Chude Allen was a summer volunteer in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer project.]
For Ralph Featherstone (1939-1970)
"He loved you," says the black man sitting next to me. "He told me about you once. We'd just gotten out of jail in D.C. At the freedom house the brothers were asking, 'Would you marry one?' Ralph said yes, he would marry a white woman. I said I would too. The others laughed at us. They said we were still hung up on that 'freedom high!'
"We were funky and dirty after all those days behind bars, but we moved to a corner of the room and sat down. Ralph told me it happened even though he promised himself he wouldn't get involved with any woman, black or white. He told me he fell in love with a white volunteer at the beginning of the summer of '64. He didn't tell me her name, but when you were speaking I realized it was you. Ralph didn't feel he could ask you to share his life. He told me he expected to die."
"I loved him," says this man sitting next to me. "We both loved him. We still do."
It is 1989. A small group of us are sharing personal experiences of the Southern Freedom Movement. Ralph Featherstone has been dead for 19 years, killed in the struggle just as he thought he would be.
# # #
I was a freedom school teacher that summer of 1964 and I met Ralph Featherstone in Holly Springs, a large project in northern Mississippi. Ralph was a 24-year-old speech therapist from Washington, D.C. He had a wonderful smile and an interest in other people, including the students. He was on our project while waiting to go to McComb to head the freedom school there. McComb was in southwest Mississippi, the most dangerous part of that violent state.
Ralph flirted with me. He was enjoying himself with a cute 20-year-old white student, nothing more. Then one morning he greeted me with "Good morning, Miss Pam!" The two of us were standing in the front yard of the freedom school under a large tree by the sidewalk. The freedom house was next door, Rust College across the street. Kids were milling around.
"Miss Pam" was a play on "Miss Ann," the term used for white housewives with black maids. Ralph had that twinkle in his eye when he said it. He was doing the let's-see-what-the white-girl (or guy)-will-do game. How would I respond? Would I get frazzled? Would I blush?
I told him to cut it out. I hadn't grown up with maids. And I wasn't some frivolous white girl who didn't know anything. At Spelman College in Atlanta that spring I'd gone through a trial by fire learning about racism. I'd worked hard to change. I had changed. I deserved respect!
Being a stickler for the truth, I probably also told him that when my mother became bedridden during her pregnancy with my brother, a black woman by the name of Lena Snead came to take care of my sister and me. We were three and five years old. She came back a second time, ten years later, when Mother broke her wrist and my youngest brother was three months old.
And I probably also told him Mother founded a nursery school when the second brother was three and used her $600 a year "salary" to pay for someone to clean the house once a week. And yes, that woman usually was black. But my mother was no "Miss Ann" and neither was I.
Ralph acknowledged me with a bow of his head and that wonderful smile. Then the voter registration workers called people together to give an update of their activities. Afterwards Ralph would be going out into the counties with them. I would teach my black history class. Standing under the tree we both knew his interest in me had changed.
He courted me. It was a public courting - public in terms of the students and other civil rights workers. He couldn't ask me for a date, of course. There was no place safe to go. We couldn't even walk down the street alone together, although we did go occasionally to the local cafi with a group of civil rights workers. Rust College was across the street from our project, however. Surrounded by a fence with an armed guard at the gate, the campus was a safe place. Along with the other women on the project I slept in the dorms there. All of us used the expansive tree studded lawn as a place to relax. Ralph would walk up the drive with me and kiss me goodnight.
Although I had black men friends at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ralph was the first black man to initiate a romantic relationship. He also was the first "older man" to take an interest in me and carried himself with confidence. I thought he was incredibly attractive with his dark smooth skin, slim body and marvelous smile.
I liked him. I liked how he was with the students, how he clearly enjoyed them. I liked how he treated me. Ivanhoe, our project director, discouraged interracial relationships, but Ralph didn't hide his interest. He acted the same whether Ivanhoe and the other black men were around or not. He treated me with respect. That's how I saw it.
Ralph had been at the first of the two Summer Project orientations that were held in Ohio. While the other civil rights workers went into Mississippi, he and the other people assigned to McComb went to Washington DC to demand federal protection for civil rights workers. They came back in time for the last night of the second training. I was there, but we didn't meet then.
We talked about that last night. How Bob Moses, the director of the Summer Project, spoke about the burden of sending us into Mississippi perhaps to our deaths. Three from the first group were already missing. He told us all he could do was promise he would be there too.
