Oral History/Interview
Sheila Michaels
CORE 1961-63, SNCC 1962-64 MS, GA, TN
June 5 1999

Oral history interview of Sheila Michaels by Charles Bolton of the Mississippi Oral History Program of The University of Southern Mississippi June 5, 1999. Contributed to the CRMVet website by Sheila Michaels. Inline emendations enclosed in [brackets] provided by Sheila Michaels.
Childhood and Growing Up in St. Louis
Segregation & Brown Decision of 1954
Early Involvement
William and Mary College
New York & Joining CORE, 1959-1962
Atlanta Sit-In Arrest & Parents Reaction, 1963
Working with CORE and SNCC in the Deep South, 1962-63
March on Washington, 1963
Knoxville, 1963-64
Hattiesburg, 1964
Ms. Ceola Wallace & Ms. Woods
Mrs. Woods
Freedom Summer, 1964
Freedom Schools, 1964
The Hattiesburg Community
Reaction of Whites
Vernon Dahmer
Women & the Freedom Movement

Childhood and Growing Up in St. Louis

Bolton: I guess the first question, I'll just ask you is, if you could, tell me when and where you were born?

Michaels: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, [on] May 8, 1939, [at 5 p.m.] at Barnes Hospital. [My mother was then Alma Weil Michaels.] There were separate lists of colored and white at the time, which I'm sure there were when you were born, too, in the newspaper.

Bolton: Can you tell me a little bit about your life growing up? Like, what did your parents do?

Michaels: My mother's first husband was a shoe representative. I don't know if it was Brown or Edison Company. [It was Edison Brothers. I was told, later in the summer, that Brown hired no Jews, at that time. The Edison family is Jewish; they did hire Jews.] Most shoes in the United States were manufactured in St. Louis or were marketed through St. Louis. Anyway, at the time, and he was originally from New York State, and he had, because it was the end of the Depression, he had gotten a job. His father was in shoes, too, in Gimble's[?] in New York, and he had gotten a job in Brown Shoe Company. I think it was Brown, in St. Louis. It might have been Edison. As a traveling representative.

Now, he [Maurice "Bill" Michaels] was not actually my father, as it turns out. My mother had been having an affair for a couple of years with a —  And they were more or less, to some degree, separated, and my father was a young lawyer [Ephraim London], who was later a civil liberties lawyer. And, I suppose he might have been at the time. His parents [Horace London and Rachel Saffron London] were radical lawyers. His uncle [Meyer London] was the first American Socialist Congressman, and [Meyer] had himself been a migrant, an immigrant, when he was in his, I think, late teens. And they had become lawyers and they had — .

I didn't know this, of course, until I was fourteen, and I felt devastated that all the women in the family were lawyers, and I, of course, was not encouraged to think in those kinds of terms. But his own mother had been a sewing machine operator, and had used her money to become a typist, a secretary. And had gone to work for the firm and married the boss, which apparently was clear from the moment she was interviewed (laughter) that this was going to happen. And went on to become a lawyer, herself. Went to night school and served an apprenticeship and became a, also, some civil liberties, but mostly just the kind of common work that kept the firm afloat. And they represented the clothing workers, and they represented — . They were one of the founders of The Forward, [Der Farvitz] which was [a Socialist Yiddish newspaper]. So, that's that side, but I didn't really know that side.

Bolton: You didn't really know that side of the family 'till you were fourteen.

Michaels: Yeah.

Bolton: So, did you grow up in St. Louis?

Michaels: Grew up in St. Louis. My mother remarried another St. Louis man, and we returned to St. Louis. We were in New York for a little while, and then I stayed part of the year with my grandparents, and so I lived part of the year in New York and part of the year in St. Louis, and all over the country. [I lived in the Bronx with my grandparents, Irving and Frances Sacks Weil, for five years. From my third to eighth year.]


Segregation & Brown Decision of 1954

Bolton: So, you went to different schools each part of the year?

Michaels: Yeah. That was sort of my first, if you're going to ask that, my first jolt, maybe, of awareness. I knew about segregation.

Bolton: I was going to ask you that.

Michaels: Yeah. And it was when I was climbing. Now, I don't know how in the world anybody got me to climb a train trestle with them, but it was, she was my best friend in fourth grade, and we were on our way to the movies, for the Saturday matinee. And we were kind of going over this hill, this train trestle hill, and she pointed to the left, and she said, "That's the nigger school."

And, in the first place, we didn't use that language in my house. I don't ever remember, I mean, my mother or my stepfather, who was a St. Louisan, saying anything like that. But, mostly it was that I spent part of the year in New York. I spent part of the year in St. Louis, and I had never realized —  And at some point, we had gone to pretty poor schools; I mean, I had gone to pretty poor schools; there was no we, then. [I had never realized] that we were segregated. It had never occurred to me that the colored kids were not there.

I'm not saying that I wasn't prejudiced, but it had just never — . It was this sort of physical jolt, almost, of, "Oh!" You know. And at some point, you know, there was a point in my life where the black kids were nicer to me, in the Bronx, than the whites, and I played with them. And so, it was like, those two little girls weren't there. You know. And, it was poor, obviously. This was also the place where — I later connected — was the place that we used to go to take our washing. You know, right next to the school. So, I had known there was a community there. We'd driven up there, but mostly at night.

Bolton: You said that was your first awareness. Did that change, you know, you in any kind of — ? Or did it take a while for — ?

Michaels: Well, it was unreasonable. I mean (laughter) it wasn't that I was enraged that it was unreasonable. It just wasn't very reasonable. And, from then on, St. Louis was always on the verge of integrating, and never did until fifty-four. So, the teachers would prepare us by always saying, "Now, you know, we're going to integrate. And we have to prepare you for this." And that was the last we'd hear of it. I mean, you know, this was —  (Laughter.) They'd never do anything. And it was always as if there was some sort of threat that we were going to integrate. You know. And so, I felt that there was some threat, if we integrated. You know, it was conveyed to me, and that was what I thought. Yeah.

Bolton: OK. Now, when would you have graduated from high school?

Michaels: Nineteen fifty-seven.

Bolton: Fifty-seven. OK, so the Brown decision had come down. Did that change anything?

[See Brown v Board of Education for background.]

Michaels: Brown decision came down in fifty-four during my — . I was confirmed from Temple Israel in St. Louis that year and we all kind of unanimously elected the "Have we not one Father? Has not one God created us all?" as the motto, and we had a rabbi [Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman] who brought in people from the NAACP to talk to us.

And it turns out later — . He was a very stuffy man. Just pompous. (Inaudible.) But he turns out to have been one of the few people in St. Louis who had gone to Germany before the War and said that there were concentration camps. And had come back and had tried to rally St. Louis to know that this was happening, which just proves that anybody can, you know, be right. (Laughter.) I mean anybody. You don't have to have, necessarily, a pleasing personality in order to be right. (Laughter.)

Bolton: That's true. Did you notice race relations changing at all in St. Louis because of the Brown decision or were things pretty much the same there as far as you could tell?

Michaels: Well, you know, I've been doing the CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] interviews myself, so, I can't answer that anymore. I am too skewed to it, now, because I've been hearing about the changes in race relations. Because CORE in St. Louis was a very important CORE chapter, and apparently they did get the Stix, Baer, and Fuller integrated. And when I say very important, very powerful, I mean, we're talking about the St. Louis establishment. Nothing much — . You know.

Bolton: Right.

Michaels: But, yeah, there were some incredibly committed and intelligent and fine people in St. Louis who were working very hard, too. And St. Louis was also a city that prided itself on its orchestra, and it was always this conflict between the old German Jews and the Russian Jews. And St. Louis itself was a German-Catholic city. And, so there were just certain things that people did seem to believe in, and they knew they were doing the wrong thing. And so they were, perhaps, more ready to change than some other people were.

Bolton: Probably so. Yeah.

Michaels: Yeah.


Early Involvement

Bolton: Well, how did you yourself get involved in, you know, wanting to do something to change what you had recognized as a fourth-grader was unfair?

Michaels: I was a member and finally president of the Human Relations Club in high school, which was before integration. And then the year that we finally — . Well, there were kids who did live in the neighborhood who had — . There was an area called the Hollow or Squatter's Hollow or something like that. So, there were actually residents of the city of Ladue who were black who were not living in somebody else's house. And they came, a couple of kids from the families; it was really one family and one extended family. And a couple, three kids came in the first year which was my sophomore year. Then, my junior year, the Human Relations Club kind of fell apart because we had integrated. And then my [next] year was my senior year, and we did a little better. You know. We — .

