A Dialogue on Mississippi
The name of this program is a dialogue on Mississippi and I have with me David Gallo founder Brandeis student summer project worker for CO for the Congress of federated organizations. And Charles Steptoe a Mississippian son of the largest free holding negro farmer in Liberty Mississippi a student at the Commonwealth school here in Boston. Mr. Geffen spent the summer in Laurel Mississippi only a few miles from Mr. Steptoe his home in liberty. Let me begin by asking David what the colorful project was about I think most of our audience knows a little about it perhaps a recap would do some good at this point.
Oh the Kofa project I think is the Council of federated organizations was in four basic areas first area was voter registration community development. Mississippi right now there are approximately four hundred thirty thousand negroes over the age of 21 who could be eligible to vote. Of these possibly 20000 are registered. This makes it roughly from 4 to 6 percent of the Negro population over the age of 21 is eligible. However we could see in other areas that in I think roughly 35 percent of the counties there are a Negro population of over 50 percent and about 70 percent of the counties the Negro population is greater than 30 percent. In other words if the nigger had the right to vote in Mississippi there would be a great deal of power localized in the group community and a great deal of the conditions living conditions etc. could not go on as they have. So voter registration was the first and foremost project of the summer project. However aside from the voter registration it's been felt also that freedom schools would be very important in Mississippi the educational system is such that students are not taught how to think in fact they're prevented from learning how to think. Thinking students question the society and as a result thinking in Mississippi might bring about change. And in order to avoid change students are taught not to think it's the easiest way. So the role of the Freedom School was to begin to get the students to think to question to learn a lot about Negro history there is no Negro history whatsoever taught in this is that the schools also foreign languages there practically no foreign language is taught and there's very little done with basic reading mathematics writing skills all this is very important. If Mississippi is ever to catch up with the rest of America the third program was community centers. These were to act as a sort of social area for the community. Younger students would come to play games or listen to records or play folk music. And the parents might have sewing classes in maternal maternal care or something of this nature.
Charles perhaps we could begin by asking you a slightly more personal question to ask us to recall or ask you to recall for us some of your personal history in Mississippi perhaps what your house was like how it behaved as a center in a way for civil rights activity in your area in liberty.
While you stay before my house is located in a MC County liberty Mississippi and I'm a son of Mr E. W. Steptoe who is a worker with the CO for my father has been participating with the a civil rights movement ever since. 52 Well when this first started in 52 the people of Mississippi the white people would try and to prevent the negro in the county from meeting. And my father he fought it as hard as he could but they were the white people of Mississippi. They would tell the local negroes Jane things about the freedom movement about the end of ACP and we fried them there for that bottle of change they stopped cooperating with my father and the end of ACP which he had organized in fifty two died out and in 59.
But Moses came down in mid County living in Mississippi and started a voter base ration drive under his name some phony organization called Snake and then still being fed by the newspaper in the local white citizen and false information about freedom movement negroes. Sort of going forward into this voter registration drive and my house was the center of attention lights wish would be flashing around the place every night and across his lots and lots of crosses by and by the cluck cluck kind. But however this project continued until. Bought Motors just figured that he had about four negroes ready qualified to vote to register so he took them up to the county courthouse there in liberty and bought was beaten that day badly. He was taken to the doctor. However he survived but the negro that was driving bob around whose name was Headley. And about two days after that heavenly was killed and the snake project in Mississippi died that is in and the county died out at that time and they haven't gotten started up again. But my father has continued to work with the snake movement and he was also in the freedom Democrat party from a county live in Mississippi and. They are thinking about starting up a new program there in liberty. This went to I hope it works but the way things look now I don't think so.
Let me pursue one of those points you mention to me when I talk to you a couple of days ago. A little more of the circumstance the death of Herbert Lee. You talk about some of them.
Yes I would like to. What. Well there was a state representative who lived right across the road in front of us whose name was Eugene hers. Well when Lee went to the cotton gin to carry his cotton to begin Eugene Hurst met him there and killed him. At the time there were about three negroes around at the Gen.. They were immediately taken to the court house and they took an oath and they testified that Eugene Hurst had killed heavily in self-defense which was a lie. Selling out to testifying who was one of the negroes there out the testifying came down to my house and told my father that he didn't feel right in telling a lie and he was like he would like something to be done about this murder. So what happened my father that can take any contact with the FBI. And they came down and they got in to say that he would testify. That heavily was not killed in self-defense. It was just downright murder. And about three days before court for the next trial lawyers Allen was killed. And nothing has been said after that.
So in the course of this whole story there was a serious attack on Bob Moses and then the death of Herbert Lee and those on the right. Is this kind of circumstance common in Mississippi in your experience David.
