[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]
|Movement Veterans||Family Members & Guests|
|Marion Kwan||Bill Hall|
|Peggy Ryan Poole||Char Potes|
Roy: I was in the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964. It's now called "Freedom Summer," but I prefer the original true name. And I was with CORE in Bogalusa, Louisiana in the spring of 1965.
I participated with SNCC in the Mississippi Summer Project. In Mississippi, I worked with Willie McGee who was a SNCC project leader in Itta Bena, a small city with a population of about 2,000 in Leflore County in the Delta which is northwest Mississippi, and geographically it's the area between the Mississippi and the Yazoo Rivers. At that time, Itta Bena was surrounded by cotton and soybean fields, and many Black People lived on plantation housing in the countryside.
We worked on organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the MFDP, for the purpose of mounting a challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and mounting a challenge against the regular, that is to say, racist and segregationist Mississippi Democrats. These are the kind of Mississippians who are now in the Republican Party.
The work consisted of canvassing in town and in the country to get people to register with the MFDP. I had requested an assignment like this, because I thought that this kind of work was very critical to the Civil Rights Movement, and I was also very interested in seeing the rural South close up. When you're in a small town like Itta Bena, you see the rural South close up. My fellow workers were Willie McGee, the project leader, James Reed, a local 17-year-old, James Brown, who was actually an SCLC employee who would use his SCLC car to take us out into the country, and John Paul, a white student from Hamilton College in New York State.
John and I began our first day in Itta Bena by canvassing the town with Willie McGee and handing out leaflets about a meeting that we were going to speak at in one of the local Black churches. We were walking on Freedom Street, and other streets in the Black neighborhood were named Lincoln, Grant, Douglas and McKinley. Three white men in a pickup truck came by and got out. They ignored Willie, and they began talking to us. One of them was a small guy who spoke to John in this one-white-man-to-another manner, kind of friendly.
The other one was a big burly guy with an enraged look on his face who immediately began threatening me, shoving me, saying things like he'd like to bash my face in and saying if we spoke at the meeting, we'd never leave Itta Bena, alive was unsaid but understood. And the third guy, a tall redhead, never said a word. They grabbed our leaflets, threw them away, and walked us to the Trailways bus stop which was a gas station and made us buy tickets to Greenwood which was the Leflore County seat and the temporary national headquarters for SNCC. I still have that bus ticket. Here it is. Take a look. Thirty-five cents bus fare from Itta Bena to Greenwood. I should've got a refund but instead I kept the ticket.
Anyhow, I used a pay phone in the gas station to call SNCC headquarters in Greenwood, but Willie had already called in. A couple of cars came out from Greenwood, picked us up and drove us back to the Black neighborhood. We stayed in Itta Bena, alive. We spoke at that meeting that night and continued to work in Itta Bena and the surrounding countryside. The FBI took statements from us and arrested the three guys. Later, we testified before a federal grand jury in Oxford, Mississippi, but they did not indict the guys. Nevertheless, we were never again bothered, neither in Itta Bena nor in the countryside. True fact.
The incident rated an article in the New York Times and many other newspapers. Now, in Pillar of Fire, Taylor Branch wrote that we were quote "highjacked by an armed posse" and "held under shotgun at a gas station," but that's not true, so don't always trust everything you read. There was a shotgun on the rack at the rear of the pickup truck's cab, but that doesn't mean anything, because a pickup truck in rural Mississippi is as likely to contain a shotgun as it is to have four wheels. Taylor Branch also wrote that one of us was so shaken by the incident that he left that Mississippi that night. Completely false. Both John and I stayed in Itta Bena. I wrote to Taylor Branch's publisher requesting a correction but never received a reply.
OK, no more drama. The rest of the summer we spent driving around the countryside, registering people in the Freedom Democratic Party. Once we did have a day when we brought people into Greenwood to try to register with the regular Democrats. I think a couple of people might've succeeded but not too many. That wasn't just an Itta Bena project; that was sort of everyone who was working in Leflore County did that.
