MFP 008 Interviewee: Dennis Flannigan Interviewer: Marna Weston Date of Interview: September 12, 2008 W: Today is September 12, 2008. From Indianola, Mississippi, my name is Dennis Flannigan. Mr. Flannigan, could you p lease spell your name for us? F: e happy to. Dennis, D e n n i s. I suspect you want the Flannigan part : F l a n n i g a n. W: F: Tacoma, Washington. W: Okay, and what is your date of birth? F: 10 3 3 9. W: Okay, and where were you born? F: Tacoma, Washington. W: And who are your parents? F: Ann and Jim Flannigan. W: Were they also of Tacoma, Washington? F: My mother was born there, my father was born i n Ohio, but basically, been there a long ti me. W: Where did you receive your elementary school and foundational education? F: Elementary school I went to a small school called Dash Point School. It was a three room schoolhouse. From there, I went to a junior high called
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 2 Jason Lee, then to Stadium High School, all in Tacoma. I entered the University of Puget Sound and left it to come to Mississippi a few years later, so I never finished a degree. W: What were you studying at Tacoma? F: Literature, American literature. W: What were your favorite subj ects? F: Literature. My favorite subjects were, I think, history, what was called civics then but what we kind of now see as the political climate of the world in America, and trying to learn how to write. W: What do you see as the origins of the movement ? F: Origins of the movement For me, or for the movement itself? W: Well, in your personal capacity of what it meant to you. And then, as you have a chance to reflect upon it, historically, how do you think the movement started for others as well? F: I thi nk the movement began out of pain; in a sense, the life of African American s, the lives of Native Americans. My town is famous in the In 1885, the Chinese in my city which were about twenty percent of the pop ulation were driven from the city. Not one Chinese person was left. There are now only eight hundred people in my county, of almost eight hundred thousand people, Project there. So, ther pain of all of the things, I think that ignites the reason for change. You
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 3 obviously. How does that begin? I think it begins, probab ly, if we talk African American not only from the pain but from when some people either got on their own or had the opportunity to begin to read, to learn, to imagine. I think the movement be this way. How did i t get to me? I think my first moment was when I was thirteen years old. I was a white kid, and up in the called the Hilltop neighborhood in my community, which wa s mixed race at that point. My brother owned an apartment; four units or eig ht units or something, and I was out there, mowing the lawn. I hitchhiked in six miles to get there, and a woman came out who was African American part of a nine years old; this is a long time ago. She asked m e if I wanted a tuna fish sandwich, I looked like African American s and I said and at that point, I was Catholic; n wha it. All I knew was that something was wrong. And, strangely enough, listening to black music. Eddie Fisher was replaced by Chuck Berry, you know, life like that. Then in the 60s, in 59 when people began to ride bus es into the
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 4 South the Greyhound buses and the beatings and other things, I myself. I remember talking a friend, Els e y Jones, who was African American and h e said, are you crazy? [Laughter] M eaning, why in the world would I leave my family to go down jou rney you make by yourself. Four years later, the chance to do this came. In the meantime, not only the c ivil r ights in the South one of my own community, Tacoma, in 1963 had to pass a law that the voters that you could not discriminate in housing. I rememb er a fellow owned a place called the Polynesian Apartments, and I said, would you rent to racism, of the time and of the community. The chance came to come to Mississippi. I was a kid not doing that well in college; I thoug ht I was parents that day, they had no idea. W: Was that in 1963? F: That was in 64 when I came down here. W: 1964, you came first came to Mississippi. F: First came to Mississippi. W: What month was that, do you recall?
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 5 F: I came in June. That was a little bit before, because then there was a delay and I had to wait two weeks while my mother cried and tried to talk me out of it. My father wa s very proud, and, while race had not been his issue, I came from an organizing background. My father was a labor leader, lead strikes, so we were socially liberal, I guess or Democrats, W: What was the delay in ter ms of your mother F: No, the delay was just some delay in SNCC and the application, and just the moment of time. For one reason or the other, everybody was supposed to come two weeks earlier than it turned out to be, so I drove back and was a part of the second week of training in Oxford, Ohio, where training took place for the Freedom Summer. W: Okay, so, before you could come to Mississippi, you actually had to go through training somewhere else. F: Right. W: And how long did that training last? F: Train ing was a week. If you remember the murders of Schwerner and Chaney and Goodman, those happened in the first week of the Freedom Summer, and those people had trained the week before. The week that they were disappeared, I was in training, as well as all of the people, pretty much, who came to the Ruleville Indianola area. W: Did you know, at the training, that Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner had disappeared at the time?
