After a few rides in Alabama, I was finally picked up a truck bound for the Mississippi state capital Jackson. It was filled with "nigger tombstones", the property of two amiable brothers, Sonny and Wayne Fairchild, who sold them to black undertakers. They were quite pleased with themselves having invented a material with the durability of marble but one-ninth the price. Looking back on it, they seemed to be a fitting pair to leave me at the border I was about to cross of this truly bicultural world.
The vast differences between French and English at home seemed trivial compared to what existed here. Speaking the same language brought them no closer. In white restaurants, Elvis and the Beatles blared from the juke boxes. In black places, it was Motown, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.
To sum up white attitudes since I crossed into Dixie at the Virginia line, I found whites in groups either students in Columbia, South Carolina, or two or more men on the road (women don't pick up hitchhikers) were apt to take a hard line. But when alone in the intimate atmosphere of a car at night, they would soften, not as firm about denying the vote to blacks, but still vehemently against school integration. Frequently, one heard: "If my friends heard me taking this way, I'd be stomped!"
But one thing I was beginning to note was that southern whites had real experience blacks that northern whites did not. The relationship between black and white may have been one between rider and horse, but there was real relationship, most often friendly even loving, an intimacy that did not exist in the north, where blacks were seldom seen socially with whites.
The two brothers stopped their truck in Lynch Street, the headquarters of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and bid me goodbye and good luck.
I then moved my clobber from the truck through a small crowd of good-hearted blacks and whites my age bringing things in and out of the swinging glass doors. Eventually I found myself in the wide, elongated offices of COFO, the Council of Federated Organisations, made up of the principal civil rights organisations of the day, with much of the youthful energy provided by the SNCC (pronounced "snick"), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee; with money from CORE, the Congress or Racial Equality, the northern group that provided much of the money and fund raising; the NAACP, the venerable, but much disparaged National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People with some involvement with the equally disparaged SCLC, Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and with the blessing of the north Urban League who were decried as "Uncle Toms".
I was to learn more of the divisions which separated these groups in their quest for civil rights, but all I could see in that hall that day was a fierce busyness, with people my age doing this and that as they might have done in any large corporate office. On hearing I wanted to join, they took my name and basic details and told me to go on up the street, to a barracks for recruits - two apartments filled with beds above a shop where all the doors were open, and where I learned it would take a day or two to process before assigning me to one of the scores of COFO bases throughout the state, which built libraries and Freedom Schools and the toiled at voter registration.
While there were a few blacks in the office and at the barracks, 100 yards up Lynch Street, it seemed to be the whites who working while the blacks waited around. I was told I would likely be sent somewhere in the Delta northwest region on the state, often called the "south's south" or the "most southern place on earth" where Jim Crow attitudes were most deeply ingrained - and where in the three civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were murdered a few weeks before. And it was also the area where civil rights workers were then leaving on orders of fearful parents, who could twist arms as they paid college tuition fees.
After a social evening in a nearby snack bar with civil rights workers which included a shy local black girl, one of the few females I had seen outside the COFO office where they seemed numerous, we gathered outside. There was an encounter with a black policeman, who was polite, even deferential. I was later told that one addresses a white policeman as "officer" and black policemen as "patrolman". Or rather, as a civil rights worker, one is supposed to do precisely the reverse.
The next morning I turned up as expected at COFO headquarters and was turned over to a woman called Liz Fusco. I took her immediately to be the standard Jewish communist I had often encountered in Montreal around the folk music scene and imagined she had come out of a similar red diaper nursery in New York. In some respects Montreal and New York are mirror images of each other.
All-business, she asked me if I could teach anyone on anything useful - useful to farm workers, that is. Being entirely an urban animal, though having lived on a farm for three summers in New Brunswick when I was 9, 10 and 11, I was not completely ignorant and when told to be prepared teach a class something useful that I knew about. At that moment, Liz ushered me into a room, and before me lolled on the tables and desks the very black faces I saw idling about the office the day before, who were now drafted into forming an impromptu class for me to teach.
