This first-person account is based on an interview with Verite reporter Karli Winfrey. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t set out to be a civil rights activist.
It was my sister Dorothy who was interested in civil rights. She was among the Black students who desegregated LSUNO (Louisiana State University at New Orleans). She would go to meetings on Tuesday nights after joining the NAACP youth council at Rev. [Morris] Burrell’s church on Dumaine and Galvez.
I overheard a conversation between Dorothy and either Alice or Jean Thompson, they were also a part of the NAACP youth council.
I heard my sister talking about going to the Golden Pheasant. The Golden Pheasant was a Black club on Claiborne, right off St. Bernard. I figured they were talking about dancing, so I sat there quietly outside the doorway so she wouldn’t see me or hear me.
I blackmailed her. I told her if you don’t take me to the next meeting, pay my dollar membership dues [for the NAACP youth council] and my 7 cents carfare, I’d tell Mama.
I couldn’t tell you anything that was said at any of the meetings, because I had no interest. I thought [civil rights leader] Raphael Cassimere Jr. was so boring because he only talked about court cases and stuff like that. I wasn’t interested. It was a lot of legal talk that I didn’t understand.
I was thinking, “Get this over with so I can go dancing.”
One Tuesday night, Jerome Smith and Rudy Lombard from the New Orleans chapter of CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) came to a meeting. They had started picketing and sitting in at Woolworth’s on Canal Street. They had just organized in New Orleans and didn’t have a lot of membership, so they came to the NAACP youth council to ask for their help.
And we did it. I enjoyed it. I don’t know why. For some reason, it felt like we were really doing something. We weren’t listening to speeches, we were out there.
We had to go to St. James AME Church on North Roman Street to pick up the picket signs. Then we’d walk from there to Canal Street, down to Woolworth’s and McCrory’s, not even thinking that we had these signs. The first sit-in was at Woolworth’s, in September 1960.
When Rudy sat in at McCrory’s, they [Rudy Lombard, Cecil Carter, Oretha Castle and Lanny Goldfinch Jr.] were the four that were arrested. They decided to stay in jail and not accept bail.
I volunteered to go on the [Freedom Rides]. The original riders did not make it to New Orleans.
I went to Oretha’s family home, which was one of the bases for CORE, eager to volunteer myself for the next ride.
But Oretha said, “You ain’t going nowhere. We have injured [Freedom Riders] that we need to find medical care for. We need to find housing for them. We need to get them transportation, we need to get food.”
So we spent the night there trying to find housing and we didn’t go on the ride. Most of the Black doctors would not treat the Freedom Riders who’d been beaten. I think they feared losing their jobs. The same for housing. Most of the original riders were housed in private homes.
Women were the backbone of the movement. Nobody knows that.
I took on a different role in New Orleans, as a trainer, teaching potential Freedom Riders how to resist nonviolently, curling up in a ball with arms tucked over heads, and not fighting back, even when being beaten.
During training, we’d pretend you’re sitting at a lunch counter. They dump you out of this chair onto the floor, they kick you, they call you names.
People had to be made aware this wasn’t no game, this is real stuff. So we have to treat you like what may happen to you on the ride. You can be killed. That was no joke.
And you had the opportunity to say, “I can’t deal with this. I’m gone.” Nobody thought any less of you.
I have to always refer back to my dad, Sam Smith Sr., who always said to us as kids, “If you want something done, do it yourself. Don’t wait around for somebody else to do it.” That’s what I feel gave me the right to do what I did in CORE.
I asked [civil rights activist] Don Hubbard, “Why do you think it is that young people today didn’t get involved the way we did when we were teenagers?” He said to me, “Because they ain’t pissed. They’re not pissed about anything. They can go to any theater, sit anywhere on the bus, go to any school, got their mom and dad credit card, driving their mom and dad BMW, so they ain’t worried about nothing. When they get pissed about something, then they’ll do something.”
Then Michael Brown got killed, and they got pissed, and they started doing something: the Black Lives Matter Movement. I said to myself, “Don was right.”
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