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 6 F: Yes, we did. Yes, we did. W: So you were worried for them. F: Absolutely. W: Just to c F: And there was discussion. One of the things is, people said, you know, this is something: you can climb on the bus, you can tell us or not, you can the m oment for them to be down. W: So there was a palpable fear that, because they had not been heard from and could be dead, that by going through the training and continuing, you could die as well. F: Yes, yes. W: How did you feel about that? F: and I think for young men and you might have some relationship with this idea, at least for young men, manhood and have I got the nerve and all that sort of stuff is a part of your life. In a sense, coming here is something that I felt was necessary; necessary for my soul and for the souls of my out of something. That was history;
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 7 that I wanted to test my mettle ag ainst the deadly serious life of Mississippi. W: Now, that was a presidential election year, 1964. F: Right. W: What were your feelings as to how the issue of who would be elected president, either Senator Goldwater or then President Johnson, was affecting the m ovement ? Was that on your mind at all, the election? F: The election was on first, we also organized around the Freedom Democratic Party here in Mississippi, and Fannie Lou Ha mer and others, and I was here during that part into the winter months. It is interesting in Mississippi I remember a white guy who was pretty generous to us here who are for Johnson. The vote was 87% for Goldwater in the state of Mississippi. If you f igure that African American s were probably well, not a number of them registered, not voting for Goldwater might be a guess, it was probably 90 plus percent for Goldwater. I felt Johnson would win that race, so I was not compelled by that. I was compelled by the issues of the peech, it was replayed recently, that he gave at that convention. W: Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice. F: Right. W: Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 8 F: Ri ght. That winds up the speech they gave the whole speech, and it was compellingly disturbing. It was, and I had come to admire Goldwater in the years afterwards, but I felt myself the victim of a speech that was about, we will keep it the way we want it. A nd that it was really the speech against change, and change is what frightens all those who have it all right, okay, at this poi nt. We were watching right now in my opinion, if clingi ng to the past come to life. W: You see a parallel between the 1964 rhetoric and what is being uttered today in the F: in a sense, it was basically people are talking about the length of it is the fear mongering, and can you trust that person? Who is that person. That person happens to be African American on the other side, I think, vice presidential candidate Palin in an inappropriate way. That, should she be staying home with her children? When was the last time you heard that idea expressed? Run for vice So, somebody said here today, you can choose to be bitter or better. I think the answer is better. I think America is chewing on bitter, and if we spit it
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 9 we tell everybody we are. And somebody accuses me of being a philosopher is trying to figure out how to be just another large, powerful nation instead of the dominant force. Every time you move towards violence and power, I think you step backwards. W: Can we step back to Oxford for just a second? F: Sure. W: What was the trai ning like? What did they teach you? F: Sure. They taught you how to curl up in a ball when people are beating the shit out of you. [Laughter] I was real good at a) getting the shit kicked out of me, and b) curling up like a ball. They taught you a great de al about the soul of Mississippi, the soul of the m ovement the substance, the Charles McLaurin. The reason I came to this part, to the Delta, was in that training, Charles McLaurin who had not been there for the first week came and spoke about cars passin g him and shooting him and really terrifying and dangerous Hamer spoke of her beatings, and the deadly seriousness of Mississippi. As you watched soldiers when they first went to Iraq, the casu alness of soldiers just going off to be superheroes, and the returning stories are all ninety percent of the country loving it to probably seventy five percent of the country scared to death that it will continue. So, when I came here, I
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 10 had listened and role played as many circumstances as you could. And, in essence, we were also vetted in the sense that, was there somebody here movement s since then, and people come into movement s I remember, once in Jackson, Mississippi, 10 17 Lynch Street, ironically, was where COFO Council of Federated Organizations in Mississippi in 64, that was the center of all of the other organizations. A fellow came Mississippi he was white and I want to join COFO, I want to help, and if same offer. Fundamentally, he wanted in on the action and was in that space that going to try to side with good for the moment. be in the room when that went on. W: is? F: Oh up Klan. In essence, you could be a doctor or a dentist and belong to the White against black people, they were for the separat ion of purpose and race, that you have your needs and we have ours. In a sense, it put the patina of ethics to a racist circumstance. I once went to a dentist who had the White Citizen magazine, and it was here, it was in Jackson, I had an infected wisdom tooth. The National Review and other magazines, and he
