Monthly Archives: January 2012

Florence Mars – Witness in Philadelphia

I pulled Florence Mars’ Witness in Philadelphia off my bookshelf and read it this week. Familiar though I am with Florence’s story, I found her account of being a white citizen of Neshoba County when the white community closed tight into itself during the 1960’s gripping, and I recommend the book to anyone interested in the period.

I met Florence in 1966 after I started covering stories for the Southern Courier in Neshoba County.  By that time, COFO (which had evolved into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) had an office in the black neighborhood (Independence Quarters) of Philadelphia.  Joe Morse, who first came to Meridian in 1964 from Minnesota worked there, as did Alan Schiffman from NY and George Smith from Meridian. Their focus was voter registration and adult literacy. As late as 1966 MFD workers and black citizens who spoke out or exercised their rights or otherwise managed to rile up the power structure were subject to harassment and attacks. Marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrating in Philadelphia to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the killings of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, were attacked and a car drove straight into the march. Because of MLK being there, this confrontation was reported in the national news, but other brutal beatings later that year were totally unreported by the conventional press, and I found myself frequently driving the thirty-nine miles up Highway 19 from Meridian to Philadelphia, MS., to report these painful stories.

Florence Mars lived  with her mother (and a stepfather I never met) in a gracious white home in a shady yard on Poplar Avenue, just south of town. I forget now who introduced us, but she was the first native East Mississippi white person I had the opportunity to get to know, and I was fascinated. Florence was small and blond and a person who could not keep from saying whatever was on her mind. She had a broad Mississippi accent with more twang than modulation.  It is almost impossible to describe her without using the word “feisty.”

When the murders occurred in 1964, Florence thought of herself as securely ensconced in Philadelphia’s white community.  She could count eight great grandparents  all buried in Neshoba County.  Her family included prominent businessmen and professionals: lawyers, a doctor, storeowners and landowners. Florence herself owned a stockyard with a busy cattle auction and a herd of purebred polled herefords.

By the time I met her, Florence was reeling from a series of psychic and economic blows she had suffered as the result of speaking out in opposition to the murders, being willing to consult with the FBI, and visiting the COFO office.  The Ku Klux Klan had stopped business at her cattle auction by blocking farmers from bringing or buying cattle there through threats and physically turning trucks away. Later the Klan put Florence on notice that they were going to burn the barn where her prized cattle were kept. She was forced to sell both the stockyard and the farm. Finally, in August 1966, she was arrested leaving a party by Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, a known Klansman then under federal indictment for his role in the murders of the three civil rights workers. Rainey held Florence and the friend who was in the car with her overnight in jail, an unheard of occurrence for a white woman of her social class (Rainey refused the pleas of Florence’s family to release her into their custody). The arrest was frightening for her family and humiliating for Florence.  It was, as it was intended to be, a sobering lesson that the Klan would not limit its attacks to blacks, Catholics, and Jews, but was willing to use force and the power of the law against white Mississippians who stood up for fairness and racial tolerance.

When I met her, Florence was trying to make sense of her community’s conspiracy of silence and the attacks upon her by writing about it. She wanted to show me her writing, and I was curious to read what she had written.Her handwriting in the calmest of times was hard to read, and these pages, written with the pressure of passion and hurt, were a challenge to decipher, but it was immediately clear to me that she had a unique story to tell.  I urged her to dictate her story on a tape recorder, and to write for publication.

Writing became Florence’s passion, and, for more than a year, I was a partner to her passion.  I would stop by her house as often as weekly and drink tea from delicate china cups or eat little sandwiches of cheese spread on white bread and listen to her latest memories and insights.

Florence was incapable of writing or speaking a simple declarative sentence.  At the time, I hadn’t read much Faulkner, but later, when I read Absalom, Absalom, I was already completely familiar with the way that a single event or a single thought couldn’t be described without telling what led up to it and how it affected other things that happened so that the past and the present were always coiled together and inextricably related. Florence would start telling me something that happened at her church last week, move to a memory about her Poppaw, pause to explain the social roles of the various denominations or the farm/lease system and her family’s connection to Mt. Zion community, recall Saturday market days on the town square in the fifties, and end up giving me her opinion about the latest editorial in the Neshoba Democrat, all without a single period.

As Florence pursued her cycles of memory and relationships, my role was to listen and to ask clarifying questions.  Some of Florence’s memory paths led her into painful subjects, particularly her father’s morphine addiction and early death at age 34.  As she recounts in her book, a country doctor supplied morphine to college students home for the weekend from Ole Miss to relieve  hangovers in a time before the addictive properties of morphine were not fully understood. With my outsider’s ear, I could listen without judgment, in confidence, without a stake. Some days I left Florence’s house wrung out and exhausted, feeling as  if I had been filling the role of a psychotherapist, and unequipped for the role.

