Document 96: Elaine DeLott Baker, "They Sent Us This White Girl," Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement, Constance Curry et al., eds. (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2000), pp. 255-87.
In addition to Connie, Casey and myself, the authors of Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement included three other southern women, Dorothy Burlage, Joan Browning and Sue Thrasher; and four other northern women, Penny Patch, Emmie Schrader, Teresa DelPozzo, and Betty Garman Robinson. Betty eventually left our book group to work with a larger collection, published in 2010 as Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts from Women in SNCC. As we began to write, we envisioned the audience for the book to be white women and students of women's studies. That the book was well received by our Black brothers and sisters was a surprise and a great joy. The process spanned seven years, from our initial meetings to publication. Each author was given editorial control over her chapter. As was my penchant, my chapter drew from earlier journals and correspondence with colleagues.
Us This White Girl
ELAINE DELOTT BAKER
"We've been calling down to Jackson and asking for someone to help with starting a co-op up here in Batesville, but they've been real busy down there with voter registration and all, so in the meantime, they sent us this white girl." That's how I remember being introduced by the Reverend Middleton, an independent black farmer, during our many visits together at farmhouses and community meetings during my first few months in Panola County, Mississippi.
It was late winter in 1964-65, and the black civil rights workers who had led the Mississippi Summer Project were spread too thin to respond to all of the requests for help from invigorated black populations, like the farmers and sharecroppers of Panola County. Exhausted civil rights workers, black and white, were still trying to sort out the lessons of Freedom Summer. When hundreds of volunteers had left the state in September, there had been no sense of victory, no reason to believe that the events of the last few years would end in anything other than a hardened segregationist response, bringing more violence and more dislocation of sharecroppers.
The federal government and the American conscience, once the targets of movement efforts, had not delivered on their promises for justice. Standing up to segregation had changed the lives of local people, but it wasn't clear what those changes would mean, or what could be done to continue the momentum for change that had begun over the summer. The costs of the freedom struggle were high. Churches had been burned, people beaten, lives
[p. 256]lost, scores of families thrown out of their jobs and off the land where they had lived and worked for generations as sharecroppers.
While many civil rights workers questioned what had been achieved, and at what cost, many of those with the most to lose did not waver. Panola County, Mississippi, was one of those communities where local people continued to put their personal and economic lives on the line. In the county seat of Batesville, the white agent who bought the okra crop from black farmers lowered his price from seven to six cents a pound. The farmers objected. The agent refused to negotiate. The farmers decided to try and market their crops themselves.
What prompted a community of black farmers to challenge the social and economic order of their day? How did they arrive at the decision to stake their economic lives on principles of fairness that traditionally did not apply to commerce between white and black? And why were they willing to listen to the counsel of a twenty-two-year-old white woman, who didn't know a tractor from a combine, in their efforts to organize an okra marketing cooperative? The answers to those questions are in the times, electrifying times charged with the determination and courage of people who refused to allow injustice to continue as a matter of course. In these extraordinary circumstances, unusual alliances were forged, and race and gender were sometimes suspended--not forgotten, but momentarily subsumed in the passionate pursuit of a common goal.
In retrospect, when I reflect on my involvement with the civil rights movement it seems more like an accident than a conscious decision, but as I move further back into my own life, the strange confluence of events that brought me into the movement loses its mystery and emerges not as an accident of fate, but as a spiritual path along which I was privileged to travel.
My connection to the South began at the turn of the century, when my maternal great-grandfather left Russia for rural Georgia after his ten-year-old son was kidnapped and conscripted into the Cossack army. Fifty years later, in 1947, my grandparents moved from Georgia to the outskirts of Boston to be closer to my mother and her brothers and sister, who had moved north during the war. The two families shared a house, my grandparents living in the downstairs apartment and our family living in the upstairs apartment. From my mother's family I would often hear stories of the "colored people." I could sense the disdain in my grandfather's voice as he talked about the customers
[p. 257]in his dry goods store, stories of how he outsmarted them, sold a suit that didn't fit or a hat that was two sizes too large. They were mean-spirited stories of a small-town merchant who was host to a captive market of the poor, whites and blacks who paid on credit.
Stories of the South were a feature of the dinner table at family holidays, reminiscences of the days when my grandfather was a white man in a culture where the mere fact of being a white man brought stature and privilege. I had been south at the age of two, but my images of the South derived not from that visit, but from the black-and-white photographs and old home movies shot in the pecan orchard outside of Grandpa's house in Sparta, Georgia. There is Grandpa, standing in the front yard, dressed in a white linen jacket. In the distance black men and women move up and down the rows of trees, harvesting pecans in baskets, the women's hair tied up in cloth like the picture of Aunt Jemima that adorned the bottle of pancake syrup on our kitchen table. In the South they called my grandfather "Boss," and years later the men in our family still called him "Boss." "Boss, do you want some more coffee?" or "Boss, how's business?" It was an echo of a time and place when Grandpa was at the top of the social order, a white man in a racist society.
"But they sure did love your grandmother," my aunts and uncles would say to me. "They" were the "colored people," the quiet, hardworking, courteous men and women who came into my grandparents' country store to shop. I was told that the customers asked for my grandmother and often left if she wasn't there. "No thank you, Mr. Cohen, I'll wait till Miss Esther comes back," my uncle would mimic, laughing at how the black men and women made every effort to avoid dealing with my grandfather. "But they sure did love your grandmother," he would say.
How does a child detect the tones of injustice in the words of her elders? I always knew, could always feel the terrible wrongness. It was in their voices, in their nervous laughter, in the looks on their faces, in the way my aunt and mother looked down at the tablecloth when my uncle began talking about "darkies" and telling his stories of the old South. Grandma was never a party to those stories, never commented during their telling. Sometimes my uncle or grandfather would ask for her corroboration, saying, "Do you remember that, Miss Esther?" Grandma would look down and nod slightly, refusing to dignify the stories with her voice, her silence an implicit rebuke.
The images of the South communicated by my father, a northerner who
[p. 258]had lived in the South briefly following his marriage to my mother, were very different. In my father's stories, the "colored woman" was the embodiment of warmth and love. When my father spoke of Miss Dollie, the family cook, and how much she loved my sisters, his voice took on a joyous lilt. For my father, whose mother had once left him and his brother in an orphanage during a time when food was scarce, Dollie's love for his children had great meaning. I think in some way it soothed an unloved and abandoned place inside him.
Our family had left Georgia in 1942, the year I was born, so Daddy could join the war effort as a pipefitter in the Boston shipyard. Dollie remained an important figure in the family mythology, the loving black woman who cared for the white woman's children as her own. I must have yearned for that kind of love as well. When I was twelve, I wrote a letter to Miss Dollie, a woman whom I had never met. In a letter dated October 1954, Miss Dollie replied in a round, firm scroll:
I rec your sweet letter along time ago and how glad I was to here from you and to no that you all is well. I was sorry that I was so long write you back. I lost your letter and did not has address to write you. But then other day I fine your letter. How glad I was to fine it. So I hope when this letter rech your lovely hand, I do hope it will fine you enjoy your happy life. To hope that you love me as I do you all. I did not no you, I love just like I do the other children. Please tell me about all the children. . . . Tell all to write me for I just want to See you all so bad. If you all is white child, I am you all black Ma. Write and tell me how your grandma and all is get along . . . I think you is so sweet are you to write me . . . don't know me. But I know you is sweet, for all the DeLotts is So Sweet. So please don't forget the pictur and if you can please send all you all pictur and please write me a long letter and I no I enjoy read a letter from one. I always love you all.
Dollie B. Gordon
I have no memory of what transpired next, of whether or not I sent picture or if Dollie and I continued to correspond, but I am certain that Dollie's loving response remained with me, deep in my heart.
