July 9, 2005 SF Freedom School guest speakers – Jean Wiley and Don Jelinek
We weren’t able to record the introductory statements that went something like this:
Don: If I were to have a small bio (like what the 9/11 victims had in NY Times, it would be that I was a member of SNCC
Jean: watching This Promised Land made me remember that which I have forgotten, how much I hate cotton fields = blood .. . South Africa and diamonds, bloody production.
This is where our recording began:
Don: . . . The law is an issue in everything that began. The film amply demonstrates the laws of segregation, which was the law. I and many others were part of group that went South to break those laws, in other words, to be law breakers. That was the law of the country. None of us, myself the lawyer, believed that law could do it, that court decisions could do it, yet it started to a large extent with a court decision in Brown v Board of Education which declared grammar schools inherently unequal by being segregated whether or not they were equal facilities, which of course they weren’t. And that decision came down but nothing changed. By the time Jean and I were there, there was barely any integration. It was pretty obvious.
The President at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, made a statement that laws and judges cannot change men’s minds and hearts. That was a very destructive statement to make because it gave encouragement to the South to resist. And they did. And Brown v Board didn’t take effect until the Civil Rights workers came down and made their mark.
Brown was followed by the first prime lawbreaker in the Civil Rights Saga: Mrs. Rosa Parks. She refused to go stand in the back of the bus. I had the pleasure of talking with her. Everybody asks her the same question. She will tell everybody what happened. Bus segregation was very unique. There was an aisle in the middle, two rows on one side and two rows on the other. Blacks didn’t have the back of the bus. They had whichever seats were not occupied by whites. So, if the bus was filled with whites, there would be no seats for blacks. But worse than that, if a white gets on the bus and there is no row for him, so he goes to the next row, the first row for blacks and he says, “ehem.” And all four blacks are required to get up because he cannot sit in a black row. There can’t be any blacks in that row. So, in Rosa Park’s case, the three men all got up and went to the back to stand and she didn’t move. The man did his, “ehem,” again and she still didn’t move. He did not say anything to her. He asked the bus driver to speak to her. The bus driver, who knew her, said to her, “Rosa, you don’t want to do this. I’m going to have to call the police.” He called the police. They took her off the bus, arrested her, put her in hand cuffs, took her off to jail, and arrested her under the laws of the state of Alabama, and in that case the city of Montgomery. You cannot resist the segregation of these seats.
I asked her, as everybody did, how did you ever get the strength to do it and she said, on one level I was weary. My bones were weary, I’ve been working all day as a seamstress and I was just tired and I didn't want to stand in the back of the bus. I was also tired and my bones ached from this humiliation of what I was forced to go through . . . That night the Montgomery movement began with Martin Luther King, a young, unknown pastor, in Montgomery. For the next year blacks walked miles and miles to get to various places they had to go with one exception. Those who were domestics, there, the white women would pick them up and drive them to work. The buses suffered from the lack of black population. But no change came. Violence. Bombing. Jailings. And then finally the court decided to step in. It didn’t happen all those years before then, but only when the protest began.
By 1960, they were sitting in at lunch counters, where blacks were not allowed to sit. That spread throughout the colleges in the South. The next law was the bus terminals, the Freedom Riders came down. Then by 1964, 1965, Freedom Summer. At that point, the Civil Rights workers were ready to tackle Mississippi now, which was the most dreaded place. I know when I first flew down into Mississippi, I had a wave of nausea as I was getting off the plane. I was actually terrified of all that Mississippi stood for. In that summer, where people had volunteered to go into Mississippi, they had to sign releases, and if they were under age, their parents had to sign – there would be no responsibility if your child is killed or maimed. Everybody knew what they were getting into and that invasion then took place.
The combination of law [and protest] , everyone of these laws had to be broken in order for anyting to occur. The courts were only going to follow behind, not in front of these movements. And yet we had other things to do.
