Sunday, October 5, 2014

M.J. O'Brien Receives Lillian Smith Book Award for 2014

M.J. (Mike) O’Brien is the author of We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired published by the University Press of Mississippi. Mike’s book centers on a single image, an iconic photograph taken on May 28, 1963 by Fred Blackwell depicting a bi-racial group of students being taunted and harassed as they sit peacefully and stoically at a segregated lunch counter.

Mr. O'Brien sets the stage for us, writing that "all the players are in place. Freddie Blackwell is straddling the lunch and service counters, determined to get the perfect photograph to show his Jackson News audience exactly what they are missing. He points his camera, checks his flash,frames the action, and shoots. What we see in the result is a barrage of stories - individual stories, group stories - woven together to make a unique tapestry about race and resolve in a Southern town." 

Mike has done a remarkable job of capturing and conveying that barrage of stories and helping us to better understand the people who were involved in the Jackson, Mississippi Movement. He has gone even farther.

In reviewing the book, Lillian Smith Award winner Francoise Hamlin writes that "By contrasting the ugliness and human weaknesses on both sides with the bravery and fortitude of a few, O'Brien has crafted a beautifully written text that transcends the local story."

Chris Meyers Asch writes that "Scholars and lay readers alike will find much to learn and enjoy in this book. O'Brien's labor of love has produced a fascinating account of this important civil rights story.

When the University Press of Mississippi’s publicist told me in an e-mail that We Shall Not Be Moved had been selected for the Lillian Smith Book Award, I immediately wrote back that I was honored, humbled and speechless (for once) … and that pretty much still sums it up. To think that this book, so long in coming to press (20 years), so heartfelt in its intent to tell the complete story of the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in of 1963 and all that this singular protest unleashed on Mississippi—for both good and ill—to think that this incredible story, and my telling of it, would come to the attention of the Lillian Smith jury and that they would  deem it worthy to carry the seal of approval that this award confers … it’s something that I could never have imagined during the difficult years of yearning for this manuscript to get into the hands of someone who would see its power and its potential. So I thank everyone associated with this award, most especially Lillian Smith herself.

We are all so indebted to Lillian Smith for her courageous efforts to create a better society for her beloved Southland. Her writings of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s provided the intellectual framework for white Southerners of conscience to begin challenging the evils of segregation.

 Thirty-seven years ago this summer, I came upon my very own version of Lillian Smith in the person of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, a slight, Southern white woman (with Georgia connections—her mother haled from Oconee) who had been on the frontlines of the student civil rights movement, starting with the sit-ins as they spread throughout North Carolina in the early spring of 1960, then continuing with additional demonstrations in her home region of Northern Virginia and Washington, DC; a year later joining the Freedom Rides and serving time at the infamous Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi; then becoming the first full-time white student to integrate the historically black Tougaloo College, and eventually finding herself as the sole white woman at the center of Fred Blackwell’s now-iconic image of the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in. That photo forms the focal point and the inspiration for We Shall Not Be Moved.

When I met Joan in 1977, her radical student movement days were far behind her. She was a beleaguered single mother of five young boys ranging in ages from nine to five (the last two were twins). You would never have suspected that fifteen years earlier, she was at the forefront of the revolution for racial equality in this country.  And honestly, she NEVER spoke of her days of activism. It was all she could do to get the boys off to school or to the summer camp program (where I worked) and have a few hours of peace before they rumbled back into her life. It was left to the boys to tell me about her radical past. “Our mom is in a famous ‘pitcher’!” they’d often tell me, and sometimes even pull out Joan’s scrapbook to prove it.

Fast forward fifteen years later: It’s 1992. I’m here, in Georgia, on a business trip and staying at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Atlanta.  I decide to slip over to the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, straight down famed Auburn Avenue.  And after going through the many major exhibits, most of which focus on King’s triumphant achievements, I was about to leave and go back to work when I saw a sign that said “Photographs,” and pointing me to a small room off to the side. Not wanting to miss anything, I decided to take one quick sweep around the room. Well, that quick sweep would change my life and set me on a 20-year saga to tell the story of the Jackson Movement. Because there, amongst all of the grand images of the heroic civil rights struggle was this “famous pitcher” that the kids kept talking about. Joan Trumpauer, flanked by Annie Moody on her left and John Salter on her right, is having sugar dumped on the back of her neck and dress by a rowdy teenager who is part of an out-of-control mob.

That this photograph would have been deemed important enough to have a place at that most holy of civil rights shrines … shocked me. “Oh my God, I KNOW that woman!” I said, half audibly. “And this is an important picture, not just some scrapbook memento!  I wonder how this image connects to all of these other famous civil rights moments. And if I don’t know the story of what happened on this day, most other people probably don’t either.”  And so from that day, I determined it was my mission to find out everything I could about that moment and what it meant for the city of Jackson, the state of Mississippi, and the Civil Rights Movement.

So that’s what I tried to do in We Shall Not Be Moved—tell the complete, holistic story of that day and of the entire Jackson Movement while using this now-iconic image as the centerpiece. I started out by interviewing every single demonstrator (and there were nine of them) and anyone I could find who had any role in causing the demonstration to happen on May 28, 1963. I then branched out to find some of the newsmen and cameramen on the scene who recorded the “Battle of Jackson,” as it came to be known. I talked to the undercover cop who was there and made some arrests that day (and who would later become the Chief of Police of City of Jackson). I sent a Freedom of Information request to the Justice Department to obtain the FBI records of the officials who were standing in the back with their tell-tale sunglasses observing everything that was going on, but taking no action of their own to stop the assaults on the peaceful demonstrators. By scouring the local high school yearbook, I even was able to find one of those rowdy teens and ask about his involvement in that riotous scene.