My family lived in Winthrop, a bedroom community outside of Boston, on a square mile of land bound by water on three sides, population 25,000. There
[p. 259]were probably about four hundred Jewish families in Winthrop, not enough to be a substantial minority. We were a small, working-class Jewish community in the midst of a predominantly Catholic town.
I've sometimes wondered if every individual who has experienced discrimination remembers the first time it surfaced in their lives. I was in the second grade when one of my classmates pushed me off the swing, taunting me for being Jewish. There were other lessons that let me know that being Jewish meant being different. From the Christian world I heard that Jews were smart, that they were preoccupied with money, and that they would endure eternal damnation for killing Christ.
From my parents' generation I heard that there were two groups of people in the world, the Jews and the "goyim," or "non-Jews," as we called them. They were the "other," the ones you had to watch out for, the ones who would never really accept you, who would always think of you as a Jew. "Goyim" captured the complex feeling our parents had toward the "other," fear sometimes mixed with disdain, along with an almost desperate desire to be accepted.
My maternal grandmother, Grandma Esther, took her religion seriously, keeping its traditions, observing the Sabbath, and practicing the "mitzvahs," the good deeds commanded by Jewish law. Grandma never spoke ill of anyone. She read a chapter of the Old Testament each day and did her best to follow its teachings. I loved and respected my grandmother, but her world felt like the world of the "old country." At the same time, the conformity and materialism that characterized our small Jewish community frightened me. When I was thirteen, I railed in my journal against a life I feared: "‘My surroundings.’ What are they? The date-crazy, social conscious, shallow, giggly, happy-go-lucky stereotype of the Jewish teenager, later to become the rich, mature, social-status-conscious, self-centered stereotyped married person living in suburbia. I will not be one of these stereotypes!"
My education was a peculiar mix. My father, who dropped out of school after the eighth grade, was uncomfortable around books, but my mother was an avid reader. In narrow, dusty eaves off the upstairs hallway, stacks of books lined the shelves in a series of bookcases. This was my library during the winter, when childhood asthma kept me at home for weeks at a time. My torso propped up against a stack of pillows to help me breathe more easily, I read voraciously from a diverse mix of socialist writers, history, fiction, and the
[p. 260]classics: Emile Zola, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffans, Somerset Maugham, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Charlotte Bronte, and my mother's favorite, Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind.
In addition to public school, I attended sixteen hours a week of Jewish studies, from the seventh to the tenth grade. The texts--Bible, Talmud, Jewish history, and Hebrew language and literature--were taught by an assortment of mostly kind male teachers with clear, powerful minds. One of my teachers, Arnie Band, a brilliant and iconoclastic young scholar completing his doctorate at Harvard, was my first real mentor. It was Arnie who sat the class down and showed slides of concentration camp survivors in 1954, when I was twelve years old. Later, it was Arnie who first suggested I apply to Radcliffe.
The logic of the Talmud and the mystery of the Bible delighted me, but it was the world of the great Yiddish storytellers that captured and transported me. It has been forty years since I last read these stories, but I can still envision the Hebrew letters on the pages of my books.
The story that moved me most deeply was the tale of the "Lamed Vov," which in Hebrew stands for the number thirty-six. This is how I remember the story: Throughout the ages there have always been thirty-six righteous men on the face of the earth, living their lives in piety. It is because of their righteousness, so the story goes, that God spares the world. Although the weight of humanity is on their shoulders, these extraordinary individuals never know they are among the Lamed Vov, or that it is their pure actions that maintain the fabric of life. The image of the Lamed Vov, their humility, simple virtue, and righteousness for its own sake, was the image of goodness that I carried inside me. It was the image that foreshadowed the goodness and courage of the Mississippians I would meet in my journey south.
In 1960 I accepted a scholarship to Radcliffe, while requesting a year's leave of absence to work and study in Israel. Israel provided me with the adventure I was seeking, but it did not resolve my issues around identity. I loved the vibrant society and the equality of men and women on kibbutz, with their matter-of-fact attitude toward sexuality. The social sacrifice and commitment that I felt from Israelis moved me deeply and drew me toward them, but it was clear to me that Israel was not my country. As wonderful as it felt to be in a world where being Jewish did not mean being an outsider,
[p. 261]and where being a woman did not necessarily dictate a host of compromising behaviors and roles, I couldn't get past the discomfort I felt with Israeli nationalism.
During the last month I was in Israel, May 1961, I taught swimming at a public pool in Haifa. On one particularly hot and cloudless day I noticed several young Arab boys, about nine or ten years old, splashing and playing at the shallow end of the pool alongside the usual group of small children. I was fairly certain from their behavior that the boys didn't know how to swim. "Arabs are sinkers" the lifeguard told me when I asked if I could invite them to join our lessons, a reference to the fact that certain body types lack a layer of fat that make them more buoyant in the water. He shrugged his shoulders. His message was clear: These kids were not part of the new Israel. They were outside of the group. They were "the other."
The notion of "the other" has cast long shadows over my life. One morning, when I was about nine or ten, I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and my father's mother. Grandma Alice spoke only Yiddish and could not read or write English. Mama was reading aloud from a newspaper account of a plane crash the night before, shaking her head with sadness at the loss of life. "Any Jews killed?" Grandma Alice asked. This was the familiar refrain: "Any Jews?" If there were no Jews, it was a non-event, something of no concern. I was confused. It made no sense to me that a segment of humanity would be excluded from concern because they were not part of our membership group. It was my first awareness of culture as a system of belonging, of insiders and outsiders.
My year in Israel did not resolve my personal search for a cultural identity, but it gave me something else I had yearned for: the experience of living among people who were ready to lay their lives on the line for their beliefs. It was one of the topics I wrote about in my letter to Radcliffe formalizing my admission in the spring of 1961:
There is another phenomena of this country that has influenced me greatly. It is the great regard that its citizens have for life, and the childlike eagerness they have to live. People that have often gone through so much seem to come out of it all, not with pessimism or apathy, but with a stronger sense of the meaning of life. These are people who will never let the world die "with a whimper." I am proud to be among them, even if only by spirit.
The Harvard/Radcliffe milieu of 1961 was far different from that of today. There were four Harvard men to every Radcliffe woman, and the reputation of Radcliffe women among Harvard men was forbidding. Many Harvard men publicly announced that they did not date Radcliffe women. No one had to ask why. It was commonly understood that even among Harvard's intellectual elite, smart women were less desirable.
Sexuality, once a forbidden topic for proper young ladies, was beginning to surface around the fringes of campus life. There was a story that made the rounds of Radcliffe women during my freshman year. Looking back, I wonder whether it was true or whether it was an urban college myth, passed down from class to class. The story was set in a Harvard lecture hall, one of those immense, dark, paneled rooms with high ceilings, where hundreds of college freshmen would sit quietly, taking notes, dozing, doodling, or doing the many things that students do to occupy their minds during the fifty-minute lecture. The popular professor (in the story I heard, it was my humanities professor) was said to have interrupted his morning lecture and addressed a female student who was knitting in class. The professor, apparently annoyed by the sound of her knitting needles clacking together, called out, "Miss Jones, do you know that knitting is a form of masturbation?" Miss Jones, so the story goes, called back, "Professor, when I knit, I knit, and when I masturbate, I masturbate." True story or urban myth, unapologetic sexuality was breaking through the veneer of the prim and proper Radcliffe student body.
It often felt to me that the Radcliffe freshman class of five hundred was little more than an annoyance to the Harvard faculty. In the classroom it was not unusual for Harvard professors to make sexist remarks or convey sexist messages in nonverbal ways. One fall afternoon, I entered a room where the breakout session for Social Relations 110 was meeting. It didn't take long for me to realize I was the only female of about ten students. The instructor, Martin Peretz, gestured to a couch with his tightly sheathed umbrella and with no hint of humor said to me, "Why don't you lie down on the coach over there, Miss DeLott, and just be our sex symbol." Rattled by his remark but unwilling to acknowledge it, I draped myself seductively on the sofa, feigning indifference. For the remainder of the class, Mr. Peretz paced back and forth behind the sofa, punctuating his remarks with a slap of his umbrella along the side of the sofa as he walked past me. The next day I switched sections. The
[p. 263]Harvard community was more than a bastion of male privilege. To me, it was a hostile environment.
