- Keegan Justice
- Auditor Triple Dip
- Food Needs
- Redwood Logging Documentary
- Rebecca Johnson Art
- Sheriff Reports
- Catch of the Day
- Don MacQueen
- Nadine Gordimer
- Price of War
- Last and Best
- Freedom Summer Retrospective
A SYSTEM WE BELIEVE IN
And still we wait. As Susan Keegan’s 59th birthday approaches, the sole suspect in her homicide remains free. Anxious, one assumes. Fully aware that much of the Ukiah community expects his arrest. Very cautious about his behavior in public. But free nonetheless.
Susan “died at the hands of another” more than three years ago, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff (“Ukiah Woman’s 2010 Death Classified as a Homicide,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, August 21, 2012). “There is a person of interest,” added a police sergeant (“Ukiah Resident Susan Keegan’s Death Reclassified as a Homicide,” Ukiah Daily Journal, August 21, 2012).
So why no action? In “Assignment: Ukiah” (Ukiah Daily Journal, July 5, 2014), columnist Tom Hine called the case “a long and festering problem for DA Eyster.” Hine pointed out that the case appeared “to be simple and straightforward: Two people in a house and one of them is dead.” But he also hinted that a conviction would not be easy.
We know that. The contours of the mishandled investigation in the days after Susan’s death have been well documented in the Justice4Susan Committee blog (The Improbable Death of Susan Keegan,” Anderson Valley Advertiser February 25, 2011) to convince virtually every law enforcement official in Mendocino County of what actually happened.
Including District Attorney David Eyster, who apparently would like to prosecute. He has certainly invested enormous resources in building a case. But instead of moving forward, writes Hine, he “sighs, drums his fingers on his desk and stares at the Keegan file in front of him.”
No doubt, he worries about the ethics of prosecuting a case he is not certain he can win. No doubt, too, he has political and professional reasons to hesitate. But the American Bar Association (ABA) reminds us that “the duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict” (Standard 3-1.2) and that “a prosecutor should not fail to act with reasonable diligence and promptness in prosecuting an accused” (Standard 3- 2.9). A jury of the suspect’s peers gets to decide whether to convict.
The ABA says something else, too. “The prosecutor should readily provide victims and witnesses who request it information about the status of cases in which they are interested” (Standard 3-3.2).
Here, DA Eyster has been disappointing. In a signed letter sent to him in May 2014, members of the Justice4Susan Committee formally requested a meeting so that we could be updated on the case. Eyster ignored the letter completely, but a member of his staff made it clear that our persistence — actually, he called it “interference” — was irritating. “While important, this is not the only case requiring our time, attention, and resources,” he wrote, as if a three-and-a-half year delay could be explained by Eyster’s busy schedule.
The spokesman also repeated the words we have heard time and time again from the DA’s office: The case, he wrote, “is still ongoing.”
That assertion begins to defy credibility, although we remain hopeful. Meanwhile, we have no choice but to be something of a thorn in the side of the DA. We cannot let the system fail Susan Keegan, or the people of Mendocino County. If David Eyster would open his door to us, or explain why the quest for justice is best advanced by our silence, we would certainly listen with an open mind. Until then, we’ll keep making noise.
COUNTY AUDITOR MEREDITH FORD’S PROPOSAL to hire herself as an “extra-help” trainer for her replacement, Assistant Auditor Lloyd Weer at $440 per day was approved unanimously without discussion at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisor Pinches even said that the only reason it was even on their agenda was that the Board needed to grant a “criticality” exception before Ford could be hired back without waiting at least a year. Several County employees (plus the AVA) have told us that they think this is double if not triple dipping because:
1. She’s getting vacation pay for part of the time she’s doing the “training,” then she'll be getting her pension.
2. She’s getting $440/day of extra help pay under the bogus “critical need” exception to the you-have-to-wait-until-you’re-out-of-office-one-year rule.
And 3. Newly elected (but uncontested) Auditor Lloyd Weer is being paid to do what she’s supposedly training him for.
Ford will get a total of $20,000 for over nine week’s worth of “training” for Mr. Weer. As one county employee said, “So Lloyd ran for the office without knowing how to handle the redevelopment stuff? That means he’s not qualified for the job.”
MENDO FOOD BANKS NOTICE UPTICK IN DEMAND
by Charlie Gibson
Representatives at both the Ukiah and Fort Bragg food banks are reporting increased demand for food support in recent months. Demand jumped sharply following the 2008-09 recession, but had recently plateaued. Now, food banks in Ukiah and Fort Bragg say they are again seeing the number of people requesting assistance increasing, though not at such a dramatic pace as the post-recession years.
One factor likely at play is the ongoing drought. Exactly how much the drought is affecting food prices is not yet known, but the drought is indeed expected to drive up food prices. According to a 2014 from The US Department of Agriculture on the California drought, “Owing to higher production costs, insufficient water, or both, producers may opt to reduce total acreage, driving up prices not just this year but for years to come.”
