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Crossing Border Street A Civil Rights Memoir

Read Chapter 1

Chapter One

From the Subway
to Mississippi

I am sitting on a bench in Jackson Square. It is early morning, and the city is waking up. Already a line has formed at the Madeleine Bakery, kitty-corner from where I am sitting and where just minutes ago I ordered a fresh apricot custard tart, a gooey "Saint Tropez" whipped cream and vanilla thing, and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Breakfast in New Orleans must be rich and sweet. In fact, every meal in New Orleans must be rich and sweet, or why bother eating? It is not the town for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast or flat, unflavored pancakes. The food here is deep-fried or prepared with cream, sugar, and butter—often a pound of butter per recipe for six.

    Beyond the perimeter of the park several quick-sketch portrait artists, along with tarot and palm readers, are setting up their stands to the rhythm of a steel-guitar player banging out the blues. A black man wearing a yellow cap and a green shirt, imprinted with the words "Parkway and Park Commission," skillfully guides his metal rubbish picker to pluck cigarette butts and two tissues squeezed behind my bench. About twenty yards away, a bronzed Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse tips his hat to passersby. The pink and lavender petunias, the unevenly cut lawns, and the cast-iron fences surround him, as they do me. Behind me rises Saint Louis Cathedral, a monument to the French heritage of New Orleans, its graceful silhouette overshadowing the park and the Mississippi River. I cannot see the Mississippi from my vantage point; years ago the city built a retaining wall running along the river through the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter. But I can observe the Café Du Monde alongside the retaining wall as it begins to fill with tourists who have found the best bargain in town: three beignets—square-shaped donuts deep-fried in brick-colored lard and liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar—and a cup of cafe au lait, a blend of coffee and chicory with milk. The cost: two dollars and twenty cents.

    It is overcast; it has been that way all week. But it is springtime, and although the radio is predicting rain and the air is sweaty and laden with the smells and salt of the Gulf, no one seems to mind. For there is no place quite like New Orleans for food, drink, music (Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and the Marsalis family, to name a few homegrown musicians), and downright funk. And as I sit on this park bench, I recall the hot, muggy summer thirty years ago when I walked through the French Quarter each morning on my way to work as a law-student civil rights worker at the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee.

    It all started in early June of 1966 when, as a first-year law student, I said good-bye to my tearful mother by the entrance to the Fort Tryon Park subway station at the uppermost tip of Manhattan, rode the A train downtown, and boarded a Greyhound bus heading south. I can only imagine what she, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, thought as I boarded that train to join the fight for other people's freedom. We had walked in silence.

    The bus stopped at many Southern ports of call—Richmond, Charlotte, Atlanta, Tuscaloosa—places that teased me into the Southern culture. But my destination was Mississippi, the embodiment of all that was wrong with race relations in our country. In reality, Mississippi was not notably more racist than many other places in the South. What I saw and experienced in Louisiana was certainly as unnerving as anything the media portrayed in Mississippi. But Misssissippi steadfastly and self-righteously presented itself to the media and to the national consciousness as the last bastion of the Confederacy, the state that would never yield to equality among the races. The Mississippi Southern "way of life" would forever resist outside agitators, Commies, and the federal government.

    Perhaps that is why the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council chose Jackson, Mississippi, as the location for its summer orientation session. Forty law students from around the country assembled in Jackson that summer. But for nearly all of us, Jackson was merely a transit stop. I was assigned to the New Orleans office of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. It was from there that I began my odyssey as a legal worker in the Louisiana civil rights movement.

    Over the next two years, as I commuted between law school and the South, the essence of my journey became less and less one of destination. In crossing one borderline after another, and in watching and feeling the world change, I changed too. From my initial belief that the issue of black and white relations was a problem that could be solved easily if everyone simply did the right thing, I came to the painful realization that the issue was complex and multilayered, a problem I could no longer understand, much less resolve. As I came to perceive this dilemma, I also understood that the real journey I had been making was not a journey to the South as much as a journey of self-discovery—a soul journey.

