A Life in the Movement
Eugene Turitz

[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
Ron BridgeforthM. Diane Benton
Cathy CadeLouise Rosenkrantz
Helen SingletonGail Brown
Eugene TuritzAlison Brown
 Jennette McNeil
 Kei Yanausulo

Gene: I worked for three months in Panola County, Mississippi in 1965 and did a little work for about a week in Belzoni and a few other places.

Louise: I'm Gene's wife, and during the Civil Rights Movement, I was at Oberlin College mostly, working on Oberlin Action for Civil Rights and traveled to the South a few times but never for longer than two weeks.

Jennette: I'm Jennette McNeil. I'm Gene Turitz' daughter. I'm too young to have been in the South, to be in the Civil Rights Movement.

Alison: We're in the thoughts. I'm Alison Brown, and I grew up in the household with Gene.

Gail: I'm Gail Brown. We were very active in East Bay Friends of SNCC in the early '60s, sent lots of money to the South. We had lots of people from the South come up and visit us. We sent some cars down, things like that. We had lots of parties. We ran the office.

Nico: My name is Nico McNeil, and my mom and my grandparents are here {UNCLEAR} and family friend, Jackie, Gail, and my mom is Jennette.

Gene: And I'm his grandfather.

Louise: I'm his grandmother. [General laughter]

Nico: And I'm here today just to take pictures. I've {UNCLEAR} my grandfather to take pictures, so I thought it would be a cool opportunity to come hear you guys talk about your guys' struggles {UNCLEAR} awhile ago. I've been raised around it, been going to marches and demonstrations and stuff, and I'm sure he talked about his band [Mag?].

Gene: All right. So of course, when we talk about stories to tell, I sometimes think that since I was one of the people in the group who said that one of the reasons to tell stories is that some people haven't told their family their stories. I think I probably told my family all of them, but maybe not. But it made me think a bit what the importance was of any number of the stories that are in my mind. And so at this time, the one that I'm going to tell is sort of about first going into the South, because looking back at it, I'm not amazed that I went but what my thoughts were about it at the time.

I had worked with Friends of SNCC for a few years, and working with Friends of SNCC was very interesting, because here — I don't know if it was true all over — but here certainly, we had a huge amount of information from people who were working in the South from around here but also the WATS reports. I remember reading WATS reports all the time of what was going on, you know, all the time. And there were people who came up for rest and recreation to this area, so we had a lot of contact with people who told us. And so there were a lot of ways I felt like I was very knowledgeable, that I knew a lot about it.

I mean, we would go talk at places; we had house parties to raise money, so we were the emissaries of what was going on. And I didn't go in 1964 for the Summer Project for various reasons, but then in '65, the woman I was married to at that time was named Nancy Hoffman, and she and I went down early in June. And there was supposed to be a training in June of '65 in Waveland which is sort of on the coast of southern Mississippi.

And we got there — well, at the moment we got there it had been decided that there was going to be a special session of the Mississippi legislature before — well, at the end of June, because the Voting Rights Act had passed in the Congress, and Mississippi was trying to figure out how to avoid it in as many ways as possible. And so it had set up a session of the legislature to develop what their approach to the Voting Rights Act was going to be.

And COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations was who we were all — well, we were sort of connected through SNCC, but SNCC and CORE and SCLC had joined together in COFO, and that was now the body that was sort of running what was going on in Mississippi. So COFO had decided that there were to be demonstrations in Jackson, and I cannot remember the dates, but some time at the end of June.

So instead of having training — everybody was going to be trained, you know, how to work in Mississippi — instead of having training, we had none at all. We went immediately — we were sent up to — we were going to go to this place called Mount Beulah. Mount Beulah was, I guess, a Baptist college just west of Jackson. So my first education really was on this trip, because we had a lot of rules that we were told. One was that you shouldn't drive in integrated cars.

Yet of course the car we went in had Nancy and myself, both white, and two Blacks, a Black man and a Black woman. And the Black guy was driving, and when we got in a town called Wiggins, which is south of Hattiesburg, we ran into a car, into the back of a pickup truck at a stop sign. And of course this was right in front of a gas station where, in the middle of the day, there were a whole lot of white people, white boys hanging out. And here we had this accident. And they saw the accident, came around, and here we are, two Blacks and two whites sitting in this car. And that was it.

