Lee K. Riethmiller
Black Voters Registration Revisited
What month was it? Was it Fall, or was it Winter? There were LEAVES on the trees — this is a crucial detail for the narrative: the bullet(s) careened and whined as they made their way through the LEAVES over our heads, a strange “putt-putt-skree” type of sound, smacking each leaf as they hit.
It was this sound of putt-putt-skree of bullets hitting leaves that stays with me most, even after all these years. It was 1965, and I was a 20-year-old undergraduate at Ohio State University. Now it’s 2013, and even though I’m 68-years old, I’m remembering — as if it were yesterday — Brownsville, Tennessee, in October, the autumn of nineteen sixty five. Through my head is running the melodies of the songs “Oh Freedom” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” and, of course, “We Shall Overcome.” I can remember each and every word.
We were an interracial student group of eight, four black and four white, and one university minister, Reverend Robin Tetzloff, from United Campus Ministry at the Ohio State University.
We were all snugly tucked together inside Robin’s 1963 Volkswagen bus for the trip from Columbus, Ohio to Brownsville, Tennessee. It was Autumn break, and our plan was to stay at black church members’ homes, sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor, and in the daytime traveling to rural black folks’ homes to try to persuade them to go to the town courthouse to register to vote. We offered to give them rides and to accompany them for protection during this black voters’ registration drive. Sometimes we were successful, and sometimes not.
We encountered a pervasive fear in these rural and remotely-located black homes, a fear of white retaliation if ever they should consider traveling to town to register to vote. Much of the white community saw us as “outside agitators” who should have stayed home in the North, and not go meddling in the affairs of black folks and white folks in Brownsville, Tennessee.
We also had open conversations with white church members from various white congregations who would express genuine puzzlement as to why we were there, and why we thought it important to register black folks to vote.
I particularly remember one white church member, an otherwise generous and reasonable man, who opined, “Why do you do this, they (black folks) won’t vote anyway, even if they register to vote.”
It was hard then to answer queries of that sort, and we invariably would simply answer, “Well, we think it will (make a difference) — even though it’s not been done before, this is our belief.”
It is gratifying, almost fifty years later, to gaze upon the earnest face of our President, Barack Obama, and remember how racial attitudes have shifted. Not that there are no longer problems remaining — there are. But, Great God Almighty, don’t let anyone tell you that there hasn’t been progress — there has.
One part of my learning experience while attending black church services on Sundays was the discovery of how singalong music really worked. Since I was an ardent folksinger and guitarist, I had brought along a workaday classic guitar with nylon strings for leading group singing of singalong Freedom songs.
The moment I stepped inside a black church service, however, I realized how superfluous any musical instrument was – especially my guitar. Everyone just stood up and clapped along and sang. And so I did too, I set my guitar down, and I clapped along and sang.
One day, near the end of our two weeks, we stopped into a small grocery store-gas station to buy some soft drinks to quench our thirst after a long afternoon of registering voters. We all got out of the van to stretch our legs, and went in the store together as a group. The clerk was polite to us and we didn’t think anything about it.
We all got back in the van and were driving off down the road when we noticed that a pick-up truck had suddenly materialized and seemed to be following us. This was slightly disturbing, so we pulled over to the side of the road and we stopped. So did the vehicle at a distance behind us, it too pulled over and stopped.
Robin and I and another student, Jeff, got out of the van and walked back a few feet where we momentarily stared at the vehicle which had stopped some fifty yards back. Sensing an uncomfortable silence in the air, we turned to get back in the van.
And as we did so, the putt-putt-skree hit the leaves above our heads and we scrambled back into the van.
Robin pushed the accelerator to the metal and we roared off pell-mell down the road. In the back of our minds we were only too aware of what happened, the previous Summer of 1964, to Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman. We kept looking back, but the menacing truck did not follow us.
We got the message, and we could fill in the blanks ourselves. Memories are made of this.
Lee K. Riethmiller, founder and director of The Intercontinental Foreign Language Program at Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, daily teaches foreign languages. Featured prominently in The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio and CBS Television, and profiled in Harvard Magazine and The Boston Globe, his copyrighted method, QuintaLingual™ allows the interactive teaching of multiple languages in a single language course. As a musician of many years in the troubadour tradition, Riethmiller is also a performing poet and is published in The New Yorker. Throughout his studies as a Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, and later, as a Fulbright Scholar to Spain, Riethmiller has relentlessly and joyously honed his language skills. He is fluent in 26 languages.