And then there was the issue of class. I had never been around rich people before and I was confused and intimidated by the social elitism that permeated the Harvard sense of privilege. It would have been difficult for me under any circumstances to enter into the elite world of Harvard and Radcliffe, but my status as a commuter during my freshman year made the experience almost surreal. Every day I boarded the transit system in Winthrop, emerging an hour later at the Harvard Square subway station, light-years away in cultural time, I imagined how I appeared to others, a provincial, lower-middle-class Jewish girl from the outskirts of Boston. I didn't feel a particular kinship with the affluent women of privilege who studied hard, and whom I generally liked; still, I really didn't want to be that little girl from Winthrop. Drawing from my year in Israel and from the two months I had spent in Europe before returning to the States, I constructed an image for myself, something akin to "beatnik chic" or "ethnotrash" Its core characteristics were no makeup or accessories, black turtle necks, black pants, boots, and Gauloise cigarettes--a tough, sultry look, part challenge, part seduction, that worked well with my physical appearance. It was an image constructed of sheer bravado, separating me from the person I was afraid was me.
In my sophomore year, Radcliffe awarded me a larger scholarship, which allowed me to move into campus housing. I had already begun to spend more and more of my time in the apartments of upperclassmen, friends with whom I shared both a marginality to the Harvard world and a love of ideas. There were those wondrous philosophical discussions of Sartre and Camus, Kant and Wittgenstein, politics and sexual mores, love and despair, accompanied by the mournful strains of Edith Piaf and Miles Davis--late-night confidences shared in rooms lit by candles protruding from the necks of squat, straw-covered Chianti bottles encased in wax drippings. My cultural heroes were Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. In my mind, they had broken through the hypocrisy of society to live as philosophers and lovers in their separate but equal lives.
Academic studies were never very difficult for me, but neither did they engage me. On a recent visit to the Radcliffe archives, I stumbled across my college tutorial reports, which shed some light on how faculty viewed me:
She is by far the most intelligent of my students this year. . . . She is capable of very clear and complex thought. Her problems as a student are: 1. Erratic work habits, 2. Failure to work on courses in which she is not interested, 3. Failure to consistently work up to capacity even when she is interested. She is independent and somewhat bohemian; definitely not grade oriented. She seems to antagonize instructors who value neat appearances and promptness.
In polite terms, I was a renegade.
I was still struggling to find my place in the academy when a bizarre event altered not only my college career but the course of my life. It was just after dawn, in December 1963, when the Cambridge police entered an off-campus apartment where I was staying during Christmas break with a Harvard classmate, Rick Fields, who would become my lifelong friend. The two of us were arrested and charged with violating sections of what were known as the Massachusetts blue laws: fornication, lewd and lascivious behavior, and corrupting the morals of a minor--two felonies and a misdemeanor. Our "crime" was being found in the same bed in a room adjoining that of a sixteen-year-old girl named Terry, who had been staying at the apartment (hence the third charge). Terry was a Cambridge girl, from the ethnic Irish community, whose mother was unable to control her. She was also the niece of a captain in the Cambridge police force.
The plan, as the police later relayed to our lawyer, was to arrest and charge Terry as a "willful child," a crime under Massachusetts law, to place her in solitary confinement for twenty-four hours, to send in a priest, and, finally, to parole her to the custody of her mother, thereby putting an end to her rebellion. It was a well-crafted family intervention, executed with full cooperation of the Cambridge police.
Rick and I were not part of the police strategy, but we instantly became part of a different drama: the ongoing saga of town and gown. Lieutenant Joyce Darling, a member of the police team, was outraged by our presence. With the kind of perverse glee and determination reminiscent of Lotte Lenya in From Russia with Love or Eileen Brennan in Private Benjamin, Lieutenant Darling barged into our bedroom, announcing to the other officers, "Look what we have here!" Rick and I were arrested and taken down to City Hall, where Lieutenant Darling confiscated my birth control pills (illegal in Massachusetts), bellowing at me, "Don't you have any respect for your body?"
A Radcliffe dean contacted me at Henry House, my off-campus residence, informed me that I was not fit to live in Radcliffe housing, and ordered me to pack my bags and leave immediately. About a week into the scandal, the Harvard dean of students requested that I come in to talk with him. He had no formal jurisdiction over me, he explained, he just wanted to meet me. As I sat across from him at the broad mahogany desk in his dark, paneled office, the dean began telling me the story of his own daughter, whom he said "some might have thought of as wild" and how she had finally found someone willing to overlook her past indiscretions. He concluded by assuring me that my life was not ruined, and that someday I too would meet a man who would be willing to forgive my past. I left the dean's office in a state of disbelief, stunned by his presumption and his patronizing attitude.
Soon after, Radcliffe's new president, Mary Bunting, asked me to her office. I was apprehensive. The Radcliffe dean who was managing the incident for the school could never quite look me in the eye, but President Bunting's voice and demeanor held no reproach, only curiosity. "I want to know about the morals of the girls," she said. "I want to know what the girls are thinking." It was 1964, a critical juncture in Radcliffe's history. Heated discussions raged over the pros and cons of abolishing "parietal hours," the rules that governed co-ed visits in dormitories. The policy of the time restricted visits from members of the opposite sex to between four and seven in the evening, and even then the door had to remain ajar six inches. It was a hotly debated issue, as men and women, students and administrators, staked out their positions on morality, propriety, and college life.
President Bunting and I talked freely about parietal hours, about changing attitudes toward sexuality, and about the Radcliffe community. At the end of our conversation she warmly encouraged me to attend the open houses she hosted each Sunday at her home. When I left the office I felt I had met an unusual and wonderful person. A week before finals I was informed that I was no longer suspended and could return to Henry House, pending the outcome of my trial. Although no one confirmed it, I was sure that President Bunting had intervened for me.
The trial was a travesty, a collusion of town and gown. Using some flimsy pretense, the judge ordered us all into his chambers, thus skillfully removing the possibility that the local press would pick up the story and create a public
[p. 266]embarrassment for the university. The deans were asked to speak first. "What does Harvard have to say about this?" and then, "What does Radcliffe have to say about this?" When Rick's turn came, he stood up defiantly and delivered a short treatise on changing morals. The statement I remember went something like this: "In our generation, we don't have to consume a bottle of wine before sleeping together." My turn never came. I was never asked to speak. No one even looked at me.
It was over in half an hour. Rick and I were given deferred prosecution and placed under the supervision of our college deans. Immediately afterward, a police squad car delivered me from the courthouse to a Harvard classroom to sit for my final exam in political sociology. The exam had been given earlier, at the same time as my trial, and Harvard had insisted that I be escorted directly to the make-up exam to preclude the possibility that someone might pass me an advance copy of the exam. It was a disturbing inference. I had breached the prevailing code of morals, creating a public embarrassment for the college and was now suspect on all moral grounds. I would be tolerated, but it was clear that I would no longer be treated with the respect accorded to the Ivy League elite. A week or so after the trial I received a letter from President Bunting:
This is to confirm in writing the action of the Radcliffe administration which I reported to you orally.
In our opinion the behavior leading to your arrest was reprehensible, showed poor judgement and certainly did not reflect creditably on you, your family or the college. We have seriously considered requiring you to withdraw from the college, but in view of the recommendations of the court and our evidence of your growing sense of responsibility we have chosen to put you on probation until the end of this academic year. . . .
I wish to make it quite clear that if the terms of your probation are broken you may be asked to leave the College immediately and that any misrepresentation of the seriousness with which we view your past conduct or other willful expression of attitudes that we believe harmful to the Radcliffe community will also be reason for severance. If you do not feel you can or wish to comply with these conditions I recommend that you voluntarily withdraw from the College for at least a semester.
