My Memories of the Civil Rights Movement
Ken Cloke

"Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." — James Baldwin

"Sometimes it is necessary to behave like a hero just to be an ordinary decent human being." — May Sarton

"On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right." — Martin Luther King, Jr.

First, some personal history. I was born into a family that was strongly opposed to racism and prejudice of all kinds. My parents had both been Communists during the Depression; my father had fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade alongside Black volunteers during the Spanish Civil War; my mother had worked as a welder and riveter alongside African American women in the shipyards during World War II; and my brother and I had both had non-White childhood friends.

In 1959, I gave the Valedictorian speech at my graduation from Reseda High School (a small nearly all-white school in the highly segregated San Fernando Valley where I had been Student Body President), which I called "The Family of Man," inspired by a book with the same name with photographs of people around the world. In my speech, I spoke publicly against prejudice, hatred, and racial injustice.

In 1960, as a student at UC Berkeley, I began working actively for civil rights, supporting fair housing and equal employment opportunity. In the spring of 1960, I picketed Woolworths department store in Berkeley on behalf of students sitting in at their lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and worked closely with its' President John Lewis when he came to Berkeley, and with many other Southern civil rights leaders in supporting the Movement. In 1961, I organized the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which for a short time was the largest CORE chapter in the country, and helped organize, recruit participants, and support the Freedom Rides.

I continued working as an organizer supporting SNCC, CORE, and similar organizations, publicizing and raising money to support Southern sit-ins among supporters in the Bay Area. I authored numerous resolutions of support for victims of racial injustice and Southern sit-ins as a member of student government and Chairman of SLATE, a campus political party that frequently demonstrated and fought vigorously for racial equality.

On entering UC's Boalt law school, I became one of the principle organizers of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, helping set up a branch at Boalt to support law students in offering assistance to attorneys aiding the Southern movement. I helped edit the Civil Rights Handbook and Civil Liberties Docket, worked on a number of high profile civil rights lawsuits, and became active in the Ad Hoc Committee Against Discrimination, where I picketed Mel's Drive Ins, the Sheraton Palace Hotel, and Cadillac Row in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was also an active participant in the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley, largely led by veterans of the Southern civil rights movement, and worked to support legal defense teams for people arrested in sit-ins.

In 1964, I went South as a civil rights worker, and began organizing in Selma and Montgomery. I was then sent by SNCC to Greensboro, Alabama, where I was trapped with others in a church for several days, tear gassed, surrounded by the KKK, attacked by local police with dogs, and chased by an angry white mob while the FBI sat comfortably doing nothing a few blocks away.

I then went to work in Albany, Georgia, as well as in Americus, "Bad Baker," and "Terrible Terrel" Counties, primarily as a law clerk for the amazing, brilliant, unbelievably courageous civil rights attorney C.B. King in Albany, as well as working to support the Albany Movement.

C.B. was one of the most articulate and funny people I have ever met. He was both kind and clever, sophisticated and humble, brilliant and folksy. When asked anything about "the South," he would often begin with these words: "When the melifluous odor of honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms waft heavy on the evening zephyr ..." and then launch into a paean about the virtues of Southern White womenhood, or any other topic. On the other hand, when asked how things were, he would likely answer, "White folks still winnin' boss."

Because of the pervasive threat of lynching, exclusionary segregation, rigid Jim Crow laws, and an unapologetic reign of terror that controlled everyday life for Black people throughout the South, C.B. understood quite well that one part of his role was to stand up, speak out, and risk being smarter than White people when others couldn't without losing their lives.

I remember C.B. in one case asking a police officer on cross-examination what his "ethnic identity" was. He hesitated, then answered, "I'm a police officer." C.B. wouldn't let it go, and went back over the same question several times, "I asked you sir what your ethnic identity was!" pronouncing each word slowly and correctly, completely humiliating him in front of an otherwise terrorized black audience seated 20 rows in the back, who giggled and cackled with glee at the courage of a Black man to stand up to the police, until the judge finally jumped in to rescue him.

