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V - Lynch Street
Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part VI - Non Violence
Back in the Jackson office doing paperwork. Hardly doing it. ADHD before it had a name. Incapable of applying myself well to tasks I wasn't interested in. Ed was kind, sent me on errands, had me do physical work like clean up, organize materials. My co-workers, mainly focused people with a purpose, tolerated me. They were serious, but there was laughter, kidding around. The stage of my life was expanding just being there.
Blacks and whites, male and female, together in various mixes. Lunch at the cafe next door to the COFO office one day, a bunch of us including some field workers - not people who worked in fields, but COFO staff who worked in other Mississippi towns. Took a while for me to notice I was the only white and then I was proud it had taken a while and glad I was there in this whole new environment. I'd never been on equal terms with blacks before. How quickly it became normal.
Some had been on the civil rights case since 1960 or earlier - in Jackson, Atlanta, Birmingham, all over. Some were from the north, some southern, a few California. I'd hear about all sorts of hardship that the average black citizen had to endure just living there. Had to be careful where they went, what they said, had to keep a low profile. I'd listen to people who had known and worked with a few names I recognized like Medgar Evers. Evers had been murdered in Jackson the year before by a member of the White Citizens Council.
All I knew when I arrived was that a lot of blacks had been denied the right to vote. It was worse than that. There was no place for black people to lay their head when they traveled. They had to stay with friends or friends of friends or sleep in their cars. Black churches and businesses had been burned, The KKK wasn't a thing of the past. There were unreported lynchings. One thing seemed clear - change was most likely to come with help from outside pressure, media coverage, and the American people becoming more aware of the extent of discrimination and persecution in the South. The idea wasn't just to register voters but also to get in the news, and bring about a change in the culture.
Got out and walked around. Talked to people. Visited the right Presbyterian Church. Said hello for the Fort Worth minister to youth. Didn't say what I was doing there. Had become cautious. Most the southern whites I encountered were random - in a bar, store, park. Local white people would talk race right off. The coming invasion. They tended to describe a more positive situation than I gathered. They'd say that everything was going along just fine, that they lived in harmony with negroes and it would stay that way as long as outside agitators didn't rile things up. They did acknowledge inside agitators as well, a few bad blacks and the white trash they'd insist were worse than bad negroes. Never heard a good word said about the Ku Klux Klan but the White Citizens Councils were not disparaged.
Kept meeting interesting people. A long blond haired bright blue eyed idealist from Florida passed through. There wasn't a lot of long hair back then. He'd been in the movement for a year. We talked till late in the office. He said he always told white people why he was there and would try to engage them in conversation - like when he was in a cafe - or hitching and vulnerable. He'd had drivers stop their cars and tell him to get out. Got slugged a few times. But he said most people would tolerate, even engage with him. He was like an early disciple of radical honesty. No way could I be like that. I liked the people there but I didn't let them know why I was in their territory.
Everyone I met who'd been down there a while with the movement had been arrested at least once and beaten up by police, an occupational hazard. But the police knew when to stop. An old black pickup with two guys in white tee shirts had been cruising back and forth in front of the office. Police had an eye on them. I was standing outside when they went by and a guy on the passenger side looked at me with enough malice to make me shiver. I didn't want to meet him out there. Police didn't want violence or trouble which would be reported. We liked having them drive by. It got late and I was apprehensive about walking to the college dorm. I looked around for the pickup and quickly slipped into the nearby cemetery, lay on raised marble grave memorial, slept soundly till daybreak. After that, when I wanted to go somewhere to feel safe, I'd go to a graveyard.
There was a guy from Oklahoma named Jody who was an eccentric character that I liked hanging out with. He saw I was another weirdo and latched onto me too. He was a super intellectual who'd been studying linguistics and would listen to people talking and write phonetic symbols. He showed me what my speech pattern looked like compared to his and to a white woman from Maryland and then to local blacks whose phonetics he said looked more like French than English.
Ed met with some Mennonites who lived down on the Gulf Coast. They were committed to equality and integration for all people. They talked about working together with Quakers and COFO and not forgetting the plight of Choctaw Indians, other minorities, and poor whites.
Ran into James Chaney in the office. He'd driven over from Meridian. We talked for a while. I was glad to see him. He was good natured. He said he was sorry it didn't work out for me to work with them but that they had to work within the rules of the organization. Maybe they had other good reasons as well like the sort of impression I made. I was intense and unsettled.
James had come to town to meet with some visiting dignitary from India. Everyone in the office was invited to come to a house later for a get-together.
There were about twenty of us. We sat in a living room, many of us on the floor. The guest of honor was Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, introduced as a member of the Indian Parliament, founder of the Congress Socialist Party of India, and a close associate of Gandhi in the non violent struggle for civil rights and independence from British rule. Non violent civil disobedience was the dominant philosophy of the civil rights movement and here was a man who had practiced it with Gandhi. Lohia was accompanied by Dr. Ruth Stephan, a poet. He was a guest of the State Department and she was his guide and host. They had come to Jackson for him to visit the integrated Togaloo College. He said, he was delighted to be able to meet with activists in the civil rights movement in America.
He told about what an eventful afternoon they'd had. They'd gone to lunch at a cafeteria and were refused service. Dr. Lohia's skin was quite dark. They in return refused to leave. This went back and forth until the police arrived. There may have been an interesting exchange about race, color, country, status, segregation but the police sided with the cafeteria and asked them to leave. They again refused, were taken away in a paddy wagon, and driven around for an hour while the arresting officers and surely their higher ups wondered what to do with them. Finally they just let them out in the middle of some neighborhood and an international incident was avoided. Dr. Lohia related the experience with a smile. Dr. Stephan seemed to share his enjoyment. Later in the evening he recalled harsher treatment by the British that called for far greater challenges to his forbearance and commitment to non violence. He encouraged his audience to have faith in themselves and their cause, promising they will find inner strength when they need it. He said they had massive sit-ins which the British authorities tried to break up and they were able to sit in the midst of tear gas without moving. Then the army would come in with clubs to beat them and drag them off and sometimes take them away to be tortured.
When people left, I stayed and talked for a while with Lohia and Stephan. I asked him more about the torture. He said one can only experience so much pain before passing out, that there's nothing we can't endure if we're resolved, no obstacle that can prevent us from attaining our goal if we are firmly dedicated.
next - part VII - Natchez
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