The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning, Part 2

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by Cynthia Pease

As turbulent as our times are now, the months leading up to Freedom Summer in 1964 were even more troubled; storm clouds brewed in many areas as the destiny of three young men unwound itself.
The country was still reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November.

President Johnson was trying to push through his civil rights bill and using every bit of his famed manipulative powers to do so. He was fighting not only for the bill, but against Barry Goldwater’s Presidential campaign. Another Kennedy, young Teddy, had broken his back in an airplane crash that also involved Senator Birch Bayh.

J. Edgar Hoover and his empire were fanatically trying to get the dirt on Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights activists. King was having his own troubles with a campaign in St. Augustine, Florida. Malcolm X had very publicly left the Nation of Islam and was leveling all kinds of charges against its leader, Elijah Mohammed, putting a target very clearly on his own back. It wasn’t a matter of whether the Nation would eliminate him, but when. The FBI nicely helped by planting stories in newspapers that fueled the already flammable situation.

In the North, a white backlash against all the civil rights campaigns allowed Governor George Wallace of Alabama to get on the Presidential primary ballot in Wisconsin.

In Mississippi, where Freedom Summer volunteers would attempt to teach black voters what they needed to know to pass the registration challenges, five civil rights workers had been murdered in the winter and spring, according to Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters. There had also been whippings, shootings and Klan cross burnings across the state. The State Sovereignty Commission had infiltrated the Freedom School trainings and was reporting back regularly on what the plans were for the voter registration drive.

And a young New York social worker and his wife, Mickey and Rita Schwerner, joined the Congress of Racial Equality and moved to Meridian, Mississippi, to open a field office there.

Murder in Mississippi author Howard Bell gives this brief bio of Schwerner: A graduate of Cornell with a degree in rural sociology, he and Rita were becoming increasingly radicalized by events in the south. Upon landing in Meridian in January 1964, they were successful in setting up a community center and holding voter registration classes. Mickey especially became quickly known to the rising Klan and its Imperial Wizard, Sam Bowers. Bowers was the only person who could give the order to “eliminate” someone and this he did in April. Schwerner was known to the Klan as “Goatee,” and Bowers gave the #4 order to Edgar Ray Killen, a Klan Kleagle (recruiter and organizer).

Schwerner met and became good friends with James Chaney, an African-American who was born in Meridian and had been active in civil rights causes for years despite his young age. He began volunteering with CORE in 1963. Schwerner asked that he be made a full-time, paid staff member, which was approved.

schwerner, chaney, goodman

Mickey Schwerner, left; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman

On May 30, Chaney and Schwerner met with the deacons and elders of Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, in Neshoba County to seek permission to use the church as a voter training center. On June 16, while Chaney and Schwerner were in Ohio at the Freedom Summer training camp, the church’s deacons met to discuss the request. Klansmen arrived, hoping to find Goatee there. He wasn’t, so to relieve their hostility, they beat several of the elderly deacons; later they returned to the church and firebombed it in hopes of luring Schwerner back, says Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters.

At the boot camp held at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, the first 200 of an eventual 900 volunteers were being taught the dangers and risks they would face in Mississippi. The vast majority of the volunteers were white college students, and this was intentional. White college students were considered the country’s crowning glory; surely the federal government would protect them and the country would gather behind their efforts.

Indeed, Bob Moses, the architect of Freedom Summer, had written to the Justice Department on more than one occasion asking for federal protection that summer. John Doar, a white attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department who had put himself on the line many times in the South, came to the camp to explain why federal protection was not possible. The volunteers were told that the government could not interfere with a state’s police system unless federal laws were broken.

bob mosesMoses is a fascinating person, an enigmatic man with a Zen-like attitude to life as described by Taylor Branch. Having grown up in Harlem, Moses became a schoolteacher but decided in 1960 that he needed to explore his black identity by going south. A brilliant young man, he had studied at Hamilton College and did graduate work in philosophy at Harvard. He was particularly drawn to the existential philosophy of Albert Camus. He had quietly worked to register voters in Mississippi, witnessing the deaths of black men he had lived and worked with. Some of the young students at the boot camp thought of him as the Jesus of the movement; perhaps his surname is even more appropriate, though he was never as well known as King or Bayard Rustin or the other more familiar names of the civil rights movement.

