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Short Story About the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, 1965
in Mississippi, 1965
of New Age Politics (1976), Radical
Middle (2004), etc.; see Wikipedia biography HERE]
is a short story about being a civil rights movement volunteer in
Mississippi in 1965. I wrote it in
2014-15 and offer it here as my contribution to the deep truth-telling
that needs to take place, by people of all races, if this nation is ever to
become healthy and whole.
Three Committees” differs from many fictional and non-fictional accounts of
the movement in ways I feel are important and True.
For example, the 18-year-old narrator’s motives turn out to be less
than noble and “pure.” The
narrator’s Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) project does not
entirely resemble the “Beloved Community” of SNCC’s ideals.
The narrator’s white racist “Civic Committee” captors turn out to
be more varied and multi-dimensional (though no less dangerous!) than they at
was a civil rights worker in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in the spring of 1965,
and it has taken me all this time – 50 years – to fully come to grips with
my experiences there. The Civic Committee is my invention, a truth-telling
device, but is of course a facsimile of Klan and White Citizens Council groups
that were active in the South at that time, and my depiction of its members owes
much to my experiences at a segregated white public high school in Texas in
1963-64 (and getting to know certain classmates and their parents).
apart from the Civic Committee in my story – the narrator’s interactions
with other civil rights workers, his disapproving parents, the three incidents
with guns, the theft of the clothes, the humiliating encounter with
“Willie,” etc. – is based on my experiences in 1965.
ILLUSTRATIONS: You can find my picture on a page depicting about 50 civil rights volunteers from 1964-65 HERE – I’m the eighth one up from the bottom, somberly typing a government form for a black farmer or sharecropper. I had just turned 18, and it shows. You can see our Freedom House HERE, ninth pic down. And you can see Holly Springs’s “historic” town square HERE, toward bottom of page.
If you’d like to comment on this story, please e-mail me at msatin (at)
mindspring (dot) com and include your name, city, and occupation
(or avocation!). If we find your comments constructive, we'll post them at the bottom of
AM SITTING in the whites-only library in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in May
1965, in my 18th year, with a big book propped up at my table – Louis
Untermeyer’s anthology Modern American Poetry.
I picked it out because I knew it contained a lot of poems by white
Southerners. But I still feel pretty
thing, Holly Springs is a small town, 6,000 souls, and not one white resident
knows me. For another thing, I have
a big Jewish nose, and hair that hasn’t been cut for three months now.
Finally, I insist on wearing my “Mississippi uniform” all day every
day. A lot of the civil rights
workers here have one – work shirt, blue jeans, rubber boots up to your knees,
denim jacket optional – and you don’t find many white people in downtown
Holly Springs wearing anything like that, really.
Let alone in the library.
am on a mission at the library. I
want to make contact with white people! I
want one of them to come up to me and start a conversation.
first day I came here I asked the librarian (who looks a lot like an older
version of my mother) why they don’t let Negroes in here, and she told me she
has no idea. Did I strike a blow for
freedom? I hope so.
staying at Freedom House, ten blocks up the street in what everyone calls
“colored town.” It is a tiny
white clapboard house where I and some of the other Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC, or “Snick”) civil rights workers are staying.
I am outraged that nobody at Freedom House wants me to have anything to
do with white people in Holly Springs. Aren’t
we supposed to be integrating this town?
I have had a lot of trouble with my civil rights group lately, and I have walked
downtown every day for six days now as much to get away from them as anything.
They don’t ask where I go and I don’t tell them.
So I suppose you could say that my motives at the library are mixed.
I suppose you could say I am sitting here trying to figure things out.
I suppose you could say I am hiding.
It is an old Carnegie library, or what looks to be a Carnegie – not too different from the one I got to know in the small town up North where I grew up. Two big fans are sitting on the tables around me and I am enjoying their reassuring whirr. Two older gentlemen in short-sleeved shirts are reading newspapers at the tables. I like that too; the rustling.
Suddenly four men burst in and the librarian points her finger at me. “There he is!” she says. She turns back to her papers, but not before muttering, “Never changes his clothes.”
They are all six-footers, and I am five foot six in my boots. I try to stay calm, try not to faint dead away.
