[Interview conducted by Shiela Michaels]
[Bruce Hartford was active with CORE and the Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) in California 1963- 1964, and was a member of the SCLC field staff in Alabama and Mississippi from 1965-1967.]
Busting My Block
March On Washington
CORE vs Bank of America
White Mob Comes to Watts
County Prison Farm
Selma and Non-Violence
Jim Clark & the Commie
Like a Runaway Slave
March to Montgomery
SNCC and SCLC
SCOPE in Crenshaw County
Rural Alabama Sit-in
Dave's Driving Lesson
Showdown in Brantley
License to Drive
Hale County Election
Welcome to Meridian
Non-Violence in Grenada
KKK Attacks the Kids
Jesse Jackson vs My Mom
Bruce: My parents became Reds during the Great Depression because they felt the system failed the people and basically served only the rich and the powerful. They were idealists and became union organizers for a leftist union which was destroyed during the McCarthy era. They left the Party in '57 but continued to be progressive and liberal in their thinking and action. My mother still is fighting for causes that help the people. My father passed away a long time ago. So I came to my way of thinking almost as a family legacy, as it were.
We lived in L.A. during the McCarthy inquisition and my parents suffered because of it. They were called before committees, were fired from various jobs, and were kicked out of the unions they had helped to build.
Shiela: What happened to your parents and the Party?
Bruce: Oh, they were expelled from the party for being human beings, for refusing to follow party policy when they felt it was wrong.
Shiela: Oh my God. I didn't realize that.
Bruce: Well, they were ready to leave anyway. They were disgusted with certain rules and dogma. My father was expelled for bringing a watermelon to a picnic because it had "racist implications." You know like insinuations that Blacks and Watermelon go together or crap like that.
My mother didn't get expelled. She blew up and resigned when the Party said she couldn't take me to a child psychologist even though the psychologist was also a party member. There was a rule that for security reasons members should have nothing to do with psychiatrists.
Shiela: What did they do after they had to leave the union?
Bruce: Well, my mother had a series of office jobs at which the FBI would show up and get her fired. And my father went in with a group of doctors to form a medical clinic that gave health care to union members and the poor. So he worked as their business manager for a while. And then that fell apart too because the McCarthy Committee called it a "Communist" health center. Then he tried carpentry kitchen remodeling which he was good at, but he wasn't too good at turning a profit. He did great work, but he couldn't bring himself to charge enough to make a decent profit. So he didn't do well financially, and it was a hand-to-mouth existence.
So eventually, a friend who was a professor at Yale University recommended him for a job as a lab business manager. When he told them that he was on the Dies Committee list Yale wasn't bothered. They don't kowtow to such things. Yale considers itself considerably above the FBI. So Yale told them to take a hike. They are Yale. They don't have to listen to such low-account folks. My father worked there until he died.
Shiela: We produce Presidents, like the Bushes.
Bruce: Right. And that's nothing to be proud of.
Bruce: Later, when I became active in the movement intellectually, ideologically, politically, my family situation was much better than many of other civil rights workers whose families disowned them, whose attitude was: "How dare you?"
My parent's attitude was "We think the Civil Rights Movement is really wonderful. It's great, but you shouldn't do it, Bruce. What you should do is go to college and get a profession, and then when you have a safe job and a real profession, then you can help."
Shiela: And then everything will be over, but you can help then.
Bruce: This argument was never persuasive with me, but they could not You know, I think secretly they were very proud, but they also understood much better than the ordinary white family how dangerous it was to be in this. I said I was Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I consider myself Jewish. My father is white Appalachian, from Kentucky. He had a sixth grade education, and was one of the very few native white Southerners active in the left back in the 30s. To the union movement he was a treasure. So they sent him to organize in Mississippi and Georgia and Alabama.
Shiela: Oh, oh.
Bruce: No shit. He was chased out of towns, Tupelo for one, by the Klan. So he knew. [laughing] He knew what this shit was about.
Bruce: And he knew how dangerous it was. So in that sense, I couldn't shine them on the way some of the others could "Oh Mom, it's all right. We're just registering voters. No problem. The news media exaggerates. Perfectly safe. Don't worry." I used to listen to that side of their phone conversations. "Oh Dad, I'm fine. No, I'm not involved in any of that stuff. We're just registering voters." [laughing] Yeah! Right! "Just registering voters."
So anyway, I didn't have to break with my family for Movement reasons. We just had the normal rebellious-youth wars.
I think secretly they were very proud of me. But they kept on, "Oh, first get a college degree. Then you can really help." They never gave up that line.
Busting My Block
Shiela: When did you become aware of race?
Bruce: Well, I'm white, Jewish. But Black people were part of the family friendship circle. When you're a kid, you go with your parents to their friends homes, people come to dinner, and it was all races. You go to a "progressive" summer camp that's all races. This was no big deal to me, it was our norm.
So I guess the place when I first really became conscious of race as an issue See, we lived in an area of Los Angeles near Western & Vernon. Leimert Park it was called. At the time we moved in it was white working-class, Ford workers and like that. But in L.A. they had a system of residential segregation it was very tightly controlled by the banks and the real estate. They determined which races lived where. It was called "redlining." I guess they had a map with the ghetto boundaries drawn in red. On the inside, on the ghetto side of the line, no real estate person would show a house to anyone white, no bank would grant a mortgage, landlords would only rent to Blacks or Latinos or whomever the ghetto was to contain. On the white side of the line, it would be just the reverse, no Blacks, no Latinos, in a few cases no Jews.
Of course, I didn't know any of this at the time. I was just a kid. But what they would do is they must have had some kind of meeting, I suppose and they would say, "Here are the blocks we're going to bust." That is, the blocks they were going add to the ghetto, the blocks they were going to convert from all-white to all-Black as the ghetto expanded over time.
So when we moved in, the South Central ghetto was about seven blocks away. And over the course of time, each year it moved a block or two closer to us. So then one year, I remember one spring, I think it was '56 or '57, they "busted" our block. Meaning they sold a home to a Black family. And then every weekend over that summer, I'd be mowing the lawn and I'd see these real estate people come up and say, "Oh, Mr. Hartford (to my father of course) I am sure you know what's happening here to the neighborhood. I know you have concerns. I see you have children, and you know what's going to happen to the schools. And we really want to help you. We will buy your house, right now, today, write out a check for " I guess it was around $30,000. Now the house was worth $40,000, probably. These are ballpark figures from a kid's memory so probably not accurate.
So they would buy these houses for less than what they were actually worth on the open market. They would then sell them within few days or a week or so to Black families trying to get out of the ghetto, and they would sell them for over standard market prices. For example, a house worth maybe $40,000, they would frighten the white owner into selling for $30,000, and then a week later sell to a Black family for $50,000. Sweet deal — for the real estate brokers.
Today, the media and the schools present the overt racism of those days as a moral, or psychological, or sociological issue — which, of course, it was — but they ignore the financial/economic roots that lay beneath.
I mean, do the math. Redlining kept the Black districts way overcrowded, so people were desperate for decent housing. That meant that when the banks and real estate brokers "busted" a new block, they could sell the houses easy to folk trying to get their kids out of the ghetto. Bam, bam, bam, just like that. Now these were big blocks, maybe 100 homes to the block. And Blacks weren't buying the homes from the whites who had been living there before, they were buying them from the real estate "investors" who had scared the whites into selling their homes for under value. So let's say the investors made a $20,000 profit on each house they flipped from white to Black. That's $2,000,000 (equal to $12,374,798 in 2002) for just that one block over the course of a few months for almost no work on their part. And no risk either, because redlining kept housing for Blacks in short supply.
See, it didn't matter what a real estate broker's personal feelings were towards Blacks, it didn't matter what their sociological or psychological dynamic was regarding race — a million bucks is a million bucks. That's why they fought against open-housing laws so fiercely in the 1960s — because racism was making them rich.
Anyway, over that one summer, just three months, they turned over every house on that block except ours and this Swedish family next door who refused to move. Now during that time, the white kids who were moving out, and the Black kids who were moving in, there was enormous tension, because the white families were losing the most valuable thing they ever had in their lives. They're white working class people. They're being driven out as they see it of their homes and losing a quarter of its value. Meanwhile, the Black families coming in, trying to get rid of the ghetto, and the ghetto is coming
Shiela: Right on their heels.
Bruce: So there was tension between the Blacks and the whites, and the Black kids beat up the white kids, and vice versa, and there was vandalism and so forth, and so on. And there was enormous racial tension in school, it was a very hostile situation. At Dorsey High School where I went, the buildings were arranged in such a way that they formed triangles of open space. And each race had its triangle Dorsey at that time was equally divided a quarter white, a quarter Black, a quarter Latino, and a quarter Asian.
Shiela: Which Asian?
Bruce: Japanese and Filipino.
So each race had a triangle. Each race was at war with all the other races. You went into the wrong triangle you got beaten up. Unfortunately, I was Jewish, and the whites didn't consider Jewish to be part of to be fully white, so I didn't have a triangle.
L.A. CORE Open Housing Actions
Bruce: I wasn't a good student. I hated school, loathed and detested every damn minute of it. So I obviously didn't have the grades to get into any kind of hoity-toity college. I ended up at Los Angeles City College a Junior College. The first couple of years I had no idea what to do with my life, aimless, bored you know, typical teenager.
I hung out at a coffee house called Pogo's Swamp on Melrose, which was your basic beatnik coffee house this was late '62, early '63. One day I was sitting there minding my own business, reading or something, and they said, "We're having a program tonight, a guy's gonna show some movies of a CORE demonstration in Torrance."
I knew where Torrance was. It's an L.A. suburb. But I had no idea what a CORE was. It turned out to be the Congress of Racial Equality. They had this idea that people of any race should be allowed to buy homes wherever they wanted to. Torrance was tract homes, and at that time 100% white — and they wanted to keep it that way. From what I hear, it hasn't changed much today.
So CORE was picketing the tract sales office for open housing. So, this cat from CORE comes to the Swamp and shows these movies he took a Latino guy, Jim I think his name was. I am so bad on remembering names.
In his movie there were more fully-uniformed members of the American Nazi Party counter-demonstrating than there were CORE pickets. Jack boots, tan uniforms, swastika armbands, stiff-arm salutes, the whole megilla. Now at this point in my life I was really deep into the Holocaust. I considered myself to be a "Four-Nevers Jew:" Never forget, Never forgive, Never again, and Never stand by and let that happen to anyone else.
So when I saw those Nazis "Holy shit! When is your next picket? I'll be there." And I went. And again there were more damn Nazis there than there were of us. They had about 50, we had about 20. And these were scary Nazis. These were not your three little Nazis surrounded by a mob of anti-racist protestors. This was a band of racist thugs surrounding a little CORE picket line. Way different from today. Way, way, different from today. And they were throwing shit at us, and you know, the whole bit. Well, I was hooked.
Shiela: You couldn't resist a fight? [laughing] A nonviolent fight, I'm sorry.
Bruce: Basically. Look, where I grew up, I didn't come from Scarsdale. I had been beaten up by bullies. I was scared, yeah, but I wasn't gonna back down from no Nazis. So I became totally active in CORE right at the time it was really mushrooming. This was early '63. Actually, as it turned out, those Torrance actions were the last time we were ever out-numbered by counter-protesters. By the middle of the year, it was the LAPD we were confronting, not the Nazis. Personally, I preferred the Nazis because they were more honest about what they were about.
