I was side-stepping the KKK working as a Federalized civil rights worker In 1966. The civil rights movement in the south was boiling over. Fire hoses, vicious dogs, and barred entry to almost everything if you were black.
It’s unimaginable today, but within three days of arriving in Washington, I corralled a government job with President Johnson’s poverty program, I was Federalized as a civil rights attorney with the most nebulous job description and an unlimited plane ticket to travel anywhere in the six southern states to which I was assigned.
I had almost unfettered discretion. And with the approval of my boss, Robert Saunders, who approved almost anything I came up with, I could do what we thought was right and the KKK thought was wrong.
The mission was to desegregate Project Head Start by physically dragging little black children into the all white schools to which they were denied entry. Then we would hold hearings to strip school districts of their Federal funding to run the Project Head Start programs, if they would not comply. Overall, our big time mission was to do what we thought was right.
It was an amazing job for a kid lawyer. It would be an amazing job for me even now, more than 50 years later.
I’ve taken on some challenges in my life, but I would never today have the chutzpah now, to do what I did then.
Some months into the job, I found myself in a little backwater town about 70 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, hunting grounds for the KKK. I came upon this little black church.
Whites didn't go to this church and it was unthinkable for whites and blacks to meet there together at night. Night held a special terror for blacks in the south.
It just got into my head that it was time for a change. So I launched a quiet little campaign. It took a few days, but then this had been going on for more than a hundred years, so what's a few days.
I phoned my boss Bob Saunders in Washington and told him what I wanted to do. He warned me that this couldn’t happen in this backwater 70 miles from Jackson, Mississippi, but go ahead and try. To me, it had to happen and I would make sure that it did happen.
Bob got on the phone from Washington with the very reluctant black preacher and together we encouraged him to call a night time prayer service and invite anyone who would dare come, whites and blacks.
It worked. For the first time ever, a few whites, including Jewish-me, filed into that church to worship together at night with the black congregation.
I tell you that the place rumbled with blacks and whites praying, clapping and singing together. And then the smell of burning kerosene stopped us in our tracks. Peeking outside, we saw perhaps a dozen men wearing what looked like white pillow cases over their heads, with little holes cut into them for their eyes and white sheets around their bodies, each apparition holding a lit kerosene troche, the fumes of which wafted into the church. We were terrified, but, our little show went on.
It was the thought of leaving the church, which heightened the terror and that terror hit its zenith when we did leave and found that they were simply gone. No white pillow cases, no white sheets, no smelly torches just our murmurs, crickets and black scary woods. I had never before encountered the KKK except in the movies, but I saw that the game here was to disappear and lurk God-knows-where ready to do God-knows what to God-knows-who.
Today, I laugh at the absurdity of the scene, grown men in pillowcases and sheets. Back then I trembled particularly because it was clear, that for me my lesson in social justice was not over. Social Justice here meant that you could grab onto your rights; that you could worship together in a church be it night or day and that you could then go home in peace. That last part hadn’t yet been achieved.
I was going to finish that lesson if it literally killed me, by demonstrating that I could drive back to Jackson, dark roads or not, men hightailing me or not and do it right then and there.
You just know it, that the murmurs of the congregation turned into hysterical entreaties for me not to go. This got me more scared in that they had now put the bad guys hiding in the trees on notice of what I was about to do.
I’ll cut it short. I may have driven at top speed along those dark country roads, I may have spent more time looking out the rear view mirror then the windshield, but I got back safely and if you will, without incident. I had finished that last part. I had achieved some measure of social justice for those people by setting an example of what could be achieved.
You know, there was a mirror hooked to the dresser in my hotel room and it was on pins so that it tilted up and down to get different views of yourself. And I tilted it straight up and I looked at myself in that mirror and I didn’t shake and I didn’t cry and I didn’t get dramatic but I smiled at myself for maybe doing what I thought was the most worthwhile thing in my life.