"Them There Eyes" was playing on "The Jonathan Schwartz Show" and I started thinking of Dave Dennis.
Dave has prominent blue eyes and so do his children, by both marriages. Dave was in Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which sponsored the Freedom Rides in 1961. There's a photo of him sitting with Julia Aarons.
Julia was having a bad hair day: oh my. She couldn't have been happy to be seen that way for posterity. And there were so many photos of them from that first Freedom Ride that crossed the border into Mississippi. Julia was really quite an attractive woman.
That was the first Freedom Ride that got to Jackson, Mississippi.
Dave, Julia and the others were with the New Orleans CORE group that saved the Freedom Rides, when the Kennedys almost prevailed upon National CORE to quit. State Troopers are standing in the aisles. Dave and Julia seem to be keeping their cool: at least Dave looks suspicious, but moderately unworried. Sang-froid: he's always had it. I don't think you can fake it.
My roommate (from 1961-64) Mary Hamilton was on a later Freedom Ride, that summer. She came in from Los Angeles, when her parochial-school teaching year was finished. Her Grandmother—a house cleaner with Catholic Church connections—had finagled the job for her, and she couldn't really let down her Grandmother.
I sure wouldn't have crossed my Grandma, "Francie" (Frances Weil). Mary and I were both reared by fierce grandmothers. Mary's grandmother was an American Indian and Mary had what people used to refer to as "Indian Blood", meaning she had a ferocious temper.
There's a story of Mary and Dave Dennis sitting in at a lunch counter in Jackson, just after the Freedom Rides. The police captain who was about to arrest them stopped, to ask: "Are you folks Colored?" Mary was so tickled by that. Mary went to New Orleans when the school year ended (she taught 3rd grade), then up to Jackson by train. Then straight to Parchman Farm, as a prisoner. She had been a leader of CORE in Los Angeles, but it was in Parchman that she made her reputation.
I used to say that she had the worst temper of any pacifist I knew. And she agreed.
There's a story from her early CORE Field Secretary days in Lexington, Kentucky. As a woman she had to work her way down to the Gulf from the upper South to prove women could be field secretaries (as well as local leaders), in the Deep South. Mary, and a couple of women were arrested for picketing the movie theater which forced People of Color to sit in the balcony. The Mayor came to gloat. Mary said he was a sweaty little man. "Well Mary and Rose and Brenda, how do you feel about what you got yourself into, NOW?"
Mary said (hand on hip), "Our names are MISS Hamilton, MRS. Tompkins and MRS. Jenkins. And if you don't know how to talk to a lady, then get out of my cell! AND, this place is FILTHY, and I want it cleaned up, NOW."
She said the Mayor backed out of the cell. And soon, someone came to clean the place.
Mary said Dave Dennis was the most romantic guy she ever dated. When I told him, at the 50th Freedom Summer reunion, he got so dreamy and said something to the effect of being sorry not to have won her. And I thought, "It was like trying to catch a tiger by the tail: be so grateful she loved you!" I should say that his subsequent wives are very spirited women. So, Mary might not have been an anomaly.
I never knew Dave's Mother, but his aunt was probably the most famous Madame in Mississippi, and I am eternally grateful for the favors and goodness she showed to me. It took me a decade to follow her instructions on how to dress, and the guilt is on my head, simply because she, my stepfather and my mother agreed and I couldn't let family tell me how to dress.
I am so grateful to Dave, because he did huge favors for me without ever even acknowledging them.
When I got to Jackson, in 1962, I thought I had a job with The Mississippi Free Press. I had come via a CORE seminar in nonviolence, in Houston, led by Holly Hogrobrooks.
I was traveling with Ed Lewinson: a professor of American History at Seton Hall, who was blind from birth and was a CORE member from the 1940s on. I got half-fare travel for accompanying him on busses and trains.
Ed had a wonderful huge shepherd seeing-eye dog named Celia who used to pace up and down in anger when he flirted with women at parties. He left her home when he went to celebrate successfully defending his doctoral dissertation about early 20th Century NYC Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. Ed fell onto the subway tracks and had to be rescued.
My job was really to wake in the middle of the night and read to Ed. On the way North to Jackson, after the seminar in Houston and work on practices, (and a stopover to integrate the Children's Zoo train in New Orleans) Ed insisted that we integrate terrible little bus stops on the road.
My friends Frank Nelson, Pat Smith (Nelson), Shirley Thompson and Betty Daniels Rosemond were almost murdered in Poplarville when the bus pulled off and left them with the police. The police put Frank in the cell of Mack Parker, who had been lynched from that very cell.
