Selma: the last hurrah

Many died on the long and dangerous journey to equality.

Selma: the last hurrah
Photo from Σταύρος via Flickr

I arrived in Mississippi for the first time in January,1963 as a white exchange student to Tugaloo College, a small, all-black institution outside Jackson, the state capital. I'd grown up in a comfortable, all-white suburb of Boston, unaware of the reality of the American South. By the early 60s, however, news of the initial events of what would later be called the Civil Rights Movement aroused in me — and many others — a vague sense of disquiet.  But it was one thing to hear about discrimination against blacks and quite another thing to encounter it first-hand. Within a few hours of entering the college campus, I learned I was in a war zone.

Black students and a white professor had recently been beaten for trying to eat together at a segregated lunch counter in a downtown Jackson department store. Death threats had been made against those distributing flyers calling for a black boycott of white-owned shops. At night, from the woods around the campus, people would shoot randomly at the walls or roofs of dormitories. But this is America, I kept telling myself. This is the land of equality.

On walks around Jackson, I couldn't quite believe the signs — on drinking fountains, public washrooms, bars, theatres, parks — that read in bold letters 'WHITE ONLY.' Nor did it seem possible that at a time 100 years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves, a black couldn't vote, couldn't go to a church of his choice, couldn't acquire a modicum of good education, couldn't eat in a restaurant or sit in a bus seat of his choice without confronting a vast array of legal and quasi-legal restrictions. I said to myself: this is unfair. 

Within a few days of my arrival, I received an invitation to visit the home of one of the leaders of the black protest movement in Jackson. I recall well sitting in the oversized livingroom of Medgar Evers, a middle-class, black businesman, while his children played underfoot. He spoke about Gandhi and the need for non-violence if the movement were to be successful. He mentioned Martin Luther King, a young, fiery preacher leading a similar protest in Alabama. He believed there was a great need to create educational classes — Freedom Schools, they came to be known — since blacks had been denied their voting rights by state literacy laws. He spoke about the need for voter registration campaigns that would pry the often recalcitrant rural blacks out of a lifetime of submission. Together we practiced on the living-room floor that night the proper method of protecting oneself non-violently —curling into a sort of fetal position — in the face of a racist's attack.  But Evers ended the evening by saying that he wouldn't mind dying for the cause of freedom. I left Tugaloo College chastened, but encouraged. Surely the rightness of the cause, I told myself, would win against the bigotry of Southern whites.

Late each spring for the following years, I returned to the South. I went, as many other young, Northern whites went, in a group of six or ten, each of us fired by the conviction that the time had come to make a stand against injustice. Often these groups attached themselves to a local black church or black organization like Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We slept on folding cots in church basements and were fed by church members. I learned to appreciate, if not to savour, hominy grits, hamhocks and black-eyed peas. Armed with local maps and the naivety of youth, I spent two summers wandering the backroads of rural Alabama and Mississippi with other civil rights workers.  We would pick a region known to be populated primarily with blacks and then scour the area on foot, going door to door like travelling salesmen. This was and is red dirt country, a place of small landholdings where corn and cotton grew, and dogs knew better than men to sleep in the heat of the afternoon. Sometimes, passing white drivers would try to run us down as we walked along quiet roadsides. Often, we were harrrassed and threatened and called names.

Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma to Montgomery march) from Penn State Special Collections via Flickr.

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