Recently, Christina, a historian based in Jackson, Mississippi contacted me about a book project. She is writing about a program called Friends of the Children of Mississippi (FCM) which is an offshoot of the Child Development Group of Mississippi. CDGM, about which I’ve written in earlier postings, was one of the first of President Johnson’s anti-poverty programs in the 60’s, one of the largest, serving as many as 12,000 children at one stage of its operation. It existed during an interesting period, right at the tail end of the civil rights era and represented a serious test of the government’s commitment to empowering poor people to run their own programs.
Almost a decade earlier, I had been a resource for Crystal Sanders, then a graduate student at Northwestern University, who was writing a dissertation on the role of women in CDGM. Her work eventually resulted in a prize-winning book called A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle. Reading Dr. Sanders’ book gave me a new appreciation for the art of historical research and writing; she did an amazing job of accurately recreating events that had unfolded long before she was born but which were part of my lived experience.
It’s a very strange feeling to have your own personal story and memories transformed into “history” that is considered worthy of study by experts. I commented recently that the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 has crossed the line from memory to history for everyone younger than 65 or 70. As a result almost everything that happened during my lifetime – WWII, the Korean War, Viet Nam, presidential elections all the way back to 1964 – has crossed that line and those of us who were witnesses have an obligation to cooperate in the preservation of those events, just as we cherish the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors who are a living link to our collective past.
So, of course, when Christina called, I offered to help in any way I could, but I warned her that my memories of those Mississippi years have dimmed, and I would probably prove to be a disappointing informant. It’s hard to imagine how my memories of these most intense experiences of my early adult life could be so riddled with holes.
However, I do have a sort of personal archive that might contain material useful to Christine while at the same time could jog my memory about those long-ago adventures. This potential treasure trove has sat behind my desk for more than fifty years, and it’s been untouched for most of that period to protect me from the pain of disappointment it represents. The story is that when we returned from Mississippi to New York in 1968, John Mudd, the former director of CDGM, and I received a grant from the now defunct Field Foundation, a key supporter of the program’s work, to document the unique story of the ground- breaking efforts of CDGM and its eventual demise at the hands of powerful political forces.
I’ve written elsewhere about my unfortunate record of failed collaborations which left two very promising books unfinished. This was one of them. The sections I undertook to write were never joined by the ones that John had committed to. John is one of my dearest friends, and I understand totally why his efforts were stillborn, but the result was sufficiently disappointing to keep me from that personal archive for so long, but now I was tackling it in the hope that its contents could inform Christina’s work.
The box is one of those white bank file boxes with openings at each end for hand grips. When I opened it, I discovered that it contained more than the unfinished manuscript and some of the research that it was built on. The first folder I opened contained an interview that John and I did with Unita Blackwell, our daughter Adina’s godmother and one of the most impressive home-grown products of the Movement in Mississippi. It was a painful read. She had recently been defeated in her race for office in her tiny hometown of Mayersville in the Mississippi Delta. The town had an overwhelming majority of Black residents and voters, but many of those votes had been bought for a pittance by white residents who were determined to maintain control. Unita’s account of that defeat was brimming with bitterness and despair for her people.
The other part of Unita’s interview was, in fact, relevant to some key themes of the book, particularly the central tenet of the programs sponsored by the War on Poverty – “the maximum participation of the poor.” Granted that Unita was still reeling from her defeat at the polls, but she painted a dark picture of how the participation that we valued so highly had always run a distant second among local folks to the simple desire and need for jobs. Being an economic engine in an area where real jobs – as opposed to cooking and cleaning for white folks – were next to non-existent – is no small accomplishment, but we had dreams of something larger, something that would leave people with the tools to create broader social change.
Look at how distracting that one folder was! I had to put everything else aside and focus on the long-neglected manuscript, of which 8 chapters existed in a separate folder. I’ve spent the last two days visiting its contents. Not surprisingly, they were a mixed bag. From this distance I could look at them with an editor’s eye. The 20-something young man with a Harvard Ph.D. had long ago left the building. My writing contained both surprising insights about the people and communities that had consumed most of our waking hours during those years, along with arrogant speculations and conclusions that I hadn’t yet earned the right to. Much of the material was desperately in need of stories and examples to ground those speculations in good Mississippi soil.
On the other hand, there were several chapters that made for stunning reading, chapters that contained the gritty details the rest of the material lacked. There was a portrait of a single Head Start center that made the work all come alive, the way a good anthropological study might. I have no recollection of writing it and no clue how I was able to gather the details it has immortalized. Similarly, there is a chapter which contains two portraits of key staff members in CDGM which focuses on how they dealt with the pressures of assuming responsibility for overseeing a program far more complex than any of their previous experience had prepared them for.
My daughter Adina has spent a good part of her writing life digging in archives containing materials as disparate as the contents of documents found in an 11th century Cairo synagogue and the papers of an influential Hollywood screen writer. Turning that material into a coherent narrative is a skill she hopes to impart to Yale students next year. The contents of that white file box have given me a glimpse of the challenges of archival research, even when its contents are your own work. I hope Christina will do it the justice it deserves.