History and the People Who Make It: Bright Winn

transcript edited by pierce butler

This is the twelfth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.
Bright Winn was interviewed by Paul Ortiz [O] in 2000.

I was born at Santa Maria, California [in 1944] and raised in San Francisco, in an all white community. There was not rampant racism within the community; there was a negative attitude towards black people or people of color. However, when I brought the word nigger home, from school, my father stopped the conversation and never with anger explained how hurtful and how wrong the word was. He admonished me that I should not use that word. It probably took three or four times for him to give me the same lecture, to get the point home. When social debates, political debates, went on amongst his peers, he always had a liberal and giving attitude about black people.

He grew up in Missiouri in a segregated society, he went to a segregated school. Maybe because he was a good person, he got the idea. I know he had it young, because I went to his hometown as a seventeen-year-old and met an old black woman who told me, “Fred Winn was the nicest white man I’ve ever known in my life.” He just plain didn’t have hate in him and didn’t accept segregation and negative attitude towards black people and I was raised under that. It came to light after my parents divorced, that I had a younger sister and she was bi-racial. And so, at eighteen I had to stop and think about black people realizing now that I had a younger sister who was half black. That would have been about ’61, ’62; things were going on in Civil Rights and I was paying attention and learning from that. It was a burden to have a younger sister who was born out of wedlock and was bi-racial. But, it caused me to think, and I came to the idea that yes, you had to be right with black people.

O: What was the next step in getting you to Mississippi?

In 1962 SNCC sent a speaker to my campus, a black Mississippian. I think his name was Block. I don’t remember his first name and he told us about the happenings in Mississippi.

O: Which campus was this?

College of Marin, in Marin County. It’s a junior college. And this was the first, first hand account I have of segregation. The following year, SNCC sent Charles McLaurin; who perchance would be my project director. He again told us about segregation in Mississippi, and what SNCC was doing. Third year, another fellow came, a white fellow, and told us about the Freedom Summer and I was sold. I made the commitment to come. My father supported it and my mother threatened to sue the college. (Laughter)

We were having civil rights demonstrations in San Francisco on fair hiring, the Sheraton Palace demonstrations, where people of color were only at the bottom eschelon. Over a three year period, I became educated. There was a moral issue. Something wrong was being done in my country, and I was a moral young man and I took up the cry.

O: You went directly from California to Mississippi?

From California, on a Greyhound bus to Oxford, Ohio, where we had a one week training. From there, by group bus to Mississippi.

I was afraid, but I didn’t have second thoughts. I came right in, I did not hesitate. My roommate at Oxford chose to not come. The fact that the three disappeared scared the bejeezus out of all of us, but I stuck with the program.

O: How in your opinion did the program prepare you for working as a civil rights worker?

(Big Sigh). Possibly not too well.

It taught us how to take a beating, to act non-violently, to dive onto the ground, to cover your head and your ears and to throw your body over the other person who is being beaten. They had lawyers, they had John Dohr talk to us about the Justice Department. It didn’t prepare us. There was no way they could prepare us to enter a society so foreign to what we were used to. I was not in culture shock with being in the black community; but it was a different community. It did not prepare me for the hate that white people gave me on the street; the glares, the words, the finger, the absolute hate that you felt walking down the street. There’s no way you can be prepared for that. It also didn’t prepare us for group dynamics. We were kids; fresh out of home, fresh out of college, put into a tense situation, assigned leaders who had no real leadership training, and told to do it. How do you react, how do you act? Who’s the secretary, who’s the natural leader, how do you take orders? And when you are totally tense. Now, my goodness, big industry spends millions of dollars to teach their people how to interact in the office, without the threat of death. (Laughs) And with air conditioning.

We were in rooms, twelve of us, without air conditioning; with the threat of death, with no formal program about how to do a day’s work. No one in the entire SNCC COFO organization had the foresight to do this. That was as difficult, being with one another under this strenuous circumstances as it was dealing with everything else.