A deputy sheriff gets to me first. Big white Stetson hat, thick arms and thighs, pig’s eyes. “Boy, why are you sitting in our library in a imitation sharecropper’s outfit?”
I open my mouth and move my lips, but words don’t come.
“He sits on the square drinking Dr. Peppers and trying to talk to people,” says a guy in his 40s they’ll call C.J. Plaid short-sleeved shirt, bony arms, hair slicked back into a ducktail. “He’s the only nigger-lover I’ve seen try that.”
“What are you reading boy?” says a man in his 60s they’ll call Chandler. Deep sonorous voice that tickles my throat, gorgeous blue suit and tie, thinning slicked-back hair but no ducktail. He closes the book to reveal its cover. “Poetry ... Jewish ... poor kid.” My hands start to shake.
“Let’s get him out to the committee room,” says the one they’ll call Shep, probably my age or younger. He’s got flat-topped hair and a rugged but strangely angelic face. In high school he could be a football player or on the annual staff or both.
Shep pulls me up and we exit the library single-file, C.J. in the lead. I glance back hoping to see at least some looks of concern, but nobody is watching. We walk across the town square in total silence until the deputy imitates a loud vomiting sound.
“Jesus! He stinks,” the deputy says.
“Do all Jews smell like you?” Shep says.
I desperately want to explain. A lot of us at Freedom House feel so busy or beleaguered that we don’t give a high priority to middle-class conceits such as the obsessive washing and drying of clothes. But I sense that that explanation will do me no good. Anyway, everyone ignores Shep’s comment, and soon we reach a shop called “C.J.’s Hardware.” C.J. waves through the door at some guys at the counter, then leads us to a second entrance and up a set of stairs.
The stairs are wooden and blackened with age and dirt. But at the top we come upon a spacious meeting room. At least 50 folding chairs are stacked haphazardly in little piles, and a long folding table occupies the front of the room. C.J. shoves me hard against a wall and orders me to put five chairs around the table – which I promptly do. I also clean the table, which is my idea. Meanwhile, Chandler comes over and puts his hand on C.J.’s shoulder, like a father might do with an impetuous son.
As I perform my tasks, I can’t help noticing that the big front window is as musty and hard to see through as the windows at Freedom House. Much more captivating are the original oil paintings on the walls. There is one huge portrait of the town square as it must have looked before the Civil War, and a couple of depictions of mansions and gardens from that period. I am stunned and bewildered by their beauty. They are the polar opposite of the art poster in the front room of Freedom House – a black-and-white blowup of a sharecropper family sitting outside its shack, except the man’s head has been replaced by the smiley face of Senator Hubert Humphrey.
“Stop staring!” C.J. says. “We don’t have all day.”
We sit down, C.J. at one end of the table and Chandler at the other. “Did he hurt you, boy?” Chandler asks. “No ... no sir,” I say in a barely audible whisper. It is the first thing I’ve said since the committee picked me up. The first thing I’ve said all day, actually.
“We are going to decide what to do with you,” the deputy says. “We can’t allow you to run all over Holly Springs the way you do, and we’re going to send your Freedom Shack buddies a message.” He pauses and covers his beady eyes with mirrored sunglasses. “I will enforce the decision of our Civic Committee, which represents three generations of Holly Springs citizens. They’re going to ask you questions, boy, and if I think you’re not telling them the whole damn truth, you’re going to have a roadside accident tonight.”
His face is expressionless. I feel disembodied, I feel like I’m in a bad movie. “I – I’ll tell you everything,” I manage to say. “I’ll tell you more than you ever wanted to know!” I mean it, too. My survival strategy ... let it all out. What do I have to lose?
“I vote to short-circuit this whole charade,” C.J. says. “Chandler, let me take him out to the woods and shoot him in the head!” C.J. stands up and starts shouting. “I want to shoot a little nigger-lovin’ Jew so bad I can taste it! Alton did it, I want to do it too!”
“One vote is in,” the deputy says. “Two to go.”
“No votes are in,” Chandler says. “C.J., collect yourself, sit down. This is bigger than you or me. Cherry and his friends blow up that nigra church in Birmingham, and look what happens – we get the Civil Rights Act of ‘64. Altie and the gang kill two ‘nigger-lovin Jews’ last year, and now the Voting Rights Act is on the table!”