Still, food banks in Ukiah, Fort Bragg, and Boonville do not report unusually low supplies. The Ukiah Community Food Bank, which serves about 1200 households per month in the Ukiah area, expects to restock its supplies in the next couple of months but is otherwise not in particular need of more supplies. Likewise, the Fort Bragg Food Bank, serving 1000 families per month once weekly, deems its supply level to be about normal. Boonville’s Anderson Valley Food Bank, which supplements to food supplies of an average of about 55 families per month, reports having more than adequate resources.
Though the food banks are not in desperate need, they say they can always use support. In particular, the Fort Bragg Food Bank requests more protein-rich foods, while the Ukiah food bank says it could use more fresh fruit and vegetables.
THE WAY IT WAS
ON JULY 12, 2014 at approximately 1:51am, Mendocino County Sheriff Deputies were dispatched to the 33000 block of Jefferson Way in Fort Bragg for a domestic related physical assault. Upon arrival Deputies contacted the female victim and suspect Raymond Pitcher, 49, of Fort Bragg. Both are married and reside in the same residence. During that contact, Deputies learned that the victim and Pitcher were engaged in a verbal argument that escalated into Pitcher striking the victim in the face and head several times. Deputies observed that the victim had visible injury to her face as a result of the assault. Pitcher also reportedly prevented the victim from summoning law enforcement by taking the phone away from her when she attempted to call 9-1-1. Pitcher threatened to kill the victim if she notified law enforcement. Deputies arrested Pitcher Corporal Injury to Spouse/Cohabitant, Preventing a Victim from Reporting a Crime and Criminal Threats. Pitcher was transported to the Mendocino County Jail where he was booked and held in lieu of bail set at $25,000.
* * *
DROP THE GUNS, ROSALEE! ALL OF THEM.
ON JULY 7, 2014 the suspect in this case, Rosalee Stewart, 59, of Covelo, was contacted by Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputies and arrested for Possession for Sales, and Transportation for Sales of a Controlled Substance, Sheriff's Office report number 14-17874. On July 9, 2014 at approximately 9:09pm deputies from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office completed a Search Warrant on Stewart's residence in Covelo. During the service of the Search Warrant five firearms — 9mm Semi-Automatic handgun, .22 caliber Revolver, 223 caliber Rifle, 270 Caliber Rifle, 20 gauge Shotgun — were seized from her residence. The 9mm Semi-Automatic Handgun, and the .22 caliber Revolver were both loaded. There were also multiple live cartridges (ammunition) found on the living room table of the residence. Stewart is an Ex-Felon and is prohibited from possessing any firearms or ammunition. Stewart was contacted at the Mendocino County Jail, where she was being lodged for her arrest on July 7, 2014, and placed under arrest for Ex-Felon in Possession of a Firearm, and Ex-Felon in Possession of Ammunition. Stewart's bail on the new case was set at $25,000.
* * *
ON JULY 11, 2014 at about 11pm Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputies were summoned to a residence at the 3100 Block of North State St., Ukiah, regarding a person armed with a knife making violent threats to another person living at the residence. Upon arrival Deputies contacted the adult male victim who reported suspect Craig McIsaac, 38, of Ukiah, had threatened him with a kitchen steak knife. The victim reported McIsaac had been menacing other residents at the location and then went to a storage shed located on property. The victim confronted McIsaac at the storage shed about his behavior when McIsaac brandished a steak knife and held it about 4-5 inches from the victim’s neck and threatened to cut the victim’s throat. The victim backed away and fled back to the main residence. Deputies contacted McIsaac at the storage shed and arrested him for the listed charges. A kitchen steak knife with an approximately 6 inch blade was found in the shed where McIsaac was located. McIsaac was taken and incarcerated at the Mendocino County jail for the listed charges and was to be held in lieu of $50,000 bail.
* * *
THANKS FOR THE EIGHT GRAND, BOYS
ON JULY 9, 2014 at approximately 11:10pm, deputy sheriff's from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle for a vehicle code violation.
While Deputies were standing outside the vehicle they could smell the odor of fresh marijuana. The driver of the vehicle, Michael Soave, 29, of Sacramento, admitted to Deputies there was marijuana inside the vehicle.
During a search of the vehicle four one pound bags of high grade Marijuana were located behind the passenger seat of the vehicle.
During the investigation Deputies learned the front passenger, Carlos De La Ossa, 29, of Cutler Bay, Florida, was also involved in the transportation of marijuana for sales.
De La Ossa was found to have $7,972.00 dollars inside his pants pocket, which was seized pursuant to asset forfeiture laws. Soave and De La Ossa were arrested Transportation of Marijuana for Sales and then transported to the Mendocino County Jail in lieu of $30,000 bail.
CATCH OF THE DAY, July 14, 2014
MARIC ARRIAGA, Ukiah. Misdemeanor domestic battery, misdemeanor vandalism.
DAVID BLANKENSHIP, Fort Bragg. Public intoxication of alcohol.
JUSTINO CAN, Fort Bragg. Felony rape of a victim with a mental, developmental, or physical disability, felony possession of meth, felony illegal entry.
JOSHUA DENNEY, Laytonville. Driving with a suspended license.
ROBERTO HERRERA, Hopland. Public intoxication of drugs and alcohol.
KATHLEEN NELSON, Willits. Felony violation of community supervision.
MELODY SCROGGINS, Willits. Violation of court order, possession of drug paraphernalia, probation revoked.