    That journey of self-discovery, of course, had begun years before, and it continues today. But in examining my formative years, I cannot with any assurance explain what it was that motivated me to go south. My early years as a child of immigrant parents were relatively uneventful, politically and otherwise. Although my parents voted the Democratic party line, I cannot remember their ever voicing a political opinion.

    Both my parents fled Austria in 1939 to escape the Nazis. All four of my grandparents died in concentration camps. My father was in his early thirties, my mother in her late twenties when they arrived in the United States with only a high-school education and no knowledge of English. My father had opportunities in the chocolate and cookie manufacturing trades, but I think he felt that starting his own business was too much of a risk with a young family to support. So he chose the security of a regular paycheck by working in a costume jewelry factory. Later on, when my sister was in high school and I was in college, he realized his dream of owning his own business and purchased a candy store. But whether he worked in the factory or the store, I hardly saw him. He left for work by six in the morning and came home at nine or ten at night. My parents were religious; they observed the Sabbath and kept a kosher home. They often spoke German to me when I was growing up, but, like many first-generation immigrant children, I resisted identifying with their old-world ancestry and refused to speak anything but English.

    I can imagine that my mother was embarrassed that her son was going to work in the South. It just wasn't what kids in the neighborhood did, and my mother found her security in a conventional belief system. She had wanted something else for me. I was joining the struggle of a people my German-speaking mother knew as "Schwartzes" and who seemed outside her comprehension and understanding. I am certain she told none of her friends what I was doing.

    Before my senior year in college, I was not particularly political. I attended the City College of New York (CCNY), a school that accepted students on the basis of grades alone and that drew its population from the New York boroughs. City College was in upper Harlem, a short bus ride from my home in Washington Heights. The CCNY students and professors projected a passionate belief in justice that dated back to the Depression era of the 1930s. During the fall of 1964 I joined my first protest activities: teach-ins against the Vietnam War. I was inspired, and from then on I was involved in the protest movement.

    The next summer I withdrew some of my savings, from jobs I worked during high school and college, and traveled through Europe. But in riding the trains from one country to another, I kept falling into arguments about the war in Vietnam. When I needed to travel through Germany, I was determined to tour the only place that to me was representative of the country—the former concentration camp at Dachau. I was becoming an intense young man.

    When I came home from Europe in the fall of 1965, I returned to the familiar and provincial by entering the New York University (NYU) School of Law. Several other law students in my entering class also had activist leanings, and we bonded quickly. In our first month of school we staged a sit-in inside the front hallway to protest the law school dress code, which required that all students wear business dress. Later that school year a law-student civil rights group posted a notice asking for students to work in the South. I volunteered.

    By joining in the summer of 1966, I came relatively late to the modern civil rights movement. Many of the milestones of the movement had been passed. I was only sixteen in February 1960, when four freshmen at a black college in Greensboro, North Carolina, held a sit-in at the local Woolworth's lunch counter to demand service for black patrons. In the spring of 1961, when black and white "freedom riders" boarded two Greyhound buses in Washington, D.C., to test the desegregation of interstate transportation in the South, they were viciously bloodied and beaten by mobs in Alabama.

    In 1963 Martin Luther King marched on Washington, inspiring many of us with his visionary oration, "I Have a Dream." But within three weeks of his speech, the dream turned into a nightmare when the Ku Klux Klan set off dynamite beneath the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls who were dressing for Sunday morning services.

    In 1964 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) initiated a program called Mississippi Summer Project/Freedom Summer to assist in voter registration drives and in opening "freedom schools." Hundreds of students from around the country traveled to Mississippi to live in rural communities and offer their assistance. Late one night three civil rights project workers—Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—were stopped by local sheriff's deputies on a lonely road near Philadelphia, Mississippi, taken to an earthen dam outside town, and summarily executed. Their bodies were buried under tons of Mississippi red clay.