“So what would you do, surrender?” C.J. says.
“Let’s milk this boy for what he knows,” Chandler says. “Then we’ll do what’s best given what he’s been up to here and how we want Holly Springs to be seen in the world.”
C.J. stands down and Shep asks me about my background. “The truth!” I am thinking. “The whole damn truth!” I wonder if I’ve ever told it to anyone before, myself included.
“I grew up in Moorhead, Minnesota,” I say, “right across the river from Fargo, North Dakota – had the child’s part in nine college plays by the time I was 13 – had my own column in the local newspaper from ages 14 to 16. My father’s a college teacher with five battle stars from World War Two and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. We moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, before my senior year in high school and I liked it there very much. Had a great girlfriend there, name of Wynell, very dedicated to the Church of Christ.” I begin to feel I’m babbling but am afraid to slow down. “I earned straight As at the University of Illinois my first semester! Only 51 students did that, out of a freshman class of 4,000! Six weeks later I dropped out to work for SNCC in Mississippi –.”
Chandler stops me. “Boy, don’t you see the pattern here?”
C.J. slaps his forehead. You can tell he thinks something long and irrelevant is coming. Shep, though, is at the edge of his seat.
“How many nigras are there in Moorhead, Minnesota?” Chandler asks.
“According to my mother, there was one Negro family,” I manage to say. “No kids at the school, though.”
“And aren’t the high schools segregated in Wichita Falls?”
“Son, have you ever even known a nigra?”
“Not till I got here, sir.”
“So you’ve come down here to lecture us about people you don’t even know!” Shep says.
“Shush, Shep,” Chandler says. “Now boy, it sounds like you were a good student and had gaudy-good extracurriculars, is that correct?”
“Yes – yessir,” I say.
“And your daddy went to an Ivy League school?”
“And you had wild Jewish ambitions for yourself, right?”
“And you probably could have gone to any college in the country that you wanted to, right?”
“A lot of them, sir,” I say. “I really wanted to go to the University of Chicago. Carleton and that ‘great books’ school, St. John’s of Maryland, were my next choices.”
“So why didn’t you go there?”
“My father wouldn’t let me, sir,” I say. Suddenly my eyes begin tearing up. I have never had this conversation with anyone. “He – he said I couldn’t apply to any private colleges. He wouldn’t tell me why. He could have afforded it, that’s for sure.”
“So you chose Illinois – why?”
“Well, I told him my favorite public colleges were Michigan and U.C.-Berkeley. But he wouldn’t let me apply to those schools either. Said there were too many radicals on their faculties.”
“Smart man!” C.J. says.
“He said he’d let me apply to Illinois and U.C.-Riverside. I got into Illinois’s honors program and the long ordeal was over.”
“Now son, I don’t want to pry, but – your daddy and you get along?”
“Not really, sir. We used to play catch when I was young. But as I got older we argued all the time – about the civil rights movement, and about my hair, and about the U.S. ‘advisors’ in Vietnam. He’d whup me a lot too, him and my mother both. When I called my parents to tell them I was dropping out and coming here, my mother screamed that she’d call the police! Guess she doesn’t have to do that anymore.” I glance at the deputy but get no reaction from him. He’s holding his gun and stroking it like others might stroke a baby.
“Son, listen to me,” Chandler says. “Listen to me good. You are not in Mississippi because of the nigras. You have never known let alone cared about a nigra in your life. C.J. thinks he hates ‘em, but I’ve seen him exchanging stories with them in his store, on and on sometimes, and you will never, never, never relate to nigras like that. It is not in you, boy.”
I feel totally undressed by this man. I close my eyes and cradle my head in my arms on the table. But he doesn’t stop.
“You are in Mississippi for a reason though. It is to get back at your family for not giving you the education you deserve. You get straight-As your first semester at Illinois, then drop out and go to a place that terrifies them to work for goals they do not share. What better way to give ’em the finger?”
“I’d never thought of it that way before,” I say in a near whisper.
“But you are destroying yourself to get back at them! This committee doesn’t have to do it for you – you are doing a fine job on your own. Those Jews we killed in Neshoba County last year, you think you’re like them but you’re not. Schwerner went to Ivy League schools, Goodman grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of the most privileged neighborhoods in the country. They had some margin for error in their lives. You don’t! Your daddy can’t stand you or your politics, so he sends you to a Big Ten party school. If you get out of here alive, he’ll park you at an even worse dump, Kansas maybe, or State University of New York.”
