Monthly Archives: March 2012

Looking for the Welcome Table

I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days ……

When I am traveling in the South, part of my brain is always in observer mode. I try to stay in the present, but I can´t keep part of my mind from scanning to see how things have changed since the 60´s and from thinking about whether the changes are for the better.

I´m recently back from a trip with my sister Beth through the Deep South –Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia.  One change that struck me on this

Sunday dinner at the Dinner Bell, McComb, February 2012

trip as we ate and spent the night in a succession of cities and small towns was the complete integration of public accommodations.  It wasn’t just that black people were allowed in.  What struck me was that every hotel and restaurant we visited, country diners and strip mall chains and fine dining restaurants, welcomed blacks and whites with equal casualness.

It sure didn’t used to be that way.

In 1964 every one of the white restaurants and lunch counters in Meridian was segregated.  Some white restaurants served take-out to blacks, usually requiring them to come to the back door. A couple of lunch counters let blacks sit in a separate section.  The only integrated restaurant I can remember is  the black-owned Calmese’s Grill,  across the street from the COFO office on 5th Street, which was a welcoming refuge for white civil rights workers along with its usual black clientele.

Along with all the other excitement, the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted  in the summer of 1964.  Among other things, it outlawed racial discrimination in most public accommodations.  After it became law, nothing changed in Meridian.  It might as well have been the law of another country. Governor Johnson publicly told businesses to ignore the law because it would be found unconstitutional.  At first,  it had so little impact that most Mississippians, black and white, probably didn’t know that segregation of restaurants and hotels had become illegal.

By November 1964 student attendance at the Freedom School was flagging.  The COFO staff decided we needed to do something more active and concrete with the teenagers.  We decided to start a campaign of “testing” restaurants in town to see whether they would comply with the Civil Rights Act when faced with black customers.

I still have the stenographer’s notebook with my notes from the campaign.  Each Meridian restaurant is listed with its address.  Our strategy was for two white COFO workers to go to the restaurant and order something to confirm that we could be served and that it wasn’t a private club.  We also scouted out each restaurant for signs that it was engaged in interstate commerce.  Here are examples of my notes:

  • Davis Grill. 606 22nd Ave. Advertises in Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for visitors, American Express, Menu and Matchcase – only address U.S. Highways 11, 80, 45 – City route. . . .
  • Weidmann’s, 210 22nd Ave. Adv. in Chamber of Commerce pamphlet for visitors, American Express credit cards, puts out a flyer for interstate travelers, AAA, written up in Holiday Magazine as one of “103 Great Restaurants in America”
  • Merchant’s Grill, 2101 5th St. In sight of federal courthouse and across from county courthouse and Lamar Hotel.
  • Triangle Restaurant, 617 23rd Ave. Right next to Trailways, Natl. Restaurant Assn.

In some cases, we went to talk to the restaurant owners in hopes that they would agree to desegregate voluntarily. Here are my notes of talking to Mr. Davis, of Davis Grill:

We’re asking restaurants …

I don’t have anything to say.  I just mind my business

This is your business.  It is the law. We are trying to find out what you are going to do

I’m just here to run a business

The next step was to start testing.  In a letter to my parents I wrote,

Every day after Freedom School we went and tested three or four places.  Some served us, some didn’t. We had some interesting encounters…..

8th Street and 50th Avenue today

On Thanksgiving Day the kids were off from school and so we started testing in the morning.  I was driving.  There were six high school students and one other COFO worker – Judy Wright – in the car.  Our first stop was the A and W Root Beer Stand on 8th Street at 50th Avenue.  Five of the students walked to the window and asked for service. They were flatly refused.  As we left one of the waitresses came and wrote down our license number. . . .

“We drove a few blocks down the street to Tutor and Sims Drugstore at the corner of 8th Street and 44th Avenue. This was a brand new drugstore which had been open just two or three days. . . . The manager, Mr. Tutor, … simply roared, ‘Get out of here’ every time the spokesman of the group opened his mouth to try to say something like ‘Did he know about the Civil Rights Act?’ He followed the students outside and stood with his arms folded as though guarding the door.  But also as though he were waiting for something.  We soon saw what he was waiting for.  A police car, which he must have called, drove up and the officer went over to talk to Mr. Tutor just as we were leaving.

