With thanks to everyone who contributed: researchers, writers, curators, copyright searchers, artists, volunteers, musicians, students, singers, designers, advisers, contractors and our funders. View the foldout exhibition handout here.
THANK YOU EVERYONE
For the exhibition
Co-ordinator Carrie Supple
Researchers/writers Mark Hutchinson, Michael Gillender, Pat Boyer, Carrie Supple, Laura Redfern, Steff Shepherd, Corinne Jones, Aminah Khan, Sarah Stewart, Shijia Yu, Dr. Emma Folwell, Sharon Walker, Martin Spafford, Desmond O’Reilly, Faduma Elmi, Sophie Stewart-Bloch, Anneka Bhosle.
For sharing their stories Janice Kelsey (née Wesley), Jean Stallings, Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry, Marcia Saunders, Ruby Bridges, Barbara Henry, Bayard Rustin (ove sholem), Jonathan Steele, Dr. Ira Gruper.
Curator Katie Nairne
Securing photo, newspaper, audio-visual resources copyright Jude Lancet, Alison Wood, Henry Worger.
Audio-visuals editor Joel Frosh.
Art and poetry by children from Michael Faraday Primary School, South London and George Mitchell School, Leyton.
Design HKD – thanks to Scarlett Moloney, Glenn Mellor, Zara McKenzie, Rick Houghton.
Contractors Keyboard Group.
Advisers Professor Brian Ward, Bennett Singer, Dr Gabriella Treglia, Sue McAlpine, Jo Rosenthal, Sophie Herxheimer, Dareece James, Veena Vasista, Irena Ellis, Professor Ira Katznelson, Dr Madge Dresser, Professor Clayborne Carson, Dr. Karen Murphy, Hannah Ishmael, Imani Robinson, Reva Klein, Sean Snee, Professor Michael Honey, Leila Hamdan, Mary Spyrou, Parul Motin, Dr. George Lewis, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Will Essilfie, Rosaleen Lyons, Janet Browne, Mark Galloway, Nicola Bell, Ian Wall of Film Space, Rachel Burns, Susie Morrow, Professor Barry Supple, Michael Norton, Michael Randle, Maria Lloyd.
Website and publicity design Vanishing Point Creative – thanks to Bernie Donohoe and Andy Donald.
For allowing us to include their photographs, programmes, interviews and films at no charge Mark and Dawn Brunner; Richard L. Copley; Adam Fowler, Overtone Productions; MAKERS; David Fankhauser; John Postiglione; Walter Naegel; Calvin Taylor; Eric Duncan, American Federation of Teachers International Affairs, Dept (Civic Voices); Bruce Harford, Civil Rights Movement Veterans; Tom Vague, Colville Community History; Glasgow Trades Council; Kevin Buchanan; Rutland Daily Herald; Joanna Stephenson/James Ware; Alexandra and Gabriel Raeburn; Zephyr Press; Bethany Elen Coyle; Murphy Cobbing; Bennett Singer; NPR; ATD Fourth World USA; The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library; Newcastle University; Jack Rottier collection, George Mason University Libraries; David Emeney, Bristol Evening Post; Kirsty Reid, BBC World Service, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins.
Photo credits Bettmann/Corbis; AP/Press Association Images; Preservation and Special Collections, University Libraries, University of Memphis; WHYY, Inc.; BBC World Service; The Western Mail; National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy; Jack Moebes; Getty Images; Hulton-Deutsch Collection; The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Centre, New York City; I Am A Man | The Movie team.
Our funders Sigrid Rausing Trust; Trusthouse Charitable Foundation; By Box; Cultural Affairs Department, US Embassy, London; Heritage Lottery Fund; personal and anonymous donations.
‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.’
– Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963
Journey to Justice aims to inspire and empower people to take action for social justice though learning about human rights movements
“I must remind you that starving a child is violence.
Neglecting school children is violence.
Punishing a mother and her family is violence.
Discrimination against a working man is violence.
Ghetto housing is violence.
Ignoring medical need is violence.
Contempt for poverty is violence.”
– Coretta Scott King
In this exhibition, we tell the stories of a few of the thousands of people who took part in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Most are names you will never have heard of. They are people like us and their choices led, in many cases, to significant social and political change. The civil rights movement remains a symbol for people who struggle for freedom on every continent.
What can we learn from them?
THE US CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT OF THE 1950s and 1960s
“There may be ways we can work for change.
We don’t have to do dramatic things or devote our entire lives to it.
We can lead normal lives but at the same time try hard not to be bystanders”
– Helen Bamber OBE, human rights activist
Led by black Americans and building on resistance that began with slavery, the civil rights movement was made up of thousands of people and ymbolizedns, sometimes divided in their methods but united in their aim: to fight against the oppression, savage violence and attacks on black people that had persisted for hundreds of years.
In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till came from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. Supposedly, he whistled at a white woman in a store, saying ‘Bye, baby’ as he left’.
Her husband and brother-in-law went to where Till was staying and took him away. They beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, tied him to a fan with barbed wire and threw him into the river. Despite admitting their crime they were found ‘not guilty’ by an all-white jury.
Media coverage caused outrage across America after Till’s mother Mamie insisted on an open casket funeral to show the world the brutality of his murder. For many, this was the tipping point: Mamie travelled across the USA telling her story and raising funds which were later used to pay legal fees during the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks said Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat.
Research by Mark Hutchinson
“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” – Bayard Rustin
If there is one person whose life captures the civil rights struggle better than most then that person is Bayard Rustin. However, he was often forced into the background and faced hostility, even from within the civil rights movement, and became increasingly forgotten and overlooked because he was not only a black man who believed in equality through integration, but one who was openly gay, a staunch pacifist and one-time member of the Communist party.
Rustin advocated for the use of non-violence and civil disobedience, deeply influencing Martin Luther King who had previously seen non-violence more as a convenience for the black community who did not have the firepower of their opponents: “I think it is fair to say that Dr. King’s view of nonviolent tactics were almost non-existent when the boycott began.” Rustin began to tutor King in the civil disobedience theory of the thinker Henry David Thoreau and the non-violent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi.
He was the key figure of the march on Washington, August 28th 1963, making meticulous plans, drilling marshals and bus captains and scheduling podium speakers.
“The march will succeed if it gets 100,000 people – 150,000 or 200,000 or more – to show up in Washington. It will be the biggest rally in history. It will show the Black community united as never before – united also with whites from labor and the churches, from all over the country.” Rustin
James Farmer, one of Rustin’s fiercest critics within the civil rights leadership, said in his autobiography in relation to Rustin’s role in the March that, “I have never seen such a difficult task of co-ordination performed with more skill.”
Rustin had also been the organiser and leader, along with George Houser, of the April 1947 Journey of Reconciliation ‘freedom rides’ of 8 black and 8 white men. They travelled on interstate buses into the Deep South, following a federal law to ban segregated travel, which several states flouted by allowing the practice to continue. The 16 men were repeatedly beaten, arrested and jailed for sitting down next to each other.
Some civil rights leaders (e.g. Thurgood Marshall) had misgivings about the law-breaking tactics the men employed. In response, Rustin wrote an article in the ‘Louisiana Weekly’ in which he stated why such action was needed: ‘Unjust social laws and patterns do not change because supreme courts deliver just decisions. … Social progress comes from struggle; all freedom demands a price’.
“The principal factors which influence my life are 1) nonviolent tactics 2) constitutional means 3) democratic procedures 4) respect for human personality 5) a belief that all men are true.” – Rustin
Clips from Brother Outsider – The Life of Bayard Rustin: https://youtu.be/BxhKgnyWcuw; https://youtu.be/nuWJB1RneGY
Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry
Research by Pat Boyer
Born on September 8th, 1954, Ruby Bridges, at 6 years old, became the first African American child to integrate into a white Southern elementary school.
Desegregation of New Orleans schools was bitterly opposed since the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that all public schools should be desegregated. Louisiana and many Southern states passed laws to close schools facing racial integration. However in 1960, the Federal Court in New Orleans passed a law forcing two white public schools to admit black students. Only the first grade of the schools was to be integrated that first year.
