Category Archives: Civil Rights Movement

The Missing Years (Part 2)

1975-1978 Age 21-24 The Houston Years

(This is the fourth chapter of my autobiographical series. The others can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning. This chapter was initially sent to my music fan email list on September 1, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

In the previous chapter, I said that the City of Dallas had transferred me to a job where I worked alone, on the graveyard shift, and my days off were Monday and Tuesday.  Whether they did this because they were worried I was trying to organize a union, or because of my socialist activity, I don’t know.  But it definitely cramped my style, both in terms of political activity and social activity.  Having to go to work on Friday and Saturday nights at 10pm sucked.  Really sucked.  No more hanging at Mother Blues– or anywhere.  And what girl wants to go on a date on a Monday or Tuesday night?  The SWP had been urging me to move to Houston, where there was a branch of the party.  I had no desire to move to Houston, which had a well-deserved reputation as a redneck city, but given that I was no longer going college, and my social life killed by the new work shift, I gave in and moved in January, 1975.

Confronting the KKK in New Orleans

Soon after moving to Houston, I agreed to be part of a 3-person team of Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) members who travelled to various college towns in Texas and Louisiana to recruit new members.  We would typically setup a literature table and sell the Young Socialist newspaper, books and pamphlets.  We would also organize a meeting where we took turns giving a speech and hopefully recruiting new members.  While visiting the University of New Orleans, a white student came up to our literature table, identified himself as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and threatened to attack us if we held the meeting.  It was my turn to give the speech.  The University of New Orleans was a community college;  most of the students were from working class or middle class families, and there were a lot of Black students.  At our literature table we met members of the Black Student Union, partly because we sold books of Malcolm X’s speeches.  I told the Black students of the threat made by the KKK, and asked if they would be willing to sit on the front row of seats and serve as security.  They readily agreed.  By 1975, things had changed in the South.  These young Black students were itching to kick some Klan ass.

Because of the threat by the Klan, and the response of the Black students, this was by far the best-attended meeting we held on the tour.  There were 80-100 people in attendance.  I was fired up and gave a good speech;  it’s the same high I get now when I play music for a big audience.  The Klan members, after seeing the first three rows filled with Black students, wisely chose not to attack me, and remained in the back, and limited themselves to hostile questions and comments after my speech.  The FBI had an undercover agent there, too.  Their files on me confirm that we recruited 5 new members there, enough for a new YSA chapter.

University of Houston:  School, Work, Political Activity, Music

In the fall of 1975 I enrolled at the University of Houston and was a leader of the YSA chapter there.  I also became a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).  I lived with a girl named Ellen, who I had met in Dallas, for all but my last semester of college in Houston.  During all my college years I either worked part or fulltime.  I had various jobs, but the one that last the longest was at UPS.  I unloaded and loaded trucks in the horrible Houston heat and humidity, and UPS foreman were constantly pushing us to work faster.  The work sucked big-time, but it paid better than any other part-time job a college student could get, so we put up with it.  Eventually I got promoted to an easier job of sorting packages coming off the trucks onto conveyer belts to be loaded into other trucks.  I led a organizing drive by the Teamsters, but that failed.  The workforce was students, and so there was a lot of turnover.  Nobody considered this a permanent job.  And the Teamsters staff was never very serious about it.

Between work, classes, homework, and political activity I had little time for partying like most college students.  I would invite a friend or two over to our apartment on Saturday nights to drink beer and listen to my records.  The 70’s were bad for rock music, in my opinion.  I found the music of bands like Aerosmith and Journey boring, and their vapid lyrics about sex and parying even more boring.  I still hate that shit.  Instead I got into other types of music– Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, Ricky Lee Jones and Alt Country/Texas songwriters– Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, B.W. Stevenson.  Occasionally I would go to small live music bars to see people like Shake Russell play.  Shake would play his songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied by a seeming random group of local musicians.  I was thinking:  that looks like fun;  I wish I could do that.

