Algonquin Books, $21.95
Harcourt Brace, $13 (paper)
His Promised Land
John P. Parker
edited by Stuart Seely Sprague
The history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s has by now been boiled down to a paragraph in the minds of many high school students; it is ancient history to a generation that has moved on from freedom songs to gangsta rap. This is a loss for all of us, for the heart of that history is still beating, its voice is still speaking.Silver Rights, a riveting memoir of one African-American family's fight to send their children to the segregated white schools of Drew, Mississippi, is a reminder not only of the gains we have made in this country but of the spirit we often seem to have lost.
The author, Constance Curry, was a field representative of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) who tried to help the Carter family live through its ordeal of intimidation, reprisals and insults as seven of its children became the only black students in Drew's white elementary and high schools in 1965. (An eighth would join them in 1967.)
The voices in the book are mostly those of the Carters, through Curry's interviews and the many letters Mae Bertha Carter wrote to the Friends' headquarters as one crisis followed another. As a result, the book has an immediacy, intimacy and emotional truth that history rarely reveals. It also unfolds with a simplicity of words and facts that make the Carters' courage, faith and love a reality any reader can share. Even the title of the book is a reflection of that language. Among the rural black families of the Mississippi Delta, the bureaucratic term "civil rights" was translated as the dream of "silver rights."
To tell this story, Curry spent the past few years renewing her friendship with the Carters, interviewing the grown children, trying to set the events of the 1960s in perspective. The Carters were a sharecropping family on a cotton plantation outside of Drew when Mississippi, under threat of losing federal funds, came up with a "freedom of choice" plan to circumvent federal law. Families like the Carters could sign papers to send their children to all-white schools, but both blacks and whites knew what would happen to families who made that choice. "If they don't get you in the wash, they'll get you in the rinse," Mae Bertha Carter told a visiting minister from Ohio who supported the family.
The Carters were threatened with eviction, and found credit in local stores cut off and their home shattered by gunshots in the dark, forcing them to sleep on the floor in fear. Spitballs and insults rained on the children as they rode the bus to a school where life was no easier. "I hated history class," one of the older boys recalled, "when we covered the Civil War and the teacher said 'nigger' and allowed the students to say it like I wasn't even there."
It was the Carter children who made the choice to go to the white schools. None of them ever went back to the black schools, which had split sessions so that students could work in the cotton fields. "What I hated most was being in the cotton field and seeing the white school buses pass us by while we were picking," the oldest girl, Ruth, recalled. But Ruth also came to hate her days at the white school. "During that time, it seemed like I was filled up with hate. I hated Mississippi, I hated the white man. I hated my teachers. I hated everything. Then we started having these little sessions at home in the afternoon after school. It was almost like therapy. We would sit down and Mama would say, 'How did things go today at school?' We would talk about what happened and a lot of times we would cry together. . . ."
As Ruth reconstructed those afternoons, it was her mother's voice she heard reverberating in her memory. "If Mama heard me say, 'I hate white people, I just can't stand them,' she always answered, 'Don't you ever say that. Don't you ever say that you hate white people or anyone--it's not right.' . . . The other thing she wouldn't let us say was that we wished we had never been born."
Nevertheless, the pressures on the children were brutal indeed. The youngest, Carl, who entered the first grade in 1967, recalled the weight of isolation. The next year, in the second grade, he simply tried to flee. "Not having any playmates . . . made me feel bad. . . . I just left the schoolyard one day and came home. I was only seven . . . I told Mama that I had walked all the way home and I wasn't going back. I said I was sick, got in bed." But the next day he was back, his main refuge being his excellence as a math student.