We got to Washington D.C. by Saturday night, after testing facilities in Maryland. Usually, we ended testing in Baltimore & went back to New York. But, actually, we had come into D.C. to hear a sermon. So we wanted to stay over in Washington, until Sunday.
We did not go to Washington or even cross the street to hear sermons, as a rule. There was great preaching, everywhere, in those days. Nor did we rise early Sunday mornings, unless we were in jail, or otherwise obliged. But, we wanted to support Betty Daniels, of New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She had faced kidnapping & killing in Poplarville, Mississippi, when Pat and Frank Nelson & Alice Thompson were almost hanged [Nov. 1962].
Betty had moved in with a sister in Washington, D.C. She had become engaged to Garnell Rosemond, who was auditioning to be a junior minister. Smitten enough to think we would also feel this was a treat, she had invited Pat & Frank to share this important moment. My roommate Mary Hamilton & I naturally joined them, as we all were a tight unit. Social life outside The Movement tended to fall away for the dedicated. And it wouldn't hurt us to party on Saturday night in another town, for a change.
Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) had an apartment, so we went there. NAG was a clever, cheeky group & their demonstrations were pointed. It was a founding affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The apartment was off-campus at Howard University: arguably the most intellectual of the Black colleges: and bourgeois, though not perhaps as much as Fisk. NAG fancied itself the vanguard of the revolution, but the atmosphere was as much "fraternity" as revolutionary & hardly covert. Some of them were a lot of fun.
The NAG apartment had a lot of extra beds: members moved in & out, & there were always Movement people who needed to be in Washington. It was the usual college place: music, bring your own bottles, political argument, dancing. We bought gin, hid it in the toilet tank to cool & to keep it for ourselves. We tried to party as best we could among the quasi-Nationalists, by sticking close by Stokely & Mary Lovelace & other friends.
Stokely asked the five of us to stay over until Monday, to demonstrate at the Justice Department. The situation was dire.
The State of Louisiana had jailed Dion Diamond, a Howard student, who was now a SNCC Field Secretary. Dion was one of the Freedom Riders who decided to stay in Mississippi, after they left the Parchman Farm penitentiary. They were determined to organize in the belly of the beast. Mississippi was full of activity, but they were short- handed.
Most Mississippi local activists were independent older business people in the NAACP, who had to work constantly & had a lot to protect: or they were high school students. The newly minted Freedom Rider-Organizers from CORE & SNCC wanted to reach Mississippi college students, like themselves. These were the youth leaders Medgar Evers of the NAACP was training. In fact, because the Freedom Riders were handsome & romantically idealistic, they were stealing NAACP's youth away. As they began to organize, they were also reaching local people their age, who had never even allowed themselves to dream of the college track.
A number of Mississippians were enrolled in Louisiana's Southern University, a Negro university, in Baton Rouge. For many people it was closer than Mississippi's Colored colleges, or it was better academically. Southern's administration had closed the university when its students had gone to downtown Baton Rouge to sit-in. Many Southern University students were then stranded on the Baton Rouge campus, far from home. Dion had gotten some busses, "through bullshitting" Dion had gone to the Southern campus, to recruit Mississippi students who were stranded at the closed college. He offered to bring them back to Mississippi to work on registering voters.
Then, Chancellor, E. Selton Clarke, re-opened school & expelled the student leaders, while Dion was there, recruiting for Mississippi. The students were no longer free to go back to Mississippi to organize. You'd have thought that nullified Dion's reason for being there: but, he was there & the students were fired-up. So, being flexible, he tried to lead a revolution on campus. 'Let's take up the cause of kids who'd been expelled', he said.
He literally took over the campus, "for my 15 minutes of fame". Southern University's administration had Dion arrested on seven charges, including vagrancy, trespass, inciting to riot. The State of Louisiana added, as a fillip, criminal anarchy.
Then, two more SNCC people got pulled down into the moils of Louisiana's law. Chuck McDew, Chairman of SNCC, & Bob Zellner —the first white man to become a SNCC Field Secretary, (pale little Janie Stembridge, white, was SNCC's first Field Secretary) —were travelling to New Orleans. They stopped at the parish jail, to discuss bail for Dion.
When they tried to post bond, they found that the original sum had been raised to $10,000, which was impossible for them. (That would have been more than $100,000, today.) They were given permission to bring Dion chewing gum, fruit, & reading material. When they brought the permitted items, they could not give it to him, because it wasn't Colored Day: the day Colored Prisoners could receive visitors.
True to Louisiana judicial custom, they, too, were interrogated. When McDew said, "If you don't mind, I'd like to leave", he was told, 'You can't go tonight: we're arresting you'. McDew asked, "Why?" He was told the charge was, possible vagrancy. He pointed out that suspicion of vagrancy was not a good charge, as they had bus & plane tickets, & money to post for Dion's bail.
Nonetheless, suspicion of vagrancy, it was. But Louisiana never used the vagrancy charge. McDew & Zellner were held without charges over the weekend, & on February 23, 1962, when the charge was filled in, it was criminal anarchy & attempting to overthrow the State of Louisiana, by force of arms.
They found they were facing the death penalty. In jail they were tortured. At the behest of the guards, Zellner was beaten by other prisoners. The guards had also offered reduced time to the Black prisoners, if they would attack Dion & McDew, but the Black prisoners did not buy into it. By the time McDew arrived, Dion had been removed to solitary confinement, where he served 60 days. He did not know McDew & Zellner were in jail with him, also in solitary.
