Henry Schwarzschild was arrested with eight other Riders at the Trailways station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. He was 35 years old. He died in 1996, at 70, several years before I started my project, so I never got to meet him, or even learn much about him.
But preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Rides in 2011, I came across his compelling answer to the single question most asked of the Riders: Why did you go?
I do not think that my participation in the Freedom Rides made an appreciable difference to the inevitably successful outcome of this struggle. Nor did I expect it to heal the wounds of which the white majority has for decades inflicted on the Negro. I went to the South in inadequate obedience to the Biblical demand “to do justly.” I went as a Jew who remembers the slavery of our forefathers in Egypt and who wants to obey the injunction to consider himself personally liberated from Egyptian slavery. I went as a Jew in response to the prophetic question “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? said the Lord.” My participation in the Freedom Rides was an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.
– From Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan.
Like at least two other Riders, Henry Schwarzschild was born in Europe and as a child fled with his family to the United States to escape World War II. Still, as Fred Powledge recounts in Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It, Schwarzschild’s early years must have seemed charmed:
Schwarzschild was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1925, to a family of Jewish intellectuals who traced their name back to the Frankfurt ghetto of 1425. He moved to Berlin in 1931. His home was filled with the comings and goings of politically, intellectually, and artistically active people. “Even as a young kid,” said Schwarzschild, “it was impossible to avoid being made enormously, prematurely conscious of the world around one.”
In 1939 he and his family fled to Paris, then to New York City. For the rest of his life, Schwarzschild said, he would be “very sensitive to issues of political liberty.”
In 1944, he went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for his Army basic training as well as his basic introduction to race relations in the deep south. During the sit-ins in 1960, he joined a picket line outside a five-and-dime in Lexington, Kentucky, and was soon in touch with the Congress of Racial Equality.
After the Rides, Schwarzschild remained active in the movement, working closely with SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1964 he started the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, which for six years sent lawyers south to help with civil rights cases.
Schwarzschild next turned his attention to the death penalty. He worked on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1972 to 1990, the last 15 years as the head of its Capital Punishment Project. In his 1996 obituary in the New York Times he was described as “the major architect” of the campaign to end executions in this country.
Read more about Schwarzschild: Wikipedia | New York Times obituary
A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.
In an interview for the documentary Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about the importance of respecting the police during demonstrations, even as they may be attacking the demonstrators. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
James Devinney: I have seen a photograph of you, Reverend Bevel, where you were using a policeman’s bullhorn to talk to some children because I think they started to misbehave one day. Could you tell us that story?
James Bevel: Yeah, that was the time I was referring to [in Birmingham]. We were coming off a demonstration and the police was driving the students back with water and dogs, and when we got back to the church a lot of their parents had come out to watch. The students was being playful and jovial and mocking the police, but the adults — upon seeing a lot of the students knocked down by the water and their clothes torn off by dogs — began to organize their guns and knives and bricks.
What I did, actually, was tell the students that they had to respect police officers, that their job was to help police and to keep order. That the police was there to keep order and that the people who was there throwing [things] was probably paid instigators, and therefore we had to watch them. And it was very effective. It started all the students to pointing at adults who had rocks and knives and guns, and then the adults had to start dropping them. Because it would’ve started a riot, and a riot would’ve gotten off the issue. The students was very aware of that, and the adults weren’t aware of that.
So what we did, we got the adults that day say, maybe nearly a thousand, to go into the church, and to go through the reasons why you don’t use violence. The fact that we were in control and that we were gaining because we were not using violence because the issues were being made clear. But that was like one of the spectacular events one time that this policeman with a bullhorn not knowing what to do with it to keep order, and I said, “Well, where’s Bull Connor?” And he said, “Well,” and he started looking for him. And I said, “Let me use your bullhorn.”
So he just gave it to me, and I said, “OK, get off the streets now. We’re not going to have violence. If you’re not going to respect policemen, you’re not going to be in the movement.”
And you know, it’s strange I guess for them. I’m with the police talking through their bullhorn and giving orders and everybody was obeying. It was like, it was wow! But what was at stake was the possibility of a riot and that, in a movement, once a riot break out, you have to stop, takes you four or five days to get re-established, and I was trying to avoid that kind of situation.