    Why didn't I join the college students that summer? I've thought about it many times, and my guess is that it was too early for me to step out of my protected New York environment and venture into the unknown. Besides, I was probably too focused on finding time to be with my girlfriend.

    After Freedom Summer, in March 1965, on what has become infamously known as "Bloody Sunday," we all watched the television newscasts in horror as Alabama state troopers and county deputies, swinging clubs and bullwhips, brutally attacked John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and others as they marched from Selma to Montgomery. By the time I arrived in the South in 1966, the movement—symbolized by the circular pin I religiously wore, depicting white and black hands clasped together over a dovetailing black and white background—was changing. I closed my eyes to the changes. I was too new and too committed to civil rights to want to admit that maybe I was on the downside of the movement. I was able to maintain my state of denial for some time, since Louisiana lingered behind Mississippi in acknowledging the changes. But the seeds of change were planted, and the movement was ending. Many people believed that with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 we had "won"; Black Power, whose tenet of self-determination implied that whites were no longer necessary or even wanted, was on the rise; and people were ready to move on and confront other urgent issues such as the escalating Vietnam War.

    Because the movement in Louisiana trailed behind the struggle in Mississippi, I did not need to confront Black Power and its message of exclusion of white activists until 1967. The movement in Mississippi was led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Its leaders, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, fervently championed Black Power. In Louisiana, however, since the early 1960s sit-ins and boycotts in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the movement had been closely aligned with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). James Farmer, CORE's national director, did not subscribe to the separatist stance advanced by SNCC. CORE officials and workers, as well as African Americans in Louisiana's cities and towns, still welcomed white civil rights legal workers as allies in their drive for equality.

    As did most civil rights workers who came down South in the sixties, I carried with me a rather unsophisticated, if not downright simplistic, model of race relations. I saw the movement in stark black and white terms. We were doing God's work, we were on the side of the angels. We were changing the world.

    By 1968, I knew differently. By experiencing firsthand the black rural culture of Louisiana as well as the rise of Black Power, I learned how uninformed and unaware my New York City Jewish upbringing had left me. Today, an African American friend laughs at my 1968 realization that racial issues were complex. She points out that race has always been a tangled issue; but until the late sixties, whites did not need to bother about it. When I left the South in 1968, I tried to leave the race problem behind and escape into the anti-Vietnam War movement. Yet I couldn't move away from it, and today, thirty years later, I am still caught up in the complexities of race in America.

    At the end of the century, I am still drawn to that idealistic image of the partnership that I experienced while working with the black community in Louisiana. We Northern whites were dramatically different from Southern blacks in our cultures, levels of education, and perceptions of the world. But we all shared a vision of racial justice and equality, and that vision bound us together. Side by side—the local African American community in charge of tactics, the lawyers in charge of litigation—we took personal responsibility for social change. And it worked. The black community became empowered. We created a profound social revolution. Things will never be the same. Nonetheless, much more needs to be done, and my hope is for a renewed partnership in pursuit of social justice.

    In writing this memoir, I have tried not to put a nineties spin on a sixties experience. I was a young man in his early twenties who knew very little about anything, especially about race relations. You may find this law student naive and perhaps even self-righteous; I can laugh at him as I read this story over. But I hope you find him true.

When I got off the bus in Jackson, Mississippi, I had no idea what to expect. Since my personal orientation was decidedly urban, I was startled to find that Jackson, the biggest "city" in Mississippi, in no way resembled the city of New York. With a population of about 150,000, 40 percent of which was black, and its lack of any visible financial backbone, Jackson was to me as far from New York as the moon from the earth. With its run-down clapboard houses, greasy taverns, and whitewashed shops, Jackson was small town. And not the kind of small town that I had read about as a kid. This was Deep South small town: red clay walkways alternating with boarded walkways, homes draped with drooping willows and shielded by fragrant honeysuckle, the air dense in furnaced heat layered with drenching humidity, and thick, slow, drawling accents alternating from gracious greetings to hostile contempt if the local whites figured out who you were.