President Bunting's letter was the last assault, catching me off guard after what I thought had been a clear communication about the changing social mores of the college community. I had no way of knowing about any battles President Bunting might have fought with her Harvard counterparts or with the conservative Radcliffe board of trustees. The only issue I understood was my own sense of betrayal. It was the winter of 1964 and I had just completed my first course in institutional hypocrisy and the politics of gender--graduating with honors.
That spring I took a sociology course in race and social structure from Professor Tom Pettigrew. Still bristling at the way I had been treated by the Harvard/Radcliffe establishment, I was ready for a change. In April, a classmate of mine named Johnny Mudd invited me to join a group of Harvard graduates headed to Tougaloo College, a private black college in Jackson, Mississippi. The project, which was funded by an extraordinary individual named Charles Merrill, provided summer tuition and expenses for black Tougaloo faculty to work toward advanced degrees in northern colleges while Harvard graduate students took over summer faculty assignments on a volunteer basis. I had only completed my junior year, but that didn't appear to be an obstacle. I set off on a Greyhound bus to Jackson. It was May 1964.
My journey to the South was not political, nor was it a principled stand based on a critique of racist society. What I responded to was more of an unconscious pull. There were no real black people in my life. There were only bits and pieces of other people's experiences and memories lodged deep inside of me, alongside an ethical foundation that had been established during my early years and an adventurous nature that has been part of me for as long as I can remember.
When I first arrived at Tougaloo I was fairly removed from the turmoil outside of the campus. An early letter I sent to my parents reflects both my innocence and my distance from the events of the day:
The kids are just lovely. They've had pretty bad schooling, but they are real bright and quite willing to work. . . . As far as Jackson itself, I imagine there will be a lot of trouble this summer, but don't worry, because I won't be involved. There will be demonstrations, but I won't be taking part, so please don't be alarmed when
you hear about trouble down here. . . . I'm sure I'll be safe and sound and have a nice quiet summer.
I was teaching sociology, writing, and art history at Tougaloo when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staff member Jesse Morris came to see me. Jesse was the first movement person I had met. I remember thinking how somber he looked, how subdued and thoughtful, with his stately composure and wry smile. I can see him now, walking slowly up the dirt road to the main hall of Tougaloo College. He was not much older than I was, but there was a seriousness about him that placed him beyond time.
It was May 1964, about two weeks before the Freedom Summer orientation in Oxford, Ohio. Jesse had heard I had been involved in Professor Pettigrew's study of the African American community in Boston, and approached me about designing a survey that Freedom Summer volunteers could administer across the state. Pettigrew sent me materials from the Boston study, and Jesse and I began working on the design. The day before staff was scheduled to leave for Ohio, the survey was still not complete.
I don't remember making a conscious decision to join the Freedom Movement. I just got on a bus headed for the Oxford orientation. Unaware of the significance of my action, I entered the vortex of energy that was the movement, fulfilling my childhood dreams of adventure and my longing for a world of meaning.
At the Oxford orientation I operated as staff, working on the survey in the day and filling in on the WATS (wide area telephone service) line at night. At the time, staff status was more a function of the work people did rather than whether they were on a payroll or whose payroll they were on. Still, someone had to pay for food and essentials. During the time I taught at Tougaloo I lived on money I had saved from teaching Hebrew school during the year. After the first six-week summer session was over I began working at the Jackson COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) office. Once my savings were gone in early August, I headed to the Catskills to work as a waitress.
When I returned south with my small savings after Labor Day, SNCC had just added a large number of summer volunteers to the payroll, a controversial action that strained the racial balance of staff and led to a temporary freeze on additional SNCC staff. Jesse took me to meet with Dick Jewitt from the Congress
[p. 269]of Racial Equality (CORE), who graciously agreed to place me on the CORE payroll--where I remained, at $15.00 a week, for the rest of my stay in Mississippi.
Working as a white woman in the midst of the freedom struggle was a tremendous privilege, but it was also a source of enormous tension for me. I completely identified with the SNCC principles of local leadership, respect for the common man, consensus, and participatory democracy, but I was always aware of my status as a newcomer in a very deep and lengthy struggle. My arrival in Jackson a month before Freedom Summer as part of the Harvard-Tougaloo exchange had placed me in a peculiar position. I was not grouped with the legion of summer volunteers who, it seemed to me, were often viewed as a kind of disposable labor and public relations source, but neither did I share a personal history with the pre-Freedom Summer civil rights community.
I had arrived too late to be incorporated into the culture of trust that was the hallmark of what movement people often called the "Beloved Community." I participated in tortuous policy deliberations and attended countless SNCC staff meetings and retreats; I even submitted a position paper at the SNCC staff retreat at Waveland in 1964, writing from the perspective of staff. But I never felt myself to be a member of the Beloved Community. My skills as an organizer gave me the ability to work and move freely in the field, but my membership in the civil rights community was always marginal.
In the fall of 1964 Jesse Morris, who headed the Mississippi Federal Programs effort, handed me an advance copy of the Poverty Bill and asked me to come up with a proposal to implement in nearby Madison County. Skeptical about designing a strategy that would rely on the cooperation of local Mississippi agencies, I proposed a different approach:
October 11, 1964
After a review of these types of programs it is my personal feeling that little can be done directly through the community and the federal agencies sponsoring these programs. . . . Our job is to put pressure on local agencies to cooperate with federal men. . . . As to how to apply this pressure, I have a few ideas. One is to organize a large scale welfare type organization, staffed by local people and administered through the political organization of the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP). Using the blocks as units, I would like to train about ten people in the
[p. 270]basics of the Social Security Act, disability provisions, plus unemployment laws, plus welfare programs like Aid to Dependent Children and Old Age Assistance. They could get around to all the families in the Negro communities and . . . advise the people [on] what programs they are eligible for, and help them apply and appeal denials. If we do not win our just appeals, we have a legal leverage in Washington.
The organizing strategy I outlined was one of the early versions of welfare rights. I saw it as an attempt to force the white community to play by the rules and, at the same time, as a way to dramatize the institutionalization of racism in federally funded state programs.
The initiative took me to the State House in Jackson, where I obtained copies of state regulations for various federal programs. During the fall and early winter I visited projects around the state, answering questions on eligibility and documenting incidents where black Mississippians were denied access to programs. It was an eerie feeling, traveling alone, operating primarily as an independent, borrowing vehicles from other civil rights workers. During the summer, when discipline was tight, it would have been unthinkable for a white woman to travel alone, for fear of accidentally provoking the insane rage that accompanied white supremacists' fears of "race-mixing." But the sense of discipline that prohibited solitary action had been worn down in the events of the past summer.
My experiences in the field didn't fit with how I had been trained at Harvard to decode the world. The more I worked with local people, the more I became immersed in the way they viewed the world, and the more difficult it became for me to communicate with people outside the movement. This struggle to communicate comes through clearly in a letter I wrote to a Marxist classmate during this period:
I really can't talk too much analytically anymore about the movement or what we or anyone is doing here or why or what it means. But I can tell stories of things that have happened. . . . Mrs. Ruffin, from Laurel Mississippi, a fifty-year-old woman on welfare who runs the freedom library in Laurel, came into the office the other day after reading some magazines and books. She said to me, "Honey, you know . . . that war in Vietnam, well I'm not even sure we should be there, or if we are, which side we should be on." Mrs. Ruffin sat down with another woman from the Jackson
FDP (Freedom Democratic Party), who also had less than six years of school, and wrote a letter to the FDP chairmen in each County, asking them what they thought about Vietnam, and about 300 kids getting kicked out of school in one county for wearing SNCC buttons. I don't know the response to Vietnam. I do know we've had school boycotts since then. Let me redo Marx a little. A man is not really a slave to the objective conditions of his life. By that it means that a man is a slave to the past and present. How I would change it would be to say that a man is only a slave to the extent that he is a slave to the future. To the extent that he could not perceive alternatives and choices in his future, to that extent he is not free. To the extent that he could not effect these, perhaps he would also be not free.
