Colored-only restaurants, hotels and water fountains.
Segregated schools, hospitals and labor unions.
This was the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s – separate and unequal.
The civil rights movement helped put an end to the bad old days.
Thousands of men and women – black and white – worked in the movement to bring change to a region that had been steeped in white supremacy for hundreds of years. All were threatened. Many were jailed. Some were killed.
On this site, 40 persons recall their roles in the movement that forced a region to face up to generations of prejudice and hatred.
My name is Garret Mathews. I’m retired from writing the metro column for the Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press. Before coming to the Midwest in 1987, I penned features and columns for the Bluefield, W. Va., Daily Telegraph in a career that began in 1972. Altogether, I wrote more than 6,500 columns on every subject from murderers and moonshiners to Appalachian snake handlers. A two-CD set of Appalachian oral histories taken from interviews I conducted in the ’70s can be accessed here. In 2009, I gathered 80-some columns that I penned for The Courier & Press. To read them online for free, go to PluggerPublishing and click on the Favorites link.
I wrote the following op ed piece a few months ago that appeared in newspapers in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Roanoke, Va., and Jackson, Miss. It explains my interest in the civil rights movement.
The students at the Indianapolis high school enter the room – some bopping, others beeping – and begin the process of de-electronic devicing themselves while taking their seats.
I’m at the head of the class to give a presentation on the civil rights movement. Earlier in the week, I successfully badgered the teacher into referring to me as a visiting scholar. Always wanted to be called that.
I tell the boys and girls that the southwest corner of Virginia where I grew up didn’t desegregate schools until the fall of 1965, my junior year. Before then, the 10 or so black kids from little Abingdon were bused 15 miles to the regional all-black school in Bristol.
There was no African-American professional class in Abingdon back then. No doctors. No lawyers. No insurance agents. Most of the black men were either garbagemen or janitors. If their wives and sisters had jobs, they were domestics.
The youngsters want to know why I am so interested in the civil rights movement.
I tell them about James, one of the transfers from the all-black school. We sat next to each other in French class. I liked the guy.
Somehow my shy self had been voted in the Key Club the year before. James wanted to join and hounded me to get an application.
We Key Clubbers met at the vice president’s house. Each member received a list of the pledge class. One of the football players printed ”nigger” next to James’ space and underlined it in Magic Marker.
Somebody said he had seen us walking down the hall together on the way to French class. There was total silence as every eye zeroed in on me. Red-faced and blubbering, I denied we were pals.
Next came the speeches. An applicant’s name was announced, and one or more club members spoke on his behalf. James’ turn came. Nobody stood up. I wanted to say James was a great guy, but didn’t have the guts.
Several members looked over my shoulder while I filled out my ballot. I knew that I would be called “nigger-lover” for the rest of my time in school if I wrote “Yes” beside James’ name. So I didn’t vote for my friend. Nobody else did either.
James called that night to find out if he had been accepted. I said, “Hey, pal, I did all I could, but you came up a few votes short. The pledge class was really strong this year. Sorry.”
Our friendship was never the same after that. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. Wherever James was, I tried to be somewhere else. We didn’t even sign each other’s yearbooks.
Many years later, I told him what I did. “Forget it,” he said.
So I tell the story about James to any high school audience that will have me.
So they’ll know.
A few years ago, I wrote a two-act play about the struggle for racial equality in the South. “Jubilee in the Rear View Mirror” is the story of a white redneck and a black civil rights worker who find themselves in the same rural Mississippi jail cell in 1964. To research the play, I interviewed dozens of movement veterans. The play opened in Evansville in 2012 (It has since been performed in Nashville, Tenn., and Oxford, Ohio). For our educational pre-show, we interviewed African-Americans in Evansville and Greenwood, Miss., who talk about living under segregation until the movement took root. You can view the two 30-minute DVDs here and here. So far they've had more than 4,600 hits.
Too many people – young and old, black and white – know precious little about the civil rights movement. I want to help change that.
Here are 40 stories from the time period as told by brave folks who were on the front lines.
I hope you learn from my interviews and will tell others about this site.
Garret Mathews, Carmel, Indiana
Before the civil rights movement, black children in department stores weren’t allowed to try on new shoes. Salesmen traced the edges of their old shoes on butcher paper and fetched an approximate fit from inventory.
Before the movement, Dallas County in Alabama – where Selma is the county seat – had only 300 black registered voters out of a pool of 15,000. African-Americans were discouraged from registering to vote and often outright rebuffed. Special literacy tests were administered to would-be black voters. A popular question was, “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?”
Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of activists – many of them students, lawyers and ministers – decided to do something about this injustice.
They helped desegregate restaurants, movie theaters and bowling alleys.
They helped blacks register to vote.
They helped put an end to the attitude that black people were second-class citizens.
Freedom Riders came South to protest continued segregation in interstate bus transportation.
Freedom Schools were established to teach blacks their rich heritage and prepare them for literacy tests.
Protesters marched and carried signs in support of the right of blacks to frequent the same business establishments as white Americans.
The volunteers – called nigger-lovers and communists by those whose way of life they sought to change – lived in constant fear that harm would come their way.
And for good reason.
The Ku Klux Klan killed some civil rights workers and pulled weapons on countless others.
Often, local lawmen were in the Klan’s pocket. Deputies would break taillights of cars used by civil rights workers and later arrest them for not having proper equipment.
Civil rights volunteers were told always to tell people where they were going so the FBI could be alerted if they came up missing. They were told they could be arrested for vagrancy for going on social outings with black people.
But the movement prevailed.
Enough white folks filled Southern jails that newspapers and television stations across the country took notice. Those images – coupled with the ones of black children being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Ala. -- turned stomachs and brought the fight for civil rights into American living rooms.
Names to know
Martin Luther King – Advanced the civil rights movement using nonviolence based on his Christian beliefs. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act passed. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington where he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Two years later, he helped organize the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Rev. Fred Shutttlesworth – Co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Spearheaded efforts to combat segregation in Birmingham, Ala.
Eugene (Bull) Connor – The police chief of Birmingham in the early 1960s. An ardent segregationalist, he ordered his officers to turn dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators, many of them children. Television coverage of these atrocities led to increased sympathy for the civil rights workers.
Bob Moses – Leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) on voter education and registration in Mississippi.
Fannie Lou Hamer – The daughter of cotton pickers, she helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 that challenged the state’s all-white delegation to the convention.
Stokely Carmichael – Arrested many times for his participation in voting-registration drives, he was the full-time field organizer for SNCC in Mississippi.
Andrew Young – One of King’s top lieutenants in the SCLC.
Ralph Abernathy – One of King’s closest friends, he took over leadership of the SCLC Poor People’s Campaign.
A civil rights timeline
In Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that separate schools for blacks and whites are inherently unequal.
A year-long boycott in Montgomery, Ala., leads to a Supreme Court ruling outlawing bus discrimination in the city. Highlighting the protest is the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white passenger.
Emmett Till, 14, is murdered in Mississippi. The mutilated body is returned to his native Chicago for burial. A photograph from the coffin is published in Jet Magazine and helps stir passions for the poor treatment of African-Americans in the South. Two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, are arrested and acquitted by an all-white jury. They later boast about committing the murder in a Look Magazine interview for which they were paid several thousand dollars.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is organized in Atlanta. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., an advocate of non-violence, is named its leader.
Black students desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. National Guardsmen are called out by Gov. Orval Faubus to keep the nine youngsters away. After being enrolled, the boys and girls are frequently spit on by white students.
Black entertainer Frankie Lymon dances with a white girl on an ABC-TV music program. A storm of protests from Southern audiences results in the show being canceled.
Prince Edward County in Virginia closes its public school system rather than comply with an integration order.
Black students stage a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., after being refused service. This heralds the beginning of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the sit-in movement spreads, it is common for angry whites to pour mustard and ketchup on the heads of black protestors in an effort to get them to vacate the counter.
The Supreme Court rules that segregation in interstate bus and rail travel is unconstitutional.
The Freedom Rides begin to protest segregation in interstate transportation. White bus riders attempt to use colored-only facilities at bus stations in the South. Black riders attempt to use white-only waiting rooms and bathrooms. More than 1,000 volunteers take part. Hundreds are arrested. In the most violent incident, a bus near Anniston, Ala., is firebombed.
Before going South, civil rights workers take classes in non-violent civil disobedience at places like the University of Ohio. Martin Luther King’s principles of turning the other cheek are emphasized. They learn to get in the fetal position to ward off body blows.
Thousands of federal troops are sent to the University of Mississippi to stem riots and allow the enrollment of James Meredith, a black man. There are clashes in the street. Dozens are injured.
The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) forms in Mississippi to help blacks register to vote.
SCLC-led picketing in Birmingham results in the jailing of an estimated 2,400 persons, including many children. Dogs and fire hoses called in by order of police chief Eugene (Bull) Connor are unleashed on demonstrators. Newsreel coverage of the violence serves to gain sympathy among some whites for the civil rights movement.
King writes his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Hundreds of civil rights workers are arrested as the movement grows. They are routinely put in crowded jail cells and not formally charged for more than a week.
Medgar Evers, field secretary of the NAACP, is shot to death in Jackson, Miss.
A march on Washington draws an estimated crowd of 200,000 to the Lincoln Memorial in a push for equal rights for African-Americans. King gives his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Four little black girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – are killed in a church bombing in Birmingham. They were attending Sunday School.
For Freedom Summer, COFO sends approximately 1,000 students, teachers and other volunteers into Mississippi to push for voter registration.
Three civil rights workers – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – are murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies are discovered buried in an earthen dam. The killings cause national headlines because two of the victims are white.