Late one summer night in 2011 in Jackson, Mississippi, James Craig Anderson, an African-American, was set upon in a parking lot by ten white teenagers, beaten and murdered. The gruesome killing was recorded by security cameras, and all ten teenagers, now adults, have pled guilty to various charges. In their pleas they told the court that this incident was one of many trips into Jackson, which they called “Jafrica,” to beat up black people.
Yesterday in Jackson, the first three of the defendants to be sentenced in federal court received prison terms ranging from 5 to 50 years.
The three — Deryl Dedmon, Dylan Butler and John Rice — were sentenced by Federal district court judge Carlton Reeves. In his remarks from the bench, Reeves gave a unflinching account of the state’s violent past: “Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings.”
And he connected Anderson’s murder directly to that bloody history:
A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the City of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the Nigger hunts.
Reeves went on to contrast the state’s current criminal justice system with the past, when the system “operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER.”
Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past . . . we move farther away from the abyss. . . . Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white; male and female, in this Mississippi, they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today.
He closed with hopes for the victim’s mother and the defendants:
These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson. . . . The Court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the Court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, Justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the Court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.
Reeves was appointed to the federal bench by Obama in 2010. He is the second African-American federal judge from Mississippi.
Below is his full statement, as prepared:
One of my former history professors, Dennis Mitchell, recently released a history book entitled, A New History of Mississippi. “Mississippi,” he says, “is a place and a state of mind. The name evokes strong reactions from those who live here and from those who do not, but who think they know something about its people and their past.” Because of its past, as described by Anthony Walton in his book, Mississippi: An American Journey, Mississippi “can be considered one of the most prominent scars on the map” of these United States. Walton goes on to explain that “there is something different about Mississippi; something almost unspeakably primal and vicious; something savage unleashed there that has yet to come to rest.” To prove his point, he notes that, “[o]f the 40 martyrs whose names are inscribed in the national Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, AL, 19 were killed in Mississippi.” “How was it,” Walton asks, “that half who died did so in one state?” — My Mississippi, Your Mississippi and Our Mississippi.
Mississippi has expressed its savagery in a number of ways throughout its history — slavery being the cruelest example, but a close second being Mississippi’s infatuation with lynchings. Lynchings were prevalent, prominent and participatory. A lynching was a public ritual — even carnival-like — within many states in our great nation. While other States engaged in these atrocities, those in the deep south took a leadership role, especially that scar on the map of America — those 82 counties between the Tennessee line and the Gulf of Mexico and bordered by Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.
Vivid accounts of brutal and terrifying lynchings in Mississippi are chronicled in various sources: Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynching and Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, just to name two. But I note that today, the Equal Justice Initiative released Lynching in America: Confronting the Terror of of Racial Terror; apparently, it too is a must-read.
In Without Sanctuary, historian Leon Litwack writes that between 1882 and 1968 an estimated 4,742 Blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs.1 The impact this campaign of terror had on black families is impossible to explain so many years later. That number contrasts with the 1,401 prisoners who have been executed legally in the United States since 1976.2 In modern terms, that number represents more than those killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom3 and more than twice the number of American casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom4 — the Afghanistan conflict. Turning to home, this number also represents 1,700 more than who were killed on 9/11.5 Those who died at the hands of mobs, Litwack notes, some were the victims of “legal” lynchings — having been accused of a crime, subjected to a “speedy” trial and even speedier execution. Some were victims of private white violence and some were merely the victims of “Nigger hunts” — murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. “Back in those days,” according to black Mississippians describing the violence of the 1930’s, “to kill a Negro wasn’t nothing. It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake. The whites would say, ‘Niggers jest supposed to die, ain’t no damn good anyway — so jest go an’ kill ’em.’ . . . They had to have a license to kill anything but a Nigger. We was always in season.”6 Said one white Mississippian, “A white man ain’t a-going to be able to live in this country if we let niggers start getting biggity.”7 And, even when lynchings had decreased in and around Oxford, one white resident told a visitor of the reaffirming quality of lynchings: “It’s about time to have another [one],” he explained, “[w]hen the niggers get so that they are afraid of being lynched, it is time to put the fear in them.”8
How could hate, fear or whatever it was that transformed genteel, God-fearing, God-loving Mississippians into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers? I ask that same question about the events which bring us together on this day. Those crimes of the past as well as these have so damaged the psyche and reputation of this great State.
