There is not really a great deal to be said about Mississippi now, and that is one trouble with all these books. As the situation becomes ever more sharply polarized between those who wish to continue to exploit the Negro and those who aim to stop the exploitation, one finds less and less to say about the conflict. In-fighting has supplanted talk. There is, moreover, a sameness about violence, especially Mississippi violence. The terrorists show as little imagination in their actions as they do in their phone calls, which are limited to the tiny vocabulary of sexual obscenity. There are beatings, bombings, church burnings, and murder, then more of the same.
Also, Mississippi is less mysterious nowadays. The closed society is well advertised for one thing. For another, its protagonists, the Negro and the white racist, are no longer exotic Southern phenomena to be explained by books, but familiar denizens of most American neighborhoods. Nor is there any great mystery, for that matter, about the whys and wherefores of racial cruelty, whether it be the Mississippi version or Chicago Southside. A simple law of social vacuums holds here. Where there is a racially distinct minority whose well-being depends to a degree upon law and to a degree upon the good nature of the majority, the minority will finally be buggered precisely to the degree that the law allows—even when there is considerable good nature at hand. No man can hold out for long against another man’s helplessness. Sooner or later one will be seduced and the other will be buggered. The Negro in Mississippi has been almost totally outside the law and so he has been buggered almost totally. And the white man has been correspondingly seduced by the easy occasions for exploitation. The problem of securing minimal civil rights is equally simple. Changing men’s hearts and customs has nothing to do with it. The Negro will vote without difficulty in Mississippi as soon as those who would stop him know they will be put in jail if they try. Then even the racists will shrug and think of other matters such as schools and housing, as they do in the North.
The indictment of Mississippi is already in. There is little to do but document it. These books are mostly documentaries, personal accounts of those who came into the state during the summer of ’64, personal accounts also of white Mississippians who watched the state take the road to Oxford and Neshoba, and finally the testimony of the Negroes themselves, the most artless and terrible accounts of all.
I am a Negro, 21 years old. On February 6, 1962, when I was 19, I was walking with a young man down a Clarksdale street when Clarksdale police officers—and and—stopped us and accused me of having been involved in a theft.. I was taken to jail by the officers and they forced me to unclothe and lie on my back. One of the officers beat me between the legs with a belt. A few minutes later, the other officer began to beat me across my naked breasts.
SIGNED: Bessie Turner
There is not much to say now, except to issue progress reports. One records Mississippi as being more or less bad. Just now, it looks considerably better than it did a year ago.
A good deal might have been said earlier and might yet be said, but not just now. There are those of us in the South who are not unaware of certain ambiguities in the COFO assault upon the Southern status quo. The Southern novelist, for example, might have clear reservations about the vision of the world current on the U.C.L.A. campus, the New School, and other milieus which shaped the minds of the summer volunteers. Faulkner’s misgivings about Yankee suburbia still hold. And one can imagine what Flannery O’Connor would make of the confrontation of a SNCC militant and a Baptist preacher. The SNCC worker might indeed come off the better, but certainly the encounter would be more complex, more set off in the mysterious round, than the simple adversaries of these books.
But the right to express reservations is just now forfeit to history. The good white people of Mississippi did not come forward when they were needed. Mickey Schwerner and his friends did. On what grounds therefore does one complain about Mickey Schwerner?
Mississippi is one of the last of the sinful societies, that is, a place where racial crimes are committed face-to-face, between people, and with a clear assumption of the responsibility. In New York, social sins are corporate and anonymous, committed by proxy and in the name of Boards of Directors, Housing Authorities, and School Boards. The tragedy of Mississippi is that its sins are the sins of its virtues, and the reform of one will very likely entail the destruction of the other. The cruelty of the Mississippian is the cruelty of the concrete man, a true sinfulness, and as bad as it is, it is no match for the violence committed in the name of the abstract. Six million people were killed by the Germans in the name of theory, and it appears now that hardly anyone is to blame. Nearer six have been killed in Mississippi, not in order to change things as theory might require but to keep things the way they are. The way things are is very pleasant indeed for many white people and even for some colored people some of the time. But this partial blessedness did not work. The curse of Mississippi and of the deep South has always been a radical incoherence between its social order and its religion, the former being at its best an almost paradisiac society rooted in place and time and richly articulated by human relationships; the latter being a private affair with God which lent itself quite readily to the Calvinist’s struggle for business success. It swung into the defense of slavery without missing a step. So that not only did religion not undergird and broaden the sense of community among whites in order to include the freed Negro; rather was it ultimately enlisted in the service of a debased and conscienceless leadership and used to sanctify the cruelties committed against the very people who should have been its first concern. The Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan have no trouble finding chaplains. Ross Barnett teaches Sunday school.
Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two young free-thinking, unbarmitzvahed Jews, came to Meridian, which has the highest percentage of churchgoers in the world, and began the work Christians should have been doing all along, were called Jew-Communists, and murdered for their pains.