March On Washington
Bruce: The two things I remember most about the March on Washington, not counting John Lewis' speech and Dr. King's speech, which was great
Shiela: I wrote part of John Lewis' speech.
Shiela: Thank you.
Bruce: That was an outstanding speech. I wish he'd been allowed to give the whole thing.
Shiela: I do too, because most of it was [laughing] mine.
Bruce: Anyway, we was coming on the bus, and it was pitch dark, maybe 4:00 in the morning. We were coming down from the north and we cross over this big bridge, I think it might have been the bridge over the Delaware river. And on the far side there were maybe 20 or 30 or more people with flares and torches and signs saying, "We're with you," "God speed," cheering the buses on.
See, we didn't know I mean I'm sure the organizers knew but we on the busses didn't know whether the march was going to be a success or not. There had been all this stuff in the newspaper no one will come, or it'll be a disaster, the Civil Rights Movement is a hoax, it's just a few malcontents, outside-agitators, communist propaganda, yada, yada, yada.
And then other papers were in total panic mode Call out the National Guard! Alert the 101st Airborne! Close the liquor stores! Hide the white women! Evacuate the children to the countryside! It was like they thought the Mongol hordes of Gengiz Khan were descending on the nation's capitol to rape, ravage, and pillage. And we'd just had Birmingham, where fire hoses and police dogs were used to attack children in Kelly Ingram park, nonviolent demonstrators had been clubbed, beaten, and arrested.
So the first thing we see are people who probably could not come to the march it was on a weekday, a workday but had gotten up in the dead of night to give support. And then as we're driving towards DC, the sun comes up over the Eastern shore, and it's just buses, the whole damn freeway. Just busses bumper to bumper, and we're still miles out. Nothing but buses, solid buses. And that's when we knew.
Shiela: Oh! Gosh!
Bruce: The other thing I remember is that we were hanging around the Washington Monument waiting for the leaders to show up, and everybody got bored, so we all started to march. And the leaders had to [laughing] They never did catch up to the front, so they stopped the middle of the march and cleared people out, so they could have that picture with them linked arm in arm. As though they were leading the march. Well, half the march had already gone on and was behind the photographer on their way to the Lincoln Memorial. I thought that was way cool. It so totally typified the spirit of the Movement, that it was a peoples' movement, not a leaders' movement.
Some folks say that the March was a major turning-point in the Movement and in a sense they are right. The sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the Albany movement, and especially Birmingham made civil rights a matter of national concern put it on the national agenda so to speak. But the politicians didn't get that. Many Senators and Representatives were from states and districts that had small numbers of Black voters. To them civil rights was a local Southern matter of little concern to them or their constituents, and because the Southern Bloc controlled the key committees they voted with the southern segregationists in order to have their own pet projects approved by the committees.
The Southern Bloc all white, of course, with their Black constituents denied the vote were dead set against any civil rights legislation period. Then there was a bloc of Senators and Representatives from industrial states and urban districts of the NorthEast and West Coast whose constituencies included significant numbers of Black and Jewish voters and they could be counted on to support civil rights legislation. But without support from that middle bloc of non-Southerners who represented few Black voters, the pro-civil rights legislators never had enough votes to break the stranglehold the Southern Bloc held over the committee system and their threat of filibuster.
But the March on Washington brought together people of all races from every corner of America they came to Washington in August when even members of Congress stay away because of the miserable heat. And this was something new in Congress' experience. Not in living memory not since the Great Depression or the Women's Suffrage Movement of two generations past had Americans gathered in the thousands on the Mall to demand action.
They Congress had never seen the like of this and it scared the bejeezus out of 'em. It woke them up to the fact that their constituents Black AND white DID care, and care passionately about civil rights for ALL Americans. Suddenly they understood that voters in THEIR district were watching how THEY voted on these issues. No meaningfull civil rights legislation had passed Congress since Reconstruction days in the 1860s, but less than a year after the March the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (after the Selma-Montgomery march.)
CORE vs Bank of America
By the fall of '63 I had somehow managed to scrape by on grades enough to graduate from junior college. So the idiots admitted me to UCLA where there was a campus CORE chapter Bruin CORE it was called. I guess UCLA must have been desperate for students in those days. The Movement was going hot and heavy then, and fortunately I never wasted my time attending classes. CORE was in the middle of the Bank of America campaign at that time you had to be white to work as a bank teller and Bruin CORE's territory for the campaign was Westwood, Santa Monica, and Venice.
Shiela: Oh yeah, that was one of the things that broke up St. Louis CORE. A big bank fell.
Bruce: How did it break up St. Louis?
Shiela: There was a sit-in that shouldn't have happened, and they managed to get all of the people who had been any kind of leader in CORE in jail. And when they got out, they were I mean, they'd done nine months in jail. They were kind of They needed to recoup, and a bunch of people broke off, a bunch of activists broke off from it and formed a very good group.
Bruce: Well, we were more fortunate out here. This was a statewide campaign and had a lot of support. And we really demonstrated the hell out of them. We had coin-ins, and cash-ins, and all kinds of really creative tactics. And Bruin CORE was with the action-faction so we kicked-ass. Eventually B-of-A signed an agreement.
Shiela: Coin-ins? Bringing in the pennies?
Bruce: We would wait until Friday, when the big lines formed (this was before ATMs). We would have a dollar, and we would say, "Please give me change for a dollar." They'd give it to us. "Oh, no. We want pennies." And then we'd start counting them. "One, two, three. Oh, there's only 99, here. You count them." And the whole idea was to hold up the line. Every customer in the bank had crossed through pickets outside, so as far as we were concerned, let them take their business to another bank. We're gonna block this window for as long as we can.
Then we had cash-ins where we would write checks on picket signs and all kind of junk, and we would say, "Here's my dollar check. Cash it." We got busted for one of those. Eventually the bank surrendered. They signed a consent agreement, and within a year, people of all colors were hired. And in those days, those were good jobs with decent pay.
A White Mob Comes to Watts
Bruce: At that time I was a nonviolent "militant." I thought some of the LA CORE leadership were way too conservative, and way too much in bed with the Democratic Party. In late 1963, the nonviolent militants, the "action-faction," the ones who really wanted to get out there with direct-action, about 15 or 20 of us, we formed a group called the Non-Violent Action Committee. Well, first we called it Central CORE, meaning Central Avenue, which is like the 125th Street of L.A's Black community. And then CORE said, "Well, you can't use the name. You're not officially chartered, blah, blah, blah." There was a big hoo-hah about that. So we changed it to Non-Violent Action Committee — N-VAC.
So our first campaign was against these two hamburger stands called "Wich Stand" (as in sand-wich). One of the Wich Stands was in Inglewood, which is right next to Torrance and totally white back then. But the original Wich Stand was in South Central, corner of Florence and Figueroa. You could shoot a ballistic missile in any direction and it would be half an hour before it crossed over any white folk. But the Wich Stand only hired white people. Everyone was white, even the janitors.
Shiela: Oh! How did they get white people to work there?
Bruce: Some had probably been working there since day-one when the neighborhood was white working class. For others, jobs were hard to find. And this was still '63, before the riots, before
Shiela: This wasn't today.
Bruce: Right. So we put up a picket line. They were mainly a dinner joint, and every day we would picket from four in the afternoon until midnight. No one crossed the line. People from the neighborhood would come up to us, "Oh we're so glad someone is finally doing something about this. We've hated this for years." People would bring chicken to us. They would bring cakes and other food the neighborhood people.
Four to midnight picket, seven days a week. December, January. So one Saturday night we're there and we're picketing and singing our freedom songs and it's just routine, and suddenly this car comes crashing through the line and almost kills — I forget who was almost hit. And we're thinking, "What the hell is this shit?"
And then more cars are coming in. Ten cars, a dozen cars, and they're all filled with white teenagers. They get out and they start doing this racist shit, "Oh you jiggaboos, oh you niggers." And dancing around pretending to be monkeys and you know scratching under their armpits, and all that.
Shiela: And they're in the middle of Watts?
Bruce: They are in the middle of Watts. Well, greater Watts. Technically that area was called "South Central." This is, I think it was December '63 or maybe January '64 — before the Watts Riot in the summer of '65 very important to understand the timing here. Anyway, these kids had no clue. Absolutely no clue. What had happened was that the jerk who owned the Wich Stands had gone to the one in Inglewood which was a high school hangout and had gotten all these kids to come in somehow. I don't know what he told them
Shiela: Paid them?
Bruce: I doubt he had to pay them money, "Oh hey, that sounds like a gas! Let's go mess with the coloreds!" They had a crate of eggs, whole flats of them, and they're pelting us with eggs, and singing Dixie, making racist jokes, shouting "Niggers," and stuff. There's about 12 of us on the line, about one-third white, two-thirds Black, and we're picketing up and down the sidewalk. And of course we were deep into nonviolent training, so we know what we're doing. The neighborhood, on the other hand, was definitely not trained in nonviolence.
In L.A, even in that pre-drug wars era, the gangs were very big. And we were on the turf of a gang called the Slausons, which was, I don't know, hundreds of members. It was a big gang.
Shiela: Yeah, that's why we read about them.
Bruce: Yeah, but this was way before the "War on Drugs" turned narcotics into billion dollar businesses, so these weren't narco-gangs, they were more a kind of gang that protected their hood from outsiders such as hostile white gangs, and to some extent, the cops.
Anyway, every once in awhile before this night, some of the gang members would come and they would be "nonviolent" for 15 minutes and walk the line with us. They thought it was a kick. "Hey! See me! I'm being nonviolent!" And they'd all laugh and have a good time. Which was cool with us, we got a kick out of it too.
So anyway, that night, the gang guys come rolling in. And the neighborhood turns out. And they are not pleased. We were "their" civil rights workers. They liked us, they were proud of us. In a strange sense, we were almost like family.
And no police anywhere in sight. Any other night, they were always driving by giving us the eye but not that night.
So pretty soon we had a dozen car-loads of white teenagers, 200 or 300 furious Blacks, and standing between them our 12 nonviolent pickets singing freedom songs. This was Saturday night. This cat and his girl come walking down the street. Dressed. Obviously out on the town. She had on a green sequin sheath. He had on a dark suit with a turtle-neck no tie. Spiffy. Very cool. They must have seen the crowd and the hoo-rah, and come over to see what's going down. She gets an egg right in the chest, on her
Shiela: Sequined dress which cannot be cleaned.
Bruce: Yeah. They don't say a word. They just look at each other. They walk away. Ten minutes later they're back. Leathers. He's got a sawed-off 12-guage underneath his coat. I'm sure she was packed too.
Bruce: The neighborhood crowd was ready to do business. Gang kids and neighborhood folk both. They were furious. And here we are between them and these idiot white kids with no clue the danger they're in. "No, don't cross the line," we kept telling the people. "That is what they want. It's a trap."
So no doubt by now you're thinking, "Well, where were the police?" A good question. As the gang kids rolled in, they would report to a cat named Skillet who was their war chief. We knew him because he'd come by the line several times before. They would report in, "Four carloads of" we didn't call them "pigs" in those days, that was later, we called them "fuzz" back then. "Four carloads of fuzz down there. Three carloads up there. Six carloads over there." In a three or four block radius, there was probably 100 cops, maybe more. Blocks away, out of sight, but completely surrounding us. Waiting. Waiting for violence to happen so they could come in and "protect" these white kids.
