To be Worthy of the Trust
Ron Bridgeforth

[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

Ron: My name is Ron Bridgeforth. I was in Mississippi in '64 and '65. I was in San Francisco in '65, '66 and '67. I was a SNCC Field Secretary in Starkville, Mississippi.

Diane: I'm Diane Benton. I am Ron's partner, wife. I'm an educator.

Kei: My name is Kei. I'm with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Center, and it's just a really great honor for us to be here and to be able to listen and have that opportunity to listen to these stories. And thank you for everything that you've done for our country. Thank you for everything you continue to do for our country, and we hope that we can live up to that legacy. Thank you.

Ron: So, you're in school?

Kei: I just recently graduated.

Ron: From?

Kei: From a really tiny school in Michigan called Alma College.

Ron: Yeah, we lived down the road from it. I lived in Ann Arbor for 33 years. [General laughter]

Kei: Yeah, not too far away from Ann Arbor. But at the same time very far away from Ann Arbor. And I work with the MLK Freedom Center as an organizer. We're involved in a statewide initiative to get into all of our schools' civics classes that will teach every single student how to be engaged and our responsibilities as citizens to be engaged.

Ron: You might want to start with Walnut Creek. [General laughter] We went out there [to speak], and the principal told us they didn't teach any history after World War II. So the kids had no idea why the country is going crazy.

So I have a couple of stories, and I want to get back to Gene's milk story at some point. And you had a story you wanted to tell. But I'm struck by some of the things that Gene said about essentially what I call "agency." People's sense of agency, sense of being able to control something in their life.

You know, we had a little exercise last night at a men's retreat I was at, and they were having fun, so there's 25 men standing from 19 up to 80. And the facilitator asked, 'True or false, and walk over here if it's true, walk over there if it's not true, that I regularly vote.' And so 20 out of 25 walked to that side of the room. A couple, they're sort of in the middle of the room, and two or three over here on the right. And so the moderator says, 'So, why not?' This young man, he's probably about 32, 33. He's got three kids. He essentially said, 'It doesn't do any good.' And all the ones who didn't vote were under 35.

And you know, these guys on this side made the — you know, people have sacrificed so that we have this. One of our friends, Greg, said, 'Yeah, you know, I vote in an election like a national election, but if I don't like who's for president, I write myself in, and my kids write me in, so I've been on ballots for a lot of years.' We laughed. A lot of it was about laughter, but the other part was about — really? You don't believe, not much hope, I think.

One of the things I realized about being in the South was that I was selling hope. I was selling the idea that something different was possible. And I did that with my body, where I placed my eyes. You know, I remember being six or so in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and my grandfather was walking down the sidewalk with me. This is a guy who owned his own land; he had a high school diploma. He was Professor Miller. But all of a sudden, he stepped off the sidewalk into the gutter, and he took me with him. Well, you know, 'what was up?' I actually carried that memory for years. Finally, it hit me what was happening. Two white men were walking toward us, and he made a choice. 'I want to get back home, tonight, and I want to protect my grandson.'

I had an eighth grader over in Alameda, a young Black girl, we were talking to the whole eighth grade class, and she stands up and says, 'Is it better than before?' So I told them the story about my grandfather. And I said, 'No matter what, I'm not pulling my kids into the gutter. So yeah, it's better.'

I mean, I'm not sure I could've gone through what my grandparents went through, much less my great-grandparents. It's just extraordinary. I want to share a story that I got from Miriam Glickman. I actually wrote it up and give it to students, mostly college students. She tells a story — well, [SNCC] wouldn't let Miriam come [to work as a civil rights worker in] Mississippi for a long time, because she was white. You're going to jeopardize us. And in '64, it was like not so much. And by [the 1964 Summer Project], after she'd been in Atlanta and southeast Georgia, they let her come into Mississippi.

She was staying with a family, a woman, husband, two or three kids. And the mother kept telling her the story all the time she's staying in this woman's house in Columbus, Mississippi. The story was about two years earlier, the family was driving home at night, and they got stopped by a couple of policemen. And they're given, you know, the father the once over about whatever little thing they might've done or not done. And you know, they all knew each other. Columbus ain't that big. They might not go to the same school, but they knew who she was and who the husband was, and they knew who the cops were. So at some point, they got bored of harassing them, and they said, 'Have your daughter step outside the car.' His daughter's 12 years old.

And the daughter freezes. The husband continues to sit at the steering wheel, holding it with both hands. And the mother starts to talk to the policeman, 'She's 12 years old. Do not bother her. Please.' You know, just going through all of that. So finally, the cops relented, laughed, and told them to go home. But that story just carries so much meaning for me. And I initially started to tell the story and give students an opportunity to think through what feelings did the mother have? The daughter have? The father have? But Chude pointed out something that I missed. That was two years before they took Miriam into their house, this white woman.

It was two years. That happened two years before they let Miriam come and stay in their house. I mean, clearly they were being terrorized in a way that any parent can barely sustain yourself. I don't know what the little girl was thinking. Yet, they went and registered to vote two years later. They wouldn't let them vote, but she wound up having to change jobs; the husband was a heavy equipment operator. I mean, they just kept going forward. But this mother, two years later, is still telling the story. Now, I do wonder what was in here that allowed them to just keep going forward.

