Alabama Study-In:
When We Get the Vote, Wallace Will Get Religion

by Bell Gale Chevigny

Originally published in Village Voice, April 15, 1965.

The Civil Rights Movement, so richly inventive in novel forms of action, produced a new mutation on the weekend of March 19-22 — the study-in. The Northern Student Movement, which shares with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee a predilection for grass-roots organization and intellectual analysis, carried two bus loads of students to Montgomery, Alabama, to study and participate in the crises there.

[Ongoing protests in Selma and Montgomery continued during the period March 19-22. On March 21, the third and final March to Montgomery departed Selma and continued on March 22.]

The plan was conceived when an NSM representative visited a civil rights group at Drew College [Madison, NJ] which was planning a community action project for the summer. The students concern about events in Alabama resulted in NSM's scheme to expose the students to essential conditions and issues.

Hence the buses were filled not only with students, a few veterans of Mississippi, Angola, and the IRA, but also with a doctor, a lawyer to explain the legal dimensions of the situation, and several very articulate, sophisticated, occasionally prophetic members of the NSM staff.

One of the governing purposes of Bill Stickland, head of NSM, is to point up the contrast between real and symbolic change. The myth of change which society promulgates focuses on individuals; it creates heroes and villains like Calvin Gross, according to Stickland. This emphasis, he feels, works to keep the public from questioning institutions. The choice of Montgomery rather than celebrity-ridden Selma for a center of operations indirectly served this purpose.

We arrived Friday night, after 27 hours on the road, to find impromptu accommodations on and under the benches of the New Ellam Baptist Church on Watts Street, a block from SNCC headquarters. The Negro community responded to the visit by providing meals and, increasingly, participation in activities.

Plans were continually in flux Saturday morning. Information on the possibilities of marching or picketing, on the likelihood of arrest and the going rate of bail, kept changing. Finally, since SNCC had decided not to demonstrate and needed pledges for lodging and food for the marchers coming from Selma, we decided to canvass the community. Divided into teams, each led by a local Negro, we visited hundreds of homes.

Doubtless because of its early participation in civil rights history, the Montgomery Negro community shows — as compared with Mississippi communities — an unusually keen awareness of the demonstrations and their implications. A housing development revealed a high degree of organization; children of most families had participated in the demonstrations. Eddie Scott, a 13-year-old who, after living several years in Washington, had returned to his home town to march and be jailed, is a local hero. His irrepressible optimism is a source of morale. When a visitor remarked he hoped he could come back in the summer, Eddie said, "This summer! Why, we have freedom by then."

Another happy discovery was a women who keeps house for state troopers and confided that some of them have to get drunk before they can go out and beat people, and that a few of them are talking of quitting.

"My White Lady"

Sometimes, however, there were throwbacks in unexpected places. A women who had been a domestic for 14 years was fearless about lodging white northerners. Asked if she might not suffer repercussions, she explained, "I wish they'd just try to harass me — I'd get my white lady after them!" And an enthusiastic school teacher who claimed she'd helped out "underground" dismayed her visitors by asking "A personal question. You don't have to answer if you don't want to. Is it true that they pay you to come down here?"

Propaganda and long habit have bred caution and mistrust in some of the most enthusiastic supporters. For example, when a white man stayed that night in a Negro home, his host got drunk and repeatedly told the paradox of his life: how in the war he smoked off the same cigarette as a white man, and then he came home to be put in his place. Again and again he asked his guest why he wanted to risk his life to help him. The lady of the house asked him to lay off, let the man go to sleep, but her man replied, "If he's not bored, I'm going to keep on talking, because this happens one time in every 150 years." Yet he closed the conversation by begging, "Don't you write my name down anyplace."

Elated by our success — 240 of the people canvassed offered assistance — many of us went off after supper to Tuskegee University, 40 miles away. Students from a number of Negro colleges were there participating in the Alabama Student Conference for Civil Rights. Members of SNCC and people recently released from jail were testifying to their experience. Feeling was running high, and the crowd's enthusiasm produced a flood of spontaneous oratory. A girl read a poem on the irony of Americans fighting for freedom in Vietnam. Eugene Chairs, working in Selma, offered the disarming with typical of SNCC field workers: "I was arrested and the man asked me who was my closest relative and I said SNCC. I said my mother, my father, and my sister were SNCC. The man asked me who's my brother, and I said you're my brother, we have to stick together in this world.

"No Guarantee"

Jim Forman, executive secretary of SNCC, closed the meeting by angrily denouncing Rabbi Richard Rubenstein's statement in Pittsburgh that SNCC lied, lured people south by offering police protection but really waned dead white bodies to advance the cause. "We talked five times with the rabbi when he was here and he said nothing of the kind. If there are any problems, raise them here with us. Let it be clear, first, that you are here voluntarily, second that you can go home at any time, third that SNCC can guarantee no protection."

