Back Home on the Speaking Circuit
by Charlie Leck
This is the final posting in a six part series that I've
written for my youngest daughter, who currently is
teaching English in a middle-school in Harlem. When I
asked her what she wanted as a Christmas gift this year,
she asked me to write of my experiences in the 60s as a
civil rights worker. In a few weeks I'll do another short
series about the Selma March in 1965. Later, I'll do one
on my work on the south side of Minneapolis in 1967
through 1969, including the reaction on the day
Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
[click here if you want to go to the beginning of this series]
On our 14th day in Mississippi, a full two weeks after we had arrived, Doctor Nelson, John Fisher and David said goodbye to me. Their commitment was up. I had decided to stay on a while because of the shortage of volunteers for the observation work of the National Council of Churches. My colleagues all had jobs to which they needed to return. I was a student on summer break and I could give a bit more time to the summer project.
July had arrived in Mississippi with a vengeance. It wasn't just hot in Mississippi. Even Minnesota grows hot and humid in the summer, but the heat and the humidity is denser and more stifling in Mississippi. Folks try to get their work done early in the day. As the day grows warmer, people seem to move somewhat more slowly. You don't hustle on a summer day in Mississippi. Instead, you sort-of amble.
I moved out of Angelina's home. George Washington III found another room for me in the home of an elderly gentleman. The change was made for appearances sake. Everyone agreed it would not "appear" right if I alone remained in the home with Angelina and her children. The kids were saddened and so was I. Was it only because their little, daily treats would come to an end? They accepted my promise to stop by occasionally.
David had given Angelina a big hug when he said goodbye to her. The children watched with eyes wide open. I noticed that Angelina grew stiff when David threw his arms around her. It took her a second to relax and return his hug. He hugged and kissed each of the children, too. They wept slightly as they returned his affections. He had been wonderful to them and they adored him.
David was ten years or so older than I. His maturity gave him a calmer, more confident demeanor. I wanted to tell David how dearly I had come to like and appreciate him. Instead, on the platform at the railroad station, I could only stiffly shake his hand and wish him a good journey. I didn't know it then, but I would never see him again; however, I did use him as a model for a character I created in a novel I wrote during the late 1970s.
My big, hot breakfasts – the wonderful eggs, ham, biscuits, grits and gravy – came to an end. I had to resort to purchasing a small box of powdered doughnuts and carton of milk at George Washington's general store. I'd sit on a bench out on the front porch of the store and share the doughnuts with whichever volunteers were also hanging around, preparing to begin the day's work.
Over the weeks, I had hoped to see hundreds of black residents going down to the court house to register for their right to vote. Instead, only dozens worked up the courage. It's a phenomenon that none of us northern whites could begin to understand. Voting was part of the white man's world. That wasn't just a social fact! It was cultural, historic and deeply ingrained. Crossing the line into that world took enormous courage. It wouldn't happen as quickly that summer as most of us wanted, but it clearly happened over the next decade. The young, under-aged black men and women, who were observing the work of the Mississippi Summer Voter Registration Project, would go with confidence and certainty to register when they came of age. [More importantly, I must remind you again, the focus that the project brought to the issue motivated the Congress to pass the 1965 Federal Voter Rights Act. By the end of 1965, under the authority of the new law, 79,815 new black voters were registered to vote in Mississippi.]
In spite of less than great success, the extraordinary volunteers kept at it all summer. They kept visiting homes and telling people about voting rights. Elementary civics classes were organized at Freedom House. Black residents were urged to attend. The college students became instructors, trying to communicate the importance of community participation and the manner in which voting could change the structures of society. A handful of people attended. This was a hard nut to crack!
George Washington III remained my steady and faithful companion. We almost always had dinner together at one of the few joints that he found worthy in the black neighborhoods. I was less than courageous about venturing out into the countryside to attend the church services that George Washington III wanted me to visit, but daylight lasted a long time in the summer and we were nearly always back in Canton before solid darkness settled in.
Another young minister arrived from Seattle. He began joining us on our rounds of the country churches. He was as fascinated as I. We'd never heard such singing – such expressions of total faith in the will and ways of God. Jesus was a faithful, helpful and constant companion in the lives of these faithful people. They rightly understood that Jesus had not been a white man, even though the only portraiture they could get represented him as a lily, fair-haired white guy. Jesus was a soul brother – a dark skinned man from the land of dark skin folks. Though their lives were harsh, stark and meager, Jesus held out the promise of another glorious life, in another world, where justice, equality and fairness would be the rule.