It was a fascinating project, made even more so by my attempt to find out what brought each of those demonstrators to that point in their lives that they were willing to risk their lives—and that’s exactly what they did—for the cause of racial equality.  And conversely, what made those young rebels feel that this demonstration of blacks and whites together at a lunch counter was such a threat to their way of life that they would try and stop it anyway they could?

Although I have a definite point of view about all of this, I tried in writing the book to be even-handed and to give each of the players their say and their due.

It was not well known when I started this project—and it is only marginally better known now—that this demonstration set off a two-week groundswell of protests throughout the city of Jackson that culminated, tragically, with the assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s statewide coordinator and leader of the Jackson Movement. We Shall Not Be Moved documents this entire period, up to and including the Evers funeral, where a last-ditch effort to revive the faltering movement failed and where Mississippi showed the world what a police state it had become. (We’ve seen echoes of this same type of police crackdown over racial matters in the past few weeks and it’s horrifying to realize that we keep unlearning the lessons of our own history.  We simply cannot continue this way.)

The book ends by filling out the life stories of the many players on both sides and what became of them after the “spotlight of history” as I call it, moved on. Their stories are both uplifting and sad, inspirational yet tinged with tragedy—a little bit like the story of the Jackson Movement, or like life itself, for that matter.

The story that I chose to end the book with is the story of the photographer. I mentioned him earlier. Fred Blackwell was a 22-year old rookie photographer at the Jackson Daily News when he took his most famous “pitcher.” On the morning of May 28th, 1963, he was told to go to the Woolworth’s and cover what was expected to be a pro-forma demonstration. Instant arrest was expected, so he thought he’d only have a few seconds to get off a news shot for the afternoon paper. But when the police refused to enter the store and let a mob develop inside, Blackwell found himself as one of the few still-photographers among a gathering throng of hostile teenagers and older local whites.

What’s interesting about this story is that Blackwell himself was a local. He had grown up just down the street from some of the kids who were dumping catsup and mustard and hurling insults at the demonstrators. He had gone to school with their older brothers and sisters. He was ONE of them! And like them, when he entered Woolworth’s that morning, Fred Blackwell was a segregationist.

But what he witnessed that day would change his life, because as he watched the members of his own class and culture turn into such hateful pawns of the unjust system of segregation, with their taunts and their assaults on peaceful and nonviolent citizens, he began to question the very underpinnings of the society that had nurtured him. And he left that scene profoundly shaken.  As a result of what he witnessed at Woolworth’s, Blackwell began to realize that segregation was unsustainable. He had seen its evil underbelly, had endured for three hours with the demonstrators the chaos and cruelty of the crowd, and he became a believer in racial integration. Something in his heart shifted that day and he has never wavered. And so, for me, Fred Blackwell became a symbol of hope for the New South, which as we know continues to evolve, with a script that is still being written.

I want to thank the Southern Regional Council, that formidable organization that has supported progressive social change for nearly a century, along with the University of Georgia Libraries and the Georgia Center for the Book for sponsoring this award. I’d like to thank the 2014 judges for their recognition of We Shall Not Be Moved as a story that would, I hope, make even Lillian Smith proud. I also want to thank the University Press of Mississippi for taking a chance on me as a new and emerging author. This is the first time one of their titles has been awarded this prize and tells you something, I think, about how far that state has come in acknowledging its past and seeking a degree of racial reconciliation.

I MUST thank my wife, Allyson McGill, who has been with me throughout this entire two-decade odyssey and who has been a constant source of encouragement.

Two other people I need to thank, both of whom have local ties: Lynn Whittaker was my first editor and the first person to make me believe that writing this story and getting it published was within the realm of the possible. Lynn is a native of Georgia and is now a graduate student at the University of Georgia finishing up her PhD dissertation in English literature. The other person with local ties to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude is Julian Bond. Julian wrote a beautiful Foreword for the book and was an early champion of my work. It’s great to be able to accept this award in what used to be his home turf.

 I’d like to dedicate this award, as I dedicated the book,  to Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, to Medgar Evers and his family, and to all those who participated in the Jackson Movement. Their witness, their courage, their sacrifice helped change our world.

In closing, let me return to Fred Blackwell and his incredibly evocative photograph. Fred never received the kind of recognition that I believe he deserved for his work on “the race beat” as it was called. He never won a Pulitzer Prize or a News Photographer’s Award. In those days, it was the publisher, not the photographer, who submitted entries for these types of awards. And no Southern segregationist newspaper would have thought that photo had much merit. No matter. Fred just went ahead and did his job and created, as I say in the book, “an image that captured the essence of an era.” Because his photograph inspired me to write this story and kept me going even in the darkest days when it seemed the book might never see the light of day, I’d like to share this award with Fred Blackwell, who is still alive and living in Jackson, and thank him publicly for his exceptional service to his profession and to our country.

Thank you so very, very much for this great honor.

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