MAY 1970: NORTH AND SOUTH, MOUNTAINS AND DESERTS -- AND BLOOD [HUNTER GRAY -- FORMERLY JOHN R. SALTER, JR.]
Note by Hunterbear: This contribution of mine is for the very soon forthcoming anthology -- Too Many Martyrs. Edited by Susie Erenrich, this is a very extensive collection of exceptionally fine writing on the United States in the twilight of the '60s and the tragedies of Kent State and Jackson State.
An earlier and massive anthology edited by Susie Erenrich and published under the auspices of the Cultural Center for Social Change is Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: An Anthology Of The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement [Montgomery, Alabama: Black Belt Press, 1999.] I'm privileged to have two portions included therein from my own book: Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism [1979, and Krieger edition 1987.]
Early on, I could tell it was going to be one hell of a big protest march -- even for Chicago. My car safely parked, I walked north through and with increasing numbers of people -- people of all ages and all colors -- and all of us heading to the edges of the downtown central business section. There, where the massive march was fast taking shape, other heavy streams of humanity were coming in from every other direction.
The very early May 1970 afternoon sky was as clear as a chemically tinted Chicago cover could ever get -- and the Sun forced the outlines of its face through. But the mood of the people, all of us, was dark, somber, exuding suppressed anger, bitterness. And some hope -- hope that this mass action, and all of the others taking place at the same time across the nation, could prevent hideous things from occurring and continuing. And maybe, too, that the once bright springtime spirit of the '60s -- our time! -- could be restored and we could go on, in a mighty wave, to build a society where a full measure of bread and butter and a full measure of liberty -- and peace -- were all permanent parts of the social/cultural geography.
In all our minds -- every one of us -- were the pictures shown throughout the world of the just occurred bloodbath in our good land: dead and injured students at Kent State -- peaceful young people seeking peace but sent to funeral homes and hospitals by National Guard troopers often no older than they.
But behind those troopers, and behind the hideous and sanguinary "commitment" of United States military forces to Southeast Asia were -- as always -- the glowing and calculating and sanctimonious faces of the properly dressed Old Men [and some not all that old] who make the wars they, themselves, never fight.
I was, myself, hard-pressed for time that afternoon. In only a few hours, I was leaving by train -- the old IC, the Illinois Central -- for Jackson, Mississippi where I was involved in a long-pending court action with civil rights dimensions which was finally coming to trial.
But this was a march I couldn't and wouldn't miss. And I'd made it.
The great pool of humanity gradually began to take the shape of definitive action -- a structured form directed by the army of parade marshals who were arranging the vast number of respective organizations into a linear line-up. I learned that those of us who were not affiliated with any of these formal groups would fall in behind the others -- and that could be a long, good while.
The Chicago police, somewhat on their better behavior, signaled the start, and the great march began with Grant Park, some many blocks away, the destination and designated locale for the subsequent huge rally.
Organizations and groups, one by one and each with its banners held high -- in a fashion reminiscent of my Army days and its full-dress parades of years before -- moved out briskly.
One pulled up near me, stopped for a moment. Its participants were somberly and darkly dressed, and their faces one and all grim, committed, intense. I had no idea what their particular tribal flag of the Left was and I didn't care. Walking to its leader, a tall old man in a black suit with a blood red emblem in its lapel and on his face the look of a man who knew his way around the ideological fencing ring, I said -- using the old-time Wobbly address with which I was especially familiar and comfortable:
"Fellow Worker : I don't have much time but I want to march before I take the IC down to Mississippi for a civil rights case. Can I join you?"
He looked me over, quickly, carefully. "I haven't heard that used for a long, long time," he said. There was a very faint smile with a hint of decades now far, far away. "You certainly can join us."
So I did, and we marched along.
And, as we marched, I remembered.
It had been ten years since the Berkeley students had so effectively, through non-violent demonstrations, defied the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee at San Francisco -- and only a few months before that since the first civil rights sit-ins had begun in the Upper South and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had formed. At that time, I was in my native Arizona where already, for half a decade, I'd been deeply involved in militant, radical labor campaigns and Indian rights activities -- learning my organizing art and trade -- even as I, piece by piece, completed my basic academic work in sociology.
In the summer of '61, my wife Eldri and I went down into Mississippi where I now became a professor at Tougaloo College, a private Black institution near Jackson. And there I quickly became, too, the Advisor to the Jackson Youth Council of the NAACP and a close colleague of the extraordinarily committed Medgar Evers -- and then a primary organizer and chair of the Strategy Committee of the historic Jackson Movement of 1962-63. Along with countless others, I was beaten and arrested -- many times indeed. In mid-June of '63, Medgar was killed, shot from ambush, and we fueled the Jackson Movement even higher to become the biggest mass upheaval in the history of that blood-dimmed state.
