The Shooting of Silas McGhee
Linda Whetmore Halpern

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]

When I joined the Movement, my name was Linda Wetmore, and I was naive beyond understanding. I got involved, because I had a very religious upbringing — I was a little religious girl, [I had] a little cross I wore around my neck. When I went away to college in Philadelphia, I had joined the YWCA, the only club that I felt comfortable in on campus, and they were giving scholarships to go on a voter registration drive in Raleigh, North Carolina. So I went down, the spring of '64. Staughten Lynd and Howard Zinn and Al Lowenstein were there, and Bob Moses dropped in, talking about the Summer Project they were going to have in Mississippi. And it sounded good to me. It sounded right and righteous. It felt like a battle between good and evil, right and wrong. Simple. I was 19, looked 16, felt 10.

I signed up, needed parental permission, because I wasn't old enough, and I was in the North when Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner were killed. I went through that whole Bob Moses [orientation], listening to him telling us how dangerous it was, and I think my fear started then, and it never stopped, but not once did I think about not continuing. The summer of '64 for me was a "shock and awe" summer, a summer of disillusionment. Everything I believed in came crumbling down. I was in Greenwood, Mississippi with Stokeley Carmichael, who is probably the one person that has affected me more than anybody in my life. My naivete, I'm sure, aggravated the hell out of him, and every day I'm sure [he thought]: "What the hell is that girl doing down here?"

But I took a stance  —  Mark Twain being one of my favorite authors since I didn't know any Black authors or Black people in history. (Like I say, naivete was really a problem) .... but Mark Twain had a statement that "It's better to be silent and thought dumb than to speak up and remove all doubt." [Laughing]

So I kind of took that stand that summer and saw a lot, listened a lot, cried a lot, from going to jail, to watching folks get beat up, to witnessing Stokely get an electric cattle prod on his genitals , to watching the office bombed, having to duck, taking baths in those round washtubs that you bob for apples in  —  [Laughing]  —  all of that. [And] every day, sweat, insufferable heat. And then the fear. People used to sing, "We are not Afraid" as one of the verses of We Shall Overcome, and I'm thinking: Who the hell is kidding who? [Laughing]

I was scared shitless the whole summer. But one of the worst nights was the night that Silas McGhee — belonging to the family of McGhees: Clarence, Jessie, Jake  —  these four men, one of whom had come back from the military fighting in Vietnam;— I think Clarence  — they started boycotting stores in Greenwood, and they had already put a couple out of business. They themselves had been put in jail. This was the night they were released, and we were down at the corner joint eating chitlins. I am now a vegetarian. [Laughing]

Everybody was schmoozing, but Silas had decided to stay in the car. It was pouring rain out and dark, when this white pickup came by with some young White Citizen Council  — Sons of the White Citizens Council — with their rifles, and one of them shot Silas in the head. We inside heard a "pop," went running out, and opened the door of the car he'd been driving and he fell into the water.

Some social worker from New York, a white guy, and I think Bob Zellner, took off their shirts [to staunch the blood]. They told me to get in the car. I had on just a blue cotton dress — we couldn't wear pants or anything down there. I got in the backseat, and they put his head on my lap, their shirts were saturated with blood already. My dress became soaked with blood. We drove to the hospital, and Bob who is Southern himself didn't really think of it, but we went up to the wrong door of the hospital, forgetting about the segregated entrances. We ran up to the side door, where all the cops were  —  it took them forever to get to the scene of the incident — but they were all crowded together at the hospital, arms crossed like this. Now the doctors and the policemen were standing there, and they're saying: "This is for whites only. You're at the wrong door."

So we ran to the car, and drove all the way around the hospital to the other side where it said "For Colored" the cops themselves just walked to the other door from inside. They were standing at the door, blocking it with their arms crossed and legs akimbo, like this. No nurses or emergency personnel would help us, but they did give us a stretcher.

We ran back to the car and slid the now unconscious Silas on it. The two guys carried him to the door only to be stopped and told, "Wait! You can't come in this hospital with bare chests."

"But our shirts are wrapped around his head."

"Sorry, no bare chests inside the hospital." — (such sinister grins on their fatty red faces!) I was the only one who was fully dressed, even though I was covered with blood, so they let me drag Silas over the threshold holding one end up. From there the one Black doctor in the town who SNCC had called from the office, came over with some selected nurses to take Silas from there.

When I went down the hall to call the office, I heard the cops saying."Hey, they got that nigger Silas tonight. He was a big one."

Sally Belfrage picked up the phone at the office, "Linda, you know what's going on?"

I said: "Well, we got him to the hospital; he's going to be operated on."

But all I could hear in the background were the cops talking about "that nigger Silas" Then I heard one cop say, "They've got to get him out of here tonight, because if he doesn't die in that hospital, we'll kill him ourselves." So we helicoptered him from Greenwood Hospital and took him down to the Jackson Hospital. (I believe the funds for the helicopter were from Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.) I have always tried to keep track of what was going on in Greenwood, and about 15 years ago, Silas McGhee was elected mayor of Greenwood.

So there have been changes, not enough, not fast enough.

I can say ditto to everything the others have said about that summer — the people we met — so heroic, so courageous — the names of most have evaporated for me, but their spirit remains unforgettable.

For me, the summer of '64 was transformational. It gave me direction and purpose and lifelong meaning, all the while breaking down my entire belief system at the time. I recently retired from teaching in East Oakland where I taught for 36 years, always with the understanding that teaching can be a revolutionary act. I do think it took courage for those of us who were not from Mississippi to join the struggle that summer, but it took far more courage for the African-American community who had been and still is living there. That kind of constant courage is what I strive for. I guess I'll always be a work in progress ... because you know, when you're in the bathrooms, and you hear racist comments,  — do you confront them, say something, let it slide? I don't know. But I encourage all the young people to be as constantly courageous as you can.


Copyright © Linda Halpern, 2010

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