Mississippi soil has been stained with the blood of folk whose names have become synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement like Emmett Till, Willie McGee, James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Vernon Dahmer, George W. Lee, Medgar Evers and Mack Charles Parker. But the blood of the lesser-known people like Luther Holbert and his wife,9 Elmo Curl,10 Lloyd Clay,11 John Hartfield,12 Nelse Patton,13 Lamar Smith,14 Clinton Melton,15 Ben Chester White, Wharlest Jackson and countless others, saturates these 48,434 square miles of Mississippi soil. On June 26, 2011, four days short of his 49th birthday, the blood of James Anderson was added to Mississippi’s soil.
The common denominator of the deaths of these individuals was not their race. It was not that they all were engaged in freedom fighting. It was not that they had been engaged in criminal activity, trumped up or otherwise. No, the common denominator was that the last thing that each of these individuals saw was the inhumanity of racism. The last thing that each felt was the audacity and agony of hate; senseless hate: crippling, maiming them and finally taking away their lives.
Mississippi has a tortured past, and it has struggled mightily to reinvent itself and become a New Mississippi. New generations have attempted to pull Mississippi from the abyss of moral depravity in which it once so proudly floundered in. Despite much progress and the efforts of the new generations, these three defendants are before me today: Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice. They and their coconspirators ripped off the scab of the healing scars of Mississippi . . . causing her (our Mississippi) to bleed again.
Hate comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and from this case, we know it comes in different sexes and ages. A toxic mix of alcohol, foolishness and unadulterated hatred caused these young people to resurrect the nightmarish specter of lynchings and lynch mobs from the Mississippi we long to forget. Like the marauders of ages past, these young folk conspired, planned, and coordinated a plan of attack on certain neighborhoods in the City of Jackson for the sole purpose of harassing, terrorizing, physically assaulting and causing bodily injury to black folk. They punched and kicked them about their bodies — their heads, their faces. They prowled. They came ready to hurt. They used dangerous weapons; they targeted the weak; they recruited and encouraged others to join in the coordinated chaos; and they boasted about their shameful activity. This was a 2011 version of the Nigger hunts.
Though the media and the public attention of these crimes have been focused almost exclusively on the early morning hours of June 26, 2011, the defendants’ terror campaign is not limited to this one incident. There were many scenes and many actors in this sordid tale which played out over days, weeks, and months. There are unknown victims like the John Doe at the golf course who begged for his life and the John Doe at the service station. Like a lynching, for these young folk going out to “Jafrica” was like a carnival outing. It was funny to them – – an excursion which culminated in the death of innocent, African-American James Craig Anderson. On June 26, 2011, the fun ended.
But even after Anderson’s murder, the conspiracy continued . . . And, only because of a video, which told a different story from that which had been concocted by these defendants, and the investigation of law enforcement — state and federal law enforcement working together — was the truth uncovered.
What is so disturbing . . . so shocking . . . so numbing . . . is that these Nigger hunts were perpetrated by our children . . . students who live among us . . . educated in our public schools . . . in our private academies . . . students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates . . . average students and honor students. Kids who worked during school and in the summers; kids who now had full-time jobs and some of whom were even unemployed. Some were pursuing higher education and the Court believes they each had dreams to pursue. These children were from two-parent homes and some of whom were the children of divorced parents, and yes some even raised by a single parent. No doubt, they all had loving parents and loving families.
In letters received on his behalf, Dylan Butler, whose outing on the night of June 26 was not his first, has been described as “a fine young man,” “a caring person,” “a well mannered man” who is truly remorseful and wants to move on with his life . . . a very respectful . . . a good man . . . a good person . . . a loveable, kind-hearted teddy bear who stands in front of bullies . . . and who is now ashamed of what he did. Butler’s family is a mixed-race family: for the last 15 years, it has consisted of an African-American step-father and step-sister plus his mother and two sisters. The family, according to the step-father, understandably is “saddened and heart broken.”
These were everyday students like John Aaron Rice, who got out of his truck, struck James Anderson in the face and kept him occupied until others arrived . . . . Rice was involved in multiple excursions to so-called “Jafrica”, but he, for some time, according to him and his mother, and an African-American friend shared his home address.
