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                  XI - News York and Orleans


 

Freedom Songs -
my Journey through 1964

part XII - Afterwords


Called Jackson sometime in the last year - it's September of 2015 - to say hi and go over some of the details about what had gone down in prior parts of this saga. Chronology. He went into the Army Reserve in August of '64. Got in that unit just a few hours from his home through connections of his father. I thought he'd gotten out by saying he wouldn't touch guns but he said that wasn't him. He got out by walking around with bed springs pinned to him by clothes pins and saying he was dreaming of blowing up the base. Honorable discharge. So that flood in my neighborhood and the Goldwater event we invaded had to be in the spring, not the fall as I'd placed them in the story. And it was after those experiences we left to drop him off in Houston.

One thing that did happen in that fall that we dredged up from the memory banks was that I'd received a letter from him stating what a grand time he was having in the army. He said he was learning a lot from "Sarge," who was a "good guy" and that he was seeing the war in Vietnam and the whole thing about Crazy Horse and the Indians in a different light and that he had become proud to be on the side of righteousness - and so forth and on and on. I've got that letter somewhere in my personal archives but that's the gist. I was shocked, a little depressed. The next day I got another letter from him which opened, "Dear David, I couldn't sleep last night thinking there was a ghost of a chance that you'd believe a single word in the letter I just sent you." And then  that letter went on to say he'd written it in retaliation to me claiming I'd been robbed at knifepoint when we parted for me to hitch alone outside of Houston. He thought I was making that up to get to him about me not being able to stay even one night at his home.

Something he'd never mentioned before. The FBI did find him at the army base and interview him about the unsigned campaign literature we'd handed out at the Goldwater rally. The expense they went to about those few innocuous leaflets we'd printed up ourselves. I'd love to see my FBI file.

In 1993 I was living in Santa Fe with wife Elin and our two year old son, Clay. We were there for a transitional year between four in Japan and a return to the Bay Area. One night we had dinner with a couple I knew through the Zen world. He'd been an early practitioner at the San Francisco Zen Center. Elin and I had spent a couple of days with them in their lovely old home in Laurel Mississippi back in '88 on the way to Atlanta from staying with Julie and family in New Orleans. Oh yes - I locked the keys in the car on the ferry crossing the Mississippi on that trip. We had to ride back and forth till the last run when a AAA truck could come in and open the door and then we were on the wrong side and had to drive to a bridge to get to Julie's late late.

At that dinner in Santa Fe we talked about old times though we hadn't known each other back then. He'd moved on from the SF Zen Center before I arrived. He'd almost become a professional golfer, spent time at the Ramana Ashram in India with his prior Miss Mississippi wife, and they had worked with the deaf and blind. I brought up my time in Mississippi twenty-nine years earlier. We talked about how much the South had changed in terms of race relations, far more it seemed than any other part of the country. I mentioned that I'd known two of the civil rights workers who'd been killed and had tried to be their third. James Chaney was from over in their part of Mississippi as I recalled. Yes. He was from Laurel. They knew the family. Ben Chaney, James' father, was a contractor who'd done work for them.

Elin and I were getting ready to leave Santa Fe. She was going to drive our possessions in a truck to the Bay Area and fly to Atlanta and I was going to drive toddler Clay and visiting son Kelly, nineteen at that time, to Fort Worth and on to Atlanta for her family reunion. Laurel was not too much out of the way. My friends said they'd arrange a meeting for me with the Chaney's.

Kelly helped get the Santa Fe house all clean and empty, truck and car loaded. We'd also hired Norma, a friend from the Tibetan stupa who did house cleaning. Wanted it to be perfect when the landlords got there. They were a nice older Hispanic couple. Walked in, said hi. He put his hand on the top of the kitchen ceiling fan still covered in dust. She opened the oven revealing in a side cabinet that we'd left some pots in. Ouch.