WILLIAM WILLIAMS, Ukiah. Public intoxication.
RIP, DON MacQUEEN
Don MacQueen, 1925-2014.
It's been a long time. And I bring you sad news.
Don MacQueen, 88, a long-time AVA subscriber and contributor, died in Eugene, Oregon, on June 28, 2014. He was a major part of Sonoma County's literary scene in the '80s and '90s, helping found the Russian River Writers' Guild, which sponsored a lively reading series, quarterly newsletters and occasional poetry collections, notably "A Stone's Throw," a major anthology of local poetry, including several Mendocino County writers. Don helped edit Rich Benbrook's feisty quarterly "The Tomcat," and "Tiny Lights," Susan Bono's periodical of short fiction. He also helped with "Green Fuse," which published political and environmental poetry, some of which appeared in the AVA. Don's terse, witty poems appeared in virtually every Sonoma County publication of those years.
Don MacQueen died at his daughter's home under hospice care, very much on his own terms, exactly as he had lived his life. His family said that his last, barely audible words were to a hospice worker who had assured him that everything was taken care of, everything now all right. Don's reply: "Really? What about Iraq?"
I imagine you'll want to add your own recollections of Don's letters and the controversy they created at the AVA. He took those angry responses very seriously and stopped sending you letters for quite a while, as I recall. He loved the AVA. (I introduced it to him, come to think of it.)
Bruce, if you have it available, I'd love to have a copy of the story the AVA published about Don. (Bruce Patterson's, I think.) I cannot find it after a thorough search. Don was my great friend, the finest gentleman I've ever known.
Respectfully, Brian Boldt, Santa Rosa
NADINE GORDIMER DIES AGED 90
The South African Nobel-prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, one of the literary world's most powerful voices against apartheid, has died at the age of 90, her family say.
Gordimer died peacefully at her Johannesburg home on Sunday evening in the presence of her children, Hugo and Oriane, a statement from the family said.
Born in Gauteng, South Africa, in 1923 to immigrant European parents, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1991 for novels and short stories that reflected the drama of human life and emotion in a society warped by decades of white-minority rule.
Many of her stories dealt with the themes of love, hate and friendship under the pressures of the racially segregated system that ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president.
She was called one of the great "guerrillas of the imagination" by the poet Seamus Heaney, and a "magnificent epic writer" by the Nobel committee.
Gordimer became active in the then banned African National Congress after the Sharpeville massacre, and was one of the first people Mandela asked to see when he was released in 1990.
"She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people and its on-going struggle to realize its new democracy," the family statement said.
She had three books banned under the apartheid regime's censorship laws, along with an anthology of poetry by black South African writers that she collected and had published.
The first book to be banned was A World of Strangers, the story of an apolitical Briton drifting into friendships with black South Africans in segregated Johannesburg in the 1950s.
In 1979 Burger's Daughter was banished from the shelves for its portrayal of a woman's attempt to establish her own identity after her father's death in jail makes him a political hero.
In later years, Gordimer became a vocal campaigner in the HIV/AIDS movement, lobbying and fund-raising on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign, a group pushing for the South African government to provide free, life-saving drugs to sufferers.
Nor did she shy away from criticising the ANC under Jacob Zuma, expressing her opposition to a proposed law which limits the publication of information deemed sensitive by the government.
"The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms," she said in an interview last month.
(Courtesy, the Guardian of London.)
ON-LINE STATEMENT OF THE DAY: Energy independence at $100 a barrel or energy dependence at $20 a barrel. Is that a false dichotomy? Not sure. I do know we could have paid every able bodied Iraq male $50,000 a year for the last 12 years to stay at home and watch the Flintstones rather than shoot us for the same money we spent on the war. I just read we could house every homeless person in America in a paid for $600,000 home for the money the F-35 is costing us. You remember the F-35, the 3 planes in one that was supposed to save us money but is now the most expensive weapons system in human history. Yep, that one. The pale green horse is the American dollar, and yes, hell does come with it.
FAN FANS FLAMES
I tried calling to leave a message. Gave that up. Tried logging in to your website. Unable to succeed, as my laptop skills are limited. Now the obvious attempt----an email! If this fails, then it will be up to our old trusted (!) friend the USPS. (The Post Office needs our business.)
I am writing to say the AVA is more than America's Last Newspaper; the AVA is America's Best newspaper. Every edition exceeds my expectations and I can't imagine how you can keep it up. But please, keep it up!!
And for you, Mark, my sympathies on the loss. . .
Gary Durheim, Seaside, Oregon
THE MISSISSIPPI SUMMER PROJECT 50TH ANNIVERSARY REUNION
Notes of a Veteran
by Mike Miller
It is always with some trepidation that I reconnect with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Movement veterans from the 1960s. Those were the best of times and the worst of times for me. The best because it was a privilege to be part of the Deep South civil rights movement, and a “field secretary” in that most extraordinary organization, led by young black people who emerged from the sit-ins and freedom rides to become full-time community organizers. The worst because the pain of SNCC’s disintegration, and of black people deciding they would no longer talk with former white comrades, is still palpable.
