Finding Charney : Mississippi 1965
by Tom Manoff
Excerpt from Chase The White Horse
I was worried about Charney. News came that he’d been arrested and jailed in Morton, a small town in Scott County some 35 miles south of Canton. Morton was a a Klan town, and on that Saturday in August 1965, the Scott Count Ku Klux Klan had advertised a night rally.
By the time Charney was arrested in Scott County, he’d been organizing there for a month. Tall, red-headed and with a Jewish name, he was easy to spot. Especially driving a new Chevy pickup truck. Charney was the kind of outside agitator who triggered deep revulsion in Mississippi whites. Especially in a truck. Pick-ups were a symbol of manhood for Mississippi whites, and a Jew in a truck who’d come south to challenge segregation, that most basic tenet of their racist moral code, was a target.
Dale Tooley, the city attorney for Philadephia who had defended me on the gun charge, and another lawyer drove down to Morton to deal with Charney’s arrest. That seemed a special kind of power to me, sending two “big-shot” lawyers to a small town jail in Mississippi. There wouldn’t be a trial I thought. Probably just bail. I expected Charney back in the Freedom house in a couple of hours.
Late afternoon, Tooley and the other lawyer drove up Boyd Street in their rental car – a Ford perhaps. As they turned onto Lutz Avenue and drove into the yard next door to the the Freedom House, I saw they were alone. No Charney.
They’d been to the Morton jail, and arranged that Charney could be released on $500 bail, but hadn’t bailed him out. Why didn’t you write the check I said. Not sure what they said when I protested. Perhaps that wasn’t the kind of thing they did in Philadephia. Write a check for a client’s bail. But they had left Charney Bromberg, the six foot Jew in a Chevy Truck in a Morton jail on the night of a Ku Klan Klan rally in Scott County Mississippi.
Late afternoon. I started asking who would go with me to bail him out. There weren’t many people around and no one was especially excited about the trip. C.O. Chinn Jr. would go. He convinced a kid named Pee Rooney also. Neither Chinn or I had a car. But there was a fellow who did.
The Reverend had come to Canton a few weeks before. He’d been in the city at some time during the Freedom Summer of 64. I didn’t like him. He seemed uptight and prim in his formal minister’s garb, its white collar emerging from some black minister’s shirt, uplifting the head as if he had personal access to morality. The outfit seemed silly to me also because the Reverend was short.
One day without notice, the Rev drove to the airport and, to the surprise of the rest of us, returned to the Freedom House with his fiancée. The arrival was met with many tongue comments, some with tongues in cheeks, others not. This wasn’t the kind of act that would endear the Rev to our rag-tag assemblage. But we liked his woman. She was quiet, even reticent. Her name was Anna.
The first thing I remember about the Reverend was his vehicle -–an odd looking German camping van. Something like a VW bus. But more exotic back then. I’m not sure that I’d seen a VW bus in 1965.
The Reverend agreed to drive. So, the Rev, Pee, Chinn, and I left Canton to try and get Charney Bromberg out of jail on the night of a Klan Rally in Morton, Mississippi. I sat in the front with the Rev. Chinn and Pee hidden in back. That was the way to make this trip the safest. This wasn’t about a show of moral force. The idea was just get to Charney out of Morton Mississippi.
We pulled out from the Freedom House. I hadn’t been in Reverend’s strange van and was curious about the gears. Some kind of shifting lever up from the floor but not the American stick configuration. I still see the Reverend today, shifting those strange gears decisively as if he were driving some special machine that only he had tamed.
Started to go dreamlike as we left Canton. A rocking motion on the winding roads. Rural Mississippi is ravishing as the light changes in the evening. Red and green go darker into deeply tinged colors on their ways to greys and blacks. Machine, road, rocking, sky.
We arrived at Morton about seven in the evening. The police station is on a public square that was lit with street slights, stark lighting, and a bit surreal. The square was empty. We parked across the street from the jail, maybe fifty yards. The Rev and I got out and walked to the police station. Chinn and Pee stayed hidden in the car.
The inside of the station had an odd layout, very narrow, with the reception desk running back away from us. We sat in chairs on the left a few feet away from the desk. No one was there. We just sat and waited. A cop came out after a bit. Didn’t say anything. Just looked. Rev was in his minister’s garb. I’d already told him to just sit there and be quiet.
I said in the meekest voice something like officer we’re here to bail out Charney Bromberg. I had the five hundred dollars in cash. The cop, still completely unanimated, said he would check on the situation and disappeared down the corridor to the back of the jail. We waited. Ten minutes or so, nothing. The sense of real trouble set in. Nothing to do but play it out. Charney was somewhere down that aisle in the back of the jail.
The cop came back, said nothing, sat down and started reading a newspaper. Silence. After a bit, and my best excuse me officer voice I asked what happened. He said that we had to wait on the “processing” and went back to the paper. It was an explanation. I thought we might get out of this in a few minutes.
Silence again. I felt the odd interplay of something and nothing happening at the same time. And then, as if this surreal dream needed another layer, the Reverend started to speak. At first the words werincomprehensible to me, only jolting into the pressure of the hot silent air. Then I hear him more distinctly. He asks the cop if he thinks segregation is morally justified. Am I fucking dreaming ? I try to shut him up, but Reverend Euro-van in his self-reightous whie collar keeps on. The cop looks up from time to time silent and glaring. I’m just waiting for this cop to go back and get Charney, hoping to that red-beard come down that aisle.
