Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes
1. Meridian at Midnight
The train approached Meridian, Mississippi, at midnight. The train was half empty and quiet, but my mind raced, heavy and conflicted, contemplating the events to come. Who are they, these racists pulling you from trains and cars and homes in the night to shoot you and bury you in concrete? I was 18 and on my way to volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the second Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1965. Was I scared? Yes, certainly; but also excited at the prospect of adventure, of acting on principle and the belief that my actions might make a difference.
My trip had lasted twenty-one hours. Departing Union Station in Washington D.C., I traveled south through Virginia into North Carolina, across the northeastern tip of South Carolina, through Georgia, bisected Alabama, and entered Mississippi from the east at Meridian. I had never been to the Deep South before, but the names, especially in Mississippi, had become familiar like flames on a map – Natchez, McComb, Decatur, The Delta.
As the train slowed, the town emerged from the night, shadowy and ominous. A year earlier James Chaney, a young black man from Meridian, was murdered with two young men from New York. The Ku Klux Klan targeted and killed them on June 21, 1964, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, one day after they had arrived with their idealism and one-week training in voter registration.
No one else was on the platform as we rolled to a stop and my early morning train for Jackson, the capitol, did not leave for five hours. Outside the waiting room, the water fountains said "White" and "Colored." I was subdued by the presence of these signs and oppressed by the silence. Alone and hesitant, I clutched my grandfather's old carpetbag, carelessly selected for packing before leaving home. Regretting the obtuseness of this choice, I sidled into the waiting room, struggling to be inconspicuous.
Musty from too much humidity and sweaty from too many people, the room was quiet because everyone was asleep or trying to sleep. I was surprised at the number of passengers waiting at that hour. Advancing carefully in the dim light, I worried about tripping over someone's legs and the attention that would generate. I slipped with relief into the first empty spot I saw.
As I began to relax, the room trembled awake. Tension rippled through the stillness. Had some secret hand signal identified me as a civil rights worker? I wore a faded madras shirt with the top button undone and blue jeans; my hair was short and I hadn't talked to anyone. I thought I looked like all the other teenagers I'd seen on the platforms of the small southern towns we'd passed. Would my trip end here, suddenly and badly? Unsure of what I had done, I didn't know what I could do to make things right again.
An old black man near me on the bench murmured to me. I could not understand him; his words were too soft, too strange and too southern for me. Then he whispered again. I heard his gentle warning: "White folks, you can't be sittin' heah; this be the color section."
I looked at him with desperate gratitude, suddenly realizing that everyone, white and black, who I thought had been sleeping, were actually studying me intently through half-shuttered eyes. Carefully, I rose and shuffled over to the section where white people were and slid into a bench. I hadn't seen any signs, designating who could be where, earlier when I sat down, but with my eyes accustomed to the dark, I realized that all the whites were sitting where I now was, and all the blacks were in the area I had left. Perhaps I only imagined a collective sigh as the world slowly returned to normal.
No one made a sound after that. And I waited, without sleeping, for the train to Jackson.
2. Rolling into Jackson
In the morning, the train arrived in Jackson after three hours of rolling through fields choked with kudzu occupying the landscape like an alien force. Jackson held its sad place in the pantheon of the civil rights movement. Medgar Evers, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP, had been murdered there a year earlier. Sleepless from my night in Meridian, I was still running on adrenalin.
My plan of action broke down in Jackson. I'd called SNCC from California, but it was not easy to contact an activist organization under attack, even for response to simple questions. Hey, I want to join the fight. So where do I show up? Beyond vague encouragement to come, I never did get specifics. Although I had an address I hoped was right, I wasn't sure how to find the SNCC office. I knew the office must be in the Negro section of town and, if I made it there, I could ask someone for directions.
Jackson, the state capital, was a city of only about 100,000 in 1965. It didn't take long to figure out which side of town was on the wrong side of the tracks. Walking until I saw only black faces, I asked: "Excuse me, can you tell me where the SNCC office is located?" and then I gave them the only address I had.
Everyone was polite, except they had difficulty understanding me. "Suh, go straight head bout three blocks an' turn right at the store. From there, ain't but a lil way fore you be there." When I reached the office after several mistaken turns, I was immediately swept into a vortex of activity.
