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Louisiana to Wyatt Tee Walker: Are You Crazy?

How do you tell if a Civil Rights activist is crazy?

Would it help to ask him, “Why do you believe in integration?” Or, “Do you feel like people are against you?”

Or maybe this question would do the trick. “Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?”

Wyatt Tee Walker About a year after his arrest in Jackson as a Freedom Rider (right), the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker was arrested in Shreveport, LA, at the Little Union Baptist Church.

It was the evening of June 8, 1962. Inside the church, Martin Luther King was speaking about voting rights. Outside, Walker was imploring the police to guard the rear of the church as well as the front. King and Walker had flown to Shreveport earlier in the day from Atlanta, despite a death threat against King if he came to town.

According to Walker, J. E. Downes, the Commissioner of Public Safety, refused to discuss any security details. “G’wan inside!” was all he would say. But Walker kept asking and soon enough Downes arrested him and Harry Blake, an SCLC associate. The charge? Loitering.

So far, so typical. Louisiana officials, however, were not always content with the standard misdemeanor charges for activists. Earlier in the year Baton Rouge had charged three SNCC organizers with “criminal anarchy” — trying to overthrow the state of Louisiana. Shreveport went a different way: they asked the Caddo Parish coroner to conduct a lunacy test.

The coroner, Dr. Stuart DeLee, explained to New York Times reporter Claude Sitton that Walker and Blake had to be examined for “mental competency” because they “had acted so peculiar about their arrest.”

Dr. DeLee said he did not know when he would have a decision. He explained that “sometimes you can tell at a glance that a person is psychotic, and then sometimes it takes considerable time to study a case.”

As it turned out, DeLee would need two rounds of questions. The first lasted about 40 minutes. According to an affidavit Walker wrote afterward (PDF), DeLee’s line of questioning went something like this:

Do you believe in integration?

Why do you believe in integration?

Have you always believed in integration?

How long have you believed in integration?

Did you serve in the military?

Why weren’t you called up?

If your country called you in the service, would you fight?

If you had the choice to defend the state of Georgia or the United States, which would you choose?

Are you nervous?

Have you ever been in a mental institution as a patient?

Do you feel people are against you?

Do you think I hate colored people any more than I hate northern Yankee bastards?

Are you a drinking man?

Have you had anything to drink tonight?

What do you think of the Freedom Riders?

Have you ever been a member of a party that was connected with the Communist Party?

Would you join the Communist Party?

What do you think of the reverse Freedom Riders?

Why do you say that the White Citizens Council is un-American?

Do you think I would take advantage of you?

Why do you say I’m a moderate segregationist?

You really do believe what you say, don’t you?

The first round ended inconclusively, at least for Delee. He said he “just couldn’t tell,” according to Walker’s affidavit. “Although,” Walker added, “I seemed to have all the answers.”

Of course he did. What’s harder to imagine is Walker having the patience to sit through the questions even once. On a second pass, he didn’t.

At approximately 3 P.M., my name was called and once again I confronted the coroner, Dr. DeLee. This time he seemed halting and confused as to what to ask. When I ignored a question that he had asked me the night before, he wanted to know what was wrong with me. I replied that I was tired of him playing games with me. He asked me what I meant. I answered by reminding him of our last change of words the night previous. He said he couldn’t remember. I had said to him that his attitude toward my mental competence would be exactly the same as it was on our initial meeting, no matter when he saw me again, tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. He flushed under my direct approach.

I then said to him that he was a part of the tragedy of the south. He knew what was right and couldn’t or wouldn’t do it; either because someone controlled him or because he lacked the courage. The fumble defense of his position prompted me to say I sympathized with him because he was caught up in the evil system (of segregation). He was sick, I asserted, and perhaps I should be questioning him. At this juncture, the examination abruptly ended.

Walker and Blake were out of jail by the end of the day.

Despite the new psychiatric angle, for King it was an all-too-familiar encounter. “The lesson of this account,” he wrote in article a few weeks later in the New York Amsterdam News, “is but to demonstrated once again the absurdity of the lengths to which the racist opposition will go to thwart the Freedom Movement in the South. Will they ever learn that is as vain as trying to hold back the tides of the sea?”