Well, it was about 95 degrees, and all I remember was we kept the windows rolled up, because they were spitting in the car and throwing things in the car. And they were picking the car up and shaking it, and we really didn't think we were going to get out of this place alive, because there was this crowd — it must've seemed like 50 people, and maybe it was 25, but it certainly was a bunch of angry people. And we really didn't know what we were going to do. I mean, there was nothing. We couldn't get out. After what seemed like an hour of this, the sheriff showed up, and the sheriff apparently didn't want stuff going on right there, so he told us to follow him to the sheriff's office which we did. And at some point, as we were still sitting there, the woman somehow when the sheriff was away got out of the car and got — 

Helen: Which woman?

Gene: The Black woman. The Black woman got out and found a phone. I mean, this is 1965, pre-cell phones. She had to find a pay phone, and she did, and about — came back to the car and said, 'I spoke to Atlanta or Jackson,' I'm not sure where; I can't remember. And about an hour after that of sitting in the car, the sheriff came out and said, 'OK, you can go.'

And we got to Hattiesburg, and when we got to Hattiesburg, we were told, 'Well, a call had gone from the Justice Department to the governor that if these people weren't in Hattiesburg by dinner time, they were going to send in marshals.' So we felt very lucky, but then after that, we went on. We got to Mount Beulah, and then we were sent to a town called Belzoni. Now still, we've had no training except this is it, you know?

And the thing that was, as I think about this, that kind of startles me is that one, I can't remember the names of the other people, the two people with whom I was in the car. And I know that when we were in Hattiesburg, we stayed overnight with a woman whose name was Johnny Mae Walker, and I just remember that because Johnny Mae Walker had spent time here getting some rest from being in the South. So I got to know her a little bit. So we stayed with her for one night, but then after that, as I say, we got to Belzoni, and again, I remember a few people's names, but I don't remember the name — there was a woman who let us stay overnight in her house. We spent about three days in Belzoni canvassing, to get people to go to this demonstration in Jackson.

And this woman would get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, before she went out to chop cotton, to make us some chicken backs. And yet, every night of course, the sheriff followed us home so that he knew where we were staying. And yet she, without any apparent fear, let us stay there. And yet, I can't remember her name either. And I think about how many people — it's not only that I can't remember their names, but our lives depended on people that we didn't know. And, in a way, for them to go on the demonstrations with us, they had to depend on what we were saying, people that they didn't know.

And to me, in thinking back on this, that was kind of an amazing part of the whole situation of the Movement, that because of the work we were doing, people had a trust for one another that wasn't built on what we all look for as trust: family ties, a history together, we went to the same schools, or whatever it is. It was just on the fact that we were fighting the same fight and that we believed in that, that somehow we were able to allow ourselves in those positions.

As I've thought about it for the last few weeks thinking about this, I keep thinking about how did that happen? How does that happen? It is, in a way, like a gift that you're able to experience that. And I don't think that everybody does. I was confused at times when I started hearing people talk about the beloved community. It's not a language that I use much, but there's a notion about that where we did have a community of people who could depend on one another and who did — and who survived because of that.

I had sent to Ron at one point, because he had given me the [Ta-Nehisi] Coates book [Between the World and Me?] to look at and to read, and what stood out for me, and I began to think about a lot was that Coates, in that book, somehow managed to control a very great anger, because I felt I could feel in his writing that fury at what he sees in this country. And yet, instead of it exploding him, he managed to turn it into a way to do research, to talk to people, to look at things in a very, I think, clear and defining way. And I feel like that for many of us that's the same thing that we have, much of the time, figured out how to control the anger we have, because I really think we don't often talk about that part of why we were in the fight, how angry the situations we saw made us.

I mean, I heard that in what you were saying, when you told your story, Helen, this disparity. And I felt — I have this letter that I had sent back, and after writing about it, at the end of the letter it says, about the people in Belzoni, "What everything here seems to come down to is fear. The people here are terribly scared, and that seems to be the first and hardest barrier to get past. The cops work on this and try to scare us by stopping us all the time, and they keep the local people scared by following us and threatening them. Anyway, greetings from the land of the free."

I mean, it's just sort of this disparity between that there is that fear, but it also led to creativity and a sense of us being together — the singing. I remember in Belzoni and then in Panola County also, every Sunday, in the morning you went to church to talk about — we went to talk about the Movement. They were going to worship, but we were there to talk about the Movement, why you registered to vote, why you integrate schools, why you do that.