When Bob finished speaking, the room was still. Then a woman began singing "They say that freedom is a constant struggle." We stood up, joined hands and sang. Tears streamed down my face. Ralph told me he "bawled like a baby."
How long were we together in Holly Springs before Ralph was called to come to McComb? A week? Two weeks? It wasn't long. Yet time has a different meaning when every day has life and death urgency. Each morning the voter registration workers and some of the freedom school teachers left for the counties. Sometimes a person moved to another project. When we said good-bye, none of us knew if we'd see each other again.
The night before Ralph left, I lay on his cot with him in the room in the freedom school where he slept, the same room where I taught my Negro History class. It was the first time I'd been there with him. That evening there was little talking and a lot of kissing. As I lay in his arms I wondered if there would ever be another time. A few days before, McComb's freedom house was bombed. We heard ten people were in the house, that two were hurt, but no one was killed.
After he left, my days were full. I taught my classes, helped the teenagers develop their play, "Seeds of Freedom," and wrote letters home, which my parents duplicated and sent to eighty people - relatives, friends and others who asked to be put on the mailing list.
One day a white Methodist minister, who was visiting our project, invited me to come with him to the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) at Oxford. At a white sociology professor's house we saw a map of Mississippi with colored pins showing all the civil rights projects. The professor spoke of the harassment of liberal white students on the campus.
The professor invited me to come back to speak in two sociology classes about why I'd come south to work for integration. He suggested I bring another white summer volunteer. We needed a ride to Ole Miss., however, as the minister left to visit other projects
Ivanhoe, our project director, didn't want us to go. "It's too dangerous," he said. And besides, if the whites wanted to know why there was a freedom struggle, they should ask blacks. I argued that we would be speaking about why we as northern whites had come. We wouldn't be speaking for black people. Finally Ivanhoe said we could go, if I could convince the voter registration workers to drive us there.
On July 29th another freedom school teacher and I arrived at Ole Miss to speak to the sociology classes about why we'd joined the Mississippi Summer Project. I hadn't thought about the questions that might be asked. No one on the project offered to help me prepare for the personal questions they were bound to ask a white girl. A student in the introductory sociology class asked me, "Would you marry a Negro?" I was forced to think on my feet.
The audience grew quiet, waiting for my answer.
I said, "I am in love with and plan to marry a boy who is..." Then I paused. The eyes of every person in the room were riveted on me. You could hear a pin drop in the large lecture hall. It was that quiet. Then I said, "white." The students let out a collective sigh of relief as pronounced as the silence had been.
I was twenty years old and it was the best I could do to claim an old boyfriend. I knew I couldn't tell them about meeting Ralph. I was not so naive as to think those white southerners would accept a white girl saying she was enamored of a black civil rights worker. And I wasn't good at telling lies. The students would have seen right through me. I needed to be telling a truth, if not the whole truth.
I had once thought I might marry this boyfriend. He was a freedom school teacher on a different project. We hadn't broken up, so it didn't feel like I was lying, just not telling the whole truth. He'd hurt me badly at the orientation training. Afraid for my safety, he'd been cold and distant. I asked to be transferred to another project, but when we said goodbye, I thought I still loved him. Then I met Ralph.
After the class my coworker told me that when I said I was in love, he'd been ready to run from the room. He knew only of Ralph. He was afraid those racist white students were going to kill us when I told them I loved a black man. I laughed. I was thrilled. I felt proud for figuring a way out and disdainful of the audience, as if I'd put something over on them.
When the voter registration workers picked us up at the University of Mississippi, two police cars and one unmarked car followed us. At the edge of town we were stopped. The sheriff held us until a green pick-up truck pulled up. I could see rifles hung prominently behind three white men. When the sheriff let us go, the voter registration worker who was driving sped off. He was convinced the men wanted to kill us. We sped at 90 miles an hours along windy country roads, the truck in pursuit. Eventually we got away.
When we returned to the project, I discovered that Ralph was visiting (the only time he visited the project during the rest of that summer). I told him what happened, first about the car chase and how scared I'd been. Then I told him about being asked if I would marry a Negro and how I'd answered.
"Wasn't it great!" I bragged.
"No," he answered. Very gently he said, "It is not great."
Then he had to leave for a mass meeting in the same area where I'd been that day. We never talked again about what I'd said at Ole Miss.
That night the cars of the civil rights workers who'd gone to the mass meeting were also stopped in Oxford. This time there was a mob, not just one pickup truck. I'd just finished typing my report of the visit to Ole Miss when Ralph returned and told me what had happened to them. There'd almost been a riot.
