Adapted from the memoir
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties
By Rifka Kreiter
to be published May 16, 2017
In September, 1965, I landed a job as Commercial Continuity Director at WHN Radio in New York, 1150 on the AM dial, with offices on Park Avenue. The title, impressive to me, went with an $85-a-week salary, which was the monthly cost of the rent-controlled studio apartment I found in December, a fourth-floor walkup on West 87th Street. I turned 20 in November.
My job at WHN consisted primarily of screening all the ads. With my trusty stop-watch, I timed recorded ads to be sure a 30-second spot didn’t run to 31 seconds; and I edited written copy to be read by the announcers, not only for length but for words such as “cocktail,” unacceptable according to the standards of Storer Broadcasting, WHN’s owner. (Storer was one of the few media organizations to support Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election. Needless to say, I cast my first Presidential vote for Dick Gregory, the liberal black comedian who ran as a write-in candidate several times in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.)
WHN was an “M.O.R.” station, playing middle-of-the-road vocals and the bland instrumentals of Mitch Miller, Montovani, Lawrence Welk. The young people on staff made fun of this music to each other when we went out for drinks after work on Fridays. These evenings often stretched happily ‘til ten or eleven o’clock.
I felt better about my life than I ever had before. I was supporting myself and I loved my little apartment. I was praised for the job I was doing and I liked the work.
On June 8, 1966, all this came to an unexpected and, as it turned out, abrupt end.
Sitting at my desk that morning before delving into the pile of new copy to be screened, I skimmed the New York Times and was gripped by the photo on the front page. Two days earlier, James Meredith, the maverick civil rights activist who had been the first black student at the University of Mississippi, had embarked upon a one-man walk through his home state to prove to black Mississippians that they did not have to be afraid to register to vote. The next day he was shot in the back, though not seriously injured. Civil rights leaders from around the nation were gathering to continue his march to Jackson, the state capital. By June 8th, they had been joined by about a hundred others. The state police were demanding that they walk on the shoulder of the road, but the marchers insisted on walking on the pavement. The Times photo showed the leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC; Floyd McKissick, Director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and others. Recently at odds with each other over strategy and tactics, these men were shown walking in the road, arms linked, being shoved towards the shoulder by a big state trooper. Dr. King was stumbling to his knees.
When I saw this, I was outraged. I abhorred racism and segregation, and I had a lot of admiration for King, who was obviously a man of great integrity. It was unconscionable that he be pushed around so disrespectfully by some yahoo with a badge. I felt I had to do something. I put down the paper and called CORE in New York. They told me that I could catch a ride to Mississippi in a car that was leaving that afternoon. I decided to go. I thought that Roy, the station manager, a closet liberal, would applaud my high motives when I explained to him (which I did, no doubt, with great excitement) that conscience demanded I leave right away. Roy reluctantly agreed that I could take a few days off.
Two hours later, at the CORE office downtown, I met my fellow travelers. Emma, about 25, tall and big boned with straight brown hair and fair skin, was a secretary at CORE. She finished up her work as we waited for the guy with the car to arrive, sipping often from an open bottle of Coca Cola beside her typewriter.
I chatted, shyly at first, with our third, James, a grad student in philosophy at the New School, originally from Cairo, Illinois. He was a lanky black guy who spoke in a kind of languid voice and moved with an easy grace. I liked him.
I’ve never been south before,” I blurted.
“Neither have I,” said James. “I sure am looking forward to it,” he added sarcastically.
Peter turned out to be a sandy-haired WASP in white pants and shirt, a senior at Williams, with tortoise shell glasses. I immediately felt self-conscious in the face of this upper-class refinement. His car was a late-model Volvo, though all models looked the same to me, with the round-backed design that seemed to scorn sleek, ephemeral fashion. I volunteered to share the driving but Peter said that’s ok, he loved to drive. My jaw dropped when he pulled on a pair of leather driving gloves, buttoned at the wrist. He told us he belonged to a “driving club” at school. I pictured this as some sort of country club but was too embarrassed by my middle class ignorance to ask for clarification.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It’s late afternoon as we head down the New Jersey Turnpike, driving straight through Pennsylvania. We stop to eat and find gas in West Virginia. The cheap roadside hamburgers we devour taste delicious. Normally, I would tend to dismiss Peter as a different species, from an elite Christian world impenetrable to a New York Jew like me. But as we talk over greasy French fries, I see we all share a righteous anger at the stubborn continuation of Jim Crow and the use of violence and intimidation to keep our fellow citizens from exercising their most basic right, the right to vote. The injustice of the situation demands that I stand up for what I believe; if I didn’t, I would deem myself a hypocrite. That following my conscience seems to be leading to a great adventure doesn’t hurt at all.