My political activity at the University of Houston campus consisted of selling the YSA’s monthly newspaper, the Young Socialist, and the SWP weekly newspaper, The Militant, and staffing our literature table once a week.  We would also hold forums where one of us would speak on current issues, and sometimes sponsor guest speakers that the SWP and YSA had organized national tours for, such as Tsietsi Mashinini, leader of the Soweto student uprising in South Africa, and Leah Tsemel, Israeli human rights lawyer who defended Palestinians.

We also participated in broader coalitions around various issues.  Antiracist work and coalitions were a top priority; more on that in the next paragraphs.  The women’s rights movement was focused on getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed, and our women members participated in the National Organization for Women and the campus women’s group.  We supported and publicized the struggles of people internationally living under US-supported authoritarian regimes, such as the Shah of Iran, the Blacks living under the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Palestinians under occupation by the Zionist government of Israel.  But results were minimal;  by 1975 the “Sixties” were long gone, and the University of Houston was hardly a Berkeley even in the Sixties. 

I dug out my souvenir box and found these buttons from 1975-1991.

The Anti-Racist Movement in the 1970’s

After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, legal discrimination ended in the South.  Gone were the white and colored water fountains of my youth in Jackson, and Blacks could now vote without fear of KKK violence.  The Black struggle moved to a new level– ending illegal, defacto discrimination.  Now the South became like the North, where Blacks were legally equal with whites, but in practice suffered discrimination in all walks of life.  The schools in black neighborhoods received less funding that the schools in white neighborhoods.  Real estate agents refused to show homes to blacks in white neighborhoods, and if they tried to buy one, the banks would deny the loans.  Qualified blacks were turned down for jobs in favor of less-qualified white job applicants.  Blacks were not admitted to colleges but whites with lower test scores were.  And so on.  This type of discrimination was harder to prove, and resulted in the demand for affirmative action, with quotas, to force racist institutions to end discrimination.  White police in black neighborhoods were far more brutal and violent than they were in suburban white neighborhoods (sound familiar?).  Then there was the death penalty, which was disproportionately used against Black defendants.  The SWP and YSA supported all these struggles against racism.

Please allow me a short digression here to talk about my mom again.  In order to combat housing discrimination, in 1968 the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, which included an enforcement agency.  My mom took a job with this agency.  They would first send a black person to inquire about renting an apartment, and if they were told there were none available, they would then send my mom, a white person.  If they offered my mom an apartment, they were busted.  I remember my mom was proud of this work;  she was sort of an undercover antiracist activist.

The Boston Busing Crisis

In 1974, a judge ruled in a favor of a lawsuit file by Blacks ordering the Boston schools to end defacto segregation.  Whites in Boston rioted when black students were bused into the formerly all-white schools.  I have to admit, this southerner could not help but notice the hypocrisy of the white Yankees.  The whites in the north supported the Civil Rights movement as long as it was confined to the South.  But, as I told you in my previous chapters, my school in Jackson, Mississippi was peacefully integrated in 1967, and the schools in Dallas peacefully integrated in 1971.  Southern white kids of my generation– most of them, at least– changed their attitudes and became friends with Blacks.  Yet when the schools were integrated in supposedly progressive Boston– the heart of the Abolitionist movement before the Civil War– the whites rioted rather than accept Black students into their schools.  Now who’s superior, Mr. and Ms. Yankee White Liberal?

It was around this time that a YSA member turned me on to Randy Newman and his brilliant album about the South, Good Ole Boys.  Randy Newman liked to write “in character.”  It’s like an actor playing a bad guy in a movie, except in movies, everyone knows your acting.  With songwriting, a lot of people assume all your songs are about yourself.  So it takes a lot of courage for songwriters to write “in charracter.”  The opening song, Rednecks, is written from the point of view of a southern racist redneck, who Newman ridicules, but he also uses that character to blast northern hypocrisy.  I immediately went out and bought my own copy of the album, and I listened to it over and over.  In addition to the brilliant satirical lyrics, the music is beautiful.  I would rank it as one of the Top 10 albums of all time, and probably one of the Top 5.