My first activities, I was a handyman, while other people were doing voter registration and teaching classes. I had already been in plumbing, I wasn’t a journeyman, but I came down with tools. So the first thing I did in Ruleville was building bookshelves and hanging new doors and putting together makeshift desks. I just fell right into being the school handyman, and before I knew it I was going out and fixing stoves, changing thermocouples and running new water pipe for people within the community. I stayed in Ruleville for two weeks, until they opened up Shaw, and I went over to Shaw and I was putting screen doors and hinged windows, which I felt quite comfortable doing. Then the teacher who would open Ruleville came to Indianola and she called and said…

O: When you say, “Open up”, what does that…?

That means they had an empty building and they were going to make a school. A Freedom School, yeah, and she called me and I ended up in Indianola, again, doing handyman work. The slot for communication director was open, so they made me communications director. So my job was tools and communication.

The Freedom Schools was short lived. They really were just the summer program. Whether any number of children became better readers or learned better math, I really don’t know. The fact that they were there, thinking about freedom, they were in an atmosphere that said, you can make a difference and you can organize and you can go from here – that made the difference. You see, well now, Zoe was thirteen, and she went to Georgia and Georgia said, “This is a great writing.” Georgia stopped me on the street and said, “Read this.” I read and I said, “Zoe this is a wonderful story.” Zoe is now in the poet hall of fame in England, because somebody said to her, “That’s great.” What measurable impact, well that’s a big measure right there. But in the entire community – what benefit in academics was there with that three month period of time? It was a rallying point for those young people, to become aware that black was beautiful, that they too were important, that they could get involved and make a change. That’s what I think the importance was.

O: How long were you in Mississippi?

From June, ’64 on into June of ’65. I registered people for the Freedom Democratic Party; brought them their ballots, took their ballots, counted them, did the whole thing.

It was, well, first of all, damn it was hot! (Both laugh) Anything you did, it was hot! And all the homes that you’re going to, at best- they had a fan. Now, in after fact, it was exciting to have been there. But at the time; it was hot, it was hard work, I was scared all the time. Walk out in the road, look left, look right- are there any white guys? Is the policeman there? What’s going to happen next? Call people to a rally at the Freedom School, we had the weekly mass meeting; I was there, I heard a damn plane flying over, it was dropping incendiaries on us. I was scared and tired and hot and I knew it was right, but it wasn’t a point of excitement at the time. Excitement isn’t the right word. (Laughs)

The movement gave me a greater understanding of justice, of the need for equality. Gave me a greater respect for the individual and the realization that just a few can make a little bit of a difference and a few more can make a greater difference. Being in Mississippi wigged me out, and turned my mind around. I returned to San Francisco suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome. Except we didn’t know it at that time. I was totally angry and frustrated with the United States government, totally broken that my government didn’t act in the way that it should have. I quite easily fell into the hippie ‘60’s, because I was a disenchanted, alienated person. It took a number of years of wandering and…trying to refound myself.

O: Somebody was telling me that when John Dohr came to speak, people had a very mixed reaction.

John Dohr represented the Justice Department, and if you look at the score card of the Justice Department and of the FBI, they did not live up over the last fifty years, or the previous fifty years to that. They didn’t investigate the lynchings, they didn’t investigate or prosecute disenfranchisement of the voters. John Dohr was wonderful, well intended, hard working. He was one of those individuals that helped turn the Justice Department and point it in the right direction. He was just like the one or two individuals on each block that helped turn that block to the Freedom Democratic Party, and to register. John Dohr did his part in the Justice Department. In fact, if I did study the history, I would probably find that there were many John Dohr’s. But the whole Justice Department, was controlled by Senator Eastland and his committee. I’m going to get angry. (laughs) That racist dog. Selfish individual. That non-Christian, horrible individual; held the Justice Department and the FBI and the whole thing, as did all of the other segregationist senators and congressmen that were self-perpetuating because they had the disenfranchisement. So John Dohr and wonderful people in the Justice Department could not flex their muscle because of the same system they were trying to overthrow.

We came down, we worked, they worked, we sacrificed, they sacrificed. And after thirty-five years, we made a difference.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.
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