Mississippi Newsletter December 25, 1964

Freedom school

Jackson, Mississippi
December 25, 1964

Today is the birthday of the King of Kings. We celebrated it among the “people that walk in darkness, who have seen a great light: they that dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” In the church-burning capital of the world, Mississippi, we two non-believers went to church twice, or rather, four times, including our two appearances as pagan benefactors to the very young and to the very poor. And, counting Freedom School on the 23rd, we have entered into the holy place five times in three days.

The Institutional A.M.E. Church, located just six blocks from our home, is as impoverished a place as we have seen in Jackson. Its sagging frame squats crookedly on a little rise of ground at a street-corner, next to the yard of a red-brick elementary school, and removed from the traffic on the main street a block away. On a tiny lot surrounded by a meandering ditch, its planks slowly rot away, and the little ornamental tower in the back is bent by fifty-four years of inattention. The doors are fastened against the wind by a padlock on a hasp that dangles loosely from the worn-out wood. Inside, two man-sized ceiling panels on the right collapsed during the rains, and a little flood came down, carrying fragments of old birds’ nests, staining the wall brown above the gas heater that no longer. works. Some of the windows are patched with cardboard, and in some of them the pieces of tinted glass have fallen out, leaving open gaps.  Light comes from bare electric bulbs hanging from extension cords strung like clothes lines across the nave and over the altar.  Even when there is water, one of the toilets in the rear does not work, and neither of them has the privacy of a door or screen to shield it from the closet-sized choir dressing room.  The back doors are barred by broom handles jammed into the door-frame.  There is no kitchen, no basement, no pastor’s study.  Every third Sunday, the pastor drives to the meeting in an old Studebaker.

Most of the members of this church, the Reverend Clark said in his sermon last Sunday, go to meetings elsewhere. Respectable people are ashamed to be seen at the Institutional church. Two of the deacons, like the Reverend, are past retirement age. The third deacon, who teaches the Sunday school, seems vaguely uncomfortable in his role as bright young man on a sinking ship. When he appeals to the congregation for money, he speaks with an extra measure of sincerity.

We timed those portions of the service devoted to the various offerings: thirty minutes out of an hour and a half. But the appeals from the pulpit brought mostly amens from the old ladies’ corner, and pennies from the half-dozen young people.

Besides the deacons and the pastor, there were no adult men in the congregation. The tiny choir sang badly.

The Reverend’s sermon dealt with the power of the holy word to turn all sorrows into joys. All sorrows have a reason, all pains fit into God’s design, all sufferings are meant to turn your thoughts to the holy spirit.

Once, when he was young and a fool, the pastor said, when he never gave God a thought, his father sent him on an errand. It was Sunday and he hadn’t gone to church, and as he was walking by the river he was suddenly surrounded by a gang of white men with rifles and a rope, who screamed at him, “Kill the nigger! Hang the nigger! Lynch the nigger!”

And then his foolishness left him, and he fell on his knees and for the first time prayed to God, and promised God that if He would save him, he would devote his life to His service. “And the Lord spared me, and I realized that those men had been sent for a Purpose, and I saw that I had been a fool, and I came to believe in Him, and so my fear, and my pain, and my suffering, turned to Joy, Amen!”

Reverend Clark’s voice is hoarse, and his hair is white, but his features are still taut and his frame looks powerful.  He awaits trial for disturbing the peace and trespassing late this summer, when he and other ministers were arrested while praying on the steps of the Federal Courthouse downtown. While in jail, he went on a hunger strike. “My doctor told me not to eat cornbread nohow,” he explained with a grin.

When one of the Negro trusties in the prison, being observed by the white jailer, began to handle him roughly, the Reverend earnestly advised him to let him go,”or else I will apply the full force of my shoulder, arm and fist to your chin, and break your head, brother!”  He was let go. Next Sunday ,he was back in the pulpit, preaching patience.

Our pre-Christmas Freedom School at the Institutional Church was unusually well attended.

We asked, “Is it Freedom when many children don’t get any presents?” There was a chorus of “NO!”

“Is it Freedom when many white children don’t get presents?” “No!” again.

“Is it Freedom when the same number of white children and colored children don’t get presents?” There was hesitation. Some said it was, and some said it wasn’t.

One girl said that if some people didn’t have enough money to buy presents, as long as there were the same share of whites and Negroes, then that was Freedom all right.

