The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee discusses the civil rights movement, protests, and jail with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: Sep. 1962 | DURATION: 00:00:01
Terkel talks with Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee about the civil rights movement, protests, and jail.
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Studs Terkel [Guests singing] There are ten students seated around the microphones singing "We Shall Overcome." Colia Liddell of Jackson, Mississippi. Willie Peacock of Charleston, Mississippi. Frank Smith, Holly Springs, Mississippi. Rutha Harris, Albany, Georgia. Cordell Reagon of Nashville, Tennessee. Samuel Block of Greenwood, Mississippi. Charles McDew of Massillon, Ohio. Landy McNair of Jackson, Mississippi. Bernard Lafayette of Tampa, Florida. Mary McCollum of Nashville, Tennessee. "We Shall Overcome." One more verse perhaps. [singing continues] I imagine the song has always been used at a time of adversity, at a time of some tremendous conflict, the struggle for a better life and the-- at all times. We know during the slavery days, the spiritual was sung under the big house when the people in bondage sang of a better life. When they meant better life, they probably spoke of a better life here on Earth, though the masters thought they meant beyond the sky. And so the spiritual, the gospel song they use today, too, another dramatic moment in our country's history. In the relationships of people one to another. The 10 students are all involved with life very much at the moment. The members of the Student Nonviolating Coordinating Committee and this, this Sunday at 2:30 at McCormick Place is the big gospel gathering for freedom at which-- it's the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And incidentally w-w-we'll speak of where you can get tickets later on after we hear from the students who were-- have come from various parts of the South. And everyone has been personally involved. Now this song is a familiar one to listeners of the WFMT audience, "We Shall Overcome," but I imagine the song has a specific meaning to each student who's seated around this table right now. So we throw this--this should be, by the way, a roundtable of experiences and songs and I'm throwing this just open to anybody. The song "We Shall Overcome," well Bernie Lafayette you were saying something 'fore the show went on. This particular song evoked the memory of a particular moment to you more than all others.
Bernard Lafayette Yes, although, we have sung the song many times before. This particular time we were demonstrating in the theaters in Nashville, we demonstrated at night. And [throat cleared] it was in February of 1961. We had rotating lines to theaters where people go up and ask for tickets, and then I was told to go to the end of the line to try again. I remember particularly with the 14 nights that we demonstrated after which we-- the theaters were fully open. Every night on our way back to the church from the demonstration, sometime in the rain and it was really mushy and that sort of thing. It was dark and cloudy and always met by a mob of about 2000 people who systematically would whip us back on our way to church. And even though we sang the song "We Are Not Afraid," there is fear because we are human beings and we do have a tendency to fear. We're afraid because we don't know what's gonna happen. Every night someone had to go to the hospital, group of, no doubt every night, four or five had to go to the hospital. Girls, one fella got his eye knocked out, girls hit with a brick in the back, that sorta thing. Head bandages, arm bandages. And each night you went down, you didn't know whether you would be in the hospital at the end of demonstration or not. So there were very human fears. And as we march back we, in a group of three and sometimes fours, we would hold hands together. And this would give warmth. You can feel the human warmth in the handclasps. And as we sang the song we can feel the warmths of our inward bodies and this would give us morale and momentum. And sometime even though people next-- the person next to us was being pulled off the line and beaten and clobbered to the ground, we could still sing and hold our heads high and walk in unity and strength.
Studs Terkel So specifically I mean this particular song, to you, with this brought memories, brought forth memories at this particular time. I imagine each one seated around. [something falls] Who, who [clears throat] Collie Colia.
Colia Liddell Well-
Colia Liddell I can never forget March of 1961 in Mississippi. Out on Tougaloo Southern Christian college campus when the song-- when I first heard this song. Everyone had been screaming, "Mississippi will be the last standin'." And the students had just got-- were going down to the Jackson Municipal Public Library. White only. Make the--made the first sit-in. And the whole campus of about 500 students came together at the gate leading them onto the college campus and began to sing, "We Shall Overcome." And somehow I felt then that Mississippi was on her way toward freedom. And, and it had such a specific meaning to me all in my heart even that night when it was thunderin' and lightnin'. And I was worried about my friends in jail. Knowing that they might be pulled out, lynched. Anything. I could just hear the voices singing, "We Shall Overcome" because Mississippi was well on her way to freedom.
