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IV - Corn Rows
Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part V - Lynch Street
Late April, 1964.
I'd awoken to sunrise over fields of cotton, kudzu covered trees, shanties by the road. The Greyhound bus pulled into Jackson, Mississippi, on a clear spring morning. I'd not hitched cause I brought a trunk full of books for the Freedom Schools planned for the summer. There'd been a request for donations of materials in COFO literature I'd read. Included in that trunk were writings of two of my heroes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, both of whom I found boring to read. Read more of H.L. Mencken with his sharp jabs and Mark Twain who could spin a tale and had a good heart. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was moving. Ashley Montague's The Fallacy of Race opened a new door. Exodus was easy to read and tribal. Included also were Thoreau, Emerson, and a book of essays by Chicago columnist Sydney Harris. Some poetry - Frost, e.e cummings. Also brought the Bible and a guitar in case I'd bought in Fort Worth from a fellow who made it. Left it with a duffle bag and the trunk at the bus station and headed out walking.
I had arrived without knowing exactly where I was going. Decided to start with the Presbyterian church that minister to youth in Fort Worth had suggested. I just asked where a Presbyterian church was. Went into the office. A woman asked if she could help me and I said I was there to join with the outfit that was going to be working on registering negro voters and just came by to say hello. That led to a bunch of people coming out of offices yelling at me to get out of their church and leave town, don't want any trouble makers' here. She was making a phone call.
"Wrong church, sorry." I skedaddled.
Ran down the street into a neighborhood where there were negroes on the porches. I asked them where the place was where they did civil rights work. That made them nervous. Where the voter registration work was being done out of? People shook their heads. A woman took me to the home of a minister. He was a nice older man who sat and talked with me, served me lemonade. He told me to be careful and drove me to the COFO Office, a storefront with a large plate glass window. It was on Lynch Street, a frightening name.
I told a young woman at a desk I'd come to help out. She went back. I sat and waited. There was a poster on the wall with some young blacks kneeling, maybe in a sit in, words below that read, "Come let us build a new world together." There was a blackboard with list of names of workers who'd been arrested and what they'd been charged with from driving without a license, disturbing the peace, to serious stuff such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor, robbery, rape.
At first no one in the office knew what to do with me since I hadn't come through the proper channels. People there had been vetted by the COFO headquarters. I said I'd applied but never heard back. A guy named Ed Hamlett took an interest in me. He said he was in charge of a planned special program for white Southerners. They were considering having this group register whites as well as blacks, mainly poor and working class. He said my application must have been lost in the mail or somewhere because they only had about twenty white southerners signed up and they wanted more.
I told him I had a letter of introduction to a minister in Meridian and wanted to see if they could use me there. I called the minister on Ed's phone and he said he could see me in a few days. Ed drove me to the bus station to get the trunk of books and guitar. We took them to a house that was the headquarters for their Freedom School program that was across the street from the COFO office. Then he drove me to a dorm at nearby Jackson State University, an African American school, where I left my duffle bag and guitar. Back at Lynch Street he gave me some office work. It was boring and seemed pointless but I was glad to be there and to have been accepted, at least for the time being.
A pharmacist picked me up hitching on the two lane highway to Meridian. He asked where I was from and what was I doing there. I told him I was on my way to Florida from Texas and wanted to visit a minister in Meridian at the suggestion of my minister. He asked if I'd heard about the coming invasion - Jew Yankees descending on Mississippi to stir up trouble. I said I was vaguely aware from the news. We had a discussion on race in which he expressed opinions and I nodded, grunted, asked questions, one of them being, "So you think that negroes are born with an inclination to break laws, are inherently violent, that they are genetically predisposed to rob, rape, and murder?" He answered in the affirmative. I would learn that this was not an unusual attitude.
In Meridian I went to a centrally located old fashioned downtown hotel and sat in the lobby having a drink, planning to go find a cheaper place later. I got out the letter that the Episcopal minister in Houston had sent Jackson, my friend, not the city. It said we should meet this minister in Meridian whom he'd contacted and who said he would hook us up with some fellows there who were doing some really good work with the local negro community, broader than just voter registration. I was eager to meet them and work with them because the Houston minister said the Meridian minister said it would be a safer area to be in, not as racist as some other parts of Mississippi, that we'd be less likely to get our heads bashed in there.
Got into a conversation with a couple of Egyptian businessmen. It didn't seem like they were particularly comfortable in Mississippi. As only months before I'd represented Egypt in the Model United Nations, I was able to talk about the situation in the Middle East in a manner that impressed and pleased them, especially what I had to say regarding Israel which I tailored to their nation's foreign policy. They bought me a steak dinner with wine and a fine hotel room.
After dinner I hung out in the hotel bar talking to some locals who used the word nigger a lot, moved on to a nice salesman who seemed embarrassed to be associated with them and their words. Went out to find another bar. Ran into the Egyptians on the way out and we chatted some more. Having loosened up some, asked them what they thought about integration and civil rights which made them most uncomfortable. Found a more plebeian bar where I did not mention integration and civil rights but did hear mention of the coming invasion and the desire to counter it with brute force.
Mississippi was a dry state. That's why in the capital the liquor stores and bars had no signs outside and just sparse samples of their wares showing on the inside. But in Meridian there were signs and full displays. Since alcohol was illegal for everyone, I wasn't asked for ID. In those days there were places I'd been where one could drink alcohol legally at eighteen - New Orleans, New York City, and Washington DC. Now Mississippi was added to that list. It was the wettest dry place I've ever been. I'd read that the highest paid government official in the whole United States was the guy in charge of collecting the booze tax in Mississippi.
Staggering back into the hotel I ran into a tall young black guy, a teenager, mopping the entryway. I frightened him telling how liberation was on the way. The next morning I awoke as I often have, remembering my indiscretions, in this case indiscretions that could be incriminating. The young black guy was back at work and averted his eyes. The Egyptians were in the dining room but not eager to be associated with me. I made a mental note to cut back on the sauce while on what I was coming to realize was dangerous ground.
At ten in the morning I arrived at the church, not far from the hotel. The minister brought me into his office. He introduced me to a young black man named James Chaney and a white man a little older with a scruffy goatee named Mickey Schwerner. James was local and Mickey was from New York, had come there via CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. They were involved already with the voter registration drive, had been speaking about it in black churches. They'd also started a negro community center. Mickey talked about job training and said his wife was teaching sewing with machines to local black women. He had nerve and conviction, was reaching out to local whites. Chaney was clear eyed, said they were planning on establishing classes in negro history and were in touch with colleagues who were creating a curricula on civil rights for the Freedom Schools. I was in awe of the work they were doing, was struck by their maturity and sense of purpose, and said I would love to join them. Mickey said they couldn't take me at the time, that whoever worked with them had to come through the COFO organization.
I took a bus back to Jackson. I was disappointed. I'd been counting on getting a position with them. But on the ride back I felt elated that I'd met these two impressive guys who were doing such good work. I was encouraged just to learn that they were there doing what they were doing. I was nineteen and I admired them.
next - part VI - Non Violence
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