Bolton: You said it fell apart because you were integrated.

Michaels: Yeah. I mean, the whole thing was to get people revved up to integrate, and then we integrated.

Bolton: Oh. So, you'd done that. So, you solved all the human relations problems. (Laughter.)

Michaels: Well, I suppose so. (Laughter.) I mean, you know, I went to meetings, and a couple of other people went to meetings, but what were we, at that point, going to do because, three kids in the whole school. I mean, you know, like, what impact did anything have? And they weren't interested in joining us, so, I mean, we were just a bunch of kids who meant well.

And, we'd go down to fake U.N. things and we'd go to the National Council of Christians and Jews get-togethers, and I always wanted to talk about the serious stuff, and then one day a friend of mine who was a serious guy convinced me that I should go with him to the talk about music. And everybody was there. And it was great fun, and everybody did get along, and it just taught me a lot. (Laughter.) You know, not to do the serious crap. Because nobody was going to go, and nobody cared, and it wouldn't change anything.

Bolton: But you sound like you were pretty serious in terms of, you know, wanting to do something from a very early age.

Michaels: Yeah. You know, I felt, I suppose, that in some ways, maybe, life had not been entirely fair to me. And I was a bit oppressed, and other people were more oppressed, and that was worse. So, I mean, if I was unhappy, other people were unhappier. So, yeah.

Bolton: OK. Where did you go from St. Louis? Did you go to college there?


William and Mary College

Michaels: I went to William and Mary, and I got thrown out.

Bolton: You got thrown out?

Michaels: I got thrown out.

Bolton: What is that? Can you give me that story?

Michaels: It's too long. I was visible. I was the first freshman to write the Varsity Show. And I [was the first freshman to have] had my own column, and I was elected to the board of the newspaper, and that was my downfall. And some people — .

Bolton: Something you published?

Michaels: Well, there were cumulative things. I wasn't brave enough. I wasn't half-brave enough. I should have done a whole lot more. And I could have, and I wanted to, and I was afraid. I did say some things, and I had, you know, like, the wall of my door covered with cartoons and things like that, but I wasn't really — . Everything I said was sort of — . Everything I said in the column was sort of in double-speak. I mean, it wasn't that I came out. The schools had been closed in Virginia that year.

Bolton: Right. Prince George County? Or Prince Edward County?

[Probably referring to Prince Edward County VA. See Prince Edward County, VA, Closes It's Public Schools.]

Michaels: I thought it was the whole — .

Bolton: Oh, the whole state? OK.

Michaels: The whole state, I thought. Nobody black and white was going to public school. And maybe it was just Prince George. I don't know. I don't remember now.

Bolton: I remember that one county, but it may have been more widespread.

Michaels: May have been or may not have been. I'm sorry. You know.

Bolton: But that would have been right near William and Mary, anyway, where that happened. So, you had written something condemning that?

Michaels: Well, no. What happened. These things are never actually aimed at me. I'm always, sort of the person who gets — . You know, somebody is punching somebody else, and they fall and hit me instead, you know? (Laughter.)

Somebody else on the newspaper board decided that we wanted to be free of administrative censorship. And I certainly was for that. So, I joined. I think the whole board did, and I was the first person who overcut an 8:00 class. And so they — . And so, a guy who was a very good friend of mine who said — . I'd never heard of the CIA, then, said he wanted to join the CIA, and he went and did some investigating. And he came back and he said, "Nothing is going to happen to you. No virgin has ever been kicked out for overcutting a class." And I was the first.

And he went on to a great career in the CIA. (Laughter.) So, it just taught me right away, what our government was like. Where our tax dollars were going. But I got kicked out of school, and I went back to St. Louis. I wanted to go to New York, and my mother said, "No." So, I went back to St. Louis, and I worked for about a year in television, and I got into a hotel that had just opened a television channel, and I started as a very, as the worst typist that they could imagine. This was, like, my second or third job, you know, in St. Louis. First, I worked for the Optimist International as an editorial assistant which was [gesture]. (Laughter.) I was ready for any change at that point. And then I got to be assistant to the public relations director, and then I left and went to New York, and couldn't find a comparable job.


New York & Joining CORE, 1959-1962

Bolton: OK. When would this be, about, when you went to New York?

Michaels: This was October 3, 1959, [about 5 p.m.] (Laughter.)

I was ready to go. People were telling me I should go, too. So, I came to New York. And I had wanted to — . There were sit-ins in St. Louis; I had wanted to participate. I was living at home. I didn't have the courage to go. It was NAACP Youth, I think, was doing it. And a guy [Eugene Tournour] who was a friend of a guy I had gone with, was the head of that. I mean, he was kind of running, you know, organizing things. But I didn't call him, and I didn't go. I mean, I may have made calls to the office to find out if I could, you know. Where it was. And then, didn't show up. You know, didn't commit to anything.

Bolton: What was holding you back?

Michaels: Fear.

Bolton: Fear?

Michaels: Yeah. Mostly of my parents. I was very scared of my stepfather. He was a man of enormously forceful personality and just a big, bullying man. (Laughter.) And I had been very scared of him since I was four. So, yeah. He did that to people, sometimes. (Laughter.) A lot of people loved him, and when he got old, I was one of them, but (laughter) I was scared to death of him, and so, I didn't go.

Bolton: So, when you got to New York, did you feel — ?

Michaels: When I got to New York, I kept feeling that I should. I mean, then it was more pressing. And, I really did not join anything until Henry [Thomas] — . Really, when I saw that little girl going into the school in New Orleans. That picture of that kindergarten child, and it was on the [cover of the New York Post]. Oh, I — .

[See New Orleans School Desgregation for background.]

Bolton: Ruby Bridges?

Michaels: Was that her name?

Bolton: Yeah.

Michaels: Yeah. And that was when I knew that I had to join. And it was just this feeling that you had to. I mean, that you have to protect a child, you know. So, but, I didn't at that point, either. I still didn't.

And Henry [Thomas]. He's in [David Halberstam's book] The Children. I mean, I keep forgetting his last name. I keep thinking Henry Aaron. Henry. It will come to me. [Henry Thomas.] Anyway, he was on the Freedom Rides, and he gave an interview to a woman named Fern something who was with the New York Post. [It may have been something like Fern Brody.] And she printed it, and he was talking about his childhood in Florida, as an illegitimate child, you know, and one of nine children, eventually. And his father, his stepfather, and everything.

And I thought, "I want to be able to say that." That was it. I mean, it was finally, that was what struck home. I wanted to be free, myself. And, I just wanted to have the courage to be able to stand up and say that and not be afraid of everything in the whole world. So, I went to the CORE office, and I joined.

I went to — . I forget whether I went downtown to the CORE office, or whether I joined when it was already on Forty-Second Street, but I joined New York CORE. And I had already been picketing.

[Probably referring to picketing Woolworths and other "Dime Stores" in support of the student lunch counter sit-ins in the South. See Sit-ins Sweep Across the South]

I had joined the Young People's Socialist League because Sandra Feldman [now head of the United Federation of Teachers] was an editor in the office in a ghostwriting firm that I was working for, and she was a big talker. And she got a couple of us to come with her to the Young People's Socialist League [YPSL] where she was already active. And she was already married. I mean, she had married at seventeen or sixteen or something like [that]. She had graduated from high school and college at sixteen, and had already gotten married. You know, she was definitely, definitely a personality. (Laughter.)

And, so, I had gone along to YPSL because I had always sort of wanted to be a leftist, and I really had thought I wanted to be a Communist, but I didn't really like it (laughter), so I didn't want to. So, and then, I was with YPSL for a while and they had organized.

CORE at the time was organized so that different groups had responsibility for keeping up the picket lines at certain Woolworth's. And, this is something I've just found out recently, and I guess Lucy Komisar, who was in YPSL at the time, who later became Mississippi Free Press editor. She must have been in charge. I remember her being the honcho. She must have been in charge of keeping the picket line going at the Woolworth's, wherever it was. I think it was Forty-Second Street that we were picketing.