Frank Smith Well-
Frank Smith [clears throat] The song has a very specific meaning to me. I'm always warm when I hear it. As we sang it today as so many times in the past, I was reminded of the first time in my life that I had ever been put into jail. There was a group of about 25 people who had been sitting-in at a bus station, a restaurant in a bus station, and the cops came in and picked us up. We were sentenced to 45 days in jail. And I don't think I got the true impact of what had been done from the very moment that the cops picked me up and then carried me down into the courthous-- I mean to the jail and then to the courthouse. I didn't really feel that I was actually in jail or somethin' like this because I knew I hadn't done anything except asked for a cup of coffee. And then when we walked through the doors of the, of the jail house to where we were to serve our 30-day senten-- our 45-day sentences, I remember the, the cell door closing behind us. It was a big thick thing [cleared throat] and it closed with a bang that shocked me. It was something that I had never felt before and I-I think that for the first time during the whole operation, I felt like I was in jail. The group was singing, "We Shall Overcome" at that time and one of the girls in the group started to cry. And I think that the, the yell of her voice chilled my soul with something that I had never felt before. And this was the first time that I [cleared throat] ever really learned to appreciate. And all my life I had wanted to do something about the existing situation, but I had never really found the direct channel into which to turn my energies. And as that cell door closed behind me and that girl started to cry, for the first time in my life, my -- I felt the freedom from within, though my body was binded by the thickness of that door and these bars that we-were between freedom and me. I felt somehow free inside. Every time I hear the song now, this same feeling is epitomized. And it gives to me that type of strength and moral courage that I need to face some of the things that we face in Mississippi daily.
Landy McNair [coughs] I remember-
Landy McNair I remember a particular incident that happened in Louisville on the tenth of September-
Landy McNair In Louisville, Mississippi. [clears throat] This incident of two girls were shot up there at this time and the next day we called, we had a mass meeting at least the next night. And well I felt something personal from the song because I felt that night when we, all of the people who was at the meeting, joined hands and started to singing that-- it was the first time since we've-- was up-- been in the Delta that the people actually felt that they was together. And I feel now that probably since the incident have happened, that we would probably have more cooperation in, of the people in the community.
Studs Terkel This is Sam-Samuel Block.
Samuel Block Well I never can forget the time August the seventeeth, 1962, the night we were-- had made it back to the office. During the following day we had carried some people up to register to vote in Greenwood. And Greenwood is the home of the ci-- [microphone cuts out] white citizen council and the place where-- not far from where Emmett Till was killed and thrown into the river. And the people there was known to be very bad. And if you do something, they would say wrong, you was known to be killed or lynched. And the night we was in the office that same, the same day, and a mob of white people came up after us with guns and ropes and chains and bricks and bottles. And they were-- wanted to, I would say, kill us or something. And we hadn't gotten outta the office, [coughs] so we're fleeing through a window on the second-- from the second floor off the office and made it back in through one of them back alleys where we hid for a while. And after all the intimidation one of the fellas said that "we shall overcome" in regards to what happened. So this next day we were thrown out of the house and we didn't have a place to sleep that night, so we didn't tell anyone. So we went and slept in a couple of old cars alongside of the road. And we still thought about the song "We Shall Overcome."
Studs Terkel I know that Charlie McDew here is just about to say something.
Charles McDew Well I think the time that it, it really, it stands out in my mind, happenin' in Mississippi. Although I'd heard it many times in, in jail in South Carolina. It was an occasion when a number of high school students in McComb, Mississippi, which is about 90 miles south of Jackson, decided they would protest the refusal of the administration of the Burglund High School which is the school for Negro children that refuse-- their refusal to allow Brenda Travis to be readmitted into school because she had been in jail, becau-- an action growing out of a sit-in bus station. And these kids protested. High school kids: sophomores, juniors, and seniors and walked out of the school, about 117. Well the, the administration and the city fathers started putting a lot of pressure on them, a lot of pressure on the parents, to sign what amounted to be-- to a loyalty oath which said they'd never protest or demonstrate or do anything to disturb the general tranquility of the community. And a lot of their parents lost their jobs and a lot of kids were forced back into school. But they were given a deadline. It was on, about a year ago now, it was October eighteenth, 1961 in McComb. They were given to 3:30 on the morning of Oct-October eighteenth, the afternoon, to sign these loyalty oaths. And I can remember the kids going up to the school, and there were policemen with dogs and white men standing all around. And they had their books. And it was 3:30 and there were about 85 of 'em. And there were a lot of the girls wer-were crying and the boys, young negro lads, you had a, a, a glow about 'em of, of a sense of, of, of of a young man coming into manhood looking very strong, very determined and as if they were quite willing to face everything that would happen. And they were singing, "We Shall Overcome." And they walked up to the school and set their books down on the front lawn and turned 'way-- turned and walked away singing, "We Shall Overcome," which the act signified the expulsion from the public school system of Mississippi. And I think this was one of the greatest emotional feeling of togetherness I-I've ever felt in, in my life.
Studs Terkel Yeah. As, as, as each one of you sits around describing a feeling that this song evokes, I think of something that really Lafayette said at the very beginning, see, we think of you as these courageous young people, very courageous, taking this step against odds that are quite overwhelming and against dangers that are quite real, yet Bernie mentioned a thing about fears. See you, you are not made of plaster but of flesh and blood. And so the question of fears, how often does fear possess you in the midst of all this? Mary McCullom, I'm looking at you now.
Mary McCollum Well I think that there are very real situations which you do experience fear. But many of us who have had experience, kind of learned to calculate and expect things. And when you expect something, I think this decreases your fear first of all. And then secondly, you, I don't know at least myself as a person, feel a responsibility because as working as a field secretary, you have a responsibility. And you're going into communities and organizing and therefore you have a certain leadership position. And so you feel a responsibility for everyone and especially as a whole even though I've been working in Cairo, I realize how impor-important Cairo is for the movement as a whole because there's a unity that prevails. And so you tend to forget about your person and your fear and react the way you think is best for the situation.
