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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Letter from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1963

Dear Mom and Dad,
     There are two fights here, and not one: the negro insisting upon his rights often takes second place to the internecine strife between the "Uncle Toms" who want to go slowly and take things easy, and the liberals who push and push-- sometimes so hard that they push themselves out of any Negro backing.  There are resignations and counter charges: the Pine Bluff Youth Movement becomes the Pine Bluff Progressive Movement and a new faction takes over.
     Seven months ago the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee sent a white field representative to Pine Bluff.  Bill Hansen is 24, dedicated, lives and dreams civil liberties.  He has had a very difficult time getting accepted by the Negro community(46% of the total population of Pine Bluff), but now is accepted wholeheartedly by the liberal faction and has been complained about to SNCC headquarters by the conservative Negro faction.  They want him out since one of his ideas is to fill up the jails.  His idea--which I subscribe to entirely-- is that once a kid gets sent to jail for freedom he is more than ever committed to the movement.
     I am living at Freedom House, the headquarters of the Pine Bluff movement.  There is another white boy from California.  What I do is difficult to say.  They won't allow us to picket or demonstrate or sit-in.  White agitators-- "nigger lovers"-- are the quickest means of starting violence.  Therefore, anything that we do must be circumspect.
     This afternoon, Governor Faubus spoke at the dedication of a new building at the Negro College.  Since yesterday, when I got here, I have been making posters for the kids to carry, such as
                                            Governer Faubus--
                                              Would you send Your children

                                        New Buildings Don't Teach--
                                        They only salve consciences.

     Who carries these signs?  Who has sat in or lain in or stopped buying at certain stores?  Who has gone to jail repeatedly?  A bunch of negro kids whose average age is 15!  Many 13 and 14 year old girls.  There are a few older boys of 17 or 18.
     There is a terrific spirit here in the 15-year-olds.  Unfortunately, this age group is the only communication with SNCC though they have tried the high school and "college" ages with little success.
     Yesterday we arrived an hour or so before 25 kids were released after 3 days in jail for sitting in the public library and demanding that they be issued library cards.  It was amazing to see how sophisticated in the ways of non-violence they were and also how backwards they were in most of their education.  Adamant about civil rights and ambitions no higher than the army or being a bootlegger.  But to hear them talk!  How they walked into the paddy wagon with their heads up and singing freedom songs; how they insisted that their names be spelled correctly when booked-- that their parent's name have a Mrs. or a Mr. in front of it.  How they sang for 3 days in jail with only 1 meal all that time, with very little water in cells that were 120-130 Fahrenheit.  (It is 2 in the morning now and the temperature in this cool house with a big fan is about 85 degrees.)  How they had no mattresses and slept on the stinking, filthy floors, eaten by roaches and fleas.  How they sang until they were hoarse.  Many of these were kids who had just finished taking part in a sit-in where they were locked in a part of a restaurant, hundreds of whites were jeering outside and the owner threw in large Dixie cups of ammonia and acid after thoughtfully turning the heat up full blast in the middle of the day.  When some of the kids got sick and passed out, the other sit-inners panicked and tried to get out.  After someone was knocked through a plate glass window the rest got out and by some miracle only a few were hurt by the white mob outside.
     So these were many of the same kids who just got out of jail and yet they all picketed Faubus.  We couldn't go because we would be white agitators.  Therefore we strolled up to the college which was swarming with police and troopers.  We passed the first cordon of them-- just going to hear Faubus and nowhere in sight of a picket line--when a policeman stopped us and motioned us into his car because we "looked funny".  After all, not too many whites ever step on the premises of a negro college.  Then we were driven downtown and locked safely up in the city jail.  A short time later we were released.
     This evening we went to a mass meeting where there were spirituals sung, and the preachers exhorted the negroes to stand up, to fight, to register, to vote.

     All this in two days.  How much I can do is doubtful.  But we are working on some sort of education plan that perhaps can be of some service in.

     Do not worry.  We do not want to get into any violence or go to jail since we are told this only hurts the civil rights movement.

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