Before hitting the highway, Kelly and I went to a powwow in Taos with drums and dancing and hanging out with old Zen friend Bob Watkins and Dwayne Hopper. Visited Cloud Cliff Bakery's Willam Malten in Tesuque who gave us a bag of magic mushrooms. Dropped by the Shrei's where one-man-show son Josh and others in their early twenties were doing crazy things to their heads - dying purple, Mohawks. Kelly and I left with shaved heads. Picked up two and a half year old Clay at writer Melissa and composter Ron's and headed out for Fort Worth at ten pm. I'd gotten plenty of sleep the night before and a brief nap to assure I could stay awake for the ten hour drive. Always found driving all night a neat meditative experience.

Willam, a fan of Terrance McKenna, had given us the mushrooms telling us to split the whole bag and that the extraterrestrial spirit of the mushrooms would fill us with its love and guide us. I didn't do psychedelics since shortly after coming to Zen Center so I'd let sleeping Kelly have it all, but took a tiny pinch just to munch on and be reminded of the unique uninviting taste of the ancient gateway fungi. An hour later I was glad I'd only taken a pinch. I was OK to drive but expanded and chanted softly "All is love," and indeed the spirit of the mushroom did guide me.

In Fort Worth, Mother immediately asked why on earth we'd shaved our heads. For fun, for the ultimate style, and cause we knew it would grow back I said. She pointed out that in a few days, after handing Clay over to Elin between her flights at DFW Airport, we were going to be driving through the South and said people would think we were skinheads. She was right on at least one occasion. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, two drunken skinheads were aggressively hurling vile racist torrents at anyone not white. People were giving them their own space. One of them spotted Kelly and me and called out "Join us brothers!"    

Laurel Mississippi, "the city beautiful," population around 18,000. Staying with my friends, he the grandson of one of the founders, timber business. The maid, same friendly woman as five years before, had called Mrs. Chaney to let them know we were there. Kelly and I drove up to the Chaney home at ten in the morning. As I recall, it was a nice painted wood home with a good size yard on a corner. A man opened the door, warmly introduced himself as Ben Chaney, and invited us in. He introduced us to his wife, Fannie Lee. There were maybe ten people in chairs. Ben had gathered some prominent local blacks. Mrs. Chaney stood by the kitchen door with a friend. There were introductions. I briefly expressed how honored I was to have known Ben, that I appreciated his friendliness toward me, what good work he was doing, and how sad I was about what happened. I made clear that I was only there in Mississippi in 1964 for a month or so and that I was probably more in the way than helpful, and was kicked out for what I called general weirdness at the end of the training camp.

That meeting in Laurel was twenty-two years ago. A few impressions and memories remain of what people said. Again, how much things had changed, how important the civil rights movement was. If we'd have met like this back then, Ben's house would likely have been burned down. Racism is not the biggest problem now - drugs and poverty are. Ben said he appreciated the comfortable feeling of the meeting which went on for just under an hour. He said that so many people, especially from the press, want him to hate and he's not interested in hating. "All I know," he said, "Is that a human being killed my son."

 

In 1965 my sojourn turned more existential. I read more poetry, religion, psychology, philosophy. I tried to be interested but none of it captured me. But pot did and psychedelics - in Mexico, a new life free of the old obsessions. And then reading that made sense to me - Buddha's Law Among the Birds, The Teaching of Huang Po, The Book of Tao. Followed the tug so many of us felt - the calling that I'd felt since high school - knowing there was more but not what. Now it pulled to San Francisco. Met a bearded brother from the movement - the only other person with a guitar. Now he was sitting on a stool on Haight Street. So many kindred spirits there. I'm reminded of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where people were drawn inexplicably to the Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Some of us wandered into the Zen Center on Bush Street and some continued to go there to meditate and we started the first full fledged Buddhist monastery in the West.

