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White involvement in the Civil Rights Movement: motivation and sacrifices.

In 1964, the Freedom Summer Project brought nearly one thousand volunteers to the South, most of which were northern white students, to facilitate Black voter registration. Allowing northern Whites to take part in the Movement created a tension within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as "two principal concerns were whether they would in some way undermine or usurp less confident Black leadership and whether their mere presence would provoke local Whites to more acts of violence" (Ransby 2003, 321). These concerns did not rest solely on the fact that most of the volunteers were White, as "whites had been involved from the beginning" (Ransby 2003, 321) with a small number participating in the sit-ins and in SNCC's founding conference, while "some of the most active and visible Whites were southerners" (Payne 2007, 381) such as Bob Zellner and Mary King, had been involved with SNCC for three or four years by Freedom Summer.

Instead most of the tension rested on the fact that the northern Whites who participated in the Freedom Summer Project were seen as outsiders by Black and White southerners. Whereas southern Whites felt less apprehension from Blacks than their northern white counterparts, "partly because southern whites and southern Blacks shared so much culturally" (Payne 2007, 381). Southern White activists understood this tension though, as it reflected the outsider mentality they had been subject to while living in a society with which they whole-heartedly disagreed, especially upon actively engaging with the Movement.

Although regarded as outsiders, northern Whites were effective in helping to implement an integral part of the Freedom Summer Project, which were the Freedom Schools. The goal of the Freedom Schools was to better equip southern Blacks to fulfill civic duties, such as voting, because "literacy and an understanding of the Constitution were necessary for black citizens to pass the qualifying test enabling them to vote" (Ransby 2003, 327). However, it would take much more than the act of voting to change the status of Black citizenship and the mindset of the status quo in southern society. Therefore, southern Whites were more valuable from an educational standpoint in providing a White voice that came from within southern society, to foster change among the status quo. This proved to be a very difficult, but worthwhile pedagogy, requiring unflinching commitment as MacArthur Cotton comments, "I found a closeness with southern whites. That probably had a lot to do with commitment. You step out of one of these towns in Alabama or Mississippi, talking about you going to be a freedom fighter, you committed" (Cotton in Payne 2007, 381). Southern White activists realized to change their society would require a commitment to changing the practices of everyday southern life, a commitment with much different implications than those required to teach in the Freedom Schools.

Danielle Allen maintains that citizenship as defined by duties, such as voting, is a myth; and that in actuality citizenship is comprised of rituals (Allen 2004). Taking this idea from Ralph Ellison, Allen writes, " [Ellison] recognized that every human life is full of rituals that initiate people into the symbol world, ideals, and political structure of their community ... and are the link between any particular life and the larger political structure" (Allen 2004, 27). To exemplify this Allen uses the famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, capturing a moment in Eckford's famous approach towards Little Rock Central High School.

Allen uses this picture to exemplify the differing set of rules, or rituals that governed each student. These were deep rules that dictated how each acted in the public space outside of the high school. Hazel Bryan utilized her customary White privilege, imbued with power from her fellow White citizens behind her, as Eckford accepted verbal abuse in attempting to claim her right to equal education. In this single event, Eckford relinquished her normal rituals, which typically avoided White citizens' verbal abuse, to initiate her citizenship more fully.

Therefore, Elizabeth Eckford was giving up certain rituals in order to gain others. This exemplifies the belief that as human beings you must give up some good things for other good things, offsetting certain bad circumstances in creating others (Ellison in Allen 2004). This sort of sacrifice is what Allen hails as the preeminent ritual in a democracy. This is because in every communal decision that faces society, some citizens will benefit, at the expense of others (Allen 2004).

Many Black citizens in the Civil Rights Movement sacrificed their rituals that typically avoided violence and confrontation. This sacrifice was in hopes of benefitting future generations of their community by encouraging them to fully realize their rights. However, there were White citizens who also sacrificed their rituals. These rituals were grounded in privilege and guaranteed by the White power structure of the government. These southern White citizens sacrificed their rituals with the hope that future generations of Black citizens' equality would be recognized among their White communities. These White citizens were viewed as traitors by their southern communities and many times distrusted by the Black communities they sought to assist.

The academic work regarding some of these southern White activists has been in the form of biographies documenting their lives, while most others have been sparsely documented within histories of the Movement. Previous research that has tried to find commonalities among this unique group of southern White activists is difficult to find. Therefore, this paper asks what would motivate these White activists to sacrifice their privilege within a democracy for the whole of their society, and in many cases face near isolation from the society that they were sacrificing their rituals to change? We can only speculate from the stories of their lives what drove them to sacrifice their rituals. However, it is their sacrifice that makes collective democratic action possible, in educating through their actions.