Helen: When they went to register to vote two years later, and you say they didn't actually get to vote.

Ron: No.

Helen: Had they ever registered to vote before?

Ron: No.

Helen: And you feel that that incident made them feel that they needed to do something to make some change.

Ron: Well, it could be, or at the very least — 

Helen: And that voting would make a difference, even if it was just a small difference.

Ron: At the very least, they did not lose their sense of agency.

Helen: Hm-hmm.

Ron: I mean because, you know, when white [civil rights workers] stayed in your house, everybody knows, and you're going to pay for that. You're just going to pay for it. You know how it is. So I'm just amazed. I mean, the thing I found in Mississippi in '64 was people who had extraordinary bravery, and you know, I'm 19 years old. I ain't very bright either. I come from Compton, California. I played football down there, lifted weights, you know? I'm not afraid of anything. [Sigh]

But I really came to realize over time that everybody was watching. I show up in town with a Jewish kid, 18-year-old, Steve Frasier from New York City, and we've got to find a place to live and start a COFO office and try to get people to register to vote, organize the kids to do some integrating. We got to do all that stuff, you know? They drop us off at 6 in the morning or 7 in the morning, come and get us at 4 or 5 in the evening. We were living in Columbus. It's 30 miles away. Now, we didn't have any cell phones, right? Barely had pay phones.

There was one pay phone in a cafe owned by Sidney Lomax who was the person who bridged our entry into the town, and we were able to go to that phone and call for help or call Jackson or where we'd be. We had WATS lines, wide area telephone system, so we could call free. Then we'd be out there, walking up and down these dusty roads, and the sheriff would be following us, or the police chief more than likely, and he'd be haranguing us about how we were the lowest of the low and all of that. And typically, a lot of young kids would be following us, and so I realized that Black people were saying, 'Them Negroes are gonna get themselves killed.' You know? That's their experience.

And white folks, I'm not sure what they were saying, but I'm thinking they were saying, 'If that is possible, what does this mean?' And so everybody is just kinda —  And certainly when you go talk to parents who have mortgages, and you're talking about going to register to vote? [General laughter]

'Nah, see what's gonna happen here is you're gonna come in here, and you're gonna start a bunch of mess, and then you're gonna leave. And we're gonna have to pay for it.' Now the kids didn't have that kind of feeling. I'm talking about high school and junior high school. Certainly high school, college aged kids didn't have that fear. They didn't have any mortgages. And they became really the shock troops.

This woman I want to talk about, her name is Sara Graham, S-A-R-A Graham. She lived in one of those places that Gene described, where you could see through the boards on the floor, that the walls were covered by boards, but on the inside, it was lined with newspaper to keep the wind from blowing between the chinks. And she had a pot bellied stove. I think she probably had two rooms. It would be sooty up there around the ceiling where the stove pipe went out. But she was determined to vote.

And I just kinda looked at her, and she's a small woman, seven kids, very little education, in a small town called Maben, Mississippi that might not have had more than 300 or 400 people there. Nobody bothered her. But one evening, I got caught out there in Maben; it's about 20 miles from Starkville where our office was, and there were a couple of us. And I don't remember who the other person was. But we're getting ready to leave, and we realize that she lived on a cul-de-sac, Mrs. Graham did. And we could see in front of the cul-de-sac; it's called McBride Court, because I've been there in 2014, again. But in front of the cul-de-sac, two carloads of white men were kind of riding back and forth, waiting. Because they knew we had to drive about 20 miles across a dirt road before we got to the highway and all of that. It was their world, not mine.

But you know, I had the option of staying, but I was too cool to do that. I'm driving home. So as we're getting ready to leave, she stopped me and said, 'Wait a minute.' And she turned to her 18-year-old son, James Graham, who still lives in Maben. He's a great-grandfather by now. And said, 'You go with them.' And he took that shotgun sitting against the wall. So we came out, three of us in the car; he's sitting behind me, the driver. I'm the driver, and he's sitting behind me. As we start up the road, these two carloads of white men start to follow us. And after a couple of miles after we get out of Maben proper, and we got there in a more isolated area, one of the cars pulled up beside us in an attempt to run us off the road. What James did was take the shotgun and put the butt on the floor of the car, but the barrel was visible through the window. And that's all it took. They fell back. We got home. He spent the night in Starkville and went back to Maben the next day. Now once I left Mississippi in — 

Helen: Did he go with you? The kid with the gun? Come back?

Ron: He went back to Maben. After I left Mississippi in 1965, I didn't go back for I don't know, 40 or 50 years. But I always carried a guilt. I got to go back to L.A. He got to go back to Maben. And I never knew what happened to him. And that sense of guilt for — frankly, I burned out in the South. By the time I came here, I was like yeah, toast.

But I went back in 2014, and we were laughing and joking. You know, Mississippi State University is there [in Starkville]. When I was there in '64 and '65, I couldn't go on that campus. I went back in 2014 for a Black Studies conference. You know, we got to speak as conquering heroes. But the professor who ran that program, he was driving around with me and James in his van, and he says, 'James, Ron doesn't think he accomplished much here in Mississippi, that you gave him far more than he gave y'all.'