The Anti-War Movement and the Anti-Racist Movement

You must permit me another digression here.  In the Sixties, the SWP and YSA played leadership roles in the anti-Vietnam War movement.  Their strategy was to form broad-based coalitions open to all individuals and organizations who favored peaceful marches demanding the troops be brought home immediately.  “Out Now!” was the slogan.  They were highly successful, organizing the largest marches against the war, which, along with the soldiers refusing the fight, pressured Nixon into ending the war.  The SWP and YSA-influenced antiwar coalitions embraced the troops, both active duty and those who had returned, and many of those ex-soldiers played a leadership role in the antiwar coalitions.  This history is well-documented in Fred Halstead’s book, Out Now!  Fred, himself a veteran, was the SWP’s main leader in the antiwar movement, and, to my knowledge, his book on the antiwar movement is still the best.

Many years later, when the government was trying to head off opposition to its new wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, a myth was created that the anti-Vietnam War protesters were against the soldiers.  This big lie is easily disproved in Halstead’s book, and documentary movies such as Sir! No Sir!  Even in the Ken Burns series on the Vietnam war, which is weak on the antiwar movement, some of the soldiers he interviews note that they joined the antiwar movement when they got home from Vietnam, some of them forming the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.  In GI opposition to the Vietnam War, 1965-1973 historian Howard Zinn, a leader of the antiwar movement, is well-worth reading.  This article and this one (the latter has great photos), also effectively refute the big lie of the antiwar movement being against the troops, and the fact that soldiers, or “G.I.s”, as they were know then, were an important component of the antiwar movement.

The SWP and YSA tried to apply their successful anti-war coalition-building strategy to the anti-racist movement, centered around the Boston busing crisis.  As part of that strategy, the YSA initiated the National Student Coalition Against Racism.  I travelled to Boston to attend the founding convention.  I met with members of the Black Student Union at U of H and helped initiate a local chapter.  After the Boston crisis died down, we tried to expand the coalition to other antiracist issues, such as affirmative action and police brutality.  But unfortunately, this attempt to build an antiracist coalition failed.  Part of the reason was, no doubt, that the most gifted Black leaders of the time– Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and some of the Black Panther Party leaders– had been assassinated.  Most of the rest had be co-opted into the Democratic Party machine. The SWP and YSA were unable to fill the void, because they had few black members, having recruited most of their members from the mainly white antiwar movement, and Blacks were not inclined to join coalitions with predominately white organizations.  Their mistrust of white liberals and white radicals was understandable and justified.  And I think the fact that there was no central issue in the antiracist fight at the time was a factor.  Today, there is a central key issue– the issue of police murders in the Black Community– and, as a result, there is a national coalition–Black Lives Matter.

When the email series about my discography morphed into a semi-autobiographical essay, I mentioned that I had been observing the Black Lives Matter protests with interest, because I used to be an activist myself.  Now you know. 

Bachelor of Arts in Secondary Education, History and Spanish

I majored in Secondary Education, with a focus on History and Spanish.  I didn’t want to teach high school;  I was too shy and afraid of how to handle discipline problems.  But at the time I thought that was the only career open to me in the social sciences, especially history, which I loved (still do).  In my final Spring semester, I did the required student teaching which confirmed I did not want to teach high school.  I needed two more Spanish classes to graduate, and found that the UofH had classes in Guadalajara, Mexico.  I signed up for that, and lived with a family that spoke no English.  I had to speak Spanish all the time.  I had a headache the first three days because my brain had to work 10 times harder just to communicate.  But by the 5th week, I noticed that I was thinking in Spanish.  I passed my fluency test and remained fluent in Spanish for a few years, but as the saying goes, “use it or lose it,” so I’ve forgotten a lot of Spanish since then.  I can just get by now.

Goodbye Houston, Hello Phoenix

I graduated from the University of Houson in the summer of 1978.  At the time the SWP was growing and expanding into new cities.  I never really liked Houston anyway, and was ready for a change.  I asked if they could use help starting a new branch, and the SWP leadership suggested Phoenix.  I quickly agreed, and moved there in August. 