“Out on the main road I had scarcely the time to shift out of first when I heard ‘beep, beep’ behind me. I pulled over to the side of the road.  The cop came up and asked ‘Is you the ones that was just down at the A & W stand?’ (sic — that’s how quoted him then)

“I answered ‘Yes, they wouldn’t serve us there and we were still hungry, so we stopped here.’ ‘Well, why don’t you take ’em downtown (where the Negro restaurants are) where they belong?’ ‘Because we were hungry here, sir, and the law of the United States says that Negores or anyone else have a right to eat in a lunch counter or restaurant.’

“He asked to see my license. I gave it to him and he mumbled something about ‘You COFO people have a good time all living there together on 5th Street, don’t you?’ We do not tell anyone the addresses of the families we stay with but only list our mailing address, the COFO office (2505 1/2 Fifth Street). And they choose to interpret that as meaning we all live together – although they know it is not true. . . . He gave me back my license with a final ‘You take ’em downtown where they belong. They’ll be glad to serve ’em there. Don’t be bringin’ ’em out here where they’re not wanted.’

We set off for an ice cream stand on the other side of town. And the policeman set off right behind us. . . . Just as I was turning into the Whirly-Dip ice cream stand at 6th Street and 18th Avenue, I heard again behind me ‘Beep, Beep.’ The policeman shouted,  ‘Drive straight down to the police station.’ ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘You made an improper turn,’ he answered.

Used to be the Whirly-Dip ice cream stand

In my letter to my parents, I went on to say that I was charged $29.00 for bail, but was lucky enough to have $30.00 in my wallet ‘which I had been saving to buy some Freedom School supplies and to pay for milk shakes and hamburgers of kids who didn’t have the money to go testing.’ and so I was released after processing and got right back in the car, where the kids were waiting for me.  I concluded, ‘We drove straight back to the Whirly-Dip where the kids were served ice cream at the formerly all-white window. . . .’

My trial was set for Saturday, two days later. To make a long story short, I was convicted of the traffic violation and wound up spending four days in jail.  My sentence and how I got out of  jail will be the subject of an upcoming Post.

Freddie Watkins, George Smith, Sam Brown in Sadka's Sandwich Shop waiting for service. 1964 or 1965

Other COFO workers had much scarier experiences as the testing went on in subsequent months.  George Smith sent me this photo from a popular lunch restaurant on 6th Street,  Sadka’s Sandwich Shop. Here is George’s recollection of what was happening when this picture was taken:

We are in Sadka’s Sandwichshop on 6th Street. We were testing the Civil Rights Act.  We went at noon.  White COFO/CORE staff went first to see if they could get served.  They were served.  Then we went in and sat down and all the white people left.  The man at the counter said “We don’t serve niggers here.” We said, “Do you serve dinner?  We come for dinner.”  A mob gathered out front.  In this picture we are sitting at the counter looking out the window at the mob outside. After this was taken, people kicked us and spat on us.  We filed a complaint with the Justice Dept.  I have the letter I got from the Justice Department three years later,  in 1967, saying they had received our complaint and now Sadka’s agrees to serve black people.

COFO staff and volunteers filed dozens of complaints with the Justice Department. Gradually, grudgingly the restaurants in Meridian opened their doors.

But the story has an ending we could not have scripted in 1964.  Last month, my sister and I took my old stenographer’s notebook and went around town to check out the restaurants on my “Need to Test” list.

They were not there!

In many cases, the building wasn’t there and there was a vacant lot. In others, the building was still there but vacant. In one or two instances, the building was occupied by another business, for example, a music/head shop.  Of the 25 restaurants on my list, the only one still serving as a restaurant today is Weidmann’s.

What happened?  As  I described in my first post Arriving Again, the Interstate came, and businesses moved out to the access roads.  The downtown lunch business dried up, and one by one the restaurants closed. Weidmann’s survived on its reputation as a dress-up, evening-out restaurant.