I snickered when I heard it was treason to overthrow the State of Louisiana. Then, I figured McDew & Zellner could not see it the same way: particularly with the state holding them on capital charges, for who knew how long.
Zellner, I didn't then know, but we met that summer, at Freedom House, in Mississippi. I was wearing baby-doll pajamas & had my hair in curlers: he pretended to leer & chased me through Freedom House, I ran & pretended to squeal. He doesn't remember this.
McDew, who was both extraordinarily energetic & generous in his assessment of people, was an enormously likable guy. I had met him at a party in the apartment of Donna Garde, a Freedom Rider, and Bob Moses, the Mississippi Movement's philosopher-king [title bestowed by Stokely]. It was one of those grand & spacious Upper West Side [New York City] apartments, which were then very cheap. Tenants often let out single rooms to students & young people. McDew was then Chair of SNCC & had a talent for making real sense of disparate events & conflicting tenets.
But it was Dion Diamond whose plight really moved me. I had only met him once, in a group. We were staying at Reggie Robinson's parents' row house, in Baltimore. A group of Freedom Riders had gathered to show support for Hank Thomas, who'd gotten a concussion on the first Freedom Ride bus that was burned. Hank had an arraignment in Baltimore. He was said to be bitter, disaffected & thinking of leaving the Movement. He had made a statement that had impelled me into The Movement.
My roommate, Mary Hamilton & I were given the attic bedroom: the guys were bunking in Reggie's room. Mary & I had dressed & crept downstairs, to see if we could help with breakfast: but no one was up.
In the living room, Dion had the radio on, so low that only he could hear. The house was cold, but bright winter morning light was streaming in the window. Dion's back was to us. He was dancing, by himself, in the shaft of light, motes sparkling around him. It was one of the perfect moments of my life.
I could not bear to think of him dancing in solitary.
I couldn't see how Louisiana could make the sedition stick: maybe in 1959, but not in 1962. But, in fact, they were used to doing whatever they wanted. They could also keep them there for an eternity.
And so much was happening; how much energy could the Movement spend on getting them out? In those days, we reeled from one action to another. There was some new enormity every week. It was not unusual to demonstrate, leaflet, canvass & attend rallies for different causes five days a week.
It was more than a second job: it was one's entire life. One had no spare time, ever. When the Social Security Administration sent me a record of my life's earnings, there was nary a penny earned in 1962. Thank G-d (& Congressman Meyer London & the New Deal) for Unemployment Insurance.
NAG was picketing the Justice Department, because it had done nothing to get Dion & McDew & Zellner out of jail. Louisiana might be bringing charges as if they were a sovereign nation, but they had no state embassy in Washington that we could picket
We were five on that trip: Mary Hamilton, who was CORE's only female Field Secretary, Bill Mahoney, who had fallen in love with Mary when they were Freedom Riders, & followed her like a puppy, Pat Smith, an 18-year-old New Orleans CORE activist, her fiancé, Frank Nelson, a 23-year-old engineer, & me.
We'd worked our way down to Washington, re-testing restaurants on Route 40, which was then the main route between New York & Baltimore. As members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), we had been working on integrating Howard Johnson's, & other restaurants, that leased on the land along the federal highway system.
We would doubtless have stayed at the NAG headquarters, anyway, because of Stokely. Bill Mahoney, had been one of the apartment's residents when he'd been at Howard. He had run through his savings on the Freedom Ride & while organizing in Mississippi. So he had taken off, to work as a stevedore, on the docks in Camden, New Jersey, to earn more money, for school. He was part Italian & his family was connected.
Mahoney — blond hair, blond skin, muscular, gorgeous —had also exhausted his nerves in the Deep South & had been sent North to run the SNCC office in New York, because he was in need of rest & quiet, away from the Movement & Howard. He was a poet, later a novelist.
Stokely Carmichael was then the head of NAG: then & forever. He & Courtland Cox, John Moody & a shifting number of Howard men shared the apartment that served as NAG headquarters. There were always extra beds.
Stokely was, by then, a permanent fixture in our apartment, at our parties, in New York, whenever he came home, which was frequently. Washington was not a good fit for him, really. There was a space of wall next to the radiator in our kitchen, which belonged to him. He held court there. You could come & go twenty times a night & Stokely'd be talking the whole time. He'd talk to a cat about politics, if no one else was listening.
In those days we'd never have thought of taking a trip that did not involve also taking action for Social Good. There was no direct route from one point to another. We always went with A Purpose. At the very least, one could find a picket line, on the way.
We had spent the day in pairs or groups, tripping in & out of restaurants along Route 40, ordering coffee, being served — or not — & politely confronting the management if we were not. I forget who we were targeting, that particular weekend. The overall campaign, targeting Maryland, lasted more than six months & about 1400 people had joined as testers. Howard Johnson's was a national chain, which had leases from the federal highway system & should not have been able to refuse to seat African-Americans. We also tried to integrate independent restaurants off the highway & facilities in the city of Baltimore.
National CORE had been muscled into giving their all to the Route 40 campaign. We who volunteered our every spare hour got to see a lot of the Northeast corridor. My roommate, Mary, was a CORE Field Secretary, and was needed to help coordinate those dozens of cars full of testers.
It really was an admirable campaign, when one thinks of those Volkswagen Beetles, family station wagons & cars in every kind of condition, stuffed with volunteers, crossing the Delaware Water Gap, to see that the right thing was done. It was a valiant little band, like the taxis of Paris going to the rescue of the soldiers at the Marne, or the English fishing & pleasure boats setting out from Dover to bring home the British troops trapped in France.