Studs Terkel Mary, I'm gonna ask you one question, it's a personal question right now. Mary, you're white and here are nine Negro students with you. You're from the South. You're from Nashville, Tennessee. Why are you doing this? Why did you become personally involved? Obviously you've done something that is against the grain. Have you lost many friends?
Mary McCollum Yes, but I've gained many more. Why am I doing this? It was in Nashville when I first became aware of what was going on, and I was a college student and saw many other college students fighting for something that, [coughs] you know, theoretically regardless of where you're living, you know, you still go to church, and the principles are there, supposedly there. I say my pledge allegiance just like everyone else. And yet I think you have to find a sense of acting, you know, if you have beliefs [cleared throat] you have to have actions or else you don't have beliefs and if, you know, you don't have beliefs, what are you as a person? And so I found a sense of identity, I suppose, with other college students who are doing something that, you know, all along I had said was right except, except, except, you know, and there always were exceptions and reasons why, well perhaps why there shouldn't be integration at the time. And yet when you really look at it, I think you know most of, of the irrational things that are put forth kind of fall apart, and you find yourself as a person and as a personality and when you, you know, kind of look inside you and say, "Well what is my responsibility to my beliefs? To my country? You know, as a personality? How do I fit in here, you know? Where do I go?"
Studs Terkel Mary one more question. I'm sure many listeners wondering about this, the white people of the South, we see the kids from the University of Mississippi, we see them on the screen, and 'course it's incredible. We hear their comments about Meredith. Are there, how many are there like you? This is a question, of course, that continually comes up. Lillian Smith was talking about it. Are there-- do you feel that you represent something that may be there as yet unexpressed or are you just an individual alone or have just a few?
Mary McCollum I think especially among college students that there are many who are questioning themselves and the position that has been taken through the years. I think that, well first of all, it's very difficult to take a positive stand. And I think there's an increasing number, especially of young people, I say again in the South who are not taking a stand, really, you know. They're on neither side of the line, which makes it somewhat better, initially.
Studs Terkel And as we see these kids on the TV screen you know, they're in-- I think last night I saw something in the cafeteria talking about why they dislike Meredith and what he's done. Do they, is there doubt, [sniffle] you find among them, there are some beginnings of doubt and questioning even though they're talking as positively as they do?
Mary McCollum Yes I think that-- well, again I fall back to Nashville because Nashville, you know, was kind of like, you know, the beginning of everything as far as the movement goes [clears throat] for me. And just a little secret, maybe, we organized a, a basketball team at the school I was going to, and we played against Fisk. And this was a whole new experience for these kids. And even though, you know, the white kids that went with me were very, you know, [chuckles] very much Southern students from Georgia, Alabama, and so forth. And they were afraid to have people know where they were going, you know, and they ask, you know, strange questions like, "Would this be on television?" or "Would any reporters be there?" before they went, and they didn't want anyone to know they were going, and all of this sort of thing. And yet they had a real good time and wanted to go back and play again. And I think this is something that's, you know, that's really happening in the South if there were enough people to work hard and step forward.
Studs Terkel A question to go around the table again, something we just touched upon before the show went on, we spoke of fear and how the feelings and-- all of you are, is this right Charles, Frank, you all basica-- middle class backgrounds? That is, you, you know, you've been accustomed to, is that right, three squares a day, home, clothes, schooling? This experience. What does it do to you [chuckles] individually? I mean, you're all of, I say, of middle class backgrounds. Now what-- aside from the matter itself, the seeking of dignity that you see a-as human beings, what happens to you individually here where the daily stress is upon you? Anybody? Rutha, are you gonna say something?
Rutha Harris Well I've, I've only been working in Albany, Georgia, that's my home so I, I couldn't-
Studs Terkel Well, I'd say we're perhaps, we've heard of Albany, Georgia. [laughs] [coughs] How did you become involved?
Rutha Harris Well, three students, namely, Charles Jones, Charles Sherrod, Cordell Reagon, came to Albany, Georgia. Represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, well, I just became interested in what they were doing, so I joined the movement.