And I did that quite a bit, and then I thought, "This is second-hand. We are not doing anything, really, politically. Are we? Except arguing. I mean, and it was the guys who were arguing, and the girls who were kind of — and "girls" I mean, you know — were all kind of floating around and second-rate, and every time a woman like Lucy would say something, it would be, "Oh," you know, "that didn't count." So, I thought it was time to just go and join CORE. You know. So, I did.

Bolton: OK. And what did you do? I mean, what was your job once you joined?

Michaels: Picketing. (Laughter.)

Bolton: Full-time picketing! (Laughter.)

Michaels: You know, that was a great summer. We mostly did housing at that point. It was — . You'd go and do testing, and I was an editor for technical textbooks at the time, and so, you know, you'd go off on your lunch hour and go and do testing, and things like that. And it took all your time.

["Testing" refers to a system of identifying apartment owners and real estate brokers who were practicing racial discrimination. A white CORE member, such as Sheila Michaels, would respond to a "For Rent" ad and confirm that the apartment was available. Then a Black CORE member would also respond and often be told that the apartment was "already been rented" or some other excuse. Another white activist would then follow up and confirm that the manager was lying to avoid renting to an Afro-American. If testing proved discrimination complaints could be brought to the New York State Commission Against Discrimination and/or CORE could set up picket line protests.]

It really, it absorbed — . I mean, just the fact that, you know, I was no longer going out for lunch with the girls, or something. And, you know, it was lunch. It was dinner. It was — . You had to have your social life in CORE. You know.

And then, Mary [Hamilton] became my roommate about, I think, September of that year. Something like that, in sixty-one, maybe. And Mary was working for CORE. I mean, she had just gotten back from Parchman [prison], and she was working for CORE.

Bolton: Right. She'd been on the Freedom Rides.

[See Freedom Rides for background.]

Michaels: She'd been on the Freedom Rides, and she came back, and I think they had their eye on her. I mean, I know they did. She was a very, very good speaker, and a very good organizer.

So, then it was like 100 percent CORE, you know, because — . And we partied a lot. I mean, we had great parties. So, you know, you didn't really have to go anywhere else for any part of your life except to call home every once in a while. That was, you know, go see relatives, whatever, you know, in the Bronx, and things like that, but it wasn't — . It was, like, a completely enclosed world.


Atlanta Sit-In Arrest & Parents Reaction, 1963

Bolton: About that, you said, you know, you kind of had this fear of your parents, especially your stepfather. How did they feel about your, kind of — ?

Michaels: They disowned me. (Laughter.)

Bolton: That's easy enough. (Laughter.)

Michaels: Eventually. Not at first. He did not think well of me, so this was just one more goddamn thing I was doing, you know. But after I was arrested in Atlanta in sixty-three, yeah, then, I was supposed to go home for Christmas, and I got arrested instead, with Sandy Leigh. Well, I was the one who got Sandy arrested, and I was the best-dressed person (laughter) in the jail at that point. I was all ready to go home, and I had my reptile shoes which I had paid for myself, and so I would not go limp because I was going to scratch my shoes, (laughter) but that was OK.

Bolton: What were you arrested for?

Michaels: Oh, sitting-in at the Toddle House. There was a Toddle House in St. Louis, too. Yeah.

[See SNCC Meets Kenyan Freedom Fighter in Atlanta and Atlanta Sit-ins & Mass Arrests for background]

Yeah, I was arrested with John Lewis and Sam Shirah, and that was why I went in. I knew, again, you know. Who knows what, where you imagine your sympathies lie, but I knew that John had said that every time — at that point, he had been in twenty-seven arrests — every time he got arrested, it was more frightening.

And I thought, you know, I wanted to be there, too. I mean, that was already after I had worked with him writing the speech on the March on Washington, and he was in love with me, so (laughter), and also, Sam and I were very close, and I knew they tended to mistreat Sam because he was white. They tended to beat the crap out of him, and he was white, and he was Southern, and he did not do well in jail. So, I just wanted to be there.

And so I went in, and Sandy went in with me because he could be persuaded. (Laughter.) I mean, I don't know. Maybe he felt that he didn't want me to be arrested, you know, without somebody to support me, but, although certainly John and — . And I probably might not have gone in if he hadn't gone in with me. It just depends. So, I mean, I can't remember right now.

And so, I went in and got arrested with them, and then Julian Bond called my parents to tell them that I wouldn't be home. (Laughter.) That I was in jail. And my mother seemed to take it with, "Oh." You know. "Oh! OK. Thank you for calling." (Laughter.)

And then my stepfather, when I did see them, said — . And I'm trying to remember when it was. I remember where we were sitting, you know, in the den, but I just don't remember when. And he said, you know, [that] he had some affiliates in the South, actually in Birmingham and Chattanooga, and he had a lot of men that he did business with in the South, and he just did not want my name in the paper with his name on and, you know, recognizable, and I should go back to being Michaels, which I did. I had been Kessler up until then. And he was very well known.

You know, when you're younger, you think people are much more well known than they are, but they were a very big deal in St. Louis. And he was a metallurgist, and he had perfected a way of making gray iron stronger, and it was the patent that was used around the world. And he had foundries, and he was a big consultant, and most important, he refereed boxing matches for a hobby, and donated the money to charity. And he — . Most of the big fights, if they wanted an honest referee, they brought him in. If they didn't want an honest referee, they didn't. (Laughter.)


Working with CORE and SNCC in the Deep South, 1962-63

Bolton: Well, now, you covered a lot there. I'm trying to go back and pick up some of these. Now, by the time you got arrested, you were working for SNCC then?

Michaels: I was working for SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. I had come to Mississippi in sixty-two. I was supposed to go work for the Mississippi Free Press. It took them about a day or two to realize they did not want me. (Laughter.) They told me that they had wanted a writer, and they knew that I was already a working — 

Bolton: You had that editing experience.

Michaels:  — editor/writer. And they wanted a typist, and I was no typist. And you know, I was stuffing envelopes and things like that, but it was just — . They had a guy who was a friend of Chuck's [Chuck McDew] who had come down. And so he was the other writer. Dewey Greene was the photographer, and I was never a photographer. And they just had said, "Come." But they hadn't thought that I would, apparently. So, and I was there with Ed Lewinson. I had come in with Ed Lewinson; we had gone to a CORE thing in Houston, and then we had gone to New Orleans, and then we had come up. And, you know, testing along the way. Ed was blind, and so it was Ed and the dog and me. And thank God for that dog. (Laughter.)

Bolton: You said this was in the summer of sixty-two?

Michaels: Yeah. And we got into Jackson and we were staying with a white lawyer [Bill something] that Chuck — .

OK. So, first they told me. I'm trying to remember whether it was the job or the — . I think it was the job first. It was the job first. First they said I couldn't stay there because of Ed and the dog. And Ed and the dog were about to leave. So, then they said I couldn't stay there because they didn't really — . I shouldn't be working on the Mississippi Free Press; they didn't need a bad typist. (Laughter.) And I was really devastated because, what was I doing there? And, Dave Dennis came into the office, and I told Dave that I was going to have to leave there because I didn't have the job anymore, and he said, "Oh, well, we have a job that you can have. That's no problem." And, that was wonderful. You know.

Bolton: What was the job?

Michaels: Well, it was being — . Dave was the CORE field secretary, and he was really supporting SNCC at the time. He was paying for the, supposedly the CORE, but it was the Jackson Freedom Office which was SNCC, in Jackson, and I think he was also paying — if, indeed he was paying — for the Hattiesburg office. So, Dave was mostly here in Hattiesburg, but he was in Jackson a bit.

And, I mean, thank heavens I caught him at the right time. So, then I went back, and I said, you know, "Well, I had the job." And they said this guy, and I think his name was Bill, but I can't remember his last name, the lawyer, said, "I can't have you living here in this house because they will think that we are cohabiting."

[Under Mississippi's "cohabitation" law it was a crime for unmarried men and women to live in the same house if they were engaging in sex. The law was rarely enforced — except in cases where the two people were of different races. In those cases prosecution was not uncommon. Interracial marriage was also a felony in Mississippi until all such "anti-miscegenation" laws were struck down by the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v Virgina.]

And I said, "Bill, not even a Mississippi policeman would be stupid enough to think that I was cohabiting with you." So, I was out right then. (Laughter.) I mean, are you surprised? I got to stay another couple of hours, (laughter) and Dave came back to the office, and I said, "Dave, now I don't have anyplace to live." And he said, "Oh, well, we can find you a place. You can move into the Jackson Freedom House."

