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VIII - Cookie
Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964
part IX - Ohio
After a brief stay in Texas, I hitched up to the COFO training program in Oxford Ohio at Western Women's college. School was out so there was plenty of room in dorms for the army of mainly Northern civil rights workers preparing to descend on Mississippi. Only a few of us had been down South before. Two one week trainings were scheduled. Some would only go to one. There were classes, talks, workshops. A lot of interesting people, strong people, determined, serious, some heavy on idealism, some coming across as more realistic. Anticipation in the air.
My strongest memory is that of hearing Robert Moses speak. He was truly inspiring. He'd been doing civil rights work for years in the South and had the idea that maybe there could be more progress if a bunch of white kids were involved. His plan was right. He was right and the time was right. Moses was committed to non violent action and able to motivate people from ghettos to universities, from board rooms to community meeting halls. I got to talk with him a few times. He was gentle, dignified, emanating strength and quiet authority, non judgmental, with natural humility, didn't take himself too seriously. A rare person.
My best friend in Ohio was a black photographer from Chicago named Stanley. He was older and had a great sense of humor. He and I would go to restaurants and he'd loudly call me boy and boss me around and I would be obsequious and obedient. We were ready to go on stage.
There were a few people I'd known from Mississippi. Was good to see Jody the linguist. Ed Hamlett was more or less my boss. He was head of the White Students or White Folks Project that I was to be a part of. Mickey Schwerner and James Cheney were there. Chaney told me about more black church burnings. They were going to go check some of those sites in the Meridian area and meet with the parishioners.
Robert Moses' wife Donna was hard core. She was planning to register black voters who lived on Senator Eastland's family plantation.
There was a minister in his forties who'd spent some time in Mississippi. He was scheduled to give a talk to an unsympathetic church in Jackson. That's nerve. I asked him what he planned to say. He said he was going to give a sermon on scripture with no mention of racial issues. Then he'd see if anything came out of that. Smart move.
There were a couple of reporters from national media who hung out with us full time. One who'd spent some time covering stories in the South played badgering Mississippi sheriff as we took turns being arrested or detained civil rights workers. He tore into each person and anything they'd say - like a mean Foghorn Leghorn. People were trying to defend themselves by invoking the bible, equality, brotherly love, justice, fairness, common decency. They wouldn't get far with him. When it was my turn and he belligerently asked if I was a nigger lover I responded, "I don't love anyone except for Jesus and my mother." As he badgered me, I did not stand up for the movement or even admit I was with it or agree with any of its goals. After a while he gave up on me. I guess I came across to others as a spoilsport - and a Judas. I was just showing them how not to get beaten up - or rather how to lessen the chances.
There was a drama project. It was run by some quite nice women with the best intentions who would talk to me without getting self righteous or hostile. I was working on a play for them. They were most encouraging. All I can remember is that it was a corny, stupid, morality play. Thank goodness mine never came to fruition. Hope they had better material. There was a girl involved with it I got a crush on but didn't let her know. I was shy that way and not sexually active yet. I hadn't noticed but I heard several white recruits complain that they couldn't get any girls to pay attention to them.
As I recall, all the top leaders were black and a lot of the volunteers were black. It was a vast expansion of new social situations I'd experienced in Mississippi. Most were students, most were young. There were lots of strong women though the show was definitely run by men. There were the outspoken and the soft-speaking, political science junkies, artists, brainiacs and maniacs, those who looked wide-eyed, and a lot of heavy attitude, though less from those who'd spent time in the field.
I had not met blacks from the North before except in passing. Some from inner cities like Harlem talked so fast and came on so aggressively, that conversations were to me like standing in a strong wind. Years later when I first heard rap music I had a notion where it came from. Anything I said about race or any experience from Texas growing up would be ridiculed as naive and racist - full of typical white assumptions, ignorance, and prejudices. I'd hear what it was like growing up black not just in the racist South, but in the racist North. I was told about the stupid nervous things white people had said to them like how much they liked Sidney Portiere, Harry Bellefonte, and Nat King Cole. I heard things like, "I never met a white man who made sense." But after being verbally mugged for a while I might be laughed at and hear - you're okay, don't worry. I told them they were playing with me as bad as those cops did in Jackson.
Some of the black volunteers expressed limits to their willingness to be non violent. I'd hear things like, "Somebody hit me, I hit them back." One black student in the dorm showed me a gun he was bringing with him, said he wasn't going to let any white racist beat him up.