Frank Smith Well, [clears throat] sometimes, well there are a number of times when I think about the same situation. I was born in [unintelligible] in Atlanta, Georgia, which is considered one of the more progressive areas of the South. And transferring from Morehouse College, or should I say taking a leave of absence from Morehouse College, and going into Mississippi has been a [cough] completely new change for me. I think that some of the people there will notice that I had to completely readjust. Demonstrating in Mississippi, or should I say trying to register people to vote in Mississippi, is an entirely new experience when it is compared with trying to register people to vote in Atlanta, Georgia or in and around [blows nose] [unintelligible]. Living with this everyday threat of, of people shooting you. I have a little hat that I wear around Mississippi. Before I left town, the state patrol car said the next time they saw that hat off the ca-- off the, in the streets, they were gonna shoot it or somethin' like this. And well there are times when I've been accused, my parents and my girlfriend especially, accuses me of never actually considering these things to any large extent. This is why I don't express the fear so readily anymore, because I never really think about it. And I think that to some extent this is true because after you work for a while, you begin to feel that these things, I mean they say this every day, they call every night and they threaten to burn your house and they shoot. So you don't worry about it, and if you start to worry about it to any large extent, if I were to worry every time I got a phone call, I would be a nervous wreck in a couple weeks, something like this. To some extent it dehumanizes you. Y-You, you reach the point where, where the common things that bother the ordinary people don't bother you to any large extent anymore. I remember when, when I first got to Chicago, I walked into the office and the young lady said, "You know you people from Mississippi are the coolest people I've ever seen." There was something about the atmosphere there that makes you "cool," so to speak.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Frank Smith That's another story. There are times when, when inwardly I have to steal away as my parents say, in this old Baptist tradition. When I just go for a walk by mys-- this isn't always the best thing to do. [laughs] I go for a walk by myself or something like this and, and you get to the point where you don't openly express the type of things to your friend that you would ordinarily do. And you learn to live with a lot, especially in Mississippi, you learn to live within yourself to a large extent. You learn to communicate from within with yourself. And the effect that these things will have upon the people that are working psychologically are probably, is incalculable at this point.
Studs Terkel 'Cause you've raised another point here, I'm sure that everybody thinks at one time or another, you said something about your parents and your girlfriend worrying about you so there're pressures here that come from-- parents of course they're thinking about your physical welfare and they're worried. And of course this is a pressure isn't it, too? Of sorts. Does anybody-- what's on my mind is the -- involves the older people. The older Negro people of the South-- through the years, seeming it's been accepted. Now what's happened to them since this movement has begun?
Willie Peacock Well-
Willie Peacock My, my father, he's always, he's always taught, he always taught us as children that, to fear no one but God and that you are good as the next person. And well my mother never said too much concerning anything, any advice that he gave, you know. So I, I finished high school and I go off to college with this attitude, and I'd seen a lot of things happening as a kid that I didn't like. And so he has-- this was my opportunity to do something about it. So I came in contact with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I started to work. And this is when my mother spoke out and expressed herself.
Willie Peacock She, she told me that "We've struggled and we, we've, you're about to finish college now, and I think that you should go into teaching and let that stuff alone." You know. My daddy said, "Well, son, somebody's got to do it." And he takes me outside, he doesn't let my mother hear him, of course, [laughs] he said, "But somebody's got to do it. And [clears throat] if this is what makes you happy, go right ahead." My mother is very disappointed. [laughs]
Samuel Block Well, something happened to me when I first started. I went to Georgia to the first workshop that was held in Atlanta and that was after Doorchester. I came back and I began to work and my mother told me she said, "Well, you gonna do something like this you just gotta get out. You can't stay here. Can't stand the pressure that's gonna be put on us." And well I say most of my people teach school and something like that. And so I told them, "Well, if I have to get out, I would, you know, not have anything to do with it." And then I thought, I said "Well if I have to go, I'll just go." So I went and I got in jail, [chuckles] came back and she said, "Well you just have to go, now. You can't stop." So I told her I wasn't gonna stop. And so I left and I've been out ever since.
Studs Terkel Apparently I suppose each-- Colia, you gonna say something?
Colia Liddell Yes, I was just gonna say when I first came in contact with the movement, my mother would worry about me. I guess she still worries about me. But she would always tell me, "Now you have all that you want in life, I could give you anything you want. You have my checkbook and all. [chuckles] So why go out and fight? Why don't you let someone else do the job?" But I finally convinced her that I was a person to do the job myself, you know, as an individual and as a human being I owed something to humanity. And so she got to the point where she stopped saying, "Let someone else do the job." She started saying, well I guess it means the same thing, "Let the men do the job." And I still continued to fight. And today I really believe that I have strengthened her courage, I've sort of given her faith in something that she didn't have before. And I wouldn't be surprised if I wo-woke up one morning and read about her on a picket line. [laughs]
Studs Terkel On the subject that Colia might just read about her on the picket line, aren't there cases of old people've been quiet through the years who have found their own courage through you? What you've done? Charles McDew, I know you've-
Charles McDew Very definitely. I can remember [cough] in Orangeburg, South Carolina, 1960. In March we -- there was a big demonstration where we were giving our petition to the mayor, or attempting to give a petition to the mayor, and we were turned back with fire hoses and police swinging billy's and then herded into a big outside enclosure in the middle of the winter. And, you know, some 488 of us were later charged with breach of the peace. But while we were, were walking along, you know, and being herded off to jail, I can remember many, many of the old people, older people getting in the lines or coming up and shaking our hands saying, "God bless you, son. I've been waiting so long." With tears in their eyes re-- you know, really crying and really taking a, a stand. And this has happened throughout the South. People that have opened their homes to us and very definitely take their lives in, in, into their hands because of many of the homes that we've lived in, or fields secretaries have lived in, have been shot into. In areas of, of the South where churches are being burned, it is not 'course inconsistent to feel that the homes that we're living in might also be burned also. But these people open their homes to us and open their hearts to us. And this is
Charles McDew Brave
Studs Terkel And if you point out that the field secretaries are making the m-- the [miniscule?] sum of ten bucks a week, I believe-
Mary McCollum When
Studs Terkel Huh? When it's there.