The seeds of the Route 40 campaign had been sown by a bunch of reporters from The Baltimore Afro-American. They had decided to see if they could get something to eat along Route 40 by dressing up in a hodgepodge of clothes & drapery which they imagined to look something like African robes & turbans. They tried to keep it this side of travesty: but it tickled their sense of the absurd.
There had recently been a spate of publicity about refusal of service to delegates from the new African nations, when they traveled between our nation's capital & the U.N.
The Federal government had gotten sensitive & had made an issue of not treating Africans like American Negroes. I suppose the Department of State had taken it up with someone who had leaned on the governors, who had passed the word along to local jurisdictions. A distinction had been established. Africans were no longer just More Colored Folk; they were Somebodies.
So the Afro-American reporters had tried to see if they could pass for Africans, & thus sit down & have a meal, like White reporters. It started when they were on their way to cover a story that was also being covered by reporters from all-white newspapers.
As there were really no mainstream publications that would hire Negroes — other than the New York Post — Black & White reporters never travelled together. Black reporters got their meals from the back door of the restaurant, buying food to eat in the car. The alternative was to travel far off the highway in search of a Black neighborhood with a restaurant open, where they could eat.
To see if they couldn't sit down to eat in Maryland & Delaware, too, the newsmen tried changing their suits for robes, scowling sternly, & speaking to each other in Pig Latin. A staff photographer took photos of them doing this, so the impression was that they were very important.
The real shock to the Afro-American reporters was not how well it worked, but that they were completely unrecognized by any of the white reporters, with whom they had covered stories for years. It was a great story, but it also galvanized local people to extra effort for desegregation.
First it was reporters dressed in borrowed clothes, then, the Nelsons entered the fray.
Wally & Juanita Nelson were short & really cute, & you did not mess with them. They were Anarchists, they married by mutual consent, which is about the only law they recognize, & I personally think there should be bronze statues of them in every place they ever lived. The plaques should read: this is what Uncompromising looks like. Wally would as soon cause trouble for the Movement as for the Government: power is power!
This is also a guy who charmed his future wife, the moment she saw him, behind bars. He was serving a long prison term. He'd deserted from a Conscientious Objectors work camp, because he realized he was cooperating with a segregated army by working in the camp. She was a reporter, exposing the filthy, nasty conditions in the jail.
Into his 90s, & her 70s, they lived back in the woods in Massachusetts without electricity or a telephone & worked a farm where they grew herbs & made their own soap. This, to avoid taxes which support the War Machine. Wally had also served time in Leavenworth. He was CORE's first Field Secretary & — at the height of the McCarthy era — he insisted that Communists should be able to join the Movement. Congressional committees were hunting even schoolteachers & newspaper headlines screamed that integration was a Communist plot: so you may imagine how well Wally's principled stand was accepted.
Juanita Morrow Nelson had run one of the first sit-ins at a lunch counter, in 1943, when she was a student at Howard. The great lawyer-writer Pauli Murray — then a student —was their counsel.
The Nelsons had led a group of activists to test facilities along Route 40. They had been arrested in Northeastern Maryland. They had chosen Jail, No Bail. That is, they would not pay the State & the bail bondsmen to let them out, after they had been arrested for challenging disgraceful laws.
Then, being the Nelsons, they had gone on a hunger strike, which lasted 14 days while they served out their sentence. That forced the CORE National Office to take notice. It wasn't as if the Nelsons were just anybody. Wally, while always the center of controversy, was much beloved & respected. Even among the quirky individualists of the early Pacifist-Civil Rights Movement, Wally was both a thorn & an icon. He was one of the heroes of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, which was the model for the 1961 Freedom Rides. (Juanita Nelson had been barred — as a woman — from participating on that ride, & she never forgave CORE, even after it was defunct.) Everyone in the National Office had a personal commitment to them.
When National CORE threw itself into the Route 40 Campaign, it gave a chance for participation to a lot of people in the North, who wanted to do something, but couldn't go South, to help the southern students, personally. There was plenty that Northeasterners were working on, locally. Discrimination was still legal in housing, jobs, & education: not only for Negroes, but for Jews, Italians, and most non-Western European stock. But the Route 40 campaign was a revelation to many people: seeing legal segregation in restaurants, which were hardly more than commuting distance from their homes.
The weekend I'm talking about might have followed an action in Baltimore, rather than on the highway.
Come to Washington, D.C., in order to hear Betty Daniel's fiancé audition for a job as assistant minister. Or, more precisely, to take his measure, as Pat Smith & Frank Nelson were planning to marry. No one had met him, but his fiancée, Betty Daniels, had been a New Orleans CORE Freedom Rider, who had almost been hanged herself, while trying to save Pat, Frank & Alice from being lynched in Poplarville, Mississippi.
Betty had met Garnell Rosemond, while picketing, during a workshop on nonviolence, in Washington D.C. She decided to get a job & stay on in the vicinity. The newly minted Rev. Rosemond was to marry Pat Smith to Frank Nelson in a home ceremony (my home) on April Fools Day.
Although Pat & Frank were heroes of the Freedom Rides, Pat was only 18. New Orlean's CORE's last Freedom Ride, was on November 1st, 1961. Becoming a Freedom Rider had been Pat's birthday present to herself. CORE would not allow minors to participate. That was to protect themselves against charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. But also because the criminal laws against minors were so severe & capricious.
