Selma – and places nearby

So, a week ago, I went to the movies.  We saw Selma, on the first day it was available here in Phoenix.  It was a winner and I recommend it.   The acting is excellent.  Within moments, one forgets that it is not Martin and Corretta.  Their likenesses are so close and the cadence and tone of their speech is so perfect.  The musical score is excellent and I note that the CD has vaulted to the top of the charts.  The photography is extraordinary and the black and white footage that swoops in and out at some of the crucial moments is well done and serves to validate the movie’s authenticity as to the events on the bridge and in the streets.  I believe that the movie is one of those game-changers that we occasionally see.  We have had oblique swipes at the subject matter, in “the Butler” for example.  We have had movies on the holocaust too numerous to count.  We have not had any movie about the civil rights movement, the boots on the ground and the tough decisions wrestled over by the makers of the movement, Abernathy, King, Lewis and the others who had to pilot the movement along a tightrope wire to keep it from falling and splintering.  This is the first of what may become a string of 2 or 5 such movies, now that we are on a 50 year mark for the first Voting Rights Act…

There was a point at which I was a bit player in all that struggle in the streets, never in Selma but in places somewhat nearby.  In Brandeis, from my start in 1958 as a freshman, the student body was in the forefront of the student movement regarding the civil rights demonstrations occurring in the South.  Woolworths Lunch-counter sit-ins commenced in 1958 in Virginia and, within weeks,  students in Boston were picketing the Woolworths Stores in the Boston area. I was in our group from Brandeis and we went to different neighborhoods, getting a fairly hostile reception from the passersby, but no violence such as the students in Virginia went through.  This and things like it went on year after year.  I was so visible in it early on that as a young sophomore I ran for and was elected to the post of Treasurer of Student Council.  We had a significant fund from student activity fees and the money went for things that the University Administration got concerned about.  We had two student council committees on civil rights in the South, one for Alabama and one for Misssissippi.  I was Chairman of the committee on Mississippi Civil Rights.  In late December 1961, after he had been cashiered from his Jackson law firm, a young Harvard  Law Graduate drove onto the Brandeis Campus to start a 6 month fellowship.  I met him, Bill Higgs Esq., as he and his young wife drove onto campus and stopped at the information booth where I was working over the winter recess.

Higgs had graduated in 1959 from Harvard Law School, been in a big law firm in Jackson, and had announced that he was going to represent the Freedom Riders when they were pulled from busses and beaten then arrested for disturbing the peace in 1961.  The firm said NO then fired Higgs, who represented the beaten riders one by one as they had to return to be tried for disturbing the peace in Municipal Court.  Most would wind up in Parchman Prison serving long sentences.  Within weeks of meeting Higgs, the student council committee funded our first of several trips to the South.  We removed the back seat from a 55 Ford 4 door sedan, loaded it with student-council-printed literacy test materials and headed off to Tougaloo University in Jackson.  It was a 24 + hour road trip, one guy sleeping on the materials piled up to the seat top in the back, 3 people in the front seat. We drove the Skyline Drive through Tennessee in the night in rain and lightning.  The Tougaloo students unloaded the car.  We went with them in a series of visits to tiny Black churches in the Delta and to the North,  These were churches in which frightened and deliberate people studied to be able to pass the absurd tests that the County Registrars in the Courthouses employed to make sure no Black could vote.  I was scared every time we left Tougaloo and travelled to the countryside,  The white power structure in Mississippi was out of control.  We were dogged by the White Citizens Council who seemed to know where we were going long before we got there. The mood on the streets in Downtown Jackson was murderous and in the Churches, out on the dirt roads, the mood was euphoric and almost fatalistic.The poverty in the rural churches was beyond my wildest imagination.  People had no shoes. They had no food, no medical care, and they were regularly treated badly by racist folks with there being no chance of justice for what occurred.  I met Medgar Evers, James Meredith, and Aaron Henry, and I learned from my mentor about Missisippi survival, Bill Higgs the young lawyer.  After January, 1962, we made  several more long chancey trips down to Jackson with printed materials, materials that would not get printed anywhere in Mississippi.

