restricted access 8. Singing in the Tear Gas
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~ 8 ~ Singing in the Tear Gas What started out as a demonstration against segregation customs imposed by whites in this old Southern City has taken the peculiar twist of becoming a conflict between Negro students and the Negro administration of all-Negro Southern University. —bicknell eubanks, Christian Science Monitor, april 6, 1960 A s 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. AllNegro was still all-Negro, and the whites in the community were holding firm. As the classes began, I felt sure that no matter what we did as students at Southern, the movement was accelerating to the point where we would soon be affected by it. By the fall of 1961, the American college campus was approaching its heyday as an arena for political and philosophical activism. The students who served as campus leaders, NSA organizers, or representatives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) or the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were the children of an age of doubt, schooled at a time of moral and intellectual renaissance. We were the children of Freud and Einstein, of Nagasaki and Little Rock. We experienced the era of McCarthyism and postwar anticommunism. We were discontented with the world of our parents, and that discontentment was growing. I envisioned no immediate role for myself. There seems to be a unique chemical, physical, and emotional reaction triggered by the racial sensors within blacks who encounter white prejudice. Our gut churns, blood pressure rises, and emotions tense or generate anger. These prejudices, whether covert or openly hostile, plague us at times unexpectedly and suddenly, often dampening our most pleasant experiences. The unfairness of this, I think, 74 the education of a black radical helped make me more compassionate for others. At the same time, it stirred my own hopes and dreams and fueled my passion to resist. I was discovering that this quick passion could be controlled and transformed into practical action for good—good that is always thwarted unjustly. Whatever else it may be, this passion is part of my inner core. Inevitably, at the start of my junior year, I was changing. Like nineteenor twenty-year-olds in any period of history, I was questioning my life, my meaning, my ambition. I was wondering if I could make a difference, wondering if I could make others see things my way. Nevertheless, by all visible indications, I was just going about my business as usual, enjoying the distractions of being nineteen. I continued testing the waters with my weekly column. I was in love with a beautiful young lady from New Orleans, Joyce Palmer, and I enrolled in advanced ROTC. During the football season, I served as half-time announcer for the ROTC drill team, which allowed me to travel to out-of-town football games at the school’s expense. I was managing to have my share of fun. But in my more contemplative moments, I looked around the campus or at the students in casual conversation or playing ping-pong in the student union and wondered if we were, as Descartes claimed, truly blank slates. If this were true, I asked, where had the passion come from that had made some of us activists and others onlookers, some of us change-makers and others graspers after the past? I knew in my heart that I was not an onlooker. I was a philosopher, an idealist. I saw the way, but was I willing to take risks to show it to others? I was encouraged to see that there were some new freshmen and sophomores on campus who seemed to be change-makers and risk-takers, who seemed to be rushing forward to meet the future and make it theirs. They were a different breed, more restless, searching, and potentially more volatile than the students of previous years. One new leader, Patricia Tate, had transferred from Spelman College in Atlanta after being involved in civil rights efforts there. The freshman class president, Ronnie Moore, was an honors student in political science, as well as a minister. Things began to change early that fall, when two field secretaries from CORE set up a Baton Rouge chapter and began hanging out on campus, meeting with Pat and Ronnie and talking with groups of students. Soon, when Ronnie...


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