Shiela: And these kids didn't know
Bruce: These kids did not know they were being used as bait to start the Watts Riot a year and a half early. I believe that absolutely because Parker, the Chief of Police, saw his force as an occupying army whose job it was to suppress the natives — in their words "to keep the jungle bunnies down." He had a policy of recruiting white southerners for the force because of their racial attitudes and their supposed expertise in controlling Blacks, and white Texans in the same regard to Latinos. But the Black gangs, to some degree, acted as a sort of opposing force that somewhat limited their freedom of action, so the cops hated the gangs. Anyway, I've convinced that as soon as there was violence against those idiot white kids, those cops would've come swarming in, just as they did in a year and a half later when Watts blew and they killed 34 people. And I believe to this day that they deliberately were waiting and hoping to start that riot then so they could whoop-heads on the gangs.
So we knew, because we were listening to these reports. The gang kids were really organized. And we said, "Look, it's a trap. It's a trap." And intellectually they understood that. And we said, "Look, we don't care what you do anywhere else, but this is our nonviolent action. We have to keep it nonviolent, that's what we're about, that's how we win. If they can provoke violence, then they win."
They understood what we were saying, but it was emotionally hard. Every once in awhile something would happen, and they would kind of surge forward and we'd get in front of them and put ourselves between them and the white kids. And we held that line for what seemed like an eternity. Protecting these racist idiots who were taunting and pelting us with eggs. A very weird night.
So eventually I guess either the white kids finally looked out and saw or they ran out of eggs or somthing
Shiela: They may have realized that they had been set up too.
Bruce: I doubt if they ever did, because I don't think they would know about the police situation. They would have no way of knowing.
Shiela: Yeah, but if you're surrounded by all those people, and you know that this guy has kind of supposed that you might have fun by doing this, you're thinking
Bruce: If they had an ounce of intelligence, which I'm not sure I would credit them with. Remember, this is late '63 or early '64, before the Harlem and Watts riots. Black/white issues were still, you know — to whites, Blacks were people you humiliate, people you make racist jokes about, people you look down upon. They weren't scary yet. Anyway, eventually the white kids start to leave, and their cars come smashing out through our line and driving through the crowd, almost running people down.
So the gang kids run for their cars to give chase. We told them, "As long as you don't do it on our picket line!" So they chased them all the way back to Inglewood and apparently beat the shit out of some of them according to what we heard later.
The next day, Skillet he comes up and he says, "I want to apologize for what happened. We weren't prepared for that. But don't worry, if this happens again, we're set. Look down there." And he points down the street to a house that had like five or ten cars parked on the lawn and a bunch of folk hanging. He told us, "Every minute you are here, we will have 50 people there."
"We've made a deal with the Gladiators," he told us. That was the gang that had territory between the Slauson's turf and Inglewood. "We've made a truce with them and the Comptons [a third major gang]. They [the white kids] come back again, they'll never get back to Inglewood alive."
We said, "Well, as long as you don't do it on our picket line," and he said, "Yeah, yeah, we know. You people are crazy. [laughing] But we respect you, you stand up for what you believe. But those f*****s won't get back to Inglewood alive." Fortunately, the white kids never came back so maybe they did learn something after all. And eventually the shmuck who owned the Wich Stand sold it. They tore it down and built a Chevron gas station rather than integrate. And I'm convinced to this day that they deliberately Parker deliberately wanted a riot. They got it the next year.
L.A. County Prison Farm
Bruce: About a year and a half later I had to come back from the South to serve a 30-day sentence on the L.A. County Prison Farm for one of our sit-ins. Excuse me, the "Wayside Honor Ranch," is what they called it.
This was funny [laughing]. When you're in jail, at least that jail, everybody asks what you're in for. At some prisons I've heard they don't do that, but at Wayside they did. But no one ever said what crime they did. You always give the State Penal Code number. "So, what are you in for?" "Oh, 415," that was disturbing the peace. Or "602," which was trespass. And these are three-digit numbers.
But I had been arrested on a sit-in at a Van de Kamp's restaurant, and we were convicted of violating the fire code. So I was serving 30 days for violating Section 51.110.11C. So they'd ask "What are you in for?" "Oh, I'm in for 51.110.11C." "Wow! You must be some heavy dude, man! [laughing] What is that? Jesus, all them numbers!" Actually, it was just for blocking a fire exit with a sit-in in the lobby.
Anyway, looking back on it three decades later, it wasn't all that bad for 30 days. I mean it was very unpleasant, but real educational.
Bruce: Well, learning about reality. What the prison system is. One of the most interesting things I learned is that a good hunk, maybe even a majority, of the prisoners were not actually in the prison. Most of them were Latinos or Blacks who had been arrested and sentenced to a year for failure to pay child support. Under the California law at that time a family could not get welfare unless the father had "abandoned" the family which was a crime.
So to get welfare, to apply, the mother had to swear out an arrest warrant against the father. The father would then be arrested and be sentenced to a year but they wouldn't keep him in the main prison for long. What they would do is put him in a prison fire camp. L.A. has this serious problem with brush fires. They have to maintain all these mountain trails, these firebreaks over all the ridges and have guys ready to hit the fire line at any time of the year. Compared to what's needed to fight fires in the city, fighting a brush- fire doesn't take much training. And prisoners were cheap labor.
Shiela: So you send guys from the city who've never seen brush
Bruce: Well, back in those days, there was a law that anyone driving in California outside a city had to have an axe or a hoe or a rake in the trunk of their car so that if there was a fire they could be stopped at a roadblock and drafted to fight it. And you had to equip yourself. I imagine that law has fallen into disuse by now.
Shiela: I don't think they want me with an axe.
Bruce: Actually, in some ways I think it was probably a good thing people being required to do something in an emergency. Anyway the point is the L.A. County prison-farm system was basically to provide cheap, semi-slave, labor for the fire trails.
Shiela: But you said these guys were in jail for 30 days just on child support
Bruce: No, no, I was in for 30 days for a sit-in. The child support cats, they were in for a whole year.
Shiela: A year?
Bruce: Yeah. To get welfare for the kids, the mother had to swear out an arrest warrant against the father for "abandonment." They would then be sentenced to a year. The attitude of the system was, "They're just a bunch of spics. They're just a bunch of coons. They don't have any real lives anyway. It's probably good for them three squares a day, healthy exercise. We're doing them a favor."
So they'd be sentenced to a year. Most of them were working people. They needed the welfare because they were laid off from the auto plants or something. They were put to work in the fire camps, and on weekends they would bring them in so they could have visiting hours with their families. That's how I got to know them because I was in the main prison.
Bruce: You were in the south, right?
Shiela: Yeah. Jackson first in '62, then Hattiesburg in '64 and Knoxville in '63, and before that Atlanta in '63.
Bruce: CORE or SNCC?
Shiela: SNCC. I thought I was working for Dave Dennis, and then found out I was working for SNCC, that was the first thing.
Bruce: Yeah, SNCC with their very tight organization and administrative procedures [laughing].
Well, when I went south in early '65, I originally intended to work for SNCC. But when I got to Selma, I discovered that SNCC was just beginning to move into the nationalist phase, and the stuff I had come down to do, which was nonviolent direct action, classic SNCC-ian integrated civil rights work, was not being done so much by SNCC anymore. It was being done more by SCLC. And SNCC didn't want me because I was white. So I ended up on SCLC's staff during the Selma campaign.
Shiela: How did you get down? How did you decide to come down, and when you said you showed for SNCC and found out that ?
Bruce: Well, I had flunked out of UCLA [laughing]. You know, they were so unreasonable. Just because I never went to class, never took the tests, never took the finals, and never wrote any papers, they seemed to think I mean, as far as I was concerned, I was learning an enormous amount! Just not what they wanted me to learn [Laughing].
I came up here to SF and crashed at a Movement commune in an old grocery store on Buchanan Street. The Free Speech Movement had started at Berkeley, so I came up here and participated in the FSM, and when it sort of petered out around December I think I wrote a couple people some letters, "Would I be welcome? I've been active in CORE." "Oh yeah, sure. Come on down." You know, it was pretty loose. I had applied to be a volunteer on Freedom Summer, but then I couldn't go because I had to stand trial for some of the arrests at Bank of America, and Van de Kamps.
Selma and Non-Violence
Bruce: Anyway, I came down to Selma, and started working for SCLC. I arrived a few days after the Bloody Sunday march. We tried to march out of Brown's Chapel, and the police put a cordon across Sylvan Street and told us, "You can't march beyond here." And they put a rope across it, which was immediately dubbed the "Berlin Wall." And so from that moment forward, 24 hours a day, there was a crowd of people up against that rope waiting to march, singing, and basically confronting the troopers. It was raining. It was cold. We kept that action going around the clock. That was what was going on during those days while the march was fought in the court, injunctions and like that [laughing].
Meanwhile, all these people were pouring in.
Bruce: Nuns and rabbis and union people, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. And the Selma people were feeling: "Oh my God, we're not alone. People care."
A number of the people who came down were super-militants from the north, nationalists, people who had rejected nonviolence, you know "revolutionaries."
The SCLC folk knew I was CORE trained, that I'd done nonviolent training sessions for N-VAC and so forth. So me and some others were assigned to talk to these guys it was always guys and try and make sure that they remained nonviolent. So we got in these big arguments about nonviolence, "I ain't gonna stand no cracker beating on me and blah, blah, blah."
But then after about a day or so, we gave up the arguing, because we didn't need to do it. We found it was a waste of everybody's time to have those debates. What happened was that the militants were totally unconvinced by what we had to say, and they would go out and join the crowd at the Berlin Wall. And the people there would be singing "We love George Wallace! We love state troopers! We love everybody!"
Of course, nobody really loved any of those people [laughing]. We all hated those SOBs, but it was the way we fought back. And you could see the troopers and deputies and possemen it was just driving them up the wall because they really wanted to provoke violence. First so they could beat the shit out these uppitty [bleeps], and second because they could use it to blame us, arrest the key people, and suppress the Movement. That was their strategy. "We love state troopers," was our counter-tactic. They did everything they could to provoke us. When there was no cameras, they would hit people or they would taunt.
And it was obvious even to northern militants that the cops wanted violence. Well, if you really want to get back at the cops, what you don't do is what they want you to do, what you do do is what they don't want you to do. So within an hour of being on the line you could see these northern militants shrieking at the top of their lungs, "I love George Wallace!! Ain't gonna let nobody turn us around!! We love state troopers!!" Just hurling it with maximum rage. We said, "Okay. Shit-can the arguments. Reality is the best teacher."
Shiela: Who was down there? Who was around organizing in Selma when you got there?
Bruce: Well, SNCC had started the Selma organizing in '63. Bernard LaFayette and Colia
Shiela: Colia Lidell LaFayette, I think, Adams.
Bruce: Who else was there for SNCC? There was a woman who was very important her name was just on the tip of my brain. God, I hate getting old!
Shiela: I bet it was Diane Nash.
Bruce: Yeah, Diane Nash and Jim Bevel came. Prathia. Prathia Hall, that's who I was thinking of. And of course, Amelia Boynton.
Anyway, the local leaders: Amelia Boynton, Reverend Reese, Chestnut, others said, "Look, we need to bring in heavier guns." We need to bring in SCLC, which of course the SNCC people were not enthusiastic about. But I have to say that SCLC had a plan, and they knew what they were doing, and they did it, and it was a good thing.
Bruce: I had a lot of sympathy for SNCC, and I still do. But we had to get a voting rights bill, and Selma was the place to win it. And so SCLC came in. Bevel was the action director, the field general for SCLC, and the goal was to get a voting rights bill. And they were very disciplined about it. They had a strategy, to use mass action to provoke a crises what Bevel called "creative tension" that would force Johnson to act. And they stuck to it. And sometimes I guess it annoyed us, those of us on the ground who were not part of the higher echelon. Like the Turn-around Tuesday. I was really upset about that.