And I said, "This guy was afraid that we would be arrested for cohabiting. You know, whites!" And he said, "Oh, it didn't really matter." I had to look at my notes to remember why it was that (inaudible), but they were registered as a hotel or as a rooming house. Somebody had registered the Freedom House as a rooming house, so, I could live there.

And so, I moved in and there was nobody there, and in the middle of the night, a guy who had been in the field, but had to earn some money for school, came in. And nobody had told him that I was there. Nobody had told me that anybody else was there, and I came out, (laughter) and I only had, like — . I never bought nightgowns and things, and I always wore whatever my mother gave me. Whatever my mother sent me, and she had sent me baby-doll stuff, and I was there in this baby-doll nightgown, and I came out of the room that had — . Diane Nash and Jim Bevels had that room. I mean, that was their room, as a rule. And, I came out of Diane and Jim's bedroom, and, you know, when the door opened and this guy saw probably a white woman standing in the door, at 2 o'clock in the morning, and he went, "Aaaaaaiiiii. I'm trapped. These guys are going to hang me. This is a setup." (Laughter.) And he had been working as a bartender. I don't know, but it was just like, I could [barely] convince him that I was, you know, with CORE. (Laughter.) So, eventually it filled up. We had about thirteen, fourteen people in there.

Bolton: And so your job was to help with the Jackson movement?

Michaels: Yeah. Mostly, to mind the freedom office and that was it. Mostly. To take care of whatever it was that the people in the field needed, and most of them were up in the Delta. And, Guyot put me in charge of the house, but he said that did not mean doing any housework at all. (Laughter.) But, you know, I was supposed to kind of — . They were supposed to — . If I said something, people were supposed to not say, you know, "This is egalitarian, and you're wrong."

So, I just found out that I was not in CORE; I was in SNCC. I mean, I didn't — . So, that was how I got into SNCC. And Jim Forman called once, and I said something about, "Well, I didn't know if I was in SNCC." And he said, well, I was in SNCC. And, come back next summer and you've got — . And I said I was going back to school because at that time I had decided to go back to school, and I was working, too. Working for CORE at the time. I mean, working within CORE. But, he said, "Go. Come back next summer and be a field secretary, or whatever."

Bolton: So, you came back the next summer?

Michaels: I came back and, of course, you know, nobody remembered that. And, I couldn't go back to Mississippi. Mississippi had been closed to whites in sixty-three. And I said, "But, I'm an old hand." (Laughter.) And they said, "Oh, it doesn't mean you, but it does affect you."

Bolton: Is that how you ended up in Georgia?

Michaels: Yeah.


March on Washington, 1963

Bolton: OK. Well, tell me about: you said that you helped John Lewis write his March on Washington speech. I mean, I know the story that he was going to give this kind of very, I guess, fiery speech. Right? And he ended up, kind of, having to tone it down. Is that — ?

Michaels: Everybody took a whack at it. He had written a speech. It was a very florid, jackleg preacher speech. You know. "Our cup of gall runneth over." And, I think that stayed in, actually. (Laughter.) But, it was just a lot of too much, and not anything specific enough. And he had read it to me, and I made some suggestions, and then we talked to Julian [Bond], and Julian kind of intimated that it would be nice if we worked on this together. And that was fine with everybody. So, we worked on it, and I did some research. I mean, there's stuff in there about how much a woman in Mississippi was making for a week of domestic work, and stuff that came right out of the census books and things. And, anything that has anything to do with a woman (laughter) in there, is — .

Bolton: That's you.

Michaels: That's mine. Yeah. Anyway, it was just a whole lot more of the specifics and we ran through it a couple of times. Then we would take it to Jim Forman, and Jim Forman would pencil in "One Man, One Vote. It is the African cry. It must be our cry, too." And we'd take it out immediately. (Laughter.) And, it wound up in.

And when I read John Lewis' book, not only did he not give me credit for the speech, he also said, "I don't know when I thought of the idea of One Man, One Vote." (Laughter.) You know. I remember. You hated it as much as I did. You know. (Laughter.)

But, anyway, he got to Washington, and somebody, maybe it was Charlie Cobb, printed up the speech for distribution. Cook. I don't know if it was Cook. [Bishop Patrick O'Doyle.] But anyway, the Archbishop [Bishop] of Washington went ballistic and said that he wouldn't be part of [the march] if that wasn't toned down. Bayard Rustin got John to do something about it and then Courtland Cox and every idiot and his brother came in and had the knife out and did work on it, and nobody understood it much anyway, so, it was fine. (Laughter.) It was fine. It happened.

And I got trapped in a house of prostitution in Washington that night [when] I went to get placed. You know. I went to find a place when I got in, and this NAACP guy who was in charge of the table said, "Oh, we have a place for you. And you just go to this address." And I did. And he was next door, and he was banging on the door. And I had the chair up against the door. And I got out, and I called John. And John said, "Oh, there's lots of people over here. Come on over. We'll make you a pallet on the floor." And then he named all the people who were over there. And I thought, "I would rather be in a whorehouse (laughter) with a drunk banging on the door, than to go over to that hotel." And so, I did not know that what they were doing was working on my speech. And, it's over. It's over. It's been thirty-seven years. It's gone. (Laughter.) I should get over it.

Bolton: It seems like, people talk about that speech, now, as kind of showing that SNCC was much further out ahead than some of the mainstream — .

Michaels: We also wanted to say — and that got cut out real early — that we were against the war in Vietnam. He and I both felt very strongly about that, and he wanted to put it in. He wasn't going to, and I egged him to do it, but we had just seen the cover of Life magazine with those kids being walked through a paddy-field with their hands chained behind them, and we knew that was us, and we just wanted to say that we supported them. And that got cut out of the speech, too. It was probably the first statement against the Vietnam War.

Bolton: Really, that is very early.

Michaels: Now, that I think of it. Yeah. I mean, that just occurs to me right this very second.

Bolton: Well, you didn't end up back in Mississippi, of course, in the summer of sixty-four.

Michaels: Sixty-three.

Bolton: Oh, sixty-three.

Michaels: Yeah.

Bolton: OK.


Knoxville, 1963-64

Michaels: So, I went to — as probably my reward for the work I did on the speech, but when I came back — . Jim Forman had made a pass at me, and I had laughed. This was during the early summer. He was very nervous, and he had spilled a purse that I had that opened at the top, and everything had gone all over the floor. And not only that, I could not believe that this man was trying to seduce me in the SNCC office, with probably several people watching through binoculars, and everything bugged. I couldn't believe this. [And he was a married man. Which offended me.]

So, anyway, there was bad feeling between us at that point, and he had kind of wanted to get even with me. And, I think to turn the knife on John Lewis, too. So, he sent me to work with Marion Barry in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it was — . Probably I was the only person, or one of the few people for the job, but then again, they probably could have found somebody else, and I could have been someplace where there was some action for one thing. And Diane Nash told me not to take it. And she told me not to work for Marion. Mary told me not to work there. Everybody told me not to take it, and I didn't think I had the choice, and I took it.

And so I worked for — . We kept the newspaper going for about six months, and Marion had gotten a guy to be advertising director who was a gorgeous guy in a beautiful coat. Beautiful, beautiful coat. I think he was a gangster. So, he had gotten the ads, but then he didn't know that he was supposed to collect the money. Nobody collected the money, and we were operating a newspaper for six months on whatever it was, the $200.00 that local ministers had raised and what we were making selling the paper. So, we were obviously doing fairly well, but eventually, you know, you can't do that. And, we ran out of money, and nobody had collected from these people.

And these people lived from hand to mouth, themselves. I mean, we had pool halls and, you know, dry cleaners, and all little businesses. And so, Marion said, "You collect." You know. "You go to collect in the middle of the night in a pool hall." (Laughter.) So, I tried, and I did some. You know, they were so surprised to see me that they'd give me what they could. (Laughter.) You know, and we just did not — . I mean, these people could not cough up six months advertising budget, especially since they hadn't been paying, and they hadn't anticipated paying it because nobody had collected. So, we were out of business. And besides, nothing was happening, of an activist kind, and that was the reason to start the paper, was to raise people's awareness of what was going on so that they would join.

Bolton: But nothing was happening.

Michaels: Well, nothing was going on because Marion was working on his doctoral degree in biology.

Bolton: He wasn't organizing. (Laughter.)

