"Watching the Iris Grow" —  Chude Pam Parker Allen

It is June and the one iris is blooming. On sunny days I've been sitting outside my door watching the buds form, waiting for them to open. At first I thought there was only one bud growing straight and tall. I urged it along, impatient for the bearded iris to show itself. But slowly I noticed protrusions on the side of the stem. Then there were four buds in various stages of development plus the topmost one in full bloom. I tell myself this is a lesson about patience. If I'd had my way the stalk would have bloomed its one bud and been gone by now. Instead I've had blooms for weeks.

I used to think buds opened slowly, one petal at a time — a ballet in slow motion. But the friend who gave me the bulb says no. She was on retreat once, meditating, and stood before an iris bud. It went "pop," she said, "pop, pop, pop." Little explosions and there was the iris in full bloom.

I've harbored hopes of being here in my chair just as a bud goes "pop." It would be a sign, I think, that I am right to spend time staring at this iris when there is so much to do for the civil rights reunion I'm helping to organize. Twenty-five years ago I was one of a thousand volunteers who went to Mississippi for the summer to assist the Freedom Movement in the struggle to end racism in that bastion of white supremacy. We taught in freedom schools, organized community centers and encouraged people to register to vote. We registered people into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Movement's interracial alternative to the segregated state Democratic Party.

What does an iris have to do with Mississippi and terror and freedom? What does an iris have to do with the pain in my heart, that sense of deep loss that never goes away? How can I explain this need to sit and contemplate a flower?

People say we should be proud of ourselves — those of us who went south in 1964 to work for equality and justice. The younger activists who are helping with the reunion, say they envy us having the opportunity to be a part of a movement that changed history.

But when two of us put out the mailing announcing the reunion in the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked my coworker, who'd also gone south, what he remembered most about that summer. His answer has remained with me. "Terror," he said. "I felt terrified all summer long."

He'd been beaten in a "safer" area of the state where he was working until the leaders felt it was possible to send volunteers into southwest Mississippi where local people had been killed for working with the Movement. The freedom house in McComb was bombed before he ever got there. He never stopped being frightened.

I'd been sent to a "safer" area. My parents thanked me when I called from the orientation session to tell them of my assignment. This was four days after the three workers disappeared, James Chaney, a local Mississippian, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both New Yorkers, Andy a volunteer like myself who arrived in the state the day before he disappeared. "Thank you," my parents said, never mentioning one of their senators had called Dad at work and told him to get me the hell out of there. That was the senator's response to my good Republican father's letter asking for federal protection for us.

"Safe" was a relative term in Mississippi. Last year I read an interview with the man who'd been director of my "safer" project. "Now that was a town," he'd said. "Talk about terror!"

No one was shot in our town. But one black worker was killed in a mysterious car accident, his partner awakening on the pavement with a gun at his head and a cop saying "Stay real still or you'll get what you're buddy got." There were numerous false arrests and car chases, not to mention the night the sheriff in Oxford stopped 3 carloads of workers leaving a mass meeting and there was almost a riot. He'd stopped them right where a white mob had formed.

That was the same sheriff who'd stopped four of us that afternoon. Another freedom school teacher and I had hitched a ride with the voter registration workers to Ole Miss. We spoke in a couple sociology classes about why we northern volunteers had come to Mississippi. The sheriff followed us out of town, held us by the side of the road until a truckload of white men rode up, their rifles prominently displayed on a gun rack. Then admonishing us to tell him if we came to town again so he could be sure we were "protected," he let us go and we flew down the road at 90 miles an hour with the armed men chasing us.

That was one of the "safer" projects and I still am afraid when I see police. I still have fears of dying in an automobile accident. I still have fears and I wonder if it is this terror that lingers in my bones that causes me to sit hour upon hour in front of the iris?

I've been reading all the books I can find about the Movement in Mississippi. Horrors have come to my attention I'd never known. I can't understand how people could be as cruel and sadistic as those racist whites. Beating people in jail -- women as well as men. Putting loaded guns to people's heads and playing russian roulette. One activist said when he couldn't take it anymore; he went back to college in the Midwest and met a white woman he'd known in the south. A sheriff had played russian roulette with her. She worked at the library as part of her therapy at the mental hospital.

Our project director had had a gun put to his head. He'd been held incommunicado in jail for days with broken ribs from a beating. He had migraine headaches. I learned all this in books I read. I now understand his temper tantrums.

"He has trouble relating to white women," we used to say when he would blow up at the freedom school teachers. More than once the voter registration guys came home late, tired and dirty, after driving all day on dusty roads and there was nothing in the project to eat. He was right, of course. We who'd been at the project all day teaching in the freedom school needed to make sure there was food. We all lived on peanut butter sandwiches that summer.

But our director's temper flared all the time — over insignificant things too. In the interview he said if you couldn't handle the terror you got out. He said you didn't stay if you couldn't take it. But what were the temper tantrums and migraines?