On Monday 14th November, 1960 Ruby set off for William Franz Public School for the first time. She was to be the first and only black child to attend. Ruby and her mother were escorted to the school by armed US federal marshals. As they approached the school, there were police everywhere; barricades and mobs of white people screaming, shouting, chanting, threatening those who supported integration.
“I heard the words, bestial, filthy and degenerate”, – John Steinbeck (Travels with Charley).
White parents rushed to William Franz Public School to take their children out of the school (by the end of the week, only 3 white families remained at the school).
All teachers except one refused to teach black children. Barbara Henry, a young teacher from Boston, who had recently moved with her husband to New Orleans, was the only teacher happy to teach an integrated class. Barbara Henry taught Ruby alone in her classroom for a whole year before a few white children started coming back to the school. Every day, on approaching the school and leaving at the end of the day, Ruby was escorted by armed federal marshals and had to endure walking through mob of screaming, racist anti-segregationists threatening violence and death.
“Leaving the school each day seemed even more frightening than arriving in the morning. On leaving school in the afternoon- even with a police escort- you were always fearful of how people gathered on the sidewalks might choose to protest that day as you drove past them. The New Orleans police were supposed to be there to help us, but they very much disliked being the ones to enforce integration, so you could never be confident of their support and cooperation.” – Barbara Henry
A few brave white families carried on attending William Franz School during this year but they were attacked and daily abused. They moved away to end the fear and daily ordeal their children had to endure. During that year, neither Ruby nor Mrs Henry ever had a single day off. Ruby never complained to Mrs Henry though she asked when the other children would come back. Finally, after a year, some white children returned to William Franz School and other black children attended, and the school became integrated.
In 1999, Ruby Bridges set up the Ruby Bridges Foundation (www.rubybridgesfoundation.org) with the mission of ‘Empowering children to advance social justice and racial harmony’, partly in response to her brother’s death. Ruby’s brother Milton was shot and killed in a drug-related incident in New Orleans. His children went to William Franz Public School. Ruby wanted to raise funds and campaign for better education and more equal opportunities for poor, children in inner-city schools e.g. William Franz School (which, according to school data 2014, now has 97% black students).
Video of Ruby meeting Obama in 2011 when Norman Rockwell painting was installed in the White House: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCsJ-24MdZc
Links to the Ruby Bridges Foundation: www.rubybridges.com; www.rubybridgesfoundation.org
Robert Coles talks about Ruby Bridges: www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPK3zQM2dHU
Article featuring Ruby Bridges’ comments on the US today. Civil rights figure: US divided by race again
by Associated Press: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-2835422/Civil-rights-figure–US-divided-race-again.html
Bridges, R. and Lundell, M. (ed.) (1999) Through My Eyes. Scholastic.
Bridges, R. (2009) Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story (Scholastic Reader). Cartwheel Books.
Cole, R. (2010) The Story of Ruby Bridges. Scholastic.
Janice Wesley and the
Birmingham Children’s Crusade, 1963
Research by Laura Redfern
1. What motivated you to become involved in the movement?
ANS: I became involved in the Movement after I attended my first MASS meeting. Rev. James Bevel spoke to the teenagers in a separate room and provided some eye-opening examples of inequities that were put upon us. Some of what he said, I was not totally aware of and to hear it, I became determined to do what I could to change it.
Some of what he told us was that we were getting second hand books from white schools – I knew that, but I didn’t realize that our books were outdated. He told us that we pay the same price for the food that we buy at lunch counters that where could not sit. Our football uniforms were second hand.
2. What did you hope to achieve?
ANS: I wanted a level playing field; to be treated like everyone else; equal access.
3. How did you get involved? What were the tactics/ training you used?
ANS: I attended some student non-violent workshops where we were prepared for being arrested. Non-violence was emphasized, we could not fight back or respond to name calling or even being hit.
4. What was the response to the march?
ANS: The response of the students from all across the city was overwhelming! It seemed to me, everybody that I knew was going to jail. We talked about it, the popular radio DJs talked about it in coded language and song. Being in the march was the thing to do!
5. Were you aware of any wider support for the children’s march? Was there any white support?
ANS: Although I was not aware of it at the time, but I learned later that there was white support; mostly financial and not public.
6. How did you feel during the movement? Was there any significant moments that still stand out to you?
ANS: I was very excited about participating. I realized the extent to which I had been unfairly treated and I wanted to do what I could to effect change in a positive way. One of the most significant memories I have is that of the music. “We Shall Overcome”! Sometimes I cry when I hear it, even today! The music was such an important part of conveying the message. It was inspiring and encouraging. I felt that God was on our side.
7. How did your friends and family feel?
ANS: Most of my friends were right with me in jail. A few of my close friends had parents whose employers had threatened to terminate them if their children were arrested. So they either went to school or stayed home. They wanted to participate, but could not because of this.
My mother had urged me to go to school, and not get myself in any trouble. So I did go to school, but I didn’t stay. I feel that she was more afraid of possible consequences than lack of support. I didn’t fear going because I didn’t believe that anything could or would happen to me.
8. Has your involvement had a lasting impact on you?
ANS: It has indeed had a lasting effect on me. I am certainly more aware of legal matters that appear to reverse some of the gains that were made as a result of the demonstrations of the ‘60s. I am also very sensitive with regard to receiving respect and equal treatment as a citizen of the USA. I am concerned about injustice anywhere and everywhere and I will speak out against it.
I did not realize it at the time, but we made a significant contribution to human rights around the world. It is something that I am VERY proud of today.
9. How do you feel about US society now?
ANS: It is a work in progress. We have come a long ways from where we were fifty years ago, but there is still work to do.
As I reflect on the overall state of society today, I see young black males representing the highest numbers in the penal system. America has the highest incarcerated population in the world compared to fifty years ago. Are we more or less being faced with a society where young black men are unjustly racially profiled, targeted and shot? Are we not in a society where the criminal justice system favors a guilty white, but rich person verses an innocent black, but poor person? We have NOT overcome yet.
10. Has there been a link/ interest in the UK before now?
ANS: The link to the UK that I am aware of is that American slavery via Liverpool occurred and racial discrimination against people of color was prevalent. Similar bus boycotts also took place in the UK during the 1960’s.
11. What do you think a human rights movement needs to succeed?
ANS: The short answer for this is that you cannot legislate love. So writing laws won’t make a human rights movement happen. Using the civil rights movement as a template, people have to be educated. The classroom would be a great place to begin implementation of an awareness of human rights and dignity. This applies to all indigenous people; women and children.
12. What do you think we can learn from your history and the history of the civil rights movement?
ANS: The movement was Christian based; it was non violent and had effective leadership. Change happens slowly, but it takes persistence, perseverance and sacrifice. Some of the battles were won because innocent blood was shed. We paid a price for the freedoms that were obtained; some of us were bitten by dogs, some were hosed, many others were jailed. Six innocent young people died. Freedom was not free!
Courtesy of American Federation of Teachers, International Department, Civic Voices
Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, 1968
Research by Carrie Supple
‘I would definitely march again. I would march again because we needed rights. I needed to feed my family and the only way to get it was to march. And the same things are happening today. ’ – Elmore Nickleberry
Elmore Nickleberry was part of the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968. His wife Peggy Nickleberry supported him.
Many sanitation workers (bin men) made so little that they qualified for welfare even after working a 40-hour week. Like many other white people in Memphis, some of these supervisors thought of black people as their personal servants and called them ‘boy’. Black sanitation workers were often called ‘walking buzzards.’
The city hired and fired unskilled black workers at will, provided them with no showers or other sanitary facilities, no access to supervisory jobs, no rights and no respect, minimal health and accident insurance. The city did not provide them with gloves or uniforms. They did hard, heavy work, lifting leaky garbage tubs and carrying them on their shoulders or heads, or dumping the contents of pushcarts into outmoded decrepit trucks. City rules forbade black employees to seek shelter from rain anywhere but in the back of their compressor trucks, with the garbage. During foul weather, black workers were sent home without pay while the white workers were paid a full day.
