thumbnail of American Experience; 1964; Interview with Dave Dennis, Civil Rights Activist, part 1 of 2
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
Here we go. Make sure that you're not too much straight on if there's a sense of looking on. You know what I mean? Yes. Okay. So Dave, sometimes it's come to my notice that 1964 doesn't really start in 1964. I think it starts on November 22nd, 1963. Where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been shot? I was at the, the time that Kennedy was shot. I was in the Kofo office, which is located on the corner of Lynch Street and Rolls Street in Jackson, Mississippi. And I went up to find Bob and he was in a little restaurant called Smackovers and talked to him briefly about what I had just heard. And he had already heard it. But I was in Mississippi at that time. You remember what you guys talked about? Well, the question was, what's next?
You know, it looks like this whole thing is coming down. No one is being spared who's making some type of a stand. And so it got to be very serious in our minds then in terms of what we were into. And what was coming in regards to freedom summer and work that we get ready to do in this big push around board registration. And I just come out of this whole trauma and trauma in terms of Mekka's death because he was a very good friend of mine. And I was with him the night that he was killed. And so those things were there in my head. And it was a traumatic experience to go through that piece. I didn't know that he had been killed then at that time. I was here yesterday and he talked a lot about Mekka. That was just obviously a one symbol, I think, for you guys about where you were things were headed.
Where do you think the movement was as 1964 began? You guys have been through so much already. Help me understand what you've been through and where you were, how you were feeling at the beginning of the year. Well, we were at the beginning of 1964 coming out in 1963 and 1962. There had been a lot that all of us had gone through. I mean, I met Bob in 1961 when I was working in Baton Rouge in Louisiana. And being in Mississippi, what we had engaged in and what we had been involved in and some experiences, we knew we were in a war.
And one of the things that was going to be difficult for us was we had to make some calls. And they were live depth calls. But it wasn't something new when we were in these discussions. A lot of discussions going on at that time, beginning in 1964, what's going to happen if you bring in all these young kids into the places. But we really felt we had no choice because coming through 1962, 63, 61, all the deaths that we have been involved in in terms of witnessing of how people we work with. And then there was Mecha's death. You know, that was the big one in terms of if the government was going to move then. We're not going to move to press charge because in the one everything else says, we were really into a war. And it was all the way we're going to get the attention that was needed. We're going to have to bring America's children into Mississippi. And that's a tough choice. Because at that time, both Bob and I were really experiencing some real guilt and feelings about the fact
is that some people we had talked to and convinced to do things in the movement have been assassinated. You know, it was Alan and others and Herbert Lee. And Herbert Lee was Bob's personal experience. And Mecha was, I guess, my real personal experience in a sense is because he didn't want to do this, sit in, he understood that this was really on the edge. We're going to push on the edges. And he felt that, and he was pushed to do that by the National Office of NAACP who was trying to get a lot of attention at the time. But Mecha didn't want to do this. And the only way I got involved with it was that he asked me to come in with some of the court people who began to train the Jackson students in non-violence because they were getting out of control. He could not control them because that was a group out of Tugulu who was pushing for these incidents and marches.
And Mecha was more like with Bob and others that we should really focus on the political issues and the voter registration because it's too volatile. People are going to really get hurt in terms of pushing the direct action pieces. And were you with Mecha when you got there? No, I was with them up until about half an hour. Before then, there was a meeting in Jackson with all that to talk about the warcott, you know, as to what the next steps would be. And I didn't want to be involved in this sit-ins and stuff, but I did it for Mecha because he had no control. He didn't have a training that is. And he could not control a young people. So we sort of joked about, he was going to go home. It's been time enough to watch the Kennedys talk, which was being televised at that time by this position around civil rights and civil rights act.
And jokingly, he said, when you're going to arrive with Mecha and I told him, no, man, get killed. Get in the car with you, man. We laughed and walked away. Because about a week or so before that is, we had traded cars. And we figured out that didn't work because somebody tried to run him down while he was in my car and so I got stopped by a group of clansmen outside of Kenn and his car. So I said, this is dumb. Be trading cars. You got my car. I got yours. So we laughed about it. But he and I used to hang a little bit and I used to visit and it was also a lot. So he and I become very good friends. And so that was the real coming out of that piece of guilt about maybe if we stood out ground about the fact that it's not doing anything and not working with this sit-in piece, which means he would have to rebel against his national office. It might have been a little bit different.
