Mimi Feingold Real
Interviewed by Ron Bridgeforth
May 2018


Becoming a Movement Activist   Back to the North
Swarthmore CollegeVoter Registration in Louisiana
Freedom RiderLooking Back After 50 Years
Arrested in Jackson, MSSpeaking to Students Today
Parchman Prison 


Becoming a Freedom Movement Activist

Ron: How old were you when you went to the Civil Rights Movement? Or CORE? Or...?

Mimi: Well, I was 20 when I went on the Freedom Rides. I had just finished my sophomore year at Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia. So that was the first major thing I did with the Civil Rights Movement.

Ron: What caused you to do something so radical?

Mimi: I was raised for it. My parents were old lefties. My parents were very, very involved in radical, left wing stuff which in that day wasn't very much. Compared to today, it was nothing at all.

They were very active members of the Teachers Union which is not related to today's Teachers Union. I mean, it was on McCarthy's list as a Communist front organization, although it wasn't, but a lot of the teachers who belonged to it were very left wing. And they did what radicals did in those days. I mean, they marched on picket lines and that kind of stuff. That's the milieu I grew up in. I mean, that was normal to me. I have no independent recollection of this, but my mother used to tell me about how she would instruct my brother and me that if the FBI were ever to ring our doorbell and we were to answer the door, to tell the FBI that our parents weren't at home.

Ron: Wow.

Mimi: Not that that ever actually happened, but my parents — they both were dragged up before a New York City Board of Education version of a McCarthy Committee. It wasn't HUAC, and I don't actually remember the name of the committee now.

[The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was one of two congressional committees engaged in smearing and destroying progressive social movement and organizations including attacks against the Freedom Movement in the 1950s and '60s.]

Ron: But it was a version of that?

Mimi: It was a committee put together by the New York City Board of Education, and the aim was to clear so-called Communists and Communist sympathizers out of the school system. And both of my parents were dragged up before this committee, and they both lost their jobs for refusing to answer questions. I mean, that's how they get you. They drag you up before the committee; they ask you: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" And then they list a whole bunch of other organizations, and the stock response was, "I refuse to answer on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment." And then they would fire you for insubordination. That was in the '50s.

[Legally, under the rules governing these McCarthy type committees if you directly answered one question you were then required to answer all questions or face prison. So if you answered, "Yes, I was once a member of such-and-so organization," they could then force you to identify by name all of the other members of that (or any other) organization putting your friends and colleagues in jeopardy. So the standard answer to all questions had to be "I refuse to answer on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment."]

Ron: And how old were you?

Mimi: Well, I was probably in elementary school.

Ron: So what did they do after they lost their jobs?

Mimi: Well, my father had been a high school math teacher, and he somehow found a niche that at that time was not very well filled which was dealing with what were then called mentally retarded children. I don't know what the politically correct term today is, but he went back to school. He went to Brooklyn College and took some courses on teaching mentally disabled children. And then he and another fired teacher opened a little private school. And these were children who were too severely retarded to be mainstreamed into the public school system and who, under other circumstances, would've been institutionalized. But that's what was done in those days. So he, again, was on the forefront fighting for the rights of people who had no voice.

And then my mother, this is the irony of ironies, my mother had also been working for the school system. She was a school librarian. She had a degree in library science. She had been a school librarian in a high school in New York and was fired from that position. And one day I was at the Brooklyn Public Library and saw a little Help Wanted sign, saying that there were positions open for librarians. Well, I told my mother about that, and she applied, and she was hired by the Brooklyn Public Library. And then she proceeded to have a very illustrious career, retiring as a district supervisor. It was like one hand didn't know what the other hand was doing. Here she had been fired from one city agency, and another city agency took her on. So anyway, she was a librarian until she retired.

Ron: It's a great story.

Mimi: Yeah, so I had been raised with this idea that there was injustice out there, and it was your job to do whatever you could. I mean, nobody ever lectured me about it; it was just that that's what I saw everybody around me doing. All my parents' friends were the same way. And when I was old enough, I would sometimes be taken to the picket lines myself or taken to NAACP meetings or what-not.

So the first thing that actually happened was in 1954, when the Brown v Board of Education decision came down, there was some sort of a nationwide campaign to have a youth march on Washington in support of that decision. It was called the Youth March for Integrated Schools, and I organized a busload of kids from my high school to go to that.

Ron: And you were in New York City.

Mimi: Yeah, this was when I was in high school. I was in Brooklyn.

Ron: What high school?

Mimi: Erasmus. Erasmus Hall High School.

Ron: Is that a Catholic high school?

Mimi: No, no. It was a public school. A great big huge public school.

That was my parents again in action. I had done very well in elementary school. I mean, I was a bright kid. And I was very interested in science at that time, and I really wanted to go to the Bronx High School of Science. But first of all, it would've involved a fairly lengthy subway trip, but my parents did not approve of that because they did not want me going to an elite school. They wanted me to go to a democratic school that had everybody in it. So I went to the neighborhood high school which was Erasmus, which happened to be huge.

Ron: It served you well?

Mimi: Yeah. It served me very well. It served me very well, well enough to get into Swarthmore.


Swarthmore College

Mimi: And then when I went off to Swarthmore, there were a bunch of us in my entering class who all came out of similar family backgrounds of parents who were radical in some way or another. And we revived a campus organization, and I can't remember if we changed the name. Anyway, it ended up being the Swarthmore Political Action Committee. And our idea was to do whatever political action could be done. Now, at that time, the only political action that anybody saw was anti-nuclear. There was something called the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and they would have demonstrations periodically in the downtowns of big cities. And of course, there we were going to a Quaker college, so there was considerable support for that point of view. So we did our fair share of schlepping into Philadelphia and marching on picket lines with SANE.

