Dedicated to my mother, Audrey Dixon Ewan.
|Chapter 1: The College Bulletin Board|
|Chapter 2: What Am I Doing?|
|Chapter 3: Training|
|Chapter 4: Pointe Coupee Parish|
|Chapter 5: Parents|
Vince was a high school friend. I loved him because he was outgoing, positive and fun. I didn't really notice that he was black until I heard the outrageous news coming out of the South in the early 1960s. I could not wrap my mind around the way black people were treated there — not allowed to use a drinking fountain or a restaurant? How could that be? I was furious!
When I saw a sign advertising a voter registration project in southern Louisiana for the summer of 1964, I grabbed it and began to prepare for the most frightening and meaningful summer of my life.
It is a hot, humid summer evening in southern Louisiana in 1964. We are meeting in a small country church, the windows are open and the flies are becoming a nuisance. We are singing the rhythmic, vibrant music of the Southern black church. It has been a good meeting. We have 5 people who are brave enough to agree to face the white voting registrar tomorrow. Maybe we are making some progress.
All of a sudden it is deathly quiet. Then someone yells out, "The Klan is coming! We gotta get outa here!" Oh, God — as everyone scrambles I realize with a sick feeling that I am the only one who can drive the stick shift car that we came in. I feel the panic rising in my stomach like a tsunami wave. Can I do this? Can I get us out of here before they come? Five kids quickly pile into the little two door car and I drive like a maniac on the narrow dirt road to get us out of the way of a potentially fatal situation.
Thinking of that brush with disaster floods me with memories of the summer of 1964. My story begins in the Union at Ottawa University, a small liberal arts school in Kansas. I am standing under the bright lights over the mailboxes and I can smell gravy and mystery meat from the dining hall. I have just retrieved a very welcome letter from home. It is my second year here and I am more comfortable now than when my parents dropped me off at 18 and homesick.
I turn from the mailbox to read what has been posted on the bulletin board and I see a small card asking for volunteers to spend the summer in Louisiana working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on a project aimed at getting black people registered to vote. I feel a titillating feeling of excitement in my stomach. I would really like to do that. I feel passionately about the Civil Rights Movement and it would give me an excuse to write to my boyfriend who broke up with me a few months ago. I know he is passionate about it also. It would be scary though; it would be a whole summer away from my secure home on Lazy Lane in Iowa and this cozy Baptist college campus in Kansas. But it would be so worthwhile — I am going to do it!
I won the ensuing argument with my parents, and they reluctantly agreed to sign the parental permission slip that came with the information. When the time came to leave they took me to the bus station in Clinton, Iowa, and I nervously started the first leg of this unknown journey. Where am I going? What was I thinking?
When I arrived in Chicago I took a cab which cost $1.00 to the Illinois Central Railway Station. I gave a Red Cap $.70 to take my bags not really knowing if that was the right thing to do or not. My first solo traveling adventure, I was both terrified and exhilarated.
As the train passed through Chicago I felt familiar childhood feelings being intrigued by the beauty of that city but repulsed by the crowds and filth. It took all night to get to southern Louisiana. It was June and it was hot outside but air conditioning made it too cold to sleep on the train. I grew up on the Mississippi River, but I had never seen the river as wide and brown as it was at Memphis. I had never seen the dry, reddish soil of the South, so different from the rich black soil of Iowa. I saw gaunt cattle, and whole families out working in the dusty fields.
I was afraid.
I was 19 and I had no idea what I was getting into when I answered that ad on the college bulletin board from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
I arrived in Hammond, Louisiana at 3:00 on the afternoon on June 9, 1964. There were 5 of us on the train from Chicago who wanted to get to Baton Rouge and no trains or buses were available. A man offered to take all of us in his cab for $3.00 each. He added another passenger and there were 7 of us sweltering in a cab with no air conditioning.