 Meanwhile, out on the access roads, the chain fast food restaurants are booming. There aren’t fewer restaurants in Meridian;  they are just in a different place and under a different type of ownership. I don’t believe most young people realize that there used to be a couple of dozen restaurants in downtown Meridian, all of them locally owned.
People choose to drive out to the access roads to eat even when they work or  find themselves in town. Roscoe Jones, the director of Freedom ’64, was one of the students that tested restaurants with me in 1964. He supports the development of a civil rights office and community center downtown at the site of the old COFO office, but he tells everyone that his “office” is in the McDonald’s out on the strip, and that’s the best place to find him nearly every day.

Cornbread, catfish, greens, black-eyed peas and ice tea at Binke's

I am happy to report that there is one restaurant in town where the food is fresh-cooked and affordable, and it’s almost always full at the lunch hour.  Binke’s, a black-owned and operated restaurant, serves a lunch crowd of black and white, young and old, businessmen and laborers.  They come for the catfsh and the oxtail soup and vegetables and the quick friendly service.  It’s so good and so popular, it’s hard to figure why there aren’t more restaurants like it in town.

I am left with a paradox. The food served by  white-owned Dinner Bell in McComb (pictured at the top of the post) and black-owned Binke’s is the same traditional Southern cooking. Pretty much everyone loves it, young and old, black and white (and even northerners!) You can get a lot more vegetables on your plate at Binke’s or the Dinner Bell than you can get at McDonald’s, and traditional Southern cooking is based on ingredients that are grown and produced (or used to be) locally.

So why did whites, who risked everything to preserve what they called “our way of life,” abandon the very restaurants and home cooking that embodied that Southern way of life for the Yankee-owned fast food restaurants? And why did blacks, who also risked everything to be able to eat at those traditional restaurants, end up driving out to the malls to eat? I’m hoping that some of the readers of this Blog will tell me why.

Weren’t you scared?

The question I was most often asked in 1964 continues to be the question I am most often asked today about being to be a civil rights worker in Mississippi:

Aren’t you scared?

Weren’t you scared?

The simple answer is “no.”  The true answer is more complex.

I knew from the beginning that Mississippi could be dangerous for anyone who stepped over the boldface lines of Jim Crow. The SNCC recruiter Al Lowenstein who came to Harvard in March 1964 told us about beatings and shooting attacks on civil rights workers as well as black citizens who attempted to register to vote.  I knew the KKK had murdered state NAACP president Medgar Evers in his Jackson home the summer before. The intense, no-nonsense SNCC staffer Dottie Zellner, who interviewed me that spring to determine whether I seemed to be a suitable volunteer, was intent on on making sure I grasped the risks.  And, lest we might think that white college students might be exempted from violence,  we learned on our first full day of the week-long training for COFO workers in Oxford, OH, that two white COFO workers, together with a black COFO worker from Meridian were missing and presumed dead. I was to go to Meridian.

And yet I did not feel fear.

From the start,  my decision to go to Mississippi was intertwined with the question “Is this something I am willing to die for?” And I had concluded the answer was “Yes.”

I remember how I reasoned it through: I was a 20-year-old college student with no children or husband or house or work that depended on me. True, my friends and family would be sad if I died, but they would understand. My parents would be most upset, particularly as they had worked so hard to be good parents and were deeply invested in my future, but they would still have three other children to love and nurture.

It wasn’t that I wanted to die.  I didn’t.  But if dying was the risk one had to take to be part of the freedom movement, I was willing.  It would be worth it.  I was idealistic and believed in the freedom movement the way some people believe in religion.  Not that I was a fanatic.  I just felt certain that working for justice and equality for black people in my own country was the right thing to do and that this was the right time and place for me to do it.  If I hadn’t had that certainty, I would have felt afraid.

