Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America

by Calvin Trillin


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Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America by Calvin Trillin

From bestselling author and beloved New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, a deeply resonant, career-spanning collection of articles on race and racism, from the 1960s to the present

In the early sixties, Calvin Trillin got his start as a journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Over the next five decades of reporting, he often returned to scenes of racial tension. Now, for the first time, the best of Trillin’s pieces on race in America have been collected in one volume.

In the title essay of Jackson, 1964, we experience Trillin’s riveting coverage of the pathbreaking voter registration drive known as the Mississippi Summer Project—coverage that includes an unforgettable airplane conversation between Martin Luther King, Jr., and a young white man sitting across the aisle. (“I’d like to be loved by everyone,” King tells him, “but we can’t always wait for love.”)

In the years that follow, Trillin rides along with the National Guard units assigned to patrol black neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware; reports on the case of a black homeowner accused of manslaughter in the death of a white teenager in an overwhelmingly white Long Island suburb; and chronicles the remarkable fortunes of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a black carnival krewe in New Orleans whose members parade on Mardi Gras in blackface.

He takes on issues that are as relevant today as they were when he wrote about them. Excessive sentencing is examined in a 1970 piece about a black militant in Houston serving thirty years in prison for giving away one marijuana cigarette. The role of race in the use of deadly force by police is highlighted in a 1975 article about an African American shot by a white policeman in Seattle.

Uniting all these pieces are Trillin’s unflinching eye and graceful prose. Jackson, 1964 is an indispensable account of a half-century of race and racism in America, through the lens of a master journalist and writer who was there to bear witness.

Praise for Jackson, 1964

“Trillin’s elegant storytelling and keen observations sometimes churned my wrath about the glacial pace of progress. That’s because to me and millions of African-Americans, the topics of race and poverty—and their adverse impact on the mind and spirit—are, as Trillin acknowledges, not theoretical; they’re personal.”—Dorothy Butler Gilliam, The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)

“These pieces . . . will continue to be read for the pleasure they deliver as well as for the pain they describe.”The New York Times

“With the diligent clarity, humane wit, polished prose and attention to pertinent detail that exemplify Trillin’s journalism at its best . . . Jackson, 1964 drives home a sobering realization: Even with signs of progress, racism in America is news that stays news.”USA Today

“These unsettling tales, elegantly written and wonderfully reported, are like black-and-white snapshots from the national photo album. They depict a society in flux but also stubbornly unmoved through the decades when it comes to many aspects of race relations. . . . The grace Trillin brings to his job makes his stories all the more poignant.”The Christian Science Monitor

“An exceptional collection [from] master essayist Trillin.”Booklist (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399588266
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/25/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,190,705
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Calvin Trillin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1963, when the magazine published “An Education in Georgia,” his account of the desegregation of the University of Georgia. He is the author of thirty books. His nonfiction includes About Alice, Remembering Denny, and Killings. His humor writing includes books of political verse, comic novels, books on eating, and the collection Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

December 5, 1935

Place of Birth:

Kansas City, Missouri


B.A., Yale University, 1957

Read an Excerpt

Jackson, 1964

Jackson, Mississippi


To people who happen to be admirers of Spanish Civil War literature, Jackson as the headquarters of the Mississippi Summer Project is likely to conjure up visions of Madrid as the capital of the Spanish Loyalists. Physically, Jackson could hardly look less like Madrid, but the Summer Project—­a statewide program of voter registration and other civil rights activities being carried out by some six hundred volunteers and some one hundred paid workers—­is so thoroughly caught up in a tangle of frenetic planning and propagandizing that a reader of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway half expects to come across military strategists mapping out campaigns against mountain villages or to see clusters of ideologists arguing and plotting in small, dark bars, their conversations occasionally interrupted by a stray bomb. One difference, of course, is that the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO—­the amalgam of civil rights groups that runs the Summer Project—­does not actually control even the part of Jackson where it is permitted to exist, and there are constant reminders of who does. A number of editorialists and columnists on the Jackson daily newspapers are not merely segregationists but segregationists of the type who are inclined to indicate their position by referring to Martin Luther King, Jr., as “the Rev. Dr. Extremist Agitator Martin Luther King, Jr.,” or by suggesting that President Johnson’s theme song should be “The High Yellow Rose of Texas,” or by telling cannibal jokes; the community bulletin board of a local radio station occasionally includes, among reports of rummage sales and church suppers, the announcement that Americans for the Preservation of the White Race will hold its weekly meeting that evening and “all interested white people are invited to attend”; the chatty gray-­haired lady in charge of a local bookstore, whose inventory appears to begin with the writings of the John Birch Society and move to the right, is available for political arguments with the civil rights workers she refers to amiably as “those COFO things”; one can telephone Dial for Truth, a recorded announcement by the Jackson Citizens’ Council of the evils that race-­mixing has brought upon the world during the previous week; and the Mississippi Numismatic Exchange, Inc., has a sign in its window reading, kennedy half dollars 25¢. that’s all we think they’re worth! (The sign says in smaller letters that the case that goes along with one costs fifty cents.)

Still, Jackson, which prides itself on maintaining law and order, has been relatively careful about protecting civil rights workers, and there has not been enough civil rights action within the city limits to provide what COFO people tend to call a confrontation; all in all, the city is more of a communications-­and-­planning center than a scene of battle. At the COFO headquarters, a storefront office on Lynch Street, in the Negro business district, efficient white girls in cotton print dresses decorate the walls daily with fresh “incident reports” listing arrests or beatings of COFO workers in other parts of the state, but whenever the stray bomb lands—­as on the second day of my visit, when two workers were beaten, though not seriously, just a few blocks from the COFO office—­the first reaction is that somebody must have broken a truce or wandered out of a demilitarized zone by mistake. At the office, COFO workers in overalls and work shirts who have come into Jackson on errands from small towns in the Delta stroll in and out, and members of the office staff shuttle back and forth incessantly between a row of typewriters and a row of telephones. On Farish Street, in another part of the Negro business district, two groups of lawyers use offices across the street from one another—­each on the top floor of a drab two-­story building—­to deal with the litigation brought on by the constant civil rights arrests. In an office nearby, the National Council of Churches, which has provided ministers, lawyers, and the training facilities for the Summer Project, regularly holds orientation sessions for new arrivals, and a group of respectable-­looking clergymen regularly watch quietly as a COFO worker demonstrates how to protect one’s kidneys when knocked down. (“Is it considered permissible to get in a punch or two and then run?” a young minister asked the day I was there. “How good a runner are you?” the COFO demonstrator asked in reply.) Over in the white business district, workmen are installing an interior staircase in the expanded FBI office, which now occupies one floor and part of another of the new First Federal Savings & Loan Building, and is still in the unpackaging stage, with crates on the floor and pictures of J. Edgar Hoover leaning against the wall. At the state capitol, a few blocks to the north, where a statue of Governor (and Senator) Theodore Bilbo, the late racist, dominates the ground floor, and vividly tinted portraits of Mississippi’s two Miss Americas are enshrined in the rotunda, investigators for the State Sovereignty Commission, the agency charged with preserving segregation, go through Negro newspapers, civil rights literature, and the Worker in order to keep track of which left-­wingers are where. All in all, there are so many visitors in town that it is practically impossible to rent a car, and the provision of restaurant and hotel accommodations for the visitors has become a minor industry. Under these circumstances, a conversation about the Catalan separatists or the anarchists of the POUM might not sound out of place, but instead the visitors talk about SNCC (called “Snick” and standing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), or the National Council (of Churches), or the LCDC (Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee), or the (National) Lawyers Guild, or the APWR (Americans for the Preservation of the White Race), or the Citizens’ Council, or the Klan.