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 11 tried to lecture me. He actually wound up taking the scalpel this operating table and I thought, oh, my gosh, he has not been nice, he a very good dentist and he took out my wisdom tooth. It was, in a sense, high class racists. It allowed the governor to belong. W: Were you aware of the identities of these individuals? Did they publicly state who they were? F: Oh, yes. Their names yeah. N o, in a sense, it was kind of the George respect our good, black brothers, and while we blah, blah, blah, we all know that a strong education, trade school would certainly be the opport have come a long way, but when they wait, it will be a long time The milkman told you that one. W: Did Fannie Lou Hamer come to Oxford or, did you F: She was. Fannie Lou Hamer came to Oxfo rd and then I came into Mississippi and I was with a group from Look magazine. My job was to be a communications director wherever I wound up, because I had put out an underground ne wspaper and some other things. And t hat linked me up with Look magazine, w ho did a feature article on came into Ruleville and did a piece, and so I came across from Ohio into Mississippi. We came to and stayed there, a nd then we
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 12 all stayed there. I remember seeing Mrs. Hamer play the piano and singing, oh, my gosh. It was this rollicking left handed, it was a great bass. [Laughter] W: Could you describe what being in her home was like? F: See, she had an old just kind of place, but pretty good sized. What I remember less about the home is just being out in the yard, which in memory, I also thought my three room schoolhouse was a big school. So, looking back but I remember you just kind of sitting under a pecan tree or s omething like that, talking with her daughter a great deal. Of her telling her stories of b eing introduced to the people w ho would take us in and whose homes had been shot in through the weekend before, windows. Remember this old woman, probably as old as me now, bringing me into her house. Most houses have three rooms in those days, almost shotgun shack standard living room, next to it a kitchen. This woman had put the bed in the living room and, as you know, a lot of beds are at least beds down here in th ose days were very high. They had double mattresses. So I was up above the window line, and the window line that had been shot in last week. [Laughter] So it was a restless night my first night. Just wonderful. W: Do you recall her name ? F: I do not. I jus t stayed there briefly. A week later I came to Shaw, Mississippi, where a woman named Lucy Ma e I spent a day or two with the Hawkins family, and Lucy Mae and I became very
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 13 close. I stayed there in to January of 65, and this was a wo man who had been raped, there was, basically a child. In those days in Mississippi, if you had an illegitimate child one of which was from rape you could not have welfare for two years. So W: This a black woman? F: Black woman. W: Who had been raped by wh ite men? F: In that case it had been, yeah. W: And a child was the result of the rape. F: Child was the result. And other children came, but I remember her telling chemical cotton chop ping. So, people basically chopped cotton, which in plantation days might be all you did, was that kind of work they might get living on people, I remember families with big gardens, th ree hundred remember her grandmother paid eight dollars a month for her place and the insurance man came by every year, every month, to get her eight dollars. W: How did you get by? Did y ou live off of F: Somebody sent me fifteen dollars a week, and then we would contribute to Lucy to buy food. I stayed with her. A couple other people she would fix
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 14 dinners for us. And you became a part of have here, so W: As much as you want. Until the bu ses leave. [Laughter] F: W e can follow someone. I know that, upon arriving, there was a woman named Lisa Vogle ; a friend of mine, came from when she was in a Harvard Ph.D. program, came here. Just r emembering, basically, the relationship of black and white was separate, had never touched white hair. And vice versa, probably, too. So, just this virtually touching, as though nobod y was going to bite, no one was going W: F: Yes, yes. The unfolding of childlike wonder, these Freedom Schools. In a sense, for what we were, the mostly white volunteers who came in were p erhaps, just receptive human beings. I think how quickly we were welcomed. We came to church for a meeting and we were found That, if enough to a man across the street, an older man whe n I was leaving, his Model T which had a flat tire, and white people drove by and just hit him as he was just swerved out of the way to hit him. That was the Mississippi of fear and viole nce and hate. We arrived, and in a sense, with almost a blink of the eye . even more compelled by this, I think about it
