|About Ron Ridenour|
Mississippi 1964: On the Road to Freedom (2)
[November 8, 2008]
Our training completed, on June 20, four of us took off from Western College for Women in Ohio for Moss Point, Mississippi in my car, a 1300-kilometer trip. With me were: Howard Kirschenbaum, a white college student from an upper middle-class Jewish family; Fred Meely, a working-class black volunteer; and SNCC project director Charles Glenn. Charles came from the working class and into the movement through Lawrence Guyot, our district leader, and Bob Moses. Glenn, at 23, was a year younger than me. The other two volunteers were about 20 years old.
Oxford is on the southwest border with Indiana and 50 kilometers from Kentucky. It took us no more than half an hour before we entered the south. Charles wanted to stop at the border, in order to fill the gas tank and stock up on liquids and sandwich makings. I had a 5-gallon can that we filled as well, calculating that we’d have just enough gasoline to make our destination. Segregation of facilities began in southern Kentucky. If we stopped at a filling station, we would be suspect since we were a “mixed car”. That could lead to trouble before we even began our work. It was no longer possible to eat or drink together, nor use the same toilets. There was often no “negro toilet” where there was a white one, nor were there any cafes for blacks. From now on we didn’t stop. We drove through the night taking turns at the wheel. As we passed through the deep south, from infamous Birmingham into Mississippi, the two whites or the two blacks lay on the back seat so that KKKers and police could not see that we were mixed.
Noontime the next day, we arrived in the black neighborhood of the port town Pascagoula, population 17,000. As we entered a “negro cafe”, we were instantly greeted by the handful of customers and the waiter. We were expected. The Freedom Summer project had been widely publicized. Charles had also been here before the summer. An active NAACP member introduced us around and the people burst forth with questions, information and tips. They warned us about the “Tom” police—one had killed a black man a few months before. “He had done no wrong but he was a threat to the power structure,” we were told. Watch out for informers. Always be conscious of potential danger. They let us know that despite the gulf’s “liberal” reputation the power structure of Jackson county—population 55,000 with 20% blacks—was against the voter registration project. Although there were more blacks registered to vote than the state average, the atmosphere towards equality was one of “general discouragement”, also among many black people. Few tried to register, not only out of fear of reprisals but due to a sense of “it makes no difference.”
Moss Point lay eight kilometers inland, a typical small town of 7000. When we arrived in late afternoon, we again entered a Negro cafe to find our bearings. People were curious about two blacks and two whites together in their town. Everyone knew of the project. They even knew that three of our colleagues had been arrested in the little central town of Philadelphia. Upon hearing this, we called our district office in Hattiesburg. A staffer told us that Michael Schwerner, a white SNCC field secretary, and James Chaney, a black CORE staffer, had been instructors at Oxford. They left just hours before us to drive to their project area in Neshoba county, where Philadelphia is, to investigate a church burning and the beating of some blacks. Andrew Goodman, a white volunteer from New York, had been assigned to that area and drove with them. I remembered his name and face. A shy, serious youth, he had sat close to me in plenary sessions. Their arrest was the first of the summer “invasion”.
The people in the cafe were worried. They told us that a week before there had been a memorial for Medgar Evers, who had been murdered the year before. Leaflets announcing the memorial had been hung up on the windows and walls of small black businesses, mostly cafes like this one. The county sheriff, Cecil Byrd, had come around, tearing down the notices and ordering all the owners who had allowed the posting to see him. He told them that he could take away their licenses if they participated in any way with Civil Rights. We were told of people losing their jobs and being run out of town for speaking out, of burnings, beatings and jailings for nothing, or, rather, because the victims had said or did something for Freedom.
Before our arrival, SNCC staffers had canvassed the entire state to find support, especially families willing to house the volunteers and staffers. That required involving a lot of people, maybe 10,000 or more and a hundred or more churches. We already felt loved and accepted before we arrived. We couldn’t buy any beer in these two cafes we’d stopped in. The drinks were on the house or the customers paid.
Next day, we held our first staff meeting and decided that in the conflict between rapport and security, security had to win over. We would not drink so much again, and we appointed me to be the project’s “security chief”. Our project consisted of us four, and we expected another five or six volunteers soon. We needed to find “our family” and begin to find an office. Our contact was at a national NAACP meeting. We met him that evening, as well as a new volunteer just in with the bus. We took Mermie McKay to her family and we four drove to our family.
“Otis” and “Sarah” Colley had 11 children stuffed into their wooden-tar-papered house, which consisted of a small kitchen with an adjoining dining room, a small living room, a bathroom with shower, and two small bedrooms. One bedroom was given to us. The entire family of 13 people would sleep in the other bedroom and the living room for two whole months.
