My time in Mississippi was coming to an end. I said goodbye to Ruleville and headed south for the last time to Indianola. There were only two or three white civil rights workers there, as so many had disappeared to resume their college studies or had run out of money and had to get real jobs.
I would stay for another day, taking in a final rally at the old schoolhouse that night, then set off for Jackson. I was now more of a journalist than a civil rights worker, taking pictures or having the camera ready as I only had a few frames left.
There was a last waltz air about that night, as if there were an awareness that Freedom Summer was at its end and this was a last hurrah. As the sun went down, I noted that the crowd was a little bigger than expected. There were speeches from the black leaders, an invocation from a pastor, and the usual supportive cries from the still almost wholly female audience, reminiscent of that day in church.
What made it very different, and menacing, was the gathering of headlights that first approached and then parked in front of the schoolhouse—pickups and cars with local whites, first in twos and threes and then perhaps 20 vehicles in two ranks of 10 cars each, 20 to 30 yards from the school house. Two police cars came and then a couple of black patrolmen on foot.
The senior cop spoke to the key civil rights organiser privately, and it spread through the 70 people in the audience that they had to disperse, on the grounds that they posed the threat of a riot. As a matter of principle, the civil rights workers were simply holding a meeting as they had frequently done at that very spot, and if anyone posed a threat of riotous behavior, it was the gathering of whites. But it was also clear that dispersal would expose 70 people walking home to harassment by vengeful white males in cars and trucks. For that reason, it seemed best for all to stick together.
I played my journalist role to the hilt, first talking to the sympathetic black cops, who were suitably impressed with my gossamer-thin Canadian press credentials. The more impressed they were, the less the white cops wanted to talk to me and the bolder I became, demanding to know what was going on. One of them had no comment and referred me to the ranking officer who was "too busy."
I ostentatiously pretended to take pictures and make notes. I was blocked by a white cop from going to the rank of cars and pickups with their occupants spilling out. Their headlights flashed at the schoolhouse, as people eclipsed them by walking back and forth in front of their vehicles.
I could hear through the open windows of the schoolhouse one of the leaders, backed up by the pastor, saying that it would be better to stay put come what may. At which point a woman in the audience broke out in song, "We Shall Overcome," and the rest joined in. It was the most impressive performance I have ever witnessed. There were just enough male vocals to give it body though not to dominate the sweet plaintive air the women produced. I never heard anything better calculated to sooth the savage beast we all feared lurked outside beyond the row of headlights. Its memory can bring a tear to my eye to this day.
"We Shall Overcome" rang out again and again as if it were a hymn Christians sang as they were fed to the lions. This was the fear, as all recalled the deaths of civil rights workers and other sympathisers, and similar credible stories doing the rounds. Meanwhile, I stood outside with my camera, prepared to use the last of my film if the rednecks attacked.
But the mood changed. I think they too were impressed with beauty of the song. No longer was there a flashing of headlights against the schoolhouse wall because there was a new stillness among the rednecks. I saw the police talking to some in the second rank of vehicles. Soon I heard one engine start and a car turn and move away down the driveway, then others followed until there were none left.
The next day I set off hitch-hiking in my kilt to Jackson before leaving the state. All were shocked that I would do such a thing, thinking that hitching in the South as a Northerner was madness. But I had not worn the kilt in Mississippi, so it was unknown to any who might pick me up. I would pose as a Canadian hitch-hiking across the US, sometimes adopting a Scottish accent I had acquired at the Black Watch to appear even more exotic and remote from local politics.
All went well. I remember waiting for a ride near Yazoo City by an oxbow lake. I had been terrible in school, the world's worst student, but typically took top honours in history and geography. I remembered the nature of meandering streams, and their propensity to create oxbow lakes, and I was simply thrilled to see one. Oxbow lakes occur when a meandering stream snakes along in such a way that it runs into itself again causing the main current to flow from one to the other, cutting off the loop its meandering path had created. The orphaned loop, now deprived of its water source, recedes into a crescent-shaped lake.
After several pleasant rides, I arrived in Jackson at the Greyhound bus depot as that seemed the best destination to fit my cover story, that I was on my way to New Orleans.
