Sermonette on the Movement
By Casey Hayden
Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 27-29
Mary King is like her ancestors. She walks a very straight line for a long time. She was always like that: solid, linear, historical, careful, analytical, objective, thorough. And stouthearted. The amazing thing is that she wrote this book at all. To have gone back over all this history had to be such an emotional experience, so heavy. A strong persona, Mary, made of strong stuff. In the Freedom House at Tougaloo Mary set her hair in pink curlers when the rest of us could hardly keep up with our combs. When she left there she went with cartons and cartons of WATS line reports, pots and pans, and little scraps of paper. The Packrat. This is definitely the kind of head it took to write this book. It is so full of so many details, specifics.
It is, I think, a good book. It is personal, of course. Everyone’s memories–everyone’s slice of it–are personal, different. But she has spoken well and carefully to a good many of the major questions of the period. This book will be widely read in years to come, disputed and quoted as an authority. Primarily, however, its value will be in keeping alive a time which is rapidly becoming forgotten and/or misunderstood. Blacks today are viewed vaguely, if at all, like any other immigrant group. Like the Irish, they should just kind of meld in, (without intermarriage, of course). We’d like to forget slavery and the rigid caste system that followed. Really, slavery, Slavery. Not easily overcome. So it is good, Mary, to keep this information alive. You do history a favor.
I appreciate getting to write about your book. The movement was everything to me: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live. When I was no longer welcome there and then when it was no longer there at all, it was hard to go on. Many of us in this situation, especially the Southern whites, only barely made it through. I count myself lucky to be a survivor. But that is another story. For old times’ sake, Mary, here are some comments on this story.
This story in Mary’s words, meticulous Mary, comes out sounding like what we were doing was the most natural and proper thing in the world, that we were heroines from the very beginning, that each move was carefully planned. I think for her, it probably was. Actually, as I recall, one thing led to another and it was all quite underground, illegal, dangerous and on the road. There was a lot of bumming of cigarettes from each other and long cross-country drives in the night to meetings and a lot of going home with someone afterward, or taking someone home. It was outrageous, really. Exciting, liberating, spicy, when we were young and in the South. Sometimes I have longed for the movement so profoundly. The only nostalgia that compares is for my grandmother’s backyard when I was a child–the pomegranates and ripe figs, roses and swast peas, ferns and irises and crepe myrtles and oleanders, pecans and walnuts and swings and wet grass on little bare feet in the summer time. The movement was rich like that. And in like manner there is no going back.
There was a comfort in that time that was born of the
absolute certainty that what I was doing was the right thing to be doing. Nothing compares to that except the carrying, bearing and nursing of my children. When we were young and in the South we were so beautiful and naive. It was a children’s crusade, really. We were the fairhaired girls and nothing could touch us. Looking back we marvel at our courage, but at the time there was no courage, no fear. We were protected by our righteousness. The whole country was trapped in a lie. We were told about equality but we discovered it didn’t exist. We were the only truth-tellers, as far as we could see. It seldom occurred to us to be afraid. We were sheathed in the fact of our position. It was partly our naivete which allowed us to leap into this position of freedom, the freedom of absolute right action.
I think we were the only Americans who will ever experience integration. We were the beloved community, harassed and happy, just like we’d died and gone to heaven and it was integrated there. We simply dropped race. This doesn’t happen anymore. And in those little hot black rural churches, we went into the music, into the sound, and everyone was welcome inside this perfect place.
We were actually revolutionaries, in my opinion. Mary will tell you we weren’t, but I think we were. We loved the untouchables. We believed the last should be first, and not only should be first, but in fact were first in our value system and it was only the blindness of everyone else not to recognize this fact. They were first because they were redeemed already, purified by their suffering, and they could therefore take the lead in the redemption of us all. We wanted to turn everything not only upside down, but inside out. This is not mild stuff. It is not much in vogue now. We believed, pre-Beatles, that love was the answer. Love, not power, was the answer. All the debates about nonviolence and direct action and voter registration, in my view, were really about whether love or power was the answer. And we did love each other so much. We were living in a communtiy [sic] so true to itself that all we wanted was to organize everyone into it, make the whole world beloved with us, make the whole world our beloved, lead the whole world to the consciousness that it was our beloved and please come in to the fire, come in here by the fire. Come on in with us here by the fire and break taboos left and right. This is where it is truly safe.