For some reason the phrase "limiting factor" had survived from Westmount High, and I spent 20 minutes explaining how one could graze only fixed number of cattle on one stretch of pasture and no more, with more feed or land being required if the herd were to expand and produce more.
This pleased Liz well enough, who for the first time regarded me with respect as she said I definitely had teaching skills. It's been said several times since, and I think it is because I am such a poor student that I am one of the few teachers who has sympathy for students who must learn what it taught like it or not.
In the end she said I would be assigned to the Delta at Indianola base, where I could teach literacy and engage in voter registration and do sundry social work at the direction of the base commander. It was one of 50 such outposts scattered throughout the state. It looked like I would be paid $10 a week, but that had not been ratified. The pay was said to be an incentive to work in the Delta, which already counted three dead and a number missing civil rights workers.
Before leaving, my first $10 came through together with a bus ticket, and I was soon off to the Greyhound bus depot. On the way, I encountered a black guy, who was clearly one of our number, by his New York accent, bearing and light skin colour. He was not a local but knew his way around. As we approached the bus depot, he told us that the drill was for whites to go to the coloured waiting room and for the blacks to go to the white waiting room, and of course, when boarding the bus, the whites were to go the back while the blacks went to the front in defiance of local custom.
Of course, for white civil rights workers it was a breeze. One had to suffer inferior dilapidated black facilities, but nothing untoward beyond a few curious stares. By now the presence of the civil rights workers in the state was known to all, not only in Mississippi but much of the world and proclaimed heroically as "Freedom Summer" as journalists, film crews and FBI agents swarmed the state.
For a black man to go into the white waiting room was to risk a beating unless there were women about. Even though things had calmed down considerably by August, there could be a bad combination of circumstances and lone angry men who could provide the fixings for a fatal outcome. There was one of our number at in the black waiting room when I arrived and another white civil rights worker joined us shortly after I sat down. We were all waiting for different buses going to different bases. Most were not new recruits, but veterans coming in from the field for a weekend's R&R in Jackson, or in town to arrange for new supplies or recruits.
As my bus was a half hour away, I decided to see how my black friend was doing in the white waiting room, which turned out to be a full service snack bar and coffee shop. He was sitting on a standard swivel stool at the counter before an untouched cup of coffee. It was usual to order coffee and insist it be served as a civil right, but to fully expect it would be spat into or otherwise tainted by recalcitrant staff. My friend got up and greeted me, not caring that I had entered the white waiting room. He said his bus was leaving in a few minutes and he had done his duty long enough. It was then that the angry fat waitress ostentatiously poured pungent disinfectant from and industrial can over the area and seat where he had been, noisily scrubbing the area and apologising to customers for the filth they had to put up with these days.
We stood together outside talking more than a few minutes waiting for his bus. He was one of these cool cats from New York who had been involved with civil rights for some time in Brooklyn's Bedford–Stuyvesant district and would be soon heading back. He handed me the newspaper he held as and said it was better than the "Carrion Lecher", as the civil right workers called the Jackson daily, the Clarion-Ledger. The newspaper was the National Guardian, which I was glad to have on the on the way to Indianola, 100 miles to the north west. I noted that it was well written and definitive in its reports, an experience not unlike reading Time magazine. I later learned that it was a communist paper, having stood against Truman and the Korean War, though I was unaware of this at the time.
The bus left me off in the dark, but by a roadside payphone near a gas station, attached to a shop that appeared to me closed. I phoned the number I was given, and 10 minutes later a white Volvo came into view and was soon taken to the local "Freedom House" as these bases were called, after which two Californians, George and Dave, took me to a restaurant where I paid 68 cents for a plate of rice and pork chops.
They then took me to the Freedom School where I met four other teachers and the base commander. I sat in on two classes, one for teenagers on government and another on Negro history for children, with six to eight students each. I decided to stay with the government class. "The kids were bright and inquisitive," my log notes.