Our march protesting the murder of Medgar and the racist system which had manipulated his assassin, and which pulled the trigger, took place on June 15, 1963: six thousand of us from all over Mississippi and elsewhere, the first "legal" civil rights march in the history of the state -- legal simply because there were too many of us to arrest.
We marched two miles in 102 degree heat, past hostile police at every point, through grimly supportive Black neighborhoods and through frightened and hostile white ones. When that march was officially over, we had a huge spontaneous demonstration which was attacked by many hundreds of lawmen of all kinds, guns, dogs, tear gas. I was one of 29 arrested.
Out on one of my now numerous bail bonds, I in my car and a colleague riding with me were, less than three days later and one week after Medgar's murder, seriously injured and almost killed in a wreck precipitated by the son of a prominent segregationist family. Our civil lawsuit against these people, pending for seven years and now at the very point of trial, was the reason I was heading to Mississippi this day.
As we marched along the Chicago turf, I remembered other times, other marches.
After Jackson -- and we left that deeply jarred with national and international focus on Mississippi for years to come -- I became a full-time civil rights field organizer for the radical Southern Conference Educational Fund -- doing grassroots organizing and anti-Klan work in some of the toughest and most isolated parts of the Deep South. Much, much later I went into militant anti-poverty organizing and leadership training in the rural South and then, in '67, Eldri and I and our growing family went to the Pacific Northwest on the organizing trail and then on and on.
Now, at Chicago, where I'd been since 1969, I was the Southside Director -- a new position -- for the Chicago Commons Association: one of the city's oldest and largest private social service organizations. My vision was a brand-new service area on the turbulent, pervasively violent South/Southwest Side. With an excellent, interracial and completely committed staff, we were breaking new activist ground on the Toughest City's urban frontier. Here, large numbers of white people were moving out -- out to the suburbs and beyond; and much larger numbers of non-white people -- Black, Puerto Rican, Chicano -- were moving in. The newcomers were finding that city services were now suddenly and sharply curtailed by the Richard Daley machine, they were finding police harassment, and continual attacks by white racist gangs. We were beginning a long-term project, organizing multi-issue block clubs and federations of block clubs, made up mostly of these new minority people but including any whites who remained and who wanted to work with us.
Chicago -- especially Richard Daley's era -- was, it often seemed to us, almost pure blood in ethos. Not too long after I arrived, Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in a cold and calculated fashion -- "under color of law" -- by Cook County States Attorney Ed Hanrahan, an army of lawmen, and with FBI backup and assistance. On the borders of our own massive project area, in a white location called Canaryville and often known as "The Bucket of Blood", a Black man from Tennessee, driving in Chicago for the first time and lost at night, was pulled from his car by a mob of three dozen white men, many with baseball bats, who murdered him.
As we were literally moving into a storefront field office, a horde of white Chicago riot police swarmed onto the yard of a nearby elementary school -- attacking Black and Puerto Rican children and clubbing and arresting their parents. We got the parents out and our protest rally was big -- very big! Our organizational efforts jumped ahead with great rapidity.
Long, long before all of that for sure -- and maybe even long before I got to Mississippi -- I had ceased to be surprised by official and vigilante murder, brutality, frameups.
I was certainly not surprised by Kent State.
And I was not at all surprised by the huge throng of quietly surging people ahead and around and behind me on these Chicago streets.
We arrived at Grant Park. My tribal host group and I parted amiably with mutual handshakes and, as they went off to a close-in rally vantage point, I camped under a tree on the edges. I listened for awhile to the speeches, then went back to my car and briefly home -- and then I was on the Illinois Central with the land falling out below me as I headed down into Mississippi.
There were always some positive changes there when I returned for visits. And now, I could see even more of them: the hard-lines of resistance to social change weaker, even broken in parts; more desegregation; the old atmosphere of terror fast waning substantially; ever more Black political activism; new unionization efforts.
But economic deprivation -- poverty pure and simple -- was starkly to the fore across much of the scenery: the Mississippi countryside from the train window -- and in Jackson when I got there. Still, in that very early May, Jackson somehow seemed far more sedate and serene than Chicago.
But I was not sanguine. Mississippi storms were so often always preceded by, and in the context of, hot and momentarily placid and languid afternoons.
A few hours after my arrival, I was in a chancery courtroom setting where our case was scheduled. The walls hung with portraits of the founders of the system and the wooded walls and doors and everything else were polished to a shine -- befitting the high-church status always characterizing Deep South court proceedings.