But you carry that around. So move it into this and to 1964, we were concerned because really and truly is, there was one person with the government that we considered to be a real hero for us and that was John Dole. If it had not been for John Dole, I think we would have lost a lot more people. His presence, although he wasn't getting the type of support that he needed from the federal government to not only protect but to support what was right. And he was sort of like giving a different message. You could call him a direct line. And not only just call him, but he would act. He would not only pick up the phone, but he would move. If he felt that you were in trouble, he would either be there or he would get on the FBI or the people I get down there and someone, you know. So he was on the job. He wasn't just talk to you and hang up and go away. You knew you could count on him to be there in one way or the other.
Bob went to go to try and see him yesterday. Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's what he told me to. With them, the last time we were together was last year, Bob pulled together a Board of Registration Board of Rights Act conference in Mississippi and John was there. It was a great scene. So you and Bob are on the eve of 64 you're thinking about doing this thing, which is pretty heavy load to carry. Why? Why did you feel like you had to do it? Bob and I had a lot of discussions about the importance of this move in 1964, leading up the Freedom Summer. It was a time was right for us to move then. There was a lot of opposition within our own ranks for various different reasons. The one was that we moving too fast, moving faster than the local people able to organize around.
So there's an issue of sustainability. Some people were concerned about the local people were more concerned. A lot of them were concerned about the fact is that the white students coming in and taking over to the largest cities and moving them out of their positions, control. And the other one was that what are we just a whole question about? What are you fighting for? You're trying to get into a party where you got a bunch of races, you know, into it and stuff is. So there's a lot of good arguments there about it. In your party meeting? The Democratic Party, yes. But the time was right. The country was right. And if you're going to, you couldn't run again from Mississippi any place. We were there. So if we stay there, you're going to expect, you can expect violence and against the local people, especially. And we knew now that the government was not going to move fast or anything to write those wrongs.
Because they didn't look at the people there as being, you know, that important, in my opinion, is what we call them. It puts very, it's saying that the country's children, the children of the Constitution. And so we felt we had to move to get that attention if we're going to stay in Mississippi. We're going to do anything of a relevancy. You're going to have to bring the attention. Because they could bury you there and no one even know about it. And so we felt we had to do it. Was there also a sense that you guys were kind of exhaustive, too? Just running down in terms of, what was that more towards the end of the year? It was more towards the end. At that time, it was more of running out of options than being tired. And so we were running out of options in terms of what to do next.
Because we weren't getting, we were getting turnouts of people going to try to register the vote and people in other areas and stuff is. But they were, the opposition was so great. I mean, one of the things that we knew about, that no one knew, well, but the people were working there is that we would watch these elderly people coming out of the, for we have these more registration days, you know. And people coming in to try to register the vote. They were coming in wagons and news, you know, how the back was, knowing that they had to go back. And they were, you know, confronting them and walking right in front of the sheriff and the police and the cameras there is taking their pictures and everything else's. Couldn't take the license plate. No, they could take a picture of the horse's butt, but that's about it. But they knew who they were. And they did it without that fear and they would turn around and go back into those back was. And now one of the things that we would feel guilty about,
we didn't even know who they were a lot of them. They just came out of nowhere and disappeared back into the air. We don't know what ever happened to them. So it was necessary that to get this attention around what this was all about and what was going on as you had to get America's attention. And we weren't doing it. There were two things that got America's attention. And that was the, those people, the target population standing up. First of all, the white kids coming in and then all the press about as there is, beginning to look at this. And then people like Fannie Lou Hamer were people going to see standing up. Because Bob, myself, Dr. King, Farmer, Foreman, and the rest of them could have yelled all that we wanted to yell out there. It was until the local people, especially Miss Hamer and others, the voices of the people, the press under the privilege and the press people,
the press people, being able to stand up. And that's what got the attention of the country and of the world at things. It's incredibly a moving idea that these poor people came out of the back woods. It took that kind of risk. And then just disappeared and went back and didn't even really work. Right. And that was another time when this phenomenal piece happened with the local people. I mean, we had to house when we brought in those thousand kids. They lived out in the communities. And we had people across the state and some of the toughest areas. You know, Meridian and Plaisley, which was really a hotbed of the clan and others, who housed people. Canton, Mississippi, or Cone, you know, up in the Delta. Talk about the risk.
We left. And they knew we were going to leave. But they took that risk. They made that stance. That was another stand that people don't think about or talk about. It's the stand of those people who had our backs. When I went to Mississippi and that move don't through is the, there was fear in Mississippi, but there was also a willingness on the part of the people who make that sacrifice. If it had not been for a lot of the elders like Ames and Moore, C.C. Bryan, Stuptoes, you know, and others, Amers and Allens and others, who really showed us the way, protected us. They hit us. They showed us how to move in the communities and what to do. And they came out. We never would have made it. I mean, that floor was there when we got there. What we did was to give them the space to come out openly and move. But the movement was going on when we got there.