Florence’s knowledge of the economic, legal, and personal relationships among the black, white, and Choctaw citizens of Neshoba County was exhaustive.  Through this process, she was assimilating what she had been observing and hearing her whole life. Organizing it all into a readable manuscript seemed overwhelming.

Then, as now, I enjoyed editing, and we continued to trade drafts of chapters, and discuss ways of organizing the material even after I moved north and started law school, but our progress slowed and my attention moved on.  Fortunately, my friend Bill Christian took an interest in the manuscript.  Bill recruited a talented young editor Lynn Eden, who was able to wrestle the manuscript into an accessible, readable tale, which was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1977.

 

Florence came to visit me once after I moved north and was living near New Haven, CT.  I am astonished to remember that I took her with me to the Newport Folk Festival, then at its long-haired, tie-dyed, dope-smoking peak.  How did I ever think that scene would be manageable for a well-bred 45-year-old lady from small-town Mississippi?? But manage she did, and together we were lucky enough to hear in person Janis Joplin, just then emerging onto the national stage, put her entire body and soul into that amazing voice of hers as she belted out “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose ……” (I don’t know if this link will work for you, but there she is just the way Florence and I saw her.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEpiF2JJj_U

On the same visit, we spent a day in Manhattan together. Our first stop was the New York Times, to visit its editor Turner Catledge.  Catledge was a native of Neshoba County, a generation older than Florence; he had known Florence’s mother since high school.  I had trouble squaring the suave, sophisticated NYT editor with the inward-looking community of Philadelphia I had known, but there they sat, Florence and Turner, in Catledge’s sleek city office looking out onto midtown, chatting about old times and mutual friends back home.

From the New York Times building, we went to CORE’s  (Congress of Racial Equality) New York office, the real focus of Florence’s quest. Florence wanted to know where she could find the bell that belonged to Mt. Zion Church,  (the black Neshoba County church the Klan burned in June 1964 and which Chaney/Schwerner/Goodman were investigating when they were captured and murdered) In some sort of Yankee hubris, CORE workers had trucked the bell north in 1964 to be used for fund-raising, and the members of Mt. Zion had no idea what had become of their historic bell.  Luck was with us.  A staff member led us through a warren of hallways to a dark storeroom in the back of the old brick building.  There was the bell, forgotten, but intact!  Florence arranged to have the bell crated up and shipped back to Mt. Zion community where the bell again hangs outside the rebuilt Mt. Zion church.

 

 

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The Meridian Star

I’ve routinely read the daily paper since about age 12, but I didn’t read the daily paper in Meridian.  There was no point.

The Meridian Star was Meridian’s daily paper in 1964, when I arrived.  The news that it reported then was of the whites, by the whites, and for the whites.  In the world reflected by the Star of the early 60’s sports existed only at white high schools and colleges, engagements and marriages were only between white couples, school dances and social clubs were enjoyed only by white people, all achievements, all scholarships, all businesses were those of Lauderdale County’s white citizens.  Whites were sometimes victims of crimes, blacks rarely, even if they were beaten or shot.

Looking at the Meridian Star, if you didn’t know better, you would assume  that the black men who lived in Mississippi were a criminal underclass and black women and children scarcely existed.  Black men earned a photo in the paper when they committed (or were suspected of committing) a crime against a white person, and those photos were demeaning or frightening mug shots. Black people accused of committing crimes were invariably identified by race, but not white suspects or criminals.

The Star followed the conventions of many Southern newspapers of the time by referring to white women as “Mrs.”  Black women were never called “Mrs.”; they were identified in the first reference by first name and last name (“Mary Jones”) and in subsequent references as “the Jones woman.” Black men were identified with an uncapitalized reference to their race: “John Jones, a negro.”

Like most other Mississippi newspapers, the Star had done little to prepare its readers for the political and economic changes that were sweeping the country.  Peaceful and orderly desegregation in other states was generally ignored, as were the voices of protest and the voices of Mississippi’s own black leaders.  The  general pattern was to ignore civil rights gains and activities unless and until they erupted into violence or crossed the border into Mississippi, and then to describe them in the terms of emergency or hysteria we would nowadays use for a tsunami or major earthquake.

