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                  VI - Non Violence


 

Freedom Songs, Part VII - Natchez

Ed took me out to lunch at the cafe next door to the Jackson office. Said he wanted to talk. He let us eat our hamburgers in peace and get refills on ice tea. He said they'd noticed how when I was out, I didn't confine myself to being solely with co-workers, could get along with local white people. Not that this happened a lot but that it happened at all was unusual.

"Yeah, I get along because I lie to them if they pry and they tend to pry," I said. "I don't tell them what I'm doing here."  I'd say I was just passing through and a couple who'd asked what I was doing coming out of the COFO office I told that they're kindly giving me a place to stay before I move on. If they asked about anything touchy, I'd turn it around, ask them to tell me what they thought."

Ed said the only people he'd seen me have a problem with were a few of the more serious staff who didn't appreciate my attitude, the way I had of poking fun at the movement. I said I'd always caused that kind of problem.

Ed said I didn't get into the group head, that people always develop group talk to some extent. Those entering into the group naturally take on speech patterns, tones, and word choices that they're around, show respect for group assumptions and so forth. I think he'd studied sociology. Anyway, it was clear I was still there because of him.

Ed said he'd come up with an idea of how to use me and that other staff had agreed.

"OK. What?" I said. He was being so serious.

He wanted me to go to Natchez in the Southwest, to scout things out on the sly. He said it was the heartland of the KKK and they were trying to assess the situation before sending people down there. There were plans to open an office, register voters, and they wanted to know what to expect. Some thought it would be too dangerous.

That area had a high percentage of negroes, he said, and racism and discrimination tended to be in direct correlation to the negro to caucasian ratio. Churches had been burned, attacks on blacks had increased. Keep 'em afraid, keep 'em down, he said. They had one black field worker down there. He and I would have no contact. I met with Ed and some other staff. I would go alone. I was to tell no one why I was there.

They never discussed sensitive matters on their office phones - wanted me to call in three times a day from pay phones to a pay phone in the cafe.

"You want to make sure I'm alive three times a day?"

"To let us know how you're doing and for brief reports."

I asked what type of information I was to report on. I was told to just go there for a couple of weeks and let them know what people say, what's the mood. Whatever I noticed.

I agreed without any argument while inside thinking, good lord, I came to Mississippi specifically to work in the safest spot I could find, and now they're sending me as a spy to what they say is the most dangerous place.

Early morning. Ed drove me to the highway. He said he had confidence I could go there and pass as not too foreign. "You don't have the wrong accent - or attitude," he said. "But be careful."

I hitched the hundred miles down to Natchez with a guitar. I wore khaki pants, a khaki shirt, and tennis shoes with white socks. Inside the guitar case was jockey shorts, blue jeans, another khaki shirt. This attire was based on what I'd seen local young guys wearing. Oh - also there was a notebook and paper to write down non incriminating thoughts, poems, songs - and a King James Bible. My hair was short. Got a ride with a delivery truck. My mood was apprehensive - and not because of the hitchhiking. I'd been doing that since I was fourteen - just never to a destination so intimidating. Still, as I got out of the truck on the edge of town, I was stepping more into excitement than fear. It was about ten in the morning and I was walking into an unknown situation, population 8,724.

The first thing I noticed downtown was a sign on a telephone pole that read, Chadwick for City Council. In a cafe I had a cup of coffee and asked the waitress who this Chadwick fellow was. A local lawyer. His office was nearby. The waitress asked me where I was from and what I was doing there and I said in my greatly increased Texas accent that I was from Fort Worth on my way to Florida and was collecting folk songs on the way.

"You hear they're invadin' us?" and she went on to say that if those Communists come in there that she won't serve them. Another customer was looking at me funny.

There was a pay phone outside. I called the pay phone in the cafe in Jackson at the agreed upon time. I told Ed that people were looking at me because I was new in town and it's not a big town, "and they're lookin' at me now while I call you and I'm not calling you back. It's too obvious. I'll let you know if I get killed." Ed protested but I said this is it. "See you later," and hung up and walked to lawyer Chadwick's office..

"Mr. Chadwick," I said, "My name is David Chadwick, and my grandmother Louvena Chadwick told me we had distant relatives here and I have a hunch that you may be one of them."

Mr. Chadwick seemed in his fifties.. He was delighted to meet me, mainly because his wife was trying to gain admission into he DAR, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and needed to prove her ancestry back to the time of the founders. I said I'd be happy to help. I gave him the same story about being on the way to Florida collecting folk songs but emphasized this was for college credit. He took me out to lunch and got me a job mowing the lawn of the owner of a Chevy dealership. I said I'd get back to him and his wife with some information on my Chadwick lineage. My paternal grandmother didn't know I was there cause she wouldn't have understood. I wasn't worried at all about them calling her. She was batty enough to cover for me without any instruction.

