Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
Dr. Mark Weiss became activated in The Civil Rights Movement when he saw police using dogs and waterhoses on black people in Birmingham. He started a chapter of SNCC on his campus and raised $2000 and 2000 pounds of food and clothing and took a bus to Clarksdale, Mississippi during freedom summer through January, 1965.]
See Freedom Summer Events for
background & more information.
See also Mississippi Movement and Freedom Summer for web links.
We would like to start off by having you tell us when and where you were born.
Okay. I was born in New York City in 1941, March 18th.
Next, we would like you to tell us your story and experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.
In my family, we had a tradition of being involved in social action issues. My father was involved with a lot of labor union groups, and he was also a jazz musician who played with Artie Shaw's band and Benny Goodman's band. He was among those musicians that broke "the color barrier", those who hired black musicians and got the plague for it.
I'll tell you my first actual experience with social action. In grade school, probably the 6th or 7th grade, my mother had been instrumental for bringing the first black teacher into our school. This was in Queens, in New York. She, the teacher, had two kids also going to the school. One day I was on the playground and I saw a number of white kids chasing these two black kids around calling them Niggers and such. Something just welled up in me and I grabbed these two guys who were saying all these things and sort of smashed them together. I mean, I was pretty mad I guess. I don't know, it just seemed like I had to stop it.
Then everything became quiet again and later on when I was in college I saw them using water hoses on the kids in Birmingham, and something clicked for me. Within two weeks, I had formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chapter on my campus in L.A, and I was president of that. I started giving speeches, and the whole transition took about two weeks. I had already formed this organization and I started raising money for food and clothing to take down to Mississippi. I raised two thousand dollars and two thousand pounds of clothing and food. I got on a Greyhound bus with all of this stuff and went down to Mississippi during the Freedom Summer.
Bob Moses and some of the other directors of SNCC, COFO, and CORE (the Congress On Racial Equality) back in the 30's and 40's. The beginning parts of the whole Civil Rights Movement. The idea was to bring white students down to Mississippi to help register voters that would bring the media down. Up until that time it was as if Mississippi was a completely blacked out area with very little information, even though there were lynching's going on and a lot of really frightening things.
I arrived in Clarksdale, Mississippi the day they discovered the three bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. I brought all of this food down and I helped out in the freedom schools.
I was very interested in social psychology. Before I had gone down to Mississippi, one of the professors played a tape for me about a method called the Marathon Group, or Accelerated Interaction. It was a group where you bring twelve people together for an entire weekend and the only subject matter is that we're here to talk honestly and openly as adults. It had a profound effect; I was utterly amazed at how deep people could go in that kind of environment. How much they could drop off a lot of their masks and their games.
I was there for two weeks and then I went back to L.A. and I actually organized one of these groups and had one of the therapy leaders lead the group. Then I went back to Clarksdale, and everybody else left and went back to their schools. I stayed for six months in Clarksdale pretty much on my own. I worked with a youth group which was great fun and I learned a lot in that environment. We did a lot of singing, a lot of freedom songs like "Keep Your Eye On The Prize" is one of those songs. Then I actually led two or three of these groups that were the first interracial groups that were ever done in Mississippi.
I remember getting arrested standing on the porch of the house I was staying at. They said I had violated the curfew but I wasn't on the street, I was at the house. A friend of mine named Joan and I both got arrested and the guy that lived next door (we were living in the black section of town) was a guy named Reverend Cooper and he came down to the jail and got us out.
I must say, I was not afraid. It's very interesting. It's one of those things like when you're doing something you totally and completely believe in, then death doesn't really make that much difference to you. If I were going to die, this would be the way I would want to die. Doing something I believed in totally and completely.
So, anyway, I worked a lot with a church group. I started a school for young kids teaching reading and writing and doing music. I played guitar at the time, and I played music with them. Then I worked with this youth group and occasionally helped people with voter registration. I'll give you a couple of instances that were very touching for me. One day I was just walking down the street in Clarksdale and an old black man walked up to me. He must have been 75 years old and he shook my hand. He just took my hand actually and held it and he just said, " Thank you." I tear up even when I think about it now. It's like he knew the risks that we were taking and in fact some of them were risks that he himself couldn't take. But it was like he was saying to me, "I really get what you're doing and I appreciate the risks that you are taking."
So I stayed on until January and one of the ways I financed myself was that I found four professors at California State University in Northridge, California. It's in L.A. I found four professors who would give me three hours of credit each to go down to Mississippi. One was a musicologist and he wanted me to bring back freedom songs. Another one was a social work teacher. He wanted me to investigate the social work and welfare system in Clarksdale. I got each of them to give me three hours of credit and then I took out a student loan. That's how I funded myself.