Shiela: What was Turn-around Tuesday?
Bruce: The march that was attacked was Bloody Sunday. King was not there. It was led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams. SNCC told John Lewis not to attend. He said, "I'm gonna march." And so Bob Mants said, "Well, you can't go alone." They were the only two who participated for SNCC. So then of course after everything blows up, there's this enormous pressure. "We're gonna march again."
But there's a federal injunction. And because of the strategy which I didn't understand at the time, and I do understand now and agree with they couldn't violate this injunction for strategic reasons. So a deal was made that King would lead the march up to the police line, and then allow himself to be turned back. There would be no violence. But the sheriff double-crossed him and opened up the way as if they could march. But King had to turn around because he couldn't violate the injunction. And that was called Turn-around Tuesday. It was very controversial. It was one of those times when King was right. We were wrong.
Sheriff Jim Clark and the Commie
Bruce: The sheriff was a guy named Jim Clark. One time was hauling me off to jail and he called me a "communist."
"Communist?" I asked. "What do you mean? What's a communist?"
He said, "A communist is a damn New York kike that wants our nigrahs to register!" Well, except for the fact that I was from L.A, he had me dead to rights.
Shiela: You didn't say anything then.
Bruce: I said, "Oh, okay." [laughing] I mean, what was I going to do? Argue? He wants to define Communist as someone who thinks that American citizens have a right to vote, who am I to argue? I thought it was giving Communists far more than credit than they're due because I was pretty down on the party, I considered them a bunch of liberal do-nothings. [laughing] And I didn't like the way they had treated my parents.
So one of the times I was arrested, I was put in Jim Clark's jail. I always preferred to be arrested by Wilson Baker who was the city police chief, because he would put the white civil rights workers in with the Blacks. Jim Clark did not do that. Jim Clark threw me in the cell with the whites, and says "Here's one of those, ....
Bruce: So this asshole beats on me, which of course I didn't care for. And after awhile he's tired, I'm tired. You know, we're both sitting around in the same cell. We're both in jail. And so we start to talk. And he says, "Oh, you're one of those..." I said, "Yeah." He says, "Did you go to the march in Camden?" Camden was county seat of Wilcox county, which is just south of Dallas county where Selma is. And we had a march there that had gotten attacked, there'd been the posse there and the whole tear gas bit ....
Shiela: So you'd been there already.
Bruce: Yeah, part of the SCLC strategy was to start demonstrations in the surrounding counties: Marion, where Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot, Camden, Demopolis, etc. So anyway, the shit came down on us in Camden, and we retreated back to this church, all bloody, totally reeking of tear gas. And Dorothy Cotton was the SCLC leader, and she got up, and she sang this solo of "Why was the Darkie Born?" You know, Bevel's song? It's a beautiful song. I will remember her singing that until my dying day. It was so emotional, and she's a really good singer. Anyway, that was Camden.
So I'm in Dallas County jail, and the guys says, "Hey, were you in Camden?" "Yeah." "Oh, did you see me?" he asks. "What do you mean?" "I was one of the posse." (The 'beating the shit out of you part was unsaid, but we both understood it.) "Why were you there?" I asked him. "I know you're in Jim Clark's posse. But that's for Dallas county. What were you doing in Wilcox?" He says, "Oh, if Jim Clark tells you go, you gotta go."
"Well, why are you in jail?" And he had this whole long story which I really don't remember. He had done something that got Clark pissed off at him, and he was arrested for something. Which he might have done, or he might have been framed. Who knew? He didn't know. Or he wasn't telling. So anyhow, we're talking, and he's telling me about his experience [laughing], because he was lonely. He'd been in jail for days, you know, and hadn't seen a lawyer.
So we're sitting there talking, and this kid comes down the hall a boy, I don't know, maybe about 10 or 11. Obese, like Porky the Pig. I mean corpulent. And he comes prancing down the aisle between the cells and he starts throwing shit at us. Cigarette butts and wadded up toilet paper and stuff, and taunting us. And I said, "Who is that?" The posse-guy says, "Oh, that's Jim Clark's son." And then his little sister shows up, and she's also Porky the Pig, and she starts in she's like about 7 or 8. I asked, "What are they doing?" He says, "Jim Clark knows the niggers are out to get him and his kids, so they live in a cell down the hall."
Shiela: Oh, for heaven's sake.
Bruce: Yeah. He was raising his children in the jail, in a jail cell, and we could hear them later in the evening, watching TV and playing. And their play yard was the main aisle between the cells, and he wouldn't let them out unless there was like he had some deputy come and guard them at all times, because he was so paranoid.
Bruce: That was exactly my reaction. Whoa! What is this shit? And they were just like the most vile children
Shiela: Yeah. It was like I don't know if you've read Harry Potter, but it sounds like the Weasley's little boy.
Bruce: Yes, yeah, exactly like that. So I always remember that. And you know, years later, Jim Clark was arrested. He turned out to be a drug smuggler, and he's currently serving a prison sentence.
Shiela: Jim Clark is?!
Bruce: Yeah. I don't know, maybe he's out by now, but he served a heavy prison sentence for drug charges, years later.
Shiela: Oh my goodness.
Bruce: I always thought that was pretty cool.
Shiela: Yeah. And dumb enough to get caught.
Bruce: And dumb enough to get caught. [Laughing] That's it. That was Jim Clark all right.
Shiela: For God's sakes, you're the chief of police and sheriff in this small town, and you get caught for drug smuggling?
Bruce: You've got to be really dumb. [laughing]
Like a Runaway Slave
Bruce: Another thing I remember from that period between the second march (Turn-Around-Tuesday) and the actual march was that the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) set up an emergency first-aid station — like a military front-line casualty point — in the basement of First Baptist church on Sylvan Street about half a block from Brown Chapel. See, everyone thought there might be another mass attack from the cops, so this time they were going to be ready for treating the wounded and it was staffed with doctors and nurses and so on.
As it happened, there was no attack because the march turned around, but MCHR kept the aid station up and running for several weeks, all during the period we were waiting for the injunction to be lifted, during the actual march, and even after for awhile. And in addition to treating Movement people and civil rights workers, other folk — Black, of course — started to come to them for issues that Alabama's system of segregated health care ignored or denied.
Early one morning I was there and a young Black woman came in, real hesitant, furtively — scared. She was carrying a sick infant, maybe a week or so old, and bad sick. It turned out she was a sharecropper or tenant living on a rural plantation out in the county somewhere. Her newborn baby was dying, but the landowner refused to let her leave the plantation. Either because he didn't want to pay any medical expenses for her, or he didn't want her to become contaminated with Freedom Movement ideas. Or both. Somehow she heard about the MCHR doctors at First Baptist through the grapevine — the secret rumor line that ran like an invisible network beneath the notice of the white power-structure. In the dead of night, like a runaway slave, she snuck away carrying her child all the way to Selma on foot. She was terrified of what the owner would do to her when he found out she had escaped. The nurse had to keep reassuring her that she wouldn't be sent back.
Shiela: What happend to the child?
Bruce: I don't know. I was just at the station for something else when she came in. My assignment was elsewhere, and I had to leave without knowing what happened to her or her child. I have no doubt that MCHR took care of her and the baby, but so much else was happening that no one had time for anything but what their own job was.
The March to Montgomery
Bruce: So anyway, then came the March to Montgomery. Oh, the march. The march, the march, the march.
Under the injunction, the first day of the march we were on a four lane highway, so everyone could march. We marched up to the spot where the four lanes ended and the two lane blacktop road began, and that's where we camped that night. Under the injunction, only a few hundred could march on the two lanes for traffic reasons, so you had to be one of the chosen to be included, and they chose very carefully.
Anyway, I was not one of the chosen. I was assigned to the night security detail. My job was to patrol the camps at night, because we were being "protected" by the Alabama National Guard, whose unit patches have the Confederate flag. This upset people and made them uneasy. So we were there to make sure that none of the guardsmen were "cleaning" their rifle in the wrong direction, etc. Actually they did a fairly good job I have to give them credit I never saw them pull any shit. They seemed to be well disciplined, and they did their job. They didn't like it, but they did it like soldiers.
Well, the last camp site was in Lowndes county, which if Alabama and Mississippi are the depths, the nadir, the deepest part of American state racism, Lowndes county was the deepest part of Alabama racism. And that's where Viola Luizzo and Jonathan Daniels were murdered. In fact, that night, Mrs. Luizzo was about ten minutes behind me on the highway when she was gunned down by the Klan. We were both shuttling folks back to Selma from Montgomery.
Shiela: Yeah, I was on the same I mean later I thought I was on that same highway that same night. Going to Mississippi.
Bruce: Yeah, you had to be if you were going back to Mississippi. So anyway, at the last camp site. Oh the rain, it was so muddy. The mud was so deep. You're trying to sleep in mud. The food arrives from Selma. It's in trash cans. Stone cold because they had to drive it 50 miles. Everybody is miserable.
And so we get out on the road, and the rain comes pouring down, and then I don't know, it's so weird. This was the place where we're about to come back onto four lanes, so everybody could march again. And we start singing, and people's heads snap up, and our eyes take fire. Singing like crazy. This incredible frision of energy runs through us. Then buses and trucks and cars start driving up, and people jumping out to join the march. Cars rushing back to Montgomery, rushing back to Selma, more people joining, the march getting bigger and bigger, and everybody's singing, singing loud in the rain.
So we come there was this stretch of the highway on the outskirts of Montgomery, which is like motel row the Ramada Inn, Holiday Inn a whole row of them. So the rain has finally stopped and all the maids are out there in front with their mops and their carts and their pails and stuff, and they're just looking. And they're looking, and right behind them are their managers. The maids are all Black, the managers are all white. And they're looking at us, and they look at their manager, and they look at us, and they look at their manager, and they look at us, and some of them, they drop their mops and join the march.
Bruce: It was incredible. That's my best memory. By the time we got to we finally ended up camping at some Catholic hospital or something, and we had these big tents. I was so exhausted, I had been up all night on security and then marched all day. They had this great show, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger. But I just fell out. I could hear Peter, Paul and Mary singing in the distance, and that's the last thing I remember until the next day when we marched up to the Capitol, and Dr. King gave one of his really great speeches. It's not as famous as some of the others, but it really was one of his best. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards righteousness" was his peroration. A great speech.
Bruce: TIAL had organized a big march in Montgomery, and they had a large number of Tuskegee and Alabama State students. TIAL stood for Tuskegee Institute Advancement League. And they were very viciously attacked. You know, horses and tear gas and whips.
TIAL was associated with SNCC. There was a lot of tension between SNCC and SCLC at that time. You know, I can understand SNCC's point of view. They'd been working Selma for a long time. Here comes Dr. King. They had their ethos of community organizing. He has this strategy of getting a national bill passed. The two don't necessarily mix. And he gets the publicity, they get the bruises. I understood both sides of that. I have to say though, that if I had to do it all over again, I'd go with SCLC again. It was the Voting Rights Act that made effective community organizing possible because folk could actually get registered and vote.
Bruce: The Selma movement well not just Selma all the big community movements in the south, were so unique in my experience, I've never been in anything like that. I imagine the union movements of the '30s were similar, but in terms of community support, solidarity, there's just this kind of feeling of a whole community rising up and standing up and saying, "We will not be abused. We will be free" that is just so incredible.