And, sadly, Deryl Dedmon, who straddled James Anderson and struck him repeatedly in the face and head with his closed fists. He too was a “normal” young man indistinguishable in so many ways from his peers. Not completely satisfied with the punishment to which he subjected James Anderson, he “deliberately used his vehicle to run over James Anderson – – killing him.” Dedmon now acknowledges he was filled with anger.
I asked the question earlier, but what could transform these young adults into the violent creatures their victims saw? It was nothing the victims did . . . they were not championing any cause . . . political . . . social . . . economic . . . nothing they did . . . not a wolf whistle . . . not a supposed crime . . . nothing they did. There is absolutely no doubt that in the view of the Court the victims were targeted because of their race.
The simple fact is that what turned these children into criminal defendants was their joint decision to act on racial hatred. In the eyes of these defendants (and their coconspirators) the victims were doomed at birth . . . their genetic make-up made them targets.
In the name of White Power, these young folk went to “Jafrica” to “fuck with some niggers!” – – Echos of Mississippi’s past. White Power! Nigger! According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, that word Nigger is the “universally recognized opprobrium, stigmatizing African-Americans because of their race.”16 It’s the nuclear bomb of racial epithets – – as Farai Chideya has described the term. With their words, with their actions – – “I just ran that Nigger over” – – there is no doubt that these crimes were motivated by the race of the victims. And from his own pen, Dedmon, sadly and regretfully wrote that he did it out of “hatred and bigotry.”
The Court must respond to one letter it received from one identified as a youth leader in Dylan Butler’s church, a mentor, he says and who describes Dylan as “a good person.” The point that “[t]here are plenty of criminals that deserve to be incarcerated,” is well taken. Your point that Dylan is not one of them — not a criminal . . . is belied by the facts and the law. Dylan was an active participant in this activity, and he deserves to be incarcerated under the law. What these defendants did was ugly . . . it was painful . . . it is sad . . . and it is indeed criminal.
In the Mississippi we have tried to bury, when there was a jury verdict for those who perpetrated crimes and committed lynchings in the name of WHITE POWER . . . that verdict typically said that the victim died at the hands of persons unknown. The legal and criminal justice system operated with ruthless efficiency in upholding what these defendants would call WHITE POWER.
Today, though, the criminal justice system (state and federal) has proceeded methodically, patiently and deliberately seeking justice. Today we learned the identities of the persons unknown . . . they stand here publicly today. The sadness of this day also has an element of irony to it: each defendant was escorted into court by agents of an African-American United States Marshal; having been prosecuted by a team of lawyers which includes an African-American AUSA from an office headed by an African-American U.S. Attorney — all under the direction of an African-American Attorney General, for sentencing before a judge who is African-American, whose final act will be to turn over the care and custody of these individuals to the BOP — an agency headed by an African-American.
Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past . . . we move farther away from the abyss. Indeed, Mississippi is a place and a state of mind. And those who think they know about her people and her past will also understand that her story has not been completely written. Mississippi has a present and a future. That present and future has promise. As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies — black and white; male and female, in this Mississippi, they work together to advance the rule of law. Having learned from Mississippi’s inglorious past, these officials know that in advancing the rule of law, the criminal justice system must operate without regard to race, creed or color. This is the strongest way Mississippi can reject those notions — those ideas which brought us here today.
At their guilty plea hearings, Deryl Paul Dedmon, Dylan Wade Butler and John Aaron Rice told the world exactly what their roles were . . . it is ugly . . . it is painful . . . it is sad . . . it is criminal.
The Court now sentences the defendants as follows: [The specific sentences are not part of the judge’s prepared remarks.]
The Court has considered the advisory guidelines computations and the sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). The Court has considered the defendants’ history and characteristics. The Court has also considered unusual circumstances — the extraordinary circumstances — and the peculiar seriousness and gravity of those offenses. I have paid special attention to the plea agreements and the recommendations of the United States. I have read the letters received on behalf of the defendants. I believe these sentences provide just punishment to each of these defendants and equally important, I believe they serve as adequate deterrence to others and I hope that these sentences will discourage others from heading down a similar life-altering path. I have considered the Sentencing Guidelines and the policy statements and the law. These sentences are the result of much thought and deliberation.
