Fire at the Freedom House, 2021
Born in 1947, I am the grandson of Italian immigrants. First exposed to the civil rights movement during an integrated high school program at Morgan State College in Baltimore, Maryland in 1963, I returned home to New York to join Long Island CORE, led at that time by the tireless Lincoln Lynch.
I first went to Mississippi as a civil rights worker in the winter of '65-'66 with a large group of students from Oberlin College. We were sent for one week to Kosciusko, Attala County to work with MFDP organizers Gunter Frentz and Betty Jones. In that week we were involved in a blitz of restaurant sit-ins, a movie theatre sit-in and voter registration efforts. The Freedom House was attacked one night by armed white men and two of our group were slightly wounded, but we were armed and fired back. (This was a new era in the movement and a dramatic shift from the rules against armed self-defense in place in '64). The attackers fled. While the KKK had more than a century of experience lynching, shooting and beating Black people who stood up to racism and segregation, it seems clear in retrospect that they were not prepared to risk their own lives. They were armed and ready to kill; we were armed and ready to die. I believe that difference was our power.
I returned to Attala County for the summer of '66 to continue working with the MFDP. We were joined for the entire summer by a local high school student, Luther Mallett, who became my partner. His brother, Wiley Mallett, and sister, Jean Mallett, were also active in the movement. Their mother, Lenora Mallett, was one courageous person to endure the risks taken by her children. We spent the summer on more sit-ins, voter registration and a major effort to integrate the city park and whites-only swimming pool. We also made an effort to spread the movement to small towns in the county; our Freedom House in McCool was burned down the day after Luther and I arrived, but we rebuilt a new Freedom House on the ashes of the old and continued our efforts.
The real heroes and heroines were people like the Malletts, Shirley Adams, Emma Ree Rayford, Nash Hannah, Betty Jean Rimmer, Shirley Yawk, Roxie Meredith, Carl (Elmore) Winfrey and countless others in the local Black community, who registered to vote, attempted to integrate the city park, marched, organized, fed us, housed us and protected us at tremendous risk. Through their efforts the county was changed forever.
The summer of 1966 was also the time of the James Meredith Mississippi March. James Meredith, who was from Kosciusko and had previously integrated 'Ole Miss, that summer started a march from Memphis to Jackson. He was shot and wounded a few miles after crossing the state line. The civil rights movement responded by turning his effort into a huge march from Memphis to Jackson.
In mid-June a small contingent came to Neshoba County, which borders Attala County, to commemorate the abduction and murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in '64. A group of us from Kosciusko joined that small march, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr. We were spat upon and attacked repeatedly as we marched to the town square in Philadelphia, Neshoba County, and Martin Luther King was almost hit by a cherry bomb. But we made it to the town square and held a rally while surrounded by hostile whites, who crowded the streets and lined the rooftops. King made a heroic speech; in his wonderful baritone voice he looked directly at the crowd on the rooftops and said, "We are here to commemorate the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner and I believe their murderers are standing around me at this very moment." For a brief moment I remember the crowd being silenced.
That night we were called to return to Philadelphia to participate in armed self-defense, as KKK night riders retaliated by attempting to shoot up the Black community. Again, they fled when their gunfire was returned. (We made no effort to hit them or their cars; why blow out their tires when the goal was to get them to leave as rapidly as possible.) A few days later the Northern media arrived and a more peaceful, much larger march was held. Who else on this web site was there?
Within the group from the Meredith March was Alan Moonves, a friend of mine from Valley Stream. After the march he joined us in Kosciusko. When we tried to open a second Freedom House in McCool that summer, a small town in rural Attala County, it was burned to the ground. With help from Elmore Winfrey, we rebuilt a new Freedom House on the ashes of the old. This has now been covered in depth in the PBS special titled Oprah's Roots, which includes a photo of Alan Moonves, Luther Mallett and Elmore Winfrey (now identified as Oprah's grandfather!) working on the new Freedom House.
I returned north and remained an activist, in the anti-war movement and the trade union movement. I am now a lawyer active in the National Lawyers Guild, but nothing in my activist life comes close to the intensity and power and depth of feeling of that time in Mississippi.