In 1966, it was not considered unreasonable or unusual for a white sheriff in a rural county in Mississippi, to detest the Federal government, let alone some white liberal lawyer working for the Federal government who came along out of the blue trying to enroll some little Negro child into his lily-white grammar school. What was unusual, was the very Martin Luther King, Jr., non-violent way in which this particular sheriff tried to prevent the Federalized liberal lawyer from desecrating his lily-white school.
No water cannons, no vicious dogs, no KKK about to lynch you, just a peaceful, quite reasonable and polite request from the sheriff to see my Federal credentials and driver’s license. That is certainly not harassment but rather good law enforcement and he handled the request as though he had graduated from a police-community relation’s college, which had imbued him with extraordinary training in courtesy and decorum.
But this man couldn’t be real. Someone had obviously made a call to Central Casting and rented him for the day and probably paid for it out of the Federal funds we were spewing into the community.
You talk tall and you talk burley. I practically had to bend my head backwards to see the top of him and move it side to side to take in his girth.
If he ever used the missionary position with his wife, he’d get life for crushing her to death.
This was a man to whom I was going to pay very very careful attention.
He started talking to me in a voice as soft as a cumulous cloud:
“SIR, simply as a matter of formality, please let me see your Federal credentials and your drivers license.”
“Of course, SIR, here they are.”
“SIR, I see that you work for the United States Office of Equal Opportunity, which certainly has jurisdiction over our use of Federal funds?”
“Yes, SIR that’s correct.”
“And I see SIR, that your Office of Equal Opportunity credentials have your name and picture and that your driver’s license has the same name and picture, so I am completely satisfied that you do work for this Federal agency.”
“Thank you SIR and I must tell you that I completely appreciate your courtesy and certainly cannot blame your caution in checking my credentials.”
And I put my hand out for him to return both my credentials and my driver’s license so that I could get on with my work of enrolling the Negro child into the Poverty Programs’ Project Head Start of the all white school.
But he just stood there not raising a finger since his hand with the fingers attached was already raised holding the documents.
“SIR, I must tell you that I feel some concern over these documents.”
“Yes SIR, the concern is that they clearly show you as their owner.”
“Well SIR, I don’t think that I understand.”
“SIR, this Federal credential is pink in color?”
“Yes, SIR it is.”
“SIR, pink is as close as you can come to the color red?”
“Yes, SIR I think that is right.”
“SIR, if the credentials are pink and close to red, then that is of great concern to me.”
“I’m sorry sheriff, but I genuinely don’t understand.”
“Well SIR, you are a lawyer, are you not; a highly educated man and in fact that is probably why you have been entrusted with the job of desecrating our schools?”
“Yes, SIR I am a lawyer following the Federal government’s policy.”
“Good, then you will understand SIR the implications of the color of these credentials?”
“I’m sorry SIR but I still don’t understand.”
“Well SIR, if you are the person in these photographs and certainly we have established that you are and if the credentials are pink leaning towards red, then you and this organization for which you work must be pinkos or reds and thus communists.”
“No SIR, the color of the card has nothing to do with my politics and I can assure you that I am a law abiding American citizen, although a democrat and certainly have nothing to do with the pinkos or reds and I am not a communist.”
“But, then SIR, why would these very credentials, which happen to be pink, give you the power to take this child (patting him gently on his head) into one of our white schools?”
“Because Sir, that is the way the law was set up.”
“Yes, but SIR, they did not set it up to allow communists to come into our peace loving community and wreck our entire way of life?”
“SIR, I am really not trying to wreck your way of life.”
“Ah ha then you admit to my first contention that you are a communist or you would have denied that too?”
“SIR, I am not a communist but a capitalist. My family as a matter of fact owns property on Miami Beach right on the water and we certainly have nothing to do with communists.”
“SIR, then why is this credential pink? What other purpose could it be pink in color but to indicate that the bearer and the Federal agency are communists?”
“SIR, I really don’t know why the document is pink, but that is the way they gave it to me and all of my co-workers also have pink credentials.”
“Then SIR, it is worse than I thought. The Federal government has established a nest of communists to come here and destroy our way of life.”
“SIR, no one has ever questioned the color of this card nor said that it implied that the bearer and the agency are communists.”
“That, SIR is why I won the last election for sheriff in a landslide, because I do question things which may be detrimental to our citizens.”
“SIR, I’m sorry that I can’t convince you that the color of this document was probably made pink by accident and that no one thought that it had any meaning. Maybe it was just happenstance, that pink paper was left over and they used it to make the credentials.”
“Well SIR, it is common knowledge that the Federal government has nothing but paper and that such an error cannot be an error but rather must be purposeful.”
“SIR what would be its purpose?”
“Well SIR of course as a signal to other communists that the bearer is one of them.”
“SIR, I’m terribly sorry about all of this and when I go back to Washington, which will be immediately if you will permit, I will bring this to the attention of those responsible so that such a thing never happens again.”
“Well SIR, just because you got caught being a communist does not mean that you can get out of being a communist by changing your colors.”
“SIR I can assure you that the color of these credentials, though pink, has nothing to do with my politics or the politics of the Federal government for which I work. May I have my documents back so that I can leave here and return to Washington to straighten out this unfortunate mistake and may I leave this little child with you and not take him into the white school?”
“And what am I supposed to do with the little nigra?”
Well, now we were getting to a very un-Martin Luther King, Jr. phase and it was obvious to me that I was in big trouble and just because some obviously gay fool back in Washington, had printed the credentials on pink paper, which anyway was the ugliest shade of pink I had ever seen.
“SIR, I would appreciate it if you would accompany me to our police station since I have no choice but to put you under arrest and leave this up to our county judge.” Leave it up to our county judge meant nothing short of being lynched or hung.
“I hope, SIR that you will not resist arrest and as for this little nigra, we will have the deputy find his mother and father, if he ever had either, and return him to where he belongs and it is not this beautiful white school.”
“SIR, you have my assurance that I will not resist arrest.”
And I was not put into handcuffs, but was simply driven to the police station which had three very horrible looking cells with heavy iron doors with very thick iron bars painted nauseous green. And I was simply led by the sheriff into one of the cells and the heavy iron door with the very thick iron bars painted nauseous green clanged shut with me inside peering out.
And that was the first of three times I was jailed in my work as a civil rights worker for the Federal government. There was no search of my body cavities, no fingerprinting, no torture, I was just locked away from the rest of the world and it did not feel good. For once or perhaps twice in my life I managed not to throw up as I always did when I was a kid, because I refused to show fear although I was, as they say, quaking in my boots.
Now I want to tell you that I was out of there, both the jail and that town in less than three hours and everyone wanted to take credit for it.
I was told that my boss in Washington made a very well placed phone call resulting in my release.
I was told that the FBI made a very well placed phone call resulting in my release.
I was told that Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law and head of the agency, made a very well placed phone call resulting in my release.
I was told that a colleague of mine doing the same work in another state, made a very well placed phone call resulting in my release.
I can tell you, that no one made a very well placed phone call resulting in my release, since no one but the sheriff knew that I was locked up, given that I had been refused access to a phone.
It was the sheriff unlocking the jail door and telling me to skedaddle and never to come back there again or that jail door would close forever with me inside of it, which led to my release. So I skedaddled and picked up my work in another county with another kid who had been deprived of his right to go to Project Head Start.
Oh, and I never returned to that town, because while I was somewhat brave, I was not completely stupid.