Time started going soft in that feeling when you’re close to inevitable chaos. I kept telling the Reverend to shut the fuck up. We need to get Charney. Stop picking a fight with this guy. The collar preached on now provoking the cop, asking the same questions and getting no response. I write this today, amazed how pissed off at this guy I still am.
The police station had picture windows looking out on the square. The blinds were open, and occasionally I looked out to make sure that Jr. and Pee Rooney were still hidden in the van. I began to notice that some men were starting to gather in the square. And then the cop went to the window and closed the blinds. I’m not sure, but maybe the Reverend shut up. All came clear. We’d been stalled to allow a mob to gather. When Charney came out, we’d have to get through them to the van.
Things went back to silence. Finally I ask the cop again about Charney.He handed me some paperwork. He’s not here he said. He was at the Leak County jail in some 30 miles from Morton. But no point in going there that night he said. We couldn’t get Charney without giving the bail to the local magistrate and having him sign the papers.
Took the papers, thanked him, and opened the door to the square. Ten or fifteen men. Some had bottles. They were right between us and the van. But as we walked out, Chinn opened the door of the van and started walking towards. Mobs can be easily distracted momentarily for some reason. And as Chinn appeared their attention turned, and it seemed we had a kind of opening through them. We ran. Stuff were thrown but we made it to the van and started to drive. Bottles and rocks missed the curious machine as we pulled out. Maybe the machine had luck, it’s mission to save its master.
In minutes we were out of the town on some back road so we could stop and breath. Jr. said that once he saw the blinds close, he’d decided to wait ten minutes, and if we didn’t come out, he’d come in and try to get us. And that’s what he did. If you knew Mississippi then you would understand how extraordinary this was, a lone black man walking into a white mob to get his friends. That was C.O. Chinn Jr. in the Summer of 1965.
We had to find this magistrate. His home address was on the paperwork. I went to a phone booth, looked up the number, called and asked if we could come by with the money. He agreed. I think we had a map.
Still not sure if this was another set-up, we found his house in a rural area outside of town. I remember the porch light going on as I walked to the door. The porch was screened in and the magistrate and I talked on its steps. He turned out to be straight forward and accommodating. There were a lot of common sense people in Mississippi. He was an official. He went by the book. I gave him the money, he signed the papers and we headed for that county jail. Might have been ten o’clock by them. We were on automatic. Jr., Pee and I intended get Charney home that night.
The Leake county is a somewhat large building for a small town with two stories. This time I went in alone. Green walls I think. A receiving desk was at the left and a flight of stairs at the right. At the top of that flight of stairs, a corner turned left. Politely I handed the officer at the desk Charney’s release papers. He told me to wait. Some minutes later, five or ten perhaps, but not a long time, I see Charney’s red hair come out from around that corner at the top of the stairs. He’s walking down the steps towards me with a cop behind him. There was a group of men gathered in the parking lot. But nothing happened. We were in the van and quickly gone, driving and laughing back to Canton. Well, not sure that the Reverend was doing anything but driving that machine.
In the decades that followed, Charney and I would recount this story and laugh through it. As I got serious about this book, he’s nailed down more detail:
After the trial in the general store, somewhere between Morton and Forest, the sheriff and his deputy took me to some out- of- the- way place to wait for “them,” who were going to “take care of me.”
Charney ended up in the county jail. In his cell he heard chants from men gathered outside to bring him out so they could lynch him.
And when the police came and got him from his cell the night we bailed him out, he thought they were taking him to be killed. Forty years later, he said, and then I saw your face at the bottom of the stairs. We had a movement, come on now, all of you come on.
Back in Canton, I found out that something that perhaps made the Reverend’s attempt at martyrdom more comprehensible.
The Reverend’s fiancée made a good impression on me when she came. She was taller than he was, and bigger in frame, attractively zaftig in simple dresses that had the “I-sewed-this-myself” look. While he was quiet and sullen, she was quiet and nice. Back in Iowa she was somehow connected to his church. When she’d arrived, she couldn’t stay at the Freedom House. She was sent off to a local residence. White women living in a house with black men was a provocation.
Not long before we went to get Charney, and maybe a week into her visit, she was arrested having sex in a motel with a prominent local black civil rights worker on the project, a person quite close to the story told here.
Considering the “crime,” the local black civil rights worker could have been lynched. But a behind-the-scenes relationship between his father and the white police establishment must have come into play. He went free.
The Reverend’s lady went back to Iowa right.
Charney told me later that George had walked into the Freedom House while everyone was talking about it and said if a man and a woman are going to have sex, that’s just the way things are, it’s going to happen so stop talking about it. And people did. Especially those involved.
The Reverend tried to work things out with her, apparently, but eventually she called the marriage off. The Reverend was under a powerful confluence of people and events that night in Morton, Mississippi.
I never liked the Reverend. I’m not sure anyone on the Canton Project really did. He left Canton and went to other projects in the state. He remained an activist for civil rights and for the poor. He’s still in Mississippi, fighting the good fight.
We are all moving vehicles of ego and desire. God bless the Reverend, and Jr. Chinn, Pee Rooney, and Charney, the red-headed Jew. God bless all of us who rode that dark Mississippi night.