So when I came back I did presentations for all four of those teachers to their classes. A very dear friend of mine who was in junior high school with me had gone to Freedom Summer at the beginning of the summer. I came in towards the end and then stayed after everyone left. He and I are still very close friends but we had very different experiences. He went through the full training program for his Freedom Summer. He went to Antioch College and learned about nonviolent stuff.
I, on the other hand, had already been working in an area called Watts in L.A. It was an area in L.A. that was mostly black and Mexican Americans and when things got really hot in the Civil Rights Movement there were a lot of places that were burned and there were riots. It was called the Watts Riots. During that time I was working in Watts with a group called Upward Bound and we were training people to learn new skills and we were also bringing students in from white colleges to introduce them to what the ghetto was really about. What that life was like. It was very exciting. I was doing a thing called Psychodrama. I had police, welfare workers, welfare recipients, street people and we were doing these community Psychodramas where people would play out different roles. I'd have a policeman and a welfare worker role reversing and doing things that kind of opened up their minds to other possibilities. It was a very adventurous time. A lot was happening.
Is there anything else you can tell us about that group you were involved in, Upward Bound, right?
Yes. It was formed by a few people, and one was one of my friends who taught me a lot about black culture. I already had a sense of feeling for it but it was like he refined it. There are simple things, like when you go into a black person's home and you sit down on the couch. You don't sit down on the edge of the couch, you sit back into the couch. If you sit on the edge of the couch, it conveys to the owner of the house that you think things are either dirty or you don't want to get too close to it. If you sit back comfortably on the couch they get that you're comfortable in their environment. It's what he taught me because most white people didn't know it. So often times they would walk in and sit on the edge of the couch and would be insulting the people in the house and not even realizing they're doing it.
When you and your friend Joan were in jail, how long did it take before you were bailed out?
It was just in the evening around 9:00 at night to around about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. That's when Reverend Cooper came to get us out.
When the older man came up to you and said "Thank You" and shook your hand, what year was that?
It was 1964, during Freedom Summer.
When you went to those four classes, were there black children in those classes?
Actually, those were college classes. What I did was I was able to get a student loan for basically 12 hours of credits.
When you were in jail, did anything happen while you were there? Anything specific you remember about it?
It was just dirty. It was not pleasant. This wasn't that far away from the period of time when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been murdered. So once you were in jail you never knew what was going to happen.
But I'll give you another example. I was living in the home of a black woman named Mrs. Brooks. We had a very nice relationship and I had taught her to read and write. One day, a guy named Bob Williams came to visit. This guy was like six-foot-two, blonde hair, blue eyes, and he basically looked like a redneck. I had never had this happen before or since, but I took one look at this guy and I said, "I don't like you". And he looked at me, a nice Jewish boy liberal from New York, and he said, "I don't like you either." Almost immediately we became fast friends.
Within three or four days we were driving in a car, at night, from Clarksdale, Mississippi down to Greenville, Mississippi to meet with Stokely Carmichael. I wanted to talk to him about doing these intensive group work things with people in the movement. Anyway, we ran out of gas. Here are two white guys in a car and a cop car pulls up behind us. There weren't any lights out there. We were totally in the dark in the delta. Bob turns to me and says, "Don't open your mouth! If you open your mouth they'll know you're not from here." I just was totally silent. The cops were very nice. They took us to a place and we got a thing of gas and we took it back to the car and put it in and went on our merry way. But it was interesting that we had started off three or four days before that with, "I don't like you" and "I don't like you either", and here we are risking our lives together, depending on one another. So I did get to meet Stokely and he didn't like the idea. Some psychologist had been down through Mississippi earlier and he had really kind of messed things up so I didn't get much cooperation from Stokely at that point.
From all of the things you were involved in, like Upward Bound, what was the outcome of that?
I would say there were two things. One was that the leaders got the Singer Sewing Machine Company to provide us with a bunch of sewing machines so that we could train people in that kind of work so they could get jobs. We also got help from other companies that not only provided us with equipment, but also with trainers. This was basically just a store front in the middle of the city of Watts, which was a very depressed area. You know, we didn't have any government money. We just started it, and got help when we could. So that was one of the primary things we were doing.
We were not far away from the University Of Southern California, which was a very upscale school. So another goal we had was to enlighten the white community about what life was really like in the black community. I was kind of the go-between. I was the white boy between the leadership and the communities. I worked with a guy named Brother Lenny. Brother Lenny always dressed in black, he had a black pickup truck and he had a gun rack with a gun in it. He and other guys travelled around town listening to the police band on the radio and they would follow where arrests were taking place to assure that there was no police brutality. That's scary work to be doing.
