Our baby boomer generation was shaped by many things, one of them the Civil Rights movement. It didn’t teach us to be a totally tolerant generation, but it moved us closer. What we’re publishing today by suburban New Jersey meditation teacher Rifka Kreiter is her account of her personal involvement in the movement. It is adapted from a book she is currently writing called “Home Free: Adventures of a Child of the Sixties.”
In June, 1966, James Meredith, the maverick Civil Rights activist, was shot in the back after starting a one-man march to prove to black Mississippians that they didn’t have to be afraid to vote. Outraged by this, I was inspired to travel to Mississippi to join the civil rights leaders who gathered to complete the march.
I connected with two other students, all of us going south for the first time. James, a philosophy major at the New School, was a lanky black guy from Cairo, Illinois. Peter, a sandy-haired Ivy Leaguer, explained when we set off in his round-backed Volvo that he belonged to a driving club, whatever that meant. My jaw dropped when he pulled on a pair of leather driving gloves, buttoned at the wrist.
In Panola County, where we met up with the march, of about 7,500 eligible black voters, only 878 were registered.
After a sweaty ten days of marching, Peter, James, and I had to return home.
It’s about noon and the sun’s glare is intense through the back window of the Volvo as we head north on Highway 51. I am trying to nap, lulled by the indistinct voices of James and Peter up front, when I notice a dirty old Ford riding beside us without passing, three beefy men staring at our Connecticut-licensed car with a black man in the front seat and a white woman in back — a dead giveaway we’re Yankee agitators.
They begin shouting at us, mouthing now-familiar epithets that dissipate in the wind before we can hear them. Peter, uttering an epithet of his own, accelerates smoothly, keeping focused on the road ahead. The Ford stays right beside us. I notice the veins standing out in the neck of the cracker in the front passenger seat as his mouth reads “n—–r lover” and other choice words.
“Are you OK?” Peter asks me over his shoulder.
“Sure,” I lie, heart like a jackhammer, “Don’t worry about me.” Peter’s gloved hands grip the wheel as his steady foot pushes our speed over ninety. The Ford keeps pace and begins to inch over into our lane. My God! They’re trying to force us off the road! Remembering Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, the recently murdered civil rights workers, I am sweating hard, but vow to myself not to panic.
“Great driving, Peter,” I say
“You got it, man…” adds James in his mellow lilt.
The Ford repeatedly edges a hair’s breadth from the side of our car, as James and I keep murmuring encouragement. When we finally cross the Tennessee line, the Ford pulls away and passes, it’s putrid exhaust looking beautiful as the distance between us lengthens. Peter pulls onto the shoulder and stops the car. He takes off his gloves, leans his head on the wheel and takes a deep breath.
I could’ve kissed him.