Mama, I Got to Do It, I Got To
1963 or 1964

[Noted down from an unidentified activist and codified by Lillian Smith. Published in Our Faces Our Words, with profits going to CORE. 1964.]

Mama was talking. She was crying, too, and I couldn't make out some of her words, but I knew what she meant. "But you'll git killed, this place is different, Mississippi is different, you can't do it. I got along, why can't you just get along, son, like your old ma and pa? There's a way to make out, you got to learn it, boy, this way they'll kill you. All my life I worked to make it easier for you and now you want to tear it all up, you can't do nothing to change white folks, you just can't, I know, you're young but I know, all you can do is pray and try to git along."

She hid her face in her apron. It wasn't easy but I had to say it, I had to.

Mama, I told her, this is something I can do. All my life down here I didn't know nothing to do; now I got something I can do. I'm going to help the others, I got to. Mama said, "What can you do, boy? What? There's nothing you can do to change white folks, you can't, no more'n you can stop the old river, you can't."

I got to, Mama, I told her. I'm going to help register our people so they can vote. Don't say anything, Mama, I got to do it; don't try to stop me. I may get in jail, I may get killed, but the time's come, Mama, we can't keep on like this. We got to show everybody that we are people, we want to vote, we're Americans, Mama, and we got to show everybody that we are.

We got to wake folks up, they dead asleep, they give up too easy, we got to say, "Stop giving up, stop it! Register and vote; you may git killed trying but try, you gotta try!" Everybody's gotta try, Mama, to show they not dogs and cows but people; they got to look white folks in the eye, got to be polite and law-abiding, but they got to look up, Mama, not down at the dirt, no more.

We got to. Uncle Rob was killed in the last war, and you got his medal and you've been real proud. Well, I may die, Mama, and if I do I hope you'll be proud, too, not all broke up, Mama, but proud that I did what an American ought to do, work for his people's rights as citizens.

And Mama cried under her apron and said, "And all these years I worked my hands to the bone hoping to make things better for you and now, you go and git yourself in jail or maybe killed, I ask Jesus, Why? What have I done wrong that my boy wants to git himself jailed by breaking laws and sassing white folks and — "

Mama, I told her, please mam, listen to me. I don't want to be a nigger, I want to be a Negro American, I want us all to have our rights and to get our rights we got to stand up for em, we got to, Mama. I know white folks, I know old Sheriff M------ I know he would shoot a nigger down easy as a pole cat; but I got to help change things, we got to make white folks think, Mama. Think, and understand that we're real people, too. I'm going be polite, but I'm goin to look in their faces, no more down at the dirt. Mama, you ask Jesus  — you pray and ask Jesus if I ain't right; I think he'll say, "Yes, he's right, he's got to do this, he's got to help change a hating Mississippi into a loving one." I think He'll say it, Mama, but you ask Him.

And I left her crying real soft behind her apron. Poor old Mama, she can't see it any plainer than some of the white folks that the world has changed, and we got to change, too. Oh God, help Mama see it so she won't be too hurt, help her; and help the rest of us, if You can, help us, too, a little.

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