These sentences will not bring back James Craig Anderson nor will they restore the lives they enjoyed prior to 2011. The Court knows that James Anderson’s mother, who is now 89 years old, lived through the horrors of the Old Mississippi, and the Court hopes that she and her family can find peace in knowing that with these sentences, in the New Mississippi, Justice is truly blind. Justice, however, will not be complete unless these defendants use the remainder of their lives to learn from this experience and fully commit to making a positive difference in the New Mississippi. And, finally, the Court wishes that the defendants also can find peace.
1. Without Sanctuary, at 12.
6. Without Sanctuary, at 15.
7. Id., at 27.
9. Id., at 15.
10. Id., at 17.
11. Id., at 18.
12. Id., at 20.
14. A New History, at 405.
15. Id. at 408.
16. Henry Brown v. East Miss. Elect. Power Ass’n, 989 F.2d 858, 861 (5th Cir. 1993).
A New History of Mississippi
Mississippi: An American Journey
100 Years of Lynchings
Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
A key organizer for King’s SCLC, James Bevel was one of the principal architects of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which put hundreds of school kids in the streets in 1963. One way or another he was also involved in most all the major campaigns in the 1960s, including the Freedom Rides, usually recruiting volunteers and educating them in nonviolence, as he did in Jackson during the Rides.
In an interview for Eyes on the Prize, Bevel talked about how responsive the children of Birmingham were to the idea of nonviolent direct action, much more so than adults. James DeVinney was a writer, director and producer of the series. The full, unedited transcript of the interview has recently been posted at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website.
James DeVinney: You talked about the indoctrination of adults. What was the adult thinking?
James Bevel: In ’63 in Birmingham most adults felt that segregation was permanent. That it was just that way, a permanent system. People’s homes and churches had been bombed, people had been lynched and killed and there was no process by which you could gain redress to your grievances. The adults had a conditioning.
As organizers you had to get people who had not experienced all of that and who had confidence in themselves and in our system of law.
The young people in Birmingham were susceptible to the principle that the attitudes and opinions of white people did not constitute law. That that was simply tradition and custom and if we lived according to the New Testament and the Constitution, then we would forge a new law rather than having to live by the attitudes and opinions of the dominant people at that point.
DeVinney: Tell me a story about what it was like when you started to train all those children.
Bevel: I had come out of the Nashville movement and the Mississippi movement, where we had basically used young people all the time. And at first King didn’t want me to use young people in Birmingham, because I had 80 charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor against me in Jackson, Mississippi, for sending young people on the Freedom Ride.
James Bevel rode on the first bus of Freedom Riders into Jackson in 1961. He quickly bailed out after his arrest and began recruiting local high school students to join the Rides.
At that point that was about only five to ten, twelve adults who would go on demonstrations each day. My position was, you can’t get the dialogue you need with so few people. Besides, most adults have bills to pay, house notes, rents, car notes, utility bills.
But the young people — they can think at the same level but are not, at this point, hooked with all those responsibilities. So a boy from high school, he get the same effect in terms of being in jail in terms of putting the pressure on the city as his father and yet he is not, there is no economic threat on the family because the father is still on the job.
So the high school students was like our choice.
We said to them you’re adults, but you’re still sort of living on your mamas and your daddies. It is your responsibility, in that you don’t have to pay the bills, to confront the segregation question. We went around and started organizing say like the queens of the high schools, the basketball stars, the football stars, so you get the influence and power leaders involved. And then they in turn got all the other students involved. . . .
DeVinney: You’re telling me a lot of the philosophy, but what happened when you brought these kids together. I know there’s a story in here somewhere.
Bevel: First thing we did, there’s a film, The Nashville City and Story. It was an NBC White Paper. We would show that film in all of the schools. Then we would say to the students, you are responsible for segregation, you and your parents, because you have not stood up.
Our position was that, according to the Bible and the Constitution, no one has the power to oppress you if you don’t cooperate. If you say you are oppressed, then you are also acknowledging that you are in league with the oppressor. Now it’s your responsibility to break league with the oppressor.
If you don’t second his motion on what’s wrong, his motion on what’s wrong will die, and you make a motion in terms of what’s right, and second your motion, and that motion will become alive. As long as you go along with segregation, you second Bull Connor’s motion. Don’t second his motion. Put your own motion on the floor. Schools and business shouldn’t go on as usual as long as you’re involved in being oppressed.
