restricted access 17. The L-Word
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~ 17 ~ The L-Word 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 Friends of SNCC, CORE, and the Northern Student Movement (NSM), which was headquartered at Yale, began organizing sympathy protests on their rich, ivy-covered campuses. Many of these white students believed passionately in human rights and took their opposition to segregation very seriously. I watched with interest and surprise the news reports of northern student boycotts of Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, and other chain stores that were refusing to desegregate their southern facilities. As my first semester at Clark wore on, I met students who had gone south as volunteer organizers, often risking jail sentences and nearly always putting their personal safety on the line—for often the southern white segregationist reaction to white integrationists , or “white niggers,” as they were called, was harsher than to the Negroes themselves. When Meredith’s enrollment hit the news, student response was immediate and fervent. The various northeastern organizations banded together to hold a mass rally at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. NSM invited me to speak at the rally. At Clark, the student government pitched in by financing a chartered bus to take students to the rally. On that bright October day—a day that ultimately would mean as much to me as the day I became freshman class president at Southern—the sky was a brilliant fall blue and the air refreshingly light and crisp. Jerry Ernst, a New Yorker who had quickly become a good friend, and I were planning to drive up the turnpike in his car. We were finishing up some business on campus when we heard a loud commotion out 152 the education of a black radical in the main parking lot. A group of students opposed to the rally were sitting on the pavement in front of the bus protesting: “We don’t need troublemakers at Clark!” and “The student government shouldn’t pay for this bus!” In response, the students in the bus were hanging out the windows, screaming at them to leave. Eventually the bus driver maneuvered around them and drove away, but it didn’t silence the opposition. Over the next several months, the coalition of conservative students at Clark became an increasingly outspoken voice against civil rights efforts. They were insulted by the implication that race relations involved them, and they found protest distasteful. As Jerry and I began our drive through the breathtaking beauty and color of a New England fall, we talked about our surprise at seeing such passionate opposition to the movement. “Do you think this qualifies as a hint of racial conflict?” I asked sarcastically. “Only if you’re the kind of guy who uses a sledgehammer to test his reflexes .” “Maybe we should ask Dean Campbell which kind of guy he is.” “Maybe we should take a look at his knees.” When we arrived at Springfield, Jerry and I went to the field house and were taken through a back entrance to the stage. More than fifteen thousand people crowded the huge gymnasium and the grounds outside. Television cameras and lights rimmed the stage, and radio and newspaper reporters were everywhere. As I took a seat on the stage and listened to the other speakers , I looked out at all the white faces, more white faces than I had ever seen in one place before, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of fortuitousness. Here was a golden opportunity, a chance to address a white audience directly about the race problem. It was an opportunity that, just months earlier, I couldn’t have imagined ever having. I walked to the podium, every cell in my body alive with the power of words. “Ladies and gentlemen, friends and fellow students, it is an honor and a great privilege to be here to speak before you today on the great issue of civil rights, which is now the most burning issue before the nation. All over the South there is rebellion and debate over whether the racial segregation of the past is going to continue. For too long in this nation we have allowed a wrong and inequitable system of racial discrimination to...


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