And then in the afternoon, there were singing unions where people from all the different churches in the county came to one church to sing, and we would go and sing. And we would also talk, but not as part of the program. We would just talk with people. But it was the way — I mean, I never went to church in my life except in Mississippi, but it was the way that we found common ground, not the church itself but that we were there with them, and they were there with us. And eventually, they did trust. And what was it? A friend of ours, Penny Patch, who visited Charles Sherrod, I guess that's in Louisiana? No, Charles Sherrod, he's in Georgia.

Cathy: Albany.

Gene: Yeah, Albany. And she had just been there, and she had a recording from them, but he said something like about organizing. What he has to tell organizers is that you have to let people get to know you. You know, you can't come in to tell people what to do. They have to get to know you before. And that's what we had to learn, but that people trusted us at all sort of surprised me.

But we also never even thought about that we just trusted them, like Nancy and I trusted these two people we were driving with. We didn't know them. And so to me, as I start to think about it, that was one of the areas.

The other story is a short one, and I've said this before, because it was kind of a little lighter one, but at the end of that, in August, I was working in Batesville, and some of the people we worked with were sharecroppers on a plantation called the Hayes Plantation. And we went back in 2014 for the anniversary, and we went to the Hayes Plantation which now is a complete farm, no shacks anymore. They got rid of all the sharecroppers.

So we used to go out on the Hayes Plantation to help them organize or to talk to them, because they were organizing part of the sharecroppers union there. And the family that was the most active on the plantation was the Nelsons, Roland and Rosie Nelson. And they had, I don't know, four or five kids. And we used to have to go out at night, because the plantation owner wouldn't let us talk to people during the day, and we would drive out. We had a panel truck that somebody let us use, and so we used to drive out to the plantation, turn off the lights so nobody knew we were coming supposedly, and then the Nelsons, over the windows of their shack, they would hang bedspreads or blankets so that no lights could be seen.

So we could go and sit there, and we did this a number of times. One night we were out there, and we were shelling peas, and they did have electricity, and they had a TV, but there was no floor really. There were just boards. You could see the ground through the floor, but you know, you were careful the way you walk. And we were sitting there shelling peas, and on the TV is the news. And first, of course, comes an ad for Johnson's wax. This always stuck in my mind. Johnson's wax, make your linoleum shine. You know, make your kitchen beautiful and all. And here we are, sitting in a shack without a floor with a wood burning stove.

And on the TV comes news of the Watts rebellion [August 11, 1965]. Watts had blown up, and of course we're all sitting there, looking at this, you know? And when the report is over, Mrs. Nelson says, 'Those poor people.' She says, 'You know, it's so terrible those people living there, that they have nothing. And here we have our chickens, and we have our chow. You know, we have food. We have eggs. We have this.' And I sat there thinking, 'My goodness. Here's this woman who anybody looking at would say, "This woman's worse off of everybody," and she's feeling badly for the people in Los Angeles because the conditions that they're living in are worse.'

So I very blithely developed my theory of the linoleum floor. You know, if you're in Mississippi, you can't worry about Johnson's wax. You don't even have a floor to wax. You're so far from the linoleum floor and the shiny kitchen that that difference doesn't affect you in the same way as that person living in Los Angeles whose life is just, I don't know, a block away from somebody living in a mansion. And how angry it makes them, while Mrs. Nelson is sitting in Mississippi, and she's not angry in that same way.

Helen: She's independent.

Gene: Yeah. And well, you know, I don't know. She may have died last year. We met her daughter who, at the time when I knew her, was two years old. And we met her in Mississippi, and she got a job. She's a technician in a place, you know? But so anyway.

Woman: But does she have linoleum?

Gene: She has linoleum now, yeah. [General laughter]

Ron: And she's not a sharecropper.

Gene: Yeah, she's not a sharecropper.

Woman: Belzoni is in the Mississippi Delta?

Gene: Yeah, Belzoni is in the Delta.

[Referring to the combined Mississippi-Yazoo river delta area of northeast Mississippi.]

