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About the Author
ohn Harris, born in the apartheid world of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1943 was a life-long fighter for equality and civil rights. He joined the SNCC Freedom Summer Project in 1964 and was one of the key young black fighters in the Mississippi Delta area for 15 months.
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Challenging the Misissippi Firebombers
Memories of Mississippi 1964-65
By Jim Dann
Baraka BooksCopyright © 2015 Jim Dann
All rights reserved.
A Trip from Los Angeles to Ohio
There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune; Omitted all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea we are now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves Or lose our ventures.
In June 1964 I found myself in a small, green, overcrowded Buick crossing the country from Los Angeles to the southern Ohio town of Oxford, where the training for the 1964 Freedom Summer was about to take place. The Mississippi Voter Registration Project had indeed been bound in shallows and miseries for some time now. Through state-sanctioned murders, beatings, jailings and arson very few black voters had been able to register. But in the country as a whole a rising tide of energy and determination was percolating on all the major college campuses. The time was ripe to pit the energy and idealism of progressive students against the obstinacy of official Mississippi. Bob Moses, who for three years had been leading the struggle in that state, saw the opportunity and convinced his comrades on the front lines that a bold new approach was needed, that they must take the current despite the enormous risks.
We were not the first idealistic Northerners to head south to join the struggle for equality being led by black Mississippians. A hundred years before, Northerners, derisively called "Carpetbaggers," had entered Mississippi during the period known as Reconstruction to build the most democratic society this country had ever seen. This period was authoritatively and massively documented by the historian W.E.B. Dubois.
The owner of the car was a UCLA student whose name I don't remember. He went home after half of the Ohio training, and I never saw him again. The second passenger was Ron Ridenour, my housemate in Venice, California, at 412 Carroll Canal. I was the third. The rest of the car was filled to the roof with donated clothing that Ron had collected from Los Angeles radicals and socialists for the people of Mississippi who had been evicted from their plantations for daring to register to vote. I met Ron and first heard about the Mississippi summer project in the W.E.B. Dubois Club of UCLA.
In the fall of 1963 I took an advanced historiography class at UCLA as part of my graduate program. We were supposed to pick one historian and write a research paper on him. I decided to pick W.E.B. Dubois since I wanted to know more about the most famous black historian. As it turned out there were two young women in the class who were leftists. They seemed to have been worried about my pick since Dubois had joined the Communist Party at the end of his life and they feared I would trash him for it. So one of them approached the professor and asked if she could also do Dubois, to counter my anticipated anti-communist view. She got permission from the progressive professor but did a shallow, poorly researched panegyric. Much to my classmates' surprise when it was my time to give my report, which was heavily researched and well documented, they found me fully sympathetic to Dubois and his perspective on the history of slavery and Reconstruction. Nor did I fault him for joining the Communist Party, given his academic background and FBI persecution in the fifties. Dubois died in exile in Ghana in 1963.
The young women then asked me to join the Dubois Club, which was forming at UCLA. I accepted and at the first meeting was made education secretary, with duties to educate the members about the life and writings of W.E.B. Dubois. It is possible that many of the other officers and a significant portion of the members also belonged to the Communist Party, however that was not clear to me at the time since members of the CP were generally secretive. One of the few Dubois Club members who openly proclaimed his membership in the CP was Ron Ridenour. In the winter he asked me to join him and another friend, Buddy Bellman, to room together in a house in Venice by the canals. I was happy to leave my crowded quarters on Gayley Street adjoining the UCLA campus and moved in with them. That semester I was mostly submerged in my graduate work, which focused on the fate of the leaders of France's United Front government during World War II.
There was much of interest going on at 412 Carroll Canal. My roommates had an endless group of radical friends who came over to party, sing leftist songs and discuss all kinds of topics. I did get involved in some all-night political discussions with Ridenour and his friends. There was a tremendous intellectual ferment among many college students in that period. Stalin's death ten years earlier, the Cuban Revolution and the split in the International Communist Movement had put many issues out for debate; all topics from the thirties and forties were now being passionately revisited by a new generation of intellectual leftists. The discussions could be heavily contentious. Mao and the Chinese Party were in the process of issuing a series of pamphlets criticizing the lack of revolutionary fervor in most of the official Communist parties around the world, including a just-issued pamphlet calling the Communist Party of the USA to task for selling out the militant struggle in the South and calling particular attention to its lack of involvement in the civil rights movement there.
