Teaching the Civil Rights Movement

January 17th, 2013

Yesterday, we featured W. E. B. Du Bois’ short story “On Being Crazy” as a good way to help students understand “the African American Experience and the Need for Civil Rights,” which is the goal of the second chapter in our new ebook celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today, we feature a selection from the next chapter, which focuses on the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. 

In the summer of 1965, while the Voting Rights Act was being enacted, What So Proudly We Hail editors Amy Apfel Kass (b. 1940; then a high school history teacher in Lincoln-Sudbury, Massachusetts) and her husband Leon R. Kass (b. 1939; then a graduate student in biochemistry at Harvard University) spent a month in Mississippi doing civil rights work. They lived with a farmer couple in the Mount Olive community of rural Holmes County, in a house with no telephone, hot water, or indoor toilet. They visited many families in the community, participated in their activities, and helped with voter registration and other efforts to encourage the people to organize themselves in defense of their rights. In November of that year, Leon wrote a long letter, sent individually to many family members and friends, describing what they had learned and urging people to donate to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the fledgling organization that was building for the first time a significant indigenous political, and not just protest, movement in the state. The letter bears personal witness to the necessity of such a local political movement, the concrete obstacles that stood in its way, and the spirit of hope that its emergence was generating.

As you read Kass’s letter, have students consider the following questions for discussion: The letter seems to imply that the sheriff and the cotton-acreage allotter were more important for the day-to-day life of black Mississippians than their congressmen and senators in Washington. What can be said for and against that view? What, according to this letter, were the most urgent and important goals for the Movement, and how might they best be achieved? Is Kass right when he says, near the end, that “even a guaranteed failure should not dissuade us from the necessity of the battle”? Imagining yourself in receipt of such a letter, how would you have responded?

During this past summer, Amy and I spent a month in Holmes County, Mississippi. We went down to do “community organization” under the auspices of the Medical Community for Human Rights, but found ourselves of necessity and also by choice working closely with the Holmes County branch of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Since returning to the North, we have been confronted with questions (fewer than I would have hoped for), most inquiring “what did you do?”, “what did you accomplish?”, “were you beaten up or threatened?” We were troubled by these questions, since they revealed a lack of awareness of the indigenous nature of The Movement and also revealed a lack of identification with the people who are The Movement. We find this lack of identification particularly disturbing because we feel that our fate, indeed, the fate and viability of all that is potentially good in our society, is inextricably bound to the fate of the Mississippi Negro. He is fighting our battle as much as he is fighting his own, more than we are fighting his. At the risk of offending those of you already involved and identified, we would like to offer observations out of our personal experience in the hope that you may more clearly see The Movement and its obstacles, and especially your own relationship to it.

Although intimidation through violence remains crucial to the white Southerner’s domination of the Negro, the real stranglehold is fundamentally economic: the Negro, in his present unorganized condition, is at the mercy of the white community for even the sub-subsistence living he ekes out. Economic blackmail is often threatened, often carried out against Negroes who try to assert their political rights. In Holmes County, there are many so-called “independent farmers,” owners of their own land, who are nevertheless completely at the mercy of the white bankers and loan companies. Almost all of them are in debt to such loan companies, having borrowed to pay for the land or their house, to tide them over the winter and spring when income is lacking, to pay for a second-hand tractor or team of horses, etc. The interest rates are fantastic, the monthly payments outrageously high, guaranteeing that no one will be able to keep up with the payments. One man, earning an annual income of about $900, bought a house and the lot on which it stood for $800, with a verbal agreement that the payments would be $25 per month. However, this amount was not written into the contract he was told to sign; when the contract was returned to him, it called for complete payment of $1,680 in two years, in monthly installments of $70. (Note the interest of $880 on an $800 loan—a usurer’s rate of 55% per year.) When this man tried to register to vote, the loan company threatened to foreclose on him. (The names of Negroes who register to vote are printed in the weekly newspaper, exposing them for reprisals.) Of course, the company is within its rights since the man is behind in his payments. He elected to forego registration. Housefuls of furniture, even houses and farms are demanded as collateral for even a $25–$50 loan. Foreclosure is always effective, since the Sheriff, for a small percentage of the take, serves as the collection agency. If the person borrowing has been active in The Movement, you can be sure that the Sheriff will be at his door on the day the note is due. […]