Ron: I have a question for you, Gene. What did this do to your life? [General laughter]

Gene: Well, it just changed the way I did a lot of things, thought about things. I mean, I think I've been involved in kinds of organizing things ever since then. I've said that the idea of building movement or being involved in this has been, I think, the background of what I've done most of my life. I think that I have — I'm gonna try to figure this out. This idea — I can be in groups where I don't actually agree with everybody. [General laughter]

There are certain things that I can't tolerate. And so I wouldn't be able to be in a group with people who are across that line, but I'm in groups where I can say, even if something passes, and we're gonna support something that I don't particularly support, as long as I think that people feel like the struggle they're in is the same one, I can still work with it, even though it's not the exact thing that I would do. But I'm not sure which of the things are — as I get older, as my children will tell you, as I get older — 

Woman: I was just going to say, 'I've heard enough about that one!'

Gene: I get more liberal [meaning tolerant of opposing opinions].

Woman: Grandpa! Yeah, I was like, 'When did this come about?'

Woman: More what?

Woman: In a good way.

Woman: You're a good politician, Gene.

Gene: Less didactic. Less rigid, that's the word. Less rigid. But I don't think I learned that in the South. But I think that I did learn to listen to people better.

Helen: After that experience.

Gene: Well, after all those, because I mean, just canvassing in the South. You know, around here, people come to your door, and they have a 3-minute spiel, and then they're going on to the next door. And I think that — you know, we did [election] canvassing, I remember, in West Oakland and East Oakland before I went to the South for Bob Scheer for Ron Dellums. You know, we were just going place after place and passing out literature.

I went to the South, and you had to think — well, first of all, it took you half an hour to walk from one place to the next, but then you sat on someone's porch for an hour while you said, 'Well, what do you think about — what would you think about your kid going to that school?' And then waiting an hour for an answer, you know, just to get to, 'Well — 'And so to me, you know, I grew up in New York. That was like dynamic, and I remember coming back and thinking about how fast people spoke. But it did teach me a little bit better to wait to hear what people had to say before proceeding on the answer I thought they were going to give.

So that was —  The thing about the trust that you had to have, I'm not sure that I was totally conscious of that until more recently. And some of what happened in that way, I don't always think was absolutely perfect.

I've told this story, the thing about when I was in a situation where I was accompanying Robert Miles, who is head of the Movement in Batesville, and we went to a meeting in Tallahatchie, and after the meeting, there was an organizer, a white woman from Holmes County who had come to the same meeting, and Batesville and Holmes County were sort of in the opposite directions. But this woman and Robert Miles needed to have a conversation about something; I don't know what it was. But he said to me, 'Look, Gene, I've got to drive with her for awhile, because we have to figure this thing out, and so I'm gonna drive with her.' This is at night, a Black man and a white woman, and I want you to follow us, because when we get near Holmes County, I'm gonna get out of the car, and then we'll drive back to Panola County.

I said, 'OK.' And as he gets out, he says, 'And remember, you have the gun.' I said, 'What?!' He said, 'Yeah, it's in the glove compartment.' I said, 'OK.' And he's gone, you know? And he gets in the car, and I'm driving the whole way. I'm going, 'Well, what am I supposed to do with this gun?' So that kind of trust that he had for me and that I had to have for him, I'm not sure how good that was. Nothing happened, but it could've been a disaster. And I guess there's a certain amount of that that goes along with the trust that we all went through, because there were things that you ended up doing because you had this trust, and there was a necessity to do certain things.

Helen: And sometimes you didn't get a warning, like, 'Remember you got a gun' kind of thing. Sometimes you did. They told us as part of our orientation. They told us, part of our orientation when we got to New Orleans, this was before we went to Jackson. We knew we were going to become Freedom Riders the next day when we got up, because we were going to get on the train and go to Jackson and probably get arrested. So in New Orleans, the people from CORE met us and took us to this place just to do some training. And they said, 'OK, now, tonight —' And this is an integrated group of young people, not all young, but they said, 'OK, tonight, since you're in New Orleans, I know you want to go out, so don't go out in an integrated group, racially integrated group. This is the South. And things can go wrong. Things can happen.'

They said also to the Black potential Freedom Riders, 'Don't go out with less than a dollar on your person, in your pocket, your wallet, your purse, because you can get arrested for vagrancy,' which is one of those peonage-type laws that happened after the 13th Amendment was passed that freed the slaves. They passed a law that more than likely most of the freed slaves could be caught and arrested for, and that is for not being employed and having any money. So they said, 'If you're Black, don't go out with less than a dollar, because it's called the vagrancy law.' And so we had to abide by that sort of thing. And you begin to realize that this is a serious situation that you're in. So we didn't. Of course they said, 'We don't want you to get arrested before {UNCLEAR}' [General laughter]

Woman: Get arrested early. [General laughter]

Woman: Gene, I have a question or at least some thoughts. I found very interesting in listening to your story, some of the observations you made about the community, this idea of the beloved community and the need for trust, and particularly the comparison between what was happening in Los Angeles and the sympathy that the woman, I don't remember her name.

