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MFP 001 Interviewee: Allen Cooper Interviewer: Steve Davis Date of Interview: September 12, 2008 D: It's Friday, Septemb er 12, and I'm sitting with Allen Cooper, and we're doing an oral history o f the C ivil R ights M ovement. Allen how did the M ovement start, and what were its origins? C: The M ovement? It depends on how far you want to go back. My par t in the M ovement started in 1959 when I came out of the Nav y. I was on an aircraft carrier. I'm a combat veteran, and I came out with an emerging consciousness that was shaped in part by the Navy itself. I had never met any people of color. I met a Coma nche Indian and a black guy from New York and they treated me kindly. They could see how innocent and untested and untried I was, and when I asked them ques tions they treated me seriously. You know, we were good buddies. I came out of the Navy and I was lo oking, I was curious, and I knew that I didn't know a whole lot. So that's where f or me that s where the M ovement started. D: Was there a specific incident that sparked your awareness of this? C: I was going to be an Episcopal priest, and I decided to go into the Navy first, and I'm glad I did. I discovered the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion, and I was looking for a whole lot of stuff I didn't know about and I knew I didn't know. The contrast of me going in the Navy with plans to go to Kenyo n Col lege in Gambier, Ohio, and become a priest and all that, it just fell away. I just realized that there was a whole lot of world out there that I didn't know about and that I wanted to know. I started getting c onscious of racism in the Navy because I was h anging out with an Indian
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 2 guy and a black guy, and I saw some of the beginnings of racism and I didn't like it. D: At that point the Navy was officially desegregated? C: There was a lot of racism in it, but I guess you would say it was in transition stil l in transition. The first overt racism I saw was in the military against blacks, against Indians, and I didn't like it. I didn't hardly know how to spell racism at that point. I was a dumb fuck. I really was. Just ignora nt, just young and ignorant. Didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground. D: What types of activities were going on before the F reedom S ummer? C: When I came out, I came back and started at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque I became very aware of Emmett Till and his murder I was just stunned, I couldn't believe that people are capable, because I saw the J et picture in his casket, you know what I'm talking about? D: It's pretty shocking. C: It's sort of a metaphor for the horror of slavery and racism, Jim Crow, and all the rest of it. It really made me angry. I tried to do something then. I tried to get the student council to pass out a resolution demanding a governor of Mississippi and the president of the United States to investigate, and they wouldn't even do it. I start ed fo llowing what was happening. I t was just starting to emerge, the C ivil Rights M ovement. Contemporary C ivil R ights Movement there' s always been a C ivil R ights M ovement. There's always been a C ivil Rights M ovement, you know that?
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 3 D: Yeah. C: Okay. But the con temporary one for me anyway the contemporary one was just emerging and one of the things we did, I started getting really active in Albuquerque around the issue of racism. Southeastern New Mexico is called L ittle Texas. It's close to Texas. This is 1960, 1961, we had a F reedom R ide organized to ride down through lower Texas. We concealed tape recorders and microphoned what transpired. There was one really significant one in Ros well New Mexico. We were walking into this restaurant on Sunday morning and we got to the door and there was a big sign that said, no niggers or dogs. I turned to my friends and I said, oh, here we go. So we went in, and the guy greeted us with open arms and said, welcome to my restaurant and everything. I'm looking at my friends and looking at him and he says, what team are you with ? What that meant was, he thought we were coming in to go to one of his separate rooms to serve a team, some kind of a sports team. Boy, when he found that out, he wanted us out of the restaurant immediate ly. It was full of people, churchgoers coming to lunch after church on Sunday morning. Things like that really struck me W e took the tapes we had concealed under our clothes, tape recorders, and we took them up to the state legislature and played them, an d they passed the first public accommodations law in the country against public accommodation discrimination That doesn't mean everything was desegregated, it just means that they did it. It's on the books, and you had something to work with That was one of my first