The reunion for the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Project was a magnet I couldn’t resist. I was in Mississippi the summer before. Dick Frey and I were the first white staff to be based in the Delta — Greenwood to be exact. Greenwood was a Movement center — the place where the first major cracks in the wall of Mississippi racism were broken open.
When we were picked up by a cop and brought to the city jail, he shouted upstairs to white prisoners, “Got me some nigger-lovers here, boys.” We thought we were going to be badly beaten. Waiting for the inevitable at the booking desk, seconds turned into minutes. Then the cop came out of the chief’s office and told us to get back into his car. Now our fear level rose even higher. But after having a new school and recreation center in the black community pointed out to us, the cop dropped us back at the “freedom house” and told us to get out of town in the next 48 hours. “You’re guilty of co-habitation of the races,” he told us.
Inside the freedom house — our office and general gathering place — we were greeted by applause and laughter. “What’s so funny?” one of us asked. The answer actually was funny. Sam Block, the project director, called Police Chief Larry and told him, “Chief, don’t mess with those white boys; they know the Governor of California.” It was a total bluff, but it saved our butts!
The Memphis Civil Rights Museum
On the way to Mississippi, I stopped at the Memphis Civil Rights Museum, a fantastic place. You can stand on the balcony where Martin Luther King was assassinated, and look across the way at the window where his assassin fired his shot; then you can cross the street and visit the assassin’s spot as well. I didn’t stand on the balcony; too painful. I wondered how history might have been different had King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy not fallen to assassin’s bullets. Might a different political configuration have led to something other than the country’s turn to the right?
Making a left turn in one of the halls, I saw a well-known SNCC brochure photo of Martha Prescod, Bob Moses and me (along with some unidentified local people) on the wall and said to a friend, “There I am!” Martha was in Greenwood in 1963 as well. She became a Movement historian, and is a co-editor of one of the SNCC women’s books. Bob, of course, is the legendary organizer who was SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director.
Hearing my “There I am,” a guy next to me wanted to know the story. One thing led to another. He wanted a picture with me. Then about 20 black kids making a museum visit together did as well – so I did it one-by-one. Their faces and comments showed a feeling of standing next to a piece of history. It was a touching moment.
The rest of the museum is a terrific collection of visual and narrative material about “The Movement” — which we always wrote in capital letters. It, along with the one in Birmingham and, hopefully, a soon-to-be opened Mississippi civil rights museum, should not be missed
Delta counties had 70% and 80% black population, with five percent registered to vote at the maximum; in some it was closer to zero. Fear was deep because people were fired, evicted, denied credit, refused cotton ginning, beaten, their houses fire-bombed, and at the brutal worst, murdered. Internalized oppression led many to consider politics “white folks business.” By and large, none of that exists now. Blacks now work where they never could before; there are local towns and counties with black elected officials, cops and sheriffs. Black people now staff restaurants, motels, gas stations and other establishments. Ebony, a 31 year old black woman, picked me up at Tougaloo for my Enterprise car rental. We chatted. While she insisted on the southern “sir,” there was none of the deference that characterized black-white interactions 50 years ago.
But the conditions of that time are, in many ways, what they were then and, in some ways, worse. The schools are still largely segregated, and awful; poverty for the majority is still a fact of life; un- and under-employment are widespread; drugs have penetrated the area, and form an underground economy. Together, these elements create the school-to-prison pipeline, which is alive and well in the state. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, and no place is poorer than the Delta.
In Indianola, two black high school students told us about their school: old books, a strict dress code, suspension for slight infractions of the rules, inadequate staffing. “It’s like a prison,” one of them said. They are part of a Southern Echo school reform organizing effort; Southern Echo is the organization that carries on the Movement organizing tradition in the state.
Delta Blues Museum
The Blues were born in the 1920s in the shacks and “juke joints” of the Delta. In Clarksdale, a Delta Blues Museum celebrates that history. B.B. King is the best known of the “bluesmen.” There’s now a B.B. King Museum in Indianola, about an hour away.
I stopped to talk with the museum custodian, a man in his 60s who remembered the bad old days, and whose father was part of The Movement. I gave him a poster (I brought about a dozen of them with me for this purpose) that includes the photo of Bob Moses, Martha Prescod and me described above. He shook my hand for what must have been minutes, excitedly thanking me for coming down to his state some 50 years ago. “You all did good things back then,” he exclaimed.
Fannie Lou Hamer Museum
“Mrs. Hamer,” as we all called her even when we knew her pretty well, is a legendary leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She electrified the country with her speech to the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee in 1964. You can listen to it on YouTube. Here’s its conclusion: “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?” At the time, the TV networks were angered by a last minute, no-content, news conference called by President Johnson with the obvious purpose of pulling the cameras from Mrs. Hamer’s speech. So they re-played it several times. Delegates on the convention floor cried when they heard her.
Mrs. Hamer was one of the early people to go down to the courthouse to register to vote. She was told by her plantation owner to remove her application or she would be fired. She didn’t, and was. Her house was fired into a few nights later; luckily, no one was killed. She refused to budge, and went on to become a nationally known leader. She is a heroine of The Movement.
