Schooled By a Mound of Dead Roaches

Bruce Hartford

[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Movement VeteransFamily Members & Guests
Marion KwanBill Hall
Peggy Ryan PooleChar Potes
Robert Singleton 
Roy Torkington 
Bruce Hartford 

Bruce: People sometimes ask, 'Well, what affected you the most?' And I know that they are expecting me to say, 'Oh, the violence, the Klan, the car chases, or being arrested, or thrown in jail, or tear gassed.' And you know, since I was doing this for years, I have all of those stories. But for me, and I think for a lot of the other Civil Rights workers that came down from the North, what most profoundly affected me was the incredible poverty, the systemic entrenched poverty.

When I was in Selma, I was living in the Carver Housing Projects, which is the federal housing project that basically surrounds Brown Chapel which was one of the main Freedom Movement churches. And there's, I think, 35 buildings. Each of these buildings is essentially a two-story apartment block of four to six apartments. And they're spread out. There's bare ground around each of these 35 buildings. And it being the South, once the weather warms up, what comes with the warm weather are the roaches.

You all remember them — you turn on the light at night, and an army of roaches are spreading out across the floor scurrying for a crack or under the stove to hide. And you remember sitting at the table eating, and one is walking up your arm. Or at night. I put the legs of the iron bed in dishes of water, so the roaches wouldn't climb up and skitter on me while I was sleeping. And some of those southern roaches are so big you can hear them clickety-click-click across the floor.

So Carver Project, in total violation of law, was completely segregated. All the tenants were Black, and all of the administrators and functionaries who were paid to run the place were white. And so as soon as the warm weather came, out came the roaches. The administrator of the Carver Projects hired an exterminator company to deal with the roaches. White owned, all white employees. And what they would do is they would go into one of the apartments in one of the brick building and spray just that one apartment rather than the whole building. And then they would go to another building and spray just one apartment. And then to a third and so on.

And a few hours later or the next morning, you could sweep up a mound of roaches that was literally six inches high in that one apartment. But most of the roaches had just ran to the next apartment. So what this meant was that the white-owned roach company had a permanent job. They literally had two or three crews working five days a week because they never eliminated the roaches in any building. They just moved them from one apartment to the next.

So the people who lived at Carver complained. They said, 'Look, spray all of the apartments in a building and kill them all at once, and then they won't come back so quickly.' And the white managers always refused to do that because undoubtedly they had a little financial relationship with the roach company. I'm sure they were getting a kickback. And they had all the power, and the people living there whose rents were paying — I mean, this wasn't free housing; this was a federal housing project. People had to pay rent.

We spoke to reporters covering the Selma marches about the roach scam and I was told that when a white newsman asked a project official about it the answer he got was, "You know how dirty those coloreds are, they don't mind roaches — they like 'em."

So I thought I understood poverty, you know, because I came up from — You know, my parents were union organizers and all that kind of stuff. And I grew up in a working class district of Los Angeles, a district that years later they make movies about. Leimert Park, maybe you [Bob] know it. He's nodding and smiling. [General laughter]

So I had the liberal view. Well, there are two basic views as to poverty in America. This is what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement. The conservative view is that there's a small number of deserving poor. These are people who are crippled or blind or they've had a terrible accident or there's been a fire, and they deserve some charity. They're the deserving poor. All the rest — and they're the majority — are the undeserving poor, who are lazy bums, who don't want to work, who just want a handout, who are parasites on society. And as we all know, recent presidential candidate put their numbers at 47% of the population. As a Social Security recipient, I guess I'm one of them — fair disclosure.

The liberal view was that, yes, there may be a few lazy people, but essentially, the problem of poverty is lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of transportation to get to jobs, racial discrimination in employment, so even if the job is there, it's not available to you, and so forth. And that was the view that I had when I went to Alabama, and later worked in Mississippi. And what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement is that while the liberal view — lack of opportunity — is an issue, a valid issue, that's not the fundamental root of poverty, of systemic poverty.

Lack of opporutnity may be a cause of individual poverty here and there, but systemic poverty is caused by lack of political power. The residents of the Carver Project did not have the political power to get their building sprayed for roaches in an effective manner. The poverty of the sharecroppers was not that cotton was not selling; it was that they didn't have the political power to end the sharecropper system where they were paid in shares rather than actual money. Today wages are stagnant all over the country because the power of unions has been politically destroyed by congress and the courts. Not being able to prevent good jobs from being shipped out of the area and into slave wage countries is a political problem not a lack of opportunity problem. So what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement is that is the fundamental root of systemic poverty in the United States is lack of political power. And that's what Dr. King was trying to address with the Poor People's Campaign.

In 1965, Johnson introduced the War on Poverty. We're gonna have a war on poverty. Nixon introduced the War on Drugs. Neither war has been particularly successful.

Roy: How about the war on terrorism?

Bruce: [Sarcastically] Even more successful. [General laughter]

But if you look at what happened with the War on Poverty, and I saw this in Mississippi. In Mississippi, out of the Freedom Schools came a whole new — not a new, but people began to see different ways for education. And they formed what they called the Child Development Group of Mississippi which essentially was the first Head Start program in the nation. It was for getting kids before Kindergarten and beginning the education process. And it was very successful, and that was the model on which Head Start was modeled. Head Start essentially took that program.