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 4 activities. I was in demonstrations in Albuquerque I was head of a group called the Young People's Socialist League, P S L. O h Norman Thomas came to speak and he spent the night at my house. D: Who's Norman Thomas? C: He was sort of the gra nddaddy of socialism in America. He was a sociali st, and was very . check him out. He's got quite a story. Anyway, demon strations in support of the sit ins in North Carolina and elsewhere. So we had demonstratio ns in front of the Woolworths at Fourth and C entral in downtown Albuquerque In support of those demonstrations. I got going about 1959. D: So you were very much aware of what was going on in the South and you took that home with you to the area you were in. C: In a sense. Just the whole idea of racism, a nd how ugly it is, and how fear laden it is, was the beginnings of my consciousness. D: How were African Americans able to organize a social movement under such challenging conditions? Facing violence and hostility from law enforcement, elected o ff icials, the K lan, so on? How is that possible? C: I think people have a basic need for community and love and tenderness and stuff like that, there's always this conflict between opp osing forces. I think that the M ovement came out of a wholesale disgust from the old ways of thinking and d oing things, the Eisenhower era; f rivolous consumerism, bouffant hairdos, just bullshit. Sort of like, I was never a big fan of Elvis Presley. I was a fan of some of the black blues singers, but not
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 5 Elvis Presley. Elvis P re sley, to me and I'm probably in sulting people when I say this Elvis Presley to me was like a knock off. He was like going to Wal Mart to get something of substance. There's something wrong with it, and I didn't say much about it, I just didn't buy his r ecords. I think it came out of a time of a lot of intense technological development, electronics and stuff like that, and a better communications system in the country where people could find out what was going on. Television, my first television set was i n 19 . .right around the end of the war, 45, 46, 47. Huge television, little bitty picture, and all of these tubes and stuff glowing in the dark. I think that technology kind of forced the issue, in a way, with what came from that. Another th i ng I didn't tell you about that I think is important to me, anyway: w hen I was in the sixth grade I discovered in a history book, we were talking about Lord Fairfax who was a g iant slave owner. I'm not heading toward guilt here, but that's my family. M y middle name is Fairfax. So, m y mom did a DAR what do you call it? D: Genealogy. C: Yeah, a genealogical check and we found out that one s ide of my family was Harriet Bee cher Stowe and the other one was Lord Fairfax, so it was like a giant Y in the road. When I learned about John Brown, I said I think I'm going to be a John Brown. Fuck racism. [Laughter] I ain't going to do that. I think that that's one of the factors for me was that discov ery. Not taking it on as my own b ecause he did it, I didn't. Bu t I can do something
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 6 about it. I don't know, I just . My whole family is real straight, and they don't like me. So I built a family, a community, of my own based on friendship and struggle and working together. D: Was that a difficult path to take? C : I'm jumping around here a lot, but I didn't discover that I had been sexually molested by my stepfather, and I think I didn't even know it until I was fifty years old. I know that sounds kind of ridiculous, but a lot of people it's like a suppressed thin g, and then s omething that will happen that will trigger it, and the wheel starts running. I think that in my own conscious mind I knew about victimization, are you following me here ? Am I making any sense? The victimization. And I was really bitter about that, and felt exploited and all that But I think, u nconsciously I knew about it In fact, I know I knew about it, but I didn't know it like in my conscious mind. I think it played a role in my understanding of victimization, and how people are victimiz ed. I just don't like bullies. I was talking to high school students this morning for two hours over at the school. I love it. I've been a teacher all my life, a high school teacher. I think that was part of it. I just don't like bullies. I don't care; I p ut myself in positions and situations that no sane man would have done. But I did it, because it rose to the top, and said, I may be scared down here, but on top, man you are wrong, ese, and I'm not going to let you do it. Not tolerating it. Real strong, real strong. I have a real strong steel shaft in me that won't let me step Stepin Fetchit shuffle won't let me bow down, or get
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 7 on knees. Aw, I don't like getting on knees anymore. I gave that up for Lent a long time ago. I was a heavy duty Christian ther e for a while in the sense that I think I fell in love with the ceremony more than I fell in love with the Bible. D: Getting back to th e C ivil R ights M ovement in the D elta, when did you become involved directly? C: I went to the Peace Corps in Venezuela in 62. I came back in 63, and from Venezuela to Caracas I flew into D.C., and a good friend of mine was there but he was in the middle of law school in Georgetown. While I was in Venezuela, I started following the political struggle that was going o n here, on the C ivil R ights struggle. They were really covering it, it was really covered. Everything that happened was well reported. Maybe with a spin, but they reported it. I couldn't wait to get back to the S tates, so instead of going home I flew int o Washington and I got very heavily involved with Julius Hobson Julius Hobson was one of my first major mentors. He was the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, the chapter in D C. I got busted in D C it was my first bust. Groups of about six or seven people were sitting around in a circle in Du P ont Do you know D C ? Do you know where DuPont Circle is? D: Yes. C: We were sitting around and we were talking about the Civil Rights Bill, and we're talking about what was happening. Two D.C. cops came up swinging their billies and told us to break it up. I said, break what up? They