I was becoming radicalized. I no longer trusted the New York Times to bring me the news or the FBI to protect me. When I read New York Times accounts of events in which I had participated, or listened to SNCC staff plead with Justice Department officials to send in agents to observe situations that were almost certain to become violent, I realized I had entered a different America from the one in which I had been raised. Liberal politicians talked about reason and compromise, but what we were up against lay outside these categories. The enemy was the preservation of a way of life built on the subjugation of one part of the population by another part, based on convention and law, and enforced by violence and intimidation. Reason and compromise held no sway against that power.
In the fall of 1964, several women huddled in a conspiratorial press around a mimeograph machine in the middle of the night at a SNCC staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi. My friends and I were responding to a call for position papers on issues confronting the movement. Our paper, titled "The Position of Women in the Movement," one of over thirty papers presented at the November SNCC retreat, addressed the issue of sexism. We wrote as movement women, objecting to the "assumption of male superiority," to women being called "girls," to women being left out of key decisions, to women's talents and skills being underutilized, and to a host of gender-based situations that were emblematic of sexism. No individual was listed as author. Instead, "Name withheld by request" was typed in the upper corner, the same notation of anonymity that marked "Semi-Introspective," the position paper that I submitted as an individual. Both as an individual author and as a member of a
[p. 272]group, I struggled with the conflict between the desire to speak my mind and the discomfort of speaking in a public forum. But it was a discomfort tinged with a mischievous quality. I remember how I felt, like a naughty schoolgirl, sneaking up to the second floor of the main building with one or two co-conspirators late in the evening, quickly placing the copies of "The Position of Women in the Movement" on a table alongside the other stacks of position papers, and then turning, laughing, and running hurriedly down the staircase to avoid discovery.
In my travels across the state working in Federal Programs I had collected examples of sexism (we labeled it "discrimination"), which were incorporated into the text of the memo. In the analysis section, I remember my voice as one of the more strident, the voice of an outsider with little to lose. I had been in the state less than six months, a relative newcomer free of the considerations that came from long-standing loyalties, and quick to challenge what I saw as inconsistent intellectual positions.
Despite the camaraderie and periods of intense reflection that characterized my experiences at the Waveland retreat, it was a deeply unsettling time for me. In the position paper, "Semi-Introspective;" that I submitted to the collective deliberations, I wrote, "As an organization we have never decided whether or not to be: (1) agitators (2) demonstrators or (3) organizers." I had hoped to find clear direction in Waveland, but I left in sadness and confusion, with no clear sense of direction or of renewal.
After Waveland I became more focused on day-to-day work. It was the only thing I trusted. By late fall 1964 I had collected considerable evidence of the systematic denial of black Mississippians' rights to participate in federal programs. With no leverage at the local level, I looked to Washington, arranging prospective meetings between Mississippians and sympathetic contacts in the federal agencies that oversaw Mississippi's federally funded programs. The meetings would take place during the MFDP's upcoming trip to Washington. Staging these kinds of meetings was classic movement strategy--orchestrating situations where ordinary people could confront the people and institutions that, until that moment, had operated as the unchallenged arbiters of power in their lives. It was a powerful tool that only sometimes changed the immediate course of events but almost always affected the dynamics of traditional power relationships.
In early October, as a poll watcher for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services (ASCS) election, I had witnessed one such confrontation --a series of faces, the weathered faces of black farmers as they stepped up with determination to place an X or sign their names on a ballot that would decide who would serve on the powerful Madison County ASCS board, the body that determined how many acres of cotton each farmer was permitted to grow. In 1964, cotton was still king, and cotton allotments, with their accompanying price supports, were the mechanism that determined which farmers would prosper in this marginal agrarian economy.
The black farmers, who had come to vote in the ASCS election for the first time, moved slowly and resolutely toward the ballot box, hats in hand, eyes lowered, steady in their gait, refusing to be turned back by the hostile stares of local whites who crowded into the designated polling place, the A&W Root Beer Stand. Many who cast their votes that day were arrested, along with several poll watchers, including myself, but jail could not curtail the momentum of protest. It was one more in a long line of incidents, a series of confrontations between authority and legitimacy, between the racist practices of society and the law. No matter what the immediate outcome, each of these confrontations served to unravel the fear woven into the fabric of segregation.
In January 1965, along with several busloads of MFDP members, I headed to Washington for the Congressional Challenge. Picket lines of black Mississippians moved up and down the avenues in front of the White House and Capitol, calling attention to the voting violations and segregationist practices of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party and questioning the right of the white congressmen from Mississippi to take seats in the House and Senate. Before leaving Mississippi I had scheduled several meetings between local people and officials from key federal agencies. With the drama and pain of the summer fresh in public memory, there were still many open doors in Washington. On a cold January afternoon, groups of six to twenty Mississippians, accompanied by SNCC staff, filed through some of those doors into the offices of highly placed officials in agencies like Health, Education, and Welfare; Veteran Affairs; and the Department of Agriculture.
I was the escort for a small group of quiet and determined World War II veterans whose benefits had been denied. At the Bureau of Veteran Affairs, one by one, they told their stories. The bureaucrats sitting across the room,
[p. 274]brows furrowed in distress, furiously took notes on a truth not heard before in those halls.
The Cooperative Division of the Department of Agriculture was in a small office tucked away along a sterile corridor in a cold, sprawling, stone building. I had contacted its single staff person during an earlier visit in November. This time, after a brief conversation and an exchange of addresses with a man in a brown suit, I felt ready to provide assistance to fledgling farm co-ops. This was how the movement worked: if you cared deeply about something, could make a strong case for it, and were ready to put your own energies into it, you were generally allowed to do whatever it was you wanted to do. My personal experiences with the Israeli collective, kibbutz and moshav; had given me a confidence in cooperatives as economically and socially viable vehicles for change. Back in Mississippi, Jesse Morris was receiving increasingly adamant requests from the town of Batesville in Panola County for help in organizing a co-op. No black staff were available to go, and I don't recall if any white men were interested in going. In retrospect, I believe it was probably Jesse's confidence in my ability to move the project forward that sent me that March into the hill country of northwestern Mississippi.
Part of my decision to work in Batesville was an attempt to avoid what I felt was an escalating negativity in black-white relationships. The meetings I had set up during the Congressional Challenge between local people and Washington bureaucrats were exhilarating, but the interpersonal difficulties I faced during the trip to Washington troubled me. I can still remember the look of disdain on the face of the black male staff member who greeted me as I walked through the doors of the Washington SNCC office. "What are you doing here?" were his first words. "Why did you take up a seat on the bus that could have gone to a local Mississippi person?" It wasn't an unreasonable question, and I had a reasonable answer, having traveled to Washington in a private car specifically to avoid occupying a seat on the bus. What hurt was the anger that accompanied his challenge and the never-ending requirement that I justify my work. It unsettled me, forcing me to look at myself as veteran staff might see me: as one more white person trying to get in on the action.
The next day, when I tried to finalize the list of SNCC staff that would act as escorts for the agency meetings, I found that some who had previously committed to the project were vacillating. I didn't take it as a rejection of this particular effort. Staff were heavily involved in the daily protests and political
[p. 275]maneuvers, and with so much going on, I didn't have the status to facilitate a parallel event, even one sanctioned and supported by the MFDP. Eventually, I was able to pair a staff member with each group, but my memory of that day is of desperately pleading with people to participate in something I had mistakenly assumed was a shared priority. It was a lesson I took to heart, leading me to conclude that I needed to concentrate my efforts on a single project, outside the maelstrom of movement politics.
