It was Saturday and I was walking to County Courthouse square. Most days, I wouldn't chance going alone; I'd stick with the regular, big-for-here, Freedom Marches to the courthouse because they provide at least minimal protection. Of course, the people who take part are pretty brave in the first place; brave enough to go into the building to try to register to vote.
But Saturday is when everyone goes to the courthouse area to buy supplies, so it's a convenient place to explain the voter registration test and to get updates from Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party precinct leaders who are in town from rural areas.
Most days I canvass the predominantly Negro rural areas of Marshall County outside of Holly Springs or I work at Freedom House, our headquarters (where we also live) across from Rust College in the Negro section of town. There are about 15 of us canvassing the counties around here, and others who teach Freedom School. "Canvassing" means going from house to house talking to people about registering to vote and encouraging them to come to mass meetings at churches. When we canvass, we try to go in pairs of either two Negro workers or one Negro and one white. It's best if one worker is local (which means Negro, because there are no local whites working with us. Even if one wanted to, they'd think twice; the risk of being killed by the Klan is great and the risk of being shunned by the rest of the white community is even greater. We've been trying to build contacts with local whites, but it's very, very difficult.
This Saturday, I went alone to Courthouse Square because everybody else at Freedom House was busy and because I had already built up at least some trust with the people I wanted to meet.
From Freedom House — 100 Rust Avenue, near the corner of Rust Avenue and Memphis Street — I turned left up Memphis. I mean "up" literally. You have to walk up a hill to go from the Negro section to Courthouse Square and the white section, which is above that. I wonder if when the town was built, it was planned that way.
I walked up the hill using the Deep South Freedom Worker's Walk, which you acquire when fear sinks into you so deep it becomes natural. You walk slouched and slow along the buildings side of the pavement farthest from the street. You register no expression and face straight ahead while your eyes shift from side to side to see who's following. I've been in the South four years now and — unless I stop myself — I find myself walking this way even when I visit up North.
I heard a yell — "Cum heah, bawh."
In a gas station on the other side of the street an elderly white man, standing with three or four younger guys, was yelling and cursing at me. I knew the older guy. A few weeks ago, he had a run a group of us canvassers off his plantation, and several days ago he had stopped me on the street, pulled out a pistol, and said "if you don't leave my niggers alone, I'll kill ya."
I thought about crossing the street to talk to the group.
No — bad idea.
I continued walking, turning my back to the plantation owner and his guys. My legs felt wobbly, but I forced myself to straighten up and walk even more slowly.
They crossed to my side of the street.
"Ya Red sunuvabich, cum heah!"
My stomach tightened up — but I continued walking. A beer bottle whizzed past my head. I felt a great sense of relief ... if they were going to come after me, they wouldn't throw things.
Continuing up Memphis Street hill, another white guy gave me the middle-finger salute from a passing car and yelled, "fookya," which I took as an abbreviated version of what I had come to think of as the universal white Southern greeting, which sounds to me something like "wha-tha-fook-ya-doin'heah, bawh?"
Then other whites in passing cars recognized me because my picture had been on the front page of the Marshall County paper near a headline screaming "No Room Here For Communists."
The paper was reporting a speech by Senator Eastland in which he mentioned me at some length while speculating that the then-recent disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman was a hoax. His "proof" was that I and a few others in SNCC were Communists, that we were leading the Civil Rights Movement, and pulling hoaxes like Communists always do. Eastland assumed that our "leadership" was so obvious — we were white and therefore must be in charge — that he did not explain how in the world we were giving orders to Jim Forman, Ivanhoe Donaldson, or Bob Moses.
The whites in the cars stared with hate and a kind of disgust on their faces I've seen nowhere else. They believe we Civil Rights workers do little else than engage in sexually obscene acts, and they have a kind of twisted curiosity about us that compels them to look at us in the same way they would sneak a peek at a pornographic magazine.
I understand where the Red-baiting comes from, but not this sexual stuff. Why do local white people assume Civil Rights workers are obsessed with sex? And why is it that this imagined sex triggers such deep hate?
These questions are too complicated — and too
dangerous — to dwell on. Of course, the segregated South
won't let us leave complexities alone. For example, the Red-baiting "No
Room" article said: "
Most Civil Rights organizations stress the
point that they do not wish to see intermarriage between the races, but
the social behavior of the workers here obviously reflects their
approval of it. Or else it's something done just for 'kicks' while they
are down here."
It's taken me a long time not to take personally stares and epithets such as were directed at me from passing cars as I walked up Memphis Street. Years ago, when I first came South, I used to feel hurt that the local whites were putting me into a category of their own making — an evil category at that — without knowing me as an individual. When harassed or stared at, I would mentally repeat my own name to myself over and over.