Next:  1978-1991:  Phoenix, Tucson, Qutting the SWP/YSA, Independent Political Activity, Music

Little White Boy (Part 2)

My Teenage Years

(This is a continuation of my autobiographical series. Go here for Part 1. It was initially sent to my music fan email list on August 19, 2020. I have edited it slightly for the blog.)

In my last email about my childhood, I mentioned Jorge, my best friend from the 7th Grade.  It was Jorge who, after we had moved to Dallas, sent me the Jackson Catholic high school student newspaper endorsing a Black candidate for governor, with the quote from “Southern Man” on the cover.  Jorge’s dad was a doctor from Mexico, and his mom a Yankee Catholic, like mine.  (Have you noticed the misfit theme yet?)  Jorge had a guitar and was taking lessons, and I would go to his house after school and he would show me songs he had learned.  I remember he could play “All My Loving” by the Beatles and “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.  Jorge also turned me on to Tom Lehrer, who wrote satirical political songs.  It was my first exposure to combining music and politics.  I loved it.

I got an acoustic guitar for Christmas ’66 and started taking lessons, too.  I was taught to read music and play song melodies, and learned basic chords as well.  I had a fundamentals guitar book with chords, and also a book of songs by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which was big at the time.  The teacher and I would trade off playing chords and melody.  But I quit lessons after 5 months because baseball season was starting, and I wanted to focus on my last year in Little League.  I was the leadoff hitter, batted .396 and made the all-star team.  My athletic career was on downhill after that, because the other boys grew and I didn’t. 

(That’s me in the center, behind the pretty girl.)

The Move to Dallas

My dad took a new job in Dallas, Texas that summer.  The family moved there in August, 1967, right after my final All-Star game.  I began 8th grade in a huge public Jr. High School with thousands of kids– a dramatic contrast to the small Catholic elementary school I came from.  I was shy, I knew nobody, and I was the smallest boy in the 8th grade.  It seemed like I was surrounded by giants.  And Dallas public schools were still segregated in 1967, so there were no black students.  I remembered thinking that Texas was more backward than Mississippi.  I missed Jackson and my friends.

I soon made friends, however, with a guy named Richard who had a drum kit.  I bought an electric guitar and amp from Sears, and took it to his house.  I remember trying to play songs by the Ventures.  I also have vague memories of jam sessions in someone’s garage.  There would be about 8 guitar players, no bass player and a drummer.  I learned at my 20th high school reunion that Stevie Ray Vaughn was my classmate.  I don’t remember him.  It’s likely he was in those jam sessions.

The Sixties

My teenage years were during the late “Sixties.”  But it was visible to me only on the TV news and magazines like Newsweek and Life.  Not much “Sixties” were happening in Dallas, at least where I lived and went to school.  Not until my senior year anyway.  Just before my senior year, the dress code was eliminated as a result of a lawsuit, and the public schools were finally integrated, as a result of another lawsuit.  The “Sixties” had arrived in Dallas– in 1971.   

At some point– I think I was fifteen– my mom pulled us out of the Catholic Church right up the street from us, and drove us across town to a smaller church in what seemed to me to be a poor neighborhood.  (My sister recently told me that it was because the priest gave a sermon condemning Catholics for marrying Protestants– which, of course, included my mom.)  There was a Mass in Spanish for the Mexican-American population, and a young priest who gave sermons supporting the farmworkers strikes.  This priest also started a youth Mass on Sunday afternoons at 5:30, and encouraged us to play 60’s folk songs.  I became the leader of that ensemble.  After Mass, the youth group met and discussed current affairs.  The youth group was multi-racial, with Blacks, Mexican-Americans and whites like me.  Some of them became my closest friends.  There were two black brothers, Duane and Mike, whose parents would let us hang out at their house and drink beer and listen and dance to music. 