In the field, tensions were less marked. If a person was an effective field worker, whether black or white, male or female, he or she was likely to be respected. In the annals of the movement, working in Federal Programs was not very glamorous. But out in the field, the federal programs initiative proved a powerful organizing tool, and as a result it had a place at the project level as long as the person in charge was seen as competent.
When I arrived in Batesville in early March 1965, the groundwork for the co-op had been laid and resolve was strong. I was given the front bedroom in a farmhouse owned by Robert Miles, a courageous and outspoken independent farmer. Mr. Miles, his wife, Mona, and their two children slept on the floor in a room at the back of the house, where they had moved months earlier after local whites shot into the front bedroom. There were always several civil rights workers living at the Miles home. The strength, dignity, and graciousness of Mr. and Mrs. Miles, along with the sweet devotion of their family life, provided the bedrock for my daily work.
The bullet holes in the pane-glass window and in the headboard of my bed were reminders of just how real and serious a threat we were to the white power structure, and conversely, just how serious a threat they were to our personal safety. Once, in the dead of night, on the way to the kitchen, I unexpectedly came across one of the neighbors who rotated watches in the dawn-to-dusk rooftop patrol. We all knew the men were there but seldom saw them. For the most part, they came and went wordlessly in the darkness. That evening, the neighbor on watch was taking a break, warming his hands around a cup of coffee, shotgun at his side. When I passed by, he looked down toward the floor and nodded his head silently. It was not the first shotgun I had seen in Mississippi. Months earlier, I had walked into the house of another farmer, Mr. Steptoe, late at night, only to find SNCC field secretary Rap Brown asleep in a rocking chair, a shotgun across his arms. We didn't talk much about the
[p. 276]guns. Nonviolence was still the credo; in the trenches, however, self-defense was becoming the reality.
Local leadership was in place. Indeed, the community was way ahead of the civil rights workers on this one, so far ahead that they didn't seem to be bothered by the fact that their main resource during this pivotal time was a very young white woman. I began visiting different farms, often accompanied by Chris Williams, a white civil rights worker who had done some of the groundwork before my arrival. Sometimes the Reverend traveled with us and sometimes I called on farmers by myself. House by house, we talked about our plans. Sunday was church meeting day. I loved the meetings, the starched dresses of the children, the slow rhythm of the day--moving from song to sermon, to call and response, the spirit-filled cadence of faith, and back to song, to passing the collection plate, to song again, bodies swaying, hand-held cardboard fans adorned with images of Jesus fluttering in the still air thick with moisture. Sunday was a day of renewal, of personal faith and collective courage.
When I went to individual farms I would always try to get the woman of the household to commit to come to meetings. "We know who chops the cotton," I would say--referring to the difficult job of weeding the cotton rows--to which I would receive a nod of agreement. But most of the women never appeared at the general meetings. Sometimes they would promise to come, perhaps to please me, or perhaps because they didn't know how to speak honestly to me, but I learned not to expect them to appear.
The farmers formed an organization, elected officers, and pooled resources to purchase seed. The meetings were getting larger and larger. Momentum was growing. The co-op was becoming real. The members adopted by-laws, bought and distributed seed, and planted crops. The man in the brown suit from the Department of Agriculture in Washington helped us secure a $78,000 War on Poverty program loan to purchase farm equipment.
By that time I had become relatively isolated from most staff, except for co-op visits with Chris Williams and late-night talks with my friend Penny Patch. In my spare time I began experimenting with the new organizational tool of photography. I had never thought of a camera as anything more than a way to capture memories, but in the field photography had become a way to democratize what got documented. Instead of waiting for the few over-worked
[p. 277]SNCC photographers to come and take pictures, anyone could become part of documenting the movement. I sent for my camera. Emmie Schrader, a friend from my Jackson office days, taught me to develop film in the dark-room of the SNCC Atlanta office. I shot rolls of film of co-op meetings, Mr. Miles's farm, the community center, the streets, and the plantation shacks that still housed families of struggling sharecroppers.
One of my favorite subjects was Mr. Miles's mammoth sow. I was fascinated by her massive white-pink body and was fond of following her movements from the other side of the fence. I found a certain tranquillity in watching and photographing her. It must have looked odd to the household, this young white woman photographing the family pig. I was making a print of Mr. Miles's pig when Jim Forman, SNCC's executive secretary, walked into the Atlanta darkroom where I was working. Jim was indignant at this blatant waste of SNCC resources. What possible value could there be in an 8″ X 11″ photograph of a pig? He railed on and on, while I slunk away, properly chastised. I had been uncovered in a middle-class pose, developing photographs of a pig while the revolution was raging around me. In the political climate of the time, when whites were being accused of "bourgeois sentimentality," I was caught.
Back in Batesville, I continued to photograph the different stages of the co-op. I invited Maria Varela, a SNCC staff person who was also working with photography, to visit the project. When I left the state a few months later, I gave my photos and negatives to Maria, who made other trips to Batesville and eventually created a slide show called "How to Organize a Farm Co-op." Other co-ops followed, other people continued Federal Programs work, and Mr. Miles was instrumental in organizing the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, where he served as the first elected vice-president The Batesville co-op itself lasted more than fifteen years.
My time in Mississippi was nearing its end. No local person had ever made me feel unwelcome, but the shift in staff attitudes toward the participation of whites made it increasingly difficult for me to continue. I believed passionately that the civil rights struggle, as a human rights struggle, was mine to share. At the same time, I was painfully aware of the tensions emanating from the differences in background, beliefs, and communication styles between blacks and whites, educated and uneducated, northern and southern, veteran and
[p. 278]newcomer. The constants of external violence, financial crisis, policy gridlock, and the growing support for an all-black movement pushed tensions even higher. My journal entries from that spring reveal the dark demons of frustration and despair.
March 16, 1965
Coming into a new project is very painful. People are full of pain, guarded, unhappy, depressed, bored, mostly hurt. It is the same everywhere. . . . They are pessimistic, or realistic about the extent of the change that they are producing. Mostly they are caught up in the recognition of the faction fighting. . . . Things never seem to get done. No one seems to believe in their ability to affect change. And then they are all exhausted by the tensions of movement life. We are the hardest wearing on each other. We destroy each other, but mostly offer each other no comfort.
As long as I was totally consumed by the work, I was able to maintain a manageable distance from staff strife, but as the co-op moved from the organizational to the operational stage, my role became less clear and my doubts about working as a white female in a black movement harder to dispel. I was an organizer, but I knew little about farming or marketing crops. I no longer felt that local farmers were peering anxiously down the road waiting for a male, preferably a black male, to appear, but at the same time I felt less connected to the daily work.
In May 1965 my Harvard colleague Johnny Mudd arrived in Batesville to pick up a car he had loaned me during one of his trips north. Johnny offered to stay in Batesville and keep things moving while I went north to scout outlets for the co-op's okra. It was there that I met the remarkable man whom I would marry two years later. When I returned south, it was clear to me that Johnny was much better suited than I to move the co-op into its next phase. Johnny was a master of detail, a relentless intellect, a totally committed individual-- and a male. The Panola County co-op finally had their "man." In May 1965 I left Mississippi.
What I learned in Mississippi about people, about political and social change, about race and class, about politics, about right action, and about my identity as a woman have stayed with me to this day. But I never thought of
[p. 279]my own actions as having historical significance. The drama itself was too great, the stage too large, and the characters too brilliant for me to see myself even as part of the play.
Being a white woman in that time and in that context was incredibly challenging for me. The movement gave me the opportunity to work and the opportunity to assume considerable responsibility, but despite the civil rights community's focus on social justice, the society of the early sixties was still a heavily sexist one. There were times when I felt that neither gender nor race interfered with my work, but there were many more times when I was acutely aware of just how much race and gender impacted my effectiveness.
