Written sometime between 2003-2006]
Peter de Lissovoy was a SNCC worker in 1963 and worked in Atty.
C. B. King's campaign for Congress in 1964.]
The Civil Rights Movement was also very much a war of words. Sticks and stones — ropes, clubs, firehoses, dogs, jailtime, rigged courts, and bullets — but the white people were always talking trash — to the best of their ability. We were really "communists." They were always saying something to this effect. It used to amaze me how often they resorted to such a — to me — bizarre accusation; it was a favorite of theirs.
The idea of thousands upon thousands of young African Americans in the South being communists really would have been absurd, perhaps even in the wild fantasies of the southerners of those times. I guess the idea was that it was we "outside agitators" from the North who were communists trying to bamboozle the "good Nigras" of the crackers' fond imagination into communist revolution. I remember in a trial after a march in which I was a defendant Atty. C. B. King retorting to a comment by the Judge (who had denied C. B.'s attempt to cut off the prosecutor's line of questioning was I a member of the communist party) whether being against segregation was ipso facto to be a communist in the eyes of the Court. Actually the Judge's response was curious. He responded that to be "against a certain amount of segregation was not in itself" proof of being a communist, although it did suggest the need for further investigation. I wondered what "a certain amount of segregation" was.
There was some echo of the 1930s there maybe, for the older crackers, that went over my head, to give them the benefit of the doubt. My historical readings after the fact suggest that for them the link between advocacy of rights for black people and communist revolution was not just something they made up out of whole cloth to disguise their profound insecurities about crimes against humanity in the southern states (Thomas Jefferson: "I tremble when I remember that God is just"), but there actually were leftwing organizers in the South in the thirties mostly in the union movement who must have been trying to help black people. But to link us young kids to that and try to throw that in our face was anachronistic; as far as manifestos went we really did believe in the Founding Documents of the Republic and that was about it. To us it just seemed pathetic. I guess the idea also was to alarm the country in some sad way. We were too young to remember the Red Scare and all of that.
In another vein of outlandish terminology, reflecting a different,
sexual layer of Southern fearfulness, I remember hearing the cry of
"amalgamation," we wanted to "amalgamate." [
In the jargon of the
times, to white southerners, "amalgation" referred to inter-racial sex
and mixed-race children — which to them meant diluting
the "purity" of the white race.] They might or might not spout
this stuff to the world press in general, depending on their level of
media savvy, as we say now. Chief Pritchett, for instance, would not
have phrased things like this, except in good fun if he was trading
quips with the demonstrators, but many others of the crackers were ready
to let forth in this vein at the least sign of interest. We wanted to
amalgamate everybody into one race of
"mongrels" — another favored word of theirs. Where they
got this semantics is beyond me, as it always only reminded me of
Amalgamated Steel, or something. But they were agitated by their fears
of racial amalgamation.
"Outside agitator" was another favorite. They loved this old 1930s lingo, but I was too young to catch those echoes. To me an agitator was some kind of a mechanical device, a component in a washing machine, or whatever. Therefore such words never reached me, never even broke the skin. They were always growling out that one, almost as much as "niggerlover" — never just "agitator" either, always "outside agitator." All I could think of was some unit peripheral to a household device, since it was outside, so it never had the intended effect on me at least. Personally I never felt outside anything. I felt inside everything that mattered; something on that order must have bothered the crackers. We were surely held in the warm embrace of the black community who fed us dinner and cheered us on as best they could. The whites' insinuation that had we "outsiders" not been there, the local black folks would not have been "agitated" was so patently absurd and so plain hopeful on the part of the crackers that whenever I heard this terminology I just thought how benighted these white people were really and how much they were going to be required to learn.