Mary McCollum When it's there.
Studs Terkel [laughs] And someone mentioned-- now this Charles the other day mentioned, living with some of the people who-- and they feed you. And they're making as much as 75 cents a day.
Charles McDew This is true. People are making this much picking cotton.
Charles McDew Mhmm.
Charles McDew Some of our own fellas aren't adverse to picking cotton themselves. Some of the fellas in southwest Georgia gain a way to stay alive by, by picking squash and things like this is somethin' for money so they can live. Cordell Reagon was there and he knows about
Studs Terkel I think Cordell was just about to say something.
Cordell Reagon Well yeah, I was gonna sort of go back to when we first went to Albany, Georgia, when we got there, we ran into sort of a hard problem where we couldn't get anybody to talk with us, especially the older people. When we'd walk down the streets they would cross over to the other side. And then we got to the point we got the students involved and we had our first demonstration. We started having mass meetings, etcetera. And the older people started coming on in. [tapping on table] People took us into their homes, and they would feed us. And we didn't have any money. I think the first two weeks we spent there, we had 12 dollars between us, which lasted us for two weeks and after that we didn't have any money. So the, the older people did get involved and the first mass march that we had, most of 'em were students, but older people went, too. And it got to the point where a lady about 80 or 90 years old who had a cast on one leg and and a crutch in 'nother hand led a march down to city hall. And things like this. There's another lady, who we called Momma, we call
Studs Terkel I was gonna ask you about her. I heard you talk about Mom. What about Mom?
Cordell Reagon Well, her name is Momma King. This is just one. It seems, though, we have a mom in every [chuckles]
Cordell Reagon City we go into. Momma King, she talks to us all the time and she's, she's very 'ligious person. And sh-she she talks to us and she says, she says "Son," she says "I'm just sorry" she said "I can't, I can't get in your marches and everything." She said "because I'm afraid," she said "I'm just afraid I have to admit it," she said "but I'm going to do what I can." And, she tries to make up for this fear by, you know, giving us clothing and food and things like that. So you run in-- you run into things like this. There is a lady out in the, in, in counties, in Lee County, where we work on voter registration. And she lives back out in the county where there's-- well there're about five or six white families around but no Negro families right there in her area. And Mamma Dot is a very old lady and she took us into her home. She feeds us and things like this. And we have no money, and she doesn't have that much money. And she talks about religion, things to this effect, and it just so happened a few weeks ago they sent her a bill. There's something on her house where she had to pay 200 dollars to get out. 'Course Momma Dottie didn't have 200 dollars. She had two weeks to get 200 dollar. So they tried to raise the money and things to this effect. These are the type of harassment, people shoot into her home. And the Klan puts notes in her mailboxes and things like this and burn crosses. And these are, these are actually the old people coming out at this point. I think that they don't get involved as much as the students do, now, but because of an amount of fear. But this is their way-
Studs Terkel Hm.
Cordell Reagon Of showing that they are interested in spite of-
Studs Terkel They are with you.
Studs Terkel You know and they're with you.
Cordell Reagon Yeah.
Studs Terkel You know-- Oh, Mary? You
Mary McCollum I think that, you know, somehow or another adults tend to have a parental attitude. And generally when the students really seem to be in a bad way, it's when the ti-- is the time when the adults really move forward. You'll find when all the students maybe are in jail or something like this, then adults picket or, or demonstrate. Whereas before you couldn't get them out on the line. And yet this somehow draws them out and they, you know, they really maintain this, this parent-like attitude toward, toward all the students involved in the movement.
Studs Terkel Bernie Lafayette.
Bernard Lafayette Yes, and along with what Mary's saying, [clears throat] in Mississippi after the students started going on a Freedom Ride and getting involved in the demonstrations, a group of women went around and formed a group they called "Woman's Power Unlimited." And they start forming these groups in all cities and their main purpose was to solidify the housewives who didn't have too much to do during the day, and, and started getting people registered to vote and this sort of thing. Started working along with the students. There's interest thing happen in Jackson, Mississippi after the Freedom Ride. Negroes and whites came together on Tougaloo College campus, somewhere about 80, 60 or 80 people, and they formed a human relation council. And they meet every so often now, started discussing this thing and tryin' to figure out what they can do as adults, as a result of what the students-
Studs Terkel Colia?
Colia Liddell Well, we're sort of on the same subject that Bernard's talking on. These women, the members of this group, "Woman Power Unlimited." You might call them
Studs Terkel Woman Power Unlimited?
Studs Terkel That's a good name.
Colia Liddell They're all ver-- you know, well some of them are almost rich, [chuckles] I guess, w-when you think of a Negro bein' rich. And a group of about six, seven went on and sit in the bus terminal. And this really struck me because you don't find the people with the money wanting to really come out-
Studs Terkel Say now this question that Colia is asking and after this I-- we haven't had a song for a long time-- but this, but just one -- this question have some more about the wealthy, or relatively wealthy people of the Negro community, who say have it, are relatively well-off, let's say, there's in every community I'm guess- there's some family that is relatively well-off. Isn't that generally so?