‘It’s difficult to talk about it…during the cold weather my hands would be freezing and we had nowhere to get warm or shower…. Now it helps to talk about it but at first I wouldn’t… I came back to Memphis and found we weren’t getting treated right…And I think anyone who goes to fight for his country should come back and get a good job, that’s what I think.’ – Elmore Nickelberry, I am a Man film footage
February 1, 1968: On a rainy February afternoon, two black sanitation workers sat inside the back of a garbage truck to stay dry. The walls inside the packer were caked with putrefying garbage of all sorts – yard waste, dead chickens and mouldy food. Old and poorly maintained, an electrical short in its wiring caused the compressor to start running, and Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death, chewed up like garbage. The deaths left the wives and children of the two men destitute. T. O. Jones, a union organizer, president of Local 1733 of the AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) knew both of the men. He called their deaths “a disgrace and a sin.”
On February 11th Jones held a meeting with sanitation workers to discuss the recent deaths, partial pay on rainy days and safety conditions. They decided that enough was enough and voted to strike.
While reluctant to join the battle at first, the city’s black community, some 40% of the city’s population of half a million, saw the violent police response and the Mayor’s hard line against the workers as a carryover of the “plantation mentality” of white racism that so many people had endured in the mid-South’s history of slavery and segregation. When workers put up picket signs declaring “I Am a Man,” everyone knew exactly what they were talking about.
March 18th: The strike did not get much national attention until Dr. Martin Luther King gave an impassioned speech to 10,000 sanitation strikers and supporters in Charles Mason Temple, probably the largest indoor mass gathering in the South during the civil rights era. King declared, “all labour has dignity”.
Notably, even though the strikers were all male, women in both the black and the white communities played crucial roles through family, church, and community organizations in providing food, clothing and shelter for striking families and in spearheading a consumer boycott that devastated downtown merchants. The boycott is also an example of the solidarity between different groups as part of this protest, including the Black Power movement, churches and synagogues.
On April 4th 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead as he stood on the balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. He was back in Memphis to lead a march in support of the striking workers. His murder caused nation-wide grief, rage and despair but the movement did not stop.
The strike was settled April 16 and most of the workers’ demands were met.
The legacy of the strike:
The Memphis strike had widespread and historic repercussions, both negative and positive. King’s assassination left his Poor People’s Campaign to flounder; six weeks later, the murder of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy provided a crushing blow to the social change movements of the 1960s. However, the example of the strike’s success activated municipal, hospital and service workers across the South; AFSCME, viewing the strike as a seminal moment, evolved into one of the largest unions in the United States, and a powerhouse in electoral politics. The success of the sanitation strike in Memphis inspired thousands of other city employees from around the Southern United States to stand up and demand dignity, respect and more importantly, collective bargaining in their workplace. The organizing drive in the South not only included sanitation workers but hospital and school employees, social workers and bus drivers. Despite right-to-work laws and anti-union sentiment in the South, new AFSCME locals were organized in Baltimore and Charlotte, North Carolina. Local 1733 became the largest union in Memphis, and in Miami, sanitation workers gained one of the best union contracts in the nation.
Clip from At the River I Stand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzRUwwRQzVc
Film about the strike: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBDgH435oaU&feature=related
NBC interview with Lee Saunders: http://www.afscme.org/video/nbc-nightly-news-remembering-dr-king-and-the-memphis-sanitation-strike
I Am A Man: The Movie website: http://www.iamamanthemovie.com/
NPR Fresh Air interview with Prof Michael Honey: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=89372561&m=89372560
Green, L. B. (2009) Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle. Univ of North Carolina Press.
Honey, Prof. M. K (2008) Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Marcia Heinemann Saunders
Interview by Carrie Supple
When and how did you become aware of the Civil Rights Movement?
I grew up in ‘the cradle of liberalism’ – Cambridge. Massachusetts , one of the six New England states on the east coast of the USA – but a formative memory is of the local skating club when I was about eight. Although everyone else at school joined, my father refused to let us because it had a colour bar. I felt so left out, and pretty furious, but it prompted me to think about what it might be like to be excluded because of the colour of your skin. I remember reading Cry, the Beloved Country, about apartheid South Africa when I was quite young, reading about the Holocaust and seeing the film The Boy With Green Hair. Years later at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and civil rights and civil liberties campaigns (my father’d lost his job because of ‘McCarthyism’) and I’d gone to demonstrations in New York and Washington DC, including the March on Washington in 1963. And I’d heard Martin Luther King speak several times.
My family is from Germany. My father’s family was Jewish; his forbears emigrated to the US in the 1850s. He was a teacher who had been a communist and involved in labour movements, and his career had been stifled by McCarthyism. My mother’s family was Quaker. The American Friends Service Committee brought her out of Germany in 1937 because she’d taken part in demonstrations against Hitler and refused to sign a loyalty oath as a student teacher, placing herself in danger.
The project’s background?
A couple of Cornell students were among the early Mississippi Freedom Riders and had followed that up with a visit to Fayette County Tennessee in 1963 where evicted black people had created a “Tent City”, made famous by folk singer Pete Seeger #. The Cornell/Tompkins County voting rights project developed from that visit, and in the summer of 1964 I drove down south to Fayetteville with an old friend and fellow Cornell student. I was in graduate school at Chicago by that time, but I knew some of the key people including an inspiring economics professor, Doug Dowd and I’d gone back to Cornell a couple of times to take part in training sessions. Mostly these were about ‘passive resistance,’ how to respond to extreme violence without inviting further violence – e.g. going all floppy and allowing yourself to be picked up and carried away.
Funds – In the preceding year there had been a major fundraising campaign in Ithaca, the county and among faculty and students. Project members, parents and friends all for rent and food.
Localism and support
The heart of the project – in addition of course to the people and their leaders in Fayette County itself – was the community of Cornell, Ithaca and Tompkins county people. People were able to draw on networks and develop strength and trust from them. Unlike the Mississippi project, this wasn’t a mass national campaign; although similar and allied, it was very locally based and organised. I think we’ve had experience in this country too that successful campaigns may have gained special strength from being local, built on existing relationships and a shared sense of community and responsibility. It’s particularly important, I think, that we were invited in by people who’d been fighting there for their rights, unsuccessfully, for years – we didn’t impose ourselves and we always saw ourselves as supporters not as leaders.
My father was proud and supportive from the beginning. My friends’ responses were ‘I wish I could go too’. They thought it was exciting. I don’t think any of us really knew how dangerous it would be.
What it was like: It was very serious. We arrived at about the time the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers (Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney) were discovered only 15 miles away. We had to be very disciplined about where we went. We didn’t go to white areas or white stores, we didn’t fraternise with whites except Mr. Redfearn (the candidate for sheriff) because if one of us got into trouble it would hurt the project. As a whole group we met twice in 8 weeks – this wasn’t a social event – and with hindsight maybe we should’ve met together more often. We did of course have regular meetings with our leaders – the older graduate students – so there was still lots of sharing of ideas and information, and once one of the black leaders and his family had us all to a wonderful hog roast.
The McFerren grocery shop and garage was very important. We were there most days to buy food or get a tire fixed (see below). Mr. John McFerren was the local civil rights leader. He’d been in the Korean War and that was some of the genesis of this. Black men had been in integrated armed forces – had been prepared to give their lives to the country, and many did just that – then those who came home couldn’t vote, their children went to bad schools, they lived in shacks, their choice was to work in the cotton fields and make a bit extra by sharecropping or head for the segregated city slums with all their poverty and violence in the northern states. A lot of the campaign energy came from a huge sense of injustice.
Arriving in Tennessee – I lived with a single mother and her daughter. They were warm, welcoming and incredibly generous, and though the shack had no running water (we drew water from a communal well several times a day) everything was pristine. They wore beautifully ironed cotton dresses on Sundays, and I particularly remember a yellow candlewick bedspread, and eating grits, beans and rice. At first I thought grits were awful but I learned to like them. We were sort of family. There was no husband – “people like us can hardly afford to get married and we certainly can’t afford to get divorced.’ It took a lot of courage, as well as work, to take us in.
Church played a huge role in the life of the local community and in our campaign. Because most of our work was 1:1 or 2:2 – we’d go around to sharecroppers’ shacks and talk about voting, or schools or whatever and then invite people to come with us to town to register. Sundays were special; we saw the whole community then in church. Usually at the end of the service we’d be asked to say why we were there, what we were doing and what we hoped they’d do. It was important to avoid putting any pressure on people; even registering to vote was risky.
