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How I Grew Up in the Epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement, Yet Discovered its History and Lessons Decades Later

Copyright © 2014, Susan Follett
 

On April 26, 1984, my roof was literally—and figuratively—ripped from my house when an F-3 tornado struck my suburban Minnesota neighborhood. That night, staying with a friend and unable to sleep, I turned on the television and happened upon a documentary about the March from Selma to Montgomery. I watched, riveted, as unfamiliar history unfolded—events that took place scarcely 100 miles from where I grew up in Meridian, MS. Though my house would be relatively easily restored to its original condition, I would be forever changed. Though it would not happen for years, I would be drawn home on a journey of discovery that would give birth to a novel.

On March 7, 1965—a day now known as “Bloody Sunday”—600 people headed east out of Selma, Alabama on U.S. Route 80. Marching for the right to vote, they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away before state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. They would try again twice, reaching the capitol 25,000 strong on March 21. Less than five months later, President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The images I saw on the TV screen—dangerous, brutal, and arbitrary—somehow combined with images of the tornado, to heighten my reaction. Overarching the shock and shame was confusion. Though my focus remained on my career for years after seeing the documentary, I never let go of these questions: Why hadn’t I known about it? And what might be different if I had?


Bloody Sunday:  March 7, 1965

I did my first interview in 2000.  Meridian civil rights attorney Bill Ready Sr. painted a picture of the time and place in which I grew up. One TV station. One newspaper. Each owned by the same man. Parents, white and black, intent on protecting their children from harsh realities.

As the instigating questions led to many more, I began to read—dozens of oral histories captured as part of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Civil Rights Documentation Project. And I wrote—what I now refer to as “my essay about the story I wanted to write.”

In 2007, I began interviewing in earnest, across the movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s rights.

 

Ben Chaney, voter rights activist whose brother James was murdered along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman outside Philadelphia, MS in the summer of 1964.

Reverend Ed King, native white Mississippi Methodist minister who, with Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and others, attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention representing the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They tried, and failed, to unseat the Dixiecrats, the all-white state Democratic Party delegation; yet MFDP opened many Americans’ eyes to voter discrimination.

Heather Tobis Booth, an important contributor to the early women’s movement in Chicago and, like my character Zach Bernstein, a Freedom Summer volunteer from the University of Chicago.

As Zach’s character became an integral part of my story, I needed to educate myself about Judaism—from the food, to worship practices, to beliefs. I recalled how, in 1968, Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, MS was bombed and rumors spread labeling the act as Klan retaliation against civil rights sympathizers. Knowing of the role of reform Jews in the civil rights movement, I connected with reform rabbis and congregants in Chicago.


FBI reward poster for three missing civil rights workers
 


Fannie Lou Hamer:
1964 Democratic
National Convention

I was informed by people too numerous to mention but am especially indebted to Chicago Sinai Congregation, Harriet Hausman, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, Chuck Mervis, and Rabbi Paul Saiger. Chuck Mervis graciously shared sermons written by his late father, Rabbi Leonard Mervis, around the time when Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Mrs. Hausman and Rabbi Marx participated in the March on D.C. and brought that particular moment in history to life for me. Rabbi Marx was also with Dr. King in Selma.

In 2010 I shared my developing manuscript with those I’d interviewed and with new people I’d begun to meet: educators, movement figures, and book groups.

Vickie Malone, social studies teacher who piloted civil rights education at Mississippi’s McComb High School. Ms. Malone’s local cultures class inspired Mississippi’s K-12 public school mandated civil rights education curriculum. Mississippi is the first state in the U.S. to issue such a mandate.

 



Mississippi Mandates K-12 Civil Rights Education


2006 Unveiling:  “The 5 in ’65” by Robert McDowell  
 

Faye Inge, former language arts teacher and Freedom School student who is one of the “Meridian 5.” These five African American women desegregated Meridian High in 1965, well before Mississippi finally complied with federally mandated desegregation in January 1970.

