Friday, December 28, 2007

Remembering the Sixties

Part One:
Riding on the Spirit of New Orleans

by Charlie Leck

One of my daughters – the youngest one – asked for a strange
holiday gift this year. 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 United Airlines plane landed in Chicago, at the O'Hare Airport. I had flown first class because I booked at the last moment and couldn't get a coach seat. First class travel in those days was a real luxury. United Airlines called it "Red Carpet Service." I was twenty-three years old and had never had a drink of hard liquor. Not knowing the names of drinks very well, I could only call to memory a martini, and that's what I asked for. It burned going down and my head spun a bit from it, but I also felt a rush of relaxation. The flight was the last bit of luxury I would see for a while. From the airport, I grabbed a train downtown and then a cab out to the south side Illinois Central Railroad Station. The two guys with whom I was to travel were waiting outside on the big, concrete stairway that led up to the station. One of them was puffing nervously on a cigarette. I had worried so much about being late. They had taken the train down to Chicago and waited patiently for me to arrive. I can't even remember why I couldn't join them on the train, but something important must have been happening in the family and I had to delay my departure.

It was 1964. It was summer. The weather reports from Mississippi were not promising and neither were the news reports. It was very hot there. We were going to roll into a very uncomfortable place.

Our destination was the town of Canton. Our assignment was to be the eyes and ears of the voter registration movement in that city and throughout Madison County. I was a student in graduate school. I was considered old enough and mature enough to be assigned as a monitor, to observe and supervise the work of the northern college students who were converging on Mississippi. A national program was underway, targeting Mississippi, to register black citizens to vote. The state had used every technicality of the law and of administrative procedure to deny such registration to blacks. Our program, a combined effort of several of the major black civil rights organizations and mainly of Martin Luther King, Junior, intended to break the back of those procedures.

We were traveling on the famous Illinois Central train, The City of New Orleans. We'd roll along the rails throughout the night and arrive in Canton in the heat of the day. We settled into the club car and ordered some cold beer. My traveling companions were Doctor James Nelson, PhD., one of my professors, and the Reverend John Fisher, the Director of Social and Community Ministry for the United Church of Christ in Minnesota. Soon after we began sipping our beers, we met another member of our team, a pastor from an Illinois community south of Chicago. I'll call him David, though his actual name has escaped me after all these years. Somewhere, stuffed in one of these drawers or in a box pushed to the back of some closet, I have a diary of those days in Mississippi. It would likely reveal David's real name to me. I wrote a long novel in the late sixties and early seventies in which David is one of the main characters. It's also shoved in a box in the back of some closet.

As the train rolled south, we'd try to occasionally grab some sleep in the reclining seats of the passenger car to which we were assigned; however, unable to sleep because of the heat in the train, the crying of little babes wanting to nurse, and because of the anticipation of the problems that we would soon encounter, we'd end up together back in the club car. We could hear the rails singing in the heat and the loud squealing they would emit whenever the engineer applied any brake at all to his big, diesel locomotive.

The popular song about the train by Steve Goodman was to come along in the next decade, and it described to perfection the mood and atmosphere on the train that moved through the night. Goodman wrote the entire song on a trip aboard the train. This famous train was scheduled to disappear and Goodman thought the song might be used by the protestors who were trying to save it. Soon after, Arlo Guthrie recorded the song and won many awards for it, and rejuvenated the futile fight to save the service used by so many poor people.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm you native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

…Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.

And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm you native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Nightime on the City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
But all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

How, when I heard Guthrie sing it years later, the song brought back the memory of this nervous, deliberative night! The train raced southward "through the Mississippi darkness." My heart beat recognizably. The air conditioning was totally dysfunctional. The odor of stale perspiration assailed me. I wondered if it were mine or from other passengers sitting nearby. My hands felt clammy. My shirt stuck to me. My feet burned. I was having second thoughts about the journey. The train rocked. Passengers, mostly African-Americans, stirred and rose to walk the aisles. The toilets stunk. I could see a tremble in my hands. My mouth and throat were dry. My thirst was slaked well enough. It was the dryness of fright that assailed my mouth.

The morning broke across the Mississippi countryside and I knew we were ever so close to Canton, a town named after its Chinese counterpart half way around the world – exactly opposite each other on the globe. "Dig a hole straight down, fellas, and yed' still be in Canton when yed' come out on th'other end!" It would be my summer home. On this very night, somewhere out in the hot, Mississippi darkness, Mickey Schwerner, Michael Goodman and James Chaney were assailed and murdered and their burned-out station wagon was left in the swamps of Bogue Chitto. It would be over a month later before their bodies were discovered. Had I known their fate, I'm sure I would have turned back.

The train slowed and the conductors strode down the aisles of the passenger cars calling out the name of the town.

"Canton. Canton next!"