The movement in its early days was a grandeur which feared no rebuke and assumed no false attitudes. It was a holy time.
This is of course, just my personal experience, as is Mary’s experience, as is all of life.
On Being Radicals
Some of us were radicals. We liked to think of being radical as going to the root of things. Of course, I was with the New Left folks a lot, the rowdies, although they were quieter and more scholarly then, before the war. Unfortunately radicals of the right came up with clearer answers to the questions we raised than we did. And better P.R. The failure of liberalism which we correctly identified has in fact issued forth in a right swing. I don’t know any left-wing radicals today, really. However, in reading Mary’s book, and in memory of the old days, I found myself making marginal notes in some parts of the book. The following approach to the women’s movement is an example of the style in which we thought, mostly at the time about race. Even for those of us who do not pretend to be politically involved it is good to do these exercises now and then for old times’ sake, to keep the form intact: Traditionally, the notion that women are trapped by and need to be liberated from their childbearing function, their biology, is widely accepted in the women’s movement. I think it’s incorrect. If carried to its logical extreme this position would result in the eradication of the human race.
Why not take biology, the body, as positive and see the problem in the society, the culture’s attitude toward birth? No one talks about labor much anymore, and never about labor as a source of value and seldom about labor as in bearing children. Both are undervalued and their place in the rewards of the culture are not reflective of the truth of their value to the experience of being human. Anyone who is present at a human birth, and especially the conscious mother, knows a great secret. Freedom is not a question of the control of the birth function (although certainly that is useful to have at our command) so much as recognition and dignification and reward of this function and the child-rearing function that follows from it. This line of reasoning carries one into deep waters, of course. We used to think like this all the time, these radical approaches with astounding implications.
Mary talks about organizing lower class women, a mass movement. We used to refer to the movement as a mass movement, back when it was happening. The word masses, like the word labor, is seldom used. What are some issues which touch all women rather than primarily or disproportionately benefiting upwardly mobile professional women?
I think about this one: Why is every second woman I talk to over thirty suffering from irregular and heavy menstrual periods? Why are the doctors giving out hormones, DNC’s and hysterectomies with abandon to handle the problem. What is the root cause? What is the relation of all this to the hormones we eat, for instance, in all meat and dairy products? Is anyone testing for this? Who should decide what we eat, anyway? (One can get into this one on cancer and pollutants and petroleum by-products and nuclear power, also.) Similarly, given the value of the experience of giving birth, and the need for women to claim it as their own, what is the feminist reaction to the shutting down of birthing centers nationwide by the insurance companies? It is the insurance companies who control the experience of the woman in the act of giving birth, the insurance companies and the AMA. This issue is as important as abortion. The conscious experience of birth changes the relationship of the mother from unconscious to conscious and thus contributes to the survival and spiritual development of the human
race. The next logical step in this thinking is to look at nursing homes, the profit motive’s impersonal and depressing answer to how to orchestrate life’s other most significant transition.
Of course, the AMA and the insurance companies are big groups to take on. This didn’t slow us down. We were brash and young. To address these issues means to address basic societal restructuring. It means all the same things it used to mean when we were into it. These issues cut across class lines. This is as it should be, as Mary suggests. These issues are about survival and spiritual truth. This is also as it should be. We need to think radically, even if it sounds a bit mad. Very few people, after all, know how.
What Goes Around Comes Around
I know there is for you, Mary, something of a full circle in this book. I know it took you twenty-five years to come to terms with much of this history, with yourself. This means a healing. The idea of coming full circle is important. Very important now in my life. It was important then, too. We used to hold hands and stand in a circle to sing “We Shall Overcome.” When we were debating how to continue to work and create together at Waveland after the summer of 1964 (which was a momentous time and a time when we couldn’t seem to get at deciding what to do anymore) I remember talking about circles. Instead of lines and boxes and hierarchy in the diagrams of how to organize SNCC I was drawing circles indicating people working together and the circles overlapping other circles as we all generated programs and things to do together. That was how the movement really was. Our side lost. But we were right. Hierarchy could not replace the circle dance (as Milan Kundera has also pointed out, I found out after writing this).