When I arrived in Baton Rouge, I blindly got out at the bus station because that's where some of the others were getting out. I had no idea where I was or what to do. I called the CORE office in Baton Rouge and the director had gone to New Orleans. I called the training center in Plaquemine and they said that they would pick me up some time.
After waiting for several hours I felt so lonely and desperate that I started looking for a hotel to spend the night. I ended up staying in a dingy room where I felt SO terribly alone. I will never forget what that room looked like with its cracked, dusty ceiling and a single bulb hanging by a dirty cord. I don't know how I managed to sleep in that room and get up the next day to face the challenge that I had chosen for myself.
I don't know how I found the courage and commitment to go down to Louisiana and complete that summer project. What I think of first is Vince. He was a wonderful young black guy who was my friend in high school. He was a good person. He was light-hearted, funny and warm. We had elected him Homecoming King.
I could not reconcile the fact of him with the awful pictures and news coming from the South. I saw the COLORED signs in the pictures, heard the news about the back of the bus, the lunch counters and the terrible dogs and fire hoses used to battle the nonviolent demonstrators. I could not stand to do nothing.
Or maybe it was my mother. I don't remember her saying anything specifically about Civil Rights, but she was always a shining example of love and kindness to others. I recall the Christmas that we took gifts to the less fortunate kids who lived in the ramshackle house up the street. Perhaps it was the example that she modeled, or maybe it was just the reckless, invincible feeling of youth.
The goal of the project was to get as many black people in southern Louisiana registered to vote as possible. The rejected applications were to be used as part of a state wide lawsuit as there were not many registered black voters in the South at that time. The white registrars always seemed to find some reason to deny their applications. They denied them if the people could not read or write well enough; they were even denied for not dotting an I or crossing a T. Our job was to set up clinics to teach them how to master the voter registration application and become registered voters in spite of the white registrars.
There were 25-30 kids from all over the country in the training sessions which met in an old hotel in the black section of Plaquemine, LA. It was a two story building, dirty, sagging with age and smelling of ancient body odor.
Most of the kids in the project were college students strong with the cavalier invincibility of youth. Some had been in The Movement for several years. We pretended that we weren't scared, but I noted how tightly we clung to each other in the circle with crossed arms singing Freedom songs. I knew any one of us could go missing at any time.
The first week was spent in lectures and discussions about the project and civil disobedience. I learned that the best way to protect myself from injury was to assume a fetal position when thrown to the ground and tuck my head in to shield my internal organs. We took turns acting this out and it all became excruciatingly real when it was my turn and I was on the floor being kicked. I came away from that session with a lump on my behind which expressed itself as a bruise as big as my fist.
One day I was canvassing in a black neighborhood called Dupont Annex near the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) training center in an unincorporated section of Plaquemine, LA. The run down houses are lined with open ditches of running sewage and the heat and smell are gagging me. I am knocking on doors with Sharon, a 22 year old white woman from Indiana. We were trying to convince black residents to attempt to become registered voters.
All of a sudden I got the creepy feeling that we were being followed. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. A white policeman stopped and told us to get in his car. We got in looking at each other in fear. I could feel the sweat running down my back and between my breasts. He took us to his stuffy little office in the courthouse and grilled us about where we were from and what we were doing. It was a tiny room with only a window air conditioner barely able to keep the humidity at bay.
"Y'all go on back home. We know how to handle our niggas." I could feel the anger in his glare, I could smell my fear.
He released us that day but stopped me on the street later that week just to "check my ID" — an intimidating scare tactic. I'm sure that we were also clearly identified by the white people who lived surrounding the black ghetto. They seemed to know who we were. One day walking down a street I was slapped with such a hard look of anger and hatred on a white women's face as I had never seen before. It felt strange to be the object of fear and hatred as if I was a member of an invading army.
While in CORE training in Plaquemine we ate at the Jackson Nightclub across the street. It was a funky, well-worn building always smelling of beer and cigarettes. The food was a deliciously spicy beef stew, fried chicken, rice and stewed okra called "pigtails". One night we had "sweet taters", butter noodles, kidney beans and rice with meat. There was rice with every meal and grits (a first for me) with every breakfast.
