June 28, 2014

For My 'rades in Jackson, A Poem of Mississippi Summer

[Some comrades of mine are among those gathered this weekend in Jackson MS for a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, or Mississippi Summer as we called it then. I post this poem for them.

I wasn't in Mississippi that summer. I was fourteen, not what the organizers were looking for, and my mother didn't think much of the idea either. So I followed it in the news.

When James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman disappeared on the night of June 21, we all pretty much knew what had happened. By a week later, 50 years ago tonight, there was no doubt.

This poem by John Beecher, a white southerner, a communist and a people's poet, locates Summer, 1964 in the long battle for freedom. For me the closing stanza conjures up 1964 as little else can, save only the civil rights anthems we sang, North and South, as the freedom struggle advanced.]

For the 60th Anniversary of the Beecher Memorial
United Church of Christ in New Orleans, Louisiana,
October 25, 1964

Old church with the same name as my own
you and I were born in the same year
It has taken two generations to bring us together
Now here we are in New Orleans
meeting for the first time
I hope I can say the right thing
what the man you are named for
might have said on one of his better days
He was my great-great-uncle
but come to think of it
he was instrumental in my founding too
Rolled in a tube at home I have a certificate
signed by Henry Ward Beecher
after he had united my grandfather and grandmother
in the holy bonds of matrimony
at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn
The year was 1858
and James Buchanan was President
The South was riding high
making the North catch and send back its escaped Negroes
and it looked to most people
as if slavery was going to last forever
but not to Henry Ward Beecher
which I suppose is why you named your church for him
He certainly helped change all that
together with his brother Edward and his sister
whose name was Harriet
and Mr. Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant
and a large number of young men
who wound up under the long rows of crosses
at Gettysburg Chickamauga Cold Harbor and such places

Nineteen hundred and four was a better year
than 1858
and the building of this church was a sign of it
It was no longer a crime to meet and worship by yourselves
with your own preacher
your own beautiful songs
with no grim-lipped regulators to stand guard over you
nobody breaking up your services with a bull-whip
Yes this was some better
Booker T. Washington was in his hey-day
the apostle of segregation
"We can be in all things social as separate as the fingers"
he said and Mr. Henry Grady the Atlanta editor
applauded him to the echo
as did all the other good white folks around
and they said
"This boy Booker has a head on his shoulders
even if it is a nappy one."
Dr. Washington was 48 years old at the time
but you know how southern whites talk
a man is a boy all his life if he's black
Dr. Washington was a pragmatist
And settled for what he could get
When they announced that dinner was served in the dining car
he ate his cindery biscuits out of a paper bag
and when George the porter made up berths in the Pullman
he sat up all night in the Jim Crow coach
Because of his eminently practical attitude
Dr. Washington was successful in shaking down
The big white philanthropists
Like C.P. Huntington the railroad shark
or was it octopus
and Negro education was on its way.

Old church
since 1904
you and I have seen some changes
slow at first
now picking up speed
I have just come from Mississippi
where I saw churches like this one
burned to the ground
or smashed flat with bombs
almost like Germany when I was there in 1945
only these Negroes were not beaten people
They sang in the ashes and wreckage
such songs as We Shall Overcome
and Let My Little Light Shine
O Freedom! they sang
Before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
They sang I'm going to sit at the welcome table
I'm going to live in the Governor's mansion
one of these days
I heard three mothers speak
who had made the President listen
and "almost cry, or he made like he was about to cry"
when they told him how their homes had been dynamited
"It's not hard to be brave"
one of these mothers said
"but it's awful hard to be scared"
I expect see her statue on a column in the square
in place of the Confederate soldier's
one of these days

Slavery looked pretty permanent in 1858
when it had just five years to go
and now in 1964
the White Citizens' Councils and the Ku Klux Klan
think they can keep their kind of half-slave South forever
Their South isn't on the way out
It's already dead and gone
only they don't know it
They buried it themselves
in that earthwork dam near Philadelphia Mississippi
when they thought they were getting rid of the bodies

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