SNCC was preparing to lead the second major march of that summer to challenge the city's refusal to allow demonstrations at the state capitol. The first march had been brutally suppressed. The number of jailed protestors overwhelmed the available space in the county jail and a makeshift prison was cobbled together in the concrete pavilions of the Jackson State Fairground. A gauntlet of state police acted as welcoming committee. Forced to run between two lines of troopers, the civil rights workers were kicked and beaten with clubs before being processed. A pregnant demonstrator was beaten to the ground and kicked in her stomach. She later miscarried. Her companion, who tried to stop the beating, had his teeth knocked out. At mealtime, officers forced demonstrators to plunge their bare hands into the boiling soup.
Serious young veterans of earlier SNCC actions recounted these stories to steel us for the next day. They warned what to expect and how to act. James Foreman, the executive director of SNCC, impressed me a great deal; he emphasized we were to practice passive resistance when arrested. "The concept is to withhold any assistance to the cops, either physical or moral, as they arrest you, but not to resist actively." I gathered this meant going limp when arrested and forcing the police to carry you to jail or the paddy wagon. I was awed because Foreman, in his late thirties and the oldest of the organizers, had the air of an old hand who'd been through this many times. This was the afternoon of my first day in Jackson and I'd never participated in a demonstration before, much less been arrested.
"Move out," the young organizers ordered at 9 a.m. the next morning. Several hundred of us snaked from the SNCC office in the middle of the Negro neighborhood toward the state capitol. I didn't know what was going to happen, but decided to stay close to Foreman. We walked on the sidewalk two by two, with our protest signs, hopes, and individual measures of fear. We covered less than four blocks when we saw a wall of police with shields, riot gear, and billy clubs. I thought, shit, we haven't even made it out of the black community; this can't be happening yet.
"You have one minute to disperse," the officer announced over the bullhorn as the police charged. "Get down and remember – passive resistance," Foreman said. I realized I was in front, a downside of sticking close to the leader, but determined to be ready for whatever might come.
I lay next to Foreman, attempting to prepare mentally while tensing at the sound of the onrushing assault. After the police scooped up several protestors, they came for us. Foreman stood up. "I've been beaten and arrested enough to know the drill; I'll get into the truck myself." With great dignity, he walked to the police van and stepped in.
As I had no legitimate basis for adopting Foreman's world-weary tone, I remained huddled on the sidewalk with the others. I stayed limp, and a little smug, because I weighed 180 pounds, despite not yet having grown to my full height. I calculated I wouldn't be easy to pick up. Like the high school wrestler I'd been, I was hard and tough – all muscle, lean and with a 17-inch neck, undefeated in all the matches and tournaments of my senior year. This physicality combined with youth to produce an illusion of invincibility. I didn't think the police could hurt me too badly, a belief quickly tested by the rush of events.
"Here, you grab one end of this little piece of shit," one officer encouraged another as they grabbed me and carried me to the corner of the truck. Instead of throwing me inside, they threw me against the side of the door and I buckled in the middle. One kicked at me on the ground for emphasis until I struggled to a crouch and rolled inside.
By the time our truck pulled out, it resembled a cattle car. They hauled us off to the State Fairground in the hundreds where we stayed for eight days.
Despite aching from my earlier beating, I started jail time exhilarated. Dinah Washington's "Mad About The Boy" was still on the radio at this time. Her version was pure blues. In one haunting refrain, the Queen of the Blues sang about a woman, who should've known better, acting like a young schoolgirl in the "fury of her first affair" – fresh, searing and never to be duplicated.
3. Jail Time
Not until several days after being dumped at the Jackson State Fairgrounds were we told why we'd been arrested. Criminal syndicalism! It sounded sinister and at that time I didn't understand the charge or its history.
In the early 20th century, a number of states passed laws that made it a crime to advocate even peacefully for a change to the established order. These laws would be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1969 as unconstitutional, but for eight days they were the official reason hundreds of us were in jail. Our crime was walking on the sidewalk, and not very far, and supporting the right of blacks to vote in Mississippi. Although the charge of criminal syndicalism was a serious felony, the whole situation resembled Alice in Wonderland. "Off with their heads," the Queen of Hearts shrieked, and I could take it no more seriously than Alice.