    Yet as alien as the communities and neighborhoods of Jackson, Mississippi, had seemed to me that day, nothing prepared me for what I saw the following day. Our group of law students was driven by the local movement people to Mt. Beulah, the site of an old school in the town of Edwards, west of Jackson. The landscape was lined with Quonset huts and wooden-framed shanties. A few of the buildings were set on cement blocks; the others sat directly on the red Mississippi dirt. Dilapidated porches, torn screens, and cross-patched roofs were evident everywhere. There were no paved roads, only dirt roads and walkways. We were told that the blacks who lived here had formerly been tenants on rural plantations but had been evicted by their white landlords for exercising their rights to vote and sending their children to the all-white schools.

    As I gaped at these hovels, I thought, "This is why I am here." Earnestly I said to myself, "This is what we must change. And we will. With the law on our side we will overcome the centuries of racism and inequality and make things right." I may have been a fool to think that social forces could be changed overnight, but, God knows, fools were what was needed if anything was ever going to change.

    All the law students had been chosen the previous spring to be part of the summer intern program administered by the New York-based Law Students Civil Rights Research Council (LSCRRC), which was started in 1962 to assist civil rights attorneys working in the South. Over the years, as it expanded, LSCRRC also sent law students into Northern communities (which indeed had their share of racism). LSCRRC paid our housing costs and provided us with a minimal stipend.

    After the orientation, we were assigned to work with movement lawyers, civil rights legal organizations, and community groups throughout the South. Arrangements had been made for us to be sent to Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, and, of course, Mississippi. The largest number of students were sent to Mississippi—perhaps because Mississippi, justifiably or not, was seen as the embodiment of racist Southern culture. The civil rights movement had always focused its limited resources on this state. A few students were assigned to Jackson, but the majority were assigned to rural counties in the Mississippi Delta.

    Marian Wright was a young African American lawyer who, soon after graduating from Yale Law School, became the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (Inc. Fund) office in Jackson. She greeted us eloquently at the orientation. Her office had been working on school desegregation, challenges to welfare and food-stamp regulations, and voting rights cases on behalf of African Americans in Mississippi. She began by initiating us into the culture we were entering, a culture that to many of us was as foreign as that of any Third World country. No matter how well educated we were and how "uneducated" the people whom we would be assisting, she reminded us, we were to treat every black man, woman, and child with the utmost respect and dignity. We were not to harbor feelings of superiority or allow our egos to blind our vision. She told us that black people in the South risked their jobs and often their lives and the lives of their children every day. At the end of the summer we would be going home, but the people we were helping would still be here. The dust we raised might not have time to settle on us, but it surely would settle on the local black community. After we students returned to school and were no longer around to witness events, the local white population could exact its revenge on the blacks who dared to assert their rights. Things were not always as they seemed, and people could get hurt if we were not careful.

    Maintaining Marian Wright's cautionary tone, D'Army Bailey, who had also attended Yale Law School and was LSCRRC's Southern coordinator, explained that the white assault on the black race was becoming more violent in some communities. This increased white hostility was the result of blacks asserting themselves by sending their children to previously all-white schools; by no longer looking at the ground and murmuring "yessir" when addressing whites; and by marching to the courthouse and registering to vote. The blacks living at Mt. Beulah were a testament to the white resistance to change. Moreover, Bailey added, many of the local white leaders and their supporters believed that African Americans were aligning themselves with "outside agitators" and "Communists," people who could not understand the "unique relationship" that blacks and whites had had in the South prior to the civil rights movement. Blacks might have been "boys" to the Southern white "man," but the tenet of the Southern racist was that as long as the boys "knew their place" there would be no trouble, and the boys would be taken care of. The outside agitators, "nigger lovers," and "Commies" were fomenting trouble, and to the local white racists they were no better than the blacks who listened to them.