As the middle of July passed, I realized that my time in Mississippi had come to an end. On a Saturday morning, George Washington III drove me over to Angelina's house. I had gifts for each of the children – things that GW III had helped me pick out. I brought a dainty, white sweater for Angelina. It seemed an odd gift in the sweltering heat of a southern summer, but my shopping advisor assured me that Angelina would love it and wear it on cool, winter evenings. I stood a foot from Angelina and looked at her carefully. She could have been a beautiful woman; however, the rugged, harsh life in Mississippi had taken a toll on her. The wrinkles of age had come to her face far too soon in her life. Because the funds weren't available, her teeth had not been cared for properly. Her back was starting to bend, as if she were an old woman. Yet, she was beautiful.
I promised to write regularly and to keep in touch. She smiled, showing a touch of disbelief. I thanked her profusely for sharing her bed. I gave her nearly all the money I had left, holding only a little back for the long rail journey north. I shook her hand and leaned forward and kissed her softly on the cheek.
"God bless you," I whispered, "and watch over you, and give you his peace!"
Too quickly I was moving toward the reverence and silliness of the clergy. It seemed the right thing to do. She smiled knowingly at me, recognizing my immaturity, but appreciating anyway the good intentions behind it.
I knelt and each of the children, one by one, came to me and we hugged each other tightly. They and I had tears in our eyes. George Washington III reminded me that we had a train to catch.
Over the next few months I wrote letters to Angelina and George Washington III. I never received replies. Someone suggested to me that, perhaps, they couldn't write or even read. I recognized the possibility in Angelina, but not in GW III. If he couldn't, he had certainly fooled me because he appeared so bright and capable. In the autumn of '64, one of Angelina's letters was returned by the mail service. It was marked as undeliverable and noted that there was no forwarding address.
The train ride to Chicago and then on to Minneapolis was so different than the one down to Mississippi. With each mile traveled I began to relax more and more and I could feel the tension and fright seeping from my body. I longed to listen to David, standing in the club car with a drink in his hand, lecturing us all about the political oddity of Mississippi society. I vowed to travel to Illinois to see him again. I never did. Things happen so quickly for a young man. It's complicated. It's difficult to keep most promises.
When the train crossed the river at Lacrosse, Wisconsin, and headed along the Minnesota bluffs toward Red Wing, I looked at the northern beauty of this land. Across the way, Wisconsin looked so spectacular in the setting sun. It looked peaceful and free and hopeful.
I was shocked at the number of requests I received to speak about my Mississippi experience. Through the remaining weeks of the summer, I found myself before sizeable audiences in churches, schools, libraries and private homes. I couldn't wax intellectually, as David likely did, on all the political complexities of Mississippi's closed society. I still had some significant acne on my face and uncertainty about my speaking ability. I learned quickly that audiences enjoyed the simple stories. My confidence grew. Crowds loved to hear about my fright when I jumped up in the bed on my first morning in Mississippi, thinking a dangerous spider was crawling across my abdomen. They laughed sweetly when I told them it was just little Jesse, touching the peculiar looking, pale skin. My listeners shook their heads in disbelief when I told them about the white and colored drinking fountains and how upset our small, white receiving party at the railroad station was when we went into the waiting room "for coloreds only." I described how those black people I was walking down to the court house, to register to vote, would step off the sidewalk and into the gutter, and tip their hats, when a white person passed. I told stories about our visits out into the dangerous, dark countryside and the spirit of joy and faith I experienced in those lovely, little churches. I taught them the proper response when I would say to them: "Hey y'all!" They'd laugh and shout out: "Just fine!" And tears would come to the eyes of my audiences and mine when I spoke about James, Michael and Andrew.
At the very end of July, the FBI learned of the probable location of the bodies of the three young men. On August 4th they were exhumed. They had been buried in a shallow grave on a small farm outside Philadelphia, Mississippi.
I grieved that I had never met them. For me, they became martyrs that I would hold in high esteem for the rest of my life. To this day, when I write about them, I get choked up and misty-eyed.