Sixties Music

Those were good times.  My friends turned me on to a lot of good music, including The Temptations and Santana, and I probably brought some records too.  I may have brought “4-Way Street,” the live double album by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  Included on that album was Neil Young’s song, “Southern Man.”  I listened to that album– and that song– over and over and over.  The lyrics spoke to me and my life.  And I loved the long jams and guitar solos by Young and Stills.  I would play air guitar to that song (and sing air vocals) in the living room at night after dinner.  I dreamed that I would be in a rock band someday, singing political protest songs, and rocking out on electric guitar.  After high school, I resumed guitar lessons and learned more advanced chords and blues lead guitar.

In the summer of 1971, between my junior and senior year of high school, at a trip to the local library, I was looking in the political section and found a book by Norman Thomas about socialism.  Thomas had been the perenial Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party in the US.  The book made an impression on me, and I began calling myself a “socialist” during my senior year of high school.  I remember having lively conversations at the lunch table in high school.  I was on the left, and my friend Louis held down the right.  The rest of the boys and girls ranged in between. 

Louis lived up the street from me.  Despite our different political views, we were good friends, and Louis was my musical mentor.  He turned me on to “underground” music when I was around 15.  Up til then, the only music I knew was popular Top-40 music by bands like Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Herman’s Hermits, and the Dave Clark Five.  Louis said, “we got to get you off that.”  And he did.  He turned me on to albums by Grand Funk Railroad, the Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, and other bands that are considered “classic rock” now, but back then, were definitely NOT played on commercial radio.  I never went back to pop music. 

The Gospels and Atheism

Also around this time I had become an atheist.  I started having doubts about the existence of God in junior high school, but decided I’d better believe because, when I died, if it turned out that God did exist, I’d be sentenced to hell for eternity for not believing.  But by my senior year of high school, I decided that if God did exist, surely he wouldn’t be so vain as to judge people solely on whether they believed in him or not.  Surely how you treated your fellow humans would count more.  Being raised Catholic, and being part of the Catholic youth group, I knew the teachings of Jesus from the gospels, and I knew that the gospels emphasized how you acted and treated other people, especially the poor and outcast. 

My Mom and Katherine Drexel

Please permit me a necessary short digression.  In the 1891, Katherine Drexel, of the wealthy Philadelphia Drexel family, decided to become a nun and devote her life to helping the most oppressed people in the US– the Indians and Blacks.  She used her inheritance to start her own order, called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  She built 12 schools for Indians, and 50 schools for African-Americans, including Xavier University of Louisiana.  Starting schools for Black folk in the South was considered subversive by the racist white power structure in those days.  One of the first schools she built in the south was burned down.  She had to work through an intermediary to buy the land for Xavier University, since it wouldn’t be sold if they knew Drexel was buying it to start a college for Blacks.

Drexel’s order was based in Philadelphia, where she trained the nuns to be teachers and missionaries.  They had a farm, where whey had livestock and food crops, to feed the nuns.  My grandfather– my mother’s father– managed that farm.  My mom knew “Mother Katherine” and was a lay student at the school.  In the previous chapter in this series, “Little White Boy,” I mentioned that my mom raised me not to be racist.  Now you know where she got that from.  My mom also was never impressed by the haughty attitudes of the rich and their cynical politicians. 

My Dad

My dad, on the other had, came from a typical white family in Mississippi and grew up in that racist environment.  But he was a “black sheep” in his family.  Many of you may not know this, but the Democratic Party in the South was a one-party dictatorship, racist and ultra-conservative, serving the wealthy white class, basically from about 1875 to about 1968.  My dad in his teenage years in the 1930’s began supporting the Republican Party, which was consistent with this conservative economic views.  In 1963, he was one of a handful of supporters of the Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi.  Of course that failed because the white Democratic Party machine rigged all the elections in Mississippi.  5 years later, after Blacks won the right to vote, most white conservatives would join my dad in the Republican party.  But long before others joined him, my dad was willing to stand alone for his political principles, and go against the mainstream, including his own family.  I remember him having political conversations with me, telling me how two-faced the politicians were.