Colia Liddell Yes.
Studs Terkel What about-- are they participating, too? You just said these women were.
Colia Liddell Yes, these, these women were.
Frank Smith Well
Colia Liddell Qui-quite quite a few of them participate.
Studs Terkel Frank and, and, and
Frank Smith Well there, there is, there are some factors I think that we must consider. We talk about [clears throat] age, aging bringing on a bit more conservative. I think that you will find that, that most of the people in the community who are-- come from upper-middle class families or things like this are more conservative than most of the people in the community for various reasons. [clears throat] In Atlanta, we had a, a similar experience. At first, when we first organized the student movement there, we didn't have very much participation from the adult community and Atlanta is reputed to have some-- well a, a larger variety of, of so-called upper-middle class people than most of the other towns in the South. But [clears throat] after a while, we found that we could go to these people and get, and get money from them even though participation at times was not forthcoming. Whenever we need, we needed financial assistance and things like this we could go to them to get money and it eventually evolved into the point where we had some of the richer people, so-called richer people of the community who would actually participate with us. In Holly Springs where, where I'm working now in Mississippi, we have a predominantly adult organization for various reasons and some of the, the intimidation that they su-- that they are suffering are horrible, man, they-- like I know one particular family that owns about 1400 acres of land. And if you know anything about farming, you know that the Agriculture Department allots a certain number of cotton acreage to each farmer. And this man owns about 1400 acres of land, and they gave him 25 acres that he can plant cotton on, which means that from this 25 acres he can not make enough money to pay his taxes on the land. So what they do is they cut down on his cotton acreage allotment and they raise his taxes. And this way he's forced to sell some of his land every year. And eventually th-the [chancery court?] is going to own all of his land. And this is, this is the way they do. The story can be multiplied a number of times around the county. As a result, most of the farmers around there are-- h-have to be conservative if they want to continue living where they are and if they want to continue holding on to their land.
Cordell Reagon Yeah, I think more so now we, we, the-- what you what you might call the higher-class Negro, are becoming more involved, in fact I go back to Albany to prove this, that there we had doctors and dentists-- a-all these type people going to jail together. Take, for instance, Dr. Anderson who's president of the Albany movement. Dr. Hampton, who's a dentist, the first, first meeting was held in this house. You have, you have all these people from all, you know, from the insurance companies, real estate offices, and all these type of things. These people went to jail together and they opened up their homes to, to, to the amage-- so on, you know. So it's like this, you have all these type people just, they involving 'emself to the same extent and nobody thinks that they are better or bigger, anything like that. So the-
Studs Terkel There are a number of questions I want to ask, specific ones, rather elementary ones like such as how do you eat? Where you live? Or transportation? But I think, you know, Sunday is the big gospel sing. The big concert Sunday. And, you know, how moved everybody is when you sing, [clears throat] the college of yours sing "We Shall Overcome." There are many songs I know that you have made up to fit the occasion you-- aren't there? Or old spirituals or gospel ones, aren't there songs, even songs that you're sung while i-in the pokey?
Cordell Reagon Yeah, in fact, just about all of 'em have been sung.
Studs Terkel Is there one right now that say-- you feel like singing just to break-- you know, then I wanna ask these questions and also talk about Sunday?
Frank Smith The, there's one song we sing quite a bit. Very en-enthusiastic, moving, driving sort of song. It was sung quite a bit when the Freedom Riders were locked up in, in Jackson. And we still sing quite a bit now, sort of a very fun type song. And it's called "Woke Up This Morning With My Eyes Straight On
Studs Terkel Oooo that's good, I'm thinking Charlie, here, you sound like a preacher. [chuckles] He was lining the hymn, wasn't it that--[coughs] And it just sounded so good. I think this is just a sample of what will be heard-- here are 10 people just sitting around singing. Th-This, this is a gospel song, it would be gospel for-
Frank Smith That's
Studs Terkel For, for the day when-- it's Sunday at 2:30 at McCormick Place.
Frank Smith Yes.
Frank Smith That's
Studs Terkel And it-- what's it called, it's called
Frank Smith Gospel for Freedom.
Frank Smith And it's a combination of, of two things. One, we wanna give the people of Chicago an exposure to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the southern student movement, and pay a tribute to James Meredith. And two, we'd like of course to, to be able to gain some financial assistance
Frank Smith Up here and hence the program at McCormick
Studs Terkel I'm, I'm gonna ask a few specifics about that, how you live, you know, but we should also I think name some of the groups who are going to sing. There are a number of, of ch-ch-choral groups who are gonna to take part, aren't there?
Frank Smith That's true. Bernard-
Bernard Lafayette Well one group is gonna sing is the Highway Q.C.'s, the Tabernacle Choir from Detroit, Michigan and the Florida Robbins.
Studs Terkel Oh, they're coming in from all over the country, then?
Bernard Lafayette Yes, they will.
Bernard Lafayette Helen Robinson Singers.
Studs Terkel Rutha said the Caravan.
