AN IDAHO MLK DAY GATHERING -- AND MISSISSIPPI MEMORIES AND REFLECTIONS

[HUNTER GRAY   1/21/02]

 


Things went well at our King Day gathering in this small and  conservative
Idaho city.

I was the primary speaker last night at the MLK Day meeting of Pocatello
Interfaith Fellowship:  mainline Protestant denominations, Catholic, LDS.
Despite very cold weather and snow and very little media publicity, we drew
about 100 folks:  70 adults, 30 children.  About half were minority, half
Anglo.  Social class-wise, it was primarily workingpeople and academic and
clergy but with many from other categories [including a very, very few
politicians.]  The affair was quite well organized with the religious
dimensions relating directly to Martin King.  I had prepared a number of
handouts which were handled by my oldest grandson, Thomas [turning 20] and his aunt [!] -- my youngest daughter, Josie, 22.

[Medgar Evers always gave a very full, hearty, and vital speech to his "mass
meeting" audience -- whether the group was half a dozen or vastly more. And
I've always remembered that.]

A vigorously encouraging dimension, with respect to life and optimism, was
the small Black children's choir from a Baptist church.

In my substantial talk,  I initially focused on  racism  -- and on the
Southern Movement, discussing as individuals Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, and
Martin King.  I mentioned the several instances in which Dr King and I had
some direct Movement association.

A major one occurred very soon after the June '63 murder of Medgar Evers in
the context of our massive Jackson Movement -- of which I was Strategy
Committee Chair. Bill Kunstler -- one of my key attorneys  and a primary one
for Dr King  as well -- was  with us on the battle-front scene in
Mississippi's hate-filled capital.  Immediately following Medgar's
assassination, we built our non-violent mass demonstrations ever higher and
with increasing intensity. The courage of the grassroots people in the face
of hideously vicious and violent repression was something no one there will
ever forget. In one mass march, I was surrounded by a half dozen police and
badly clubbed into bloody unconsciousness.  That night, just out of jail and
still wearing torn and heavily bloodstained clothes, I addressed a great
rally at Blair Street AME.  Following that, I called Martin King [Bill had
his private number] and asked if he would come to Jackson for Medgar's
funeral -- obviously destined to be a huge event.  Even though the situation
in Jackson and Mississippi generally could not have been more dangerous --
and certainly for him -- there was not a whit of hesitation on Dr King's
part.  He agreed immediately to come.

I picked him up with his group  [including Rev Ralph Abernathy and Wyatt
Walker]  less than two days later at the Jackson airport -- full of media,
hostile police, Klan and White Council types.  The temperature was super
hot. [My head was still bandaged and it was very uncomfortable.]  Dr King
was extremely cordial, vigorous, optimistic.  They entered my blue Rambler
and, with an openly hostile police escort [there was major national and
international focus on Jackson], we drove the long drive to Lynch Street and
the Negro Masonic Temple in which Medgar lay and in which his funeral was to
be held.  Almost 6,000 people -- most of them Black people from all over
Mississippi -- attended.  In addition, there were delegations from across
the United States and some individuals from countries far abroad.

Following the massive funeral, almost all of us -- again, 6,000 or so --
marched two miles in 102 degree humid heat to the Collins Funeral Parlor,
located in another section of the Black community, to which Medgar had been
taken -- there to be sent to Arlington.  It was the first "legal" civil
rights march in the history of Mississippi. ["They" knew we would march
anyway and "granted" a  heretofore unprecedented permit.]  We marched
through various neighborhoods, Black and White ones, three and four abreast.
It was an extremely dangerous and volatile setting in the Anglo areas.  Dr
King was in the second or third rank following local clergy, I was in the
sixth.  Once at the Collins Funeral Home and environs, most people stayed --
including myself.  By prior arrangement, Bill Kunstler took Dr King and his
group to the airport in my Rambler.  Soon after that, we had a second --
hugely spontaneous -- demonstration which moved  nonviolently toward
Jackson's downtown area.  Police repression was extremely brutal.  The
police picked out 29 of us and threw us into paddy wagons.  I was able to
see some events through a tiny barred window -- including Bill Kunstler,
just back from the airport,  observing the scene.  When I called to him, he
attempted to approach the wagon containing me but was physically pushed
away by a group of men in Stetsons  literally punching his stomach with
double-barreled shotguns.  Jailed once again [ in those days, I was the
most arrested person in Jackson], I got out and, a few days later, was  very
seriously injured -- almost killed -- in a rigged auto wreck.  My blue
Rambler was completely destroyed.

