Thursday, January 3, 2008

Part 3: Southern Jail

Intimidation by the Madison County Sheriff
by Charlie Leck

This is Part Three 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.

The conversation with the gentlemanly, white dentist had not gone well. Clearly, we were not seeing eye to eye on these matters about the social customs of the south and southern hospitality. We were less concerned about southern hospitality and more concerned about social injustice and matters of equality. We were outside the dentist's office, standing in downtown Canton, just across from the court house, trying to get oriented. The gentlemanly dentist had hoped his remarks would cause us to take the next train out of town and back to the north. After having met Angelina Davis, I was more convinced than ever to stick it out. David and I told Doctor Nelson and John about her and the lovely children. The two of them had got twin beds in a comfortable room in the house of an elderly black couple.

John suggested we had work to do. We'd better get back to Freedom House and get going! Boldly, he led the way. Somehow John had become our captain in those first two days. He was a native of Memphis and he had something left of a southern accent even though he'd lived in the north for more than a decade. He seemed to be able to lead our communications with the white gentry of the south. And, he had a better internal, geographic compass than the rest of us. He knew the way back to Freedom House and he waved at us to follow him.

It was a quiet morning with no congestion or traffic of any sort. It was already growing hot. We were standing in the middle of a downtown block, each of us in coat and tie, looking like slightly lost northern gentlemen. Our leader headed out across the street toward the court house. As lemmings, we followed him. As we arrived at the curb on the other side of the street, Deputy Sheriff Fullmer was waiting for us and announced that we were under arrest for jay walking. Wouldn't we kindly follow him to the Sheriff's office? Naturally, we protested the silliness of the charge, pointing out the utter lack of any traffic or movement in the entire downtown region. Nevertheless, he instructed us to follow him.

We were gently urged into a couple of jail cells and told we would need to wait for the Sheriff's return from an appointment. He wanted to talk to us about obeying the law in Canton. Our cell doors were not locked and the four of us found places to sit down and await the Sheriff. Each of us had a sense of anger and fear mingling with a touch of absurdity and humor.

In only moments, the Sheriff arrived and asked us to come with him to his office. He led us down a narrow hallway and into his spacious headquarters. Four chairs were neatly lined up across from his desk. The sheriff sat down behind his desk and invited us to sit in the chairs out in front of him. He tilted his chair backwards on only its two rear legs, and leaned his back against the wall. He had a black, leather billy-club in one hand and he gently slapped it into the palm of his other hand as he spoke to us.

We had to be stupid, he let us know, if we didn't realize that, for two reasons, we were going to be carefully watched while in his county. One reason was that we were seen as potential trouble makers, stirring up a hornet's nest of problems. The other was for our own safety, in an attempt to protect us from many of the white folks in the county who might like to do us harm.

"Y'all realize that's there's jest no word about your fellow rabble rousers who disappeared on Sunday night. They seem to have just vanished and I speck that they're in a heap of trouble. The same, y'all know it could happen to y'all jest as well."

The club was slapping more loudly into the palm of his hand now, making a very audible cracking sound. I had Mickey Schwerner on my mind a lot. I had a feeling he met up with someone just like this idiot who was trying so hard to intimidate us. We hoped to God that he and James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were still alive, though we knew in our souls that they were not. It would have taken some mighty fanciful thinking to imagine there would be no more violence in Mississippi during the remainder of the summer. We knew in our souls that there would be more. One only had to look at this Sheriff and watch how he slapped that heavy piece of steel into his hand.

"It'd be far better for y'all and for all of us'n, too, if y'all would jest get on the afternoon train and go back home. It's not often that we're not sociable and hospitable and welcoming, but this here is one of them times. I'm mighty afraid some harm is goin' to come to y'all if you stick around here."

The slapping sound was even more distinct as he paused and looked intently from one to the other of us. He appeared to be looking for a weakness. He pointed the tip of the leather club at me.

"You, I hear, are a hot-head. You use obscene language as well. We don't take to talk like that in our community, especially when conversing with gentlemen."

The Sheriff returned to rhythmically slapping the leather wrapped hunk of metal into the palm of his hand. He glared at me intently, waiting for an answer. I sat silently and tried not to blink. I did. He looked away, to Doctor Nelson. The professor looked like the most mature and rational of us all and, perhaps, he might have seemed like our weak link as well. He wasn't.