Cornel West (2004) describes three traditions that "fuel deep democratic energies," in turn these energies fuel "the underlying moral commitments and visions and fortifications of the soul that empower and inspire a democratic way of living in the world," and more specifically in communities, states, and countries (15-16). The three democratic traditions include a "Socratic commitment to questioning," a "prophetic commitment to justice," and a "tragicomic commitment to hope" (16). A Socratic commitment to questioning, according to West, includes questioning one's self, authority, dogma, parochialism, and fundamentalism. As the name implies, it is rooted in the Greek tradition of democracy, and has been utilized historically in relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority to preclude the domination of elite manipulations, lies, and propaganda. Through constantly questioning those of elite, political, or authoritative status, one can "engage in a critique of and resistance to the corruptions of the mind, soul, and society" (West 2004, 17). Ella Baker who was a leading advocate of education in the Civil Rights Movement, modeled this commitment to questioning as White activist Mary King describes Baker "with Socratic persistence, in her resonant and commanding voice, she would query, 'Now let me ask this again, what is our purpose here? What are we trying to accomplish?' Again and again she would force us to articulate our assumptions.... She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire, 'Ask questions, Mary,' she would say" (Ransby 2003, 360). A commitment to Socratic questioning is a democratic energy that was needed during the Civil Rights Movement, today, and in the future, not only requiring utilization by those who are oppressed, but by every citizen.

A prophetic commitment to justice, West credits as a Jewish conception that can also be witnessed in the Christian and Muslim faiths. This commitment to justice is rooted in a "commitment to the justice of an oppressed people" (West 2004, 17). The Jews living in Israel during the time of the Egyptians were an oppressed group of people, hated and enslaved, and West believes God chose them out of his love for justice. This prophetic witness to justice consists of human acts of kindness and justice, calling attention to unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery, and not displaying indifference to institutional and individual evil action. Furthermore, a prophetic commitment to justice also seeks to transform the world as communities of individuals, instead of transformation through conversion or assimilation. Prophetic witness was important to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement due to it not relying on force or aggressive militarism to seek justice in the name of one group over another, and instead seeks to use nonviolence in achieving justice. Therefore, a prophetic commitment to justice was a necessary democratic energy in the Civil Rights Movement and should continue to be vital in every nation across the world.

A tragicomic commitment to hope can be provided by artists, writers, performers, and musicians who present a profound attitude toward life, in the face of cynical and disillusioned compliance to the demands of the status quo. West credits historical figures such as Lucian, Cervantes, Chekov, Ralph Ellison, and American blues musicians. Tragicomic hope "expresses righteous indignation with a smile and deep inner pain without bitterness or revenge" (West 2004, 19). West points to the funeral of Emmett Till as the high point of the Black tragicomic experience in describing this democratic energy as being seen "in the compassionate and courageous voice of his mother, who stepped up to the lectern ... in Chicago in 1955 at the funeral of her fourteen-year-old son, after his murder ... and said: 'I don't have a minute to hate. I'll pursue justice for the rest of my life.' When Mississippi officials tried to keep any images of Emmett's brutalized body out of the press-Mamie Till Mobley held an open-casket service for all the world to see" (West 2004, 20-21). This is by definition tragicomic hope, to stare painful truths in the face and persevere without cynicism or pessimism.

These three traditions that rouse democratic energies were all utilized in the Civil Rights Movement, not only by Black activists, but also by White activists. The White activists employed these traditions to model the democratic energies to their fellow White citizens who had succumbed to the racist power structure, willing its oppression on the Black communities unconcernedly. White activists also utilized these democratic energies to justify their resistance to the status quo, to both formally and informally educate their fellow citizens, and to use their own experiences as a means to learn, while inspiring others.

This paper will examine the democratic motivations of five White activists in the south during the 1950's and 1960's. Each White activist embodied at least one of the democratic energies, rooted in long traditions. These activists are but a few of the many who sacrificed their way of life to seek justice and equality for everyone in their community, state, and country.

Many of these activists met opposition from both the Black and White communities. They faced exile from their homes and communities for their devotion to the Movement. However, this was the price to be paid, and in a way justified their devotion to these traditions and democratic energies, that fueled their need to inform and educate their fellow citizens through resistance of the status quo.

