[In the summer of 1964,
three young men - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner,
were murdered while organizing for black voting rights in Mississippi.
Chaney was black; Goodman and Schwerner were white.
Also in Mississippi
that summer - working on the same effort as Chaney, Goodman and
Schwerner - was Gren Whitman who wrote letters to your editor
published in the first issue of the Idler, forerunner of the
Progressive Review. Here are some excerpts]
20 JUNE OXFORD, OHIO -The first week of our training/orientation
session here is finishing rapidly, and most of the volunteers
are gathering in the parking lot with their baggage, waiting
for busses in which they will travel to their various destinations
in the sovereign state of Mississippi. The mood is somber, the
laughter is nervous rather than genuine, for what we have learned
this week, above all, is the seriousness of the accusation that
Mississippi is a police state, a domestic Nazi regime, and that
each of the volunteers and staff members will be in real danger
of harassment and intimidation in the form of arrests, beatings,
jail terms, and even murder from the moment they enter the state.
5 JULY BILOXI, MI - "Welcome to Mississippi,
the Magnolia State," said the large sign at the border,
but it didn't make me feel any more comfortable. The minute we
crossed the line, the bus became silent. Indeed, the silence
hit me hard, and if there is one thing I'll remember that day,
it was the absence of conversation - on the bus, in the restaurant,
in bus-stations. . .
We arrived in Biloxi that
evening. We found that the day before, when the rest of the group
arrived, they were told that the house we had supposedly rented
for the two months was suddenly "unavailable" - the
word had already gotten out about us. But we found a suite of
rooms in the, get this, Hotel Riviera, the manager not knowing
at the time who we were, and now, not really caring. Things do
seem to be more open here on the Coast. I've heard that people
here believe that, when they die, they go to New Orleans. . .
27 JULY BILOXI, MS
- I am on the
go about 14 hours a day. Very busy, with little time to myself.
Actually, writing this,
I should be at a mass meeting at the Odd Fellows Hall (now a
community center, inspired by COFO workers and begun by the colored
community) discussing the Freedom Democratic Party and the impending
Biloxi school desegregation. . .
The objective of beginning
to talk this soon is to attempt to get 20-30 Negro children to
enroll instead of just one or two. Many parents do not want their
children to be subject to an integration ordeal and so are, oddly
enough, but understandably, opposed to integration.
I am team teaching about
20 (it varies from day to day) 8th, 9th, and 10th graders, about
3/4th girls. In the mornings, from 9 to 12, we teach Negro history
and citizenship. These offer a wide latitude for discussion,
and we range far. . .
Registration work here
in Biloxi is not dangerous. The worst incident has been one guy
being chased. No shooting, beating, real harassment, etc. We
don't let this go to our heads, however, but use this reprieve
to increase our activity.
Most of the people we
talk to are warm and receptive, but we still have to break down
a great deal of hesitation. This hesitation, this fear, is exemplified
by the person who agrees with everything we say, sometimes for
twenty minutes, says quite honestly that we are right and are
doing a good thing - and then refuses to register. This is not
discouraging so much as sad. . .
It is most interesting
to talk to whites. Most of them, when they see a white man and
black man standing at their door, know what we are doing and
immediately turn themselves off - they are "not interested."
But the few who do talk to us are great. In spite of the weight
of their prejudices, in some cases they are deeply concerned
with what is going on about them land want to try to help. One
white woman, who I signed up, wanted to come to the meeting tonight.
I arranged for a baby-sitter and called her back. She said her
husband had learned of what she had done and she was in a bad
situation. I am worried about her, but she, because of her husband's
antagonism and our very sane and sensible conversation, may become
quite active in her own way. It takes a lot of walking and talking
on our part to do this, to gain this, but it is worth it, every
bit of effort. . .
The other day, in class,
I had to leave the room while teaching a class. I was talking
about the American Revolution and the role played by the Negro
in Winning independence. I managed to catch some of the high
idealism which must have pervaded that era, the triumph - and
then had to look at the kids, who were as lifted as I, and began
to explain why slavery had continued and deepened and why they
were still in bondage today. I had to leave because I was weeping.
Luckily, team teaching involves another teacher and Steve took
8 AUGUST BILOXI, MI - Too many people have been saying
for too long - "it can't happen here." If anyone really
believes this, I invite them to join me as a member of a canvassing
team as we leave Biloxi on Route 67 and start a 45 minute drive
north to Saucier, a small town which straddles US Route 49, running
between Gulfport and Hattiesburg.
If you come to our office
early, say, half an hour before we leave, you join us in our
pre-departure procedure. We examine our list of contacts (in
Saucier, only one contact, the owner of a Negro tavern) and make
sure, by calling, that we have the telephone number straight.
We pull out a Mississippi roadmap 'to determine all the routes
and alternate routes in and out of Saucier.
If we are lucky, we have
a printed map of the town, but generally, we have to rely on
a hand-drawn map or verbal directions.
We check the car we'll
be using. Is the tank full? Have we extra gas and oil? Spare
tire and tools? Registration papers and permission slip from
the owner? Are there locks on the hood and the gas tank? We make
out a list of the names of our canvassing team.
We make sure a telephone
line will be constantly open - if we have not called within an
hour after leaving, the Biloxi office will immediately notify
the Jackson COFO office and the FBI, and will start calling the
jails along our route without delay. Finally, we check our wallets
for identification, draft cards, and sufficient money to nullify
a possible charge of vagrancy - and make sure we have a dime
for that single precious telephone call from jail.
We leave Biloxi on Route
67 across a long, narrow cement b r i d s across the Back Bay,
pass through the tough, poor white community of D'Iberville.
Our companions are all local Negro volunteer CR workers. James
B, 18. is driving.