In Itta Bena, John and I stayed with an old woman, Rosa Lee Williams. We called her Miss Rose, which was what everyone called her, and she called us Big Bro and Little Bro. I was Big Bro because I was taller than John. She owned a small house on Freedom Street. She was very friendly and quite, I'd have to say, delighted by our presence. Sometimes she'd look at us and just smile or begin laughing. I think that she just found us immensely entertaining. Just our existence amused her. She had been a midwife and was fanatical about cleanliness, and once she suddenly jumped up and began waving a dishtowel around. We didn't know what happened. Well, it was a fly. A fly got into the house, and she absolutely had to kill it or drive it outside. She couldn't stand the sight of a fly inside the house.
A few days after the incident, we were in the house, waiting for Willie to pick us up so we could go out canvassing, when we heard a lot of shouting outside. Miss Rose had been sweeping her front doorstep when her neighbor, Dennis Bevel, came over and said that we should move in with him because he had a telephone that we could use in case of an emergency, and Miss Rose just ran him off her property. She was absolutely enraged. Mr. Bevel was a deacon at the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church where we had our meetings, and he was sort of a community leader and a strong supporter of the Movement. You may have heard of his son, James Bevel, who is a well-known Civil Rights leader.
Now, here's a description of canvassing in the country. It's hot and humid. Just interject that phrase after every sentence, and then that's what it's like. Hot and humid. You drive down a dirt road, raising a cloud of dust behind you. Stokely Carmichael told me that he liked that, because if you were being chased, they couldn't see well enough to accurately shoot at you. That's what he said. But if there's a car in front of you, you're driving through their dust cloud with open windows, dust getting all over you, and you're sweating. And it's hot and humid. Did I say that? Air conditioned cars were a luxury in 1964.
You stopped by the side of the road at a plantation worker's house and get out and try to register them as Freedom Democrats. We liked to work as pairs, one Black guy and one white guy at each house. Sometimes the people would sign up, and sometimes they just wanted us gone, because they feared that the boss man would drive by and see us talking to them. Once we were talking to a young woman on her front porch, and a white guy drove up and got out of his car. She immediately went inside, and the white guy told us, 'You're trespassing on private property. Leave now.' Well, we left. What else were we going to do?
Once Willie said that we were going to have an easy day, and we went and canvassed on a plantation owned by a Black guy. Yes, there were such things in Mississippi. The workers' housing was about the same as we could see elsewhere, but we were absolutely safe there. The owner was absolutely happy to have us signing up his workers.
Now, Itta Bena is about 12 miles from Greenwood, and compared to Itta Bena, Greenwood is a metropolis. So Willie liked to take us into Greenwood at night. There was a SNCC rule against unnecessary driving on highways at night, but Willie always thought of a reason why it was necessary to go to Greenwood, absolutely necessary. Even though we had to drive on US 82 where Jimmy Travis had been machine-gunned in 1963; actually Jimmy survived. After being in Itta Bena and the surrounding countryside all week, a drive to Greenwood was worth any amount of danger. One Saturday night, Willie drove us into Greenwood, and as we were leaving, Miss Rose, always a stickler for hygiene, admonished us to quote "muzzle your mule before you let it out." I leave it to you to figure out what she meant. [General laughter]
Usually we had dinner, soul food of course, at Blood Bullins's restaurant, and at this point, the story begins to have wheels within wheels, because I was going to talk about getting my hair cut by Reverent Aaron Johnson of the Percy Street Baptist Church, but in order to tell that, I had to tell about driving into Greenwood and eating at Blood's which is about to lead me to what Blood said at the 1994 Mississippi Summer Project reunion. I start to wonder, "Does talking about Mississippi always lead to this stream of consciousness approach?" Maybe that explains Faulkner.
Anyhow, please be patient as we digress into dry counties. Leflore was a dry county. However, by paying the appropriate fee to the police or sheriff, a restauranteur could obtain a liquor license, so-called. Blood's restaurant served beer, so of course he had paid off the Greenwood police. He said that they told him to keep the white Civil Rights workers out of his restaurant, and he replied, "Well, they got to eat somewhere, and look at all the money they're spending." Despite his refusal, the police never busted him for violating the local dry laws. So money triumphed over racism in this case.
One night before going to Blood's, I went over the Reverend Johnson's barbershop for a haircut. The place was crowded, and he was a very deliberate barber. I thought I'd be there forever and began to get restless. And then I realized that not everyone in there wanted a haircut. Some were just there to socialize. I was an impatient 24-year-old, and I wanted everything done right away. "Roy," I said to myself, "it's Saturday night, and you're in a Black barbershop in the Mississippi Delta. Calm down and relax." So I calmed down, talked with the guys, dozed off a little bit until it was my turn. Then I went over to Blood's and had fried catfish with greens, fried okra, purple-hulled beans and of course beer.