The lawn job was fun. Only time I can remember riding a mower. The mister of the house set me up on it and the missus made me lemonade for a break and introduced me to the wife of the mayor next door. Ultimately though I blew it when I drove over a garden hose and ruined it. He said that's good enough. Darn. He asked where I was staying and I said that I like to sleep in jails when I travel. I'd done that a few times, a trick I learned on the road. I got him to call the chief of police and get me a cell. He was a bit shocked but I said that college students do that to economize and I sometimes find a new folk song that way. I also got to meet the chief of police that way. He let me keep my guitar case there and go out for the evening. There weren't many places to go. I went to a bar and hung out with some secretaries in their thirties which was a relief. Got back to the jail late and tipsy. Jailer was friendly. Gave me an extra blanket which I put on a hard bench in a cell - put both of them under me. It wasn't cold.

The next morning I woke up in my cell and called a policeman over and said good morning. He didn't answer. I told him what my situation was. No answer. He went off, came back. "Nice place you've got here," I said to him.

"Yeah, and we want to keep it that way," he responded in a surly tone.

Eventually he let me out. Mr. Chadwick took me to a downtown teen center that had just been set up by local businessmen. The guy running it was friendly and welcomed me, Jimmy. I met young people and played pool and ping pong and drank sodas which I never had a habit of doing. I played songs and sang - no freedom songs - I knew a zillion folk songs and some rhythm and blues. The work wasn't finished so I helped to fix it up and swept the place. They were hospitable. I just hung out, walked around, and talked to people.

Natchez was picturesque - the sleepy old-fashioned downtown which was just a few blocks, the neighborhoods and the flora, the trees, big old oaks, loved their flowering Crape Myrtles. Kids drove me to a swamp filled with Cyprus. Got a taste of the ante-bellum mansions, unburned by the civil war, colonnaded and proud.

For me it was the river that demanded awe, its staggering width and steady flow like a lazy giant of unconquerable power.  Guitar in hand, I walked down to the banks on a wooded trail and sat in a chair on a dirt floor under a canvas overhang with poor black people who lived in shacks by the river. I played songs. They brought me a coke. No words. It was like being in another country.

I did not talk much to black people. Just said hi, nice day. I didn't want to bring any trouble on them. I certainly wouldn't have asked them anything about discrimination or race. It would have scared them - and me. There would be a time for that but not now and not me. I'd leave that to the pros.

There was a weekly newspaper Jimmy read called the Miss-Lou Observer that had editorials against the Klan. It was the town's progressive publication.

The youngsters in the teen center were only a couple of years younger than me. They'd tell me more than most people. A black owned funeral home had been burned down. Negroes just couldn't own a business. I'd hear that wasn't right. Invading and agitating wasn't right but the KKK and the extreme people are just as bad. Negroes deserve to have their own businesses. It's not right to burn them down. There was an office in town set up as a center to fight the invasion, to disseminate tracts against integration and stirring things up, highly racist literature referring to miscegenation and unnatural mixing of the races.

There was actually more mixing of the races there than I'd ever seen. Black and white neighborhoods were relatively small and scattered. It wasn't like all the whites were over here and all the blacks over there. I'd be walking in a white neighborhood then I'd be walking in a black neighborhood then white again. I experienced that in Meridian and Jackson too. But here there were more more blacks than whites. Seemed like every pickup truck had a black man and a white man in it. Everywhere blacks were working for and with whites. There was lots of mixing - just not equal mixing. I thought of it as a man boy relationship. Some did call black men boy there. It had a feudal feel to it.

After a week I figured I'd learned all there was for me to know. Also I was getting paranoid, having frightening dreams of being lynched. I'd gotten a lot of suspicious looks and those looks were gnawing at me. A creeping generalized fear was growing inside me, getting worse daily. I was supposed to stay two weeks but the wind was whispering to get out now.

I Said farewell to Mr. Chadwick and told him I'd get back to him with some info for his wife. Jimmy gave me a ride to the edge of town. It wasn't far. I thanked him and he wished me well.

Guitar case in hand I stood on the side of the road waiting for a ride. There was a truck that had been behind us with two white guys in it who'd stopped when he stopped and they sat there a hundred yards off looking at me. That made me nervous. I took out the Bible and opened it at random - read from Mathew.

His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:
And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.

Jesus didn't scare them away but I felt like he might have helped to hold them off. They didn't leave until I did which was a half hour wait, a long half hour.

Back at Lynch Street the plate glass window in front had gotten in the way of a brick which created a cooling breeze in the office.

People were relieved to see me, even some who didn't want me around. Ed asked me to write a report. I refused, said I could tell him what there was to write in a few seconds. He said he needed an account of what I did, who I talked to, what they said, what I observed, what was the general atmosphere, etc.

"There's no need," I insisted. "Just about everybody I met immediately said the same thing, that they're getting invaded, that they don't like the KKK and that sort, but that when those Yankee troublemakers come into their town, "I'll be sitting on my porch waiting for them with my shotgun."

Sorry Ed. Here's your report, a bit late.


posted 10-09-12

next - part VII - Cookie


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