Adapted from the memoir
HOME FREE: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties
By Rifka Kreiter
to be published May 16, 2017
Ten days after I impulsively walked out of WHN with my boss’ grudging permission to take a few days off, I was back in the city. When I learned I was fired, I was embarrassed by the way it happened, but secretly happy I could rejoin the march. I had been planning to quit the job anyway, to attend school full-time in the fall.
I picked up some fresh clothes at my apartment and got a seat on one of two chartered buses organized by a group called the New York Committee for the Meredith March. The buses were filled mostly with students, black and white. That long bus trip was full of singing, laughter and camaraderie—it took about eighteen hours, but I was able to catch some sleep when we quieted down at night.
Back in Mississippi, the hours walking towards Jackson stretched into long days of singing and talking as we marched two by two down the highway.
Paul and Silas were bound in jail,
Didn’t have the money for to pay their bail,
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on, hold on…
One day, soon after I returned, I was paired with a shy girl, about eleven years old. She was one of the local black people who would come to march for a day, or part of it, as we passed near their homes. In hundred degree weather, she was dressed in her Sunday best, a pink taffeta dress with an organdy sash, too small for her chubby frame. When I asked if she wasn’t hot she said to me earnestly, “If I want my freedom, I got to fight for it…” Her sweet passion touched and inspired me.
On June 23rd, 2500 marchers entered the small city of Canton, Mississippi. We pitched the big tents on the grounds of the black elementary school. March leaders warned us there might be trouble, since the Canton City Council had refused us a permit to camp there.
Humph! Couldn’t even get permission to camp in their own segregated school grounds. It made me mad!
It was almost dark when twenty state police cars careened into the lot and surrounded us, sirens blaring. As planned, everyone stood in long rows, linking arms in front of the tent as we faced our assailants. Dr. King stood on top of a car with a bull horn, exhorting us to remain non-violent. There was a tremendous sense of excitement mixed with fear in the humid twilight.
My blood was boiling, so I pushed my way up to the front row. Those racist crackers weren’t going to scare me! I doubt I shall ever forget what I saw before me: A long row of sixty men wearing gas masks. They looked like Martians. Each one was aiming a rifle with a big round muzzle directly at us. Then I had a thought, which later seemed emblematic of growing up white in America in the 1950’s: “I hope the cops get here soon [to help us].” Suddenly, I realized with a gasp: “Those are the cops!” It was perhaps in this instant that I changed from a liberal into a radical.
The next moment, the guns were fired and tear gas canisters fell everywhere among the crowd. Two thousand people scattered in all directions, screaming, coughing, crying. I was stunned by how much the noxious fumes stung my eyes and throat as tears streamed down my face. We fanned out into the streets of the black neighborhood around us in pandemonium. That night, I slept with a crowd in a church basement. Others slept in private homes or cars. There were a lot of angry people and the SNCC men had many derogatory things to say about King and his non-violent strategy.
The day after the tear gas incident, Dr. King called for volunteers to drive to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman had been murdered with the collusion of the local sheriff. We were to march through the town and rally at the Neshoba County Courthouse, where a smaller rally had been attacked by locals three days earlier.
I volunteered, along with about 300 others, including 15 or 20 whites. I remember getting out of a car on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where we gathered to form our lines. The entire white population of town (about 2,000 people) appeared to be lining Main Street, waiting for us to come through. They were held in check by 100 highway patrolmen. I wasn’t thinking about how scared I was but my face must have shown it. CORE Director Floyd McKissick, who’d been in the car just ahead, took one look at me and came over to put a fatherly arm around my shoulders. With kind words (not one of which I recall), he encouraged me. I mustered the backbone to go forward.
Everyone in the waiting crowd was screaming, jeering and cursing as we walked the gauntlet. Some were throwing Coke bottles—I remember a marcher in front of me bleeding from the head. My heart leapt to my throat when a white Thunderbird sped through the front of the line at about 40 mph. We scrambled out of its way as best we could, caught between the car and the hostile crowd around us. The driver was pulled out of the car and arrested. No one was seriously injured. The march leaders instructed us to hold hands as we walked two-by-two. My partner was a quiet fourteen year-old black boy whose hand trembled in mine. At a certain point, we passed a man, swathed in Confederate flags, standing on the roof of a parked car. I saw him look with utter disgust at me, holding the boy’s hand. Then his hate-filled eyes met mine.
“Kiss him, why don’t you?” he screamed, as though this was the worst insult he could hurl at me.
When we finally reached the relative safety of the village square, Dr. King spoke, telling the townspeople we had returned to show “that we can stand before you without fear after we were beaten and brutalized the other day.”
That night, after returning to the safety of the big tent, I felt elated that I had confronted injustice despite my fear.
The night before the march entered the capital, there was a rally in the stadium at Tougaloo College, an all-black institution on the outskirts of the city. Several thousand people attended, sitting in the bleachers under the warm night sky. A plane full of celebrities had flown in from Hollywood to support the march. Dick Gregory made us roar with laughter. Later, I was thrilled to see Burt Lancaster at the microphone. He stood tall, the embodiment of integrity, just as I imagined from his movies. Then he said, speaking with great sincerity about answering the call of conscience, “It has to do with being a man, doesn’t it?”
This was a moment of clanging dissonance for me. I actually looked down at myself in some confusion. I wasn’t a man, was I?
The next day, Gregory and Marlon Brando were the only stars I saw who actually joined the march and walked the final eight miles into Jackson. I remember Brando, looking quite humble, walking beside a work-worn sharecropper in overalls.
On June 26th, twelve to fifteen thousand people rallied at the Mississippi State Capitol. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared in his speech that the march and rally “will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the state of Mississippi.”
To me, the end of the march was anti-climactic. What was significant was that hundreds of black Mississippians along the march route had registered to vote.
Back in New York, I did some fund-raising for a CORE project in Meridian, Mississippi whose coordinator I had marched with for a couple of days. But the Movement had shifted focus and Black Power became the rallying cry, which I respected. The mantra “Black is beautiful” spread and afros replaced straightened hair among most young African-Americans. It was time for white activists to step aside. However, seeing that so many of my generation shared my humanistic values gave me tremendous hope. Maybe we could really forge a better future for our country.