“You’re right,” I say, tears streaming down my cheeks. I had never heard anyone talk in such a frankly elitist way before, but instead of repelling me as it would have repelled my radical friends at Illinois, all wrapped up in Herbert Marcuse and Rosa Luxemburg, it made perfect sense to me, as if someone had finally turned a searchlight onto the world I actually inhabited.
“A lot of World War Two daddies are like that, son,” Chandler says, softer now. “Resent the freedom their kids have to be what they want, do what they want. C.J. there, both his kids have moved up North. One of them’s a social worker in Boston now! You think C.J. is happy about that? Our deputy there –.”
“You leave me out of this!” the deputy shouts. It is the first time I’ve heard him speak with real emotion.
“Sorry,” Chandler says. “I am so sorry.”
“Can’t we please get down to business now?” C.J. says, looking up at the heavens.
“I’d really like to know –,” Shep says.
“Your first day at Freedom Shack,” the deputy says, cutting Shep off rudely. “What did you see there? And remember Jewboy, the whole damn truth, otherwise you’re roadkill.”
“I get to Holly Springs three months ago,” I say. “Nobody meets me at the Trailways station, so I lug my suitcase across town and knock on the door till I wake somebody up. Gloomy walls, old broken-down furniture, copies of the Socialist Workers Party newspaper, The Militant, all over the floor – provides great coverage of Malcolm X and his legacy! A terrible smell that reminds me of Illinois professor Oscar Lewis’s theory that a ‘culture of poverty’ exists. We all used to make fun of Lewis and his theories at Illinois Friends of SNCC meetings. Later that morning I try taking a bath but am spooked out of the bathroom by a giant rat. Everyone laughs at me. Somebody tosses a brick at the rat and scores a direct hit!, but the rat just picks himself up and scurries behind the fridge. I wash the floors – my idea! – and stack the newspapers. Late that afternoon I try to give a box of canned goods to a Negro who knocks on our door and says his kids have nothing to eat, but I’m stopped and berated by a SNCC worker from south-central L.A. He tells me we need the food and says the ‘N-double-A’ should feed that ‘nigger.’ That was my first day.”
I am amazed listening to myself tell this tale. It’s not at all how I imagined I’d be presenting my experiences to audiences in the future.
The deputy wants to know what goes on behind the big double window along the porch. I tell him it’s the bedroom window, and just behind it is an enormous bed – two joined-together beds, really – and a lot of the local Negro SNCC volunteers, mostly high school students and dropouts, sleep overnight there under old handmade quilts. (In Mississippi at that time, it was not uncommon for black kids of the same sex to share the same bed. It saved space and money.) All the white volunteers sleep elsewhere, I say, except I slept with the black kids for my first two months. I can’t help saying that with some pride.
C.J. wants to see my penis – he wants to know if Jewish penises are as big as the Germans thought they were. I look around but no one seems inclined to stop him. So I unzip my fly and lower my jockey shorts while C.J. and Shep walk over to look, and Chandler and the deputy look away.
“Christ! I’ll need a magnifying glass to see that thing,” C.J. says. “We’re gonna have a hard time cutting it off tonight.”
“Looks like a baby slug,” Shep says.
“I’m sorry to disappoint, I’m a little scared right now,” I say, zipping up.
The deputy wants to know if I’ve gone out to “the fields” (the cotton fields and surrounding shacks and areas) to encourage Negroes to register to vote.
“I went out a couple of times,” I say, “but the results were disappointing. I usually went out with two of the Negro kids I shared the bed with, we’d usually find that people were too scared or suspicious to promise anything concrete, and by early afternoon my companions were usually into their moonshine. I couldn’t swallow a drop of the stuff myself, it was too strong, and they’d tease me pretty mercilessly for that.”
“Candy-ass,” C.J. mutters.
“The last time I went out with them we were chased back to Holly Springs by two white guys in a pickup truck. They chased us for miles, at high speeds, over winding dirt roads. The guy on the passenger side kept poking a rifle out the window. The kids in the car screamed at me to retrieve the baseball bats from under the back seat. ‘Baseball bats?’ I shout. ‘We’re supposed to be nonviolent!’ ‘Shee-it,” one of them shouts back. ‘Get out of your books! They’re coming at us!’”