All issues are ultimately religious, said Toynbee. In this larger sense the business at hand in Mississippi is not an issue at all but rather the necessary disinfection of the premises so that the perennial conversation can continue. The first order of business is to stop people from killing each other in the name of God and country. To this end there has been put together what is surely one of the oddest alliances in history, a popular front of activist liberals, Camus existentialists, and suchlike, plus the fundamentalist Southern Negro. There is something at once risible and strange about the spectacle of COFO field workers listening to Martin Luther King deliver a sermon in a Negro church. Even though the National Council of Churches sponsored the training program for the Summer Project, ministers were received with noticeable irony. One spoke of agape. What use is agape, the students wanted to know, when the Greenwood police are kicking you in the belly? (Yet something close to an agape did prevail at Selma.) The project director was obliged to warn the volunteers to take it easy on religion when they got to Mississippi. “Don’t talk about atheism. If God wants to start a movement, then hooray for God.”
Ambiguities remain. It is not quite the case that the beneficiaries of the Great Society are coming to save the victims of an evil society. The “outside agitators” might also be described as refugees from the fragmented and rootless cities of the North who seize upon Mississippi as the unequivocal evil which can give direction to their lives. Sally Belfrage owns up to some such motive in her book. The open hatred of Mississippi, she writes, is better than the hypocrisy of the North. There is something wrong with Los Angeles too, but where is it? How does one get hold of it? There is nothing unlocated about Messrs. Rainey and Price of Neshoba County.
It is its official cruelty which compromises Mississippi. Irony is disallowed by murder. What is Mississippi being saved for? For Disneyland and Art Linkletter? So that Mississippi Negroes can act like the white folks on As the World Turns? Yes, if that’s what they want. Lisa and Pa and Chris Hughes in the soap opera suffer from anxiety and are a sorry cheerless crew but they eat good and vote and don’t get beaten up. It is the price of Yankee victory and Southern cruelty that the only road ahead for the American Negro lies straight through the anomie of white society. I take it as progress of a sort that Negroes now contribute to the suicide rate of San Francisco, which is the highest in the United States. One may still hope that the truly emancipated Negro will not lose the qualities of the Amos family described in Sally Belfrage’s book. For of course it is for these noble people to instruct the whites, Northern and Southern. But the right to cite the Amoses in defense of the Southern status quo is now forfeit.
Barney Frank, organizer of the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi, will have no truck with SNCC utopianism. He is quoted in McCord’s book: “As conditions improve and they will, the Negro will seek his spot in suburbia, drink his beer and watch TV. That’s fine.” It is fine. Until the Ruleville Negro is in the same fix as the rest of us, can watch Bonanza every Sunday night along with Senator Eastland over in the big house across the tracks, can see the U.S.A. in his Chevrolet, and vote against Eastland in the next election—no one is entitled to any reservation whatever.
Yankees, don’t go home. If a dislocated and depersonalized suburbia can assist a society which is losing its soul through depravity and brutality, it is for us in the South to be grateful. Perhaps some day the favor can be returned.
Sally Belfrage’s Freedom Summer is an account of her experience with the Summer Project as a SNCC worker in Greenwood. Greenwood is a pleasant prosperous Delta town which is run by thugs, a brutal place even by Mississippi standards—in sharp contrast to Greenville a few miles away. Freedom Summer is a low-keyed and all the more effective treatment of the gritty routine of running a Freedom library, of the Negroes, the daily procession of small harassments, the obscene phone calls, the cars that try to run you down in the street, and finally the registration drive and a week-end in the Greenwood jail. A personable and courageous girl she sounds like, but the SNCC insignia are there: a kind of doctrinal snobbishness—Miss Belfrage has no use not only for Southern whites but for the Negro middle class, Martin Luther King, the N.A.A.C.P., and the F.B.I.—and a certain reticence about Communism and the presence of Communists in the Movement. Bob Moses, she reports, will not discuss Communism: “It’s divisive and its’s not a negotiable issue with us.” One begins to understand why at least one COFO member organization has pulled out. This ideological carelessness seems regrettable, if only for tactical reasons. Derogatory information has been forthcoming in a few cases and Eastland and company have been made a present of their only weapon. Eastland’s sole contribution to his state during the past year has been to holler Communism.