The Civil Rights Act is signed into law. It bans discrimination in the use of most public facilities.
On Bloody Sunday, demonstrators are beaten back from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Fifty men and woman are hospitalized after the police use whips, clubs and tear gas against them. The 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march ends at the state capitol building. The National Guard protects 25,000 marchers led by King.
The Voting Rights Act passes. Literacy tests and poll taxes are declared illegal.
Martin Luther King is assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
Hank Thomas was a 19-year-old college student when he joined the Freedom Riders in 1961.
“I had been involved with lunch counter sit-ins in Maryland and Virginia and been arrested a few times. Never had any mustard thrown on me, though. I’m a pretty big fellow and if you’re a young coward, you’ll pick on somebody other than me.
“The further South we went, the worse it got. In Winnsboro (S.C.), the police took me out of jail in the middle of the night and delivered me to this mob that had formed at the bus station. I thought I was going to be killed. Fortunately for me, a brave black man in town was watching the police and reported what he saw to the federal authorities.
“That was a close call, but it made me more determined to keep going. We always tried to put the Freedom Rides into proper context. Throughout history, people who are oppressed have taken risks to change their situation. Some lost their lives. That’s just how it goes. I never considered myself any braver than thousands who passed before me.
“Then the 13 of us in the bus moved on to Anniston (Ala.). We were told this would be rough. They weren’t lying. The streets were deserted. Everybody was at the bus station. All male, all white, all screaming. The bus driver pulled in and told the crowd, ‘Here they are, boys.’ I don’t blame him. He was caught in the middle.
“They beat on the bus some and slashed the tires. There were two FBI men on the bus. We found out later that they weren’t there to protect us, but to see if we had communist leanings.
“A new bus driver came on and we pulled out of town. We didn’t get very far when the tires went flat. Outside was another mob. Nice, well-dressed Christian white people who had brought their kids on a Sunday morning to witness lynchings.
“Some kind of incendiary device was thrown into the bus. If I got off the bus, I would be beaten to death. If I stayed, the fire would get me. I thought the easiest way to die would be to remain on the bus. It would be like breathing too much ether. You just close your eyes and go to sleep.
“The flames really excited the crowd. They hollered, ‘We’re gonna burn those niggers alive.’ The smoke got real bad and we were vomiting. I staggered off the bus and a man hit me in the head with a baseball bat. A state trooper was standing next to him and didn’t say a word.
“This little 12-year-old white girl brought water so we wouldn’t choke. We found out later that the entire town turned on the girl and her family. The KKK vandalized their property and the child was traumatized for years.
“We needed to go to the hospital, but it wasn’t that easy. At that time, a white-owned ambulance company couldn’t transport African-Americans. We had to wait by the side of the road, bleeding, for the black-owned ambulance.
“The mob followed us to the hospital. They hollered to send us out or they were going to burn the building down. The only thing that saved us was Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth coming up from Birmingham to get us out of there.
“It took a long time for the bitterness inside of me to go away. It was so wrong. I held what happened inside for years and years.
“I was a medic in Vietnam and this white Southerner got shot up pretty bad. Itreated him, and he threw his arms around me and thanked me for saving his life. I couldn’t help thinking, yeah, well, I did all that, but what would you have done if you saw me on a bus in Anniston, Alabama?”
Bernard Lafayette helped register black voters in Selma, Ala., during the early 1960s. Before that, he was a member of the Nashville Movement that worked to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters in that part of Tennessee. He also was one of the Freedom Riders.
“I dropped out of college in 1961. I felt it was important to make a statement. You keep moving until the movement moves in you. It’s one thing to lead a protest march. It’s something else to be part of a movement.
“Basically, I went to Selma in 1962 because nobody else wanted to. Other SNCC people went for a while, but backed off because it was too dangerous. They were prepared to ‘X’ Selma off the map. I took that to be the reason to go there.
“The decision was whether to build on what already existed, or to start anew. The Dallas County Voters League was not active. It met maybe twice a year and something like 30 people came.
“Before I got really involved, I went to the Tuskegee Institute to do research on the pattern of violence and lynchings over the years in that area. I ended up with a 50-page paper, so you could say I did my homework.
“I worked very quietly and it was three months before we had our first meeting to take us a step toward the ballot box. There were about 350 people. That kind of black crowd scared the white establishment.
“Sheriff Jim Clark deputized every white male over 21 that he could find. Vigilantes, you could call them. They carried bats from the Selma Table Company. Some came to our church in cars, but most rode on the back of this big truck.
“There would have been big trouble except for this white high school football coach who told them to get out of there. The deputies settled for breaking the taillights of cars parked outside the church so they could arrest the drivers for not having proper equipment. But at least they didn’t go inside and start bopping heads.
“We had more mass meetings after that. It was a very tense time since nothing like this had ever happened in Selma. We called Attorney General Robert Kennedy during one of the meetings and told him there was a potential crisis.
“The night Medgar Evers was killed was when they tried to get me. We later learned it was a three-state conspiracy and the other man on the list was a voter organizer in Louisiana.
“We had a meeting that night. When it was over, I drove up to my apartment and started to remove the fliers from the back seat. That’s when I noticed two white men across the street who had the hood of their car up like there was something wrong with the engine.
“It just didn’t look right. I was very suspicious when one of them walked over to me and asked how much I would charge to give them a push. I said it wouldn’t cost anything. He went back to talk with his buddy. Then he returned and asked if I would take a look at the car. When I bent over, that’s when the biggest one clobbered me.
“A big part of our training in non-violence was to look in the eyes of the person doing you wrong. That’s when he pulled the gun on me. I hollered for Red, a friend of mine who lived in the building. He came out with a shotgun and I had to dissuade him from going after them.
“There were 11 stitches in it for me. The FBI out of Mobile investigated, but no charges were ever brought. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned about Medgar.
“I can laugh about it now, but we laughed a little even back then. It was how we coped. Humor was part of the stress resolution.”
State Stallworth grew up in Moss Point, Miss., and worked at the nearby International Paper Company. He is a past president of the NAACP in that corner of the state.
“Segregation was the rule. It was the practice of society. It was nothing strange to me. This was back in the 1950s. It was the law of the land.
“There were white jobs at the plant and there were black jobs. The jobs that had the most lifting for the least pay were the black jobs. You were constantly subject to abuse. Anybody white was automatically your boss. I worked at the loading docks shipping out the paper. There were separate pay lines for black and white workers and we ate in separate cafeterias. There was even a black union and a white union.
“Everything was based on an inferior and a superior system. The blacks had what the whites didn’t want. On our loading dock, we had to make room for white workers who came in. It wasn’t that way with the white jobs.
“One day they pulled me aside and said they were gonna lay me off. I questioned it. I asked if they were going to give my job to some white boy. I wasn’t trying to integrate the system or anything like that. I was just trying to speak up for my little old black job. I went to the black union to file a grievance, but they were too fearful to do anything. That’s when I decided I would run for president of the black union. I won and filed my own grievance. I got a lot of crazy answers. I was told no black could displease a white, no matter what the situation was. About this time I bumped into Medgar Evers. At that time, I didn’t have much knowledge of the civil rights movement, but I enlightened myself through him. We sued banks and downtown businesses for the rights of blacks to be full-blown citizens.
“Eventually, a suit was filed against the International Paper Company by the NAACP Legal Defense team that was headed up by Thurgood Marshall. I was one of the ones hired to work with him.
“It took a long time for the suit to get resolved. President Kennedy issued an executive order saying it was unlawful for there to be racial discrimination at any workplace that did business with the government. I remember a man from the Pentagon coming down and telling the people at the plant that there was to be no more segregation. Period. The New York brass of the company didn’t want any trouble. The job situation changed, but more important than that, attitudes changed. I worked at the Paper Company until I retired in 1996. We all got along real well.”
Roger Lauen was a volunteer in Mississippi during Freedom Summer.
“I was in training in Ohio when the telephone rang. Someone from the COFO office in Jackson said there had been a serious incident and I needed to fetch one of the people in charge. Don’t ask how I knew that one or more people had been killed, but later that day it was announced that Schwerner and the other two were missing and it didn’t look good. It was very sobering moment for all of the trainees about to go to Mississippi. It wasn’t too late to drop out, but no one did.
“Several weeks later, I was working at the COFO office in Jackson when the phone rang. A white cracker said, ‘OK, nigger-lover. I’ve got my rifle aimed at your front door. The first nigger-lover that comes out is gonna get his head blown off.’
“I took the threat very seriously, and here’s why: A few days earlier, four of us were driving a car in Jackson. It was Sunday afternoon and I had a letter to mail. When I put it in the box, I noticed a car parked a few feet away. I mentioned this to the driver and he determined we were being tailed. We took off back to the COFO office on the wrong way of a one-way street at a very high rate of speed. The other car went just as fast. When we got to the office, the other car parked and three white crackers came out shouting racial epithets and threatening us with several guns they had in their car. The threat of violence was very real and one of the most tangible things I remember about the entire summer.
“It is a very strange and lonely feeling to know that all the normal things – police, fire and emergency personnel – that provide us with some security in our lives are suddenly not in place. Conversely, they’re working against you.
“We civil rights workers felt that threat on a daily basis, but only for those few short months. The African-Americans in Mississippi had been living with that fear for generations. Their bravery was an inspiration to us all. The real heroes of the movement were the black families who opened their homes to us. Their homes were potential targets, but our hosts were gracious, generous and helpful in getting us to relax and sleep. I’ll never forget their hospitality.
“I think our presence in Mississippi in 1964 made a difference because it caught the national media’s attention. It led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.”