A rally followed, delirious with clapping and dancing and singing of impromptu verses. A new verse for "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" goes "See that girl, ain't she fine, she got freedom on her mind." And everyone strained to learn a complicated but contagious tune with a skat refrain: "Oh Wallace, never can jail us all. Oh Wallace, segregation's bound to fall."

Sunday the dormitory was reconverted into a church. The choir sang long-meter hymns and Reverend William Anderson preached and changed a contemporary version of Exodus with a Moses reluctant to go back to Egypt because he had a prison record there. Reverend Anderson has a political theory of his own: "We all know what to call someone who isn't nice. He's a nigger. Governor Wallace is a nigger. He hasn't got religion. He's not converted, and there's only one thing that can convert him. That's the vote. When we get the vote, you can bet Governor Wallace will get religion."

Questions of Honesty

But this is a combination of the religious and political forces at work in the South that not all the community was willing to accept. This emerged when the students met in the church for discussion in the afternoon and a group of local people gathered in the back. The discussion was an amalgam of group therapy, camp meeting, and microcosmic battleground of different forces within the movement. It began with the questions of honesty, our honesty in working in black communities, Negro honesty in talking with us. One faction led forward a local Negro who said he'd accompanied the canvassers the day before and then returned to the persons who had promised support. He said they had been lying to the canvassers the way Negroes always lie and must lie to white people.

Consternation reigned. Other local people rushed to the pulpit to reaffirm our welcome. The deacon of a neighborhood church insisted that for God there is no difference between black and white, that the Negroes's strength lay in God. "The government has missiles, but all the missiles they send up come down again. I've got a missile that doesn't come down. That's prayer, and God hears.

At this point the leader of Philadelphia NSM, John Churchville, a lanky Negro in a beret, usually silent behind his thick glass, rose to his feet. "If we're going to talk about honesty, let's really be honest and get rid of the lies. It's a lie that love runs through all these things. It's a lie that it make no difference what color you are. Black people can never forget 375 years of oppression. What we need is to create black power to confront the white power structure, solid black power that is incorruptible. Love and brotherhood are side issues. I've tried it both ways, but it didn't make any difference whether I loved or hated the man when he was beating me."

The deacon sprang up, quoting the Bible and saying, "That's why our white brother's heart has got to be opened, and we got to keep praying to God that He will open it."

"Spiritual Bag"

"Brother!" Churchville shouted, "I love you, brother, but it's because of this spiritual bag we've been in that blacks have been oppressed for so long. By believing we'd get everything after death, we don't get anything on earth. The white man came to Africa, gave the Bible, and took the land. The people had their souls saved and their bodies lost and damned. Jesus didn't talk about life after death, he dealt with life on earth. Jesus took the bread and he broke it and he gave it to the people. Jesus took the fish and gave it to the people. Jesus was concerned with power. Jesus was a black revolutionary.

There was an instance of absolute silence. Then Al Harrison, a Northern Negro, sought a middle way, addressing the local man, telling him he didn't have to give up his God. He added, "You can stay in the Bible so long, but while you're staying in the Bible, Governor Wallace is down in that State House planning how to put you in the ground. you can go to church, but when you go out of the church, you got to go to the courthouse." And this time the people in the back were saying, "Amen. That's right. You tell 'em. Yeah."

The meeting broke up as the local people offered to lead groups of students to churches and homes for last-minute canvassing. Some of the young boys in the neighborhood, who had been handing around curiously all weekend, asked how they could join the movement. The local SNCC people escorted us to the buses singing.

"Restore" Rights

Jim Forman addressed the people reassembled in the buses, stressing the importance of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge and the cleavage that can be expected to widen among the liberal camp. He said that this could be called the Restoration, since SNCC's object is to restore rights Negroes had during Reconstruction and lost during the reaction.

It had been quite in Montgomery. There was only one arrest, and that Southern style. A student who made a right turn with no light was charged with making a left turn against the light. He was bailed out quickly. But the heated discussions that occupied a large part of the ride home indicated that many people were confused and frustrated. Many questioned the fruitfulness of a weekend your, but they did so to the satisfaction of Bill Strickland who had conducted it. For Strickland, who has a master degree in clinical psychology, the very inadequacy of a weekend experience is the point, as well as the distress caused by the provocative questions raised. "This is the struggle," he says. "Though a thousand plans fall through, the struggle is the existential need to pull things together and go on."

Copyright © Bell Gale, 1965.

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