Gene: Nelson.

Woman: Miss Nelson had for that community, even though she might have been perceived as poor. And I just wonder if it was her sense of ownership of self, even though I don't know if she owned her land.

Gene: No, she was a sharecropper.

Helen? So when I think about the South, I come from a family that migrated to the West Coast. So some of my family went to Los Angeles, and some went to San Francisco. And we can look at the results of those families that migrated and whether we had that same sense of community that the families had in the South. Because I don't {UNCLEAR} the riot was necessarily because white people had more. I think it was really the sense of not belonging. And the idea of trust — but also that there was so much more at stake, you know? So I don't know.

Gene: Well, I thought my sense of a lot of the people in the Movement, I guess one word I would use is that they were very dignified. They were people who — well, even like in Belzoni, the person who stood out to me in Belzoni, the local person, was a guy who owned his own land, Mr. Hazelwood. And Mr. Hazelwood had a small farm, and he was a deacon in the church, and he was who got us into the church. And it was clear that Mr. Hazelwood made the other people in the church nervous because he would stand up. And this was true of Mr. Nelson, that the white boss was nervous about Mr. Nelson, because Mr. Nelson had worked in the North in the meat packing industry, and he had been in the union there. Then he went back to Mississippi, and he was organizing the sharecroppers' union.

And so here was this guy who people all listened to. The plantation owners hated him although were scared of him. They considered him crazy. But he was one of the most sane people, not crazy at all. He was this very dignified person, and he got the job driving a tractor, so he could get around and talk to people. And Mrs. Nelson was the same way. She just had a kind of dignity about her about who she was. And I noticed this. The Miles, the people in the town, they also owned their own property. I think the property owners, a lot of them, had been veterans, and they were able to buy farms on the GI plan. No?

Ron: No.

Gene: Well, some of them had, I know. Mr. Miles was.

Ron: Not the GI bill.

Gene: No, not the GI bill. OK, but there was money that they got from there, that they were able to buy some of the land. And so Mrs. Miles used to say things, and she had been, sort of shell-shocked by the amount of times their house had been firebombed and shot into, but yet she could say things like, 'It always surprises me that those white people won't let us swim in their swimming pools. It's a proven fact we don't fade.' [General laughter]

And it was just sort of her attitude, you know? She had a notion of self that even though she had been terrified and all, she remained. And the other people who were active, a lot of them were like that. Now, I think when I say some stuff about the trust that goes in both ways.

Louise: You should tell the story about the milk.

Gene: [General laughter] But the other thing that stood out to me. I told about how we organized in Belzoni, well right after we had been in Belzoni, we went to Jackson for the demonstration, and just like you, well we got there for the first days of demonstration, and COFO said, 'Look, everybody's gotten arrested already. You go back out to Mount Beulah. Come back, and we want to have another day of demonstrations.' So we went out in a terrifying ride but then came back the next morning.

We got out of the cars, got to the march, and were arrested like that. You know, and thrown in the back of these garbage trucks and taken to jail. So it was like, never got to court, but we spent two weeks in jail. And so everybody knew that, even though we never talked about it. Everybody in the community knew which of us had been to jail. And so there was trust out of that. They were ready. It was like nobody asked you a second question. They didn't ask you exactly. They might've {UNCLEAR} sort of where your home church was, but nobody sort of said, 'What are you doing here?' You know, they knew we had been in jail, and that was the key.

Louise: That was your card into the community.

Gene: Yeah. Now, there were some of us on the project hadn't been in that situation, but I mean, there was a sense that people did trust you because you had paid some dues.

Cathy: That's the way they said it too.

Gene: Yeah. But we trusted just because they had paid dues too. If you had tried to register to vote, if you had stood up. Anybody who could do that, I mean what else could you say?

Woman: So you were in a community. It feels like you carried that community with you today. I'm asking?

Gene: No, I think that plays a big part, yeah. I mean, I think that — well, I don't know. There are certain groups of people that I'm involved with now or have been involved with that don't know that part of my history, but most people do now. And I guess that makes a difference.