Matt Suarez worked with CORE in New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. He stayed from 1962 until early 19765, earning $25 a week.
“For me, the impetus to join came from the discord inside me with the way blacks were treated. I always felt the need, but never had the direction. I did some volunteer work for the Consumer League in New Orleans and this got me introduced to CORE.
“My activities included picketing lunch counters, picketing in general and marching. I was arrested several times, but only scared once. That’s when two cops took us out in the woods. I was sure they were going to kill us, but they were just trying to find out about our organization. The questioning eventually turned into a conversation.
“The big things I remember were the inhumanity of people and the force of hatred and how one human being could mistreat somebody.
“I never had anything poured on me when I was integrating lunch counters, but once this waitress made it a point to serve me water that was more than half-filled with salt.
“The $25 doesn’t sound like much, but people in the community were good about putting us up for the night and giving us a free meal. Parents and friends sent money. It wasn’t like we were destitute.
“I had a couple of encounters with the Klan and neither was pleasant. Canton was a black community in Mississippi. Once a friend got caught outside town by the Klan and I went to help. We got away, but it was pretty harrowing.
“Another time, a white woman came into Canton. We always had a strict policy about no white females because that could be seen as inciting trouble. When she appeared, the Klan lined up and blocked the roads. We managed to get her out and defuse the situation, but this constable pulled over the car that some fellows and I were in. One man was beaten. They threatened to kill us if anything like this happened again and then they threw us back into our car.”
Patricia Vail was 22 years old and working at Harvard Law School when she came to Mississippi to teach at a Freedom School. While there, she also conducted voter registration drives and worked to integrate schools.
“The sacrifices were made by the people we worked and lived with who risked their jobs and their lives in this effort. I don’t recall feeling that I was making any sacrifice myself. I felt like the movement chose me. It was work that had to be done. If I wouldn’t participate, how could I expect others to do so? I have retained a certain idealism that the acts of individuals working together with others can change people’s lives for the better.
“Most of our citizens did little or nothing in the face of the violence perpetrated on people of color in the 1960s. Civil rights advocates were not universally hailed as saviors by either citizens or elected officials. Rather, they were seen as annoying reminders that the country had not made its benefits available to all. Most white Americans refused to believe that there were any problems. Local folks in Mississippi, for example, blamed the problems of poverty and illiteracy on outside agitators and communists, which is to say civil rights workers.
“There was very little TV in the area of Mississippi where I was living. I stayed with a variety of families in a variety of circumstances during the year I spent in and around Greenville, and can recall only one family who had a television set. Some of the folks didn’t even have electricity. Looking back, I imagine that TV would have been a luxury for people who couldn’t send their kids to school in winter because they didn’t have shoes.
“Without the participation of the black churches and their many articulate pastors, the civil rights movement would probably not have achieved the kind of success it did. Clergy could appeal to others of their calling around the country and around the world on civil rights as a moral, not just a political and economic issue. Churches were often the only physical locations where meetings could be held out of the all-seeing eye of the local sheriff and others. Freedom Schools, voter registration classes and other civil rights activities often took place in local churches. When workers were arrested, this was discussed during church. When out-of-town visitors like Fannie Lou Hamer came to town, we always had a big crowd. She would speak and sing about her experiences. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, the husband-and-wife acting team, came as well.
“As one of the attorneys told us at the 30th reunion in Jackson, there was nothing that Mississippi willingly gave up. We had to litigate every step of the way. The state wasted incredible resources and time by refusing to accept that its practices were illegal.”
Ronald Meservey spent two months in Greenwood, Miss., in 1964 as part of the Summer Project.
“I was in junior high when Brown versus Board of Education came down. My school in Oak Ridge (Tenn.) was desegregated right away because of all the federal money coming into that area for defense programs. But six miles away there were riots when the county school was integrated. The governor sent tanks to put down the white rioters.
“I was a junior at Stanford University in California when Martin Luther King came to campus to recruit volunteers for the civil rights movement. He was very persuasive. I believe Stanford had one of the largest contingents to help bring change to the South.
“I remember driving across the country to the National Council of Churches training session in Oxford, Ohio, in a 1948 Chevrolet with three other people. We were in the second group to go South. The day after we arrived in Mississippi, we were told three civil rights workers were missing and presumed dead. We were told we could reconsider and go home. Only a few did. We believed in what we were doing.
“While in Mississippi, I learned what it was like to be scared every minute of every day. We learned to fix the dome lights of our cars so they wouldn’t come on at night. We learned to stay out of the light so we wouldn’t give our enemies a silhouetted target.
“I was a Freedom School teacher, although I sat in on a lot of talks with Stokely Carmichael. We stayed most of the time with black families. Some of the white merchants were ratting to the police about our living arrangements. I remember this female proprietor who lost it one day in front of her store. She had a shotgun and she was screaming at the top of her lungs. I had a camera underneath my denim SNCC jacket, so they pushed me up front so I could take a picture. I pointed the camera, she aimed the gun at me and I heard this loud boom. She fired at least once more. The police came in a black police bus. They didn’t take her to jail. Instead, they threatened us. We ended up leaving. When I got home, I found I had loaded the camera incorrectly and there was no picture.
“Another time, we went to this nightspot in the black part of Greenwood. We heard a noise outside. Our driver had been shot. Blood was running down his front and he was slumped in the street. No ambulance would come. We had to take him 90 miles to the hospital in Jackson. He recovered, thank God. If we had seen the men who did this thing, we would have killed them. So much for the non-violent movement.”
Robert Gladnick was in the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.
“At the time, I was the head of the International Ladies Garment Workers in Miami. Standing up for liberal causes was nothing new for me. When I was the head of the union in Puerto Rico, I helped organize a boycott of Woolworth stores on the island because of the problems black people in the states were having at those places.
“For the Alabama march, we brought a semi-trailer that we had converted into an ambulance. There was no violence, though. The whites who were against the march were kept well away by the United States Army, so it was pretty uneventful. The only use our vehicle got was treating people who became exhausted from the walking. There were a number of trade associations in attendance and that’s who we marched with.
“I got my son out of high school to come with me. It was worth missing classes to have an opportunity to participate. We were both touched by the enthusiasm of the marchers. It was time well-spent.”
Griffin McLaurin was one of the first blacks elected to public office in Mississippi. He also helped register African-American voters.
“I was voted in to be constable of Holmes County. They had the swearing-in ceremony for me three days before the other officers because they didn’t want me to be in their picture. My justice of the peace didn’t want anything to do with me. I’d hear things like, ‘We smell niggers.’ When I would issue a citation, he’d throw it out. If I arrested one of the plantation workers, the owner would call the jail and say he needed the man back in the field. They’d be set free, pretty as you please. Things never got any better, but I stuck it out the four years.
“I was one of the first blacks to register to vote. We’d go to the courthouse and get turned away, but we always kept coming back. There was a 99-question test you had to pass. Not whites. Just blacks. We filed a suit with the Justice Department and the test became only 20 questions. I resented having to take the test, but it was all part of the Jim Crow system of the times.
“We built a center for the black community. We had to guard it 24 hours a day. Whites would throw bombs and shoot out windows. Getting shot at was routine.
“You forgive. You can’t hold it in your mind. I was in Martin Luther King’s marches and got spit at and called names. They’d get in your face and threaten to come to your house at night. You learned to look beyond that to better days.”
David Fankhauser was one of the Freedom Riders.
“I was a 19-year-old chemistry student at Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, when SNCC sent out calls to campuses for volunteers to join the Freedom Ride. I shaved my heard, cut my hair, put on my best clothes and on May 24, 1961, flew into Montgomery, (Ala.). We were taken to Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s house. He and Martin Luther King were coordinating the local activities relating to the Freedom Rides. We whites were required to keep away from windows because knowledge of whites staying in a black home could cause the house to be targeted by the Klan.
“As we approached the Trailways Station in Jackson (Miss.), there was a large, hostile crowd of whites cordoned away from the station itself. A large detachment of police surrounded the bus as it stopped. The blacks in our group entered the ‘whites-only’ waiting room. The two of us who were white entered the ‘colored’ waiting room. It was small and dingy with wooden benches, compared to the spacious, well-appointed room with cushioned seats for whites.
“We went to jail. The first night, I was placed in solitary, but the next day – as more white Freedom Riders arrived – we were moved to a large double cell that had 16 beds. Once I was allowed to leave the cell to meet noted right-wing reporter Westbrook Pegler, who had been given special access to the Freedom Riders for the purpose of discrediting the demonstration. After a few innocuous questions, he leaned close and asked, ‘Do you believe in money?’ I launched into a philosophical discussion of the need for some means of exchange. He soon cut me off with a wave of his hand and called for the guard. I later learned that he was convinced it was all a communist conspiracy and the communists didn’t believe in money, and he could trip us up to acknowledge that we didn’t believe in it.
“After a few days, they moved us to the infamous Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary. We were lead into the inner sanctum where the death row inmates were housed. We were completely stripped and given only underwear. We had a Bible, an aluminum cup and a toothbrush. No mail was allowed. We got one shower a week.
“We began a hunger strike and passed the time singing protest songs. When it got too loud for them, they took away our mattresses and bedding. We kept singing. The guards responded by removing the screens from the windows so the mosquitoes could come in.
“After several days of not eating, we halted our fast under assurances the Justice Department was going to take action to halt the arrests.
“I was finally released after 42 days. I was led to a room where I was given my clothes back. As I dressed, a guard who had been particularly virulent in his attitude to us came up to me and said he hoped there were no hard feelings. He said he was just doing his job and that he didn’t hate us personally. I thought it was a very positive statement for him to make.”