Nevertheless, my work in the movement, even within situations that I would later identify as sexist, radically altered my personal expectations of what I could accomplish as a woman. The power created by individuals acting from commitment and principle was incredible, and being swept up in that power was a freeing experience that transcended gender. I worked and I read and I talked with my women friends. In a milieu of challenge, where all social mores were suspect and all actions subject to scrutiny, I sifted through the powerful ideas of Anais Nin, Doris Lessing, Betty Friedan, and Simone de Beauvoir and considered the world around me.
It was this vibrant context, the collective influence of highly charged events and wonderful minds, that led me to new perspectives and realizations. On balance, I attribute the fundamental shift in awareness of myself as a woman to the juxtaposition of my experiences with gender equality in the progressive atmosphere of the kibbutz, where it was a given, and the presence of gender discrimination in a civil rights community that declared itself to be egalitarian. This was the ground upon which all else stood. Added to this was the intellectual stimulation of a remarkable group of women, both black and white; the SNCC tradition of constant questioning and challenge; and the works of feminist writers, viewed through the lens of an outsider, a white woman in an environment that was becoming increasingly intolerant of whites. The result was a shift in my awareness of what it meant to be a woman in American society.
I have been asked by feminist historians why more of us who are considered to be "early feminists" did not go on to leadership positions in the women's
[p. 280]movement. My response is that despite the personal anger that I sometimes felt when confronted with sexist situations, and despite my yearning for equality between the sexes, it was always the freedom struggle that held me. To shift my identity, commitment, and energy from the freedom struggle to the women's struggle was not something I could do, especially at a time when I was still grieving over my separation from the movement. The freedom struggle was the flame; all else was shadow.
I left the South with two powerful realizations. The first was a deep appreciation for ordinary people and the ways in which they understand the world. My teachers were the people whose faith, intelligence, and willingness to risk everything were the heart of the black freedom struggle. The second realization was a terrifying, gut-level understanding of racism, a terrible awareness of its corrosive and pervasive legacy. As an outsider, I had underestimated the power of racism as a social phenomenon and the lengths to which our society would go to preserve its privilege.
Somewhere, in the midst of the struggle, I felt that my fellow civil rights workers and I lost whatever ability we once had to move beyond race in our own lives. There were moments when race and gender did not separate us. I know that to be true. The feeling of being one mind and one body is so profound that its memory is palpable. I think of Mississippi as a sacrament. It was in that communion that I experienced a grace whose memory has sustained me as I have moved along in my life and in my work.
When I left the South I was devastated, dazed, displaced. I hadn't even noticed that my Mississippi experiences had pushed me quietly but completely out of the American mainstream. My values, my frame of reference, my understanding of society, my identity as a young adult, had all been realigned in the reality of the struggle. When I left that reality I was lost. To have returned to Radcliffe and finished my senior year would have gone against everything I had experienced in Mississippi. After Mississippi, I was unable to be part of any system of privilege. To have bowed my head to receive the final "credential" of society, a Harvard diploma, was absolutely unthinkable.
Instead of returning to school, I drifted into the turbulent and heady counterculture that was emerging in New York City. In some ways it was an easy transition. The counterculture lacked the political focus of the Freedom
[p. 281]Movement, but it suited my deepening alienation from mainstream institutions. In a letter to a friend that I wrote right before I left the South, I talked about the struggle to break through the conventions of society, personally and politically:
Mostly what is going on is the unstructuring of the old ways of dealing with things to as great an extent as possible. It is difficult to drop the old categories and structures, difficult to recognize them, to get others to see them. Probably the hardest things are getting people to see that things don't have to be done the way things are [always] done. People seem only to accept this provisionally. Even extending things back from society to the individual to say that we must free ourselves if we ever hope to "free society" is something whose understanding is an ever deepening involvement, bringing you further and further somewhere, though the words themselves are operationally meaningless to bring you there.
My sojourn in New York City began in the Tompkins Square apartment of Alan Ribback, who was editing the record "Movement Soul," a compilation of music recorded in southern black churches. Emmie Schrader was living with Alan and making a filmstrip on the Vietnam War. It was at Alan's apartment, during my okra-scouting trip, that I met my husband, Chip, a folk singer from Macon, Georgia, whose stand on segregation had separated him from his Georgia roots. Chip was a poet and musician totally immersed in his own artistic expression and the "happenings" of the Lower East Side. His apolitical stance toward life was appealing to me at a time when I felt particularly vulnerable to the aggressive emotions that I associated with political life. Chip was antiracist, he understood in broad terms what I had gone through, and he gave me a lot of room. He was also many other things, but at that time I could not see much further than the moment.
During the days, I worked with minority kids in the ghettos of the city. At night I rejoined my new community, the Lower East Side. Chip played in an avant-garde jazz-rock band called the Free Spirits, the first jazz fusion band. The band performed at the center of the explosive counterculture music scene--the Balloon Farm, Fillmore East, Ondine's, and the Scene--opposite bands like Warhol's Velvet Underground and the Doors. The night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the Free Spirits were playing Fillmore East opposite the Who. The band lobbied rock impresario Bill Graham to acknowledge
[p. 282]the event in a more than superficial way. Graham, who appeared nervous and angry at being asked to make a political statement, responded by calling the band "a bunch of unruly musicians." It was a sad and lonely evening for me. I had moved from the austerity of political correctness to the psychedelic laissez-faire of the counterculture, but I had not succeeded in quieting the persistent voices that still spoke to me from that clear place inside my heart.
I loved the freewheeling feeling of being in the midst of people who were disconnected from mainstream society, but in a more fundamental way I was in hiding, grieving for what had been lost. Occasionally I would run into local political activists. I remember looking at Jeff Jones and Mark Rudd, two student leaders of the Columbia uprising, as they urged me, afire with excitement, to come uptown with them and join the struggle. They seemed so young and so immature. It reminded me of the way I'd felt at the end of my year in Mississippi when new volunteers would show up in Jackson--old and tired. The gulf between us was too wide. I was glad that students were challenging their institutions, but I didn't share the same political focus as these young college folks, and I had exhausted my interest in politics as personal adventure. Students' concerns just didn't seem all that important.
In 1968, Chip's band moved to San Francisco after one of their songs, "Witchi-Tai-To," rose to the top of the national charts. We soon left San Francisco for the hills of Sonoma County, where our son was born, then in early 1969 to Colorado, where, a year and a half later, our daughter was born. We settled in Huerfano County, a rural Hispanic region of southern Colorado in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range, where we lived with our friends in a commune called the Anonymous Artists of America, or Triple A (AAA). The commune centered on the nuclear families of the AAA band members. In the beginning we lived in a tepee. I tended the garden, canned and preserved food, picked piñon nuts, basked in the sun, and sat meditation in the midst of the aspens, the junipers, the cedars, the sun, the snow, and the silence. Within a few years our small group of families had built houses, a water system, a barn and a bathhouse, and had begun grappling with the tougher issues of communal life--fairness, compromise, consensus, character, individual freedom, and collective responsibility.
The local community was poor and accepting, despite their reservations about our lifestyle. Eventually we became friends with our neighbors, sharing
[p. 283]the concerns and the work of the community--the school, the politics, the roads, the environment, and the future. I loved the gentility of the Hispanic culture, its devotion to family, and its deep connection to the land. As a community we did wonderful things together.
I organized parents to petition the school board for a kindergarten. I linked up with the community college a hundred miles away to open a community school. I worked on grants for a playground that was designed and constructed by the community and a bilingual multicultural preschool. I wrote grants and directed a series of oral history projects that culminated in a play sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that toured southern Colorado, celebrating the area's history and culture. Huerfano County was home. I loved living there with my husband as we raised our family, I loved the rough and beautiful land we lived on, and I cherished the opportunity to work and contribute to the timeless life around me.