You know, you go through these experiences, and there's a bonding, but there's also some humor. I remember when Willie McGee, James Brown, John Paul and I drove to Memphis to pick up some cars for the Movement, we were driving back down to Jackson where they would be outfitted with CB radios and then distributed. And at that time, we got a car to take back to Itta Bena, so we weren't relying on James Brown with his SCLC car. And while we were in Jackson, waiting for our car, we were in the Jackson COFO headquarters. COFO was the Coordinating Organization of the Civil Rights organizations in Mississippi. And while we were in Jackson waiting for our car, we were just, as I said, two Black guys and two white guys, Brown and McGee and John Paul and I, and we were sitting around, lounging around by a small table, waiting to get the car. And there was a flurry of office activity going on.
It looked kind of strange to me to see this bureaucracy at work when we were out in the country riding around the countryside all day. But some bureaucracy is always necessary, I think. Anyhow, John and I were called volunteers. That was our official title. And some Black Jackson office guy came walking by with a stack of papers shouting, "I need a volunteer! I need a volunteer!"' Probably somebody to go and shuffle some papers or something. But he came by and saw us. We were at the table, and he sort of slowed down, looked at John and me, and said, "I want a volunteer!" And all four of us just stared back at him, so he kept on walking. Then Brown turned to John and me, and he said, "Aren't you boys glad you're in Itta Bena and not in Jackson?"
Now, I want to switch to the spring of 1965 and tell about an incident in Bogalusa. The UC Berkeley campus CORE was sending a group down there, and they asked me, because I was a veteran. I had been in Mississippi the previous summer; therefore, I was a veteran. In Bogalusa, I became friends with the Deacons for Defense and Justice an armed self defense group. Anybody ever heard of the Deacons? Many: Yeah.
Roy: Charles Sims was the leader of the Deacons. He was an older man, well, younger than I am now. Younger than all of us are right now. He was a World War II veteran also. And one day, Sims sent one of the younger Deacons out to do something, and he wanted me to go along. We left late in the afternoon, and by the time we got to where we were going, it was dark. We opened the doors to get out of the car, and the dome light went on, and I just about jumped out of my skin. I was really afraid. In Mississippi, when you got a car, you took the bulb out of the dome light. There was no switch like there is now to permanently turn it off. You took the bulb out of the dome light, because you didn't want to be a well-lit target at night.
Now, I didn't want to be saying, "You know, when I was in Mississippi, blah- blah-blah" to this guy who lived in Louisiana and was a Deacon. So I very cautiously said, "You know, it's a good idea to take the bulb out of that dome light, because you make a real good target when you open the door, and the light goes on." And the look on this guy's face was such a look. He suddenly realized what had happened, and it was a look of either horror or fear. I'm not sure which. But he had that bulb out so damn fast, I thought he was gonna rip the light apart. And then he turned to me and said, "Thank you for telling me that."
Here's another thing. I cannot remember why Mr. Sims asked me to go with that guy. I don't remember where we went, how long it took, or what we did when we got there. All I remember is the dome light incident, and that's strange, because being sent out with one of the Deacons by Charles Sims was a big deal for me. It was a big thing. Sims liked me. I don't know, for some reason he liked me, I think, better than he liked some of the other ones who were down there.
And that makes me think about Christine Blasey Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and how she's been viciously ridiculed for not knowing the details of the house party and how she got there and so on.
[Shortly before this story-telling event Christine Blasey Ford testified that conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her at a fraternity party when they were in school. Republicans, the Trump administration, and the right-wing media machine fiercely attacked her.]
Now, she had a traumatic experience, and maybe she was so focused on that experience that it drove the ancillary memories out of her head. Now, I did not have a traumatic experience with the light bulb. I had a moment of fright, but yet, I can't remember my whole story either. So I think she's being treated very badly.
Anyhow, I opened up with a story of my first encounter with white Mississippians, and I'll close with some vignettes about other encounters with white Mississippians. During a break in our grand jury testimony and by the way, it was a very hostile grand jury in general there was a Black man on the jury, by the way; he didn't say a word. Willie, John and I were standing in the corner during a break, and a man, a middle-aged white Southerner in a three-piece suit came up to us and said, "I think you boys are doing a fine thing." And then he walked away without saying another word. Very quick. Boom, like that.