Carlotta Walls LaNier was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who desegregated Central High School in 1957.
“I was 14, the youngest of our group. I graduated from Dunbar Junior High and that was to be my sophomore year at Central.
“My parents were supportive, but the decision to go to the all-white school was my own. I filled out the paperwork in the spring of 1957. Central was one of the most well-known schools in the South. I was very serious about getting a good education. I wanted to go to the best school.
“Even though I was very young, I was very aware of the Brown-Board of Education ruling in 1954. I knew a change for the better was coming and I knew that we were going to be a part of it.
“The day before school started, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to surround Central High. When our group – that was accompanied by some ministers – got to the school, everybody was saying the Guard was standing by to protect us. I thought, hey, that’s good. Then I found out their purpose was to keep us from going in.
“The issue went back and forth in the courts for three weeks. Then President Eisenhower circumvented state authority and sent 1,000 members of the 101st Airborne to make sure we could go to school.
“I spent the time worrying that the other kids were getting ahead of me. Given the opportunity, I knew I could compete with the best Central had. I was a member of the National Honor Society. But the longer we were kept out, I knew I would have to be Super Negro just to break even.
“The legislature ordered Little Rock’s public schools closed for the 1958-59 term to prevent desegregation. Some of the nine didn’t return because of all the taunts and threats.
“I had relatives all over the North. They tried their best to convince me to leave Little Rock and go where I would be accepted. But I was determined to stay the course. I wanted that diploma from Central.
“White students picked fights with me. They threw raw eggs. They spit in my seat. They walked on the back of my heels. I really hated that. They knocked books out of my hands when I changed classes.
“I learned to walk very fast. That avoided some of it. My attitude was I didn’t care about anybody loving me. Just give me my space. I considered what they did to be dumb. I would not let myself stoop to their level.
“I graduated with a 3.4 average. All but a couple of my teaches graded me fairly. I studied too hard for them to mark me down.
“High school was a job. We were told up front that there would be no band, no sports, no clubs for the nine of us. Go to school and then leave. We weren’t even allowed to attend games.
“There were about 2,000 white students at Central High. Not all were bad. Some actually wanted to treat me in the proper way. But peer pressure was very strong. Smiling at me could get conversations started that they didn’t want. It was better for them to drop their heads when I passed by.
“I don’t go to Little Rock much nowadays. Stay three days visiting relatives and then take off again.”
Neil Reichline helped register voters in Macon and Americus in Georgia.
“I was the editor of the student newspaper at UCLA. Martin Luther King came to campus to kick off the project and I was inspired to join. I went South in the summer of 1965.
“Americus was a hotbed. Three black women had been put in jail for trying to vote. The husband of one of the women died and they wouldn’t let her go to the funeral. A large group of us from SCLS came to protest. We marched three times a day for nine days. I remember the local firemen throwing rocks at us. There was a big KKK rally during all this.
“A Baptist minister from Minnesota got beaten up. He was taking a black girl home in his VW. He stopped to make a telephone call. These three white guys dragged him out and hit him over the head. The case went to court. We found three eyewitnesses who saw the whole thing. The judge threw it out. I remember he said we could take our ‘Christianizing’ back to California. Shortly after our march, the Voting Rights Act passed and the women were let out of jail.
“Our group from UCLA was a very social one. We interacted very well with the black kids in Macon. I remember one boy getting me drunk on rotgut. I helped out on the black newspaper and some other guys joined the black baseball team. We didn’t care who we talked to about the injustice. We went to meetings of the White Citizens Council and tried to explain what we were about and what we were trying to do. They called us a bunch of ‘tennis-shoe wearing Commies from California.’
“It was very difficult to register black voters. The white establishment got out this extremely difficult test when a black person came to vote. There were three different tests and we managed to get hold of a copy of each. We set up Freedom Schools and went over the answers. Not a lot of people passed, but we did the best we could.
“In my heart, I believe this could have been the greatest period of enlightenment in American history had it not been for the Vietnam War. There was really something serious going on.”
Fred Clark of Jackson, Miss., was registering black voters when he was 12 years old.
“What got me started so early were my family experiences. We worked for a rich, liberal white family and I had plenty of access to TV and magazines like Jet and Ebony. A quarter mile away, the black community lived in the ghetto. I got to see what was on both sides of the fence. I saw that as a race we had been pushed as far as we could be pushed. It was time to start rebelling.
“I took non-violence training under Martin Luther King in 1959. I had my own home and became somewhat of a community leader. We started doing sit-ins and that evolved into boycotts. I was part of the Freedom Riders and never got on a bus. We were given a few dollars to buy a train ticket and we went on the white side of the train station to do it. The people behind the counter ignored us. We were told to move three times and then we were arrested for breach of peace and put into the paddy wagons.
“We spent a few days at the city jail and then some time at the county jail before going to the Parchman Prison. There was a choir director behind bars and he led us in song. They said you could hear us for miles and miles. The sheriff was under pressure to shut us up. He took our belongings out of the cell, but we kept singing. Then he put more than a dozen of us in a 6-by-9-foot cell. All we had were our drawers. It seemed like forever, but it was probably just a couple of hours. I only weighed about 100 pounds and squirmed to the bottom so I could breathe. I also hollered out for them to let us out of there. Some of the people in the cell reprimanded me for that.
“They cut our food rations and made us sleep on concrete and steel. I ended up catching pneumonia. We kept singing, though. Many of us thought we were going to sing all the way to heaven.
“When we were finally bailed out, it took me a month to get used to walking on the street again. There was that much misery in those cells. I’m claustrophobic today because of what happened.”
David Truskoff walked in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965.
“I grew up in a segregated town in New Jersey. I was a jock and played ball and boxed with blacks. I related more to them than those in the upper-middle-class communities. Participating in the civil rights movement was a natural thing for me to do.
“I was taking broadcasting and was chosen to call one of the Chicago radio stations each night of the Selma March to update what was going on. I never heard any of the tapes. I imagined they edited them down to around two minutes. I had a pad and pen and I was talking to a lot of the marchers and, occasionally, to Martin Luther King. I was calling my story from this old-fashioned phone booth when I saw a man outside pointing a pistol and calling me names. The man at the radio station suggested I describe him in case anything happened. I did and then I ran very fast out the door of the phone booth. I caught up with Andrew Young and told him what happened. He asked if I could see the guy. I looked around and he wasn’t there.
“I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. My job was providing security, which meant keeping the rednecks off the marchers’ backs. We would patrol areas in advance of the march and secure places to pitch the tents for the night. There was a great deal of tension. You had National Guard members with their guns and FBI agents. There were even federal troops with minesweepers going across the road to make sure there were no bombs. We checked for snipers in the woods.
“It turned into a beautiful ragtag army. You had nuns, priests, farmers, children and men in suits all marching down the road behind this one little flag. It was extremely emotional. I certainly wasn’t the only man with tears in his eyes.”
Eric Morton left Wayne State University in Detroit in 1960 to join the civil rights movement. He worked as a field secretary for SNCC and helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
“During my service, I endured several beatings and two lynching attempts. Brutal assaults, murders and bombings of civil rights workers and black persons went unnoticed and unprosecuted on a regular basis.
“Bob Moses, organizer of the Mississippi Project and director of COFO, asked me to help coordinate programs throughout the state with a focus on voter registration and the establishment of Freedom Schools.
“On the night of July 15, 1964, I was driving a truckload of voter registration materials and other supplies to Greenville and Greenwood for rallies to take place the following day. Accompanying me were two local black youths who had volunteered to help, Melvin McDavia and Robert Ellis, and a white summer volunteer, Steven Smith. Outside Canton, we were forced to the side of the highway by four carloads of white men in unmarked cars.
“When they got out, I saw that they were armed with pistols, rifles, shotguns, ropes, chains and clubs. I recognized two of them, one from the Mississippi State Police and a local sheriff. They were drunk and reeking of liquor. The two men I knew pistol-whipped me while daring me to take their guns. The others terrorized Smith, Ellis and McDavia. I heard them order the two blacks youths to start running toward Jackson. Lying on the ground and dazed and bleeding, I could see them reach for their holsters as if planning to take shots at the fleeing kids. Before they could do so, a black car pulled to a halt on the other side of the road and four white men dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties came out. They were FBI agents. They called to the sheriff and conferred with him for a few minutes. The four suits got in their car. Meanwhile, Ellis and McDavia got away.
“When the sheriff retuned, he tried to convince me that they only intended to arrest Smith and that I was free to get in the truck and drive away. It struck me that they now had a pretense of legality by enticing me to leave so I could be shot for attempting to escape. I refused to move and told the sheriff to arrest both of us or release both of us. He responded by beating me into unconsciousness. I woke up in the Canton City Jail. The next day, we were taken to a distant farm where we appeared before the local magistrate in his barn. Bail was set and we were returned to jail. That night, Moses bailed us out and drove us back to Jackson with the same state trooper ominously following us in an official car of the State Police. When Steven Smith noticed that we were being followed, he became emotional. I understood how he felt. Steven was white and I was black and the enemy was not us.”
J. Quinn Brisben took part in Mississippi Freedom Summer when he was briefly jailed.
“My involvement in the civil rights movement began when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma in 1952. About 15 black students joined the NAACP and so did I. That got me whacked around some by a group of South Africans who had been recruited to the college to be on the swimming team. I was young so I could take it.
“Twelve years later, I came to Mississippi to help with desegregation. They needed white people, both to get publicity for the movement and for safety. If blacks got killed in the process, nobody would care. It was a completely different situation for whites and the organizers knew that quite well. I wrote press releases and organized Freedom Schools for the black children where I taught them about their rich African-American past.