Frank was the son of a Mafioso (Frank, Sr.) and German-Polish gangster's moll (Rosa) who quit the trade. They changed their names, when needed. It was pretty hard to rattle Frank.
Betty Daniels was reporting the arrest to New Orleans and had to hide in the bottom of a telephone booth. She was rescued by a colored helper at the auto repair shop that was next to the general store/everything else in town. After he rescued Betty he tried to get someone to take her. Then he was going to put her on the road to hitchhike. He realized he would not want that for his daughter. That night he drove her to New Orleans with the truck lights off.
New Orleans CORE raised some money and Lolis Elie, a funny, wonderful man and a great Movement Lawyer, managed to get them out of jail. Local KKK chased them on rutted roads (Lolis drove) to New Orleans where crusading TV journalists waited at the border to turn back the car full of KKK.
I got a little nervous in Poplarville, but Professor Ed pointed out that since he was blind it made no difference to him. I was very glad to have Celia, a large, protective shepherd, in front of us, as our advance party
More problems when we got to Jackson MS. I tried to look up the Mississippi Freedom Office in the Trailways phone booth but the page was soaked in dried blood. We finally found Attorney Bill Higgs who was the only white lawyer handling civil rights cases in all Mississippi. I think only two Black lawyers were able to practice: though the NAACP and others had a big presence,
The Mississippi Free Press editor/publisher, Charlie Butts was living in Higgs house. I had been told to come work on the Mississippi Free Press (Mary had arranged that). But, they said, no one really expected I actually would. Charlie had given my job to a visiting school friend. I had been a book editor, advertising spot writer, and publicist already in the real world: but forget about that.
Bill Higgs was an extremely nervous man. He was also hiding his identity as a gay man. (No secrets in Mississippi, but, never really discussed in public.) Charlie and his school friend were living with Higgs who sort of had a meltdown thinking that Ed, his dog Celia, and I were moving in with him.
That was not the case. I had to find a place to sleep and Ed was moving on the next day or so to begin his teaching year at Seaton Hall, a Jesuit University, where they loved him, and he made his career. I would be returning to Columbia University at the end of the following month. I'm not sure why the Ivy League schools started so much later, then.
Higgs was visited that afternoon by pleasant, undercover police types. They just came in to Bill's house. Eyeballing the situation. When they left, a very shaken Higgs told me I'd have to move. That he could not have the police thinking that we were cohabiting.
[Under the state's "cohabitation" law it was a crime for unmarried men and women to live in the same house and engage in sex. The law was rarely enforced — except in cases where the two people were of different races. In those cases prosecution was not uncommon. Interracial marriage was a felony in Mississippi until such "anti-miscegenation" laws were struck down by the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v Virgina.]
I'm afraid I said, "Bill, not even a Mississippi Policeman would be dumb enough to think I'd cohabit with you!" (Of course, I didn't mean that Mississippi Policemen were dumb; but that's what tripped off my tongue.) Now, Bill took that the wrong way and thought I was saying he was obviously Gay. We had bad communication all around. He was just so unattractive in a chubby, sweaty way.
Everything I did at the Mississippi Free Press was open to criticism. I was down there volunteering my professional services: it was day one. What did they want? My only friend there was Dewey Greene, the subscription manager who managed to distribute the paper, himself, throughout Mississippi. That afternoon Dave Dennis stopped by the newspaper office which was reached through the delivery door off the alley in a Negro-owned grocery store. I knew Dave through Mary. He asked how things were going and I said I needed a job. Dave said, "Oh, I think we can find work for you!"
Later that day, Charlie asked me where I was moving and I said I didn't know. He said I'd have to leave. Fortunately, Dave came back that afternoon. I told him I had to move right away, and he said he thought he had a place for me. I was so happy. Dave helped me move. Then he had to get out to another project. (It was the Hattiesburg Project, sponsored by his aunt, and one day it would would be mine!)
Dave was there to do some reputational cleanup involving the last field secretary (SNCC, but in the field then we made no distinctions). The town's star organizer, a prominent businesswoman—and an angry husband who wielded a shotgun full of buckshot which caught said SNCC field secretary as his naked butt was exposed headed through the window.
Dave took me to the Freedom House on Rose Street. It was a former Funeral Parlor and it had no locks on the doors (I found, later). I asked how I could live there without fear of being accused of "cohabiting." Dave said his Aunt, Mrs. Woods had told him to register it as a rooming house. (She had been a great Madame, remember, and knew the law: every law. In another time and place, she'd have been a celebrated lawyer, judge or official.) Anyone could come and go. (Oh, what Heaven!)