And then, what happened next? Did the sit-ins come next? When were the sit- ins?

Ron: Maybe '60?

Mimi: Yeah. I think '60. OK. When the sit-ins started, we in the Swarthmore Political Action Club of course became enormously excited. Here, finally it was something. I mean, somebody was doing something in a direct way. And there wasn't much we could do sitting up there in suburban Philadelphia, but the NAACP started a nationwide boycott of Woolworth's and Kresge's because that's where a lot of the sit-ins were happening.

Swarthmore was right near this small city called Chester. At that time, this was an area where, of course, it was illegal to segregate in the sale of houses, but it managed to be done anyway. So Chester was the local Black community. So we would go down to Chester every weekend and picket Woolworth's. Signs of you know, "Boycott Woolworth's," "Support the Sit-Ins," blah-blah-blah.


Freedom Rider

And then, somewhere in there, I got connected with the [Congress of Racial Equality] CORE office which was in downtown Manhattan, 38 Park Row in Manhattan. I started doing volunteer work there on school breaks. It was while I was doing that, that I learned about the Freedom Rides that were going to be organized. And then when CORE put out an appeal for Freedom Riders I signed up; I applied.

Ron: And your parents said?

Mimi: My parents didn't say anything. They thought this was wonderful. I mean, all I was doing was carrying out everything I had been raised to believe and to do. They were enormously, enormously supportive. The only time — and this wasn't even very negative, but my mother told me years later that for the entire time that I was actually on the bus, over the course of a couple of days, it wasn't all that long, she actually became physically ill. I mean, she was sick to her stomach with worry. She said the best phone call she ever got was the call from CORE saying that I had been arrested in Jackson, and I was now in jail. She figured that as long as I was in jail, I was safe.

So the other part of the story is that timing-wise, this is pure coincidence, I mean I didn't deliberately ask for this or plan it, but after the bus burning, Governor — who was the governor of Alabama?

Ron: Was it Wallace? No?

Mimi: Whoever it was. Anyway, the governor had issued a restraining order against CORE, forbidding CORE to conduct Freedom Rides through the great state of Alabama. The restraining order was time limited to two weeks, so for those two weeks, CORE had to route all its Freedom Rides around Alabama and then down into Jackson. After two weeks the restraining order ran out, and I guess he didn't renew it or he couldn't renew it. Anyway, I was on the first Freedom Ride to go through Alabama after the restraining order was lifted. So that was a little bit concerning, because the previous bus to go through Alabama had been burned — 

Ron: I was gonna ask you — 

Mimi: And everybody had been beaten. And so on the one hand, our assumption was they cannot possibly allow that to happen again. I mean, they'll have the federal government to say nothing of the entire world down on their necks. On the other hand, we didn't know what they might pull. But we went ahead with it. I mean, CORE went ahead with it. We knew what we were doing.

You know, for a 20-year-old, this is very exciting. I mean, you're 20 years old. Nothing's gonna happen to you! And this is for a noble cause. So that's what we did. And technically speaking, nothing happened. The buses were not stopped. Tires were not slashed. The bus wasn't burned, but there were several harassments. Like our whole little group met up in Atlanta, Georgia, and then we went from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama, and we spent the night in Montgomery. And the next morning, when we all gathered again back at the bus terminal to get on the bus to Jackson, I don't remember which thing happened first, but there was a presumed bomb threat on the bus.

Oh, I remember. It wasn't a bomb threat. It was something went off that sounded like gunshot. And the police investigated. And the bus was still in the terminal. Nobody had boarded it yet. And the police investigated, and it was someone with a firecracker. And then, when the driver of that particular run showed up for his run and was informed that there were going to be Freedom Riders on his bus, he turned tail and went home. He refused to drive the bus, so then there was a delay while they attempted to come up with another driver.

And they eventually found another driver, and he made it clear to us, or somehow it was made clear to us, that he would agree to drive the bus under the condition that a.) our whole entire group sat in the back of the bus and b.) we could not get off the bus until we got to Jackson. And they had no bathrooms on buses in those days, and this particular bus, it was like the milk run. It would stop at every junction, every dirt road junction between Montgomery and Jackson, and we couldn't get off the bus. So as a little group, we did exactly what we were told. We all sat in the back of the bus.

Ron: How many were you?

Mimi: I think there were eight of us.

Ron: OK.

Mimi: And we represented black, white, men, women: it was a real spectrum of people. We had Wyatt T. Walker from Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and his wife, and then we had just a couple of student types, and then there was me, there was another young white woman, who was also a student, from Boston, and then there was a young white woman, also a student, who was from the South. She was from Atlanta, Georgia, and she was a real flash point, because of course southerners saw her as a total traitor to her race. I mean, you know, this is [seen as] horrible, except that she had been raised in a very liberal family. Her mother was a journalist, a very outspoken journalist. I'm still in touch with her.

Ron: What was her name?

Mimi: Well, we called her Sissy Leonard. Her real name is Margaret, but at that time, we all knew her as Sissy. And so there were us, and then there was a white gentleman from Chicago who was older, like he was probably in his thirties.

Ron: [Laughing]

Mimi: You know, early forties. And I don't remember who else. And as I say, there were a couple of Black students. And so we sat in the back of the bus. That in itself was eye opening, because this is a regular bus route. And so at every little crossroads, more people would get on, and pretty soon the bus was actually packed. I mean, it was standing room only. And needless to say, all the other people in the back of the bus were Black. And everybody instantly knew who we were. I mean, I think word spread very, very rapidly.