“I got thrown in jail in Columbus (Miss.) and again in Yazoo City (Miss.). I didn’t stay too long, though. You learn to improvise. It also helped that I had a dozen or so cousins in Alabama who were very respected citizens. Another thing in my favor is that I’m a pretty big guy. I don’t tell people I’m non-violent until I get to know them well.
“In 1965, three weeks after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, I was part of a group of Detroit and Chicago teachers invited to Montgomery to encourage blacks to register to vote. The most useful part of our work was gathering evidence that proved the need for the Voting Rights Act. We decided to go into the principal shopping area of downtown Montgomery and distribute our leaflets to blacks and whites alike. My partner was Gil Kimura, a young man of Japanese ancestry. We did not know that the store we were in front of was owned by a prominent leader of the Montgomery White Citizens Council. After a few minutes, the manager came out to tell us that everything in Montgomery had been all right until the outsiders came in. I replied that we were here at the request of members of the Montgomery community and that I had relatives all over Alabama and did not consider myself an outsider. He came out again in a half hour and said the whole bunch of us should be put in concentration camps. Gil Kimura replied that this would do no good. He had been born in a United States concentration camp in the days following Pearl Harbor and was still determined to do this kind of thing. The manager came back later with his final argument, which was to kick me in the shin. This violation of regional etiquette upset several white lady passersby sufficiently that they went out of their way to take one of my leaflets.
“Looking back and comparing the civil rights movement with Vietnam, it is proof that non-violent action does work. It was like Gandhi getting freedom for India. That we were able to accomplish a major social change with so few people dying was a truly unique event in our nation’s history.”
Zev Aelony was one of the students at the University of Minnesota who went to New Orleans in 1961 to combat segregation in housing and jobs.
“We were in the protection and true Southern hospitality of people we knew had far greater courage than ourselves. They would stay there – subject to beatings, arrests, random shootings and bombings long after we were back home. Our risks were for a few months; theirs, for generations. People put us up in their homes. They fed us and welcomed us. We walked a picket line with them outside a store that wanted their business, but would not employ them except in the most menial positions, nor treat them equally with white customers.
“In Memphis, there was snarling and gestures but with the protection of movement witnesses, there were no physical attacks. As we walked into the bus depot in Jackson (Miss.), the police came and we were arrested. Since we were not convicted and since the whole world was watching, we were not used as forced labor. We were given racist tracks that vilified people of African descent by falsely comparing their cultural contributions to those of Europeans. After 39 days, we were bailed out by agreement with the authorities, although five us of us were left there an extra week after our bail was posted. The officers bringing us back to Jackson said they were just too busy.”
Arthur Berger was a partner in a Harrisburg, Pa., law firm when he learned the American Bar Association was putting together a group of attorneys to support the civil rights workers in the South.
“Having started the ACLU chapter in Harrisburg, it was natural for me to volunteer. Being someone naïve, I didn’t realize this might cause some consternation in my conservative law firm, which it apparently did, although no one mentioned it to me until years later.
“My experience lasted only three weeks, but it was memorable. I was assigned to New Orleans along with a partner, who was a professor at Georgetown Law School. My job was to start a lawsuit to desegregate Charity Hospital, the largest in the city. It was completely segregated – operating rooms, testing facilities, anything you could think of.
“A week after coming to New Orleans, a call came in from the civil rights group working in Hattiesburg (Miss.). A worker had been arrested and disappeared. It was believed he was at the local jail. My partner and I were sent to see what could be done.
“This occurred within a short time after the 1964 incident involving Schwerner, Goodman and Cheney. When we arrived, we went to the headquarters of the civil rights group and got the facts. One of the workers was a first-year student at the New York University Law School, who agreed to come with us to the jail.
“We stated our business and were put in a small room for a tense half hour or so. Then the sheriff and five or six deputies showed up. They were big, big guys – right out of Central Casting. The sheriff said he didn’t know what we were talking about and, even if he did, he wouldn’t let us speak to anyone. My partner and I were told we were practicing law in Mississippi without a license, which is a crime. More to the point, we were told that the local police couldn’t ensure our safety in the state, and that it would be in our best interests to leave immediately.
“My partner and I took them at their word. We tried to persuade the law student to come with us, but he said he intended to stay. It was really a courageous action. I don’t know what happened to him. I’ve often hoped that he was rewarded in his later life for what he did.
“I was too scared to drive, so my partner did. Nobody tried to do anything to us and we soon got back to normal life in New Orleans. What happened was par for the course, and much less than what others went through on a daily basis. I’ve had recurring feelings of guilt for not having the guts to stay, at least long enough to have gone to the local court to see what we could have done.”
The North Smithfield area of Birmingham (Ala.) was known as “Dynamite Hill” because of all the explosive devices that went off there. The most notorious bombing took place in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church where four black girls were killed by the Ku Klux Klan, but there were more than a dozen incidents dating back to 1947. Some dwellings were hit more than once.
Leroy Gaillard helped organize the North Smithfield Protection Association, a group of about 75 volunteers from the area who patrolled the area to protect lives and property. He owned a construction company in Birmingham and furnished vehicles and police scanners to those on the neighborhood watch.
“I was very acquainted with one of the early bombings in Birmingham. It was 1949 and my wife and I were looking to buy a house. It was located in an area that was in between what was a black housing area and what was white housing. Before we could make our decision, it was blown to the ground. I guess they thought we were coming too close.
“I was at the 16th Street Baptist Church not long after the bombing. They were hosing it down and you could still see flesh on the walls. We knew then that if change was going to come, we would have to help bring it on.
“The Protection Association had its boundaries between 8th and 16th streets. We followed any unfamiliar cars driving through the area. We stayed on their tails until they went away. There were no more bombings after the church.
“We did it all ourselves. Calling the cops would have been a waste of time. They wouldn’t have done anything.
“We were never able to name names. There were some suspicious people we thought might be involved with the bombings, but nobody we were sure of.
“I received numerous phone threats and they threw rocks through my windows, but my place never got torched.
“Our group patrolled for months. All black. I took my turn alongside the others. The women brought sandwiches and coffee.
“We didn’t get people like mail carriers and schoolteachers to join us. I understood completely. Taking our side would mean losing their jobs.
“The ironic thing was that my construction company helped rebuild the homes after they were bombed. I wanted business, but not like that.”
Gladys Williams helped integrate Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery. The school was important in the civil rights movement because Alabama Governor George Wallace’s children went there.
“It was a tough time. The black students had to stay together or the whites would jump us. They would throw spitballs at us in class and the teachers wouldn’t do anything.
“The worst time for me happened when I was going to summer school. We were crossing the Sears-Roebuck parking lot on the way to Lanier when these white guys in a car came over to intimidate us. They had Coke bottles in their hands like they were going to belt us. I told some of my black male friends in the gym and we went back to the parking lot. By this time, they had broken their Coke bottles to make them better weapons. A fight started. One of the whites hit me over the head with a baseball bat. I threw one of the Coke bottles at him. He ended up going to the hospital to get stitches. I had this big knot on my head, but nobody ever called my mother. I sat in the office all day. I got kicked out of Lanier and had to get a GED.
“It was the times. In order to make progress, you have to make sacrifices. I could have stayed at Carver, the black high school. But if all of us had done that, we wouldn’t have made things better. We were mad at the way we were treated. It was like they had the audacity to hate us even thought they didn’t know us.”
Idessa Redden of Montgomery was a member of the Montgomery Improvement Association and helped register more than 2,000 black voters in the 1960s. At Selma, she was among those who found housing for marchers.
“At the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, I had never heard of Martin Luther King. The news came that Rosa Parks had been arrested. The next day, the call was put out in all the black churches and all the black businesses about a mass meeting at the Holt Street Missionary Baptist Church. We walked to get there and had to sit in the balcony. King started to speak and I got so excited. I started screaming. I was saying, ‘Lord, you’ve sent us a leader.’
“My mind was made up that night that I would follow that man anywhere. I was almost ready to get involved anyhow. This gave the nudge to send it over the top.
“I don’t know how many miles I marched, but it was a lot. There was the time we walked up Dexter Street in Montgomery for the State Capitol. People in our group were carrying coffins for all the black people who had been killed in the civil rights movement. We put those coffins on the steps of the Capitol.
“I remember being 17 years old and starting to board the Oak Street bus when this white man pulled me off and said I was being impolite by not letting him go first. I was carrying an umbrella and I wore him out with it. When I got home, I told my aunt and uncle what happened. They were scared something bad was going to happen to me. I never was frightened. Not then. Not later. I had the spirit in me.”
Carol Ruth Silver was working at the United Nations when the call came for Freedom Riders to go to Mississippi.
“We knew it was serious when the bus crossed from Tennessee into Mississippi. Two Highway Patrol cars followed us all the way into Jackson. When we pulled into town, the streets had been cleared ahead of us. There was a large number of uniformed police. Their somber attitude contrasted sharply with the almost holiday mood we had on the bus.
“The plan was for the blacks in our group to use the white-only restroom and the whites to use the black facilities. I never got that far. I was told to move on while in the black waiting area. When I didn’t, I was arrested. The charge was breach of the peace, but of course what we really did was violate segregation. The six members of our group were taken to the Jackson City Jail. We stayed overnight and then we were arraigned. We refused bail, which I think was $500. The fine was about four months in jail with two months suspended and a $200 fine. I spent about 15 days in the county jail and then they took us to the Parchman Prison. That was very frightening. We moved in the middle of the night. We thought it was very possible that they were going to line us up and shoot us. Or hang us.