DeVinney: Tell me about the kids. How did they respond?
Bevel: They responded beautifully. Your first response is from the young women. I guess, from about 13 to 18. They’re probably the more responsive in terms of courage, confidence and the ability to follow reasoning and logic. Nonviolence to them — it’s logical that you should love people, you shouldn’t violate people, you shouldn’t violate property. There’s a way to solve all problems without violating. Nonviolence is uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. But if you maintain your position, the threat goes away.
DeVinney: Who was the next group to respond?
Bevel: Then the elementary students. They can comprehend. I guess the last guys to get involved was the high school guys. Because the brunt of the violence in the South was directed towards the young males. The females didn’t have the kind of immediate fear, say, of white policemen, as the young men did. So their involvement was more spontaneous.
DeVinney: I don’t want to philosophize about this too much. I want something visual, if you can describe how the kids responded or behaved. Can you do that?
Bevel: Now, say in a nonviolent movement — I think King makes a statement that it’s not like punching a bunch of buttons and you get automatic response — people with all their frailties make up the matrix of a movement. So if you have a philosophy —
Devinney: OK, OK, but you’re giving me philosophy again. I want to know what the kids did. How does a 6-year-old girl respond in the midst of something like the Birmingham events?
Bevel: Children are children. They act like young people act, and they didn’t always go around acting like, you know, monks.
One little girl in Birmingham came to me and said, “I want to demonstrate.”
And I said, well you’re too little and beside you’d have to understand Jesus Christ and Gandhi and all that stuff, and you’ve got to be born again.”
And she said, “Well, I been born again. I’m member of a church and I’ve been baptized.”
I said, “Well, I still think you’re too little.”
And her mama said, “Well, she been thinking about it and she’s not too little, she goes to Sunday School.”
She goes to Sunday School and she lives out her conviction. My position was, well, if you understand what the cross is about and you don’t have no problem with getting killed, and you don’t have no problem going to jail, and you understand that you can’t sue nobody, ’cause this is something you take upon yourself. If that’s the way you feel, if you feel about it like I do, then you can get involved. And it was on that basis that that young girl was involved.
Jesse Harris was one of the many Riders from Jackson, Mississippi, a newcomer to the movement who got his first education in nonviolence while locked up in Parchman with the likes of James Farmer, John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette. Civil Rights would become his life for the next ten years. After the Rides, Jesse worked as an organizer all over Mississippi, from the cotton fields of the Delta to the mean streets of McComb, until 1971. It is a record of perseverance and endurance at a time when many in the movement left the state for other campaigns after a year or two.
April 3, 2007, Jackson, Mississippi
The following are excerpts from my interview with Harris in 2007.
On being recruited to join the Freedom Rides by James Bevel, a member of the Nashville student movement and a fellow Mississippian:
James Bevel came to the place where we hung out at — it was like a pool hall. He said, “Hey, we got this bus coming in. People are gonna be protesting at the Trailways bus station and they need local support.”
That’s where my education stated.
People had to be orientated in the philosophy of nonviolence. Because we were gang members, now. You might say that I was one of the leaders of the Georgetown Gang. When I went to jail, when they heard that I was in jail, the whole gang came in right after me.
When I got out of jail, everybody said, “Hey!”
And I said, “Well, you gotta go, too. You ain’t nothing until you go to jail. You Uncle Tom ’til you go to jail.”
On his time in Parchman:
I didn’t understand nonviolence. I learned all that when we was in Parchman with James Lawson and John Lewis and all of ’em. That’s the way we occupied our time. We was engaged in discussions. I was picking up not only the philosophy of nonviolence but the history. These people had been active back in the 1950s, in the 1940s. I learned so much.
Before they got there, I think somebody set forth — I think it was James Farmer — said, “Well this is what we’re gonna do. This is the agenda while we’re here. We’re gonna get up in the morning, make up our bed, say our prayer, and we’re gonna start our discussions at 9:00.”
I didn’t talk about nothing. I was listening. [Laughs.] I was loving it. Yeah, I was learning it.