I mean, they were, had already begun. I mean, Kofo was organized before we got there. It was part of the conservative organization. And what was that? It was a statewide organization. It's like an umbrella group that was formed in the Delta by Dr. Aaron Henry, Ames and Moore, Medgar Evers and others, C.C. Bryan and those from Southwest. And the purpose of it at that time was to look at the protection and support for freedom riders. It was first put together. And also doing work around border registration. And then back in 1962, I'll begin to move that to another level around Bob's idea around the border registration piece and the concentration of that effort. And then while the brand and others with VEP came along for education project wanted to put money into Mississippi, Kofo merged again. And at that time, it was part of doing the statewide work around border registration is when Bob and I came in. It's amazing how much coordination and cooperation was possible with all of these different, pretty independent groups.
Yeah, I think that what happened here is that it was a different breed. And we had problems with some of the national offices in the police. They're trying to want to get their recognition about who we are. You know, I am NAACP, I am Corps, and I am Snake, you know, what are you doing this? I think the individuals, it was a unique group of individuals who had come together. And Bob is a unique individual. He was a Snake Student Unviolent Coordinating Committee. What was your job? My job was with the concentration quality of heading up their program in the state. But when I first went there, I went there to be honest on the fraudulent, what I mean by that is that I had, I was in Louisiana, head of the Louisiana Project. And so Bob had come over to Baton Rouge, where I was, because a lot of students had walked out of Southern University in 1961.
And in 1962, we had all these kids something to do as we were trying to do border registration work there. Because I had switched to away from direct action at that time. And he said bring them over to Mississippi? I mean, bring them to McComb, and so I was arguing with them. Oh, McComb was the infamous, right? Well, McComb was the infamous, but I mean, we were having enough trouble in Louisiana. We were moving the kids out like an abogalus and other place around us. So they were, like I was saying, we, that's like a frying pan into the fire, man. We'd gone through the same thing here, and other kids saying, why do we have to go there? But there was something about the way Bob, the plan was, moving the statewide level. And so I began to think about this as a target to get support of that, how can get into this place? And so Tom Gayther, who was CORE's project director for Mississippi at the time is, was drafted into the service. So that was his opportunity. And so I volunteered to CORE to take Tom Gayther's places.
And so that was on condition. His job primary was to look after the freedom riders coming in, because they were still coming in to Mississippi at that time. So you and Bob, in this spring of 1964, were you in Oxford? No, I didn't go to Oxford. But you've been talking to Ann about what was involved. Oh, yeah, I was part of the planning, but there were two things going on. There was a, I tend not to get involved with the big things. Like I didn't go to the March on Washington. You know, to me, it's got enough there. I had other issues in Mississippi. And so the Oxford piece is everybody was going to Oxford. Well, we hadn't secured housing for everybody, you know. So we had to transportation housing, what's to put all the logistics together. So I stayed back there to do that. That was part of the my job. And so they were, they had enough people I felt to handle the Oxford piece. When you met the volunteers and they came down. What was it like?
What were the conflicts like between the veterans in the movement and these fresh-faced kids? A lot of them were white. What was it like when they tried to integrate into these rural homes and stuff? Well, we had a lot of problems. They're being adjusting to an understanding. Even though you had chained a good man swarming with missing at the time. And we knew they were dead. So during that period of time, he was still fishing bodies out of the water of rivers and stuff and finding bodies. They could not get in their head to dangers unless it happened to them. So we got to call examples from Yazoo City. Someone called, I mean, Vicksburg by the call end to say, we need your help over here is because we got these kids, white kids, and some black kids riding around downtown in the back with truck swimmers and swimmers. So we were like, well, you can't be serious. So you had those kind of instances of feeling that they go walk down these rural areas, hand in hand,
and be sociable with each other. So that was a big issue around the people understanding. You just can't do that. And they were looking out and say, why not? I'm an American. We understand that. Trying to tell you, you can't do it. You're an American. Exactly right. So we had a lot of problems with that nature. Understanding number one is there were culture clashes. And for instance, a lot of the movement people, we wore overalls and shirts like that. And so the white kids adopted that pieces. But on Sundays for church, the people local people wore that. But they wore, they had a special pair. There was iron and they were clean and they looked, you know, the best they could with a towel. And so we couldn't get them as people understand is, that's how you have to go. If you're going to do that fine, but you have to respect that church.