After I trudged to COFO headquarters, I hung about feeling quite at home, enjoying the gossip of what was happening here and there and how everything was winding down. I met two guys who were driving to San Francisco and thought I would join them, hoping that my mother would have received money from the Canadian newspapers by the time I plunged south into Mexico on my stated itinerary.
But the California option involved a delay and considerable detour as the guy who owned the car had left it in his previous COFO base in Columbus, in the northeast of the state, for repairs. We were in luck because COFO had another reason to drive up there in one of the new supercharged Plymouths the Quakers had donated. So off I went with a local black driver at the wheel and my two companions, of whose names there is no record because our association was to end abruptly before dusk.
Much of the trip was uneventful and even pleasant as we traversed the Natchez Trace Parkway. It was the domain of the National Park Service, so we were reasonably sure there would be no trouble from the police, who where presumably friendly federales.
I don't recall much about my white companions, whom I choose to remember as "Parish" and "County" because of a debate they were having on whether the terms "county" or "parish" sounded more "grassroots." Everything had to be grassroots back then to gain any legitimacy in the minds of "concerned" and "committed" youth of the day. Only Louisiana called its sub-state jurisdictions parishes rather than counties. My only contribution was that the aristocratic title "count" had something to do with the term county, which didn't seem very grassroots to me. This was ignored as off topic.
The black driver, whose name, Cliff Trice, became central to our immediate future, said little or nothing throughout the trip, which was typical of local blacks. They were barely literate, if that, and despite being the same age as the rest of the civil rights workers, they were light years apart in every way. Much to our genuine regret, we had little or nothing to do with them except when food was served.
With Columbus not 30 miles away, we were discussing plans. There would be no problem in putting me up for the night, and we would take off for California the next day. That settled, it now appeared we had a pickup truck with two rifles on a rack ahead of us that was slowing down and would not let us pass. Try as we might, we could not overtake it - knowing that if we could, we could outrun it.
Then the pickup started to speed up and we followed close behind, but he was quick to block us. I noticed that Cliff's expression was calm and businesslike. The rest of us were all plainly scared. The pickup put on much more speed and we followed nearly bumper to bumper. Then it slowed, pulled to one side as if allowing us to pass, only to pull to the centre again, in an attempt to have Cliff drive into a narrow concrete bridge rail, which he barely missed doing.
It wasn't much longer, less than a minute or two, when the pickup allowed us to pass. But before we could speed away there was a Mississippi State Trooper flagging us down. We pulled over and the trooper, in his Confederate grey uniform, went back to the pickup that had pulled over some 50 yards behind us. The trooper carried a long piece of paper that streamed out behind him in the wind as he approached the pickup, and the driver appeared to sign it.
At this point we were all introduced to Mississippi Highway Patrolman Floyd Williams, an evil, ferret-faced bully, who told us to get out of the car. I was quite an astonishing sight in my kilt—I was prepared for hitchhiking if anything fell through, as things did all the time in the dog days of Freedom Summer.
After getting our destinations straight, he told Cliff and the two white guys, Parish and County, to get back into the car and wait.
Williams led me over to the police car, saying he had caught himself a prize "outside agitator," but he seemed to wish for someone other than me to tell it to. I noticed his pleasure at his catch and suggested he let the others go as they were only collecting a car in Columbus before heading off to California. He flew into something of a joyful rage, pulled his gun and put it on my nose. "I'll tell you, boy, when you can talk!" and then said much the same in an ever more menacing tone, as drill sergeants do. I wasn't frightened, but instantly respectful, and got into the caged back seat of the police car. He then left me to go across the road to give Cliff driving instructions to our next destination.
Which turned out to be a gas station. Cliff, Parish and County were told to stay in the car while I was paraded inside, which appeared to be empty except for a full rack of American Oil cans beside a counter, a cash register, a rack of brochures and maps. Patrolman Williams looked plainly annoyed that there was still no one to show his prize captive. At this point I was beginning to worry. What were we doing here? Were we to be the last redneck hurrah of Freedom Summer, a gas station death row before Cliff, Parish, County and I were to be taken away and shot?
Williams called out loudly for attention. Suddenly there was a grunt from under a car in the garage, from a balding, heavy-set, unshaven man who slid out on a creeper dolly. He got up with a sigh, looked at a black oil stain on his arm, and with mock horror said: "Look here, Floyd, I'm turning nigger on you!"