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 8 said, get up and get out of here. I said, what for? We're sitting here talking. He said, come with me. So they took me off, and they got me to the edge of the park and they started beating on me with their sticks. They got some pretty good licks in, threw me in the back of the car. The young people that I was with were trying to stop them. Not physically, but they were yelling at us. They bailed me out right away. That was my first shot. D: What was the charge? C: Disturbing the peace or something like that. Then he asked me to sign a statement saying that I wouldn't sue the police department because of a false arrest plus the abuse, and I signed it so they just drop ped the c harges. Then I got busted at Gwen Oaks Park in Maryland, I don't know if you k now about it. It was a big year round carnival kind of setting. King was there, and we both got arrested, the head of a line. Both got beaten up by the same cops, thrown in the j ail buses. That was my second arrest, then it just started getting more and more frequent. Bob Moses showed up in town. Do you know who Bob Moses is? D: I went to his alma mater. He went to Hamilton College. C: So that's your way of saying you know. D: Oh yeah. C: Well, Bob came into town to do some legislative work around the Civil Rights Bill. I said, I'm here, you want some help? He said, sure. So that's when I met him; through C.O.R.E. I think was the connection. So I worked with him, and I said th is is cool, but you're going back and I'm
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 9 here, man, I'm ready to get going. I don't like bullies, I don't like the Klan I want to do something. He said, well come on down to SN CC So I hitchhiked down to the SN CC office in Eight and a Half Raymond Stre et in Atlanta Georgia, and went to work. I was working hard, sixteen to eighteen hours a day. D: What'd they have you doing? C: Oh, everything. Helping publish the Student Voice which was like a publication of SN CC Keeping track of what was going on and all the different projects, answering the phone, raising money. In fact, John Lewis I m gonna see him tonight, I want to say hello to him. He probably won't recognize me and I'll say, remember that young white guy that busted i nto your meeting a real priv ate, high security meeting and I wouldn't leave, because I kept saying John F. Kennedy has been shot? Remember that? He'll say, oh yeah. Oh yeah! I can just see it right now Anyway I was the guy that did that. Anyway, to make a long story not much shor ter, I got involved with the C ommittee for N onviolent A ction in southwest Georgia, a peace walk that was going to Quebec, Washington Guantanamo Walk for P eace? Y ou've probably never heard of that There are a couple of boo ks on it. Anyway, I got beaten no t real bad, but I got hurt in Albany, Georgia. I went to jail there. I don't know if you know about the Albany M ovement, or yeah, it was the only complete defeat King ever suffered. Two thousand arrests nothing changed. Hundreds of thousan ds of dollars in property bonds. The city made a lot of money off of
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 10 us Nothing happened. We went in the C ommittee for N onviolent A ction on our way to Florida, and they busted us, we just didn't leave. We didn't bail out, we just stayed there and started fasting. I faste d for thirty days. A lot of people fasted a lot longer than that. Yvonne Klein, one of my compa eras in the project, she fasted for fifty five days. We finally caused so much pressure to be brought on the Albany struggle that they let us out of jail and le t us walk with our picket signs. Chief L aurie Pritchett there's a F reedom S ong about him. He was the police chief, and he was a really smart man. He wasn't a dumb cracker. He was a smart cracker, but he was a cracker. He'd put them on . .y ou know when s omebody goes limp and you've got to pick them up on a stretcher? That's what happens when you're seventy. I'm seventy, I just turned seventy. Memory banks are going to hell. Put them on stretchers and take them, and of course what they did inside the jail was something else. I had my fingers broken and stuck our hands through the wire mesh and cops on the other side, just pow, pow, breaking bones. I stayed with that project through down to Miami, and then I came back, and I checked with SN CC and they said, we need you in the D elta. So I went to the D elta through Indianola That's where I met Otis Brown J r. Do you know Otis? Otis and I were partners. We did a lot of wild ass crazy shit, trying to change things, and we did some good work. D: What was it lik e first arriving in the D elta?
