In October, 1981, the Campaign for Human Development – a Catholic agency supporting poor people’s organizations across the country – sponsored a three-day conference in Atlanta for its Southern projects. On the opening night, more than 200 community leaders, organizers and church activists marveled as four veterans of Southern struggles told their inspiring stories and shared the wisdom drawn from decades of grassroots movement experience.
L.C. Dorsey’s recollections, presented below, focused on her early years growing up in Mississippi, since the evening’s topic was “We’ve Known Harder Times Than These.” By the end of her talk, however, she suggested that the harder times may be ahead of us. In a subsequent interview, she elaborated on the strengths and weaknesses that will shape our future together, and we added those remarks to the body of her story.
A civil-rights activist, mother of six children, holder of a Masters degree in social work, and now director of programs for the Delta Ministry and associate director of the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, L.C. Dorsey has much to share about our past and future. Her account of changes the Movement brought to her home state, Freedom Came to Mississippi, was published in 1978 by the Field Foundation.
I was born some 42 years ago in the Mississippi Delta on a plantation. The plantation was in Washington County and called Tribette. I was the eleventh of 13 children; only seven of us survived the first year of life. The reason for that, of course, is poverty.
My mother was a native of Alabama, who moved early to Mississippi. She only finished the third grade, but could read and write fairly well. My father couldn’t read and write at all. The Xs on pieces of paper, and quite often not even Xs on pieces of paper, were the way that we were committed to bondage.
Plantation workers very seldom lived on the same plantation all of their lives, and by the time I was grown I had lived on four. The owners of the plantation I was born on, the Walkers, were considered good boss people. They were considered good boss people because they didn’t employ Klan tactics to control people. They didn’t come to your house in the middle of the night to beat you up or kill you. They had a school for the “colored” people. They had houses that would leak, but you were allowed to patch them up. You were allowed some time off in the summer to cut wood for the wintertime. If you were really sick and not just pretending, Mr. Walker would allow you to see the plantation doctor.
Now, growing up I never knew we were poor. One of the things that poverty does is isolate you. I thought all black people lived as we did, all over the country and all over the world, because our world was that plantation. We were one of the few families who didn’t have any folks in Chicago. They never got out of Mississippi.
I didn’t really understand racism. My earliest memories are of fear and it was only after I was grown that I understood the relationship between racism and fear. Two kinds of fear, I might add: the one that we carried around that dictated we could survive if we understood our places and stayed in those places; and another kind, a nameless, senseless kind that poor whites and well-to-do whites had of us.
I remember fear being very much a part of the plantation life. If a person mysteriously disappeared, who I later learned had been killed or lynched, the fear was so great that even at night with everybody at home in their own houses, nobody talked about this occurrence or this incident out loud. They would whisper. Fear so great until people walked around with their heads hanging down so they would not have the appearance of being uppity. Fear so great that people didn’t look white folk in the eye because that was a no-no. Fear so great that all the black men I knew, when in the presence of white ladies, removed their hats and stepped off to the side so as not to brush against them accidentally. Fear so great that you call a little boy that you had raised “Mister,” and little girls “Miss,” because not to do so was an impudent, arrogant act that could get you in trouble.
We didn’t know poverty or understand poverty as you understand poverty and as I grew to understand it later. It is a relative term really. We had enough to eat, and it didn’t really matter that the three meals you had might be fatback and corn bread, not even biscuits sometimes, but cornmeal that we grew and ground ourselves. But, if you had those three meals, you don’t understand what people are talking about by growing up hungry. You ate the fatback and in the summertime if you were fortunate and lived on a good plantation like we did, you had a little garden spot so you had the vegetables. In the wintertime you had wild greens and rabbits and squirrels and fish from the lake. My father was a proficient hunter and fisherman. We had a good relationship, and we would go hunting and fishing together. We have eaten everything from turtles and birds to possums. I never liked possums — they said they ate out of the graveyard — but folks ate them. So, we never understood poverty and hunger in the sense that you hear talked about.