In Mississippi, the CDGM, the Child Development Group of Mississippi — who had developed their ideas in the Movement and the Freedom School — they actually went out and hired actual poor people to do the work, giving them jobs and status and dignity. But when Head Start was brought in by the federal government and the State of Mississippi, they hired college educated — some Black, some white — but they created it as a charity service staffed by middle-class "professionals" rather than poor people doing and controlling something of their own.

And in addition to teaching the little children, CDGM brought the adults together to start talking about, 'Well, what's wrong in the community? What should we do about it? Why don't we have street lights?' And that was something that neither the state nor the feds could stand. For them the war on poverty that came down from Washington and through the states was a war on poverty in which they will give services and charity to poor people. It was definitely not something that might in any way have poor people begin to organize themselves where they might exercise some form of political power.

Which is why the war on poverty turned out to be, in my opinion, a full employment program for college graduates with liberal arts degrees who didn't have anywhere else they could get work. Because who wants to hire a history major, other than the school system? Or a psychology major? That was my major. Or poly sci. I mean, it created a welfare system for college graduates. Anyway, that's what I learned.

It was the poverty that most affected me. Let me take a poll of the four Movement veterans in this room. How many of you remember seeing a baby so malnourished that it was unable to brush the flies away from its eyes that were drinking the fluid, and it was so malnourished, it couldn't even do that? That's what gives me nightmares. Not being in a jail cell, not being attacked. Do you remember that?

Peggy: Yeah, I do remember that. Yeah.

Bob: There have been studies, and unfortunately, the studies always come along too late to have any effect, but the real impact of the New Deal, when it got through the administrators, trying to get rid of what was, in fact, the Great Depression on the local community level, it wound up in the hands of people who saw it as something they could serve themselves with. That is, it never really helped the poor, especially the minorities. It helped, like you say, that strata of people who were the administrators of the New Deal, and they could decide who got the real benefits out of it. There were people who tried to intervene, one of which, by the way, was Mrs. Roosevelt.

And the President had a deaf ear, and in trying to administer the whole thing, he had bigger problems than really solving the problem of what the impact was on poor people. He was trying to build his own political solution so that he could have some further effect. So the New Deal really did not work, because people intervened and made it work for themselves rather than for the poor people, which I think is the same model that you're trying to demonstrate.

Bruce: Right.

Bob: Studies show this. Unfortunately, it usually shows it too late, after everything is over.

Bruce: And it only shows it to people who read studies.

Bob: Exactly, exactly. I guess the only solution there is to find some source of interest and verify. Like what you actually saw, and the inability of, like you say, a child who was so malnourished he could not even wipe — that has to be sprung upon — Anyway, and in time enough to demonstrate that this is where the problem is and should be effected. We really didn't get the historical evidence of what really killed the New Deal and really made it ineffective until years later. Of course, if there was enough interest, it could've been demonstrated much sooner. But there were people who were benefitting from keeping the New Deal from being effective.

Bruce: I will say this, though. Having talked with people who were at the very beginning of the 1960s era, Civil Rights Movement. Poverty was one of their great motivations, trying to deal with the poverty they saw all around them. Dr. King, when he was at Boston College, his main interest was poverty, but he and the others concluded that poverty could not be addressed until the vote was won at least in the South. And by us helping to win the vote and then implement the vote, it laid a groundwork that in fact did have some effect on alleviating poverty.

When I came to Grenada County, Mississippi in 1966, it was a 50-50 county, half white, half Black. Three- quarters of the Black population lived below the poverty line. Three-quarters. Only 15% of the white population lived below the poverty line. Today, only one-third of the Blacks in Grenada County live below the poverty line, while 15% of the whites still live below the poverty line. So in other works, for whites, no change, but for Blacks it dropped from 75% to 33%. Of course one-third is still an atrocity, but that's a huge difference. And I think the vote made that difference.

Bob: Right. I agree. Wow.

Marion: Well, it always goes back to the vote, doesn't it? I mean, even today, it just goes back to how we vote. Or if we vote.

Bruce: Or if we vote. [General laughter]

Roy: Or what kind of a bamboozler you have running that gets votes.

Many: Yeah.

Roy: I mean, one of the big motivations is that somebody's out there getting something that you're not getting, and whether it's the Europeans who are selling us more cars than they're buying from us or whether it's a person in the neighborhood who's getting welfare for doing nothing. I mean, that's a big motivator. It plays upon, I guess, human jealousy or something. I'm not sure, but that will drive people, a lot.

And unfortunately, that's what we've been seeing lately. I remember in Bogalusa — as I said, in Bogalusa they were doing marches downtown with signs and boycotts and the traditional Woolworth's [sit-in] kind of stuff that we all know.

So we'd go from the Black community, which let's say was over here, and the downtown was over here, but on the very edge of the Black community, there was this street, and poor whites were living there. And their houses were no better than the houses in the majority of the Black district. And they would sit on their porches and holler insults at people, see? As far as I could see, they were really no better off than the poor Blacks. They were the same way, but they had one thing that was good. They were white, and the Blacks were Black. And of course they especially hated us, because we were traitors.

There were some Blacks that had good houses, nice houses. Robert Hicks, who was one of the leaders, had a big sprawling ranch house.

Bob: Right. That hasn't changed.

Roy: No.


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