"Our car was first in line," he said, "and we realized the cars behind us had been stopped. We circled back around and pulled up behind the others. They were all standing beside the cars facing the sheriff. A mob of white men was on the courthouse steps. I reached down and grabbed a coke bottle."
"You weren't going to fight?" I gasped.
"Of course I was," he answered. "If they were going to take us out, we were going to try to take some of them with us."
Ralph's words shocked me. I was a love-your-enemy pacifist. In Atlanta we'd had those "Would you defend your baby/husband/mother?" discussions. I'd said I'd hold to the pacifist principles.
Yet here was Ralph saying that if that mob had attacked, he was going to do as much damage as he could to those racist white men. He explained he believed in nonviolence as a tactic for demonstrations, but in any other situation, if someone attacked him, he would fight back. We discussed the differences between nonviolence as a tactic and pacifism as a way of life.
I trusted Ralph. I'd seen him treat other people with as much consideration and kindness as he treated me. I couldn't dismiss what he was saying. In addition, I was having my own delayed reaction to the car chase. I was feeling bitter that I could have been killed for speaking to some white students. The best of them thought they were brave just to speak to us at lunch in the cafeteria. I wasn't feeling very loving myself.
Five years later I remembered Ralph's comments about what I'd said at Ole Miss. I was telling my women's liberation group about my experiences in Mississippi. Our group started our discussions with personal experiences. For the first time, I was not talking only about the purpose of the Summer Project but what had happened to me.
I told about going to Ole Miss and speaking in the sociology class where I was asked if I would marry a Negro. When I reached the point about telling how I bragged to Ralph about claiming I was planning to marry a white boyfriend, I realized what a terrible thing I'd done. How could I have been so insensitive as to brag?
It had been my first experience of holding an audience spellbound. The attention, the incredible holding-their-breath-attention of the audience, was exhilarating. I was tripping on that feeling and not thinking about what I'd actually said. I felt ashamed.
It took me many more years to understand that I'd implicitly accepted the audience's position against interracial marriage. But what else could I have done? This question haunted me until I told this story to a white activist who was both older than I and more experienced.
I said I felt I should have refused to answer the question. I should have said we were there to talk about equality and justice. She disagreed, saying that audience wouldn't have accepted any other answer.
When I bragged to Ralph Featherstone, he didn't yell at me and make me feel guilty. I think he assumed I didn't know the answer to the question. But he knew our personal relationship wasn't the point. He trusted me to figure out for myself why my answer wasn't something to be proud of. My answer may have been necessary, but it wasn't 'great.' It wasn't even good. It just got us out of there alive.
In truth I was still figuring out my feelings toward him. But what had nagged at me after Ralph went to McComb was that he had graduated from a teachers college. As my cousin reminded me a few years ago, we were raised to believe only the "less intelligent" students went to teachers college or became high school teachers. She was laughing as she spoke, for she is a high school English teacher who loves her work. Yet in 1964 this issue haunted me. Was a teachers college graduate "good enough" for me?
The question of class usually gets obscured when discussing racism and the Civil Rights Movement. Although I didn't understand it at the time, I was wrestling with the elitism of my class, a prejudice not limited to white people. In the context of class status, a black graduate from Morehouse or Fisk would have been more acceptable.
In August a freedom school convention was held in Hattiesburg. I was going to help the teenagers who would perform their play. On the drive down the director of our freedom school and I sat in the back seat of the car and discussed what I was going to do with two boyfriends showing up in Hattiesburg. Both were the directors of their respective freedom schools. She knew them both. Although he was white, Dan had been a student at Morehouse, the brother college to Spelman which Barbara attended and where I'd been an exchange student that spring. We speculated on what would happen.
I had told Ralph about the white freedom school teacher in another project. However, I was still wrestling with what to do and didn't know whether I wanted to continue a relationship with Dan. I needed to see him again.
I felt I owed it to Dan to spend my first free time with him. We hadn't seen each other since entering Mississippi. The first night I agreed to meet him after the evening session while the kids were socializing and before we went to our hosts' homes. He took me to a car in the church parking lot where we could have some privacy. We talked and then he asked me to sleep with him.
I was outraged. I believed in waiting until marriage. I believed in love. Was it loving to want to have sex the first time he saw me all summer? I asked how could he treat me this way? Dan apologized. He said that all the other guys on his project had had sex except him. He wanted me to have sex with him so he would be like the other guys. I left the car.