Bernard Lafayette Caravans. And Mr. James Lowell-
Studs Terkel This will be music and talk and conver-- just as in, and the nature of what we're doing, this may be just a sample, really.
Studs Terkel What we're doing this morning. At Sunday at 2:30.
Frank Smith Yeah.
Studs Terkel Mary, you were going to say something?
Mary McCollum Freedom Chorus is going to sing.
Studs Terkel Oh, the Freedom Chorus, that's you!
Studs Terkel Well, of course. And these just two-- I suppose you have a whole slew of these songs, don't you?
Bernard Lafayette That's true, yeah.
Frank Smith The Freedom Chorus is composed of, of students from all over the Southland. Those students whom you read about in the paper, who have been chased around by the cops down in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. Those few of us who have managed to escape alive with our bruises and cuts and all of these things will be singing and-- in the event that you thought that all o' those people down in Mississippi were martyrs and made out of clay and all that stuff. You should come on out to McCormick Place and see that we're actually live human
Studs Terkel I think also, I think something else that is quite obvious and evident that there's an element in the midst of adversity there's an element of joy, the very joy of being, the joy of living that is.
Frank Smith That's true. You know, i-it's, it's a real test of, of womanly and manly fortitude of a person to, to put his ideas in-into action. You know, the not drifting off to a position say of being an advertiser on Madison Avenue when you always wanted to be a writer. Not being in a position of saying, "Well, I have an intellectual commitment to getting something done, but never really doing anything." The time of, of action is-- it brings about really a, a great feeling internally and makes you feel better as individuals.
Studs Terkel You know, I heard you say something about this, Charlie, just the the other night it was-- you're saying about how easy it is to find-- for good people-- to find excuses not to do something that is very close to them. The way-- and this is the problem, of course, with the world in just about every respect of not doing something you feel is right because one way or another you have that excuse or you find it. The matter of, oh simple things, let's talk about simple things like transportation or, or food right now. I say, y-you've been accustomed to a relatively easy life, relatively, you know. That is we talked about you having the fundamentals. Now what about the matter of food. And you've, your very magnificent income of 10 bucks per-- Oh-
Willie Peacock I remember one particular day we went to Ru-- not Ruleville but Indianola, Mississippi to, to a canvas and-- when we speak of canvasing, this is getting people to go and, and register and teach-- and carrying them over the forms. Well, I, I left out that morning, I didn't have any breakfast to eat where I was staying. And when I got there I had taken for granted that [chuckles] maybe I had eaten and then I began to ask questions about food and I found that no one else had, had eaten. And so we got along with our work and we forgot about it soon, that we hadn't eaten. And Sam Block over here, and, and quite a few others were locked up in jail without food that same day [laughs] that evening. And so they never, they never got any food.
Studs Terkel Cordell.
Cordell Reagon Yeah. Guess we'll go back to Albany again like I stated before. When we went, first went to Albany we had 12 dollars to my name, which we had to live off of. And the office didn't have any money. We didn't have any money. So that meant no food. We had a job to get done so we couldn't leave. You know, so the fella I work with, you know, told me I had too much pride and all this stuff 'cause I didn't believe on hitting on, knocking on people's doors and asking for food. So we got together one day and he-- we went out walking down the street. He just stopped at some lady's house and knocked on the door, you know, and told 'em what we were doing and what we stood for an' everything, and told 'er we hadn't had anything to eat for a couple o' days. And so she invited us in and fed us. And this has happened several several time, in fact a lot of time, this is the way, actually this is the way we exist out there because it's very seldom we have money. Very seldom. When we do have money, we have to go slow on it and, you know, eat a hamburger here or something like this. There's no square meal. So if you want to get a square meal, you have to knock on somebody's door for
Studs Terkel I'm gonna ask you a question. Anybody answer this. Do you ever feel, as you're doing this, difficulties sometimes, oh I quit.
Frank Smith Yeah. [laughs, murmurs] There have been those times. I can remember what I first went to Mississippi, being from Atlanta and all that I guess I was kind of used to a [padded?] home and all this. When I first got there, for the first couple of weeks things were lovely, you know, as I prefer to call 'em. I could borrow a car almost any place and all this. And I could almost bum a meal from anybody. And then the cops started handing out traffic tickets, and started to writing tag numbers down, and intimidating the car owners so the people got so they were scared to loan me their cars. And I don't think I will ever forget the second meeting that we had in the county, and about two people showed up. And I think that this was probably the most depressing thing that I had ever run into since I'd been workin' because here I left my home in Atlanta to come over try to help some people to get something that was, by right, theirs anyway. And they would refuse to come out. Well, the next-- I kind of-- that night I kind of went home and meditated a little, well and all that. The next morning, I got up, I was suppo' to go to see some people. And I walked for about a couple o' miles trying to borrow a car, and then it became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to borrow one, so I, I left walking to the county about a mile and a half from where I was suppo-- from the sit-in. I finally got there, sat down and rested my feet, "cooled my heels" as they call it. And well this is the way it went. I finally borrowed his truck to go see some more people, well then-- and since I'd been there and these people are accustomed now to seeing me riding almost anything, from a, a donkey [laughs] to anything else I could find a ride. And it's, it's actually, it's like learning to live all over again. You, you eat whenever you, you can and when you can't just forget about it for a while. [sniffs] And as a result, there are a lot of ulcers among us. [laughs] A lot of people will admit that. They come from hunger and worry and all these things.
