Bright Winn


Material Information

Bright Winn Interview 2004
Physical Description:
Oral history interview
Bright Winn ( Interviewee )
Paul Ortiz ( Interviewer )
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Oral history
Civil rights movements--Mississippi--History--20th century
Temporal Coverage:
1960 - 2004
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi -- Sunflower County


Civil Rights Activist Bright Winn talks with Paul Ortiz about how he became involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the Freedom Democratic Party and the Freedom Schools. People mentioned are Sam Block, Charles McLaurin, John Dohr, and James Oliver Eastland. Locations discussed include Indianola and Ruleville, Mississippi, Oxford, Ohio and Santa Maria, California.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Rights Management:
All rights reserved by the submitter.
Resource Identifier:
spohp - MFP 11D
System ID:

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Full Text


MFP 031 Interviewee: Bright Winn Interviewer: Dr. Paul Ortiz Date: Augus t 6, 2004 O: Mr. Winn, I wonder if you could start by having you just state your full name and where and when you were born? W: My full name is Bright Winn; B R I G H T W I N N, and I was born at Santa Maria, California and raised in San Francisco in 1944, the d ate of my birth. O: Okay Mr. Winn, can you thinking about your early life were there eve nts or experiences that you had that thinking now, maybe some of these experiences might have led you in to be coming active in the M ovement ? W: W e grew up in a predo minately white well, we grew up in an all white community. There was not ramp ant racism within the community but the word amongst people of nigger, was used. And there was an attitude, somewhat of a negative attitude towards black people or people o f color. However, in my home when I brought the word nigger home from school maybe three or four times, my father stopped the conversation and never with anger explained to me how hurtful that word was and how wrong the word was. And that he admonished me that I should not u se that word. It probably took three or four times in my younger years for him to give me the same lecture, for him to get the point home. But also, when social debates, political debates, debates went on amongst his peers in my home ; he always had a liberal and giving attitude about black people. So, I probably


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 2 O: Why is that, why, why was he different than other people? W: Well because he grew up in Mis sou ri in a segregated society, he went to a segregated s c hool, he and just maybe because he was a good person. M aybe he got the idea, somewhere along the way A nd I know he had it young, because when I went to his hometown as a seventeen year old and met an old black woman who told me that, Fred Winn was t he nicest white Those were her s he was ninety years old when she told me that. H ative attitude toward black people and I was raised under that. Then, when I was eighteen years old, it came to light after my parents divorced that I had a younger siste r and she was bi racial. S o, at eighteen if I had to stop and think about black people realizing now I had a younger sister who was half black. S o I pai d closer attention to the things that were going on in Civil Rights and that woul d have been eighteen would have put me about 1950 1961 [19] 62; about that. T hings were going on in Civil Rights and I was paying attention and I was learning from that, with this new which at the time sister who was born out of wedlock and was bi racial in a predominantly white society. As a young person, this was upsetting to me. Two strikes bi racial and out of wedlock But, it caused me to think and I did, and I


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 3 came with the idea that yes, you had to be right with black people. So, those were probably those things that pointed me in the direction. O: Okay from there, what was the next step in getting you to Mississi ppi? W: Well, I arrived in Mississippi in [19]64. T hen probably in 1962 SNCC sent a speaker to my campus. Now I think his name was Block O: Sam Block. W: remember his first na me and he told us about the happenings in Mississippi. O: Which campus was that? W: first first hand account I had of segregation. The following year, SNCC sent Charles McLaurin w ho perchance would be my project director. And he again told us a bout segregation in Mississippi and what SNCC was doing. He may have passed the hat. Third year, another fellow came, a white fellow and told us about Mississippi and told us about the Freedo m Summer and I was sold. And as it turn s out, I was finishing that college I was going to be between colleges at that summer and I made the commitment to come. And my father supported it and my mother threatened to sue the college [Laughter] O: But ther e was kind of an a cumulative impact of all these W: Yes, yes. And in there we were ha ving these Civil Rights demonstrations and A uto R ow in San Francisco on fair hiring, o n the Sheraton Palace