One thing that always comes to mind. I was living with a sharecropping family. They told me about a relative named Alfred Winton. Alfred was sentenced to life imprisonment for sexually assaulting the wife of the owner of the plantation where he was working. [His family] said that he didn’t do anything and could you help him? I went to Parchman Prison, known as the American Devil’s Island, and asked to see him . . . When I met him, I said, “Could you tell me what happened?” He says, “I’m from here and been North, came back, and, you know, we went out with a white women. I kind of had a feeling that she was interested in me. I said to her, I’d like to be with you.” I said, “You really said that ? to a plantation owner’s wife?” He said, “yeah.” I said, “then what happened?” He said, “nothing. She said why don’t you take a nap, you’re probably drunk. The next thing I know, they came and took me to jail.” I said, “But you pled guilty and signed a confession?” He said, “Yeah, because Matt Parker, from the same county, he was lynched the first night he was in jail for a charge like this. In order to stay alive, I pled guilty.”
We decided to bring a case to overturn the conviction but to really find out that initially there were no blacks on his jury or grand jury. And that was the key to the whole thing because it would fall without having to get into the merits and prove the facts. I said that what I would need was somebody from the county who would look at this list of the grand jurors and would tell me who’s black and who was white. He said, “my family would do that.”
Right before the time came to retry the case, I drove down there with another lawyer. We went to the home of the family and they wouldn’t let us in. They said they’ve been threatened and that there’s family in jail since this case began. They are going to be fire-bombed and destroyed. They just can’t do it. They hoped I would leave right away before something happened to them.
I went back to the motel. They have a real problem now because they can’t identify the lack of blacks on the grand jury. So, I came up with a plan. I’d been a New York lawyer before then, so I knew a few tricks. I got up in court that day and I said, “first of all, we have gone through the list and there are no blacks on the grand jury.” The DA stood up and said, that is false, there are four blacks. Alright, we’ve established that , the case is now virtually won, in terms of getting it reversed. But this is a rare opportunity. If we’re going to have another trial, I’d like to know what Mrs. [clyde?] is going to say, how she is going to say it. So I call her to testify, which caused a stir. This was considered inexcusable to force a white woman, especially the wife of a plantation owner to submit herself to this. As she walked passed our table with Alfred sitting there, and just with walking past him, you could hear the “whoosh” of breath, given all the terrible things he must have done to her. She gets on the stand and after a few basic questions I get right to the point. I say, “forgive me, I’m going to have to ask personal questions. I don’t mean to embarrass you but I have to do it. Can you first tell me what happened that day?” She said, “Well, Alfred came up to me and said, ‘I want to be with you.’” I took one look at the judge and he said, “Well, he’s obviously guilty.” And then I said, “Well, after that, what did you say?” “I told him to go to sleep.” I said, “After that what did Alfred do?” This is where I expected the whole story to come out. She said, “he went up to go to sleep.” I said “did he touch you in any way?” No. “Forgive me ma’m, did he touch you above the waist?” No. “Below the waist?” no. “ Did he threaten you?” No. “Did he sexually attack you in any way?” no. “Did he rape you?” no.
Every one in the room was aghast. Only later did we realize what had happened. She had told her husband what he had said. Her husband went to the sheriff and said that this man raped my wife and in his mind she probably was. The sheriff took him in, he never testified, no one ever asked him what happened. She never testified. Nobody knew, except the husband that nothing had happened. So now we have that evidence. My colleague Bruce, he pulls on my sleeve and he says, “we’re not going to get out of here alive. They were going to kill us because we are the only ones who know this. They’ll destroy the records.” That’s what comes from being too smart!!
So we came up with this plan. Bruce excused himself to go to the bathroom. When he came back, I announced that Mr. Roosevelt [bruce] has just told me that he has just spoken to Mr. J. Edgar Hoover and has told him what has happened and Mr. Hoover is very interested in this and wants to see a transcript of what’s happened. I’m fearful for Alfred’s safety. He said if anyone in this town lays a hand on anyone in this case they will be tried in a federal court and they will be sent to a federal prison. The judge says, “Are you threatening me?” No, but I think J. Edgar is. The DA stands up and says, “I introduce his confession.” I said, “I object, this is a confession to something the victim said didn’t occur!” The judge read the confession and decided that was all the evidence he needed and re-sentenced Alfred to life imprisonment. We got him out a few months after that. We left the courthouse and I asked the judge to give us a sheriff to escort us to our car. He did. We drove away. This was simply a lawsuit in the South. I can’t imagine what it was like living in the South.