I once asked my dad why he wasn’t racist like everyone else in his family.  He said being in the Navy, and working alongside Black folk there, is what changed him.  Being a “black sheep” politically anyway, it was easier for him to abandon old attitudes.  No doubt meeting and marrying my mom influenced him further in this direction. 

Little White Boy

In the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I grew from 5’2″ to 5’7″.  I know this because I was so self-conscious of being smaller than all the other boys in my class (and most of the girls) that I would measure my height every month in hopes that I was growing.  It finally happened that summer.  I was now at least average height.  I would continue to grow to 5’9″ over the next year.  It was a great relief.  For the first time– my senior year– I finally felt comfortable about my size.

I think it was my small size, and fear of bullies, that also contributed to my innate sympathy for oppressed and discriminated groups of people.  It in addition to my support for the Black Civil Rights Movement, I was supportive of the women’s movement for equal rights, and the gay rights movement.  This took no soul-searching on my part;  it was innate.  Afterall, people who oppress other people just because of their sexuality, gender or race are just bullies, when you come right down to it.

So there you have it:  my small size, my parents’ non-racism, my dad’s willingness to stand alone for his political principles, my mom’s contempt for the rich and haughty, my own experiences growing up and making friends with Blacks and Mexican-Americans, the liberal Catholic Youth group and the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, the “Sixties” in the news and the music, finding a book in the library about socialism– all of that was the background and influences of my youth and led me to becoming a radical political activist after I turned 18.  No doubt there’s something in my DNA, too.

In Part 3, I’ll talk about how I joined a socialist group in college and because a political activist for the next 18-20 years, before changing my focus to music.

End of Part 2. Click here for Chapter 3, “The Missing Years, Part 1”

Little White Boy (Part 1)

(Autobiographical Notes)

(Originally published in an email to my music list, August 5, 2020. Edited and published to the blog October 15, 2020.)

In the summer of 2020, I sent a series of autobiographical emails to my mailing list. Many wrote back and suggested that I post them as a blog to reach a wider audience, so I am doing that here.

I’ve been observing the recent Black Lives Matter protests over police killings with great interest, because I used to organize protests like that when I was young.  I was a radical political activist from around age 18 to 36.  That’s why my music career got such a late start.  Hardly any of you know that about me, because I haven’t told you.  It’s time I did. 

Little White Boy

I’m going to begin with my childhood, because the environment in which I was raised directly influenced my political outlook.  I told this story to Lori Grebe Cook at a class in the 2004 Song School, and she wrote a song about my childhood called Little White Boy.  I recorded the song on the Misfit  album, and play it live frequently.  Sometimes I told an abbreviated version of the story when I’ve played it live.  Now, for the first time, I’m going to tell you the full story, the one I told Lori.

Photo from Misfit Booklet
from the Misfit Deluxe Edition booklet

I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared segregated schools illegal.  My dad was a southern Baptist from a small farming town south of Jackson, called Hazlehurst.  My mom was an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  They met during the Korean war when my dad was stationed at the Navy base in Philadelphia, and my mom worked there as a civilian employee.  They got married, and bought a house in Jackson, where I was raised.  My dad wasn’t especially religious, however, my mom was, and insisted that the children be raised Catholics.  In Mississippi.  In the 1950s.

How many of you know what the South was like in the 1950’s and 1960’s?  Ever heard of segregation, or Jim Crow?  Ever hear of the Civil Rights Movement?  I grew up in that environment.  Blacks and whites were segregated.  There were separate water fountains– “white” and “colored.”  Separate bathrooms.  Separate schools.  Seperate neighborhoods.  Separate everything. 

I have a memory of going to the zoo as a small child, and seeing the separate water fountains, one labelled “white” and the other “colored.”  I turned each of them on and looked at the color.  They were the same.  I tasted the water from each, they tasted the same.  I told my mom I didn’t understand what the difference was.