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 4 demonstrations on fair hiring, where people of color w ere only at the bottom echelon there was no one up. And these things were working on me. It was not a born again discovery. It took o ver a three year period of time I became educated. And there was a moral issue. Something wrong was being done in my count ry, a nd I was a moral young man and I, I took up the cry. O: So you went directly from California to Mississippi? W: From California on a Greyhound bus to Oxford, Columbia; O xford, Ohio, where we had a one week training. From there, by group bus to Miss issippi. O: As the word began getting out about more of the activ ities and the difficulties down s outh on your way down there, did you have second thoughts? W: No. I was ve second thoughts. So, I came right on in, I did not hesitat e. And there were some my roommate at Oxford chose to not come, you know. The fact that the three disappeared scared the bejeezus out of all of us, but I stuck with the program. O: he summer that you came, is in [19] 64? W: Yes. O: O kay. Did t he program how in your opinion did the program prepare you for working as a C ivil R ights worker? W: Possibly not too well. Can I just speak to this gentleman? O: Oh, sure.


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 5 O: W: How well did it prepare us? Well it taught u s how to take a beating, you know if to act non violently, to dive onto the ground, to cover your vital, your head and your ears and to throw your body over the other person who is being beaten. The y had lawyers, they had John Dohr talk to us about the Ju stice Department. They had other play games prepare us. There was no way they could prepare us to enter a society that was so foreign to what we were used to. And as a young white fellow who had grown up in a white community, I was not in cultur e shock with being in the black community, but it was a different community. I felt as strange as though I had gone to Mexico, except we spoke somewhat of a common language It did not prepare me for the hate that people gave me, that white people gave me on the street; the glares, the words, the finger, the absolute hate that you felt walking down the st dynamics. We were kids fresh out of home, fresh out of college, put into a high tense situation, assigned leaders who had no real leadership training and told to do it. Now how do you react, leader, and how do you take orders? And when you are totally tense, you know, I mean now, my goodness, big industry spends millions of dollars to teach the ir people how to interact in a n office W ithout the threat of death [L augh ter ] You know ? A nd with air conditioning.


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 6 O: Exactl y. W: We were in rooms twelve of us as big as this room, without air conditi oning, with the threat of death with no formal program as how s work and told to do it. Now, of course ther e was no one in the entire SNCC/ COFO or gani zation that had the foresight to do this. So, that was as difficult a time being with one another under this strenuous circumstances as it was dealing with everything else. O: Right. W: You know. O: Mr. Winn, what were your first activities then once you got to Mississippi? W: My first activities, I was a handy man. And, while other people were doing voter registration and were t eaching classes, I came down with my tools. I had already been in plumbing but I came down with tools. And so the first thing I did in Ruleville was to start building bookshelves and hanging new doors and putting together makeshift desks. I just fell right in to being the school handyman, and before I knew it I was going out in the community and f ixing stoves and changing thermal couples and running new water pipe for people within the community. And I stayed in Rulevi lle for a week and a half until or two weeks, until they opened up Shaw, and I wen t over to Shaw and I felt again I was putting scre en doors and hinged windows and t he first month i n Mississippi, I was a handyman, which I felt quite comfortable


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 7 doing. Then the teacher who would open Ruleville came to Indianola to open up Rulevi lle and she called and said O: Now wh en you say, o pen up was that ? W: T hat means they had an empty building and they were going to make a school. O: A Freedom S chool? W: A Freedom S chool, yeah, and she called me over and this is wher e I ended up in Indianola. A gain, doing handyman work there and the specific slot for C ommunication D irector s was open, so they made me C ommunications D irector. So my job was tools and communication. O: With the Freedom Schools, as people were talking about today, what is your estimation the impact of the F reedom Schools? W: The Freedom Schools was short lived. They really were just the summer program. There was a little bit after, but the intensity o f them was for that summer. And whether any number of children really became better readers or learned bette r math I were there, they were thinking about freedom, they were thinking about Civil Rights, they were in an atmosphere that said, you can make a difference and you can organize and you can go from here that was what made the difference. You see, well now, Zo l e y Zo l e y was thirteen, and she went to Georgia and Georgia said, t his is a great writing, this is a great writing And Georgia stopped me on the s treet and she said, read this. And I read that, and I said, Zo l e y