In 2003, I was in Mississippi, and I went to the Old Mississippi State House where the ordinance of secession was passed in 1861. It's now a historical museum. The white woman at the reception desk asked me if it was my first time in Mississippi. I made sure to tell white people that I had been in Mississippi as a Civil Rights worker. When I told her I'd been there in 1964, she was fascinated, very friendly, and told me how her grandmother had been a member of a moderate group of women in Jackson, socially prominent women I got the feeling, and moderate probably meant that they didn't think people should be murdered. Anyhow, one day someone drove down her grandmother's street and photographed her house. She got the license number and found out that it was a rental car that had been rented by the Reuters news agency, and they were photographing houses that might get bombed, so they would be able to show before and after photos of those houses. And so they thought her grandmother was a target for bombing.
I also went to the State Archives to see what the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission had on me. The archivist who I spoke to was interested to learn that I had been there in 1964 and asked me questions about it. She also gave me a lot of help in my research. And there was a white man in there, a Mississippian, who was doing research on an ancestor who had been in the Confederate Army, and he was very friendly, even after I told him that I had been a Civil Rights worker and that my ancestors had been in the Union Army.
Finally, after the 1994 reunion, I drove to Vicksburg to visit the battlefield. It's big. You have to drive around to see it. I was following a car with Mississippi plates, and we both stopped and got out to look at the Illinois monument. It's a domed building, modeled after the Pantheon, and inside are the names of every Union soldier from Illinois who fought at Vicksburg, including Grant and Lincoln, who wasn't fighting. It was organized by regiments and companies. Three elderly Southerners, a man and two women, got out of the car, and when they entered and saw all the names, one of the women said, "Oh mah, look at all those Yankees." And I said to myself, "Damn right. We were here before, and then we had to come back."
Peggy: Roy, I wanted to ask you; I found your presentation riveting, really. I really enjoyed it. But I wanted to ask you about the grand jury. I didn't quite get what that was about.
Roy: Well, the three guys that tried to run us out of town were arrested on a civil rights violation. They were actually arrested by the FBI. There's a lot about the dealings with the FBI in this that I just had to leave out. And then of course, they had to get an indictment by a federal grand jury. And the federal grand jury sat in Oxford, Mississippi which is in Lafayette County where Ole Miss is. And so we had to drive there. The FBI actually drove us there to testify. And yeah, that was it. But as I said, they were basically hostile, wanted to know why we weren't in the Army and so on and on and on, except for that one guy who came to us outside and then split before anyone could see him talking to us, I think. Does that answer your question?
Bob: You had some connection or you currently have a connection with the West Coast, but how did you get to Mississippi?
Roy: I was a student at Berkeley at that time. I'm from Rochester, New York, by the way, which is the home of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, if you're interested. And I was a student. The Mississippi Summer Project was well advertised.
Bob: Right, I know. And the year you went down was?
Roy: Mississippi '64. Louisiana, '65.
Bill: So I just — about feeling like, at that time period, I lived in some parallel universe, because by and large, I was pretty unaware, to be honest, of all the things that were going on in the South. I was living in Arizona. I went to a small high school in northern Arizona, and I went to the University of Arizona in Tucson. So at this time period, my concerns largely had nothing to do with what was going on in Mississippi and Louisiana and that, and I'd look at the news, and it was largely a mystery to me about what was happening. It's a reality that's far, far away. So my concerns were more about the Vietnam War and what was going on there. The draft and all of that that was happening, and other kinds of protests that were happening. So it's just much later that I really began to understand the reality of what was happening.
Marion: So are you saying this is your impression after what Roy was talking about, that your experience was different.
Bill: Yeah, so much of this kind of information came to me much later. And so that's probably going to be a comment that applies to most of the experiences that I'm going to hear today.
Bruce: Roy, when you were talking, a couple of things came up for me that I wanted to mention. The first was when you mentioned that you had been staying with a woman, and Bevel came over and said, 'Well, he should stay with me.' That was so reminiscent of what I experienced in both Alabama and Mississippi as a white person living in the African-American community. But most of the communities I worked in were split between Black folk who were absolutely terrified to be seen talking to white civil rights workers or associating with us in any way because if word got back to their employers or landlords or the sheriff they would face serious reprisals. And those on the other hand who proudly and defiantly interacted with us as an assertion of their freedom and human rights to socialize with whomever they damned well wanted to.