Bob Moses changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, around this time of the women’s memos. It was going back to something else to make the present full, to say an understanding. He was the only one who knew what to do. Bob wanted to do his doctorate at Harvard on the philosophical differences in Swahili and English, I understand, after he and Janet and the kids got back from Africa. After the SDS reunion there was some money left over which came to the New York group and we used it to throw a party to raise some more money for a film on Ella Baker. At the party Bob spoke and he talked about a Swahili word which meant the mother of the tribe, the spiritual guide of the community. He said Ella was that. He told about when he was a kid in Harlem and his family was very poor and the only way they could afford milk was through a milk co-opt Years later in the South he learned that this milk co-op had been organized by Ella Baker.
Things do not always fall apart. Sometimes what looks like falling apart is only part of a coming full back around. I think we have to hope for that, for a time when the truths women and old organizers know will be honored and the secret compassion we have secured in our hearts will find value in the population, among the people. Or that the people will find we have shared this all along. Somewhere in the questions that the Swahili/English text would raise must be the question of whether history is linear or circular, or maybe spiral. What is progress, really? How is history to be served? How do we serve each other? What is to be done?
This was the question which led to my drafting of our second memo, the Kind-of-Memo. It was so painful to see all the floundering about trying to figure out what to do, to be burning out oneself, and to see the community dissipating. It seemed like one should at least keep talking about what was really happening, what really mattered, with whoever would listen, whoever would talk back. That seemed to be what was to be done.
Tell It Like It Is
When I was working several years ago with Elaine Baker, another Tougaloo Freedom House grad, on an oral history project in a remote part of southern Colorado, we came up with this idea of putting tape recorders and tapes in the local library. Then we had the idea to get a grant and do it all over the country, so anyone anywhere could come in and record their life history and put it in the local oral history archive. We were working on an old SNCC axiom that everyone is as valuable as everyone else, and so is everyone’s experience as valuable as everyone else’s. Radical equality, like a mother’s love which sees each of her children as equally valuable. Mary can be an inspiration to all us survivors. We can, like her, write it down, record it, somehow pass it along. We can seize the time and make it our own, make our story our own, in our own style and fashion, as Mary has. For instance, a book about my life would look like a sixties comic book and be called “The Amazing Life of Casey Cason Hayden Cason, How She Escaped Death and Lived To Tell About It.” Getting it published or broadcast is not the main thing. We all remember the discrepancy between reality as we experienced it in the movement and what we read about that reality in print. We know that publication does not validate experience, nor do we need it for our experiences to be valid. What you record will be used, be useful, someday. It will be a service to the future. Save it for your grandchildren.
Well, this is not a review, exactly. It is more like a sermonette combined with notes scribbled down the side of a page. But it is part of the healing and the moving forward and upward which is the root of this book. So in closing I will say the only thing that I really do want to say a great deal and which I think you will be glad I said, Mary:
For the Zen teacher body and mind are one. So for a brief time in history, in our very own lives, art, religion and politics were one. Those of us with SNCC in the South in those days were political, it is true, but more radically, we were observers, participants, and midwives to a great upheaval, uprising, outpouring of the human spirit. This was the spirit of the thousands and thousands of poor Southern blacks who were in fact the movement. The form, the style, the very life of the movement was theirs. They were there when we got there and there when we left. Many of them could not read or write and they could barely speak the English language. They will never see this book. They, and not we, were the heroes, the heroines. I was privileged to have been their servant for a while. To them, for all I learned from them and for all the beauty I witnessed, I extend my most sincere and humble thanks.
Editor’s Note: Freedom Song by Mary King, William Morrow and Co., $22.95, 592 pp.) appeared this year and has been hailed by many reviewers as a monument to the civil rights movement. Ms. King worked for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the early sixties and has recorded her experiences during this time. In 1986 she sent the first draft of her manuscript to Casey Hayden (a Texas native lately of the Southern Regional Council staff, who now works for the City of Atlanta) and asked if Hayden would like to write a statement of her own which might be used as an introduction. The following was Hayden’s response to this request. The essay appeared in abbreviated form as a preface to Freedom Song and is presented here as a reflection on the period and the book.