My father, who had never known education, was sure that all the problems he suffered and the things that he was not able to give his family were the result of not being educated. And, in a time when it was mandatory that all members of a household who were old enough to chop or pick cotton be in the field by order of the plantation owner, my younger sister and brother and myself went to the school. My father carried his gun to the field wrapped in a cotton sack and laid it under the cotton to enforce that decision. And when men drove by and said, “Will, where are your children?” he said, “They are in school.” I didn’t understand when I was young the courage it must have taken for him to say that and to back it up. I understand now that was why we had to move so frequently, why we couldn’t stay on the plantation until we grew up. And that was a big dream: to grow up on the same plantation and not to be the new kid on the plantation or the new kid in the little one-room school.
I decided that part of my father’s reasoning was correct when I was 13 years old, that the reason black people on plantations were so poor was because they didn’t have the education to keep records. They really didn’t keep account of how much they owed a man, how much the cotton sold for and how much they should get for their part. So I decided when we moved to a new plantation that we were going to do something different this year with the crop. I would keep records because my father had been sending me to school so I could help us do better. He bought me a blue composition book, and with my little learning I got in these country schools, one-room church places, I learned how to set out a set of bookkeeping records. I put down all the little things that we got, and Daddy cooperated by telling me. Beginning in March, you get a “furnish,” a little amount of money from the owner of the plantation and you get that for six months. That is to help you with food and stuff until the cotton crop comes in and you start to harvest. Well, I put down all the things that we got that whole year. All the money we had to borrow before the furnish started in March, all the money that we had to pay to the previous plantation owner so we could move off his place, so you never get out of debt. We had a radio by this time and every day at 12:00 the radio would broadcast what cotton was selling for. With my arithmetic, we would figure up how much we owed.
We knew we had to give the man half of all the bales we picked. Cotton sold for a good price that year — 40 cents a pound. We added up all the extra pounds; bales are generally figured at 500 pounds a bale, but there were some bales that weighed 600 pounds. All this extra money the white man usually just takes. We figured up plantation expenses because that is the catch-all — when you paid everything else and there was nothing else they could legitimately add to your debt, they added plantation expenses. When all this division and multiplication and subtraction was over, by my set of books our share should have been $4,000, and we should have at least gotten $1,000. I did know there was no fairness in this system.
Well, settling day finally came and my father had to go up to the house for the settlement. This is in December. I went off to school, but all day long I was anxious to know what was happening at this house when my father pulled out his set of figures and gave them to the man and said, ‘Now listen, you have to deal with me honestly because here is what I owe you, here is what the cotton sold for, here is my part.” I don’t know what really happened at the house that day. I don’t even know if my father brought out this composition book with all my figures neatly entered. But what we cleared out of that crop — and this is the first time we had ever cleared any money - was not the $1,000 that I thought we would clear, but $200, which was just a token. It wasn’t what we were due, but it had a lot to do with “coming of age” in the sense of how little control black people have over their lives.
When I got home and found out what the settlement had really been, there was another coming of age — people were locked into this system, and the fear and lack of control made them take that. There was no protest. There was no saying I’m not going to take that. There was nobody else you could appeal to .Nobody else. That did something for my whole life from that point on. Maybe if I was white I would have become a Klansman. But what it made me was a very angry person who spent the next 20 years using that anger against unfair systems.
I said 20 years because I’m still dealing with stuff, but it is no longer from a base of anger. A long time ago anger got to be a burden — it grows and feeds on itself and it gets to a point where it is almost uncontrollable. And then it becomes very, very destructive. I think you have to have it so it molds you into something that is a lot more manageable. You see, I never thought all those years that it was fair for things to happen like this, but I could never find a way to deal with it. When I was 11 years old, a little girl — my classmate — was slapped by a white lady in the 10-cent store for not saying “Yes, ma’am.” I knew that wasn’t fair. But I didn’t' know how you deal with it. I told my mother how I would have dealt with it: I would have hit her back, but I know that would have brought a lot of pain to the family.
So I started the cycle that my parents had been in, dropping out of school when I was 17 and getting married to a man on a plantation. We started having babies that we could not afford, and we kept on until we had six — four girls and two boys. You have the same cycle of poverty continuing. We were getting the exact same set of experiences that my father had gone through, with a different plantation owner and a different plantation, but the same system being in place. And we probably would have been there until now, with my children on somebody’s plantation doing something, except for the Civil Rights Movement and except for chemicals and except for the mechanization of picking cotton, all three of which worked independently to put us off that plantation.