"I was 17 when I got on the bus in New Orleans & 18 when I set foot in Mobile, AL." Pat knew that Frank would marry her, the moment he stepped off the train from New York. He went from CORE training in New Orleans to Jackson for the National Freedom Ride. But when he got out of jail, he returned to New Orleans. He was a civil engineer, but had quit his job to work full-time in the Movement. Frank had promised Pat's mother that they would be legally married when she came North with him. (Interracial, or miscegenated marriages were illegal in nearly half the United States.) The marriage could not, of course, have been performed in the Virginia suburb of the nation's capitol, where we were headed, to hear Garnell's sermon.
Pat & Frank wanted to vet this guy, because they had never heard him preach. Besides, he & his fiancée wanted us to come show the flag at his first sermon. In deference to this forthcoming solemnity, I eschewed my signature Gypsy Wench festive garb. Instead, I wore a three-piece camel's hair set my mother had bought for me, which I secretly loved, though I hated to admit it. So we were very well dressed, which was later to serve us in good stead.
That Saturday there was a party in the NAG apartment. I think there was one every Saturday. America was a much more sociable country, before the late 1960s. Everyone had a party to go to on Saturday, just as most people had a weeknight for playing cards, or bowling. Women had kaffeklatsches in each other's kitchens, went shopping — or window shopping — together & went to their mother's at least once a week. So, NAG parties were a permanent fixture: pretty well known & pretty popular. Nothing much; dancing in the living room, politics in the kitchen. People hung on to their own bottles, & brought set-ups & snacks. The rest of the Howard campus was given over to Fraternities & NAG was the refuge of politically aware people. Many NAG people also belonged to fraternities, because everywhere — but particularly on Black campuses — fraternities mattered from college to death. But NAG did have the air of a political geek frat.
Mary & Bill would be feted, of course. Frank hardly ever drank. Pat & I had to fend for ourselves. We went out into the eerily empty Washington night streets, to get a pint. She showed me how to hide it in the toilet tank, to keep it chilled & out of the hands of strangers. I think that huge apartment had only one shared bathroom, (with another off a bedroom). We kept checking into it & locking everyone else out.
The person we soon learned to seek out was Mary Lovelace, Stokely's fiancée. It was she who helped us eject people so we could sack out & to find something to eat, beyond potato chips & to figure out where the guys could have hidden the bed linen. She & I have trailed each other through several cities, maintaining a friendship through the sheer surprize of finding a familiar face in unfamiliar circumstances.
Mary & Stokely were a pretty couple. Stokely, who was West Indian, was thin & all angles, funny & full of fire. Mary was on the light side of medium brown & had a real struggle to get her curly ash-brown hair into a workable natural (Afro). In those days, peer pressure among the political vanguard favored the natural, although it was an embarrassment on campus & on the street, & few women had the guts to confront their parents with the results.
Mary was already a painter of recognizable talent. She had a good head on her shoulders, an unshakable temperment (then) & an amused indulgence of the prima donas around her. Stokely lost a lot when he lost her, years later, when she was ready to marry & he was not. With her, he might never have fizzled & burned, the way he did: but who's to say how she would have fared? After many harrowing adventures she became Chair of the Art Department at U.C. Berkeley. I went to Stokely's wedding when he married Miram Makeba & he never once looked at her the way he always used to look at Mary. (Makeba must have been blindly in love, because I could not figure out why she'd marry him; considering it was certain to end the career she'd built with her whole life.)
But that was a world away, & yet to come. What puzzles me about that weekend is how we got Mary Hamilton to sleep over in the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) apartment. Did we slip her a mickey? Mary Hamilton, had what some might regard as farcical standards of cleanliness. She also would have had to have allowed the rest of us to bunk down. Mary was great at building connections with townspeople in the South, not only because of her passion & steadfastness, but probably in part because of her high standards. But, the people who had to meet those standards were her colleagues. She was not a person to turn a blind eye to the housekeeping of college guys. Mary even demanded that jails toe the line.
There was a story Mary used to tell of being jailed in Lebanon, Tennessee. The Mayor — a sweaty, scruffy little man — had come to the Black side of the jail to gloat over the prisoners. He said: Well Annie & Mary & Kitty: now, how do you like what you got yourself into?
Mary was wound up tight & her 'Indian blood' rose. She used to flush from her feet up. Rev. King's nickname for her was "Red" & he used to get her angry on purpose, just for the sport of watching her turn color. She had the worst temper in the entire nonviolent movement.
Mary said to the Mayor, "Our names are MRS. Anderson, MISS Hamilton & MRS. Jones. And if you don't know how to speak to a Lady, THEN GET OUT OF MY CELL!" And he did. She said he made little beaten dog noise & started to back away, as she closed in on him, saying, "This place is a pig sty. This is the filthiest jail, I have ever seen in my life. I want it cleaned right now." She said he just ran. But within half an hour people came to clean the cell.
Mary had almost become a nun: but they sent her back out into the world to think about it. Maybe it was the Oblate Sisters of Providence that had doubts about measuring up to Mary (though they had raised her).
And how did we — such an unlikely pair — become roommates? I pursued her because she had begun dating my boyfriend, & I wanted her where I could keep an eye on her. Really, he was only her escort, asked to squire her about, when she was making speaking appearances at parties. A woman would not have gone unescourted to Cocktail Sips, in those days. But of course he had not resisted the temptation to heighten the effect on her of his presence. He was not a cad: he had simply vivified the situation. It was probable, too, that Gladys Harrington — the Chair of New York CORE — who had made that match, had hoped to come between us.