In June 1964, the Meridian Star  suddenly found itself with a civil rights event it could not ignore, as news media from around the world flocked to Neshoba and Lauderdale counties to report on the disappearances of Chaney/Goodman/Schwerner. For a few weeks it did its best to assure its readers that life would go on as usual, with Page 1 headlines such as these:

24 June.  “Could This Be a Publicity Hoax?”

25 June.  “May Be  Hoax”

30 June.  “Still No Trace of Missing Men. It’s Possible They Left State”

As the summer of 1964 passedthe Star  reported and echoed Governor Paul Johnson’s call for businesses and citizens not to comply with the newly enacted federal Civil Rights Act.  There were very occasional stories about Freedom Summer when violence or arrests occurred:

8 July. “Mixers’ House Wrecked by Blasts” (McComb)

9 July. “Invaders Arrested in Columbus”

but none about the actual voter registration work, freedom schools, and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, nothing about the civil rights activity that was going on in Meridian.

In the spring of 1965, back in Cambridge for a semester of college, I connected with a group of Harvard Crimson staff members who were in the process of founding the Southern Courier, a newspaper with the motto that it would “Tell it like it is.”  Although I had no experience in journalism, I was keen to get back to the South as soon as I could, and I joined the fledgling paper as it started publishing first in Atlanta, and then in Montgomery, AL.  In 1966, I came back to Meridian to open the Mississippi bureau of the paper filling a void of reporting left wide open by the Star’s omissions and one-sidedness.  I will write more about the Southern Courier in a future post, but, for the purpose of this post, suffice it to say that the Courier was unique in the state at the time for reporting on and running photographs of black community life — football games, church news, schools, black businesses, black artists and musicians — as well as the violence and arrests and the occasional successes of the ongoing civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama. The Southern Courier had nowhere near the resources of a conventional newspaper like the Meridian Star, and it folded a few years later,  but for a few years, it told stories and printed images of people who had been invisible up until that time in the newspapers of the Deep South.

Based on my memories, visiting the Star  was definitely not up there on my list of priorities when I went back to Meridian in October, but Roscoe Jones was anxious for Mark Levy and me to talk with the editor of the Meridian Star, which continues to be published daily in the same downtown building where it was housed back in the 60’s.  I went to the appointment expecting a brief interview with the usual questions we became accustomed to when the horde of national news reporters descended on town in 1964: Why did you come? Weren’t you scared? Where did you go to college? What did your parents think?

Mark Levy, Roscoe Jones, Gail Falk, Fredie Carmichael. October 2011

To my amazement, our interview with the paper’s youthful editor Fredie Carmichael lasted two hours and quickly became a conversation.  Now in his early 30’s, Fredie grew up and attended school in rural Lauderdale County. He told us that in 2008 he realized Obama’s election was a kind of culmination of the civil rights movement of the 60’s, and, as news editor, he decided to look up what had happened in Meridian during Freedom Summer.  He could find virtually nothing in the newspaper’s archives or anywhere else about the freedom movement in Meridian except accounts about the murders of the Neshoba County three. He was chagrined that such a pivotal chapter in the city’s history should be so minimally documented, and he was hungry for anything and everything we could tell him about Freedom Summer. Mark and I agreed that  little has been published about the civil rights movement in Meridian; most written accounts have focused on the SNCC areas of COFO, whereas, Meridian was staffed by CORE.  When I thought about it later, this void was the main reason I decided to start this blog.

Fredie told us that after his fruitless search into the paper’s archives, he wrote an editorial apologizing for the Meridian Star’s historic failure to cover the civil rights movement and the lives and concerns of the region’s black citizens.  It is a remarkable editorial, and I urge you to read it.  Here is the link. http://meridianstar.com/editorials/x681147654/We-honor-and-we-apologize

Fredie’s energy and curiosity and his openness to new ideas seemed to us to be the best possible testament to change and the benefits of school integration in Mississippi.  Fredie attributes many of his insights into racism to a black friend he got to know on his high school basketball team. Needless to say, with Fredie as its editor, today’s Meridian Star is full of news about all of the region’s citizens, black and white. In this age of struggling newspapers, it is a lively, interesting readable and responsive paper, far better connected than my hometown paper in Vermont to electronic and social media.

And here’s a twist I never expected when I started to write this post.  Poking around the Star’s website, I came across the Editor’s blog, Fredie’s blog.  I learned that, several weeks after we connected in October, Fredie went off this December with a church group to Port au Prince for a week of hard work building houses for earthquake victims in Haiti.  He found himself spending his days with black Haitians poorer and more disfranchised than any he had ever known.  He was filled with love and admiration for the joy and hope of the children he met, the spirit and perseverance of the adults.  He said he hoped he would never forget.  He sounds just like me in 1964!

Note: For more information about the Mississippi press in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including profiles of a few crusading journalists of the time, such as Hazel Brannon Smith, Hodding Carter II and III, J. Oliver Emerich, and Ira B. Harkey, see the website of David Davies: http://ocean.otr.usm.edu/-ddavies and Susan Weill’s In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coversage by Mississippi’s Daily Press.