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Mississippi Turning . . .

Martin Luther King ... inspiring

Fifty years ago I spent a summer in Mississippi helping Negroes (*) (the term used then) register to vote. In those years, Negroes in the South were still not allowed to eat in certain restaurants, couldn't stay in certain hotels, had to drink water from separate water fountains, and couldn't sit on benches that were reserved for Whites only.

The thing that frightened the Southern Whites most of all was the potential voting power of the Negro population, and they did all they could to deprive them of that right. If a Negro showed up at the courthouse alone to register, he was intimidated to rethink his decision. What would his white employer think if he found out that he had come to register? And there was always the veiled threat of physical violence. If he persisted in his desire to register he could be asked to answer impossible questions, thus disqualifying him from becoming a registered voter. One way or another, the goal was to prevent Negroes from voting.

One of the goals of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, was to see to it that Negroes could register to vote. Each summer they mounted a campaign on college campuses to recruit students to come down South to help – first, to urge and encourage the Negroes to overcome their understandable fear of going to register, and then to help them in the registration process itself, and if there were irregularities in the process, to report them to the central office.

The summer before I went to Mississippi, three civil rights workers, two of whom were Jewish, doing similar work, had been murdered. Their names were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. This shocked the nation – that it could come to this. So, when I told my parents that I was going, they were, to put it mildly, very much opposed. But who listens to parents anyway? I told my mother, whose own parents and sister had been murdered during the Holocaust, if only there had been more German youth to oppose the Nazis from the very beginning, perhaps the Holocaust would not have taken place. They were unhappy, but they also knew that I was going to do what I wanted to.

And so, one June day, I boarded a Greyhound bus in Boston, bound for Mississippi. I was traveling alone and I remember thinking to myself, "Who of all my fellow passengers is also going?" Since I had to change buses several times on this 25-hour journey, the answer was: no one.

When we arrived in Mississippi we were met at the bus station by SNCC workers who took us to a 3-day orientation. There we learned, first of all, that since our struggle was a moral one, our tactics must be moral too – that is, non-violent. We learned how to protect ourselves and absorb punches and kicks. We were taught never to strike back. We also learned the songs of the movement: We Shall Overcome (we all knew that one already); This Little Light of Mine; Oh, Freedom; and I'm Gonna Do What the Spirit Says Do.

In those early days of June, the movement planned for two days of peaceful demonstrations in front of the State Capital Building in Jackson, Mississippi. The national media was very much involved in covering events such as these. For that reason, the Southern states tried to do everything they could to prevent them from taking place. And so, the demonstrations were declared unlawful and whoever participated would be arrested.

I was assigned to the second day of the protest. I suppose that was lucky for me. The first day's protesters, hundreds of people, had indeed been arrested and put into a large holding space at the Jackson Convention Center. When we were arrested on the following day and brought to the same place, we couldn't believe our eyes. We saw on our fellow demonstrators what they had gone through the day before: welts, bruises, broken glasses, heads wrapped in bandages. We learned that upon arrival at the holding space they had been made to run a gauntlet of baton-wielding police officers. The message of the police was clear: there are hundreds of you here and only a few of us to watch over you - don't give us trouble and what happened once won't happen again. I and those who came the second day didn't need to learn this lesson on our own bodies.

We were eventually released, and each of us was assigned a geographical location for our work. A group of us was sent to a small town in the Mississippi Delta. We were put up in the homes of local Negro families. These families were very brave because they were known to the local white population for giving shelter to the Northern troublemakers. They risked having their windows broken, their car tires slashed, retribution at work, or worse - much worse.

For the next two months it was our job to go from home to home talking with the local residents and encouraging them to come to the courthouse together with us to register to vote. The fact that we, white people, had come from afar and identified with their cause boosted their courage and determination. The mood in the Negro population all over the South was changing from acceptance of the status quo to defiance, and many people registered as a result of our work. 

The telegram Eli Libenson's parents received from Senator Ted Kennedy (right) 

We civil rights workers always went together in pairs – we were not allowed to go alone. Once, in the beginning of August, my partner and I were arrested by the local police on a trumped-up charge of trespassing. We were put in the local jail. We had learned in orientation that should we ever be arrested we had the right to one phone call. I phoned my parents who got in touch with our United States Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, the brother of the slain president, John F. Kennedy. Through the work of his office, the trumped-up charge was dropped and we were released.

Although our work was voter registration, there were among us people who wanted to test the limits of segregation in other ways, and one day it was decided ( I don't remember by whom) that we, along with some local Negroes, would integrate the town swimming pool, at that time a place for Whites only of course. This was not part of our program. As soon as the white people saw us coming, they left the pool and we, a group of about 15 people, were there alone. A rumor then started that a bunch of Whites was preparing to come to the pool to attack us with baseball bats. Happily, that was only a rumor and we returned to our homes in one piece. But that was the scariest day of the summer for me, if not the scariest day of my life.

In truth, the heroes of the struggle were less those of us who came for the summer but those who took off a year or two from college and manned the local SNCC offices all year round. They were exposed to the anger of the local white population when the media wasn't there to take notice. I can't imagine how brave they were. Also, the freedom riders – those who came to integrate lunch counters in restaurants in the South and who knew they'd be physically attacked, have hot coffee poured on them, be spat upon, hit with clubs and kicked. They were the real courageous ones in the struggle.

And, of course, Martin Luther King,_Jr.. I actually saw him in person. He had come to Boston for a civil rights rally – this was some months before the summer – and I was there. Although I could see him only from afar, I could hear him loud and clear. He concluded his inspiring remarks with a recitation of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". Those words were always meaningful to me, but when he spoke them they were absolutely stirring:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored

He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword

His truth is marching on

Glory, glory hallelujah; glory, glory hallelujah; glory, glory hallelujah,

His truth is marching on.

Those words made a tremendous impact on me that day. They still do.

(*) Negro was the accepted term then, and today it is African American. 



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