In any event, I needed a roommate & was so insistent, that Mary could not figure out what was going on. She thought at first that I was a familiar kind of sycophant, wanting to be attached to her as a Black heroine of the Freedom Rides. She decided that wasn't it & what the hell, she needed a cheap apartment. The boyfriend bowed out of both our lives, and then my previous roommate started dating him.
We were up much too early Sunday morning, in order to go hear this Garnell person, as I was beginning to think of him.
Frank was possibly less eager than any of us to hear preaching; but Garnell's fiancée, Betty, had nearly gotten herself killed at Poplarville, Mississippi, trying to save him, Pat, & Alice Thompson on the very last Freedom Ride, on the way back from Mobile.
Betty was the designated Observer. Every action had at least one Observer, & someone with change to occupy the telephone booth, in case of emergency. Pat & Alice had been arrested when they went into the grocery store/bus station to test the facilities. Frank had gone to see what was wrong. They had all been arrested. Betty, the Observer had hidden in a telephone booth when the bus pulled away with Jean Thompson (Alice's Sister) & Doratha Smith aboard. Betty was hiding at the bottom of the booth. She had been discovered by a Black garage janitor who hid her in a borrowed truck. No one in town would take her, & he drove all night to New Orleans, with the headlights off, while she hid on the floor. He would not tell her his name.
When she got back, Jean & Doratha had alerted New Orleans CORE people, who were raising money. Betty's employer & her family had collected money & people to rescue her. Monday morning, Attorney Lolis Eli, CORE's New Orleans attorney, took the money to bail them out. He pretended he was affiliated with NAACP's Jack Young, one of only two licensed Black attorneys in Mississippi. Lolis got them out before the court met in the grocery store. The judge did not want another lynching, so soon after Charles Mac Parker, two years before. Frank had been put in Parker's cell. When they returned to Poplarville for the trial in the Mayor/Fire Chief's garage/Fire Department a crowd had gathered & the mayor dismissed them in order to avoid the immanent lynching. Lolis & his partner Nils Douglass raced back to New Orleans with two cars of Poplarville lynchers behind. A TV crew was waiting at the Louisiana border, & they were saved.
Frank did not begrudge Betty a sermon. So he was graceful about it.
We were not to go directly to the church, of course. There was the matter of the hats. We three, Mary, Pat & I had come to Washington D.C. without church hats. Church hats were serious business. We had asked around at the party, the night before, but no one had one to lend. People understood the request, of course, as bizarre as it may have seemed to be petitioning for church hats among people dancing in a dark room. But no one would have lent a good Church hat to an out-of-towner she met at a NAG party. You kidding?
Betty was staying with a Movement family, named Dunlop, & they would loan us hats in which to make an appearance. Nothing ever seems to be simple for me when I have gone to Washington, D.C.. In later years I would find myself in situations involving spending nights in whorehouses, but this time it was hats.
We piled into the car & headed toward Arlington. It was a beautiful, fresh morning. Cresting one hill we were startled to see the Washington Monument, ringed by 50 American flags flicking out crisply in the breeze. It was a dazzling moment, which impressed Frank Nelson, "Ah" he said, "The United Nations".
The Dunlop girls laid out a generous choice of hats, most of which were only partially recovered from near-mortal illnesses. There is a very famous Dadaist work by Meret Oppenheim, at the Museum of Modern Art. It is a fur-lined teacup & saucer. To see it the first time, is a shock to one's whole system, even before one absorbs its sexual message. That object, I think, was the Great Mother of my hat's tribe. It did not matter that none of the hats matched anything we wore: we needed them for Church.
It couldn't be said, either, that we would be overlooked. It was a Black church & we were a perfect spectrum of human tones: from Frank's hawkish Polish-German Jewish (& Calabrian) blondness to Pat's Afro-Cherokee dark brown with my dark-olive and Mary's Mexican-ish-ness somewhere between.
Well, no disrespect to this Garnell person: but that was some sermon. I thought it started out in an interesting way; but I was not a member of the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church. They wanted to receive the Spirit & fall out. Garnell wanted to talk to them about bringing God's Love to a Politically Cynical World. One lady decided to get up & shout a little, anyway. She had a pretty rough week, but she had a good heart & trusted that Garnell really wanted to move her.
The rest of the church was discomfited. The lady was inappropriate & this minister was not for them — although they wanted to like him — and there were strangers with awful hats in their midst. Garnell realized what was happening & loosened up. But not enough, he wasn't that kind of preacher. He must have shifted through four sermons that morning. He tried everything. He was intimidated by the crowd & tried way too many things. They appreciated xthat, but didn't quite know what to do. So we got two sermons that morning. Four, really. The Pastor had worked up the crowd a little before he introduced the new candidate. Then he stepped in & preached a normal Sunday sermon. By that time the congregation didn't really know what to do & even the minister-in-charge's sermon fell flat. But they could see Garnell was promising & he did get the job.
Pat decided that, because it was his first sermon at his first church, Garnell had been holding back, & he could do more. He had a future, she said. He would be okay for their wedding. I didn't really know what kind of preaching she expected at an intimate wedding in the railroad flat of our new-law tenement off 9th Avenue. But I felt it was best to leave that to them.
