Martin Nicolaus

Current Residence:
1342 California Street
Berkeley CA 94703
Phone: 510.717.2414

Mississippi Winter 1964-65

We arrived in Jackson on election eve 1964. Bob Moses greeted us. We sat at the Lynch St. office and watched the election returns with members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We were part of the second wave that went down after the murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. There had been a huge meeting at a church in Manhattan about it and we were drawn irresistibly. I took a leave of absence from grad school and went.

At that time I was married to Vicki Ortiz. We lived in the house of "Mama Jenks," a woman whose own children had grown and left home, and so she had a spare room. Actually, we had the main bed room and she slept in what had been the kids' room. It was a typical tar paper shack with no insulation in the poorer Black section of Jackson. There was a picture of John Kennedy and of Martin Luther King alongside a picture of Jesus in the living room. Mama Jenks treated us wonderfully and I marvel at the courage she had to put up these white Northern civil rights volunteers in her home. We were treated with nothing but courtesy and friendship by the entire Black community. For weeks on end all of our face-to-face contact was with Black people, and I still remember looking in the mirror one morning and having a moment of fright to see a white face.

Voter registration was over by then and most of our work was Freedom Schools. We met in various churches and on the campus of the nearby college with kids of all ages including some grownups. We studied Freedom Road, by Howard Fast, chapter by chapter. We'd read it out loud and discuss it. We'd teach the reading along with the ideas of it. It was part education and part inspiration. We learned more from our students than we taught them, and that was just right.

If I remember correctly, the SNCC field secretary who was in charge of us was Ivanhoe Donaldson. We saw him occasionally and were always impressed. In those days the SNCC field secretaries were about ten feet tall to us.

At some point we were assigned to set up a Freedom Library in the building at 852 Short St., around the corner from the SNCC/COFO office at 1017? Lynch Street. The Short St. building was filled to the rafters with discarded old textbooks that had been sent by the truckload from some Michigan school districts. There was a good reason the textbooks were discarded ... they contained a lot of racist trash. They were no good to us and our first job was to get rid of them to clear out the building. How that was done is another story. When it was done, we set up the W.E.B. DuBois Freedom Library in the space. We had a selection of quality books, and set up a simple card file system, and began circulating them. The rooms were small and cold but we could have Freedom School groups there. We sent letters north to raise donations.

At some point we got news that high school students in Issaquena/Sharkey counties had started a school boycott over a discrimination issue. What the issue was I don't remember now. We were sent down there to help the students set up Freedom Schools and to bring what supplies we had. We were very glad to go, as Jackson was a bit quiet at this time and we wanted more action. Issaquena/Sharkey was more of a combat zone. The high school students were not afraid. They marched by the hundreds. We stayed in the home of a local leader and did our schools and brought our supplies. One rainy night after a meeting my old green panel truck wouldn't start. We were parked about a mile away from the meeting house, in the boonies, because of security. The engine cranked and cranked. We started sweating. The Klan was very active there and we could see ourselves buried in a landfill somewhere. All of a sudden there was a black face at the window. We were startled, then relieved. Thank God. Our savior was a farmer with a house nearby. Together we pushed the truck into his garage. He had a welding torch and with that, he dried out the truck's ignition wires. In his garage we saw posters indicating membership in the NAACP and in the NRA. We were in a safe place. We had a good talk about the local situation, and then the engine caught and we went on our way.

We left Mississippi in April when my teeth rotted out and I had to go north to get dental work done. I went back to grad school at Brandeis, and had many other adventures in life, too long to tell here. None of them compared in formative power to those months with the Southern Freedom Movement.

Currently I'm a retired lawyer living in Berkeley CA. Most of my law practice was representing tenants in lawsuits against landlords. I also did some trademark and copyright work. Having got thoroughly burned in the M-L sectarianism of the 70s, I have had no political affiliations since then, other than the occasional local cause or issue. I have two children, both boys, now out of college and working.

In 1992 I finally broke out of a decades-long pattern of drinking too much, and have been clean and sober ever since. In 1997 I started a nonprofit organization called LifeRing Secular Recovery; we provide self-help support meetings for people who want to stop drinking and drugging without all that 12-Step religious stuff. I've written three books on this issue, published by LifeRing Press. After fourteen years as CEO of LifeRing, I retired in 2010. I remarried and I'm doing fine, glad to be alive and sober and in good health and engaged in things I believe in. I'm always glad to talk to others who were there and I thank you for organizing this web site.

-- Marty Nicolaus

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