Every once in awhile I get asked to speak to youth groups about the Movement. One of the things I tell them, "I know you kids get lots of lectures about drugs. They tell you that if you take those drugs you'll get high, and feel good, but soon you'll damage your health or be addicted. And that's true. I know, because I've gotten high on most all of them. But let me tell you, there is no drug as high or as addictive as the freedom high." And that is absolutely true, I've been hooked all my life. Once you participate in a real people's mass movement, which Selma was and which Grenada was, and I'm sure the Birmingham and Albany and Jackson and you know any number of a dozen others were there is nothing like that.
Shiela: And you get fed too.
Bruce: You get fed, yeah. Thank God, I liked fried chicken because that's what we got. [laughing] And rice, I love rice. Didn't really care for greens or grits that much. And pigs feet? forget it.
Shiela: Everybody had their I mean it was so competitive, the food thing, that everybody had to show that they did it better than anybody else.
Bruce: They had this whole big community kitchen set up in Brown's Chapel where 18 hours a day you had teams in there doing solid cooking, because there was so many people. At least during the height of it.
SCOPE Crenshaw County Alabama
Bruce: So after Selma, the plan was that Johnson had said the Civil Rights Bill would be passed by May. So SCLC decided to set up SCOPE projects: Summer Community Organizing Political Education or something like that. Recruit volunteers across 6 southern states to implement the voting rights bill and to register voters. So they did that, and I think there was maybe 500 or 600 volunteers. They had SCOPE volunteers from Virginia to Alabama.
Shiela: I've only interviewed one SCOPE volunteer, and that was Kathy who was in Virginia.
Bruce: It didn't get the media attention that Freedom Summer did in '64.
Shiela: Okay, there's been a book about them, but that was all.
Bruce: It was big. But SCLC staff was thin on the ground at that time, partly because Jim Bevel and his team had been sent up to Chicago. Which was where the media coverage was.
Bevel one time we were in the kitchen in Brown's Chapel and we were talking about Vietnam this was before Dr. King came out against the Vietnam War. Bevel said, "You know, they're bombing the dikes in North Vietnam. They're flooding the peoples. We should go stand on the dikes where the bombs are coming down." I would've done it. Bevel had the magic. Yeah, he was a little strange at times, but it didn't matter. He was like a Judge of Israel. He could take Gideon's 400 and lead them out against the 10,000 Amorites or Midianites or whatever they were. And you would go and be happy to do it. And I was.
But Bevel and his organizing crew had gone up to Chicago, so SCLC staff were thin on the ground. I and another guy were originally assigned to be the SCOPE project directors for Crenshaw county, Alabama, which is due south of Montgomery. But he got shifted somewhere else so that left me as project director. The little town, the county seat, is Luverne. Population about 2500, one stoplight which they really didn't need but were right proud of.
Albert Turner was the SCLC leader for Alabama a terrific cat, real Salt of the Earth. He was a farmer from Marion county. A great guy. Anyway, he drops me off in Luverne and says, "Okay, get to know the community leaders here, and the county, and in a couple of days the SCOPE volunteers will come."
So I'm sitting on the porch of the little store owned by Havard Richburg, he was one of the main local leaders. So I'm sitting there talking, and this cop car drives up. Cop calls me over, I go over. "What's your name?" I tell him. He has a shoebox filled by 5x7 cards, you know like 3x5 cards only bigger. And he runs through them with his fingers until he pulls out a card with my name and picture on it. My dossier. "This is you, right?" "Yeah, that's me." "Okay," he says and drives off.
Another car comes up not a marked car. White guy in civilian clothes gets out, flashes some tinplate kind of badge, calls me over. I go over. He starts screaming racist hate shit at me. Pulls out a revolver, a .38, puts it to my head and he says he's going to blow my brains out. I ask him, "Who are you?" And he's shouting blah, blah, blah, he's a member I guess he was a member of the posse, or the militia or something. Not a regular cop. He had some rinky-dink badge.
What he actually was, I was told by people later, was a leader of the Crenshaw County Klan. He ran a restaurant, which of course was totally segregated. And it was sort of the local racist hangout, like the Silver Moon in Selma.
So he's got this gun to my head, telling me that he's gonna shoot me, and I better get out of town or whatever. And I'm, you know, I'd been trained in nonviolent tactics. I was tactically nonviolent, I was not philosophically nonviolent, but I knew the tactics. I used to teach them. I knew that this guy might shoot me, or he might not, but I had made that decision when I went south. So I kept calm, not giving him any hate or anger that he could feed off of to build up his own.
I took out my own 3x5 cards you see here I've these 3x5 cards in my shirt pocket? I've carried them in my pocket ever since civil rights days, so I always have something to write on. So I take down his name and walk to the back of his car and get the license number. And he's following me, and screaming, and going on, and I'm writing stuff down. He's doing his anger-rage-intimidation thing, and I'm doing my writing-stuff-down thing, and it was like we were not inter-relating at all. So eventually he gave up and left. At which point, my stock with the local community went sky high.
Bruce: Yeah, because they knew this schmuck. Richburg, the local leader, a real cool cat, he was one of the few who had ever stood up to that guy. So they respected that I had not been intimidated by him.
Rural Alabama Sit-in
Bruce: So we're in Luverne waiting for the SCOPE volunteers to arrive. It had been organized out of the Atlanta office and we in Alabama didn't really know much about it. We'd been given a couple of general orientation meetings, but nothing more. "Oh, don't worry about it," they told the Alabama staff. "The volunteers are going be thoroughly trained in Atlanta. You're the veterans, all you have to do is keep them out of trouble, keep them safe. They'll know the whole SCOPE program."
Shiela: Actually, Kathy said they were.
Bruce: Well, yeah, in a sense. The problem was that they were trained in how to implement the Voting Rights Act. But the act had not yet passed. This was now early June, and it was still hung up in filibuster by Strom Thurmond, who is still a reactionary, racist Senator.
Shiela: At this point he is so old that nobody knows if he's awake or not.
Bruce: Anyway, the SCOPE volunteers show up and we have our first meeting. We all introduce ourselves, and then I asked, "So, what do we do?" And they said, "What do you mean? You're the county director, you're supposed to tell us." "But they said you were going to be trained." "Well we're trained to do the Voting Rights Act, but there is no Voting Rights Act. So what do we do?"
Oy veh! Since there was no Voting Rights Act went back to the old traditional way of voter registration, getting people to go down to the court house twice a month for two hours a day, stand in line, try to pass the literacy test, and so on. But no one wanted to do that because they knew the Voting Rights Act was going to pass. Why should they take that kind of risk, go through that humiliation, and then not get registered, when in a few weeks or months or days, the Act would pass and they could actually register in safety. So nobody wanted to go down to the court house.
Meanwhile June and July have gone by and soon it's August. So some of the local kids, college kids home for summer and some from high school say, "Hey, why don't we integrate the coffee shops? Why don't we integrate Luverne?" Now, SCOPE had said we're not going to do direct action. We're just going to register voters. But there was no Voting Rights Act. So we said, "Okay, let's integrate Luverne."
Shiela: Now SCLC's a very hierarchical organization. This was you cleared it? Or you didn't?
Bruce: No, I didn't clear it. Sometimes it's easier to beg forgiveness after the fact than ask for permission before it.
Shiela: Oh, Okay.
Bruce: But Al Turner would've said, "Fine." Hosea and the higher ups, maybe they would have, maybe not, but they were far off in Atlanta. This is Luverne. This is the back of the beyond, this is Podunk, no one's going to notice or care if they do. WRONG!
Truth is, we didn't expect any trouble though we should have. The Civil Rights Act had been in force for more than a year. Segregation was illegal. So we didn't give it enough thought. Fortunately, from my CORE and N-VAC days, I was really into nonviolent training. So we got the kids together, and gave them a thorough nonviolent training session. Not like the training the peacenik kids do now. I'm talking the how-to-survive-a-beating type training. The screaming, cursing, in-your-face, throwing eggs, type of training.
I guess it was a Thursday, about 10 of us, one of the SCOPE volunteers, Caroll Richardson it might have been, eight or nine of the local kids, we go up into town. Of course, following the CORE way we notified the cops and the sheriff well in advance. The first coffee shop closed, locked. Next place closed, locked, stools chopped off.
Shiela: They cut down their own stools?
Bruce: Yeah, rather than integrate. Can you believe that? Crazy.
Finally we ended up at the third and last place and actually got served according to the law. By that time it was lunch hour and there was a big white mob out there. Deputy Sheriff Horn came in and hauled Dunbar out of the cafe, maybe for drinking a soda slowly while Black, I suppose. So we all come out onto the street, and the mob jumps us. Beating, screaming, kicking. So I'm in a brand new Chevron station, curled up on a star jack, you know, a lug wrench shaped like a cross to take off your tire I just happened to fall on it. Some asshole is jumping up and down on me, and this damn jack is under my shoulder. So they're beating and kicking and shit like that, and we're singing "We shall overcome" at the top of our voices. And I can hear the others singing too, but couldn't see anything because they were all on me and I was curled up.
The local chief of police guy named Raupach (or something like that) was a northerner who had married a southern woman. He had a background in law enforcement so they hired him as police chief. He was the cop who had stopped me the first day, and had my dossier on his 5x7 card. He actually came out and saved our butts. He took us in like he was arresting us, and that calmed down the mob. He was actually a decent guy. He treated us okay.
We had a second, group, the reserves, ready and waiting down at the pool hall in case the first group was busted. We were using the younger kids who were too young to sit in as messengers. So just before the mob hit us, I told this girl she was maybe nine or ten "Tell the other group not to come up. Because it looks like we're about to get attacked." She must have misheard me because she told them to come up. So the other group arrives, and they're swarmed by the mob and Raupach goes out and saves them too.
Raupach let us go after the mob dispersed to go back to work and fortunately there were no serious injuries. Bruises, bleeding, headaches and stuff nothing serious. But I'm freaked and nervous because what is the effect of this going to be on the community? Our whole point here was to get the adults to register to vote, but instead we've just gotten their children beaten up. So I felt like I had really screwed the pooch.
WRONG! Totally, wrong. We get back to the pool hall, which was sort of our meeting place. The whole community is out. They are ecstatic. They are so proud of their children they could bust. For years they'd been seeing demonstrations on TV, coffee-shop sit-ins, mobs, curling up, defiance. But that was big-city stuff, Greensboro, Nashville, Birmingham, not rural Alabama. Not deep Klan country. But now their kids had done it! Their kids were civil-rights heroes!
And parents were coming up to me: "Did my boy do it right? They did it right, didn't they?" "Yes, they did it just right. They were champs." Everyone was like walking on air. Their children had confronted the Klan, confronted the racists, integrated and they had done it right. And safely. No one was bad hurt. So everyone was just besides themselves with pride. It felt really good.
Dave's Driving Lesson
Bruce: So everybody's having a good time and the phone rings. Luverne is the county seat, about 2,400 people maybe. Ten miles south is the #2 town called Brantley, a huge metropolis of maybe 1200 people. All Brantly had was one stop sign. Now Brantley back then was the kind of town where ordinary white guys who were not part of the law enforcement just walked around with guns strapped to their waists. You know, just in case they needed to shoot someone. That was one hardcore 'ville. Whites outnumbered Blacks about two to one.