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 11 C: It's interesting you ask me, because the first week I was here, we passed a cop. It was here in Indianola I don't know exactly where, I just remember it was night. Otis was in the car, and I was driving a Volkswagen. I wo uld have said, we've got to get out of here, because that cop is turning around. He had a real hopped up Plymouth Fury, a really high powered engine. Otis said, go fast. I went fast. He said, go up on that ditch. So I went up on this ditch. I didn't flip, I went up over the top and it was empty, and drove around in the bottom of the ditch and drove back out of it, and went and hid the car. This cop had notches on his gun from the four blacks he had killed, so you can't let him catch you. You've got to get a way, there's no t any question about should we or should we not. No. Just get the hell out of here. So it was pretty exciting. We worked on voter registration; we did a lot of canvassing. One of the highlights of my memory banks at that time was Grandma Isn er She was ninety nine years old, and she sat up on a porch in Inverness, a town near [inaudible 24:20 ] She was the matriarch of the black community, and Inverness is small. Back then it was like 1 500 people. Ninety nine years old, and quick as a whip, just s harp as a tack. She interviewed us, said what are you doing here? Why are you here? Who are you? But politely, she didn't have an attitude. She was checking us out, whether or not anybody was going to listen to us or not. One day she said, let's g o down to the courthouse. The whole g oddamn town came down the courthouse, the whole black community came down, a whole line of cars came down to
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 12 the courthouse when she said it was all right. It was heavy, man. Heavy shit. The sheriff is behind us, they d on't know what the fuck to do, all these black people in cars going down to the courthouse. It was hotter than shit, it must have been ninety nine degrees with humidity, it was dripping wet. I had the matriarch of a community in the backseat of my Volkswag en. Ninety nine years old, walked her into the courthouse. She knew she w asn't going to get registered. Sh e knew, because they were rejecting everybody, but we just kept on and kept on. She knew it, she knew how important it was to do the act. She couldn't even write, couldn't read, but she went down there because she knew it was important to do that for her people. Things like that were really powerful. Sorry about that. I got PTSD real bad, so I leak easily. D: Want to take a break? C: No, I'm all right. D: Can you tell me a little bit about the White Citizen's Council? C: The White Citizen's Council was a middle class version of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan were the workers, they were the real dumb fucks that they exploited. T hey used them as their soldier s to keep the lid on, to keep the fear up, to beat people up. They were the directors. There was a parliament for the Klan, which was the paramilitary They did some really nasty shit. D: They were more public than the Klan?
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 13 C: Yeah, they were the business people I'm not here to tell you that all the white people in any given community including Indianola were bad, but the ones that weren't bad didn't talk. That's how they ran the shop, you run it with fear and with threats. That's how they did it here. D: How did they make their presence felt? What sort of tactics did they use? C: Well, they bu rned down a lot of houses here in a ttacks. They nearly killed seven people in one attack. Mrs. MacGruber's house? That's Stacy's grandmother, one part of Stacy's fam ily, and they burned that. They hit it with Molotov cocktails on all sides, and a whole bunch of people were asleep inside, but luckily got out. Boy, it burned to the ground. I took pictures of it, Stacy has them. In a box, the camera was in a cardboard bo x so it didn't look like a camera, and I took pictures during the fire and after the fire. People disappeared, never seen again. I remember a family, I can't remember the name of the family now but they were in the Neshoba C ounty. A family of like four or five, a young family. They were all involved in the M ovement, all of them, and the whole family disappeared. There was a meal on the stove, a car was parked outside. There was a family living within a couple of blocks in the black community. Gone, just gone. Whe n they were looking for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman they found the bodies of eight black men that had been tortured and killed. D: While in the process?
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 14 C: While in the process, with grappling hooks, when they were going through the swamps and the rivers and the lakes and shit, they found eight dead black men by accident. Not looking for them, they didn't even know they were dead. But what I'm telling you is what the story tell s you, that the r eal violence, the real horror, was how those people died and how many died. Not that it makes any difference one dead or thousands, and I think there were thousands. D: It's actually u ndocumented C: Absolutely. I truly believe that. I'm a historian, I've read a lot. I've done a lot of research, I've exper ienced a lot firsthand, I've talked to people that are not any longer with us and they told me stories, just incredible. People who stood up just had enormous courage to be able to do that. D: What was your perspective on how black and white activists neg otiated their relationships during the M ovement days? Were there tensions? C: There were tensions. There's always tensions, it doesn't matter whether you've got a C ivil Rights M ovement or a business. Any group of people are going to always have these littl e factions and all these little things going on, inter personal bullshit. That's what it is mostly, it's like a giant soap opera. Two ladies are a giant soap opera, and we weren't any different. In fact I was just talking to Fred Winn this morning. I said Fred what'd you think of me when I showed up down there? He said man, you were a pain in the ass. That's what I wanted to hear, I wanted to hear the truth, and I got it. He said, you came down here and you disregarded the