Cathy: I want to thank you for making me remember something. When you were talking about local Black leaders, some of whom were like deacons in the church or owned their own land, and so I would call that that they had a certain privilege in their community. And they stepped out and took risks. Now that's a pretty interesting thing, you know, somebody with privilege took more risk. And I experienced that in Canton, Mississippi when I was there, but at the same time, it also made me remember that this had been happening, that some of the Black people who were a little better off had been taking these risks, but then a moment would come, and there'd be a new decision about making a risk, and sometimes it was the presence of some SNCC workers that kind of said, 'Yeah, we've got to take this risk,' and kind of helped those local leaders decide, 'OK, yeah, I'm gonna do this.'

And sometimes they would kind of argue against it, and then the SNCCs say, 'Well, we're gonna do it anyway,' and so then they did it. So there was this interaction that's pretty interesting, I think. Thank you for reminding me of that. And I also wanted to ask your family, what impact did it have on you to grow up with him having had these experiences?

Nico: Marches. [General laughter] When we were at the marches, that's what it was.

Jennette: Well, I'm proud to say these two stayed active their whole lives. And definitely, you know, led the pack for all of us coming up, and I tried, definitely tried to keep my kids active and keep myself active. And that's kind of like the gold standard. You know, have we been successful? Are we at enough this marches this month? [General laughter]

You know, did the kids come to the march? Did we get them to the marches? And one thing, when he was little, he was a real baby when we went into the Iraq war, but my other one was older. But you know, literally probably for two years, they probably traipsed across the bridge and protested, and these two, like I said, that's what I looked up to. Can I do it? Can I keep going? You know, year after year, because it's so important. Where else can we be right now? Where else can we be? And this one almost died. Like a year ago, was that like a year ago? And it was right before the Women's March, and you know, everyone's like, 'Oh shit, what are we gonna do? You know, Gene's in the hospital, and is he gonna make it?' And this and that. And here comes the Women's March, and there he is, you know. And I'm like shadowing him to make sure he doesn't drop dead, and I told Nico's coach, because we got Nico's basketball team to come to the Women's March. I said, 'But there's nothing to do about it, because there's nowhere else he'll be right now, so it doesn't even matter. If he drops dead, he died doing what he had to do.' So it's been very special and inspirational for sure.

Cathy: Nico, for you today, and I don't know if I'm putting you on the spot.

Ron: Of course you are. [General laughter]

Cathy: But I'm gonna do it. So when there are issues in school or locally in community, does it make it easier for you to want to go march? Do you not want to? Sometimes children go the other direction, you know? And you're like, 'Oh, here we go again.' And there are issues today, you know, that feel like sometimes we haven't gotten that far. [General laughter]

Nico: No, yeah, I get it. I don't know. I mean I feel like yeah, for me, I feel like I have a different perspective than most kids just growing up around my grandpa. And really like my whole family. I mean, my brother too. My brother way more than me. He led, you know, I forget, what was it?

Jennette: Some protest at the high school.

Nico: You know, he led a walkout at Berkeley High. He went to Berkeley High. And like, I mean, it's just like I feel like me and my cousins we grew up more of just like having fun at the marches even. Because like when I was younger, I was there. I was singing along, but like it was kind of just a family affair. I mean, I remember going to marches with like all of my family, my older cousin, [Tevon], my brother, my younger cousin, [Rameer], just all of us, the twins, like whole families, both sides, everyone. That was like, to me, I just feel like I take a different standpoint. I feel like it's like kind of — Kind of like my mom said, kind of like my duty but then also like I {UNCLEAR} sometimes now. It's kind of just like a —  yeah, well I can't lie. I play basketball pretty competitively now, so I dropped off.

Jennette: It's just excuses!


Jennette: More often than his brother.

Nico: {UNCLEAR} anymore, but like when I can, you know, I feel like I should, and I want to. I have fun with my family, my extended family now that I consider.

Helen: Can I ask you a question? You don't have a problem doing — going on a march or speaking up and standing up for something. But do some of your friends, maybe not so much friends in school, do some of them don't think that it's important? Is that the case? And if so, do you talk to them about why it is important?

Nico: I don't think that anyone — or, I can't speak for them, but I don't think that any of my friends feel like it's not important, rather than I mean, I think that one thing that like most everyone in this room, including me, is that like you guys have seen probably not as much change as you would want, but you've seen significant change. And I think that a lot of kids like just around me have been like filtered in and bottled in and haven't seen much change in the areas that they want to see change. So they come from a standpoint of not that it's not important but like sometimes the mindset of things won't change and that they can't impact change.