Michaels: He was not organizing. Avon Rollins was doing some organizing, but they were just not — . And, the feeling in Knoxville was not right at the time, and it wasn't — . I mean, here, everybody was on fire. In Hattiesburg, this was like the most cohesive, best community in the whole world, and we should probably talk about that, but Knoxville was not happening, and so I left.

And Worth Long was the personnel director of SNCC at the time. I came back and I said, "You know, there's no work there." And Marion had first let me go. You know. And I said, "There's no work there, and I want another placement." And Worth said, "We've got a lot of stuff for you, and if Marion still wants somebody, we'll send him a man." (Laughter.) So, everybody was very clear on everything. You know.

And then Marion came down and found that, you know, he was, like, staffless and former president and whatever, and he wanted somebody to work on his project, even if there was no project. So, he told Jim that he wanted me to come back. Now, it wasn't like: he wanted me; I was his woman. You know. And he wanted me to come. But, he just wanted me to come back; he wanted somebody to come back. And, he knew that he couldn't — . You know, if they sent some guy up to him, the guy would say, "There's no work here." So, Jim said something about, "Well, she doesn't want to go back." And Marion said, "Well, tell her if she doesn't come to work for me, she can't work anywhere."

Now, that shouldn't have happened, but Jim wanted me out of SNCC, too. So, he fired me for not going back to work for Marion. And then, John Lewis said — . You know, there was a lot of divisiveness over what happened, because a lot of people — . There was so much [anti-white feeling], and it was that, like, what right did I have to work for SNCC or not work for SNCC. And then some people like Chuck Neblett were feeling, "Yes, it was a black and white thing." But on the other hand, I was a field secretary, and you don't fire a field secretary. The administration is supposed to work for the field secretaries, not the other way around.

So, John Lewis asked me to bring it before the board. And, I did. And, of course, Jim was in Africa at the time, and Marion and I had a confrontation in front of the board, and it was very tense and very bad and a lot of bad feeling. But they decided for me because Marion had no freaking argument to make. And even though Lester McKinnie, who was his best friend, was cross-examining me and arguing for him. And so they assigned me to work for the [newsletter], and then I came back the next day, and the [newsletter] fired me, in Atlanta. The Voice of SNCC or whatever it was called.


Hattiesburg, 1964

So, it was a setup. You know. As soon as the board was gone, you know, that was [Jack Minnis and Walter Tillow]. And so, I was in very, very bad shape, and I had talked to Sandy a lot. Sandy had been my roommate for a while. And Sandy and Ms. Woods said — . Apparently Ms. Woods had been listening in on the telephone, you know, which she never pretended she wasn't doing. And he said she came, clomp, clomp, clomp, clomping down the stairs. And she said, "That poor girl. That poor girl. Now, you just tell her she has to come right here, right now." You know. (Laughter.) So, Sandy said, "Come here. (Laughter.) Come to Hattiesburg." And so I came to Hattiesburg, and — .

Bolton: And when was this?

Michaels: I think it was February or March.

Bolton: Of sixty-four?

Michaels: Yeah. Because, I mean, nobody would hire me. Nobody. I mean, I was supposed to go work for the Mississippi, for the Free Southern Theater, and Gil Moses had me. He was so happy to have me to be doing their publicity and advance and everything else that needed to be done, and some writing. And, oh, it was just — . He was in heaven. It was going to be wonderful, and then he heard, you know, what had gone down with Jim Forman, and, noooo. He was not going to alienate Jim Forman. You know.

And the very same cast of characters — except Ruby Doris Robinson had a hand in the second thing — did in John Lewis. When John was re-elected chairman of SNCC, and they undid the election very late at night. I do not understand these guys. I don't know, and John and I worked and spent a lot of time together in New York in sixty-five, I guess. Or sixty-six. Sixty-five [1967 through sixty-eight]. And [he] never mentioned it to me. Never said a word. I mean, you know, we were very close friends, and he never said anything about it. And I just, I think that's admirable, but I don't know. Maybe it's not. (Laughter.) You know?

Bolton: Well, when you came to Hattiesburg, what was your job when you came here? What was the job that you — ?

Michaels: I was project manager. That was what Sandy said I was. Sandy was project director; I was project manager. There were no other jobs. (Laughter.) I was the only staff member of COFO, which sort of surprised the COFO people, but I had been in Mississippi before, and everybody knew me, and most people, I guess, trusted me, and so, you know, that was OK. You know, if we have a COFO person. All right. You know. (Laughter.) And I don't think it really was registered anywhere or anybody cared about it. It was just I was, supposedly, there not as SNCC, not as CORE, but as COFO. And Sandy had to keep a low profile, and I had to keep a low profile from Jim Forman. He was very, very, very, very, very angry. So, there were some meetings I couldn't go to. I couldn't go to Oxford, when that happened.

["Oxford" refers to the Freedom Summer training sessions held at Western College for Women (today, part of Miami University) in Oxford Ohio.]

But, you know, life is, every organization is full of petty unpleasantnesses. So.

Bolton: Absolutely. You had said earlier that Hattiesburg, you thought, was a very cohesive — ?

Michaels: Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Bolton: Could you expand on that, maybe, a little bit?

Michaels: I'd like to, but it was like, everybody was movement, and they were passionate about it. People would — . This was a lovely town. I mean, this was a lot of good feeling in the town, among people. Some of which was, live and let live. You know. This was an enormously warm town, and people, I mean, they had a healthy fear of a number of things, but it wasn't as if it was going to do them in. And they were going to stand up. I mean, they couldn't do it during the Clyde Kennard thing, but they could do it now.

[See Clyde Kennard Framed and Jailed in MS for background.]

And I mean, you think of Ms. Gray — Reverend Adams, now. And she had two young children. I mean two very young children. [And, I thought, a daughter. I remember a young married woman, with a baby, who I thought was her daughter.] Her husband had a job, I think, and yet, she had been doing voter education for a couple of years. I mean, most of the people who were active were older women. I mean, they — .

Bolton: That's what she was saying. Either older or young kids.

Michaels: Yes, exactly. Exactly what I would have said. Yes.

Bolton: She was kind of unusual on that sense that she was kind of a bridge between those two. Not many people in her cohort unless it were — .

Michaels: Yeah. Peggy Jean, too, was young.

Bolton: Right. They were both independent business women, too. That's one reason.

Michaels: Uh-huh. Mm-hm.

Bolton: That's one thing she was talking about — why she was able to do the things she could is because she was — .

Michaels: I didn't know her business.

Bolton: She told me, but I forgot. She told me this morning what she was.


Ms. Ceola Wallace & Ms. Woods

Michaels: OK. Ms. Ceola Wallace, who I lived with, was a seamstress, in the black community. But, I mean, people certainly could have been scared away from — . I mean, I had just seen how scared people could be in SNCC where we were supposed to be brave. You know. (Laughter.)

So, I mean, but Ms. Wallace was — . I wanted to talk about her. She had a first-grade education. That was it, and she was a very shy, very quiet little lady. And she had gone to school for a little while, over three years: Period, and she had really only finished, like, first grade. And she had beautiful, beautiful handwriting. I mean, just gorgeous. And she had taught herself to be a seamstress by reading the backs of the packages. You know, the instructions in the packages.

And she had become a seamstress, and people used to come in. I mean, women would come in. And in those days, you had one size per package. And it wasn't like now, they grade them up. You know you can get an eight and an eighteen out of the same package, but women would come in who had — the most misshapen people, and she would fit them. They would come in with one package and this much, just this much fabric. You know. And how could you even squeeze a size eight out of this much fabric. Who knows?

And, you know, at that time there were, like, thirty and forty pieces in a pattern. You know. (Laughter.) It's very different for people who sew today. And she would fit them. I mean, you know, she would manage to turn them out looking like everybody else when they got out. (Laughter.) But, she told me that she had been left with, I don't know how many children she had, because there was only Annie Bouchee at home when I was there. But I think she was left with either three or five children, as a very young widow, and she was working as a tenant farmer. She was doing domestic work for the people. She was working as a milkmaid, and she was taking in washing. And she was getting three dollars a week.

Bolton: Incredible.