Among the Movement supporters, sometimes there was like a competition over who could invite the freedom workers over for dinner, who would house them. And when I was in Selma, if I was walking down the street, I wouldn't get very far, if I was in the Black neighborhood, before someone said, 'Hey, you need a ride?' At the same time though, a lot Blacks were legitimately, absolutely terrified of speaking to me. And if I was walking down the street, I would see them walk to the other side so they didn't have to pass near me in case some snitch thought that they were talking to me.
And there was also a small third group which white activists like me rarely encountered, and those were African-Americans who actually opposed the Freedom Movement. Either because they had some connection to or benefit from the way the system was working — maybe they ran a business or something, and they were dependent on the white money. Or in some cases, there were people who had strong religious beliefs against what the Freedom Movement was doing, they had a belief that this kind of social activism was wrong and that a religious approach should be taken. But as a white civil rights worker, we never encountered those people. We were in kind of like a bubble, but the Black activists did encounter those people and had arguments and disputes with them.
The other thing that your story reminded me about was when I was in Grenada, Mississippi, one day we had a mass meeting on a Sunday afternoon and people were standing around afterwards. Two white guys in a truck drive up, and they pull out a machine gun and open fire. They weren't aiming at me. They were aiming at a white Civil Rights worker and a Justice Department official who were standing around We were all well trained, and so as soon as that first shot went off, we all hit the ground, so nobody was hit. The car was all shot up and part of the church. Then they drove off. Two or three hours later, I'm in the office, and the FBI shows up to interview the witnesses.
So they take me into the side room, and I'm assuming they're going to interview me about this attempted assassination of a Justice Department official, which I thought they might be interested in. Shows how dumb I was. They said, 'Did you witness this?' I said, 'Yeah.' They said, 'OK, let me see your draft card.' And I had to pull out my draft card, and they were very disappointed to see that I had a valid deferment, which I won't go into; it's a long story. So I wasn't a draft dodger, and they couldn't arrest me on the spot. They asked me no questions at all about the shooting.
Exactly 10 days later — I didn't know this at the time — my draft board reclassified me as 1A, available for immediate call up.
Bruce: And 10 days after that, which was the minimum time allowed, I was called up induction. But my draft board didn't have my right address, so it took them a month for the notices to be forwarded from one place to another. Obviously, what had happened was that the FBI, as soon as they left talking to me, had called my draft board and said, 'Hey, what you giving a good deferment to this guy for?'
Fortunately as it happened, I was able to avoid being drafted, but I raise that now, because I think I'm gonna need therapy because my friends — I'm active in the anti-Trump political work — and all the political people I'm running with are saying, 'Oh thank God, the FBI is going to investigate! Oh please let's have the FBI save us!' And I have these very different feelings about the FBI. So I don't know. Maybe, I probably need to go into some deep psychotherapy.
Marion: Well, yeah, me too. It's interesting about your story about that. Before I could even walk into the office where I was working, volunteering, I was warned that I would be on the FBI list if I stepped foot into the office. And I was warned, 'Are you ready to step in?' So that was my introduction to the FBI. And so nothing that I love about the FBI.
But your story, both Roy's and Bruce's story, about how you were treated, I happen to be — my job was to stay put in community. I would say maybe 80% of my volunteer work was grassroots organizing, so I stayed in the same community, the 4th District of Hattiesburg, and I got to know the people there so well. You know, they would invite me to their porch, and we would sit. You know, if it takes half an hour to sit and chat, that's what we do. So I got to know the neighborhood, and I didn't realize that there are different groups of Negroes with different — the way you described it was really fascinating, because what I experienced was different.
My experience was they are my neighbors, and I am their neighbor. And I'm new, but they took me in right away. I didn't feel any competition. I felt a lot of social gatherings. 'Oh, would you like to come with my family to some fried chicken tonight?' And I thought, 'Wow. That's a lot for them to spend, to make fried chicken for me and for the family.' I thought that was a big sacrifice, and so I saw them as, whatever they were doing it was sacrificing because they really supported me 100%. And they wanted to be there for me, whatever it takes.