A 20-year-old student at the boot camp, Andrew Goodman, had joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and volunteered for Freedom Summer in April. He had been detailed to go to Canton, Mississippi, but when Schwerner asked for volunteers to come to Meridian, he changed his plans at the last minute. Along with a few other volunteers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman left Ohio for Meridian on June 19. On June 21, the three went to Neshoba County to investigate the Mount Zion church bombing.

At around 2 pm that day, they were heading back to Meridian when they were stopped for speeding by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klan member. He took them back to Philadelphia and jailed them on the excuse that he had to find a magistrate to settle the speeding ticket. In fact, he used the eight hours he kept them to let Killen know that he had Goatee so Killen could organize Klansmen to come to Philadelphia.

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The Moral Universe – Mississippi Burning Part 1

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By Cynthia Pease

Mississippi was said to be the hardest nut to crack in the movement to register black voters. If a voter registration drive could succeed there, it could succeed anywhere.

Of course, this also meant that the resistance there would be fiercer than resistance elsewhere. Indeed, the Freedom Summer project of 1964 led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which was responsible for numerous murders, fire bombings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation in a short period of time and making it difficult for blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests were required for blacks but not for whites, with often ridiculous questions that no one could have answered. The tests were obviously structured so that blacks would not be able to pass them. Poll taxes were also part of registering to vote, which kept poor blacks from even attempting to register.

White Citizens Councils had been the main “nonviolent” force for enforcing Jim Crow practices of segregation and denial of voting rights to blacks in Mississippi. But when word of the Freedom Summer Project to send thousands of white students (or “nigger-loving Jews and Commies” to the WCCs) to Mississippi to hold Freedom Schools and teach blacks what they needed to know to register to vote came to the ears of the white supremacists, they knew something stronger was needed.

The portrait of Sam Bowers drawn in Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball is chilling. It may not be surprising that the name of his jukebox and vending machine business was Sambo Amusement Company. He thought of himself as a pure Christian, yet his hatred of Jews as well as blacks indicates that he never understood that Jesus was a Jew and most certainly not white as Bowers understood whiteness. Infidels were to be murdered, according to Ball, not forgiven or converted. “If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it is to be done with no malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act,” he is quoted by Ball as saying.

Bowers’ intolerance was rewarded with being named Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK in February 1964. Between February and June, membership in the KKK grew to between 5,000 and 6,000.

Whether calling themselves the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, white Mississippians had never been averse to using violence. Emmett Till died in Mississippi in 1955; Medger Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in 1963; Vernon Dahmer, also an NAACP official, would be burned to death by the Klan in 1965. James Meredith survived being shot in 1966 several years after he was the first black student to be enrolled at “Ole Miss”; his enrollment necessitated heavy federal protection from mobs of angry whites.

Charges have been made that the only reason the FBI investigated these murders so tirelessly was because two of the victims were white. And that may well be, but the black activists who started the Freedom Summer project were very clear that they wanted white students to go south because they knew that would draw attention to the situation. Black people had been dying left and right trying to work for civil rights, but little attention had been paid by the rest of the country. They needed leverage, and white was the leverage.

The White Citizens Council knew all about, and indeed had infiltrated, the Freedom Summer training camp in Oxford, Ohio. With the revitalized Klan growing every day, by June 1964 the time was ripe for the murders that drew the most attention in that bloody season, those of three young voter registration workers, two white and one black. Ironically, the fates of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman played out in a Mississippi town called Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

The Moral Universe – The Shooting at Fruitvale Station

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by Cynthia Pease

We’re going to jump forward this week to 2009. I recently saw “Fruitvale Station,” and it’s been haunting me. Ryan Coogler’s film about the murder of Oscar Grant by a Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) policeman on New Year’s Eve is not only heartbreaking, it’s senseless as well and could be classified as a lynching.