Chandler appears to enjoy that story. He tells me he owns a lot of the land in north-central Mississippi and we were probably trespassing on his land.
C.J. enjoys it too. “Were you in that windblown nigger church a couple weeks ago, out in the country, when we drove around it with cars full of men waving baseball bats and shotguns?” I tell him I was. I tell him over 100 local people and SNCC workers were in that church, and after we noticed the “parade” we buried ourselves in Freedom Songs and prayer. “Even I sang and prayed,” I say.
“That was our Committee of the Whole,” C.J. says.
Shep wants to know if I was there the day a couple of gunshots rang out over Freedom House. I tell him I was and that I cowered under the table in the front room in a classic nonviolent protective stance, while the Negro SNCC workers ran into the back part of the house, where more baseball bats were kept. “They were Louisville Sluggers,” I say.
“Yeah? We like those ones too,” C.J. says.
“I am happy to report that those shots were fired by the youth wing of the committee,” Shep says.
“Enough Shep!” the deputy says.
“Son,” Chandler says, “if you didn’t do much voter registration – what did you do here for three months?”
“That’s a good question,” I say. “At first I was typing up a lot of government forms for local people – Social Security stuff, soil conservation, FHA, that sort of thing – and I began to think I could start a project to help Negroes all over northern Mississippi get the government assistance they needed and deserved. But the SNCC folks didn’t want me to start a project unless I could find a Negro to run it and unless I could get funding for it from groups up North. Well, that seemed stupid to me. So I just stopped.”
“Your committee has a lot in common with our committee,” Shep says. “What next?”
“Publishers and libraries had been sending us books for nearly a year,” I say. “When I arrived they were everywhere – on shelves, propping up furniture, under the porch, moldering in a pile in a woodshed out back. I’m not kidding – I found a beautiful edition of W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction out there, riddled with mouse turds. Anyway, I brought them all together into a little side room – there were about 1,000 in all – and made a library out of them. A real library. Every book got its own Dewey Decimal number.”
C.J. roars with something like laughter. “You mean you spent two months you could have been in school, putting Dewey Decimal numbers on books for a nigger library?”
“Yes sir,” I say. “Did a card catalogue, too. I wanted to give the Negroes something beautiful, and help teach them a sense of order.”
“How many of them ever use that library?” C.J. asks.
I stare at a cigarette burn on the table. “We haven’t publicized it very much,” I say. “So far it’s been used mostly by two white SNCC volunteers from the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. They go in there at night, lock the door, stuff newspapers under the door, and smoke dope. Sometimes they also talk about anarchist theory.” I look up at the deputy. “That’s the whole damn truth, sir.”
“So why are you hanging out downtown now?” Shep says. “Why didn’t you just go home when the library was done?”
“I didn’t like what was happening to SNCC,” I say. “The longer I stayed, the less they seemed to be about integration and the more they seemed to be about what they call ‘black nationalism.’ You’ve seen what they’ve done to the symbol above our porch, right?”
“Right,” Shep says. “The black-and-white handclasp has gone down, and a big black fist has gone up in its place.”
“Exactly,” I say. “So I tried to be a counterweight to that. I tried to get them to let me speak at the white high school.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Shep says. “You were going to come lecture us about Negroes? In that outfit? We’d have eaten you alive!”
“That’s exactly what the SNCC folks said – ‘drawn and quartered,’ is how one of them put it. They absolutely forbade me to have anything to do with white people in this town. Said it would bring more heat down on them. But come on. We’re supposed to be about integration. That’s been our heritage, that’s why we’re able to raise money. In real life, though, integration is no longer the felt goal. I wanted to help bring it back.”
“A rebel among the rebels!” Chandler says. “But I don’t trust political explanations, son, especially from the mouths of 18-year-olds. Something else must have happened between you and your SNCC committee. Something pretty ugly. What was it?”
“Don’t waste words boy,” the deputy says.
My heart sinks. I feel I’d almost rather die than tell this part. “Okay,” I say. “About a month ago, egged on by the Free Speech Movement guys, a bunch of us drove out to Washington, DC for a big anti-Vietnam War demonstration.”