    D'Army Bailey's unflattering description of the white Southern culture was commonplace. We in the movement did what people have always done: we stereotyped our enemies. By generalizing about the white Southern culture and setting it up as a monolithic evil, the civil rights movement was able to inspire and unite us all to action. By pejoratively labeling Southern whites as crackers, rednecks, or white trash, we made it easier to rally the troops against a faceless, one-dimensional enemy. (Of course, the Southern whites who depicted us as Commies, nigger lovers, and outside agitators similarly painted us with a superficial and stereotypical brush.)

    As with any generalization, stereotyping the Southern culture was misleading. There were many well-intentioned whites who helped move civil right: along. But, unfortunately, they were in the minority. A large segment of white Southern society resisted the change: this was the segment that elected politicians like Alabama governor George Wallace, who proclaimed in his 1963 inaugural address, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Had there been enough whites in the South who truly believed in equality and were willing to desegregate the schools, integrate public accommodations, and assure African Americans of their voting rights, there would have been no need for a civil rights movement.

    In closing his address, Bailey unceremoniously laid it on the line: if we could not accept direction by members of the African American community, we should "leave tomorrow and return home to confront [our] own racism." Unita Blackwell, who grew up working in the cotton fields in Mississippi and became a spirited and bold SNCC community organizer, set out the parameters of our jobs. Trust was an important part of the movement's credo, she observed. So was caution. We were required to inform another person of our whereabouts and the time we expected to be back. If we were not back on time, the black citizenry would send out a search party, and that effort would divert considerable resources. She closed by instructing us not to take the movement lightly. Too many lives, including lives of people we could not know, were at stake.

    Next came Henry Aronson, an intense, combative, and feisty white attorney. "I'm going to tell it like it is," he said. Like Marian Wright, he worked for the Inc. Fund. Aronson warned us that our education and social status could not compensate for our probable grave inability to grasp the complexities of Southern black culture. Humility would go a long way in making our tours worthwhile. He also cautioned us to beware of government agencies like the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), the Department of Justice, and the FBI. HEW would not always act to enforce the federal school integration guidelines. The Justice Department had a political agenda, he said, because the government did not want to alienate Southern members of Congress.

    As for the FBI, Aronson made it abundantly clear that under J. Edgar Hoover the FBI would do no more than "observe" and possibly investigate racially motivated incidents. At best, civil rights workers could regard FBI agents as fact-finders who would report their investigations to the Justice Department. The agents were instructed not to participate directly or interfere in any local police actions, even in situations where the police were themselves harassing or intimidating protesters. Moreover, the FBI was reported to have spies in our organizations as well as in other "subversive" organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, it was very likely that FBI agents reported our impending demonstrations, boycotts, and protests to the local and state governments. Paranoid or not, Henry Aronson concluded, we should never rely on the FBI to protect us.

    D'Army Bailey then returned to tell a story that had been creating a buzz among law students that year. It concerned one of the law students who had worked in Mississippi the previous summer. Oliver Rosengart, who was one year ahead of me at NYU School of Law and grew up a block away from me in Washington Heights, was canvassing local blacks in a rural Mississippi community, encouraging them to register to vote. His efforts enraged one of the locals, who took his rifle down from the back of his pickup and aimed it at Ollie outside the voter registration office. Ollie ran and hid behind the cars. The gunman walked all around looking for him, but fortunately he was too drunk to aim straight, and once he ran out of bullets Ollie raced to his car and sped away. But, as D'Army Bailey emphasized, Ollie did not board the next bus back to New York; he saw out the summer in the Mississippi Delta county, continuing to register voters.

    During the two-day orientation the leaders took us through various role-playing exercises in which we practiced handling typical encounters with the local white communities and law enforcement agencies. We were instructed not to try to be heroes or martyrs, but just do our jobs and not put ourselves or others in harm's way. Fully "oriented" and humbled, we were sent on our way—to lawyers and community groups in the Mississippi Delta, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in southwest Georgia, in urban and rural Louisiana, and elsewhere in the South.