And I felt that love and that support and that protection from them in the community. So that was fascinating, and I was impressed with Roy's description of that and of several other things, because that brings me up to another question I'd like to pose to Roy and everybody else. I was there in '65. Now the [Civil Rights] bill was passed in '64. Of course, it's still a hot item in the Deep South. No one wants to change. But I wonder if there's a difference in when we were there, in terms of how you're being treated. Roy, you were there in '64. I was not there until '65, and then I went back in '66. So I felt like when I was trying to integrate places with the community that they were testing me, but they knew that the bill was already passed. And what they were going to do was supposedly illegal, but no one is going to catch up on that, right? We are still in danger, imminent danger. But I wonder if there was a difference?
Roy: Well, let me make something clear. We were not integrating anything. We were organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. That's what we were doing. Now, in Bogalusa, there were demonstrations and picketing, and we were participating in that, but in Mississippi, it was get people signed up for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, so we could organize, go, and make a challenge at the Democratic National Convention that year. That's what it was.
As far as what Bruce said, yes, there were people who were opposed to it. I remember we talked to one woman who was a school teacher, and actually, she was registered to vote by the way. And she basically said — well, she was a classist, OK? So she basically said, 'Well, you know, those ignorant people shouldn't be voting, blah-blah-blah.' And we came out, and James Brown who was the guy who said, 'I bet you boys are glad you were in Itta Bena.' He was a hothead, and he was just enraged. He said, 'That's the kind of Negro that's keeping us all down!' And he just went on to a rant that went on and on and on and on. He was totally furious about her. About the religious people, there were the Holiness churches, and no, those people did not participate. They were strictly the church in which — and I know we went by one of the churches, and they had this way of singing too. I don't know how to do it. [Oohing]. I don't know. It was almost like —
Marion: Holy roller.
Roy: — moaning or something like that. But there were these incredible sounds coming out of those churches. And apparently, they did not participate. I mean, they were strictly religion and were not participants. And, there were some guys that. Well, we got a Freedom House going in Itta Bena, and there were some Black guys that came one night and broke the windows. Their boss probably told them to do it, and they were no doubt in debt to him or afraid of losing their jobs or something. I don't know. People think they know who did it, but anyway.
Bob: This is Robert Singleton. There were factions that were — some of it was economically driven, as you pointed out, within the Black community, many of whom were opposed to what you were doing. But some of them were actually rewarded. The Freedom Riders were able to acquire — I'm going to make part of my talk is some of the records that showed who some of the Black people are who were, in fact, paid to give information to the FBI and to any number of other —
The Mississippi Sovereignty Committee had just a network of these Black people who relied upon the income just for the information they were feeding to them. And if it wasn't for the fact that the ACLU hung in there for so long, because the Mississippi Sovereignty Committee wanted to destroy those records, but they had to get permission to destroy them. The names of those Black people who were opposed to the Civil Rights Movement, of all kinds, were in those records. And of course, when the records were released, those names became known which just drove even more division in the communities. I'm going to make that part of my presentation.
Roy: Those records are available. At the Mississippi Archives. They are publicly available. Go in and see.
Bob: They are now. Absolutely. They are not only available, but they are exciting when you read them, especially when you see your name. [General laughter]
Roy: Well, the archivist in Jackson told me that she found out that her elementary school teacher's name was in there, and she was shocked. She said, 'I can't imagine why her name would've been on such a list.' [General laughter]
Bruce: Let me just say, though, that to the extent that we knew who was giving information to the cops and power structure, the great majority of them were being blackmailed, forced, to do so. Either economically coerced or threatened with some long prison sentence for some crime they could be charged with — whether they were guilty or not.
Bob: Yeah, yeah.
Peggy: This is Peggy. If we have time, Roy, I have a couple of questions for you. One thing, when you were talking about the story of the light bulb in the car. I remember that lesson also very well. But I wanted to ask you about the level of tension that existed. So you told like initially you were confronted by those three white guys, but then after that, no more problems. But there was, as I recall, always a level of tension and kind of hypervigilance.