A Confederate Veteran Speaks: What the Monuments Mean

What do Confederate monuments mean? This is apparently a question that continues to vex many.

Perhaps Wiley N. Nash, Mississippian and Civil War veteran, can help.

“What good purpose,” he asked in 1908, “is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?”

#Shorter Nash reply: “White people shall rule the South forever.”

But of course Nash had studied both literature and the law at the University of Mississippi, so his actual answer came fully attired in his best Lost Cause finery:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

Wiley was the featured speaker on December 2, 1908, when the white citizens of Lexington, Mississippi, gathered for ceremonies to unveil their new Confederate monument. It was typical of the memorials then going up across the south: A generic soldier standing atop a stone column, in front of the county courthouse.

The column is of modest height, not as tall as the one in Natchez, say, nor does it feature any secondary statues at its base, as the one in Greenwood does. Both were richer cities. Still, the monument’s debut was something to be celebrated. A college band played “Dixie.” A group of school children sang “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Civil War Veterans paraded along with eleven girls chosen to represent the eleven seceding states of the Confederacy.

Nash was eminently qualified for his leading role. He was a Mississippian by birth, and a lawyer who had served both in the state legislature and as the state’s attorney general.

More to the point, he had fought in the war, riding in various cavalry units. Equally important, after the war he had fought in the campaign to restore white rule in Mississippi. Nash “did as much as any one man,” read one of his obituaries, “to assist in gaining control of the state government and accomplishing the overflow [sic] of carpet bag and Negro rule.”

“To him,” it continued, “Mississippi should be ever grateful for the part he took in the protection and preservation of our traditional hereditary rights and liberties.”

We may be ever grateful to Nash as well, for among his fulsome remarks that day, which run to roughly 7,000 words, he included a clear, concise, nine-point-itemized list on what the statues actually do.

The ruddy leaping joy of perpetual white power comes in at number seven. Monuments also “keep honorable” the “present and future dominant and ruling Southern Anglo-Saxon element” (item 2) and help “keep the white people of the South united — a thing so necessary” (item 6). They will also remind one and all “how sacred and how dear are the reserved rights of the States, reserved in the language of the Constitution to the States, or to the people” (item 8).

It may be asked, “What good purpose is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?” I answer:

(1) Besides honoring the South, the Southern cause, its supporters and brave defenders, the living and the dead, it will keep in heart and spirit the South, and her people for all time to come.

(2) It will keep honored and honorable, as the years roll on, the name and fame of the fathers and forefathers of our present and future dominant and ruling Southern Anglo-Saxon element, those who, “come weal, come woe,” are to mould, shape, fix, dictate, and control the destiny of the South and her people.

(3) It will educate each rising generation, each influx of immigration in our customs, traditions, thought and feeling, as well as in the esteem, love and admiration of the Southern people.

(4) It will help all others to form a correct idea of, a respect for our civil, religious, social and educational institutions.

(5) It will help to a true understanding of home rule and local self-government, contending for which the South lost so many of her best and bravest.

(6) It will serve to keep the white people of the South united — a thing so necessary — to keep, protect, preserve and transmit, our true Southern social system, our cherished Southern civilization, —

    “And Dixie’s sons shall stand together,
    Mid sunshine and in stormy weather,
    Through lightning flashes and mountains sever,
    Count on the ‘Solid South’ forever.”

(7) Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

(8) They will tell to Sovereign States from the Atlantic, where raged the fight that made us free, to the calm and placid waters of the Pacific, to States, if made from the isles of the sea, how sacred and how dear are the reserved rights of the States, reserved in the language of the Constitution to the States, or to the people.

(9) They will teach the South through all the ages to love the Southern Cause, her Southern soldier boys.

On this matter, Nash is an unimpeachable source: a Mississippian, a veteran, a redeemer and a monument-unveiler. This is what the monuments mean. His is the definitive answer. His is a direct expression of the original intent, if you will, of the people who built them.