You just can't go with them but rag they, you know, dirty looking like. So I understand the culture and what was all about and how to really adjust to and adapt to what people were doing. The local areas was another issue of the problem. What was the other side of the coin? What was the problem for the members of the movement adjusting to these volunteers? Well, these communication misunderstanding there too, yeah. Oh yes, very much so. It's number one. It was the big ones. So there was a lot of hostility to be honest with a lot of the people there is. They didn't want to have the white kids in from the beginning, you know. And so they made it very difficult times to do that. But most other people put that behind them and try to do the best to work with them. I'm going to say that the movement people really took, they took a beating. They took a beating, you know, not just because they understood the dangers and what the rubber guess is. And they did to do the best they could to educate and to, I guess, to and protect the volunteers who came in. What was the goal of the whole idea?
What were you trying to basically do with Freedom Summer? What was the ultimate aim? The ultimate aim for Freedom Summer, in my opinion, was to get the federal government to step in and open the doors to give black people in the state of Mississippi and across the country the right to participate in the political system of this country. Whether it be democratic republican, whether it is that they have the right to vote, they have a right to be part of this particular system. That was the ultimate goal. And we felt that at that time is that we felt that we could show the country that the country really see what was going on is that they were going to step up to the plate. The federal government stepped up to the plate. The United States citizens with step up to the plate. The United States citizens with step up to the plate said that we can't have this. This is America. We are democratic society. These people need to be part of this government and our political system. So we really believe that. And the tragedy thing about it, the young people who came down believe that they believe in this country.
It's actually missed a golden opportunity with those thousand kids in the local people areas. What were you, you had an equally important idea about trying to say something about the black community in Mississippi to the country as well, right? Well, not only the black people in Mississippi, but across the country and especially the oppressed and poor people. There's more, there's a lot about color and there's a lot about class that the poor people of this country could speak out to the head of voice and need to be allowed to express themselves as and to have a voice in this and society. And one of the criticisms was, oh, you know, black people in Mississippi don't want to vote, right? That was that kind of like the justification for doing nothing. That's correct is that they were complacent. That they did not want to participate, you know, that this was a few people from agitators from outside who was stirring up mess and in the state. And this is why it was so important for the demand side, you know, stand up.
And so it was important that at the end that they were making these decisions that people could see that a Humphrey and Johnson and others. President Johnson could stay up there and say that this is not a illiterate woman, you know, and could see that this lady could found a little hammer. It was not only a leader, but her voice expressed feelings of a whole lot of people. And so it was important that this country heard these voices. And that's what they represented there is. And so I think that what we were doing was opening that door for people to hear and see. Is that why Fanlou Hamer was so powerful because she was such a sort of symbol for everybody about what you're trying to talk about? She was a Fanlou Hamer was a symbol of the oppressed, I mean, no matter what color, and also the poor people who had been written off.
And what we talk about the fact is that the children of the Constitution, Fanlou Hamer really said to the country, when you say we the people, we are also the people. And when she stood up, people could see that. And this country pulled out all stops, I mean, to stop her, to try to stop her that voice. And Johnson called for an emergency press conference. And she spoke for the credentials committee, that's power. I mean, that was one of the most powerful things that ever happened for poor people and people calling this country. Fanlou Hamer, this sharecropper's woman, stood up there, and the president of the United States said, shut her up and got on the, for some press conference that didn't have any, you know, to stop his office.
Yes, right. The highest office had to be pulled out there to try to shut down the voice of the people that Fanlou Hamer represented at that moment. And she had a quality of batter too. I've been reading some of the things she said, somebody said at one point, you know, you might get killed. And she said something to the effect of, well, they've been killing me all my life. So I don't see why I should worry about that now or something. You know, she had an ability to just lay it plain on the table. Did you feel that? Well, Fanlou Hamer was real. I can't say that she didn't have, it wasn't a threat at the time, the time is, but she had no fear. You know, her strength came from the factors of truth. I mean, and when she spoke, you know, it was the truth, because it came from feelings. She didn't try to hold that back. Fanlou Hamer told me a story once. I mean, was she watched a little community that she was in when she was a little girl, get burned down, you know, and watch people being lynched, you know, right in front of it when she was a little girl.
So she came out of a situation where she had been at that confrontation. She knew where she was. She knew what she was up against. She knew she was on Eastland's plantation. And she knew when she went down and registered the vote that she's going to have held the deal with when she got back, what she did. But that didn't stop her. In fact, is Fanlou Hamer's voice when everybody was down and everything on the bus and going to register that day is. She was her songs that lifted everybody up. And that's where she had that ability. You knew you were in a presence of a person with power. And you always feel protected when you're around Fanlou Hamer, which is really crazy, you know. When you were with Fanlou Hamer, you felt there was some other kind of power that sort of was around you. You know, she was a fabulous person, human being is. A lot of faith is. There were three women. I mean, like we call the mothers of the movement, you know. They were just unbelievable.