But let's pause on "niggerlover" for a moment, as this one was constantly spat out by the whites with a venom that seemed convinced of its ability to sting. When they hissed it from their lips they obviously imagined it was a powerful imprecation. Those people were never long on imagination except when it came to their own fears and taboos. Maybe they just couldn't stop themselves. It was their dearest battlecry. This was another that was just mystifying to us or really a yawner. In all seriousness they seemed to feel they could resort to the spurious concept which they had invented (nigger) and get a rise out of anybody. Think about it. The crackers were agitated out of their minds at the thought of anybody loving a projection of their own deep tribal psychology! That's a nice irony isn't it? The kind the world's troubles are made of.
Suppose some red-faced cracker teenager agitated to the brim of his cranium by sight of us black and white together yelled "niggerlover" at me, as sometimes happened — all I could tell he was upset about something, but what exactly, you know, I never could truly fathom. Something atavistic and tribalistic belonging to Scotsmen, I suppose. I don't think people nowadays can quite imagine it. The white people would just climb the walls when they saw black and white kids just standing around together! And they would start yelling "niggerlover!" I never yet have figured out what they were so agitated about. I guess we were agitators all right, we agitated them enough! I could surely hear how the crackers intended the word when they used it — it was like a roll in the red mud all right — but "the word flings back its image at the user" (Emerson), and as for "lover," well we in the Movement were all lovers Christian and otherwise, so that didn't get it. I was always scratching my head at such language and in my case at least their words didn't hurt me in the least.
But I can imagine such language hurting little black kids, the ones that integrated the schools. I mean did it? Sometimes I wonder. Maybe those kids just saw through it too and knew how stupid it all was. The whites were quite cruel. They are a cruel race, let's face it, and they meant their words to hurt mercilessly. I suppose the whole human race is cruel. Nowadays a big deal is made over the "n-word," but back then I think the black kids no more cared about that than any of the other sorry things the crackers had to say for themselves. Really — any time they opened their mouths the lamest things would come out, let alone "nigger."
Another term back then was "freedom rider." In jail I heard it used like it was an insult but I always thought it was a very cool sounding word so I was not affected by being called that by a jailbird. Freedom Rider was a noble term always but it has had a long troubled ride. I believe it was coined within the Movement, but somebody may correct me. It originally referred to those who rode the buses into the South to challenge segregation at the bus stations. It would be interesting to know the precise origins for at once it invoked the stark and grim realities of segregation, the courage of the people who rode the buses southward to confront Jim Crow, and the violence perpetrated on these brave moral frontiersmen by the local savages — who quickly picked up on the term and injected into it their peculiar poison that they spewed into everything, so that at the time freedom rider really captured the social schizophrenia of America by meaning absolutely different things to different people in an equally powerful way though depending on whose mouth it came out of.
At the same time for the indifferent populace of Americanos at large I am sure it had a more than quixotic tinge, suggesting only our outrageousness and lack of good sense.
By the seventies, Easy Rider was okay, but Freedom Rider was passi. That was when the cheap thrills side of the revolution had come to the fore and was still very much in vogue and the stature and moral dimensions of the Civil Rights struggle were as yet so huge and towering as to be far over most people's heads. Because the Movement possessed intrinsic grandeur and highest truth its reputation naturally rose while both the hippies' and the Vietnam War's sank, and became tragic in the latter's case, those other causes of the sixties and seventies. Those who hated the Civil Rights Movement by now are totally confused, turned around, and biting their tongues on whatever mean small devils still abide. Now "Freedom Rider" gets its due as a term able to evoke the sheer guts and raw courage and even glamour of those who rode down into the Old South on those buses black and white together. That term now has achieved some real romance and respect, but like all things heroic it had a doubtful birth and difficult passage. At first it was an orphan, then it was despised, now it has risen. By the way, it is sometimes applied broadbrush to all civil rights workers. But I believe it should not be, rather reserved specifically and factually for those on those crazy buses that headed far into the barbarous South in the very early days of the modern Movement.
