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Mississippi, Mon Amour

Thursday, August 20, 2015 | Permalink

Excerpt from The Hands of Peace: A Holocaust Survivor’s Fight for Civil Rights in the American South by Marione Ingram.

It was exhilarating to be so involved in the struggle to combat centuries of racial subjugation. Like others, I had volunteered for the task in Mississippi because I believed that Mississippi was where the need was greatest, where oppression was a way of life and a frequent cause of death. Perhaps because of what had been done to my family and others like them, I felt that the cause of African Americans was mine also and that I owed it to my past and to our mutual future to intervene. But if I had been moved to come to Mississippi mainly by feelings of anger and duty, these were soon replaced by the somewhat delirious feelings of an affair of the heart.

Yes, I missed my husband and three-year-old son; in fact, missed them more and more every day. Lying on my side I missed the feel of Daniel’s shoulder beneath my cheek and his slightly hairy chest beneath my arm. That was my rightful place, the place where I basked in his love and he in mine, and we in ours for our son. It was a place of arousal—we never wore pajamas—as well as relaxation, of dreams and somber reflection, contentment and deep yearning, even tears. It was my one most special place and I missed it.

What’s more, I was even more in love with Daniel now than when the bogus Dr. Black pronounced us husband and wife. In Mississippi, it was sunshine clear that Daniel’s trust was my most valuable asset. I thought I was probably the only SNCC worker then in Mississippi who had left a toddler and loving husband at home. I had come knowing that many people there and even a few in DC would say that I should have stayed at home and must be out for sexual adventure. Neither accusation bothered me, although I knew the importance of denying evil-thinkers ammunition. Both Daniel and I understood that racism is harmful to all children and wanted to be able to look ours in the eye when he asked later on what we had done to oppose it. Given my experience with the racial genocide that would later be called the Holocaust, which few SNCC workers knew much about and, so far as I knew, none had shared, I probably would have gone to Mississippi even if Daniel had insisted that it was too dangerous, but it was my good fortune to have his full support.

Each morning I awoke excited by the challenges that lay ahead, and each day I became more attached to the people I lived and worked with. I loved them for the dangers they had passed as well as for the content of their character. I adored their cool as they invoked the wrath of Mr. Charlie, their stubborn dignity in the face of intimidation and derision, their deft skewering of pretensions and their irrepressible humor before, after, and even during a confrontation. But most of all I loved them for their warmth and openness to me, for sharing their vulnerability as well as their strength, and for allowing me to nest in their affections.

In my expanded emotional state, I wrote to Daniel, telling him that I had been “seduced by an intangible,” and was suffering from “a disease called Mississippi.” I said it was “a seduction of the mind,” but that “every third day I have a minute of lucidity in which I see Mississippi as it is.” I also wrote that I saw the law as the oppressor, and that “the KKK holds its meetings in police stations.” I confessed that I feared that I would not escape from Mississippi even if I left it, since “I have Mississippi in my blood, and the disease has taken hold.” But “freedom will provide a cure,” I continued, and we would see a new day of honor and dignity “when a man no longer has to be afraid but can be a man in every sense of the word.” I waxed feverish about our need to succeed, saying that “it is only through Mississippi and because of her that we will change America into what it can and should be.”

As a former southerner, Daniel worried constantly about my safety, but was never less than fully supportive. He conveyed no hint of reproach or discouragement, but assured me that he and Danny were doing fine and were getting considerable help from friends, especially from our dear friend Bernice Hooks, who made sure Danny received hands-on maternal affection by taking him into her extended family on many weekends. My mother, however, responded to my letters with brief notes saying that I should return at once to my husband and child, where I belonged. Although I did not doubt that she was concerned for my safety, her tone made it clear that she believed I was shirking my basic duty as a wife, albeit for a laudable cause.

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Excerpted with permission from Marione Ingram. Copyright 2015, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

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