, somebody took a photograph when we came out of court one day so I actually had one ...
Bruce: But was it really a price [that we paid for being in the south]? I mean it was a price in the sense of money or lack thereof, but to me, I feel that having had that training and having had that socialization I've had a much more comfortable life in my own head and I don't have anything that I have to feel ashamed about. I mean, occasionally I'll run into somebody who would say, "What kind of dumbass were you, doing all this stuff, running all these risks, you weren't even getting paid?" Well, I mean, I was getting paid $25 a week which was a lot more than SNCC...[laughter]
Jimmy: I would just get $10 a week. [laughter]
Bruce: But there is no point in using that argument I mean, "Only $25 a week? what are you some kind of nut?" Yet the rewards I got [from the Freedom Movement] were so great I can not even articulate them because it would be like trying to describe the color crimson to a blind person a person who has been blind for their whole life.
Don: It's underlying how lucky I feel and the thought that there were prices well worth paying. You know one experience that I've noticed, the famous male mid-life crisis at 40 where ostensibly you look back and you say, "I'm 40 years old I'm not going to achieve that much more at my age and have I made anything of myself? Was it worth it, have I justified my existence?" But I don't know anybody who was in the South who ever went through that, and I spoke to a number of people on that point. Because we did feel we justified ourselves.
Wazir: There is a point that when I would be interviewed by someone I would just say to them, "You don't have to do anything that I did, but if the opportunity arises for you to ever do something that makes you feel good about yourself, you do it in spite of all that it cost. It's something that needed to be done and you rose to the occasion." Its not about surviving. Its not about you coming out right. You stepped up to the plate and you did something. I don't care if it was for one day or for some years. I said take advantage of it because you will never do anything greater.
It's the only thing I can give you. There are some people that get it out of other things, you know. Some things that people get out of things that you really admire, sports, blah, blah, blah. I said, "But if you check behind the person that made all the things, if you walked a day in their shoes, what they paid to get there, they did something that they really wanted to do. You don't get no credit for doing something somebody else really wanted to do." That's all I could give them. And I hope that at some point, that some people will live much longer than we will live, they will get that kind of recognition that you are talking about in such a short time. By the time we had got out of our twenties, we had experienced something big.
Jimmy: I can honestly say that up to this point, the work that I did with SNCC in Lowndes County has been the most satisfying work that I've done in my life.
Wazir: It had to take on its own personality. And I wasn't particularly looking for nobody when I came back out.
Chude: I think part of this is exactly why we now exist as a group. And in particular the real gift of the website that our dear Webmaster [Bruce] has given us. But even just for us as a group is that it's taken us until what, the 90's? to begin to understand how much we needed each other, to heal from some of the damage of having been activists.
When we first did the '89 reunion was when I met you Jean and when I met you Wazir.
Jimmy: That was in Tilden [Park in Oakland], right?
Chude: Yes. And Jimmie you and I finally, Carolyn called me up and said "Did you know?" and of course, I hadn't. But in '90 is when we brought Jim Foreman out. And that was quite a profound moment. Not just because of who Jim was, but because it was our first real coming together and doing something together as a group. And then we kind of went our separate ways and then we came back together.
For myself, there is a picture that I keep meaning to get for the website which I haven't gotten from Joe Blum, yet. He took that picture of us all that day when we had that event. And it's a lovely picture. There is such good energy in it. You could tell that something alive was happening. You can see it in the picture.
Jimmy: I think the second time we came together was because of Foreman too. He came back again. And right after that was when we started the group I think.
Chude: No. it was Taylor Branch.
Wazir: Yea, we met at Taylor Branch's book signing.
Chude: And then he had raised the question to Mike that wherever he went to interview people that it seemed like we were all the "walking wounded." And that is where it began, originally we got together to help other people. And I think it was you Wazir that first said we are all walking wounded.
Wazir: In that sense we are.
Jean: I think there is something else happening here. I think at the heart of the question is a kind of resentment [on the part of our kids] that isn't even personal to the parents. But a resentment that people that these kids loved risked a lot don't seem to be complaining about the consequences of doing what they did because I don't hear many people complaining about the fact that they went to the south or they did work in the south and look at how little they were rewarded, not in terms of money necessarily.
You can see remnants of it. The thing is what remnants do they see? Of all of this sacrifice and struggle and challenges and heart-break and pain, and loyalties, and I mean, they get it all, you are right, but juxtapose that against the larger reality of what is now their world. They are trying to figure out, "Well, did it pay off?" They are not asking us whether it paid off, but they've got to be wondering. Given how messed up their world is.
I've said this many times before in this group. I'm acutely aware that they are living in a world that I don't understand, and I'm very fearful of, and I don't know how to direct them to proceed into for the next ten years. I mean, how that must feel today about telling the others not to be discouraged.
But for people like myself, in my age bracket, looking at what 30 year-olds are facing and 20s, I don't understand it. I do wonder what the lessons are that can be of use to them because I don't think all of [the lessons] are useful now. And I would want to rethink where we may have made our own mistakes, where we may have been very naive and part of our heart-break comes because some of it was a very naive way of looking at society. It's much more evil than we thought. If we had known that this society was this evil, nobody would have done anything. You had to have vision, you had to have hope. You know, think that change was possible. You don't see a lot of 30-something people thinking change is possible. Those few that are very fortunate.
Don: If I could have looked into the future and saw where things were today, I don't think I would have had a different feeling about working for those sharecroppers facing what they were facing at that time. I don't think I even thought that much about the future.
Jean: I didn't either. I know I didn't think much about the future only to the extent that we were going to win this, which in large part we did.
Don: Tremendously large. What we set out to do we succeeded.