And what amazed me was the reaction of the other people on the bus. These are ordinary citizens of whatever...Alabama, Mississippi, going from point A to point B on a bus. And they were just so unbelievably appreciative. I mean, they went out of their way to thank us for what we were doing and that we were doing this for them, that we were risking our lives. Here they were, little nobodies, and we were risking our lives for them. I mean, seriously, it practically still brings tears to my eyes.

And there was this one young man. I don't know if I told this story at Presidio Hill [school], but there was one young man on the bus. He was a serviceman, and he was stationed somewhere in Hawaii, and he had come home to somewhere or another in northern Mississippi or somewhere to visit his family, and he was on his way back. So he was on the bus to Jackson where he'd catch a plane. And his mother had loaded him up with this huge picnic basket full of food, because of course none of the Black passengers could get off and get anything at these little crossroad convenience stores.

Ron: That's the way you traveled then.

Mimi: Yeah, yeah.

Ron: Fried chicken and biscuits.

Mimi: That's it. Fried chicken, greens, cornbread, and a great big ol' chocolate cake.

Ron: His Mama loved him.

Mimi: And here he was with this basket. And he insisted, absolutely insisted, on giving us the entire contents of the basket, plus the chocolate cake. So, you know, I mean we kept saying, "No, no. You need this. You need to eat." He absolutely insisted, so we all shared fried chicken and cornbread and greens as we rode on down to Jackson. We saved the chocolate cake, and I ended up being the keeper of the chocolate cake. I mean, I was the guardian. It was in this pink bakery box, but it was a homemade cake.

But anyway, so there was no violence against the bus at all. I mean, I guess Alabama had learned its lesson. And although I do have to say, from Atlanta to Montgomery, when we pulled into the bus terminal in Montgomery, and again, I may have told this story at Presidio Hill, there was a fairly substantial crowd across the street from the bus terminal that was being held back by just those simple saw horses, nothing very substantial, and maybe half a dozen sheriff's deputies. And this was not a friendly reception committee. I mean, these were guys.

And that was the other thing that kept blowing my mind was how stereotypical all the white people that I came in contact with were. I mean, like these guys who were behind the barricade, like they were right out of Hollywood central casting. You know, beer bellies, cowboy hats, and they were screaming at the top of their lungs. We couldn't hear what they had to say, because the bus windows were all closed, but I'm sure it was not polite whatever it was. And I do have to say, that was one of my more apprehensive moments, because we didn't know whether the sheriff's deputies would be able to hold them back or not, but apparently they did, because we were not approached.

We were not molested in any way, except that the bus driver himself got so scared; the bus driver was very apprehensive about this group, and he refused — he may have driven the bus up to the terminal to let the non-Freedom Rider passengers out, but he said, "You guys are not getting out here. I'm going down the street, and I'm gonna let you off down the street, away from them." Which he did.

And we were met by members of the Black community who had been lined up to take us. And we were going to be spending the night there, so we were split up among various people's homes. And I ended up in the home of a lovely, lovely couple. And I mean, it was just everything about this whole experience was eye opening to me in the sense that I knew all about injustice in the abstract, but I had never, ever seen in being played out in everyday life of people.

So here we were. I was with the white girl from Boston, and the family that we were staying with was a nice middle class family. They had a lovely, lovely large home with a lovely gracious living room and a huge picture window that faced out onto the sidewalk. And they told Judy and me to please stay out of the living room, that they would get in huge trouble if anyone knew that they were putting up two white girls. And then they proceeded to treat us like royalty. They fed us dinner and then breakfast the next morning, and they insisted on feeding us in their dining room, with their best china. And they ate in the kitchen, and Judy and I kept saying,"No, we want to eat with you. I mean, seriously, you don't have to go to all — " And they would hear none of it. And they would hear none of it. I mean, it was like — I don't know what it was, but it was breaking too much social convention for them to have us eating with them in the kitchen. So as I say, they waited on us like — it was a weird situation. And I mean they too were enormously, enormously grateful for what we were doing.

And then the next morning of course — I'm sure I told this story at the school, my famous grits story where they served us breakfast. You know, here's Judy and me, you know, at the formal dining room table being served off of their best china. And they first came in with this bowl, this serving bowl with this white stuff in it. But to Judy and me, having grown up in the north, it looked like hot cereal, like Cream of Rice. And then they came in with a platter that had eggs and sausage and bacon and Lord knows what else on it. And then they brought us coffee, and then there was a pitcher of cream for the coffee.

And Judy and I looked at this bowl, and we had no idea at all what it was, so we assumed that it was hot cereal and that somehow in the South they had a different way of eating it than we did in the North. In the North, we'd have a cereal bowl. OK, so we put the grits (although at the time we didn't know that's what it was)...so we each took a pile of grits and put it on our plate and then made a well in it, like at Thanksgiving you do for the mashed potatoes and poured the milk in the well and sprinkled it with sugar and then proceeded to try to eat it. And then of course we put some eggs and meat and stuff on our plate. And the hostess, the woman of the house, came out to make sure that we were doing OK, and I have to say it is to her eternal benefit, I mean she's being rewarded in heaven, I'm sure, for not having burst out laughing. You know, she didn't say a word. She didn't breathe a word, that Judy and I had totally humiliated ourselves eating grits like it was hot cereal.

Ron: {UNCLEAR} the grits.

Mimi: I mean, believe me it tasted good, but I think by our first day in jail, I learned what grits were. And then Judy and I were saying, "Oh my gosh! What did we do?" " But anyway, then that was the night in Montgomery, and then we had the adventure in the bus station. And then so when we got into Jackson, that's — 

Ron: He let you off down the street in Montgomery after driving from Atlanta.