Frank, who was Italian & Polish Catholic, with a Jewish maternal grandmother, was fine with anything that would get them married: preferably with a minimum of fuss. (That was not to be, of course. Forty years later, when I was taking oral histories, everyone who was there still reminisced about that wedding.)
Mahoney was, of course, happily waiting for us (for Mary, that is) when we returned from church. Bill Mahoney, the NAG member & Freedom Rider, who was a longshoreman in Camden, New Jersey, had come along to visit his friends, but had mostly come because Mary Hamilton was going. Mary — who taught second grade in parochial school before the Rides — had gained a reputation for her fire & fearlessness when she was in jail in Parchman Farm. Bill, mild & gorgeous, had fallen totally in love with her when they were released.
Bill was easily the handsomest man in any room, anywhere in the world. He was also unspeakably romantic: & naive. Once, when we'd been chatting, he told me he had never before realized a woman could hold a philosophical conversation! And he was hurt because I laughed.
Bill looked like some sort of Latin American soap opera god. He was broad-shouldered, & had a beautiful, vulnerable face: he was totally breathtaking.
One thing though: I simply do not believe that there is such a thing as a person who lacks a sense of humor. Horses have it, so do dogs. But Bill came as close to it as any human I know. (Well, maybe my Stepfather. But that's an Engineer thing.)
Arnold Goldwag told me a Bill Mahoney story that made me reconsider, despite Mahoney's utter, utter seriousness.
Arnie Goldwag was the chairman of Brooklyn CORE, probably the most active chapter in the nation. He started it, renting an unused coal bin for its headquarters & slept there himself, while supporting himself with part-time jobs. Arnie was known to be able to get to three or four demonstrations in three Boroughs in one afternoon. He was the master of the zap action. He would call Southern sheriffs, identifying himself as a Federal Agent, in order to get information about prisoners. There is an African-American folk character called The Signifying Monkey, whose aim is mischief. That was Arnie. And Arnie thought Mahoney was funny.
The case he made was that some evenings after the Route 40/Baltimore actions, he & Stokely & Mahoney went around to elite watering holes in Baltimore, staging quick sit-ins. Of course they did not have the money for the drinks or dinner, but their aim was to provoke. It didn't matter how many greasy spoons one visited: it would be only by harassing the upper crust at dinner that they would finally see action taken, they figured.
At an expensive restaurant named Hooper's, the owner was hostile & explosive. He was in the middle of an abusive tirade when Mahoney asked him, "Is this why my Father gave his life in the War?"
The man was terribly shaken, and taken aback. He apologized, & the three of them got up & left, with great dignity.
Of course I knew Bill's father, who was quite alive & a numbers-running gangster in New Jersey. We'd met when Mahoney introduced Mary to his family: he was that serious about her. I had heard that Bill's Italian grandfather was a mobster & his father, though Black, was involved in the Mafia, or the Numbers. I was confused, on meeting his parents, & didn't know who was what. Mr. Mahoney was handsome: a slender, muscular, intense, but dark man, with aquiline features. It was Bill's mother who appeared to be white, with fair hair & blue-hazel eyes like Bill's. They were hardly even in their forties. Bill was their only child, as far as I knew, & they were very unhappy with his involvement with the police; the last thing they wanted was the authorities coming around. It was very hard to connect them with the dreamy, unworldly Mahoney I knew.
So that was our group.
Monday, we picketed. I don't know who decided we would sit-in at Robert Kennedy's office. I don't think that I was privy to the plan. Almost every protest group in America was riddled with agents & informers, not to mention agents provocateurs. We used to joke that if the dues-paying Federal agents pulled out, the movement would go broke. They needed to keep us going, to keep themselves employed, however. If most of the people in NAG had known that we were to sit-in, then the news would have gotten to the FBI, & it wouldn't have happened. (Or some undercover agent would have created an incident which would have gotten us all in jail.)
We went inside in two groups. I must have missed something in high school, when we studied American Government. I hadn't realized the Attorney General's office was in the middle of J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation. I suppose I could have taken the initiative & found out these things. I'm bad at geography, too.
I was with Stokely & Mary Lovelace, & Courtland Cox. We were not an easy group to miss. Stokely was very tall, Courtland was taller & a very big, very glum man. I do think he would gladly have laid down his life for Stokely, if that had been called for. He & I just never liked each other: some sort of bad chemistry. But no one could question that his motives were always the purest. Whatever.
There were, not to put too fine a point on it, no other persons of color, except janitorial & kitchen staff, in the building: & we had not disguised ourselves. We walked in, in interracial groups. I saw one man — when one of the FBI classrooms emptied — who looked like he might have been Latino, but I cannot tell you whether he was an FBI agent or a police officer from the Southwest, in for training. We seem to have passed through some FBI training school, or area for refresher courses, at one point. Stokely seemed to know where we were going. Although there was a heart-stopping moment when he & Courtland stopped to debate whether we were all turned around & headed in the wrong direction, or even on the wrong floor.
We walked in just when classes were breaking. Men began pouring out of the rooms, carrying notebooks. They froze in their tracks: unable to believe their eyes. (Were we some sort of test of their powers of observation?) They gaped, but no one spoke. But, then they came to themselves & went about their business (which was spying.)
No one stopped us. No one asked who we were or where we were going. No one ran yelling in the office of J. Edgar Hoover & Clyde Farnsworth. That was the absolutely astonishing part. A more out-of-place assemblage in the FBI, you could not imagine. (Then again, Hoover couldn't have been sorry we were heading for Robert Kennedy's office.)
