Inspiration for Courage and Change - Part I

By Micki Luckey

heffners.jpgIn current times of continued police violence against Blacks and renewed attacks on immigrants and Muslims as well as LGBTQ and Jewish people, what is the role of white people who are concerned about racial justice? Today I take inspiration for courage and change from two books about how individual white people confronted segregation and racism in the Deep South: So the Heffners Left McComb by Hodding Carter, 1965, reprinted 1999, and The Wall Between by Anne Braden, 1958, reprinted 1999. Part I will discuss the first and Part II will discuss the second.

Note: at the time these books were written, the terms used for Black Americans were “Negro” and for humans was “mankind.”  I have not changed these terms in my quotes from the books.

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“I started to chronicle the seemingly isolated events – the cross burnings, the threats, the gun fire or the knife thrust, the violence of annihilating ideas. I did so out of the certainty that, in the face of evil, good people do not respond because they can pretend they do not know. This denial is the metaphysic of genocide.”  —Mab Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor

“The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of White people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue.  It’s not something that we’re called on to help People of Color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it, because really, in truth, they do.”  —Anne Braden

“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” —Eldridge Cleaver

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I wore this button on my peacoat as a youth marching against the Viet Nam War. I was clear about opposing the draft that was sending men my age to a faraway land to kill and be killed. Later Daniel Ellsberg told us that indeed we had been part of the solution, because our March on Washington in December 1969 had helped turn the tide of the war. And for me, like many in my generation, opposition to the war led to my learning about imperialism, colonialism, and wars of liberation. 

Yet the quote from Eldridge Cleaver referred to a different liberation, a solution to race problems here in this country. I did not relate to the books I read by Cleaver and Malcolm X, and I did not see that I was part of the problem. Too young to participate in the Civil Rights Movement earlier in the decade and raised in a conservative family and community, I had grown up oblivious to the segregation that still persisted in my home town and provided benefits I took for granted.

Decades later I come back to the message on the button as I take steps to work for racial justice. After all the marches over the years, I face the possibility that protest itself may be made illegal. I am preparing to participate in civil disobedience, and I am also learning to participate responsibly in actions led by people of color. So I am thinking about individual transformations, specifically those that occur when participation in events push people toward resolve and courage in ways they didn’t expect or plan. I take inspiration from two books I read recently that describe such individuals. These books were written very soon after the events and first published in 1958 and 1965, one a first-person account and the other a journalist’s description.

In So the Heffners Left McComb, author and newspaperman William Hodding Carter II gives a detailed account of the events occurring in the small town of McComb, Mississippi, a town not far from his own and in the heart of the county that boasted of the most burnings of Black churches. Carter tells how Red and Malva Heffner befriend some white civil rights workers who come to McComb for Mississippi Summer in 1964. Already more liberal than most of their friends and neighbors – they voted for JFK and mourned rather than celebrated his assassination – the Heffners had been successful town inhabitants who socialized regularly at the Country Club, played active roles in civic organizations and in their church, and were the proud parents of Miss Mississippi of the current year. Yet in three short months they were run out of town.

Tensions were high in the Deep South, especially after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. That year Mississippi had been chosen as the site for Freedom Summer because less than 7% of eligible Black voters had managed to register to vote in that state. Since June hundreds of mostly white, young volunteers had joined long-struggling Black activists spread across the state with the primary goal “to aid Negroes to qualify as voters.” (p. 21) Innocuous sounding, it was quite a dangerous undertaking, as evidenced by the disappearance in June of three volunteers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwemer) later discovered to have been murdered. Mississippi Summer was the project of a coalition of national groups called COFO, the Council of Federated Organizations.[1] In addition the National Council of Churches provided clerical advisers. Like other small towns, McComb had a modest COFO headquarters, where a youthful (25 years old) National Council of Churches representative named Reverend Don McCord worked with the volunteers. Rev. McCord became acquainted with the Heffners through their church.

Red Heffner was described as “Episcopal lay reader, home-town booster, a damn good salesman, and the best charcoal broiler in town.” (p.66) Although previously uninvolved in racial issues – or any controversial issues, Red was the only one on the block who did not join the bogus self-defense organization set up to “protect” the (white) neighborhood against outsiders. He was also good friends with the newspaper publisher who wrote several editorials at the beginning of summer to explain that the coming “invasion” of youthful civil rights workers was for educational purposes and should be met with law and order. By early July, when the attacks on local Black churches and even homes continued unabated, Red became concerned enough to address the need for communication between the races by talking to two Black residents that he knew and respected, offering them help if they needed it. He also wrote letters to the newspaper and to a politician and tried to meet with the mayor about his worry over the “tinderbox situation” and the need for law and order with respect to the civil rights workers. His suggestion to two local ministers that they invite Rev. McCord to speak was turned down because “The situation is entirely too volatile.” (p.34) So when McCord asked to bring a minister from California and a staff member of SNCC to meet at his home, Red welcomed them, wanting to learn more about what they hoped to accomplish. At this time Red knew that others in his town would not host such a gathering. He was already taking actions and initiatives that marked him as concerned about the ongoing violence against Blacks and threats to those working for Freedom Summer.