Much of the history of the thirties was at issue in these discussions and I had some expertise, given my graduate research. We all sat around for endless hours and discussed radical politics from every angle, but in fact did little even to support the civil rights struggle, which was huge in the South and even significant up north in San Francisco. In Los Angeles, the Dubois Club and Friends of SNCC did hold a picket line in front of the Sheraton West Hotel in Beverly Hills to support the struggle against job discrimination at that hotel chain, which had led to many arrests in San Francisco. It was my first picket line and I arrived late and left early; nothing happened in the hour I marched around the hotel with about forty others. Until I arrived in Mississippi it was my only experience in direct action. Not much to speak of.
I can't recall that the Dubois Club made much use of my historical talents to educate them about Dubois or anything else, but they educated me about the ongoing civil rights movement. For me the most significant events were when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members from Mississippi would come to our meetings to speak of the struggle in that state. I was extremely impressed with them; these to me were the real revolutionaries that I had read about, in sharp contrast to the armchair variety that populated the Dubois Club. It was from these speakers from the frontlines in the South that I heard about the upcoming summer project. I had had enough discussions and wanted some experience, so I applied, as did Ron Ridenour, but I was puzzled that none of the other Communist Party members did. It later transpired that the CP nationally was quite suspicious of SNCC and its militant tactics and discouraged its members from joining the project. Ridenour was an undisciplined fellow, who was not in the inner CP circle and felt free to do as he wished. He said, however, that he had permission from the People's World, the West Coast Communist Party newspaper, to be their reporter on the project; possibly he just appointed himself.
He, like our driver, became an embarrassment for me later when we got to Ohio. For some reason we left Los Angeles early and the trip dragged out with stops at the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest in Arizona. While they were interesting places, I just wanted to get where we were going and get out of the crowded car so I could distance myself from those two. The SNCC project had provided us with a reading list to be prepared, and of course, W.E.B. Dubois was part of the list. So I spent much of the trip reading.
William E.B. Dubois was born in a predominantly white town in Massachusetts in 1868; his father was a freed slave and his mother was from a small group of free blacks who owned land in the area. He was soon recognized as a brilliant scholar and attended Harvard, being the first African American ever to earn a PhD there. He then taught as a professor at Atlanta University, a black college in Georgia. His PhD thesis was The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, which I had read as part of my historiography research. In 1909 he became the first black ever to address the American Historical Association. They must not have liked the message since no black was invited again for over three decades.
The slave trade enriched both New England merchants, who shipped the slaves, and the Southern plantation owners, who benefited from the free labor. The West Coast of Africa, which had enjoyed a relatively prosperous feudal-agrarian economy, was devastated for centuries by the slave trade. Even today, from Senegal to Guinea to Ivory Coast, the colonies set up by the American and European slave traders persist as areas of endemic war, ethnic strife and dire poverty. But for the new USA the slave trade was essential to its future prosperity. The vaunted wealth of the United States was not built on a foundation of "freedom and opportunity" but on the wealth produced by the slave trade. The "founding fathers" of this country were well aware of this and Dubois massively documented their obstruction of efforts to end the African slave trade. This only succeeded twenty years into the history of the great democracy and only then because big slave breeder plantations in Virginia and Kentucky found the African slave trade unfair competition.
The slave system as it was practiced in the South from Maryland to Texas was routinely marked by murder, mutilation, rape, torture and forcible removal of children from their parents. Slaves who tried to escape this cruel system, and there were many, could be hunted down or murdered anywhere in the great bastion of freedom, the United States. Slavery was in essence written into the Constitution, a document so revered then and now as a foundation of liberty. Slavery supported an opulent lifestyle for the southern planters, who aped the mores of the English squires. But the southern society was a vicious, violent and depraved social system that also lynched dissidents and robbed millions of poor whites, who had no political rights and often lived on the edge of starvation. The only means for advancement for the poor whites was to become an overseer or guard for the plantation owner.
Both American and English textile manufacturers also became rich off the backs of the slaves (and from the murdered Indians, whose land was cleared for the great plantations). But the rivalry between United States and British textile barons opened up a rift for men and women of good conscience to be able to oppose slavery openly in the United States. Britain had abolished slavery in the West Indies in 1830, and by 1860 the movement to do similarly in the US, or at least to restrict its expansion, threatened the slave-owners so much that they launched an armed rebellion in 1861 with British support.