As it turned out, the most interesting thing about our case that day was the intriguing social scene that swirled around us in the minutes before the case formally began. My colleague -- white Mississippi civil rights activist Reverend Ed King -- and I and our lawyers, veteran Black activist R. Jess Brown and gutty white maverick Dixon Pyles, were surrounded by a flood of spectators who seemed to me to be coming out of a time machine from the Bad Old Days: a former sheriff, a once outspokenly racist and still practicing criminal court judge, various old time white politicians, police officials. Their faces were very pleasant, their voices gracious and cordial. The same swirl surrounded our formal adversaries: the young white man -- now completing a professional degree at Ole Miss -- who had driven the car precipitating the wreck, his obviously worried parents, an older brother.
We were naturally -- very naturally -- wary at the good fellowship and friendliness exhibited by once very hostile judges and lawmen. But one could not help wonder -- was this a real change?
Compared to the old days, the court proceedings certainly were. The presiding judge was the same old man who, seven years before had issued the most sweeping, venomous, anti-Movement injunction in the history of the Southern struggle -- City of Jackson vs. John R. Salter, Jr., et al. -- which we promptly defied. But now he was scrupulously fair, even-handed. And the jury -- the jury had Blacks [still new but not that new] and it also had women, very new this spring to Mississippi juries!
The court proceeding itself moved routinely. Midway, the adversaries indicated a wish to settle quickly out of court and, with the proceedings temporarily adjourned, this was effected satisfactorily. The judge then reconvened, thanked the jury and everyone else, and adjourned. It was late afternoon. People were now leaving quickly. But I stood in the corner of the courtroom and looked to the other side where the young adversary stood with parents -- and his older brother.
I, too, was the older brother in our family. The brother's eyes and mine locked. As one, we moved toward each other and, close in, held out and shook hands. "Tell your brother," I told him, "that we wish him very well in his career."
"I will," he said, "And you have no idea how much that means to us. It means so much."
And there, for those of us in that little group, locked together for seven years by a bloody and hideous spectacle, that was change -- heavy change.
But what of the world beyond? I still wondered as the Illinois Central now carried me up through the dark Mississippi night, the dim countryside rising -- back to Chicago.
After I got back, our organizing work very rapidly became wildly intense. Waves of white violence were directed -- month after month and beyond -- against our Black and Puerto Rican and Chicano constituencies. We fought that off, found our key field office set afire, I had to barricade my home. A key staff member was viciously framed by the police -- but we got him quickly exonerated. Red-baiting was prevalent, especially against me.
But three years later, we'd helped minority people organize almost 300 block clubs and related groups and we'd maintained and expanded city services; we'd pushed a dozen court actions; we'd played the key role in preventing what would have been one of Chicago's very worst race riots -- Labor Day, '71 -- by forcing power structure concessions on the one hand and "cooling the streets" on the other. And we'd fought the Daley machine, the Republicans, and the police to the point where our new grassroots organizations -- democratically led and hard-hitting -- were widely respected and quite effective and essentially permanent mountains on the South/Southwest Side scenery.
But now, of course, back in time -- back to Mississippi.
Because just after I returned to Chicago from that very early May 1970 trip to Mississippi -- still wondering, How much has really changed down there -- came the news of the Jackson State massacre: college kids, Black kids -- essentially peaceful demonstrators -- shot down at night by an army of white Mississippi lawmen. And so now if the question of How much change down there ? was at least partially, somewhat answered for the time being, other questions seeking sharper, much more focused answers forced their way up and out -- pronto:
What did all of this mean -- the shooting down of college kids, North and South? Had Mississippi -- and the Deep South -- become more like the rest of the country? Or was the rest of the country taking on what Mississippi and the Deep South had traditionally done so very well: killing the victims?
Or were they all, ever, South and North, so vastly different from one another?
I frankly decided that May 1970 that they were not so very different -- that they were always much more like one another than many of us had wanted to concede. For no matter how you cut the pie, the pieces are always connected.
And then the really heavy question: Can we, any of us, break the skeleton hand of the past -- and build, really build, toward the Sun ? I said Yes! that May of 1970. And so did a vastly large number of others -- all over our land.
We kept going and many of us still do and many more indeed will: over the mountains and through the long, arid stretches and far, far beyond.
Always organizing. Always fighting.
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTERBEAR / JOHN R. SALTER, JR.]
Micmac / St. Francis Abenaki / St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
In our Gray Hole, the ghosts often dance in the junipers and sage, on the
game trails, in the tributary canyons with the thick red maples, and on the
high windy ridges -- and they dance from within the very essence of our own
inner being. They do this especially when the bright night moon shines down
on the clean white snow that covers the valley and its surroundings. Then
it is as bright as day -- but in an always soft and mysterious and
remembering way. [Hunterbear]