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 8 Zo l e y is now in the P oet H all of Fame in England because someb ody said So, you know, what measurable impact well big measure right there. But in the entire community what ben efit in try to measure it, except it was a point, it was a rallying point for those young people, to become aware that black was beautiful; th at they in fact had a sense of being; th at they too were important, and that they could So Freedom School, just freedom point of rallying. O: Mr. Winn, how long were you in Mississippi? W: A year. O: A year, okay W: From June [19]64 on into June of [19] 65. O: Okay so you saw a lot of the participated in a lot of the Freedom Democratic Party? W: Yes, yes, I went out and got registered, registered people for t he Freedom Democratic Party, brought them their ballots, t ook their ballots, you know, counted them, did the whole thing, yes. O: What was it like to be part of that experience? W: It was well, first of all, damn it was hot! [Laughter ] You know, i t was hot! Anything you did, it was hot! In all the going to, at best they had a fan. S o, exciting, it was hot. And now, in after fact, it was exciting to have been there. But, in being there at the time, it was hot, it


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 9 was hard work, it was scared, you were scared I was scared all the time. Walk ou t in the road, look left, look right are there any white guys? Is the a rally at the Freedom School we had the weekly mass meeting I was there, I heard a damn plane flying over, it was dropping incendiaries on us. You know. So, was I excited at the time to doing Freedom Democratic? No, I was scared and I was tired and I was hot and I knew it nt at the time. You know ight word [Laughter] O: Mr. Winn, how did the M ovement change your life, your outlook on life, your subsequent life? W: Well, the M ovement itself gave me a greater understanding of justice, gave me a greater understanding of the need for equality. Gave me a greater respect for the individual and what we can do, the realization that just a few can make a little bit of a difference and a few more can make a greater difference. You know that we the people and in this democratic proc ess can make a differen ce. The M ovement itself did that to me, helped me along that road. Being in Mississipp i wigged me out, and turned my mind around. I retur ned to San Francisco suffering from P ost T raumati c Stress S I was totally angry and frustrated with the United States government, totally broken that my government acted it should have, you know. I quite easily fell i nto the hippie [19]60 s,


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 10 because I was a disenchanted, alienated person. And, it took a n umber of years of wandering and trying to re f i nd myself. You know, so the Movement on one hand, the M ovement was wonderful, you know, and gave me great Mississippi and the United States government wigged me out! So O: in to speak, people had a very mixed reaction to his address. W: Yes, yes. W ell you see the thing is John Dohr represented the government. He represented the J ustice D epartment a nd if you look at the score card of the Justice Department and of the FBI, they did not live up over the last fifty years, or over the previous fifty years to that. I mean investigate and pros ecute disenfr ngs. Right! You know, tell, impress me. John Dohr was a wonderful, well intended, hard working individual and he was one of those indivi duals that helped turn the Justice Department and point it in the right direction. He was just like the one or two individuals here on each block that helped turn that block to the Freedom Democratic Party and to register. John Dohr did his part in the Jus tice De partment. And, in fact, if I could study the history, I would probably fin d, yes, there were many John Dohrs But you see the whole Justice Department, was controlled much by Senator Eastland and his committee. So, yeah, what did you say, that oing to get angry


M FP 0 11 D ; Winn ; Page 11 [Laughter] That racist dog. Selfish individual. That non Christian, horrible individual; held the Justice Department and the FBI and the whole thing by the, like this, as did all of the other segregationist senators and congressmen that were self perpetuating because they had the disenfranchisement. So, yes, there were John Dohr and wonderful people in the Justice Department could not flex their muscle over the years because of the same system that they were trying to overthrow. O: If you could sum up your activities in the Civil Rights Movemen t, Mr. Winn, what would be the in that kind of activity, if you had somebody sum up your story? W: Well, I think it was summed up today by th ose speakers We did make a difference. I would ingratiate myself if I said, we came down, we worked, they worked, we sacrificed, they sacrificed [ C rying] And after thirty five years, we made a difference [C rying] O: Well, M r. Winn, thank you so mu ch for sharing your story and for [L aughter] [End of interview] Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, July 17, 2013