There was a story that wound its way across the pages of The Idler, the journal I edited. It was first expressed in a moving fashion in letters written from Mississippi in the summer of 1964 by my college roommate, ex-wrestler and ex-paratrooper Gren Whitman. From Biloxi on August 8 he wrote:
Fear cannot be described, only felt. I have been frightened many times
In my life in varying degrees, in varying circumstances. And courage is not
the absence of fear. Fear is the essence of courage. What are your emotions
now, driving with us along a lonely highway in rural Mississippi, in an
integrated car? It you are frightened, you are with friends, and you are sane.
If you are not afraid, you know nothing about Mississippi. You have never
heard of the Freedom Rides and how they ended in Jackson. You have never heard
of Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, and countless others. You have not heard of
Neshoba County. You have never talked with a Mississippi Negro or a civil
And if your fear has overcome your convictions, you have no business with us.
Our three colored companions are profoundly aware that two whites are in the
car with them and what this will mean if we are stopped for any reason. The
two of us, likewise, know that though we are white, we become as black as tar
once we are known to be CR types. White Mississippians make no distinctions.
There is a strange and wonderful and, for you, a new bond between us,
compounded of fear, and dedication and brotherhood. . . .
Our final stop is a colored settlement near a planing mill owned by a Mr.
Black. Most of these people are his, tenants and employees, We know that he
has told them not to talk to us and that they inform him each time we come
around. So we keep our visit short. We talk quickly and to the point: "Join
the Freedom Party. You need It. It needs you." No one signs. Few talk. James,
sensing that someone has already headed to tell 'Mr. Charlie' that we're
talking to "his niggers" says "let's go" and we git. Fast. There is always the
next time. Folks have seen us, some have talked, however briefly. The precious
seed Is planted. The freedom seed.
In January 1965, I got a chance to help plant the seed. The notorious DC Transit wanted to raise its fares and the local chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had organized to stop it. They urged citizens with cars to drive bus passengers during a one-day boycott.
I joined the volunteers. On the morning of January 24, 1966, 1 hauled myself out of bed, swallowed a cup of coffee, warmed up my '54 Chrysler, and made my way to Sixth and H Streets Northeast, one of the assembly points for volunteer jitneys. A boycott organizer filled my car with three high school girls and a middle-aged and rather fat woman.
A bus drove by and it was empty. "They're all empty," the woman said, It was the first bus I had seen that morning and I wondered if she was right.
If both the fat lady and her husband worked, the five cent fare increase Chalk was seeking would cost them two week's worth of groceries over the course of a year.
I let my passengers off and headed back to Sixth and H. At Florida and New York, I counted five empty or near-empty buses. It wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning and the boycott was working,
"It's beautiful," the man in the slightly frayed brown overcoat said after he told me he was headed for Seventeenth Street. "It's working and it's beautiful. Hey, you see those two there. Let's try and get them."
I pulled over to the right lane by a stop where two men stood.
"Hey man, why spend thirty cents? Get in," my rider called to the pair.
"You headed downtown?"
"Yeah, get in."
"Great. It's working, huh? Great!"
At the delicatessen at Twenty-fourth and Benning, one of the assembly points, a young black who worked with SNCC greeted me: "Been waiting all morning for a car to work from here; said they were going to have one, but they didn't send it. Want a cup of coffee?"
"I'm tired, man. Been up all night down at the office. We got some threats. One bunch said they were going to bomb us, but they didn't."
We got into my car and continued east on Benning. Lots of empty buses.
"We've got to live together, man. You're white and you can't help it. I'm Negro and I can't help it. But we still can get along. That's the way I feel about it." I agreed. "You ever worked with SNCC before?" "Nope," I said.
'Well, I'11 tell you man, you hear a lot of things. But they're a good group. They stick together. You know, like if you get in trouble, you know they're going to be in there with you. If you get threatened they'll have people around you all the time. They stick together. That's good, man."
Later, I picked up a man at a downtown bus stop. The woman in the back seat asked him, "You weren't waiting for a bus, were you?"
"No. I just figured someone would come along and pick me up."
"That's good, 'cause if you were waiting for a bus I was going to bop you upside your head."
We all laughed and the man reassured her again.
"You know," the woman in back continued, "there were some of the girls at work who said they were going to ride the bus and they really made me mad. I thought I'd go get a big stick and stand at the bus stop and bop 'em one if they got on Mr. Chalk's buses. Some people just don't know how to cooperate. And you know, you don't have nothing in this world until you get people together. Hey, lookit over there, let's see if that guy's going out northeast."
People stuck together that Monday, I carried seventyone people, only five of them white. SNCC estimated that DC Transit lost 130,000 to 150,000 fares during the boycott. Two days later, the transit commission, in a unanimous but only temporary decision, denied DC Transit the fare hike. The commission's executive director dryly told reporters that the boycott played no part in the decision. He was probably right. The commission worried about such things as cash dividends, investor's equity, rate of return, depreciated value, and company base. The boycotters worried about a nickel more a ride. And in the end, the commission was to approve the fare hike and then more; a few years later the fare was up to forty cents.
