Summer of 1964--The Longest Nightmare

Charles Marsh: You referred to summer '64 as the longest nightmare. Of course, there were many intense periods in your life; before in Cambridge and many afterwards. I'm struck you singled out the '64 summer.

Cleveland Sellers: The indoctrination for many of us to '64 was Schwerner, Goodman and Chancy. There was no illusion on our part that they were still alive. We come into touch with all the possibilities. That you're not going to make it out of there; that you will get someone else involved. All these things; you're talking about 18-19-20 year olds; and the area I'm in was not as hostile as some of the southwest areas.

CM: And your first experience of MS is searching for the dead?

CS: We figured they were dead. We figured we could go into various and sundry areas and find where they were. You're caught between reality and an optimism. The hope was we'd find them in a house. We wondered whether we'd carry guns. I'm not sure what we were doing. We wanted to find our fallen comrades. Cause we'd get to a house and we'd develop a strategy. We did that for three or four days. These people lived on a highway; I didn't want to identify them. We'd stay out in the barn in the day. Later on, we'd go out in the evening. All you can say is that it was your effort; you were giving it your all.

So now you go back into your project areas; you start the summer. You'd go and meet the sheriff. You develop some interpersonal skills. You'd stick out your hand and then when they stuck theirs out you'd grab it--your natural reflex--and shake it. And you'd say, "I'm here to work on civil rights and I we don't plan to cause no trouble. We want to help these people vote, which is their constitutional right. ' You would do it because there would be a lot of people around the courthouse; and they'd see you, and say, the civil rights people came down here to talk to the sheriff, saying they were going to register them some people and the sheriff turned red. They weren't scared either; they walked right into the sheriff's office; they weren't turning back. That information got out; you'd go find your church; your farmers and you'd begin to build your organization. And then you begin to look at everything in the community, the schools, the social service systems, farms, all of that became a part of what we had to build upon.

You learn how to preach; whatever you have to do. Sometimes we were on farms; the folks knew we were there and credit was cut off and you had to go pick for him. We had one fellow who talked about going under the house and kill the chickens. Nobody had any money. By midway in the summer, most of the money had run out and we were on beans and peas and cheese and beans and beans and cheese and peanut butter and jelly and some cigarettes.

You never knew: there was surveillance.

With Kunstler, they just stopped us and we knew we were going to have some trouble there. We had already decided. We gonna all run over to the federal courthouse.

CM: Emmett Till flashed back?

CS: But it a different kind of relationship. But the badgering becomes something else. It's not a woman it's you; it's a sister. Since she's my partner now; we might have to go out there and redeem her. We'd become all in one.

CM: Was the racism more raw and more out in the open in MS than here?

CS: It was more open because Mississippi had gone to war footage. There were ready for a war. They alerted everybody--everybody in the state. It was part of the social fabric.

CM: Stories of brutality were so pervasive in Mississippi; klan, Citizen's Council, etc,

CS: They were crawling all over Mississippi. One thing different in Mississippi than in Alabama; former was more organized than Alabama. In order for something to happen; if you had an alteration with a white person who was trailing you or whatever or giving you the finger; he's not gonna do anything right then; he's gonna go home and organize and then come get you. In Alabama he's gonna get you right then and there. So you begin to learn those kinds of personalities. That helped you a lot. In Mississippi generally, they were not gonna come get you. We had to go through a lot of precautions. We took the lights out of cars; automatic cut off lights, etc. All these were necessary precautions. If you saw a car coming around frequently, you knew something was up. They're casing the joint, etc, or a drive-by. So you'd always have to be concerned.