“Jail was very boring. No books and only the occasional newspaper. We had to provide our own entertainment. We sang, played chess, studied ballet and taught each other Greek and Spanish. I could have been in jail 75 days, but I bailed out after 40 so my right to appeal wouldn’t expire. The judgment against me was reversed a year or so later.
“When I got out of jail, our group was concerned that we might face violence. So I stayed a while in Jackson with black families in an underground-railroad type of thing. I was passed around from place to place. Then it was on to New Orleans and then eventually to Los Angeles.
“The men and women who rode the first Freedom Rider bus get much of the credit for strengthening the movement. Those of us who came later helped, too. They led, but we were the army.”
Ed Nakawatase dropped out of Rutgers University to work in the Atlanta office of SNCC. He stayed 14 months until the end of 1964.
“I’m Japanese and my family was interned in Arizona during World War 11. I was sensitive to matters of race in my childhood, although Mom and Dad never talked about what happened during the war.
“When I left school to go South, it was the same kind of impulse that makes people join the circus. I was swept up by the movement. We didn’t make more than $20 a week, but our housing was provided and there was a lot of what you could call collective food. We were arrested in December. A dozen of us went to a Toddle House restaurant and they wouldn’t serve us. The cops were called and they arrested us for trespassing. There was confusion about me because of my Asian skin. They didn’t know whether I should go with the blacks or with the whites. I was waiting for them to ask point-blank what color I am so they could solve the puzzle.
“We spent five days in jail, including Christmas. It wasn’t a good situation inside the cell as we were in with embezzlers and wife-beaters. Our fellow inmates were puzzled by our presence and getting madder about it every day. I think if we had stayed much longer, they would have beaten us up. It was pretty historic stuff. Not long after we got out, the Toddle House desegregated. We came back there to eat and it was a moment of triumph when they waited on us.”
John Dolan was a junior at the University of California-Berkeley when he went to Jackson, Miss., in the second wave of Freedom Riders.
“There were about 20 in my group – half black and half white – when we came to New Orleans for our orientation. Basically, it was to teach us to be non-violent. That wasn’t a problem with me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight if there was a brawl. Besides that, I agreed very much with non-violence as a strategy. It helped the movement get international press.
“I was arrested June 26, 1961, in Jackson. CORE’s strategy was to fill all the jails and we succeeded. After a few days, they sent us to Parchman where we were segregated by race and gender. Our stay was relatively uneventful. The violence was associated with the first group of Riders. By the time we arrived, President Kennedy was feeling the glare of media attention and put pressure on those involved to treat us decently.
“After the prison time, we stayed over in New Orleans instead of going back to California. We had a court date in Jackson and by staying close, we saved CORE some flight money. We led some sit-ins in New Orleans and continued to be active in the movement. The worst time came when three blacks invited me and a white friend to have dinner in their house. It was purely social, nothing about civil rights. The police found out about this integrated outing and arrested us for vagrancy. It was beaten up in the paddy wagon with billy clubs and then thrown out on the sidewalk. I landed face first and got a huge abrasion. I actually thought they were going to kill me. One cop cocked his gun and pointed it at my face. I think the only reason he didn’t fire was because he knew he couldn’t get away with it.
“My involvement caused my father to disown me for several years. He was a liberal Democrat with his politics, but very much a conservative on matters of race. After I got to be about 17, we had tempestuous arguments. He was very upset with my activism and wanted no part of the movement or me. It wasn’t until I was accepted into medical school that he finally accepted me back into the family.”
Haskell Kassler went to Mississippi in 1964 with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee.
“My job was to oversee what was happening to people registering to vote. The call came into our office that the police in the small town of Marks were harassing some of the voter people. When I arrived, a car that the students were driving was by the side of the road. The police came and walked over to where they were. I told the cops that I represented these people and I wanted to know what was going on. They told me if I said one more word, they’d focus on me. I said, no, not until they explained why the car was stopped.
“They arrested me for interfering with a police officer. In the process of being cuffed and put in the squad car, my head made the unfortunate mistake of coming in contact with the cover of the door. My skull was cracked open. They told me all Jewish lawyers from New York should stay away and they would be better off. Then they took me to the cell with the white criminals.
“ ‘Here’s one of them civil rights fellows,’ the policeman said. ‘Why don’t you all take care of him?’
“At this point, I was bloody from my shirt and tie all the way to my sport coat. The inmates asked me what I was in for. When I told them, it was like they were thinking, hey, this guy isn’t all that bad. They asked if I did criminal work. When I said I did, they arranged for a doctor to look at my wounds and for me to be fed better. They saw me as their personal lawyer.
“I was probably in jail for about five hours. The funny thing was, I was more afraid of getting out than I was getting in. There was a host of pickup trucks outside with Confederate flags and they followed me.
“The state police provided the escort to the Marks town limits and then turned around. I had to drive the rest of the way on my own. The clowns driving behind me hollered and screamed, but that was it.
“I was released on a personal recognizance bond. One of the clients in the jail that I did work for didn’t show up for trial and a warrant was issued for my arrest. That’s when I decided Arkansas looked like a good place to go. I ended up suing the state of Mississippi. They agreed to drop the criminal charge if I’d drop the civil claim. Since it wasn’t my intention to go back there any time soon, I thought it was a good deal.
“I was only in Mississippi the two weeks, but it was a seminal part of my life.”
Franzetta Sanders helped integrate schools in her hometown of Moss Point, Miss.
“Everything was segregated. Water fountains, movie theaters, schools. We blacks could go to a store to get medicine, but if a white person came in, we had to give up our place in line. It was the same way on the sidewalk. We had to move over if a white person came by, even if that meant walking on the street. A hamburger stand on Market Street would serve us, but we had to go to the side window.
“Our parents taught us to be cautious. They knew what it was like. It was like they were teaching us survival skills.
“I joined the local NAACP. Mass meetings were held at the Masonic Lodge to try to improve minority employment. We would go as a delegation to talk to the school board. We always stayed in touch with the state chapter in Jackson and the regional chapter in Atlanta. If we got thrown in jail, somebody would know the situation and go our bond.
“We attempted to swim in the City of Moss Point’s pool, but they ended up closing it to everybody by covering it with cement.
“We were determined to make things happen for our city. We were Americans. We were taxpayers. We were entitled to the same privileges as everybody else.
“I participated in the March on Washington. On the way back home, the bus stopped at the station in Hattiesburg (Miss). My friends and I went to use the white restroom. The white ladies inside got all upset and ran out. There were two or three snuff-dipping white men outside sitting in benches and holding their canes. They hollered that we were a bunch of niggers. I’ve never been a fighter, but my friend threatened to break Coke bottles over their heads if they took a step toward us. On the way back to Moss Point, we sat right behind the white bus driver. He didn’t like it, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
“A little later, we attempted to enroll our children in the all-white Moss Point School. The principal came rushing out and said we must have made a mistake, that we were at the wrong school. We said, no, we were at the exact right school. When we got turned away, that provided the legal requirement to bring a lawsuit. I was the one who signed the retainer for the attorney.
“Looking back, we didn’t know we were making history, but somebody sure had to do it. I feel like I made a difference. I have six children. What I went through taught them to cope with whatever is out there. It made them realize that they’re just as good as anybody else. It made them stronger people, and I believe that holds until this day.”
Dr. Hobert Kornegay, an African-American dentist, housed civil rights workers who came to Meridian, Miss., during Freedom Summer.
“I graduated from Morehouse College. There were a lot of us who were very defiant about not riding in the back of the bus. Many times, we would sit right up front and ride all around Atlanta.
“I went to Germany with the Army Dental Corps. Truman’s army was integrated. It was very hard to come back to Mississippi and see all the segregation.
“One of the things I did to get involved in the movement was to teach blacks how to pass the Civil Service exams. We were going to meetings and working on voting rights. Then we took in some of the summer students who came down from the North to help with what we were doing. I think that was the thing that got my daughter’s bedroom shot up with buckshot. Nobody got hurt, but there was glass all over the place.
“I didn’t have any difficulty registering to vote. They knew I was educated and they wouldn’t be able to get away with it. But for other blacks they would ask them ridiculous questions like how many bubbles are in a bar of soap. When they didn’t know, they couldn’t register to vote.
“I was good friends with Medgar Evers. I remember telling him that he needed a garage door like mine, one that opened automatically. When he got shot, it was in front of his open garage. It made me feel horrible. Maybe if the door had opened automatically, they wouldn’t have gotten a clear shot at him.”
Rims Barber came from his native Iowa to Mississippi during Freedom Summer.
“We stayed for several weeks in 1964 in a Freedom House in Canton. The commode would freeze over in cold weather and we’d have to crack the ice before going to the bathroom. It wasn’t too bad for the six of us. We had a space heater and a refrigerator and we learned to make do. Everybody chipped in. We cooked all our own food.
“I was a Presbyterian minister in Iowa when the call came out to share in the experience. I wanted to be a part of it and I’m glad I did. It changed my life.
“My job was to get the kids ready for school, some who had never been to school in their lives, certainly not an integrated school. I worked with older black adults essentially thrust from a feudal society into 20th century real life.
“Our group was shot at three or four times. I remember this one time in Philadelphia (Miss.) when this guy took his six-shooter out and unloaded it in our direction. We were just standing on the side of the road when he drove by. It was lucky for us he wasn’t a good shot. Another time we were going to a movie theater in Carthage with an integrated group. It was our idea to make them admit everybody with a ticket. They chased us back to the community and hit on us every chance they got. Another time I was given a ticket for reckless driving while I was parked. This was after I had just dropped off the six black children who had integrated the school.
