One hot summer night in 1964 my twenty-six year old father drove a borrowed 1950s Chevy sedan with Maryland plates down a dark road in Mississippi. He could hear the chirping of the cicadas, the swish of the tires on the road, and above them all, the thumping of his heart. Dad was driving back across the state, through counties known for violence against local blacks, desperately trying to get home. His borrowed car was leaking oil profusely.
It was just over three years since JFK had challenged the American young people to, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," and just months after his assassination. Robert Kennedy was still Attorney General and Ted Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts.
Earlier that day, Dad had attended the Freedom Democratic Party state convention in Jackson, Mississippi. This political party had been set up that summer by a group of civil rights activists, both southern blacks and northern whites like my dad, to select delegates who would attend the upcoming Democratic National Convention and protest the exclusion of blacks from the all-white Party. Dad stopped along the road to replenish the oil over and over but the engine labored mightily, the old car slowly dying as it bled engine oil. Finally, he knew he had to stop and managed to roll to a crossroads diner before the engine died. He turned off the ignition and looked into the lit windows of the diner. Inside he could see the all-white patrons, and knew that he would instantly draw suspicion. This was the Deep South, after all. He had Northern college boy written all over him.
Dad entered the diner and walked past a policeman eating at the counter. Heads turned, and several menacing-looking locals tracked him as he went to the pay phone at the far end of the counter. At six feet tall and blond hair in a crew cut he could have been one of them, but his clothes and voice gave way exactly who he really was. He avoided their gaze and turned away from them as he unfolded a list of names of safe house organizers along his route. He dialed the local contact and spoke in a low voice, struggling to explain who he was and why he needed help--why, in fact, the black man should come out in the middle of the night to pick up a white stranger--while everyone in the diner watched intently.
Dad walked back outside to the parking lot and leaned against the car. He knew it was only a matter of time before someone came up to him and asked him what his business was. He stood and watched the door of the white-only diner as the minutes ticked by, waiting for a ride that may never arrive.
Dad knew the dangers he faced. Earlier that year, two northern students who had, like Dad, come to Mississippi as part of the civil rights effort, had disappeared. Also missing was their black companion. Two days later, a tip led the FBI to their charred car buried in the swamp. In the process of looking for the bodies the FBI dredged the waterways and found other bodies of black men who had gone missing over the prior months. They finally found the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney in August on a local farm. The two whites had been shot in the heart and the black man beaten severely and then shot multiple times.
Across the state Mom sat out on the stoop of Rust College in Holly Springs, waiting for Dad to get home. My one-year old brother, Will, had been tucked into bed and Mom was six months pregnant with me. As she sat and stared into the hot Mississippi night, Mom asked herself what she was doing in this foreign country. It was a world away from the New Haven of Yale University, where my father had been teaching and working on his PhD. My parents had met in the 10th grade at a Quaker boarding school, Westtown, just outside Philadelphia. She had gone to Bryn Mawr and he to Princeton. They had gotten married just after graduation and before setting off for two years at Oxford where dad had received a Fulbright scholarship. Now she sat alone on the stoop as the minutes turned into hours. Without Dad there, she felt utterly alone and very, very scared.
The week before my parents arrived at Rust College, local white nightriders had shot into the windows of the dorm building. It was a warning to the black students, and the white Northerners there to help, that registering blacks to vote would be met by violence. Though Mom had seen the bullet holes in the walls, and felt her heart race, that incident had not happened to her. Now, as she sat out on the front stoop, waiting for Dad to arrive, she realized for the first time what it felt like to be black in Mississippi. The terror she felt was the same terror she had seen on the black faces she had been staring at for weeks, the faces of black men and women who had decided the time had come to take a stand, and pay the consequences, no matter how grave.
My parents had arrived on the campus of Rust College, an all-black college in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Dad taught English so one of the black faculty members could go north for advanced study. In addition to teaching, Dad tried to help register black voters, a quest that ultimately proved futile. The local officials made up reading tests that no citizen could pass, asking blacks to quote from the state constitution, or read long passages out loud which the officials then pronounced were read incorrectly. As a result, Dad had turned his efforts to the Freedom Democratic Party. The idea was to elect black delegates who would go to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that fall and demand to be seated. Organizing the FDP required secret meetings among blacks and northern whites like Dad. County officials became aware of the FDP and actively tried to stop them through by intimidation and direct violence at the hands of "nightriders" consisting of Klu-Klux-Klan members and local police.Mom waited and waited that night. Ultimately, exhausted and scared, she dragged herself indoors. She kept listening for the sound of Dad's car, but he never returned.
Back at the diner, Dad was beginning to give up hope. Just then an old pick-up truck pulled up next to Dad. Looking into the dark cab, my father saw it was driven by a black man around his own age. Without exchanging a word, Dad got in and they sped away into the night. It was only when they arrived safely at the man's farmhouse that they introduced themselves and shook hands.
"Robert Miles," said the man.
"Jim Matlack," Dad replied. "Thank you for coming."
The man just shrugged. It was only when Dad was sitting at dinner with the family and eating a home-cooked meal did he learn what it had cost Robert Miles to venture out into the night.
"They shoot at us every night," Mrs. Miles said calmly, passing my father a plate of brown meat and grits. "But don't worry, my boys sit out front with a shotgun. They'll protect you."
Across the table, Robert Miles's two sons continued eating without a word.
That night, Robert Miles and his sons took turns sitting on the front porch, passing a shotgun between them. Dad could see the gleam of the shotgun barrels, see the dark outline of the men, and wanted to join them. But he knew that showing his white face on the porch would only jeopardize the family more.
The next morning a local black mechanic picked up Dad's car and towed it away He worked on it for two days to get it running again. On the third day, Dad continued back to Holly Springs.
A few months later, Dad's work in Mississippi was done, and my parents returned to the North, to the safety and comfort of New Haven. They watched on television as Robert Miles led the FDP delegation in Atlantic City as Robert Kennedy received 12 minutes of uninterrupted applause, causing him to break into tears, and finally Fannie Lou Hamer gave her famous "I'm sick and tired" speech to the credentials committee who had offered the FDP just 2 at-large seats at the convention, which she refused.
Forty eight years after his brother had challenged America to ask what we as citizens could do for our country it was left to Teddy to attend the swearing-in of the first African-American United States President, Barack Obama. He collapsed at the luncheon afterward, from fatigue. My parents, now in their seventies, watched the swearing in from their basement in Rockport, Maine with a room full of friends. Their friends cheered but my parents wept. I did too, for the long journey that transformed America sparked by the Kennedys and in which my parents had played no small part.