Will Campbell frames it well in saying: "There was no real personal hatred of me. It's like my little dog goes rabid, I have to take him out behind the barn and shoot him because he is a danger and a menace. You see, I'd gone rabid. I was a traitor to the community, to the South, to the family, and to the faith. I was a communist in their mind. They were going to kill me, really, out of a broken heart" (Lloyd in Bryan 2001, 79). These White activists who sought to educate their fellow citizens for the betterment of their communities became strangers within those communities. However, without these few White activists, who came directly from Southern White communities and who questioned almost everything their society had taught them, many White southerners would have never conceived of breaking the mold to question the structure and hierarchy of their society, to ultimately admit that the Black struggle within a structure of societal oppression was real. Here are their stories, as citizens seeking justice, fueled by democratic traditions in an imperfect democratic society.


A commitment to Socratic questioning, according to West, "requires a relentless self-examination and critique of institutions of authority, motivated by an endless quest for intellectual integrity and moral consistency ... it is manifest in fearless speech ... that unsettles, unnerves, and unhouses many people from their uncritical sleepwalking" (West 2004,16). Organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee encouraged Socratic questioning within Southern communities on a large scale for the first time. When the Black communities of the South began to question the authority of the Jim Crowe laws and the restrictions on voting, this was unsettling to the White power structure. However, this questioning became unnerving when Southern Whites joined the Civil Rights Movement, questioning the White power structure, which allowed and maintained their own privilege. Two of the few such Southern Whites who absolved their privilege and unnerved their societies by questioning their authority, were Bob Zellner and Mary King.

Bob Zellner grew up and spent all of his life in or near Montgomery, Alabama. Zellner was in college as Dr. King's bus boycott was becoming fully realized, and he had several reasons for becoming part of the Movement. However, a series of events immersed Zellner into the Movement teaching him how to get involved, and the stakes that went along with it.

Zellner was assigned to study the race problem in a class his senior year. Zellner and some others visited the Klan headquarters and the White Citizens' Councils. Then they went to the Montgomery Improvement Association along with some other organizations. Along the way, they met Dr. King, met some students from Alabama State, and got the police interested in following them. Zellner and the others asked Reverend Abernathy if they could attend a nonviolent workshop. Reverend Abernathy replied, "We want you to come, but we want you to know what's going to happen," informing them they would be arrested (Bryan 2001, 83-84). They attended the workshop and were arrested. Upon returning to campus they were asked to resign from the school. Zellner was the only one of the group to graduate from college, and his family was the only one that supported the students' actions. Zellner reflected on the events by saying. "In a sense they gave no White Southerner of that period any choice: you either capitulated absolutely and completely, or you became a rebel, a complete outlaw" (Bryan 2001, 84-85).

Bob Zellner began his work with SNCC, while back in college, representing SNCC on White college campuses. He then took part in some of the most brutalizing campaigns staged by SNCC in Danville, Virginia; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and McComb County, Mississippi. Zellner made an impression everywhere he participated. For example, while protesting in McComb County, in the Fall of 1961, Zellner and several other SNCC staff members were arrested and then jailed. As Howard Zinn writes:

He was the only White person in the long line walking toward the city hall ... Men came out of the crowd, surrounded Zellner, and began clutching at him. (His two Black SNCC associates) tried to shield him ... Then the McComb police chief held Zellner while the men began to beat and to pull him into the crowd. He clutched at the railing, and tried to crawl up the steps. While the policemen watched, he was punched and kicked, his face scratched, his eyes gouged, and while on the ground he was kicked in the head repeatedly until he passed out. He regained consciousness in the police station, was pushed outside into an automobile, driven by the police chief fifteen miles, and let out. (1964, 171)

They were all ultimately jailed for several months and upon being released, Zellner and a friend immediately went to Baton Rouge where another SNCC worker was being jailed. In trying to get their fellow SNCC worker out of jail in Baton Rouge, they irritated the police and were arrested again (Zinn 1964).

Zellner's work continued through the summer of 1963 by which point his movement activities had earned him some twenty-five arrests, "accumulated from his movement activities in McComb, Baton Rouge, Montgomery, Albany, Georgia, and Talladega, Alabama" (Bryan 2001, 87). He repeatedly showed he was not afraid to question the authorities, as the cause was so significant that he openly accepted the continuous abuse provided by the White community.