So it's the local Black leader from Brantley calling. Damn, I can't call his name right now. It'll come to me. Anyway, he says that the kids down there heard what the kids up in Luverne had done, and they were hot to trot in Brantley. That rural Alabama grapevine was way more efficient than today's Internet.
Well, hey, Luverne had turned out so successful, why not? So we said we'd come down on Saturday to hold nonviolent training session. So that Saturday four of us go down to Brantley in the little VW Beetle owned by one of the summer volunteers a cat named Dave Sookne. Dave was a great guy. I lost touch with him for years, but he was real good on the project. And, in addition to being a treasure in and of himself, he owned this VW Bug. And that was the project car.
Shiela: [laughing] Yes, I remember.
Bruce: Well, actually, another cat on the project Dunbar Reed from Atlanta he came down with a bright red MG sportscar, a two-seat roadster. But he had to take it back to Atlanta because it was provoking the Klan into chases.
Anyway, to get back to Dave, as disciples of Dr. King we were of course totally anti-racist and opposed to any kind of stereotypes. But the truth of the matter is that Dave was a graduate student in mathematics at I think it was University of Chicago. And in some ways he matched the classic stereotype of a mathematician. Very precise, very meticulous. His car was supposed to be brought in on the 12,000 mile service, so at exactly 12,000 miles he drives it up to the dealer in Montgomery. He never disobeyed the speed limit, stopped fully for every stop sign, and so on.
So four of us Dave, Caroll Richardson, Dunbar, and me go down to Brantley and start the nonviolent training session. There's about half a dozen kids there. I don't even know their names yet. We were out on a ball field. Suddenly carloads of white guys come screeching up to us, they jump out and they've got ax handles and chains and clubs. All Klan, and they charge right at us.
Unfortunately, the day we had chosen — we didn't know this — was a day when all the Black men had gone to some other county for a baseball game. Their team was playing someone else's team, so there was mostly just women and children in the Black community. We told the kids to scatter because they knew where to run & hide and I figured the Klan would chase us. So we bailed too. We run into this house. This old woman, she comes out with a broom. And she stands on the porch hitting the Klan with the broom telling them to stay off her porch. That gave us just enough time to get out the back, into the VW bug, and boogie out in a cloud of dust.
Immediately, the Klan guys run for their cars. They got goats, Trans Ams, pickup trucks, and the like. We're four people in a VW bug.
Shiela: [laughing] This is wonderful. Go ahead.
Bruce: Now, I don't want sound opinionated, but my recommendation is that if you're ever going to be chased by the KKK, do not pick a VW bug as your vehicle of choice, because that little four-banger engine....[laughing].
Anyway, as we tear out of the Black neighborhood onto the paved road, we pass three cars parked side-by-side: the state trooper car, the sheriff's car, and a Cadilac. Sitting on the hood of each are: the state trooper assigned to the county, the Sheriff of Crenshaw, and the Mayor of Brantley. They had these big shit-eating grins on their face. And as we drive by they wave at us. Duh, no need to guess how the mob got there.
So immediately past where they're parked is Brantley's lone stop sign. Dave stops. So in our calm, rational voices (as you can no doubt imagine), we all gently inquire as to why he is stopping with the Klan chasing us?
He says "Well, they might try and arrest us." I inform him (in a manner you can imagine) that getting busted looked like our best chance of surviving, because if they arrested us they might have to protect us. I was sitting next to him shotgun seat. I jam my left hand down on his knee so his foot can't move from the gas pedal to the brake and I say, "You better steer mother-f*****, cause you ain't touching that brake 'till we reach Luverne."
So we start chugging down the highway hell hounds on our tail. This is a two-lane road. Dave is now getting into what's going down. As the Klan cars behind us try and pull up alongside which is how they killed Viola Luizzio Dave swings out to block them. He's got this grim look, set teeth, wild eyes. He's slipped the bounds of space and time and is in some savage alternate universe he's going over the speed limit!
The road's all hills and curves. I still ain't letting him touch the brake, so when we come up behind someone he has to pass. We're passing cars on hills. We're passing cars on curves. The Klan is right behind us. They're in these pick-up trucks hanging out waving their Confederate flags and their ax handles and shit like that. Fortunately, they weren't shooting at us. I don't know why.
We come up behind a station wagon with Minnesota plates land of 10,000 lakes. And the back is filled with beach toys and suitcases obviously ma and pa and the kids coming back from summer vacation at the Gulf. Dave passes that car up a hill around a curve a suicide pass. The guy's jaw just dropped in amazement as we went by. I always wondered what he thought as the Klan started to pass him. Guys with Confederate flags, chains, ax handles, whopping it up like mad, "Oh my God, Martha! Folk down here is crazy! We ain't stoppin' 'til we reach the Ohio River!"
So now we're up to 65, 70, 75, faster on the downhill, the little VW shaking and shimmying. The Klan guys are swingin' back and forth trying to run us off the road. Dave's blocking 'em. We'd gone maybe 7 or 8 miles or so it seemed like an age. Everybody is freaked. At that point, a few miles shy of Luverne, the highway widens to four lanes. No way in hell can we block them on four lanes, because they can come on both sides.
So they get past us. They screech across and barricade the road. Fortunately, fate, whatever, they did it just beyond a turn-off. So Dave skids into this dirt road. Years later he told me, "Dick pointed it out to me. I said that I thought it was a dead end, but he was sure that it cut across to another road leading into Luverne, and it did. As I prepared to turn, I had to remind myself mentally 'Don't signal left, don't signal left,' and I did not."
So now we're bumping along in a cloud of dust. They've regrouped and are coming fast behind us. We reach the other highway, also four lanes. And we turn up on it, headed towards Luverne, flat out flying as fast as a VW bug can go. They're catching up behind us, we had gained some on the dirt road, but now they're close to passing us and if they do that they can blockade us again.
We see three more cars coming fast towards us from Luverne full pedal to the metal. Those cars skid to a halt in screeching tire-smoke, spin around and dodge in behind us — between us and the Klan. They're filled with Black men armed with shotguns.
What had happened was that Brantley people had called up to the pool hall, said "They're being attacked, they're trying to make Luverne." The community mobilized. Cars had gone out on both highways, because we were not on the regular highway now. And they escorted us back into Luverne. The Klan didn't want to mess with them. They were up for a beating or a lynching, not a battle. So we escaped, we were saved. We were lucky.
I call that Dave Sookne's driving lesson. [laughing]
Showdown in Brantley
So we all come to a stop in a cloud of dust in the pool hall's dirt parking lot. And after calming down a bit and thanking everyone, we call Albert Turner. And Al says he's coming over. So later that evening we were still celebrating dealing with the shakes and the phone rings. It's the cat from Brantley, whose name I'm sorry to say I still can't remember maybe it was Greene, I can't remember for sure and he is livid. He is pissed. He's pissed because we were his guests, and we were driven out. And he's pissed at us for leaving for running.
So eventually he says, "Are you going to come back? And if you come back, are you gonna stay or are you gonna be run out again?" And Al tells him, "We're comin' back, and we're not gonna get run out."
I heard later that what happened was that after we left, either the baseball game was over or someone called the other county, and the Black men of Brantley had come roaring back. And they had their game face on. So the mayor drives up and all these folk are in his face, screaming and shrieking at him, waving their guns at him. "I was a Korean War veteran! You can't do this to us!" They were just jawing him up one side and down the other, so he retreated. And they were real high. And I guess that's when they called to see if we would come back.
So Albert says to us, "You all ready to go back?"
[meekly] "Okay, [in small little voices] if you say so."
So the day after, Albert is there, and we use his car this time, which was a big Detroit-type car. With Caroll Richardson, and I think Richard Klausner, that made six of us plus Al. But by this time folk in Brantley had retreated some from their boldness. "Oh my God, what did we do? We cursed out the mayor. Holy shit!" In Brantley whites outnumbered Blacks 2-to-1 and their fear was based on hard experience. So now they're somewhat scared except for the local leader and his two sons. Late teenagers, maybe early twenties.
So we go to his home and he's all, "Okay, you guys gonna stay?" "We're gonna stay." "You ain't gonna be run off?" "No, we ain't gonna be run off." So we go out and sit on the porch with him and his two boys. Now of course, we're Dr. King's people. We're nonviolent. But local leader is not. Local leader is armed and his two sons are too. Rifles & shotguns, close to hand, but not visible from the street.
So we're sitting out there and nobody is around. It's like we were all alone. But we see, up in the bushes, folk peeking out. From behind the windows, with the curtains closed, peeking out. "What's gonna happen? What's gonna happen?" Folk was afraid to stand with us, but everybody wanted to see what was gonna happen. In the grass, up there on the knoll, you know, people peeking out, hiding, peeking out.
A car drives up and a Black woman jumps out. She's the mayor's maid. She says, "Oh! The mayor told me to tell you to get out of town. He's gonna call his mob." So Al's in this rocking chair and he's slowly rocking back and forth. He says, "Well, you can tell the mayor we're not leaving." "Oh! He's serious! He's gonna call the mob! He told me to warn you off!" Albert just rocks back and forth. He says, "Well, we have a right to be here. We're not leaving."
So she gets in the car, and she drives off.
10, 20 minutes later, a carload of white men drive by, and they look at us, and we look at them, they look at us, and we look at them. Another carload drives by. They look at us, and we look at them. They look at us, and we look at them. A third carload drives by. The first carload comes back. A fourth carload comes by. They they look at us, we look at them. They look at us, we look at them. And after awhile, they stopped driving by. And after awhile, people who were hiding, suddenly realized "The Klan ain't coming." We had stared 'em down.
Shiela: Oh, for heaven's sake.
Bruce: And everyone come out, and suddenly there's a party going on. We stared them down. Because the Klan is great on ambushing, you know, when you ain't ready for them. But against someone standing and staring at them, it was they who weren't ready. So we stared 'em down. The next registration day, 35 people from Brantley went off to register, to do the literacy test and endure the Courthouse intimidation.
Bruce: Yeah. Because we and they had stared them down.
Shiela: Okay. They didn't get
Bruce: No, of course they didn't get registered.
Shiela: Of course.
Bruce: But they showed up. And they were some of the first registered once the bill finally passed. We had a couple weeks in August, I guess, to implement it.
License to Drive
Bruce: For civil rights workers, driving was always tense. There was the ever-present threat of Klan ambushes and chases we knew that what happened to Viola Liuzzo and Colonel Penn could happen to us at any time. And of course, the cops would frequently stop us for real or imaginary traffic offenses as a pretext for harrassment. That harrassment could be anything from bogus tickets and fines, to physical attacks, to arrests on trumped up charges like the SNCC worker who was stopped for a "dim tailight" and then busted for carrying a "concealed weapon" in the vehicle the "weapon" being an empty Coke bottle. Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were pulled over for "speeding" by cops working hand-in-glove with the Klan, they were then held in jail on that pretext until the Klan assembed a mob to murder them.
According to Alabama law, if you lived in the state for a certain time I think it was 90 days you had to obtain an Alabama divers license. In other words, my California license was no good after I had been in state of 3 months. I knew there was no chance of getting a license in Selma or Crenshaw County, most likely I would just be jailed on some trumped up charge, and I didn't think my chances were much better in Montgomery.
So a Black friend from Crenshaw drove me up to Birmingham and let me use his car for the driving test. But as owner of the vehicle, he had to appear with me before the Examiner and there was no way anywhere in Alabama that "Black and white together" would not be taken note of.
