Lillian Smith, from Killers of the Dream (1949)
Even its children know that the South is in trouble. No one has to tell them;
no words said aloud. To them, it is a vague thing weaving in and out of their
play, like a ghost haunting an old graveyard or whispers after the household
sleeps-fleeting mystery, vague menace, to which each responds in his own way.
Some learn to screen out all except the soft and the soothing; others deny even
as they see plainly, and hear. But all know that under quiet words and warmth
and laughter, under the slow ease and tender concern about small matters, there
is a heavy burden on all of us and as heavy a refusal to confess it. The
children know this "trouble" is bigger than they, bigger than their family,
bigger than their church, so big that people turn away from its size. They have
seen it flash out like lightning and shatter a town’s peace, have felt it tear
up all they believe in. They have measured its giant strength and they feel
weak when they remember.
This haunted childhood belongs to every southerner. Many of us run away from it
but we come back like a hurt animal to its wound, or a murderer to the scene of
his sin. The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it
most. There is a return journey to anguish that few of us are released from
We who were born in the South call this mesh of feeling and memory "loyalty."
We think of it sometimes as "love." We identify with the South’s trouble as if
we, individually, were responsible for all of it. We defend the sins and
sorrows of three hundred years as if each sin had been committed by us alone and
each sorrow had cut across our heart. We are as hurt at criticism of our region
as if our own name were called aloud by the critic. We have known guilt without
understanding it, and there is no tie that binds men closer to the past and each
other than that.
James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time
There is absolutely no reason to suppose that white people are better equipped
to frame the laws by which I am to be governed than I am. It is entirely
unacceptable that I should have no voice in the political affairs of my own
country, for I am not a ward of America; I am one of the first Americans to
arrive on these shores.
Fannie Lou Hamer, from Mississippi Black Paper
When we were put in the jail, and when I was put in the jail, I
told them that nothing is right around here. The arresting officer had lied and
said that I was resisting arrest. I told them that I was not leaving my cell,
and that if they wanted me they had to kill me in the cell and drag me out. I
would rather be killed inside my cell instead of outside the cell.
Doctor Searcy, Cleveland, Mississippi, said that I had been beaten so deeply
that my nerve endings are permanently damaged, and I am sore.
Tom Dent, Freedomways
I read some of the mail Jay [James Meredith, the first black student at Ole
Miss] had received; there were boxes of letters in his bedroom. White
southerners, Negroes from the north and south, soldiers, school children,
college students and student-associations, foreign students, social workers (the
most predictable, self-conscious letters), religious crackpots, race baiters and
race haters-all wrote. Meredith had touched something deep in these people.
The ones that most moved me were from white southern youths. They couldn’t
ignore the realities of racial oppression any longer and they felt guilty about
it. The letters appeared to be attempts to somehow expiate their guilt: "Go boy
go, we can’t tell our friends how we feel, but we’re for you."
Anne Moody, from Coming of Age in Mississippi
In mid-September I was back on campus. But didn’t very much happen until
February when the NAACP held its annual convention in Jackson. They were having
a whole lot of interesting speakers: Jackie Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Curt
Flood, Margaretta Belafonte, and many others. I wouldn’t have missed it for
anything. I was so excited that I sent one of the leaflets home to Mama and
asked her to come.
Three days later I got a letter from Mama with dried-up tears on it, forbidding
me to go to the convention. It went on for more than six pages. She said if I
didn’t stop that shit she would come to Tougaloo and kill me herself. She told
me about the time I last visited her, on Thanksgiving, and she had picked me up
at the bus station. She said she picked me up because she was scared some white
in my hometown would try to do something to me. She said the sheriff had been
by, telling her I was messing around with that NAACP group. She said he told her
if I didn’t stop it, I could not come back there any more. He said that they
didn’t need any of those NAACP people messing around in Centreville. She ended
her letter by saying that she had burned the leaflet I sent her. "Please don’t
send any more of that stuff here. I don’t want nothing to happen to us here,"
she said. "If you keep that up, you will never be able to come home again."