When World War II, came along, most of the white men who were employed by him were drafted in to the services, and he was left having to manage and run a ranch of more than 15,000 acres. About that time there were several black families who sent a representative to ask my Grandfather if he would hire black men to do the work, and my Grandfather replied, "Yes". When these black men came to work for him, they of course, brought their families with them, and eventually established a small community in the woods of my grandfather's land.
My grandfather quietly assisted them in building their homes, and took them food and made sure that they had medical service if they needed it. In Oklahoma, this was in exact opposite to how most black people were treated by any 'white' person. Although Oklahoma is not considered a 'southern' state by geographical bounds, in mind set it was a bastion of racial prejudice then [the 40's] and unfortunately generally still is today. I was about four or five years old when I first visited this unknown community with my grandfather..the first of several visits that I have never forgotten.
The reason I became involved in the Civil Rights movement was set in my head from years before, by a man who's humanity is alive in me today. He showed me that people are people, and the color of their skin is incidental and a happenstance of birth. When I was made aware of the 'movement' I of course, was one of the first persons to volunteer. I sat in, I marched and yes, there were people in my neighborhood and in every part of my life in the white world that hated me much worse that they hated the movement itself....I was spat upon, and called almost every name in the book! Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!
I spent a lot of my growing up days on the college campus of Tuskeege. It's now called Tuskeege University. I had grown up where they make a very real distinction between a Black Ph.D. and M.D, and Blacks with no degrees. I ran and walked through college labs all my life. I've been looking at all this stuff, but I was from the other side of the tracks in the local Black community. I couldn't date certain Black girls and all that kinda stuff.
But I had a very good sense of history because of my teachers. Sammy Young's mother was one of my teachers. They made me join the NAACP at ten I think nine or ten. You had to bring fifty cents to school. You had to pay whatever the fee was. You had to join. You didn't have a choice. Everybody belonged. And they would teach us Black history out of the "back door." It wasn't much in the main curriculum. I also remember Beulah Johnson a local NAACP member and Jacqueline Johnson's mother was one of my teachers. And so I kind of grew up with this whole thing a sense of Black history.
When I was growing up, there was no Black movement in the local community that I was aware of. There was a Black movement on the campus though. I was around a little for the Montgomery Bus boycott. I joined the Army just as that was going on. I was kind of naive, I went in the Army and I had this great respect for people in the Civil Rights Movement. I read about it and everything in Jet magazine. That's all I read. You read Ebony, and you read Jet magazine.
After I got out of the Army, the first thing I remember that was significant was the "Tuskegee boycott" of local white merchants in Tuskegee. They had voted to gerrymand all of the Black voters in the town to be outside of the city limits thereby denying most Blacks the right to vote in city elections. During the gerrymander strike or boycott, people actually drove to Montgomery to get groceries some 40 miles away. And that wasn't easy for my father because he had no car. So it wasn't about just going down and not buying no groceries, you had to figure out a way to get to Montgomery and back, which is about 80 miles round trip or something like that.
My mother had been involved in the National Council of Christians and Jews which at the time was involved in much bi-racial work on prejudice and discrimination. I was also involved in my synagogue (a reform temple) in a youth group that also was interested in reaching out to African-American churches to overcome prejudices and stereotypes of both Jews and African-Americans. All this was on a person-to-person level and really didn't involve politics. Yet these were crucial steps in my development as a committed political activist. This is an important point because if we want to get people involved we need to start where they are and get them involved at whatever level they feel comfortable.
When I went off to college at Vassar in 1962 I organized a tutorial project with the Northern Student Movement that tutored African-American kids after school in Poughkeepsie. Then one day in 1963 during my Sophomore year, the Freedom Singers from SNCC came to Vassar and talked about the CR Movement and I knew I had to go South.
My parents were vehemently against it although they approved of the struggle because they were afraid for me. My mom found out about an alternative a project in Orangeburg South Carolina organized by the American Friends Service Committee that would be doing voter registration and outreach with a group of African-American citizens organized in Orangeburg. My parents were willing to pay the fee involved to be part of the project and I agreed to go. I had had no other contact with the civil rights movement or with SNCC, knew no one involved, and so this seemed like a good alternative and I signed up.
I was not motivated by religion as I was an atheist I had no idea that we would win or that we would be protected I just felt that it was my moral duty as a human being to put myself on the line. I was a philosophy major and had been reading lots of existentialism that argued that you choose your life each day, you choose what kind of person you will be, and I felt that I was choosing the most important thing I could do to fight the racism and unfairness that I saw around me in the world.
I went to Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. I was in college when the sit-ins started in North Carolina, so we started right there on the campus. The little theater we used to go to downtown, the movie theater, the first thing we did was boycott it, because we were sitting up there in the balcony. It was separate. The college students provided 90% of the income for that theater, but we had to sit up there in this balcony separated from the main floor. So we did that successfully. So rather than integrate it, the owner of it, he closed it. He closed it, because he wasn't going to step out there on his own and do something. Economically, he couldn't go on running the movie without us, so he closed it. That was our first action. We got our feet wet. That was the first thing we did.