She later established a pig farm coop, and provided food to both black and white people in her county and around it who were living on the edge of starvation. The pig farm was run in an interesting way. Hungry families were given two piglets, a male and a female. When these pigs had a litter, the family had the responsibility to give a male and female pair to another hungry family. Both whites and blacks were beneficiaries of this program, and I’m told the relationships among them were often good — indicating that the wall of racism can be broken relatively quickly if the circumstances are right.
The Fannie Lou Hamer Museum is small, but its collection includes graphic documentation of those earlier times. Photos of Mrs. Hamer, a reconstruction of the shack she lived in, flyers and other documents from the period are all there. We were fortunate to show up when the curator was there on other business. (The museum was officially closed.) She took us on a personal tour. A few hundred yards away there is a Fannie Lou Hamer shrine and burial place. It brought back vivid memories of the times I was with her. In 1963, I went through Ruleville and visited her after purchasing the 1963 memorial issue of Ebony Magazine that celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation. She loved going through it with me as we sat in her house. I bought it for myself — and on my $10 a week income it was pretty pricey. I left it with her as a present. Seeing her joy at reading that history was a far greater satisfaction than having the magazine.
I also remember Mrs. Hamer at the infamous Peg Leg Bates SNCC staff meeting of December, 1966. I arrived to bid adieu to my friends; I was on the way to Kansas City, MO to direct Saul Alinsky’s black community organizing project. When the vote to exclude whites from the SNCC staff passed, Mrs. Hamer was in tears. “Mike,” she said to me, “I just don’t understand what they’re doing.” It was the last time I saw her. She died of cancer about 10 years later.
The successor to Delta cotton as a major employer of Delta blacks was catfish farming. The mechanical cotton picker and chemical fertilizers eliminated many, many jobs in cotton. About 175 cotton plantation owners flooded their land and turned it into catfish farms. At the peak, they employed more than 5,000 people, 90% of them black.
The work was difficult and dangerous. Rapid hand movement on the assembly line led to carpal tunnel problems. Speed-up lead to bad knife cuts and, at the worst, lost fingers. Indignities in the workplace (no doors on the stalls in the women’s bathroom, asking permission from a supervisor to take a bathroom break, workers called derogatory names) were reminders of the worst period of second-class citizenship. Workers were forced to show up and then hang around waiting for a shipment to arrive. During the wait-time, they weren’t allowed to clock in, so they didn’t get paid. Poor pay and no benefits were standard.
Between 1985-90 there was an extended organizing drive and strike that finally led to a contract that increased pay, defined work hours and overtime, and created a pension — which hadn’t previously existed. But most important to the workers we met, they now had a voice. The arbitrary and capricious behavior to which they’d earlier been exposed was no longer possible because they had a union. Since then, because of foreign competition and increases in the cost of feed, the industry has shrunk.
We met with nine of the women who’d been through the ’85-’90 organizing, including Sarah White, one of the original two organizers, at the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1529 there. Mary Young, the first person to step up as pro-union was married to a member of the Steelworkers Union. From him, she learned about authorization cards and the benefits of having a union. Sarah White tells her story in a rich contralto voice. She now speaks in behalf of the union at various places; we reconnected at a panel at the reunion.
Eddie Steel, the UFCW field rep, is an inspiring guy; he joined the women and was a gracious host. He was very clear about his accountability to the membership. On several occasions he spoke of the members who pay his dues and tell him what he ought to be doing. (This was a refreshing contrast on a trip in which most of the action is based in what I call “the plague of the nonprofits,” all of which are foundation funded and accountable to no one beyond their own self-perpetuating boards of directors.)
It was an incredible afternoon; I was on the edge of tears from some of their stories. Here are some of the things they said; I wish I’d had a tape-recorder!
–“we stood together, we were in a bond together, and by the grace of God we made it.”
–“I just had that fear in me. That fear had me going. I had the fear about talking to people at work. I talk to anyone now.”
–“We had to fight ‘em tooth and toenail; we was out there for months in the cold 1990 first big strike. They was surprised; they didn’t think we was going to do it when we struck. But we was family; we have to stick together…I seriously don’t know where we’d be without the union.”
–“no one can do you any of the old way; you have a chance to speak up for you; you have that respect; [the union] does make a whole lot of difference.”
–“I used to snap at people and I had to learn how to treat my brothers and sisters…you come up under a good leader and you just watch your leader some; just have to be a follower [for a while] and we have to learn how to give each other respect.”
–“I’ve been fired three times; I was young at the time. The work was hard; you didn’t know when to come in; [if] they didn’t have the product you had to sit and wait; they didn’t put on on the clock. [When I was approached about the union] I said Okay. Respect — it mean the world to people who been treated so bad.”
–“You got to read your contract, and I learned knowledge is power and if you know you’re right, then you’re right…I had to put that fear to the side and speak out.”
–“If I had to work at a place where there wasn’t a union, I’d be organizing one. [With a union] we have issues and problems, but we get it fixed because of the strength within us. Together we stand; divided we fall. With us being union, we have a voice; without a union we have no voice.”
–“Everybody is not a leader; everybody’s not going to come out, but you as a follower, you look at that leader to come out of your fearness. I’m not going to remain a coward because the strong leader is someone I’ll come up under. So much has to do with the strength of your leader.”