Entering the large dance hall room was anticipatory, it seemed that there would always be something exciting happening inside. There were beer posters and neon signs on the walls. Outside shutters hid what was happening inside the dark, dingy clapboard building. I had my first beer there and as many dances as I wanted. I loved the thrill and the excitement of that rundown sanctuary. Jackson's served as a bar, a pool hall and a dining room combined.
I usually hung around after dinner; and I remember the exciting, exuberant, seductive feeling of being on my own in a scary place. There was danger, cigarettes, alcohol and the promise of sex I had never experienced before. It was a coming of age time for me. I was a child playing an adult game. I loved being with people from all over in a passionate search for justice. We knew that we were right and that we would prevail.
WE SHALL OVERCOME was not a song but a banner we were carrying into battle.
This summer project was the beginning of my adulthood. I met Tom. He was small and black as night. He had an open, friendly face and moved with ease and grace. He had a gentleness of spirit that was completely lovable. I could tell he liked me as he always seemed to be there when I turned around. He smelled of sweat and clean laundry. He made me feel at home and not quite so lonely. He had been working in The Movement for years and had been thrown through a plate glass window which had resulted in some memory loss. I could tell that he would become important to me even though there was not a space for intimacy in the crazy, manic, shifting sands of that summer project.
The black community surrounded us with love and support. Mama Jo was a 75 year old black woman who called her lower middle class home a "freedom house" where she kept 5 female Civil Rights workers at a time using all available space. She joked that the reason they were building an electric fence around the jail was just for us.
When a black neighbor girl cut my hair, she said, "You got good hair," something I had never thought about before.
It was fun being with a bunch of kids my age who all felt passionately about the same things. There was a special kind of camaraderie among us. One Friday night a bunch of us decided to go to a drive-in movie. There were 5 white kids and 2 black kids in the car. At $1.00 each the attendant told us it would be $5.00 but the 2 black kids couldn't come in. I was appalled that he would expect us to leave the 2 kids outside. It was the first time I had felt the discrimination they must have known all of their lives. As we turned around and left the drive-in, I felt angry and more determined than ever.
It is a warm, bright sunny morning in Southern Louisiana. I find that I am slowly adjusting to the 90 degree humid weather. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) trainer is talking about canvassing the black neighborhoods to set up clinics where we will teach people how to get around the tests that the white registrars use to prevent black people from getting registered to vote.
"There are 10 different tests that they use, so we have to teach all of them 'cuz we will never know which one they'll pull out."
"But these questions are too hard!" I exclaimed. "I don't know where bills of revenue originate in the government. I can't pass this test!" At 19, I am so naive.
"Yes, Honey, that's why we are here."
Suddenly the director of the project appeared in the doorway with a stricken look. I had never seen him without a smile on his face. All eyes riveted to him.
"I have some bad news. I just got a call from the office in Philadelphia, MS. Three of their guys have gone missing and they are pretty sure the sheriff released them to the Klan." The room was silent. I could feel the collective fear and apprehension. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.
We found out later these young men had been beaten and killed by the Klan that night. When I heard Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner had been shoveled into an earthen dam, I felt as devastated as I had the previous November when I learned President Kennedy had been killed. Then it dawned on me I was only 200 miles away from Philadelphia, MS; and I was slammed with the brutal reality of the terrible chance I was taking.
After a few weeks of training I was assigned to rural Pointe Coupee Parish along with Sharon and Cathy. Sharon, the 22 year old white woman, was the leader of our little group. She wore homemade cotton dresses belted at the waist with tennis shoes. Her curly brown hair was long and tied back out of the way. As a white woman from the Midwest, I felt the most affinity with her. With an open, smiling face, she was kind and easy for me to get to know. Cathy was a mixed race younger girl from New York City who was my first encounter with the persona of a New Yorker and offered consciousness-raising.