The afternoon of the second day, a number of us got up a football game with a sock. Stokely Carmichael, one of the more militant leaders of SNCC, eventually picked me for his team because I looked like a jock. He may have thought I had a better chance of catching a football than some of the more long-haired white radicals. Looking clean-cut in the Movement was often suspect. As I joined his team, Stokely asked, "What's a preppy white boy like you doing down here in jail with us?" Without a good answer and not wanting to sound pretentious, I smiled weakly and tried to play the best football I could.
Black leaders like Stokely were beginning to identify connections within a system that disenfranchised them at home and then drafted blacks in great numbers to fight in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer and athlete of his generation, refused the draft. "No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger." The more radical leaders started to question the strategy of passive resistance.
Each night after football, unable to sleep on the cold concrete, we stayed up late in endless bull sessions questioning everything. Some quoted Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth to each other and I decided I should read it. We debated the right to self defense. "We're forming the Lowndes County Black Panther Party in Alabama," said Stokely; "we ain't turning the other cheek to the redneck no more." We talked confidently, largely oblivious to the implications of where self-defense might lead. Often I only listened because I was one of the youngest jailed in the Fairgrounds. What I heard transformed me. In the 1964 presidential elections, I'd campaigned ardently for Lyndon Johnson. Nine months later, many of the people I worked with and admired viewed President Johnson as a warmonger. "Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?" Almost without noticing, I was moving from pacifism to militancy.
"White folks should organize poor and working-class whites," the debate continued. "Blacks should organize themselves." I'd come to Mississippi to defend racial equality and fight for integration, but my beliefs were challenged by these increasingly ideological positions. "Racism is just a symptom; it's the system of capitalism itself that's the problem." I understood the frustration fueling this questioning but it eroded the complacency of my upbringing. Yet at the end of that summer, I returned to Stanford as a sophomore, still very much a part of this system.
After six days of being treated like livestock and participating in the most intense political science, economics, and sociological discussions of my life, we were transferred to the country jail. There they resegregated us. I was crammed into a twelve-man jail cell with thirty white guys. As there were too few beds, we slept in shifts, pressed body to body throughout the cell when awake. While we were there, a Negro trustee, serving off his $250 fine for drunkenness at a dollar a day, brought us meals and occasionally snuck in a box or two of candy.
On the afternoon of the eighth day, we were herded into a courtroom. I'd never met or talked to our lawyers and didn't even know who they were. I imagined them as courageous attorneys, mostly from the north, who'd volunteered for these mass civil rights cases. "Your Honor," someone droned. There was prolonged and unintelligible conversation between various white lawyers and a white judge. Then, our lawyer pled us guilty to Disorderly Conduct. Criminal syndicalism disappeared and was never mentioned. Our sentence was time served and a $25 fine. None of us had an opportunity to make a speech about why we'd marched. The mouths of the lawyers and judge moved but the sense was lost. The court was a stage for an elaborate play and I felt we were peering at the shadows of actors from behind the curtain.
4. Handsome Eddie Brooks
After my release from jail in Jackson, SNCC assigned me to work in West Point, a town of ten thousand in northeastern Mississippi. John Buffington, the leader of the local project, teamed me up with Eddie Brooks, a black volunteer from Chicago. Everyone called him Handsome Eddie, as if "handsome" were part of his first name.
We lived in a shack in Section, a rural community of black farmers outside of West Point where we taught Freedom Schools and mobilized adults to sign up for the fearful trip into town to register to vote. Organizing the summer schools in Pool and Tibbee, as well as Section, it never occurred to us that we had no training and no particular skill except our enthusiasm. The children never had a summer school before, nor for that matter any education not stamped second-hand and inferior. Suddenly we appeared in their lives from an exotic and almost unimaginable outside world – a black guy from Chicago and a funny-talking white boy.
The schools were rudimentary in substance, but their focus was freedom. We encouraged the kids to express themselves in any way they wanted. Collecting their stories, essays and poems, Eddie and I used an antiquated mimeograph machine to churn out hundreds of copies to distribute as newsletters in each of the different communities. This was the first time local black people had a vehicle to express their concerns and be heard as individuals. "Them white children have a better school than we have. They have a library, new books and better food that the color can't have. They have fire escapes and newer buses," eleven-year-old Candia wrote in Pool's Freedom Journal. In the Tibbee Interviewer, a fifth grader named Loretta described her experience. "We went to the freedom house and looked at books and played games. This is the first time a white woman ever spoke to me and came to my home." Somehow, from this mix of our ineptitude and the newness of everything for everyone, exuberant learning managed to flower.
