11 years old, seventh grade, green book bag slung over right shoulder, old-fashioned hand-cranked streetcar ride to Eggleston Station, then bus to Huntington Avenue, then sleek automatic streetcar ride. Finally after an hour Girls Latin School.
Two years later GLS moved to Codman Square. One short bus ride away. But missed the culture of the Fenway and the BLS boys.
So naïve, cosseted in Jewish Dorchester. GLS unveiled life beyond. First black girl to be my friend: Lillie White.
Junior year. 1957. Confrontation in Little Rock jumped out of my TV into my living room. Girls who looked like me, but for skin color— dressed like me, carried books like me.
Angry white mob blocking their way taunting them hurling filthy slurs at them spitting on them. All to bar them from the simple act of going to school, something I blithely took for granted.
These images etched into my heart and mind.
Diagramming sentences – ugh! Yet here I am mincing words, parsing phrases.
“Girls! Girls! Stop this nonsense! You think I want to be here? You’ll all be gone soon, off to college to get your MRS degrees. Your ship will come in. Mine never did. So here I am stuck with you. Get back to work!”
No physics class? In the Sputnik era? Because we’re . . . ‘just girls’? We organized, pestered, cajoled – finally, got it in our senior year.
We started with love— Amo. Amas. Amat. Swiftly on to war and conflict. Caesar crossing the Rubicon taught us sometimes there’s no turning back. Alea iacta est. Virgil warned us to be careful who we trust. Timeo Danaos atque dona ferentes. And a bit of philosophy from Cicero prepared us to grasp the idea that a soupcan could be art. De gustibus non disputandum est!
60 years gone. The threads we spun together endure in the tapestry of my life.
The bouquet reaches my nose two stores away. “One loaf of rye bread, please, sliced.” She grabs a loaf, drops it in the slicer Which whirrs through the bread. She comes around the counter To hand me the bread And take my money. The end piece is mine On my way home
The smell of pickles at the front door Makes my mouth water. A large barrel on each side. Kosher dills in one, Crispy fermented sauerkraut in the other.
“Don’t touch the merchandise!” the produce man says. He flips open a paper bag, puts fruit in it, weighs it and, Grease pencil at the ready, writes the cost on the bag. Another man marks a bigger bag with the amounts And adds the total. He puts the small bags in the big bag We pay and off we go.
The butcher’s hands are big and scarred. He wears a bloodied apron and Glides along the sawdust covered floor “Who’s next? C’mon ladies, we don’t have all day!” Chickens hang on the wall with Heads and feet and feathers. We pick two – one for soup, one for roasting. Then off with their heads and feet Pinfeathers singed with a torch (pee-yoo).
In the rear of the Prime Market A man filets fish on a big butcher block Buckets of guts, bones and skin below. Skanky . . . but flounder will Taste good later
Zayde sews custom made suits in his tailor shop Always hard at work Marking, pinning, basting, sewing, ironing. Pins in his mouth, chalk in his hand, He adjusts the jacket on a man or a mannequin. I bring him half and half coffee With double sugar Sometimes he lets me sip.
Editor’s note (July 2020): Arlene audited a stimulating and challenging Oberlin College course in Fall semester 2014, Dirty Wars and Democracy, with Professor Steven Volk, now retired. In addition to being a widely recognized expert in the history of Latin America, Steve was also the founding Director of Oberlin’s Center for Teaching, Innovation, and Excellence and was named the 2011 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Arlene found it daunting, though not surprising, when Steve told the class they would be trying a new pedagogical technique. They would each adopt as an avatar the life of an Argentine or Chilean person living through the brutally abusive dictatorships in these countries in the 1970s and ‘80s and into the present. One of their assignments was to write a journal entry in the person of their avatar each week, precipitated by specific events or time periods they were studying. Arlene’s avatar was simply “an Argentine woman born in 1950 to a Catholic family with a housewife mother and army major father in the city of Mendoza.”
It was up to Arlene to build the rest of a life for her avatar as a basis for her entries each week in the journal. In the process of writing these journal entries, Arlene created a fascinating short story about how it might have been for an ordinary Argentine woman to live through these turbulent and terrifying times. As Arlene tells us in her reflections on the experience, it “ had a profound effect on my understanding of this time. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals.”
We originally serialized these journal entries on our old Acornometrics blog (on Tumblr), but have decided to migrate them to acornometrics.com in a single post, for easier navigation. Our journey begins in 1968 and carries us forward across 46 years to 2014. Content warning: state violence and murder, repression, mention of suicide.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Sunday, June 2, 1968
My name is Isabel Juarez Morell. Most of my friends and family call me Isa. Today is Sunday, June 2, 1968 and I have just graduated from Santa Maria’s High School for Girls in Mendoza, Argentina. I am 18 years old and have two siblings, both brothers. José is older and attends Catholic University in Buenos Aires. My papá, a major in the army, wanted him to attend the National Military College, but he is more a poet than a soldier, which, of course, annoys my papá. My baby brother, Juan, is 8 years old and worships papá. He plays soldier all the time and wants to learn how to shoot already. I worry a bit about what might happen to him if I leave home to go to college. My mamá, who takes care of everything in the house, says not to worry – she will see that Juan has a normal childhood.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, August 16, 1976
It’s been some time since I have written in this journal, so I must bring things up to date. I am married now to a wonderful man named Roberto, who is a doctor in a general surgical practice here in Mendoza, my home town. We have one child, Jorge, about a year old. I grew up in an upper middle class home never wanting for anything. We had some servants – in fact, Rosita, whom I have known my whole life because she is the daughter of my governess when I was young, now works for me a couple of times a week as a housekeeper.
I’m not one to get involved in politics, although there were plenty of political discussions in my home as I was growing up. My father is an army major and when he was very young he served with Presidente Perón and has always talked about how impressive he was when addressing a large crowd. My father always believed that Peron was the man who should lead our great country by giving workers benefits while not turning over the reins of power from the industrialists to the workers. I think it is important to make sure people do not live in dire poverty but the last thing I would want Argentina to become is another Cuba!
After finishing high school I attended a nice college in Cordoba where I learned how to be an elementary school teacher. I taught for a few years while Roberto went through medical school. I am forever grateful to my parents who allowed us to live with them during those times. I am not working now but I do volunteer at our local church and really enjoy the tutoring work I do, especially the literacy classes. It’s so important that people know how to read and write. It’s important for them and it’s important for Argentina.