Jackson has never stood apart from the rest of Mississippi the way Atlanta has stood apart from Georgia, say, or New Orleans from Louisiana. Traditionally, it has merely been a larger town than the other towns in the state, and not until after World War II was it very much larger. In 1940, it had a population of sixty-­two thousand. Now, however, with a population of a hundred and fifty thousand and with ambitions for further expansion, Jackson is the logical place to expect to see any significant indications of moderation on the race issue in Mississippi—­simply because it now has the most to lose through the chaos that total defiance of federal desegregation provisions could bring. Such indications appeared recently when it began to look as though the city might comply peacefully with a federal court order that schools start desegregating this fall, and when the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce made a surprise statement advising businessmen to comply with the public accommodations section of the new civil rights law. After the fact, it is not difficult to find a number of good reasons for the Chamber’s statement. This summer marks the first time Jackson businessmen have ever been faced with anything approaching the power of a federal law. Previously, it was possible to see the conflict as one between the state and a group of Negroes; the civil rights law expanded it, potentially, into one between each individual businessman and the federal government. (There is a theory in Jackson that Mississippi fell victim to its own propaganda; that is, there was so much publicity about how a civil rights law could result in a decent American businessman’s being hauled off to court or to jail by the federal dictator for choosing his own customers that the local businessmen were psychologically prepared for an early surrender.) It is said that business in Jackson was damaged somewhat by the demonstrations and boycotts of last summer, and that businessmen—­particularly those directly affected by the law—­were happy to be able to make the inevitable transition peacefully by blaming it on the federal government, especially since many of them apparently believed (erroneously) that all those COFO things in town were likely to stage an impressive demonstration for all the FBI people in town on the Fourth of July. Although the national headquarters of the Citizens’ Councils of America is in Jackson, the local Council has never embraced all the important businessmen, as it does in some smaller Mississippi towns, and the suggestion has been made that its point of view seemed to be dominant only because a segregation issue of vital importance to business had not come up. According to one person who was close to those who drafted the Chamber’s statement, “Folks didn’t realize the number of people here who are able to recognize the inevitable when it arrives.” Those people, who had remained silent while the inevitable was approaching, acted with a suddenness that caught the Citizens’ Council element by surprise. There is reason to believe that their action will result in preserving almost complete segregation while avoiding public disturbance—­since the facilities, if made available without challenge, are not likely to be used by a great many Jackson Negroes—­but in the past, even that argument was not enough to justify a public statement in favor of desegregation. So while people familiar with Jackson are able to explain why such a statement was wise, they admit surprise that it was issued. The Chamber’s statement, according to one member of its board, was “a calculated risk,” and once it had succeeded—­of the fourteen hundred firms affiliated with the Chamber, only four resigned—­there was bound to be less pressure against those willing to recognize the possibility of change in Mississippi.

A few days after the Chamber advised compliance, the mayor of Jackson supported its stand, and a week or so after that, when Mississippians for Public Education, a group composed mainly of housewives, announced its existence and its intention of opposing any scheme that might damage the public schools—­such as the establishment of private segregated schools supported by state tuition grants—­its members, to their amazement, met with practically no abuse. Four days after the group’s announcement, its president had received only two letters criticizing her position (one of them asked, among other things, if she realized that “academic standards have fell in any place that has had integration”), and none of the officers in Jackson had received a single unsigned hate letter or late-­night phone call.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Introduction xiii

Jackson, 1964: Jackson, Mississippi, 1964 3

The Zulus: New Orleans, Louisiana, 1964 35

During the Thirty-third Week of National Guard Patrols: Wilmington, Delaware, 1968 75

A Hearing: "In the Matter of Disciplinary Action Involving Certain Students of Wisconsin State University Oshkosh": Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1968 87

Doing the Right Thing Isn't Always Easy: Denver, Colorado, 1969 101

Categories: Provo, Utah, 1970 113

G. T. Miller's Plan: Luverne, Alabama, 1970 124

Not Super-Outrageous: Houston, Texas, 1970 136

Victoria DeLee-In Her Own Words: Dorchester County, South Carolina, 1971 147

Kawaida: Newark, New Jersey, 1972 159

Causes and Circumstances: Seattle, Washington, 1975 169

The Unpleasantness at Whimsey's: Boston, Massachusetts, 1976 181

Remembrance of Moderates Past: 1977 192

Black or White: Louisiana, 1986 210

The Color of Blood: Long Island, New York, 2008 231

State Secrets: Mississippi, 1995 253

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