We asked the question a different way: if the same share of whites and Negroes was out of a job, was that Freedom? The same girl said she had a cousin who didn’t want to work nohow so long as he could get on welfare, and she thought that as long as the unemployment was equal among the races, that was Freedom.

But here the boys, especially the older ones, disagreed strongly. No, they decided, as long as people who could work couldn’t find jobs, that wasn’t Freedom.

Then we had a debate about Santa Claus, pitting the youngest boy who didn’t believe in Santa against the oldest boy who did. Both urchins were about six, and the faithful one defended his champion boldly against the cynical gallery of worldly-wise eight-year olds.

“I saw Santa downtown, I sat on his lap!” he said, and smiled sweetly, not at all offended by the giggles from the audience.

“How do the reindeer stay up in the sky?”  taunted his opponent amid cheers.

The believer wasn’t ruffled.  “They pedal with their legs!” he replied, and part of the house fell still.

“Naw,” said the worldly one, “reindeer can’t fly, and it’s my mommy and daddy that give me presents and make believe it’s Santa Claus, and I know ‘cause I saw them sneaking in the presents at night!”

Another added, “I know there’s no Santa Claus because last Christmas, I never got a present, and so there isn’t one.”

And then we had a vote, and Santa lost, 11 to 5, the older children abstaining.

Afterward, one of the most militant non-believers, the seven-year-old son of the Mrs. Palmer who heads the Jackson F.D.P. and devotes all her life to the movement, came up to us and made us promise that we wouldn’t tell his mommy that he didn’t believe in Santa Claus because she didn’t know and she might get mad at him and not give him a present.

Wednesday morning we hauled a small truckload of clothes from one of the boxcars sent from the North, to the church for distribution to the needy, as a small compensation in return for permission to use the building for Freedom School.  In this way we pay our debts; if one deacon’s wife gets a new winter coat out of the deal, well, we have to chalk it up to public relations.

It is a convenience to have Freedom Schools in the churches, since these are the only meeting places available without cost.  But we have not forgotten the lesson we learned when the deacons of the Mt. Nebo M.B. (Methodist-Baptist) church threw the Freedom School out, on the ground that the NAACP had told them that Freedom Schools spread teachings against the government of the State of Mississippi.

We have learned, and our “students” learned with us, that deacons and preachers, especially in the wealthier churches, are generally conservatives, stick-in-the-muds, in short, as little Van Palmer said, Uncle Toms. So we look around for other places to have meetings, but meanwhile we try to cultivate the churches.

The pastor of St. John’s church, where we have a little kids’ Freedom School, has somewhere near a dozen children, and distribution of the clothes we brought to his house was no problem whatsoever.  Our eight cartons melted into the family in no time flat, and we shall have to bring some more as soon as the truckload scheduled for Monday arrives in Jackson.

Instead of regular Freedom School this week, we had a Christmas party, featuring songs and recitations by everybody, and me, Martin, in the role of S. Claus. I didn’t want to be Santa, I think it would have been more educational for a Negro to have been Santa, but Viki’ says that the kids insisted. (I wasn’t there when they handed out the roles.)

Viki concocted me a beautiful regulation Santa suit: she.made a red winter scarf into a hat; some medicinal cotton into hair and beard, stuck on with tape; she shortened her red bath-robe to make a jacket,and trimmed it with white crepe paper; a pillow around my midriff and red crepe paper around my legs to cover my blue jeans completed the outfit.

We put presents for all who had come the previous time into a red pillow-case. Then I brushed up my “Ho-ho-ho” and hid in the back of the church to await the signal.

To the tune of “Santa Claus is Coming Tonight” I pranced into the assembly. We nearly laughed ourselves sick, the kids and I, except for little Poochie who is only 4 and was quite intimidated by the riotous goings-on. I drew her present out of my bag first, but she only stared and retreated in awe. Later, when I took my gear off, her eyes nearly popped out of her head to see Nicolaus emerge from inside Santa Claus.

Viki sang Earl Robinson’s song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” with great dramatic effect, and had all the little ones doing the St. Vitus dance when she came to the part where the spider “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!”

Little Patricia was master of ceremonies, and Carolyn wouldn’t shut up until she had performed two long solos. Two little boys sang “Silent Night”, and forgot their lines, and were mercifully applauded off stage by the charitable audience.

A peanut gallery of slightly older boys who had not previously taken much interest in Freedom School, but had made themselves into a general nuisance, turned green with envy at the brilliance and flourish of the proceedings, and were quite broken in spirit when there were no presents for them.