Janie McKinney who, in 1961 as a twelve-year-old white girl, gave aid when one of the Freedom Riders’ buses was attacked outside her Anniston, AL home. Her story in the PBS American Experience documentary “Freedom Riders caused my heart to ache for the schism she must have felt—needing to honor her faith and basic humanity, fearing what might happen to her father and family’s livelihood, terrorized by her own fear and the overwhelming circumstances surrounding her.

The first book group to take up my pre-published manuscript was Seattle’s The BookClub. Jackie Roberts, member and co-founder of Seattle’s Interracial Dialogue Series, was my gracious host. Since then, book groups nationwide have read and shared their reactions.


Freedom Riders’ Bus Firebombed in Anniston, Alabama
 

Reader feedback suggested that, though Freedom Summer is the pivotal element in my story, it was underdeveloped. Fleshing out the summer of 1964 in Mississippi required more research.

Montgomery Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Bill Scaggs, another reviewer, introduced me to Gail Falk, who taught at the Meridian Freedom School 1964-65. Gail became both mentor and muse, informing and enlightening me about the Mississippi Summer Project in Meridian in 1964 and provoking me to dig deeper to convey the complex mix of emotions experienced during that time.

My passion lies in tackling such complexities, via themes of everyday heroism, prejudice, and personal change. And so, the novel’s primary metaphor is a compound one. Not just “fog”—confusing, mysterious, obstructive. Not simply a “machine”—rhythmic, controlled, organized. But a “fog machine”—poisonous, seductive, pervasive, deadly, distorting, relentless.

It’s of fundamental importance to me to portray prejudice as a shared human challenge, not a “Mississippi thing” or “southern problem.” Differing degrees of prejudice among my characters, then, serve to compare and contrast, never to excuse or mitigate. I relate my title to the mission statement of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation which describes prejudice as “systemic and institutionalized.”

 
Gail Falk (front), teaching: Meridian Freedom School, 1964


Reflecting Pool:
1963 March on Washington

Each time I think about the people I’ve been honored to interact with during the writing of The Fog Machine, I am awestruck. I’ve tried to capture history from aging history makers and present it through relationships. One example is the scene at the Reflecting Pool during the March on D.C.

“Seventy-five years now I been living in this country,” said the old Negro in a voice that rang out like Mahalia Jackson’s. “But today’s the one I become a man.”
— From a true story, shared by Rabbi Robert J. Marx

The writing of The Fog Machine has been a journey of discovery. Capturing history, lest we forget or never even know it, and exploring what enables and disables change in human beings. I’ve found, as other fiction writers have described, that writing is an organic process. If you create characters, then set them free, they will lead you to answers to questions you pose to them. Through the lives of C.J. Evans, Joan Barnes, Zach Bernstein, and all their friends, families, and people they crossed paths with, I’ve concluded this:  a complex interaction of family, culture, society, politics, personality, religion, what we value, what we fear, and who we meet determines both what prejudice we feel and our ability to change.

I hope my novel can entertain as well as inform and that The Fog Machine will find its way into the hands of countless more book groups, individual readers, students, and teachers.

Photo Resources

Historic Route
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Selma_to_Montgomery_marches_-_historic_route_retouched.jpg

Bloody Sunday:  March 7, 1965
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bloody_Sunday-Alabama_police_attack.jpeg

FBI reward poster for three missing civil rights workers
http://blogs.clarionledger.com/jmitchell/files/2011/07/Cheney-Goodman-Schwerner-civil-rights-workers-missing.jpg

Fannie Lou Hamer: 1964 Democratic National Convention
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsc.01267/

Mississippi Mandates K-12 Civil Rights Education
http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/mississippi-introduces-k-12-civil-rights-legislation/

2006 Unveiling:  “The 5 in ’65” by Robert McDowell 
http://meridianstar.com/archive/x1448085775

Freedom Riders’ Bus Firebombed in Anniston, Alabama
http://www.d.umn.edu/~mull0323/CivilRightsWebquest.htm

Gail Falk, teaching: Meridian Freedom School, 1964
https://picasaweb.google.com/QCCRMVETS/MeridianMissFreedomSummer1964PixByMarkLevyAndDonnaGarde?authkey=Gv1sRgCNTkzLeen7GcfQ#5583305977758412578

Reflecting Pool: 1963 March on Washington
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003654395/

 


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