Dennis Roberts, CB.'s invaluable assistant, my close friend, and a fellow student at Boalt Law School, wrote to me later recalling a similar case of C.B. questioning a jury commissioner testifying in Fitzgerald, Georgia, asking him: "You mentioned Walter JONES in your earlier testimony. Kindly elucidate for the memorialization (the record) what was said here regarding the ethnic identity of Mr. JONES?" After a bit of silence, the Commissioner said: "I do believe he's an undertaker."

On another occasion, C.B. was arguing a case in Baker County that dragged on until late at night. At one point his opposing counsel asked for a glass of water, which was brought to him. C.B. then asked for a glass of water, and one of the Sheriff's deputies said, "Oh, I'll get it for him Your Honor." He went outside to what amounted to a horse trough, and brought him a rusty bucket filled with dirty water and dipper, causing laughter all around, including the judge.

What was inspiring was how C.B. handled it. He spoke calmly and with great dignity and resolve to the court reporter, and said, "I would like the record to reflect that what the deputy has brought me pursuant to my request for a glass of drinking water is a bucket filled with filthy water." He then took at least a half-hour — which felt like 6 or 7 hours — to describe in excruciating detail the "detritus" and "flotsam," rust, and filth they had handed him. They had no idea what he was talking about half the time, but they got the point. They had screwed up, he had caught them at it, and he was able to rub their noses in it in a way they were powerless to prevent. He was truly amazing.

The most memorable event during my time in the South also took place in the Baker County courthouse. SNCC, led by the extraordinary, brilliant organizer Charles Sherrod and about 20 local organizers, especially from the Miller family, had been arrested for trying to enroll African-American kids in what was then an all-white school. On their behalf, we filed a "removal petition" in federal court, which automatically took jurisdiction away from the Baker County court. We appeared in court along with all the defendants and the local police to notify the judge. Judge Crow said, "I guess that's it, Court's dismissed."

At that point Sheriff L. Warren "Gator" Johnson stood up, pulled out his gun, and shouted, "Y'all sit down!" The judge and deputies who knew L. Warren's propensity for violence immediately sat down, followed by the rest of us. L. Warren proceeded to point his gun at us and the at the children who were present, all sitting there helpless, and proceeded to rant for maybe 20 interminable minutes, threatening to kill everyone present and declaring that "No [N-words] were going to take over MY courtroom." His anger abated somewhat, he then ordered all of us to "get out of my courtroom," and as we were leaving, he proceeded to kick those he could reach, including children, in the pants, pointing his gun at them and threatening to shoot.

In that moment I experienced intense rage, and had it not been for the calm nonviolent presence of Charles Sherrod, might have done something foolish. In that moment I also saw, with great clarity, as Martin Luther King Jr. beautifully described it, that:

"Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Another occasion etched in my memory happened when I was driving an "integrated car" in Baker County and we were pulled over by a police motorcycle driven by one of L. Warren Johnson's deputies who I believe was his cousin. I rolled down my window and in my best lawyer-like voice asked, " Excuse me Officer, are we under arrest?" He pulled out his pistol, put it to my head, and said, "You mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch, you keep your mouth shut!"

I realized in that moment that he could actually shoot us and get away with it, but was saved, I think, by the fact that there were too many of us in the car, I was White, and he knew I was associated with C.B. and might be a lawyer. So instead, he gave me a ticket for crossing a broken white line which he claimed was unbroken and yellow, assigned me $500 bail, and set a trial for the traffic ticket 5 months later when he thought I would be gone, and he knew I didn't stand a chance in front of the judge anyway.

I later learned that L. Warren and his deputies often used this trick with out-of-state drivers and raked off the money to supplement their income from the sale of moonshine liquor made with stills operated by the Johnson family. L. Warren often bragged that he had killed over 20 people in his life, including 2 White women and a Treasury Department agent investigating his stills.

What I Learned in the Civil Rights Movement.

