Miss. Freedom Summer Project Part 13

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Friday night we ate supper in what could only be described as a “dive.” We would have been scared to death to enter such a place in the North. People sitting around drinking & talking. Several dancing, many of them quite high. Everyone nodding or saying hello as we walked in. Roger & I had heard that they had good barbecued chicken dinners. They were right. For $1 we received half a chicken & trimmings. The chicken was, however, no more seasoned than the surrounding atmosphere. loud talking (good-natured). laughing, & all. Miss. is officially a dry state, yet a whiskey bottle sat out on one of the tables.

We arrived at the mass meeting down the street a little late. This one was good, though not as much as some before. It obviously wasn’t as well planed. The chief concern of the free for all discussion was the school boycott. Mr. Thorn is giving the parents the run-around. Again words of thanks after the meeting.

We slept in until about 9 Saturday – it felt good. The weather has been so wonderful. Several of the Parents Committee gathered at the Center around 11to discuss what to do about Mr. Thorn. Mr. Flakes had called him but was told that he was out of town. They wanted to press their case with higher authorities, but first they had to at least meet with Mr. Thorn or prove that he was refusing to meet them. I suggested that they send him a registered letter asking to meet with him. They liked this very much since he would have to sign for it, thus proving the letter was sent & received. We helped them draft it, & they signed & sent it off.

I talked with Mrs. Miller, one of the Comm. members about a number of things & helped several – including Mr. Flakes – take out books from the library (Judy was attending a state COFO Library Conference). There’s a great amount of interest in Negro history. They’ve never had this before in school. Mrs. Miller told us that the location of the Klan’s meetinghouse had been found. We asked her to take us out there for pictures, but she thought it better if one of the boys went with us. Charles guided us to the turn off to Long Shot a few miles west of Shaw. The sky was darkening, pierced by zigzagged lightning streaks. Very appropriate setting. The house was a “shot gun house”, long and narrow. The windows were covered with sheet metal but the meter was hooked up. No one was around at the time, so we snapped away with our cameras. Returning to Shaw, we drove through a heavy down pour. The parched earth could use it. Soon after our return we were off again- for a staff meeting with Bradford in Wilsonville. Wally presented a proposed budget for the Center – $220 a month – and discussed plans for the future. A request for 3 staff people & a car will be made to Jackson.

On our way back Wally suggested we stop at a Gulf station in Shaw & he would buy gas with his credit card. We pulled in but no one came up at first. Finally a Negro attendant came out. I could just hear a voice call after him, “You don’t have to serve them! We don’t need their money that bad.” Charles & Aaron (both black) were with us, branding us as Communist agitators.

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The Negro attendant waited on us anyhow. The whites looked us over with hostile eyes. One of them, a young t-shirted tough who seemed to think he was quite handsome & tough, strode over to a doughnut shop next to the station. Soon several faces were staring out at us. The attendant asked if we wanted the water & oil checked. Not wanting to stay there any longer, we said no. When Wally gave him his credit card the white owner came over & demanded identification. He seemed to be looking for some excuse not to honor it, but Wally flashed his wallet & the man was satisfied.

The Negro spoke the customary farewell, “you all come back.” “Oh no, don’t do that!” the white man hastily added. The young tough, who’d come out of the doughnut shop to look us over more closely, cheerfully chimed in, “I hope you don’t make it through the night.” With a loud cry of “Freedom, Oh Freedom…” we drove away. What sick minds such people are burdened with! Even money, first in so many men’s lives, is second to their hatred & prejudice.

Two COFO Volunteers from Gulf Port drove in late in the afternoon. Wally had heard they would be near by & invited them to show some slides. The one had been to Africa two years before as a member of Operation Crossroads Africa. A small group of about 20 gathered around 8. More kept drifting in during the show until by the end of the meeting the church was almost full. The slides & lecture appealed to all of us. Tom had worked in Senegal where he & an interracial team constructed the shell of a small dormitory for a new high school. Actually, however, the most memorable scene was shot not in Africa, but in America. Before the group of students left, President Kennedy came down to speak to them and shake their hands. There was an excellent side view of him that brought back many poignant memories.

It was interesting later to compare projects. Tom & Steve felt that they had really been in Miss. for the first time since leaving Gulf Port. The Negroes there made up only 1/6 of the population. The Movement had picked up little of the steam or the momentum. There was little tension as a result. They had been swimming in the Gulf late at night & doing all kinds of recreational activities not possible in other parts of the state. Because of their small numbers & dependency upon the white man’s good will, many – probably most – of the Negroes there were immobilized by fear.