I would say in many areas this is definitely true. I'm sure most of us all know about the deaths of James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and Goodman. I also know at least we should know the fact that the coroner's jury and the Shaba County has ruled insufficient evidence as to cause of death. I haven't been able to determine whether they were killed or whether they died accidentally.
This is rather strange I think under the circumstances was the converse Federated organizations or Snick or any of the others concerned prior to this incident doing any work on the legal side of this kind of of residuals Nikken cough or have been very concerned with this for a long period of time ever since they started the Mississippi projects I think back in 60 after Snick was organized.
And the problem has been that the federal government and the FBI and the Justice Department has not seen fit. We feel to grant sufficient protection for those students working in voter registration projects. Before Andy and Nikki and James went into Philadelphia the FBI were told that they were going in there they were going in to investigate this church bombing and they were asked when they provide protection couldn't they send someone along to watch out for them. And you know Mr. Hoover replied earlier that the FBI was merely an investigatory body and could do nothing. And about two or three days later their bodies were missing and the car was found burned. And I'm sure we all know the rest. But the federal government has been constantly asked for protection in many areas in law in Mississippi this is the case to another areas. But they have refused so far to grant adequate protection of any sort.
Well we're not really here to fight the federal government or city hall. My my main concern here and perhaps something you can tell us about as well as any call for worker and perhaps better than a good many was what the contact with the people themselves were like people in the same kind of position perhaps as Troels father people in much worse circumstances without a freeholder renter's people living in them in the towns themselves. Did you find these people receptive to the kind of work that you were trying to do.
Well when I first went to law in Mississippi I was stationed in an area called KC which is the poorest economic area of the city.
And at first the for the first I'd say weak people rather wary of my coming in. I decided instead of beginning right away with community development or urging voter registration or something of this nature I felt it was more important to learn the problems of the community to find out what the people wanted changed if anything was to be changed and what their gripes were in this type of thing. So I ran around and at first I was always welcomed into the houses very warmly and I was living in the Negro community right down the street from the area in which I was working. But at first the reactions were I'd walk up and knock on the door and they'd say Yes come in and knows this type of thing which is you know train from the beginning and the first few times I wasn't you know trying to change anything immediately so I let you know that yes there is go on we just begin to talk.
And maybe if I went back a third time or fourth time I probably said look stop the US I'm not here to be yesterday. But if the notes are here to find out so we could decide what should be done. Finally stop. You know this type of attitude and I was welcomed very warmly into the homes and we actually got down to the you know the nitty gritty as we say to get to the discussion to find out what was the matter and there were many many things that matter in Laurel.
You were on the receiving end of this kind of work. I would guess beginning in 1952 when your father began organizing and Alessi ph after what did what did people from the north. White people from the north coming down to help you out look like to you as a as a child.
Well I've looked at the image of people coming down to give a part of themselves to us to teach us something to tell them what life really look like and that we were people but I don't think that's the important thing. What I think the owner said is and I think that's important about what they think. We have to remember that these people the old negroes in Mississippi they have been faced with two theories and one fact these two theories they are one was given to them by the snake workers when in station in Mississippi for three years and the local negroes who were interested in the freedom movement the civil rights drive like my father. This theory is that these people are coming down to help us. They're coming down to give us a part of their life. This is something they don't have to do. They want us to be people like they are. Then there is another theory given to us by the white Mississippian through newspaper and in person that is these people well outside agitators sure but more than that they are trying to bring in new society trying to bring about communism and that they're using the negro in the South as a stepping stone to get there. So then you need to look at these two they're in. What have you got to lose. Not very much. Maybe Good try and go along with them. But then all of a sudden there is this fact. Why is this Why guy walks up to you and he says I'll kill you.
Then he think about it.
What of what has he got to lose then you've got everything to lose his life. So he's in a very bad position. He can't really cooperate with the call for workers like he want to. He want to tell them you're welcome come on. I'm with you all the way at the same time you tell me no go away. I don't have anything to do with you.
I think you know that position of the Gopher workers themselves aside from what some people might call an isolated incident of the three. I guess we can safely call the murders to the CO for workers themselves experience the kind of threats that the Negro population on the other hand was for was experiencing.