But now, I just waved friendly-like as I walked to Courthouse Square. The white people don't want me to think they're acknowledging my wave, so they look away; then realize that looking away is also an acknowledgement, so they try to do both things at once. I must admit, I kind of enjoy the confusion my waving causes.
When Eastland did his Red-baiting bit a few months ago, he was clearly trying to scare folks away from working with us. It didn't work. Everybody either ignored it as more lies from the segregationists or as an interesting topic to chat with me about. One Negro preacher asked me flat-out if I was a Communist. I told him no, and he said he was disappointed because he had never met one and wanted to learn more about what one believed. Another Negro leader said, "if painting my rear- end red will get me my rights, I'll do it."
There are five or six streets at right angles to Courthouse Square. I went to the "Negro" street where people I knew were sitting on benches. Everybody waved a greeting. I felt protected, even though the gang of white men who hung around the courthouse moved to the side facing me so they could watch.
I reviewed the voter registration test with a group of sharecroppers who had been waiting for me. They all said they would try to register, and I knew they would.
What courage it takes to attempt to register! Your name is printed in the local paper. You can probably count on being fired or losing your sharecrop. Many who attempted to register have been beaten, or have had their house burned. Some have been killed.
The most we Civil Rights workers can do is help them learn the very complicated, unfair, illegal-under-federal-law Mississippi voter registration application test. We can also give them vague assurances that if they try to register — especially if they go in large, visible groups — and if they get turned down or in trouble, we'll try to inform Justice Department officials in Washington, and maybe they'll do something.
Somehow, despite the threats, the number of people risking everything to vote is growing. That Saturday, in the shadow of the Courthouse, Mr. G., the head of a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party precinct, asked me for sample voter tests to give to families who had requested them.
Mr. T., another MFDP leader, drove up in his pick-up. We were talking, with me perched on his running board, when the street became silent as a white man approached — the druggist from across the street. Mr. T. and I continued talking.
"Bawh, ah whunt t' tahk t' ya."
"Yassuh," and T. got out of his truck and went with the druggist into his store.
The man who had been sitting beside Mr. T. in the truck drew out a shotgun and laid it on his lap. "Just in case," he said. We waited until Mr. T. came out, shaking, and saying he'd meet me back at Freedom House.
There he explained that the druggist had threatened him, telling him not to talk to me any more or he'd cut off his credit — or worse. Mr. T. was frightened, but said that he had faith that somehow he would be safe.
After he left the Freedom House, another leader of the MFDP came to the office. He said his church — in which we had held meetings aimed at organizing a union at the local brick-making factory — had been burned down the previous night. I had helped convince the church's board of deacons to let us use it. They were reluctant, afraid their church would be burned down in the night like others had been. I had told them about federal protection.
The MFDP leader now told me that the deacons had let the Movement use the church despite the fact that not for one second had they believed there would be federal protection.
He said that he had faith that somehow the church would be rebuilt.
That's twice this Saturday that someone had said they had faith they would be okay.
And you know, what? I might be getting some faith, too, although I've never been motivated by the expectation of winning, just by the necessity of doing what I can to make a better world. Maybe this is because I see the System as so strong maybe I'm afraid of being discouraged from working if I pin my hopes too high and maybe I feel this way because my family members in Europe — despite everything they did — were, in the end, wiped out by the Nazis.
But here in Holly Springs, I see some definite signs that victory might come. Working with the Movement, several Negro farmers for the first time voted in Agricultural Stabilization Committee elections; and several won positions on the Committee, which decides who gets how much cotton allotment payments.
And a short while ago, a deputy county sheriff called me out of Freedom House in the middle of the night. I went because — following a SNCC principle — I didn't want the neighbors to think I was afraid of the police. (And also because I was beyond afraid — I was resigned to being killed. We had just lost four fellow workers — the three in Neshoba County and one in Holly Springs — Wayne Yancey. He was killed in a car crash that many people believe was caused by local white racists. Someone brought his body back to town on the back of a pick-up. He was drooling blood from his mouth, but the doctors at the Holly Springs hospital wouldn't take him in to see if he was alive or dead. Wayne's death affected me deeply I had made my own peace with death.)
Well, not peace, exactly.
I figured my time had come as the deputy drove me without a word to a wooded area north of Holly Springs and pulled off the road. He asked me if I was helping workers at the Holly Springs Brick and Tile factory organize a union.
"You keep on that," he said. "My brother works there and needs a raise." The deputy said he drove me out there to tell me that the white workers — who had never come to a meeting — would vote for the union right along with the Negroes. He said that to get his message to me, he had to go through the charade of harassing me or he'd be in trouble.
We'll see if they do vote "yes," but in any case I can see and feel the strength and courage of the Negro community and — maybe — the common sense of at least some whites.
That's a realistic foundation for faith, isn't it?
Copyright © Larry Rubin, 1964
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information and stories contained in the interview belongs to Larry Rubin.