Through the night hours, unfamiliar sights glide by the windows as Peter, James and I talk. Emma sleeps a lot, waking only to use the bathroom and buy another Coke, which makes me giggle to my sleepless self.
The deeper south we get, the hotter and more humid it becomes. When we cross into Kentucky, James grows quiet, his fear increasing palpably. I’m also afraid, feeling that we’re entering a foreign country. It’s only been two years since Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, three CORE workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi were disinterred after weeks of searching by the FBI. The body of Chaney, the black one of the three, had been dismembered. Recently, the Department of Justice had announced it would bring sixteen Mississippians to trial for the crime, including the county sheriff.
The sun is setting when reach Batesville, Mississippi, thirty miles south of the Tennessee border, where the marchers have stopped for the night. We learn that people are being put up by local black families. The night air is hot and close. I am so tired that I can’t remember how Emma and I got to this tiny cottage on a dirt lane, where a large woman in a cotton house dress greets us with great warmth. She shows us to what must be her children’s room, though there is no sign of kids. You have to walk sideways between the bed and the only other piece of furniture, a dresser, upon which sits a chipped pitcher and ewer full of water for washing up; she indicates through a loose window pane where we’ll find the outhouse. The waxing moon reveals dazzling white sheets on the narrow bed Emma and I are to share. I fall into it, exhausted.
Waking around 7 a.m., I dress and open the door to the low-ceilinged kitchen. I can hardly take in what I see. A rickety round table is set with a veritable feast: steaming scrambled eggs, fresh-baked biscuits, grits (which I’ve never seen before), gravy, a pitcher of fresh milk, and—a big bowl of fried chicken!
Our hostess flashes me a shy smile and invites me to sit. This entire repast is for me and Emma. Our hostess says her husband has already eaten and gone to work in the field. When I thank her again for this hospitality, she repeats, “No—thank you. Thank you!”
After my first outhouse experience, a boy of 13, the son of the house, comes to take Emma and me to the nearby home where Peter and James are staying. In the bright Southern daylight I feel like I’ve stepped into another world: little shanties, children and dogs playing in dirt yards, the noise of parents and neighbors calling out to each other—and instant fearful expressions upon seeing white faces.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We met James and Peter that first morning and joined the march on Highway 51. There were about 150 marchers—the number fluctuated each day as local people arrived and went home. There were young black Mississippians and white northerners, veteran civil rights workers and a lot of first-timers like me, Peter and James who came from all over the North, Midwest and later from California.
We walked two by two on the shoulder of the four-lane highway, this being the legal resolution of the earlier dispute with the authorities. Helicopters hovered above and two dozen highway patrolmen and plainclothes state investigators moved along in cars beside us. With 50-75 news people around, including camera crews, the Mississippi authorities didn’t want any more incidents—for a while.
Walking in the ninety-degree heat demanded frequent stops. To prevent dehydration, salt tablets were dispensed from a flatbed truck accompanying the march. As we walked, we clapped and sang rousing marching songs which were already anthems of the Movement, many of them set to the tunes of Negro church songs. I remember one, whose staccato refrain was addressed to Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson:
De da de da de dut de dut de da de dut, O-oh, Johnson,
You know you can’t jail us a-a-a-a-ll,
O-oh, Johnson, Segregation’s bound to fall,
De da de da de dut de dut de da de dut…
The songs were fuel, keeping us going through heat and dust and the curses hurled out of the windows of passing cars by white “crackers.”