But Jackson was cracked -- deep, wide, and forever and the fissures were
spreading across the state.  Here's a word on this -- including Dr King --
from our website: http://www.hunterbear.org/first.htm .  I also cover things
very thoroughly, of course, in my book, Jackson, Mississippi:  An American
Chronicle of Struggle and Schism [1979 and Krieger, 1987] and in my two
sections of the very large and full Freedom Is A Constant Struggle: An
Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement [Susie Erenrich, Editor,
Cultural Center for Social Change, Washington, DC and Black Belt Press,
Montgomery, Alabama, 1999.]

But last night, here at Pocatello, I spent the last half of my talk on three
very contemporary issues: against the death penalty, against the "War," and
against the current assault on civil rights and civil liberties by the
Bush/Ashcroft forces.


[On the death penalty, Idaho gives the condemned several options, including
the firing squad  -- and that frontier touch would certainly be my choice
should it ever come to that.  Of the 4100 Americans who signed a call for a death penalty moratorium -- published two years or so ago in the New York Times -- only ten signatories were from Idaho:  myself and eight other individuals plus a Benedictine Order.  However, so far only two people have been actually executed since capital punishment was reinstituted in the 1970s.]

On all of this, saying what I always say -- an end to the death penalty;  an
end to all bombing and for peace with justice/justice with peace; an end to
repression within the United States and elsewhere and  for a deep renewal of
full civil rights and civil liberties for all -- I picked up widespread
agreement from people in the audience.  Admittedly, this was a select
group -- but media handling of all of these issues in this region has either
been marked by conspicuous sins-of-omission or outright support for capital
punishment and the "War" and the draconian curbs on civil rights and civil
liberty.  Afterward, many people stayed around to discuss all of these
things -- often at considerable length.  We were extremely encouraged by
this response.

So we got home late -- and very  well satisfied.

Thirty-nine years before to the day -- January 20, 1963 -- I spoke in the
extremely -- extremely -- racist Southwest Mississippi town of McComb.  The
topic was "Free In '63" -- and it was, of course, the Centennial of the
Emancipation Proclamation. [One of my handouts at our Idaho meeting last
night featured a Xerox of the leaflet advertising the McComb event.]  I had
been asked to go down there -- about 150 miles from Jackson and Tougaloo --
by  Mr C.C. Bryant, president of the local NAACP at McComb and a railroad
union activist.  Eldri insisted on going with me and our first child, Baby
Maria [Thomas' mother], not yet a year old, accompanied us.  [I also quietly
tucked my .38 Special S&W revolver into my coat pocket.  Medgar, BTW, always traveled with a .45 Colt automatic.]  Murder was everywhere in the
Mississippi air. In the county next to McComb  and Pike County --  over in
Amite County -- Mr Herbert Lee had been gunned down in September, '61  by a
representative of the Mississippi state legislature at the county seat of
Liberty. This had occurred in front of the court house, in full daylight,
and with many witnesses present, simply because Herbert Lee had attempted to register and vote [an effort unheard of in Amite since Reconstruction
ended.] The state representative was never, of course, charged with
anything.  He simply went home.  Herbert Lee, a peaceful small farmer, left
a large family of survivors.

And many much more recent atrocities had occurred all over the state and
region -- and were steadily continuing right along on a dark and bloody
course.

The roads were icy to McComb but we got there.  The church in which our
meeting was held was so poor it had no piano.  The people who came, and
there were many, were understandably terrified -- and extraordinarily
courageous.  Blankets were hung over the windows to increase security.  The
leaders of the meeting -- C.C. Bryant, Dock Owens, Red Hill, and myself --
were concerned about the obviously subduing effects of the deep and
pervasive fear.  Suddenly, Maria began to cry.  A woman immediately took the
baby, jiggled her, and then passed her to the next person.  Maria, now
silent but obviously intrigued, literally traveled up and down the pews --
held by every single person!  Long, long before this odyssey was completed,
the tension had completely broken.  An old minister began to sing Amazing
Grace -- and we had a wonderful meeting.

Much has changed in Mississippi and the Deep  South as it has elsewhere. And
much, much more hard work remains everywhere as the trail stretches on  and
beyond -- always toward the Sun.

Hunter [Hunterbear]


Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (social justice)

Left Discussion Group
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Redbadbear

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