Church in the deep south seemed to me like a celebration. The way they sang – the emotion, perfect synchrony and harmony, dynamism – was so different from New England (or England for that matter). It reflected the way they tried to conduct their struggle and was a bulwark in it.
When we went around the houses we always made it clear people could tell us to go away. Despite their poverty we were almost always offered tea or coffee or, more importantly water, it was so hot. On the whole men would talk with men and I’d talk with women about voting and also about our lives. I think it was pretty even between numbers of men and women registering and women seemed to be the quiet backbone. Kids asked us loads of questions – why were so many of us were Jews (they’d been taught that Jews killed Christ) and did we believe in evolution and if so could we explain it? We were the first post-world war II generation and perhaps that – the holocaust – made us more open to understanding the persecution of black people.
Did being involved in the summer of ’64 influence your future work? Yes. I learned so much. I saw how people supported or didn’t support each other and the importance of networks, trust and the ability to be frank about feelings and fears, and how to handle yourself under pressure or in crisis – this has been useful in my role as a health service and social services manager. I learned about managing myself, about the responsibility that comes from being part of a group or team, and I think I learned to listen and take seriously people who were less privileged and see them not just as victims but as people to respect. Most of all I learned what life was like for so many Americans and how lucky I was. I also learned a lot about handling or responding to anger – other people’s and my own.
The FBI was horrible. Once I went with a group of local black people to see the FBI in Memphis, to complain about the harassment, and the questions they asked were about us, the volunteers, not about the threats and violence black people were enduring but about whether we’d coerced them into trying to register to vote. We saw that it was we who were being investigated so we cut it short and left pretty quickly. I made a note of the questions they asked in a report of this visit and sent a copy to my father, who wrote to his congressman and senator about the FBI’s behaviour and the lack of security this meant.
I didn’t come away feeling triumphant. We lost the election; I knew that I’d got far more out of the experience than I’d given; and I worried we’d left the people we’d supported in a perilous situation. In a deeply dreadful way the murder of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had probably protected us, because white people became a bit cautious about what they nonetheless still would have liked to do to civil rights workers from the north. But their attitudes towards black people hadn’t changed, though their behaviour became more inhibited at least for a while.
How aware were you of all the movements within the movement? While I was at Cornell, Martin Luther King and people from the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) came to raise money and support. I went to listen to them all, was interested in all their perspectives didn’t get caught up in the differences which it seemed to me were exaggerated by the opposition and much of the press, who always take advantage of a ‘divide and rule’ opportunity. I particularly enjoyed the first time I heard Martin Luther King: he asked for a ‘silent collection’ – dollar bills, that is, not just the coins he’d usually get. He’d spotted lots of rich fraternity boys who mainly came to hear him because he was so famous; they really couldn’t have cared less and used to harass us. Dr King was obviously used to that type on college campuses and knew how to get the best out of them. And a few of them joined us afterwards, which was great.
What was key to the fact that the project went ahead and was a success? What did you learn, and what do you think others might learn from it?
The leadership within Fayette County was the key. As for ourselves I think the fact that so many of us had already been involved in the civil rights movement and early anti-Vietnam stuff on campus was crucial. Had we just applied as individuals to the nationwide Mississippi Summer ’64 project it might have taken at least a year even to get started. As it was we were all part of the planning and took responsibility for how we worked together as well as for what we did – these days we call it ‘ownership.’ I think what people can learn from this kind of experience in the past is quite practical. It’s about networks of support and influence, relationships, values (equality), a willingness and indeed courage to take risks, and it’s about building and keeping trust. The Fayette experience helped me appreciate in my subsequent career why it’s so hard to transfer innovative projects – planning and implementation are parts of a whole created by a team, not a sequence of events undertaken by individuals. Even Nobel prize winners keep pointing that out.
We were invited; there was already a black network; Fayette’s black leadership was skilled, smart and experienced. They realised that this part of Tennessee had a lot in common with notorious Mississippi, which of course attracted most of the voter registration attention. Locally there had been some fragmentation in the community , some divide and rule, and they had the vision to see that people from outside might help in such a situation. They decided to bring in an external common friend or ally – the opposite of the ‘common enemy’ against which people tend to unite.
Such success as we had was not because we dreamed up a good project, had good values or provided leadership (which we didn’t) but because we went there explicitly and respectfully as a team of aides, not as leaders. It was not abstract ‘benevolence’ and we were careful not to step outside our boundaries. I always saw John McFerren as the real leader. The network he led was based in social networks and the Korean War.
There was quite a lot of publicity about the project; for example a co-worker and friend, who later became a well known journalist for the New York Times, had an article published while we were there in the New York Herald Tribune and David Halberstam from the Times came down. Donald Street, a local Ithaca (Cornell’s location) journalist and declared sceptic came down, changed his mind and wrote favourably about what young people were doing that summer
I think we all became both more mutually reliant and also more self-reliant. You can’t drive along a road pursued by people trying to force you into a ditch without developing resilience – you have to be fiercely calm, keep it together and be able to say, ‘take a right here…Hang on….’ We would throw tacks (nails with big flat heads) out the window to puncture their tires but those same tacks would still be there on the road next day so we‘d get the flat tires and limp along to McFerren’s garage. That was always quite nice, to tell you the truth, because you got to sit around chatting for a while, or help out in the store, or learn to change tires. I only came face to face with our attackers when they passed us in cars swearing at us, or on rare occasions when we were in town, in Somerville, walking along the boardwalk. Then somebody might mutter or stop and stare at you or crowd you off the walk. You just let them.
Once a week we did a round of picking people up and driving them into town to register, watching and waiting and driving them home. They were usually worried and often silent. It was scary. It wasn’t just that they might be beaten up; people had been evicted, lost their jobs (Tent City) – anything could happen to a southern black person in the 1960s.
On voting day, Aug. 6th black voters were made to stand in line for hours and then only let in to vote when there were no white people in the room or waiting. In the event more people ‘voted’ than were listed – a lot of dead people voted – and although black people voted in very large numbers they lost the election as we’d originally expected, though of course our hopes had risen over the weeks of such strong engagement. The next day we went home.
I returned to Chicago and adjusted back to academic life. I became involved in a literacy project with black people: many of the black people there, or their parents were,originally from the south so there seemed to be a connection. Martin Luther King began to speak out about the Vietnam War and black people began wondering what they were doing there. Malcolm X set up his HQ in Chicago and I used to walk by his office every day on my way to teach downtown.
I left the US in 1967 – I married a Norwegian, and with hindsight I guess the experience of the civil rights movement and Vietnam war wrecked my pride in my country and made it easier to leave. I know however that my life in the USA was very privileged, and I go back regularly to see friends and family, and enjoy the space. I’m a dual national. After my father’s death I found he’d kept copies of my letters, and of his own to politicians. Now I have them and they’ve helped me remember.
The civil rights movement itself didn’t transform American society, but was a step forward. Probably the thing that has had the greatest impact since is Barack Obama’s election and its powerful symbolism.
Do you think the CRM can teach us today about how to respond to social injustice? I think so, provided it’s not just theoretical stuff. It’s important to see the continuity of effort. What kind of person do you want to be, how do you relate to other people, what should they be able to expect from you? It’s about collective action, persistence, resilience, trust, mutuality, all those things. I think there were some important links between the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. I guess I can also link it to women’s rights and a career in the NHS; they too have the values of fairness and equality at heart and are persistently under attack.
I hope that something comes through to the effect that the civil rights movement was hard, tough and dangerous work. It wasn’t about wonderful chats or the great songs, though we had both, or sitting round planning the revolution. It was quiet conversations, risk, other people’s courage and absolute determination.
Marcia Heinemann Saunders 02.01.2015
# Pete Seeger was a famous folk musician who brought attention to oppression in the USA. Here is an excerpt from “Fayette County” in the “Pete Seeger Story Songs” (1960):
“They kept us from voting for nearly a hundred years
All because our color is not the same as theirs.
But now we’ve gone and voted and we live in tents today
Our families cold and hungry but here is what we say:
We were born in Fayette County – here we will stay,
It will take more than hunger to drive us away.”
“They kept us from voting for nearly a hundred years,
And all because our color is not the same as theirs.