George M; 19, is constantly
peering ahead for cops and other suspicious cars.
Boney T, 16, and I are
in back, peering behind. You're right between Boney and myself.
Our integrated car gets a few hard stares, but soon we are out
of town, picking up speed, and checking behind for any car which
may have decided to follow us.
All clear. The road is
narrow, two lane, pretty straight, well-paved, and 1Gilely. We
drive through long stretches of pine woods and red clay banks.
Few houses, few cars, little open country.
Each car from the front,
from the rear, from the side is potential trouble. Many civilian
cars are equipped with shortwave radios, easy to spot and good
to avoid. All state vehicles, from State Patrol cruiser to Highway
Department trucks are on the same network. A colored friend of
mine told me that while she was being questioned by cops near
McComb, she heard on the police radio that another CR worker
was being questioned near Tupelo, in the northeast part of the
Fear cannot be described,
I have been frightened
many times in my life in varying degrees, in varying circumstances.
And courage is not the absence of fear. Fear is the essence of
courage. What are your emotions now, driving with us along a
lonely highway in rural Mississippi, in an integrated car? If
you are frightened, you are with friends, and you are sane. If
you are not afraid, you know nothing about Mississippi.
You have never heard of
the Freedom Rides and how they ended in Jackson.
Yon have never heard of
Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, and countless others.
You have not heard of
Neshoba County. You have never talked with a Mississippi Negro
or a CR veteran.
And if your fear has overcome
your convictions, you have no business with us. Go home.
Our three colored companions
are profoundly aware that two whites are in the car with them
and what this will mean if we are stopped for any reason.
The two of us, likewise,
know that though we are white, we become as black as tar once
we are known to be CR types. White Mississippians make no distinctions.
There is a strange and wonderful, and, for you, a new bond between
the five of us, compounded of fear, and dedication and brotherhood
- and we keep driving. Welcome to the fight, friend.
James B. suddenly reaches
for our crude map of Saucier, and starts looking for landmarks
and pointing them out to us, in case. . . . . He's been here
highway, passing a few houses, and then turn again, onto the
tavern's dirt driveway. We make a nervous joke about the "Colored
only" on the tavern's sign, cross a metal cattle baffle,
go a quarter of a mile, and pull up. Immediately, George and
I walk inside, heading for the phone to call in.
You follow us, walking
across the hard dirt yard, looking at the livestock wandering
around outside, hogs poking through old bottles and cans, the
cattle thinking about heading out back to the woods and the grass.
Inside, the owner asks us if we've had breakfast, and when we
say "yes," he gives us all a Coke. We sit down for
a few minutes, a last quick war council before jumping off.
"Sooner we start,
sooner we can get out." We climb back in and head out. The
Biloxi office has told us that another team from Gulfport we
expected to meet isn't coming, so we're on our own. Our mission
is to pick up Freedom Registration forms which James left at
various houses on his first two trips - so our job is simpler
than if we had to stop at every house.
At the first house, the
woman tells us that she hasn't filled out the form, and won't.
This happens all the time, and we expect it. Generally, if a
person doesn't agree to register within five minutes after we
start talking, they won't, no matter how long we talk, reason,
cajole, frighten, reassure, promise, and plead. The excuses are
varied, but they are motivated by fear. We understand. We try
not to push too hard. We say we'll be back.
We stay at the next house
for three-fourths of an hour. James goes in, then George and
Boney. You and I stand in the yard. The delay gives us a chance
to look around. We are in front of an unpainted, tin-roofed house
with a slanted, rickety porch. It sags, as if in resignation.
Inside, we hear a TV playing, and ragged children wander out,
staring at us with their beautiful eyes.
They smile shyly when
we smile, and they go back into the house, away from the amazing
strangers. Negro children seem to be aware of color long before
white children, long before they know what the difference means.
A dog, lying under the house, moves only his eyes, checking us
constantly. In back, the man of 'the house plows his little garden
with a mule, aided by his son. He does not look at us. His son
Finally, the three others
come back out, cursing softly and sadly. We know they haven't
gotten anything. They've been talking too long.
The next house is back
in the woods, away from the road. Again, unpainted, many small
children, clothes on the line, livestock, a garden in back. We
get a filled-out form - in fact, two, but the second is no good
because the girl is only 16. They smile, and we talk for a few
minutes. We want to talk to people, we want them to see "black
and white together," as the song says. We want them to see
for themselves their first glimpse of the reality o the
new order, of the beloved community. Even when folks don't sign
up, they see us together - it makes tnem think. Perhaps, we always
like to hope, the next time we come by, they will be ready to
sign up for freedom. And there's always a next time. Always.
Our final stop is a colored
settlement near a planing mill owned by a Mr. Black. Most of
these people are his tenants and employees. We know that he has
told them not to talk to us and that they inform him each time
we come around. So we keep our visit short. We talk quickly and
to the point--"Join the Freedom Party. You need it. It needs
you." No one signs. Few talk. James B, sensing that someone
has already headed to tell 'Mr. Charlie' that we're talking to
'his niggers," says "let's go," and we git. Fast.
There is always the next time. Folks have seen us, some have
talked, however briefly. The precious seed is planted. The freedom
After another call to
the Biloxi office from the tavern, telling them to expect us
in 45 minutes, we pull out of Saucier.
Four hours of talking,
four hours of work, four hours of fear, on both sides - and two
Freedom forms filled out, one from the woman in the house in
the woods, another from a drunk in the tavern.
Back along 67. Same routine.
Same apprehension. But heading home. No trouble. Arrive in Biloxi.
Sign back in.
Relax. Wait for tomorrow.
Can't it happen here? It already has.
AN ACLU website
America - that recounts the history of federal surveillance
of the peace and civil rights movements features Gren Whitman,
of these letters