Once I was walking along with James Daniels in the Albany neighborhood called CME (after the church but also crime, murder, and the electric chair). I remember it was in the days when we were organizing a march on the local segregated swimming pool and trying to round up kids for the march. James was a great favorite among the bicycle riding crowd, for he both rode a bike himself as child at heart he was, and drove a pickup truck full of moonshine whiskey for the Man, as man of the world he was too at the same time. Anyway we were walking down a red clay road when a cop on a three-wheeled motorcycle pulled up beside us. He hailed James familiarly and even affectionately. All the law seemed to know James, because of his varied business dealings and delivery runs for cracker stump liquor operations that were always either being protected by or busted by the cops. James Daniels was a young man of some influence with the children, being a moonshine guy and a gang leader (a term that back then did not "mean" or in fact quite mean what it does today) and thus one we SNCCers were supposed to agitate since the old folks were tired of going to jail by now. James was a truly wild guy and in his career both stole entire truckloads of hogs from the old stockyards that used to be in central Albany while the truck driver was having coffee and took off with them for a fence in Alabama he sold them to and on another day went to jail for the Movement to integrate the swimming pool for all the kids. Transcending moral spheres as he did he was as mystifying to the local white law as he must be little countenanced by official Movement historians today if they ever heard of him. James Daniels is one for whom I would like to find a home in the history of the Movement. It took all kinds to make a Movement.
"Daniels," says the cop, "I'd have more pride in my race than to hang out with this trash here." Thumbing at me. Trash! I liked that! Now that was a term of art with some punch to it! James Daniels did too. "Hee hee hee!" He had the most infectious giggle. That was another term very popular with the crackers when they tried to explain us to themselves. What in the world were the white SNCCers doing here risking life and limb and liberty. What were they doing black and white together? Why, we were "white trash," that was it, that explained it.
You know, that says absolutely everything about what the Struggle faced in the way of moral opposition. The Southern whites in many ways had Christian values stood upside down out of their deep sexual and physical paranoia stemming from the Slavery era. Since we were about upending what the whites thought of as normal society, they thought of us as the lowest of the low, white trash. That was the only way they could explain it and keep from examining themselves.
"Trash" is a really loaded word down South, was then and still is. I thought it was comical almost to the point of being touching for this cop on his three-wheeler to roar up and call me trash. Nobody up North has the slightest idea of the force of the word down south and all it connotes. I barely did in those early weeks of my sojourn in the South. But he was obviously taken aback by James's letting out his trademark giggle very loud. He almost stood up on his motorcycle, James's laugh was so biting and wild. Although I fathomed the copper I could not quite dig James either, what his infectious laughter indicated. As usual he seemed to find everything outrageously hilarious. Again, to be called trash was almost meaningless to me, although I slightly took it as a compliment. It didn't strike me as all that funny, and I stared at James too.
To confuse equal rights and an end to American apartheid with something trashy! To the southern mind, if there is one, integration meant mixin'. Now mixin' was trashy, always had been in the South, because of the wild insecurities of the average crackers always touchy about their privileges as white people, i.e., their secret fears of being white trash. Standing there in CME looking at that fat cop on his ridiculous three-wheeler like an overgrown tricycle, I was only struck by how much southerners like him because of their criminal past were obviously in need of the services of as many outside agitators as could be found to wash them clean. And you know the untold story is of how the Movement liberated the white people of this country and moved them forward and expunged a little bit of their sins.
Our unlikely dialog, the three of us, southern cracker cop, white Harvard boy, and African American Br'er Fox corn liquor hustler and thief, continued in a desultory way for another moment. Actually it was quite one-sided. The cop was the only one talking. James Daniels was the only one laughing. James saw fit not to participate but just to giggle. This hee-hee-hee! that he played with the whites must have served him well, because those idiots in their characteristic racial arrogance just assumed they must have said something funny, and everybody loves it when you laugh at their jokes.
So the cop after thinking about it decided he had scored a point and turned to me. "Whachu doin down heah, anyways, boy?"
"Down here? Far as I know this is part of the USA, has been since the Civil War anyway, why can't I," I rejoined with characteristic aplomb.