Health services for Negroes are truly unbelievable. The eight white doctors in Holmes County all have segregated waiting rooms, and all of them empty the white waiting room completely before seeing one Negro patient. A visit to the doctor for a Negro takes literally all day, the first seven or eight hours of which are spent in the waiting room. (The one physician who committed the crime of taking Negro and white patients in the order of arrival was run out of the county, first by threats of violence, finally by a police barricade of the two roads leading to his office.) State-supported Public Health Clinics (“state-supported” means that only 80 cents of each dollar is supplied by the Federal government in direct aid to the state health program) offer prenatal care and also immunizations for children. In one such clinic in Holmes County, the women are forced to undress out-of-doors; the clinic has no toilets or running water. The County Hospital demands a $50 down-payment before a patient can be admitted (a practice not foreign to Northern private hospitals). Negro patients are prevented from leaving the hospital until the entire bill is paid; in such cases, the patient remains in his bed, the bill mounting from day to day. In maternity cases, an exception is often made: the mother is permitted to go home, but the baby is kept as a hostage until the bill is fully paid. The hospital has segregated wards, which are of course of unequal quality. The Negro wards are staffed largely by poorly trained Negro personnel. When asked if this staff assignment did not mean that Negroes got inferior treatment, the hospital administrator replied: “The Negro help are less hygienic, and the Negro patients don’t mind.” In order to avoid compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the County Hospital is now refusing to accept patients on welfare, thus avoiding any overt contact with Federal money. In view of these conditions, it is no wonder that many Negroes will not even seek medical aid: many would sooner die at home, in dignity.

Education is another facet of the same story. The elementary school in our community was a crumbling frame building, built during Reconstruction. “Teaching,” during the winter, consists of sending children out to gather firewood. No Negro school in this county has a library. Books come to these schools only after the white schools finish with them. (No Negro is permitted to enter the County Public Library; arrests have followed attempts to do so.) The Negro “high schools” are known as Attendance Centers rather than as high schools. The inference is quite clear: the best one can expect from a Negro is that he will show up; therefore, attendance should be rewarded. The Attendance Centers are not accredited; graduates can attend college only in the state of Mississippi. The teachers in the Negro schools are by and large poorly trained. Afraid for their jobs (they make the highest salaries in the community, at about $2,000 to $2,500 per year), threatened and intimidated by the school board, they have remained outside The Movement. Less than ten percent of the Negro schoolteachers have registered to vote. […]

Whites in the North, ourselves included, have a difficult time understanding and working with this apparent lack of anger. White civil rights workers are too often overeager in pushing local people into activist roles. We often fail to remember that it is they, not we, who bear the brunt of the white retaliation. Would you, as Negro parents in Mississippi, send your child to the white school, running the risk of having him beaten and having your house bombed, for the sake of ‘education’ in a society where schooling never got a Negro anywhere? How would you react to the white summer volunteer who was pushing you to register your child at such a school? Would you not wonder if he would be so brave if he were not leaving for the North at the end of the summer? […]

You may argue, as others have, that the goals of the MFDP are utopian. If it is utopian to seek a grass-roots popular base for political power, if it is utopian to try to educate people to enable them to build a more just society, then MFDP is utopian—no more utopian than our democratic principles. The charge of utopianism is irrelevant here: the stakes are so high that even a guaranteed failure should not dissuade us from the necessity of the battle. Surely we can support this battle with our dollars if the Mississippi Negro has put his life on the front line.

Read Kass’s full letter here

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