Mimi: From Atlanta.

Ron: OK. So then you have to board again, the bus again, in Montgomery.

Mimi: Yeah, but that was the next morning. And the next morning we went in — and the next morning actually we made our little presence known by our whole little group went into the white only lunch counter to get coffee.

And they were like — it was so funny. In Alabama it was like, "OK, we're under federal orders to do this, so if we're gonna do this, we're gonna do it by the book." So they insisted on seeing our interstate bus ticket. And we could show them that we were en route to Mississippi. So then he realized that he had to serve us. He didn't have any choice.


Arrested in Jackson, MS

So we had our coffee, and then we eventually got on the bus, and the bus eventually gets going. And we arrive in Jackson, and in Jackson, it's all been choreographed. It's all pre-planned. And Jackson is a huge terminal. So we get off the bus and enter — so we all file into the white only waiting room. We are filing in from the terminal side of the waiting room. The police are already in there. I mean, they are expecting us.

And then we go through this little dance. They ordered us to get out, and we refused. We said we have just as much right to be in here as anybody, and we've just come off a long bus trip, and we'd like to get some cigarettes and chewing gum and whatever at the counter here, and so, you know, if you don't move, you'll be arrested. And we went through that little scene three times. That was the required number of times. And after the third time when we still showed no signs of going anywhere, they arrested us and then led us right out the front door of the terminal where there was a big black paddy wagon waiting, and we were all loaded into the back of the paddy wagon and taken to the Jackson City Jail, and so we were booked there, and we spent the night in holding cells in that jail.

[Federal law prohibited segregation for inter-state travelers so the integrated groups of Freedom Riders had a legal right to use the "white-only" facilities. When the Jackson police ordered them to leave and the riders refused, they were arrested for Refusal to Obey an Officer and Disturbing the Peace.]

Mimi: And the next day we were transferred to the Hinds County Jail.

Ron: Segregated?

Mimi: Oh, of course. At every step of the way, as I say, my mind was blown with just the little details. Like for example, we get to the Jackson City Jail. The Jackson City Jail is in the courthouse building, and you enter the building, and there's this great big lobby, and there's a bank of elevators, or there may be two elevators or something. Anyway, they had to make twice as many trips up and down on the elevators because they wouldn't put whites and blacks in the same car at the same time. And I'm trying to think if they wouldn't even load us by the same sex.

So anyway, they finally get us up there, and then of course we're all in segregated cells. And poor Theresa Walker, Wyatt T. Walker's wife, she was the only Black woman. So she's in a cell by herself. And then Judy and Sissy and I are in another cell together, but we could talk to each other. And I guess because there were three of us in a cell, that made enough noise and stuff so that the mice didn't bother us. But poor Theresa apparently had mice in her cell. She kept telling us about them, and they were there all night.

So we were booked there, and there again, I mean I just — the whoever they were, the sheriff's deputies who at every single stage of the booking treated us like, I don't know, like — I mean, basically they saw us as pinko commie radicals, scum of the earth. But not only were we pinko commie radicals and N-lovers, but we probably live very dissolute lives. And we probably never even bathed. I mean, we were absolute trash to them, and they treated us that way as they booked us. And I mean any time they could make some kind of remark and just kind of twist it, they would.

I can't tell you how many of them asked me, "How many N's had I slept with?" And I mean, questions like that, in addition to, "Are you a member of this organization? Are you a member of that organization? Starting with the Communist Party and working on down to the NAACP. We had been carefully, carefully trained by CORE about how to conduct ourselves during this whole procedure, so on one level, I just fell back on my training which was mostly, you don't answer their questions. You don't engage with them.

We were told that they would be asking us for our religion, but it was our choice how we wanted to respond to them. We could refuse to answer, or we could answer, and that was our choice. So there I am in the interrogation room with this deputy who, once again, with the belly and the belt buckle. I don't remember if he had a cowboy hat on, but he might as well have had, and he's running down the list of questions, you know, all the questions. And he finally gets to,"And what is your religion?"

And at this point, I have a minor existential dilemma, because I'm Jewish. And I thought,"OK, on top of everything else, I knew from my upbringing that in addition to being very racist, the South was also known for its anti- Semitism." And I thought to myself, "I could say I'm Jewish and take whatever comes, which Lord knows, they'll lead me off into the nearest swamp, I don't know what, or I could lie." I could have answered a number of ways from saying that I was an atheist, which I didn't think would go down any better than being Jewish, to choosing some random Christian sect, and in that existential millisecond, I could not lie, so I said I was Jewish.

And the deputy kind of reared back in his chair and looked at me and said, "Oh" with a sneer. I mean, seriously, with a sneer on his face and said, "Oh. So you're a Jewess." I must confess I knew exactly what he meant, but I don't know that I had ever heard the term. I had maybe encountered it in English literature, like in Shakespeare or something or early English literature which is when female Jews were sometimes referred to as Jewess. But I also had, in addition to the sneer, I had no idea what he was driving at. I mean, was there something particularly awful about being a female Jew or what?

And so I just looked at him, and he said,"Oh, so you're the people who you think you are?" It was some garbled remark, but I knew exactly what he was trying to say. He had obviously been raised with this mistaken notion of the concept of [what] "chosen people" means, because it does not mean what people sometimes take it as, that Jews think of themselves as being better then everybody else, and they're special, and therefore God chose them. And that isn't what it means at all. But as I say, I knew what he meant, and again, in that split second, I thought to myself, a.) I don't really know enough to engage him, to give him an educated response, and b.) he is not the kind of person I want to engage in a religious discourse with. I mean, in other words, I didn't think he would be open to anything that I said. So I didn't say anything. Seriously, I didn't even know what to say. And mercifully, he then moved on to other questions like, "Was I a member of the Communist Party?" And he finally let me go. And nothing further ever happened to me because I was Jewish.

