Sharing the bed of Angelina Davis
by Charlie Leck
This is Part Two of a series written for my youngest child.
She wants me to remember the sixties and write about
them for her – especially my involvement in the civil
rights movement of that decade. So, I will do that in a
series of essays here on my blog. You can begin with
the first part of the series by going to
Remembering the Sixties: Part One
22 June 1964
"I believe you gentlemen should try with more diligence to understand our customs. We are not like a northern city or town and we are proud of the sense of hospitality and courtesy that pervades our community."
We were chatting with a dentist in Canton, Mississippi. The conversation had been arranged by the Chamber of Commerce. We were considered the more mature of the northern visitors who had invaded their city and their goal was to talk some sense into our heads. The man appeared to be a kindly, sincere fellow of portly build and nattily dressed. He was very soft spoken and had laid out coffee and delicate baked goods for us.
Doctor Nelson spoke up for us: "We have no quarrel about matters of hospitality and courtesy, Dr. Barrett. We find you folks of the south to be impeccably polite. We are in your community because of matters of injustice and inequality."
"We believe deeply about equality, sir," the dentist replied. "Our strategy, however, is one of separate but equal. Black folk and white folk have precisely equal facilities. It is a matter of deep custom that we discourage a mingling of the races and interpersonal relations with our Negras."
The four of us were left rather aghast. We had actually heard this distinguished man say it. David was red in the face, but he tried to control himself.
"Are you expecting us to be fools, sir? We spoke yesterday with a woman in a neighborhood not far from here who had a bomb thrown into her front yard because she had volunteered to house some of the volunteer workers who were arriving in your community. Do you call this discouraging a mingling of the races? Discourage, sir?"
"Well, I know about the lady of whom you speak and I must say that some of our citizens do get rather worked up about violations of these customs we hold to. I would call those fellows rather radical in their behavior; however, Miss Davis should know better because she is well aware of the customs of the south. Her kind of behavior belongs in Chicago or New York. This is a woman with a household of children that she cannot afford and husbands or uncles, or something of the nature, who just keep passing through. She then expects the welfare system to support her and her little ones. This is not what America is all about – at least not what it was meant to be all about."
I had removed a bite of cinnamon doughnut from my mouth for fear I might choke on it. I was brushing sugar from my chin and my face was flushed with rage. I felt my hands tremble.
"She is a human being, sir, who your social customs have treated more like an animal. She has been cut off from opportunity and lives rather hopelessly. She is a lost soul because of your fucking social customs and phony southern hospitality."
My dear ethics professor reddened in his face at my insolence and spoke up quickly, trying to calm the moment.
"I hope you'll excuse Charles. He's rather upset at the signs of racial injustice and inequality we've seen here. We don't doubt your sincerity in these matters, but we deeply believe you are incorrect about things being equal for both races. Your practices – carefully planned practices – of denying the vote to those of the black race are all too obvious for us. We thought equality in America began with equality at the ballot box. That is why we are here, Doctor. It is precisely because of inequality in voter registration. We are not going to delve into other matters. Our goal will be to see to it that the black people of your community are fairly registered to vote and we will then try to teach them how to exercise that important right of all citizens."
The conversation droned on. The dentist remained under extraordinary control, but he was not really hearing anything we were saying. He did plead with us to leave his community before there was more violence. He assured us we had enough problems of racial inequality and injustice in our own communities to keep us busy for a long, long time. We agreed with him about that matter, but assured him that the national focus – the eyes of the nation – was at this moment on the State of Mississippi and its closed society (as James Silver called it in his book, Mississippi: The Closed Society).
Politeness hung in the air and drenched all of our words as we parted. I apologized for my outburst and my request for forgiveness was accepted. I knew, however, that I was now identified as the "hair trigger" in the group.
I could excuse myself, I supposed, because of a poor night's sleep the evening before. David and I had been dropped off at the home of Angelina Davis early in the evening. We'd first had a good dinner of ribs and chicken at a barbeque restaurant, owned by a black family, to which George Washington III had taken us. He told David and I what to expect at Angelina's home. She would do everything in her power to make us comfortable. He told us of the bombing of a few nights before. The thrown explosive had landed in the front yard, a few feet from her bedroom window, and had shaken the house. He was proud of her courage. She continued to be committed to housing us.
Angelina greeted us warmly. Five little children – black as blackness can be –were keeping their distance from us. They were wide-eyed and occasionally giggled nervously. They must have found our pale, colorless skin quite awful. I could almost see them wondering why it wins us any more honored place in society than their own rich, dark complexion. Angelina instructed the oldest girl, probably nine or ten, to show us to the bedroom. As she did, she explained that it was her mom's room. Where would her mom sleep? With the children in the other bedroom! We found Angelina in her tiny kitchen, preparing a pitcher of ice tea for us. We protested about taking her bedroom and we offered to sleep in the living room, on the floor. She wouldn't hear of it. She insisted. It would be safer in the back of the house any way, she joked.
David and I were both uncomfortable about sharing a bed. He courageously volunteered to take the side near the window, closest to the little crater in the front yard. During the night each of us clung to his own particular edge. Rigid and stiff, I slept poorly through most of the night. Every little, strange noise caused me to sit up and scan my surroundings. As daylight broke, however, I was sleeping soundly on my back when I felt something creeping across my uncovered chest. I rose up in fear, expecting to find a giant spider or tarantula about to strike. Instead I saw a little black boy standing by the bedside. His fingers were resting gently on my chest. His eyes were wide with fear when I jumped, but they relaxed when I smiled at him. I realized that he was probably touching a white person for the first time in his life. He was awfully curious about my strange skin. He didn't resist when I lifted him onto the bed and put him between a suddenly awakened David and me. David bounced in the bed and made the boy fly upwards and land on his tummy. We all began rough-housing and laughing far too loudly. Before long the other children were standing in the doorway, peering in at us, only slightly frightened for their brother.
Our first, real day of work in Mississippi was about to begin. Morning had broken in an enjoyable way.
END PART TWO
NEXT: Intimidation by the Madison County Sheriff