The Freedom Summer of '64, Part II

After six weeks in Atlanta, canvassing the ghettos and monitoring the polls, facing down angry whites who for the first time had to let coloreds pass within and vote, I was ready to go to Jackson, Mississippi and the freedom print shop. Mary said she would drive me and so we packed our things into the VW once again and took off. Our destination was a house on Short Street, deep in the heart of the black ghetto in Jackson, two states away. Mary would stay with me a little while but was on her way back to Berkeley to clean up some loose ends. I wondered if she'd get back together with her old man and was jealous at the thought.

I was also heartbroken and a little scared. I would be alone again. I'd had an amazing reprieve with Mary in my life these last couple of months. Although I was in a strange, new world, I wasn't alone. We'd spent all our time together, floating through life stoned and sleeping in the woods whenever we could. I'd finally figured out how she managed to hover above unnerving moments all the time and was learning to adopt the same technique. A few tokes of grass went a long way in smoothing the waves on the sea of life.

She had told me stories of what it was like to do LSD - she called it acid - and about the hippie movement growing in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. I absolutely knew this was my path but I wasn't ready to take off with her now. Also, I wasn't invited. Mary, in her unattached way, needed to leave, herself. She wanted to visit her past life and see what was left there that might be of value to her. And deep down, I knew I needed to continue on my own journey, slowly building my inventory of 'firsts'.

So after a week in Jackson, and promises to keep in touch, Mary drove the little Volkswagen off at sunset and I watched her with my heart in my throat.

I was now sleeping on the floor in the print shop on Short Street. The street was, in fact only a couple of short blocks, lined with ancient wooden houses. It was deep in the black ghetto and I never saw white folk down there. As a white SNCC worker, I was a bit of a celebrity and so people were friendly and introduced me to the local hangouts where I could get a good meal and kept me informed if there was any suspicious activity in the neighborhood. Sometimes, cars full of rednecks would cruise the area looking for trouble.

The print shop was run by Albert, a handsome, powerful 23 year old who had just come back from a year at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi maximum security penitentiary. Al had been picked up for having a simple fist fight in front of the little restaurant where we used to have our rice and black-eyed peas. They had sentenced him to a year at hard labor on the chain gang. He told me about long, blistering days working on the roads and the regular beatings with bull whips and pipes. I'd heard of Parchman Farm but these appalling stories shocked me. In my sheltered, middle class world, I knew Parchman Farm as a blues song made famous by Mose Allison. I never imagined it still existed.

Any black man in 1964 was a legitimate target for the rabid frustrations of many white people in the deep south. Those who consorted with them were considered traitors to white America and were treated as such. As a recognized SNCC worker, while I stayed in the ghetto, I felt safe. But on the few occasions I had to leave, I saw danger everywhere. I still looked like a hippie with shaggy hair, blue work shirt and worn jeans and felt like I had a sign on my forehead reading "Beat the shit out of this liberal northern kid". It was kind of a siege mentality.

Al really wasn't around much and was always kind of squirrelly about what he did with his day but I just figured it was a product of his bad year at the Farm and something I would (hopefully) never understand. One day he asked me run an errand for him, as a favor, and pick something up in another part of town. Theoretically, I would blend in more outside the ghetto. I was to go to a warehouse at a certain address and wait for someone who would give me a package to bring back.

I went in the late afternoon and found the empty cotton warehouse, enormous, high ceilinged rooms and loading docks with bales of old cotton scattered about. I let myself in by a side door I found open and waited. The sun went down and the hours passed. The warehouse grew dark. I sat on a bale and tried to convince myself I should stay, that someone would arrive any minute. I didn't even know what I was picking up but it was supposed to be important. I walked in circles in the dark trying to keep my spirits up, deep in the warehouse, keeping well away from the door and the street lights shining through the windows in case the wrong person saw me. I ached with fear knowing how easily I could just disappear in this deserted place as others had. I stepped on something big and soft and my blood ran cold. My fear of dogs immediately leapt up. Was the warehouse patrolled by murderous canines? Had I just woken one up? I stood rock still in the silence but nothing happened. I looked down, my eyes finally having adjusted to the pitch blackness, to see a dead rat the size of a terrier at my feet. I had to get the fuck out of here.

I ran home as fast as I could, taking side streets in the Jackson night. I hoped I hadn't contracted bubonic plague or some other extinct disease. When I got back to the print shop, Al wasn't there. In fact, I never saw or heard from him again. I never found out what it was I was supposed to be picking up.

So, I ran the press by myself. The first job I'd done on the Freedom Press when I arrived, was to print SNCC stationery with three voting levers at the top, each with the name of one of the three boys that had recently been killed by the Klan - James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. Al had taught me to run the two small offset presses and the mimeograph machine before he left. At night I'd sleep on the dusty, wooden floor between the heavy metal machines in order to be protected in case anyone fired a shot through the window, as they had done at some of the Jackson safe houses.