As it turned out, Dave was supporting the whole Mississippi Movement in Jackson on his CORE stipend. CORE thought they had a field secretary in Mississippi but they supported the whole of the Freedom Movement, house and office. (Told you Dave was cool.)
I moved in that afternoon and found I was the only one in the house. When we brought my stuff, a guy was cutting the grass with a scythe. My Mother used to send me clothes, and I wore them, whatever they were. The pajamas she sent were "baby dolls", made popular in the Elia Kazan movie of the same name. Little, frilly, panties and a smock top: that was what I had—all I had.
There was one light in my bedroom—the room had been for viewing the deceased—and it had a fireplace mantle. The bedroom was for Diane Nash and Jim Bevel (and little Sherry) who were then away working in Selma, Alabama, on the project established by Bernard Lafayette and Colia Liddel. Colia had been Medgar Evers' Secretary before she married.
I was alone in the house and it was scary. I decided to go to sleep. Along about 2am, a tall, thin, black fellow came in, and I went to the bedroom door. Some of the SNCC summer staff volunteers were working before school opened to earn some money, as Civil Rights work was impoverishing. He was working as a bartender. Mississippi was a dry state so he was working in an illegal bar. He'd had a couple of drinks at closing. I didn't know that. I was silhouetted in the bedroom door, in Baby Doll pajamas.
We saw each other and we both screamed.
We were both sure we'd been set up. We sorted it out, somehow, and got some sleep.
The next day, a lot of people showed up, the school year was about to begin. In the room adjoining mine, Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins who waited, seemingly forever, for their money to come through. In the rooms on the other side of the gallery, bitter, sullen young Lafayette Surney, slick LaVaughn Brown, and my darling, Lawrence Guyot. Bob Moses and Dave Dennis shared the front room, which was the most exposed to 'night riders' (KKK). But, being the only woman, I got to keep Diane and Bevels' bedroom.
I had schlepped my little depressing library from NY, to the Houston nonviolence training session, to Jackson. Elie Aron Cohen's Human Behavior In The Concentration Camp is the only one I remember, but they were all similar light reading. I left them there for the project.
The next day Dorie Ladner and her sister, Joyce, came in to start classes at Tougaloo. They had been students at Jackson State, but had been expelled for organizing a prayer vigil in support of students who tried to use the white public library. They were attacked at the prayer vigil by police wielding clubs, led by Jackson State's President, Jacob Reddix. Tougaloo College found scholarship money for them so they were in to start the school year. Tougaloo also sheltered Jewish scholars who had fled Nazi Germany, such as Ernst Borinski, who had been a law professor at the University of Jena.
Meanwhile, I had stuff to do at the Freedom Movement office on Lynch Street. It was gorgeous work. I'm so glad I got to see it.
There were so many women without husbands, but when I asked Bob Moses about it, he shined it off. Meanwhile, out the Lynch Street office window I could see pre-teen black girls walking under colorful umbrellas to keep them from getting darker.
Peter Nemenyi had been in Jackson on his way from some conference. (See my oral history with him [which is also] on Academia.edu. He had canvassed in Jackson. Peter was Bobby Fischer's half-brother through Paul Nemenyi. Paul had been a strict vegetarian and pacifist. He was the refugee hydrologist who had supplied the trigger for the atomic bomb in Chicago. Paul Nemenyi was supporting Fischer, but Mrs. Fischer was angry at Nemenyi's work on the atomic bomb and refused to acknowledge him as Bobby's father. While she was in Russia there was a reign of terror, but she could ignore all those Soviet atrocities. That's how people are.
While she was in Russia, she had married a Mr. Fischer. He was working a on fishing boat in Chile through the '30s and 40s. Since Mrs. Fischer was married, Bobby was presumed to be the absent Mr. Fischer's legitimate child. That's how it worked back then.
Paul left Peter in charge of the little money he was able to leave to Bobby Fischer. Peter had a soft spot for Bobby. Of course, every single person in his family was Jewish, which did not deter Bobby Fischer from being a notorious anti-Semite.
At the time—by accident and design—I was passing for Colored. I had touched up my hair with peroxide thinking it was an ingredient in hair dye. My hair turned brassy red, and from then on, no one doubted I was not "White."
It was really hard to be a white woman in the Civil Rights Movement at the time. Black women resented and hated you, thinking you had an unfair competitive edge. It was true: at the time an ugly white woman was more desirable than a beautiful black woman. Everyone suspected you. White men were not at a disadvantage, though it was not white women who raped at will and passed anti-miscegenation laws.
