Stephen L. Saltonstall

SNCC, Illinois, Alabama, 1962-65
Current Residence: Sandgate, VT
Phone: 802-375-9287
Web Site:

As a teenager I first joined the movement in a SNCC project in Cairo, Illinois, the southern tip of Illinois where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, and then a KKK hotbed. The main object of the SNCC project was to integrate public accommodations, including the municipal swimming pool, which had been built with federal funds. The project was run by Rev. John Lewis, later head of SNCC and now a Congressman from Atlanta, and Jim Peak, a calm and kindly soul who was paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair. I was one of only a few whites participating in this SNCC project in the summer of '62.

One of my jobs was to pose as a native white Cairoan and to attempt to obtain a membership card to the swimming pool, which Cairo officials had turned into a "private club." I was unsuccessful in that effort. A large demonstration ensued at the pool. A white racist deliberately drove his pickup truck into a line of SNCC activists trying to gain admission to the pool, severely injuring a young African-American girl. I also remember a night demonstration at the local roller skating rink. Again, the object was to integrate the facility. When we arrived, the skating rink owners had locked the doors, and the KKK was holding a meeting inside. Someone had stuck a note in the door with an ice pick that said, "No niggers here!"

I particularly remember John Lewis' courage. One afternoon he led us into the Cairo municipal building, and he gave a mini-sermon and prayer service, forgiving the white racists who ran Cairo and exhorting them to change their views. The municipal employees were not amused, and to this day I remember worrying that Rev. Lewis would be killed on the spot. Luckily for all Americans, he has survived and become the conscience of the Congress and Congressional Black Caucus.

I also went to Selma, Alabama in March 1965 after the murder of Rev. James Reeb and before the Montgomery march and murder of Viola Liuzzo. I remember particularly one demonstration, the purpose of which was to assert the right of integrated groups to walk in the neighborhood of Selma Mayor Jim Smitherman. On the way to the rallying point, the cops spotted our car (with New York license plates). One of the cops looked me in the eye as we passed their parked vehicle, and he smacked his billy club into his hand, as if to say you are going to be next. The cop car started to chase us, but we were saved when its radiator boiled over and it had to stop!

During the walk in Smitherman's all-white neighborhood, a woman ran out of her house with a gun in her hand and put the gun up to my head and screamed, "I'm going to kill you, Nigger-lovin' white boy!" I thought my life was over but I kept walking and she never pulled the trigger.

They took us to the jail but it was full, and the cops made the men stand behind the jail in the hot sun, where reporters were not allowed to go, and ordered us to "toe the line." If you stepped off the line you were beaten. I made sure to toe that line!

Because of the lack of jail space, the cops put us in a school gym overnight for "protective custody." My mother, who had also traveled to selma, came up to me and told me that Wilson Baker, the racist officer in charge, had told her that if she stayed in Selma she would be the next to be killed. So I took my mother home a couple of days later. It was only after her death that I learned the truth: that Baker had really told my mother that I was the one marked for death. I believe that my mother knew that if she told me the truth I would have stayed in Selma, so she lied, knowing that I'd do whatever was necessary to protect her.

After I finished college and a stint as a back-to-the-land hippie, I went to law school. I've practiced law for 30 years. I represent criminal defendants, and have done a substantial amount of work defending the right of dissenters to freedom of speech and assembly, incuding anti-war activists. I've also battled government in environmental cases, including U.S. Forest Service efforts to clearcut wildlife habitat.

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