Review of ‘Silver Rights’, ‘His Promised Land’

Silver Rights
Constance Curry
Algonquin Books
Harcourt Brace

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.

Mae Bertha and her husband, Matthew, guided their children through the worst days with a courage and faith that was the heart of the civil rights movement, but they could not have done it alone. Through civil rights workers like Constance Curry, word was spread, and people of goodwill in many places became sources of support for the Carters.

Here, for instance, is what happened when the overseer ploughed under the Carters' cotton crop before they could pick it:

"Even with no money from the cotton crop, the Carters were able to survive November and December. Amzie Moore [a black veteran who had come home and helped organize a local NAACP branch] brought food, the Boulder Friends [in Colorado] continued to send lunch money, the AFSC sent small grants, the Morningside Gardens Civil Rights Committee in New York City contributed clothing and money, and some canned foods came from a church in New Jersey." And on the day when the overseer did not show up with the family's customary $15 for their car's annual license plate fee, "Fannie Lou Hamer, by then a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, brought Mae Bertha the tag money."

Reading this book is a reminder of the deep interconnectedness of our lives, of the power of conscience when people care about and for each other, and are willing to act with love against the force of hatred and violence. Seven of the eight Carter children who desegregated the schools of Drew later graduated from the University of Mississippi, where the first black student to enroll needed an escort of U.S. marshals. The spirit that sustained them was expressed in a letter from Mae Bertha to Constance Curry in May 1966: "I went to church on Sunday and my preacher preach about love one another--it don't mean Negro only--it means everybody, white and black."

If civil rights seems like ancient history to today's students, it's hard to imagine anything that would rescue the abolitionists and their Underground Railroad from the dustbin of our history. But His Promised Land, The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad is the book to do just that. This is an amazing tale, told by the elderly Parker in the 1880s to a Southern newspaperman, and never published until now. The manuscript, dusted off from the Duke University archives, begins with Parker, only 8 years old, being marched in chains from Virginia to Alabama, on a mountain trail full of flowering azaleas and mountain laurels: "Every thing," he would recall, "seemed to be gay except myself. Picking up a stick, I struck at each flowering shrub, taking delight in smashing down particularly those in bloom. That was my only revenge on things that were free."

Parker's account is always vivid, often violent, and told with a sharp eye and bold directness that makes events spring to life. An attempted escape from slavery led to several captures and brushes with death along the Mississippi; after that he convinced a Mobile, Alabama, woman to buy him and let him work in a foundry and buy his freedom with his wages. Heading for Cincinnati and then Ripley, Ohio, he began a life of nighttime forays back into slave-holding Kentucky to help fugitives escape.

As a free black man in Ripley, he ran his own ironworking business, owned his own house, married and prospered. (Parker succeeded in creating the conditions that made a better life for his six children. He was passionate about the importance of a college education; his three sons and three daughters all became teachers. The firstborn son, Hale Giddings Parker, completed the classical program at Oberlin College in 1873. One daughter, Hortense Parker, was among the first African-American graduates of Mount Holyoke College.) But he risked everything to join Ripley abolitionists in helping fugitive slaves, guiding them out of the Kentucky woods, hiding them in their houses and sending them north on the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.

Proslavery neighbors and bounty hunters from the South suspected Parker, but never succeeded in catching him. "I never thought of going uptown without a pistol in my pocket, a knife in my belt, and a blackjack handy," he recalled. Parker tells many stories here of bravery among the fugitives, and his escapes from ambushes and shoot-outs. No Hollywood thriller could match this tale. It's the real thing.

But, like the bravery of the Carter family in Silver Rights, Parker's story is a reminder of how closely the threads of our lives are interwoven in this country. Parker's father was white; as a young slave owned by a Mobile doctor, Parker was secretly taught to read by the doctor's sons; it was a white woman who set him free; and in several near-death moments, he was saved by white men. His abolitionist allies in Ripley included both black freemen and white ministers. This book, too, stands as a monument to Parker's legacy. Royalties from His Promised Land will go to the John T. Parker Historical Society, in order to preserve Parker's house, still standing in Ripley, Ohio. Parker's story testifies that even in our most violent conflicts, conscience has no color.

Paul Trachtman is a reviewer based in rural New Mexico.

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