My favorite was Bernard Lafayette, because he more like the hood type, in his conversation. What you call the street talk. He can relate that back to where I came from, to those of us who were from the Jackson area. We relate to him because he was funny and he was intellectual. Lawson and Farmer, they were talking like they giving a lecture at Harvard University or something, especially when Lawson was talking about the Bible.
On organizing in Mississippi:
In Laurel, I went down to the county clerk and said, “I’m here to encourage people to register to vote.”
She said, “OK, but don’t bring no more than two at a time. I can’t handle but two at a time ’cause I got other work.”
I said, “Oh, two at time? Okay.”
I was there the next morning with about 150 people. [Laughs.]
She said, “By God, you son of a bitch.”
Everybody was up there singing. That was a demonstration to encourage the people in the area.
On organizing in churches:
I went to churches. You know the part about announcements — “If anybody here got an announcement . . . ” That’s why I went to church, to make announcements. [Laughs.]
I raised my hand, they say, “Alright.”
I get up. I say, “Well, it’s important for everybody to become a citizen and the only way you can become a citizen is to register to vote. How many people here ain’t registered?”
Ain’t never been so quiet.
“Don’t you think it’s about time? Jesus Christ said ‘if you take one step, I’ll take —’” [Laughs.]
Then there go the confusion again. “Wait a minute, Mr. Harris. We don’t talk politics in here. We do the Lord’s work. When we go to church we don’t do politics, so we gonna have to set aside here for you.”
See, when I get in a situation like that, I go and put some handbills out in the community. We put the date, time, place for the church meeting without even asking for permission. [Laughs.] See?
People show up, then I explain why we can’t go inside. [Laughs.] That’s nonviolent, now. That’s a nonviolent tactic. In a lot of cases, the Klan say, “Okay, arrest them old troublemaker, Freedom Riders headquarters, the church are agitators, troublemakers. We’re gonna burn this place. We gonna threaten to burn the church down.” So when they burn the church, then what we do is go get that minister. That minister all upset about his church being burned. He said, “Well, damn it. Something gotta be done about this. They burned my church.”
If the people let us use the church when we go in, we don’t say nothing. We give all the responsibility to that minister or to the deacon or to that person. “Okay, Reverend, you lead us off in prayer,” and we’d be glad. “Sister, could you sing a song? Don’t you want to help us sing this song?” See, you getting people involved and let them feel that they’re joining, it’s their whole project, their whole program. That’s a nonviolent tactic. That’s organizing. I ain’t no leader. I’m an organizer, see?
When people get involved then they feel good about it. I ain’t no Freedom Rider. You a Freedom Rider. All us Freedom Riders. I ain’t no outside agitator. [Laughs.] I’m from Mississippi. I’m from the community. My uncle live right down the road there.
On organizing in the Delta:
For us to get on the plantation is another thing. We had to hit the road to get to where people lived. The whole county was a plantation. You dress like the locals ’cause you don’t want to be identified.
I used to go out in the field picking cotton with all the other folks. The overseers didn’t notice me. A lady looked up — I’m picking the row next to her — “Hey, you new, huh?”
“Oh, okay. How long you been working here. I ain’t seen you before.”
That kinda thing.
I’ll be talking about, “Well, have you ever registered to vote yet?”
She said, “Oh, you them people I heard about in town.” [Laughs.]
I said, “Yeah. Why don’t you come to the meeting.”
“Oh. I’ll be glad to come.”
At least I invited ’em. You had to get out there in order to give them that invitation.
On working with Bob Moses:
I think Bob [Moses] had the most influence on all of us. Yeah. He was the state director for SNCC and the voter education project.
The way he worked with us was unique in the way of organizing. He gave you the impression that you came up with the idea. [Laughs.] He make you think that you the one, ’cause you the one gonna be working on it.
He’d say, “Okay, this project, Jesse, I want you to go to McComb and set up a project.”
“When I get to McComb, what I’m gonna do?”
“Set up a voter registration project. You can do that. I seen you do it when you were working over there. Now you can do the same thing over here. This is a person that you contact when you get there.”
That’s all he gave me, a contact person.
When I get there, I say, “Hey, I’m here. I’m here to work on voter registration.”
“Oh, okay. Now what is your program?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?” [Laughs.]
You in a position like that, something gonna happen automatically. And all because Bob gave me the opportunity. He had faith that I could do it. That was the first time in my life somebody approached me about anything.
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