Mickey Schwerner was not only a voter registration volunteer; he also taught in the Freedom Schools. Though a New Yorker, he had an easy way about him and the black adults and kids of Mississippi took easily to him. On the other hand, to radical whites, Schwerner was just the opposite. Many biographies have called him the most despised civil rights worker in the state. The Klan referred to him as "goatee," and the Imperial Wizard of the Klan ordered his "elimination." On June 21, the Klan got its chance and Chaney and Goodman would die simply because they were with Schwerner.
With his wife, Rita, Schwerner came to Mississippi in January of his fateful year. He was assigned by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) to organize a community center in the city of Meridian. CORE paid him $9.80 each week for his work. It didn't take him long to raise the ire of the Klan. He organized a boycott against a local variety store, forcing the store to hire a black employee since it did the bulk of its business with black residents of the city. He worked tirelessly on the voter registration project long before the summer volunteers began arriving. Schwerner was harassed by the police and received many threatening telephone calls and plenty of hate mail. He remained firm, however, that coming to Mississippi was the right thing to do. He called the state "the decisive battleground for America. Nowhere in the world is the idea of white supremacy more firmly entrenched, or more cancerous, than in Mississippi."
One of the Freedom Schools was set up by Schwerner in the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Neshoba County. While Schwerner was in Ohio in June, at the SNCC training site, the church was burned to the ground by the local Klan. Naturally, Schwerner wanted to go there instantly to find out what happened and what he might do. So, with Chaney and Goodman along, he went there immediately upon his return from Ohio on June 21. After his visit with the heart-sick folks of Mount Zion, during which he promised to investigate the fire, he was driving back to Meridian in a beat up old, blue station wagon that belonged to CORE. He was pulled over to the side of the road by Deputy Cecil Price. The trap had been sprung by the Klan.
Schwerner's family described him as "full of life and ideas." He believed in the essential goodness of all people. His dog, a cocker spaniel, was name Ghandi. Schwerner loved animals and enjoyed poker, rock music and W.C. Fields. He was a normal, good guy, and he was very close to my own age. In 1963, he was emotionally touched when he saw the Birmingham riots on TV. He applied to work for CORE and asked to be sent to the south.
Late in the evening of June 21, the three young men were released from the Meridian jail. The Klan quickly intercepted them and they disappeared.
James Chaney was one of the three. He was a local, black kid. It is possible that no attention would have been paid to his disappearance if it had not happened in conjunction with two white guys. That night, when he died on Rock Cut Road, Chaney was 21 years old. He was volunteering for CORE and they thought he was doing a great job. He had been working in Canton until Schwerner was assigned to Meridian. He returned to his home town and became Schwerner's right-hand man and his "most willing volunteer." He was also closely identified by the Klan as part of their target-guy's work.
Unfortunately for him, Andrew Goodman, after finishing his training in Oxford, Ohio, was assigned to work for Schwerner in Meridian. He was just one of the hundreds of college students who had volunteered to work on the voter registration project. When he was murdered on the night of June 21, he had not been in Mississippi for even a full day. He was excited about the project and he was anxious to go to work. He grew up in a liberal home on the Upper Westside of Manhattan. He was deeply influenced by lots of the visitors who came to his home – such as Algier Hiss and Zero Mostel, the black-listed actor. The family lived comfortably and owned a vacation home in the Adirondacks. In the spring of 1964, Goodman listened to a speech by Allard Lowenstein, outlining the goals of the voter registration project. Lowenstein called Mississippi the "most totalitarian state in America" and proclaimed victories in civil rights could be won anywhere if they could be won in Mississippi. Andy Goodman wanted in.
I told my audiences about the three. It was difficult for me. I had seen the back, country roads of Mississippi in the night. They were long, straight, lonely roads, lined by dark swamps and low-lying cotton fields where, at night, not a single car might be seen for hours. It is easy to imagine the fear the three young men must have felt when the members of the Klan surrounded them.
Of course, at that time, I didn't know the rest of the story. I probably couldn't have told it anyway. An ordained Baptist minister, Edgar Ray Killen, took the call from Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price that informed him that "Goatee," the trouble-maker, had been released from jail with the other two young ones. Killen had been trying to eliminate Schwerner for some time. He was an enthusiastic "kleagle" – a recruiter – for the local branch of the Klan. He was highly successful.
On June 16, Killen had taken more than 70 Klansmen down to Neshoba County, hoping to find Schwerner at the Mount Zion Baptist Church. They found only local black folks. They beat most of them badly and set fire to their church.