Roberto and I have a small house for ourselves now, but the last few years have become very difficult with inflation soaring. I never know when I go shopping just what I’ll be able to buy with the money I have in my purse. I worry some about Rosita and her family because we have had to cut back on her hours and cannot afford to raise her pay.
It’s the middle of winter now, a few months since the military took over the government. There is at least a sense of order since then. There was so much chaos the last couple of years it was hard to know what might happen on any given day. The radical pro-Cubans were killing people seemingly at random and bombing all kinds of places – government buildings, factories, movie theaters. The police were doing their best to prevent these attacks but that resulted in so much violence that I was afraid to go out and find myself and Jorge in some kind of dangerous situation. When Presidente Perón died my parents mourned and said that Argentina would never be the same. When Isabel Perón became president, my mother wailed that if Eva Perón were alive today we would not be in such trouble. My whole family is happy to see this new government in place. There is less violence on the street, no doubt as a result of the police and military presence on every street corner. The government tells us that we must make sacrifices to bring our country back to greatness – so far that has not affected our family too much and I hope to God it does not.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday July 1, 1978
Argentines all over the country are still reveling in our first World Cup championship, but there is a dark cloud over our celebrations as journalists from all over the world keep asking questions about people being arrested, tortured and even killed. Worse yet, they pose questions about people supposedly “disappearing” as though our government is purposefully snatching people from the street and with no trial or anything, killing them or hiding them in secret locations. I just don’t know what to think about all this.
I have begun to worry about my brother, José. He completed his degree in Literature and has been teaching Spanish in a Catholic High School in Cordoba. Even though he lives pretty close to us, we do not see him very much. Father disapproves of his teaching of poetry to these young people, believing that they will go astray and not be patriotic enough in these days of reorganization. He is not welcome in our parents’ home and, as a result, I too have become distant from him. Meanwhile, my brother Juan has completed high school and has applied for the police academy. He really has this macho personality and talks about “kicking some ass” when he becomes a policeman. Juan, of course, speaks very disparagingly about José and says there is only trouble ahead for him. All of this makes me crazy as I try to live a somewhat normal life raising a family and being a good wife.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, March 5, 1979
It is now three years since the military took over the government and, though things seemed to have a good start, my life today feels very strained. Jorge is four and is going to a nice nursery school at our local church – he seems the happiest of everyone in my family. He loves school and especially when he can play with kids his own age in the playground. His happiness brings some sunshine into my life.I want another child but Roberto and I have decided to postpone more children until we feel better about the future. He is still working at the local hospital but there have been major cutbacks and we never know when it might affect his department. We have been able to save a little money in case his hours are cut back but the value of those savings seems to dwindle as inflation is back.
The worst thing that happened to us was that we have lost track of my brother José about six months ago. We had become even more distant because he insists on teaching poetry to his students even though everyone says we should be teaching our children the technical skills to get a good job and be able to contribute to the growth of our country. Some months back when I tried calling him the phone was disconnected. I tried reaching friends of his I knew but had no luck there either. Mamá and I drove to Cordoba to see what we could find. The police were no help at all – they just yelled at mamá that it must be her fault that her son was missing, that she did not bring him up to be a good citizen. She broke down crying as we left that building. We went to the school and they could not help us either. They just said José did not show up for work one day and hasn’t been back since. Mamá has been getting more and more depressed as the days go on without word of José. She has talked to me occasionally about joining Las Madres–the Mothers of the Disappeared–but she is so fearful that she might be hurt, and also that papá would be so angry he might throw her out of the house.
Recently there has been talk that we might have to discontinue the literacy program where I volunteer at church. This activity is so gratifying to me knowing that I am providing real, concrete help for people. This confuses me that the government wants the people to be educated to become good citizens but seem to be opposed to helping people better their lives by learning to read and write. What’s more, we don’t even have as many church picnics and other gatherings as we used to have. People we’ve known for years hardly go out except to go to work or shop for essentials. I see people in the streets with their heads down just determined to get where they are going and get off the street as though there’s a boogey man hiding in every alley waiting to jump them.
I hope things will be better soon. And I am desperate to see or hear from José.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, January 8, 1981
It has been two years since my brother José disappeared. Mamá has been in complete despair since then. After spending nearly a year inquiring at police stations and government offices, even hiring a lawyer to file a plea for habeas corpus, all to no avail, she has given up actively looking for José, but has not given up hope of seeing him again. She does not know what to believe – maybe he is in a prison somewhere and will be released soon. Papá tells her that José has turned his back on us and is probably in Mexico, even Paris, enjoying his life with other subversive poets and that she should give up on him and be a family with two instead of three children. She has stopped talking to papá about José, but she is not giving up hope.
Mamá comes to my house a lot because she cannot stand to be alone with papá. We have spent long hours talking, hugging, crying. But we also play with the children – yes, I do now have a second child, a beautiful little girl, Maria. Mamá gets much pleasure playing with the children and I am happy that she feels some joy in her life with my kids.
Mamá has confided in me about something she is doing now that is a secret from the rest of the family. Over a year ago, on one of her trips to Buenos Aires inquiring about José, she was in the Plaza de Mayo and saw women walking around carrying signs and pictures of their children who had also disappeared. She sat on a bench, pulled out the picture of José she carries around in her purse and cried. She was afraid to talk to anyone that day. Papá always says that the government and the military must take certain measures to insure a stable future for our country. People who are fomenting trouble must be eliminated or we will just end up in the mess we were in back in the early 1970s.
So, on that first day in the Plaza, mamá sat there fearing for the lives of the women in the square and certainly did not think of joining them. A few weeks later, though, she lied and told papá that her cousin Louisa in Buenos Aires was very sick and needed her help. She went to the Plaza de Mayo and had the courage to speak to one woman, who told mamá about her daughter who had been kidnapped from her home in 1978 and has not been seen since. She told mamá that she refuses to believe her daughter is dead until the military produces a body. Mamá listened to this story and cried thinking about her José.