I was then asked to teach a class a class of adults who were arriving in dribs and drabs. This was the main task of the education programme, to teach adults to read so they could pass the state Electors Test, which necessitated basic literacy if they were black. It was confidently asserted that illiterate whites passed without problem. But with the heat on Mississippi, and all its institutions, and whites wondering why or if they would still vote Democrat now that party had turned against the Southern Way of Life, there was little obstructionism at the courthouse these days beyond the literacy test, but on that point, Sunflower County clerks held firm. In the past, it was had been common to disqualify literate blacks if they failed to correctly interpret any of the many causes of the Mississippi state constitution to the clerk's satisfaction, some of which even confounded lawyers. Still, sticking to the literacy requirement to prevent the creation of a local black electoral majority was effective enough because literacy among rural and small town blacks was low.
The Quakers had donated, among many other things, copies of Hemmingway's Old Man and the Sea, which was an excellent choice for this purpose because it was an adult book with a story but was told in the simplest terms. My class of eight was entirely women. Very few men, if any, appeared as clients except the occasional teenager, except in the most dire circumstances. The problem with this impromptu approach is that the adults came in a different levels of reading skills and I resolved in the next lesson to break the class in tutorials with the advanced students teaching poorer ones, but that would be for another day. I contented myself with reading the first page to get some sense the story they would discover, and having the better students read as far as they could, trying to keep it light until, we were told to bring the whole matter to an end for the night.
The man with the moustache, who I assumed to be the base commander, though my log does not record his name, asked if I wanted some beer in Indianola. but before we could get to that, I helped him load 200 pounds of clothing into the white Volvo to deliver to the needy in the vicinity. The "Freedom House", the base of operations and the main activity centre, was in a well-built handsome brick Baptist schoolhouse.
Having had our beer, we went back to where I had been picked up before to collect an incoming couple, two teachers who had come to join us. When back at the Freedom House, I overheard one of the young men call home and plead with parents to continue to support him, assuring them he would be back in school, which was to resume in a few weeks. That night nine people slept in the old school house, three on benches, and me on the floor.
The next morning we moved the supposedly married couple in with a neighborhood family, but as we moved them there, the driver spotted "rednecks" in a pickup in the distance. Men with pickup trucks sometimes with rifles on a rack behind the driver patrolled the black village some distance from the white town of Indianola. We took another street and arrived circuitously and uneventfully. But on arrival we faced another crisis. We found the place flooded because of a breakdown in the plumbing, which were happy to leave the newly arrived couple of them to face the situation alone, which they did cheerfully enough.
Returning to Freedom House, we encountered a black man carrying a dead baby away. He lay it in the backseat of a car and drove away.
The next thing that came up - teaching was a nocturnal activity as it turned out - was going out on house-to-house canvassing for voter registration. This was a duty I was hoping to duck, largely because I was a Canadian and I did want to be found meddling in a foreign country's electoral politics. I soon learned there were many other reasons to avoid this duty, though it was the main reason for the civil rights workers' effort in the state.
After two hours of it, mostly serving as a lookout for the three man-team, I found it to be rather like Westmount High School, both boring and dangerous, requiring constant vigilance to spot any sight and sound that signalled trouble.
The teams, rather like any other sales team, moved from house to house, knocked on doors to be greeted by fear or hostility or both, particularly if there was a man in house, Despite being rejected by the occupants, the team continued to plead with the people inside through the screen door to come to the Freedom House, where they could get help to pass the elector's test, plus a few pleading speeches about how they should stand up for their civil rights. I remember hating these long dragged-out sessions, yet dreading going to the next house where the painful session would begin again, but not before that moment of terror not knowing who or what would come to the door.
