Document 27A: Elayne DeLott to Gail and Robert Melson, Jackson, Mississippi, [early October 1964], Elaine DeLott Baker Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Gail Freedman was my close friend in high school. After two years at Smith College, Gail transferred to Radcliffe, where we roomed together in off-campus housing. In her junior year, Gail met Robert Melson, a Harvard graduate student in government whom she married in 1964. Robert and Gail spent the next year in Africa, where Robert had a fellowship. Gail was someone I could talk to on multiple levels. I trusted her to understand my thoughts, ideas and references. This is a letter from one "grown up" to another about an evolving political philosophy grounded in real experiences. At the same time, it speaks of my growing separation from Harvard intellectual habits.
The situation in the "girls" freedom house” that I described in this letter mirrored the chaos of the Jackson office. Shortly after writing this letter, Cliff Vaughs, one of the movement photographers, asked me if I wanted to stay in "Photo House" while he travelled across the state with the white volunteer whom he married post-Freedom Summer (Wendy Vaughs). Photo house was on the outskirts of Jackson, down the road from Tougaloo College and a short distance from "Literacy House," where the company of other movement white women provided a refuge from the stormy politics of the Jackson office. I worked out of Tougaloo, off and on, from early October through January, 1965.
gail and robert,
it is really strange the feeling that i get when I read a letter of yours. it is kind of like now's the time to really grow up for all of us, and god, how little difference it makes whether one is in africa or misslssippi. mississippi really is a harsh test of one's humanity. in one sense i ask myself whether we're not being a little tough on ourselves, judging ourselves, reactions, and feelings, and other people's, by what happens in a place where noone has any money, any permanent place to stay, nor a definite job, nor any routine, nor anyone who can expend the necessary energy to care. but, in another sense if you can make it in mississippi YOU CAN MAKE IT ANYWHERE. and you have here a meeting of all the social constructs of society--race, education, class, etc., all without the necessary guards to keep things ordered. if we can't handle ouselves as people without the barriers of traditional society, the thousand and one hierarchies, and allocations of resources according to fixed rules, then indeed society must be right and we might as well go home. i must admit i am tired of living with 10 other girls in a house with no heat, with all my clothes stolen, and all that kind of shit, but in another sense each day that i deal with things successfully, that my sense of relevance changes so that i don't care if something is taken because property doesn't mean the same thing to me anymore, then i feel something different. in some sense to expand your circle of trust, and in another to reduce your circle of care, balancing, juggling, struggling with both- that's kind of what it's like at the hardest. this all describes what happens in the jackson office. in the field things are modified and aligned differently so that other things come out, not as difficult to handle day to day, but ultimately equally as crucial. just what you think of local people, just what this dignity you talk about consists of. just what you are trying to do with them, through them? for them? using them? all these come into focus imediately and alarmingly. i've kind of come to believe that any revolution that knows what it is effecting is no revolution, or true revolution at all, but another one of "those things." the only truly revolutionary thing that can be done is the way in which we do things. the opposition calls this the "glorification of the local people faction". in a sense they're right. what we mean is that the people carry in their own experiences the evidence that this system is corrupt, etc. from segregation to capitalism, and what we have to do is to sit down with them and listen to them talk about what they really think and really feel about their lives, and from this we can help them synthesise, formulate, abstract- but essentially things must come from them. we are the technocrats that teach them how to fight the things they hate, but they are the ones who tell us what they want to destroy, or change. the other faction says that it may turn out in the end that we are all a bunch of fascists, but that as long as we believe we are right and if we don't we might as well leave the state and go home, that we have a responsibility to tell the people our point of view of what is happening in this country. it is an interesting split, further provoked by the constant need for decision making and strategic planning. but enough of that. the idea of listening, really listening to what people say, is horribly revolutionary, and almost unbearably difficult. where it has a great deal of significance is within the staff itself, who are for the most part northern style intellectuals, whether black or white. what happens is that issues are constantly discussed in those long 12 hour meetings where issues are not really being discussed, but personalities played with. it's as ritualistic as any japanese tea ceremony. people attack positions, and everyone knows what they are doing is attacking the people who hold them because they know no other way of dealing with them. it's not so terribly unlike the conversations of your "bright young men" at the spa, or UR. why else could you talk for twelve hours and then leave wishing you could talk to somebody. i have a new way of doing things now, kind of. all it means really is that when someone is running off about something i just tell them i don't understand what they are talking about and ask them to explain. i just keep on breaking down till they leave in exasperation, give up and enjoy a healthy silence where they try to figure out what they want to say, or finally bring from back inside what they had embellished into meaninglessness. you can imagine what a great favorite i've become among some.
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