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 15 way we had everything arranged and set up to do work. I just went on and did my own thing, you know? I'll tell you something I am proud of, and that's that the Black P ower M ovement came through Indianola in 65. We had a community board of directors sort of, to make plans and stuff like that, and they voted everybody out of the project all the whites. They voted individually on individual people, and they voted to keep me here. I had one for getting rid of me one abstention and twenty two in favor of my staying. D: Did you figur e out why? C: I think I'm very personable, and I've really loved being here. This is like my second home. I feel really at home here. When I drive to Indianola it's like driving into Pine Ridge South Dakota it's my home. Not Pine Ridge, but Porcupine I feel like I belong here, I earned the right to be adopted there or whatever I was adopted by the Lakota People after Wounded Knee I've been operating as a n ally all my life. I think allies are really important as a way of breaking down barriers between pe ople. I never recall having serious problems with anybody, either white or black, in the M ovement here in Indianola. I worked in Louisville a little bit, but mostly I worked in Indianola and Inverness. I think I was pretty effective, talking to people and getting people to stand up and be supportive of that. I worked a s an Emergency M edical T ech, an EMT. I did a lot of emergency medicine on children who got infections. They would be in the cotton fields, and they'd have the tiniest little scratch and it wou ld turn into a big abscess sore
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 16 because of the poison. In fact, the white community warned me that they were considering filing charges on practicing without a license because I was using cotton swabs and alcohol to treat infected wounds. I finally did get nailed; I got ambushed in Inverness one morning. Otis Brown and I were it was a Saturday, I'm almost positive It's Saturday morning and it was quiet and we were driving over to Inverness to pick up a couple of people we were going to have a meeting up i n Ruleville or Drew I can't remember which, organizing a union. We walked into this little converted house, a little shack. T hey sold cigarettes and coffee, sandwiches, stuff like that. The people we were picking up wouldn't look at us. We walked into the house in this building in Inverness, and they wouldn't look at us, wouldn't talk to us, they were looking down. I looked at Otis, Otis looked at me, and I said, oh shit. Something's coming down. We went outside and there they were. It's like they came ou t of an apparition, Jesus came. Except it wasn't Jesus. Whoever Jesus is, by the way. Otis made a break for it, and got through and ran, and I didn't. The y axe handled me for a while, busted up my right knee pretty bad, fractured my skull right here along that line I lost a kidney and fractured my wrist. I was pissing blood for about six weeks. After the beating I kind of lost my nerve, took the steam out of me for a while. By that time I was pretty messed up anyway. It's like living in a state of terror a ll the time. You travel somewhere, you travel with somebody, let them know that you're coming. You take different routes so they don't ambush you and shit like that. It was pretty
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 17 D: Sounds nerve wracking. C: That's what I'm talking about. It plays hell o n your nerves. That's hard. How you doing, brother? That's when I left, I went up to see a medical committee. I was trying to r emember all these names. MCHR, M edical Committee for Human R ights, is a national group of doctors and medical professionals would help people who are working on the M ovement. They took me under their wing for several months up in DC. D: While you recuperated? C: Yeah. D: Did women activists do different things than male activists? Was there a gender divide? C: Oh, yeah. There was a gender divide. I'm glad you asked that, because I've got to tell you that women in the M ovement if there were no women, there would never have been a M ovement. Never, never, never. You get what I'm saying? Never. Women are so underrepresented and under re spected I don't care what movement you're talking about. The American Indian M ovement, Wounded Knee The United Farm Workers in California, I worked with them. I went to work as a Dallas security guard so I could find out what they were up to with those e lections. Blew those elections out of the water, I was very proud of that. Anywhere I've been, the Vietnam A nti W ar M ovement you've got to specify which war, right? Every movement I've ever had the honor of working with, women have played huge roles and no credit, virtually no credit. There's always I can't
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 18 remember her name. Geez, I'm embarrassed. The woman who got on the bus D: Rosa Parks? C: Yes, thank you. You're my prompter. For every Rosa Parks, there's a hundred more really important women who did a ll kinds of things. Everything that men did and more. Whatever both of them did, they did more. I'm just telling you in my b ook, I'm writing a book on this, that women figure prominently in the book, because they should be. Men keep writing histories and t hey keep getting it wrong because they leave the women out, and it's past anger. It's sad. It just makes me feel really, just like we'll never get it. There were problems between the division of labor. Not huge, but it's a reflection of who we are and the baggage we brought with us when we came. There were sexist pigs that came into the M ovement and acted like sexist pi gs, and men that came into the M ovement like myself and I mean that. My mother was a strong woman, she was a strong image for me for all of her shortcomings. D: Did this division of labor ever come up as an issue for discussion? Ho w was it negotiated within the M ovement? Was it brought up at all or was it kind of an unspoken . . C: In this area, I think things were pretty straight up. The re wasn't the conflict with I think the closer you got to the SN CC office in Atlanta, the more it was an issue. Because the power brokers I don't mean power brokers in the corporate sense, I just mean the people who are making decisions.