–“I associated with bold people and stick around those bold people and some of that will rub off on you.”
Steel emphasized his accountability to the membership because they elect him and pay his salary. It was a refreshing contrast to the world of unaccountable nonprofits that depend for their money on foundations.
While down to a little over 700 members in the catfish plants (of a 1,600 potential), the union still has an industry-wide impact because non-union places want to keep it out. And in the union places they are still in constant struggle with their employers. The UFCW local has also expanded to organize nursing homes, chain grocery stores and other establishments.
I hope this Local grows. It is addressing what I believe to be the central issues now facing black and other working people in Mississippi — whether or not they will have union representation. They have a strong rank-and-file orientation toward their union.
On the critical side, my perhaps over-sensitive ear caught a little bit of the “do for” mind-set that I think is a central problem facing the American labor movement. When I asked how members reacted when their grievances took as long as three and four years before resolution, several people talked about the difficulties that arose. While they keep the members informed, it is “the union” — in some ways a third party—that is representing them. And Eddie Steele’s strength as an advocate is also a weakness. He speaks for people. I didn’t get any sense that he takes delegations of them with him to act on problems before they become formal grievances.
The truth is that I was deeply disappointed with the format. Panel after panel talked to an audience, followed by a stream of people who lined up at microphones to ask questions or make their own statements. Some of the panels were good, but there was too much being talked at rather than talking with one another.
In contrast, when the San Francisco Bay Area Civil Rights Movement Veterans had a local reunion last April, the day was spent in small groups where 80-some participants shared stories and answered a couple of key questions that got the conversation going. At the Mississippi reunion, there could have been small groups in which veterans and the many young people who came addressed current issues and spoke of lessons to be learned from the earlier experience. Critical questions, some of which I raise below, could have framed the conversations. None of that happened.
The reunion was at Tougaloo, one of the historically black colleges of the south. It was established for the education of newly-freed slaves by northern missionaries during the Reconstruction period. Before the defeat of reconstruction in 1876, it was actually funded by the state of Mississippi to serve as a teacher’s college.
In the 1960s when I was in Mississippi, this was one of the few places in the state where whites and blacks could meet as equals. A state legislature effort to close it was somehow thwarted because its charter was issued in the pre-Jim Crow/segregation laws period. Why the power structure didn’t find another way to shut it down remains an unanswered question for me. Beverly W. Hogan, the college’s African-American woman president gave us a warm and inspiring welcome! “As we gather this week to look back to remember Freedom Summer…we are also looking towards the future, gleaning from the valuable lessons of this transformative period, the guiding principles that will continue to inspire us to build a more fair, inclusive and equitable world for all humankind. Thank you for joining us on this historic intellectual battle ground as we continue to educate for democracy,” she said.
We reminisced about the past, and discussed the current situation. I think an important connection was missing, and could have been established with the questions, “What, if any, were our 1960s mistakes?” And, “What might have been done differently or better?” An opportunity missed!
There are two big questions that beg further discussion. I do not believe that the power to address black poverty in Mississippi, or for that matter anyplace, will be built without strategically looking at these questions:
Is there the possibility to break the almost-solid bloc of white votes that now supports the Republicans? Two approaches are usually put on the table. The first is to woo white “moderates”. While important, on the major poverty-related and economic justice issues I do not think it is sufficient — for two reasons. When these moderates do enter alliances with Democrats, it is typically with “corporate Democrats” and they will not entertain the kinds of proposals that are necessary to address black poverty, poverty in general, and the growing gap between the wealthy few and everyone else. Further, the black Democrats who pursue these alliances are, themselves, unwilling to engage significantly with black poverty. The policy options required to address poverty are now beyond the narrow frame of “realistic” politics in the country. That means major demand “from below” will have to push this agenda.
Another place to look for a break in the now-racist white bloc is at low-to-moderate income whites who view race as a central part of their identity. An old story comes to mind: a union organizer in a deep south state was organizing a factory where whites made $2.00 and hour and blacks made $1.00. He said to a white worker, “If you have a union, you can both make $3.00 an hour.” “Yeh,” the white worker replied, “but then I’d be making the same as the nigger.” But there’s another, and opposite, story as well. A 1930s union organizer told me this one. A white worker he was trying to interest in the United Mine Workers said to him, “Ain’t you the union let’s in the niggers?” The organizer pointed to a nearby black worker and this exchange followed:
“See that fellow over there?”
“Who’s he work for?”
“Who do you work for?”
“You think about it. I’ll be back, and we can talk some more.”
In the recognition election, the UMW won. It took white worker votes to win.
You don’t have to go back to the ‘30s to find similar or hopeful stories in this regard. In the late 1960s, former SNCC field secretaries Bob Zellner and Jack Minnis worked in the midst of a strike at the Laurel, MS Masonite plant in which whites struck and blacks scabbed, and had encouraging results. Dottie Zellner wrote the story up. Both Dottie and Bob were at the reunion. As far as I know, no one asked them to discuss this experience.
Fannie Lou Hamer’s earlier described pig coop is another example. That experience is written up in the biographies about her. My understanding is that she was respected and loved by poor whites and blacks.