Roy: Yes, yes. Yes, and we discussed fear a couple of years ago in Palo Alto, and there was always a level of fear. Not fear that made you run away, or you hide under the bed or something like that, but you were always looking over your shoulder, or you were always looking at who's around, where are we, what's happening. There was that heightened awareness. There was a state that you lived in constantly. And actually, you didn't realize you didn't need that heightened awareness anymore until you got the hell out of Mississippi, and then you suddenly realize that you could be more relaxed.
Peggy: Well, that leads me to my other question. What lasting effects of the Civil Rights Movement, your participation in the Civil Rights Movement, do you see in your life? And I don't mean political. I'd like to talk more about — or I'd like you to reflect, if you feel comfortable, with more about the personal effects.
Roy: It's a difficult question to answer, because it was a big thing, and it had a big impact on me. And it's something that you don't forget, except why Sims sent me out on that trip with that guy, but I really don't know how to answer that question. I mean, it's there. And I do know that when I was planning this talk, I only got six hours of sleep last night. I'm a big sleeper, eight hours, you know? I only got six hours of sleep, because I woke up, and things were just running through my mind. Just events, and not necessarily scary events or things like that, but it was just almost like watching a film. I couldn't get back to sleep.
Marion: Could it be like shell shock? PTSD?
Roy: I don't know. Bruce once said something about that. No, I wouldn't say that I felt stressed while I was kind of reliving things in my mind, but it was just that they were there, you know? And I was just thinking and thought about this and this and this and something else and something else and something else. It just kept coming back to me.
Bob: I think I reflect some of those things too. The mind has a way of keeping you safe, you know? And it sometimes doesn't give you all the information that you get later, but it sort of keeps you aware at the moment of what is important. I'm not a psychologist, so I am only reiterating what I've heard others say. When these flashbacks come to me, and I get them too, it makes me realize that of all the people I know, who have been my contemporaries, who I've met and we were in the same place at the same time, but we undergo a great deal of the same types of reassessment of why was I so determined to be where I was at that time? And why didn't I see some of the dangers? And I'm going to make that part of my presentation too.
Roy: Yeah, well, you know, the last time I was in Mississippi was a couple of years ago. I was driving cross country, and I was visiting somebody in Alabama. I was with my girlfriend who is a Russian immigrant. She lived in the United States for 30 years, but Mississippi does not have the resonance to her that it has to me. We drove through Mississippi and took a quick swing through Itta Bena and into Greenwood to show her what it looked like, but the connection just wasn't there. And I remember the first time I went back to Mississippi, I'd flown into Birmingham, because I could get a cheap flight to Birmingham. Then I drove, in 1994, to Jackson to the reunion. So I was driving from Alabama, and suddenly I saw the sign, "Welcome to Mississippi." And I tell you, I mean, I literally kind of gasped. I kind of went [Gasp]. [General laughter]
I mean, I just had this surge of something or other. I didn't know what it was, but I thought — and I mean, I knew I was not going to be in any danger in Mississippi. I can drive around wherever; I have no problems with that. But I had this wham feeling hit me — that I was back in Mississippi. And it's hard to explain that to someone who doesn't know what Mississippi and Alabama mean in the American mind, and it's hard to explain it to Americans who weren't in the Civil Rights Movement.
Marion: I'm watching all of us, as Roy just spoke, two or three seconds ago everybody's face lit up, and you were all nodding, and we were all laughing because we understood what a warrior for peace was about, because I think about warriors for peace. When we think about veterans, you know, I think about veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Middle East, and we all understood veterans when they come back from war. Everybody understood that, but nobody understood how to deal with warriors for peace. We were veterans for peace, and so I think the impact for us has always been — for me, when you went back home, who did you talk to? Hell, nobody.
When I went back to Chinatown, I was crazy if I were to stand up on the soap box and say, 'This is what happened to me.' They would probably put me in a mental institution, because they don't know what I'm talking about. And so I think that the impact has something to do with not having a support system when we came back. And at least it grabbed me. And I was frozen for about 50 years. I had no idea what was going on. When the anniversary came, the 50th anniversary, that's when I started, 'Oh yeah, there is such a thing as an anniversary. I better start looking at myself.' And it was very hard. But I pick that up, because I have to, on the tape recorder you can't see it, but I sensed all of us all of a sudden becoming one. All of a sudden. And then we came back out again. But that was really amazing. I just felt that. I think that's really important for us to acknowledge, that we were so vulnerable when we came back, and we didn't know what to do about it. And I think now is the time for us to get together and say, 'Hey, you know, this is what happened.' So thank you, Roy, that was good.