Ultimately the state of Alabama finally arrested Zellner on a variety of charges that were eventually reduced to a false charge of stealing a camera. The state also offered a compromise almost instantaneously, offering to drop the charge if Zellner left the state (Bryan 2001). Being the rebel that he was, Zellner refused to compromise with the state.

In court, his attorney Charles Morgan pointed out to the jury that it was not the charge of felony which was of importance to the state prosecutor, but made the point that his "client is an integrationist, and when the day comes in this state that a man who disagrees can be charged and convicted of a crime, we will all be in trouble" (Morgan quoted in Bryan 2001, 88). The jury failed to reach a verdict and Bob Zellner was set free, showing that his actions had at least affected some in the White community. However, it took the resistance of a White student from their own community, who relinquished his privilege as an example, to inform and educate his community of the injustice to which they subscribed.

Mary King, like Zellner, was a homegrown activist from around Danville, Virginia, who welcomed the opportunity provided by SNCC to question the oppression imposed by her own Southern community. Being rooted in the Southern tradition, her family had some strong anxieties about her becoming involved with SNCC. However, it was from this same Southern community that she derived her devotion to justice. Mary King's father was a Methodist preacher whose own self-awareness and questioning of his own conscious she credits with preconditioning her and allowing for her initiation into SNCC:

[I]t was the eventful Easter week of 1962 when I met John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, Jim Forman, and Julian Bond (and) concluded that I should go to work for SNCC ... In a sense, I was shaped for that decision from the time I could talk. As I was growing up, my father would not let me forget that, as a youth in Virginia, he was shielded from any historical references that might reflect on the prevailing segregated patterns around him. To my father, a scholar, this omission was proof that racism and segregation affected Southern Whites as it did Blacks, denying both groups full humanity. If, he reasoned, in the interests of justifying segregation, the basics of American history had been denied and distorted in one of the South's best universities (Washington and Lee which he attended), then all Southerners were the losers. 'I would rather be robbed than to rob, and I would rather have been enslaved than to have enslaved,' he would tell me, believing it more destructive to the human spirit to be the oppressor than the oppressed. (King 1987, 53)

King, like Zellner, welcomed the opportunity provided by SNCC to question the oppression imposed by her own Southern milieu.

King took a position at the SNCC headquarters in Atlanta in December, 1963 at the age of 23. The evening of her first day at SNCC, King joined several of the other SNCC workers for coffee at a nearby restaurant after a SNCC event at a downtown hotel. Upon sitting at the restaurant they were all refused service, and as they continued to sit and draw attention the police were called. Well trained, they all went limp as they were dragged out of the restaurant into police wagons (King 1987). King and twenty others were hauled off to the Atlanta city jail and were there indefinitely due to SNCC's "jail with no bail" policy (King 1987, 175). King had learned quickly the level of commitment needed to work in the Movement. However, while in jail, her uncle died unexpectedly, and the SNCC officials arranged for her to be released so that she could attend the funeral back home in Virginia.

King spent most of the trip home worrying about how her large extended family would treat her as several had made known their disapproval of her SNCC involvement (King 1987). Luckily she had underestimated her family, as when she entered the room to greet everyone, her mother exclaimed, "So, there's my little jailbird" (King 1987, 191)! King's family was starting to see the root and purpose of her questioning their way of life, possibly and simply due to the fact that an average southern preacher's daughter was willing to go to jail for what she perceived as injustice.

Now feeling more support from her actual family, Mary King began to feel as though SNCC was also family, describing the empowerment she felt to question authority based on sound principles, shared by all members:

Running through the organization, like a low-voltage current, was a sense that being part of the SNCC staff set you apart from everyone else. I certainly felt it. I don't think there was anyone who didn't believe that he or she was part of a singular American phenomenon ... It was a conviction that no one could match us; and indeed within the overall Civil Rights Movement, no one could equal our passionate belief in democracy, our concept of indigenous leadership, our unwillingness to bow to authority ... Despite the passage of more than twenty years, I still feel I was part of something so extraordinary that it almost defies description. I did not picture myself a fugitive, nor did I any longer have the sensation of being under siege as I had in Danville. I felt that we were inimitable. I was sure that we were closer to the truth than anyone else. (King 1987, 439)