She learned that the Madres walk in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday afternoon at 3:30. She has told papá that she must go to Buenos Aires often to care for Louisa. He believes her because he thinks all women are hysterical and fall ill at a moment’s notice. Mamá stays with Louisa, who she has sworn to secrecy about her real reason for coming. Now mamá proudly marches with the Madres once every month or so. This does not increase her hope that she will ever see José again, but it helps her cope and gives her strength to go on with life.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Monday, June 14, 1982
Things are not going well for my family as the terrible economy has forced the hospital to cut back on Roberto’s hours. This has resulted in sacrifices for us like less meat on the table and definitely fewer clothes for the children, even though they seem to grow out of them in six months’ time. We expanded the vegetable garden last summer and that helped a lot but it seems every day is a struggle.
The economy has been so bad that people have been taking to the streets again and I worry about what all this unrest will lead to. Of course, I am most concerned about my babies. They are so precious to me. I wish things would just get better and I don’t know what I can do to help that along. Meanwhile the volunteer work I have been doing at the church helping with literacy programs has been shut down. People aren’t getting the help they need and I’m not getting the satisfaction of doing some good in the world. What could possibly be wrong with people learning how to read and write?!
At least that stupid war with England is over. Papá, who now has the rank of colonel in the army, was furious with the president when he ordered the invasion of the Malvinas Islands. He says the government should have been using all its resources dealing with domestic issues of fulfilling the promises of the military junta and bringing Argentina to a period of stability, not invading a few small islands that don’t amount to much in the grand scheme of things (although he also would claim that these islands belong to Argentina and were stolen by the British). Still, papá’s heritage is British and he worships the royal family and all the fanfare that goes along with it. I wish I understood him better. To make matters even worse, Rosita’s husband was seriously injured in the war and now is unable to work. We had to let Rosita go about a year ago and really see no way that we can hire her. We shared our vegetable garden with her last summer but we have no surplus now.
Right now it feels like there is little to be optimistic about. I pray things will be better for my children soon.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, December 10, 1983
Today Argentina celebrates the inauguration of our new president, Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín. It’s Saturday afternoon and my whole family is at my parents’ home watching the festivities on the television. My children, now 4 and 8, are bored with all this but are finding enough things to enjoy outdoors in the early summer weather.
Despite the festivities on television, there is tension in this household. Mamá, who finally revealed her secret participation in the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, is torn between joy at the end of the military junta and depression over the near certainty now of José’s death. Papá is a complete wreck. There are so many things, some very contradictory, that trouble him. He believes that the invasion of the Malvinas caused the downfall of the military government and worries about the resurgence of communists. He admits now that he knew all along that José was dead and not in Paris.
Although he never understood José and strongly disagreed with his chosen career as a teacher, José was still his first born son and he mourns his death. He knows that the military, which means so much to him, is directly personally responsible for José’s capture and ultimate death. And that means he himself is responsible. He tries not to think about what torture José might have been subjected to. But I think he is most concerned about his own personal future and worries he may be facing a trial and possible imprisonment for acts he committed (or asked others to commit) during the military regime.
It is hard for any of us to have hope for the future with the dark cloud of possible prosecution for papá. It’s even more difficult because he really believes that the junta saved Argentina from the evils of socialism and communism and the influences of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Since José’s disappearance, I have studied a little about politics and economics and I don’t understand why papá doesn’t recognize that the junta was strongly influenced by another foreign nation, the United States. I wonder why we Argentines can’t decide for ourselves what’s right for us. Why should we be the puppet of any outside country? Our family will never be the same, and we lost only José. Other families have been completely destroyed. How could any political philosophy justify the loss and destruction of so many lives?
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Saturday, Dec. 29, 1990
Five years ago there was a trial for nine junta leaders accused of kidnapping, torture, disappearance and murder of several hundred Argentines. Five were found guilty and four were acquitted. Today Presidente Carlos Menem pardoned all the leaders of the junta. This leaves me with many mixed feelings, but mostly I wonder what might have been, had this action been taken earlier. Three years ago my papá took his own life using his army-issued revolver. He left this note for us:
I am haunted by thoughts that I may have had a hand in the death of my own first born son. I cannot look my devoted wife in the eyes. I cannot live with myself and can only hope for redemption in the afterlife.
During the years leading up to his suicide, testimonies before the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and trials for individuals involved in the unspeakable crimes against their own people created a tremendous amount of stress for both papá and mamá. The testimonies of survivors from this time forced them to ultimately accept the truth that José was really dead. For papá the possibility of a trial for his actions brought additional stress and concern. He retired from the army soon after the end of the junta. After that, he withdrew into his study most days and rarely spent time on family outings. We weren’t sure what he did in there and we did not talk openly of whatever was in the news about trials and testimonies. I wonder: if the pardons had come earlier, would papá be alive today?
As for myself, now that I have turned 40 I have made an important decision for my future. Much of it has been influenced by the personal history of my family, but I have also been influenced by the self-induced trauma this country has endured over the last 15 years. I have entered graduate school to become a history professor. I realize this is a little late in life to make such a decision, and women are not as welcome as they should be in those positions. But I am determined to make a difference. My children are 11 and 15 now and are not as dependent on my presence at home as they were when they were younger. Besides, mamá moved in with us shortly after papá died and with mama’s financial help, we are able to hire Rosita again to help around the house. I am really looking forward to this additional education and hope I can learn more about my country’s history and pass that knowledge on to the next generation.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Wednesday, April 19, 2005
On Tuesday morning, April 19, 2005, I woke up to the news that Adolfo Scilingo was convicted of crimes against humanity in a Spanish court and sentenced to 640 years in prison. I am pleased that someone who was responsible for so many deaths during Argentina’s Dirty Wars has been given a long sentence. I feel a sense of justice, but it cannot erase the hurt deep inside me that he may have thrown my brother José out of an airplane. This news brought more distress to mamá, raising to the surface once again the horrendous death her son must have endured. We will both grieve his death once more, without a grave to visit.
My students in the class, 20th Century Argentine History, spent the entire hour discussing this case and related issues. Although we had already covered Scilingo’s public confession that he was one of many navy personnel who participated in throwing people out of airplanes over the ocean, many students were still in disbelief that someone would actually hurl prisoners out of airplanes. They also talked about how inhumane it was to steal children from prisoners and give them to military personnel to raise. Once I saw a student look at a daughter of a military family with a quizzical look. This history is haunting to many of my students, but not all.