oscar grantI do not remember this tragedy, although the young star, Michael B. Jordan, who plays Grant said in an interview that he heard about it on the radio and went right to YouTube to see the footage that witnesses were shooting. It all happened at Fruitvale Station in San Francisco, and many people who were on the train filmed the murder with their cell phones. In fact, the movie opens with the actual footage from a cell phone, and it’s watching a nightmare that you know no one can wake up from.
Oscar Grant was on a train with several friends and his girlfriend Sophina, with whom he had a young daughter, in the wee hours of January 1, 2009. Oscar got into a scuffle with some other passengers, and the operator called ahead to the BART police. Arriving at Fruitvale, Oscar and two of the friends got off the train and were standing on the platform talking. BART officer Anthony Pirone approached them yelling and holding Tasers on them. Pirone pulled another friend off the train by his hair, using expletives. Sophina, meanwhile, was on the lower level of the train station and called Oscar on his cell phone. It was at that point that Pirone pinioned him to the ground, making it difficult for Oscar to breathe. Officer Johannes Meserhle had joined Pirone and shouted that he was going to tase Oscar. Instead he pulled his revolver and shot Oscar pointblank in the back. Oscar died seven hours later.
The spare movie goes over the last day of Oscar’s life, having to sum up the parts of a young man in very little time, and does it excellently. Oscar ‘s not a hero; he’s got lots of issues, but there is a sense that he is someone who wants to figure out his life, become more stable, and take responsibility for his daughter and his girlfriend.

There are flashbacks to his time in prison when Oscar’s temper gets him into trouble. During a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer in a role made for her), she tells him she can’t see him until he can get himself together. While she’s visiting, a white prisoner gets in Oscar’s face and Oscar lunges for him. His mother walks away quickly, the pain of tough love etched in her face.

Oscar has lost his job because of chronic lateness, but Sophina thinks he’s still working. While she’s at work, Oscar goes to the grocery store where he used to work to ask for his job back. While there, he flirts with a young white woman who is going to cook for her boyfriend that night and doesn’t know what she’s doing. Oscar calls his grandmother for a recipe and gives it to her. It will turn out later that the young woman is one of the people filming Oscar’s murder early the next morning.

Oscar doesn’t get his job back, which his girlfriend finds out about later in the day. This young man has charm to spare and manages to convince her that he will get another job soon. They go to dinner at his mother’s house and later they meet up with some friends to go into the city for the evening.
And all the while, you know what’s going to happen and your heart is breaking over and over again.
Pirone is portrayed in both the film and in witnesses’ statements as a bully. The film does not portray the racial epithets that the trial transcript says he hurled at Oscar. He appeared, though, to be looking for trouble and, when he saw a group of young black men, he inadvertently found it, though they weren’t the problem.

Mehserle’s defense was to be that he mistook his revolver for his Taser, but he never mentioned this at the scene, though witnesses said he did look surprised. What he kept repeating at the time was that he thought Oscar was going for a gun, though the young man obviously couldn’t move and one of his arms was trapped under his pinioned body.

Meserhle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which he appealed saying that there should be a lower standard for police officers. He was denied a re-trial and sentenced to two years in prison though he was out 11 months.

Last August, Bob Egelko of The San Francisco Chronicle reported that appeals cases could find the BART system itself responsible for the incident.

“But in this case, the appeals court said, evidence already presented to a federal judge would entitle a jury to conclude that Pirone had no reason to believe the men had committed any crimes, had no reason to hold them for investigation, and ‘had no lawful basis to detain the group’.” he wrote.

“The court cited U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel’s findings in 2011 that Pirone had never asked the train operator if anyone was injured, if any weapons were used, if anyone had come forward to talk about the fight, or if the operator could identify any of the five men as participants. Pirone, by his own admission, never entered the train himself or looked for evidence of any crimes, Patel said.

“A jury could rely on that evidence to conclude that Pirone had no reason to detain Grant and his friends, Judge Mary Murguia said in the appeals court’s 3-0 ruling.

” ‘Pirone encountered a group of black men who were doing nothing but talking when he arrived’ at the Fruitvale Station, were not committing any crimes, and posed no apparent threat that would justify his pulling a weapon and holding them,’ Murguia said.”

If you watch this movie, that’s what you will conclude as well. And I do urge you to watch it, though you know how it ends, though it will break your heart. We must witness to the ongoing racism inherent in this country and then do all in our power to eradicate it.

Massacres And Riots

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In his book Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change, Douglas Ross says Kennedy told South Carolinians in 1963 that blacks were reaching a boiling point of resentment that could lead to agitation and bloodshed.

How Kennedy thought what he was saying would help civil rights advance, I don’t know. It seems to me not only an inflammatory statement, but also idiotic considering that the agitation and bloodshed had for at least three centuries been the province of slave-owners and other racists. It was also a slap in the face to the nonviolent campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr.

