Riding the train to Atlanta from Phila. Pa in June of 1965, I remember feeling both excited and afraid. I had never been in the south before, but after working all that spring with civil rights groups in Phila., specifically CORE, I had heard all the terrifying stories. I knew about the murder of the 3 civil rights workers in Mississippi the summer before, and I was sure the KKK, the Klux Klan, was everywhere.
Originally I had hoped to be part of SNCC, whIch I considered the most radical of all the civil rights groups, but by 1965, they were only recruiting black students, so I signed up for the SCLC SCOPE PROJECT. All the SCOPE summer volunteers met in Atlanta that June for a week of orientation, staying in the dorms at one of the black colleges. There must have been at least 100 of us. We spent our days listening to presentations, covering everything from the History of the Civil Rights movement since 1954,The Meaning and Relevance of Nonviolence, The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and much more. We had workshops on nonviolent civil disobedience, sang freedom songs and met with most of the leaders of the movement, including Bayard Rustin, Andy Young, Jim Bevel and Dr. King.
Finally, we were all assigned to different locations for the summer s work in voter registration and political education. I ended up, with 3 other students, in Hale County, Alabama, in the town of Greensboro. We lived with local families and our command central was the church and home of Rev. Days. Rev. Days and his wife, Tillie, were very soft spoken people, but the high school youth group was energetic and militant, eager to confront injustice at every turn.
When I arrived in Hale County, I was full of anger, ready to fight the racist system, and knowing very little about the practice of nonviolent resistance. As the summer wore on and Congress stalled on the voting rights bill, our level of frustration mounted. Almost daily, we walked in the steaming heat from distant cotton fields to the Courthouse in Greensboro with many people trying to register to vote. The Registrar consistently posed impossible literacy tests, and of course refused to register anyone. Meanwhile, the KKK burned down four of the churches in our county, and rejected all permits for marches or rallies.
I was gradually learning that the practice of nonviolent resistance was not for the faint of heart. In our many workshops where we learned how to deal physically with violent attacks, we also were taught that our goal was not to defeat but to win over our opponents. And that we should be focusing on resisting the forces of evil, not the people who are engaged in injustice: that somehow any suffering by us would have the power to convert opponents who otherwise would refuse to listen. This just seemed completely absurd to me, and I remained very skeptical, until I actually had an experience which profoundly altered my vision.
After weeks of resistance by the powers that be in Greensboro, we had finally decided to defy them and have a sit-in in the street in front of church that was our headquarters. Hundreds of people came, with signs and songs. The police came as well, and surrounded us for several days. Our numbers grew as more people, young and old, arrived from surrounding counties. We stood in the hot sun, singing freedom songs and trying to ignore the jeering white crowds that were barely being kept separated from us by a thin line of cops in riot gear.
Finally, the afternoon of Day Two, the order to disperse or face arrest was given, and in a quick moment, teargas was thrown into the crowd. It was chaos, as the cops waded in and dragged us into several waiting school buses. Before the busses departed, several police threw tear gas canisters inside the sweltering buses. We were trying to follow our training, and react in a loving fashion. I have to admit I did not feel at all loving towards these racists, but I was moved by all the young kids, as well as very elderly people surrounding me who responded to the painful teargas with joyful freedom songs. We drove about an hour and arrived at our location, Camp Selma Prison Camp.
This Prison was part of a network of state prisons in rural Alabama, traditionally used to incarcerate convicts sentenced to hard labor on chain gangs. But in the sixties, when the city jails filled up with protestors, the regular convicts were transferred out to make room for us. It was a dismal place. After being booked in by very hostile Sherriff's, including Jim Clark, we were separated by sex and put into 2 large cells. In our cell, we had over 200 women and girls. There was not enough room for everyone to lie down on the concrete floor at the same time, and in the corner of the cell was a constantly overflowing toilet. Along one side, there were bared windows that had been covered with plywood, to prevent us from communicating with the boys and men in the cell across the courtyard. It was very hot and stinky.
Outside the cell, different prison guards lurked, often making nasty comments, especially aimed at the few white women the "commie nigger lovers" is how they would refer to us. But there was one guard, an older man with a kindly face, who kept coming back, and by Day 2, when I was standing near the door, he started engaging me in actual conversation. He asked me why I was there, and wanted to know what my parents thought. I don t recall all the details, but he seemed pretty upset, all the while looking around to make sure none of the other guards could hear him.
That afternoon he came back again, with a paper bag full of old rolls he had gotten from the prison kitchen. As we had only eaten beans and a hot dog, they looked great. As he slid the bag through the bars, he mumbled something about how brave he thought we were, and how wrong it was that we were treated this way. I actually saw tears welling up in his eyes and starting down his cheek. I was speechless, in complete shock perhaps this was the power of nonviolence.
At the end of the summer, I was asked by SCLC to be on the northern organizing staff in Chicago, where I worked for the next two years. More to follow....