During the discussion, one student asked me if I had any personal memories from that time I would care to share with the class. I hesitated for a moment and decided to tell them about the disappearance of my brother. I told them that my mamá became hysterical when the Scilingo stories were first revealed. She had nightmares envisioning her José looking quizzically at the sky as he fell to the sea. It has taken some time for her to recover enough to live a pretty normal life, but this morning’s news conjured up more memories and she was nearly hysterical. I almost stayed home to console her but she said it was more important for our future for me to teach class today than comfort her. I told my students of mamá’s participation with the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo. Only a few students were even aware of this group. I found some images of demonstrations on my computer to share and there were definitely some tears shed.
Class discussions on these and related issues will be difficult for many of my students who have little or no knowledge of this past. I must work hard to balance objectivity as a teacher with the emotions of expressing my personal memories. But I think it is important to share those memories with this generation of Argentines who have no personal memory of their own from this time. For next class I will lead a discussion about the relationship between personal memory and collective memory. I hope my students will grasp an understanding that knowledge of our country’s history, including its very darkest moments, creates the narrative that leads to better public policy for the future.
From the Journal of Isabel Juarez Morel: Thursday, December 4, 2014
It is early December 2014 and I am approaching retirement age. Roberto has already retired and really wants me to join him and begin enjoying life without the constraints of schedules and responsibilities. But, truthfully, I am not ready to retire. Perhaps it’s because I started my career so late in life. I enjoy teaching history to young people, the future of our country. I try to convey to them the importance of studying history, the only way we can know who we are. If we do not know all of who we are, especially the parts of our history we’d like to forget, we are indeed more likely to tolerate horrific acts being done in our name at some point in the future. How we teach history forms the narrative by which we live. We must be especially careful of our regrettable past and know what motivated it, what sustained it, who opposed it, and who supported it.
My daughter, Maria, now 35, has been making documentary films the last few years. I am so proud of her. I am so impressed with her talent, but even more, I admire her courage and belief in herself. My, have times changed! So many opportunities abound for women to excel and contribute to our culture.
Maria recently approached me with an idea for a new film – the story of Argentina’s Dirty War through one family’s experience, ours. And she has asked me to work on the film as a consultant. At first I was flabbergasted, but I went back and read my journals from those years and believe this could make a compelling story.
I wonder if working with Maria on her film and even writing a memoir that would include my personal experiences of Argentine history can create a satisfying pathway to retirement. If I were to significantly reduce my teaching load I could work with Maria, start my book, and spend more time with family. Mamá is getting old and it would be good for us both to enjoy my children and grandchildren – Jorge, who is a doctor following in his father’s footsteps, has 3 and Maria has 2.
As I read through my journal, I recognized an arc of a journey from an ordinary middle class Argentine girl, to an elementary school teacher, to a housewife, then a history teacher and now an historian. My personal history reminds me of the contradictory pulls from the military traditions of my papá and the painful loss of my brother. These cannot co-exist.
My study of history has helped me understand that the government was manipulating everyone, including me, and molding the culture to believe that the junta was doing the right thing for our country. It is no wonder that I was confused in the early days following the coup. I realize now that the acts perpetrated against our own citizens were done in my name, especially since I supported the coup at first. Therefore, I, too, am responsible for the death of my brother. This new grasp of Argentina’s past created the transition for me from not just a teacher of history but to an historian.
This week Brazil and the United States released reports of terrible acts they committed in their pasts. I applaud them for taking this step, but I doubt that America will cease its tireless intervention and manipulation in whatever part of the world they deem they have an interest. I am quite sure they will repeat some of these heinous acts. I hope that Argentina has learned that no “ends” can justify the “means” used during our Dirty War. Those methods are irrevocably part of our past and without exposing them to open air and sunshine they will fester and we will not be cured of this disease.
Epilogue: Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Imagining myself in the person of Isabel Juarez Morell living in Argentina as these horrific events unfolded and then writing her journal had a profound effect on my understanding of this time in history. It made me think about the impact of historical events on individual lives, which, in turn, provided insights into the extremes a regime is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals. Of course, I knew about Pinochet, Argentina’s disappeared, people thrown out of airplanes and the Madres, but writing in Isa’s voice brought me to the microcosm of one person and her family, rather than the macrocosm of statistics. The entire course filled in a lot of detail about the Dirty Wars that enhanced my understating of those regimes, but the journaling added a nuance that one rarely finds from a structured classroom setting.
During the course of the semester, I felt compelled to do some individual research to provide more context for Isa, such as the state of the economy at the time or more details of the Malvinas war (I did not remember the term Malvinas – I’m pretty sure I only heard of the Falklands war, reflecting the Anglo-centric perspective of the media in this country). If Steve Volk’s purpose for the avatar journaling in this course was to get students to do this independent research, it worked on me!
I set Isa’s life up for family conflict at the very beginning by deciding her brother, José, would be a poet. As these family conflicts unfolded I found myself writing some painful entries. Larry and I have a ritual of reading our writing out loud to each other – it helps us find typos, for one thing, but it also helps us make sure the work flows properly. There were times during this semester when it was hard for me to read these journal entries without tears welling up.
It was perhaps more natural for me than for the young students to build up 46 year of personal history for my avatar, as I lived as an adult through the entire time period we studied. But I hated history in high school and carried that into college so did not take many history classes at Brandeis. I began studying history seriously when I became involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. What I have learned over the last fifty years or so has led me to understand the sordid nature of our past and how the sanitized history we teach to our children leads to troubles we face in the present day, both domestically and internationally. Learning about the role the United States played in both Chile and Argentina was no surprise to me; I knew some of those details already. But furthermore, I have come to expect U.S. intervention wherever our capital interests take us (see Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer).
We Americans, as a people and a culture, have not reconciled with our own history of slavery and genocide and terror. That past haunts us to this day in the form of mass incarceration and the disparate use of police violence against people of color, an illegal and immoral prison in Guantanamo Bay, and torture of suspected terrorists. Our exploits around the world overturning legitimate regimes and supporting dictators have fomented attacks like 9-11 and groups like ISIS. I fell into the trap of excitement over the election of Barak Obama and now he sends drones to assassinate supposed terrorists and anyone who is nearby. The fact is that studying history depresses me. But I am driven by the need to understand and the hope for a better future. Writing this journal as Isa Juarez Morrell has helped me more deeply appreciate the value of that study.
[Editor’s note: Arlene prepared this paper as her final semester project for a class she audited at Oberlin College and Conservatory, MHST 290: Introduction to African American Music, taught by Professor Fredara Mareva Hadley.]