JEAN: Baltimore and Washington, D>C>, the nation’s capitol, were both segregated when I was growing up there. One of the things about segregation was that sometimes it was so ridiculous, just utterly absurd. Like the situation in Montgomery with Rosa Parks. There was another thing about those buses in Montgomery and throughout the deep South. Black people had to go to the front of the bus to deposit their money for the bus ride. But then they had to get off the bus and walk to the back door to be on the bus and get their ride. So you get it? Who created this? Who made this up? I think the main goal of this, as in South Africa’s apartheid, was to demean people, to diminish people. So that whatever the courts said, whatever humanity said, these people needed to be humiliated and demeaned on a daily basis. Not just an occasional kind of thing. That’s something that’s going to run throughout this series, the demeaning aspect, and how creatively people, came up, local people as well as volunteers, particularly the people in Freedom Summer Schools were constantly coming up with strategies to meet this overwhelming system of absurdities. You had to be creative.
I went to the deep South in 1964. But the border states were also segregated. I want to tell you what its like in the city growing up under segregation which was mild compared with what you saw in the film and throughout the deep South, among the rural areas and cities. The buses, by the time I was taking them, were not segregated. But pretty much everything else was. So what does that mean? It means it wasn’t just the schools (obviously the school were). It means the libraries are too. It means the parks are. It means the swimming pools are. And usually when I say segregated it usually means black people have no swimming pools to got to. It isn’t that black people have their own swimming pools to go to. There are no swimming pools to go to in a city full of swimming pools. So it’s the libraries, the concert halls, it’s the museums , it’s the art galleries. You name it.
The Royal Theater in Baltimore, and (I can’t remember the one in Washington where black people went to see entertainers) Most of these were musicians like some of the names you’ve hear <Cab Calloway?> Cab Calloway is from there right? <yes> Baltimore produced a lot of incredible musicians. As a child, you know something is weird but it is hard to figure out because it is all around you. The adults are trying to protect you from it. For example, you saw in the film the “colored” signs, “white” signs. Well, I don’t remember seeing those but I know somebody would have been around so I would not see them because it was horrifying to have children see those signs. I’ll tell you a sign I do remember from my earliest years of reading myself. There was a sign in Baltimore that said, “no dogs, no jews, no niggers allowed.” This is Baltimore, right beside Washington. Where there’s racism, there’s racism throughout. It doesn’t make fine distinctions between people. That’s the only one I recall there. You just didn’t go to those places. You asked why you can’t and it was sort of like, well, you just can’t or at some point, it’s black people aren’t allowed there. But that really gets the question going, well, why wouldn’t black people be allowed there? So, it’s a system of denial of basic rights. It’s a system of demeaning. It gets worse the further south you go, so that by the time you end up in the deep South, it’s really bad. It looks as if it’s absolutely hopeless.
By the early Sixties, Baltimore is beginning to loosen up. I went to high school in Baltimore. There’s still segregated areas. In 1960, you will learn that the student sit-in protests began. At that point I’m a college student at Morgan, which was and still is a predominantly black college, and now part of the University of Maryland system. Within days of the student sit-ins in Greensboro NC, the sit-ins have spread throughout the South, both the upper and mid South and heading to the deep South. It was the kind of spark that we were all waiting for. We all knew we had to do something. That things were moving, progress was moving much too slowly for me and the people around me. And certainly I’ve heard this from other SNCC people. Two things galvanized my generation in that region of the country. One was, of course, the lynching of Emmett Till who was my age. So now they were lynching children in Mississippi. The second was the sending of the troops to Little Rock to open up the schools. Again I’m around the same age. It’s clear to me, to us, whatever this is it is going to take too long. It’s going to be endless. [about segregation] you could picket a movie, the movie theatre might succumb, well, okay, you can come int. But that was one movie. You know, they didn’t go down the line and say, okay, let’s just get rid of this thing. The people in St. Augustine, Florida, their movement centered on the swimming pools. This is Florida now. Bt, it was swimming pool after swimming pool. It wasn’t as though anyone was going to say, “let’s just end all of this right away.” Which meant that you were constantly as an activist, you were constantly on the go, from one activity to another to another. You obviously couldn’t keep that up, no matter how many troops you had in the streets. Because I was a sit-in student, I always felt I was part of SNCC, because SNCC was formed by all these disparate groups coming together with the help of Ella Baker to have a coordinated, the student non-violent coordinating committee, to coordinate all these sit-ins. So by the time I got to the deep South in 1964, I always considered myself an ex-officio member of SNCC.