In hindsight, I think I was sincere in my willingness to die for this movement. It has served me well to have had that early practice in thinking hard about what risks are worth taking and about the possibility of death. But I don’t think I really confronted how it would be to be tortured or beaten, which were actually more likely than being killed. I didn’t have the life experiences or knowledge then to be able to truly imagine physical brutality.  In no way can I compare my feelings to those of SNCC field staff who went back time and time again after experiencing beatings and assaults. As Mary King wrote in a recent post on Anticipating Fear,

As  COFO volunteers,  we had training that prepared us mentally and emotionally.  We learned and practiced how to protect our bodies from beating by rolling into a fetal and neck with our arms. We did role-playing to practice responding in a dignified and nonviolent way to harassment and see how it would feel to go limp if we were being dragged away by police.  We learned procedures to be followed if we were arrested.  We were trained to check in and check back if we were going out in the field so that someone would always know where we had gone. We learned not to stand at night in front of a lighted window. We carried dimes in our pockets or shoes in case we needed to make a phone call. This training was practical, but even more important it made us feel we were prepared for what might come.

Looking back now with more understanding about the psychology of war, I don’t see myself as all that different from millions of young men and women of the same age around the globe who have enlisted in military service in answer to the call of patriotism.  At the time, as a strong peace activist committed to nonviolence, I would have been horrified to be compared with a young soldier going off to shoot people, but now I can see the parallel.

And, as so many of those soldiers learn, the reality is more in the slog than in the fireworks. Here’s what I wrote my folks in early July 1964:

For all of us, I think, the first and hardest lesson has been understanding better the meaning of the song we all sang innocently at Oxford, “They say that freedom in a constant struggle.” We heard so much before we came about the danger and extraordinary deprivation and the police state — and all that sort of thing that the magazine articles describe — that we expected, without ever really thinking about it, that the summer would be one of heroics — constantly dodging police or “serving our time in jail” or rolling up in the little balls we learned at Oxford to protect ourselves from police clubs and kicks.  It isn’t. Except for those in the extreme danger areas — the Southwest, parts of the Delta, Canton — there may be one or two incidents like that.  For some, maybe none. And yet just because freedom is not a constant battle, that does not mean it is not a constant struggle.

Once I got to Mississippi, it was immediately clear to me that the people who were actually brave were the black citizens who stepped forward to join the movement. If I was afraid of anything, it was that I would do something stupid to endanger a black person unnecessarily. I was careful not to identify publicly the address of the home where I lived (none of my letters home contain the street address), not that it was any secret to people who lived in the neighborhood.  I never rode or walked alone with a single black male (see my post Arriving Again) for fear of endangering him. Interracial romances were strictly proscribed that summer.  We invited students to attend Freedom School, to participate in demonstrations, to attend meetings, but we never pushed them or their parents: it was essential that each person and family make  his or her own decision about what risks they felt comfortable taking. Many parents were afraid to be seen on a picket line or registering to vote, but were willing for their children to participate.

The families who welcomed us into their homes were so courageous.  They risked losing everything: their livelihoods, their homes, their physical safety. They also risked social ostracism.  I could always go home to Pittsburgh, but this was their home. In Meridian, the home of an elderly widower who had opened his home to two summer volunteers, was shot into. A cross was burned on the lawn of our office manager George Smith.  Later the home of a black dentist we worked with was bombed. Two teens who were active with the Freedom School were permanently expelled from high school for wearing freedom buttons.  In Lauderdale County alone, at least six black churches were burned before sanity started to prevail.  In Lauderdale County, as in Mississippi as a whole, for every white civil rights worker who was jailed or beaten, there were dozens of black Mississippians who were brutalized because they participated in civil rights activities or because someone thought they had or thought they might. 

For all of us, black and white together, our spirits were sustained by the everyday work, by singing and by frequent mass meetings in the churches.  See my post on Freedom Songs. The summer of 1964 demonstrated how different and how much easier it is to take risks with others, as part of a movement, than as an isolated individual.

So how did it turn out for me? In my three years in Mississippi and Alabama, I was taunted and harassed verbally, but not attacked. I was jailed, but not mistreated. I was chased but not caught. I experienced attempted sexual assaults but  not rape.  I will describe some of these incidents in future posts.  At times my heart was wounded, but my body never was.

Nowadays we all know much more about the prevalence of  sexual and physical abuse among women and men, children and adults, black and white, rich and poor, north and south. I realize now that we  civil rights workers were privileged in that the dangers we faced were by choice and for something we believed in. The threats and traumas were real, but they could be told and shared.