Music has been a vital part of African American life from the time the first African was kidnapped, sold, shipped to the New World, and enslaved by European colonists in North America. They brought songs and rhythms with them and created new sounds by integrating those with European musical traditions they heard while in captivity. This music became an integral part of African American culture in their daily lives, as well as their Sunday rituals, from the period of enslavement and into the 21st century.
Songs were a natural part of the enslaved people’s Sunday services and many contained coded lyrics reflecting hopes for freedom from enslavement. In the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, these songs were transformed into freedom songs, a vital element of the movement. This paper addresses how those freedom songs impacted the direct action taken to desegregate public accommodations and bring the right to vote to millions of disenfranchised African Americans in the southern states. Particular focus is given to the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The paper makes specific links between traditional slave songs and freedom songs, noting how the simple substitution of a word or two transformed a prayer to a rallying cry. An accompanying playlist demonstrates those connections. The paper also contains personal reflections of SNCC leaders, members of the Freedom Singers, and the author, who worked for SNCC in the 1960s.
After a short-lived Reconstruction period of relative freedom for African Americans following the Civil War, power shifted from Republicans to Democrats in the south and blacks were subjected to “Jim Crow” laws, requiring strict segregation of the races in public accommodation, and systematic disenfranchisement through such tactics as poll taxes and literacy tests. The “Jim Crow” laws were local or state ordinances, but became the law of the land nationally in 1896 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate accommodations for Negroes were constitutional as long as they were “equal.” These laws were only part of the systemic, de facto practices of discrimination in employment, education, housing and virtually every aspect of life for people of color, resulting in severe economic disadvantage, and second-class citizenship status. The “separate but equal” policy remained in effect until the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court reversed Plessy.
This decision created a sense of empowerment throughout the black community, but the change in the law did not result in the end of discrimination nor the often brutal physical treatment of African Americans. The following summer, 1955, Emmitt Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The murderers were acquitted after a five-day trial and only 67 minutes of deliberation by an all-white jury.
Within a few months of that trial, Rosa Parks, a long-time NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) activist, refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama when the driver asked her to move to accommodate a white passenger. She was subsequently arrested, and is quoted as saying, “I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated.”1 Parks’ demonstrative action galvanized the local black community into action. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year, is considered the onset of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Five years later, in February of 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter “white’s only” section and requested service after purchasing goods at the store. When asked to leave they refused. This action was followed by more than twenty students the next day and lunch counter sit-ins spread throughout the south. In April 1960, many of these students gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina and, with the leadership of Ella Baker, formed SNCC, a group that would become a major force over the next several years. SNCC played a significant role in many key actions – the 1961 Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the Mississippi Freedom Summer, culminating in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the Mississippi delegation’s credentials to the 1964 Democratic Party’s national convention; and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.
The Role of Freedom Songs in the Mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement
Music played a critical role in all these burgeoning civil rights campaigns, as early as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “As a local movement grew in Montgomery, singing became a strong force in unifying people in the struggle.”2 Mass meetings for this action and those that followed in the 1960s typically took place in churches, where singing was an essential element of the service.
Many commonly known hymns, spirituals and gospel songs began to take on a new meaning when they were part of a mass meeting. Soon small adaptations were made which gave even sharper focus to traditional words. “We’ve got the light of freedom, we’re gonna let it shine”3
At mass meetings, music was mixed into the program alternating with motivational speeches of civil rights leaders from the local community as well as from organizations such as SNCC, CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organization). The music served to motivate people to participate, inspire them to feel a part of something transformative, and create a sense of solidarity not only with their local community but also with a national movement creating “the second American revolution.”4 Most importantly, when demonstrators knowingly faced the terrorism of their oppressors, music served to help calm their fears and steel their resolve.
In an interview by composer/scholar William Banfield, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of The SNCC Freedom Singers, talks of the role of music:
(T)his was definitely the way I saw music working in the Civil Rights movement. There were those times when we were moving in new ways, and going against everything we had been taught that might keep us safe, and as we moved forward, terrified, and possibly facing real physical danger, we used the songs and the singing. It never stopped the bullet or a jailing, or kept you from losing your job or being suspended from school, but music kept you from being paralyzed, it kept you moving.5
Churches were natural places for these mass meetings, as they were the one safe haven for African Americans to gather in the South, a tradition that harks back to the period of enslavement when Sundays were the only day of the week when the enslaved were not under constant scrutiny of the enslavers. Churches were places where blacks felt trust in and connections with all those around them.
Minor adaptations in the words of traditional hymns sung in these churches transformed them into the freedom songs of the civil rights movement. In an interview with John Lewis, chairman of SNCC from 1963-66, Bernice Reagon quotes him:
One of the earliest songs I remember very well that became very popular was “Amen”
Amen Amen Amen Amen Amen
Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom Freedom
This song represented the coming together, you really felt it – it was like you were part of the crusade, a holy crusade. You felt uplifted and involved in a great battle and a great struggle.6
She continued with her own comments: “A simple change from ‘Amen’ to ‘Freedom’ made it a musical statement of the ultimate national goal of the student activists.”7
Most of the freedom songs were upbeat and had a call-to-action message, with titles like Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round, We Shall Not be Moved, Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Freedom and Which Side Are You On? In addition to these songs motivating and inspiring participants, they also played an important external role when they were sung during marches and demonstrations, and even in jail. They reached out to supporters who might not have joined yet, and many of them would be on the picket lines the next day. The songs made a strong statement to the police, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizen Councils and the people who snarled racial epithets and spat at them that there would be no cowering in this movement. SNCC and other organizations, and particularly local community members who were risking their jobs, homes, even their lives, were declaring that they were serious, they meant business, and they were not going away until their demands were met.
We Shall Overcome held a special position in the civil rights movement in general, and in SNCC in particular. Each mass meeting and even each planning meeting ended with everyone singing We Shall Overcome. We all stood, crossed our arms and held hands with the people next to us, creating a bond throughout the room that could not be broken. This song was much more solemn and prayerful with words of hope for the future that all the hard work of the day would pay off someday.
The SNCC Freedom Singers served the movement in another significant way by supporting the organization’s fundraising efforts. They toured the nation, playing in front of crowds of supporters where they spread the word, and helped finance SNCC’s operations. Accompanying them on these tours were well known activist/entertainers like Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Harry Belafonte helping to boost attendance. A group of original Freedom Singers continues to perform, especially at 50th anniversary commemorations of specific events of the 60s.
