Georgia. Summer 1965, there were 17 of us walking in an orderly line, as directed by the Deputy Sheriff of Baker County. I recognized some of the faces from church and some were new to me. No one was talking. We didn’t know what to expect. We were all nervous and all wanting to appear strong.
Just a few moments earlier we had been on the sidewalk in front of the Baker County Georgia Courthouse walking carefully and singing freedom songs quietly. Some of us, I among them, had attempted to walk into the courthouse with the people who were going to try to register to vote.
I was a white, 18 year old college student from California working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was there to give witness and to support the people trying to register to vote.
Newton GA, the capitol of Baker County, was a poor town. Its red brick courthouse sat in the center of a small city block of unhappy grass, a telephone booth on the front lawn, and not much else.
We had been arrested for ‘disturbing the peace’ and “creating a public nuisance.” The jail ahead of us was a concrete box with openings where the windows were meant to be. The cells were metal bars of walls, divided into four, inside the concrete block structure.
Typically for the time of year the day was hot, dusty, and without a breeze. I looked at the others, looking for clues as to how to act. And I looked at the sheriffs, wondering what they were thinking and worrying that, as the only white person, I would get singled out for ‘special’ treatment, which might be worse than the others or it might be better, but in either case it would isolate me from the others and I didn’t want that.
We weren’t booked right away. Instead we were put directly into the cells. In the cell I was in people were curious about me. They all knew there was a white girl come to be a civil rights worker, but they didn’t all know me.
One woman, a very large and solidly strong black woman called AJ, was put in a cell by herself. She was known to the sheriffs and I thought they were afraid of her. I’d heard her speak in church and had heard her say she could paint a house in a day and pick cotton better than any man.
Our cell was crowded. We took turns lying down on the dirty, uncovered mattresses. June bugs, huge beetles, came in through the openings where the windows should have been and competed for room in the cell. The toilet was a hole in the corner. I thought not eating was a good idea and eagerly joined in when a hunger strike was called.
Each morning the Deputy Sheriff would come in with a plate for each of us with a large spoonful of grits, one slice of Wonder Bread and a tin cup of dark water he labeled “coffee.” Each evening he again brought a plate for each of us. Beans replaced the grits in the evening meal. Everything else stayed the same. That made it real easy to stay on the hunger strike.
But not AJ, she ate the plate of food brought to her and then we passed our plates through the bars to her and she ate most of ours.
We sang, we tried to sleep, and we talked. It was the beginning of my conscious understanding that while we all lived in the same geographical world and at the same time in history, there are a multitude of cultural worlds in the United States.
At first I did more listening than talking. There was so much to see and to hear and to think about. It was all consuming.
On about the third day my hair, which I had put up on my head and tied a scarf around, came down. I had no brush, no way to put it back up.
The Deputy Sheriff came into the jail with our usual morning plates and practically dropped the plates when he saw me. “You’re white!” he said.
I hadn’t realized he hadn’t known this already. It was an “aha moment’”for me as I realized his prejudiced belief system had interfered with his ability to see the person who was right in front of him.
“I don’t have another cell. What am I going to do?” he was genuinely concerned. I think for me, because from his point of view, how could I be okay with sharing a jail cell with “n…s.” (The word all the sheriffs used when they talked to any of us.) And concerned for himself as he was sure to get into trouble with his boss, Sheriff L. Warren Johnson.
L. Warren Johnson was a man so mean it was hard to believe. He used to boast that he’d killed 49 people. When he was younger he was part of a posse that had brutally tortured and then hanged a black man. That lynching trial went all the way to the Supreme Court in the notorious Screws Case.
I answered the deputy’s worries and said I would stay in the cell with my friends but that he needed to bring us food we could eat. I asked for fresh water with ice, for apples and, still being a teenager, I asked for cookies.
Unbelievably, he started to bring better food and he brought the water, the apples and cookies. I talked to him and was as friendly as I could be and still be honest.
During the time I was in jail my parents were understandably terrified. My mother and her friends decided they would call the Congress in Washington every day. Their message was, “Susan is in Baker County GA in a jail cell because she is doing the work the American government should be doing. What are you doing to keep her safe?”
One Congressman set up a daily telephone call with me. At noon the deputy sheriff would take me out of the cell and walk me across the street to the lone telephone booth in front of the Courthouse. I would wait outside, in the noontime sun, for the phone to ring. The routine was the same every day. He would answer the phone and then he would get me and tell me to go into the phone booth and that I should tell the Congressman I was okay. He would then walk me back to the jail.
The news of these daily phone calls got out and I became a spectacle for some of the local white men. They would wait for the sheriff to bring me out and then they would say terrible things to me.
Like in fairy tales, they looked as evil as they were mean. One stringy elderly man had stained teeth and mouth from chewing tobacco. Brown spittle would drool down his face as he was jeering me. Another, father and son I think, both had huge bellies that hung over their belts, belts that were needed because they had no hips and spindly legs.
The jeers were usually sexual. In any case, that’s all they talked about to me. Following civil rights/non-violence training I kept silent and didn’t engage with them in any way.
Then there was a day when the talk became menacing and violent, “you are going to end up at the bottom of Flint River and no one will ever find you.”
When I went back to the jail cell I thought about what I might do. I decided to talk to them. I was not putting anyone but myself at risk.
I had the confidence of a young woman who had been respectfully treated all her life and I thought, that if I really talked to the small group of miserable looking men who had been taunting me for days, it might make a difference.
Something about all the hatred was so wrong. Not wrong in the moral sense, which, of course it was, but wrong in the sense of being “off.”
How could it be that people of color could be trusted to raise white babies, be the nannies to white children, cook and care for white families in sickness and health, be on such physically intimate terms and still not be “clean” enough to share a public bathroom or drink at a public drinking fountain, or eat in a public restaurant?
The rules of Jim Crow were not only immoral they made no sense. To me it was a surreal world. I didn’t know most of the “rules” and so was forever doing something “wrong.”
The next day at noon the taunting started again. I was ready to do something else that broke the surreal rules of the Jim Crow South.
“You’re hurting my feelings,” I said in a soft and sad voice.
“We are?” I had startled them. I had broken my silence. My voice was unhappy but not angry. In that moment I began to make myself a person to them.
They were curious about me, in a bad way. They began to ask personal questions about my life. Mostly mean questions.
I talked about going to college and how I loved reading. I talked about California and movies and museums and beaches and parks and restaurants – all things they didn’t have in Baker County.
I told them black people could register to vote in California without any problem of any kind. In fact everyone was encouraged to vote.
At that moment I realized that, yes I could teach people how to read and I could walk with them into the courthouse to register to vote, but my real value was I was able to show everyone in the South, black and white, the possibility of a different world.
I do know that, in 1965, not one person of color was registered to vote in Baker County GA. As much as we demonstrated and sang and called Washington and went to jail, we never could get anyone registered to vote in that summer of 1965.
I also know that, in 2008, half of the registered voters in Baker County GA were African-American and that Obama carried the County when he won the Presidential election.
(Susan Cloke is a columnist for the Santa Monica Mirror, where her feature first appeared. We repost it here with permission.)