The next day when we had a chance to speak, I told Ralph what had happened. I told him I'd broken up with Dan. The two boyfriends question was solved. I was sure. "You would never do such a thing!" I said.
We discussed seeing each other in Atlantic City at the Democratic Convention. We were both planning to be there to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's challenge. I told him I wanted him then to come meet my family, before he went back to Mississippi and I went back to college. He said I didn't know what I was saying. I said I did. I said my parents had always accepted the boyfriends I'd brought home and they would accept him too. Ralph shook his head, "You don't know what you're doing." But he promised to think about it.
While we were talking, he told me he'd been offered jobs that paid much better than the one he'd left in D.C. "But you don't care about money!" I responded. "Oh, yes I do," he replied. "I'm not in the Movement because I don't want to have a good job."
Still in college with my parents paying the bills, I hadn't thought much about this aspect of becoming a fulltime activist. Along with risking their lives and being willing to work for a small stipend, some activists were giving up jobs they really wanted. I felt humbled.
On Sunday afternoon I sat with a group of the teenage girls from Holly Springs. These were the freedom school students who attended my black history class. We were on an old mattress in the basement of the church. Ralph was with us. The sun shone in from a window high on the wall. He lay with his arms behind his head. We clustered around him, sitting demurely in our dresses. Everyone was talking and laughing. Ralph was smiling that smile of his.
That afternoon I experienced a sense of connectedness that was more awesome than anything I'd ever known. I didn't want to be anywhere else, not even alone with Ralph. I was happy, unbelievably, overwhelmingly happy. I know now that sense of unity can't be duplicated outside a movement for social change. Yet there has to be personal trust as well as political agreement.
Sitting there I became aware of how close I'd come to losing the students' trust. These young women adored Ralph. They'd watched our romance develop in Holly Springs. It wasn't simply that if I'd chosen Dan as my boyfriend, I wouldn't have been in the basement of the church with them. The students would not have forgiven me for doing so.
Furthermore, it would not have been lost on them that Dan was white and Ralph black. I knew they would have seen my decision as a rejection of them as well as Ralph, as choosing white over black. I sat there on that mattress and felt so lucky it had turned out the way it did.
I'd chosen Ralph because he was kind and gentle and helped me to grow and made me laugh. And because he'd never tried to use me. Now I realized our relationship had meaning to others and not just the racist whites who could become violent, if they knew. The students in the freedom school and my fellow civil rights workers, black and white, had feelings about us. Only that afternoon did I realize what I could have lost had I chosen differently.
On our drive down to the freedom school convention, the director of our freedom school had never intimated that my decision might make a difference to how she felt about me. But then she knew Dan as well as Ralph. Yet I wonder now if our car ride back to Holly Springs would have been as relaxed, if it weren't Ralph we'd been talking about.
Upon returning to Holly Springs I wrote a letter to my parents, which I told them not to duplicate. I wrote I had a new boyfriend, who was black. I told them he was the man I'd written about who'd gone to McComb to be director of that freedom school. I wrote that I'd seen him at the freedom school convention and invited him to come for a visit. I wasn't worried about them welcoming him, I said. However, I was concerned about some of the neighbors and our minister. And I expected them to make sure no one would be rude to him.
I then wrote to Ralph, telling him I'd written to my parents about his coming for a visit and giving him my home address and phone number. I said I'd meet him in Atlantic City and we could figure out things from there.
In my letter to my parents I raised the question of interracial marriage for the first time, but abstractly, not about Ralph. I was still at the boyfriend stage. I'd just decided a graduate of a teachers college made a great boyfriend.
Yet something had changed for me. After returning from Hattiesburg I began to think I would sleep with Ralph when we met in Atlantic City. He, after all, would be going back into danger and the least I could do was show him my love.
Giving up my virginity was a big thing for me, as it was for most women I knew in 1964. That first time, if it happened before marriage, put a girl into a different category. Some men wouldn't want to marry her. I knew a situation where a boyfriend had turned around and called his girlfriend a slut and a sinner.
I'd begun thinking of myself as the girlfriend of the soldier-going-off- to-war. The danger and the fact that he might not return alive changed the morality of the situation. Also, Ralph hadn't put any pressure on me. I was free to think about it being my decision.
I didn't know who was doing what on our project, except for a couple of white women who were already out of college and had been working. They didn't hide their relationships. What was clear to me was they weren't ashamed of being sexually active. For them sex wasn't such a big thing. That also influenced me.