Mothers also wrote for these community newsletters – about their struggles to register to vote and the discriminatory literacy test. Marylou said, "I went twice and I passed yesterday. Oh! I felt good. Just like the cat getting out of a sack." Equally excited, Willie Mae recounted, "I've been four times and finally passed their test the fifth time. Why has it taken all this time to get the right to vote? Because of discrimination."
One afternoon in July when the sun was already oblique, Handsome Eddie and I walked home in the wilting heat and humidity after an afternoon spent canvassing for voter registration. Both of us wore blue jeans and my shirt was stained with sweat wherever it touched me. Eddie was acting pretty perky given the temperature and I realized he must have used his patented form of organizing.
As we strolled along shooting the shit, I asked, "So, Eddie, while I busted my butt, how'd it go for you?" After a pause, I added, "And why were you late?"
Eddie gave a sly smile and answered indirectly. "Well, there's this sweet little gal in Hamilton – those five houses near the country store over by the railroad crossing." I knew the spot he was talking about. "Retha's high yeller with freckles and a fine set of knockers. Rubbed against me all day, asking about Chicago." He had captured my lustful young attention. "It would've been wrong to leave a young piece of sugah like Retha all by herself." I had to agree. "She got me going about the skyscrapers and gangs, especially my boys the Blackstone Rangers. I clean forgot the time, what with all the stroking going on." I did not feel forgiving. "One thing led to another and I couldn't get out of there in time to meet when we agreed." He wasn't apologizing, simply stating a reason for delay he considered outside his control. "She promised to come to the registration meeting and helped me distribute the leaflets a little."
Retha happily took Eddie's leaflets about the meeting to every shack within a several mile radius of her house. As far as I could determine, she did all Eddie's organizing for the day. Living there all her life, she knew the farmers and their children. Maybe she diluted the politics a bit, but fired up with her enthusiasm for Eddie, she more than compensated for any weakness in her understanding of the message.
With no network of girlfriends, I'd slogged through the dust for hours visiting all the lonely houses Eddie and I decided were my fair share. By the time we met to walk home, I had dirt in my ears and a nose so plugged that each time I hacked to clear my sinuses, great gobs of dusty mucous hit the ground.
Damn, he's done it again. Nobody's going to come to our meeting because some sincere white boy explains its importance in a dialect they can't understand. Retha would probably turn out her whole community, hoping to impress Eddie. I might have been jealous about Eddie's organizing success or his numerous girlfriends, but I wasn't. Eddie was my best friend that summer and my buddy for years afterward.
I'm not sure I would have called Eddie handsome myself. I saw a partner and friend, while the local teenage girls had a vastly different perspective. Swooning over this sassy, chocolate brown Negro from Chicago, they were further dazzled by the allure of his being a "freedom fighter." Eddie may have been cute. Despite being marred by a black tooth, his smile was dazzling. Maybe the girls saw what I saw – a fun-seeking and fast-talking teenager, who also believed in himself and the Movement. Without hesitation, he had given up the familiarity of Chicago to risk his life in the fight to achieve justice for his people.
Handsome Eddie and I trudged beside the dirt road on a stifling August afternoon. We weren't paying much attention to anything beyond the amusement of our own languid banter. It was four in the afternoon and we were returning home from a day hiking the dusty fields and roads of Section. We'd been at our usual work talking to local farmers about voter registration and teaching Freedom Summer School.
"Hey, Eddie, what's your new girlfriend's name?" I asked.
"Naomi," Eddie answered and grinned.
"Well, she must have a sister," I ventured.
Eddie threw me a sympathetic, but not wholly sincere, look. "Mike, you a white boy, and you bes' just be facin' it. No self-respectin' Negro girl is goin' to want to get down and do the dirty with some no-lip, narrow-nosed, straight-haired, sad-assed nobody like you." That pretty much summed up my chances, I thought, so I dropped the subject.