Peggy: Yes, thank you, Roy. Thank you for your answer, and it did speak to all of us. I only got like four hours of sleep last night. [General laughter]
Bruce: This is Bruce. Having been to a number of these reunions and these discussions, it's interesting to see how certain themes come up over and over and over. And the story of driving back to the South the first time and the emotional response to the "Welcome to Mississippi" or the "Welcome to Alabama" or Louisiana or wherever — so many Freedom Movement veterans have described this, because we essentially lived in a situation of being under constant threat of terrorism, for however long we were there whether it was a few weeks, a few months, or years. And that is something that affects you. And you don't grow out of it really. I mean, it gets buried in you. Maybe it's PTSD; I don't know what the technical terms are, but we all felt that.
But I wanted to raise another — or at least make a comment on a different subject and that is the voter registration. You said, Roy, that you brought people down to the courthouse and maybe only a couple of them got registered.
Bruce: Which was the very common result prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act. But while we were registering at the table today, we have some pins out there that are replicas of the political pins. And one of them is the famous SNCC pin, "One Man, One Vote." And the comment that people were making is that of course today we wouldn't phrase it that way. We would phrase it, "One Person, One Vote." Which is a valid and appropriate comment, but I don't think many people understand the political implication of "one man" or "one person, one vote". Because that actually came in — SNCC was the one that started that and the other groups adopted it.
Prior to 1963, for the Civil Rights groups doing voter registration, the focus was on finding people who could pass the literacy test or training people to pass the literacy test, and then bringing them down and trying to get them registered, which of course they almost never did, even college professors. But SNCC and CORE and then SCLC, around 1963, had a fundamental shift in politics which is that passing or not passing the literacy test is irrelevant, that as a person living in the country, everyone has a right to vote because they are subject to the laws that the elected representatives pass, and they're subject to the authority of the sheriff and the other elected police.
So that if somebody says, 'Well, we only want literate voters,' then fine; let them put together a school system that teaches people to read. But one man, one vote or one person, one vote is a declaration of saying 'We no longer accept the concept of "qualifications" for being a voter. You're breathing? You're qualified. And this has implications for today, because today, so many people are being disqualified because they were once arrested and convicted for a felony. But they're still subject to the laws. They're still subject to the sheriff.
So SNCC — and I wasn't in SNCC — so I'm not touting my organization, the way SNCC illustrated this new, more militant approach was they created a poster of an old man, old Black man, sitting on his porch, and you could look at that picture and know that this man could not read or write. And the slogan was, "One Man, One Vote." And that was a declaration of independence against the whole political concept that you have to meet some arbitrary qualification in order to vote. And that's a fight we now are having again today, and that's why I bring it up.
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.
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: I want to just add one thing about things happening. You know, what is it? Doug McAdam's book on the Mississippi Summer Project. He has a picture on the cover. Anyhow, my daughter was saying one day, and this was a few years ago, but she was saying, "Yeah, well that book that has a picture of you on the cover." And I said, "What book?" She said, "Well, it"s on your book shelf, one of your book shelves." I said, "Liz, you"re crazy. There's no book with a picture of me on the cover." She said, "Oh yes, there was." And she went, and she got the picture of Doug McAdam's book, and it's a picture of the buses taking us from Oxford, Ohio, where we had the orientation, down to Mississippi. And there are people standing outside the bus holding hands and singing "We Shall Overcome." And I was inside the bus, looking out the window. I mean, the window wasn't open; it was closed, and it was sort of a tinted window. And you could barely see me, and this was years after this happened. And she had looked at that cover and looked at it and recognized a 24-year-old me. She was born when I was 38, so you know, I was already 14 years older. And she recognized me. She said that, and I had never noticed that picture.
I remember the incident too. I mean, I remember I was inside the bus. That's right. But so things happen. What I'm getting at with this is that things happen that suddenly zap! There you are. And so it did have an effect. And that was a very good letter that you wrote to your parents by the way, and this stuff has got to be preserved, because it will disappear into the void some time if we're not careful. And so I left a bunch of photocopies of a bunch of my papers with the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg when I went down there for a book talk. I left them there; they were happy to get them. But they cannot stay in our attics, because they will disappear. They've got to go into some archive someplace or other.
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