He and I worked together. We would bring these college students in to Upward Bound and we would introduce them to what the community ... well, I'll give you an example. One night we brought in about 15 or 20 kids, these are all college students, all white college students, and we brought them into a fairly small room so everybody was kind of packed together. Brother Lenny said, " ou're here because you're interested in finding out what the black community is like, what do we deal with." He reached in his pocket and pulled out a paper cup that was folded over at the top. He opened it up and he poured a bunch of cockroaches out. The moment these cockroaches hit the floor the girls went right up the ceiling. I mean, they had Terminex! They had people to get rid of these things! I remember waking up late at night in Clarksdale and getting up to go get a glass of water and flipping on the light switch and the whole floor was covered with cockroaches. For somebody like me, I was born and raised in New York on the 6th floor of a six story building; I had never seen anything like that. And for these young college students it was a shock to their system, but it actually was a picture of what most of these people were dealing with.
What advice would you give to our generation on racial relations?
Go towards your fear, and not away from it. If you're afraid of contacting black people, if you're afraid of what white friends of yours are going to think, because you connected to black people, don't be. You know, there are so many high quality black people in this world. It's true, there are some black people in prison, but there are also white people too. When I was twenty years old, I developed arthritis. It was so severe that it was basically a near death experience. For about six months I was in a hospital bed at home, in excruciating pain. And during that time, I looked back over my prior life, well the first twenty years of my life. It was life, I don't know if I believed in God at that point or not, but it was like I was bargaining. If I survive this, you know I had been looking back over the first twenty years of my life, thinking about all the things I didn't do because I was afraid to. I made this deal that if I survive, I will go towards my fears, and not away from them. And it was the best decision I ever made in my whole life. Because when I went to Mississippi, I was fearless. I did some of the first black/white groups in maximum security prison in Oregon, and in south Carolina, I've put myself on the line in a lot of different places, and, it's just, I knew that if I'm facing my fears and dealing with it, that's what is going to help me to grow. And running away from my fears was not.
That's inspirational. Did you ever think of giving up? While you're doing all of these amazing things did you ever think things were too hard for you to handle and that you would just give up?
Never. I never did. It was, as I said, once you're no longer afraid of death, what's going to happen? I know that those three guys that died knew the risks they were taking. It wasn't like they had just happened to take the wrong turn and a bunch of guys killed them. They knew exactly that they were taking very, very big risks, and they were willing to do it. You know, I have great admiration. And in my own case I put myself out there, in all sorts of different ways, because I believed in it. You know, it's interesting that what I did in Mississippi, helped me later on it life, because when I went for my masters degree, and for my PHD, I encountered a lot of flack. The kinds of things I was interested in studying, and writing my dissertation on, had to do with interracial encounters and how people dealt with one another. And when I got my PHD, I was working at the university of South Carolina, which was a very segregated area, and, I just had to speak up and say my mind, so you know, I had to literally threaten a sit-in to get my PHD. You know, having gone to Mississippi, I was really strong and I knew how to organize, and I wasn't afraid of these people.
So, of all of this experience you've had, and went through with the civil rights movement, what would you say is the most positive thing that came out of everything?
Well, on a personal note, one of the most beautiful things is, I used to work with this youth group. And there was an abandoned house in the neighborhood that had some bunk beds and we would all cram in there and sing songs, and they introduced me into Major Lance, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and it was music I had not been exposed to. I exposed them to some of the freedom songs and some other music that I had been developing and folk music and stuff and, it was very loving at times. In the midst of this fear and all of these police things going on, that we could be together like that on a regular basis and love each other, and sing, and there was a sense of equality that they were showing me their culture and I was showing them mine and to me, that was just a very beautiful thing.
The significance of it was, I think it was a very effective thing. It brought an enormous amount of media attention to Mississippi, which was really badly needed. Did it fix everything? No. But, now if you go down to Clarksdale, Morgan Freeman has a restaurant and a blues club down there and there are black mayors and things that were just impossible to conceive of. When we were down there, if somebody had said to me, "You know by 2008 we're going to have a black president" I would have just laughed! Impossible! I mean maybe 30 years down the line, or 50, I think that's why there were so many people crying that night when Obama was inaugurated, and I was one of them! I mean, it was like a dream come true!
So, through everything, was there anyone who was always by your side throughout this time? Someone who always agreed with you and stuck with you?
When I worked in Watts, California, I had some really strong people that believed in me and I believed in them. In Mississippi, while I was there and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) was still there, I had people that supported me, although I've always been sort of an individual. So when they all left, the people that supported me were the black people whose houses I lived in, or you know where I taught them to read, and we had an agreement of about what kind of things we could do for one another. And then I had some friends that came down around Christmas time from Berkeley. I felt very close to them. One of them, a woman named Joan who stayed with me a month and a half, and came back probably late January or early February. But a lot of it I was on my own.
That must have been hard.
Well again, I was on my own in terms of the white people, but I wasn't alone in the community. I was never alone in the community, because they knew the risks I was taking, and I always felt that I could rely on them.
How did the civil rights movement affect your family?