Ron: So he put you back in the cell?

Mimi: No, at that point, let me see. At that point, well, they put us back in the cell in the city jail, and then the next day, we were taken over to the Hinds County Jail which is where all the other Freedom Riders were who had already come in [on other rides]. And by the time we got there, there was massive overcrowding, because the Hinds County Jail basically had four cells, you know, black women, white women, black men, white men, and I don't know what was going on in the other cells, but the white women's cell was bursting at the seams. It was a cell that was designed for I think no more than eight people. And there must've been about 20 of us in there, and you know, we had mattresses all over the floor.

I mean, we carried on the best we could. It was sort of almost like an extended day camp. We had activities during the day that we organized, but it was clearly not a tenable situation. And more Freedom Riders were pouring in every day, so it was getting worse. So to the extent that that was happening on the women's side, it was even worse on the men's side, because there were more men than women.

So the State of Mississippi, or Hinds County or whatever, came up with what they thought was a brilliant solution to put an end to the Freedom Rides which was to transfer us to such an untenable situation that everybody would become so scared that no Freedom Rider would want to set a toenail in Mississippi. So they started with the men. They started transferring the men up [to Parchman Prison]. And I think one or two days after I arrived in Hinds County, they started transferring the women up there. And again, we were a trifle apprehensive because of course everybody — if you've never heard of Parchman, you certainly got the word fast enough, and we had the Freedom Riders and the reputation that it had.

[Parchman Prison was known to be one of the most brutal and violent prisons in the country. Particularly for Blacks and civil rights supporters.]

And once again, the most excruciating part of that whole transfer was the actual trip, because they loaded us up. I don't remember; there may be eight women at that point. I mean, they didn't transfer everybody up all at once. It was like first in, first out. So, as I say, they loaded us up into some sort of paddy wagon or bus situation. And I do have to say we were all very apprehensive the whole way up, because we're driving on these little two-lane roads, and seriously —  I mean, you know what rural Mississippi looks like.

Ron: I do.

Mimi: I mean, seriously, there isn't a person for miles around, and there are all these little dirt roads off into God knows what.

Ron: And sometimes there's vines hanging from the trees.

Mimi: Oh yes, Spanish moss.

Ron: Yeah, yeah.

Mimi: Oh yeah, so there we go. And seriously, we kept fearing that at any moment this bus was going to veer off onto one of these side roads, and we'd never be heard from again. But no, we arrived in due course in Parchman.


Parchman Prison

I do have to say I was very lucky. I think I was in the second group to be transferred up, so they hadn't quite perfected their tortures yet. So all they did when we came in was, you know, they processed us. They took away our belongings, issued us prison uniforms, and we each got I think a metal cup and a Bible.

Ron: And a Bible? Each one of you got a Bible?

Mimi: I'm trying to think if each one of us got a Bible or if we just had one Bible per cell.

But yes, that was the only reading material we were allowed was the Bible. And then we were put into cells, and curiously enough, each cell was segregated, but there was no pattern. Like it wasn't all the whites were at one end, and all the Blacks were at the other end. So there could be a Black cell and a white cell, and then another white cell and a few more Black cells.

Oh, the other thing I should mention is that Parchman is primarily a prison farm.

Ron: Yes.

Mimi: So the vast majority of prisoners are housed in cottages, scattered all over the property. But part of the whole plan for making this a miserable experience was that we were gonna be locked up in the maximum security unit which meant that we would be locked up in a small cell all day long and not allowed outside, given no exercise, et cetera, et cetera. And they had a huge maximum security unit which apparently wasn't being very highly used at all, because by the time the Freedom Rides finished with it, it was practically all Freedom Riders. There were Freedom Riders, and there was this one little death row. So that's why I'm saying we were in cells. This is in the maximum security.

Ron: How long were you in Parchman Farm?

Mimi: Uh about...well, we were in jail for 40 days, and you subtract three or four days that I was in Hinds County, and the rest of it was in Parchman. And actually, if you're gonna compare accommodations in jail, it was better at Parchman than it was in Hinds County.

Ron: More room?

Mimi: Yeah, there was more room. I mean, there was a little bit more room. In the cell that I was in, there were three of us, and it was a cell that was meant for two. So somebody always had to sleep with a mattress on the floor, but the food was better. Again, this is all relative. And you know, we got to shower once a week, at which time they would give us a new — The whole thing is so stereotyped. And it turns out, I thought the men were in black and white striped uniforms. They weren't. They had nice shorts — 

Ron: [Laughing]

Mimi: — of some material. But the women, we were in black and white striped skirts.

Ron: Wow.

Mimi: I mean, seriously.

Ron: No {UNCLEAR} in those days, right?

Mimi: No, I wish. I wish we could've smuggled in a camera and taken a picture, because yeah. We were allowed to wear our own blouses. They didn't provide blouses. And then once a week, you handed in your skirt, and they gave you a fresh skirt.

Ron: So, 40 days. You rode the bus for two or three, right?

Mimi: Yeah, two days.

Ron: Two days. They put you in jail for 40 days.

Mimi: Yeah. Well, we agreed to stay. The 40 days comes about because of the peculiar twist in Mississippi law which is that you have 40 days within which to post bail, and if you haven't posted bail by the 40th day, you lose that privilege. So of course this is a great opportunity for a jail-in, to make life more difficult for Mississippi that we would all post bail, but we would post it on the 40th day.

Ron: OK.

