Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Looking Past Race: Organizing in Mississippi

JEALOUS: I had an experience when I was in Mississippi, I was organizing students and the governor wanted to meet the college president and we had decided that we knew where we could find our white allies and they would be at Earth Day. So we sent students to Mississippi State way up past Philadelphia, up in Starkville, to recruit students at Earth Day. They ended up having a mob of students chant, “Get a rope,” and chase them off campus about eleven o\'clock at night. And by the time they got back to Jackson, driving on the same highway that had changed very little since [James] Chaney, [Andrew] Goodman and [Michael] Schwerner were kidnapped and killed on it — murdered — they got to the Waffle House in Jackson and they called me and they said, “We’ve got to talk.” So I went over to meet with my organizers and they explained what had happened and the whole time from the counter at the Waffle House, there’s this white guy staring at us and he —

You know, you have got to understand, if you toured around the South. I’m sure you’ve been to a Waffle House or two. Well, here’re these whites and blacks in the same place. It’s more a class cut than a race cut. They’re not sitting together but they’re in the same small little diner. Well, we noticed that this guy is staring at us and we’re the only black people in the restaurant. And he’s wearing a loose-fitting shirt and that’s significant because Mississippi is a right-to-carry state and you can carry a concealed firearm if you don’t have a felony with a hundred bucks. He keeps staring at us. We’re also aware that the Klan had put out death threats against us because Byron De La Beckwith had just been put in jail and we had announced we were having a mass march on the capital, and so they said that they would take out one of us because Byron was in jail. And so he comes over to — and this guy, he looked like a used car dealer but he looked angry. He kept starting at us. He had gold rings on every finger. He was wearing a shirt like my grandfather would refer to as a Cuban tuxedo. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s a white shirt with a little bit of ruffles, you know?

BOND: Guayabera.

JEALOUS: Yes, a guayabera, and he comes over to us and he says, “Y’all are the boys I’ve been seeing on television?” He leans right up in our face and we’re the only black guys in here and he might be packing a gun. “Yes, sir.” He said, “Excuse me for a second.” He puts down — in the Waffle House, they have these monstrous to-go bags, these grocery bags — he turns around, put it on the table. He spins around. Two of the guys sense he’s about to pull out a gun and they start to jump. I put my hands up like this and he says, “Well, I just want to shake your hand.” He said, “Because if I’d been born a nigger, I’d be mad as hell, too.” This guy’s said like “boy” and “nigger” twice. None of us are saying — this one’s from Chicago, one’s from New Orleans, I’m from California — none of us, the guys around the table are accustomed to be called nigger or boy by some by white guy.

He said, “Y’all stopped fighting back about twenty-five years ago.” This is 1993. He’s talking about ’68. He said, “I have no idea why. I’m so proud of you. I own a used car lot right down Highway 49. If I can do anything for you, you need money, you need — come see me.” I sent those same two fellows who’d been at Mississippi State, thought that they could find their allies and ran into a lynch mob or at least some kids masquerading as one, right out to his used car dealership the next day to get a check. For all of us, it was a lesson. I mean, it was God’s affirmation that we had allies that we couldn’t perceive easily, that they were there, that we weren’t crazy thinking that white people might take up this cause with us, but also reminding us not to be so foolish as to think that we could always predict who they were. And they got the check and we needed the check at that moment.

BOND: You know the greatest story about the Obama canvassers who’re knocking on doors with instructions to engage the homeowner in a little conversation and then say, “Who’re you going to vote for?” Knock on the door, a woman comes to the door, they chitchat for a minute and they say, “May we ask you who you’re vote to for.” She says, “I’ve got to ask my husband.” They had a little surprise when she says, “Joe, who we going to vote for?” and Joe shouts from the back of the house, “We’re going to vote for the nigger.” And they say, “Thank you so much.” And you’ve got to take your allies where you can find them.

JEALOUS: That’s exactly right.