“The first of many, I’m sure,” Chandler says. “Proceed.”
“I fell in love with a girl there, and stayed an extra week, and had to get back to Mississippi on my own.”
“What about your Church of Christ sweetie?” Shep says.
“Shut up Shep!” the deputy says. “Proceed.”
“When I get back, I’m worried about money. I have almost nothing left in the bank. So I ask our project director if he knows what happened to the checks Illinois Friends of SNCC was to send me. He tells me he’s been putting them into the project. He says we’re a collective here. But they were my checks! He had no right to do that!”
“Z-z-z-z-z,” C.J. says.
“The next day, I don’t want to wear my ‘Mississippi uniform’ anymore. So I open the suitcase I brought down from Illinois, to grab some of my old college clothes. And the suitcase is totally empty! Who’s stolen my clothes? I shout. The kids I’d been sleeping with burst out laughing. They tell me I look like I did when I saw the rat. But I see nothing amusing about my situation, especially after one of the kids tells me he ‘thinks he might know’ who did it. I start screaming at him to tell me who did it, and a couple of the older Negro SNCC workers come in and start making excuses for the thief, and I scream back at them that even poor people have to learn to obey the law, and that without law and order they’ll never be able to get out of their ‘mother fucking shacks.’ It might have been the first time I ever swore in my life. Well, the Negroes swear back at me, and I shout that if they don’t produce my clothes by nightfall I’ll call the police. ‘Get out of here!’ our project director shouts back at me. ‘Just get the fuck out, and don’t come back till after dark!’ So I make myself scarce, and after eating a Snickers bar for dinner and a Three Musketeers bar for dessert I come back, and my clothes are sitting in two grocery bags on a table in my library.”
“You want to switch committees?” Shep says.
“I stayed on,” I say. “But it was never the same. I stopped sleeping in the big bed with the SNCC kids. And I started walking downtown without telling anyone, hoping to start conversations with white people. At first it was sporadic. But then Willie happened.”
“Come again?” C.J. says.
“I used to do a lot of support work for the group,” I say. “Wash dishes, sweep floors. One day we’re hosting a big SNCC conference, and I’m sweeping the floor, and a Negro I’d never seen before named Willie comes up behind me and says, ‘Mmm-mmh, look at that white ass fly!’ Negro SNCC workers from all over Mississippi and beyond are standing around, and suddenly everyone gets quiet and waits for me to respond, but I can’t think of anything to say. So Willie goes, ‘What kind of sorry little motherfucker are you? Where you from boy?’ I almost say ‘Texas, by way of Minnesota.’ That would have been totally pathetic. Fortunately someone from our project jumps in and says, ‘Leave him alone man, he’s a good little mother.’ But Willie, he was speaking for a lot of the people there, I could tell. The time for white volunteers in SNCC is just about up.”
“Of course it’s up,” Chandler says. “They got everything they wanted from you. A couple of corpses, a bunch of bloodied faces, a ton of media coverage ‘cause you’re white and from the North and often elite, and Lordy, Lordy! Two massive civil rights bills snake through Congress.”
“I don’t mean to argue,” I say in a soft voice. “But isn’t that a little cynical?”
“For God’s sake boy, use your head!” Chandler says. “Think for yourself for a change! The nigras don’t want integration any more than we do. Isn’t that what you’ve been telling me for the last 10 minutes?”
“Chan,” the deputy says. “It’s getting late.”
But Chandler can’t be stopped. “The nigras aren’t the same as us,” he says. “C.J. thinks they’re worse than us, but he’s wrong – they’re just different. They commit more violent crimes by a factor of five, their men are less loyal to their women and children, you can look it all up. But they’re more musical than us, their dicks are bigger, and their souls may be deeper. On and on. My point, boy, is that if you ever get to know nigras well, you’ll see that integration is a lot more complicated a goal than you think. The main thing is not to integrate the races. The main thing is to get nigras into office so they can define their own way forward.”
“That’s what Malcolm X said,” I say.
“And he was right!” Chandler says. “A lot of nigras agree with me, or would agree if they didn’t have to bow and scrape before their friends the white liberal integrationists. DuBois agreed with me in his most lucid moments. That beautiful boy from SNCC who stomped all over my friend Jamie Whitten’s Delta land last year, that Howard University graduate –.”
