We were dedicated followers of Dr. Martin Luther King, although most of us did not go further south than Arkansas or Texas. I was fortunate enough to go to the Civil Rights demonstration in Washington D.C., where Dr. King made his famous "I have a dream" speech. We marched through the streets of Washington D.C. and ended up in the Mall area to hear the various speakers. I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. King at that time, and just before that was fortunate enough to meet Lyndon Johnson, who was vice president of the United States. Vice President Johnson, myself and several others enjoyed quiet a spirited discussion about the movement, and the need for civil rights legislation. When Johnson became president, he was very interested in hearing the views of the people who were involved.
I had the good fortune to also meet and speak with Senator Hubert Humphrey, who would become vice President in 1964. Senator Humphrey was a good friend of the movement, and helped to shape many of the civil rights laws. I had the opportunity to speak with Vice President Humphrey on many different occassions through out his public career in politics. He was one of my personal heroes on many different levels.
My involvement in the movement ended about 1968, and I became more active in the anti-war [Vietnam] movement at the time.
I was active in CORE, and then we joined a Friends of SNCC group, and so when '64 came along, you know, I decided to go to Mississippi. My experience in Mississippi was limited in the sense that I was in Holly Springs, and Holly Springs was a very different project. It was in the northern part of the state. Now I understood that Holly Springs was not Tallahatchie County. It was not McComb, Mississippii. It was influenced by being so close to Memphis Tennessee and there were two Black colleges in Holly Springs, Rust and Mississippi Industrial. I used to hear all this stuff about McComb and Tallahatchi County and all that and God that scared me to death. But then I had to drive down there a couple of times, and it didn't bother me after that.
I remember being in Holly Springs and people had to go uptown to register to vote, and we were only about three blocks from downtown to the courthouse. At the courthouse was dogs, fire trucks, and police with guns, every goddamn thing that we had no protection from. And we had had to work all night and the day before that morning to get people ready to go and try to register. We were just going down there, right? [Laughing] They put me in a straw hat and gave me a two-way radio like I was bad, and I walked the streets of Holly Springs talking to Black folk about registering to vote. The cops were scared to bother me because they thought I had some connection. But I had no connection, the damn radio didn't even work. We were bluffing, man. I mean, hell, if there had been an attack I would have come down from downtown fast and gone back to the Freedom House.
From 1965-67 I was on the field staff of the Southern Christian Ladership Conference (SCLC) in Alabama and Mississippi. I participated in the Selma campaign and the March to Montgomery, the SCOPE summer project of 1965 (Crenshaw County, Alabama), voter registration, the Mississippi March against Fear in 1966, and the Grenada Mississippi movement. During those years I participated in picketlines, sit-ins, marches, rallies, mass meetings, house meetings, and so on. I canvassed door-to-door, helped people register to vote, engaged in desegregation actions, and so forth.
During my four years in the Movement I was beaten more than once, shot at twice, threatened with death, and arrested some 15-20 times.
I guess for about three weeks, I was there by myself. Then after awhile, Charlie Cobb, James Jones, and Jesse Harris, they all came to Ruleville nearby. So Sam, and I, and Guyot and all, we would head over to Ruleville. We would help them work in that county, Sunflower County. We would go to Cleveland. We would go into Indianola, come back to Greenwood.
It was intense. And after awhile, we got Ruleville moving, and we got to take a bunch of people over to Indianola to attempt to register to vote, and one of those people was Fannie Lou Hamer. So when we got back, we had a mass meeting at the church. And we saw this lady back there sweating and singing. Her voice stood out way above everybody else's. And that was Mrs. Hamer, and she had gotten evicted from the plantation that very day. I think it was August 12th or something like that. But during that time we're moving, moving fast and intense so we found her a place. And then from that point, we were working in Indianola, Ruleville, Cleveland, and Greenwood. Then Greenwood broke in February. So a lot of big things happened in Greenwood.
From the fall of 1964, I went back to school, at Tuskegee. Then I got involved with what was called on the campus, Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL). I worked with Sammy Younge, who did a lot of work in Macon County, and then we made a big move when Martin was supposed to march, and he didn't. We went to Montgomery with about 1200 students sit-in at the church on Dexter.
That was pretty successful. And then after the spring of '65 and school was out, I came back to Greenwood, and we did some folk festivals. This is '65 now. We did folk festivals because people were being made ashamed of their culture, and the Mississippi Delta is where most of the blues and all that kind of stuff came from. So we thought it would be a good idea to do some cultural revival stuff, and we did that the whole summer, right on up to February of 1966. And then maybe in April or so, we left, me and Sam, and came to California.
I am white and from Texas. From time to time, when and where it was possible, SCLC put my appearance and accent to work. I posed as and passed for an local white in order to get information denied to the Movement.
During the same period, my brother Michael participated with the James Meredith March in Mississippi. Our uncle, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, Ohio was also active in Civil Rights and was beaten in Mississippi while investigating the Goodwin, Cheney, Schwerner murders (Goodwin's family were members of his synagogue). Our father was president of the ACHR during the same period of about 1964-67.
Then I went on to graduate school, at University of Michigan Ann Arbor, which was a hotbed of activity. I had a Woodrow Wilson scholarship, and I'm the first college graduate in my family and, therefore, the first to ever go to graduate school. I was finishing up my master's when the Mississippi Freedom Summer started being planned and tons and tons of volunteers went down from the Ann Arbor campus. I kept watching the bulletins and going to the meetings and the leaflets and stuff, and I was struck by the fact I still am struck by the fact that all the information said you had to have so much money. Money for any medical expenses you might need. Money for lawyers if you got arrested. Money for this, money for that. I was penniless. I had gone there on a full scholarship, that's all I had. I hadn't started working.
So I got this ingenious notion that I would go South, but I didn't know where I was going to go South. After I got my degree in Literature and Language in 1964 I was offered a position at Tuskegee. So I got to see Alabama, which was very different, I've always been told, from Mississippi. I was in Selma and Montgomery because that's where the student base was. Then we started organizing in Macon County, which is where Tuskegee is. Sammy Young was one of my students. I began meeting people as they would come out of Alabama and out of Atlanta and Southwest Georgia on to Mississippi. My house became it was my first time ever to have a place of my own and it became like a way station. You know, you need to spend the night at Jean's house and then keep on going.
I left the South in the fall of '66. I found the South excruciatingly intense. I very much needed a break. For me, it was not only the organizing and the constant terror and tension, but it was also the fact that I was teaching at a school that in the history is going to look very progressive, but it really wasn't. It wasn't the school that I had thought actually, most of the Black colleges in the Deep South are very conservative. So I was constantly battling administrators and heads of department and everything. My dean and I got along wonderfully well, but he was battling on his own. The first time I realized that there's big trouble was when I ordered Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for my students. And the bookstore didn't have it and said they would order it. And it just gradually occurred to me that they weren't going to order the book. And I couldn't quite believe it, but nobody was telling me "No." They were just saying, "We'll get around to it." So my first long trip was to leave Tuskegee and drive to Atlanta, where I'd never been in my whole life, and get the books and bring them back to the campus. They didn't want that book taught in the English department. English departments are notoriously the most conservative on any campus, which I didn't know.