The main reason I was passing for Colored was because I could. When I ran The Knoxville Crusader" with Marion Barry, he insisted on it. I used a sun lamp to keep myself tan in the winter. I needed to do nothing about my hair, with which I could never do 'anything'.
Mary insisted I fooled no one and Dave Dennis said he never thought I was anything but "white," but that was okay with him. Then again, the rest of the world had a different opinion. The Police always put me on the black side of the prison without asking. Maybe I got some stares, but no one doubted I was "Colored." I went to the local Laundromat on Rose Street, and no one ran out screaming.
Later, in 1963, the main impediment to my return to Mississippi was Bob Moses. He had said 'no white women' and that included women who could 'pass.' Joan Trumpauer managed to stay on in Mississippi. She had enrolled at Tougaloo after she got out of jail on the Freedom Rides.
The first morning that I went to the Lynch Street Office (yes, our office was on Lynch Street) we passed an ice-cream vendor. Money was tight and everyone insisted I hold onto my return bus fare to NY, just in case. The ice-cream guy—a black high-school student—gave us the tallest cones we'd ever seen, charged us 5-cents, and that was our breakfast.
We were living on "commodities." I thought someone's grandmother was doing without, to support The Movement. In 1962, excess food was simply distributed to people who had to wait on line at distribution centers. There was a stomach-churning version of "Spam" and I would leave the room when the can was opened. The guys laughed at me. There was wonderful oatmeal, good farina, big slabs of butter and processed cheese, and wonderful cornmeal and flour. Whatever farmers couldn't sell, they sold to the Government, which processed food and distributed it.
LaVaughn Brown pimped me out for lunch at a chicken shack near the Jackson State campus at the end of Lynch Street. He accompanied me to the restaurant and got students to buy us fried chicken lunches. When Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins got wind of it they put the kibosh on LaVaughn even thinking of doing that, again.
Lawrence Guyot was sort of in charge of the house. I think he took up a project on the Gulf Coast; but he was leaving, and he left me in charge. He explained to me very carefully that I was not to do any housework. I was in charge: the guys knew what to do and they would do it. No one had ever expected that I would not have housework among my duties because I am a woman. Even in the wealthy home from which I came, I was expected to rear my brothers and wait up until all hours to see that my alcoholic mother got to bed.
I loved Guyot from that moment, if not before. I may have been the last outsider to speak with him the morning he died in 2012 (he was ill a long time but he was proofreading someone's book). I am so proud to have known him.
We had a lot of visitors over the next few weeks. We milked them for all we could get. I particularly remember a group from a 'kumbya' summer camp: White, Asian and West Indian. Only the Chinese guy did not condescend. The West Indian told us how much West Indians valued education, which American Blacks did not. A woman he knew had children by several different men, but she made sure all of them had good educations. The White Guy was from the St. Louis area and started talking about Jews and White People. I was in the kitchen and a couple of the guys were in the kitchen with me, enjoying watching me turn colors and start to go up in flames.
I told them that we needed to take up a collection so we could feed them, too. I didn't say they were paying for everyone. Getting them to contribute was like squeezing blood from a stone. Finally, we sent someone to the store for 3 pounds of hamburger, a big loaf of bread and some vegetables, eggs and spaghetti. I made my great-grandmother's meatballs which fed eight children and a loafer husband, on air. I think I used the whole loaf of bread, ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper and as many eggs as would hold it together.
Bob Moses came in, and although he was hungry, decided to come back later, so as not to impose. Afterward, the West Indian guy came in to compliment me on the meal and ask what it was. When I told him "meatballs", he was shocked. "Oh! Really?!?" he said.
Later, our electricity was cut off. Then, James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi (in September of 1962). He wanted nothing to do with Civil Rights and dissed us terribly: the miserable SOB. We sat around the table in the dark, listening to a battery-powered radio most of the night of the riots down at Ole Miss. We were waiting to deal with night riders, or to get shot up. No one came looking for us (Too easy? Like shooting fish in a barrel? )
Then, it was time for me to go back to Columbia University. My folks sent me airplane fare from Jackson to St. Louis. The ticket had to be picked up at the airport so I wouldn't cash it in and contribute it to the Movement. I gave them the bus fare they'd had me save. On to St. Louis, where I sneaked away to do a little picketing and met the estimable Percy Green. An activist with a great sense of humor.
[Addendum by Joyce Ladner: Neither Dorie nor I received scholarships to Tougaloo, our family paid for us to attend. There was no police violence at the Jackson State prayer vigil on March 27, 1961. The violence occurred off-campus the following day when the police attacked student marchers with teargas and dogs.]
Copyright © Sheila Michaels. 2016
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