I worked nights while going to Harvard Law School my first year.  I did not return to Mississippi in the summer of 1963 as I had to work to make money to return to Law School.  But late that summer of 1963, 2 months after Medgar Evers had been shot in the back , dying at the front door of his house, I captained one of fifty-five busses from Boston, busses full of folks attending the Poor People’s March on Washington.  In late August under a tree that was not far from the steps of the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., we stood all day to hear the various speakers, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave the stirring speech that is so often quoted today, “I have a dream…”  Late in the afternoon, I walked down the mall and connected with the small Mississippi contingent, friends from the previous scary summer.   We talked about the death of Medgar Evers and the pressure being brought to bear upon James Meredith as he tried to survive as the lone Black in the University of Mississippi.  I did not return to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, either.  Instead, I held a job in the Labor Department in Washington D.C. as a law student intern, working on field office appeals in the Bracero Program concerning agricultural workers.  But people that I had known in Mississippi made headlines, none that I had wanted to read.

Bob Moses was the head of SNCC (Student nonviolent coordinating committee).  Tired of seeing his Mississippi voter registration workers beaten up in rural Mississippi with local and federal law enforcement agents sitting on their hands, Moses trained 400 student-aged people in Oberlin College in Ohio.  Early in the summer of 64, the 400 (in 2 shifts of 200 each) took up residence in Black homes and taught in Freedom Schools held in churches all over Mississippi.  The White Citizens Council (which had followed us when we were there) vowed to run them out of Mississippi and the Klan renewed its recruiting in the State.  The Klan become visible and then, a week into the venture, 3 of the 400 disappeared, Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman.  All summer the 400 workers were harassed, abused, beaten and two were raped.  Blacks attempted to register to vote and were turned away and Moses’ people taped and movied what was happening.   The disappearance of the 3 civil rights workers made the news night after night and, across the Nation, people were glued to their TV sets as searchers combed the woods and swamps, following leads and tips.  In early August the 3 boys bodies were found under an earthen damn in Philadelphia Missisippi.  The 1964 Democratic Convention commenced 2 weeks later in Atlantic City…

Moses’ people and 47 Black Missisippians appeared and held forth on National TV before the Credentials Committee.  They wanted the all white delegation from their State to not be seated and for the convention to recognize the Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi, i.e. them.  The committee narrowly endorsed the white delegation (after President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey twisted arms) and the graphic lengthy hearings turned the stomachs of the viewers across the Country, as persecution was demonstrated by affidavit, film clip, and live testimony.  Moses’ 400 young workers had paid a high price and the 47 Black delegates then returned to harassment and persecution that you and I cannot understand.  Those who had sheltered the 400 were burned out and ruined.  My friend Higgs and R.L.T.Smith (a Black grocer at whose home I had once stayed) had their lives upended and their homes destroyed.  Medgar Evers had lost his life the year before and James Meredith was hounded out of Ole Miss – but local lawyers put their lives and their law practices on the line and out of State lawyers lined up to help.  Cases were presented to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Tuttle upheld one after another judgment against officials.  The Country changed.  The 1964 and then the 1965 civil rights acts were passed.  The South left the Democratic Party.  By 1975,  55% of office holders in the State of Mississippi were Black.  James Meredith’s son was selected by his peers in 2007   as the Outstanding Business School Graduate for that year…

It ain’t over yet –  but we are seeing the end of the beginning of the end…




2 thoughts on “Selma – and places nearby

  1. Kris Moore says:

    I am so happy that you are writing this blog Mr. Tierney. I am learning so much and am grateful you are sharing your stories with all of us. Best, Kris

  2. Jacob says:

    I read an article recently that mentioned Freedom Summer, is that related to the work you were doing?

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