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 19 John Lewis, he has his baggage. So do I, we all have our baggage. If you're in a position of power, it becomes a sharper issue, and has more of a tenden cy to reverberate outward. The D elta M ovement out here was phew, we were in the belly of the fucking monster. Estomago del monstro Right in the middle of it. We didn't have time for that kind of bullshit, so much, l ess of it. We were more disposed to trying to survive and have an effect, and I think we did. Most of us survived, and definitely I think we had an effect. Flashb ack on Otis, like when we went into Inverness, the reason they came after us so hard was because the people wouldn't come down to register to vote. So we camped out alongside a plantation in the middle of Inverness one night and built a fire. The sheriff c ame around and said, what the hell are you doing? Wouldn't even get out of the car. We said, we're just sitting here keeping warm. He knew who we were. He just drove off, and when he drove off Otis and I put the fire out and crawled under the car. The car was on a ditch alongside the road. I parked it so that there was a big opening underneath We crawled under there and the whole white section of Inverness came cruising around, looking for us, d riving all the way through. When they got past us we got out from under the car and went into the middle of a sewer field. It smelled like hell, and laid between the furrows. The furrows were like that high. We were laying down in the sewage, but out in the middle of the field. Nobody wanted to walk in the sewer wa ter, and they put their searchlights out but they couldn't see us because the furrows were a little bit higher than we were. We stayed out
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 20 there for a while until they finally gave up and went home, and we crawled over to an old man's house. Otis knew who he was. We started to knock on the back door, and we were flat on the back porch. Just an open porch, no roof Before we could even knock, the door opened just a crack and he said, come on in. He had been following everything that was going on, I didn't kn ow that and Otis didn't either. We crawled in, he said, go lay down over here on the floor. We stayed down there until morning, then we went back and got the car and went home. The Klan only operated, mostly, at night. When they hit me that morning, when t hey hit Otis and I that morning, we knew on the way over there that there was something up. You develop this sixth sense, and boy every time I didn't listen to it I always got in trouble. And we kept looking at each other, saying, damn what's going on? S omething's wrong here. You would feel it. I couldn't tell you what the feeling was, it was just an uneasy feeling. It was totally peaceable, there's no traffic around, there's nobody around. It's really quiet. We should have just turned around and gone bac k, but we didn't man, because we couldn't see anything. We got out of the car and into the little shack, and they wouldn't look at us. I said, oh my god. Here we go. That's when we ran outside, and there they were. D: Was it standard practice to pair peop le off? Or did that just happen with you and Otis? C: I don't remember the details, but Otis and I just sort of fell in together. I think I'm about ten years older than he is, and he was skinny. There's a
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 21 great picture of him here. You know in the older pi ctures well, you can look at it later. He's holding a sign that says, Uhuru D: Yeah, I've seen it. C: That's him! That's when he weighed like ninety pounds before he filled it out. But Otis and I ran around together a lot. We'd go back to Albuquerque and raise money and take a break then come back here. We got cars donated, and I think that's another reason they came after me specifically, is because I was getting resources, c ars donated to the project so we could carry people to the courthouse to registe r. Just tried to meet the needs, and that's what we did. I lived on bologna sandwiches and coffee a lot. White bread and bologna and a little mayonnaise. Whoop de doo. You could go for six hours on one sandwich. D: What were the F reedom S chools and what ty pe of education did they offer? C: The Freedom Schools . .We had an old church here that was a Freedom School and i t got bombed by an airplane. The plane came over, a two engine airplane, and tried to burn it. There was some kind of explosive and it bur ned the outside, not the building, but it burned the grass. Then they came back with Molotov cocktails in the ground and burned it down. It was really well equipped, th ousands of volumes of books and a lot of classes being held there. It was really a big b low for us when that went down. What was the question? The F reedom S chools. D: What sort of education did they offer?
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 22 C: For my part, I tried to get books that were interesting, exciting, compelling to get kids to learn how to read and write. That may have been t he biggest con tribution we made was getting almost every project had some kind of a literacy component to it. That's what Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were doing in Philadelphia. We attracted a lot of young people that were curious about who we we re and stuff like that. I thought that was good because we modeled mostly good qualities, reading and writing and stuff like that. D: What role did religion play in the M ovement? You mentioned earlier that you sp ent more time in church in the M ovement than you had in any other part of your life? C: And that's true. I don't know if religion is exactly the word. The church, like we're in right now, is like a refuge. It was the only public place we could meet. So the church buildings became really important as a place to meet and talk and sing. We sang to keep the fear from taking over our whole being. We sang when we were scared, we sang when we were happy, we sang when we were sad. It was really powerful. I loved to sing, and I know all the F reedom S ongs and stuff. The church was extremely important, but I don't know about the religion. Somehow that doesn't sound right to me. It was more of the church as a refuge, and other people will tell you something very different. But I'm not a Christian, I'm an ex Chris tian. I'm very spiritual, I do a red road thing, I do a lot of sweat lodges, and I burn a lot of sage and cedar But it doesn't bother me at all. I love gospel music,