I was already a member. I had heard of this new activity of organizing, of registering people to vote. It was an aspect of SNCC I hadn’t known. I knew about the direct action part, but I didn’t know about this new phase, I wanted to very much to see it, so I landed in Alabama. Actually, at Tuskegee Institute, which you may have heard of, my first year as a college teacher. Without looking at a map, just decided, well, Alabama is right next to Mississippi, so I’ll be able to get to Mississippi whenever I want. Well, Tuskegee wasn’t close to the Delta. I didn’t know how to drive and my first few months of teaching was much more challenging than I had ever anticipated. So, I never got to Mississippi that summer. But the same things happening in Mississippi were happening in Alabama, Arkansas, in Georgia and Louisiana. They were happening all over. It was the call for the thousands of volunteers to come for that Freedom Summer that made Mississippi stand out more than the other groups.
So, there is a couple of things I’d like to leave you with. The movement was all over the country at that point. You don’t hear a lot about that. Sacramento was segregated. Los Angeles was segregated and still is in housing. Most of the main cities are still segregated in housing. You had these cadres, like in Chicago, of people, of activists, who were resisting. Thy simply said, we are just not taking this anymore. The model was, and I hope it will be so again, put your body where your mouth is. You say you don’t like this, you say its awful, put your body there. It worked for us. So I’m hoping it will work the next time around, and there is going to be a next time around. So, it was a national group. There were a lot of unsung people you will not have time to hear about in this series of interviews. But kind of look at people, and wonder, and just ask, “what were you doing?” “What was it like?” What was happening? You got relatives, who were at least following it closely, sending money, giving support even if they weren’t down there. So it doesn’t feel as distant to your as it might, here in San Francisco.
Student One: The whole story is not always told. Watching the video, what comes to mind is people’s perceptions. For example affirmative actions, arguments against affirmative action, what’s perceived. Somebody be quick to say, “no free handouts” and “you want somebody to give you something” and I sit back and I say, I know in their mind, they’re referring to black people, so how dare you really even say that you know you only want someone to give you something [says something else and points to where we saw the video] The inheritance of the father sometime need to be put on the children too. A lot of racism deals with perception for me. I see evidence in people perception about working hard, what an American is. For certain people that might be two separate things. IT gave me something more I can relate to.
Student Two: What struck me about the video was when the man was talking about that it was just your demeanor that could incriminate you, like facial expressions or body language. And of course I know that, and I’ve heard that before. But that really struck me. I had a question for Jean. You were talking about the call for volunteers went out. I wanted to know how you heard personally. Were people just calling each other or writing to each other? What was your experience of this flow of information?
Jean: It began to get organized during the previous year in 1963. I was a graduate student in Ann Arbor (University of Michigan). Ann Arbor, like Berkeley, and other places was a hotbed of student activity and these were students who had joined in the sit-in struggle by picketing to headquarters of the stores and corporations that we were struggling against in the deep South. So they were kind of seasoned to being in the streets and so forth. So it became a key organizing focus, that particular campus. One of the things that I found really difficult was that I’m the first college graduate of my family and those posters and flyers said, the same ones that Don saw, you had to be entirely responsible for yourself. You had to have money for a lawyer, for doctors if you got sick, you had to have money for the whole works. You had to have money if something went wrong, and something was bound to go wrong if you were headed to Mississippi. I knew I couldn’t’ go to my family to ask for money -- as the first college graduate of the family, and headed to Mississippi? My family thought it was nuts to head to Mississippi. They thought Baltimore was quite bad enough, and Philadelphia and New York and you know. So that’s why I ended up right next door in Alabama because Tuskegee paid my way there and I was earning a living and I could get to the counties where the real work was being done easier. The organizing was wonderful, it was very creative, but the only problem was that emphasis on the fact that you needed resources before you thought about going, really made me have to step away and look for some other way getting near there.