Michaels: And she was supporting those children on that money. And how she got out of that, I do not know. I mean, how she got away from that, I don't know. And, you know, got to be a seamstress. And Mr. Wallace was a — . He did construction. I mean, I know he used to go in every day into town. He was a kind of an old man at that point. And look for a little work, and she kind of intimated that if he didn't find it, he hung out with, you know, the men, and sort of, sat around and talked (laughter), but it was more social than actually expecting to find too much work.

And she had two sons who were, I think, on disability from the Army, who lived behind her, but they did not contribute anything to anything. But they had, you know, a pleasant standard of living, somehow. And she was totally committed to the movement, even though she did not talk a whole lot about it. I mean, she would, I guess, if you asked her about it. And it was people like that.

And Mrs. L.V. Robinson[?]. And she had worked for this family for thirty years or so, and they were supposed to be giving her a little money because they hadn't paid her to begin with. I mean, whatever. But they were supposed — . And she was with the movement, and they stopped paying her. They stopped supporting her and wouldn't have anything to do with her. And didn't visit her. And I don't think she had much family, and they were kind of her family. You know?


Mrs. Woods

But, she was there, and people. Just so many people. I mean, it was just like people had been waiting. This was the chance, and they knew that this was the chance that they had to seize, and it would probably never be this good. And everybody was there. It was so totally supportive, and Ms. Woods. Ms. Woods was completely — . She had a lot of influence downtown, I think.

Bolton: Did she own, like, a hotel downtown? Or something? Or a boarding house? Is that the one? Yeah. OK.

Michaels: She had a lot of [white] downtown property, and she had a — . I guess it must have been — . It was not in operation when we were there. There couldn't have been another colored hotel, so that was — .

Bolton: Yeah.

Michaels: Yeah. She was very well known and a very good business woman. She was a very careful woman.

Bolton: But she helped out.

Michaels: We couldn't have had the office without her, and we couldn't have — . She — . Yes. She was incredibly supportive, and, you know, she had this Buick that some rich, white family had had, and a friend of hers who was a chauffeur had gotten for her. You know, he had taken very good care of it, and she knew him, and she knew that it was a good car, and we tooled around in this gorgeous, beautiful — .

Bolton: Were you going to say something else about Mrs. Woods?

Michaels: Well, there was this story that I was going to tell tomorrow about — . So, I don't know if this would be repetitious.

Bolton: Well, we are going to tape the symposium.

Michaels: Yeah.

Bolton: But, I'm not sure what's — . But, if you want to go ahead and tell — .

Michaels: Well, what Sandy had told me, this happened before I came. It was, like, you know, the demonstrations in February [1964] — .

(There is an interruption in the interview.)

Michaels: OK. Well, Sandy told me that it was in February, which was when the big demonstrations were going on. And there was a big demonstration the next day, and the police wanted to get him out of commission, let's say. And, he may have had a little bit more to drink than perhaps was good for him, so they had a reason to arrest him. And they followed him down Mobile Street, and he ducked into the office. I don't remember where he stayed. And, the police, with the high beams, and the car beams were on him. And they had called in the fire trucks, too. And there were one or two fire trucks out there. And they all had their lights trained into the — the fire truck light, too; I mean, the searchlight — into the office, and they were on the megaphone telling him to come out with his hands up.

And he wasn't quite sure what was going to happen at this point. And Ms. Woods' place was upstairs. And he said — . And the stairs went down between the grocery store and what was then the SNCC or COFO office. And he said he heard: clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp, clap, clap, clap, clap. And he said, "With her Minnie Mouse shoes, coming down the steps." And, he said, "And she came out that door." Between the office and the grocery store. At that door to the guesthouse. And he said she flung open the door, and she had her sawed-off shotgun over her arm. And she said, "Who's out there?" (Laughter.)

She said, "Mel, is that you? Mel, I want you out of here. Now, get to getting." And he said she had the shotgun, and she was, like, swinging it around. And she said, "Al, is that you? You know I know about you. Now, you just get out of here. You get to getting." And she called out the names of everybody. Everybody that she thought was out there, you know, behind these lights. And he said, "The lights went off. And the guys got in their cars, and they started the engines and they just drove away." You know. (Laughter.) Each one had been called [out by] his name.

And, you know, for years, it was a favorite story of mine, and finally I thought, "A colored woman in Mississippi?" You know, no matter how mad she was. You know, she was going to tell the sheriff and, you know, the chief of police, and the highway patrol, and the fire department, all of whom she needed to stay in business. Even if she wasn't in business, she had all that other property, you know. And she was going to tell them to get away? To get to getting? To save Sandy? You know? This was quite a movement!

Bolton: Yeah. She must have known something about them, as she said. (Laughter.) That they, obviously, knew to get. (Laughter.)

Michaels: Did not want in the papers. (Laughter.)


Freedom Summer, 1964

Bolton: That's an interesting story. Well, now when the summer project started, the Freedom Summer project, did all the volunteers — ? How many volunteers came into Hattiesburg to work on the Freedom Summer project?

Michaels: I thought about sixty. And that was, as I remember, the number that we were kind of tossing around. I don't have the lists anymore. The stuff that I had in the office was stolen at some point. Barbara Schwartzbaum[?] took over after me, and when I asked her for it, and when she came up to New York, she said, "It's gone." You know. There was kind of a cabinet where we also sat. I mean it was a sort of bench right by the window. Not that we sat there that often with our backs to the window (laughter), but still. And it had storage under there, and that was where I had my papers. And they were all gone, so I can't tell you what — . Because that's the kind of stuff I'd keep.

Bolton: Yeah. Just some idea.

Michaels: And with the people who were, like, the medical people, who came through, there was ninety, perhaps.

Bolton: OK. Most of the people would be working on voter registration and the freedom schools?

Michaels: The freedom schools, voter registration, Phyllis Cunningham started the health clinics, or was in charge of them, or something. And, I know she set up a number of health clinics over the state. That was later. That was in the fall and winter. That was after Waveland, too.

[{"Waveland" refers to the November 1964 SNCC conference in Waveland MS.]

Bolton: OK.

Michaels: And so, we had Dr. Smith. And Dr. Smith already had a free clinic in Hattiesburg, and he was interested in the movement and supportive and always gave our people free medical care.

Bolton: Dr. C.E. Smith?

Michaels: Yeah. And his wife was also supportive of the movement, and I heard that she is kind of reclusive now, or bitter about it, but she was a school teacher, and school teachers did not participate, as a rule, in the freedom movement because they were the most vulnerable people. I mean, as far as their jobs were concerned. And, you know, it was a different world then. It was, like, all church schools. I mean, they weren't in church schools. They were in public schools, but it was, like, the colleges were run as little — . Well, maybe they still are, little fiefdoms, but you know, it was just ridiculous rules. I mean, when I went to William and Mary, which was a big school, you had to be in the dorms by 7 o'clock. The women had to. Yeah. I mean, how could you study?

Bolton: I'm sure it was probably still like that almost everywhere.

Michaels: Yeah. It was. And worse. I mean, this was farther South, you know. Yeah. So, but we had Dr. Smith and so we didn't — . We weren't as much in need of health care as maybe some other places were. And I remember he treated me for a couple of things, and it might have been thyroid problem, or something like that. But he was certainly competent to do something that usually required a specialist.

There was the legal group, and that was visiting lawyers. The Lawyers Guild and the Emergency something-or-other. And I don't know if it was the Bar Association. It wasn't, like, the Bar Association, but there were a couple of liberal — and there were a couple of left-legal groups that were giving us free legal advice and a lot of, like, lawyers who, you know, took their vacation that year to come here. But there were also a number of legal students like Ben Gershon, who was my pet, and just — . (Laughter.) He was so nice, and he was also so naive.

Some woman came in. I mean, it was some terrible story. He was taking the deposition, or I took depositions, or somebody took depositions, but anyway he was there, and she had gone to see about somebody, [her husband, or someone] who was in the police station, and the policeman had thrown her down and kicked her, and she had lost her baby. And I am trying; I can't remember who was at fault. Whether she had been drinking or what it was, but this was, you know, unforgivable, in any case. And she had said when she finished this deposition, she said to him, "Oh, white folks just treat niggers so bad." Or something like that. And Ben said, "Oh, well, we've come to change all that." (Laughter.) You know? Like, "I'm here. Not to worry!" You know? I just loved him. (Laughter.) He really felt that. But anyway — .

Bolton: Do you think that was a common attitude among the volunteers, that — ?

Michaels: Oh, no.

Bolton: No?