The 24th was windy and inconstant, and we spent the day in getting ready for Xmas. Dick Gregoryhad flown into town to distribute turkeys at the Pratt Memorial A.M.E. Church next door to the Project, and huge crowds of people were besieging the place for the second straight day.The day before, Gregory had spoken at the church, and we stuck hundreds of leaflets under our shirts (in case of cops) and distributed. them to the multitudes. (Leaflets about FDP). Then we made up another leaflet about Freedom Schools on the spot, ran it off on the machine, and distributed it also.The pastor of the church followed our leafleting inside the church from the pulpit with evident misgivings, but Gregory’s presence, Gregory’s militant stand, Gregory’s biting attack on Uncle Toms, Gregory’s support for what COFO is doing, shut the pastor up.A whole bevy of preachers sat in the choir as Gregory spoke, grinning like little mechanical black Sambos and nodding their heads whenever Gregory attacked the Freedom-by-’n’-by attitude.

That evening, Gregory was to speak in the big (Negro) Masonic Temple, under NAACP auspices, and Viki and I, together with some of the local kids, placed an FDP leaflet explaining the congressional challenge on every seat in the house before the show began.  Viki also put two copies of the leaflet on the rostrum to be sure that Gregory didn’t miss it.

Dick Gregory's autobiography

After the ·program. which we didn’t have time to attend, Gregory came over to the Project office, signed autographs, donated a copy of his latest record (a non-commercial one, for fund-raising purposes), and promised 25 copies of his autobiography “Nigger,”  which will make a big hit here. He then went to the State COFO office on Lynch Street, contributed $5,000 to the FDP, and promised to foot the bill for a Christmas dinner for the entire Jackson COFO staff today. Not a bad day’s work for a comedian.

On the evening of the 24th we attended a Christmas program with our gentle hostess Mrs. Bell, at her church. That is a place called Cade’s Chapel, just two blocks from here, situated on a large corner lot across the street from its old building, now abandoned, soon to be bought and renovated by the NAACP for use as a community center, or so the rumors have it.

The new building is magnificent.  Nearly half a thousand people can fit into the church, and a hundred more into the basement.  There is a kitchen, modern rest rooms, two water fountains, two choir dressing rooms, a pastor’s study, a treasurer’s office.  The place is wired for sound, with microphones on stage and hidden speakers in the ceiling.  Heat comes through air ducts, a real rarity.  There is even central air conditioning.

The baptismal well is raised up above head level in front, and has a glass inset so that you can see inside. A door opens above it, eight feet over the stage.  The inside of the well is painted swimming-pool blue, and one can imagine that Esther Williams would be quite happy with the facilities.

The evening program was terrible.  The young people presented a talent show and pageant, and unfortunately hardly a one of them had any faint spark of talent, except for one little sixth grade boy who did a Christmas carol in an effeminate, sexy soprano.  A couple of the itsy-bitsy ones were cute but clammed up when an over-solicitous deacon shoved a microphone into their faces.

The pageant was unimaginative, except that Negro boys and girls draped in bed sheets make more credible Arabs than do whites.  The object of all the exertion, wrapped in a diaper in a manger, was a little pink doll with blue eyes and blond hair.  Yet there are beautiful Negro dolls on the market. Was it a deliberate decision on the part of the church to choose a white doll?  What would happen if Christ appeared in the flesh: swarthy, brown, darker perhaps than the preacher and most of the deacons?

On the radio, after the service, we heard the news that another church in the state had been burned down by “unknown arsonists.”  The other day we had a talk with a Northern carpenter working with the Committee of Concern, a fund to rebuild Negro churches burned by racists.  One of his frequent problems is the tendency of deacon boards and preachers to project as little expenditure as possible on the materials and construction of the church buildings, and as much as possible on the living and driving situation of the preachers and deacons.  Religion, here as so often elsewhere, is an industry, run for the personal benefit of the manufacturer, and only incidentally for the uplift of the consumer.

We returned to Cade’s Chapel a few hours later for the Christmas Day sunrise service, which began at 5 a.m.  The chief thing I remember about it is the amount of money collected for the pastor: $34.28 exactly. The sermon to the huddled faithful, of whom there were not over 50, was based on the text in Matthew, something like “Behold, three wise men came from the East to Jerusalem asking ‘Where is the King of the Jews?’”

The preacher, a young man with bedroom eyes and a brooding, corrupt face, interpreted this passage to mean “We must all search for Jesus.”  And he held forth on this topic for a good twenty minutes: you mustn’t search for money, or for power, or for status, or for happiness, but only for Jesus, Amen!  Yes Brothers!