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 23 especially the ol d gospel music. The church was we couldn't have done it without the chur ch Mount Beulah right here, we're eating here, we're meeting here, we're singing here. It's the one institution that really is owned by the black community. Did I answer that? D: Yeah, definitely. Great. C: I go on so many tangents I don't know if we're hanging our coats on the same hook. D: Tangents are what history is about What lessons can we learn from the C ivil R ights M ovement? C: Community. That's the first thing that pops into my mind. The biggest destroyer for me, as I see it, is capitalism. Inte rnational, transnational capitalism which wants everybody t o buy one or more of everything, i t's all about consumerism. Community is exactly the opposite. It's where you feel a sense of belonging, where you can be transparent, where you can love and be lov ed. Community is ever ything, and that's what we have, and s till have. Even people that weren't in it knew, had kind o f a visceral sense of what the M ovement needs. I had friends that hung around on the periphery of the M ovement, and the reason they were ha nging around is because we had communi ty. We had each other's backs. When you've got each others backs man, that means a lot. Trust is part of it, transparency and honesty, and all those good words. That's what community is, that's what community was. It was a mutual support syste m, a network coalition alliance, however you want to describe it. It's the
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 24 enemy of George Bush and Dick Cheney and K arl Rove, and all those monsters. They're lunatics. They're really, it's not like they don't know what they've do ne and it doesn't bother them. It's just stunning to me. If we've killed, since 1991, according to the UN we've killed about three million children in Iraq. Just in Iraq. And I'm not talking about high school, I'm talking about children. Three million. Th at's just not permissibl e. That's why I'm still in the M ovement, because of the children. The adults want to go out and hack themselves to pieces, I'll buy them new machetes. Just leave the kids alone in their homes. It's just outrageous. I'll tell you how I feel, I feel like a German in the 1930's trying to be an honorable man. That's how I feel. I have a real bad sense of what's going to happen in the future. In the near future I think that we're going to bomb Iran, there's no doubt in my mind, and it's going to de fault McCain into the presidency and we're going to have eight more years of what we just had. I won't say that publicly, but privately I think that's the doomsday machine at work These people are really, really ruthless. You know what they ar e? Clinically they're sociopaths. They don't even understand what they're doing wrong, they're so far removed from values and from human life, any kind of life. They wouldn't even understand. To shoot them is like to put a rabid dog out of its misery. Slo bbering, walking down the middle of that what's the name of that Gregory Peck movie? To Kill a Mockingbird ? That's metaphorical to me. Push up the glasses. I know you're not supposed to say shit like that, but you know what, I'm seventy. I don't give a shi t
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 25 anymore. Put my motherfucking ass in jail, and you'll regret it. I'll organize from the jail and bust out too. D: Why do students and younger people throughout the co untry know so little about the M ovement in Mississippi? C: That's an easy one. I think y ou know the answer. Back in the 60s, when we had a demonstration or anything, we'd let the news media know and they came, and they reported it. They may not have liked what they reported, but they reported. D: Not so today. C: At the beginning of 1990 just before the bombing of the whatever they call it, they have names for each one of the wars When they started killing children in Iraq, there was a demonstration of like 50,000 people in San Francisco. The Examiner and The Chronicle didn't report one fucking word the next day. Nothing. It's like it didn't happen. That's the difference. That's one of the differences. That's not the difference, but it's one of the difference s People don't know because they're not reporting it anymore. D: Do you think t he school curriculum could change? C: [L aughter] The school curriculum, they should make a bonfire out of the textbooks and start all over again Talk about revisions, by omission, by commission, by spinning. Learning English, there's a million ways to lea rn it, but it's still English. History is not like that. History has got a lot of nuances and a lot of what some people might call trivia. It's important to get all the stories, and they're not telling a story. You 're talk ing to a
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 26 historian about that, I'm a historian. I have been all my life. I've always been searching, trying to understand different peoples and where they're coming from and what they' re doing, the journalistic five W's. Did I answer that? What was the question? [ Laughter ] D: It was about younger pe ople, what they know about the M ovement. C: See they don't know about the M ove ment. When you get to them face to face, like this morning when I was in class D: That's a good question to ask. What was the response? C: Oh it was great. I loosene d them up. Real teaching is a performance art. You're exhausted at the end of the day. If you're exhausted at the end of the day you know you've done your job. You do little tricks, I start laughing and I snort, and they just cut loose. It loosens them up If you want to loosen them up get them at ease. I tell them who I am, and where I'm coming from, and what I've done. Then I start asking questions. If they won't put their hand up, I'll ask an individual student and go from there. Then they start asking questions, but the children are everything. Like the Lakota people, they believe that to be a responsible adult you have to look five generations down the road and what the conditions are going to be for them. What you're doing, you want to do things that are going to affect them in a positive way five generations in advance. It's called accountability, and I love that. I love that concept. We're not just living in the moment, we're living what we do and don't do. Like all those plastic plates, you c ould w ash those fifty times and throw them away. I'm not