As I morosely contemplated my lack of love life, a black 1956 Ford pickup barreled toward us, kicking up a horizontal tornado of grit. I was startled into alertness, remembering suddenly that a black and white man walking along a back road in Mississippi together, under the wrong circumstances, could be dangerous. Eddie tensed, too.
The truck passed without slowing down, a rudeness so offensive to southern manners that it could not have been an oversight. I glimpsed a father clenching the wheel with fierce attention while his little boy, four or five years old at the most, sat near his dad in the front passenger seat. The kid stared at the two young men, frozen in place and hiding behind stony expressions as they tracked the truck's passage. I don't know if the boy recognized, or cared, that one of us was black and the other white; he certainly was innocent of what that meant and what we might have been doing.
His face suddenly dimpling, he waved energetically and his mouth rearranged into a friendly, enthusiastic smile. Eddie and I stumbled over each other in our eagerness to respond, relief disarming our apprehension. The boy continued to smile and wave until backhanded hard across the face by his father, who neither slowed nor lifted his gaze from its fixed glare at the road. Then, as the pickup pulled away, we disappeared in a lush cloud of dust.
6. Life in Section
Eddie and I rented a shack from an old farmer for $10 per month. Alone beside a dirt road surrounded by cotton fields, it had one tree in front, mottled where the dust half-coated the leaves. The wood siding was stained and darkened by the weather except for sections bleached a ghostly grey by the searing sun.
We had an old hot plate and derelict refrigerator, burping and gurgling as it slowly died. Neither Eddie nor I were much as cooks, but we bought the main food groups – meat, potatoes, and some vegetables. After cooking food for five, we'd eat it ourselves. On the rare evening without a night meeting, we'd demolish a six-pack or two. "Hey, Eddie, pass me a brewskie."
"You crazy enough; don't need no alcohol," Eddie teased. I'd learned not to challenge Eddie in any contest of wit after hearing him "play the dozens," an escalating competition of generally good-natured insults with some of the other black staff. Chicago street-life had obviously honed his skills. "Your mama so fat she ain't allowed on no second floor," and that was when he was being restrained. I felt uncomfortable showing disrespect to someone's mother, even though it was funny to listen to two guys "cracking" on each other's family in turns. Eddie would "snap," throwing down insult after insult, deeper each time, until his opponent turned away, silent and flushed.
One Sunday afternoon, a pickup drove by slowly as we stood talking in front of our house. A white man pointed something looking like a syringe at us. "This'll fix you permanent," he warned. We weren't exactly sure what he meant or how we were being menaced, but the threat was clear.
In McComb near the Gulf in southern Mississippi, the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses and shooting into the Freedom House on a regular basis at night. Coming from the streets of Chicago, Eddie never had been an enthusiastic pacifist, although he accepted passive resistance as an important tactic in the explosive violence that surrounded us. By this time, rocked by my experiences and the new ideas I was exposed to, I accepted self-defense as a practical necessity in some situations. Convinced of the need for protection, we cajoled a local farmer into lending us his twenty-two the next day.
I'd grown up around guns, duck hunting with my dad as a kid and shooting pellet guns and twenty-twos at small animals or targets in rural Wisconsin. Eddie claimed to have carried a gun when he ran with the Blackstone Rangers, Chicago's most famous youth gang during the 1960s. Our combined experience resulted in only a dubious expertise. On the first night of our new self-defense regime, we got into an argument about how to use the safety.
"Eddie, I know the safety's on." I pointed the twenty-two at the window to prove my point, pulled the trigger and, to my surprise, blew a hole in it. "Whoops, I guess I was wrong."
"You are one ignorant white boy." Eddie shook his head sadly.
In agreement now on how to use the safety properly, we decided we were more or less ready to defend ourselves. My thoughts returned to the revival we'd gone to the night before. I'd never been to an evangelical service before. Sitting next to a mother holding a baby on her lap, I noticed she was as tall as I was, sinewy arms hard from daily heavy work. Lulled by the soaring grace of the gospel singing and the call and response of the sermons, I was contemplating the differences with the sedate Episcopalian services I was used to. Suddenly, the mother began to experience the Lord and, to me, events seemed to veer out of control. Eddie didn't seem uncomfortable even when, lapsing further into rapture, she began to talk in "tongues." Worried about the baby as she surged back and forth, I was also uneasy about her flailing arms and unsure what to do. Three women intervened. One grabbed the baby, another removed her glasses, and the third seemed to encourage her to let go. I had been stunned, unnerved by the fervor of her private experience of God. I asked Eddie what he'd thought about the revival, but didn't know how to raise the confusion of my own feelings.