So the Examiner tells me to pull out into traffic. At the first intersection he says, "Turn left." Which I do. At the next intersection, he says, "Turn left." Which I do. At the next corner he says, "Turn left." Which I do. Then "Turn left" again, and we're back at the starting place. He tells me to pull over, steps out of the car, and stamps "FAILED" on my test.
My friend and the other folk back in Crenshaw thought this was howlingly funny. "Now you know what it's like to be Black in Alabama," they told me with big grins. Of course, we all knew that was a gross exaggeration in no way did I really experience life as a Black living under segregation. But what they meant was that it was a common humiliation of ordinary life for whites in authority over Blacks to capriciously use their power to humiliate, harass, degrade, and denigrate them. Just as I was "failed" for being a civil rights worker, Blacks would often be failed at the whim of the Examiner simply because they were Black.
Later, Dave and I took his VW up to Montgomery and as two white guys together I had no problem obtaining my Alabama license.
Hale County Election
Bruce: After the SCOPE project ended in late August, I had to leave Alabama for awhile to go serve that sentence on the L.A. county prison farm that I mentioned earlier. When I got out of jail, I went back to Alabama. In the Spring of 1966 were the first elections, local elections, under the Voting Rights Act. And so Black candidates were running for office all over Alabama, and I was assigned by SCLC to work in Hale county. The county seat was Greensboro, (not to be confused with Greene County, the next county over, whose county seat was Eutaw.)
We were helping run an election for the Black candidate for Sheriff, the first since Reconstruction. Now Hale county is one of those Black- majority counties. Before the Voting Rights Act maybe one or two were registered. White registration was 115%. And they voted the tombstones every year. So we helped with the election campaign, and there was intimidation and trickery at the polls and you know the whole thing. So none of the Black candidates won anywhere in Alabama. Which was very disappointing for everybody.
Shiela: What were they doing about intimidation at the polls? Because after people got registered, then they couldn't vote.
Bruce: Well, you rember how it was. The Feds were all, "We can take notes. We can observe. But we can't do anything."
Shiela: Justice Department or FBI?
Bruce: I guess. They were just suits. No one cared which useless department they were from.
Bruce: Eventually lawsuits were filed, and the next election I think people were able to vote more, and the following election Black candidates were actually elected. But the first one was real tense, and the Feds were really not into enforcing the law. But the lawsuits had an effect this was part of the SCLC strategy. And it was eventually effective.
Welcome to Meridian
Bruce: Anyway, come summer James Meredith gets shot in Mississippi. So the whole Southern staff for SCLC SNCC and CORE too, I guess; the decision is made that we will
Shiela: Take up the march.
Bruce: Take up his march from the point where they gunned him down. I don't remember exactly why, but my group was way late in getting there for some reason. The March was most of the way done, and a carload of us, we're coming into Mississippi. Now, the Black community in Alabama knew things were bad in Alabama, but their attitude was, "Well, things are really bad here, but thank God we're not in Mississippi."
Shiela: Yes, yes.
Bruce: What we didn't know at the time, and I found out later, was that in the Black community in Mississippi they thought, "Things are really bad here, but thank God we don't live in Alabama." [laughing] SCLC had never really had a big staff in Mississippi. Annell Ponder, Septima Clarke, and the Citizenship schools were there from time to time, and maybe few others. So our car is all Alabama folks and we're nervous to be in Mississippi. We knew Alabama. We knew its dangers. A dog always feels safe on his home territory, but now we're in Mississippi.
So we're driving in on I-20, and as we're approaching Meridian all lanes are blocked off by Mississippi state-trooper cars. They're waving everybody into a rest stop. Flashing lights, cops, the works.
"Oh shit." We figured they were looking for people coming to join the march.
We drive in to the lot, and there's a pavilion with red-white-blue bunting and tents. Beautiful Miss Mississippi is there greeting visitors to the state, with her little sparkly tiara on. Cheerleader-type girls with straw boater hats.
Shiela: Oh, you're kidding.
Bruce: No shit, I kid you not. They were giving out little buttons that said "Welcome to Mississippi," and "Honorary Citizen of Meridian," and free Cokes. [laughing] They see this integrated car, and their faces kind of dropped. But they were game. They had their assignment, and they gave us all buttons and free Cokes, and we went on our merry way. Weird shit.
Bruce: So now we're looking to find the march. We come into Yazoo City. You know Mississippi, this is deep delta. We're driving through Yazoo City, and Albert Albert Turner takes one look at the faces of the Black folk on the street, and he says, "The march has been through here." He could tell, [snap] just like that, that the march had passed through Yazoo, just by looking at people's faces. So we turned around and caught up to them and joined the march.
I was so scared on that march, I did not piss for three days.
Bruce: Yeah. The Medical Committee for Human Rights had people on the march and I said, "Give me a pill." They said, "No, we'd rather not give you medication. It'll come. You're just a little tight right now." [laughing] No shit!
Anyway the march comes to Canton, Mississippi. And you know, you're marching all day, you're exhausted, you're not paying a lot of attention. There's gonna be a nightly rally so we're standing around tired, and suddenly it's like World War III breaks out. Bang! Bang! Bang! Tear Gas! Explosions! Guys with clubs coming in out of the gas at you whipping ass because no cameras can see them. Huge cop attack, all in their gas masks. It's just the worst tear gassing I ever had worse than Selma, worse than anything later in Berkeley. Everyone is scattered.
So the next day we had lots of marches in Canton. Half the group went with Dr. King to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he was attacked by a mob. They were throwing shit at him, very dangerous situation. I think it was Big Lester Lester Hankerson SCLC worker from Savanah, who stood in front of him to shield him from the rocks and bottles.
I was assigned to the team in Canton, marching up one street and down another. Big march, maybe a thousand or more.
Then the March goes on to Jackson. Hot as hell. We passed this place where they had a block-of-ice machine. I put in a quarter and got a 5 pound block of ice. Broke it into pieces so we could put ice on the back of our necks. Saved my butt from heat stroke.
Later that night after the rally at the capitol, we were supposed to have an SCLC field-staff meeting on the Toogaloo campus. But SNCC was having a staff-meeting in the same room. So we were outside on the lawn waiting for them to finish so we could use the room, and we could hear them going on, and on, and on, and on. Eventually most of us were falling asleep so we gave it up.
Bruce: Now, when the Meredith March had gone through the town of Grenada, the people there had really responded. Dr. King gave a speech and the people in Grenada had told him, "We're ready to move. Are you gonna stay and move with us?" And he said, "No, we have to finish this Meredith March, but as soon as it's over, we will come back."
So after the March, SCLC sent field-staff into Grenada. The SCLC field-staff were essentially a direct-action staff. As opposed to SNCC who saw their most important role as community organizers. That reflected the two different approaches of SNCC and SCLC. I respected the SNCC view and to some degree shared it. But I also understood the need and value of mass direct-action, marches, desegregation, boycotts, and so on.
Grenada hasn't gotten a lot of publicity, there was no big law that came out of it, but the Grenada movement was very heavy. The Grenada movement probably lasted longer, in terms of the upswelling of people's mass activity, than any of the other mass movements. Longer than Birmingham, longer than Selma, Albany, St. Augustine, Natchez. I mean lasting longer in terms of how long people kept mass direct-action going.
Shiela: Well Hattiesburg -- But most of it got funneled into Head Start.
Bruce: Right. I'm talking about mass marches almost every night for four or five months. Marches that were often attacked. Marches in the face of Klan mobs. I was in Grenada from the summer of '66 until the spring of '67. And the Grenada movement was amazing. In many ways it was equal to Selma in terms of the popular support. Didn't get the publicity, but we did things in Grenada that just
We had marches every day. Sometimes day, sometimes night marches. And the Klan would mobilize mobs against us. And we would be doing these marches at night. Very dangerous.
Shiela: At night because people work during the day.
Bruce: Yes, right. And it was dangerous because the Klan could hide behind darkness. We would march up to the square, 150, 200, 250 of us, circle around the square, and some nights the Klan would have 500 or more people. Not every night of course, but many nights.
Shiela: Oh, my gosh.
Bruce: And they would attack us, or try to attack us. And there would be TV, and they would take pictures of it. And there would be publicity and then the governor would then send in the troopers to "protect" us, and the Klan would disperse for awhile. And then it would die down, and we would keep marching. And then we would do something that would stir up the Klan again, and that cycle went about four times.
Grenada became so intense at times that when SCLC field staff who had led demonstrations in places like St. Augustine which was also very heavy came to Grenada, they were taken aback. One guy I won't call his name the first demonstration he was assigned to lead in Grenada he saw the mob and he turned us around. He didn't know what we were used to facing. He didn't think we could I mean, he was right from his point of view. I'm not criticizing him. He made the call to protect the people. Later, everyone lit into him because to us it was just the ordinary mob. We were used to it. No big deal. After that he led marches into the teeth of it. [laughing].
Non-Violence in Grenada
Bruce: I'm not philosophically nonviolent. As a matter of fact, you know, I used to shoot in rifle matches, when I was a kid.
Shiela: I did too, but I'm still nonviolent. I mean, not a team. I just learned.
Bruce: I'm not philosophically nonviolent. But you know, I'm definitely down with the tactic. I saw us do nonviolent things in Grenada that to this day are just unbelievable to me. Every night, we had these marches of two or three hundred people circling the square. On several occasions there were periods of three or four nights in a row when violence against the Movement would peak, and surrounding us would be mobs of 500 or more Klansmen. These weren't your typical spur-of-the-moment pick-up mobs, they had been mobilized by the KKK from all over the state to come to Grenada to do business. Some of the time — not always — we could literally hold them off by the quality of our singing. We could create a psychic wall that most of the time they could not breach, even though they wanted to. And on those times when they did attack, our nonviolent response minimized their injuries to us.
I remember vividly where the Klan leaders were on some of those marches. They formed a wedge of hatred that sort of pushed out into our psychic space. And as we marched around the square singing with every ounce of energy and passion we could muster, we would have to circle again and again past this one spot where they were most intensely trying to break into our line of march. But they couldn't do it, we would hold them off, protect ourselves from their attacks, by the moral, psychological force of our singing. They couldn't break through our barrier of song. And each time we safely passed them, "Oh what a relief!" And then we'd come around again and be coming closer, and our tension would rise. And then we would pass 'em again. You know, there was like a geography-of-the-mind that was all in terms of violence and nonviolence.
Another time, I was walking one day towards Bellflower Church which was our headquarters. A pickup truck pulls alongside me. A guy leaps out and just starts to beat the crap out of me. So of course I drop down on the ground, curl up, like we were trained to do. He knocked my glasses off. Now I had special industrial glasses, the kind somebody working welding or a machinist uses unbreakable. And the guy's kid, a boy, I don't know maybe 10, 12, something like that, he starts jumping up and down on the glasses. He yells, "Daddy, Daddy, they won't break! They won't break!" So eventually they both got tired and walked off, and I wasn't hurt because of the nonviolent training.
KKK Attacks the Kids
Bruce: As a result of the Movement, come September, school is opening under desegregation. Now normally in Mississippi in those days when there was a desegregation order, that meant maybe three, four, five, Black kids going to go to the white school. In Grendada close to 250 Black kids signed up to go to the white school. Two hundred fifty. Nobody had seen anything like this not in Mississippi.
So the first day of school, I think we screwed up. For some reason we didn't really anticipate serious trouble. We sure should have though. So we're in Bellflower Baptist Church, and this TV reporter comes running in national network TV. I won't call his name, but he was major known. He covered the South for ABC, or NBC, or CBS. He's totally freaked. His face is beat up, his shirt is torn. He runs to the pay phone, and he dials I guess his boss or someone and he's shrieking. He's not going to leave the church! They're trying to kill him! Call the Govenor, turn out the National Guard!