“Stokely!” I say.
“Yes, Stokely Carmichael. He agrees with me, or will agree soon. Not ‘separate but equal’ – that’s hollow now – but ‘equal and separate and wanting to feel our way forward together.’ And you know” – amazingly, I see Chandler begin to tear up – “you know why we’re going to lose, boy?”
“Tell me,” I say.
“Because of liberals like you!” he screams as he struggles to his feet. “You’re writing laws in Washington now that’ll have nigras bused into white schools and white kids bused into nigra schools. That smiley-faced Hubert Humphrey and that Jew from New York say it’ll never happen, but mark my words, boy, the bureaucrats are already planning for it! And when that happens, when that happens –.”
“Chan, for God’s sake, you had a heart attack last year,” C.J. says.
“ – this country will be destroyed!” Chandler says. “We could survive this if the liberals were willing to acknowledge the races are different, if the schools spent a year just counseling their students and teachers about the differences and figuring out how to adjust to the change. If the schools committed themselves to exploring different ways to adjust. But no – most liberals care about nigras about as much as you do, boy. Their goal in life is not to help the nigras. Their goal is to see themselves as Good People, and have others see them as Good People. And up North, you can’t be seen as Good if you admit there are real differences between the races. Up North, the gospel is that everyone is fundamentally the same. Even though everyone knows we’re not the same.
“So here’s what’s going to happen in 50 years boy. C.J. and the deputy and I will be safely dead and gone. You and your SNCC friends will come back to Mississippi as heroes! The liberals will crow, Look how far we’ve come!
“Just one problem boy. The country will have blown apart. And everyone will be too Good, or too polite, or too exhausted or scared to even talk about it.
“The schools are what’s kept us together, boy. They’ve kept us moving onward and upward. The cruelest thing you can do to ordinary people is destroy their schools. And now you’re about to do it.
“As soon as the schools integrate, with no preparation, there will be huge discipline problems in the classrooms. The white kids will imitate the nigra kids rather than vice versa. Bad attitudes will drive out good. And academic standards will become a joke. Everyone with money, including of course the liberals, will put their kids in private schools, or fancy suburban schools. And the bottom 80 percent of the kids will be left to pay the price.
“And that’s just the beginning. Within your lifetime, sonny boy, the rot will spread from the schools into society. Tens of millions of products of the liberals’ wet dream will turn out to be unable or unwilling to hold jobs. Families will disintegrate, drugs will proliferate, cities will become armed camps. Even Holly Springs will lose its way.
“I can’t stand you boy. I can’t stand to even look at you and what you represent. If I thought it wouldn’t hurt Holly Springs’s tourist trade, I’d blow your head off in the woods before C.J. even parked the car. But I am a realist, as you must know by now. C.J.’s the romantic. Besides, you’re doing a fine job of destroying yourself on your own, as I pointed out earlier. Your life is going to be spent passing out leaflets for one cause or another, none of them close to your heart. You will accomplish nothing.”
“You are snipe,” C.J. says. “Snipe running across a dirt road.”
“Anyway,” Chandler says, finally sitting down again, “you’re harmless. So I am happy just to get you out of here. I am ready to give you a one-way ticket back to Wichita Falls. On the next bus out of here.”
“That’s a great idea,” Shep says. “Ride him out on a rail! Or at least on Trailways.”
“C.J.,” the deputy says, “you want to make it unanimous?”
“No way. I want to stomp that snipe.”
The deputy takes a wad of bills out of his pocket and hands two over to Shep. “Trailways wins out,” he says. “Shep, my boy, the taxpayers of Marshall County authorize you to buy a one-way ticket to Wichita Falls for this snipe, and to accompany him to Memphis to make sure he gets on the right bus to Texas and doesn’t try to come back.”
“Tonight?” Shep says.
“Immediately!” the deputy says. “Weren’t you listening?” Her raps an ashtray against the table-top. “Our meeting is adjourned!”