I went to Atlantic City with one of my best friends from Holly Springs. He drove up the lane to my parents' house a few days after I'd returned from Mississippi. When we left the next morning I told my parents I didn't know when I'd be back. I hadn't heard from Ralph but I fully expected to see him and spend some time together. I was hoping he'd come back with me and spend a few days.
When we arrived in Atlantic City, I asked one of the SNCC workers where Ralph was. "He's not here," he answered. "He stayed in Mississippi. Someone had to stay and he volunteered."
I have no words for the shock.
I marched all night with David Kendall; slept in a church the next morning and then went swimming with David and Woody Berry, another volunteer from Holly Springs. Jumping in the waves with these two men, one white and one black, remains one of the strongest images from that summer. After all the danger and fear in Mississippi we acted like kids for an afternoon. They held my hands and we stood against the waves, laughing and laughing. Then I let David drive me home.
Ralph never wrote or called me. I went on a trip with my parents, who'd waited all summer to take this vacation when their daughter was safe. I spoke to local groups about Mississippi and raised money for the Holly Springs project. I put on my SNCC button each morning to ground myself. I thought day and night about the people I'd left, my fellow workers and the students in Holly Springs. I didn't let myself think about Ralph.
From everything I've heard, coming north from the Freedom Movement was difficult for most activists. For those of us who were white, coming home could also mean coming back to a virtually all-white environment. Even if people were sympathetic, they had no real idea of what you'd gone through and no knowledge of the people you'd come to love. I faced some thoughtless and even crudely racist remarks.
Then my best friend from Spelman came for a visit on her way to New York. Being from Montgomery, Alabama she knew what it had been like for me in Mississippi. She also enjoyed my family. I felt less alienated.
I'd promised to accompany my friend to New York City to see her off on her ship to Europe. The only person she knew in New York was a Morehouse graduate, another black southerner, one who knew Atlanta, if not Mississippi. She'd arranged for us to spend the night with him. That was the beginning of a new romance.
I went off to college, then, with a new boyfriend. During the fall and winter I made speeches, collected clothes and raised money for the Holly Springs project and for SNCC. In the spring I helped organize students to go to Washington DC for the first national protest against the war in Vietnam. It was April and a few of us left early so that we could attend a SNCC meeting being held the day before the march.
We arrived in the early morning and the others left me off at the meeting site as I was planning to meet Bob Allen, the Morehouse graduate I'd met in New York. I went into the large auditorium, which appeared empty. I sat down and then I saw there was one man sitting quietly in the first row. I realized it was Ralph.
I felt shy, but after a slight hesitation I went down to where he was sitting. "Hi," I said. "I don't know if you remember me."
"Of course I remember you," Ralph answered. "Sit down. How are you?"
We talked for a bit and then Ralph told me that the letter I'd written to him before leaving Mississippi had fallen behind the mailboxes in the Jackson SNCC Office where I'd sent it. "I only got it a couple months ago," he said. We both knew what the letter said. I'd given him my home phone number and repeated my invitation to visit my family. I'd assumed we'd be together in Atlantic City.
We sat there in silence. It was a comfortable silence. It was intimate. The room was quiet. We were outside time.
Then Bob Allen came into the room and walked down to where we were sitting. His entry cut into that silence. I introduced the two men and then left with Bob. Walking up the aisle I felt as if I were walking back into my life.
It wasn't that anything different would have happened if Bob hadn't walked into the room. Perhaps we would have sat in that intimate silence a little longer, but at some point someone would have walked in and broken into that altered state. At some point the meeting would have started. We would have said goodbye, of that I am sure. The intimacy of that silence held the understanding that there'd been mutual feeling and that there was no future for us.
I didn't see Ralph again that weekend, but I did read about him in the Sunday paper. He'd brought an exhibit of the artwork of freedom school students to Washington DC. I wasn't able to see it.
If Ralph had received my letter in the summer, would he have written saying he wasn't coming? Would he have told me I should go on with my life? I don't know. What I do know is that the shock of finding he wasn't in Atlantic City contributed to the difficulties I faced after leaving Mississippi. Yet, even if we had seen each other in Atlantic City, it doesn't mean we would have continued a relationship.
When Ralph answered the other civil rights' workers question by saying he would marry a white woman, the black movement was becoming nationalist. I've heard stories of black men breaking up with their white partners because of nationalism and I know from my own marriage, it was a difficult time to sustain an interracial relationship. I've also known black men, other than my husband, who stayed with white wives. From what I knew of Ralph, he would not have let a movement dictate to him whom he could love. At the same time he was capable of making the personal sacrifice of not pursuing the relationship, believing that the struggle and what was best for black people was primary; a personal relationship secondary.