Thus I was introduced to the justice of the peace. I was charged with having a concealed weapon—I had stuffed my machete, web belt and canteen under the back seat. Cliff Trice was charged with auto theft, because the name on the permission declaration from COFO to drive a vehicle that he did not own was made out to "Clifford" Trice, but the name on his driver's licence was "Cliff" Trice. I had no idea what happened to Parish and County, but I presume they were released.
Then a new law enforcement officer entered our lives. If Williams represented all that was malevolent about the Southern Way of Life, Sheriff William Harpole personified all that was good.
He arrived in a fury, alerted by Williams reporting his catch over the radio to the local state police detachment. Williams having laid charges formally through the justice of the peace dashed Sheriff Harpole's hopes of nipping the incident in the bud. So he had his deputy bundle Cliff and me into his squad car—and out of the custody of the evil state trooper, making us the property of Oktibbeha County. Such details came to me only later, as I was absurdly reflecting on the parish-versus-county debate as I waited with Cliff and the deputy, thinking that the word "sheriff" was derived from "shire reeve,” an official of a shire, which was another term for county.
Meanwhile Sheriff Harpole was still in the gas station remonstrating with the state trooper and the JP. He returned to us in high dudgeon, damning the pair under his breath. We drove a little way to Oktibbeha County Jail, which was housed in a spanking new building. I was hoping to get to know Cliff Trice, as I was impressed with his cool during the pickup truck incident. Quite apart from wanting to talk to a black guy my age one-to-one over a period of time, I thought there was more to this guy than the other black lads lolling around COFO headquarters. The fact that they entrusted him with the supercharged Plymouth indicated he was not just a decorative black hunk. But all that was not to be, as Mississippi jails were still segregated.
The deputy then led me to an empty cell block with a shower at the end. Against a wall was a four-bed Southern Steel Convict Cage, with a commode and sink in the middle. This was to be home for the better part of two weeks.
I was given a meal. It would be the same morning, noon and night: Hominy grits and greens and a metal glass of Koolaid. Every morning it was orange Koolaid, but lunch and supper could be any flavor, even orange.
The next day, a state investigator came by, a nondescript fellow in a grey suit who took my picture and fingerprints. Every night, Sheriff Harpole came in and had a few words. He managed to get the auto theft charges against Cliff Trice dropped and Trice had left town without incident in the Plymouth. Now the sheriff was determined to see me sprung the next morning.
His dilemma became clear. He was proud of being able to keep Oktibbeha County free of civil rights trouble throughout the long hot summer, and now when it was all but over, a proud bigot in the form of Mississippi Highway Patrolman Floyd Williams, in league with an equally moronic justice of the peace, had to bring him some - a Canadian at that. One with connections to the media.
I had already called my father, a sub-editor at the Montreal Gazette, who kept asking me whether I had been charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. But I had no clear answer as the sheriff was hoping to get me off and out of town once he had spoken to the judge at the courthouse. Meanwhile, my well-connected father called Canada's External Affairs Department. That led to a call from Ottawa to Washington, which in turn led to inquiries from the State Department to Jackson, Mississippi's capital. Which led to calls from Ottawa, Washington, Jackson to little ole Starkville, which is a bit like Mayberry in the Andy Griffith Show. Soon the state governor was involved. This did not happen all at once, but over days and weeks. Still, it was overwhelming to the rudimentary administration of Oktibbeha County.
The next morning, we headed to the courthouse to accomplish the sheriff's quick fix. "We'll be through with this in a minute," he said, as he left the police car, with me in the custody of the deputy. But as soon as he disappeared through the courthouse doors, a gathering of informally but well-dressed young men, perhaps 30 in number, gathered around the police car to look at the foreign outside agitator. These were students from Mississippi State University and they looked like a mass of Kingston Trio clones, all fresh and barbered, togged out in their back-to-school best. This was later said to be Floyd Williams' work or that of his cronies, who were envious of the excitement that Freedom Summer had generated in other counties, but sadly not theirs.
