Mississippi Newsletter December 9, 1964

Jackson Project / Freedom Library Opens

December 9, 1964

Things have been happening at last.  Two weeks ago the State COFO coordinator and Jackson office manager, Jesse Morris, called a meeting to reorganize the office and to tackle the problems of the city.  At that meeting, the Jackson Project was formally re-launched and assigned the former book-warehouse as headquarters.

Immediately thereafter, we organized a gang of helpers, rented an 18-foot van, and moved the books to the new warehouse.  This took a full day, during which the rain streamed down endlessly.

Then Viki and I spent a week removing remnants of clothes and more books, and we put our heads together to plan.  Next I bought some paint and hardware.  Then we began to build a model project office.  We painted the ceilings and walls white, the woodwork grey, the windows green, and we stained the knotty pine shelves to make them look like maple.

The son of a professional house painter lent us a roller and his skills.  A Friends of SNCC group in Chicago sent paint.  A local man who works as a shoe-shine “ boy” at the Trailways station came to help.  Three little kids from up the street helped keep the floors clean.  The man who runs a fix-it shop across the street gave us come light fixtures and a radio-tube to replace ours.

Our landlady gave us some old window-panes and I installed them.  A kid from the neighborhood burned the trash in the back yard.  Another man promised us a Christmas tree.  A plumber offered to turn the gas on for us without the city authorities’ knowledge so that we could evade the fee (we declined.)

Three dozen little kids wanted to know when freedom school would start.  Today we have all three rooms in the project nearly finished; only the little office-cubbyhole and the bathroom still need paint.  We still need heat, and we very much need reading lamps.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we spent at the COFO staff meeting in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  We were housed with local people and spent the entire days in church, discussing a long agenda.  Somewhere near three hundred people attended to give their views, and as a result the meting lasted until Tuesday, although many people (ourselves included) left earlier to get back to work.

COFO is still in the early stages of primitive democracy:  even the smallest question, including questions of personality conflict, are aired in full assembly, and there are no committees presently constituted within the organization to handle its routine tasks.  Everything is discussed by everyone.

This is not to say that there are not persons of great influence within the organization but to show how unencumbered by structure and organization this body is.

For example, there are not even criteria for deciding who may attend a COFO staff meeting and who may not; in practice, the meetings are open to the public.

Nor does parliamentary procedure operate in COFO; white college-educated Northerners have a tendency to take command of an assembly through rapid-fire parliamentary manoeuvers which leave local people baffled and offended.

Instead, the meetings work by consensus; you do not make a motion which is then voted on, but you make a suggestion and see if anybody disagrees with it.  Through further discussion you try to work out a plan which is agreeable to everyone; if there are strong objections from a number of people, no action is taken.

This is slow, but it is a system that everyone can understand and respect.

One of the things which did not arouse many people to discussion was the subject of the role of the NAACP and SCLC in COFO.  We read in the papers, first that COFO was supposed to be leaving the state, and secondly that these two other organizations were leaving us.  The first charge brought laughs, and the second shrugs.

Frankly, nobody I have talked to particularly cares what the NAA and Dr. King’s groups do.  Neither of them has ever contributed a penny to the operation of COFO, nor do they have more than a half-dozen members working with us.  Especially the NAACP has been almost overtly hostile to COFO; its hostility becomes more intense with every COFO advance.

Here in Jackson the NAA is beginning to be a real obstacle to progress, just as in most Northern cities.  It comprehends a small clique of well-to-do conservative ministers and doctors with no particular concern for the Negro poor who make up the majority of the population here.  COFO does its best to restrain its staff members from attacking the NAACP openly, but their difference in views is a secret to practically nobody.

One of the big disagreements between NAACP and COFO hinges on the question of voter registration.  The NAA was the first in the state to urge Negroes to register, and with little reluctance joined COFO in this task.

However, things being as they are in this state, it was figured out that with the best of efforts it would take about a century or two to get all eligible Negroes registered at the present rate, and that even if they were all registered, they would have nobody worth voting for.

That is why COFO set up the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organization of local Negroes and Northern lawyers with a lot of tactical imagination.  It was the FDP which directed the challenge of the Mississippi Democratic delegation to the Democratic convention at Atlantic City.

And now the FDP is beginning an even more ambitious plan: to challenge the right of Mississippi’s five congressmen to sit in the House of Representatives, on the grounds that they were elected by an unconstitutionally limited electorate from which Negroes were systematically excluded.

Congress opens January 4; on that day over a thousand Mississippi Negroes will arrive in the capital to demonstrate in protest, and to petition congressmen and senators in their behalf.

The three MFDP candidates, Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer, Mrs. Victoria Gray, Mrs. Annie Devine, will maintain an office in Washington to act as a channel through which Mississippi grievances may be brought to be heard.

The challenge will also involve broad legal action  For forty days the FDP will have the power of federal subpoena to compel testimony from any person regarding denial of voting rights in the state, and then the opposition will have the same power. Affidavits will be presented and depositions taken in an effort to document for the world the condition of this state.

It is not considered likely that the House of Representatives will refuse to seat the regular congressional delegation because of our challenge.  However, the educational value of this tactic is likely to be enormous.

The question or the amount of faith to be placed in the federal government is likely to be settled next year, hopefully with finality.  People here, both staff and local, still cannot bring themselves to say clearly what has seemed so obvious for so long:  that the federal government does not care about the poor Negro in Mississippi.  If the FDP challenge is rejected, when the challenge is rejected, a lot of people will realize that they have to look for allies elsewhere or go it alone.

The FBI arrests in Philadelphia, Miss., have not so far as I know caused much stir here.  We were not surprised and we are not enthusiastic.  The arrests are too little and too late; the timing too obviously connected with J. Edgar Hoover’s spat with Martin Luther King.

These 21 men were not brought to justice; they will be tried by their accomplices and released with symbolic punishment. Yet every day we listen to radio stories about Negroes who are convicted of assaulting white men and receive life imprisonment at hard labor.  We are not impressed; although we are not unhappy at the publicity which the arrests have received in the white press.

The library in our Freedom Center needs good books.  COFO has plenty of textbooks discarded by Northern schools, but our Freedom library sorely lacks Freedom books.  Besides our own personal collections, there is practically nothing on Negro history, on civil rights, on Africa, on the South.

And we can use any kind of serious novel other than the kind that you read once and then put in a box in the closet and forget.  We need good books.  Please address boxes of good books to Jackson Freedom Project, 852 Short Street, Jackson 3, Mississippi.  At the same address we would also be happy to receive typewriters, reading lamps (any style), school and office supplies, money.

In brief:  I was given a traffic ticket today for “improper tags.”  Just routine harassment of COFO workers;  I paid the ticket ($7.00) and got new tags before the officer had a chance to report to the desk sergeant that I was COFO, so I got the minimum fine ….

We have a project mascot: a little orange female kitten whom I almost ran over in the street, so we picked her up and fed her.  We’ll have a naming contest soon, but COFO pets seem always to end up being named “Freedom” …

We’ve both had a cold because of the sudden weather change, but we’re plugging along anyhow, feeling pretty good, and in good spirits.


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