Mimi: So when we signed up for the Freedom Rides, we had to sign a form actually that we were committing to stay for 40 days.

Ron: So how much was bail?

Mimi: I don't know. We didn't — CORE paid it.

Ron: Did you lose weight?

Mimi: You know what? I don't think so.

Ron: Did you have contact with your parents?

Mimi: Some. This being the maximum security unit, everything was regulated, so any mail that we received had been gone over, had already been read by the prison officials, and if there was anything at all suspicious, a big heavy black felt pen, and they'd cross it out. We were allowed to write, I think, two letters a week, and they provided this prison stationary that was pathetic. So yeah, so I got some letters from my parents, and I was able to write letters to my parents. And my mother, being a librarian, saved all of them, and somewhere I still have them.

Ron: It's amazing. Bruce would like to have them [for this website].

Mimi: Well, the thing is, all my papers have been committed to the Wisconsin State Historical Society. It's part of their Civil Rights collection.

Ron: I've seen that collection.

Mimi: And so they're all there, and all of that stuff is being digitized.

Ron: Yeah, so I can go look at it if I wanted to.

Mimi: Yeah, right, right. So I know, Bruce was asking me to give him the papers, and I said, "Well, the problem is, they're already there, but you can certainly link people to them."


Back to the North

Ron: Well, after 40 days, you got out?

Mimi: Yeah, so after 40 days, they bailed us out, and Judy, this girl from Boston, her parents had actually driven down and picked us both up and drove us back, back up North. And then I joined — my family vacationed every summer at a little rental cottage up in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, so I joined them there. It was like a little cottage colony where a lot of New York City school teachers rented cottages, and they were all left wing. So my parents organized a little fundraising gathering, coffees, and I would be trotted around telling the story of the Freedom Rides, and they'd raise money.

Ron: [Laughing] OK.

Mimi: One of the stories my mother loves to tell is she was at the little convenience store, the little grocery store that serviced this tiny little burg in upstate New York, and you know exchanging pleasantries with the woman behind the counter, and my mother said something like, "Oh my daughter is coming up to visit. She just got released from jail!" And my mother of course was very proud of that, and the woman behind the counter said, " Oh, I'm so sorry — "

Ron: [Laughing]

Mimi: " — What was she in for?"

Ron: Yeah. I like that. So, you went back to school?

Mimi: Yeah, then I went back to school that fall, and we continued our radical activities. We did whatever we could. By this time, the sit-ins had spread further north, so there were actually sit-ins going on in Maryland, so I helped organize groups of kids to go down there for the weekend.

Once or twice, I was arrested. The Dean of Students called me in and gave me a little lecture about how this is very bad, a bad role model for the other students, because kids might sign up to do this, and they might not be very strong students. And if they get arrested, then they're gonna miss classes and blah-blah-blah. I didn't take it terribly seriously. Anyway, we continued with that.

And then we began to extend the activities to the local area, like there was a — it must've been a roller skating rink not that far from the college that in true northern style in that period, of course was not overtly segregated, but they had special nights. And it was just known that certain nights were white only and other nights were Black only. And so we of course organized — What we did was organize a test case, and we took an integrated — I don't even remember how we organized it, but we staged a classic test case. And as I recall, the Black students were turned away, and the rest of us got in, and then we sued, because technically speaking, that was in violation of God knows what, Pennsylvania law, U.S. law. And we won. They lost. So they had to discontinue that practice. And there was a whole little court case, and we were all called to testify.

Ron: You were going to class all this time.

Mimi: Yeah, right. Going to class.

Ron: What's your major at that point?

Mimi: By that time, I was majoring in history. Having abandoned biology. And then what else did we do? We're really turning into real troublemakers. We attempted to organize the staff, you know like the cafeteria staff who of course were mostly Black and way underpaid. I don't think anything ever came of that, but I don't know. And what else did we do? I mean, we had all kinds of petition drives.



Voter Registration in Louisiana

Mimi: Well, needless to say, I stayed in touch with CORE, and I think I still continued sometimes to do volunteer work, a day here or a day there during school breaks. And at some point, I learned that they were going to be participating in this massive voter registration drive. I mean, you probably know that whole story, but it was a joint effort of all the Civil Rights organizations.

Ron: What year?

Mimi: This was — well, they would've started talking about it in maybe late '62 or early '63. And it was kind of a double pronged thing. It was one of the few times that the Civil Rights organizations and the federal government saw eye to eye for slightly different reasons and then could cooperate. So the federal government, they basically wanted the Civil Rights Movement to kind of disappear. It was making life very difficult. It was making it very, very awkward with Khrushchev who was playing up all these racial problems in the United States all over the place and throwing that in Kennedy's face every time he could. And so President Kennedy just wanted...just get these people off the street.

Ron: Get them off the front page of the newspaper.

Mimi: Yeah, get 'em off the front page, do something with them. In the meantime, the Civil Rights people had begun to — their thinking had begun to change in the sense that up to that time all the efforts had been going after one particular target, like segregated schools and then segregated lunch counters and then segregated bus stations and buses and airports. And first of all, that was very piecemeal. That wasn't really solving the problem, and really, the only way you were ultimately going to solve the problem was from the grassroots and get people voting so they could vote all these crackers out who were putting these laws into effect in the first place.

And the fact of the matter was in that great swath across the Deep South, you know, disenfranchisement ruled the day. So the Civil Rights groups wanted to continue to do something, and yeah, the federal government wanted them off the front page of the newspaper. And they sort of both came up with this idea, so we need to launch a major voter registration campaign aimed at particularly that area in the South where Blacks were near or greater than the majority of the population and were disenfranchised. So that's basically what happened. That was the birth of COFO, I think.