And that was Fanlou Hamer and Edivine and his Victoria Gray. And the amazing thing about this is this mixture. You got the sharecropper, a teacher and a retired teacher, who came up and made this stand of these three women. So you had sort of here the sharecropper, the poorest level, move up to at that time what you call the black middle class pieces. And that was an amazing thing about the movement, that you have to look at the balance. I mean, what protected us is that there were the people who work. Hamza Moore was a poll store, but at the same time he owned his own home, he owned a service station, including Mississippi, he owned land, he owned property. You had the others like C.C. and others, and Steppto's had farmland, you know. His land was right across from E.W. Hurts, you know, a place to.
So when you look at the damers and others, they were businessmen, the R.L.T. Smith and others who really made a stand, who made it possible for us to do what we were doing. So you had poor people and you had the middle class, blacks, who really was very supportive and did a lot of things to make it possible for us to do this work. So it was a mixture in the movement. Did you spend any time with this hammer that you remember particularly one way or the other? She was on Senator Eastland's plantation made with Ruleville, right? I mean, I would go, you know, I can't, I would visit with Mrs. Hamer, Mrs. Hamer back in Latter 62, early part of 63. Mrs. Hamer, the Johnson family, one time I went up to visit her in Ruleville, and she had me to go to this house where these ladies were. And I saw all these ladies, they were sitting around quilting, you know, and I sat there and they were telling these fantastic stories, but they were about eight women.
And they saw and they were quilting with these quiltings. And I came with an idea about developing this quilting corp. And so we did a quilting corp, which actually became a thing around political because people talk while they're doing that about the things that happened. So we actually were selling quilts in the village here and stuff like this had all that. And the funny thing about it was that what happened was that I went out in a Marvin Rich in them helped us to buy some sewing machines because one thing was how long it takes them, you know. I was not aware of the culture around quilting, you know. And I was strengthened in what it meant in the community, both politically and economically, but just, you know, what they were doing. So we bought these machines and shipped up there in Ruleville. So the next time I went up there, Mrs. Hamer said, I'm going to come and tell you something.
And so we go into it. And so all these machines were pushed in the corner and the latest sitting out still, they saw it. And then I understood this was not just about it. It was a conversation piece. It was a thing that they did. And the story telling went on not in terms of just some terms vocally, but they were also telling the story that if you look at the quilt itself, you know, what it meant to them. My wife's from Georgia and her family's very liberal group of folks in the middle of Madison, Georgia, a little pocket of kind of blue in the middle of this very red state. And they ran a nursery in that woman that was really close to their family was black and she was quilted. And she made a quilt for each of the daughters and we sleep with it on our bed to this day. It's a family heirloom. My wife will not get rid of it. It's an amazing thing. So who were Mickey Schwerner and Goodman and James Cheney?
And what was your personal intersection with those guys? I had very little with Andy Goodman, so talking about him first is the only time I ever met him because I wasn't an Oxford. It came through Jackson to go to Marie and day before they went over to that so I was with them then. And sat and talked to them about this. In fact, it was torn between my going that I had a bronchial problem issue. And so everybody would say, I couldn't stop coughing. It was coughing. Head off that maybe you ought to take a day or two because you got all these kids from Oxford. So it was Mickey that was talking to me and to March you do that and I'd go because I was going to go with them. And so I lived in Shreveport, which is about three hours away. So I said, okay, so they went that direction. I went to visit my mom and get some of that from my mother, my grandmother. My grandmother mixed up these herbs and stuff, you know, every just sort of things. And so I wanted to get some others to love and care and grandmother.
And so that's where I was the next day when I got a call in at about five o'clock from the Meridian group saying that they had heard from Mickey. And then I asked what time I was supposed to check in and they said four o'clock. And so this is five. So we began immediately to check, you know, the police station, the FBI and others. And as I told my mother, I thought then that, you know, we lost three people. But back to the original question, but I thought about the... So I only got a chance to really see Andy that brief moment of maybe about an hour we were together. James Cheney had been involved in the movement with core people, with Matthew Suarez and George Raymond, who were really working a fourth congressional district in that area. There is one of the core people. And so they had recruited James Cheney. And James Cheney had been working with them since the early part, a lot of part of 60, not the middle of 63, I think it was.
He was local. He was brilliant. He was from a reading. He was local. Right. He's the one who opened up the door. He helped Fluke and a Fluke's Matthew Suarez. He came out of both George Raymond. This whole group of core people was in there into Mississippi at that time. Came out a little core chapter in New Orleans. What about Mickey Schwartz? Mickey was a different person. First of all, when they first came in, I'd asked for a core to help recruit some people to come into work. And so I was not very pleased to be honest with you when they sent two white kids in. And they came in as a little Volkswagen or like a little flower people. And so I was sort of very turned off about this. I didn't particularly like the idea. And so we had already decided that what we needed help was to build this area up in the eastern part of Mississippi, around Meridian, in that poor pieces.