    I'd like to think that we all learned something in that time about ourselves and how we saw the world. Coming from New York, where education and status were the defining factors in my life, my attitudes were very different from the values in which the speakers instructed us. Although the leaders' addresses did not sink in completely during the orientation, I did replay the words over and over again as I watched the African American community in Bogalusa, Louisiana, direct the boycotts, the demonstrations, and the integration of public accommodations, while we civil rights workers played our appropriate secondary, yet necessary, roles.

    I was assigned to the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) office in New Orleans, one of the three legal organizations working for civil rights in the South. LCDC was formed in 1964. Until then there had been two civil rights legal organizations: the recently formed Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The Lawyers' Committee had been created a year earlier when President Kennedy requested members of the American Bar Association and the private bar to assist the civil rights movement in the South. But in 1964 the Lawyers' Committee, not wishing to antagonize Southern bar associations, took a conservative position and steered clear of direct representation of civil rights workers who were arrested and jailed.

    The oldest civil rights legal organization was the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or the Inc. Fund. Through the work of Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall, the Inc. Fund relentlessly pursued school desegregation cases in federal court. In 1954, Houston's and Marshall's dreams were realized. In the renowned U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the unanimous court, outlawed state-sanctioned segregation. The euphemism "separate but equal," used for more than fifty years to humiliate African Americans by restricting them to segregated and substandard schooling and public accommodations, was withdrawn from the national vocabulary.

    In barring segregation in public facilities, the Brown decision helped pave the way for the 1960s civil rights movement. However, the Inc. Fund saw its role to be that of initiating major integration test cases, and, after 1954, of implementing the Brown decision. Unless larger constitutional issues were at stake, the Inc. Fund would not use its resources to defend individuals from criminal prosecution related to civil rights actions.

    In the winter of 1964, as civil rights organizations were preparing for Freedom Summer, it became obvious that the hundreds of students (mostly college students) who were to converge on the South would need legal support. If the Lawyers' Committee and the Inc. Fund would not represent civil rights workers, someone else would have to do it. Certainly the organizations planning Freedom Summer could not rely on local counsel. There were very few black attorneys in the South, and the handful of Southern white attorneys who were sympathetic to the movement feared for their lives and their livelihoods if they defended civil rights workers.

    In-house lawyers and directors of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Council of Churches, the Inc. Fund, CORE, the American Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee met the challenge. They agreed to help set up an alternative organization to provide volunteer legal support for the civil rights workers in the South in the summer of 1964. The organizing committee also saw a secondary purpose in sending volunteer attorneys to assist in the Southern movement: they hoped that after their involvement with the movement, the volunteers would continue to perform good works and spread the word to others in their own firms and communities. And so the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee was born.

    In LCDC's first year of operation, all the sponsoring organizations contributed seed money, with the ACLU and the National Council of Churches providing $15,000 each. In subsequent years, the ACLU absorbed LCDC and became accountable for its funding.

    LCDC's organizing committee solicited volunteer lawyers for two- to three-week tours in the South. But by the end of the summer, the committee realized that a more permanent arrangement was required so that the same lawyers could see civil rights cases through to completion, avoiding the lack of continuity and the inefficiency associated with visiting lawyers who stayed only a few weeks. So LCDC created three full-time staff attorney positions and requested commitments of a month or longer from the volunteers. By 1965, LCDC had offices in New Orleans; Jackson, Mississippi; and Selma, Alabama.

    The morning after the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council orientation ended in Jackson, I boarded a train called the "City of New Orleans." Within hours I was walking up Dryades Street, through one of New Orleans's largely African American neighborhoods, on my way to the LCDC office.

Copyright © 2000 Peter Jan Honigsberg. All rights reserved.