The deputy reported in on the police radio with the message that the sheriff had better return to his car because a situation was building fast. Not that I noticed any hostility among the students. They seemed curious, that's all. The sheriff's office must have called the judge, because Harpole burst out of the courthouse, jumped into the car and drove off. There was still no expression of hostility in the crowd itself. I felt I could have talked to them civilly, though perhaps I was wrong, or perhaps it was a question of how long the civility would last.
One thing was clear: The crowd of students spooked the sheriff. Students are the most dangerous of all rioters, composed as they are of young aggressive males at the peak of their strength trying to impress females. He told me that things had gone well in the summer because the Mississippi State students had gone home. By the time they got back, Harpole figured it would all be all over. What he hadn't figured on was a renegade state trooper and the redneck JP. Now the students had been alerted, and Harpole was bracing himself for the worst.
So back to my Southern Steel Convict Cage I went, and the colossal boredom that is jail life. I did have a bible, OT and NT. I had a go at Genesis but gave up then tried to find the dirty bits in Leviticus. I had a penny they had overlooked when taking my money away. I tossed the coin to see how many times I could come up consecutively heads or tails. I recall scoring 12 times once but cannot remember whether it was head or tails. The only other reading material was the embossed letters on the top of the cell above the bars, which proclaimed I was in Southern Steel Convict Cage GVCCX236 (don't hold me to the letters and ciphering).
One of the most wearisome aspects of jail life is being supervised by unskilled labour. I once tried to strike up a conversation with the deputy, who was perfectly correct with me, except for one incident through little fault of his own. I was making a mock protest about being improperly jailed in a convict cage because I had yet to be convicted. He simply said I could take it up with the sheriff. He was a humourless soul.
After two days, I was summoned to the phone to talk to the Canadian Consul General, Jacques Bisson. I have never been so happy to hear a French Canadian accent, which given my sentiments is quite an admission. He asked me how I was and how the food was. I remember telling him that the "Ritz has nothing to worry about," and with that, we were two Montrealers in league with each other. He regretted he had to go to Caracas but was anxious to deal with my case personally. He asked if I could hold on. I said I could.
He talked to the sheriff, and I later heard they were on the same track and would work in common cause. I got a sad-sack lawyer who wanted me to plead guilty, but Harpole told me to say it would think about it but do nothing. The idea was to waste time until Bisson returned from his Venezuelan mission.
One night, Harpole came to my cell with his "nigra." Whatever qualities the sheriff possessed, he was still a Southerner who wished to preserve the Southern Way of Life. His nigra and I were left alone, and the man told me what a great guy Harpole was, something I did not dispute. Harpole came back, the black guy departed, and we talked awhile. He argued for decency in treatment while I insisted on the right to vote. While retaining sympathy for each other, we agreed to disagree.
A night or two later, there was a commotion outside the cell block. Two deputies were having trouble controlling what sounded like an angry drunk. To understand what happened next it is important to know how the Convict Cage was designed. There were two halves, each with two bunks with gym mat mattresses, forming two separate cells with lockable doors on each. If the door on one were locked it would deprive the occupant use of the toilet facilities that separated the two cells.
The door to the cell block opened and the railing, flailing drunk in a light coloured summer suit was pushed in by the two deputies. He might have been a stand-in for Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider.
I occupied the far cell nearest the shower that was outside the convict cage. While one deputy looked for the keys to the cell, other one had difficulty restraining the man who was kicking and punching blindly. Eventually the main door was open and the man in the suit was shoved into the area of the commode between the two cells. Now the two uniforms were pushing him into the cell opposite mine when the man grabbed the deputy's gun and held it aloft.
Both uniforms went after the gun and when one snatched it, it was handed to me while the two of them pushed him into his cell where he collapsed on the lower bunk, the fight in him all gone. I was standing in the doorway of my own cell. I made no attempt to do anything with the gun and gave it up, and the other deputy retrieved it sheepishly. I reflected that as a desperado, I could have had the drop on them, but then that would have embarrassed the sheriff, who had been so nice to me.
One day, there was a sudden burst of conversation from the office beyond the cell block and then a prolonged silence. Of course, I could see nothing. But one became expert in the slightest sounds coming from the other room - the opening and closing of an outside door or a filing cabinet, the scraping of chairs the voices of the sheriff, the deputies. I felt I detected an air of expectation in what little sound they made. Then there was much noise, and a scraping of a chair and Harpole's hearty voice ringing out a salutation. This was answered by another's deep voice.