Mention of the Civil War to this day is a foolproof way of getting a rise out of any cracker, for that matter even a Jimmy Carter — type white liberal cracker. The most liberal white person down south will immediately become indignant and give out with a spurious but righteously held argument splitting hairs between slavery and their "rats" (rights) at mention of the Civil War. In other words the War Between the States had nothing so much to do with slavery or economics (the two causes one is taught about in school in the North) as it was caused by Lincoln meddling with southern "rats." Try it sometime — just say "Ken Burns" to the next southern white "liberal" you meet, and I guarantee you will hear the most astonishing baloney about how slavery was very bad although it did give black people a job and someplace to live — but in fact the best white people in the South were really fighting for their "rats." And so it was with the cop on his motorcycle in CME that day, in spades.
"USA? This aint no US nothin, boy! This heah All-benny, Georgia, boy!"
Of course I knew all that geopolitics and this was what he would say and
it was hardly the first time I had heard that line and I barely stifled
a yawn. That was another fine terminology switch or bogus linguistic
distinction that they made in way of making a states rights sort of
argument I guess. It might be the USA, but local custom trumped and it
was really south Georgia. I mean, what red soil exactly were we really
standing upon. USA was only an abstract concept imposed by force. But
the term "All-Benny, Georgia" meant something concrete and very dear and
overpowering. Speaking of terms, this was no matter of mere semantics,
"down heah" it was actually a matter of dispute what country you were in
anyway, the Civil War was truly not over in the 1960s. Maybe still
isn't. Not that racism is a monopoly of the South — far
from it as we know. Martin Luther King said in Cicero, Illinois, that he
had never felt such hatred anywhere. Randy Battle told me his first
brush with hard racism in New York shocked him. Today the reverse
of Blacks] back to the South continues apace.
What was somewhat disturbing to me that day in CME was the glee in James's giggle — he seemed to have it in for the both of us in some sly way I suspected. I felt that the cop and I shared something that might have had to do with our "malproportion of, or lack, in our skin of sufficient melanin" (a C.B. King-ism that he very often used in everyday speech and very much liked to confuse the crackers with in court, implying their whiteness was a pathological condition of the epidermis that they hadn't heard of either). Truth was, I could see the cop was a little mystified by James's hysterical reaction too, but since James was laughing at his comment, he couldn't rightly object. This was a big disadvantage southern white people always had as every oppressor always does — you couldn't go around actually hearing slights and innuendos; this in itself would undermine your morale. You just had to assume that any questionable reaction was meant well, which it never was. But you couldn't say so or think so because it would be the same thing as admitting you weren't superior after all. Quite a quandary. It took a lot to make them realize that their words no longer hurt us, but we finally managed. Many of them got the message and just gave up.
By the way, the c-word is [
"cracker"] rather a mirror of
the n-word with all the ins and outs of that question. Well we used it
unashamedly, affectionately, aggressively, and slam-dunkedly as not only
was it the Struggle, but a daily struggle, you know. That's a term they
didn't mind using amongst themselves, but didn't like to be called that
by outsiders. Let the shoe be on the other foot. I leave to others the
etymology and politics of "cracker." It is a very common word used to
refer to white people by blacks in the South today, as in so-and-so
"he's a pretty good old cracker, for a cracker." You have cracker
doctors, cracker lawyers, cracker teachers, cracker children, old
cracker ladies, crackers in cars, crackers on foot, etc. I live in New
Hampshire, and one time Randy said to me, "How them New Hampshire
crackers anyway?" Well he had me there because I like them fine.