The siege she refers to in Danville is in reference to her own harrowing experience during the protests in Danville, Virginia in 1963. SNCC led demonstrations resulted in over six hundred arrested and jailed over several weeks, and those who were jailed received mistreatment similar to that in the Birmingham protests of 1963. The court's grand jury had revivified an anachronistic Virginia law that specified it illegal "to incite the colored population to acts of violence and war against the White population" (King 1987, 118). The grand jury held its hearing which would ultimately lead to indictments and no one who was subpoenaed was given the right bring an attorney. Their lawyer, Len Holt, was also served an indictment spending a total of three days in jail. Upon being released, Holt came to King in the middle of the night, and anticipating that King would be indicted under this statute, he advised her to escape and leave Danville as soon as possible. Mary King protested his insistence to leave but finally gave in, and ended up lying hidden on the floor of the car. Holt took King across the state line into North Carolina where she was housed in a Catholic nunnery. The very next day, Holt's hunch proved correct, as the grand jury handed down her indictment for inciting acts of violence and war (King 1987). This is the type of welcome she would receive from the town where her father's family had been from and well-known, which she expected and only utilized to fuel her purpose in the movement.

Mary King comments that she gained more from the Civil Rights Movement than it gained from her work stating, "The demands were inordinate and there was very little in the way of extended release. Just because I was White, I could not slip away from the Black community into the White community and achieve another state of mind like shedding a jacket. I carried with me everywhere, even in solitude, a sense of myself as working for the Movement. The struggle gave me the chance to learn to push past my emotional limits if I did my job just a little better or worked a little longer, I might save someone's life or avert a tragedy" (King 1987, 211).

King believed the best way to appeal to others was to question the status quo and hopefully promote others to do the same, learning from SNCC leadership, namely Ella Baker, that fundamental change is promoted by being "suggestive rather than directive," allowing people to reason through questioning, to sincerely promote justice on their own accord without conversion (King 1987, 48). Through suggesting resistance, King informally encouraged others to reflect on their communities, questioning their own roles and experiences.


West refers to prophetic justice as a democratic energy consisting of human acts of kindness and justice, calling attention to unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery, and not displaying indifference to institutional and individual evil action. Furthermore, a prophetic commitment to justice also seeks to transform the world as communities of individuals, instead of transformation through conversion or assimilation. This appealed to many such as Dr. King, because of its Judeo-Christian roots, who utilized it as the basis and justification for much of his work in Civil Rights Movement.

In discussing the bus boycott in Montgomery, Dr. King concluded in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, "Not a single White group would take the responsibility of preparing the White community. We tried to get the White ministerial alliance to make a simple statement calling for courtesy and Christian brotherhood ... but Robert Graetz reported that the majority 'dared not get involved in such a controversial issue'" (King 1958, 169).

The exception to this majority was the Reverend Robert Graetz, a White pastor of the Black Trinity Lutheran Church in Montgomery. Graetz had worked closely with Dr. King on several boards and councils. Much of the prevailing White attitude in Montgomery contended that the Black population was satisfied and that any unrest that resulted was brought about by a White person just causing trouble (Bryan 2001). For that reason, Bob Graetz and his family would be the target of White extremist terrorism. The first chapter in Graetz's book A White Preacher's Message, is titled "Why Am I (Still) Here?" because starting in early January 1956, Graetz's home was bombed along with the home of Dr. King, only to be bombed a short time later. This was just the beginning. However, Graetz handled it gracefully as he "planted a tree in the bomb crater on his front lawn and reminded those who came to its dedication that 'while in the midst of life there is death, so in the midst of death there is life'" (Graetz 2006, 77).

The reverend paid dearly for his continuous support of the activities of the boycott, not to mention the almost nightly telephone threats, the broken windows, and being jailed and threatened for driving and aiding in the boycott carpool. Despite threats, Graetz did not back down, and therefore few held as much pride as he did when the federal order to desegregate the buses reached Montgomery on November 13th. At the rally the next night "Graetz on the platform with Dr. King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy read the scripture, using Paul's famous letter from first Corinthians 13. When he reached the part that reads 'but when I became a man I put away childish things,' the congregation burst into applause, shouting and cheering and waving their handkerchiefs as if to say they knew they had come of age" (Bryan 2001, 100). For Graetz this coming of age was a small step towards justice and equality within his community, however he took pride in that his efforts of resistance had informed a larger congregation, the nation, who were now at least partially attentive to learning from his example.

Will Campbell was an ordained Baptist minister born in Mississippi, and held degrees from Wake Forest University and Yale Divinity School. Campbell never intended to play a central role in the Southern racial turmoil, but found himself right in the midst of much of the conflict. He viewed it as he had three choices: either remain by the status quo of White supremacy, make small strives to change the system and become immediately known as an "integrationist" and traitor, or side with the communists (Bryan 2001, 76). Unfortunately for Campbell, the typical mindset of the Southern status quo found commonality between integration and communism, often linking them as if they were one enemy against southern culture.