She once talked to me about one of the leaders. "Have you seen him puttin' the moves on people?" She asked.
"Yeah, I thought he was married."
"Well, he is, not that it matters much. Boy, are you naive! I also know he made up the title of Reverend just to get what he wants."
" ou're kiddin'! He's always trying to talk me into drinking."
"Of course he is. What did you try?"
"Tom Collins — It tasted like lemonade with cherry juice and juniper trees. He also told me that he wanted me to go to work for the CORE main office full time. I wonder how serious that is."
"Would you want to?"
"Yeah, I'd love to, but I have to go back to school. My parents would kill me; not finishing college is not an option in my family."
"Well, how nice for you."
The CORE leaders had a hard time finding a black family for us to stay with in Pointe Coupee Parish. We ended up staying with the Caulfield family in a rundown shack which stood just a few feet off a dusty road in the country. The porch leaning to one side looked like it could go at any time. The men of the family were working construction in New Orleans and the mother was just a shadow in the background; the only person to help us was Thelma, a 17-year girl who slept with a shotgun beside her bed. She was amazing. She fed us from the family garden, served as a guide and took us to a friend's house for baths.
Sharon once commented that, "It was a great day for CORE workers when bathtubs became a status symbol in the Negro community."
Thelma was tall, aristocratically shaped and unusually strong and confident for her age. I could tell that she would make a beautiful woman. Wearing shirt waist dresses she had the narrow waist and pointy bra shape of the 60's. She had been helping Civil Rights workers for some time and I could tell she was old before her time. She was friendly, but not open. I could see unshared pain in her eyes.
When Thelma first led us inside the house, it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I could smell the rancid odor of fried grease and wood smoke. She showed us to the tiny bedroom that I would share with Cathy. When she took us out to the dirt covered back yard where there was an outhouse, I began to realize there were no modern conveniences in this house. She pointed out the laundry tub where she did the family laundry. Her hands were large and muscular from wringing out heavy wet sheets and towels. She had to bring in wood to make a fire in the wood stove before starting breakfast. My respect and admiration for her grew as I marveled at how she could do all that and still attend high school.
"You do what you have to do," she said quietly.
It made me realize how much I had to be grateful for. How could I complain about staying in this house for 2 months? But complain I did. The first time I opened the kitchen cabinet, I was freaked out by the explosive skittering of roaches escaping everywhere. Visiting the outhouse in that hot weather was disgusting; I loathed the stench in the daytime and hated to go out at night. But there were good parts: one perk was washing up and brushing my teeth at the pump outside under a brilliantly star studded sky that one can only see in the country.
One night, looking up I see ribbons of stars upon stars upon stars. The moon shines silver on the dirty yard as I walk back from the outdoor john. I creep back to the sagging bed that I am sharing with Cathy. Back in the lumpy bed, I attempt to settle down in the quiet heat of a summer night in Louisiana. I'm almost drifting off when all of a sudden there is a loud crack like an explosion. It sounds like it came from the dirt road in front of the house.
Tension and fear course through my body as Cathy and I stumble up to investigate. I see the others in the living room just as ghostly shadows in the moonlight but I can feel the emotional electricity. Thelma is cradling the shotgun.
"What is it?" I whisper.
"It's those stupid jerks from down the road shooting at the house again. They know you are here and they tryin' to scare me."
"Should we call the police?" I ask naively.
"No — Sheriff don't give a damn." Thelma says with a smirk.
We sit for a while in the dark room attempting to bring our breathing back under control waiting for another blast.
"Will they come back?" I ask nervously.
"We jis' wait 'n see." She says.
I marvel at the courage of this brave 17 year old girl as we wait anxiously in the darkness. We eventually wander back to bed, but I'm sure no one got any more sleep that night.