William McCord’s Mississippi: The Long Hot Summer is probably the best available treatment of the Movement, particularly in its realistic appraisal of future prospects. He disagrees with SNCC’s contempt for the middle class, while and Negro, and its romantic objective of uniting poor white and Negro in a new Populism. This latter is in fact madness and comes from confusing logic and reality. The redneck, it is true, has suffered almost as much as the Negro from the closed society. But for this very reason he will be the last to make common cause with the Negro. If he did, he wouldn’t have anybody else to look down on. “The only possible white allies of the Negro movement,” writes McCord, “will be the middle-class, educated moderates.” This is true. There are two ingredients in Greenville’s success: one is the existence of a strong Negro middle class; the other is that the power structure is in the hands of educated white moderates. A full-page ad appeared in Greenville’s Delta Democrat Times on May 4 last, sponsored by thirty community leaders, white and Negro, business and religious. It recommended among other things that “Each businessman of Greenvil’e plan NOW to offer employment opportunities to all qualified persons regardless of race, color or creed.” Greenville, not a doctrinaire Populism, is the only doorway out of the closed society and back into the U.S. with its different set of problems.
The letters in Letters from Mississippi were written by some very nice kids, the summer volunteers, earnest, well-disposed boys and girls from such places as Swarthmore and Westchester County and equipped mainly with the post-Christian piety of the sociology major. The letters have to do with the impact on them of Negro goodness (a different sort of goodness from theirs) and of white malice. They were unprepared for the vehemence of either.
There are the old men and women in old clothing whom you know have little money and none to spare, who stop you as you are leaving the church after addressing the congregation and press a dollar into your hand and say, “I’ve waited 80 years for you to come and I just have to give you this little bit to let you all know how much we appreciate your coming. I prays for your safety every night, son. God bless you all.”
Four of us (white) went to the Episcopal Church last Sunday, and I’ve never felt so much outside the Episcopal club!… Half a block away from the church a man came up and without introductions asked us, “You won’t bring any niggers next week, will you?”
Religion is the stumbling block:
Along with my Core class I teach a religion class at one every afternoon and a class on non-violence at four fifteen…In religion they are being confronted for the first time with people they respect who do not believe in God and with people who do believe in God but who do not take the Bible literally. It’s a challenging class because I have no desire to destroy their belief, whether Roman Catholic or Baptist, but I want them to look at all things critically and to learn to separate fact from interpretation and myth in all areas, not just religion.
Here too, a certain degree of irony and risibility for which this good girl might ordinarily be the occasion must be forgone, irony both as to which questions are being begged and who stands to learn from whom.
Huie’s book is the story of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. It is good journalism, but it adds very little to what was known shortly after the crime was discovered. The same questions still go unanswered. Why did the three leave the Philadelphia jail at ten o’clock at night without using the telephone? And granted a widely accepted knowledge of the conspiracy, its nature, and its members, how and by whom were the murders committed? One gets the impression that Huie, who spent a lot of time in Philadelphia and talked to many people, knows more than he can tell. If this is so, it must be frustrating to be able to tell everything about the story but the story itself. As horrifically memorable now as last year is the photo of Rainey and Price and friends lounging in the Meridian courtroom at their arraignment, the entire company convulsed by the knee-slapping hilarity ordinarily brought on by a joke in the posse room back in Philadelphia.
Russell Barrett, Professor of Political Science at the University of Mississippi, has written in Integration at Ole Miss an excellent account of the Time of Troubles. Its excellence is its difficulty: it covers much the same ground as James Silver’s book, The Closed Society, and professes the same allegiances. Its author has an equal claim to our admiration. When he had a cup of coffee with Meredith in the cafeteria, the Citizens Council sent him an “honorary nigger” card. His answer was to wear it to class pinned to his lapel along with his campaign ribbons from World War II.
The most remarkable thing about Robert Canzoneri’s book, I Do So Politely—the title is taken from Governor Barnett’s remark when he stood in the doorway at Ole Miss and turned James Meredith away: “I do so politely,” he added—is that it could be written at all. A native of Mississippi and in fact a cousin of Ross Barnett, he attacks the closed society in a conventional, albeit a skillful and anecdotal, style. He knows all the stories one might hear in the faculty lounge at Millsaps and tells them with the same wry this-is-what-we’ve-come-to delivery. Some time ago, it seems, American missionaries sent two Nigerians home to be trained in a Southern Baptist institution of higher learning. The problem arose when the two Africans, recently won to Christ, wanted to go to church. It was decided finally that they could go to church if they sat in a prescribed place and wore full tribal regalia.
It should not be so remarkable that an intelligent and sensitive man should write a good book in which he takes a stand against cruelty and hypocrisy and tells us that he voted for John F. Kennedy. But in this case it is remarkable. That is what the state has come to.
Mississippi Black Paper is a collection of affidavits assembled as evidence for a suit against Sheriff Rainey and other state officials. They are mostly of this order:
I am a Negro, 38 years old, and I reside with my husband in Clarksdale, Mississippi…I was beaten by Mr.—Service Station attendant, because I asked to use the service station rest room while they were servicing my car…After I returned home, I called the office of Police Officer—and reported the incident…About 50 minutes later, he came to my house with a warrant for my arrest for “disturbing the peace”…
It is somewhere along here that it comes over you that there is not really much to say.
July 1, 1965