Upon arriving back in the South and beginning his preaching in a small sawmill village in Louisiana, Campbell quickly found that nobody paid much attention to his endorsing the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision as "the Christian thing to do" (Bryan 2001, 77). Campbell saw that the community lacked any sort of foresight and could not really envision the possibility of Black children going to school with their White children (Bryan 2001). As a matter of fact the thought was so outrageous to his congregation, that it was seen as an impossibility prophesized by a sort of entertainer, as Campbell reflects on his experience: "I'd preach on it about every other Sunday-not about the decision, but about race-and they thought it was kind of cute, you know: our little preacher, he's the cutest thing, he's talking about our children going to school with little darkies. He's so cute" (Campbell in Powledge 1991, 98). As protest and confrontation spread across the South the local people began to think that he was not so cute anymore. Campbell left what would be his first and last parish, moving to the University of Mississippi campus to be director of religious life. However, he was quickly reprimanded for playing Ping Pong with a Black student, and yet again Campbell found his choices among how to live in his Southern society being compressed into one ideology (Bryan 2001).

Word spread quickly of Campbell's deviations from the basics of racist Mississippi laws. Therefore, retaliation began against him. Campbell's secretary informed him that a certain law student had been coming to his office every evening to collect carbons from the trash can to examine at his home. Due to his deviations and many associations with groups under fire from the White Citizens Council, his tenure at Ole Miss came to an abrupt end (Powledge 1991).

Upon leaving Ole Miss, Campbell changed his life moving to a farm in Tennessee, "dividing his day between his log cabin study and the local tavern," the cabin where he wrote and the tavern which served as his stand-in church (Bryan 2001, 78). This allowed him to take on a more active role in the Movement, resurfacing within the Movement at strategic times, as in 1957, he was at Little Rock High School to protect one of the Black girls entering the school door; he was the only White person in the organizing session of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta; and he shared the speakers' platform with Dr. King at the first national ecumenical conference on race in 1960 (Bryan 2001, 78). Campbell began traveling all over the South bringing aid and encouragement to persons victimized in the racial strife in his professional post as Executive Director of the Committee of Southern Churchmen. Campbell now without the political or employment restrictions moved freely around the South serving as a prophetic witness to justice, assisting in dispelling injustice personally whenever the opportunity arose.

Campbell's isolation on a farm in Tennessee was symbolic of his standing with most of his family, as his name spread across the media, he received word from home in Mississippi that "he would not be welcome to the usual funerals, weddings, and holidays" (Bryan 2001, 78). In an interview, Campbell described how he was informed that there was a conspiracy to kill him. The facts became known to Campbell gradually over the years. However, "A young man who knew the elder Campbells had overheard his own father confessing tearfully to his mother that the decision had been made to kill Will Campbell. As the story was relayed to Tennessee, the informant had said, 'Papa was crying and about half drunk and was telling mama that he had to kill Will, and he was crying because he didn't want to'" (Lloyd in Bryan 2001, 79). In a sense, Campbell felt so compelled towards the cause of the Civil Rights Movement, because he also felt oppressed by his family and society, who sought to enslave him by maintaining his adherence to the status quo. His memoirs would later inform the world of the things he experienced and learned, while his regular sermons and lectures at the rural local tavern would give those in the southern Tennessee community a glimpse at the social change that was happening in their region.


A tragicomic commitment to hope is provided by artists, writers, performers, musicians, and others who present a profound attitude toward life, in the face of cynical and disillusioned compliance to the demands of the status quo. Tragicomic hope "expresses righteous indignation with a smile and deep inner pain without bitterness or revenge" (West 2004, 19). Those who provide tragicomic hope provide future generations testament to past struggles and a basis for inspiring democratic energies in their current activism.

Will Campbell exemplifies this democratic energy also in expressing his prophetic justice through literature, telling the story of his life as it intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement. He tells this story through two memoirs Brother to a Dragonfly and Forty Acres and a Goat, both utilizing the tragicomic sensibility, that Ellison describes as "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism" (Ellison in West 2004, 19).