I have never been so consumed by fear. Now I knew it was my own stale, fearful body that I smelled. Something crawled across the surface of my flesh. It was the explosive sensation of fright arousing my adrenal glands. My travel companions were pale as they moved toward the exits of the car. The train crept slowly and then jerked to a halt. Jet black conductors swung open the doors and placed a step on the pavement for us. They offered their white-gloved hands to help us step down. Their eyes held a warning glance and their heads jerked just slightly to the side, warning us that white men were observing our debarkation.

It was a blunder to look over toward the spectators. Nevertheless, I did. Their faces were as stiff and solid as stone and they looked intently and hatefully at us. I jerked my eyes and head away from them and followed my companions to the station. A pay phone hung on the wall. We had a number to call, to request a pick up. After the call was made we moved toward a waiting room. A sign above it said, "Whites Only!" Offended, we stopped and looked at each other and then down the platform to another waiting room for "Colored Only!" We were honor-bound to move toward it, passing separate drinking fountains for white and colored. Feeling the need to demonstrate our mission, each of the four of us took a long draw from the fountain for "Colored Only!" Our observers were deadly silent. Deadly! We stepped into the waiting room that black people had to use.

A police officer walked to the waiting room and quietly opened the door and slipped in. He stood silently, observing us. The more mature fellows stared back at him. I looked down at the big pistol holster on his hip and the shiny, black billy-club that hung from his belt.

"Gentlemen," the officer spoke softly, "y'all are violatin' the important traditions of our community and of the southern states. Y'all should be in the other waitin' room, down the platform."

None of us budged. The law enforcer pawed the floor with his shoe.

"Frankly," he said in a deeply southern drawl, "y'all would be very wise to catch the northbound train that will come through here late this afternoon, and return to your northern homes and loved ones. This, unfortunately, is not now a safe place. I am sure you have not yet heard the rumors that three northern boys, much like yourselves, have disappeared. You are not really safe here. It would be a shame for your families if something were to happen to any one of you gentlemen."

He paused, waiting for us to make a reply. I followed the lead of my companions and did not stir. None of us spoke. We were careful to show no signs of fear. No one cleared his throat, or coughed or stirred.

"Well, I cannot force y'all to leave this room, but you should know you are bein' very foolish. You are insultin' us and our customs. If you remain in our community, you will be watched carefully and we will consider you as unfriendly visitors who are here to stir up trouble."

Behind the officer, the door opened and a young black man stepped into the room and stood looking at us. The policeman turned and stepped toward the door.

"Howdy, Asa. I expect you are here to pick up these unfriendlies. I hope you understand the responsibility you will have to accept if some harm comes to them."

"Thank you, De-pa-ty," the black youngster said.

With that the uniformed man strode firmly and quickly from the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

A large volume of air escaped me. My entrails stirred, making a sound that everyone heard. The young black fellow looked at me and laughed.

"Don't have no fear of him," Asa said. "He's a mite more bark than bite."

The reassurance helped some. We smiled and grabbed our bags.

"Just the same," Asa went right on, "I'd avoid him and d'other whites in this here town if I wassa you guys. Come on! We're a goin' over to Freedom House for a strategy plannin' meetin'."

Freedom House was an old, one-room meeting hall of some type. It was painted bright red and sat up on a tiny knoll. There was a kitchenette in one corner and the rest of the room was filled with folding chairs and one moveable blackboard.

Asa nodded to young, short, stocky, black man as we entered and held the door for us. About 25 young, white men and women sat around the room in a disordered way, sipping on coke bottles and munching chips. Most of the male students had long hair and beards. They wore jeans and t-shirts that bore varied and sundry slogans about freedom and peace. The young women were also in jeans and t-shirts and they clearly wore no bras beneath the clever slogans. A cigarette was being passed among them. We were in coat and tie. There was an aroma in the air that I did not recognize then. I was to learn it was marijuana

"Depaty Sheriff Fulmer wassa given 'em some shit when I got there," Asa was telling the stocky young man. "I told 'em to be cautious of him and give him some respect if'fin dey come across him."

The young man offered his hand to each of us, pulling us gently into the room as he did.

"I am George Washington the Third," he told us. I'll be your official host while you are in our community and I'll maintain Freedom House as a safe house for you. No harm will come to you while you are here. We have made it clear that the town will burn if any harm comes to this place or its inhabitants."

Washington stared carefully at us to see if his words were registering. There was some comfort in them, but I was asking myself if that meant we were in great danger when we were outside of this building.

Each of the four of us introduced ourselves to George Washington, III.

"Come, now," Washington said, "come and meet the others."


NEXT: Angelina Davis gives me her bedroom!

1 comment:

  1. Good to see your lengthy post on "City of New Orleans." Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my new 800-page biography of Goodman, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves deeply into the origin of "City of New Orleans." Please check my Internet site below for more info on the book. The first printing just sold out, and the second printing will be out soon. Just trying to spread the word. Feel free to do the same!

    Clay Eals
    1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
    Seattle, WA 98116-1958

    (206) 935-7515
    (206) 484-8008