As I remember, when we got to Robert Kennedys office, the others had already entered & were sitting-in. I know that Bill Mahoney & Mary Hamilton & Pat Smith were inside, on the couch in the reception room, & Courtland walked right in to join them.
Frank Nelson was in a telephone booth in the hall, with lots of dimes. In FBI Headquarters, for heavens sake. We were counting on using dimes to telephone people outside if we got arrested sitting-in in FBI headquarters. We were anticipating being able to occupy a public telephone booth in the hall of the Justice Department. And, we had dimes on us.
What I remember of the first hour, is sitting on the floor, outside Bobby Kennedy's office, chatting with Mary Lovelace. I guess we were the Observers. Frank was at the telephone. We were observing from the hall.
I had folded the swingy three-quarter-length fake-fur leopard coat my mother had given me, & I was using it as a cushion on the floor. Jackie Kennedy had made leopard fashionable & fake-fur was absolutely new. I was wearing it to sit-in at her brother-in-law's office. My mother had bought me one of the first — because she'd never have worn fake fur, herself — & it looked absolutely real, to most people. My mother'd have had a fit if she'd seen how cavalierly I was treating that coat. It is now in the Costume Collection of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. I felt it had been to important places & Harold Koda thought it was an interesting piece of fashion history.
I remember Stokely pacing, then squatting next to me, for quite a while, before he was called into the office. The role of Observer was not for him. Once inside, he kept walking back & forth to the door, to talk to us outside. Sitting still was also not in his repertoire.
The Sit-In was already a perfect range of skin-tones, Stokely, a deep brown, Courtland, brown, Pat Smith, a luminous deep red-brown, Mahoney all gold & Mary Hamilton, a freckled olive.
Stokely, Mary Hamilton & Courtland were about to be called away for negotiations. I think that Mahoney did not go because he'd had no part of the planning. Neither had Mary Hamilton, but she was a CORE Field Secretary, so she was very official, & had to be included in the negotiations. Pat Smith also stayed behind because she was just a skinny 18-year-old kid.
We had talked to Stokely about whether either of us should sit-in when the others left. Mary Lovelace didn't really want to: I wanted to but didn't know if I should (if it was presumptuous). But that was pretty much out of the question, because the office was, by then, guarded. There had been almost no question of a need of security, when the Attorney General's office was in the midst of the FBI. Now they knew.
On the other hand, Pat Smith would be practically alone, with only Mahoney for company. Pat was rapidly becoming my best friend, although there was a gap of four years & race & class between us. It didn't matter, though: there was something magical about her, & I am a swell audience.
I don't know what it was about the New Orleans CORE people. They had that slow, syrupy speech & they were so clever & analytical. New Orleaneans were also the only Southern Black Folk who always looked everyone directly in the eye & didn't let go. It wasn't confrontational, just very direct: and charming. I noticed that they always acted as if everyone was in on the joke: even the dumb whitey. Pat was extraordinary even in that group. Think: Donald Sutherland's presence in a skinny Black teenage female. Vital, wry & sexy: it was all there.
Poplarville, Mississippi was the most harrowing situation, although the worst mayhem had occurred some months before that, in McComb, when a mob attacked the testers & broke Jerome Smith's jaw. Alice Thompson had tried to throw herself across him & had been thrown across the room. McComb was infamous.
A woman in New York was gushing over Pat, once, & asking pointless questions about the Freedom Ride. I was standing by, amused, seeing Pat was sick of it. Pat interrupted her, reverently, sympathetically, saying, "We call Sheila, here, the Widow of McComb!" And she walked off. The woman, flustered, said she was so sorry & turned to sympathize. I was stunned, but managed to get away.
I had been watching people come & go into the Attorney General's office. It was a revelation to me. I had not realized that Washington was a marriage mart, in 1962. The secretaries were all graduates of the Seven Sisters: slender, with pageboy haircuts held back by headache bands, wearing expensive, relaxed little shifts, pearls, cuban heels & cardigans over their shoulders. They had all come to Washington through connections to the Kennedys. Political Science majors, who could not have careers, because they were women: but they could meet husbands whose careers needed them. They all walked into the office carrying papers & legal pads. Every one of those secretaries in the Justice Department in that year appeared to be expensively appointed in their tribal clothes, expensively reared & educated, relaxed, sexy. They would slow down before entering, compose themselves for just a second, & smile. It was an astonishing performance & I watched it, maybe fifteen times in that hour.
It occurred to me that I was properly dressed, even though my clothes were in their third day. Mother had bought me the camel's hair a-line skirt & sleeveless shell, with cardigan, which I wore. I don't remember my accessories, but I'm sure they were tasteful. My comfortable pumps matched my clothes. I have big feet & they didn't make gaudy shoes for us before they realized there was a transvestite market for big shoes. I picked up a notepad & walked in, leaving my coat & purse with Mary Lovelace. I passed. I was the fifth anonymous civil rights activist on that sit-in.
The receptionists were surprized, but not astonished: it had been quite a day.
While all of us were still crowded together on the couch, or leaning against the walls, Carl Rowan, the Black journalist, wandered in, feigning happenstance. I did not think it was coincidence, but I was impressed. He was Assistant Deputy Secretary of State: the most prominent Negro in the United States Government. And he just happened to have business with Bobby Kennedy while we were sitting in. He had been dragged out of who knows what, to impress us. Wow! We were dealing with rank amateurs!
