When I was working in Mississippi for SCLC in 1966, I would not have believed that any of the young white men I saw on the streets (mostly harassing us) would ever reject white supremacy. They appeared as dedicated to its domination as sports fans are to their clubs.
William Alsup writes that I was wrong; that there were some young white men who heard the civil rights movement’s message that white supremacy and segregation were wrong. They may not have bought into all of its messages — at least not then — but they heard enough of it to knock cracks in the closed society of Mississippi.
The author’s memoir is not just about himself, but the small group of young white men who were his pals in his hometown of Jackson and on the campus of Mississippi State University (MSU). It’s about coming of age in the middle of a revolution and being “won over” to the other side.
They started with a teenage act of rebellion (so what else is new?) — when he and a buddy decided to paint over a billboard that said IMPEACH EARL WARREN. They got away with it; it made the local papers; his mother didn’t chastise him but only said “be careful.”
Born in 1945, Alsup absorbed the big events of the 1950s when the issue of race went national. But it was the court-ordered admission of the first black student to the University of Mississippi in September of 1962 that made him and his friends think seriously about segregation. The Governor and the state newspapers called for active resistance as federal marshals escorted Air Force veteran James Meredith on the campus of the flagship university during three days of riots and two deaths. At this point, Alsup still believed in the Mississippi Way of Life, but one of his friends was beginning to question it.
Alsup later observed that only a small sliver of the Mississippi population supported civil rights, even modestly. He and his friends made a small step in that direction the following May when the Birmingham demonstrations were making national news and the NAACP was boycotting and picketing stores in Jackson. They wrote a letter to the editor of one of the Jackson newspapers supporting voting rights and equal education for Negroes – but nothing else. Nonetheless, it was a “call in the wilderness.”
They were also affected by the contrast between white violence and the peaceful March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The comparison enhanced the moral authority of the civil rights movement.
Most of his group went on to college, many to Mississippi State University — a land grant university. Of course blacks were not admitted, and very few women. At MSU Alsup joined the debate team, which took him all over the country for tournaments and expanded his friendship network. He also became active in the YMCA and the Young Democrats.
Alsup doesn’t say so, but the Y was on the cutting edge of racial change throughout the South. The YW was ahead of the YM, but both used Christianity to talk about racial justice.
At this point I began to make comparisons between his experiences at MSU and mine at Berkeley. Cal was often called Red Square West, but the fact that MSU was making similar waves only a few years later tells us that there was something of a Zeitgeist running through higher education.
Both schools had a speaker ban. Berkeley’s began in the 1930s as a Communist Speaker Ban and enlarged over time to be a controversial speaker ban. Alsup doesn’t recount the equivalent MSU history, but by his freshman year in 1963 controversial speakers were forbidden. In both institutions the University President opposed the ban but the governing board insisted on it.
At MSU the rejected speaker who was too controversial was Aaron Henry, head of the Mississippi NAACP. He finally became the first black speaker on a white Mississippi campus in 1967 — as the guest of the Young Democrats. At Cal our first speaker who had previously been rejected as too controversial was Malcolm X, who addressed thousands in 1963.
There were differences. At MSU, the Young Democrats were the radical edge. At Cal, we were the moderate middle. MSU’s YMCA was kicked off campus for its progressive positions. Our YMCA was already off campus – occupying a building at campus edge where we could hold the political meetings we couldn’t hold on campus. It had been attacked by a legislative committee for this openness — in 1946.
Both states had a state-funded body dedicated to exposing subversives. California’s was a legislative committee dating from 1940. It hunted Communists and commiesymps. Mississippi’s was an executive commission created in 1956. It hunted civil rights activists and sympathizers, arguing that they were all basically Communists. Alsup and his friends knew about the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission and the need to keep out of its reach. I and my friends and political colleagues did not.
Alsup’s growing interest in the civil rights movement was enhanced by the Meredith March through Mississippi in June of 1966. He drove through Canton to observe the march right before we were teargassed. He and a friend went to “our first real civil rights rally” at Tougaloo college, which was a concert with top-notch entertainment. They skipped the final rally at the back of the state Capital building in Jackson the next day. The MSSC was at both, writing down license tags and taking photographs.
The book pretty much ends when Alsup leaves for Harvard Law School, so we learn little about his experiences there, or as a Supreme Court Clerk. He eventually moved to California, where his wife was from, practiced law for 25 years and became a federal judge. He does tell us what happened to his friends and there are flash forwards throughout, but the book is about life before he graduated from MSU in 1967.
There is a sequel waiting to be written. Civil rights were just the first revolution he lived through, and a lot of those took place in California. Now that he lives next door to Berkeley, I’d like to know what he thought when the “antifas” attacked those they called “fascists” in Berkeley in 2017. Did it remind him of Mississippi as much as it did me?
This book is an easy read, unobscured by legalese. If Judge Alsup writes the next one, he needs to include an index.
Jo Freeman is the author of At Berkeley in the Sixties. She spent four years in the civil rights movement, including seven weeks in Mississippi. She left the state when “exposed” by the MSSC in the Jackson Daily News. This article was originally published by Senior Women Web.