I had found James Daniels that morning on his porch, wearing his sleeveless sweatshirt showing long cords and black coals of muscle, an old stocking holding his process in place on his head. James didn't give two cents for how the white man liked things, except if he could profit by it, or have fun thumbing his nose at him, and the white man definitely did not like the marches. I really think that is why James marched. He might work for the man, drive corn liquor for him, do some business with him and joke with the sheriff, but for all the cracker cops he was always ready with his outlandish peals of laughter, and I often heard him use it like a whip on them, his peculiar high-pitched infectious giggle, at thought of abusing the man's system, tampering with the man in general, downright delicious to contemplate leading a hundred prancing kids into the heart of downtown to give the man a fit — or to hijack a load of furniture and drive to Alabama with it. When he laughed that devilish cackle with eyes like chunks of ice and his Michael Jordan bright grin flashed mayhem and victory and his goofy chortle got to you, you laughed too and got easy. Somehow James standing with the cop on his motorcycle and me in CME that day put both of us at ease for the moment and like drew a truce between us for the length of the conversation. James with his wild grin brought all the world to one level of hilarity so that to talk of trash was truly absurd, and the cop seemed to know it even as he kept insisting on it. When we got James to agree to lead the march in CME, we thought we had caught him. And he caught us. You could just visibly see that cop losing steam with his talk about trash as James laughed and laughed, and he finally left quiet as a lamb on his three-wheeler.
The first day I, or any of us, had met James Daniel, actually, was on
the first day the volunteers were in town, after all the heraldic
commotion and shock waves at the bus station and glad tidings and
confused jubilant vibes in Harlem [
One of Albany's Black
neighborhoods] signaling their arrival, when some local thieves
took advantage of our absence from the SNCC safe house (whether for a
meal or perhaps a big indoctrination meeting) to steal every stitch of
our possessions, typewriters, suitcases, even sleeping bags, all the
SNCC kids' material aids and possessions. Oh well, Jesus said to take no
thought for such articles, but it was a sobering moment, and one of the
veterans, no doubt [
SNCC project director Charles] Sherrod
himself, sent out word and James Daniel showed up sheepishly at the SNCC
house and was told to retrieve all the stuff pronto. One person whom
James did mind was Sherrod. Within the hour the thieves were discovered
lurking in the Harlem movie theater, the Ritz Theater, with all the
goods, and shortly all was returned, even a wristwatch of mine. It is
true it was rumored that James himself may have had a change of heart,
that is, that they were some of his own boys, but we will leave such
calumny aside out of admiration, and because in any case it is
unverified and likely unfounded.
Finally the cop gave up and did a U-ie and tail between his legs it seemed to me departed from us in the dirt road of CME glad to get away with his shirt and uniform from a mystifying character like James. Afterward, at Lucille Mormon's mama's house, where we sometimes went for a pot of collard greens, James cocked his finger at me and called me "trash" in a high-pitched impersonation of a cracker accent, and told everybody about the incident, who thought it funny indeed, although I'm still not sure exactly why to this day it was so funny. Lucille with her smoldering eyes and quiet beauty, skin as black as James's and the same erect even haughty bearing, I admired so much, but because of cultural distance or lack of distance of the presence of her mother I never did bridge the distance and get next to her, although I took her to the movies one night at the Ritz Theater in Harlem.
I hung out with James a lot that summer. Under the SNCC house hidden in the foundations we kept cans of spray paint, rags, and our stencils that we cut out. In the early hours of the morning we filtered through the alleys and painted SEGREGATION under the STOP on stop signs. Up toward Slappey Drive we crossed into the white areas and when we saw those little coachmen or iron jockeys in front of houses we painted them white too. Then we flew down the alleys back to the SNCC house. I was glad of my time on the track team in high school because James was lanky and very fleet, and we raced down those alleyways. In those days we were more apt to use the alleys than the sidewalks. I guess I was a kind of a trashy twenty year old. The ideals and high aims of the Movement redeemed us all. We would walk down the alley to Ware's Place in Harlem, a jook joint where we bought half pints of blackberry wine to drink as we ran up the alleys and painted the stop signs. When the stencils got worn out or we got a little paranoid, we burned them and the rags behind the SNCC house.
Copyright © Peter de Lissovoy
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