But the boycott was important, anyway. Never had so many Washingtonians done anything so irregular and contrary to official wishes. The assumption that DC residents would passively accept the injustices of their city was shattered. SNCC and the Free DC Movement had laid the groundwork for future action.
After the bus boycott, I wrote a letter to its leader congratulating him and offering to help in the future. Not long after the leader, Marion S. Barry, and his colleague, L. D. Pratt, were sitting in my apartment talking about how I could help in SNCC's public relations. I readily agreed; for the first time in my life I had joined a movement.
Three years earlier Barry had quit his $5,500 a-year post teaching chemistry at Knoxville College in Tennessee and joined SNCC. He was the group's first chair. He then showed up in Washington to head the local office. Barry early formed an improbable and ultimately nearly explosive partnership with an erstwhile farm implements manufacturer, salesman, self-styled nutrition expert, and economic theoretician named L. D. Pratt. Barry was lean, black, soft-spoken, self-contained, and given to wearing a straw plantation style hat; Pratt was husky, white, excitable, demonstrative, and covered his baldness with a felt fedora that made him appear a character out of a one-column cut in a forties edition of Time magazine.
Together they designed the boycott and a drive to win self-government for the colony of Washington. Although the life of the Free DC Movement would be measured in months, it seemed like years, for so much was crammed into its short existence. Barry and Pratt both worked themselves to the marrow and it was during those months that Barry first gained a long-lingering reputation for always being late for appointments, news conferences, and actions. "I work on CPT — colored people's time," explained Barry. Part of my job was to stand on the street-corner and convince the press that Marion really would show up if they just waited a bit longer. The reporters would bitch, but since Barry was shaking up the city, they mostly waited anyhow.
Barry's subsequent moves in his drive for passage of right-to-vote legislation in Congress included an effort to get businessmen in downtown stores and along H Street (a black shopping area second only to downtown in commercial importance) to support the movement by displaying its sticker in their windows. Hundreds of orange and black stickers with the slogan "Free DC" below a shattered chain went up in store windows; but the threat of a business boycott led other merchants to cry blackmail, and some of the more traditional civil rights and home rule leaders began to back away from Barry's tough tactics.
In the coming months, Barry and his organization would disrupt the calm of the city with increasing frequency. A number of Free DC supporters were arrested at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. By the following fall, Barry would have been arrested three times, for failing to "move on," for disorderly conduct, and for holding a Free DC block party without official sanction.
Barry used his arrests to make points. After being arrested for failing to move on at a policeman's order, Barry said, "It is a bad law that gives policemen the sole discretion in such matters. Especially in Washington where the cops are so uneducated and awful. They use the law as a harassing device against Negroes." And he warned, less than two years before the 1968 riot, that the attitude of police might lead to an outbreak of racial violence.
While Barry was on the streets, on the tube, in court, and in jail, his associate, L. D. Pratt, was developing a reputation as the mystery man behind the operation disturbing the tranquility of the colonial capital.
Pratt refused to be interviewed by reporters and, although it was known that he was closely involved in designing the bus boycott, few knew who he was or what he was up to.
In fact, by the time Pratt was sixteen, he had lived in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, and Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of DC. He worked for a bank in Maryland, selling farm implements in the midwest and trying to pull bankrupt businesses out of hock. At the time of the bus boycott, the 39-year-old Pratt was unemployed. His wife was supporting the family along with what money L. D. could bring by running a car pool. Meanwhile, when he wasn't involved in Free DC and SNCC business, he was at the Library of Congress studying food nutrition.
Pratt was fascinated by agriculture and agricultural problems. He wanted to revise the whole system and I never saw him more excited as when he developed plans, ultimately futile, for a takeover by civil rights and antipoverty groups of the multimillion dollar Greenbelt Consumer Services, one of the nation's earliest and most financially successful cooperatives.
Pratt mixed street jargon with academic terms in a cacophonic lingo all of his own: "Look, man, those cats gotta implode their power base before they do anything." He was an activist and a thinker; a short-term planner and a long-term dreamer.
The pair belied their public images. In person. Barry, the mortal threat to peace and order, was personally a gentle and quiet individual and Pratt, the mystery man, was, out of range of the press, open and loquacious.
Marion was leading a movement, but it had some of the intensity, closeness and spirit of a rebellion. Barry enlisted into the cause anyone he could find. You would be talking on the phone and a special operator would break in with an "emergency call" and it would be Barry or Pratt or someone else with the latest crisis or plan. There were black cops who had been spiritually seconded to the movement and ministers who served as a link between the radical Barry and the more moderate civil rights movement and friendly reporters who still believed there was an objective difference between justice and injustice,. And through it all was movement, excitement and hope, not even dampened by the thirtieth chorus of "We Shall Overcome" sung in a church hall while waiting for Marion finally to show up.
Pratt described his relationship with Barry this way: "I am the theoretician and Marion is the practitioner. I just give suggestions and he makes the decisions. I respect his opinions more than my own."
Barry and Pratt not only upset policemen and government officials; they perturbed the established civil rights and home rule leadership in the city. While a few such leaders, Walter Fauntroy prime among them, were careful not to undercut Barry and provided as much help as they felt they could, others were plainly annoyed by the upstarts.