After a wearying three hours of this, I thought our efforts were fruitless, but was promptly told that they were not. The man with the moustache told me that two of the women that had come in the previous night were drawn in the same way, and that afternoon's work may well draw in others. He said there is a great deal of pretense among people, pretending to me to be of one opinion while really holding another when it safe to do so.
And just when I was thinking about how I was going to deal with my literacy class that night, I learned that it was not to be. With newcomers’ arrival, there were enough civil rights workers in Indianola but they were shorthanded in Ruleville, 25 miles to the north. So I was bundled into the ubiquitous white Volvo, which they said could outrun anything on the road, and we set off.
I turn to my log: "In transit, the Volvo with the broken radio containing Jim Dann, COFO transportation officer for Sunflower County and a Negro driver, William Scott, of Indianola. A white Ford with 'Goldwater '64' bumper stickers came flashing by and then turned off ahead of us. We passed and put on speed. Then the Ford reappeared and gave chase. Our car contained George Winter, 24, of California; Jim Dann, 24, of RI. We took the vehicle up to 90 mph and the Ford turned off. We slowed and continued to Ruleville without incident."
There was not much teaching to be done in Ruleville. COFO HQ was located in a ramshackle, but substantial wooden house, in which lower floor was devoted to a small but useful library, while the second floor was given over to meeting rooms to serve community centre and Freedom School needs. It had a front yard where people gathered, more comfortably now that heat of summer had eased off in September. The building was community centre and library and life was far more laidback than in Indianola, which was, after all, was the county seat for Sunflower County.
My log notes: "Summer vacation in the Delta neither takes place in summer nor is it a vacation. Life here revolves around the cotton crop. Schools let out in early autumn to allow students to pick for $2-$3 a hundredweight (150 lbs). And they can usually pick a hundredweight a day."
Not being clear what a hundredweight was, how it is defined I Googled to discover it is not 150 lbs as my log notes, but 112 lbs. What's more, it is a British unit of measurement; one would have thought to be alien to Mississippi. The explanation came later in the log when I learned the biggest plantation in the state, 30,000 acres, was owned by Fine Spinners and Doublers of Manchester, England. Thus, these satanic mills imposed their own unit of measurement with the 150 being applied to make the workers pick 38 extra pounds of cotton than they would have picked if it were a properly measured hundredweight.
"Although well below the minimum wage, to insist on more was to risk depriving Negroes of what little they have. At present, they can pick more effectively that any mechanised substitute, but if they insist on higher wages, their value as cotton pickers would fall below that of their mechanical rivals," my log said.
I then went to Cleveland 10 miles to the west to man a base during the base commander's absence. It was one of the smaller bases in the system involving one or two people. I did not have a clear idea of what it did or what I was supposed to do, other than answer the phone and man the radio. There were hourly calls to each base from Jackson on the WATS (wide area telephone service) line, in which one gave a brief status report and collected headquarters news if any. The other method of communication was the citizen's band radio, which was also monitored by rednecks. There was a halfhearted attempt to mask the civil rights workers presence by using code names. Cleveland was called Chaney base and Indianola was called Item. Not that that fooled anyone.
It was my second day in Cleveland when I was told to get down to Indianola to write a press release to cover the 14 civil rights workers who were arrested attempting to integrate the local Honey Theatre, which involved having the blacks go into the orchestra seats uninvited rather than going up to the balcony where they were allowed to go.
"One hears of arrests taking place in Mississippi, but it all seems remote. But when I received the message in Cleveland: "Fourteen have been arrested for integrating the Honey Theatre. Keep in contact". All had changed. The names of the people arrested were people I had come to know. It was no longer remote.
When I got to Indianola to write the press release, the usually bouncy and upbeat George Winter looked tired and depressed. He gave me the pertinent information, and told me of his efforts trying to raise bail money for the nine still in custody.
But the facts kept changing. Five were released because they were under age. The rest were held on $100 bail each, totalling $900. By early afternoon, the sum was raised from various sources in the north and they were released from the Sunflower County Farm.