Around the spring of '61 I met Bob Moses. He was dealing with people who had attempted to register to vote in Tallahatchie County, and so he came up to the campus to get a bunch of students to come down there to support those people. They had white people coming out of the woodwork to intimidate all those people. So we did that. I met Amzie Moore, in Oxford, Mississippi up at the Federal Court. When I saw him, I had seen him before. I knew I had seen him before. Then I came to realize later on that summer of '62, about August, when he and Bob came to my house to get me, it clicked. I had seen him in association with my father.
We were doing voter registration. We started out organizing right there in Holly Springs. The first thing we organized, we got together with the Black civic leaders there. What they wanted to do first of all was they wanted us to help them organize a credit union. So we helped them to organize a credit union, and then we went around to gather affidavits from people who had attempted to register to vote. We got the affidavits notarized, and we sent them to the Civil Rights Division in Washington, DC.
I was still going to school. Just in case I didn't get a chance to go to medical school that fall, I took some educational courses so I could teach if I needed to. And then the time came for me to make the decision, what I was going to do. So in August of '62 I went home. I went home, and my father's sister was there visiting, so I was poised to leave with her and go to Detroit and maybe work about a month and then return to the south, go to Meharry Medical School in Nashville. I think I was home about a week, when Bob Moses and Amzie Moore said to me, 'We need you, man.' So I said, 'OK.'
I went and talked to my mother. She was scared. She was definitely disappointed. My father was pretty happy about it because his old partner, his old buddy Amzie Moore was there. They were Master Masons and they were giving signs, and they were like just having a good time about it, you know. But my mother was really upset. So she gave me her blessings to go on, so we left.
In 1959 after coming out the service, I went to work for the New York State Commission Against Discrimination which investigated complaints of discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. During the time that I worked at the commission I got a scholarship for the summer to Syracuse University through the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). That gave me motivation to go back to school and I noticed that there were a lot of things going on in the South that were an extension of what I was doing at the commission. So I decided to go to Tuskegee University in Alabama.
I became involved with the Tuskegee campus YMCA, we had a race relations group where we used to meet with white students from Auburn University. This was about 1962 or '63. We used to alternate meeting sites. One time the meeting would be at Tuskegee and the next time it would be at Auburn. But when we had the meetings at Tuskegee, we would have them on the campus. But when we had them at Auburn, we weren't allowed on the campus, we had to go to a local church and have the meeting. I attended a regional conference in Tennessee. We would have both Black and white. We all stayed at the same hotel and things were fine until somebody suggested that, "We don't have to eat this hotel food all the time. Let's go to a restaurant." We walked in and the man looked up and saw all these Black and white people coming in there, and he reached down and grabbed a shotgun and he said, "Ain't no niggers coming in here. The only way they coming here will be over my dead body." I didn't want a hamburger or anything else that bad.
Later, we had a group on campus called the Tuskegee Institute Advancement League (TIAL). We were not only interested in civil rights, but we were interested in academic freedom and that sort of thing. We had a similar movement to what Berkeley did in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement. We did voter registration work and we took people in Macon County down to try to register to vote. We went out into the community and talked to people. From TIAL, Bill Hall of SNCC was coming onto campus. That's around the time that I met Wazir Peacock. Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, James Foreman, and a lot of other SNCC.
The SRC spawned state organizations, including the Alabama Council on Human Relations (ACHR) in the 1950s. My father, Stanley Rosenbaum, who was an officer in the Southeast Region of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith, (ADL) was one of the organizers of the ACHR.
The ADL helped to identify and monitor Klu Klux Klan and White Citizen Council activities, which tended to be not only anti-Black, but also anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic. We lived in Florence, Alabama, which was comparatively enlightened. With my brothers Jonathan and Michael, we came of age during the 1960s and became active in a number of Civil Rights activities.
I was a student at Morgan State College, now Morgan University in Baltimore, when the sit-ins broke out in 1960. It seemed like the perfect thing to do, so Morgan, like Howard and all the other border- state Black colleges, jumped right in. Baltimore was completely segregated as that time, as was Washington.
The sit-ins struck me, as the perfect answer to an impatience that everybody was feeling coming out of the Supreme Court decision and then Little Rock. It was something that you could do spontaneously. So I jumped in then. We were picketing not just the five and dimes, but also the department stores and the theaters to open up (desegregate) the facilities. I mean, everything was segregated in Baltimore.
So it was the answer, for me, personally to "you can't." I grew up hearing, "you can't. You can't do this. You can't go to the symphony. You can't go to the library. You can't go to the swimming pool. You can't go to that park, no." It became oh, but I can do something about this. I don't have to wait for the legal route, which is moving too slowly anyway.
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