The next day, we five project workers and one young woman from the community drove 150 kilometers to Hattiesburg for supplies and petty cash. The Movement office was filled with people working or discussing work. We were made to feel welcome and the staff gave us some cash and office materials. Then we were worriedly told the latest about the three civil rights workers arrested in Philadelphia two days ago. Sheriff Lawrence Ramsey and his deputy Cecil Price had released them shortly after arresting them for, “you know what”.
“They were released at night but we haven’t heard from them,” a staffer said. “They should have called in immediately. Their car has been found burned. The media and FBI have come to the area. It doesn’t bode well.”
We were back in Moss Point in time for the evening NAACP meeting. The membership was eagerly interested in hearing what we had to say. People wanted to know what they could do for the project, and what they and we could do when reprisals would come. Our answer was to stand together, to take the matter public, to demonstrate, to be as visible and as united as possible. The leadership was evasive. From Medgar Evers´ brother, Chuck, we got the impression that NAACP leadership was more concerned about “organizational status” than in meeting the needs and desires of the membership. Someone spoke about the need to do something about the latest “incident”. Earlier that day, two 16 year-old boys had been picked out of a crowd at the softball field for having “insulted” a white woman. Police drove them to jail where they refused to let anyone see them or bail them out. We recalled what had happened to Emett Till in Money, Mississippi for the same allegation. We said we’d call our lawyers about this. Then we announced a mass meeting for voter registration and the Freedom School at the main park, KP, in a week. Everyone said they’d come and spread the word, and they would search for a project office. Ordinary black people were already beginning to view SNCC as themselves.
Howard and I went to Gatlin’s cafe to call Hattiesburg about the boys being arrested. We were immediately approached by people excitedly claiming that whites were throwing poisoned candy and gum around the community. Two small children supposedly had been poisoned. I made the call and explained the situation was getting tense already. We needed a couple of lawyers to come. We would be called back in an hour. Howie went to talk to Charlie and I walked next door to “our house” and sat on the lawn. There was no telephone so someone would come for me when Hattiesburg returned the call at the cafe.
Then the constables came. They parked in front and I saw that Howie was in the patrol car. One of the cops came up to the lawn.
“Watcha doing here, boy?” constable Alford chawed.
We exchanged a few not-well-chosen words and I was placed under arrest for “investigation”. The two constables drove to Pascagoula county jail at 85 miles an hour, with lights and siren turned off. They stopped in some woods and talked with some civilians armed with guns. We were scared. The laughing cops left their compatriots and drove us to the jail. Howie and I were, in fact, glad to arrive at the jail. We were met by a waiting crowd of officialdom: Pasacagoula policemen and sheriff deputies, Highway Patrolmen.
These tobacco-chewing stereotypes told us: “We treat our niggers well, as long as they stay in their place...We don’t want you commie outside agitators coming to our fine magnolia state—people get killed for less...”
The throng of law enforcement officers then escorted us to an elevator. We were made to face the wall to the slapping sound of billy clubs smacking hands. “You boys are in for a good whoopin´.”
We were pushed into the “nigger bull pen.” The cops yelled at the three black prisoners: “Here they are. Get´em boys.” And they smacked their clubs in their hands and struck the steel bars with the clubs. Putting whites in a cell with blacks was an unusual act on the part of the police. They hoped to humiliate us all by intimidating the blacks to beat us whites. But the forlorn men were ashamed, too confused to move. After long minutes of silent agony, broken by yelling cops smacking their wooden batons on steel bars, the police grabbed us and threw us into the white cell.
“It’s whoopin´ time,” the cops shouted, repeating the routine. About a dozen whites gathered around us. The lead man was dark-skinned and black-haired. I surmised that he might be Spanish-speaking and began to speak to him in rapid Spanish. His brown eyes lit up as his face contorted in confusion. The moment to strike us collapsed as the apparent ring-leader recognized his mother tongue. I told him that he had no interest in treating us as the enemy. We were on the same side. He did not reply in kind but turned on the whites behind him. One pale Mississippian announced that he “hated all niggers and nigger lovers”, that we “outside agitators” deserved to be beaten. But the Mexican-American led the whites off to the other end of the large cell block where they held a long heated discussion about what to do. Howie and I sat down in a corner. I was scared too, but I was older and had been jailed before. I told Howie him that our new neighbors would tell our mates and they would get lawyers here soon. We just needed to hold on.