Musical links to the past
The freedom songs of the civil rights movement draw from a rich historical culture beginning hundreds of years earlier in our nation’s history. During the period of enslavement African Americans were allowed to congregate in groups on Sunday, their day of rest. Early on, white ministers taught them the Christian religion of the European colonists. Later they were often allowed to meet alone, so long as what the enslavers heard were recognizable as prayers and hymns. These gatherings became the birthplace of African American church culture, much of which is still alive today. Music played a vital role in that development and spilled over into their secular world as well.
Following the Civil War and emancipation, the African American culture evolved, in part, through the establishment of Black churches and new institutions to educate free black men and women (what are now referred to as Historically Black Colleges and Universities). In both cases music played significant roles in their infrastructure and in the ability to raise funds for their operations. The hymns sung by the enslaved people in their enclaves on Sunday became the hymns they sang in their churches. Many of the freedom songs of the 60s were directly derived from those slave songs, supplemented by hymns and spirituals composed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members of the Freedom Singers and others were also inspired to compose new songs. This section focuses on the connection between freedom songs and the historical songs of enslavement, with one major exception, We Shall Overcome, which is based on a composed hymn from 1901.
There are many sources for understanding the traditional hymns and spirituals upon which freedom songs are based, including liner notes of recordings, periodicals and research papers. One website, “Sweet Chariot: The Story of Spirituals,” with a focus on connections to slave spirituals. states:
The extensive use of spirituals in the struggle for freedom during slavery left a deep imprint in the cultural memory of African Americans and their allies. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1960s and 70s, many of the freedom songs sung by the multi-racial cadre of Civil Rights workers were essentially new versions of old slave spirituals with updated lyrics that expressed the specific needs of the Civil Rights Movement.8
This site also contains illustrative examples of the connections between freedom songs and the slave songs on which they were based. From this list I chose four and added a fifth to create a playlist of five freedom songs paired with the traditional hymns or spirituals that inspired them. The fifth, I’ll Overcome Some Day is a gospel hymn composed by Charles Albert Tindley in 1901. It is included because its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was the anthem of the civil rights movement.
Specific Song Lineages
Following are links to the ten tracks pairing each historical antecedent with the freedom song that was derived from it.
Examining each of these pairings illuminates how relatively simple changes in lyrics and style transformed traditional prayerful songs into tools of the civil rights movement.
Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Jesus is sung by Mississippi Fred McDowell, accompanying himself on the guitar. It sounds so authentic one can imagine it is an enslaved person singing at a Sunday service. The matching freedom song, performed by the original Freedom Singers, replaces “stayed on Jesus” with “set on Freedom.” It is sung a capella, has a much faster tempo and is much louder. The slave song has verses beginning “walkin’ and talkin with my mind . . . ” and “singin’ and prayin with my mind . . . ” The freedom song also has the “walkin’ and talkin’” phrase, while later verses begin with adaptations such as “ain’t no harm to keep your mind set on freedom.”
Don’t Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round sung by the Pilgrim Jubilees is performed as an arranged spiritual with a lead singer and a choir, accompanied with several instruments. The freedom song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn You ‘Round is performed a capella by the Freedom Singers. The slave song’s lyrics include “walkin’ up the King’s highway” which are substituted in the freedom song with “marchin’ up to Freedomland.” The pace is quicker and the attitude one of fighting and protest. Additional verses in the freedom song include “Ain’t gonna let segregation turn me ‘round” with other words substituting for segregation, such as “jailhouse,” “nervous nellies,” “Chief Pritchett,” “Mayor Kelly” and “Uncle Tom.” Noteworthy in this version is the inclusion of local opponents such as the police chief (Pritchett) and mayor (Kelley) of Albany Georgia, thus inspiring people to face them the next day.
I Shall Not be Moved, performed by “Pops” Staples is paired with We Shall Not Be Moved by the Freedom Singers. The traditional hymn is sung as an arranged spiritual with many instruments, and the freedom song is a capella with strong multi-voice harmony. The words in the main chorus do not change other than changing the first person singular to first person plural:
I (We) shall not, we shall be moved, I (We) shall not we shall be moved, just like a tree standing by the water, I (We) shall not be moved.
Lyrics change in the verses, however. The slave song has ones including “Jesus is my Captain, I shall not be moved” and “I’m on my way to Glory, I shall not be moved,” while the freedom song substitutes “we’re on our way to victory, we shall not be moved” and “segregation is our enemy, it must be removed.”
Neither the title nor the refrain is adapted for the song Oh Freedom, which begins: “Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” These lyrics suggest that this spiritual was not likely sung during enslavement, but perhaps after emancipation.
The spiritual Oh Freedom probably came into being soon after the end of slavery. Like many African American spirituals, the song has more than one meaning. Not only does it refer to freedom in the world to come after death, as many slave spirituals do, but it celebrates their new freedom in the here and now. In the 1950s and 1960s, the song was commonly sung as part of the Civil Rights Movement.9
On the playlist The Golden Gospel Singers perform the traditional song in an arranged a capella fashion, with a choir background. It contains lines like “no more weepin’” in place of “Oh Freedom!” The freedom song by Sweet Honey in the Rock is from the movie Freedom Song and is part of a mass meeting scene. It is performed a capella, with tambourine. It is more upbeat than the gospel rendition and is similar to a lined hymn with a call/response form. The leader speaks, not sings, the lead verse for each section to make sure those present at the mass meeting know what to sing next. In place of “no more weepin’” are such phrases as “no more beatin’,” “no more Jim Crow,” and “there’ll be singin’.”
The final pairing is not based on a slave song but a composed hymn, I Will Overcome, written by Charles Albert Tindley, one of the most prolific African American gospel hymn composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its accompanying freedom song, We Shall Overcome, was sung more often than any other freedom song and permeated American political culture so fully that these words were spoken by President Lyndon Johnson when he introduced the Voting Rights Bill in a televised speech to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965.10 The traditional song is performed by the Reverend Gary Davis, accompanied by guitar and a mixed choir. The singing is interspersed with preaching and contains lines such as “by the precious Lord” and “I heard a voice one day” followed by “I Shall Overcome.” The Freedom Singers, with Chuck Neblett providing strong bass lines, sing a capella with some well-arranged call/response, and such substituted phrases as “we are not alone . . . today (for someday)” and “black and white together” introducing new verses.