"Sir, can't you talk some sense into these young men. Y'all comin' here in your suits, and ties and fancy polished shoes, are just given a general blessin' to all these young goons who're takin' over our town and stirrin' up our Negras."

There it was – that paternalistic expression again. I felt the heat rise up in me and my face burned hot. David, sitting next to me, put a hand on my arm and pressed downward, signaling me to stay cool. The Sheriff knew already about my encounter in the dentist's office. He may also have known the very phrase that riled me up. I forced myself to stay calm even though I wanted to scream at the son-of-a-bitch. I wanted to slam a fist down on his desk and ask him who made all the black folks in the county "his Negras."

The Sheriff was expecting it of me and I think he was disappointed that I resisted. Public obscenity was probably a crime in Madison County, punishable by months in prison.

"Now listen up," the Sheriff said, as if he might be a drill sergeant in boot camp, "Depaty Fullmer is gunna hand out some identity cards. We got a new law on the books that visitors to our county who plan to stay more'an two days has to fill one out, give us a copy and then have the original on them at all times."

"Identity cards?" Doctor Nelson asked in surprise. "That doesn't sound very American or very constitutional. It sounds more like something we'd expect of the Soviets."

The professor knew that a comparison of southern gentry to the communists, who they so feared and hated, would touch a sore spot in the Sheriff. It did. The big man's face reddened and he visibly fought to control his temper.

"This is for y'all's own protection," he said crisply. "We don't want nothin' to happen to y'all like happened to those poe kids up'n Meridian. We want to know where y'all are stayin' so we can give y'all more security."

"It seems more like an invasion of our privacy," Doctor Nelson replied firmly. "Perhaps it's also an invasion of the privacy of the people with whom we are staying. Perhaps it puts our hosts in danger, too. I'd like to protest such a procedure."

"My, oh, my," the Sheriff said with great sarcasm, "ain't that purdy talkin' now. Well, sir, protest all y'all want, but y'alls gonna fill 'em out or y'alls gonna sit y'alls fannies down in the jail cells 'til y'all do." He cracked the billy-club on the top of his desk for emphasis.

[I kept my identity card for many years. It's probably still in some drawer or box somewhere, but I've not been able to find it].

So, this was the closed society that James Silver had written so powerfully about. The threat we were posing was immense and white Mississippi was scrambling around, trying to figure out what to do to protect itself against open voting. This closed society honestly believed that black citizens might no longer be slaves, but they weren't entirely free either. They certainly were not so free that they could determine public policy through their participation in elections. The concept of identity cards was stupid both on the surface and as any kind of strategy to stop us. Intimidation was the only weapon left in white Mississippi and it wasn't a very good weapon. The power of the black vote was on the horizon and the Sheriff of Madison County could see it. In fact, before 1965 only 6.7 percent of Mississippi's eligible black voters were registered. By 1988, thanks to the kick-start of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, nearly 75 percent were registered.

We each filled out our identity cards. Copies were made of them. David nor I had any idea what our street address at Angelina's was. The Sheriff told us that was no problem. He knew where we were staying. With great cynicism he recited the address so we could copy it down on our identity cards.

I wanted so desperately to confront the buffoonish Sheriff. I wanted to tell him that his job was in jeopardy. The day would be coming when a black man would be elected Sheriff of Madison County.

In 2008 it is nearly impossible to imagine the power of a sheriff in virtually any Mississippi county, or of the state's highway patrol, in 1964. These law enforcement officers were, for all practical purposes, an arm of the infamous White Citizen Council, a plain and simple and violently racist vigilante operation. As Ben Bagdikian writes in his article, Returning to Mississippi.

"At that time,… it was just as dangerous when in a "mixed" car (carrying both whites and blacks) to be followed by the patrol cruiser as by the Klan or the many Klan-like vigilantes. …the sheriff of Holmes County was notorious for being an enforcer of segregation and a danger to the life and limb of civil rights workers from the north and to the colored people who cooperated with them."

Bagdikian returned to Mississippi in 2002 and stopped to visit the Sheriff of Holmes County and found himself in the presence of a black man. Would it have happened without the Mississippi Voter Registration Project of 1964 or the Federal Voting Right Act of 1965? I think not.

END: Part Three

Next: Working the Streets in Mississippi's Closed Society(Part Four)

Part Five: Getting out into rural Mississippi and Praying for Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner

Part Six: Saying Goodbye to Angelina and Back Home on the Speaking Circuit

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