I started this book (Letters From Mississippi) several months ago, but as the only type of commitment I know, I forgot about it and moved on to several others books. I rediscovered it as I was taking pictures of my bookcase. Yes, I took pictures of my bookcase. I really love the way books look and since I had recently redesigned how my books sat, I thought I'd document it. (In case you are curious, I arrange each shelf by color. Groups of red here, groups of yellow there and so on and so on)
Well, this morning I decided to continue reading this book. Thankfully, it is just notes placed together in a sort of diary, so it was easy to get right back into it. It's the notes that the group of white college students who attended the 1964 Freedom Summer sent home to their family and friends. They are pretty powerful. And 45 years later I can relate to them.
Here is one:
Now it is one o'clock and our bus is traveling down a Tennessee road, far into the country. I have always thought that between the hours of one and three a.m. America comes closest to realizing her promise. There is unity among all her travelers
I can see their bus and the kids awake and asleep and writing and reading and staring out the windows. I can see the awkwardly refracted light in the edges of the window. The driver wrestling with the wheel and the road and the darkness. I traveled many countries as the only american, white, girl, foreigner etc alone late at night. I've worked many graveyard shifts finding out how similar people are between those hours as well. There really is something about those hours and traveling.
Here is another one:
Dear Mom and Dad,
This letter is hard to write because I would like so much to communicate how I feel and I don't know if I can. It is very hard to answer to your attitude that if I loved you I wouldn't do this - hard, because the thought is cruel. I can only hope you have the sensitivity to understand that i Can both love you very much and desire to go to Mississippi. I have no way of demonstrating my love. It is simply a fact and that is all I can say . . .
I hope you will accept my decision even if you do not agree with me. There comes a time when you have to do things which your parents do not agree with. . . Conviction s are worthless in themselves. In fact, if they don't become actions, they are worse than worthless - they become a force of evil in themselves.
You can't run away from a broadened awareness . . . If you try, it follows you in your conscience, or you become a self-deceiving person who has number some of his humanness. I think you have to live to the fullest extent to which you have gained an awareness or you are less than the human being you are capable of being. . . This doesn't apply just to civil rights or social consciousness but to all the experiences in life. ...
I am almost 30 and I am part of the next generation taking over the mistakes and the successes of the latest two justice struggles that have shaped our country; civil rights and environmental. I like this book because shares the questioning of why people do things from a very particular community. And in these notes you remember that good people don't always want to get their hands dirty and sometimes it's because they are scared of the unknown and can't find their way and sometimes it's because they are scared of the known and don't want to get past it. You also see that privilege allows for a different type of fear and reality than non-privilege.
This conversation between fear and privilege and justice is one that I've been forced to dive into recently because of my work. And I have to say I just don't really understand it. I understand the words, the history, and why we have landed where we are, but I don't understand why the people working for peace, justice, and a cleaner place to live can't get past it among ourselves. I say that because I'm not particularly scared of anything and I've been very privileged in my life.
Here are two more:
For the first two days there was a noticeable tension between the volunteers and the staff . . Then, Tuesday night we saw a movie made by CBS Reports ["Mississippi and the Fifteenth Amendment"] describing how the Negro was discrimintated against in Mississippi with regard to voting. Some fo the film was absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous - a big, fat, really fat and ugly white country registrar prevents Negros from voting; the stupid, really completely irrational and dishonest views of some white Southerners and so on. Six of the staff members got up and walked out of the movie because it was so real to them while we laughed because it was so completely forieghn to us - if anyone had said what they did in the movie, we in the North would lock them up or dismiss them completely, but this is the way many white Southerners think.
After th movie one of the staff told why they had walked out and it shook some of us up. We were afraid the whole movement was going to fall apart . . .
. . . We had the whole thing out in the living room, with everybody sitting on the floor or standing along the walls. The kids brought out their gripes; the staff was distant, they didn't let us know what was going on or who would be assigned where, or how we would be assigned, and they looked down on us for not having been through what they had. They shouldn't walk out like that, saying in effect you white people are too stupid to understand how serious all of this is.
Other people argued that we should take into account all of the hardships they were going through, and the fact that they had a lot on their minds. Others again demanded that the staff respect us more: we were after all products of our environments, and did not undestand Mississippi, and had not been beaten. Could we do something really convrete down there, or are we just pawns? If so, why would we go down there indeed? Did the staf trust us, could we learn?
Staff members began drifting in from a meeting and entered the discussion. "We did not walk because of you, necessarily. We have seen too much of that stuff in the flesh. We know that bastard and don't have to see him on the screen." One guy said "if you get mad at us walking out, just wait until they your head in, and see if you don't have soemthing to get mad about. Ask Jimmy Travis over there what he thinks about the project. What does he think about Mississipppi? He has six slugs in him, man, and the last one went right through the back of his neck when he was driving a car outside Greenwood. Ask Jesse here - he has beenbeaten so that we couldn't recognize him time and time and time and time again. If you don't get scared, pack up and get the hell out of here because we don't need any favors of people who don't know what they are doing here in the first place."
"We cried over you in the staff meeting because we love you and are afraid for you. We are grown mena nd women who have been beaten and shot at, and we cried for you. Somebody walked out of a movie and you won't see anybody walk out on your picket line. When you get beaten up, I am going to be right behind you. The song we sang yesterday was dedicated to a couple of people now in jail, and they know we are singing and thinking about them. As long as there is one person alive wearing SNCC pin they know. And you had better know it too, or else get out. I was a good soldier in Korea. I can stick a bayonet in your back in the right spot so that you don't make a sound. I know how to use piano wire around your neck and then let you fall to the ground soft. And all the time I was in Korea I was sick to the guts because I was being taught to kill so good. Don't tell me that you are coming down to help me because you are saving yourself. We are proud of you, and love you. Don't worry when we don't have time to share hands, because thats not the SNCC greeting anyway We hug and kiss you because we love you."
Here is what I said: people have been talking about Americans, and how there is more than just the black man's problem. Somebody said that we sounded like a sick bunch of people with all of our complaints. Well, we are all sick, black and white, because we are Americans, and that fat bastard on the screen has poisoned all of us. The whole god damn country has gone to hell, and we are the only ones who can save it. Isn't it sick when we have to see an in-group sitting together at lunch and feel that they are suspicious of because we are white? That is why we are going down, not to help the Negor, but to get rid of those guys for all of us. It is natural that these things should come out, because that bastard put it into all of us. That is why the training is a week long and not just two days. . .
Then some of the staff people came in singing, and we all sang togerher, and the first time really together. The crisis is past, I think.