Summary of Brief Experience with the Civil Rights Movement
This is what I posted on
I never heard back from my application to COFO so I just went to Mississippi
by bus from Fort Worth Texas and arrived unannounced in Jackson in May of '64
with a trunk load of books for the Freedom Schools. A Presbyterian minister had
given me the name of a minister to look up there so when I arrived I left the
trunk at the station and stupidly walked to the nearest Presbyterian church and
announced I was there to help register black voters. Their reaction led me to
run into a black neighborhood where people took me to a minister who drove me to
the COFO office.
Staff there didn't know what to do with me since I hadn't been accepted through
the proper channels. Since I was from Texas, the man in charge of a planned
special program for white Southerners took an interest in me. I think his name
was Ed Hamlett. I was pretty crazy and he was understanding and patient with me.
I remember the office was on Lynch Street and there was a blackboard or
something on the wall with the names of people arrested and what they were
charged with — from minor stuff like speeding to burglary and rape. I remember
sleeping in a dorm at some nearby college, probably Toogaloo. I also slept in a
neighboring graveyard when I was afraid to walk there alone at night. I felt
I had an introduction to an Episcopalean minister in Meridian from one in
Houston and he got me together with Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney. I
respected what they were doing a great deal and asked to work with them, but
they said they would choose someone who'd been accepted into the program by
COFO. Probably they had other good reasons as well like the sort of impression I
made. I was intense and eccentric. I saw both of them several times after that
in Jackson and Ohio.
Ed noticed that I hung out not only with my co-workers but also had no trouble
talking with local people. He sent me to Natchez in the Southwest, to scout
things out on the sly. I was told it was the heartland of the KKK and too
hostile to set up an office. I hitched down with a guitar and bible, dressed in
khaki pants and shirt like a lot of the local young guys, spent a frightening
week there. Got to meet some businessmen, the mayor and his wife, the police,
and a lot of young people. I was supposed to call in to a pay phone near the
office three times a day but I just did so the first time. It made me too
nervous to do so. Said I was hitching to Florida and collecting folk songs.
Walked down to the banks of the Mississippi river and spent time with poor black
people who lived there. After a week I figured I'd learned all there was to
know. Also I was getting paranoid, having frightening drreams of being lynched.
When I returned to Jackson, I refused to write a detailed report — just said
that everyone I met said right off, "Have you heard they're invading us this
summer?" and then followed that by saying that they didn't like the Klan but
that they'd be on their front porch waiting with their shotgun for any uninvited
The large picture window in front of the COFO office on Lynch Street had been
broken and I volunteered to stay there to guard the place. The only staff person
from the Southwest, a local black guy named Cookie as I remember it, drove up
that night. We talked about the ridiculously unsympathetic situation in his area
and then he loaned me his car so I could go get something to eat.
Unfortunately I got arrested and charged with drunk driving and his car was
towed — I hadn't even started driving it yet — and I hadn't been drinking. The
results of my sobriety test at the station were that I was too drunk to take the
test. The cops were playing around with me like a cat with a mouse. I hung out
and talked to them for awhile and tried to get as personal as I could. When one
of them put me in the drunk tank he told me not to let the others in there know
why I was there. As I understand it this was rare. I was there three days and
didn't say anything to anyone. I think I was the only civil rights worker I met
who wasn't beaten up back then. As a result Ed said that I, who'd been a spy for
them, was now thought by some to be a spy for the bad guys.
I went to the training program in Oxford Ohio at Western Women's college and
stayed for two weeks, both sessions. I remember being with a drama group and
submitting the beginnings of a corny morality play about race. There was a
reporter who played bad Mississippi sheriff as we took turns being arrested
civil rights workers. I remember playing We Shall Overcome on the guitar with
everyone 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 like classes. I was causing controversy by mouthing off
stuff just to irritate some people who struck me as being a little over serious
and righteous. My bad. I was young and thoughtless and I guess ADD. The board
discussed me and, as I understand it, was somewhat split about whether to let me
go back to Mississippi or not. The nays won - as they should have in my opinion
today. A great now deceased fellow named Charlie Smith got on the phone and got
me accepted to SDS in Ann Arbor.
I remember rumblings about James and Mickey and Andrew Goodman being missing
like a day after they'd left. When I learned about the deaths of our three
co-workers and was very sad. I didn't talk about that for over a decade.
My best friend in Ohio was a black photographer from Chicago named Stanley. He
was older. He and I would go to restaurants and he'd loudly call me boy and boss
me around. We were ready to go on stage. I visited him later that summer when I
was with SDS in Chicago.
I salute all who went to Mississippi that year and applied themselves surely
more maturely and effectively than I did. I still remember many of the
wonderful people I met that summer. Robert Moses was truly an inspirational
extensive elaboration of this story.
Freedom Songs Index