Helen: So what's the difference? Frustration.

Nico: But then like yeah, I mean my mom always plays a big part in getting my friends involved, so like a lot of my friends, a couple of my best friends, my basketball team, just kind of like, I've brought them up in marches. And it's a different feeling when you feel like you can try to impact change. But your question of if it's important or not, that's where I think the disconnect is between the people who stand up and don't stand up is that they don't think that it's not important, like they don't think that big issues aren't important, but they just come from a standpoint of they can't change anything.

Helen: Do you ever try to show them how they can?

Nico: Yeah, yeah, no. I mean, like definitely. I mean, honestly for me it's not — I feel like at this point most of my friends know that they can make change in one way or another, whether it's like protesting, donating money, whatever. I mean, not many high schoolers have that much money, but protesting or donating a little bit of money to people who are doing the right thing, or you know, using social media as a platform but just really anything I feel like I can — I try to talk to my friends that feel that way, but at the same time, if they're not going to make the necessary changes to try to go to protests or try to do stuff like that, then it's going to take greater than me. So I feel like the best thing that I can do for my friends that feel like that is just tell them to come to a protest.

Helen: Explain to them why.

Nico: Yeah, yeah.

Cathy: I would encourage you not to underestimate the metaphor of basketball, as a community event.

Ron: So you lead the team, right? [General laughter]

Jennette: This year!

Nico: Yeah, you can say that.

Ron: He's the point guard.

Jennette: Senior. Senior point guard.


Gene: Well, I was saying when I was in Belzoni — so Mr. Hazelwood had this farm, and after — I never went to church, but here I was, asked to speak in church by Mr. Hazelwood. And the preacher was pretty reactionary. He was a guy who was one of those people who, whether he was afraid for himself or his parishioners or whatever, but he was a scared person. And whether he was scared in general or just of his —  I mean the young/old conflict, but although Mr. Hazelwood was pretty old himself, but the organizers are all young, and anyway, he gave a pretty conservative sermon about your responsibility to your religion, and I being the clever young person I was thought, 'Well, I can take these same parables that he's using and use him on why you should go to Jackson and go to jail.'

Anyway, after church, Mr. Hazelwood invited us over to his farm for lunch which, to me, was extraordinary. And fortunately, there was one of the Black workers, COFO workers, came too, and he was someone who had worked in Belzoni. And we go out to this farm, and these people have made this wonderful breakfast, you know, the eggs from the farm, and of course they had slaughtered some pigs over time, so we had bacon and then we had pigs brains, you know, in the eggs, and everything is really wonderful. And they say, 'Well, what do you want to drink?' And I'm a healthy young guy, and I say, 'Well, I'll have some milk.' And fortunately, this other worker says he'll have some milk too. And well, when I take the first taste of the milk, it is awful. And I don't know what to do. Here are these people who set out this thing, and I'm this white kid from California. How can I say anything? I'm gonna have to drink this milk?

Ron: It was warm?

Louise: It was sour.

Gene: It was sour. It was really rotten. I'm not sure, but that's what I think, and I can't say anything. And this other guy takes a glass, and he goes, 'Oh this is awful!' [General laughter]

And of course they say, 'Oh my goodness, the milk had turned.' And again, here I'm trying to be polite and dishonest to save myself and make everybody feel OK when I had to learn, 'Say what's going on.' You know? That's all they wanted. You know, he did it; I couldn't do it. Again, you're some place, three or four days in the state, and everything is happening. That's my milk story.


Gene: I wanted to go back to one of the things about the not fitting, you know, when you went South and when all of us. I mean, I think that most people who are radicals, for large periods of their lives, don't think they fit. And I think it's partially the question of being allies. I think it may be true that you're allies with people in certain ways, but you're not allies in that you recognize that you don't fit also. And it's when you begin to see that the causes of why you're not an inside may not be the same. Some people may be because they're Black that they don't fit inside; some people that they're Jewish they may not fit inside; or some people that are women. Whatever it is, I think a lot of people who are radicals and stay with it are people who feel like they don't fit. They're outsiders in a certain way. And we create our own societies in which things work better for us, and if they're not acceptable, then we just have to keep doing it, to make ourselves, our lives possible.

Cathy: But some of us are both. We're insiders as whites or as upper middle class, and then there's the other side of us as allies.