Whereupon the old retiring pastor stood up and seconded all the bright words his younger brother had said, and urged the congregation to give generously, because the young man was fixin’ to get married, and nowadays when you run with a woman you gotta have it in the pocket or you are out, ‘cause women don’t marry for love nowadays like they used to, they want money too.

The deacons, sitting up on stage sideways to the congregation, guffawed loudly.  One of them, a man nearly white with both legs paralyzed, pulled himself up by the rail and began to pray in a hoarse voice, his eyes pinched shut, opening them from time to time to see how it was sinking in.  When he had called down blessings on every damn thing inside and outside of this universe, he sat down with a thud and began sucking at his teeth with a little slurping noise.

The other deacons, like the preacher, cut their hair short and in the fashion of Midwestern businessmen, boyishly.  All of them are, in fact, businessmen.

We were at least released shortly before 7 a.m.  At the door we met a young Mr. Donald (I forget his first name) in Air Force Reserve uniform, who is James Meredith’s quiet successor as the only Negro on the Ole Miss campus.  We shook hands and greeted each other briefly.

A pair of ushers asked after our health over-solicitously.  We are always confused and angry when someone abases themselves before us simply because we are white.  It happens too, too often among the old people.  How much better to receive the frankly hostile stares of the young ones, if they don’t know us, or the comradely cheeriness of those whom we know!

This evening we ate the turkey dinner that Dick Gregory will pay for, in the company of a Negro radio announcer from Chicago. He didn’t yessir us, or no sir us; he treated us like any dashing middle-aged man of considerable means, used to traveling in the company of famous people, would treat some college kids: jovially, but a little patronizingly.  In fact, he didn’t care much of a damn about us, and then for the first time today we felt a little nostalgic.  We yearned for a time and a place, for a little island in the sun, where color had nothing to do with anything.

The announcer, it turned out, had just returned from Laurel, Miss., where the police had kicked him and smashed his tape recorder (not too badly).

This is how it happened:  20 COFO kids are in jail in Laurel for trying to integrate a restaurant.  The most hardy of those who were not arrested announced that they were going to serenade their brothers inside with carols.  It was to tape this that the Chicago announcer had come.

The kids assembled below the wall of the jail house and began to sing Silent Night, but before they had gone very far into the first verse, the police turned on their spotlights and raced the motors of their patrol cars.  So the kids’ voices faltered, and they knew they couldn’t go on with that song.

And then, on simultaneous impulse they began to sing “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round!”  They sang one Freedom song after another, and not a single Christmas carol.  Then the cops blew their tops and broke it up.  And that is how they spent the birthday of the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace.

Not one preacher stood with them, and not a deacon was stirring, all through the house.  Two of the kids had their heads laid open by God-fearing white policemen on Christmas day, just as in the Congo our brothers are being massacred in order, we are supposed to believe, to save the lives of Christian missionaries.

(Merry Christmas?)

* * *

Small news:  Xmas day was HOT — 70-75 degrees.  But since the municipal swimming pool, even if it were open this time of year, is not open to Negroes, we couldn’t even indulge in dreams of plunging into the cool water.

Music is very scarce around here — I mean good music.  We get more than our share of popular and gospel, both white and black.  But there is not a single station that plays classical music in this city.  Today I had the intense joy of catching a program broadcasting every Saturday from the Metropolitan Opera House in N.Y.  Never an opera love, I (Viki) found myself cherishing every note of St. Saens’ Samson et Delila, and looking forward to next Saturday when they will broadcast Le Mariage de Figaro.  What a broadening experience this is!

Firecrackers are all the rage here, and most kids are given a lot for Xmas.  Although for us in Jackson the sound, 24 hours a day now, of these explosions was annoying, we can imagine the awful feeling when someone in McComb or elsewhere in the bomb area hears a rocket explode outside the window of a Freedom House or Project office.  We have nearly murdered little boys on several occasions for letting off firecrackers near or in churches, pointing out the close resemblance their actions bear to those of the white racists.

Please write to us.  It does get lonely down here once in a while, and we miss being able to visit or talk with old friends, especially during the holidays.  Although you may not think your news as interesting as ours, we would really love to hear from the normal, sane world once in a while.  Tell us all about your health, your children and the weather, what movies you’ve seen, what’s on Broadway, what the latest fashion from Paris is, etc.  Any old news will give us pleasure.

Freedom to you,

Martin and Viki

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