“When I was in the Canton jail, the sheriff walked in one day. It was just the two of us. I could sense him toing through this change. He whomped me around and then changed back so he could go home to his children. I remember thinking that I hoped what he did made him feel better.
“It was a poisonous environment. You could go to the Post Office and here comes this little lady who looks like she just came from the Baptist Sewing Circle. She gives you an awful look and then sticks out her middle finger. My mother would never do anything like that.
“Now that I look back at it, we did some pretty naïve things. The Klan would light a cross in front of a house. We’d get a call from the homeowner and go over there to console them while they watched the flames go up. There was definitely the possibility some violence could come to us, but we didn’t think things like that.”
Ruth Gramolini was a student in Middlebury College in Vermont when she became involved in the civil rights movement. She went to Linden, Ala., in 1965 to register black voters.
“Most African-Americans either lived in the projects or in a place called the Ditch. We walked wherever we went. I remember having to pass the house of the KKK Grand Dragon of Alabama on our way to the Ditch. That was very intimidating, but we stayed the course. Looking back, I realize we were too stupid to know any better. I had the idea that if I was killed, well, so what. One time in my walk in Linden to the Ditch, somebody fired a shot over our heads. I remember being more scared for the teenagers who were with us than for myself.
“One time I went to jail. The Klan had those red tassels on their white hoods. I thought that looked really stupid so I started laughing. They got me for trespassing and I had to stay overnight. I called my mother. That was part of the plan. We always had somebody we could contact if things went wrong. They charged me with vagrancy. I had a letter from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that we were employed, but they didn’t care about that.”
Robert Ostrow was a lawyer working as a corporate executive when a white acquaintance of his was beaten while observing a demonstration in Jacksonville, Fla., while sheriff’s deputies looked on. This moved Ostrow to volunteer his legal expertise in the South to conduct voter-registration drives.
“I went to Jackson (Miss.) on my vacation in July of 1964 for three weeks as a volunteer with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. This was a very prestigious group, backed by some of the most important law firms in the nation. We were all given private numbers for the FBI and the Department of Justice.
“Our client was the United Church of Christ, which was sponsoring voter registration drives throughout Mississippi. The state was full of students and clergymen and many were beaten and arrested. One of the first things we did was visit the chairman of Bar Associations in each Mississippi county. We asked them to represent students and clergymen who were in trouble with the law on a pro bono basis so we didn’t have to come to fill the need. They looked at us like we were crazy and told us to go home, to stop making trouble and take care of our own problems in the North.
“I was never arrested, but felt threatened every time I walked into a county courthouse. We were followed wherever we went. It was like running a gauntlet and was very dangerous for blacks to try to register to vote. Not only were they subjected to obscenities from shotgun-wielding toughs, they were often beaten. It may sound melodramatic, but I interviewed and took affidavits from people while they were still bleeding. Many lost their jobs when their employers found out that they tried to register.
“During this time, one of the lawyers got a traffic ticket for an illegal turn in Clarksdale. I went with him to fight it. We forgot to tell anybody where we were going. When we got back, the FBI had been given word that we were missing. This was the summer the three civil rights workers were killed so everybody was on edge. I have never been so chastised before or since. I came back on the plane carrying Andrew Goodman’s body.
“I was 38 years old in 1964. I had never gone to school with a black person. I had no black friends. The experience changed my life like nothing else.”
Becky Brenner helped register black voters in Alabama.
“When I left Austin (Texas) to go to Alabama for the first time, I thought I would die some time over the next few months. I even left a note in my childhood red Bible with instructions for those I loved. Riding all night in the car, with Wolfman Jack talking on the radio, our driver had us lean back in our seats every time a car passed in case it was the KKK trying to shoot into the car.
“It was surreal when we arrived in Demopolis, which is about 50 miles from Selma. We drove straight to the black neighborhood of this small town. It seemed peaceful with roosters crowing in the morning sunlight and the smells of crops behind the houses and children playing outside. But we knew we were in danger as soon as the police found out we had arrived.
“This was the spring of 1966 and we had come to register people to vote. We also helped give rides to the polling locations, which turned out to be a wild goose chase. Many people never were permitted to vote. We would go where they had been told to vote, only to be told to go somewhere else. We came back again that summer to stay until the fall. We lived with families who risked everything to house us. They shared what food they had and we bathed in their metal washtubs, as few people in the black part of town had indoor plumbing. I set up a kindergarten. Others established a community newspaper and some tutored kids in various subjects. Besides being followed by the local police or the Klan, we also received regular bomb threats at our office in Demopolis.
“Appearance was important. I thought then, as I have a number of times later in my life in various situations, that my presence as a white woman who looked ‘respectable’ perhaps saved us all from bodily harm. Even though I wore no makeup at the time and no longer wore my hair in a fashionable way, I still didn’t look like what I would consider to be an extreme hippie. Back then, you risked your life, literally, by dressing differently. All of us in this group never saw ourselves as hippies. We were about working in the community, not dropping out and getting high. Drugs were definitely not allowed if you were a civil rights worker. That was the last thing people in the community wanted.”
Parrish Kelley came to Mississippi in 1964 as part of Freedom Summer.
“I got interested in the civil rights movement at a very young age. Our parents weren’t rich, but they did have enough money to hire a servant. She was a black woman in her 70s who had been living in Canada. We later learned that she moved there to get away from the racism she had encountered in the South. She took very good care of us, but it wasn’t like she was a Mammy-type from the slavery days. She had very strong opinions on how things ought to be.
“Our family moved to Texas in 1952. We wanted her to come, but she said no way. She wasn’t going any place where she would have to ride in the back of the bus. This made me very sensitive about Jim Crow.
“I made a black friend named James. In 1954, he came up to me and said the law had changed and he would be going to the same school as me. He was wrong. The town got around the law by ruling that persons who weren’t the primary residents of the house couldn’t go to the white school. This effectively ruled out the black kids because their parents were servants.
“The thing I remember the most about the civil rights movement was the week’s training in Oxford, Ohio. Fannie Lou Hamer came up to help introduce us to the culture we would find in rural Mississippi. The togetherness we felt was incredible. You could walk up to a complete stranger and start a conversation.
“I was assigned to Ruleville. We made many excursions to the courthouse to register voters, but what I mostly did was teach history at a school we fashioned from this duplex on the black side of town. People from the North had sent all these boxes of books and that took up two rooms of the six in the shotgun-style building. It was an interesting form of teaching in that I didn’t see the same students for two weeks running. Anybody could come at any time and learn what they could.
“Compared to the other places in Mississippi at that time, very little in the way of trouble happened in Ruleville. This was the home base of Sen. James Eastland. We later learned that he put out the word that there would be no incidents in his part of the state. The church where we sang freedom songs was bombed a few days before I arrived, but my stay was pretty calm. The worst thing was the cars full of white people who drove by and hollered out the window.”
Harold Ticktin came to Jackson, Miss., in 1965 as a member of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee.
“My second day, they sent me to Greenwood – not exactly a welcoming place – to try to desegregate this grocery store. The widow who owned it hit one of our workers over the head with a pop bottle.
“Charges were brought. I was only there to monitor the case, but the local prosecutor didn’t want to pursue the matter and asked me to prosecute. It took up an afternoon and we won, although the judge was reluctant to do anything. I think she got off with a $25 fine and a suspended sentence.
“I remember being scared because they had pumped us full of caution. Always check your tires. Always check to make sure somebody didn’t dump sugar in the gas tank. The idea was not to linger and make sure you’re out of town by nightfall.
“Another case I remember was about the Top Hat Café. They wouldn’t serve blacks except by take-out so we got a temporary restraining order and went to court. I had to prove interstate commerce was involved, so I had a witness do some shopping at the store. I presented items into evidence that had all crossed state lines to get to this store. A Baby Ruth Bar A pack of Lifesavers. A package of Twinkies. The judge ran his court like he was Caesar. I remember him saying we prevailed, but only by the narrowest of margins.”
The Rev. Walter Brown, Sr., of Evansville, Ind., marched with Martin Luther King and had fire hoses turned on him in Montgomery and Birmingham.
“In Hot Springs (Ark.), I strategized with King as early as 1952. We had night meetings in which he stressed tolerance and non-violence. He was a man of few words, but those words made sense. Those words were heavy, but he never ran off at the mouth. He was calm, humble and yet firm. He didn’t have to lead the marches. He was a learned man. He could have been a philosophy chair at a college or even been its president. We didn’t have very many Ph.Ds in the movement. His future was wide open, but he decided to work for the common people.
“I remember him coming to Philadelphia (Miss.) and walking eight miles to a church that had been burned three different times. It wasn’t the money that moved him because I knew he didn’t get much of anything.
“I got arrested in Nashville (Tenn.) for trying to desegregate a restaurant. I stayed overnight in jail. I don’t know where the money came from to get me out, but it came.
“My brother and I were successful at registering to vote, but when we showed up on election day they said they had no record of us.
“Do I forgive? Yes. I have been bitter, but I realize you can’t win with hate and violence. We had no guns, no militia. Non-violence was our basic weapon. The benediction is a blessing. I tell the young people what we went through and they can learn from our experience.”
Robert Pardun, a Colorado native, was in graduate school at the University of Texas when he joined SNCC.
“Before I moved to Austin, I had never been in a place where there was legal, overt segregation. In all university events from beauty contests to sports, the two races were apart. There had been civil rights demonstrations in Austin for several years and, in 1964, I joined my first protest over a segregated cafeteria in downtown Austin. The owner came out and explained that it was a chain restaurant and he couldn’t desegregate it by himself. Over a period of time, we were successful.