Well, that's interesting. My father and my mother had been very involved in civil rights long, long ago. But when I decided to go to Mississippi, my father was furious. He tried to talk me out of it and got angry and said "You don't have a plan and you don't know what you're doing." I mean it was really ridiculous. I was going and I didn't care what he said. So I go down to the Greyhound bus depot, and I had two thousand dollars, and I packed up 2,000 lbs of clothing, and food. And my father drove me down there. And just as I was about to get on the bus, my father started to cry. It was like, I don't know, he just knew nothing could stop me. When I was in Mississippi I think it was probably the only time my father ever wrote me a letter. So it was kind of like a breakthrough I guess. He took risks earlier in his life when he was involved in civil rights related kinds of things and, I think it was just hard for him to realize that I had my own mind and he couldn't change it. I was going to do what I wanted to do. My mother was always supportive, and always very loving. I also had been the Religious Education Director at a Unitarian church in Los Angeles, and all the kids and teachers in that group would be sending me letters They would send me these big sheets of paper full of pictures and writing, so it was like having real support back home.
That's sweet. How often did you make it back to see them?
Well, my father died about 15 years ago, but I went back about 4 times a year. My mother died about 10 years ago, at the age of 92. She had a very full life. She traveled with these big bands, all over the country and she had a good life. She knew it too. And when she died, she called me up from L.A. and she just said, its time. She had had enough. So, I flew out there with my fiance at the time. We took her home, and called a hospice nurse, and it was just her time. Maybe this comes when you get older, but when your body's ready to go, you're ready to go. And there are some people who are terribly frightened of this, but my mother wasn't. She felt she had put in her time, and she died very peaceful.
How significant was this event in your life?
Well, you know, I live in Memphis where there are many racial related issues. They just integrated the county school system, and its bringing up all kinds of racial issues. And from going to Mississippi, I got a sense of perspective of what it's like living in the ghetto, what it's like for black people to pull themselves out of it and move to higher grounds, and it taught me an enormous amount about not taking any crap from people. In getting both my masters degree, and my PHD, I had a reputation of "Don't mess with this guy because he's not afraid of anything!" I think it helped me strengthen my belief in myself, and in the power of people changing.
So, all in all, how would you say the key points are of, how exactly would your life be different if you didn't do what you did do? Like today, how would you be different?
Well, I don't know if you'll understand this, but I would be very "vanilla". I would be boring. I would not be a risk taker. I have the courage to stand up for what I believe, as a result of having put myself on the line and facing death. And in my practices as a psychologist I have people of different races and different cultures, and when a black couple comes to me, one of the first things I talk about is; You guys are black and I'm white. And we ought to talk about that before we go any further. Because you're going to be watching me, whether you can help it or not, to see if I'm real, and genuine. And they get it. They understand, because they know that I have taken the risks.
Yeah, I can understand that. When you went to jail, were there a lot of blacks in there during that time?
It was just me, and my friend Joan in a single cell.
Was she black or white?
Joan was white.
What about the people's houses you stayed at? Did you pay rent?
I paid Mrs. Brooks, I forget how much, maybe 50 dollars a month or something, and I didn't really have a private room. It was basically a bed in the living room. And we had a very nice relationship. I think she made extra money selling White Lightening out the back door. You know, booze. And, my friend Sandy Siegel, a friend from junior high school, he and I went back down there after high school a number of years ago to see her, and she was funny. She said "Do you know I love you?" and it was like, we were really, really good friends. She took care of me, and looked after me.
That's really nice! Well Dr. Weiss, is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your experiences in the civil rights movement?
I'm very happy you guys are doing this. I think there is a richness that's far deeper than a bunch of people showing up and sitting in. There is something about people standing up for their own dignity, that is absolutely valuable and a great lesson. You know in a sense, what's going on now about occupy Wallstreet, all of that has emerged from the civil rights movement. But the way people are doing it, is much more humane. And it is also nonviolent. I think the principles of non-violence are deep and profound and not many people understand them. I've been a student of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and others. I think that we're talking there about really spiritual development. And it's not just a technique that you're using, but it's your attitude towards life. It's profound for me.
Yes. Well Dr. Weiss we had a really great time doing this interview and we really value all the information that you gave us. It helps us learn so much more and totally understand this as if we were there. We know so much about it now and I think this is going to turn out to be something really cool.
I really appreciate the work that you're doing and I'm glad you're getting a chance to be exposed to it.
Thank you so much.
Dr. Mark Weiss has volunteered with Operation Bootstrap in Watts during the time of the Watts Riots. He started a community music program for Black and Latino kids, worked in Oregon State Prison, and worked with the University of South Carolina Desegregation Center. Also, he has directed an Early Learning Center at Allen University, a black college.]
Interview and transcription by Leah Levy & Abigail Nyseth
Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013