Sunday morning we picked up Elliott Gotheen (?) in Cleveland. Elliott had been invited to preach the sermon at Church of Christ, Holiness. We arrived at the church to find a very small congregation waiting. It was not their usual Sunday to have church services, though a mimeographed flier had gone out. We waited for a little while for more to come. Mr. Perry, the presiding deacon put it well, “There aren’t many here, so we’s going to wait & have faith that this church will be filled.” He must have had great faith, for the church was almost filled half- way through the service as people kept drifting in.

The first part of the service was conducted by Mr. Perry & another deacon. It consisted of prayer, the singing of several songs – all known by heart by the congregation (there were only two hymnals in the church and no pianist), the reading of a Scripture lesson and announcements. Then Mr. Perry turned the service over to Elliott. His text was the Lukan account of the Good Samaritan story. Focusing primarily on the first part of the account – love of God & of neighbor – he presented a very moving sermon, ending with a plea that the Negroes help the white man to regain his soul, lost now in the jungle of hatred & violence.

Roger & I had been asked, as ministers, to sit on the chancel with Elliott. When he concluded his sermon, Mr. Perry arose and remarked how fortunate they were to have not one but three ministers who had come from the North to help them win their freedom. He then asked us to speak. Roger & I looked at one another, & he signaled me to go first. I expressed our thanks to them for all that they had taught us this summer. Then picking up Elliott’s theme I emphasized that the Samaritan was of a despised minority also, & so had every reason to pass by the hated Jew, even as his own fellow Jews had done. But he didn’t; his love overcame the high wall of prejudice & hostility, even as Christ’s love sought to break down the wall between blacks & whites. I continued Elliott’s plea for love & forgiveness as the only lasting solution to the pressing problem~.

Roger also spoke to this and emphasized the great need they would have for the sense of the presence of God, even in the midst of trouble & tribulation (these were no idle words for those before us!). He concluded with a stanza from a hymn – the effect of it was that even in the darkness that surrounds & threatens to overwhelm us, there is Jesus seeking our hand.

The response was warm & stimulating. The people nodded their heads, burst out with “Yes, that’s right,” or “That’s the truth”, as well as the usual “Amens.” The atmosphere was alive & exciting. They were indeed a Protestant congregation hearing & responding to the Word at the same time. No idle, dozing spectators waiting to be amused or entertained, they participated with everything that they had. The service was not dignified in the usual, traditionally stately sense, but it was not just a noisy, boisterous crowd.

Mr. Amzie Moore, owner of a Standard Oil Station in Cleveland, expressed the feelings of all of us when he spoke next. Quoting liberally from Scriptures he spoke of the fellowship that we were sharing together, black and white. The barriers erected by man had been torn down by Christ as we worshiped together today. He thanked us and the volunteers – far more generously than we’d deserved – & wished that we were staying. I wish some of my laymen could have heard him – here was a man who had apparently lived with his Bible for a long time. Mr. Perry gave the brief final talk – a fiery one, thanking us, & urging the people to stand up for their faith. He directed his attention to us when he exclaimed, “When you go North, tell your people there not to send their money & missionaries to Africa. Send them to Miss. We need them more.” A huge cheer greeted this: Mr. Perry repeated this exhortation several times, stressing the fact that the church had failed so terribly in the South. Called to be the Light on the Hill, the church had been led rather than taking the lead.

Mr. Perry, one of the bravest Mississippians whom we were privileged to meet.

Just thought of one more memorable quote from Mr. Moore’s talk – he was talking about the fellowship in Christ and how God has cal led us al I to be one in Jesus Christ so that there is neither Gentile nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. He then said, “There is no such thing as a Negro Church! There isn’t no such thing as a white church! There’s just one church! The Church of Jesus Christ! How stupid it is to try to keep a brother from God’s house!”

Mr. Perry announced that an offering would be taken, part of which would go to the preachers as a gesture of the people’s love & part to the maintenance of the building. A song was struck up & during the singing each person came forward to place his gift in the plate on the communion table. They also came over to shake our hands and greet us. Their words were warm and sincere, I believe. They seemed very touched that we had come and shared in their service.

After the service we talked for a while with Mrs. Moore & Perry & went home. We were surprised to learn that the service had lasted for 1 1/2 hours!

Next week Roger and I pay a call on the pastor of the white Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, MS.

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