Student Three: Something clarified for me in watching this video. I lived in a veteran’s housing project in Chicago after World War II. All the men had been in the service. Very few of them were Negroes, which is what they were called then, or some Asians and Hispanics. One day one of the Negro men was driving. . you drove very slowly because there were kids playing all over the place. He bit a white boy on a bicycle who darted right in front of him. The man ran away and my father found out where he was wand went to talk to him and got him to deal with the situation. Watching this film, I realize no wonder he ran away, he didn’t expect to have justice, he had been part of that migration from the South to Chicago.
Student Four: no matter how hard they had it they still had a strong spirit. With all the bloodshed that was happening, if I don’t do something for myself today, they died in vain. There’s a difference between being active and being caught up. Acknowledging is to know your history, where you came from , being active is to be an active participant about change. Being caught up is to be stuck. I know for myself, I can’t be stuck. I grew up in Boston, in the projects. What was passed on from generation to generation was that the only place you could go was black and that you didn’t think you had an opportunity to go some other place. I was one of the first people in my family to break that tradition. I went over the bridge which was Cambridge . . . . .
Student Five: I noticed in the video, at the time, just like now, oppression seems very formulated. Keep people broke, kept hem dependent, keep them in debt, and the brainwashing is there. I noticed at that time at least the people had spirit. The migration, civil resistance and things like that. But now the spirit is broke, it seems lit it. Maybe its still there for people in their thirties and forties, but I work at a boys and girls club. I talk to the kids. They know that these things are going on. They see the police brutality, they see the injustice. You ask them, is there an end to it? No, there’s not. That’s their mentality. I noticed in the video, it’s very formulated how to keep people oppressed and it just works every single time. It seems that people aren’t noticing that. It’s so simple how they do it.
Student Three: Let me ask you a question. Do you think those kids you are talking to know the history?
Student Five: No, they don’t know the history. If they are going to know their history they are going to have to go out and learn it on their own. They haven’t been given a fair chance in school. It’s rough for them to go out and pick up a book. They don’t want to read anymore.
Kathy: ... that’s one of the reasons we decided to have a film based curriculum. We want to be able to be accessible to the young people you have talked about . . .
Student Five: It’s different at that time, but it [brainwashing] seems a lot more stronger today with the media. The TV is real big on that. You might not have “whites only” signs but it’s the same.
Student One: It’s like people are used to thinking a certain way. I get so irritated when people think today’s different from yesterday.
Student Six: I like a lot of what Andre said. Talking about people’s spirit ties into brainwashing. The most important part of our brainwashing is that we are not taught about history, we’re not taught about labor struggles. When we learn about SNCC in school it’s like Martin Luther King made some cool speeches. Then there was this other war going on. You don’t get it. When you know your history, then you find hope. It’s like part of the brainwashing and the bullshit history we’re taught, keeps us from having hope. I think of Tupac, when I think of the attitude that’s expressed—it’s hopelessly corrupt, the system out there is just hopelessly corrupt. If people understand their history, they know we’ve been chipping away at the corruption and that there is this really clear strategy but people don’t know its out there. They’ve heard of it, non-violence, but that was then and that can’t happen now. People I meet at school even people who are trying to make a change, are so separate from what was going on back then. That’s the main reason I am here. How do we bridge from what was going on then to what’s going on now? You have to build upon it. We are taught everything is all right now an this is the best its going to get. So just do it for yourself.
Jean: I know it’s really hard, but try not to be too discouraged in these discouraging times. Discouragement can freeze you. Think back to . . . the sit-ins started in February 1960. That means the people who were doing the sit-ins, the shock troops for the Southern struggle grew up on the 1950s, which was probably the most ridiculous decade in this country, in the world. It’s the Korean War, its McCarthy hearings. So whatever you do outside the norm, you are branded a communist, a scary word back then because they did put people away in jail back then, and snatched their passports, like Dubois and Paul Robeson and countless other people.
So that’s one thing. Nobody expected that the Fifties would give rise to the Sixties. They hoped, but nothing was happening, certainly nothing appeared to b happening among black college students or for that matter among white college students. College students in those days and in these days were supposed to be the buffer between the haves and have nots. The college degree is the buffer—your it. You were supposed to be so gratified. The role of and activist was not meant. It jolted everyone that this could happen. And it could spread to rapidly and this could not be put down, you could not stop it. Those were discouraging times. These are too. I’m just asking you not to be discouraged.