Our conversation, floating in the air between us in those lethargic moments before sleep, shifted to our lives, love, and the Movement. We were content that we knew almost everything necessary to know. He swore he was a professional wrestler, one of the good guys who always win, and that was how he got his nickname, "Handsome Eddie Brooks." I asked him about life as a member of the Blackstone Rangers. "We run the South Side." Eddie described how Rangers protected the young boys and men of his Woodlawn area. "Some of the brothers do shit but we ain't just a gang. We organizing the South Side like what I be doing here." I shifted quietly in my bed to listen better. "Black pride's the same in Chicago as Mississippi."
7. Crossing the Line
Coming into West Point with a few other young men and women, we demonstrated for the right of blacks to be employed at Kroger, the main grocery store of the downtown. Most blacks shopped there, but none had ever been employed. As part of a campaign lasting all summer, twenty of us picketed outside the store that day.
A white man, about thirty, leaving Kroger's growled, "Boy, git out of my way," at a black man over sixty who wasn't part of the demonstration, but happened to be leaving at the time. The racism no longer astounded me but, a polite boy, I was outraged by his lack of respect. I called all adults Mister or Missus because that's what I'd been taught.
"He isn't a boy; he's a man."
The white man glared. "Nigger Lover," he looked with menace straight at me.
A short time after this encounter, a white boy about my age came up as we circled in front of the entrance to the store, talking to me quietly from the side of his mouth. His name was Edward, but he went by Buddy. "Why ya'll agitating like this?" he asked. "Segregation's wrong," he conceded, "and eventually Negroes going to get the same rights as whites, but this kind of stuff makes things hotter for the colored."
I was ecstatic. A local white guy actually wanted to talk, rather than curse us or worse. I didn't want to force him to trail after me, causing him to appear part of our demonstration. And I desperately wanted him not to disappear. I stepped from our circling picket to stand next to him.
Buddy was a sophomore at Duke University home for the summer. He wanted to talk, intellectually interested in these strange events in his home town. Instinctively he probably felt that he could talk to me because I was a white college kid his age, clean-cut and middle class. I probably felt the same way in some sense; he was easier to talk with than the other whites I'd brushed up against that summer. Buddy and I talked about why we were calling on blacks to boycott Kroger.
"Negroes got a right to jobs, but this demonstrating makes it harder for whites to let go the old ways," Buddy said. "Laws are changing and people are ready to adjust, but this commotion gets people all fired up."
"Nothing has changed since Reconstruction," I said. "Laws aren't bringing change; it's people demanding their rights, being willing to fight and even die." I caught my breath. "Would the Civil Rights Law have passed Congress without marches and protests in Selma and all over the South?"
We argued back and forth for twenty minutes, listening to each other and being polite, but neither conceding much. As our picket was ending, I invited him to visit the SNCC office to continue our conversation there.
"I don't really want to go to that office," Buddy answered. "They're a bunch of radicals. I can talk to you, but they only want to get on television and make every white Southerner out to be an ignorant cracker."
"Maybe you're afraid of being seen on the black side of town," I ventured. Not until later did I understand how big a walk that one mile across town was for him.
He stood his ground. "I'm not afraid; I told you my reasons. I'll think about it." I wished I'd thought of some way to give him more of a middle ground.
To my amazement, a week later while I was working at the SNCC office John called. "There's some local white boy claims he's here to talk to you." I went to the next room and Buddy looked up and smiled, although a little uncomfortably. We both got a coke from the little store next door and sat on a bench outside in the muggy afternoon, talking for over an hour about the civil rights movement, but also about college and what we were doing with our lives. He was a nice boy, a bright young guy from a small southern town, starting to question how he he'd been brought up. For whites from the Deep South, his family was open-minded and he reflected their values. Nonetheless, he stuck to his theme. "You can't force change. Segregation doesn't make economic sense but you got to give people a chance to see this. And then they'll adopt gradually."