I was a member of SNCC from 1960 to 1966 and worked as a field secretary in Arkansas in 1964-65. During that time I had many opportunities to sing freedom songs and listen to the Freedom Singers perform. The experience was invigorating and helped me appreciate the importance of the work my colleagues and I were doing. These were also joyful times when we would look into each other’s eyes, understanding the sacrifices we were making, and believing (or, at least, hoping) that the work we were doing was really making the world a better place for African Americans, and, as a result, for all of us. When we sang We Shall Overcome at the end of every meeting, we would shout out the new verses such as: “We are not afraid,” “Black and white together,” and “The truth shall make us free,” but when it came time to finish the song with one more refrain of “We Shall Overcome” it was a little more solemn and prayerful, knowing that there were many obstacles ahead of us before we achieved our dreams of freedom for all.
Though we have come a long way in the fifty years since the peak of SNCC’s activities, the long march to justice is not over. The power of those freedom songs, and the legacy from which they are derived, still resonates. Composers and musicians in various genres – folk, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, and contemporary classical – continue to write and play pieces connected with the civil rights movement. In 2012 composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith published a four CD set entitled Ten Freedom Summers,11 which treats this musical legacy in a more abstract but no less effective manner. At a concert I attended at which he played selections from those recordings, he spoke movingly about the work and its meaning:
This music is about the Civil Rights Movement. We call it a movement, because it isn’t finished yet. This movement is about Human Rights, for all humans. That’s a big mistake that a lot of people make, thinking the movement is just about rights for black folks. But it’s about rights for all of us. And we ain’t there yet. So I need you all to help me relight that torch.12
 Guy and Candie Carawan, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom, The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs
 Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
”The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” in Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, William C. Banfield, 2004. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland.
6] Bernice Johnson Reagon, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
 Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers, Cunieform Records, ASIN: B007JZFX9C
 Wadada Leo Smith, speaking at Kerrytown Concert House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2012 Edgefest, October 31-November 3, 2012
Books, Periodicals and Liner Notes:
Banfield, William C., Black Notes: Essays of A Musician Writing in a Post-Album Age, Chapter entitled: The Music Kept Us from Being Paralyzed: A Talk with Bernice Johnson Reagon,” Scarecrow Press, 2004.
Carawan, Guy and Candie, Liner notes, Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through its Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, ASIN: B000001DHL
Lewis, Anthony, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, Random House, 1964
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, “Let the Church Sing ‘Freedom’”, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 7, 1987
American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY), website of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6336/
[Editor’s Note: A Boston native, Arlene Wilgoren Dunn studied mathematics at Brandeis University and later earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Arlene spent more than a year working in the Pine Bluff and Little Rock offices of the Arkansas SNCC project. Since then she continued her activism as a member of a variety of organizations including People Against Racism (PAR) and the Race Relations Council of Northern Indiana. She also enjoyed a successful career in the airline industry, ultimately working as Director of Financial Analysis at Midway Airlines.]
This is a story of how the experience of working in the civil rights movement of the 1960s completely transformed the life of a Jewish girl from Boston.
I worked for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in Arkansas for 15 months in 1964 and 1965. Although this was a short period of time, its impact was profound and is still with me, nearly 45 years later. This journey actually began seven years earlier, fittingly enough, with a triggering event that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas. In the fall of 1957 I was a high school sophomore in Boston, attending a city wide college preparatory school. Although I lived in a very homogenous Jewish community, I attended school with a more diverse student body. When the Little Rock Nine students attempted to integrate Central High School I was shocked to see TV news footage of angry white mobs and the Arkansas National Guard preventing them from entering the building. Here I was receiving an excellent education in a safe environment, while there were teenagers, like me in all ways except my skin color, being refused what I took for granted. Later in life, when I came to understand more about white privilege, I read a quote from Robert Terry, author of several books on race, including On Being White and For Whites Only that could describe me: “Being white in America is not having to think about it.”
In February of 1960 I participated in my first civil rights action when I was a freshman at Brandeis University. A group of students demonstrated at the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square in support of the lunch counter student sit-ins in the South. After graduating from Brandeis, I moved to New York City and became quite active with the New York SNCC office, which was primarily involved in fundraising to support the organizing and action campaigns in the South. Early in 1964 plans were solidified for the 1964 Freedom Summer, which was to bring 1,000 (mostly Caucasian) students from the North to participate in voter registration drives in Mississippi. As I was no longer a student, it did not occur to me to join this effort. I was content to provide support through volunteer work in the New York office. We were a dedicated group – young folks willing to do just about anything, from menial tasks such as stuffing envelopes to calling people asking for financial support.
Excitement about the summer project built over the spring months, and we raised a lot of money. There were times when I was tempted to join up, as the excitement was very contagious. But I had held my job only 8 or 9 months, so taking a few months off seemed out of the question. Then the fateful day in June occurred when news of the disappearance of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, a black youth from Mississippi, and two white northern volunteers, Andy Goodman and Mike Schwerner — came to light. The New York SNCC office placed a full page ad in the New York Times and donations began pouring in. Hate mail also arrived. One evening I opened a letter containing extremely vile statements and a specimen of feces. That did it for me. I decided then and there that I was not going to stay away out of fear or hate. I spoke with Julie Prettyman, the director of the New York office, about the possibility of my going despite the fact that I had not participated in the volunteer training, which included important exercises in methods of nonviolent demonstrations. She reported back that I could go to the Atlanta office, SNCC national headquarters, and request an assignment, but that there was no guarantee that I would indeed be placed. Within a week I had quit my job, walked out on my apartment lease, got rid of most of my stuff and was on a bus headed to Atlanta.
I stayed there for a week, helping out in whatever way I could. I was soon on another bus headed for Pine Bluff, Arkansas where I would work for SNCC as a field secretary, the title given to everyone. My salary was subsistence level (about $20 a week), but housing was provided. The next 15 months would be one of the most memorable times of my life, in personal as well as political ways.
