I worked for COFO in late 1964 in Batesville MS and then worked for MFDP in the winter of '64, '65 in Jackson and Washington DC during the congressional challenge. After that I worked in the national SNCC office with Betty Garman (Robinson) in the Northern Support office. I also handled medical needs of the SNCC staff. It was in the spring and summer of 1964 that the concept of Black Power began to be enunciated, in the beginning by Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael.
Also, during this time the Lowdnes County Freedom Organization began in Alabama.
I spent many hours discussing and listening to discussions about Black Power in 1965. To me, it made sense. What it meant was that black liberation organizations, and SNCC was one, should be run by black people. They should lead and even those white folks who wanted to serve (i.e, me) should go back home, work with poor and working class white people, build a peoples' organization that was against racism and against the Vietnam war and in the future would/could form a coalition with the black liberation movement. This was a very challenging proposition for me because I was a southerner.
It meant that I would go into the "white" south I had come from and organize. These would be white working class people I had been leery (afraid) of while I worked for COFO and SNCC. I knew that these experiments had been tried before in Mississippi and had more or less failed. Nevertheless, I felt it was important to begin. Thus begins a chain of events that lasts even unto today.
I felt that I had no other choice since dropping out was not an option and I agreed with the concept of black power. It was never a matter of being "kicked out" the way some in the liberal press have portrayed it. It just made sense to me. I left in December of 1965.
I took a year off (1966) and worked in Washington DC for an anti poverty agency. During this time I met with a lot of people and also met a future husband, Al McSurely whom I married the next year. We stayed married for about 13 years. In January of 1967, we made a trip across the country and met with many old SNCC and movement folks including the Bradens in Louisville, Mike Miller in Kansas City, Clint Jencks in Colorado, Fred Jerome and Decca Truehaft in San Francisco/Oakland. I/we wanted to see what other organizers were doing.
In the spring of 1967 Al and I moved to Pikeville, Ky. I worked on the SCEF staff and Al had a job with the Appalachian Volunteers. We had in mind organizing a workers' party which would be anti-racist, anti-war and tax the coal companies, thereby returning resources to the community for schools, roads, etc. Al got fired in a few weeks and joined me on the SCEF staff.
Our project was called the "Mountain Project" and while there was a history of strong union organizing in the area, we ourselves had no base. There was already an indiginous movement against strip mining. When we got to Pike County there was one other SCEF organizer in Perry County. This organizer had rented a house outside Hazard, KY. and allowed his dog to run loose. The dog would defecate in other peoples' houses. Not their yards, their houses.
This was the "Mountain Project" we found ouselves in. Fortunately, Hazard was a ways away from Pike County. Nevertheless, the whole scenario bordered on the surreal.
Meanwhile we used contacts which were being developed by the Appalachian Volunteers and and some union contacts and made a few friends. But mostly local folks were wary of us because we were outsiders. It was difficult work. For instance, if you wanted to ask people to come to a meeting, you had to drive a long way up a swiss cheese type road and invite them. You couldn't call them on the phone-no phones. No electricity, usually. The poverty was oppressive and dis-heartening. It was very frustrating as you can imagine.
Meanwhile, other white civil rights workers came to SCEF as organizers in the south. They had the same idea (the response to Black Power) of organizing a people's organization which would be anti-racist, against the war, and change the economic system. Among them were Carol Hanish, Mary Britting, Esther Heifetz, Jack Minnis, Bob and Dottie Zellner, all ex-SNCC staffers. I am sure I am forgetting somebody.
But all this came to a screeching hall for us in August, 1967, when our home was raided by 17 armed men and we were arrested for sedition. We were in jail for about a week while civil rights lawyers (Kunstler and Stavis) came to Kentucky and have the case removed to federal court. The Bradens and SCEF gave wonderful support. The Bradens put their house up for our bond and when they came to sign papers at the Pike County Courthouse, they were also arrested for sedition.
The man who arrested us was running for Lt. Governor of Kentucky. His platform was to run the "commonists" out of the mountains. He lost the election and later said that we ruined his political career.
The arresting party seized almost all paper and paper products from our home. Books, papers and documents, address lists, a copy of Salt of the Earth (movie which we had shown several places), etc. They were particularly offended by SNCC literature and some of the pictures we had on the wall showing black and white people together. Also they didn't like the newspaper from Green Witch Village (The Village Voice).
While we were in jail a bus load of migrant workers from Detroit stopped at a convenience store outside town on their way south. The rumor quickly spread that a bus load of black people had come from Detroit to break us out of jail.
We had made some mistakes, of course. Probably it was not a good idea to hang a portrait of Che Guevara over the fireplace. Later on, our landlord testified that it was a picture of Nikita Khrushchev. Did I mention surreal?
In any event, our documents were sent to Washington, DC to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (the old McCarthy Committee) without our knowledge and we had to fight to get them back. They were eventually returned in December of 1968 along with a subpoena for 236 of the documents.
During the months between the sedition arrests and getting the documents back, we were very isolated. No one would speak to us. Even local people who were friends asked that we not come over because their house had been shot into and they didn't want to get themselves killed. I was very frustrated and sad because we were not able to make any progress. I also cried just about every day because by then we had a baby, Victor, and I didn't want him to die. It's one thing to be willing to die for what you believe in but quite another to jeopardize your child like that.
During the long days of isolation we were frequently visited by other organizers (had to cook and complained to the Bradens that I didn't want to be the Dolly Madison of the mountains. That was before the womens movement got aholt of me.) and we got wonderful letters from folks in the movement in other parts of the world which kept us going.
In December, 1968, our home was dynamited. I remember the blast and the implosion and explosion. In the darkness and swirling dust, I could make out a letter from Fred Jerome floating in mid air gently descending. The baby was crying and Al crawled around looking for his clothes. It was about 10 degrees outside. Al was sure a gas line had ruptured, but I had been expecting something like this. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
The Kentucky State Police came in response to our phone call. They said that it looked like six sticks of dynamite thrown against our bedroom window. "The next time this happens, call the city police." But I already knew there would be a next time
We left Pikeville that night. A legal battle ensued that lasted for 18 years (McSurely v. McClellan, 753 F.2d 88 (D.C. Cir. 1985). The Bradens and movement people and our lawyers stuck by us and gave us unflagging support. If you want to read more about the legal battle, see In Our Defense by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy (Morrow), Freedom Spent by Richard Harris (Little, Brown), Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill, and It Did Happen Here, by Bud and Ruth Schultz (University of California Press).
So, all these events and many more follow, too long and convoluted to include in this little remembrance, come to mind when I am asked : What was the effect of Black Power upon your life.
If I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing.
Margaret Herring (a.k.a. Lauren, Laughrun, McSurely)
November 14, 2004
© 2004, Margaret Herring
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the narrative belongs to Margaret Herring.