So that's where we sent them to that. I think Mickey and Rita. Now Mickey, I think, understood this. He didn't bother me. And George and Fluke were the ones working closer with them more than I was. I was all over the place, all over the state anyway, as a position I was with cofo. But then one day Mickey called me and asked me to come over. And just could you come over. So I made an excuse. He said, please come over. So I went over there. And when I got there, they had to free them schools set up. They had books. They had all this stuff. They had all these kids there. And people coming in, clothing piece project. And I was just amazed. I was struck. And so he and I sat on the curve out there. And that's when I began to get to know Mickey Swarner. It was a fantastic, very rare.
And he made a statement to me at the time. And I still don't know the day when he was joking or not. And he said, sometimes when I'm here with the people, I don't know what I'm black or white. And I sort of laughed it off, told him, you white. But I wasn't understanding at that time, really the way you probably met. And I wish I had a deeper conversation with him about that point. Because he didn't laugh. They drove off. What were they driving? They were driving a four-fair lane. Blue four-fair lane that had been given to CORE through the efforts of Jerome Smith, whose out of the New Orleans CORE group is. But I think it was Lorraine Hansberry, I think it was. No, it was the car used. But it was a CORE car.
And I used that car before. And when Mickey and them became involved with what they were doing going into the Shelby County, I let them have that car. Because they needed more than that Volkswagen that they were you. They're so traded with them to do that is. But the car, when it first came down, I was using that myself. And so it came out as being a car that my car really was a car given to CORE that I was using. What did the make of the reaction when they went missing? Both within the movement and within the country of the home? I think that the people in the movement, the veterans, there is, knew they were dead. I mean, there was no question about it. I knew that. And I told that to my mother, I believe within two hours. Because Mickey was the kind of guy that, if he said, I want to check in, he's going to check in.
And by this time is, that's why I don't have this, I have this thing about the FBI and all the others. Because I was assured by the FBI that they were not in jail, that they had gone in and searched the jail. And everything is a look around and say, they're not there. So maybe they had a hidden, I don't know what the heck is, what it was going on. I can't say one way or the other is. And so my feeling was that in the movement people, they felt that was dead. Local people felt the same way about it. I think though that in the volunteers and this country was, did not believe. They still did not believe that they were dead. And an example of that is that they were finding bodies in Mississippi doing that period of time. While they were looking. While they were looking, they were finding bodies. And so the press would come out and say, they found two bodies or they found a body.
And they're checking the optops to see if these, because if decomposed, whether it's going to see if they wanted the missing people. And they could like say, nope, they were not one of the missing people. And it was like, okay, it really wasn't them. Okay, maybe they still alive. And you like, wait a minute. You find them bodies, people, you know. You find bodies. But they were black bodies. Bodies of black people is. So still America had not dealt with this thing about what it was going on is. It gives you an idea of what kind of attention they were given. If that just been James Cheney, we wouldn't have gotten this kind of attention and stuff as we got from this. And I think that Rita says it very well. This one of Mickess' wife is that she doesn't want people to look at this around about her husband, because, you know, she thinks that the whole issue is around the fact is that this is what happens to people stand up is. And if they were black, you know, you would not have had this attention for this.
So it was really like, it was like, it wasn't until the bodies were actually found. I think America began to say, wait a minute, you know, what's going on here? I was reading and I can't remember where, but there are things about what happens to Philadelphia in the Sherpa County. There's a, once the bodies are found, there's this invasion of federal law enforcement. Finally. You remember that? Yes, it was. What was that like? Well, I think that it was to us. It was like, now you come, you know. And what we've been trying to say all along is true. Now America begins to give attention to this. We didn't like the idea to lose anybody with a black or white. Okay, that was bad enough. But for this country to only begin to act, at that point is. I mean, because, I mean, the, what J. Gauhover made to say about the fact is, they were, the FBI would be proud to the students coming down, bringing them down, is that the FBI is not going to be there to protect or whatever.
He gave open season to this. So that's a federal arm, you know, the government. You know, this arm of the federal government that's, that's supposed to protect people, American citizens. All right. And so, I mean, the message was very clear. And it was, you know, like open season on us and on the other people who came in there. So they took this serious enough is to, to do what they did is, but they were taken out on everybody. Was it sort of a weird thing to suddenly handle all these FBI agents crawling all over the place? Do you remember that? And, and how did the local community must have seen it as a civil war all over again? Well, I don't think, the white community might have seen it that way. Is I think that the black community just sort of like, it was, it was a weird piece. It was like, you know, the ones I've talked to is like, you know, now they come. Right. Right.