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 27 angry with them, it makes me sad. It's just a little tiny example of what I'm talking about. We're just a big garbage dump. Our culture has just turned into a big garbage dump. Did I answer the question? D : Yeah, yeah. What has the M ovement accomplished politically in Mississippi? I think we had a taste of that earlier today. C: Yeah. It's not great, but people aren't getting murdered in the streets anymore, or hung, or disappeared. When it happens, when so mebody does hurt somebody or kill somebody, there's a certain a mount of accountability you're asking for. Although, that killing the other day, what was it? The guy that killed three young black D: Got off. C: Yeah. That was probably engineered, that whol e scenario. To wait until t he y can't get him anymore. D: Five years, a statue of limitations. C: Yeah. You know, and I'm not out for vengeance. I'm not a violent man or anything like that. I used to be a pacifist, I'm not a pacifist. But I'm pacific. I be lieve people have the right to defend themselves. Everybody has the right to defend their families and their friends, and their children, a ll of us. There were a couple of times here in Mississippi, I picked up a gun. One night we were here at the Freedom H ouse, and we got a frantic call from Drew. We were just setting up a little Freedom H ouse up there, and they were under attack from a whole bunch of college students with guns from the junior college. They were using 30 06 that's a serious fucking
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 28 weapon You can drop a bear with a 30 06 if you know anything about guns. So we piled in the car and we drove up there, and we drove through their lines right up to where they were. I did some fancy spinning and opening doors and rolling out, and it worked. I m ean, I knew how to do it, but you don't get to practice very often. Joined them inside, so we just went to their assistance and we picked up 22's D: This is an interesting question. Was the efficacy of non violent tactics debated, and if so C: Non violen ce is absolutely no question about it the moral, ethical, superior way to live. No doubt about it. I always defer to people who use non violence. And I use it all the time. I could give you examples when we used it. D: Was there a moment in the M ovement when there were voices saying wait, this is not working? C: It was always seen as a tactic. What are we going to do against the Klan, you know? They've got all the guns, they've got the state terror behind them. It's state sponsored terror. They can use i t any way they want, and if somebody picked up a gun and killed a Klansman or something like that, oh Jesus The shit storm that would come down behind that, a lot of people would get hurt and or killed. We tried to not do that, but like in that situation they were just surrounded. They were just shooting the shit out of that whole little cl apboard building. We didn't say, well what's our strategy, we just went up there and joined them. It felt good shooting the
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 29 Klan, it felt real good. I mean, I could g o to lunch afterwards. You can kill a Klansman and go to lunch and not have any loss of appetite whatsoever. D: How did the Mo vement impact your life? This is the last question. C: Irrevocably. D: Yeah? C: Absolutely. I'm married to it, man. We're not go ing to get a divorce. I'm a Catholic, we don't get divorces. No, I'm joking. The M ovement, I still use the phrase t he M ovement. It means a lot to me. D: How did it change you as a person? C: Is that on the list? D: That one was off the top of my head. C: Y eah, I thought it was. [L aughter] I saw that flying around. My father was moderately wealthy, and he cut me out of his will because he thought, he was afraid I would give my money away. And you know what? He's absolutely right. I've had a couple of opportu nities in my life to make a lot of money, and I started down the road, saying nah, I don't like this. I don't like who I have to associate with, I don't like marrying money, marrying into the whole concept of making money. I'm really glad. I'm poor as a f ucking church mouse and happy as shit. [L aughte r] I am. I'm really happy. The M oveme nt, vestiges of it, still exist a ll over, everywhere. I like community, I love community, I think most people do. Unless you're a psychopath or a sociopath or something lik e that, like a Dick Cheney, something like that. In fact, I think if they ever were forced to get involved
MFP 001; Cooper; Page 30 in some kind of a community based something, and they had no choice, I think they'd probably grow to really love it. I think it's really an infectiou s way of people coming together to share the resources and look out for one another and care about each other. Most people really need that, and it's a goo d thing. That's why I'm in the M ovement, and it's changed me irrevocably. My whole family except for my brother Rob who is a basket case from Vietnam and an ex cokehead they don't even talk to me. They don't want me to see their children. I'm the uncle, right? They're afraid for their children to be around their uncle because I might do something bad, li ke send them off another way or give them an idea that they don't agree with. So my family is not my family. I mean it's not my blood family, but it's my family. And I'd die for a lot of people. A lot of people put their lives in my defense also. It's real ly wonderful to count so many people who are my friends. I have a lot of friends. D: Al le n, I'd like to thank you. Great interview. C: [L aughter] I'm sorry, I probably talk too much. [End of i nterview] Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, July 16, 2013 and September 13, 2013