We began to hear about the Movement on the radio and in black newspapers. Let me tell you about my father. My father would walk 10 miles into town to the black barbershop that sold black newspapers — the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier — and he would bring those newspapers home on Saturday evening and my momma would spend the weekend reading that paper to all of us. You began to hear a little bit about that struggle from those papers. The radio stations didn’t broadcast a lot about that. We didn’t have televisions, and the local paper wasn’t carrying that stuff. People used to come out to our house at night from the NAACP — whatever they say about it now, in the old days it had some courageous warriors. They drove down the turn road with their lights out so that the white folks wouldn’t know that they were coming. They would get the word on the grapevine about what movement was going on where, what progress was being made, how many folks were being registered and if you wanted to register, how to go register. They would come to my folks’ house and they would talk and I would listen and I soaked it all in.
When the Movement started moving closer, we would get together on the ends of the cotton rows in the morning and we would whisper about it. If we heard something we’d pass it on to everybody else. We were a people who were sitting, waiting for the Movement to come and help us with all these things that we were struggling against all of our lives, that we couldn’t ever get a handle on, that we couldn’t ever figure out how to deal with. We felt the Movement would offer a way out.
Let me tell you, when it got to Mississippi, where I was living then, having been forced off a plantation because the machines could do it better, I was waiting for it. When the word went around through town that the Freedom Riders were here, we said, “Where?” When we found out where they were, we were there. The fear that our folk had known, the fear that kept a lot of people quiet when abuses were being made not only to them but to their families, sort of fell by the wayside because there was this unified group of people, black and white, who had come into town to say we are here to work with you against this system of oppression and hatred. We got involved in that and just kept going from that point through the economic movement with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, where you had to realize that the right to vote, the right to go into any cafe or restaurant or hotel was really kind of empty without a job for all of us who were moved off those plantations, without the money to eat.
From then on we’ve worked on other human-rights struggles — the Vietnam War, the oppression by the Klan, more sophisticated, much more organized, the police brutality where you have your policemen using the color of law to abuse and oppress people in the black community and in the poor communities. And we’ve been able for the first time to really deal with white people on a human basis. You know what poverty and racism do to us; it also dehumanizes you white folks because we don’t see white folks as people, we don’t see them as folks that you can sit down with. Until this day I haven’t gotten to the point where we can sit down in Church with whites because I find myself looking at them and wondering if they are Klan or this or that. It cripples all of us.
As black and white together, we have seen harder times. Much of my life has been so apart from white folks in terms of understanding how they perceive hard times and how they deal with them. But, as black people, I don’t know that we have seen any harder times than we see now. Let me tell you why. We have more property — no, we don’t, we have more houses that we own with FHA mortgage companies — we have more color television sets, we drink more cognac, we have more Brooks Brothers suits and more things, so that if you look on an acquisition basis, maybe we have had harder times. But we have less love.
On those plantations, when times were really tough, there was a sense of oneness. Oneness and the fact that even in our oppression we were brothers and sisters, with love for each other and concern for each other, and if in fact I had no cornmeal in my house I didn’t have to worry, because down the street there was meal and a house for me and my kids.
I have had no experience worse than — I’ve only had it once and I hope none of you ever had it — the experience of having your kids cry themselves to sleep because there was no food in the house. That is a miserable thing that I never intend to go through again. I would rob a bank, break into a store or anything because I am never going through that again. I had that experience from being in a new community in an isolated place and being a part of all the foolishness of protecting black men’s dignity and not letting people know that you are hungry because the man is out someplace. I’ve lived with that nonsense and I am not going through that again.
If I had said anything to anybody when those kids were hungry, nobody in the black community would have suffered them to go hungry. I’ve left my little kids at home to go to the field to chop cotton and not even worried about it, because I knew black neighbors who were too old to go to the fields anymore were taking care of them. They took care of the whole community. It was more like what I have seen in some of the other countries I have traveled in where our problems were community problems, our strengths were community strengths, and when we went off to school or when we went off to get a skill, it was a skill that was an investment in the total community. So that when you learned how to write, you wrote letters for everybody on the plantation. You didn’t charge anybody for writing those letters and reading the letters they got back, and you kept their business in those letters. You didn’t tell nobody what was happening.