More obscure, some Full Gospel Pentecostal churches in Mississippi include both black and white members, and are led by both blacks and whites. The stereotype of these churches is that you can’t involve them in matters of economic justice. Maybe if you talk about it that way you can’t. But if you talk about how family life is made immensely more difficult by economic pressures, then you can. White Pentecostal mine workers in West Virginia leveraged their status as part-time “jack-leg” preachers to get Pat Robertson, hardly a pro-union guy, to endorse a strike. Latino Pentecostals are increasingly engaged in the immigration rights movement as they see the consequences of Obama’s present deportation policies for their member families. In a recent UFCW campaign in North Carolina, organizer Gene Bruskin got Latino and Black workers to overcome past tension and achieve a major victory at a Smithfield pork plant.
Indeed, when you start looking there are lots of examples. But you have to look. Historically, Mississippi white Democrats were divided between racist populists and racist plantation owners and their supporters. The former really hated the latter. But they hated blacks as much, if not more. If you start with the premise that this can’t be changed, you won’t change it.
There’s yet another dimension to this. In my SNCC days, it was not uncommon for a field secretary to speak of “crackers,” “honkies,” or “rednecks.” African-Americans who would never utter the negative terms “spik,” or “kike,” and for whom “nigger” (except as used among one another) was a fighting term, thought this negative was o.k. Indeed, it often got a chuckle. Why is that? And can we use the understanding we get from looking at that to look at poor whites? I think so. People want to be “ok.” If to do that they need to be better than someone else, they will. And the someone else is typically lower on the status pole than they are. The reason for that is that those lower are also more powerless. They can’t effectively strike back. It’s risky to say things like that about the more powerful; they can hurt you.
The second place that begs for evaluation and critical discussion is the cooptation of The Movement, and why SNCC, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and their allies couldn’t build sufficient power at the base to prevent the more moderate and middle class African-American “leadership class” from reasserting its prominence when it became safe — because of Federal registrars assigned to Mississippi after passage of the Voting Rights Act — to participate in politics. That period spans 1963/64 – 1968/70. Multiple questions need to be asked, but fundamental to all of them was our inability at the time to build black power of sufficient breadth and depth to project leaders, from whatever background they may have come, who would remain true to the economic, educational and criminal justice interests of the vast majority of blacks in the state, and to the underlying value of equality for the most marginalized that was at the heart of SNCC’s work.
SNCC was an organization of organizers, or so we thought at the time. With the sometimes-diverging guidance of people like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Myles Horton and a few other older veterans of the struggle, we did amazingly well and accomplished extraordinary things. But we really didn’t know how to be an organization of organizers. And our own internal divisions prevented us from figuring that out. One of my hopes at the time was to hook SNCC up with Saul Alinsky, who I went to work for after four years on the SNCC staff. For a very brief period in the late 1960s, Stokely Carmichael and Alinsky discussed the possibility of a relationship. They shared a platform in Detroit that was originally billed as a debate on black power. But Alinsky said, “If you came here expecting disagreement, you’re in for a disappointment. We don’t go into a black community and come out at the end with pastel power.” The relationship did not develop. The field of community organizing still needs to explore ways of pulling together the different strands of thinking and practice in order to maximize the people power it promises to deliver.
Revisiting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) Atlantic City challenge might have been instructive as well. (For those too young to remember, MFDP members were excluded from Democratic Party pre-convention meetings. They organized a parallel process through the vehicle of the MFDP, following all the national party’s rules for sending a delegation to the quadrennial convention. They then presented themselves to the convention’s credentials committee and sought recognition as the Democratic Party of Mississippi.) The discussion is generally cast as a moral one. As Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “We didn’t come here for no two seats.” What if MFDP had asked for half the seats instead of all of them — i.e. a split delegation? Granted, that would have been an implicit acceptance of the racism that dominated the “regulars.” But wouldn’t that have made an interesting proposal? Had it been granted, and had the regulars remained at the convention, they would have found themselves in an “integrated” Mississippi delegation — more accurately one characterized by equal voting rights. Of course they wouldn’t have stood for that, and would have walked out — as they did anyway even after MFDP rejected the two seats at large offer. Would the split delegation proposal have won additional credential committee votes? Might it have blunted the fear of white voter backlash expressed in now-released private tape recordings of Lyndon Johnson rounding up votes to deny MFDP’s challenge? Would it have made a difference with labor, liberal and other allies? We have no way of knowing. But on the face of it, I think it might have been a better proposal. Indeed, it is arguable that even the two seats at large might have presented MFDP with a wedge into 1968 recognition as the official party from the state. Instead, the labor-liberal-national civil rights leadership alliance bypassed MFDP’s leadership, except for state NAACP president Aaron Henry, and created a new “moderate” Democratic Party in the state.
While there is a lot of remaining Movement energy in the state, and while there were some impressive young people carrying on the struggle, I thought the big absence was a real discussion of black power, and what it would mean to have and use it in today’s context of roll-backs of past victories (particularly in voting rights), and continuing problems of poverty, under- and unemployment, low wages and other workplace issues, quality education, health care, political representation and more.
