1962 Civil Rights work

Chris and two Oxford friends set off to tour the States in the summer of 1962.  He became so interested and involved in the civil rights activities in Georgia, that he stayed there, while the other two moved on.  He took part in the SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) voter registration project in Terrell and Lee Counties.

Thanks to the internet I tracked down a fellow SNCC activist, Jack Chatfield (later a university history professor).

Here is his first reply:

I remember Chris very well. On that fateful day in early Sept 1962 when parties unknown fired into the Dawson house where Chris and  other SNCC workers had been standing, he and I were standing very close to one another, and we were both hit by one of the missiles [sic] flying through the house.

Some time later, Chris, Ralph Allen (same name, same spelling) and I visited the local hospital. There we witnessed a comic scene — the perusal of our drivers’s licences by a sheriff’s deputy unschooled in history or geography. When he got to Chris’s, he drew back and fairly bellowed, “And what is this..? Where in Hell you from, boy?”

(It must have been Chris’ passport, as he never had a driving licence!)

The Dawson house Jack Chatfield refers to was that of Carolyn Daniels, a brave woman who gave shelter to SNCC workers including Chris and Jack and Prathia Hall. Prathia Hall, Jack and Chris received gunshot wounds on this occasion. (A year later, in December 1963, Daniels was shot at and while receiving hospital treatment her house was wrecked with a bomb.)

shooting

Prathia Hall was a Baptist theology student and leader and activist in the Civil Rights Movement, who was jailed and shot at several times over this period.  She was noted for her oratory, and indeed Martin Luther King is quoted as saying ‘Prathia Hall is one of the platform speakers I would prefer not to follow’. 

In early September 1962 the Mt Olive Baptist Church had been one of three churches in the area to be burnt down by the Klu Klux Klan.  It became a focal point for civil rights meetings and it was here, at the anniversary of the Albany movement, that Prathia Hall is reported to have repeated the famous words ‘I have a dream’ on several occasions when speaking. (However, Jack Chatfield wrote to me : “As for the ‘Dream’ refrain, there is uncertainty. I was at the event, and I just don’t know whether she said it.”.)  If she did use this refrain, Luther King was also there and this would have been an inspiration for his speech at the march in Washington in 1963.

I don’t know whether Chris was present on that occasion, but he certainly saw Martin Luther King at the Mt Olive Baptist Church site on another day:

sasser1962

 Chris does not look wildly enthusiastic here (he is one of the two ‘white boys’, the other being Jack Chatfield, on his right).  As I said to Jack Chatfield:

Sadly I can’t tell you any more about Chris’s views on the civil rights movement – I deeply regret not asking him more.  I do know that he had the greatest respect for SNCC; it was rather the role of Martin Luther King that he mistrusted.

Our daughter, Kate, once suggest to me:
“It was because he would get everyone fired up to demo and then the police would arrest everyone. MLK would have his own cell and be released in 10 mins while everyone else would have to stay.”

Or may be he resented Luther King nicking Prathia Hall’s “I have a dream” 🙂

Jack Chatfield’s reply was:

Ah, now I understand! What you said represents the prevailing view about King held by SNCC workers from the Atlanta office to the Miss. Delta. I absorbed this view to the letter, and it still holds part of me in its grip.

When I arrived in  Sept ’62 there was a battery of stories and jokes that made the rounds and were a kind of SNCC signifier. “De Lawd” was subject to a perpetual whispering campaign.

I witnessed a remarkable scene a few days after  I arrived: word came by phone that Dr. KIng while paying a visit to Albany wanted to come out to “the counties” and conduct a vigil at the site of one of the many burnt churches. About six or seven SNCC workers — including Chris, I think — were waiting at the church ruins of Mt. Olive in Sasser when King drove up. [now there’s a miracle: we were on time.] He was alone with his driver, a former student sit-in activist from Ala. King did not, insofar as I recall, say hello — there were certainly no handshakes or introductions. King instead stood still while a network camera crew that has just pulled up wired him up and tested the mikes.

“One two three four, testing testing,” said Martin Luther King. These words I used in an article I wrote later in the fall.

According to Taylor Branch, the cold war between King and SNCC had reached a breaking point in mid August when, in a private SCLC-SNCC staff meeting, two or three SNCCers launched a sustained and unsparing criticism of King as a media-bound member of the black bourgeoisie.

So, that newspaper cutting is probably a report of  the time when Luther King was there with the camera crew, and explains Chris’ stance!  He very definitely was loyal to the SNCC rather than the SCLC’s (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) which tended to treat Luther King as THE leader of almost prophet status. Nevertheless Chris did recognise Luther King’s huge contribution.

Chris met several other notable personalities on these two summers – sadly I cannot recall the names of the others, but I  know he met the militant leader and academic, Howard Zinn, and child psychiatrist, Robert Coles and was strongly influenced by them.

So far I have no information about his return stay in 1963.  I propose to add snippets as I find them.

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