But now we’ve gone and voted and we live in tents today.
Our families cold and hungry but here is what we say:
We were born in Fayette County here we will stay.
It will take more than hunger to drive us away.”
Interview with Jonathan Steele
by Michael Gillender
So, you were studying at Yale at the time of Freedom Summer. How aware were you of what was going on around you at the time of the US Civil Rights Movement?
Well, six months before the Freedom Summer, some friends from Yale and I made a mini trip down to Mississippi for a few days. We went because they were holding an election for the governorship of Mississippi and the local black organisations decided they would hold their own parallel election to dramatise the fact that most blacks couldn’t vote because so many were not allowed to register. The idea of the parallel election was to pretend they were registered and show they wanted to vote. It was partly a publicity thing, but also a way of mobilising ordinary black people. It was the same thing that they were to do later next year in ’64 for the Freedom Summer. They invited a few white students to come down and people from Yale went, people from Stanford in California… so, that was my first experience of the South, not the Freedom Summer but November 1963. Before I went, of course I knew broadly, like anybody might, that there was a problem with Civil Rights in the southern states of the United States. And that black people couldn’t sit in restaurants, go to the same hotels and certainly not go to the same schools as whites… and I knew there was a voting problem.
We saw quite a lot of violence in the four days we were down in Mississippi in November ’63. Fire marshals came in and broke up one of the mass meetings we were at. They claimed there was a fire hazard and we all had to get out and to the street and pack up. O another occasion we were in a black church, a relatively modern building in a town called Biloxi, a crowd developed outside and started throwing rocks and stones into the church, smashing the windows and we were all cowering inside behind the pillars of the aisle trying to avoid being hurt. So it was just a very very tense, brutal sort of atmosphere.
That’s what made me decide to take part when they decided to have a whole, big project going on for the whole summer next year with about 800 students down there.
How similar was Freedom Summer the next year to what you’d experienced the year before? What drove you to go south again?
Well, it was pretty much the same thing. There was quite a bit of violence. Obviously you would know of the famous case of the three young people who were murdered. One of them had gone down there just as we had from the orientation session that we had in Oxford, Ohio where we trained for a week before we went down. Nobody was allowed to go to Mississippi unless they’d had some training, which we hadn’t of course had the first time the previous year.
When we got to Mississippi we came across a lot of violence and suspicion but we made a lot of progress. Most of my time was spent talking to black people, canvassing, going door-to-door like you do in a British election. Just going round to people’s houses explaining to them… not so much the issues of policies between parties but simply why it was important to register to vote because blacks could make a difference if they voted. We would draw up lists of people who said they were willing to go down to the courthouse to register. You had to do it physically in person. There was no postal registration so that was a huge psychological barrier to black people. The courthouse was considered a ‘white man’s building’, you know, and to have to go down there and not know how you were going to be treated or whether you’d be beaten up. Some people who were in jobs were often threatened that they would lose their job if they registered or if their wife registered. So there was a lot of fear and pressure that you had to overcome and that’s what canvassing was all about. It was much more intense than British elections you see because you were really dealing with huge historical issues of fear and anxiety and even a sense of inferiority. I mean one of the things we had to keep telling these people was “don’t call us Sir”. Some would say “we’ll go down and register Sir” and we’d say “you know don’t call us Sir. We’re not in charge of anything, we’re not the bosses, we’re not the plantation owners, we’re just trying to help.”
And then we would make a date with people. First we would check out whether they were willing to get registered and again you had to be careful, sensitive because we were white, we were better spoken, better educated than many of these people and we didn’t want to just kind of bully them as it were into registering. That would be using a sort of equal pressure to what they were suffering from in the past when they were told not to register. Now suddenly they were being told they must register so you had to be very sensitive about it.
Then we would draw up lists of people who were willing to register and we’d try and organise transport because it was an awful long way to the courthouse for people. And make arrangements for who would go in the morning of what day, and who would go in the afternoon. We didn’t want a great crowd to come to cause a big incident so maybe just five or six people would go in the morning and five or six in the afternoon. We would stand in the back and just monitor it. Obviously, we weren’t registering ourselves.
It sounds quite painstaking actually
It was very painstaking because we had to be very sensitive, I mean people would warn us – blacks were called Negroes, that was the current terminology – they would say Negroes are very, very slow because they’ve lived in this situation for a century and ‘Don’t get impatient, just take your time’. Sometimes we would talk about voter registration in churches and some churches were no good; that was another thing. First you’d go to see the pastor of the church and say “could we hold a meeting in your church at the end of the Sunday service?” – “have ten minutes or fifteen minutes to talk to the congregation about voting and why we’ve come down here”. There was a lot of curiosity what all these young white were kids doing in Mississippi.
Absolutely, they must have never seen anything like it?
Yeah they hadn’t, so we had to explain what we were doing, why we’d come and then explain why voting was important. Some churches would let us in and some wouldn’t and then we would start making lists as they came out of church and say ‘who is willing to go down on Thursday week or whatever it is, to the courthouse.’
That was another question I was going to ask. What sort of response did you get from them, not necessarily from the white citizens but the people you went to talk to, were they hostile or were they..
No no, nobody was – you mean the Negroes, the black people? Nobody was hostile. But there was a lot of apathy and of course we were fired up, we were very idealistic, impatient, eager to get on, so sometimes you got sort of angry. You had to hold back your anger at people’s apathy. You thought ‘why on earth can’t they see the point?’. You felt if they could combine and get together it would be so much better but people would say to us “You know it’s been like this for centuries, it’s ancient. The white folks are too strong and they won’t allow it”. Or they’d tell us the whites will fire us from our jobs – so we had to be quite sensitive. But people did respect us. They would say you ‘we really respect your coming down here you’re trying to do something for black people, you don’t have to be here, we admire you for that but you must understand we can’t do it’.
Going back to Oxford, Ohio… what sort of experience did you have there, was it a week-long orientation is that right?
Yeah it was a week-long thing, a combination of briefings about Mississippi, just basic education about what the state is like, the history, the reasons for the prejudice and discrimination, how the voting obstacles are put in place for black people; a certain amount about the local economy, many blacks in the rural areas obviously were sharecroppers on these huge cotton plantations. Some of it was about the legal arrangements: if you get arrested what you should do, how you should behave if you’re beaten up or if people come towards you threatening to beat you up, what your response should be. You know, not to be provocative, to be very submissive, polite and not try and use violence back.
Then there was a lot of what was meant to be morale raising stuff about how important the work was, and then almost the opposite of that, a kind of psychological testing. We were told in no uncertain terms that there was a great risk there, and, if you didn’t want to go then you shouldn’t. They didn’t want people who were going to have crises when they were down there.
In fact I was just looking at my notes before this interview. I’ve still got the little notebook that I had in Mississippi and I’ll just see if I can find some of these quotes…
Is that for – you wrote an article?
Just basic notes – here is a great quote from somebody saying “you laugh” (this is from a black person) “you laugh to keep from crying, the black man has been laughing for a long time, and I feel sorry for America if he ever stops laughing”
We were told that there were three attitudes that we must avoid having when we got down to Mississippi: one was to be condescending, another was to be missionaries, and the third was to pretend that we were Negroes ourselves. We can’t get into people’s shoes, we come from a different background, we have a white skin, and we’re protected to some extent…
There’s the famous pictures as well you see these pictures from these orientation sessions, they’re getting trained in non-violence, shouting abuse at each other, things like that – did you have to go through –
Here’s a quote from one of the black SNCC people – I haven’t got it written down who it was. He’d been working in Mississippi, now this was in Oxford, Ohio, that he was talking to us. “Man, I’m scared to death, but I go back, I drink, I have to, ‘cos I’m scared. Like some people have nightmares but they go back. Our guts are all fucked up. We love you, we love you all, or else we wouldn’t have you down to Mississippi” So you’ve got stuff like that which made you feel ‘God if they can take the risk – and it’s much worse for them, we should be able to go and help them’.
Here’s another quote, maybe from the same person, it’s on the same page of my notebook: “We’re proud of all of you white people coming down to join us, you’ve had the pluck to do it. As for the Negroes, they have to be in Mississippi, they belong there”. I wrote my reaction to that session: “This was an extremely valuable session. For the first time I began to realise just how scared these SNCC workers are, what constant tension they are under. If they appear aloof and resentful of us white students, it’s because of a kind of justified feeling, we whites are just kids who know nothing, but they do know.”