Yes although I think the Ku Klux Klan in the Society for the preservation of the white race and the others had curtailed areas could curtail activities temporarily until after we left there was still a great deal of harassment. First I'd like to say I think you know we've been said you know it's been said to me and other covert workers that oh you're so brave you're so wonderful and this is something I think it is totally false it doesn't take bravery or courage to go into Mississippi. It takes for me anger. You get angry enough you want to see something change. And so you do something the courage is on the part of the local people who are living there because any time I or practically any one of the other cover workers wanted to leave you just take a train or a plane or a bus in or out of the state of Mississippi Safe and sound back to the north or the West. People in Mississippi couldn't get out by just housing us by clothing us by feeding us by sending their kids to freedom schools to community centers like going to mass meetings by going to voter registration schools. They're putting their very lives in danger and the houses as in McComb just the night before last the church was bombed and the queen's home was bombed. Mrs. Quinn had served as a meeting place for the voter registration workers in the comb before last her home was bombed in the cone and her two daughters were seriously injured. We see the activity has come again but I just want to state I can never be said too often for me that real courage is for the people who are staying there. But we had you know harassment it was generally the type where we walk down the street and someone come up and spit in our face and say why don't you go back to where you came from. You don't belong here or something of this nature. And other times the real fear was a constant fear Dr. Silver's call Mississippi the close aside I think it would be more aptly named the fear society because from the minute you get up to the minute you go to sleep. There's constant fear. At least this was the way it was for most of us in law's example walking down isolated street in that area of laurel. We'd be walking along all of a sudden a white Oldsmobile with a long radio antenna would come along while the white Oldsmobile with a long radio went and we generally clan or citizen Council cars and it would go by once very slowly maybe three or four minutes with some shotguns up by the back window very flagrantly display just about so you couldn't miss them. They'd go up a half a block and turn around and come back again. And when they came back the second time you would wonder what are they trying to do especially when you look on the license tag Mississippi like it's Texas the county on the bottom would say in the SHOWBIZ Countdown show counties Philadelphia Jones County is about 80 miles south and Shelby a lot of four guys and I don't feel they're going to back lonely road in Laurel Mississippi from the Shelby County.
Well this is this is this experience of perhaps a well administered fear was new I would guess to most of the the Kofa workers but it was old hat in a kind of frighteningly I would guess to people like Charles and his family the white Oldsmobile with the antennas were an immediate sign that of the tog referred to take a picture of where the reporter good reporter that a visitor would notice. But I'm sure there are other signs and other reminders of that kind of terror that kind of fear you live with it most of your life. What what kinds of things does this does this fear do to normal boy's life.
Well to me I tell you what is done to me made me look at myself not as a regular human being. I'm now in the north. I look at these kids and here I say they have a chance at life. They have a chance to make up their mind about what they want to be in life a doctor a lawyer successful businessman but this fear the bad. Well I would say the better the white men say the seven white men and made up my mind for me. I feel that there isn't one thing to do that is I am only one person. I have one life. I'm trying to get more education. I'm going back into Mississippi and avoid it all to try to bettering the condition of Mississippi. Without this fear without the white men doing me like he did. I don't think I would feel this way. This is one thing I think he's done.
What you really seem to be talking about is something that I guess sociologists call social mobility the possibility of moving from one station in life to another. Is that possible for a negro in the city. Peter Cook is it is it possible for a negro in Mississippi who starts off perhaps as the son of a janitor you started off better than that to become all a college professor to become a successful businessman.
Well it's hard for him to do that because white men in Mississippi I feel his hands locked around the state. Was it hard for a negro to get an education. He sort of moves him like an object from one place to another way wants him to be. The schools of though that it's impossible to get a good education in Mississippi. Well I am one of those women lucky enough to escape from this aside let's talk a little about schools.
You attended Central High School in liberty for how long but two years and then came up here and began in a relatively good Northern school at what grade at 11th grade. But I was put back to the United Way as a result apparently of an insufficient education. When you were in Liberty How was school different there from the way it is here.
Well first of all it's integrated Well the school in Mississippi. I don't think what it is I don't think it was a school to tell people to go there mostly to play football set up talk with teachers. But here we get down to what we look at things different. Were able to read books by James Baldwin Richard Wright were able to reach out able to think for ourselves. Whereas in Mississippi the people came around and took out all of Baldwin's books all ready to write books saying that they were well communist. Well here you have a chance to think for yourself.
Schools are an obvious way toward upward mobility. It would seem that in good part the efforts of the Council of federated organizations this summer have been in another direction perhaps as a first step in voter registration. The something that affects adults likely more than those children at least immediately. Why was that taken as one of the first steps.
Well first I think as Charles indicated voter registration drives have been going on in Mississippi for a number of years. Snick first started then I think in 60. However there have been no freedom schools and to my knowledge in Mississippi until this summer project. And as you indicated Negro History is evidently lacking in Mississippi state schools. But the reason for voter registration was to act as a rallying point for the Negro community although even if we had succeeded in getting 100 percent voter registration Mississippi Mississippi still would have gone for Goldwater. For the main reason that in order to be able to vote in November election you had to register before July 3rd. I could take I guess that would be July it takes Mississippi four to five months to process a voter registration application.