I think about the tensions on our project, the overwork, poor food and fear. I think of the anxiety that accompanied the workers who drove those back roads wondering when they'd come across some armed "crackers" or be stopped by the police, possibly arrested or "just" subjected to insults or intimidation. I remember the horror when we knew for sure those first three, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, were dead.

We want to remember those who died at the start of the reunion, to begin our program with their names. Some of the planners wanted to read the names off a list; others to let participants call out names spontaneously. The question was would anyone get forgotten if there was no list? Could we trust ourselves to remember everyone? Spontaneity won this time. But the anxiety about forgetting someone created a tension that never went away.

Come to think of it, there's always an anxiety. Will there be enough food? Have we done enough publicity? What if we've missed someone? If the news media is present, will it inhibit dialogue? Do we need to structure workshops or will people talk naturally. Where will we get the money?

At one planning meeting a man who'd come to my project late in the summer of '64 spoke about our inability to mourn the deaths. He said he arrived on our project the day after Wayne Yancey was killed in the car accident. Someone pointed out an empty bed and told him he could have it since the guy had died the day before. That's all he ever heard about this worker.

It wasn't that we didn't care. We were on overload — the accident and then the news that the bodies of the three missing men had been found buried in a dam. I didn't know what else to do but keep on teaching and registering people into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

I started looking for people with whom to organizine a 25th anniversary reunion because I wanted the human contact. Reading all those books brought everything up, but without any of the human element, the sharing. So far all I seem to have found is other people's hurts and fears to compound my own.

Watching the iris bloom is what keeps me steady and has allowed me to go back week after week to the planning meetings. I need its clarity of purpose and focused energy. It's not easy to break one's covering and burst into bloom. Is that what we're doing with this reunion -- trying to burst protective shells that let us get on with our lives? Opening up again to remembering and feeling the pain? I realize it's about timing, not trying to rush things and trusting that the reunion really will be nourishing, really will move us past the pain.

I'm having a brunch here Sunday, the morning after the reunion. Bob Moses, the man who'd directed the Mississippi Summer Project, said it would be a good idea. People will need an opportunity to share feelings that come up at the reunion, he said. He's had some experience with reunions on the East Coast since he came back from Africa.

It will be the first time I'll have seen him since he stood before us at the orientation the night before we left to go into Mississippi. He said he knew the three were dead and he didn't know how many more of us would die, but all he could say was he'd be there too. He kept looking at his feet while he talked and I swear, I would have gone anywhere he said.

A woman began singing in the back of the room that night after Bob finished speaking. "They say that freedom is a constant struggle...." Her voice pulled us from our seats. We stood singing with our arms around each other, not knowing which of us would live, which of us would die. I felt a profound unity and knew it was worth dying for black and white together — and even a few Latinos and Asians, although back then we thought in terms of black and white.

Black and white together. Only I hadn't bargained on tempers and mistrust; had no idea how hard it would be to keep that sense of loving unity in the face of racist harassment. And I hadn't planned on the Harlem riots that ripped my world apart.

It was the day after the riots and some of us sat out on the grass, freedom school teachers and voter registration guys. The white volunteers, northerners, many from New York City, said the violence in Harlem was wrong. The black workers, volunteers too and some northerners, said they were glad, it was about time something happened to force America to wake up to racism in the North.

I was horrified. I was devoted to the philosophy of nonviolence. But I'd been in the South longer than the other white volunteers and learned the black workers had a better read on things. I kept silent that afternoon, but the project was polarized. I found it didn't matter that I never condemned the riots. I hadn't supported them. And I was white.

It was difficult not to blame myself, as if skin color somehow made me complicit with the racist white cruelty, the overt violence and the deep, deep poverty. I left Mississippi thoroughly ashamed of what white America had created, the disparities of wealth and poverty. And then I saw the opportunism at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City where President Lyndon Johnson made sure the white supremacist delegates from Mississippi kept their seats despite clear evidence that the Movement's Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was the only open and democratic party from Mississippi.

I voted for Johnson anyway that fall, my first time voting. I voted for Johnson because Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, said he would bomb Hanoi and President Johnson said he wouldn't. Only Johnson went right ahead and ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and that was enough of electoral politics for me.

The reunion is tomorrow. I'm scared and excited. We all scattered after that summer in Mississippi. There was no coming back together, no closure or evaluation. SNCC, the main group behind the summer project was moving inexorably towards becoming an all black organization. The 25th anniversary is our first major attempt at bringing white volunteers as well as black activists together. There are events on the East Coast as well as here, including in Mississippi where the three were murdered.

I took the day off from work and walked all around the park. I walked in a quiet state noting the last of the rhododendron blooms are falling. Where there's no watering, the grasses have died. Flowers are seeding. Nature is going dormant as the dry season moves into full gear. Now I'm sitting in front of my iris, all its blooms gone except the last. I am sitting and watching and waiting for tomorrow.

[First published in Freedom is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Susan Erenrich, editor, Black Belt Press, 1999.]

Copyright © 1989 & 2005, Chude Allen

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