Local whites came out on foot also, to express their feelings about the march. One day, when we stopped for lunch, Peter, Emma and I took a side trip to find a country store, which turned out to be far enough away that no one connected us with the march as we purchased our tissues, snacks and, of course, a Coke for Emma. The people in the white-owned store, a husband and wife in their forties, were warm and gracious, revealing to me why the term “southern hospitality” is proverbial.
Later, when we rejoined the march, I saw the same couple standing by the side of the road, faces contorted with hate, shouting “nigger lovers” and so on.
Throughout the three weeks until the march reached Jackson, small groups of civil rights workers left the march to go into the local towns to encourage and help people to register to vote. In Panola County, where Batesville is located, there were about 7,500 eligible voters of each race; of these, 5,922 whites were registered and 878 blacks.
We ate lunch off the back of the truck, bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise, and Kool Aid. (It was years before I could eat bologna again, though I had subsisted on fried bologna and Minute Rice in my days as a latchkey kid.) As our numbers grew, we slept in two large tents pitched along the way. Various leaders gave talks in the evenings, and I began to be aware of their differences. Dr. King, a spellbinding speaker, always stressed non-violence as a means of struggle, as did his young lieutenants in the church-based SCLC. I was impressed and inspired by Andrew Young, Julian Bond, and Jesse Jackson who struck me, from their speeches, as men of high principle and deep commitment.
At the same time, SNCC, an organization of younger, grass-roots workers, was daily becoming more radical. Their vibrant and articulate leader, Stokely Carmichael, was persuasive when he spoke about the limitations of non-violence and the need for black people (a new term of pride to replace “Negro”) to take control of their own lives and movement. The meetings always ended when we stood, joined hands crisscrossed in front of us, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”
One day, I found myself in a car, going on an errand with five SNCC people. I sat next to a skinny hipster named Willie Ricks, Field Secretary of SNCC. He kept repeating, in a rhythmic way, something like, “I’m tired of that white power, I want my black power; it be time for black power, now.” Though I was a little frightened by his urgency, this sounded right to me. How could blacks truly gain self-respect and pride if they felt they owed their civil rights to white “benefactors”?
Peter and James were planning to return to New York at the end of the week. Although I didn’t want to leave the march, I thought it was the responsible thing to accept the opportunity to drive home with them. After all, I had a job to go back to. So on June 16th we were back in the Volvo, heading north on the interstate.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
It’s about noon and the sun’s glare is intense through the back window of the Volvo as we head north on Highway 51. I am trying to nap, lulled by the indistinct voices of James and Peter up front, when I notice a dirty old Ford riding beside us without passing. Three beefy men are staring at our Connecticut-licensed car with a black man in the front seat and a white woman in back—a dead giveaway we’re Yankee agitators.
They begin shouting at us, mouthing now-familiar epithets that dissipate in the wind before we can hear them. Peter, uttering an epithet of his own, accelerates smoothly, keeping focused on the road ahead. The Ford stays right beside us. I see the veins standing out in the neck of the cracker in the front passenger seat as his mouth reads “nigger lover” and other choice words.
“Are you OK?” Peter asks me over his shoulder.
“Sure,” I lie, heart like a jackhammer. “Don’t worry about me.”
Peter’s gloved hands grip the wheel as his steady foot pushes our speed over ninety. The Ford keeps pace and begins to inch over into our lane. My God! They’re trying to force us off the road! Remembering Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, I am sweating hard now but vow to myself not to panic.
I say, “Great driving, Peter.”
“You got it, man…” adds James in his mellow lilt.
The Ford repeatedly edges a hair’s breadth from the side of our car. James and I keep speaking calmly in support of Peter. Boy, am I grateful for Volvo’s quality engineering and Peter’s driving club skill and experience. When we cross the Tennessee line, the Ford pulls away and passes, it’s putrid exhaust looking beautiful as the distance lengthens between us. Peter pulls onto the shoulder and stops the car. He takes off his gloves, leans his head on the wheel and takes a deep breath.
I could’ve kissed him.
March On – Part 2 will be posted next week. Click Follow and be the first on your block to read it!
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the ‘60s will be published soon