“We also demonstrated on campus. One of the fraternities had a blackface minstrel show that we objected to. It went on that year, but it was the last such affair.
“Later that year, I went to Biloxi (Miss.) to take part in Freedom Summer. I was a member of what was called the ‘white folks project.’ We met with businessmen, clergy and teachers about integration. We found some support, but nobody wanted to be the first one to step out. They feared the Klan and the White Citizens Council.
“Many Southern whites were as poor as the blacks, but were considered better than blacks because they were white. We wanted to try to get around skin color by talking about economic issues such as jobs and housing. Our first success was with a group of white shrimp fishermen. Other people were afraid to join us because they thought they would lose their jobs. I guess the fishermen figured they didn’t have a behind that needed protecting.
“I was never shot at, but I did have a gun stuck in my face. We had rented this little house in Biloxi, but when we came back the locks had been changed. The owner found out who we were and refused to rent to a bunch of ‘nigger-lovers,’ as he called us. He also kept our $100 deposit. I pulled out my ace in the hole and said we had some of the world’s best lawyers on our side and they would get our money back. He pulled out his ace in the hole which was a gun. I got the hell out of there. My friend stayed for another 10 minutes. When he came back, he had $50 of our deposit. We went away feeling pretty good that we got that much back.”
Matthew Rinaldi helped register black voters and worked in a Freedom House during two tours of duty in Mississippi in the mid 1960s.
“My inspiration was of the personal variety. I grew up in Brooklyn’s white suburbia and had little or no contact with racism. As a high school junior, I took the National Science Foundation test at Morgan State College, a mostly black school. The summer program was integrated. My roommate was a black kid from the South. I was astounded at the commonplace nature of the segregation that he described to me. We went to see the movie ‘Hud’ in Baltimore. The black boys were eager to go because they knew they wouldn’t be able to when they got back home. Listening to their stories made all those New York Times articles make sense. I became involved with the Long Island chapter of CORE. We picketed construction sites that didn’t have black workers and worked on school integration in the North.
“After my experience at Morgan State, my parents took me to hear Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. It was a very moving experience. With that in mind, I enrolled in Oberlin College in Ohio that had a reputation for being a stopping point for the Underground Railroad. The institution put itself on the map by forming a Carpenters for Christmas campaign to rebuild African-American churches in the South that had been burned during Freedom Summer.
“My worst experience came during a winter trip to Mississippi. There were 18 of us from Oberlin and they used us as a blitz crew. In 10 days, we participated in restaurant sit-ins, attempted to integrate a white-only park and helped register black voters. Our group was split up. Most stayed with black families and they reported an incredible outpouring of warmth and friendship. This was when the movement started going away from non-violence and toward defending ourselves when attacked. Because I knew something about weaponry, I was assigned to the Freedom House. Two of us were on guard duty one night when two cars full of whites came by again and again. We were so stupid that we didn’t alert the others inside the building. Then, all of a sudden, they opened up with shotguns. I hit the floor and crawled under the bed. My friend ran outside and I soon followed. We shot back as they were driving away. I think this surprised and even frightened them because they never came back. We were lucky that nobody in the house was seriously hurt. The FBI came at 3 in the morning to investigate. We later learned that one of the men in the cars belonged to the KKK.
“It was a very fulfilling experience. There was no question that we were struggling for truth and justice and freedom. The segregation was horrific. People were being disenfranchised because of the color of their skin. To be part of the awakening of the whole country against this oppression was something I’ll never forget.”
Rabbi Martin Freedman was in the Selma March. He also organized a bus filled with clergy in conjunction with the Freedom Riders.
“There were 18 of us who rode from Washington to Tallahassee (Fla.), desegregating places as we went. The target in Florida was the airport and it was the last of our stops. We were denied admittance. The people there said they were in the process of cleaning up. We waited, but it never opened up. We spent that night at a church. It was two days at the county jail. Then bail. Then the trial. We were convicted and it was appealed. Two years later, we returned to serve our sentence. This time we served three days and were ordered to reappear at city hall. There had been intense national publicity about the clergymen going to jail. The judge said we could appeal for clemency and be freed. We met with our attorney and decided to turn down the offer. We were prepared to serve the six months. The judge knew a writ would be obtained to get us out and he would look bad, so he turned us loose right then and there. Out in the street with our stuff still in the jail.
“I was a very politically active person with strong feelings about segregation and deprivation of rights. But I was an anti-communist, which put me against some of the people in the movement.
“For the most part, my congregation was supportive of my participation. One fellow did leave the temple over it, though. He was an important manufacturer of dog food in the South and was afraid he was going to lose money. Eventually, he ended up rejoining.”
Ira Grupper worked with SNCC in Georgia and with COFO in Mississippi.
“Nine hundred civil rights protesters were arrested in Jackson (Miss.) in June of 1965. This was one of the largest protests of the movement, exceeded only by the mass jailings in Birmingham and Albany (Ga.). I was in the first wave of those arrested. We were protesting the illegal convening of the Mississippi State Legislature, illegal because of the exclusion of its black citizens.
“We arrived in prison trucks at the state fairgrounds where cattle had been kept and then moved, and which were the same buildings where we would be housed. Women and men were separated, and I did not see my jailed sisters in the struggle until we were released on bond about two weeks later. After being booked, we had to pass through a cordon of state police. Some of us were beaten. In the cavernous hall where we wound up, there were additional beatings for protesting being segregated. African-Americans were on one side and white freedom fighters were on the other. When dinner was to be served, the guards forced the whites to line up first. This was both a form of control and humiliation. Each white inmate was given a piece of bologna stuck between two stale pieces of bread, and a paper cup with milk, or rather tepid water with a little milk powder. Each white guy returned with his meal to the spot on the cement floor on the white side, where he sat cross-legged and placed the cup on the floor and the sandwich on top of the cup in front of him.
“Then the black prisoners lined up. They returned to their spots on the ‘colored’ side. No one ate. No one drank. We all simply looked at each other across the vast expanse. After the last African-American took his seat, all prisoners picked up our sandwiches and broke bread together. Were I a Catholic I suppose I would have had visions of Holy Communion at such spiritual unity. But I am a Jew. So I must relate to the Jewish culture and religion of the secular Jew in Psalm 91, which I will make gender-neutral: I am with those in distress. I will release them and I will honor them.”
Heather Booth joined Friends of SNCC in 1963 and went to Mississippi the following year to take part in Freedom Summer.
“I grew up in New York in a family that believed in freedom and justice for all. We had good family values. Stories of racial discrimination, abuse and violations of people’s humanity were chilling. When I heard about the murder of Emmett Till, I knew we had to act to live our beliefs and to make justice a reality.
“By 1960 while in high school, I joined in support for the Woolworth’s boycott. When I went South a few years later, I worked in voter registration. We stayed with the Hawkins family in Shaw, a community in the Delta. This family gave up their bedrooms to house us. We shared their food and they opened our minds.
“The Freedom School was designed to teach reading and writing skills to prepare people for the literacy tests that were part of the voter registration drive. It also served to build spirit in the civil rights movement, in that it taught the history of African-Americans and others in the struggle. We were the so-called teachers, but in reality we were learning the material at about the same time we were teaching it. The lessons went on late into the night.
“At one point, there was a bomb scare at the Freedom House. It was early evening when someone noticed unfamiliar cars circling the center – a common sign of Klan activity. We were told to get on the floor and keep an open line to the Jackson SNCC office while that office tried to get the Justice Department on the phone. We stayed on the floor for hours, in the dark, trying not to make too much noise and hearing the cars circling and seeing their lights in the darkening night. We were thinking what would our families and friends remember of us if this was our last night on
“Then we realized African-American people of Mississippi face this kind of terror all the time. It is a part of their life. The volunteers would be leaving at the end of the summer. For the Hawkins family, and so many others, they dealt with this threat and terror all their lives.
“When we went back to Mississippi for a reunion of the Summer Project, an African-American police chief led a caravan welcoming us into town where the black mayor gave us the keys to the city. In so many ways, we have come so far.”
Stone Johnson took part in several protest marches in his native Birmingham. He was in Kelly Ingram Park when Eugene (Bull) Connor ordered the water hoses turned on demonstrators.
“I was blessed not to get that water on me, but I sure saw a lot of folks take the force straight on. It hit like a pickup truck and rolled you like a basketball. I had a union job with the railroad and I was a security guard for Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. That kept me away from the worst of it and it helped me hold on to my job. The only time I got arrested was for sitting up front on a bus. This was after Rosa Parks and Montgomery. Rev. Shuttlesworth asked as many people as possible to fill the buses after Connors said he wasn’t going to pay any attention to what happened in some other town. There were so many of us arrested that they had to farm a lot out to the jails around Birmingham. One jailer would call and say he could take 25. Somebody else would call and say he could take 50. They were so many that they ended up taking them out to the fairgrounds like cattle. I only had to stay overnight, but there were some who got two, even three weeks out of it.
“Bull Connor had been on the radio before he became a politician. A tough, heavy kind of voice. He had a talent as an announcer, but he used it in the wrong direction. He’d stand out on the street so the television cameras could take his picture. He was the kind of man who would turn the hoses on folks and then turn the air-conditioner up high when he got them in jail. I can remember him getting on the radio and saying he didn’t want any niggers voting for him. That wasn’t going to happen because only a handful of blacks were registered. We’d have to answer questions the registrar didn’t even know, like how many grains of sand there are on a beach.
“He knew me because of Rev. Shuttlesworth. We were in his office one day and he hollered out, ‘You niggers get out of here.’ That man was really something.”