Our last project in southern Colorado was constructing, launching, and operating a regional FM radio station financed through a socially conscious investment group committed to employee-owned businesses. Chip had always maintained his musical connection to the world. The radio station was his vision of linking the community through music and honest communication. Chip was general manager, sales manager, production manager, and program director; I was business manager and news director. Our slogan was "Community Radio Makes a Difference," and it really did. The ordinary people in the communities we served viewed the station as their own. We did original radio plays and provocative news series. High school kids put together shows, the football coach did sports, and on Sundays local people brought in their own collections of records and did specialty shows: bluegrass, classical, old time rock and roll, jazz, contemporary and traditional Spanish music. We were totally entwined in the life of the community.
Before the end of our first year of operation, the station had the highest Arbitron rating of any FM station in the state, and before the end of the 1980s it had won more than thirty-five statewide awards in broadcasting, including two consecutive awards for best editorial from the Colorado Society of Professional Journalists. But the station's popular success had a hidden cost: we had become a clear threat to the local power structure. Our politics were simple: "Tell it like it is." Our news and public affairs coverage challenged the control
[p. 284]of city councils, county commissioners, and virtually every established political and economic institution in the community.
One day, a friend of ours inside the police department came into the station, his face drawn with concern. He warned us that rumors were being spread that we were big cocaine traffickers and that we were about to be set up and busted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Hearing this slander was almost a relief. We had been feeling the animosity of the old guard toward us, an ominous sense of danger, but couldn't figure out what form the assault would take. When I walked past the plate-glass window in the front office I had an uneasy feeling, reminiscent of the way I felt walking past the shattered pane of glass in the front bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. Miles's farm house in Panola County. I suppose you could call it post-traumatic stress. It felt like instinct to me.
It never came to that. A week after Chip completed the installation of two translators, increasing our market coverage and bringing us into a viable economic position, the Jeep he was driving was broadsided by a vehicle running a red light. With Chip unable to walk or travel because of his injuries, there was no way we could meet our financial projections for the new markets. We frantically looked for local investors, but after strong initial interest, potential backers mysteriously disappeared. In early 1989 we sold the station and moved to Denver.
In many ways, leaving Huerfano County after twenty years was like leaving the South, filling me with a sense of loss. We had believed we would live out our lives in this community that we loved, and suddenly it was over. Chip didn't spend any time in regrets. Within a year he taught himself a new art form and entered a new profession, video and television production. The transition was more difficult for me. I knew I would never be part of another community in the way that I had been part of southern Colorado. I was back in the city. It was time to look around and see what there was to do.
I had always loved the city, but after twenty years in rural Colorado I had no credentials, no city friends to "network" with, and no experience that would translate into a career. I did have a college degree in alternative education, something I had managed to complete in 1974 through the University of Massachusetts University without Walls program, but education meant social action
[p. 285]to me, and teaching in a school was not what I'd had in mind when I got my degree. I didn't know enough about the Denver community to write grants, and I had nothing to commend me to employers. I was forty-seven years old and I was starting over again. While I was figuring out how to reenter city life, I worked as a waitress in a local restaurant. My sisters were upset and worried, but I remembered what our father used to tell us: "A man never has to apologize for making a living." For me, being among working people was a way to get back to my center.
Before long I had found a forum where I could work, at the intersection of education and community. I was drawn to family literacy, first as an adult education teacher in a family literacy program, and later as curriculum coordinator of an adult education agency. The power of family was something I understood, and the idea of working toward social change by working with the family unit made sense to me. As part of my professional development I started taking courses at the University of Colorado at Denver, where I met several wonderful professors who shared my views on education and social change. At their invitation, I worked as a co-principal investigator in a federally funded research project focusing on high-achieving classrooms for minority students in Denver's public schools. My role was to explore the connection between home, community, and school.
The study brought up a new set of questions for me, and without really considering the implications, I enrolled in a doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Innovation. I still haven't committed to writing a dissertation, but what I've learned about applying formal analysis to problems of practice has given me a way to contribute to the public dialogue on education and social change.
Adult education led me to workforce education at the Community College of Denver (CCD), where I focused on skill development for entry-level workers. From workplace education it was a natural shift to my present focus, preparing women to move successfully from welfare to work. In many ways, my work in welfare reform is a return to the work that I did in the South. The circumstances of people's lives are different, but the work that engages me is the same: working with individuals to remove the barriers that prevent them from participating fully in society.
In March 1990, the U.S. Department of Labor and the American Association
[p. 286]of Community Colleges named the CCD welfare-to-work project an exemplary program. The experts who approach the program, trying to decipher its unexpected success, tend to describe what we do in terms of "best practices." What they see is a blend of vocational training, case management, and workplace internships that lead into full-time jobs with career advancement. Those of us who work with the program on a day-to-day basis understand how much more is involved. For me, it is the sum of everything I've learned about working with people, about what it means to be marginalized, about poverty, about racism, about family, about community, about education, about goodness, about respect, about trust, about strength, about hope.
One of the unanticipated consequences of relocating to Denver was entering a community with a strong black presence. Being around black people again reminded me of the way I felt when I walked into JFK International after a year abroad and heard the sounds of English being spoken, or how I feel when I return to the town where I was born and walk in the salt air along the beach where I first learned to swim. It is a physical experience, a sense of homecoming. It was, and is, a bittersweet experience. In February 1995, I went to hear African American philosopher, professor, and author Cornel West speak at a black church in Denver. That night I wrote in my journal:
The speech was beautiful, The speech was beautiful, partially from the experience of being in a black church, surrounded by a large number of black people of faith, and partially because of Cornel and his message. It has been so long since I have been there and so good to feel part of the black community again. It is the easiest thing in the world for me to do, to sink back into the congregation. All that has to happen is for a black person to look me in the eye and say, "Its still your struggle" and I'm there. We had believed it was our struggle, and then we were told it was not, left to struggle on our own with what it means to be separated from the black community and still feel a part of it. We partook of the sacrament, the struggle for freedom, and we understood that our humanity would be judged by how well we incorporated the knowledge of what that meant into our actions. But the space that we occupy is a lonely one. We miss our black brothers and sisters, and they are seldom available to us, seldom speak to us as white brothers and sisters. They are sometimes our colleagues, sometimes our students, sometimes our clients,
but seldom our brothers and sisters. That was the gift of hearing Cornel speak. His words to me were simple: "It is still your struggle."
For thirty years I rarely thought about my experiences in the South. When I occasionally saw friends from those days, we never really talked about the movement. The South lay shrouded in shadowy memories and in pain. At one point, I got a call from Casey Hayden, saying that a woman named Sara Evans would be contacting me to ask me about the Waveland position paper on women for a book she was writing. I remember asking if Sara Evans was black or white, and being stunned by the idea of a white female venturing into the history of the black movement. Sara Evans didn't contact me, but from my perspective it is just as well. At that time, there was not enough distance between me and the past for me to see clearly.
I listened eagerly to accounts of SNCC reunions. I longed to go, but was confused about it all and didn't really feel invited. When I heard about the upcoming thirty-year reunion of Freedom Summer in 1994 in Jackson, I was determined to attend. In the month before the reunion, something else moved me closer to the past. In the somber activity following my mother's death that winter, boxes of journals, letters, materials, and memorabilia that I had stored in my parents' basement made their way to Colorado, via my sweet sister Renee, who painstakingly sorted through the remnants of our family's life. In the weeks preceding Jackson I reread the contents of my boxes, the position papers, minutes of meetings, letters, and journals. Those reflections of a passionate, idealistic young woman, struggling to make sense of the world in the midst of extraordinary events, were my gateway into the turbulent emotions of the past, the beginnings of recapturing the wealth of memories stored deep within, and the beginnings of this work, the task of reflecting on the past and telling our stories to our children.
We were wide-eyed children, acting on dreams of equality and social justice, fighting the good fight, unwilling to accept the brutality and degradation of segregation, convinced that if we could only find a way to demonstrate the truth, justice would prevail.
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