My experience in the civil rights movement, especially in the South, was probably the most consequential in my life, which has been filled with consequential experiences. Among other important life lessons, I learned these "top ten" among many — mostly from Black sharecroppers, church women, courageous children, and dedicated organizers — which vastly exceed everything I learned attending college in Berkeley:

  1. Racism isn't really about race. It's about domination, humiliation, cruelty, arrogance, fear, guilt, theft, rape, and the use of power over and against others. It is about the bitter, destructive consequences — socially, economically, politically, ecologically, and psychologically — of living a lie that invents inferiority in an effort to justify the genocidal logic that supports hostile, inhuman behaviors.

  2. All biases and prejudices follow the same playbook, and it makes little difference whether they are racist or misogynist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, xenophobic, colonialist, Islamophobic, ageist, or whatever, as beneath each particular hatred lies a common desire to raise oneself by standing on the necks and backs of others, "canceling" them, taking what is rightfully theirs, using stereotypes to deny their humanity and make them as ashamed and powerless as the people who engage in these follies actually feel themselves.

  3. Within days of living in the Black community in the South, I went from seeing White people as "like me" to being frightened whenever I saw a white person, and feeling safe whenever I saw someone Black. I have never recovered from that feeling, even on returning to the North, and to this day feel uncomfortable in non-diverse, exclusively White, male, heterosexual environments.

  4. The lie of racism and all other hatreds; the clear contradiction of basic moral, ethical, religious, and humanitarian principles; the cruelty, trauma, and infliction of emotional punishment — not only toward others (who are subconsciously recognized as equals), but toward the kindest parts of themselves — all these require enormous energy to maintain and replenish, making them vulnerable to social solidarity, communities of resistance, and the simple courage and kindness of ordinary people.

  5. While the law was obviously flawed, insufficient, and profoundly compromised by a gross imbalance of power, for those who had no power, it played a crucial role — saving lives, offering cover and protection, and opening opportunities for deeper change. Our presence as attorneys and law students significantly discouraged lynching, protected organizers and activists, and offered a legal rationale for dismantling American apartheid.

  6. The law could not have played this role without the support of countless lawyers, organizers, and activists bringing, researching, funding, and publicizing lawsuits; raising money and securing media coverage exposing racism, especially in the North; and voting for candidates who they could compel to pass legislation, and at times, send troops to enforce it.

  7. The law is a blunt instrument, designed on the one hand to discourage resort to violence, and on the other to coerce compliance. When it fails, it defers to power and the threat of violence, revealing an iron fist within the velvet glove. The law can punish lynching and declare the right to sit where one wants on a bus, but if we want to engage people in dialogue, learn how to live together, and change hearts and minds, a more subtle approach is necessary.

  8. The compelling logic of the right to freedom, equality, justice, dignity, respect, and self-determination; of having one's own voice; of gaining power over one's own life, all of which were learned in the civil rights movement, continued to ripple rapidly outward, invigorating student protests and educational reform, movements for women's and gay liberation; opposition to the war in Vietnam; labor and poor people's campaigns; Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American liberation; and support for environmental protection.

  9. To bring about social change in the South, it was necessary to bring about legal change. To bring about legal change, it was necessary to create political change. To create political change, it was necessary to work for economic change, and vice versa, as each change required deeper ones, and in this way the prevailing system of bias, inequality, and domination was revealed.

  10. I knew before traveling to the South that doing so meant risking my life. I also knew that not doing so meant being cowardly, complicit, and betraying my values. What I did not know was that taking that risk would be profoundly freeing; that dedicating my life to a just cause would be heart-opening, joyful, and a gateway to wisdom; or that I would be given far more in doing so from those I went to support than I could ever have given in exchange.

As always, there is much more to say and still more to do. We now know that it is possible for all the gains we made to be rolled back, for lessons to be forgotten, for prejudice and cruelty to return and raise their vicious heads. But the deepest lesson of all is that fundamental change is possible, and that the needs to organize and support movements that make it happen never ends.


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