An Effort to Define Self Through Involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
Peter Titelman 2012

In my family of origin there was a strong belief in the value of upholding civil liberties and civil rights. My parents were secular Jews. They had been political radicals in the 1930's through the early 1950's. My father, as a young adult had been a lawyer involved In civil liberties issues and my mother was an educator who founded a private, progressive elementary school in L.A. and later became the principal of the Bank Street Teacher's College In NY, a bastion of the progressive education movement.

I attended my mother's elementary school and later while living In NYC I attended a progressive high school, New Lincoln, located In Harlem. The latter was racially integrated and many of the families held progressive political views and values. The North Side Center, a youth center, run by Kenneth Clark, PhD, inhabited a floor below our school. He was a psychologist whose studies of black and white children In the U.S. South demonstrated that the self-Images of the African-American children were impoverished compared to the Caucasian children. This was by demonstrated by African American children's negative responses to photos of African American children compared to their response positive perceptions of the Caucasian children. Meeting Dr. Clark, and knowing that his study was a significant piece of evidence that led to the Supreme Court's decision to end segregation in public schools across the South made a deep Impression on me. And, my high school took in Minnie Jean Brown, one of the African American students who first integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas, in 1957, when she was expelled from that school for throwing a cup of coffee at a white student who was taunting her with racial epithets. These were some of the values that I believe in.

In my first year at college, 1962-3, I began to closely follow the Southern Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 I become a summer volunteer worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That organization was focused on both desegregating public accommodations and challenging voter registration discrimination. My parents who shared my values were supportive of my decision to work in the civil rights movement. And, yet they expressed some concern with the danger of the endeavor.

At age 19, I flew to Atlanta, GA, in June of 1963, joining other volunteers and SNCC staff at Koinonia Farm, in Southwest, GA for training In nonviolence. I was sent to join the SNCC project in Albany, GA, a bastion of segregation that Dr. Martin Luther King, and his colleagues, was unable to make a dent. The SNCC volunteers consisted of local young adult college volunteers, black and white, and three or four fulltime staff. They were housed in the home of African American families who were willing to give us room and board and moral support because they believed we were engaging In an Important struggle for the African American community.

Daily I and my co-workers met at the SNCC headquarters and mapped out our activities and strategies for the day. I was involved in door-to- door canvassing and building relationships with adolescent and adult African Americans in order to increase attendance at "mass meetings" at local black churches, and to support them to consider joining nonviolent efforts to seek admittance to segregated public accommodations, such as the public swimming pool and the movie theater.

SNCC workers and local leaders and ministers would speak to the crowd and the group would sing freedom songs such as "We Shall Not be Moved," "You Isn't Going to Turn Me Round," "We Shall Overcome," "Wade In the Water," and many others.

The Spirit of place — working together with others — for something I believed deeply, was a significant experience in being a more defined self. One is more of a self when one can take an action on behalf of one's beliefs, particularly when others who hold dearly to opposite views, and who potentially and actually physically threaten to confront you. My effort was to maintain my positions and hold them in the face of potential violence, without attacking or withdrawing, and in the face of fear.

I was jailed, along with another SNCC worker and several Albany youths. An article, "Georgia Justice: A Report from Albany," In the New Republic magazine (March, 1964, Vol. 28, Number 3) described what took place:

They testified that they were walking on a dirt path, which served as a sidewalk. Two abreast, making no noise, on their way to a mass meeting and that Chief Pritchett came up and arrested them. He testified that they were sitting in the street blocking traffic. The testimony of five Negroes and two "outside agitators" didn't carry much weight against the testimony of the chief of police, so it was $193 or 30 days.

Three white SNCC workers, including myself, were taken out of the Americus jail in the middle of the night and transported by a van for a frightening ride not knowing where they were being taken. Finally, we arrived and were placed in the Albany jail in a cell with two northern white soldiers. They were stationed at a local army base and had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly The latter were told by the police chief, Laurie Pritchett, that they would get out of jail sooner if they beat up the "nigger loving communists." Bob Cover cowered on one of he bunk beds. The third co-worker, Ralph Allen, an ex-marine who was completely nonviolent, stood his ground and this evoked the soldiers to begin to punch him around. But they became frustrated that he would not fight and yet he would not give up the ground he was standing on. The attackers, frustrated, stopped their attack.

