The Education of a Black Radical
A Southern Civil Rights Activist's Journey, 1959-1964
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Louisiana State University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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Sometimes you have to wonder about our ancestors. Packed tightly in a cold, damp ship with people they are not sure are human. Those wonderful brave Africans had to find a way to maintain themselves, their dignity, their integrity. They had to find a way to remember. James Baldwin once said, “It’s not that so few come out of the Ghetto but that so many do.” It had to be the...
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It was Dan Siegel, former UC Berkeley student body president and People’s Park protest leader, who first put the thought in my mind of doing a book. It was in 1974, when I was preparing to move back to Memphis from Berkeley, California. Dan put me in touch with Cyrilly Abels, who was Ramparts editor Bob Scheer’s agent. ...
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This book gives an insider’s view of the first half of the most important decade of black America’s fight for civil rights. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover once labeled me as a “subversive,” then changed that description to “black nationalist militant.” I and other students engaged in a deliberate campaign to subvert the politically and economically...
1. Growing Up in Memphis
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In late summer of 1959, I was preparing to leave the small world where everything I was—and to some degree much of what I am still—had come into focus. At such times, when we approach the boundaries between the confines of childhood and the larger world of adults, a fog of excitement about what is to come reduces our ability to reflect on what we are...
2. On to Scotlandville
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Everything in my senior year seemed designed to challenge my perspectives, to expose me to a larger world than the small, insulated environment of my childhood on the corner of Mississippi and Walker in South Memphis. I began to come in contact with influential blacks who showed interest in me and treated me with respect as they began my...
3. Protest Comes to Scotlandville
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There is no straight train route from Memphis to Scotlandville, which is just outside Baton Rouge, so we got off the train in Hammond stiff and hungry, with a three-hour wait for the commuter bus still ahead of us. Stretching and grumbling, we walked through the depot to the colored café in the kitchen and ordered some breakfast. ...
4. Klieg Lights and Microphones
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On February 1, 1960, four black college students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth’s store on Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina. They refused to leave after they were denied service. This set off a wave of similar protests among black college students around the South. Louisiana had not yet been touched by protest...
5. How to Kill a Protest
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The next day, John Garner and Vernon Jordan were apprehended by the Baton Rouge police for sitting at the whites-only lunch counter of Sitman’s Drug Store. At about the same time, Larry Nichols, Conrad Jones, Eddie C. Brown, Lawrence Hurst, Charles L. Peabody, Sandra Jones, and Mary Briscoe were arrested at the Greyhound...
6. Encounters of the NSA Kind
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In the aftermath of the protest, what remained of the student government appointed Paul Lewis, student government presidentelect, and me to represent Southern at the National Student Association (NSA) Congress in Minneapolis the following August. The NSA had become a strong collective force on the American political scene. Lobbied and courted...
7. NSA Summer Camp Transformations
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My sophomore year at Southern passed without a great deal of conflict. You needed a B average to run for student office, and my average came to a B−, so I began working instead as the announcer for the ROTC drill team and writing a weekly column in the Southern Digest. I called the column “Campus Exposé,” and wrote about...
8. Singing in the Tear Gas
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As my third year at Southern quietly began, I felt impatient with the campus atmosphere. as if I had come down from a mountaintop where idealistic people had the luxury of being friendly, to a hostile land where nothing had changed and defensiveness reigned. All-Negro was still all-Negro, and the whites in the community were holding...
9. Arrested Development
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It is impossible to describe what it feels like to be shot with tear gas. I could say it makes your skin sting and burn so badly you think it is peeling off your hands and face. I could say it makes your eyes feel as if they have been set on fire, and then it makes your eyes water so steadily you cannot see. I could say that when the harsh, pungent gas fills your lungs...
10. An Offensive Christmas
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The next morning , Dr. Clark closed school four days early for the Christmas holidays. And the Baton Rouge State Times ran a long article under the headline “Board of Education Issues Warning to Negro Students, Courts Ban Demonstrations.” The board’s statement declared that any student arrested or jailed would automatically be suspended...
11. Eye to Eye with the Enemy
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Most of the leadership returned to Scotlandville very early in January and gathered at Pat’s to decide what to do. Outside, the sky was a dreary slate gray, and low-hanging clouds spat a sticky mist. The bail money was rolling in, and it looked like we’d have everyone released by the time school reopened . . . but then what?...