It was the arrival of Jacques Bisson and his uniformed black driver. What I could not see, but was soon to learn, was that the Canadian consul general’s arrival caused quite a stir in the town. He came in a late model Cadillac, the biggest, blackest beast on the road, with the Red Duster and the Union Jack flying from mini-flagpoles on the front fenders.
One of the deputies came in, unlocked my cell and fetched me and I was introduced. He had a deep cultivated French accent and wore a very un-Canadian grey cape and homburg, such as one might have seen at those 1930s international conferences held in Geneva to avoid World War II.
He quickly ascertained that I was fit and far from mistreated, and asked the driver for a small package. He then asked Sheriff Harpole if we could talk privately, which we did by going back to the cell block. He gave me the small package, which contained two still-warm cheeseburgers, which were gratefully received. I made a joke, asking which one contained the file, and he laughed uproariously. He told me to be prepared to move instantly, though it could take a few days. We parted. He was a big, beefy French Canadian with a sly look, as if he were thoroughly enjoying himself. He also told me to trust no one but the sheriff. I assured him that was exactly what I had been doing. He knocked on the cell block door and I heard no more until two or three hours later.
It was after lunch - hominy grits and grape Koolaid - when one of the deputies fetched me to the front office. There was Bisson talking to Harpole, another white man I had not seen before and my lawyer, who looked as if he were there for the sake of appearances. More significantly, I saw all my kit, the backpack and web belt with the US Army canteen and machete piled on top. That could only mean one thing.
All seemed settled. The white man in a shirt and tie man took the other end of my gear and helped me put it all in the trunk of the enormous Cadillac, with its flags flying. The uniformed driver shut the trunk and opened the rear door for me and Bisson with great ceremony, before we set out on our 300-mile trip to New Orleans.
But first a stop at a humble motel outside of town, which had only been engaged that morning minutes before they entered town. It was here that Bission and the driver had donned their costumes, put out the flags on the fenders and repacked their suitcases. We all had a shower. I got a clean shirt from my kit, and we were on the road again within an hour, togged out in fresh gear.
"You know who the guy was who helped load your pack into the car?" asked Bisson.
"No," I said.
"That was your prosecutor!" he said triumphantly. That scene was the cherry on the sundae for him. He referred to it again and again.
It was then that the full story unfolded, but not before I discovered that the driver could not read, and Bisson and I were leaning over the front seat to catch direction signs to the main road to New Orleans.
As it turned out, the operation had been a complete charade, worked out to bamboozle the Starkville authorities, in a scheme orchestrated by Bisson and Harpole over the phone before the Canadian diplomat arrived. It was all happening against the rising alarm my presence was causing in this sleepy college town in the Deep South. The governor was watching; the state troopers were frightened they would be blamed. I heard that Patrolman Floyd Williams' career was on hold, that calls from the State Department were now a regular and most unwelcome feature of Oktibbeha County life, and that a local majority was fast building to get this Canadian out of town.
I asked Bisson whether consuls everywhere had such limousines. Bisson laughed, saying the driver owned the car and his regular business was servicing gaudy New Orleans funerals. Bisson said he did so want the fender flags, even though he was not entitled to them. He even got the cape and the homburg from the driver. He may have been illiterate, but he made enough money to have several of these cars and he knew his way around New Orleans, which didn't involve reading. "That's what my wife is for."
But that wasn't the half of it. The piece de resistance was Bisson's supposed mission, and his pose as a bureaucratic fraudster, a blood-sucking public servant, determined to live high off the hog and helping others to do the same. Thus, while he was officially there to get me out, he said he was there to facilitate the continuation of the case, citing fabricated examples of such human rights cases going all the way to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, at which point he would dreamily expound on the restaurants of the Netherlands, and how he was fortunate to have such a generous department to pay the bills.
Meanwhile Sheriff Harpole was arguing against such foolishness and demolishing arguments for proceeding further because it could only add horrendous expense and land them in bad odour with the taxpayers before the next election. In the end, with Bisson saying they didn't know what they were missing by not taking the case further, he reluctantly took me into his custody and we headed south.
And so, peering over the front seat looking for signs to the I-59, I said goodbye to Mississippi.