Forty Acres and a Goat is Campbell's more recent memoir of the two, in which he loosely traces the evolution of the movement, from the hope and nonviolent approach of its early days to the militant bitterness of the 1970's. The book is tragicomic in that it describes Campbell's attempt to live a spiritual life in a time of mistrust, racial intolerance, and violence. Campbell uses the dire backdrop of the civil rights movement as a guide through the events within the book using humor and stirring storytelling to portray the struggle. In one story that plays to the theme of tragicomic hope is that of the Black Muslims who protected the grand dragon of the KKK in an upstate New York prison, demonstrating the contradictions in ideologies, but also how strange or unpredictable circumstances can pull people together once they are out of the comfort and influence in their community. This story embodies the purpose of Campbell throughout his life and especially through his literature, in that he wants people to realize that they are the same, but they are conditioned to be different by many oppressive influences within their communities.

Brother to a Dragonfly is two stories in one, and Campbell's most famous work. The first story follows the life of Will Campbell's brother Joe, who was Campbell's best friend. Joe constantly fought horrible World War II memories and eventually took his own life from repeatedly abusing pain-relievers. The second story concerns Campbell's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and the two stories are intertwined, both providing the tragic and the comic of life's experiences, in both Campbell's personal and public life. Tragedy is the central theme throughout the book. However, the tragedy evolves into two separate tragedies, that of the Black experience and that of the poor White experience. As Campbell explains:

There was drama and romance in the civil rights movement, and we who had no home at home sought that home in the Black cause. Because we did not understand the nature of tragedy ... we did not understand that those we so vulgarly called 'redneck' were part of the tragedy. They had been victimized one stop beyond the Black. They had their heads taken away by cunning, skillful, and well-educated gentlemen and ladies of the gentry ... We were right in aligning ourselves with the Black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history. A history of slavery. The redneck's slavery, called indentured servanthood, was somewhat, but only somewhat unlike that of the Black slaves. (Campbell 2000, 226)

It was Campbell's brother Joe who showed him the tragedy of their own community. The poor White community who conducted the violent acts against the Black community, empowered by the wealthy White southerners who dictated the power structure and in turn controlled both the poor Whites and Blacks, through economics, fear, and false enemies. This was the type of society in which Will and Joe were raised, coming from a very poor family of cotton farmers, who resented Campbell's participation in the Movement, a resentment that went as far as his father plotting to kill him out of embarrassment and shame.

Campbell's brother Joe also helped him understand tragedy not as a reason to hate, but as a reason to help both sides come to a greater understanding of each other as Campbell writes, "I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides" (Campbell 2000, 225-26). Campbell is referring to his resolved hate for Thomas Coleman, the White southerner who killed Campbell's good friend and fellow activist Jonathan Daniels. The killing of Jonathan Daniels was just one of many tragedies in the span of the Movement, but it gave Campbell hope in realizing that he must also be an activist in helping the other side of the struggle, people like Thomas Coleman who thought he was doing something that was righteous and ultimately vital for the security of his community. Daniels' killing ultimately provided another source of tragicomic hope for Whites in the Civil Rights Movement, and motivated Campbell to educate Ku Klux Klan members at his favorite tavern near his cabin in Tennessee. Campbell believed that aiding and educating both sides of this ongoing tragedy was the only way it could approach an end.

Jonathan Daniels spent four years at the tough military regimen of Virginia Military Institute where many believe he was prepared to handle the abuse given to him by the White people of Lowndes County, Alabama, during the summer of 1965 (Bryan 2001). In either case, living as a White among Blacks in Lowndes County, one of the most violently segregated counties in the South demanded a different level of courage. Daniels had a reputation as a gentle and delicate youth from his boyhood through his time at VMI. Now as a volunteer with SNCC's summer campaign to register Black voters in Lowndes County he found himself in a place passed over by the strongest and toughest White civil rights workers (Bryan 2001).

Earlier that year, Daniels had been living in Selma working for the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Religious Unity and specifically working in assisting SNCC (Bryan 2001). He found his new role in the 1965 summer campaign in Lowndes County both mysterious and dangerous, and Daniels was completely new to the Deep South, raised in West Virginia. The de jure racial injustice and the ever-present White hostility towards his assistance in the Movement left him confounded and many times angry. In many ways his instincts wore the uniform of his military training, but his emotions were deeply confused.