Here’s another quote: I’m swamping you with stuff here. Here was somebody who’d served as a GI conscript in the Korean War: “Man, I was in Korea, I learnt to kill people, and all my life I’ve been taught to hate white people, but I love you people and I’m proud you’re coming down. And when I think of some of the things that are going to happen to you, I’m sick inside, man.” …. He was saying that to us the day before those three volunteers were killed.
Okay, moving on to that, I’ve read that you were questioned by the FBI…
Yeah, you’ve got the dates not quite right there. What happened was this. – I had a car which had actually been provided by the people who’d paid for my fellowship, I won a fellowship to go to the United States to do graduate studies. It was a very generous fellowship, they actually rented you a car! But it had New York license plates and I felt I had to tell the Harkness people – it was called the Harkness fellowship – that I was going to go to Mississippi. They weren’t very keen. They said ‘do you really have to go?’. I said ‘I feel I want to go and it’s important for me to see what goes on in different parts of the United States.’ That was actually one of the requirements of the fellowship, to learn about the United States, not just to be head down and studying for a Masters degree, but you were meant to learn about the US. So I said ‘look, this is a learning experience. I feel I want to go’. They tried to dissuade me but they said finally ‘well we can’t stop you going but don’t take the car!‘ So I agreed that I wouldn’t use the in Mississippi. I drove to Ohio for this orientation thing and then we piled in with three other guys to give them a ride down to Mississippi. We’d been delegated to go to Vicksburg – so I dropped the other three off in Vicksburg and carried on and took the car to Louisiana, because I thought it would be safer to leave the car in a different state. I went to some long-stay, open air car park in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and just left the car there. I mean the man who I had to pay asked ‘”when are you coming back?” I said “I’m not sure, it might be several weeks.” I paid some kind of deposit but he obviously thought it was a bit suspicious; some young white person speaking with an English accent, New York license plate car suddenly being abandoned in a long-stay car park with an indefinite date. At some point he got in touch with the FBI, who traced the car, that it was a rented car from the Harkness people and they found my name through it. Eventually, — it took them about three weeks – I got a phone call from them, saying would I come down and be interviewed in New Orleans which was where the FBI head office for Louisiana was.
What were they like?
Well they were alright, I mean they were very curt, but at that stage the bodies of these three fellow workers of ours had not yet been discovered, and there was a sort of prevailing argument among the white community that it was a stunt, the disappearance of these boys was a stunt organised to try and discredit Mississippi and the whole of the white community in Mississippi. They claimed they were just hiding and gone off somewhere. In other words, that these three boys were still alive and had faked their disappearance. Maybe they were in Havana because we were all assumed to be Communists of course. Basically the main thrust of the questioning from the FBI was in line with this theory. Had I taken these people away somewhere, had I brought the car down on my own to Louisiana, did I know anything about these three young men. They seemed to be satisfied when I told them I had nothing to do with it, I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know where the young men were; that I had no clue. The interview ended and that was the end of it.
That’s better than – I suppose you’ve read the – Marcia Saunders? Her account of it? That’s more pleasant than I expected, to be honest with you. Okay, we’ll move on a little bit. Our focus is on ordinary people making progress with social justice. What was it like during Freedom Summer, was it driven by people like yourself, the ‘rank-and-file’ or – because there is always a lot of talk about leaders, people like Stokely and Fannie Lou Hamer, people like that. But what about, in your opinion was it driven by the ‘rank-and-file’? or by leaders and leadership?
Well the key strategic decisions were driven by the leadership but you know we were all spread out all over the state. There were about a dozen of us in Vicksburg and in other small towns there were similar numbers. In the sharecropping area of the so-called Delta, the Mississippi Delta, there might be just two or three people in small communities. So it was all very fragmented and basically we took our own decisions. We decided every morning which part of town we were going to canvass in, whether we were going to go out to some churches in the evening, what we were going to do on the Sunday. So it was quite autonomous and fragmented. The leader of our group was a local black Mississippian guy called Andy, and there were a dozen of us, boys and girls, who were white. Most of us came from these Ivy League universities, more affluent universities so they were middle-class kids and well, frankly they were staggered by what they saw in their own country. They couldn’t believe this was part of the United States of America.
I remember one girl writing home to her parents, putting Philadelphia on the address then starting to write ‘USA’ as though she was writing from a foreign country back home to Philadelphia, USA! And she suddenly said ‘God no this is part of the USA I don’t need to put USA on the envelope!’. So they were pretty staggered by what they saw; and you know one or two people did drop out. Either they came under pressure, particularly it was discovered these three people had been killed. There was some pressure from parents to leave and others individually decided they’d had enough. But most people carried on because they felt the work was essential, they saw the courage of people around them, they didn’t want to let the side down.
The problem really was our relationship with this chap Andy. We had no leader amongst ourselves. We were all individualistic people. Nobody wanted to accept leadership from somebody else. Andy was the one who was supposed to be a leader, obviously he was less articulate, less confident verbally, and we had to defer to him sometimes. There were rows and always this little bit of white/black, sort of
Not tension so much as sort of awkward embarrassment, awkwardness because we’d never really had much dealings with black people, he’d had not much dealings with white people except in a sort of confrontational or hostile, resentful sort of environment.
Stokely Carmichael was at the Oxford, Ohio sessions but I don’t really recall anything particular he said. The key person was Bob Moses, you’ve heard of Bob Moses? He’s going to be 80. He’s having his 80th birthday party quite soon I think somewhere in New York City. He was very soft spoken, absolutely committed to non-violence. You know he was really inspiring – it was inspirational leadership, soft spoken leadership not the thumping, arm-waving sort of person, shouting from a platform. It was much more intense and convincing.
Okay, do you think, what sort of progress do you think was made, that summer anyway? Do you think you did a good job?
Oh I think a lot of progress was made because it produced this split at the Atlantic City Democratic Party Convention later that summer, when there was a great argument over seating an integrated delegation from Mississippi. Fannie Lou Hamer you know was the famous black delegate. It really paved the way for Martin Luther King. He wasn’t really involved in voter registration. It was much more of a SNCC thing but King then took up voter registration in a big way, it led to the Selma events of February and March the following year, 1965; and Lyndon Johnson came in convinced that he had to support a Voter Registration Bill.
We did make a lot of progress and, of course the Civil Rights Act was passed while we were down there in July ’64 which integrated public facilities. But that was on the back of – not what we’d done but on the back of the Freedom Rides and the sit-ins that started in 1961 and ’62.
So, what did you take away from it all? From the whole Summer Project?
Well, I was completely radicalised. You know I was planning on – well I wasn’t sure what career I was planning on you know but it would have been a fairly sort of middle-class career! And in the end of course I did end up with a middle class career but I wrote an article for The Guardian from Mississippi which they published and then when the Selma events happened the next year they asked me to cover Selma so I wrote another article for them from Selma. So it actually both made me much more radical in my political opinions and more committed to bring about change from the grassroots, bottom-up change; but it also fortuitously, completely unplanned, gave me an opening into a career in journalism.
And that’s been pretty successful I’d say…
Very lucky! But I must stress it wasn’t planned. I mean everybody was asked to write something, this is perhaps quite a good point perhaps to mention; you know I explained how this girl was writing to her parents about what was going on but everybody was asked to write articles for their local newspapers to get the word out. If we’d have been in the social media age no doubt everybody would have been putting stuff up on Twitter and Face book. But in those days your local newspaper was the place. Or a student newspaper if you were still a student, on a campus somewhere. Everybody was writing articles so when I decided to write an article for an English paper it wasn’t because I suddenly saw this as an opportunity to get into journalism. It was more ‘we must get the word out’, ‘we’re bearing witness’ ‘we’re telling the world about horrible things that are happening, the world needs to know’ We happen to be here in Mississippi and one of our jobs is to tell other people about it.
Non-violence was something I wanted to focus on, it’s a key, central theme for us as well. What was your attitude towards this tactic in general?