The Freedom Singers sang old Movement songs. I always enjoy both the songs and the singers. Back in the ‘60s, they led us in those songs during some of the most tense moments of SNCC multi-day staff meetings. The singing was a bond that held SNCC together. Deeply rooted movements for change always create their own music. None was better than that of the civil rights movement.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, the African-American representative from the Delta’s 2nd Congressional District, had some interesting things to say: he bemoaned black politicians who want safe districts (80+% black voters) when by spreading their constituency into adjoining districts there would be the possibility of electing more blacks while retaining their own seats. He noted that a number of elected black politicians aren’t really representing the interests of those who put them in office, and indicated the need for effective organizing to hold them accountable. His is one of not-too-many politicians who understands the necessity for independent organization at the base.
An immigration rights panel indicated a strong alliance between the growing Latino community, particularly in the southern part of the state, and the black community. Bill Chandler, Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance’s executive director, comes out of a Community Service Organization/United Farm Workers Union background, and Saul Alinsky-associate Fred Ross’s training. He has been working for immigrants’ rights for 45 years.
There were some powerful movies about the ’60s, including one on the gay marriage issue in the black community. It included footage of passionate black preachers denouncing gay marriage, showed the transition that some people went through from opposition to support, and vividly reported the affirmation of gay marriage in a recent Maryland initiative.
Another film, “Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi”, recounts the story of struggle in Holmes County, and the important role Movement role played by black independent farmers, some of whom owed their land ownership to the short-lived New Deal Farm Security Administration. I met co-director Charlayne Haynes. I hope this film will be widely seen.
A labor panel included Sanchioni Butler, a lively African-American woman organizer for the United Auto Workers (UAW), which now has an organizing campaign at the union-hostile Canton Nissan plant whose work force is largely black. UAW is moving carefully after their recent loss at a VW plant in Chattanooga, TN. Hopefully, they learned some lessons from that defeat.
Busses took reunion participants to a site demonstration one afternoon. Community support is a strategic part of the campaign, and this was an example of it. Because of such support, a fired worker was recently reinstated in his job.
Sarah White, who I’d earlier met in Indianola, effectively discussed the issues faced by black workers in the state and talked about her Local in Indianola. It was interesting to see her comfortably mixing with the wide breadth of participants at the reunion. I suspect had you told her 20 years ago that she would be doing this kind of public speaking she would have thought you were crazy.
The Mississippi Museum of Art had an exhibit of Movement photographer’s work organized by Matt Heron. Our evening there was introduced by a Mississippi white woman from the museum staff. Nothing better illustrated the fact that some significant changes have come to the state. But Jackson still has a long way to go. Tragically, the very promising mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, died of a heart attack before he could put into place a cooperative economic development program and other innovative ideas. A mainstream Democrat (black) candidate defeated Lumumba’s son in the election to fill the vacancy. But I learned at one of our panels that the cooperative economic development program is continuing without government support. I think it might be better off being launched in this way.
The reunion’s highlight was seeing old friends, and having some good informal conversations. The Hilton Hotel near Tougaloo is where many participants stayed; its lounge was the gathering place for many conversations.
A somber session acknowledged those who have died, and honored those murdered, including both the well-known and unknown. Rita Schwerner spoke; her then-husband Mickey is one of the three people murdered early in the summer of 1964. His murder, and those of Ben Cheney and Andrew Goodman, fulfilled an expectation of the Summer Project. The federal government descended upon Mississippi. When rivers were dredged for the murder victims, other earlier victims’ bodies were found. They were nameless local blacks.
A final day panel was titled, “Our Southern Strategy: ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’” It is instructive that the moderator and panelists were all politicians. There was no speaker on mass-based non-violent disruptive direct action, mass boycotts, public shaming, mutual aid (coops, credit unions and buying clubs all being examples), direct negotiation with business and major nonprofit decision makers, and workplace action and strikes as central organizing tools to express people power. Indeed, community organizing as a strategic approach, with electoral politics as one of its expressions, seems to have been forgotten. Mississippi Freedom Summer is largely remembered as voter registration and freedom schools.
In one of the concluding sessions, Bob Moses asked everyone to rise and repeat after him the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. At the end, he emphatically said, “Own it.” A friend of mine said Bob is seeking a new moral center around which to rebuild The Movement. After “We the people,” he said, “It doesn’t say government, or states; it says ‘people’.” Just in case it’s not handy, here it is:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Postscript: Diamondhead, MS.
I rented a car in Jackson, and drove to Diamondhead, which is on the Gulf, and visited a friend there. There are still foundations with nothing standing on them – testimony to the power of Hurricane Katrina. My friend lives back from the water, and about 40 feet above sea level, so her house wasn’t touched.
We talked a bit about the recent election. A Tea Party candidate was defeated in the Republican run-off because blacks “crossed over” from the Democrats and voted for his opponent in sufficient number to affect the outcome of the election. An unusual provision in Mississippi law let registered Democrats (which is what most blacks are) vote in the run-off election between two Republicans.
The nominated Thad Cochran is better than the candidate he defeated. But the Mississippi potential is for someone much better. I hope the potential will be realized. The pieces and the legacy for something strikingly different are there.
Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center (OTC). He has been a community organizer for 50 years, and is co-editor of the forthcoming People Power: The Saul Alinsky Community Organizing Tradition (Vanderbilt University Press).