Daniels found some clarity from his experiences on April 6th when he traveled with a group of civil rights workers to a demonstration nearby in Camden. There Daniels picked up a tear gas canister, thrown by police that rolled near him and threw it away from the crowd (Bryan 2001). Instantly Daniels was taken into custody, and then released in a few minutes, probably due to his clerical collar. He learned from his experience that his commitment to non-violence had not only been tested but strengthened. Daniels reflected afterwards about the change in his attitude, writing: "My hostility lasted really until last week. I think it was when I got tear-gassed in Camden that I began to change. I saw that the men who came at me were themselves not free: it was not that cruelty was so sweet to them, but that they didn't know what else to do. Even though they were White and hateful and my enemy, they were human beings, too. Last week in Camden I began to discover a new freedom in Christ: freedom to love the enemy" (Eagles 1983, 64).

Now that Daniels had seemed to lose some of his militancy toward the Whites of the Alabama communities, people in the communities did exactly the opposite, they became more violent and in the case of Thomas Coleman he took it upon himself to end Jonathan Daniels' life for what he believed was the betterment of his community

Thomas Coleman was not necessarily known as a bad man. However, in his spare time he hung around the courthouse, listening to all the degrading talk and the rage of officials in his community against the civil rights workers who had invaded their "peaceful territory, where, under their claim, Blacks and Whites got along fine together" (Bryan 2001, 44). It is the rage conveyed within these conversations among community officials that Coleman would take upon himself to correct. We will never know whether it was an emotional or spontaneous act, or something Coleman had been plotting for awhile. When Coleman saw the two White boys and two Black girls, released from the county jail in the courthouse, heading towards a Negro store to buy some refreshments, Coleman was infuriated. As the group was casually mixed, joking and laughing, enjoying life together without the slightest sense of embarrassment and shame. It shook the foundations of Coleman's world. He blocked the door to the store and ordered them to stay out. Daniels protested about their rights, which prompted Coleman to point a shotgun at Daniels' stomach and pull the trigger (Eagles 1983).

Coleman probably felt that he had ultimately done the right thing for his community and held little fear that he was in danger of being convicted of murder, in his eyes and others, he had done what others had not the courage to do. In the trial, the county prosecutor falsified evidence stating that "the store owner had authorized Coleman to close her store and that Daniels was attempting to force his way in" (Bryan 2001, 45).

The jury deliberated for an hour and a half, finding Coleman not guilty, prompting the Reverend of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity to say: "We have witnessed an almost total conspiracy of the civil and religious leadership of Lowndes County to exonerate one of its own. Above all else, the most depressing part of this charade was the manner in which the church was trotted out in the person of local clergy, both on the stand and in the audience, to bless and announce absolution over the whole ritual of (Coleman's) absolution" (Eagles 1983, 248).

Jonathan Daniels' story is tragicomic because he was killed by the same type of confused anger that he initially felt towards the White segregationist upon joining the Movement. However, through his experience Daniels had learned to deal with this anger converting it into a sort of courage. His sense of rectitude in his new courage, made people like Thomas Coleman so insecure about their way of life, that Coleman felt he had to renew that sense of security that Daniels was so willing to sacrifice. As Daniels faced the barrel of Coleman's gun he was hopeful without fear or bitterness, knowing that his resistance to the status quo would inform many of the injustice in their communities, inspiring them to take action.


In a democracy people are always giving things up for others, but few are willing to sacrifice their way of life, in the face of disagreement, to seek political action. West (2004) refers to the 1950's and 1960's as a period in which "a democratic awakening and activistic energy emerged to keep our democratic project afloat" (23) pointing the three traditions of a commitment to Socratic questioning, a commitment to prophetic justice, and a commitment to tragicomic hope. These traditions fueled the democratic energies that activists utilized to justify their resistance to the status quo, in both formally and informally educating their fellow citizens, and in continually developing from their experiences. During the Civil Rights Movement, these traditions and energies were present in Black activists, as well as the small number of White activists, alluded to by Dr. King in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," as Dr. King writes:

I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach-infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. (King 1963)

The White activists discussed in this paper represent only five people with such urgency out of an initially small group who decided not to abide by the rituals of the status quo within their segregated Southern communities, but to sacrifice those rituals and question the authorities out of sense of justice, willing to face the consequences no matter how tragic.


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King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride toward freedom. New York: Harper and Brothers.

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Zinn, Howard. 1964. SNCC: The new abolitionists. Boston: Beacon Press.

J. Spencer Clark

Indiana University-Bloomington

J. Spencer Clark, School of Education and Center for Social Studies and International Education, Indiana University, 1900 East Tenth Street, Rm. 1034 Bloomington, IN, 47406-7512, (T) 812-855-3838, (F) 812-855-0455, Email:
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Title Annotation:ARTICLE 9
Author:Clark, J. Spencer
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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