In early 1964, I was a student at Wichita State Univ.,beginning a new semester and attending the 1st Unitaritan Church while also a member of the school NAACP chapter. At some point ... I don't remember exactly from whom or when, I heard about recruitment for volunteers to spend a week in Hattiesburg as part of the follow-up to "Freedom Day" on January 22, 1964, voter registration project. I do know that the idea was raised at the church and the current minister was not able to go ... and somehow, I was convinced to join 3 other locals.. all ministers.. to join a group from Wichita.
The main group planned to start from Topeka, the capital in mid-February, so I agreed to drive myself and the 3 locals there and join 5 more in a VW bus for the trip. Using 4 different drivers, including myself, we made the trip non- stop except for gas, starting in the afternoon and arriving in Hattiesburg the next morning.
We stayed at the COFO house at either 507 Mobile Street or another building at 522 and slept on cots. My first introduction to things was the bulletin board in the hallway, where, among the notices was a greeting card saying on the front ... "I'd like to help you out.." and on the inside, "Which way did you come in?" signed, Sgt. Creel. (a stereotyped Southern local police official).
We were allowed to rest & get some orientation briefing before heading out the next day to join the picket line. (One of the best things was that just a few blocks up was the "Flying Saucer Cafe" which was owned and run by a tiny little woman who was also the waitress, cook and cashier! All 9 of us sat down and somehow she managed to serve us with as much breakfast as we could eat for about $3 ... in less than an hour. (I think we got there by 7AM and needed to be at the courthouse by 8.)
For the next few days it was a long — mostly boring — routine of tramping around a roughly triangular set of walkways near, but at one side of, the courthouse steps. Only one day stands out for me ... other than various locals spitting in our general direction and a very few local Black citizens going in ... ostensibly to attempt to register ... though at that time few were succeeding.
On the 2nd or 3rd day of marching, we were tramping our methodical way around the path when about 3-4 people ahead of me was a young girl who 'seemed' about 16, but I never really found out. Suddenly, she began singing ... "Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere" ... "to let my people go." and before she had finished the first line, almost all of us were singing with her. We got thru the 1st verse of "Who's that yonder dressed in black ... must be the hypocrites turnin back" and were into the 2nd verse, when down the steps came a short little fellow who looked like a bad Jimmy Cagney imatator who happened to be the sheriff. He yelled at us and announced, "Y'all got a permit to march! Y'all ain't got a permit to SING!"
He walked up & down the line and stopped in front of me and demanded, "How old are you?" ... "Um.. 26" I said.. "Twenty-six" he said sarcastically, as if not knowing what to do with that information. He stomped around for a minute, paying special to one of our members, a pretty, young, blond white girl who was a regular at NAACP meetings at my school ... I guess that was not a common sight at these protests ... yet. Anyway, he went back in and we finished the day in our boring way.
The other ... most important and eye-opening incident of the week was when it was announced that the was to be meeting at a friendly church a few blocks from Mobile Street. It was to be both a strategy meeting and a way to introduce these 9 'Northern agitators' for a supposed inspirational set of remarks. I hadn't expected this and was not prepared, so I barely remember what platitudes I mouthed ... but it was going to the meeting that stands out in my mind. A number of people climbed into several cars, but there was not enough room for everyone and I volunteered to walk with a group of local young boys for those few blocks..(maybe as many as 8 ... I'm not sure.)
This happened to be the night of the 25th of Feb. and all the talk was about the fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay ... who became Muhammed Ali. All the kids were rooting for Liston and against the loudmouth, Clay.
We all got maybe half-way when down a side street came a police car ... which stopped with headlights aimed at our group. Two officers got out and one said, "Y'all hold on there!" One of the boys in the group said, "We ain't done nothin' ... keep walking."
Now I had NO authority over anyone and had barely met these kids, but heard myself saying, "No it's okay ... we'll be fine."
"That's right ... y'all better stop ... this here's an inVESTigation!" He proceeded to ask what we were doing on a dark street at night. We explained that we were going to a church meeting a little ways down the road and weren't going to be any trouble ... and I guess he had no real reason to tell us NOT to go on, so he mumbled something like "Y'all behave ... " and let us go ...
But I had noticed one odd thing ... when the police got out, a tall, husky white kid got out of the back seat and stood, arms folded, beside the police car. He never moved and never spoke or came closer. As we got on down the street, I asked one boy who that was.
"Can't you figger that out?, "he said wryly. "That's a half-back on the high school football team. There's been too many stories about cops beating up agitators, so he rides along and if there's any excuse, HE beats you up and the cops just expain that 'someone started trouble, and this nice local fellow just helped the police.' I gulped and we went on to the meeting where I pretended to be an inspirational speaker.