Michaels: No, I don't think so. I think everybody wanted to change that, and felt that we were doing our little bit.

Bolton: Right, but it was going to take more than — .

Michaels: Yeah. More than, you know, "Yale Law School is here." (Laughter.) And Jake Blum[?] was at Yale Law, too, but he never — . He worked for voter education/registration. Or maybe he worked in the schools. I don't know. And he was another one. No, I'm pretty sure he went into voter registration, because I went out canvassing with him one day. Kind of, showing him the ropes when he was first there, and because I wanted to get out of the office, so bad.

Bolton: So, you mainly stayed in the office?

Michaels: I was in the office much more than I wanted to be. Yeah.

Bolton: What about, like, the canvassing for voter registration? What was the response?

Michaels: Varied.

Bolton: It varied. Yeah.

Michaels: I remember one man who couldn't move, he was shaking so badly when we walked up to him, and I got so mad at him. I put a leaflet in his hand, and left. I mean, he just was petrified. And I remember a lot of people would take our leaflets and talk to us, and, you know, we didn't know if they were going to or not, but they would give us their names and we could come back and visit them. For the most part, that was what happened. A couple of people would sign up to go and try to register to vote, and we would make appointments for somebody to pick them up if they couldn't go themselves.

Bolton: Were they able to actually register many people that summer?

Michaels: No, I don't think so. Not that many.

Bolton: That was pretty typical, statewide, wasn't it?

Michaels: Yeah.


Freedom Schools, 1964

Bolton: What about the freedom schools. Hattiesburg had this incredible turnout for the freedom schools — much more than anybody thought, I guess, when they were being set up.

Michaels: They were terrific, and we had terrific teachers. Most of the people — . Maybe half of them who were teaching there were not experienced teachers. Like, Pat York, I know was not. She had just graduated from college, and I don't think she had any education courses nor did she mean to become a teacher. I mean she went eventually into social work. But, which is not that far away.

Most of the — . But maybe half of the people had some teaching experience, and that, I think, was organized by what [later] turned out to be the [United] Federation of Teachers. Sandy Adickes had a big part in that, and I didn't know what she was in the state or here or what. The Reeses were also veteran educators. Joe Ellin was already teaching philosophy at Kalamazoo. He was already assistant professor of philosophy at Kalamazoo. Nancy Ellin, I think, was teaching already. So, there were a number of people who were already teachers in the North, who came South. I think Denise Jackson was already a teacher. [So were Dick Kelly and Stanley Zibulsky. Luther Seabrook had been teaching a long time.

There was another, black, longtime kindergarten specialist.] I think Umoja, Bill [Jones] at that time, was already a teacher, a qualified teacher, so that we had pretty high standards, and as I understood it then — I haven't really studied it — the aim was not only to give kids an education in history and culture which had been hidden from them, and which had been denigrated, and which had been erased; but also to give them some better education than they had.

Bolton: Right. Because of segregated schools.

Michaels: Exactly. I mean, when I went to the segregated schools in St. Louis, when I went in, right before we integrated, I couldn't believe it. I mean, they had typing classes with no typewriters. They had — . The steps were broken, you know, leading up into them. You had to know how to step on the steps. The rooms were, they were just rooms. I mean, you know, they didn't all have blackboards. And this was in the mid-South. This was in a system that — 

Bolton: A big urban area.

Michaels:  — supposedly had money. Yeah.

Bolton: Right. Why do you think that they had such a huge turnout for the freedom schools in Hattiesburg? I mean, I know that I read some stuff, [and] they were really shocked when 600 kids showed up. They were expecting more like fifty or a hundred. Why the huge turnout here?


The Hattiesburg Community

Michaels: Because of the spirit that was all over Hattiesburg. And that's kind of hard to pin down, when it's there or not, because, one of the things I was going to say tomorrow was that I think it was Cordell Hull[?] Reagon had said to me, in sixty-three we were talking about organizing, and he was — . Right after the Freedom Rides, a bunch of the kids said, "You know, we're not going to go home." And they kind of spread out to do community organizing, and Cordell was one of them. And, you know, he had slept in wrecked car lots, and you know, in an abandoned car in a junkyard, you know, in order to avoid the police and things. And he said, "In community organizing, there are two people in a town who you really need to have interested in it. And I mean, they really have to be with you." And he said, "That is the beautician and the midwife." And he said, "If you have those two, you have — ." And we had the beautician. We had the midwife. And we had the doctor. And we had a schoolteacher.

Bolton: Who was the midwife?

Michaels: Mrs. Queen Vashti [Mrs. Vassie Patton]. And I don't remember her last name, and nobody has given it to me, lately. And Phyllis Cunningham is not coming, and so I don't know. But, maybe I'll ask Peggy Jean, but — . And she was married to Mr. King David, which I never got over. (Laughter.) Maybe that was how they met. And, we had Ms. Woods. And, I mean, it was just the whole town. This was a town that had, in the first place, they had a long history of organizing. And they had people like — . They had also — . This town was, like, known for its incredibly light-skinned population, too.

Bolton: That was, like, the Kelly Settlement where Mr. Dahmer — 

Michaels: Mr. Dahmer.

Bolton:  — came from. Right.

Michaels: Mm-hm. And you looked. I had to ask Ms. Woods if she was an American Indian or black, and she had to ask me if I was an American Indian. You know? (Laughter.) So, I mean, you just, you know. There were a lot of people whose — . OK. I won't tell you who this story is about, so, I'll tell you the story. I mean, I was just kind of wavering about it because I think that they would kill me. I haven't seen them in years. Maybe five years, but if they show up, they didn't hear about this. They'll throttle me.

Bolton: OK. (Laughter.)

Michaels: Two people who were active in the movement told me a story in sixty-two. Their mother had a cousin who was white, and he used to come by and drop by and visit her all the time, and they had convinced their mother to go down to register to vote, and, you know, he used to come by and have coffee and sit around the kitchen and talk. And he came by and he said, "I heard that you went and tried to register to vote." And she said yes, she did. She didn't say her girls had dragged her there kicking and screaming. (Laughter.) She said yes, she did.

And he said, "I heard about it, and I have to tell you. I thought and thought about whether it was right or not." And he said he, "didn't hold with it," but he decided that if his cousin had done that, then he would have to be for it. And, he went and told this black woman that he lived with to go and register herself to vote. So, I mean, there was a relationship, some relationships with the white community, maybe more than in some towns, that were a little bit more relaxed, maybe. Among some people. Among very few people, but among some people.

Bolton: Right.

Michaels: But there was, I mean, a thriving mercantile community, which, of course, as conditions improved, was destroyed, as malls came in and people. But there was at that time a black pharmacy, a black doctor, a black undertaker, God knows. You know, there were any number of churches that were supported.

Bolton: They even have that map out there from Mobile Street, just in 1964, I guess, and you can see, you know, there were a number of businesses just there in that 500 block of Mobile Street. And there's, you know, hardly anything down there now. When you go down there.

Michaels: Yeah, but they were black businesses. They were not white-owned.

Bolton: Right.

Michaels: You know, and black-operated, or anything. And, you know, as soon as prohibition was repealed, Ms. Woods had invested in a [packaged liquor] shop that her nephew [George] operated, you know, right on Mobile Street, as I remember. But there were, I mean, if you take them one by one, there were perhaps good enough reasons [for the movement to take hold], but they didn't have to work. It was that, I think, that this place had certainly all the potential, and I think that it had been well managed from the beginning.

I think that mistakes were made by certain people who came in to organize. And I won't — . One person was removed. But by and large, they were not made by fools. You know? (Laughter.) They were, perhaps, mistakes that young people might make. Some people were willing to overlook, and some people just got their noses in the air about it. And this was certainly the kind of community where somebody like Sandy Leigh, who was a fabulous queen, could come in and he knew how to — . I mean he had been an Army lieutenant. He had [a] background in knowing how to run things, and he was efficient. And he did, and people might have said stuff behind his back, but, you know, they were tolerating.

Bolton: He got things done.

Michaels: Yeah. That didn't stand in their way too much. And if they did, well, too bad. You know. It didn't stand in everybody's way. This was a great community, and I think that Curtis and Hollis were one thing, even as young as they were, and Guyot and, certainly, Dave Dennis had done a very, very good job, and, you know, were good with people and good at supporting people and good at reasoning and, as I said, sometimes people are fools, and I don't think we had a quota of them here. (Laughter.) You know?