As I move across the country now, I don’t see that unity in the black community. It worries me that these are the hardest times we have ever seen. It worries me that these are the times when we might not survive as a group. The strong always survive so a few individuals will survive, but at what cost?
I worry that this man who we’ve got in the White House now, who’s got the greatest script he has ever had in his whole life, that he is going to do things to us that further divide us. I worry about the impact that the media has on defining issues for us, on shaping our perception. I worry that we look at the ills of this society and we do not address the causes. We look at crime that makes us all fearful, and we decide that because people are stealing and shooting and killing that it is all right to fill up the prisons predominantly with black people although we represent only 11 percent of the total population, that it’s okay if 48 percent of the people on death row are black. I’m talking to black folks now. We have decided that these kinds of inequities in a society are all right. We have decided to become aligned with those who we have called oppressor and have failed to deal honestly with what threatens our survival.
We have become fragmented and changed our personal values away from our commitment to the community. Most churches are no longer a part of the community or concerned about the community as a whole. The family, even the family, has changed. We no longer set forth the values of where we want our children to go. Nor do we make sure they get there. There is a falling away of that sense of togetherness, of belonging, of having meaning and purpose, of having your life be a part of a group of people who depend on you, who seek love and comfort from you. It’s not enough to say we’re too busy, because if we don’t pay attention to our family and our community, we can’t build anything.
With some creative energy, we can make the meal, clean up the house and still listen to our children. It may mean we have to involve them in that process of making the meal and talk to them while we’re doing the housework, but that’s what we have always had to do. I don’t want to come off sounding like the Moral Majority, but we have to also let our children know they are important by being an authority figure in their lives. One of the things that has happened in our desire to be good parents is that we have abandoned some basic tried-and-true principles, and we’ve been very uncertain about what we should be doing. We have gone through a period as parents — and particularly mothers — of being told by experts about how bad our influence on children is, and that has made many of us very timid about asserting our authority or relying on our experiences in rearing our children. As a result of our uncertainty and our failure to give guidance and discipline, we have children relying on their own, taking wild directions from their peers, and winding up seeking someone that can give them direction, discipline and the love they never had.
The churches have failed to give that direction, too. People throng to churches every Sunday morning because there is an absolute emptiness in their lives that they recognize and they’re going to the place where they think it can be filled. Pastors who know how to put away the mystique of saints walking across hell on spider webs and who can reduce the born-again experience to the Here and Now, they could be a powerful force in bringing families together, making the church a meaningful forum for people to deal with issues in the community, and filling the void that is causing people to search in the church in the first place.
We have lost so many of these basic things that kept us together on the slave ship, that kept us together after we were over here, the whole business of getting back to our country and determining our culture, determining our future, the whole nation vision that we shared that kept us through all these hard times. We survived slavery and the Klan and the plantation system because we all had a unified vision and if we stuck together we could make it. Somehow, somebody decided in the ’60s, after the Movement, that the best way to deal with us was to get a few individuals and say you are better than the rest. You deserve this and you deserve that. And you’ll get it if you forget about the rest of those people. Because of that attitude, because of the absence of the strong family structure, because of the failure of the Church to take its rightful place and tell us about living here instead of heaven, I am not sure that we are going to survive these hard times as a people.
We will not survive if we depend on Washington to solve our problem, or if we talk ourselves into thinking we are helpless to do anything about the powers around us. At some point, we must recognize that all we have now and all we ever had was each other. The cutbacks or new legalized powers of the FBI and CIA are nothing new; there was a long period of our history when we had no social programs, when the KKK and FBI were oppressing people openly. There is nothing new about today except us.
Before, when we had nothing, we were more prepared to struggle. Now, we let ourselves think that if we don’t speak up, if we don’t take the risk, then maybe we can hold onto what little we’ve been able to get through our new alliances with the power structure — whether that’s being able to attend a meeting with the governor or hold a job that somebody else gave us. We’d like to forget about our part in the community’s struggle, to just hope that somehow other folks will get by without us. But the key to anything we had or will ever have lies in our ability to accept the reality that to keep together, to get by, to hold onto what is ours and what we’ve won, to survive, to have meaning in our lives, will always require that we continue to struggle together, with creativity and with commitment to build our community and move forward as a people.