Why don’t you-all go and liberate the Indian reservations, or something?
September 23, 2013 8:35 PM   Subscribe

The civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, as described in the New Yorker by Renata Adler in 1965.

If you can get past the strange tone argument in the beginning where the author suggests that the march is too confrontational to be effective at persuading segregationists, this is an interesting account of what the marchers experienced and the personal costs of confronting racism in 1965.
posted by medusa (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I think those first paragraphs are more revealing than strange, clear evidence of the atmosphere in this particular context and of the skepticism and conservative reserve of even well-intentioned liberal whites.

Great piece, full of texture and detail that I have never read before in more political writings. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

(“It is well known that the white Southern segregationist is obsessed with fornication,” said John Lewis, chairman of S.N.C.C. “And that is why there are so many shades of Negro.”)

Damn, that's one sharp line.
posted by Miko at 9:12 PM on September 23, 2013 [13 favorites]

Then Len Chandler, a young Negro folk singer who had marched most of the way, appeared on the platform. He was dressed peculiarly, as he had been on the road—in a yellow helmet, a flaglike blue cape with white stars on it, and denims—and the crowd at once joined him in singing...’

Had never heard of this singer. It's pretty standard 60s protest music fare, I guess, but interesting to know about. He's in the Phil Ochs/Eric Anderson vein. His guitar playing is really nice. Here's a song by him on YouTube,Move on Over (or we'll move on over you), To Be a Man, Takin' Me Away From You Train, Keep on Keepin' On, Roll, Turn, Spin.

That's enough serial commenting from me now.
posted by Miko at 9:28 PM on September 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Great read. I just bought the NYRB reprint of Renata Adler's "Speedboat" the other day on a whim; interesting to read a long New Yorker bit from her. Also interesting to see that the right's vilification of Obama as a tyrant these days seems to exactly echo what they said about Johnson in the sixties.
posted by ariel_caliban at 9:34 PM on September 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Geez...this sounds familiar from the anti-Obama zealots...“No man in any generation . . . has ever held so much power in the palm of his hand, and that includes Caesar, Alexander, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Franklin D. Roosevelt”

But I think this sums it up. (TSIA, OP).

“Why don’t you-all go and liberate the Indian reservations, or something?” said the boy from Monroeville. “The Negroes around here are happy.”

“I don’t think they are,” said Mr. Matott.

“I’ve lived in the South all my life, and I know that they are,” the boy from Georgia said.

“I’m not happy,” said the Negro guard.

“Well, just wait awhile,” said the boy from Monroeville.

posted by lon_star at 9:54 PM on September 23, 2013 [5 favorites]

Boy, you'll be happy when I say you're happy.
posted by Goofyy at 10:14 PM on September 23, 2013

So Sylvan St., through the George Washington Carver Homes, is now MLK St. There is a monument to him including a bronze bust; Google Street View has helpfully blurred his face to protect his privacy. Jefferson Davis Ave. has been renamed for J.L. Chesnut. Selma has a black mayor, and six of nine city councillors are black. So is the police chief.

I don't think the opening discussion is so strange. We're experiencing such a moment now, a little less momentous to be sure, with the debt ceiling/shutdown issue -- it's been set up as a major confrontation but now seems to be fizzling out, and people on both sides aren't quite sure how to feel about that. The march had had its significance somewhat sidelined by events in Washington, and people were uncertain what that meant for the civil rights movement at that point. Its historical place is one thing, but its own political context is another.
posted by dhartung at 10:22 PM on September 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for this post. Reckless Disregard, Adler's exhaustive account of two prominent libel lawsuits from the 80s, is probably the best book I've read so far this year.
posted by Kwine at 10:43 PM on September 23, 2013

From the article:
[...] a well-dressed matron briefly stopped her Chrysler, got out, stuck out her tongue, climbed in again, slammed the door, and drove off.
The thing that always surprises me is how crude racists can be. There's this veneer of being cultured conservatives, but when they get a chance to vent they suddenly lose all sense of restraint and propriety.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:44 PM on September 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

That was the exact example I was going to pull, Joe. But I'll make do with this one:

“Left! Left! Left! “ the segregationist onlookers chanted as Mr. Letherer moved along on crutches ...

posted by gingerest at 10:47 PM on September 23, 2013

I found a SmugMug album -- a few are in color -- of photography by Stephen Somerstein.
posted by dhartung at 10:48 PM on September 23, 2013

Can someone explain this bit to me?
Chuck Fager, a young worker for S.C.L.C., wearing denims and a black yarmulke, was waving and shouting, “Come march with us! Why don’t you come along and march with us?”
Chuck Fager is actually a Quaker. Here's what he says about it on his blog:
Another staff member, who understood the importance of Jewish support to the movement, had passed them out to us not long before.
Why was Jewish support (in Selma?!) thought to be so important? Why wasn't support from whites generally thought to be sufficient? Also, I thought Jewish support for the Civil Rights movement was substantial; was it actually manufactured?
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:11 PM on September 23, 2013

More annotations as I find them. Casey Hayden, the "granddaughter of a Texas sheriff", was Mrs. Tom Hayden.

Joe: I'm not sure you're interpreting that correctly. The yarmulkes were a symbol of the existing Jewish alliance with the civil rights movement. The invitation was to (presumably Christian) whites, as a deliberate subverting of any confrontational overtures the whites might make.