Tensions grew when the Free DC Movement decided to take on the White House Conference on Civil Rights that had been scheduled for May 1966. Barry planned to raise the issue of home rule at the conference and, in announcing the plans, chastised the moderate Coalition for Conscience for "wavering" in its support of the plan. Two days later the Washington Post reported, "Washington civil rights leaders yesterday pondered the future of the campaign for home rule in light of the growing independence on the part of Free D.C. Movement leader Marion Barry Jr. One leader said it appears that the movement was at 'the end of its relationship with the Coalition of Conscience,' the city's loosely knit confederation of ministers and civil rights groups."
But it was not just the Free DC's militancy and independence that upset the old leaders. They also were profoundly disturbed by the rise of the black power idea; Coalition co-chairman Channing Phillips stated, "The black nationalist stand of SNCC is inconsistent with the Coalition's philosophy."
Still, while the 20-something Barry was an anathema to the white business leaders and considered a rogue by the local civil rights establishment, as early as 1966 a poll found him ranked fifth by black residents as the person who had done the most for blacks in DC.
In SNCC and elsewhere, the spirit of black nationalism was indeed awakening. Black power had its roots in the deep frustration of the civil rights movement with the progress towards some sustainable form of equality. In 1963, Howard Zinn, then a professor at Spellman College, told a SNCC conference that the ballot box would not give blacks much power. Zinn said SNCC should build up "centers of power outside the official political mechanism."
This was a time when the official symbol of the Alabama Democratic Party included a banner reading "White Supremacy — For the Right." The SNCC-organized Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had attempted to be seated at the national Democratic convention and was rebuffed, offered only two non-voting at-large seats to represent not just Mississippi all American blacks. SNCC communications director Julian Bond twice won election to the Georgia legislature, and twice that body refused to seat him. Jerry Demuth, writing in The Idler in October 1966 asked: "After Julian Bond, Atlantic City and the Alabama Democratic Party with its proclamation of white supremacy, what is there except a Black Panther Party?"
The voices of black power of the time were varied. Two months after being replaced as SNCC chair by the more militant Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis explained:
I support the concept of black power and I have tried repeatedly to articulate it to people in terms they can understand, so that they will know it is for civil rights, not against whites.
The National Committee of Negro Churchmen of the National Council of Churches tried to combine black power and integration in an August 1965 newspaper ad:
A more equal sharing of power is precisely what is required as the precondition of authentic human interaction. We understand the growing demand of Negro and white youth for a more honest kind of integration: one which increases rather than decreases the capacity of the disinherited to participate with power in all the structures of our common life. Without this capacity to participate with power — i.e. to have some organized political and economic strength to really influence people with whom one interacts — integration is not meaningful. For the issue is not one of racial balance but of honest racial interaction.
But this was a hope far from current reality and many more blacks listened to the view of Carmichael: "Integration is an insidious subterfuge for white supremacy." He told a crowd in Greenwood, MS, "We been saying 'freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothing. What we're gonna start saying now is 'Black Power.'"
The most important white at SNCC, L.D. Pratt, continued to play a important role for some time, but his ability to work with Barry declined sharply and, after receiving physical threats dropped out of the local scene.
Before that, however, the Free DC Movement was to play a major part in bringing the issue of self-determination further in Congress than it had been in almost a hundred years, The militancy of the Free DC Movement, so disliked by both congressmen and civil rights moderates alike, provided the counter-pressure necessary to scare more than a few legislators into thinking that maybe it was about time for a little self-government in DC. In 1967 President Johnson reorganized the local government with an appointed chief executive and city council. He told them to act as though they had been elected. In 1968 the city got an elected school board.
And before it was over, Barry and Pratt had one more "good shot," as L.D. liked to call them. Hauling an odd assortment of black and white activists off to a weekend retreat, the pair organized a lecture, seminar, and planning sessions to pave the way for a massive push against slum housing. In fact, that's what it was going to be called — PUSH, People United against Slum Housing. It would be no ordinary effort. Barry theorized that the reason slumlords were invulnerable was because protests were usually directed against only a small portion of their holdings. If you could uncover the full economic interests of a slumlord, Including his commercial holdings, you could organize an effective boycott against him.
From L. D.'s theoretical charts and Marion's discourse, the action moved to strange places like a hall at a Catholic woman's college where volunteers sorted out thousands of paper slips containing important information about DC eviction cases over the past two years, and the basement of the Court of General Sessions, where a friendly judge had permitted the group space to do its research closer to the source material. The little slips of paper slowly built up information concerning slumlords, lawyers, front corporations, and their interconnections. From the long tables in the basement of the Court of General Sessions, the slips went to the Recorder of Deeds office where more volunteers began arduously sifting through official records. The project never got much beyond that. Perhaps it fell of its own weight; the task of organizing all those slips of paper without a computer was staggering, Perhaps the separate directions in which various participants were rapidly going was a factor, In any event, the days of the Free DC Movement were just about over.
And then came the riots.
And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.
Copyright © Sam Smith 2015
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