History and the People Who Make It: Allen Cooper

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the eighteenth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Allen Cooper was interviewed by Steve Davis in 2008.

My part in the Movement started in 1959 when I came out of the Navy. I was on an aircraft carrier. I’m a combat veteran, and I came out with an emerging consciousness that was shaped, in part, by the Navy itself. I had never met any people of color. I met a Comanche Indian and a black guy from New York and they treated me kindly. They could see how innocent and untested and untried I was, and when I asked them questions they treated me seriously. …

I was going to be an Episcopal priest, and I decided to go into the Navy first, and I’m glad I did. I discovered the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion, and I was looking for a whole lot of stuff I didn’t know about and I knew I didn’t know. … I just realized that there was a whole lot of world out there that I didn’t know about, and that I wanted to know. I started getting conscious of racism in the Navy because I was hanging out with an Indian guy and a black guy, and I saw some of the beginnings of racism and I didn’t like it.

When I came out, I came back and started at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I became very aware of Emmett Till and his murder. I was just stunned.

It’s sort of a metaphor for the horror of slavery and racism, Jim Crow, and all the rest of it. It really made me angry. I tried to do something then. I tried to get the student council to pass out a resolution demanding a governor of Mississippi and the president of the United States to investigate, and they wouldn’t even do it. I started following what was happening. It was just starting to emerge, the Civil Rights Movement.

I went to the Peace Corps in Venezuela in [19]62. I came back in [19]63, and from Venezuela, I flew into Washington and I got very heavily involved with Julius Hobson, one of my first major mentors. He was the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, the chapter in D.C.

I got busted in D.C., it was my first bust. We were sitting around and we were talking about the Civil Rights Bill. Two D.C. cops came up swinging their billies and told us to break it up. I said, break what up? They said, get up and get out of here. I said, what for? We’re sitting here talking. He said, come with me. So they took me off, and they got me to the edge of the park and they started beating on me with their sticks. They got some pretty good licks in, threw me in the back of the car. The young people that I was with were trying to stop them. Not physically, but they were yelling at us. They bailed me out right away.

I got hurt in Albany, Georgia. I went to jail there. I don’t know if you know about the Albany Movement, it was the only complete defeat King ever suffered. Two thousand arrests, nothing changed. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in property bonds. The city made a lot of money off of us. Nothing happened. We went in the Committee for Nonviolent Action on our way to Florida, and they busted us, we just didn’t leave. We didn’t bail out, we just stayed there and started fasting. I fasted for thirty days. A lot of people fasted a lot longer than that. We finally caused so much pressure to be brought on the Albany struggle that they let us out of jail and let us walk with our picket signs.

Of course what they did inside the jail was something else. I had my fingers broken and stuck our hands through the wire mesh and cops on the other side, just pow, pow, breaking bones.

Well, they burned down a lot of houses here [Mississippi Delta area] in attacks. They nearly killed seven people in one attack. Mrs. MacGruber’s house? That’s Stacy’s grandmother, one part of Stacy’s family, and they burned that. They hit it with Molotov cocktails on all sides, and a whole bunch of people were asleep inside, but luckily got out. Boy, it burned to the ground. I took pictures of it. The camera was in a cardboard box so it didn’t look like a camera, and I took pictures during and after the fire. People disappeared, never seen again.

When they were looking for Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, they found the bodies of eight black men that had been tortured and killed. While in the process, with grappling hooks, when they were going through the swamps and the rivers and the lakes, they found eight dead black men by accident. Not looking for them, they didn’t even know they were dead. But what I’m telling you is that the real violence, the real horror, was how those people died and how many died.

I’ll tell you something I am proud of, and that’s that the Black Power Movement came through Indianola in [19]65. We had a community board of directors, and they voted everybody out of the project, all the whites. They voted individually on individual people, and they voted to keep me here. I had one for getting rid of me, one abstention, and twenty-two in favor of my staying.

I worked as an Emergency Medical Tech, an EMT. I did a lot of emergency medicine on children who got infections. They would be in the cotton fields, and they’d have the tiniest little scratch and it would turn into a big abscess sore because of the poison. The white community warned me that they were considering filing charges on practicing without a license because I was using cotton swabs and alcohol to treat infected wounds.

I got ambushed in Inverness one morning. We walked into this little converted house, a little shack. They sold cigarettes and coffee, sandwiches, stuff like that. The people we were picking up wouldn’t look at us, wouldn’t talk to us, they were looking down. I looked at Otis, Otis looked at me, and I said, oh, shit. Something’s coming down. We went outside and there they were. Otis made a break for it, and got through and ran, and I didn’t. They axe-handled me for a while, busted up my right knee pretty bad, fractured my skull right here along that line. I lost a kidney and fractured my wrist. I was pissing blood for about six weeks.

There were a couple of times here in Mississippi, I picked up a gun. One night we were here at the Freedom House, and we got a frantic call from Drew. We were just setting up a little Freedom House up there, and they were under attack from a whole bunch of college students with guns from the junior college. They were using 30-06, that’s a serious weapon. So we piled in the car and we drove through their lines. I did some fancy spinning and opening doors and rolling out, and it worked. Joined them inside, so we just went to their assistance and we picked up 22’s—

Non-violence is absolutely, no question about it, the moral, ethical, superior way to live. No doubt about it. It was always seen as a tactic.

What are we going to do against the Klan, you know? They’ve got all the guns, they’ve got the state terror behind them. It’s state-sponsored terror. They can use it any way they want, and if somebody picked up a gun and killed a Klansman or something like that, oh, Jesus. The shit storm that would come down behind that, a lot of people would get hurt and or killed. We tried to not do that, but like in that situation, they were just surrounded. They were just shooting the shit out of that whole little clapboard building. We didn’t say, well, what’s our strategy, we just went up there and joined them. It felt good shooting the Klan, it felt real good. I mean, I could go to lunch afterwards. You can kill a Klansman and go to lunch and not have any loss of appetite whatsoever.

The full transcript of this interview is available at http://ufdc.ufl. edu/l/AA00017845/00001.

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