Everyone stands up. Chandler comes toward me and growls something – I think it’s “Remember me, young man.” Then C.J. comes up and punches me in the face. I see stars, just like when my father punches me there, except C.J.’s punch is harder and I see more stars and reel backwards against the wall. Then the deputy retrieves me and walks me to the top of the stairs. “Mmm-mmh, look at that white ass fly!” he says as he shoves me with both hands. I sail head-first over the first couple of steps and am lucky to slow my descent with my forearms, and then my knees, and then my hands, but never my head. I open my eyes and see I’ve stopped at the first landing. Cigarette butts and a Tootsie Roll wrapper are my intimate companions.
Shep runs to the landing and tugs at my arms. “Get up!” he says under his breath. “If you lie here they’ll stomp you! It wouldn’t take much.” He ushers me down the rest of the stairs and into the street, and by the time C.J. and the deputy catch sight of us we’re halfway across the town square. Shep waves goodbye exaggeratedly at them, the money still clutched in his hand, and I shamble the rest of the way to the bus station without Shep’s help.
The bus arrives quickly and we find seats together. I take the aisle seat so I can make frequent trips to the bathroom to stanch my bleeding from the staircase.
“So why was the deputy so hostile to you?” I ask as the bus pulls away.
“He’s my daddy!” Shep says. “Couldn’t you tell?”
“Well, now that you mention it! But what’s the problem?”
“Remember Chandler gave you that speech about the importance of attending top schools? Well, he was speaking to my daddy as much as to you. I was going to go to Ole Miss this fall, but I just won this big scholarship, and now I’m getting to choose between Duke and Vanderbilt. And my dad doesn’t want me to go to either place. He’s afraid he’ll lose me.”
“Where’s your mother in all this?”
“I – I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, she passed away six years ago now. A15-year-old Negro joyrider on a winding back road crashed into her car. In a stolen pickup truck.”
I shut my eyes. I cannot take any more badness or sadness this day. Not one dollop more.
“She was delivering free Bibles on those back roads. To Negro churches.”
Tears begin running down my cheeks.
“The baby she was carrying, my first brother or sister, it passed too.”
I am speechless.
“My daddy used to be a happy man. He never recovered. And he is totally loyal to her. He’ll never remarry.”
“Shep, you are definitely your father’s son. If they didn’t think it would hurt Holly Springs’s tourist trade, you’d be helping him bury me now.”
He winces. “The South’s complicated. Read Faulkner.”
I want to keep talking with him, but he falls asleep, his head cradled against a Trailways pillow. So I am forced to turn to the immediate issues at hand.
I have $3.30 in my pocket – probably just enough to call Freedom House from Memphis and tell them I’ve left SNCC for good. I have no desire to tell them I’ve been run out of town on a rail by white people. They’d be full of I-told-you-so’s, if in fact they even care about my fate anymore.
I decide to call my parents collect from Dallas, two hours away from Wichita Falls. That will give me time to brace for the whupping I’m sure I’ll receive from them, hopefully my last. It won’t be dropping out of college or going to Mississippi that will set them off – they absorbed those humiliations long ago. It will be my grungy “Mississippi uniform,” and my long hair, and – above all – the loss of my college clothes, even though I’ll tell them they were stolen from a locker at the Memphis bus station.
The bus winds its way through the outskirts of Memphis. Dusk falls and colored lights glisten along the road. I burrow deep in my seat, and all the ideologies I’ve been exposed to over the last year go dancing, uninvited and unwanted, across my brain. My parents’ post-Holocaust conformity and materialism, Wynell’s Church of Christ religiosity, the Illinois radicals’ infatuation with European Marxism, the old SNCC’s (and my!) liberal integrationism, the new SNCC’s black nationalism, the Free Speech Movement’s drug-besotted anarchism, C.J.’s Aryan nationalism, Chandler’s planter-class conservatism – after Mississippi I am sick and tired of all of them. What I Learned in Mississippi: all ideologies have severe limitations. All ideologies distort and conceal.
The bus stops for a red light, and I begin drifting off, and soon I am imagining I have been given my own committee (sponsored, perhaps, by the University of Chicago) whose purpose is to encourage people to drop their ideologies and learn to listen – really, listen – to every human soul and take every soul’s needs into account. I wonder if Shep will want to join. Then the bus starts up again, and I remember I’m still bleeding, and I wish I had Louis Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry around to help me through the night.
- END -
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