The second thing is. Freedom Summer 1964 was the summer of working with the lowest people on the lowest rung of the entire society. The sharecroppers, because of the organized dependence that you have talked about. You look at some of the houses and the land, you think well, is he talking about 1937 or 1837? It was as close as you could get to slavery. It was designed that way. Who knew that the very people that were so oppressed would become so eager. Don said it earlier. People were ready to move. Old people, middle aged people, young people. And were happy to see folks, and welcomed folks into the little that they had. But if anyone had waited to say, “mmm, I wonder how people would take to this. . I wonder when they are going to move and I wonder this and I wonder that . . “ People are smart. However silly we may seem at times. I think people are mostly smart. If you help them get at it, people take it, they grab it.
Student Seven: I have always paralleled this black experience travelling from the South to the North to the Mexican and Latin American experience. Their aspirations are parallel to me. I wanted to ask from your experience, I know from my experience, in our generation, its often really difficult in the immigrant experience for people to awaken and go back and help A lot of people in my generation, first generation here, parents from a different country are starting to awaken and ask our parents and our grandparents, seeking that wisdom, what was it like in those times. You’re in the North, going back to help those in the South, so what was that like? . . .. I can imagine all the families who did migrate to the North perhaps having good intentions, wanting things to be better, but not wanting to go back there, to think of the native struggle.
Sherri: My parents were from the South, they didn’t want to go back. There was a lot of denial. Well, not denial but separation. At the same time they had family, they were on the phone, they cared about their family there. I only visited the South once in 1966 with my mother and my grandmother and I did see signs at that point. My grandmother, who’s 93 now, does not talk about her experiences. It was the violence as well as an economic decision for them to go North. It was so terrible, they decided not to go back, except to keep in touch with their family. But there was no hope there, no chance to get an education, of getting a job you could sustain your family. There was always the experience of being demeaned in spite of the fact that you were able o take care of family, take care of business and that kind of thing.
Don: Another aspect of that is that my family were immigrants. They came from Russia and Czechoslovakia, Jewish. Both of their families left because of the Russian pogroms and economic restrictions and eventually, of course, the Nazis came in. So, when they came to this country, they wanted to assimilate totally. In fact I was named for the duck, Donald Duck, because that was the most American name they could think of. When it came time for the South and I was going my parents were horrified. I was the first professional in the family. All that effort, all that money thrown away for the colored who don’t even like you. They don’t like Jews. So having been trough the whole experience, they wanted nothing, they weren’t prepared to see what had happened to them was happening to another group. Their children who didn’t have the horrendous experiences. It is true having had some success, having some positive outlook in life, you are more able to fight. The number of families who approved of their children going down, even the families who had been politically involved, were very few. People were terrified of what was going to happen and nevertheless, you talk about despair, Jean just said, could any group have more against them than the black sharecroppers? They were not only impoverished but all the guns were on the other side. They had the police, they had the sheriff, they had the state police, they had the mayors, had the judges, had the juries (because blacks weren’t allowed on the juries so you could kill with impunity. So there was no protection except that imaginary link to the North, which was much slimmer than the southerners thought. We all knew that the FBI was our enemy and the Federal Government was, generally, trying to stay out of it as best they could. But, nevertheless, people who were as beaten down as that were able to strike back with the people that joined them.
I like what Jean said about the Fifties, no one could believe that anything was yet to come. But on the other hand there were a lot of people who had been involved in the northern activities, people who had been involved in various left wing organizations, who knew the tricks of organizing. And many of them brought that to the South. And I would guess that all of you here have similar values that we all share. But it is not enough to feel it. You have to know how to organize, you have to know how to write leaflets, how to do pres releases, how to deal with the media. You have to learn how to be inclusive and not decide that somebody else isn’t as worthy, therefore they shouldn’t be part of your group. You want to expand, move people who don’t share your views right now into other areas and get ready. It will come and it won’t be as obvious as the war in Iraq. It will be something totally different, something none of us can think of right now. But it will come and if you are ready, if you have the history and you know how it works, that will help.