PHILADELPHIA—Many, many years ago (1963 if memory serves) I was at an SNCC meeting (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in Philadelphia. There was a whole crowd of what we used to call debutantes at this meeting to learn about the freedom campaign in the Deep South. We had a speaker from SNCC and he brought with him several of the organizers who had come up from Mississippi and Alabama where they’d been getting people registered to vote.
There was one black man—very strong and very tall—with a proud bearing and voice like James Earl Jones. He was originally from Meridian, Miss.
In our group was a young woman, who was kind of the informal leader of our clique of popular girls (small Quaker day school) from Mainline society. She obviously felt superior to those awful people who were prejudiced against “negroes.” She was happily expressing her support and deep empathy for the serious and important work these people were doing down in the Deep South.
The tall man from Mississippi took a fairly instant dislike to this young woman and began needling her and making snide comments about everything she said. Gradually, this verbal sparring escalated. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but I sure remember the ending. He finished by poking her in the belly and said, “Missy, I hopes you gets pregnant, so I can stomp yo baby to death!”
Well, she vapor locked, and then she began to scream and swear and curse at him in the most virulent, toxic, ultra-racist sentiments that anyone had ever heard — things that would have made George Wallace blush. As she spoke, you could see the horror and then gradual realization crossing the faces of all the young people there… moving from comradely agreement to a realization of how horrible and offensive and just wrong were the things she was saying.
Almost in tears, the screaming young woman began to realize what had come and was still issuing from her mouth. She was at once horrified, mystified, embarrassed and deeply upset. Her anger evaporated completely. She began to sob. The man from Meridian embraced her and held her while she cried on his shoulder for several minutes. He held her like a father, whose child has done something bad, but really needs healing, not punishment. We all watched them in stunned silence.
As she stopped crying, he released her from his embrace, her tears having made a dark patch on his light blue shirt. “You see, miss, what we’re up against? We all got it. All that hate – it’s in you, it’s in me. It’s in everybody. We likes to think we got it beat, but it’s there all the time, just eating out our insides. You gots to face that and see it in yo’self, not just deny it’s there. Then maybe, you can have a chance to get the better of it and be free in your own heart. Until you do that, you can’t get no place, can’t be nobody, and you’ll always be part of the problem, and not a part of the answer.”
He was a very fine man. His name was James Chaney. He was lynched in his home town about a year after I met him.