12. Expulsion, Dismissal
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Dean Jones’s office was on the upper campus, near the administration building, and separated from the student union and the gym by Lake Kernan. I wondered, as I walked under the mossdraped oaks, if I would ever walk this path again, and if I would miss it. When I arrived at the cluster of administrative offices, Dean Jones was in no way...
13. Turning the Page
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On January 19, the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate ran a long story under the headline “No Word Is Given on Re-Opening of Southern University”: Aides close to President Felton G. Clark, who is reportedly ill with influenza, told newsmen the president is not available for further comment on the closing which was announced at a student-faculty...
14. A Siege Mentality
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The importance of media coverage to the growth of the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. Transmitting the immediate drama of sit-ins, marches, and arrests to millions of readers, viewers, and listeners, it was the fulcrum around which the movement turned. People who had never thought about the hardship and degradation brought on by...
15. The Journey Home
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If the Lincoln Hotel was our haven, such as it was, from the constant perils of Baton Rouge, and if Reverend Cox was our mentor and spiritual guide in facing those perils, then CORE certainly was our link to the rest of the world. Baton Rouge could become very insular; it was easy to become cut off because of its resistance to the changes happening...
16. Radical Is as Radical Does
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“Sir, could you please let me know when we’re close to Wor-kester?” “That’s Woo-ster, son.” “Wooster?” “Three more stops to go.” I sat down again, dazed, as if the conductor’s kind correction had shot lightning through my skull. How could Worcester be Woo-ster? I looked dejectedly out the window. At this point, I’d been on the train almost twenty-four hours. ...
17. The L-Word
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I was pleased to discover during my first month in Worcester that many white students throughout the Northeast were aware, if not of what was going on in their own cities, at least of what was going on in the South, and wanted, with an intensity verging almost on desperation, to become a part of the movement. Protest-oriented organizations such as...
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The Northern Student Movement (NSM) was led by Peter Countryman, a quiet, determined, white Yale student who earned respect from both whites and blacks. Along with his wife, Joan—a black Philadelphian and niece of the black leader Reverend Leon Sullivan—and another white Yale student, Tom Gilhool, they ran a smoothly...
19. The Original X Man
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By the spring of 1963, Malcolm X, the leader of the Black Muslim organization, was attracting increasing attention in the national media for his harsh critique of the American system. I followed his progress with eagerness and curiosity. There was no one else like him, no one with as much uncompromising belief in the power of the Negro. ...
20. Brother Rat
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Throughout the spring of 1963, Peter Countryman and several leaders of the Northern Student Movement (NSM) worked to gain foundation grants to run summer tutorial projects in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and New Haven. Their goal was to open a headquarters staffed by six to eight full-time students in a...
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The searching social questions posed in Bob Dylan’s 1963 hit “Blowin’ in the Wind” seemed to capture the spirit of that year. The summer of 1963 was one of brutality, of billy clubs and head wounds, of fire hoses and tear gas, of blood and death. There were protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Albany, Georgia. In Danville, Virginia, a...
22. Encounters of the First Kind
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One night that July, several of us were sitting around the kitchen of the house on Meridian Place when we heard a loud scraping and grinding noise and the unmistakable sound of muffled voices. Steve looked out the window toward the back parking lot. “It’s the group of kids who are always prowling around. ...
23. DARE in Action
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It was now August, and DARE had yet to launch an attack against any specific business or institution in the District. We had by this time gained the respect and confidence of many black civic leaders and had attended community meetings and sponsored meetings of our own. We were considering several different approaches against local department stores, industries...
24. The March on Washington
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In response to the continued stiffening of white resistance to desegregation, SNCC, CORE, and other young, militant civil rights organizations threatened more massive and more uncompromising protest demonstrations. In the spring of 1963, as we were beginning our District Action Project, several of these organizations had made the daring...
25. A Bona Fide Negro
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I guess it was just my fundamental inclination for agitation that pulled me into organizing a group and pushing it into action—agitation or the limelight, or both. A full-page photo of me appeared in the Clark yearbook my first year over the caption: “Injustice Rankles Me into Leadership, Though Ego Plays Its Part.” So when I returned for my last year at...
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Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2009