Ron: Mississippi in '64?

Mimi: Right. And then basically what they did was sort of divide up the South, and CORE got Louisiana and some scattered other places. SNCC got primarily Mississippi and pieces of Alabama. SCLC was in Georgia or whatever, or wherever they were. So CORE then very carefully, systematically, mapped out areas in Louisiana that they were going to tackle. And they concentrated on the Sixth Congressional District, and then there was another district that was way up north, but these were areas where the Black population was close to or more than 50%, and there were hardly any Blacks registered. I mean, it was like you might as well have dialed back to the late 19th century. And so that's where — 

Ron: They actually never left the late 19th century.

Mimi: Right, right. I mean, you talk about — 

Ron: Except for that eight years during Reconstruction.

Mimi: Right, right. And so I signed up. That was my senior year in college. I signed up to be part of CORE's voter registration drive, and I can't remember when that was supposed to start, but there was this gap between the time I graduated from Swarthmore and the time that started up. So I filled in that gap by going to the eastern shore of Maryland where [Gloria] Richardson — very active Civil Rights stuff going on there. So I did what I could to help there, which wasn't very much. And then we set off for Louisiana. And then I spent the next — well, I was only supposed to go there for the summer, and I had already been accepted to graduate school for the fall. To make a long story short, I got so turned on by what I was doing in the summer that I postponed graduate school for a year and stayed in Louisiana for all that year through the following summer.

Ron: So what year was that?

Mimi: That was the summer of '63 through the summer of '64.

Ron: OK.

Mimi: And then I went back every summer after that for two or three years. But that was another eye opener. I mean, I ended up in these two counties or parishes as they're called in Louisiana. They're East and West Feliciana parishes, and they border on Mississippi. They're on the "L," the horizontal bar of Louisiana.

And they're right under Mississippi. And they might as well have been an extension of Mississippi. And I mean, you talk about culture shock. We arrive in these little towns, and yeah, it was like they had never left the 19th century. The only concession to the 20th century was that most everybody had a television set. So they're living in these unbelievable shacks, and there'd be an antenna sticking up. But you know, seriously, to get to the shack, you had to cross over a ditch that was raw sewage.

Ron: Yeah, yeah.

Mimi: And you remember, all those little shacks, they were up off the ground.

Ron: Right.

Mimi: They were all cinder block built. And some of them did not have, let's see. The one where I stayed most of the time, did she have...? There was something she didn't have. She had electricity, obviously.

Ron: Probably not running water.

Mimi: ;No, she had running water. Maybe she didn't have gas. Because there was a wood burning stove in the living room, and her stove in the kitchen was wood burning.

Ron: I grew up in one of those houses.

Mimi: Oh yeah?

Ron: The first seven years of my life.

Mimi: Oh my gosh, where?

Ron: Southeast Arkansas. Talk about rural — 

Mimi: Yeah, yeah. I have friends who lived in that area.

Ron: Had a nice {UNCLEAR} in the back yard.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: Me and my grandmother boiling the clothes in a big black pot and stirring them with lye, you know, white clothes. Yeah. It's a good life.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: Except we had land.

Mimi: Oh.

Ron: Yeah. They have land.

Mimi: Yeah, these people didn't have it. I mean, they were tenant farmers, or some of them had jobs but menial jobs. The highest up you could get was like a school teacher in the local Black school.

Ron: How did it change you?

Mimi: That's a good question. I don't know. I'd like to think that it reinforced in me every value that I had been raised with. What it reinforced in me was for me to do stuff. You know, to be engaged, to be involved in fighting stuff that's wrong.

Ron: Not everybody feels that way.

Mimi: And that always amazes me. I'm always so surprised by that. Aren't you?

Ron: No, not any more. I believe what Margaret Mead said. It's only a small group of people, dedicated, that can make changes, and in fact, that's the only thing that ever does anything. Because the majority of the people are just not going to do that.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: But I mean, SNCC or CORE or any of those groups were very small.

Mimi: I know, I know.

Ron: But they were like an engine. I'd like to say that what I realized in Mississippi was everybody's watching on this. Everybody's watching. Black folks are watching. White folks are watching.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: Will you survive? Or if you survive, then what does that mean? We're all {UNCLEAR} now. Possible.

Mimi: Yeah. And I remember several years ago there was a reunion in New Orleans of the CORE voter registration people. And afterwards, several of us went out to Saint Francisville to look at our old haunts so to speak, and again, I was just totally, totally, totally blown away by the changes.

Ron: In {UNCLEAR}?

Mimi: I mean this is Saint Francisville which is this teeny-weeny little...I mean, it's curiously...you talk about backward then, and I mean, the courthouse still has the Confederate soldier on a big pedestal in front. But we drove into Saint Francisville, and it was about lunch time. So first, we stop at a McDonald's which there was no McDonald's there you know back in the '60s. We walk into the McDonald's, and it was just like walking into a McDonald's in San Francisco. I mean, totally, totally integrated. Blacks, whites. There are Blacks behind the counter, Blacks sitting. And you know, everybody's sitting anywhere they want to.

Meanwhile, our little group — so there was the Black guy who had been our field secretary, Ronnie Moore, and then there was another white guy, and I'm trying to remember. I think it was just the three of us. And we are particularly — like the other CORE worker and I are paranoid. I mean, I keep looking over my shoulder like any minute the Klan is gonna come out of the woodwork or something. I just couldn't — the fact that this had all happened in 50 years.

Ron: So that was in 2013? '14?