Little White Boy, Little White Boy
Rises to the tip of his toes
and drinks from the Colored water fountain
where no white men go
He thinks it will taste like colored crayons
black, blue, orange and green
He thinks it will taste like colored crayons
different than the water he’s seen
What’s the difference?
Oh, mama, please?
What’s the difference?
It tastes the same to me.

But that wasn’t the worst.  The worse part– for Black folks– was that they were discriminated in every walk of life.  There were places they couldn’t go, jobs they couldn’t have, opportunities unavailable to them.  The were relegated to the hardest and lowest-paying jobs.  They were insulted and degraded.  A 50-year-old educated black man, upon meeting an 8-year-old illiterate white boy, would have to step aside, take off his hat, and say, “Good morning, Mister Billy.”  The the white boy might say, “‘morning, BOY.” 

And Blacks were denied the right to vote, so they had no legal recourse to changing the situation.

The worst was the violence.  In August, 1955, when I was having my first birthday, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago named Emmett Till was visiting relatives in northerm Mississippi.  Being from Chicago, and ignorant of the dangers, he was supposedly “sassy” with a white woman grocery store clerk.  The Ku Klux Klan kidnapped him at night, killed him, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.

The killing of Emmett Till, however, ignited the Civil Rights Movement.  The NAACP focused on lawsuits, while new organizations, such as the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), composed of black college student activists, organized to demand voting rights and an end to segregated facillities.  Mississippi– my home state– had more civil rights activity than any other southern state, according to the excellent book by John Dittmer, Local People:  The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.

Cover of Local People

In May, 1963, when I was nine years old, black and white civil rights activists sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Jackson.  This was a planned act of civil disobedience;  Blacks and whites weren’t allowed to sit together at restaurants;  Blacks weren’t allowed in the better “white” restaurants at all (except as workers).  A mob of white racists gathered and poured ketchup and other condiments on them, and then began beating some of them.  The police arrested… the non-violent protesters.  This made the national news.  A month later,  Medgar Evers, President of the Mississippi NAACP, was murdered in his front yard.  Both of these events occurred within 10 miles of our house.

The following summer of 1964, Black and white college students came to Mississippi as a part of SNCC’s Freedom Summer campaign to organize Mississippi Blacks to demand the right to register to vote.  Two white students– Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, and a Black Mississippi organizer James Chaney, were arrested in Philadelphia, Mississippi (northeast of Jackson), and handed over to the KKK and murdered.  They weren’t the only ones.  But these murders made the national news.  Now middle class white kids were being killed.  This added to the pressure on the federal government to pass civil rights laws.

But all the civil rights activity was oblivious to this Little White Boy, living in a white neighborhood, attending white schools.  I have no memory of these events.  Kids didn’t watch the news, or read the newspaper.  And I don’t remember my parents or teachers talking about the events.  All I remembered from this time was that the city government closed the public swimming pools, rather than integrate them as required by an NAACP lawsuit.  I remember this Little White Boy thinking to himself, I don’t mind if black kids are allowed in the pool, I just want to swim!

I do remember, however, in 1966, when I was 11, seeing a civil rights march when my dad was taking me and my brothers to a barber shop.  I didn’t understand anything at the time, but the look of determination on the faces of the marchers made an impression on me.

My parents, unlike most whites at the time, raised us not to be racist.  We were taught never to use the “N word.”  This may seem like no big deal today.  But it was a big deal back then, in that environment.  When I would try to correct my white playmates, then would ridicule me, calling me a “nigger lover.”  “What’s the matter?” they would ask, “aren’t you proud to be white?”  On top of that, I remember being ridiculed at the lunch table in the third grade for being Catholic!  

I was in a difficult spot– no one wants to be socially ostracized from your neighborhood and school friends.  And of course there was the threat of violence from the bullies.  I was very small as a young boy;  much smaller than the other boys my age, so I had no confidence in my ability to defend myself in a fight.  To this LIttle White Boy it seemed like my family was an island of non-racists in an ocean of white racism.  We were out-numbered– by far.  So I walked a thin line;  I didn’t join the other kids with their racist jokes and comments, but I didn’t challenge them, either.  Still, I felt like a coward for not wanting to be beaten up or ostracized.