Generally liking each other, we agreed to meet again, despite disagreeing on most topics. We met two more times. In another time and place, we might have been friends or college roommates. One evening after his last visit, he called the SNCC office. "I can't come any more."
"Why," I asked.
"The police chief is a friend of dad's. Told him it didn't look good for me to pal around with a northern troublemaker. Someone's listening in on our phone." I heard him out silently. "We got an anonymous call about 'getting soft on the niggers.' A client told dad, 'The situation could get out of hand pretty easy and ruin his business.'" Buddy sounded miserable. "I hate this, but my folks live here, and I'm going back to Duke in three weeks."
I told Buddy I was sorry. "Fear keeps things stuck the way they are," I said. Buddy's situation taught me that in a way I had not understood before.
I never saw Buddy again.
8. Deep Shit
The campaign to force Kroger to hire blacks grew bigger and more intense all summer. On a Saturday in early August, we planned a big push. For weeks, we held meetings and visited community members to build support.
"Ya'll come! Bigger the demonstration, more local black faces they see, the more Kroger's going to realize they can't take your money and refuse to give you jobs." We repeated our message at meetings, doorsteps or sitting in the front room of a farmer's two-room shack.
The big day came with a pretty good turnout given the fear and intimidation. One hundred of us gathered in the town park across from the Kroger store. Our signs demanded: "Jobs for Customers!"; "Equal Rights = Equal Jobs!"; "Freedom Now!"
The entire city police force surrounded us to control this shocking challenge to social order. With courage in our numbers, spirits remained high. Finally, unable to stand our uppity protest, the police moved in.
The acceleration of motion and confusion distracted me. When I turned, Eddie was on the ground five feet from me in a fetal position, surrounded by four policemen kicking him while shouting, "You're resisting arrest."
I had to do something. Although I'd become radicalized over the brief period I'd been in Mississippi, I was still a middle-class white boy who believed in fair play at heart. I stepped toward the nearest cop stomping Eddie. "If he's resisting arrest, so am I."
The cop paused temporarily stunned, then punched me. Fortunately he missed my nose, which he definitely would have broken, but within a second, I was down on the ground getting pummeled myself. A bad news/good news situation. Eddie was getting kicked less, but I was getting kicked more. "Hey, what are friends for?" Eddie and I joked later.
Everything became a blur. My next memory is being processed into jail at the police station. I don't remember being fingerprinted or photographed, and certainly nobody bothered to read us our rights. The only process I actually remember is being led one by one out of the main office into the jail cell while a red-faced white man ripped off our "Freedom Now" buttons and cursed us.
Indignant, I remember half-turning from this officer as he started to rip my shirt, blocking him with my body. "I can do it myself," I announced while I took off my button and handed it to him. I vaguely recall his red face turn a deep shade of purple.
There were thirty-four of us crammed into a cell built for six. I don't know what happened to the other protestors, perhaps they disappeared as the arrests started or the police, aware they lacked space, simply beat them until they ran.
"Where's that sunabitch?" Three cops came to the door of our cell. Peering in, they were clearly looking for someone before they gave up and left. John Buffington, the head of the West Point project, was standing near the front and I approached to ask what they were talking about. That was my third tactical error of the day. At that very moment, several cops came back and pointed at me. "There's the bastard killed Cowart."
Again motion and action became indistinct. After knocking me down, they dragged me from the cell into the office of the Chief of Police. Seven officers, I saw they were Mississippi Highway Patrolmen by their badges, pinned me in a corner punching me and kicking me for several minutes while I tried to protect vital body parts. One of them spat, "That's for Cowart," as he punched me in the face. I didn't understand why I'd been singled out. It was ominous, however, that coursing through their profanity was a common theme – someone had died.
I'm not sure why they stopped beating me. Maybe they just got tired, but abruptly they all left, except the Chief of Police. I slowly picked myself off the floor and asked the Chief, "Sir, do you think you can keep those officers from killing me."
He looked at me somewhat dolefully and drawled, "I don't know son; don't know."
At the time, I found nothing positive in his response. But I've thought about it since. Maybe he judged me unworthy of saving. Maybe he hoped they'd come back and kill me. Maybe, just maybe, he meant I was in deep shit and he couldn't promise me protection.