Mimi: Right, right. And I met some white people on that trip, a white guy in town. He's a long story, but a very, very interesting gentleman, an author. He had somehow found there was a big story in Ebony magazine in '63 I think, and he had somehow come across this article. He had had absolutely no idea that this stuff had been going on in his home town.

Ron: Really?

Mimi: And he emailed me. Anyway, we ended up having a very, very nice email conversation. He was coming from the point of view of not being a racist at all. I mean, like he was shocked that this stuff had gone on, and we agreed to meet. So here we are meeting, our little interracial group and him, what in my day would've been a white coffee shop. And we're wandering around town, and then another friend of his, a white woman who owned a little shop in Saint Francisville. I mean, the whole thing was mind boggling. And then they're telling me about all the changes. There are Black office holders all over the place. I mean, the place is absolutely — it could be small town anywhere.


Looking Back After 50 Years

Ron: You know, the town I was in is the home of Mississippi State University. And in '64 and '65 I couldn't go on that campus. I went back in 2014, and there was a Black Studies program. [Laughing]

Mimi: Yeah, yeah.

Ron: OK! That's what we did it for.

Mimi: Yeah. And change doesn't always happen that fast. And granted, a lot of things haven't changed.

Ron: Yeah, thank you.

Mimi: But that's how you have to start.

Ron: My wife and I talk about that. We {UNCLEAR} And then {UNCLEAR} It came at such a rush.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: And even now, it's nothing compared to what my parents or grandparents went through.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: So I'm like, "No, it's better. A lot better." You know, it's only when they ask you about this conversation, about you, I would say that you made it possible for me to sit here today. It's not a given. And even now, I feel sensitive.

Mimi: I get very embarrassed at something like that, because I honestly don't think I did that much. But I guess in the total context of things — 

Ron: You know, the kids today talk about allies. I might've mentioned this to you.

Mimi: No.

Ron: In the middle schools and such, particularly in a place like Presidio, how can we be allies to gay people, to immigrants. And I had this epiphany. I'm the only Black person sitting on the stage, [along with] the only Asian woman and three Jewish folks — 

Mimi: [Laughing]

Ron: And I {UNCLEAR}, "Ah, these are my allies." There were only 50 Black [volunteers] who went to Mississippi in 1964 [for Freedom Summer]; 900 white people went. If only those 50 of us had gone, {UNCLEAR}. It's because the white students brought newspapers, television, FBI. In a very real sense, you were putting your body on the line, and that is so — 

Mimi: And you know, there's a way that that sounds almost cynical. I mean, people can take that the wrong way, but I absolutely agree with you. I mean, it's a sorry commentary that it took white people getting involved for the government to pay attention. But that's the fact of the matter.

Ron: It is. You got to do what you got to do. Don't worry about the optics of it. It's not fair. {UNCLEAR} is not fair. And then you see things like this rapper, Jay Z. His name is Carter, I guess, Beyonce's husband. You do stay firm about this kid who was falsely imprisoned in New York City? The [Bower] case, I think it was. And ultimately, after serving a bunch of time as a teenager, he killed himself. And he just {UNCLEAR} with a metal {UNCLEAR} which is about {UNCLEAR} . And his story. Sometimes it's hard for me to watch those things.

Mimi: Yeah, I agree.

Ron: But here is somebody who has access to unlimited wealth and is using it in ways that our kids will take in.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: You know? And Lebron James opening a school out here.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: In {UNCLEAR} for disadvantaged youth.

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: You don't know if all this is gonna work out, but again, it's a small group. If you've got 300 kids here, and 10 of them step forward.

Mimi: Yeah.


Speaking to Students Today

Ron: I'm always looking in the rooms that we're in [when speaking to classes about the Civil Rights Movement], as a school, and the kids, if we get three to carry this baton.

Mimi: Yeah. Do you remember, did you talk to the fourth grade at Presidio Hill?

Ron: Yes, I did. Your sister had the class?

Mimi: Because there was one really sharp little girl. I think there were a couple of them, but one in particular, she wore glasses and she had kind of straight, scraggly hair? Anyway, she was a little firebrand, and I'm trying to remember. The question came up, and the teacher was saying, "Don't worry. She's already on her way to being a fighter."

Ron: I thought it was a fifth grade class that you and I were at. I gave the teacher a SNCC pin, and I asked her to give it to this young lady. She said, "Well, I mean I think she's already radicalized. Just give it to her. It'll mean something."

Mimi: Yeah.

Ron: {UNCLEAR} know what it means.

Mimi: Yeah, but she'll appreciate it.

Ron: She'll appreciate it. I mean, you know — 

Mimi: II was actually more impressed with the fourth graders at that school than I was with the sixth grade.

Ron: Do you remember the teacher for the fourth grade? {UNCLEAR} who she was?

Mimi: I don't remember her name, but I was enormously impressed with her.

Ron: It's a young Black woman.

Mimi: Yes.

Ron: She's the one who brought us there.

Mimi: Yeah, well she had a huge unit on the Freedom Rides, and they read books and they made little poster presentations. So what amazed me about that was how much the kids knew. I mean, when I was first asked to talk to the fourth grade, I thought, "Well fine, but it'll be like talking to a toddler."

Ron: Yeah, I was a little reticent.

Mimi: Little babies. I mean, what are they gonna understand? But I talked to them; I did not talk down to them. You know, I talked to them the same way I would talk to a group of kids at San Francisco State [University].

Ron: Yeah.

Mimi: But Tara, was that her name?

Ron: Yes, it was. Tara Sims, I think.

Mimi: I was enormously, enormously impressed with her.

Ron: She's going into public schools this year.

Mimi: I know.

Ron: And she said she'll invite us. I reminded her that the public schools may not have the {UNCLEAR} anyway. She's pretty committed.