Well it worked. There was this contrast between the violence of those whites who were resisting and the completely peaceful nature of the black protests and the people queuing up to register to vote. That was a dramatic contrast. So I was very much in favour of the non-violence thing. There was an argument as you know. People like Stokely Carmichael later came round to the use of violence and the whole thing got more polarised. We hadn’t had any race riots, everything was peaceful, and the blacks were completely peaceful. You couldn’t blame them or accuse them of anything. When the race riots started I think it was the one in Watts, a suburb of Los Angeles in 1965 that was the first big one. It muddied the waters because people said well why are they burning stuff down and what’s the point and its madness. They lost some of their moral purity by turning to riots; and then turning to the actual use of guns, you know the Black Panthers.
Okay, I want to go back a little bit, you were saying about the Harkness people not approving of going down to Mississippi, what about family, people at home, did you tell them?
I told them in advance and I did write the occasional letter to them and they were very supportive — that’s the wrong word – they were very accepting of it. They weren’t encouraging me to do it, they weren’t telling me that I was mad and I should stop doing it. They kind of accepted it. It was really good to have that. If they had put me under pressure not to go, it would have been more difficult.
Okay that’s great, I’d like to think that my own mother would do that too! Now, there is also a big push for the music and its role in the Movement, I have the John Lewis quote here: “Without music and song, the non-violent movement would be like a bird without wings”. Was that noticeable?
Yes, it was a real morale-booster. There’s nothing like choral singing to create a group dynamic and group solidarity. At all these sessions at Oxford, most of them would end with some kind of singing, either ‘We Shall Overcome’ or ‘This Little Light Of Mine, I’m Going To Let It Shine’ or any other of those songs. And of course in the churches, as I said we used to go to these churches and take part in the services and in these black churches the responses were wonderful. You’d talk and they’d say “Oh yeah!” “Yes Sir! You tell it like it is!” all that kind of stuff, and some people would get almost carried away in a kind of trance of responding to the preacher. I mean we didn’t get anything quite that dramatic but the hymn singing and the gospel singing was incredible, so it was really a morale booster… very important.
 Three American civil rights’ workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were shot at close range on the night of June 21–22, 1964 by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office and the Philadelphia Police Department located in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The three had been working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign,
 Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) – former SNCC chairman, honorary chairman of the Black Panther Party, and prominent Civil Rights/Black Power activist
The Greensboro sit-ins
Research by Katie Nairne
“I had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet,” – Franklin McCain.
On February 1st, 1960, four black students sat at a lunch counter in a ‘whites-only’ restaurant at a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were asked to leave but refused, sitting at the counter until the shop closed.
The next day, the ‘Greensboro Four’ – Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr. and David Richmond – were joined by more than twenty other black students from other campus groups. They were heckled by white customers and even a black woman working there as a dishwasher, who called them “stupid, ignorant… rabble-rousers, troublemakers”.
By day 3 there were 60 students, both black and white. By day 4 there were 300. The sit-ins spread across the country, and students began boycotting stores with segregated lunch counters. The majority of the protests were peaceful, and served as examples of Martin Luther King’s idea of non-violent protest, but there were some instances of violence where fights broke out.
The sit-ins were covered in newspapers and on television and received government attention when President Eisenhower expressed sympathy for the protestors, saying he was, “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Women played a vital part in these demonstrations, and in fact a sit-in had been carefully planned by female students of Bennett College for a later date. This has been somewhat overlooked by history, but without the hundreds of women protesters the sit-in movement might never have been successful.
Sales in segregated stores dropped by a third and owners were forced to abandon segregation policies. On July 25th, 1960, black employees of Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store were served at the lunch counter. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated desegregation in public places.
Interviews with Dr Willa B. Player: http://www.sitins.com/willabplayer.shtml
Interviews about sit-ins in Nashville: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/partners/breakthroughs/b_resistance.html
Audio: The Woolworth Sit-in That Launched a Movement, from ‘All Things Considered’, courtesy of NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18615556
Brown, L. B. (2013) Belles of Liberty: Gender, Bennett College and the Civil Rights Movement. Women and Wisdom Foundation Inc.
Jean Stallings and the
National Welfare Rights Organisation
Interview by Sarah Stewart
Jean has been an activist with ATD Fourth World for nearly 15 years. On behalf of Fourth World, she’s participated in the UN’s human rights committee and the subcommittee on the eradication of poverty.
With ATD Fourth World, she spoke recently at a conference at the UN on poverty and shame.
I didn’t consider myself part of the civil rights movement, although reflecting back I can see that we were. We were a group of mothers, some single, some married, most on benefits. As women on welfare, we were humiliated – we felt talked at, as though we had no part in the decisions in our lives.
So, in 1966, when I was in my 20s, I got involved with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). It was started by George Wiley, who taught at Syracuse University. He galvanized different chapter sin the US – all over the country – encouraging people to lead. But the most important person in the NWRO was Johnny Tilman, a great activist in California. She was a leader of the mothers.
I got involved early on. I had three children, and it was a struggle. How did it happen? I was always looking for a place to buy things at a discount… so one day I walked with my kids, one of them in a stroller, to a sale at the Five Towns community center in Inwood, Long Island, which was being run for the NWRO. The director, John Kearse, ran a chapter of the NWRO there. I walked in, and that was it – forget the bargains! I listened to the speakers. It seemed to me that it was a place of safety, where mothers’ voices could be heard. Someone asked me to sit in on a meeting. It changed my life.
At the time, in the 1960s, there was great shame in being unmarried and having children. Some of the other women were in the same predicament, and they understood. In those days there was so much shame. Poverty and shame went together. And intimidation. The social service authorities would just come, unannounced, and look under your bed, in your belongings, searching for a sign that you had a man in the house. They checked your food, they checked everything. It was terrible. They were disrespectful – as though your welfare payment was coming out of their pocket. They would say, you’re going to do what I tell you, or else; they would threatened you. Some women had children placed in shelters.
So these meetings gave us all a great sense of safety. I felt so good going there. During that time, the mid-1960s, I got involved in local campaigns, we talked to politicians about childcare – because there was no Head Start then – and it gave me confidence to speak. You have a voice, Jean! That’s how I felt.
The organization wanted me to go to Albany to the national meeting. They asked me to be a delegate alone with two women, Adie and Mabel, both from Chicago. And we met Dr King and expressed our desire to be recognized by his movement.
At that time, women were not at the forefront of these movements. We were called “warrior mothers” – we were single mothers, vocal, demanding, not pleading, saying we have a right. Sometimes people were taken aback. Even Dr King’s movement wasn’t always pleased with us. People today don’t realize what we were up against.
They called us “warrior mothers” because we didn’t plead – we told. Some people thought we were too aggressive, but it was what we had to do. At the 1968 National Democratic Committee we shouted our way in – open the doors, open the doors for us mothers! And they did. I was invited to the caucus for childcare, and they listened to us. We got the funding for childcare that we needed. That kind of success forpoor women was pretty rare in those days. We were women from all over – Baltimore, Roxbury in Boston, California, all across the US.
At the meeting with Dr King, the only time I ever saw him, I asked, why isn’t Coretta talking to us as a mother? “Sister,” he replied, “Coretta’s not feeling well, but I will relay the message to her.” I never found out if he did; he was killed a few months later. But his poor people’s movement was branding out – he was starting to oppose the war in Vietnam and include women.
I got involved in the Voting Rights Act, walking the streets to register voters. I was asked by John Kearse to advocate for funding for Head Start. I spoke to a congressman and said we needed a Head Start program for the community center. And we got the funding! One of my children was in one of the very first Head Start programs. We spoke to Dick Gregory of Illinois; we went to the Democratic Committee to the caucus for childcare. We had dignity.
I had felt I couldn’t do anything, I had three children and no high school degree. The War on Poverty in the early 1970s helped us women. We got jobs, they put us in training programs for people on welfare, they provided childcare and a community center. People on welfare were trained to be managers and assistant managers of food pantries. I was chosen to be a manager for a food pantry in a poor community in Elmont, Long Island. Along with distributing cheese, butter, beans and dried milk, I put up a bulletin board with notices to the community telling them what their rights were. For that reason, it was great – until the Republicans closed it down. I managed the National Welfare Rights Organization propelled me to go on to other things – I got my education and volunteers in different things. That voice for change was in me and I went on.