Studs Terkel Colia.
Colia Liddell I had quite an interesting experience about the 17th of August or the 18th of August. We went, we went down to Clarksdale, Mississippi which is and-- well up to Clarksdale, which is in the heart of the Mississippi Delta to a meetin'. The council-
Studs Terkel I think Bessie Smith died. I know that. Yeah.
Colia Liddell Yes. The Council of the Confederate organization were meeting there. And, of course, I went thinking that I'd be right back that same night, but we got caught in the city and Block and others were arrested. [laughs] Loiterin' charges, at 12:00 all Negroes are supposed to be in the house, not to be on the streets. So I was caught over in Cleveland, Mississippi with just this one dress. And because Block and the others went to jail that night when they've to get back to Jackson, the next day they made Indianola's jail, still unable to get back to Jackson, so here I was stranded with one dress for about a month. And then I, I really began to live because it was then that I realized it wasn't the clothin'-
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Colia Liddell But humanity that was more important.
Studs Terkel I suppose it's that each one, I suppose, has that moment. That's Godfrey Cambridge coming in. He's a very fine artist. One minute. Godfrey, you don't mind, I-I thought you'd be interested in hearing what the-
Godfrey Cambridge Yes.
Studs Terkel Students have to say, we're finishing here-
Godfrey Cambridge Very pleased to see-- we got friends here. Hi, Charlie, how are you?
Charles McDew Good seeing you again.
Studs Terkel No doubt what you're saying will be, in one way or another material for Godfrey Cambridge, in his own way, you know. He, he has his own way of saying things. A little while ago in interview, Godfrey-- but I thought you might get a kick
Godfrey Cambridge Yeah, don't let me interrupt you. 'Cause I wanna, I wanna hear this.
Studs Terkel At the moment, we were talking--how long did we get on? It's over now, that's alright. The mom-- we were talking about that particular moment each one feels when things are rough and wonders whether it's worth it or not. And obviously here you are. [laughs]
Studs Terkel Charlie?
Charles McDew I think my time came when, well wh-- we went down in, into the deep South. When we started working on voting, particularly. We started, we were very optimistic in terms of, of protection that would be available and that sort of thing. And after our opening question registration of voters in, in, in these United States. All a part of the democratic process, you know. Essential to a democratic country. And th-then the intimidation started. People were being beaten. People were being killed. And I can remember one particular day aft-- shortly after someone had shot into our home in, in McComb, Mississippi, someone shot a shotgun into the house and blew out, you know, [sniffs] just about half of of the, the big picture window that was there. And we were talking with some of the officials from the Bureau. And you know we started having this feeling o-of really being down there alone sort of in, in the working-- when they were pointing out that, which is true, [tapping sound] that their powers are limited to investigation, not necessarily-- they have no powers of protection, you know.
Studs Terkel You know what we haven't talked about, I guess we're just about coming-- the-- we, we could talk obviously for hours about this. I know that, it's there and no doubt on Sunday all sorts of experience to be recounted in songs sung. Haven't asked you about your uplifting jail experiences. Have you all been in jail one time or another?
Bernard Lafayette Yes.
Bernard Lafayette of Initiations.
Studs Terkel Your initiation. Well remember we opened singing, "We Shall Overcome."
Frank Smith Yes.
Studs Terkel Perhaps that might be a way after [clears throat] I introduce, well for the last time here, e-each of you. "We Shall Overcome", that or some other song just to remind the audience of Sunday. Sunday at 2:30. This is just a personal comment of mine. Sometimes, you know, we go, w-we all seek a richness in our lives, I suppose. We're all curious. We go to concerts. We go to good theater. And we always seek in the play something that will enrich us. Well, Sunday at 2:30 we're, whether we know it or not, we're part of history being made. Now it's true after the fight is won, a generation hence this may be recreated by actors and by singers, can be very exciting and good theater, too. But nothing like the real event. Being part of it, at least vicariously, but there're other ways we can be part of it. And that's by being there Sunday. That tickets at the box office at the Arie Crown Theater of McCormick Place. Charlie? What did you think of a song? Were you thinking of "We Shall Overcome" or, or an equivalent number as a way, as I start identifying each of the people again, once counter-clockwise-
Studs Terkel Colia Liddell of Jackson Mississippi. Willie Peacock of Charleston, Mississippi. Frank Smith of Holly Springs, Mississippi. Rutha Harris of Albany, Georgia. Cordell Reagon, Nashville, Tennessee. Samuel Block of Greenwood, Mississippi, [guests whispering] all of whom have participated and comment this morning, Charles McDew of Massillon, Ohio. Lyndon McNair of Jackson, Mississippi. Bernard Lafayette of Tampa, Florida. Mary McCallum of Nashville, Tennessee. Now what's a song? We say Preacher McDew, what's a song? [clears throat]
Charles McDew "Get on board" then I suppose.
Studs Terkel "Get on board" sounds good.