Dubois documented that it was only the large armies of escaped and freed slaves that allowed the North to finally prevail. When Ulysses S. Grant's armies finally crushed the traitors in 1865 it opened up a social revolution in the South, that had never been seen before in America. This was the subject of Dubois's major work, Black Reconstruction, written in 1935. Here Dubois chronicled the great coalition of blacks, northern abolitionists and southern dissidents that formed Republican state governments in the South in the period 1868-1876. Advanced social welfare systems, public education and a vibrant democracy far more advanced than that seen elsewhere in the country marked these Reconstruction governments. In Mississippi the constitutional convention of 1868 led to a particularly radical government. General Adelbert Ames, a Civil War hero from Maine, was governor and later senator of Mississippi. Hiram Revels, the first black ever to enter Congress, also represented the state in the United States Senate. (He too had been a Civil War hero, instrumental in the key Union victory at Vicksburg.) James Alcorn, a white Mississippi dissident, was also originally a key leader in the coalition government. But as the violent reaction led by the Ku Klux Klan mounted in the mid-seventies Alcorn and other white Mississippians fled the coalition. When the Union Army was withdrawn in 1877 the slavocracy retook control of the state.
Our trip to Ohio took us through Arizona and New Mexico where we camped out, but as the three of us got fed up with the cramped car we started to drive straight through the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Missouri. These had been slave territories prior to the Civil War. But the border areas had not been central to the slave plantation economy and were largely pro-Union. However, in the violent aftermath of the Reconstruction they were also centers of the Ku Klux Klan and various criminal racist gangs (like the Jesse James gang) that helped terrorize the South from 1876 to 1954. Segregation had taken complete hold in the Border States that we drove through, but ended there without much violence in the 1954-1960 period, unlike in Mississippi, Alabama and other Deep South states, where no progress was made.
In Mississippi lynchings and murder on a massive scale took place in the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the majority black population in the state was systematically excluded from politics. By the time of the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, almost all of the black population was disenfranchised and the most stringent Jim Crow laws were enacted. Dubois wrote about this in his masterpiece, Souls of Black Folk, written in 1903. This book was required reading by SNCC for all of us prospective volunteers. However, when it first came out and for decades later critics panned it heavily since the prevailing academic wisdom had shifted by 1900. Now the blacks were blamed for a mendacious version of the Reconstruction, which was said to have had destroyed the happy plantation system were it not for the patriotic Ku Klux Klan who put the uppity blacks in their place.
Historians then turned history upside down and Civil War and Reconstruction heroes became villains. My high school history texts pilloried the Reconstruction and praised the Ku Klux Klan. John F. Kennedy's history of the United States Senate, Profiles in Courage, was a popular example of the shoddy historical scholarship of the 1950s, which totally bought into the lies and interpretations purveyed by the southern white historians. Dissenting historians like Dubois were marginalized by media and academia, investigated by the FBI, dragged before HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), and in Dubois's case eventually hounded out of the country. (This took place during the Kennedy Administration. Kwame Nkrumah welcomed Dubois in Ghana where he died in 1963.) Little wonder that Kennedy himself showed no sympathy at all for the desegregation movement, which gathered steam while he was President.
It was dawn when we crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois. We drove that day through southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio along the Ohio River, which borders on Kentucky. The economy and culture of the southern part of these northern states was tied to Kentucky, a slave state that nonetheless remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War. But the Jim Crow system took hold in Kentucky too and then percolated north from Kentucky. A revived Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 30s established itself as a powerful force in these areas with lynchings of blacks being a weekly occurrence. This was partly in reaction to increased activism of blacks and Communist Party–influenced whites, who together fought Jim Crow.
The Roosevelt Administration had been the first Democratic administration to allow some measure of equality to blacks in its social programs. This infuriated the Democratic Party's southern white allies and the New Deal backed off of any attempt at reforms in the South. For years in the 1930s attempts to pass a law against lynchings (one would think in the land of liberty and rule of law this would be a slam dunk) were bogged down in the Senate and a law never passed.
Excerpted from Challenging the Misissippi Firebombers by Jim Dann. Copyright © 2015 Jim Dann. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps 12
Preface John Harris 13
1 A Trip from Los Angeles to Ohio 19
2 The Training in Oxford, Ohio 31
3 Our Base in Ruleville 53
4 The Standoff in Drew 73
5 Breakthrough in Indianola 91
6 The Autumn Desegregation Offensive in Indianola 121
7 The Klan Strikes Back 141
8 A Winter to Keep On Pushing 157
9 New Hopes and New Paths of Struggle 179
10 Return to Mississippi 203
Afterword John Harris 221
Appendix - Organizations and Civil Rights Leaders Referred to 225
A Short Note on Sources 229
Publisher's Note 237