You know, where were you yesterday or the day before? You know, now you come. Right. So it was like, they were a little bit agitated about it for a different reason. You know, now I think that the white community felt as being invaded, you know, this, whatever you have. But the black community had a different kind of feeling about it, you know. Now you come. You know. When the bodies were discovered, the decision was made, the original decision by the Goodman and Schwerner family was to have them all buried in Mississippi. Yes. Well, I think that was a different, I'm not so sure because at that particular time, I've had my own problems, personal problems around the deaths. One of the, one of the problems was that one of the issues was whether or not they were going to be allowed to bury together there, black and white in the state. It was the biggest issue on that piece of the state law.
And so, you know, it was, do you make that an issue or not, you know, it was part of it. And then there was a, there was a family issue there that, but rather for them to talk about all the feelings were. You said you had your own personal problems around their death. Tell me more. Well, I had, I had, that was a immigrant of the people that talked about there is. And then something really happened to me, which is very, I was up here in New York. I was in New Jersey speaking and I left New Jersey and I came to New York in July. In the visit friend of mine, James Baldwin's brother, David Baldwin, I have a very good friend. So, I was going to spend the night with him and then leave the next day and go back to Mississippi. And we were sitting in his room, a house in which was on Fifth Avenue and a hundred tenths street in the apartment there.
And all of a sudden we heard all these sirens and stuff going off in with what the heck is going on. And so finally just kept going, you know, so we decided to step outside to see what we could see up here. Then he just, you know, lit up. It was the Harlem rights were going on. And so I ended up going with David down there. And I spent two days. I mean, we spent two days. And I watched people, the second day, I watched these things that quieted down, I watched the police as they came in and trucks like that is taunting people. And things got started all over again. And one of the things I saw was that Dave and I were walking down. The seventh avenue I think it was around 123rd. I forgot exactly what it was around that area there. And this little kid darted out.
There was some police. And his kid darted out. And the cop just ran out. We knocked over a can as he was trash can. But he was just trying to get out of the way he looked at it. And this cop just turned around and unloaded on it. Bluemway right in front of me. And so David goes over and they try to get David away from him and they pull it away. And this cop, when I went and made David get on his knees and he's put his gun to his head. And he said, I'll blow your way negative. And David looked at him and say, you might as well kill me. Because you can't do me no more harm. And I witnessed that. And then making them a missing. I lost my friend, Maggie. I was losing.
I was really losing. So a lot was happening to me. And when we went to, and it all just came out, when I went to the, had to do the memorial pieces. There was very few people knew about that experience. I was David and I. Jerome Smith knew about it and Fluke and George. Because I told him I got back. I had that experience, but. So a few days later, you were back? I went back. Two days later, I went back to Mississippi by bike to Jackson. So when I had to give the eulogy pieces, it just all just came out.
I mean, I was like. I'm like a zombie, you know. And I'm watching all this stuff happen around me. We got this challenge going on is and I'm like, you know, what is this all about? Tell me what are we trying to, I'm questioning myself. I'm questioning what we're doing. I'm questioning is that. What is it that this country really listened to? I mean, how do you get it? Are they really getting it? So I don't know. What was the thinking you were going to do with the eulogy? Well, I had been asked by the National Office of Corps. And I was like, you know, there was so much unrest around the country. I was going on this, bringing attention to this. Could you just take it easy, you know?
And we can try to make a quite low-key kind of eulogy pieces. And so I've written some notes, you know. I was going to try to do this. And I looked out there and I saw a little bent-chaining. Not a little boy. Yeah, I was a little kid, he was in his mother's arms. And he loved his brother. And I was tired of going to humans, man. I was tired of seeing it. And when I looked at bent-chain, I saw this kid in Harlem. He couldn't have been much older, if at all. And I lost it. I lost it. It's like you were sort of finally letting all the religions go.
Finally, let out, let it out. Well, I really didn't know what I had said. Yeah. I didn't remember it was later. I went, I think, a couple days later. I came up here to New York. I think it was here. And going to here and then to Atlantic City, trying to, my job was to secure some of the housing and stuff for the delegations and stuff. That all of a sudden, as you had all this attention around, I mean, the National Office of Corps was not pleased. I can understand. Because of what you, because you've spoken out about. Yeah. And that's also, the timing was, you know, we come into the convention, you know,
I mean, the challenges. Right. You know, and we had been trying to be as diplomatic as possible, playing all the, following all the rules. And we were, that's what we did. We followed all the rules and the challenges of Democratic Party. We played the game. Because we didn't want any little thing to happen. That would cause, switch the attention from what we were trying to do, you know. So the fear was, well, this, do this, you know, that, yeah. What was the, you want to take five, are you okay? I'm good. What was the goal of the MFDP? What, what were you, what were you trying to do? And describe the kind of delegates that ended up going with you. Again, you were there, you were there in advance doing all the logistics.