But yes, Jewish support in Selma was important -- they were the first and most important allies, along with the labor movement (prominent among them the UAW and Teamsters). There was consonance here, as well, since many American Jews were first-generation immigrants from labor-friendly Europe and had been involved in the political Left (the CPUSA was one of the few American political parties to be explicitly anti-racist -- which was a key reason, along with its anti-war stance, that a lot of people in the movie world had joined them, later to be regretted during the Red Scare); Jews were also often critical members of the labor movement's organizing vanguard.

This march photo has a Catholic nun and a Jewish rabbi at the front line, and this wasn't happenstance.
posted by dhartung at 11:25 PM on September 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

and don't forget Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner
posted by Wordwoman at 11:31 PM on September 23, 2013

Casey didn't:
During these movement years, angry white men chased me out of Heywood and Fayette counties in Eastern Tennessee at gunpoint. At the trials following the Freedom Ride to Albany, Georgia, on which I traveled as a designated observer, city police dragged me from a courtroom after I sat in the black section. White men rear-ended my car and ran me off the road outside of Greenwood. I worked in offices without air conditioning in the summer and barely heated by tiny open gas heaters in the winter. In Atlanta I lived in a rat-infested garage apartment near Five Points and a tiny hot apartment in a black project. I lived in the bucolic funky Literacy House in Tougaloo, Mississippi, as well as on various couches and in and out of suitcases. I often owned only the clothes I wore, usually denim, usually had no money, and was often fed by kind local people. I hitchhiked and drove, took trains, buses, and planes and sometimes hid under blankets on the floor of integrated cars. I worked hard, partied hard, laughed a lot, loved a lot, was often frightened and was sometimes lonely on the road.

The worst stress was knowing that only I and a very few others at the phones in the offices, with the contacts to the press and federal agencies and our far flung supporters, stood between the people we loved in the field and their injury or death, and that there was little, and sometimes nothing, we could do for them. This was especially true when our three co-workers were killed in early summer 1964 and our calls out of Jackson could not save them.

posted by dhartung at 11:35 PM on September 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I enjoyed learning that the actuality of the event was not as impressive as the meaning of the event has become... I was very politically active in the 80s and 90s and always felt our efforts were so... pathetic, with disasters going on left and right, and leaving you wondering if you accomplished anything beyond exhausting yourself. Yet they looked great on tv. And in history. It makes the history I didn't experience more real to me than all the grand snippets mashed together in nostalgic television programs of our great past.

Thank you for sharing.
posted by _paegan_ at 12:29 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great piece, thanks for posting. All I could think just at the end there, with the guy waving the stars and bars who wouldn't give his name, was how couldn't he see it meant he'd already lost?
posted by Diablevert at 6:02 AM on September 24, 2013

The line "An enthusiastic lady, of a sort that often afflicts banquets and church suppers, sang several hymns of many stanzas, with little melody and much vibrato." made me laugh out loud. Toward the end, however, the editorial in the Selma Times-Jourlan comparing Johnson to various dictators (including FDR?) reminded me of how some present-day people I don't care for talk about Obama. I guess the rhetoric never really changes.
posted by lordrunningclam at 6:18 AM on September 24, 2013

(“It is well known that the white Southern segregationist is obsessed with fornication,” said John Lewis, chairman of S.N.C.C. “And that is why there are so many shades of Negro.”)

Damn, that's one sharp line.

There's a reason I'm happy to keep voting for him.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:39 AM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I thought this exchange in the article was extraordinary:

“Do you understand what they’re marching about?” Miss Hayden asked.

“Yeah—fighting for freedom, something like that. That’s the idea, along that line. It don’t mean nothing,” the boy said.

“And to make money,” the third young man said. “The men are getting fifteen dollars a day for marching, and the girls are really making it big.”

“Is that so?” said Miss Hayden.

“Yeah. Girl came into the Selma hospital this morning, fifteen hundred dollars in her wallet. She’d slept with forty-one.”

“Forty-one what?” Miss Hayden asked.

“Niggers,” the young man said.

“And what did she go to the hospital for?” Miss Hayden asked.

“Well, actually, Ma’am, she bled to death,” the young man said.

“Where did you hear that?” Miss Hayden asked.

“In town,” the young man said. ‘There’s not much you can do, more than keep track of everything. It’s a big mess.”

“Well,” Miss Hayden said, “I think it’s going to get better.”

“Hard to say,” said one of the boys as they drifted back to their cars.

posted by medusa at 10:47 AM on September 24, 2013

She’d slept with forty-one.

This exchange struck me too. Particularly this line, "She slept with forty-one." I'm going to go on a mental ramble for a minute. It sounded familiar, and I tried to figure out why it was so bothersome.

I think what this reflects is a conversational pattern I heard a fair amount of growing up in a racist environment. It's a definite habit that I've heard from racists. I can only call it something like not-naming. "She slept with forty-one" leaves off the noun, forcing the young woman to ask "forty-one what?" Which invites the speaker to either name the people, or leave it to stand as something that should be obvious even unspoken.

It rings the same way as McCain saying "That one," or one of the sweet little old white ladies I knew in Texas saying "them" instead of "black people" or individual names. There's something so unsettling in this unwillingness to be specific, this assumption of shared knowledge, the weird fear (is it?) of uttering a name or word out loud as if just saying it would give the named too much power - or maybe, give you less credibility. It tries to implicate the listener.

There's something really interesting about that attempt. I'd love to understand even better how that use of language works.
posted by Miko at 2:10 PM on September 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

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