One other thing about the meeting ... there was some heated debate about plans & strategy between the well-known worker Lawrence Guyot and a local minister, Rev. J.T. Cameron. The traditional way to end a meeting was for everyone to form a circle and cross-link hands and sing "We Shall Overcome." I saw Guyot and Cameron standing awkwardly beside each other at the front, and I just moved across the room and filled the space between them so they didn't have to hold each other's hand. No one said anything ... we just sang ... and it might have been just fine if I had not gone there. It just seemed to ease the moment. Later, Rev. Cameron asked me if I'd like to stay on for awhile after my group went home. I was really not prepared ... not many clothes with me, and school hanging over my head ... so I made excuses and went back to Kansas.
Then, of course, Freedom Summer happened, the 3 Civil Rights workers were murdered and then found etc ... and back in Kansas I struggled with school amid the news. When Fall semester arrived, I tentatively enrolled in 3 courses, but my personal life was pretty complex, and school was awkward. Then Rev. Joe Atkins, who had been on the Feb. trip, called and said he was going back down, with one other man, as the end of Freedom Summer had depleted the volunteer supply, and would I like to make a 3rd. It seemed like both something important and a distraction from school, so off we went just before Thanksgiving week ... but this time to McComb, cheerfully called "death city" by some.
We arrived on the Thursday before Thanksgiving and were logged in and asked for a donation to help feed & support things. (I think I only had $10 to spare. On the table was a framed picture of a small, elderly black man. The woman at the table said, "That's the greatest man in the world.. Mr. Steptoe. He IS the NAACP around here."
We then were 'housed' in a dilapidated house with nothing but a little running water ... it was pointed out that just down the street was a house that had been bombed by probably the KKK or similar. It made for interesting bedtime thoughts. We spent most of the days at the SNCC/COFO house or on expeditions to observe things ... but on a couple of evenings ... Tue. & Wed, we & the staff crowded into one almost dark room and sang many of the classic protest & freedom songs ... including the chilling "In the Mississippi River" which they used to list many of the names of martyrs to the cause.
One day, one of the staff ... (I 'think' it was Cephas Hughes) asked if I wanted to go with him to interview an elderly woman about her situation. I agreed, and he asked, "Do you have a drivers license?" "Umm ... yes," I said. "Wanta drive?" "Oh ... okay, I guess." and off we went with me knowing why I was less likely to have a problem. As it happened, we didn't encounter any police, but I drove very carefully.
The next week, we had the most amazing Thanksgiving dinner ... put together by local women in a big room upstairs in the community. Wonderful food served by gracious people .. the best eating since the Flying Saucer Cafe in Hattiesburg ... but with turkey and all the extras.
Then, either either Thankgiving morning or the day before, we were 'invited' to a church service at Walker's Chapel Freewill Baptist Church where guest pastor Rev. Silas Smith was speaking. As a Unitarian and former Methodist, I was used to quiet, gentle prayers and sermons, so a Black Southern Baptist service was ... eye-opening. Rev. Smith was in fine form, and his energy was boundless as he explained, shouted and exhorted the congregation to 'feel the power'! Several ladies in the front row were taken with the Spirit and semi-collapsed, to be caught by waiting ushers and helped to one side ... where they recovered and went back for more!
The other incident that stands out was just before Thankgiving. We had been to someplace ... I forget where. The guy I had ridden with before was driving and I was looking around as we went thru downtown McComb. In 1964, the Ford Mustang was new, and hugely popular, and I realized I kept seeing several different Mustang convertables, each with several young, white girls ... just cruising around. I finally asked if I was imagining something.
"What day is today?", he asked me ... "Umm. Saturday.."I replied.
"So there's not a lot to do in McComb on Saturday, and these girls are by themselves. Tomorrow, they'll be in church with their boyfriends, but today, the boys are out 'sowing their wild oats' across the tracks in the Black part of town."
I later realized that birth control was not widely accepted back then ... and abortion even less ... and that 'nice' Southern girls tended to remain essentially 'pure' ... so his story of why the local girls just cruised about in groups of 3 or 4 kinda made more sense. Of course, I had no way of verifying it but I was relieved that I was right in seeing something relevant.
On Sat. after Thanksgiving, we had to leave in order to take the 3rd man in our car to St. Louis, we rested during the day and started at night and drove north, talking about the week and singing gospel songs. After a quick breakfast near St Louis, I discovered we were sort of expected to attend church services with the guy we had bought home. It happened to be the first Sunday of Advent, and a High Episcopal service at a major site somewhere in St. Louis ... the contrast with Walker's Chapel was as amazing as either service by themselves.
I barely remember the drive from St. Louis back to Wichita and over the years, many details beyond what stuck in my head have faded. The next few years were just a blur as I tried to cope with life & school. There were other things, both in school and earlier in life, that formed my attitude and actions about Civil Rights ... like watching TV reports of integrating Central High in Little Rock ... but they don't bear on Mississippi, and I may have already gone on too long.
Copyright © William Day. 2020
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