Now you know where this word in The Screwup Song comes from:  “I’ve been selfish and lazy, a coward and a fool.”

Perhaps I was being too hard on myself.  Those are tough choices for young child in that environment.  But I remember feeling that back then.

Black men marching, black men marching
on a bubbly blacktop street
Sweat is dripping, burns their eyes
lashes bring them to their feet
Little White Boy, Little White Boy
lean against a barber pole
Watching white men’s faces scowling
like red-hot coals
What’s the difference?
Oh, papa, please?
What’s the difference?
Is this the way it has to be?

When I entered the 7th Grade in the Fall of 1966, our Catholic school was integrated.  A few black students were enrolled.  (Public schools were still segregated, despite the Supreme Court ruling 12 years earlier.)  I remember being excited;  I thought it was cool.  And as the white students got to know and play with the black students, I saw the racism break down.  A new generation of anti-racist white youth was being created.  For me personally, I vowed I would no longer remain silent whenever a white kid said something racist to me, regardless of the price I had to pay.  It was personal now.

After the 7th grade, my dad took a job in Dallas, Texas and moved the family there.  Once again, I lived in a segregated white neighborhood, and attended a segregated white public school.  I remember thinking Texas was behind Mississippi.  But whenever a schoolmate or neighbor said something racist, I told them I didn’t want to hear that kind of language in my presence.  And guess what?  I was never beaten up, I wasn’t ostracized, nobody stopped being my friend.  I think, deep down, they knew I was right and they (or rather, their parents), were wrong.  A coward no more.

Little White Boy, Little White Boy
rises to the tip of his toes

Less than a year after we moved to Dallas, in April, 1968, I was “camping” in a friend’s backyard when the news came over the transistor radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered.  I remembered being very shook up, and depressed.  I thought things were changing.  They were, but progress is not a straight line.

After moving to Dallas, I stayed in touch with my best friend Jorge in Jackson.  In the Fall of 1971, my senior year of high school, Jorge sent me a copy of the Jackson Catholic High School student newspaper.  The lead article was an endorsement of Charles Evers for governor of Mississippi.  Evers was the first Black person to run for governor of Mississippi.  He was the brother of the murdered Civil Rights leader, Medgar Evers.  One of the editors was my former classmate in the 7th grade, when our elementary school was integrated.  I remember being so proud of him and my other former classmates.  I knew this took courage, because I assumed at the time that their parents, teachers and the school administration would have been outraged and come down on them for this.  But, in hindsight, I suspect there were a lot of white people besides my parents who were not racist but too intimidated to speak up.

Photo of Charles Evers

The cover of the newspaper, shown here, quotes the chorus of “Southern Man” by Neil Young, which had become the anthem of anti-racist white youth like me.  A few years later, Lynyrd Skynyrd would attack Neil Young’s song with “Sweet Home Alabama,” which became the anthem for southern white racists.

This is the story I told Lori at the 2004 Song School.  She managed to condense it down to 3 verses and a chorus.  I could never have done that, as you can see by length of this email! 

Fast forward to the present:  I wanted to go to downtown Denver and join the protests, and, under normal circumstances I would have.  As you now understand, opposition to racism is part of my history;  it’s part of who I am.  But the protests were happening in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, which is more deadly for older people.  I’m 65.  From the photos I saw, most protesters were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing.  So I had to hold myself back.  It was too risky for me.  I can’t die yet, I have a lot more music to create and record and perform.

But please check out this song and video by several Denver hip-hop artists about the Black Lives Matter protests. 

In the second half of this series, I will resume at age 17 and cover the next 20 years.  I’ll explain how my childhood experiences, combined with the general atmosphere of the “Sixties,” led me both to playing music, and becoming a radical political activist.  There was no way I could do both, so I relegated music to a hobby.  I would reverse those priorities in my mid-thirties.

End of Part 1. Click here for Part 2.