The next day Malva Heffner received the first anonymous call, a friendly recommendation that they do not repeat the mistake of having civil rights workers in their home. This sentiment angered Red, and even more the discovery that their phone was bugged, which he realized when they hosted Rev. McCord for dinner on July 17. McCord brought a friend, Dennis Sweeney, a 21 year old SNCC staff member of some repute, and they told their daughter in New York that he was there. Soon a phone call came for Sweeney, then another call came asking whose car was parked in front, and suddenly the house was surrounded by cars shining their headlights on them as Red led their guests out. All the cars followed the guests. Red got out his shotgun and loaded his little-used pistol, but no violence occurred that night. His earlier concern for tensions in his town was now compounded with anger at violations of his rights, especially when the vigilante cars came around a second time. The anger was exacerbated by frustration at how little response he got from the police and FBI, even when there was a rumor that their house would be bombed. The harassment calls escalated, becoming vicious.

In the belief that an explanation would clear up “misunderstandings”, Red published a short statement in the local newspaper to the effect that the civil rights workers were at his home for a conference – not for entertainment, as he had informed the law enforcement authorities. But his explanation was undermined by a statement from the sheriff that he had not spoken with Red (which was true – the sheriff had spoken with McCord), insinuating that the authorities were not on his side. Greatly disappointed, Red said later, “The sheriff’s statement did more to destroy him in McComb than anything else.” (p.85)

But rationality had little effect on the near-hysteria in the community where “at nighttime the Klan rode and few dared defy its dictates.” (p. 100) As slanderous rumors spread about them, the Heffners became social pariahs. By the beginning of August, Red said, “we were coming close to the breaking point. Almost no friends… no way to answer the filthy rumors…” (p.89) Yet when the local DA suggested Red go door to door seeking reconciliation with neighbors, he rejected the idea. “This smacks too much of apologizing for something we are not ashamed of.” (p.95) I understand this reaction: the Heffners were not the party to blame—why didn’t the law go after those harassing the COFO workers or committing the bombings that were terrorizing the Black communities?

With virtually no friends left in the town, Red and Malva remained friendly with the civil rights workers. For the first time they socialized with Blacks and whites together when McCord invited them to accompany him to Tougaloo College, a small Negro college nearby. “‘Malva and I had never before found ourselves in a socially integrated group’ Red recalled. ‘What surprised us most of all was that we didn’t feel awkward.’” (p.97) The Hefners then went to nearby New Orleans for a meeting and dinner with white and Black COFO workers they had talked to but never met. As Carter reported, “Perhaps only a white Southerner can comprehend the dramatic quality of Malva’s and Red’s decision to dine publicly in a Southern city with Negroes.” (p.101) Back in McComb they continued to meet more Yankees involved in the Mississippi summer – doctors, ministers, lawyers, social workers. Red wrote in his diary “I am constantly amazed by the competence and stature of these people. I wish McComb could realize this.” (p.106) Stretched beyond their accustomed social strictures, the Heffners began to experience new dimensions of humanity.

The friendship with the COFO workers brought tensions into the family, causing a split that I think many of us can relate to. In New York their younger daughter Carla had attended a SNCC presentation about Mississippi Summer and was shocked by the way SNCC workers described her hometown. Alerted to the truths of the Blacks’ conditions, Carla wrote, “I wish there was something I could do… I want to do what I feel is my responsibility as a Mississipian…I hope I haven’t upset you.” (p.38) To the contrary, Red and Malva were proud of Carla: the three family members were moving in parallel away from their former beliefs. In contrast their older daughter Jan, who was often away for her duties as the reigning Miss Mississippi, was not inclined to change her views on race relations. She disapproved of her parents’ involvement, and soon she married in into a conservative family.

The Heffners faced financial difficulties for reasons I had not anticipated. As an insurance salesman Red’s success was dependent on good relations with the community. On August 1 he was evicted from his downtown office. As deals fell through and phone calls went unanswered, Red found he had no prospective clients. The resulting lack of income was the final push from their home in McComb. All summer they had gotten spiritual sustenance from the Episcopal Church, including visits from priests and a Bishop from out of state. When it was finally clear that they had to leave Mississippi, the Church community also provided material aid: plane tickets to fly to NYC, help enrolling Carla in school, and immediate work for Red as a pension consultant for the AFL-CIO. Although shocked and sad to leave their home, the Heffners embarked on a new life. With the benefit of their support from the Church and the civil rights community (as well as their white privilege), they both soon had jobs in Washington D.C., Red as a conciliator with the Community Relations Service, and Malva working for Operation Headstart.

Because they took a stand for basic human rights the Heffners broke with their white community, including most of their friends and relatives. Clearly events pushed them beyond where they wanted to go, when Red lost all his business clients and they were forced to leave Mississippi. Yet people in the struggle rallied around them—even Pete Seeger called them with a song. Like the courage of the Bradens, nearly 10 years earlier (see Part II), the integrity of the Heffners gives us inspiration today.



[1] COFO consisted of CORE (Committee on Racial Equality), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).