The county farm, a nominally rehabilitative penal facility, actually engaged in profit-making work, and beats prisoners for not picking 200 lbs a day, according to affidavits sworn by former inmates.
I returned to Ruleville that night only to be turned back to return with a truckload of federal surplus food for indigent cases in the Negro community in Indianola. The food delivered, I returned to Ruleville to be sent to Cleveland to renew my role as do-nothing project director for two days while the project director left to organise a rally in a neighboring town. When she returned, Cynthia Washington from Washington, DC, I wrote a couple of pamphlets for her before returning to Ruleville where I resumed cataloguing the library according to the Dewey Decimal System and teaching the odd class from everything from healthcare to Kenya.
Between crises in Indianola, Cleveland, and that a night of terror when a pickup truck stopped in front of the Ruleville Community Centre and started firing three or four rifle shots at the house, life was peaceful. That night began when, a fellow civil rights worker, who shared my passion for geography, and I were playing our usual game of challenging each other to name capitals, locate mountains and rivers the world over, when we heard neighborhood dogs barking as the truck stopped on the road outside and car doors opened and shut.
Then there were shots, which caused the dogs to bark even more as we lay flat on the floor. Then came shouts from one house to another asking what was going one and who was shooting. The rising kerfuffle induced the intruders to drive off.
My back breaking half hour of cotton picking occurred when I joined a group of women and children working the corner of a field near the road where I was walking. I was a 5'11" male and found the work backbreaking even after a half-hour helping the woman fill her bag of cotton balls, tufts that were squeezed and pulled off the four-foot plants. As I surveyed the scene of mostly women and children picking cotton, it dawned on me why black society was so matriarchal. A tall male, more importantly a tall lone male, is at disadvantage picking cotton.
The top of the plants are well below his shoulder so he must bent down to pick the balls of cotton which start half way up the plant. Not only is a shorter woman more able to do this better, her children from about the age of 5 can do it just as well if not better as they are close to eye level with the balls of cotton on the plant. It is easy for the little ones to reach the balls lower down on the plant.
Thus, a woman with three or four children, which is not unusual, may well pick and pocket $15 a day against a lone man's earnings of $3 a day. With the rare exception, men, even married men, tended to be absent from home most of the time, only returning from areas of greater employment opportunity when they were either in the money or out of it. What choice did they have when their earnings could not match that of two or their own pre-teen children.
Ruleville, like other stations throughout the state, was in a state of flux as September aged and the civil rights workers had to leave for college. When I first arrived in Ruleville, a girl of 20 Linda Davis was in command, and but she headed back to Chicago to resume her studies.
Then there were those who suddenly arrived before it was all over wanting to win a campaign ribbon before it was all over like the Americans in World War I (Sorry, my Canadian resentment is showing.) There was a couple, a Methodist minister and his wife, who were fast becoming Quakers. She had just been arrested by the police when she refused to leave an all-white church, which she noisily identified herself as a civil rights worker.
"She was white and she and released in the custody of her husband," my log notes. But after a day or two, they departed having had their Mississippi experience and a good story to tell in the north whence they came.
One Sunday, I went to the Church of God in Christ service. The service was like a continuous running movie that went on all day with people coming and going throughout the day and fat women in chairs fanning themselves on either side of the church door. Inside, people were seized with fits of religious ecstasy, kneeling on the floors facing their chairs and rolling on the floor at times.
It was clearly Christian with many cries for Jesus. There was also a scratch band of guitars, a trumpet and drums, which produced a quick beat to the proceedings and people sang and shouted spontaneously as the pastor harangued them. One older civil rights worker soon found this too much for his dignity and fled. I was okay with the kneeling and once half-heartedly danced around the edges as many others did, but soon found an area in which one could be still and unobtrusive. I noticed that occasionally all the clamour would produce single sound from rough-hewn church, like a few bars of pleasing melody from jam session.
My time in Mississippi was coming to an end and 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.