Gene: And I think there are people in each group who try. I think there are Black people who gain wealth and try to think that they're inside by gaining the wealth or position.

Cathy: And they are.

Gene: In certain ways.

Ron: In certain ways.

Gene: In certain ways. And in other ways, not. And I think that's what we saw. For women too, you can, some women — look, they had a woman questioning her, an inside. But she's not accepted in the same way. She's referred to differently. I mean, all these things happen, but I think especially around radicals, I think one has to recognize your dissatisfaction and your difference. We do have a different analysis of why the society is the way it is.

Helen: I feel that that's their problem, not mine.

Gene: No, but I'm just saying it is that. That's our [fight].

Helen: Yeah, I think they would probably feel good that you feel bad.

Gene: Oh, I don't feel badly, that's the thing. [General laughter]

Helen: Well, if you feel that you're an outsider, it doesn't bother them at all. And I don't think you should waste any of your energy worrying about it.

Diane: I do think there's some risk though, you know? It's something that you said to Cathy. You know, I taught African-American literature for a long time, and some of my white students would kind of see the light. They'd {UNCLEAR} themselves it wasn't because {UNCLEAR}, and some of them would report that when they would go back to their families or go back even to their loved ones, their fiancee, that they were disowned. They were pushed out of their communities, and they had to make a hard decision whether to continue down the path that they discovered in reading the literature or whether they were going to ignore that and go back to their families.

And I think that's a big issue, because that's the community that you belong to, and to have to make that decision, you know, I know I'm different, or now I'm different because I've learned and I've heard and I see the light so to speak. But I think it's a huge price, and I think it's true for Blacks. You know, I saw my doctor the other day, and she brought up the events of the past week, in defense of the judge.

Ron: And she's a — 

Diane: African-American woman. And I'm there in the doctor's office, and I'm like, 'Holy shit.' [General laughter] She was just not hearing. I said, 'Well, at least have the FBI investigate.' But she said, 'Why? He's a judge.' [General laughter]

I mean she clearly, at least in my mind, has bought into the status, the society of which she has fought so hard to be a part of. And I think it's true with Black, white women. I mean, that's a certain position. I think a whole lot of other things about her too that are a little distressful. [General laughter]

You know, and that's what Ron said. 'Why didn't you say something?' I'm like, 'Wait! She's got power over me, you know?' So it just strikes me that yes, some of us here walk a different path, but for people to choose to is not always easy or even safe, maybe not physically safe, not emotionally safe, not socially safe. I mean white people during slavery who supported the abolition of slavery went to jail, lost their property. You know, these are huge decisions.

Cathy: I just wanted to add that my parents, when I was deciding to go to Spelman, were also saying, 'Why do you have to do this?'

Helen: What I left out, when I called my parents, is that my sister told me later she was in the room when my mother picked up the phone, and she said, 'You should've heard what Daddy said.' [General laughter] And I'm in polite society here; I don't think I can tell you what my father said.

Woman: Oh yes you can.

Helen: Make a long story short, he blamed Bob for getting me into it. [General laughter]

Helen: Well, my father was an activist in the community. Philadelphia has these aldermen positions, and so he and my mother were very active at the polls. They worked the polls and stuff. So I have four younger brothers, and being Black males in Philadelphia, each one of them had been into some little altercation with the police at one time or another, and when that happened, my father would go down to the police station and get my brother out. And they said, 'Oh Calvin. I didn't know he was your son.' You know, because he knew all them and that sort of thing.

However, when I told them that I was going down to Mississippi, the reason my father got so upset, my sister said, because he said to my mother, 'I can't go down and get her out. I don't know anybody down there.' And my mother knew what could happen. Well, they both knew what could happen. So he was totally frustrated, because my father was very protective of his three daughters.

Jennette: So on the subject of parents, so when I got my tattoo, my mother was the opposite. She looked at me, and she said, 'Jennette, they're going to be able to identify you. What if you ever have to go underground?' [General laughter] That was her response to my tattoo. 'What if you have to go underground? That's an identifying mark.' [General laughter] Oh, she was serious. Oh, she was serious. She wasn't playing. She was not playing.

Ron: The Kindergarten teacher.

Jennette: 'What if you have to go underground?' [General laughter]

Louise: And now you can see why I asked. Where are we now?

Jennette: You know what? You're absolutely right. I can see why you asked now.

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