Much the same sort of thing was said during the apartheid era in South Africa. The thinking went that if the government allowed black South Africans independence and equal rights, they would use them to slaughter every white South African.

The successful slave revolt in Haiti (1791-1804) under Toussaint L’Ouverture had terrified US slave-owners and politicians. The very thought of slaves rising up led to even more repressive conditions for them. Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831 caused even more reprisals, with more than 200 blacks dying as punishment for the 55 white people killed.

So let’s talk about the real history of agitation and bloodshed in this country, starting with the Civilian Draft Riots of 1863. Because the riots happened in New York City, and not somewhere in the South, they are referred to in just about every book written about the Civil War. They illustrate, tragically, the syndrome of one oppressed minority scapegoating another oppressed minority.

Certainly Irish immigrants in New York in the mid-19th century lived in hellish conditions of poverty and disease, hardly better than what they’d immigrated from. Resentment grew as they saw freed slaves pouring into the city and competition for jobs became greater.  Worse yet, if they went on strike for better wages and working conditions, companies hired blacks to get the job done. James McPherson says in Battle Cry of Freedom that Democrats, who were against the Civil War and emancipation, fanned the flames of the immigrants’ anger with editorials denouncing the opportunities taken by the blacks.

Into this desperately tense atmosphere came a new draft. Men who were wealthy could buy a substitute to go to war for them. The immigrants were too poor to do so and furthermore felt they would be damned if they were going to go to war to help free more slaves.

On the first day of the draft, hundreds of Irish men, women, and even children went on a rampage through the city, attacking anyone who was black, anyone who was associated with blacks, and anyone they thought was involved with conscription or emancipation. For five days they lynched, looted, and burned a swath through the city. Blacks’ homes, Protestant churches that were pro-emancipation, a “colored” orphanage, all went to the torch. Black men were hung from lampposts and then dragged by their genitals down city streets. Blacks who survived retreated before the onslaught, having to leave their neighborhoods behind. This is in part how Harlem became home to so many African-Americans.

The Colfax Massacre

Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction, calls the Colfax Massacre the “bloodiest single act of carnage in all of Reconstruction.” Many historians have called the event the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Ironically, Republicans had been making a lot of headway in Louisiana in getting former slaves registered to vote and elected to local and state offices. Of course, since white supremacists had been forgetting they lost a war just eight years before, this situation was a red rag to a bull.

The gubernatorial election of 1872 was a particularly acrimonious one. There is disagreement in the record as to who actually won the election, Republican William Pitt Kellogg or Conservative John McEnery. Kellogg probably did edge out McEnery, but both claimed to have won and each started setting up state offices.

Freed slaves and blacks who had served in the Union army were called to Colfax to support Kellogg and hold a rally in support of their own right to vote. They cordoned off the town for fear of reprisal. On Easter Sunday, 1873, a force of 300 whites, possibly members of the White Knights or another supremacist group, stormed the town with rifles and cannon. The 150 blacks sought shelter in the courthouse and tried to defend it. Cannonballs shot into the building set it on fire and, as blacks jumped from the windows to escape, they were shot. A group of fifty former slaves who had laid down their arms and surrendered were executed. Even blacks who had nothing to do with Kellogg or the rally were indiscriminately killed.

Again, there is disagreement on the number of blacks slain that day; the number is definitely more than a hundred, as opposed to three whites who died. One of them, the commander of the white forces, was shot by his own men.

Historically speaking, apparently a violent event is called a massacre if you have sympathy for the victims and a riot if you don’t. All the worst events of unprovoked mass violence against blacks in the 20th century have been called riots, starting in 1917 in East St. Louis. Striking white workers were replaced by black migrants. Carloads of whites began cruising the streets and firing into the homes of black residents. Again, black men were lynched, buildings were burned, and a story is even told of a 2-year-old black child who was shot and thrown into the doorway of a burning building. Five thousand blacks were driven from their homes.

Then there was the violence in Chicago in 1919 that escalated from a black teen, Eugene Williams, who swam past the “colored” line in Lake Michigan. White boys began to throw rocks at him as he rested on a raft. Eugene was hit, fell off the raft, and drowned. Thirteen days of mob violence ensued.

In Cicero, IL in 1951 the Harvey Clark family was prevented from moving into a white neighborhood by a mob of 4,000 people who trashed the Clarks’ apartment and all of their belongings.

And the beat goes on.