I saw Ralph one more time. It was in the summer of 1967. Bob, now my husband, was a writer for a leftist newspaper, The Guardian. He was doing an article on SNCC's relationship with the Black Panther Party and wanted to verify some information. We were in Atlanta visiting his family. Ralph had become SNCC's Program Secretary and was stationed in Atlanta. I offered to call to see if we could see him.
It was so different from the quiet intimacy of the chance meeting in Washington DC. The two men sparred. Ralph wouldn't verify Bob's information. Bob kept pushing. Ostensibly that was the issue they were sparring over. I was very uncomfortable.
When we said goodbye, Ralph got up to leave also. He was dressed in a white T-shirt and jeans. I'd dressed up for the meeting in Atlanta, wanting him to still find me attractive, but I didn't think about still being attracted to him. He reached for his jacket. The jacket was red. I was unprepared for the feelings that surged through me. That is the last time I saw him.
On March 9, 1970 the news reported that SNCC activist Ralph Featherstone had been killed in a car explosion. There was not enough left of the body of the other person in the car to identify him. SNCC decided it was a man named William H. (Che) Payne because he'd disappeared. The FBI claimed the men were carrying explosives. SNCC said they were murdered and that H. Rap Brown, the SNCC chairman, was the likely target. Brown was on trial on Maryland's eastern shore, an area so racist and violent it resembled Mississippi.
The next morning another woman and I drove to San Jose State University where I was to speak at a women's liberation conference. My husband, Bob, who taught at San Jose State, was driving. A SNCC activist visiting San Francisco joined us. Bob told him that I'd known Ralph. I couldn't do more than acknowledge what Bob said. He could do nothing more than acknowledge me back. We sat in silence, still too raw with the news to be able to talk.
I was speaking at a women's liberation conference, the first to be held at San Jose State. It was an all day event, a series of panel discussions in a large auditorium. In the morning other women's liberation activists and I spoke about the issues of our movement and our analysis of patriarchy. Then in the afternoon there was a panel of three men to discuss their views of our movement.
As I sat in the audience listening to the three white men I began to feel uneasy. First one and now a second were describing a movement that had no relation to the movement I knew. Further, what they were saying had no relation to what we'd said that morning. Bob, who was sitting behind me in the audience, knew these professors. I turned around and whispered, "Were they here this morning?" He shook his head no.
I stood up. Interrupting the second speaker I said, "Excuse me. But were any of you here this morning to hear what the women's liberation activists had to say?"
Each of the men shook his head no. I sat down, assuming the men would not continue. Instead the second speaker continued, as if there was nothing wrong. No one did a thing.
I stood up again. This time I did not say, "Excuse me." I turned to the audience and said, "I'm not staying here to listen to men who didn't even have the respect to come listen to women from the women's liberation movement. I urge you other women to come with me." And I walked out, not knowing if anyone would follow. As I reached the door at the back of the room I noticed a group of black students. They were laughing, clearly enjoying seeing someone challenge those arrogant white men.
About half the women also walked out, including the organizers. Once we were situated in another room, they thanked me. They then went on to criticize themselves for thinking they needed to include a panel of men to legitimatize the conference. It was what we called a "consciousness raising" experience.
I'd never led a walkout. I risked being the only one to leave the room. But the Civil Rights Movement had taught me we must always stand up for what we believe is right, even if we are the only one to do so. Although I was not thinking consciously of Ralph when I left, I have always seen this walkout as my tribute to him.
Always my memory of Ralph is that twinkle in his eye and how he showed me one could laugh and still struggle for justice. I was a serious, intense young woman; the struggle was everything. Ralph showed me one didn't have to be so serious all the time, that humor was as much a part of what it meant to be fully human as dignity and courage. So it surprised me a couple of years ago when Ivanhoe Donaldson, the director of our Holly Springs project, called to say hello. He told me that they (the black men) appreciated me because I made Ralph laugh. "He was always so serious," Ivanhoe said.
When you are part of a struggle for justice and equality during a period of social upheaval, a great deal happens in a very little amount of time. In the same day you can almost lose your life and have your most basic assumptions challenged. That happened to me. You can meet a more diverse group of people than you would ever meet in your regular life and be with them more intensely. That happened to me both with Ralph Featherstone and with others. The intimacy and respect that develops can give you a glimpse of how people could be in a more humane and just world.
Copyright © 2005, Chude Allen
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