The police and two trustees clanged billy clubs on the bars and yelled at the white prisoners to “do justice”. The prisoners were divided. We heard the Mexican-American defend us, and some of the whites said they didn’t feel like doing the “Man’s dirty work”. By Howie’s watch, the debate raged on for three hours. It was around three in the morning when all fell silent. Around ten o’clock, policemen took us out of the cell into the fingerprinting room. We were booked on “vagrancy”. We saw Sheriff Byrd and Moss Point constable Alford. As we were being fingerprinted and “mugged”, they laughed in our faces and told us sordid stories about our mates. They said some had been beaten. But worst of all was the story that Charles had been found in the river cut in half. This was revenge for his having raped Mermie. She was supposedly on her death bed. One of them said that Charlie met the same fate as the “three in Philadelphia”. As we were being psychologically prepped, a billy club struck my lower back. The combination of psychological terror and physical violence induced me to feint. When I awoke, Sheriff Byrd asked, “What happened?” I explained what constable Alford had told us about Charles and Mermie.
“The only stories I have heard,” replied Sheriff Byrd drawingly, “is what prisoners say.” Constable Alford backed him up. We later learned they had lied to us. Our colleagues were save
We were taken to the lobby where two attorneys from Jackson were waiting
for us. SNCC’s national communications director, Julian Bond,
had alerted the FBI, as their files on me reported. (Bond later became
a state legislator in Georgia.) The police let us go, but denied having
taken our personal papers, which we never recovered. In the next 24-hour
period, there were articles about this arrest in the local and national
media. There was a good deal of interest in this minor arrest because
of the national attention aroused by the disappearance of Mikey, James
and Andy. Various FBI dossiers on my political activities cite our arrest
and various media reports about it. The June 25 and September 14, 1964
FBI reports on me start with the June 24 “Los Angeles Herald-Examiner”
article about two students arrested on vagrancy charges. In these, and
many other dossiers, this arrest reference is immediately followed with
the Costa Rican disinformation:
“Records of the State Department reveal that Ridenour was arrested on November 29, 1962 by Costa Rican authorities and charged with being an agent of international communism, responsible in part for riots which occurred in Costa Rica on November 24, 1962 and which resulted in several deaths and numerous injuries.”
Some “security index” files contain references to my Mississippi
arrest, taken from the “Los Angeles Times”, “Santa
Monica Evening Outlook”, “People’s World” and
the “New York Times”, and always followed by the Costa Rica
“subversion” disinformation. In a December 12, 1969 file,
there is reference to an “observer”, who complained that
the “New York Times” did not mention my arrest in Costa
Rica. This “observer” may be the same person, Alan Stang,
who wrote, It´s Very Simple: the true story of civil rights, in
1965. The only point of the book is to claim that the civil rights struggle
“is a symphony in the hands” of the Communist composer.
Stang cites Hoover:
“The old Communist principle still holds: `Communism must be built with non-Communist hands.´ We do know that Communist influence does exist in the Negro movement and it is this influence which is vitally important.”
This small item is revealing in that the FBI people keeping tabs on
me, and obviously many others, made the connection that the right-wing,
racist organizations wanted to make—the same one FBI boss Hoover
wanted to make—civil rights=communism. Therefore, what Hollywood
portrayed to the world in its 1988 film, “Mississippi Burning”,
it is a deplorable untruth and a prop to Hoover authoritarianism Through
the performance of the charming actor, Gene Hackman, we are led to believe
that it was the FBI who were the heroes of the civil rights movement.
This is an untruthful rewrite of history. Many students I have lectured
to about US politics and history, in connection with September 11, 2001,
have fallen for this false propaganda. “Oh, the FBI are good guys—in
contrast to the CIA. The FBI helped blacks get the vote.”
The civil rights´ lawyers drove Howie and me to Jackson where we met with COFO staff to discuss our situation. Howard´s father had chartered an airplane and fly him home to New York that evening. Howie was scared but downtrodden at being taken off the project and vowed to return.
The legal staff was a big help. They were able to get the two “insulting” teenagers out of jail without charges, and they investigated the poisoning incident, which could not be confirmed. They also tried to interest the FBI in this harassment, but they were not motivated.
I was also scared. I stayed over in Jackson another day and then returned to Moss Point, determined to do all I could to get our project off the ground. The fact that I and Howie had been “christened” and that I returned—with the promise of Howie´s return—stood the entire project in good stead. The black Mason club allowed us to use a room in their building for an office. We soon had local kids coming in to learn how to fill out the Freedom Registration forms, which we used to help people fill out the official forms, and many signed up for Freedom School courses.
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