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 15 now, people reached out. Maybe partly because just children. You know that sixty and seventy year old families took us into their h earts and their Mrs. Hamer had the shit kicked out of her, be ing beaten with saps W: May I suggest that it looks li ke the F: W: much for the resonance and the truth and the depth of what about so far. I feel like I was there, listening to you. F: Than k you. Thank you. W: Thank you. F: W: Flannigan. Mr. Flannigan, what are yo ur reactions to come back here and see this and be with everyone as you experience it? F: fold. One is the pleasure of not being in there; the joy of watching people who have memories of hard times. Laughter comes from pain, so, talking to Charles difficult time. The other thing is that, when you drive up, people think they went to a one room schoolhouse. This is a three cell jail with a holding cell in this town, not even in
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 16 another town meaning that this can only have been a hundred and ten to a hundred and fifteen degrees when people were in there It tells you the conditions. A nd we talk about them for c ivil r ights workers here was the conditions o f every weekend from people who were black and might be on the streets too late at night or might be whatever the reason. As Charles ng. W: know, seeing what a small space it was. F: Even just for two. W: Exactly. F: Yeah, yeah. W: And everyone was just shoved in there. F: Yeah, yeah. Danny Lyon is a photographer seen his work, but he shot a lot of this, and the pictures of jails and the pictures of people stacked up and still with the Freedom Now kind of go photo from that window b ecause of the stuff, because, in a sense, it has a through. But that was, in a way, how the m ovement changed America, was being able to see these kinds of conditions, take a camera into there and then take it out to the rest of the world. Uni you so much.
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 17 F: So, hard as it was, it was valuable. W: Thank you. F: You bet. W: hing the Fannie Lou Hamer gravesite memorial in Ruleville ,Mississippi. What are your reflections as we approach the pavilion, Mr. Flannigan? F: Well, Mrs. Hamer was the . oh, my God. When I came into Mississippi, the first place I stayed was Mrs. Hame there, and then in the neighborhood the next night, and she came a couple days later. I got to know her daughter a little; we chatted, and then the tragedy of her daughter when, not being able to get treatment in Missi ssippi, later on, and by the time she got to Memphis, she passed. I think the most compelling story that I heard when I came, first as a volunteer in the training, was the story of Mrs. Hamer being beaten and, in a sense, the sheriff telling two black pris oners that they had to beat her or they would be beaten. This terrible kind of she walked with a limp, and . but the power of her rhetoric and the power of her commitment. She had been, kind of, the accountant on a plantation. When she got involved, th ey just told her, get out of here. Gandhi. You know? They would be stunned if they got to be where all of that. Being famous does not mean and
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 18 known there are many giants that stride this earth, and only a few of them are found by the camera. The interview continues on the following day. W: Dennis Flannigan. did you find what you were looking for in Mississippi this time? F: I did, and when I first To d rive back through to Indianola and up downtown. You want more for this place. Probably, for me, the ignition spark was John Lewis last night. John Lewis spoke to Civil Rights veterans and students from Florida and some people from the community, but what he reminded me of and what was worth the nine and you say, oh, my gosh, my country is in deep straights. And h e reminded me that it is the last the last mile of a marath c ivil r ights struggle and my own struggles is the soul that we each are; means that you got to keep what I took home, and what was worth coming for, was being determined that we need our soul in saving the soul of this nation. anybody who saves souls out, but they sent a good one. They sent a good one. Take care of yourself.
MFP 00 8 ; Flannigan ; Page 19 W: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. Thank you. Also, I remember talking to Could you talk a little bit abou t what you do in your life? F: there almost sixty ther strangely enough, right now in the Washington State historical c ivil r ights of Tacoma, Washington and the struggles during these same times that are overlooked in small Northern cities were people find themselves not al lowed to live in certain districts and that sort of thing. So, that is going on. I guess what I am is a . a city people and race and color is just a clich. Every one of us is worth a damn, W: Thank you very much it. Have a safe trip back, it was great meeting you. F: W [End of interview] Transcribed by: Diana Dombrowski, August 19, 2013 Audit Edited by: Sarah Blanc, September 1, 2013 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, November 4, 2013