Yeah, I was, you were the indispensable. Yeah, I was there. No, I was there throughout the convention. Here it is, I was there. But I didn't attend the, I didn't go into all those session meetings. I mean, I was, number one is, is that the, I had, this other stuff I felt. I mean, people needed to make sure that they had water, their transportation with his on that list. So I helped to do that kind of stuff. And was doing that. And the other piece is, I think more than anything else is probably, is I didn't trust myself. You know, I was, I was really bitter all this during this period of time is. And, and I don't know what I would have done if I'd been in the same room with these guys. So it was best for me to just hang back, you know. So I did not participate. I was in the meetings and stuff leading up to it, you know. And then I was doing some debriefing stuff as I was talking to people. But I was not going into those negotiations and stuff like that.
That one was probably best for Bob Moses. Of course, Bob. Bob can do this. Yeah. And so. And so, so what was the goal? Well, the goal was to, the goal of the MFDP was to bring attention to the country that the people in Mississippi, the poor people and people of color want to be part of this political system. They weren't complacent, whatever this. They wanted to do this. And they could do it. And also the brain, but they, that they were citizens of the United States and they were children of the Constitution of this country. And when you say we, the people, they are the people. All right. And so, the all to do that is we had to bring the attention to the fact is to show demonstrate through this effort that this is what they want to do. And you created this parallel universe.
Parallel universes. They okay. If they had the same opportunities other people around the country is to vote, they would do this. And what they did. And so, they came out and they registered through the mock to be perceived as MFDP. And which was right along the lines. We followed all the rules. We had Joe Rao and other political experts in, Lloyd and Steen and others, who taught us and helped us with this. Every step of the way it was patterned right out. Except one thing. You didn't have to take a test. You didn't have to count the number of peas in the bottom, so this is in all to pass, to be able to register to vote. So, what we did was we showed that to do this. And then because the fact is that they are the ones who were more true to the party and that follow all the rules and regulations of the party. That they should be representing the state of Mississippi and be part of the party, representing the party. Exactly, but they did. Well, our position was that the Democratic Party, the Mississippi Democratic Party, was illegal. So, the only legal party of people there was MFDPs.
And so, that was the name of the game. I'm trying to do this. So, we went all through every legal piece we did was right on target, saying this is it. And during this process, as we believe that, and the delegates of people believe there is no way that this country is going to turn that back on. You know, I mean, they really believe that this is, how can you? And this group, you brought them to Atlantic City, and who were they? The hairdressers. The hairdressers, they were farmers, and some were businessmen, the people and the ladies. There was a cross section of the community, a cross section of society that you would find in a place. But more represented are the people than the Mississippi Democratic Party. The Mississippi Democratic Party didn't have many laborers or to farmers of that nature. Even white poor people were not represented on the Mississippi Democratic Party. You look at it. It was mostly people pal with money and other people
who was in that party. You know, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party represented a cross section. And it had some white people on the party, you know. So, it's part of the, and it was open to white people who didn't want to become part of it. So, it didn't deny anyone. And you got there, and you were confronting the, as we said, the credentials commit.
American Experience
Raw Footage
Interview with Dave Dennis, Civil Rights Activist, part 1 of 2
Contributing Organization
WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/15-k35m90338c).
It was the year of the Beatles and the Civil Rights Act; of the Gulf of Tonkin and Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign; the year that cities across the country erupted in violence and Americans tried to make sense of the Kennedy assassination. Based on The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 by award-winning journalist Jon Margolis, this film follows some of the most prominent figures of the time -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Friedan -- and brings out from the shadows the actions of ordinary Americans whose frustrations, ambitions and anxieties began to turn the country onto a new and different course.
Social Issues
Politics and Government
American history, African Americans, civil rights, politics, Vietnam War, 1960s, counterculture
(c) 2014-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Release Agent: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: NSF_DENNIS_008_merged_01_SALES_ASP_h264 Amex 1920x1080 .mp4 (unknown)
Duration: 0:58:26
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “American Experience; 1964; Interview with Dave Dennis, Civil Rights Activist, part 1 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; 1964; Interview with Dave Dennis, Civil Rights Activist, part 1 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 21, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; 1964; Interview with Dave Dennis, Civil Rights Activist, part 1 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from