Bolton: Well, that's good. (Laughter.)

Michaels: Yeah.

Bolton: What about the reaction of the — ?

Michaels: There were no grand standers, too. There was no — . I can't think of one person. I mean, Guyot has an outsized personality, but he does not have an outsized ego. And, you know, it wasn't like, "Me! I did this." Which happened a lot. There were a lot of projects I know that were run by people that you could have killed. You know.

Bolton: They wanted to take all the credit and lots of people [were working on it].

Michaels: Mm-hm. And have things done their way. You know. Yeah.


Reaction of Whites

Bolton: What about the reaction of the white community in Hattiesburg?

Michaels: I don't know. (Laughter.) I have no idea.

Bolton: You never had any — ?

Michaels: No!

Bolton:  — contact with them at all?

Michaels: No, dear! No. They could have not existed as far as we knew, except for — .

Bolton: Well that's good. I mean, partly, that they didn't harass you, or anything.

Michaels: Well, in petty ways, in a lot of ways. [Vigilantes with rifles were parked across from us, all day, every day, and we saw a lot of hate leaflets. The grocers in our building spied for the police. We were often followed by police.] You couldn't get into the library, for one thing. I mean, we couldn't have stepped foot on here, [The University of Southern Mississippi,] this soil. But the Temple shut down that summer, and that riled me, because, you know, I would have gone. And I thought it was just because they thought too many Jewish people were going to come in.

Bolton: Is that the reason why?

Michaels: I thought so. I don't know. I don't know. That's probably not what they'd say, but you know, they knew that a lot of us would be Jewish. The only person I had a lot of contact with in the white community was with the highway patrol. The head of the highway patrol. And I liked him very much. And he liked me very much, and I don't know if he was trying to pump me for information, but we'd talk and walk, and, you know, discuss things together. And that was the only contact I had, and I would call him whenever I wanted to get somebody out of jail. You know. I think I first met him when a guy who had a history of being beaten up in jail, had come to Hattiesburg and gotten in jail.

Bolton: Gotten arrested.

Michaels: Yeah. And, I said, "You and I both know that he's going to be beaten in jail, and I don't want this to happen. And you don't want this to happen, either, do you?"

Bolton: Who was this? The head of the highway patrol?

Michaels: That was what I thought he was. He was with the highway patrol, anyway. He had served in Korea, I think. And he said he had a lot of black friends that he visited in the North.


Vernon Dahmer

Bolton: What about some of the other local people that were involved? You've mentioned a lot of different people. You mentioned Mr. Dahmer, for instance. What was his role?

Michaels: Mr. Dahmer wasn't too active during the summer. He had run that — . He invited us out to the farm and had the big picnic.

Bolton:Was that at the beginning?

Michaels: I think it was a Fourth of July picnic.

Bolton: OK. Yeah, I think I've heard about that, when a lot of the volunteers were coming.

Michaels: Watermelons. A divine picnic. It was a wonderful picnic. Yeah. But Herb said that he [(Herb)] was upset then. He had talked to [Dahmer] about how close his house was to the road. And had said that, you know, he as a person who had been in the Army and [had] some training in this felt that it was just not — . Was a former soldier-of-the-month, or whatever he was, felt that this was a little bit exposed, and Mr. Dahmer had said, he knew and not to worry about it. But Mr. Dahmer was not — .

He was with the NAACP, too. And they were not very involved in Freedom Summer. They had kind of torn their pants the year before with the March on Washington. They had taken money, supposedly. They had raised money all over the country to get poor people down there, and they had used it to get only their own people.

Bolton: Well, you've talked about a lot of people. Let me just ask you. Oh, since we don't have much time, I want to ask you just one other [question]. You had mentioned at the end of the summer there had been the meeting at Waveland, the SNCC meeting.

Michaels: I wasn't there.

Bolton: Oh, you weren't there. OK.

Michaels: No. I was already in New York, and I meant to come back to Hattiesburg. It was my intent to come back to Hattiesburg. I had been three years in the South at that point, really. Two and a half years in the South. And I had also been in CORE before that, and I was a little bit wiped out. I didn't realize it. You know. And I got North and I was staying with Pat and Frank Nelson[?] until I went back, and Frank, after about a month or so, said, "You're not going back. Don't go back. Go get an apartment. And get out of my house." (Laughter.) And I said, "Oh, yeah. I'll go and find a place." So, I did, and, still meaning to go back. And I didn't. Then Waveland happened, and it just proved to me that everything was turning ugly.


Women & the Freedom Movement

Bolton: Yeah. Let me ask you this, too. I know just in listening to you that, you know, there was obviously this growing sense that women were also treated unfairly as well as — .

Michaels: Oh, absolutely.

Bolton: And, I know that there's been a lot of — . You know, people have talked about the connections between civil rights and the Women's Movement.

Michaels: It couldn't have happened without the civil rights movement.

Bolton: OK. Were you also involved in the Women's Movement later?

Michaels: Yes, I was the founding mother after the Statue of Liberty demonstration. Not the Statue of Liberty demonstration, the Miss America demonstration.

Bolton: Oh, in 1968.

Michaels: Yeah, I was actually in Turkey at the time. That was my first trip. I had never gone abroad. That was my first trip, and I picked up the [International] Herald Tribune. I wasn't even supposed to be in Turkey. I picked up the Herald Tribune, and I thought, "Oh, God! The revolution has started without me." (Laughter.)

Bolton: That was a NOW [National Organization of Women] protest. Right?

Michaels: No, indeed not! (Laughter.)

Bolton: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. No, what was — ?

Michaels: It was a pickup protest. It was a bunch of women who said, "Let's go and protest." And — .

Bolton: You said you were a founding — ?

Michaels: Yeah, I went. By about the third meeting, I was there. And people [Patricia von Yorck and Phyllis Cunningham — from the Hattiesburg Project — separately] had gotten me the address [where it was meeting, so I could go] as soon as I came home. [Neither one was at all interested, but they knew I would be.] And I went and we were just sitting around talking. There were just a lot of people talking about what we were going to do, and most of the women had been in either SDS or SNCC. Not SNCC, but in the civil rights movement.

Bolton: They had been in some aspect. Yeah.

Michaels: Yeah, and I always felt, and a lot of us in the [civil rights] movement, felt that the SDS women had been more badly treated than we were.

Bolton: How so?

Michaels: This was the very first time in my whole life that I felt any kind of freedom, any kind of sense of equality. And we were in a movement that was mostly, most of the grassroots people were women. You know?

Bolton: Especially in Mississippi, right?

Michaels: Yeah. And all through the South, I talked to Mary [Hamilton Wesley] about that, and I said, "Who did you organize in CORE?" Most of the people, most of the activists were women. And this is, like, all the figureheads were men. OK. We know that.

Bolton: But everybody at the grassroots, lots of women.

Michaels: So that a lot of the decisions, most of the decisions were being made locally, by the local people, but even so, the first time I went to Mississippi, the first time I was in Freedom House and it was twelve guys and me, and it was the first time anybody had treated me as an equal. And it was amazing. It was so liberating. And I mean, I could be high on it from then to now, you know, but it was — .

Michaels: OK. It was just a view of what could be. It was something that I had never imagined, and I had very much wanted it. I knew that being born out of wedlock, that this was a woman's problem. (Laughter.) You know, that if your father doesn't recognize you, (laughter) you're not a person. You know. You have no identity. I mean, my mother was legally married, and I did not have this particular problem, but, you know, could have been.

And, I mean, it was just — . I was angry, you know, about that. I was angry from the beginning. And, you know, I loved my father. I admired him. I wanted him to recognize me, but that was how the — . For me, that was the seeds of feminism. If I hadn't been in SNCC, I don't know that I would have been ready to just — . I mean, I would have been ready to just jump in, but it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't shown the way. And for SDS, I mean it was like, having been in YPSL, I mean, they were just supporting what we were doing and so, you can quote me on that. (Laughter.)

Bolton: OK. I will. Well, I could probably sit here and talk to you for a lot longer, but I guess that they have other things for you to do. So, I enjoyed it very much.

Michaels: OK. I don't know about that. I think somebody else comes in. (Laughter.)

Bolton: OK. Thank you.

Michaels: OK.

Copyright © Sheila Michaels, 1999

See Freedom Day in Hattiesburg and Mississippi Summer Project for background & more information.

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