More than a dozen Confederate monuments have come down across the country since the events of Charlottesville earlier this month, and others are now being reviewed. The memorial in Lexington still stands, as do all the rest in Mississippi. No cities have announced reviews. Earlier this year, a member of the legislature said that anyone who wanted to take down statues “should be lynched!” De-Dixiefication, like the Civil Rights Movement, will come late to Mississippi.

There is a renewed talk about finally changing the state flag, an effort rekindled by Dylann Roof murdering nine church-goers in Charleston, South Carolina, two years ago. Mississippi’s current flag is the last in the south to contain a Confederate element. The design dates back to 1893, when the state legislature, including Wiley Nash, approved it.

New Footage of the Freedom Riders in Jackson

Mississippi, U.S.A. — a 30-minute TV news report first aired 55 years ago — is a significant new addition to the visual history of the Freedom Rides, and a stark portrait of Jackson on the verge of great change.

The news report covered the arrival of the first Riders into Jackson on May 24, 1961. It was produced by WKY-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. I recently came across a link to it on Twitter; it’s been on YouTube for about 18 months, part of a collection of early TV news from WKY.

What makes Mississippi, U.S.A. so valuable? It has the first footage I’ve ever seen of the Riders at the Greyhound station in Jackson, and more footage than I’ve seen before of the Riders at the Trailways station.

Mississippi, U.S.A. also has interviews with several key players:

But wait, there’s still more:

Why was a local Oklahoma TV station in Jackson to cover the Rides? I don’t know yet. I do know that Scott Berner, one of the report’s producers, had worked in news at a TV station in Montgomery in the late 1950s, so presumably he would been aware of the movement and been paying attention as the Riders headed south from Washington, DC, in early May 1961.

As a piece of reporting, Mississippi, U.S.A. does a good job of showing and framing the moment. But it stumbles badly in trying to understand the status of the local movement. When William Simmons asserts that most blacks in Mississippi “prefer” segregation, the WKY team meekly concurs. “Outwardly they have shown little interest in the battle” for integration, the narrator intones, unable to imagine (or report) any other reason for the absence of sit-in protests in Jackson the year before, or for the fact that there were no Mississippians among the first 24 Riders to arrive in Jackson. (They would soon join in droves.)

Also, the WKY team doesn’t anticipate the flood of Riders soon to descend on Jackson, despite Charles Oldham clearly explaining CORE’s new plan to fill the city’s jails, and despite the fact that their own footage shows Riders from the third bus into Jackson, on May 28. (See Catherine Burks-Brooks, Etta Simpson and Clarence Wright, left to right, beginning at the 13:45 mark.)

The arrival of the third bus, four days after the first two, meant the Riders had abandoned their original destination of New Orleans in favor of “jail, no bail” in Jackson. But the WKY story doesn’t catch the shift in strategy (even though it does accurately report that most of the Riders had refused to bail out).

As a piece of early TV news, the WKY report is fascinating for its repeated use of “Dixie” as a soundtrack, especially during the several-minute montage showing the Riders at the two bus stations (from 10:10 to 14:28).

As TV, the WKY report is also notable for being shot by Houston Hall, who would go on to become one of the most respected cameraman in the trade. According to one poster at b-roll.net, a TV photography discussion site, “Houston Hall was perhaps the most solid shooter in the history of TV news and the man never zoomed. He just composed beautiful pictures.”

Another poster provides some of Hall’s backstory:

Houston Hall … when I started in the business that name was the equivalent of Babe Ruth in baseball. Houston was a rich kid from Oklahoma City who talked his parents into buying him a professional film camera when he was in his teens. He did some stringing and then was hired by WKY in Oklahoma City around 1960. I can’t prove this but I believe that Houston may be the inventor of the sequence as it applies to television news. He was (and is) a master of our craft and an artist to boot.

Thanks to Hall, Scott Berner and co-producer Gene Allen, we now have this incredible record of the Riders in Jackson. Their reporting and analytical shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a great addition to the history of the Freedom Rides, a wonderful gift on the campaign’s 55th anniversary.

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