It’s so important to feel part of something. It doesn’t have to be big – you don’t have to be famous. You just have to give a part of yourself, and have a voice for change. I wasn’t a leader but a little seed – I had a voice.
Because I got involved with the NWRO, I learned how to speak with all kinds of people. I learned that I could be part of something bigger. It gave me a voice – it helped me find my voice. It’s now who you meet, whether they’re famous, or your title, but that you participate and speak out without fear. That’s what’s important.
These days, young people don’t feel they can do anything. You just have to plant a seed of hope. And listen to them. Listen to their pain. Their experience means more than anything. Once they start talking to others, once they meet others and listen, they see people who are suffering more or less than them, and begin to feel the safety net opening up.
Things are stacked against young people today. Wars, division, political struggle. The man in New York who was shot in his own building. The 12-year-old shot in the playground.
I hope young people know there are things they can do. In my day, it wasn’t just the Freedom Riders or the leaders. Everyone played a part. Maybe it’s a small part today, but what matters is that they change their lives and someone else’s life, too.
Research by Aminah Khan, Jude Lancet and Steff Shepherd
We tell some of the stories linking the US civil rights movement and the UK including the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 inspired by Montgomery and in opposition to the Bristol Omnibus Company’s racist employment policy. We also tell the stories of the window from ‘the people of Wales’ for the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church and of Martin Luther King’s honorary degree from Newcastle.
Research by Martin Spafford
We include a map of the UK showing a few of the lesser- known struggles for freedom and equality over centuries in the UK. We want to elevate the histories of non-violent campaigns for human rights and show how ‘people like us’ chose to dedicate their energy to working for social justice. We stand on their shoulders and we aim to inspire and empower participants now, to get involved.
Some songs of the civil rights movement
- We Shall Overcome is a protest song that became a key anthem of the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955–1968). It is widely believed that the title and structure of the song are derived from an early gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley (1851–1933)
- Motherless Child The song dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of slaves away from their parents. Although the plaintive words can be interpreted literally, they might alternatively be metaphoric. The “motherless child” could be a slave separated from and yearning for his or her African homeland, his or her spouse, parents, siblings or child(ren) (from all or any of which he or she may have been separated in the trafficking process) or a slave suffering “a long ways from home”—home being heaven—or all.
- Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen is a spiritual song. The song is well known and many cover versions of it have been done by artists such as Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Paul Robeson, Sam Cooke among others.
- The Hammer Song is a song written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. It was written in 1949 in support of the progressive, and was first recorded by The Weavers, a folk music quartet composed of Seeger, Hays, Ronnie Gilbert andFred Hellerman.
- · There Is Power in a Union is a song written by Joe Hill in 1913. The Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the Wobblies) concentrated much of its labor trying to organize migrant workers in lumber and construction camps. They sometimes had competition for the attention of the workers from religious organizations. The song is sung to the tune of “There Is Power in the Blood (Of the Lamb)”.
- I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free is a gospel/jazz song written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas in 1963, best known for the recording by Nina Simone in 1967 on her Silk & Soul album. Billy Taylor has explained: “I wrote this song, perhaps my best-known composition, for my daughter Kim. This is one of the best renditions I’ve done, because it is very spiritual.
- Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around is a traditional song that was adopted by the civil rights movement in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s. This recording features the SNCC Freedom Singers, a student group that travelled around the country singing at mass meetings and rallies. “Chief Pritchett” refers to Albany’s police chief Laurie Pritchett, “Mayor Kelley” refers to Albany Mayor Asa Kelly.
- Imagine written and performed by the English musician John Lennon. The best-selling single of his solo career, its lyrics encourage the listener to imagine a world at peace without the barriers of borders or the divisiveness of religions and nationalities, and to consider the possibility that the focus of humanity should be living a life unattached to material possessions.
- Oh Freedom is a post-Civil War African-American freedom song, often associated with Odetta, who recorded it as part of the “Spiritual Trilogy”, on her Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, and Joan Baez, who performed the song at the 1963 March on Washington, and has since performed the song live numerous times throughout the years, both during her concerts and at other events. The song predates these events by at least three decades for it was recorded in 1931 by the E. R. Nance Family with Clarence Dooley as “Sweet Freedom”.
- Joe Hill born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, and also known as Joseph Hillström (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915) was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the “Wobblies”). A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco. Hill, as an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular song writer and cartoonist for the radical union. His most famous songs include “The Preacher and the Slave” (also known as There’ll be Pie in the Sky By-and There Is Power In a Union express the harsh, combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize to improve conditions for workers.
- Solidarity Forever, written by Ralph Chaplin in 1915, is perhaps the most famous union anthem. It is sung to the tune of “John Brown’s Body”. Although it was written as a song for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), other union movements, such as theAFL-CIO, have adopted the song as their own. It is still commonly sung at union meetings and rallies in the United States, Australia and Canada, and has also been sung at conferences of the Australian Labor Party and the Canadian New Democratic Party.
- A Change Is Gonna Come by American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke released on December 22, 1964 by RCA Victor. Produced by Hugo & Luigi and arranged and conducted by René Hall, the song was the B-side to “Shake”. The song concerns African-Americans and contains the refrain, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke’s life, most prominently an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a whites only motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his and the struggle of those around him, and he recorded the song for its first release on his final album, Ain’t That Good News.
- The Internationale (French: “L’Internationale”) is a widely sung left-wing anthem. It has been one of the most recognizable and popular songs of the socialist movement since the late 19th century, “This is the final struggle / Let us group together and tomorrow / The Internationale / Will be the human race.”). It is often sung with the left hand raised in a clenched fist salute and is sometimes followed (in English-speaking places) with a chant of “The workers united will never be defeated”
Music of social justice
Research by Chloe Oliver, History student at Northumbria University
Blowin’ In the Wind
- It was a cover song that Dylan performed when he was less well known
- Originally written by Peter, Paul and Mary a folk-singing group
- It was performed at the 1963 March on Washington
- It became their biggest hit single
- Dylan gained national exposure when he performed the song with the group at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival
- It had a major influence on Sam Cooke, as the songs had links to racial injustice
- It is argued that “A Change is Gonna Come” was inspired by Bob Dylan
- Stevie Wonder was the first black man to take “Blowin In the Wind” to #9 in the charts in 1966
- It has been covered by many artists such as Dolly Parton and Neil Young
- When it was performed by Peter, Paul and Mary, Mary was said to have had an epiphany, as when she was looking out at the crowd of 250,000 people she truly believed that this was the time for social change
- The song was put in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999
- “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” – seeking racial justice
- Moving, protest song that was an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement
- His real name is Robert Zimmerman
- Born in Duluth, Minnesota on the 24th May 1941
- In high school he formed the Golden Chords
- He briefly attended the University of Minnesota in 1959
- He began to play in local coffeehouses and legally changed his name in 1962
- He moved to NYC in 1961 and was the opening act for bluesman John Lee Hooker
- He signed to Colombia records in 1962
- His first album produced in 1963 was ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ and included protest songs such as “Masters of War” and “Blowin in the Wind”
- Joan Baez recorded some of his songs and invited him on tour with her
- By 1964 he was playing 200 concerts a year
- With his album ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ his style changed from folk to rock n’ roll
- On july 29th 1966 Dylan had a motorbike accident and broke several neck vertebrae, had a concussion and received lacerations on his face
- He was in critical condition and was bedridden for a month with effects such as amnesia and paralysis
- On June 9th 1970 he received an honorary doctorate from Princeton in music
- He performed at the Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison
- He moved to Malibu in 1973 and signed with the Asylum label
- In 1978 he embarked on a world tour in which he redid some of his old songs
- He announced in 1979 he was a born-again Christian and did a 22-city U.S. tour and in 1982 travelled to Israel
- One of his songs, “Neighbourhood Bully” was about Arab-Israeli relations
- He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989
- In 1991 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy’s
- He made a triumphant appearance at Woodstock in 1994
- He received the Kennedy Centre Lifetime Achievement Award from Bill Clinton in 1994
- He will always remain the most influential American musician rock and roll has ever produced
- His lyrics are so inspirational they live on in poetry and continue to inspire people such as Jimmy Carter and Vaclav Havel