We were on a hunger strike. A federal official visited us in jail and had the nerve to ask us why we weren't shaving and why didn't we eat, never acknowledging our purpose and the negative treatment we were receiving at the hands of our jailers. Everyday we went out on the work detail, riding on the back of a city truck, cleaning the streets. As the truck [began] to move the civil rights workers were forced to run after the truck and jump on, as it was moving.

I was told my parents, not at my request, were providing bail for me after 7 days in jail. I was ambivalent leaving my co-workers still in jail. I spoke with my parents after leaving the jail. My mother said that while she was proud of me, my father was being pressured to get me to return home by my uncle who owned the family business. The uncle was putting pressure on my father after receiving pressure from a company salesman whose territory included Albany, GA, saying that the working for civil rights and being arrested was bad for business. My father did not put pressure on me to return home, but my mother did. I gave in to my mother's pressure to return home, not completing the summer volunteer work.

I had to admit to myself that while I wanted to stay through the summer I did have anxiety about the escalation of danger and further arrests. I made the decision to go home. I looked on that decision as a lack of courage and regression in my effort to be a better defined self. I spent the rest of the summer of 1963 volunteering in the New York City office of SNCC, alongside of Stokely Carmichael, Michael Thelwell, and Ivanhoe Donaldson, Barbara Jones, and others. I attended the August 1963 civil rights march on Washington. I made up my mind that I would return to the South to participate in the Movement at a future time.

I spent the Winter term of my sophomore year in college in an off campus program in Washington, DC. Along with fellow students I spent a great deal of time visiting Congress at the time that the 1964 Public Accommodations Law was being pushed through Congress by president Lyndon Johnson. It became law on July 2 1964. In a lengthy research paper — for an independent study — targeting those Southern congressmen in the most prestigious positions within congress that were vulnerable to being defeated in the upcoming elections — I sent my research paper to the Southern Regional Council, an organization whose mandate was to support, with grants from foundations, the increase of African American voter registration. I received a letter from the executive director, that the research could be useful the effort to defeat Southern white segregationist legislators, and possibly replace those who supported the equal right to vote for African American citizens.

In the summer of 1965, I made good on my promise to myself, to return to the South. I worked for the Child Development of Group of Mississippi, a Head Start program that was staffed by civil rights activists. My center was in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.

I was coordinating a reading readiness program. Because civil rights activity was a part of the agenda, it was necessary to stay up all night, taking turns with other staff members, being on armed alert for attacks by white southerners who were threatening to shoot at the center, or perpetrate some other form of attack. I still experienced some fear and anxiety in the face of danger but had no problem completing my summer commitment, and I was able to manage my relationship with my parents who had anxiety about my going back to the South, but who were not putting pressure against this endeavor.

Where did the principles and I-positions come from in regard to my activity in the southern civil rights movement? Did they represent more of the individuality force? Or did they represent more of the togetherness force? Or, did they represent some of both? The fact that I experienced both fear and anxiety in my endeavors — and did not stay the whole summer as I had planned, did that nullify the value of my effort to define a self through action when I faced retribution from the legal system of Georgia and Georgian segregationists at the time of the activity described above?

The answers to the above questions are difficult to answer. One's motives and choices are complex. Dietrich Boenhoffer, a German minister who became a political activist involved in trying to assassinate Hitler, reflected in his diary:

It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions ... one can give a reason for everything. In the last resort one acts from a level, which remains hidden from us (Bethpage, 2000, p. 653)

I believe in the principal that African Americans deserved equal treatment under the law by virtue of being Americans. My belief that all men should be respected and treated equally was highly ingrained in my family. For example my parents took in to live with our family a Japanese-American adolescent, while living in LA, when her parents were sent to a concentration camp during World War II. And the schools I was sent to were politically and socially progressive and highly integrated. And, yet these values associated with my family were truly incorporated into my life through personal relationships, readings, and reflection.

I do not believe my civil rights activities were undertaken as part of the family "herd', or to please my parents. Was my choice to witness and be counted for what I believe? Yes, but it may also have been partly an effort, for a youngest, dependent child to separate from, or become less emotionally fused with particularly my mother. To the degree that that was a factor in my choice, it might be described as an automatic effort to define or differentiate a self. It would appear that the civil rights activity was a combination of both an intentional and an automatic process to be a more differentiated self.

Copyright © Peter Titleman. 2012

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