Have run into a few other people from back then. My weird-as-me college roommate Bob who was supposed to die before he was twenty-one showed up at a 1994 booksigning in Dallas with his father, minister at the Presbyterian Church near SMU (gave me a book he'd written). Legally blind Bob was a dispatcher for AAA. I drove him to work that night and we got lost for a while in rather dangerous looking neighborhood. We're Facebook friends. Stanley from Chicago and I had some correspondence for a few years. He had a heart attack in the late sixties. Jody, the linguist in Mississippi emailed me about meditating with a Zen colleague of mine in Oklahoma City and he asked if I still do duck talk. I'd asked him back then to write down duck talk linguistic symbols the way he did with various types of regular speech. Candice Cousins from the SDS house in Chicago was at the SF Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm some. She didn't remember me but I did her and her famous father Norman whom I also met while working with the Nuclear Freeze movement. Class action social advocate lawyer Robert Gnaizda got me together with Tom Hayden one evening. Hayden was running for senator. He said he'd like to come to the Zen Center to talk. I told him not to bother, that everyone there would vote for him anyway and that it wasn't a political place and no money or volunteers would likely come of it. Later Bob said he thought Hayden was rude to me but I hadn't noticed. I'd hear about Rennie Davis who became a follower of the guru Muktananda then founded something which seems like a type of human potential spirituality especially geared toward business people. Two sisters from Texas I know through the Zen Center are nieces of Gen. Edwin A. Walker.

I stumbled on a piece about Ed Hamlett who'd headed the White Folks Project and been so kind to me in Jackson and Ohio. After ten years in civil rights work, he became a psychiatric nurse - in Alabama as I recall - and I think I read that he passed on.

John Howard Griffin and his family moved to Mexico for a while due to harassment in Mansfield, Texas. Years later I was surprised to discover he had become Thomas Merton's biographer and I saw a photo of him with Tibetan Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa at Naropa University where he lectured. In 1980 I visited him at one of his kid's homes very close to my mother's in Fort Worth. He was not well and looked much older than sixty. He died of diabetes soon after that.

A few years ago picked up a graphic history of SDS somewhere in the States when I was traveling. I'm a slow reader so it was perfect for me. And it got into JOIN in Chicago. SDS was a better fit for me than SNCC, looser, more tolerant, less at war, certainly less scary. Still I was not much help and often in the way, not focused on their goals the way a young field worker should be, too involved in my own evolving dream world. But like SNCC it was an important communal experience full of lessons about how to work with and be with others. I'd give myself a failing grade in SNCC and SDS but I'd give them gold stars for many people's tolerance and patience and for educating me as much as they could so that eventually I wouldn't be totally useless.

In 1985 ( I guess) Doug McAdam came to Green Gulch to talk to me about my experience with the Civil Rights Movement. In 1988 he published a book, Freedom Summer (Oxford University Press). I was surprised because I was just someone who briefly passed through and there were so many who'd dedicated years and decades. But I was glad he came. It brought back memories. I'd learned so much there I told him. I'd experienced irritating political correctness and compassionate commitment - especially in the person of Robert Moses. One of the truly inspiring people I've met in my life.

Robert Parris Moses, the architect of Freedom Summer, is to me a saintly figure, dedicated to uplifting others who need it most and not concerned with fame or power. Later in 1964 he had resigned from COFO and, like Martin Luther King, turned his attention toward opposition to the war in Vietnam, linking it to civil rights. In the eighties, a few years after receiving a degree in the philosophy of math from Harvard, with a grant from the McArthur Fellowship, he created the Algebra Project to bring more effective education to minorities. 