On the night Schwerner and his two volunteers were released from Jail, Edgar Ray Killen had worked out a plan with the Deputy Sheriff. A large group of the Klansmen gathered at a site just outside Meridian and Killen told them of the plan. They waited for the blue station wagon to come along.
The jury in Edgar Ray Killen's 1967 murder trial was unable to reach a verdict. Killen was never retried on that charge; however, in 2005, more that 40 years after Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were slaughtered, the killer was convicted on three counts of manslaughter. The 79 year old man was then pushed before the judge in a wheelchair. He was asked if he had any comment and he replied, "None, your honor." He was sentenced to prison for 20 years with no possibility of parole.
I felt obligated to point out to my Minnesota listeners that racial prejudice and injustice were not confined to the south, but they were just more visible there. Here, in the north, racism is more subtle and hidden. We don't expect black folks to leave the sidewalk for us. Rather, many of us, fearing the encounter, choose to cross the street when we see black young men approaching us on a sidewalk. We quietly look for someplace else to live when a few too many black families move into our neighborhoods or communities. We look the other way when we know darn well that basically black schools in the inner-city are more poorly funded than our comfortable white schools in the suburbs.
My listeners would grow tense and affections for me, which had earlier been so obvious, began to disappear. Blatant racism is easy to deal with. It is right out there in the open and you can point to it and fight it. Subtle racists, of course, deny the charge and call it totally unfair. It's a racism you can't draw a circle around and you find it difficult to fight.
So, was Minnesota better in 1964 than Mississippi? Without question! There was not a road block to the voting booth. There weren't separate "facilities" for the races. People could shop wherever they chose. Yet, there were other more subtle ways to keep black folks in their place. There were mortgage red lines that were, in 1964, supported by major lending institutions. Because there were heavily black schools that were not funded as well as white schools, there was educational racism. Certain communities were subtly closed to black immigration. Many clubs overtly refused black membership. Minnesota was far more open than Mississippi in 1964, but there was still a long way to go. That will be part of another series that I will write later this year about my civil rights activities in Minnesota from 1966 through 1969.
I need to explain here that the summer of '64 changed my life completely. I was in a three-year graduate program at a theological school in Minnesota, training to be a minister or pastor in a local church. I entered the program, imagining myself serving in some rural or suburban church. My Mississippi experience changed all that. Courses in "church and community" and "community organization" became my favorites. Fortunately, my school had an outstanding instructor in that area. Though I only studied under him for a year, he had a huge impact on my life and made me yearn even more to serve in a low-income and racially diverse community. Ethics courses were also among my favorites. I began to follow everything that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote or said. The complexities of diverse philosophies and ambitions among the various black organizations (NAACP, SNNC, SCLC, CORE) became both a conundrum and a fascination for me.
Of course, I began struggling with how Christ, faith and discipleship fit into all of these new interests. My internship assignments always seemed to be in WASPish (white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) situations. They left me feeling empty. Surely, Christ was calling me to something more vital and more challenging. In those churches, in which I worked as a student, I listened to dozens and dozens of boring, flat and uninspiring sermons. I constantly compared them to the glorious and triumphant sermons of those black preachers in Mississippi. In preaching classes I began experimenting with more exciting and enthusiastic speaking methods. Surely one could be intellectually honest and precise and still have the resonance of those wonderful preachers I heard during the summer of '64.
Among my fellow students, I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. I had been in this school for less than two years; yet I was radically different than the guy who walked through the doors on my first day and I was radically different than my fellow students. John F. Kennedy's assassination during the autumn of my first year had shaken me to my core. I mourned his death in great pain and fury. His dramatic call to action and service haunted me: "Ask not what your country can do for you! Ask what you can do for your country!" Mississippi, it seems, had shown me what I could do. One of the Old Testament prophets had said it best: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream!"
Justice and righteousness! This would become the theme of my ministry and of all my preaching. It was this to which Christ was calling me.
If I was going to really be a minister, a clergyman, I would have to be dedicated to the pursuit of justice and equality for all God's children. I began to worry about whether there was a place for me in the conventional ministry. I thought constantly of Angelina Davis and her pretty and innocent children. They deserved justice! They deserved equal opportunities in their pursuit of happiness.
END of Series
NEXT: In a few weeks I'll begin a two-part series on the 1965 Selma March.