My other job was to print books for the secret Freedom Schools. There were a few of them around the Jackson area and many scattered throughout the south. In a lot of small, rural towns, black kids didn't go to school at all or were segregated to crappy little rooms where no attention was given them. If they did learn to read, they were taught with books that told their story from a white perspective. The Freedom Movement organizations meant to change that and developed a network of underground schools. These were manned by young black or northern white teachers who had come down for that purpose. They would meet in secret, teaching small groups of kids real history and black pride. We had to print our own books, really just manuals, for this as none existed, and that was my job. These Freedom Schools were the model for what eventually became the National Head Start Program.

I continued working the print shop by myself for some months. I attended clandestine meetings out in the country to plan protest strategies but they were pretty tame. By this time, the locals SNCC people had tried some open protests in Jackson where people had been badly beaten and it had all come to naught. So we decided our strategy for now would be to work on the school network and lay low.

After work each day, I'd roam the streets around the print shop, chatting with the locals. The yards in front of their houses were just beaten earth with sagging wire fences, often junk or old cars for adornment. I'd say hello to men and women sitting on their tree-shaded front steps and they were always friendly. One evening I noticed a guitar player strumming to some friends. He was playing the blues and my adrenalin began to pump. I'd been so caught up in the printing stuff I'd put my blues journey on the back burner. I introduced myself. They knew who I was from my SNCC work and passed a bottle of sweet red wine to me and I sat and listened for a while.

During a break I said, "That sounds great. You know, I play guitar. Would you mind if I went and got mine and we played a little? I just live up the street at the print shop."

They all agreed that would be fine. I think they were amused and wondered what to expect.

I ran home and pulled my guitar case from under a press. When I returned and opened the case, I heard some 'Hmmm's as I pulled out the ultimate acoustic blues guitar, a Martin D18. It was already showing wear from the thousands of hours I'd practiced and played, pick gouges worn in the face, spidering in the honey-toned finish.

"Why don't you do something and I'll just play along." I said.

As he thumped out a blues beat, I quickly tuned to his pitch and started dropping licks between his vocal lines. I grabbed a few leads in my best Lightnin' Hopkins and John Hammond style and the little audience was riveted. As a middle class kid, I'd had the luxury of hearing the blues greats on 78 and 33rpm records and the time to practice. Neighbors began to wander over and soon we had a few more players. This was the beginning of more nights of jamming with the Short Street crowd. I also had my harmonicas with me and when there were too many guitar players, I'd sing and play soulful harp in the background. I was in heaven.

Early one evening, Flora, a 250 pound beauty of a woman said,

"Let's go to the Night Train. Let's take this boy Trainin'"

The Night Train? Well, it turned out to be a nightclub a few blocks away, only open on Saturday, but the place to drink and party in the ghetto. This was Saturday night tonight and there was an electric blues band playing there. Everyone on Short Street seemed to know the band. I packed up my guitar and hooked my harp case on my belt and they hustled me off with a crowd buzzing around me.

The Night Train was a huge open hall with a raised stage at one end, an old dusty cement floor and a makeshift bar along one side. It had just opened as we arrived and the band was warming up - four skinny black guys with pomade glistening do-rags to protect their processes until the show began, and grease already running down their foreheads. There was an electric bass, drums and two Fender electric guitars. As the hall started to fill and the wine started to flow, they kicked off with a Jimmy Reed tune I knew well, "Big Boss Man".

Flora and her friends pushed me up on the stage, exhorting the band all the time,

"This white boy kin play. Let this boy play. You like what you hear. He kin do it!"

I looked at the guitar player nearest me and he nodded as if to say, "Yeah, well, whatever…". I glanced at his chord hand and saw they were playing in the key of E. I pulled an A harp from my case, the kind that plays blues in E, and started adding a chunky backbeat to their slow boogie. After a minute I looked over again. They were nodding and grooving with me. I stepped up to the microphone and in my best blues voice, sang Jimmy Reed's words,

"Big boss man, cain't you hear me when I call. Big boss man, cain't you hear me when I call. Oh, you ain't so big, you just tall, that's all."

The crowd erupted like Yankee stadium. Flora and her pack of behemoth girlfriends lined the front of the stage screaming and leading the charge.

"Yo killin' me, baby brother. Come home wit me! I take care of you, you see. Let yo mama show you a good time."

Within minutes of opening, the hall had filled, soon to be packed, shoulder to shoulder for the rest of the night. I played to a sea of screaming black faces for hours, harp and vocals, backed by my first genuine blues band. I whirled, I pumped up and down as the blues overwhelmed me, I got down on one knee and wept. I had seen photos of James Brown and the Famous Flames and was not about to be outdone. His 1962 cover of "Night Train" had been the inspiration for the club. I was a star.

That night I coined my blues stage name. Being a little self-conscious about Goldberg, I became "Little Davie G".

Finally I managed to sneak off myself and make it back to the print shop alone. I just wasn't ready for a night with Flora or one of her sisters. I was on such an adrenalin high I lay on the floor staring at the ceiling all night, wandering around the print shop, furry-eyed the next morning. What a night. I couldn't have dreamed that up myself if I had tried. I was still 19 and had just headlined at the "Night Train" in Jackson, Mississippi with a do-ragged, down-home electric blues backup band.