Stanly would pass on to me his cultural insights. He told me that there was a sort of racial discrimination within the black movement, that the darker one was, the higher their status. He said that the reason he and I got along so well was that a black women had helped to raise me, that the reason the founding fathers were so great was they were raised by black nannies. I didn't have to worry about what I said to Stanley. I told him about some embarrassing moments I'd had as a result of an old habit of using the word "boy" as an exclamation. Boy was second only to "nigger" as an offensive word to call a black man. He suggested I try to replace boy with "man" which is also used as an interjection and if that didn't work, use "girl" which at least won't lead to racist implications. I liked "girl" and we agreed to try it out in a loud conversation in a nearby restaurant but didn't get the opportunity.
I don't think we used the word black back then. I think it was before the common usage of African American too. I guess we used negro. I can't remember but I know it was way before I heard the black use of the word "nigger" to refer to themselves.
I had a guitar with me and knew a number of movement songs and folks songs, Woody Guthrie songs, some early Dylan, some popular songs and show tunes. At night Stanly and I would get some wine and people would join us singing and talking. Sometimes in the day too. One day we got a group singing Summertime. How powerfully that came off. I remember playing We Shall Overcome on the guitar with all of us singing for the first bus that took off to go South.
I was a problem because I was keeping a lot of people up drinking and singing all night and didn't bother with most classes. I was causing controversy by mouthing off and doing stuff just to irritate some people who struck me as being a little severe. One day Stanley and I were on our way out to dinner and got involved in a conversation with James Foreman. Foreman was one of the leaders. He was friendly, solid, easy to talk with. He'd joined us at night as well. While the two of them talked, I climbed on the roof of one of the Western Women's College buildings. Foreman and Stanley laughed at me but some others were concerned I wasn't taking things seriously enough.
Ed spoke to me after my official interview and said I'd scored a rock bottom. I said the two women interviewers had such grave demeanor and were so intimidating that I couldn't resist playing with them. He asked if I'd really asked them if they were Jewish and said some of my best friends are Jewish. I was teasing them I said. I also asked them if they were from New York which I think they were. Anyway, I said. I know it's not right to say it but why not? I've been telling people here that some of my best friends are from Louisiana and some of my best friends are tennis players and nobody thinks anything of it. Some of my best friends are Jewish and here in Ohio some of my best friends are negroes. Why can't I say that? Ed shook his head in exasperation.
I told him I'd told them about a dream I'd had. It was a real dream I really had the night before the first day of school for the sixth grade which was the last year of elementary school. This was 1956 and I was eleven years old. In the dream I walked to school as usual and it was being integrated (which it wouldn't actually be for another decade). There was a long line of kids on the sidewalk outside the school waiting to get in. The whitest, richest kids were at the front of the line and as I walked down it their skin color got darker and they got poorer. My skin was pretty dark for a white kid but I passed my shade and ran into my good friend Johnny McConnell who's mother was Mexican and then into some darker Mexicans (hadn't heard the word Hispanic yet) and then light brown mulattos and high yellows to darker and darker and poorer and poorer blacks. And the kids were not only getting darker but their clothes were getting shabbier and they were getting dirtier. The last kid at the back of the line was dark, dirty, and had scabs all over his skin. I got in at the back of the line behind him. I could tell the women interviewing me were horrified. I told Ed I thought it was a wonderful dream. It showed I was at that early age rejecting the projections and choices of my ruling white class. An omen. He put his hand to his forehead.
The board discussed me and, as I understand it, was somewhat split about whether to let me go back to Mississippi or not. Ed wanted me. He said Foreman and Moses wanted me to go but Moses' wife was very much opposed. The nays won.
One of the Austin volunteers, a great guy with the White Folks Project named Charlie Smith got on a pay phone and in a couple of minutes I'd been accepted to work for the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) office in Ann Arbor. They'd put me up and feed me too.
I stood on the highway hitchhiking out of Oxford - relieved as hell. I did not want to go back to Mississippi. I had been afraid to go back. Surely that was in the back of my mind when I acted in such a way that they'd be sure to kick me out.
There had been rumblings about James Cheney, Mickey Schwerner, and their new recruit Andrew Goodman. They had not returned from a field trip. People were worried.
next - part X - SDS
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