In order to inform the locals about the voter registration clinics, we canvassed the black neighborhoods to try to get them interested in coming to learn how to beat the white resistance to their voting. We were sometimes met with fear and apathy when we tried to talk to them. Some were grateful for what we were trying to do, others would not talk to us. I remember how hot and dusty the roads were in the rural areas and the run-down shacks were sometimes far apart. It was sad to see the weary, toil worn faces of the inhabitants and then out of the darkness to distinguish the many little bright spots that were the eyes of the all too numerous offspring.
Without Thelma's help it would have been impossible to tell which of the shacks actually had inhabitants. I became an expert at opening tricky gate closures. Folks held their gates closed with sticks, nails and even a bucket of rocks as a weight. Some of them invited us in because they were eager to learn how to "reddish" to vote. They wanted to go to the "restoration" office and end "segation." I often had a hard time understanding the dialect. Once I couldn't understand a man's last name so I asked him to spell it. I felt a bit sheepish when he answered, "J-O-H-N-S-O- N". The old man smiled at me as if he understood how out of my element I was.
One day Sharon and I had been out canvassing all day in the sweltering heat. When we got back, I counted the names on the record sheet.
"We contacted 60 people today!"
"Great. What a team!"
Then Thelma came in and said, "I just found out that John chicken'd out and won't let us use his cafe for the clinic tomorrow."
"Well, shit, what happened?"
"I guess he got cold feet and talked to the sheriff who told him not to do it."
We spent most of the next day at John's brother's house, but only taught 8 people. I was discouraged. Thelma figured those guys were just there to look at us.
"They pro'ly never seen white wimmen up close."
It was a long, hot summer. We just kept going day after day in the heat, the stench and the fear wondering if we were making any progress. I chose to think that maybe we had some effect on the passing of the Civil Rights Bill later that summer.
I was sending letters to my conservative Baptist parents back in Iowa. I wanted them to keep the letters so I would have a journal of the summer. Since it was to be my only record of the experience, I wrote everything. I was too self-absorbed to realize how it would hurt them to read the musings on my "coming of age". Suddenly one day there was a telegram for me.
=URGENT YOU COME HOME IMMEDIATELY. BUS, PLANE, TRAIN. CALL CHICAGO ARRIVAL TIME OR FOR MONEY DAD=.
I called home. "What's up, Mom?"
"We can't have you down there acting that way!"
"What's wrong?" As if I didn't know.
"We were prepared for possible physical danger to you, but never thought that you would be in moral danger."
"Oh Mom, I can't leave now, we're just beginning to make some headway. Besides it's not that dangerous. The CORE people are always checking on us."
"Those CORE people don't sound like good people to me. They are a bunch of Beatniks with way out ideas."
"But I don't want to give up now."
"I'm so scared, please come home!"
"If you want me to come home, you will have to come and get me."
My parents made a trip to Florida that summer but did not come to Louisiana to get me.
Later my mother wrote me a letter that is one of my most treasured possessions. They were visiting Great Smoky National Park and climbing to the highest peak of the chain. She wrote...
"The way up was laborious even though someone had made a nice smooth path and resting benches along the way. I became 'winded', my heart pounded, and my legs ached. It would have been so much easier to have stopped and turned back. It was misty and I thought we wouldn't get to see much anyway. But we plugged on. When we reached the top of the tower, a breeze blew away the cloud we were in, the sky was a lovely blue, pink, and rose as the sun prepared to drop behind the distant ridge of mountains. There was a calm and peaceful silence, the tree covered mountains rolled out on all sides from us. The beauty of that moment was almost breath-taking.
How glad I was that I had continued that climb. The way down, of course, was real easy, as most downward ways are. I was carried along by my own momentum — there was nothing to hold me back, no pounding heart, aching muscles, or call for special effort. It only took half the time to descend into the mist as it had taken to ascend above it. And so it is with the paths we encounter daily. It takes determined effort on our part to ascend for there are those who would get in our way to turn us back. Even though someone has laid out the path and provided resting places along it, it would still be easier to take the downward way. Many there are to pull us along with them on the way down.
I love you, my determined, strong hearted one."
My mother had forgiven me.
Copyright © Meg Gedden. 2014
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