Some of my memories were introductions to a new culture. I was offered many new foods – greens and other vegetables cooked with fatback, which I tolerated but did not really like, sweet potato pie, which I love to this day and chitterlings, which I tried only once. I was offered pig’s feet, which I never tried. We mingled with the community socially, and I especially enjoyed evenings at the Elks Club where there was often a live band, sometimes quite famous blues performers such as Bobby Blue Bland and even B.B. King. They did not have a liquor license but you were allowed to bring your own liquor and buy “setups” – mixers, lemon, lime or whatever else you liked to mix with liquor. We ate, drank, and danced until the wee hours.
My SNCC responsibilities were primarily in managing the office. Occasionally I joined in a group canvassing in the community to encourage people to register to vote. I remember a small house we visited where the family was clearly struggling with poverty. The furnishings were simple and well worn, yet the house was clean and had a dignified presence. There were pictures of Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy on the wall. The family welcomed us into their home and listened to us with respect. My time in Arkansas was my first real hands-on experience of the level of poverty so many people in this country endure. Those images have stayed with me and help to inform my political and social thinking to this day.
I got to know a group of students at Arkansas AM&N, the historically black college now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. I dated one of the students for a while, fearlessly appearing in public with him and riding on the back of his motorcycle. Some of my SNCC colleagues expressed concern that I might be endangering the project as well as my own life (and his), but we were determined to live freely and openly express our belief in racial equality.
The director of the Arkansas Project was Bill Hansen. Bill was tall and lanky with a strong, square jaw. With his very long legs, he often strode with such determination it was difficult to keep up. He had little tolerance for the requests of some of the women in the project (myself included) that men and women should be regarded as equals with regard to job assignments and leadership roles. And it wasn’t just about men and women. Bill ran the entire project in a domineering way. He was very focused on the goals for SNCC. We had long discussions about policy or proposed activities, but in the end, Bill seemed to always prevail, whether because everyone eventually agreed with him or he simply decided enough was enough and “dictated” the policy. Bill was very strong willed, as am I. So we were frequently in conflict.
And yet, I learned a great deal from Bill and have always valued his substantial intellect and his willingness to share his understanding of history and politics. He had a keen understanding of the role of racism in every aspect of American society and was always willing to take the time to share this knowledge.
Arkansas SNCC was small and not in the media spotlight as much as the Mississippi Freedom Project in 1964 or the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. But we took ourselves very seriously and worked on the same issues, such as voter registration, freedom schools and desegregation of public facilities. We had many political discussions to help motivate us and provide context for our work, but what sticks in my memory are the intense, often all night, discussions at national SNCC meetings. When I attended those meetings, I truly felt part of making history. I began to relearn American history, a process that continues to this day. I learned about thinking strategically and about the connections between domestic racism and American foreign policy. And I began a process of coming to grips with white privilege and how that affects my life as well as the lives of people of color.
My most memorable experience during my time with the Arkansas SNCC project came shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. A common practice for many public restaurants and similar establishments in the South was to declare themselves as “private clubs” to avoid having to serve blacks. Governor Faubus (the same governor who had called out the National Guard in 1957 to prevent the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School) had the nerve to declare the cafeteria in the basement of the Capitol building a private club. When we heard about this, we quickly put a plan in motion.
Another white SNCC worker in the office, Nancy Stoller, and I went to eat at the cafeteria two or three times. Sure enough, there was a guard of sorts at the door. He did not ask us anything, certainly not if we were “members.” We engaged him in conversation, making sure he would remember us, and giving him an opportunity to request a membership card. A few days later, just before the lunch hour, we returned with about 20 of our closest friends, most of whom were black. Among the group were adults, college students and a few high school students.
As soon as we arrived, the guard stood up and said, “I’m sorry, this is a private club.” Nancy and I protested, reminding him that we had eaten lunch there several times before and he never mentioned anything about a private club. He hemmed and hawed and stammered, and would not let us proceed. Shortly, someone from inside the cafeteria closed the doors. Then the manager came out and tried to reason with us. He returned to the restaurant when we refused to leave. Soon, people started showing up for lunch, waving their wallets, showing a driver’s license, social security card, business card – anything to feign a “membership” card. Some were allowed in early in the confrontation, but soon, no one was being admitted.
The layout of the basement and the entrance to the cafeteria was interesting. As in many Capitol buildings, there are large, expansive hallways. There was a set of stone stairs at each end. The cafeteria was at the end of a rather narrow hallway off this expansive hallway, about10-12 feet wide by15-20 feet long. The 20 of us were crammed into this small hallway, waiting and wondering what would happen next. Soon we saw what looked like an imposing display of Arkansas State Troopers inside the cafeteria facing out. I don’t really know how many there actually were, but it sure looked like a lot and they were all very tall and very big.
We were again warned to leave and when we did not, the troopers stormed out and began beating us with Billy clubs and fists, chasing us down the hall to the stone steps leading out of the basement. We scrambled our way out of there with the troopers on our tail making sure we left the building. We suffered a few minor injuries – a few knots on heads, bruises and scratches, but nothing serious. We regrouped at the SNCC office to discuss what to do next. It was a raucous discussion, a free-for-all with many people describing what had happened to those who did not go. We decided to go back the next day and attempt to enter the cafeteria again.
The same events happened the next day, even worse, as the people in power could not believe we would actually return after being beaten up. When we returned a third day, the troopers threw down canisters of some kind of tear gas that felt like hot mustard in our nostrils, eyes and throats. We demonstrated a total of four days and Governor Faubus closed the cafeteria rather than serve blacks. The cafeteria remained closed for several months, until a suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund forced them to reopen and serve anyone. At the trial, both Nancy and I testified about how we entered the cafeteria unchallenged. The defense attorney tried to discredit us by saying we were “outside agitators” from the North, but Nancy pointed out in a sweet southern accent that she was from Hampton Roads, Virginia.
In the summer of 1965 there began to be stirrings within SNCC about “Black Power” and the role of whites in the black civil rights movement. At one meeting something occurred that has stayed with me all these years. A young local southern black woman stood at the front and said that she wanted to work in the movement. She wanted to type the newsletters and print the leaflets and it shouldn’t matter that she could not type as fast as the white girls from the north.
After many discussions filled with emotion and tears, I began to understand that my presence was a deterrent to the success of the movement. I left Arkansas and within a year or so became involved in an organization called People Against Racism (PAR) which worked in the white community to help educate people about how racism and white privilege damages all segments of society.
As I write this in 2009, the United States has an African-American president and certainly some progress has been made since 1965, but, alas, racism is alive and well in America and the struggle continues.