In September of 2012 in Oakland, California, I attended a meeting of veterans of the civil rights movement. A Zen colleague of mine was there as was Robert Moses. People called him Bob. People were talking about old times, a fiftieth anniversary of the movement, encouraging more oral history. Harlem born Moses did refer a few times to frightening experiences in the early sixties in the South before white people got really involved in their struggle - how few and courageous they were. But he focused on the present and what should be done now. The right to vote, especially for African Americans was still being thwarted. The disparity of wealth between the rich and poor had grown greater. Gains by an expanded black middle class were shrinking, their kids could not count on the same. He wanted to see a good education recognized as a basic human right. He emphasized the hard work required to gain media and public support and that the effort must come principally from those who are disenfranchised. He spoke softly and with an economy of words.

I knew Moses had gone to Africa and stopped working with whites for a period but I think it may have been more of a tactical than an emotional choice. As in the sixties, in speaking to us all and in person afterwards, there were no angry vibes, no sense of exclusion or discrimination. So happy to be with him again, a truly humble visionary working patiently, tirelessly combining works and faith - obviously - just look at the mountain of obstacles he is moving. I read he's been recently teaching algebra in Jackson, Mississippi.

 

I was in Fort Worth hanging out with my mother a lot in 2012 and 13. She'd have been 100 in August of 2014 but died after a brief decline in March a year earlier. I liked being there and she was easy to be with. Quite independent. After she died, my sister, niece, and mate Katrinka and I went through everything, all well organized. I came across this 1960 clipping from my Junior High School newsletter with an article about my still bud Jim and me winning the doubles title for the school. It really surprised me to read the line, "He is a definite believer in integration." I didn't remember I'd even thought about that so far back and I was pleased to see they'd even include it in the publication. We had a new principal that year. I bet the prior old guy would have wanted that cut out.

I often wonder, How did I come to think the way I did and go where I went? And why were none of my closest friends racists? Racism is hard to discern and easy to accuse anyone of. It's more useful to ask why was I in favor of integration and civil rights, why were my close friends all open to it? None of us had parents that preached integration and probably they all assumed the status quo was right. But no adults I respected spoke ill of people because of their race or pretty much because of anything short of violence - no relatives. There were plenty of people who were down on blacks - just not in my circles and not vehemently like further east into the South. I remember that Kathy Weeds' older brother didn't want her buying records with black artists. Lord - I'd been in love with a bunch of black musicians since I was ten. Hail hail rhythm and blues. Come to think of it, I knew a pretty famous black musician back then. Gosh - that just came to me. I don't know if I've thought about this once since that time, but Ray Sharp's manager was the mother of a girl friend of mine. She was a single mother (not so usual then) and they lived above the zoo, a short walk from my home. Sometimes Ray Sharp would be there. I thought they were lovers. He knew some of my idols and his music was great too. I remember his band playing in the front hall of my high school one morning - a surprise treat for the students.

Who knows why we developed the way we did. It just seemed to seep in - from media and people's experiences and our parents and teachers lack of drumming anti integrationist thoughts into our heads. My father would say, "If you can't say something good about someone, don't say anything." He died in 56. Mother started voting democratic in the sixties and voted for Jesse Jackson in a presidential primary.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 2013, attended a parade and rally in downtown Fort Worth. City offices closed. All sorts of people in the parade and watching. I kept wiping my eyes.

I have great respect for those who preach and believe in universal, sisterly, brotherly love. I'm all for it. There was a lot of talk about love back then - love thy neighbor obviously includes all people, all life. But to me this love is of a higher order than what we normally think of as love. It's the mysterious, indivisible, meta-substance we're made of. Being in accord with it is demonstrated not by emotions and hugs or even liking others, but by respect for the humanity and liberty of others, by supporting the rights of all to have equal access to seats on the bus and the lunch counter, to parks, to the voting booth, to education, to jobs, to housing, to medical care. If we're forcefully separated we inevitably get more tribal and assign negative attributes to others. I don't believe in criticizing people in the past or even those in the present too severely for what we might consider harmful views. We're molded by our surroundings. Almost everyone goes along with the norm everywhere and everywhen - and usually think it's right. It's hard to force things. So much has been done. There is so much to be done. Endless. We do what we can. Blessings on us all.



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