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Letter to Gazette; July 10, 1964
Letter to Gazette, pg 3
July 10, 1964
All of us have been very impressed by the Negroes we have met. Many are illiterate, and few have anything like book knowledge, but from young to old there is an impressive awareness of the world and understanding of the things that count. An elderly man, unlettered, gave us a lecture one day on the duties of jurors that any judge would have been proud of (Negroes are not allowed on juries, but they suffer at their hands). There are people here who do not vote and cannot read, but who know more about precinct meetings and county conventions than most professional politicians. This much white supremacy has done for the Negroes: it has made him a knowledgeable and eager citizen. Mississippi law requires a voter to explain random passages of the Mississippi constitution. White voters can get away with explaining the simple clauses, but the Negroes have to be prepared to explain anything and everything. Political power seems more real when you don't have it than when you do. To these people the right to vote is a palpable part of American freedom; they believe in it. Ask anyone why he wants to vote and he will say, when we vote the police will stop mistreating us, or, the city will have to pave our streets. (It is a rule of thumb in Hattiesburg that where the pavement ends the Negro section begins).
Every day a few people take the long walk up the courthouse steps to try to register. Mississippi law requires the county to publish the name of each applicant in the newspaper for two weeks running. This is an open invitation [for] retribution from the whites. The walk up the courthouse steps is about as long a walk as you can make.
The Negro community in this town is very spirited and very determined. We have had an incredible response to our Freedom Schools; over 600 people of all ages (8 to 82) have signed up for our classes in literacy, Negro history, and US and state governments. We hold classes in five churches, morning and night. We must have about thirty teachers here. Those of us, mostly college students, who took the orientation session at Oxford only two weeks ago (it seems like years) are practically veterans now: we have had to call in many new teachers during the past few days, professionals recruited from New York. We are working under terrific handicaps: large classes, small classrooms, no equipment whatever, not a single text for the kids to use. What is perhaps [worse], not too many of us are very knowledgeable about the subject our students want most to learn, the history and background of the Negro people. There is a thirst for knowledge here, and a pathetic ignorance. I asked my class of adults to name famous American Negroes, and all they could come up with were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington (the kids know musicians and athletes). Perhaps few Americans could do better; the Negro is the forgotten man in American history. Who knows, for example, that Arizona was discovered by a Spanish explorer, or that the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre was a freedman? Who can name the many inventions made by Negroes?
Who knows that the first open heart surgery was done by a Negro? Children educated in Mississippi surely don't, and they are anxious to hear.