My situation felt bleak, very bleak, and then it became worse. The patrolmen reappeared and dragged me by my heels into another cell, dumping me by myself. I could hear John, Eddie and the others if they talked loudly, but we couldn't see each other. "John," I said, "they put me in a cell around the corner." They shouted encouragement. "Do you know what's happening; why they're pissed at me?"
"I'm not sure," John answered, "but they say some guy named Cowart died and it's your fault."
"How could that be?" I asked. "I didn't touch anyone and don't even know who they're talking about."
John said, "Stay cool."
And the cops yelled, "Shut up or we'll give the nigger-loving white boy another whupping."
We were able to talk a couple of times that evening before lights out, but not for long and with cops threatening us each time. Through John, I'd learned that Cowart, an off-duty Highway Patrolman, was the red-faced guy jerking protest buttons off as we were booked. Apparently, he slumped shortly after I passed, his hate hemorrhaging almost immediately into massive heart failure. The seven patrolmen, who'd beaten me, had converged on the jail when the news hit the police radio. Although not present, they swore they'd seen me push and hit Officer Cowart immediately before he fell.
Unable to sleep, I had a long time to think that night. From 10p.m. until first light, a number of disconnected thoughts raced in my mind. Maybe it was lucky they decided to pin the death on me. A white boy from Stanford had a better chance of surviving this charge than a black man. But I was alone in the cell and scared. They'd isolated me and I didn't understand what was happening.
In the first grey of morning, I saw the shapes of several men leaning casually against a wall thirty feet from my barred window. As they emerged from the shadows, I feared they were there for my lynching. I whispered to John, "There're some mean-looking white men out here; what's happening?"
John tried to comfort me. "I don't know, but we've got some lawyers coming. We'll do all we can to get you out of here."
But it had been a bad night and a frightening morning. I didn't really realize events were happening that would bring protection to me. The news media picked up that a Stanford student had been charged with the death of a police officer in West Point, Mississippi. "Milwaukee Civil Rights Worker Arrested." There was a front-page story in The New York Times and in scores of other media. The northern press was sympathetic; the southern media not so good. "Officer Dies after Scuffle with Civil Rights Worker" the Memphis Commercial Appeal informed its readers.
At least one of the frightening nighttime watchers outside my cell later turned out to be an FBI agent. The FBI, informed of my arrest, directed some agents to prevent the bad press the murder of another civil rights worker would cause.
A criminal defense lawyer from Milwaukee, my hometown, appeared in the late afternoon, declaring he was my lawyer. Apparently he did this on his own, eager for publicity, but it didn't make me feel better that he wasn't interested in hearing I was innocent. "I only want to know what I can prove," he told me.
That second night I slept a little. Newspaper men began to appear and my father, a lawyer and politician, arrived the next morning to help consolidate my defense. By the third day, the manslaughter charge was dropped mysteriously and again some legal process, occurring above and around me, resulted in my release that afternoon.
John Buffington was excited about the barrage of positive publicity. A week later, I was working late at the office in the room with the mimeograph and overheard a conversation among the SNCC cadre in the next room. "You see all that press when they arrested Mike," said one. There was general agreement from the eight or nine present that this had been a big deal. "We should have him stand in front at the next demonstration; that'll make the rednecks smoke." Playing with his idea, the speaker continued. "Whitie guaranteed to lose. Do nothing and we win. Beat up on the boy and we get hot press."
I didn't like this conversation, the way it treated me, but another part of me understood the desperation, the need to use any tool available. Despite this intellectual understanding, I was relieved to hear Leslie Boyd, a short young mother of about twenty-five, say, "Ya'll can't do that to that boy. What if he got hurt and you be usin' him like that. How you goin' to feel bout yourselves then?"
Everybody was silent. No one had a response. The idea of using me as a lightning rod was shelved. Nobody knew I'd eavesdropped and was still in the next room where I'd paused the copying to listen. Only in Mississippi eight weeks, I would leave in two more to return to school. But I was learning fast how complex life can be. This conversation stuck with me like the other lessons of that summer – something might sound good, but still be wrong. You always had to make a choice.
-Michael Royce (from Fringe Magazine)