So well in law almost my effort was not directly primarily toward normal voter registration because most of the people couldn't have voted anyway. And I wanted something that would last longer than simply taking one or two or 50 or 100 200 people up to the courthouse. One of these was the freedom registration which was immediate in preparation for the convention challenge the Freedom Democratic Party the second and to my mind the most important was community development.
And what does that mean those those are big words.
Well let me first describe some of the conditions in Laurel and then we can proceed and see what needs to be done in the area. And Laura which I was working K.C. there were no paved streets there were no electric lights because practically no public sewerage there was no public sewerage was all cesspools was practically no plumbing facilities. Very very little regular electricity aside from street lights. There was no public bus transportation for the students and the annual family income I'd say in the area was maybe 600 to 800 dollars a year. It was a great deal that had to be changed and the idea was to get local leadership could carry on movement after we left although there were maybe 200 to 300 students staying on in the state for the rest of the year. This is far inadequate as to the needs and so it was more important to train local individuals who could what we call become agents of social change to effect change from within the community by themselves and so to do this we had a great many discussion programs discussing the techniques Technics tactics or techniques of the social change. How do you go about organizing a community what block captains What is a block out to do getting in contact with the people informing them of what has to be done. Organizing marches up to the mayor's office and saying Mr. Mayor we represent 500 registered voting individuals and we demand that you pave the streets and Casey are in law as this case may be. Organizing voter registration schools so that the local people can continue their own voter registration projects after we left all these things are very important for the community in Laurel we felt and this to my mind is also the most effective area action groups were formed who decided to carry on whatever had to be carry on their own citizen's committees and everything else that was necessary to mobilize the Negro community.
Let's talk for a minute Charles about school again in a different way about what kinds of facilities were available to you and in particular about a phrase you used to me two days ago that I'd hoped to elicit today. You had said that I believe that the Southern whites in Mississippi particularly expected a negro who wanted to be upwardly mobile to earn his own way. And you guys explained I think very well what that meant in their minds in the white not begin with the other part let's start with Wright what does it mean to earn your own way.
Well well said before the white man has his hand locked form formally formally around the state he sort of barricaded it made it a prison and the rest of the world this nation the fourth heart. It is hard for a negro to you know education within the state of Mississippi. He is looked at and he is judged by the color of his skin until instead of the content of character he's always known to the whites in Mississippi as a nigger. He go out into another part of the country as a noun and he ahd an education. Then he comes back to Mississippi. He talks differently look differently at different. Then I don't think they feel that he is one of the regular niggers that they have there. I think they feel differently toward him.
Maybe he is now able to go up to the courthouse and register what you know your brother proceeded apace in the same kind of program you have now before you.
He's now at University of Massachusetts I believe. And yet he registered to vote in the really DID YOU KNOW. Yes he did. They cause him any trouble.
No they didn't talk. I think they feel that maybe he was one of those who had his way.
In contradiction to this I think in many areas up in the delta or around Greenwood in Greenville in rule Ville there have been many many incidences when graduates of Yale Law School etc. have come back to Mississippi and attempted to register to vote in a local registrar has failed them. Maybe he's got their test back and they sent a copy of the test to the major deans of law schools of the country. Each one of them sent back well an A or A plus rating. This was sent to the Justice Department along with the rejection by the local registrar saying this person was an educated enough to take you know literacy interpretation test and varies a great deal a good deal varies a great deal and I hope that this dialogue on Mississippi has brought up some of the variations our time's about up.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- A Dialogue on Mississippi
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- David Gelfand, a summer project worker in Laurel, MS, for the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and Charles Steptoe, the son of Eugene W. Steptoe, a civil rights activist and the largest freehold African American farmer in Liberty, MS, discuss the activities of COFO in Mississippi with reporter Rick Lee. The discussion includes a brief history of civil rights activities in the area since 1952; white attitudes and reaction, including beatings and two murders; living conditions, including limited educational and job opportunities for African Americans; organizing strategies; and the courage of local African Americans.
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Interviewer: Lee, Rick
Interviewer: Gelfand, David
Interviewer: Steptoe, Charles
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
Production Unit: Radio
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Identifier: 00-3018-00-00-001 (WGBH Item ID)
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- Chicago: “A Dialogue on Mississippi,” 1964-09-22, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-945qgb91.
- MLA: “A Dialogue on Mississippi.” 1964-09-22. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 21, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-945qgb91>.
- APA: A Dialogue on Mississippi. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-945qgb91