And then suddenly the little children are coming in. Screaming. Bloody. Elementary school kids. Been beaten the shit out of
Shiela: Oh my God!
Bruce: The Klan had a huge mob, with clubs and ax handles and chains. They ambushed the elementary school kids. They had pickup trucks with two-way radios scouting where the kids were walking so the mob could find them. It was like in Birmingham and Montgomery when the first Freedom Riders came in. But these were just kids.
And of course the kids they weren't organized. They were just showing up for school. Some were dropped off by their parents, but most were just walking to school on first day. After that, of course we organized. Each day all the kids rallied at the church. Everyone went to school together like in a march.
Anyway, that first day, Joan Baez, the singer, was in Grenada. She was heavy into nonviolence then. And she was with nonviolent teachers, Ira and Sandy Sandperl. They had some sort Non-Violent Institute or something, and they were in town to help. So that day, Joan Baez, she said she was going to go down to the school and chain herself to the flagpole as a protest. And we had a hell of a time arguing her out of that, because we were certain she would have been killed.
But I'll say this for her, she stayed and helped for weeks and was with SCLC in other places too it wasn't just a photo-op for her. We used to have a simple test for who was part of the Movement and who wasn't. It wasn't an ideology test, or a test of rhetoric and jargon. If you showed up and put your body on the line, you were part of the Movement, and it didn't matter what your political beliefs were, and by that test Joan Baez was a Movement sister.
All of Grenada county, Black and white was a tinderbox. We were having a time keeping the Black families whose children had just been savaged from grabbing their guns, which is of course exactly what the cops and the Klan wanted. That was what they were trying to provoke. They were ready and waiting for that and they desperately wanted some instance of violence from our side so that they could just, you know, go military. And it was hard it was really hard to keep that from happening. Fortunately we were able to do so.
Shiela: The school stayed integrated?
Bruce: Some were scared off by the mob, but 150 of those kids went back to the school. There was a lot of harassment, attacks, the Black kids had to organize some walkouts and boycotts. The white kids were encouraged to go against the Black kids, but whenever Black kids did anything, or were framed for doing something they didn't do, they got expelled. By the end of the year, I think they were down to half that or less, because some had been driven out. But 75 or so stuck it out.
Bruce: One night, Hosea Williams from SCLC was leading the mass meeting in Bellflower and it was packed. Standing room only. Somebody comes pushing inside, "The cops have the church surrounded, and they just arrested so- and-so." (I don't remember who.) So we scout it out, and the cops are out there all right, and anyone who leaves the church, they're being arrested. Later we found out they had a bunch of warrants, and people for whom they didn't have a warrant, they let go. But we didn't know that then.
Hosea said, "Okay, everybody line up at every door and every window -- back door, front door, all the windows. At a given signal, everyone leave at the same time so that they can't catch all of us." Which was a good plan.
So we did that. The signal was given, and we all run out. Of course, the plan was good for most folk, but not for me and the other two white civil rights workers because we stood out in the crowd, so to speak. I got maybe 20 yards before they grabbed me. They took us to the jail, roughed us up a bit, nothing really serious you know, the normal. And so we're in jail.
Shiela: What was the normal?
Bruce: Pushing, kicking, slamming you up against the wall a couple of times. Frisking you very enthusiastically the usual. Nothing of any permanent damage. I mean, not like what they did to Annell Ponder in Winona, and Fanny Lou Hamer
Shiela: Yeah, with the prod.
Bruce: So, we're in jail for a couple of days, and we had no idea why, they didn't tell us the charges or nothing. No phone call, and of course this was before Miranda rights existed. There was about a dozen or so of us they were holding. Anyway, this cat shows up and he introduces himself. I don't remember his name but it was a very Jewish name, so I'll call him Israel Feldstein (I'm just making that up.) He says, "Hi, I'm Izzy Feldstein. I'm from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights," or something like that, I forget the exact name. "I've been sent to represent you in your trial today."
This was a group of northern lawyers who came down to Mississippi for two weeks on their vacation to do pro-bono civil rights defense work. Anyway, he had just arrived and I think this was his first Mississippi case. So he says, "Okay. I understand the trial is today. What are the charges?"
"You're the lawyer, why are you asking us what the charges are?" (We were kind of grumpy at that point.)
"They're holding you for two days and they haven't told you the charges?"
I thought to myself, "Jeez, what planet is this cat from? Welcome to Mississippi dude."
So Izzy says, "Okay, well the first thing I'll do is I'll find out the charges."
"Right, good idea!"
So they shove us into the court and Izzy asks right off what the charges are, and the charges were things like insurrection, disturbing the peace, riot, sedition
Bruce: Contributing, this whole list of big major charges. So they're about to start the trial, and Izzy looks around and says, "Where's the court reporter? No one is taking a record here."
And the judge says to him, "I don't need no damned New York kike telling me how to run my court. You want a court reporter? You pay for it." Now, I don't think Izzy had ever been called a "kike" in court by a judge before. This was a new experience for him. But he was equal to the task. He wasn't going to be intimidated. He says, "Well, if that's the way it's gonna be, your Honor, we want a jury trial."
Judge says, "Okay." He looks to the back of the courtroom and shouts, "Tom, Frank, George, Mo, Schmuck, Whatever you're appointed the jury. Get in the box." This is what they called a "petite" jury, only had six jurors. The judge says, "You-all the jury. You swear to do your duty?" "Yeah, right Judge. You bet."
So the prosecutor calls up the first witness, which is Suggs Ingram the high sheriff. His name was Suggs Ingram, I kid you not. So prosecutor says, "Describe to us the criminal activity you observed these felons commit" or something to that effect.
"Oh, they committed insurrection, and they was riotous, and they disturbed the peace," answered Suggs. I mean he just put all of the charges in verb form. Prosecutor nods wisely, and says, "Thank you, Sheriff Ingram. No further questions," and he sits down.
Judge says to Izzy, "Do you want to cross-examine?" Izzy says, "How can I cross-examine? He hasn't said anything yet." Then, seing that the judge was about to dismiss the witness he got up to ask Suggs a question. "Sheriff, could you describe what the defendants did?" So the sheriff goes into his, "Well, they was riotous, and they " "No, no, no. Could you explain what did they actually do?"
"Oh!" The light finally dawns in Suggs' brain. "On Monday the 22nd they started singing on the south side of the telephone building." There was triumph in his voice. He knew he had us.
Izzy, of course, doesn't know what the bejeezes he's talking about. So he goes over to the SCLC Project Director at that time I think it was J.T. Johnson who explained to him that we were under a Federal injunction that said we cannot sing in residential neighborhoods because we were "too noisy." We could only sing in the downtown area. So, Ingram seemed to be saying that if we sang on the south side of the telephone building, it meant we were still in the residential area. Whereas, if we had turned the corner we would be okay. This subtlety had never been brought to our attention before. The telephone building wasn't anyone's home so we had just assumed it was "downtown."
Izzy says, "Okay. I understand." So he clarifies with Suggs that in fact the only thing that we are accused of actually doing is singing on the south side of the telephone building.
Shiela: Insurrecting on the south side, okay.
Bruce: Right. So, he's finished cross-examining the Sheriff and the judge looks to the prosecutor and says, "Do you have any further witnesses?" "No, Your Honor, the prosecution rests its case." "Well, is the defense ready to present?" asked the Judge.
Izzy says, "Your Honor, I can't present a defense because there's been no prosecution. The only thing they're accused of actually doing violating the Federal injunction they're not charged with because this court has no jurisdiction over Federal injunctions. So there is no prosecution case against which I can present a defense, because no evidence of any crime related to the charges has been presented."
And the judge said, "Okay. In that case, is the jury ready to render its verdict? You won't need to withdraw, will you?" And all the jurors said, "Oh no, your Honor, we're ready." "What's the verdict?" "Guilty as charged, your Honor." And so we were fined a couple hundred dollars each, which was the maximum that that court could give.
Jesse Jackson vs My Mom
Bruce: That was the case that a year later Jesse Jackson wanted me to go back
Shiela: To serve?
Bruce: No, I think it was to show up for a re-trial in Circut Court or something like that. See, SCLC put up the bail money while they appealed to Federal, but I guess Federal sent it back to Circut for some reason.
Shiela: How did they lose the appeal?
Bruce: As I recall, we didn't want to go to Circut because the Circut court was a higher court, and it could've sentenced us to a year in Parchman prison, not just a measly fine. But the Circuit judge had helped organized the Klan mob that had attacked the children. So we really did not want to be re-tried in his court.
Shiela: And who appointed him Circuit judge?
Bruce: He was a state judge, so whoever the governor was when he was appointed. So SCLC appealed to the Federal courts to set it aside, and on some legal technicality they said they couldn't do that. So by then SCLC was in dire financial straits and didn't want the bail money forefeit, so they wanted us to come back to be tried by this Circut judge.
By this time I was an SDS radical at San Francsico State. So Jesse Jackson, he didn't know how to get in touch with me, so he called my mother, because that was the, you know, the number they had in the file to call if I got killed or something. He told her he wanted to find me so I should come back to Mississippi for this case.
So my mom said, "I'm not going to tell you where my son is! Are you crazy?" [laughing] And she and he got into it, but she wouldn't tell him because she was afraid that I would go back to Mississippi.
Of course, when she told me, I was very offended at her that she would even think I would ever consider going back peaceably to submit to a racist kangaroo court, because by this time I was a "revolutionary." Us revolutionaries, you know, we didn't do that sort of thing turning ourselves in. But she wasn't sure, so she refused to tell Jesse where I was. She had been arrested herself fighting the cops back in the '30s, so she knew from jail. And she wasn't about to give me up.
Shiela: What year was this?
Bruce: I guess it was maybe early '68. I understand why SCLC asked, they needed the dough, I just wouldn't have done it. [laughing] Fat chance!
Shiela: And then what happened more with Grenada?
Bruce: Well, Grenada went up and down about four times, in terms of mass activity, and eventually, like all of the mass movements, people got wore out. But we did get a lot of people registered. Towards the end I was trying to form a welfare rights group that would last, but it didn't.
Shiela: You were trying to form a welfare rights group in ?
Bruce: In Grenada.
Shiela: In what year?
Bruce: Late '66, early '67. We also tried to form an ASCS group, to protest the agriculture, the crop subsidy issue.
Shiela: Right, right.
Bruce: Anyway by then I was burned out. I was just like totally fried.
Shiela: With that level of activity, yeah.
Bruce: You know, my stomach was in knots. I couldn't eat, I was down to 120 pounds. I'm now 215. I haven't grown any taller. I've just grown taller from side to side, as Yenta put it in Fiddler on the Roof.
So I left the South in Feburary of '67. I went up to New York to work for Bevel on the Spring Mobilization Against the War, the first big mass mobilization against Vietnam, in New York, a march to the United Nations. The "Spring Mobe" it was called. So I signed on as staff for them, and I was on the Spring Mobe staff from around April of '67 until September when under pressure from my parents I went back to school, to San Francisco State.
As it happened, in the Fall of'67 San Francisco State was a major center of student political activity and I became deeply involved in SDS, Stop the Draft Week, anti-racism protests, and then in '68 the student strike for Third World Studies which was the longest student strike in American history. The police repression was very violent, almost a thousand people were arrested, shootings it reminded me of Grenada.
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