Then, again, they had all the power & we had only this nonviolent moral ju-jitsu, to gum up the works. Wasn't that always the way!
He acknowledged us, but then spoke with the receptionist about whatever his business was purported to be. In one of her voluble asides, Mary Hamilton whispered, "Uncle Tom!" Mary didn't remember this, but said it must have been she. Could he not have heard? A couple of people within hearing, nodded. I wasn't sure.
Of course he did, possibly, save the Mongomery Bus Boycott when he was a reporter in Minneapolis. Rowan spotted a release on the AP wire, saying that the Boycott had been settled, without meeting the Montgomery Improvement Associations demands. King, alarmed, asked Rowan to find the names of the ministers who had made the settlement. It was a hoax that the Improvement Association was able to expose, in an hairbreadth escape. But, then, Rowan was later to denounce King for opposing the Vietnam War. On the one hand, on the other: what does it matter? He did business with them, they didn't really know what they were doing, he played the game.
When Stokely and Courtland & Mary Hamilton were called away, & only three of us were left, the receptionist got curious & she was just naturally outgoing. She must have been a sunbeam in that office; the pet of the older secretaries, wonderful at putting people at ease. She was doubtless in charge of pledges in her sorority. She found out that Pat Smith was from New Orleans. Oh, how wonderful: her family had taken her to New Orleans last year. She loved it. (Warning bells were tolling in the background.) They had the most wonderful time. They stayed in a hotel near the French Quarter. They did everything. They visited all the jazz clubs. They went all over the French Quarter in one of those open carriages.
Pat just kept nodding & nodding, smiling & smiling as this sweet, sweet girl kept cataloguing all the things that she, Pat, had never been able to do, never been able to think of doing, never been allowed to want to do. We let it go. We just let it go.
Not too long after, Burke Marshall came out of Kennedy's office. There must have been a back door to that office, or else it was normally more packed than the ship's cabin in "Night At The Opera".
Burke Marshall headed the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. He'd been appointed because he was a corporate lawyer for Standard Oil & the DuPonts, with no interest or expertise in Civil Rights. He had been chosen to placate southern congressmen who would have felt that anyone who had shown interest in race would have been too much of a leftist for the job.
He came out loaded for bear & found himself talking to Mahoney, who was thinking about something else — perhaps composing a poem, anyway, certainly not totally present or interested — a skinny 18-year-old & me, (who didn't know what was going on). All the honchos were gone. I don't know who they'd gone to negotiate with: probably, with the only person not packed into Kennedy's office at the moment.
Marshall was angry: oh, my, he was wound up. He told us we didn't realize how much the Justice Department had to do. He said they'd sent people to investigate, that they had been working night & day to get those people out, that they couldn't just drop everything & concentrate on one case, that they had been dealing with the Louisiana authorities. We didn't realize how difficult it was, that... He went on & on, for about four or five minutes.
When he caught his breath, young Pat Smith said to him calmly, as if reasoning with her four-year-old nephew, "Now..., you know that's not true." And he stopped, dead: totally bewildered. He had no reply. Because, it wasn't true. We were politely waiting for a better answer. So he left.
Pretty soon Stokely came back with Mary Hamilton & Courtland & said we were leaving. So we left. We just walked out, the same way we walked in.
Outside, on that beautiful day, on the picket line, wearing a placard, "Free Chuck McDew", was Chuck McDew, bursting with energy & joy.
Minutes before, the head of the Civil Rights Division had been telling us how diligently Justice was monitoring the situation; without knowing that McDew & Zellner had been bailed out by Jim Dombrowski and SCEF. SCEF, the Southern Conference Education Fund, was a bi-racial group, which ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee after staff members Carl & Anne Braden bought a house in a white neighborhood for a black family, which was fire-bombed by local whites. Carl Braden served fifteen months for sedition in Kentucky, accused of firebombing the house, himself. Jim Dombrowski, then SCEF's head, had been a student of the Social Gospel, at Vanderbilt Divinity School, in Nashville, in the 1920s. He & fellow divinity student, Myles Horton were both targets of Southern Congressional wrath & thus branded Communist by HUAC. Association with them branded both SNCC & SCLC as Communist organizations in the press & Congress.
Dombrowski said, "You are free to go, Best be back for trial. Ya heah?"
McDew had flown straight to Washington to meet with Burke Marshall about getting Dion out of jail. But instead, Dion was eventually bailed out by Jimmy Jones, a Baton Rouge NAACP attorney, & Wiley Branton, a civil rights lawyer who was later to head the Voter Education Project, which channeled SNCCs energies into voter registration work. Dion served fifty-nine days in solitary that time. He served another sixty in solitary, on the same charges, when his appeals failed. If he had not he would have lost the money posted for his bail by local people in Baton Rouge.
This snippet of a memoir has travelled through various computers & programs since 2001. It's time I placed it somewhere.
This is how we did sit-ins, in the days before metal scanners in government buildings, terrorist threats that have replaced the Communist bugaboos, & the NSA tapping telephones with an efficiency that probably pans out as only pretty-much equal to the state bureaus of investigation & switchboard operators in small towns. The point is that we were determined & we followed Gandhi's rules of nonviolent action, as codified by Krisnalal Shridharani in his thesis & book, War Without Violence. Nonviolent ju-jitsu left room for a sense of proportion & a sense of humor in the undertaking. When you meet violence with violence, you're screwed.
Copyright © Sheila Michaels. 2001
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