James looked at me like, 'What's wrong with you?' He said, 'Take a minute; let's stop the car. Do you feel the terror that we felt then? Do you feel the fear that we felt then?' I said, 'No.' And he said, 'That's what you did.' Although when I was going back in 2014, I was going back with one of our colleagues, Bill Light who passed away a couple of years ago, and I said to my wife, 'I don't want to be driving around in Mississippi with a white person!' [General laughter]

She said, 'It's not the same!' [General laughter]

But it really got into your head, you know? That whole thing with the lights off at night, and if you had a car, that you could flip the switch and the brake lights wouldn't show.

My wife calls it political theater. Demonstrations, sit-ins, Freedom Rides. We really don't have the physical capacity to do anything, other than put your body on the line, but you're really fighting for the consciousness of people. Whatever way it affects them. But this is all about what's possible. And if we could survive in Mississippi and at Parchman Farm for God's sake, then it's a different world.

And so yeah, Mississippi changed me more than I changed it, but it gave me a sense of purpose, and I said the other night that I've spent the rest of my life trying to be worthy of the trust that those people put in me. It almost brings tears to my eyes even now, because growing up as a young Black man in South Los Angeles, I knew I didn't fit. I knew the history books weren't true. I just didn't know what the mechanism was that was keeping us oppressed, and in the South with all those Civil Rights workers, those volunteers, those people who are a lot smarter than me, I began to understand where I fit. We're still at the same balance though.

Helen: No, I'd like to say that historically, African-American people, colored people, Negroes, whatever we have been called over time, in the history of this country we have been agents for our own freedom and liberty, going all the way back to slavery time. It hasn't always, and in fact it almost never is, just a white person who signs it off and says, 'We passed this law.' We, as people and all the people who work and advocate with us, have had to make the people in power, most of whom have been whites, bring about the change. They would not have brought it about unless there were brave people that you spoke of, and brave people that you spoke of. We have been our own advocates. That's something I want to point out, throughout the history of this country. It hasn't been given to us.

Yeah, we have been there to fight for ourselves and to bring others into the fight and to make things happen. And this is what I want you guys to be able to tell your friends, if they think it's not gonna make a difference or if they think that it's not important, or whoever doesn't vote because they think it doesn't matter, they need to know that it does. And it usually takes, however, some people who take the lead, but others to form that critical mass. That's what marches are. The people in power, whether they're Black or white, they know how to count. That's the main thing. They see numbers, lots of people. And they say, 'Oh, we've got to listen to them or at least pay lip service for the moment while the cameras are on us.' But their minds begin to change. We saw this — oh, I don't want to go there. I was gonna say we saw this just last Thursday in the Senate.

[Possibly referring to controversy and resistance to Senate confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh after an accusation of rape was made against him. He was later confirmed despite that accusation.]

Ron: No, don't do that. We're not going there! There's something I do want to say, Nico. Y'all, as I understand it, in your generation, use the concept of allies, right? I never knew what that meant, except out in Walnut Creek, Gene and I and three other people were on the panel, it hit me that 950 kids went South from the North in June of 1964. Of that, 50 of the 950 were Black, like myself. Now, there were plenty of Black kids down there already, because there were local kids or from Howard or Atlanta, and they had been working in the state already, but of the shock troops they sent in that summer, just green behind the ears, there were only 50 Blacks. The other 900 were white and actually predominantly looked like Jewish.

I didn't know who Jewish people were. I mean, I'm up in training in Ohio, and I'm seeing curly haired folks, and I'm like, 'What is that?' Oh, they're Jewish. And I said, 'What's that?' They don't have those people in South L.A. OK. But I realized that had it just been the 50 of us going to Mississippi, they would've chewed us up. And the Mississippi rivers were filled with Black bodies. The reason that we survived and we could politically isolate Mississippi was because of those 900 other allies. Because when they came, they brought their parents; they brought their newspapers; they brought the FBI and the Justice Department. And all these years, it never really clicked in my mind what that was. These are what allies are. They put their bodies on the line so that we could survive Mississippi.

Cathy: I want to say that I've spent the rest of my life trying to be worthy of the trust people had in me too.


Helen: Ron, I wanted to point out when you were talking about agency, it wasn't a question. It was a statement. Now, we have been our own agents. But I think what you said about the young boy with the gun, with the shotgun, he knew how to survive in the South at that time. And violence is what we were talking about as Freedom Riders. The reason we were the fresh troops and didn't want the Freedom Rides to end was because of the violence. We did not want violence to overcome nonviolence. That's why we — 

Ron: Are you a Ghandian?

Helen: A what?

Gene: A Ghandian.

Ron: A person who has a philosophical commitment to nonviolence.

Helen: I have sort of a philosophical commitment to not get angry at someone {UNCLEAR} see happening, so it makes it a little easier to be nonviolent if you're not even mad. [General laughter] I have found over time that — well, my mother would say you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I don't go for that quite, but it's true.

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