Chase the White Horse
by Tom Manoff
Opening of Chase the White Horse
Palouse Country, Eastern Washington – 2008
CLIMBING THE BUTTES above the house where my mother was born, Hilary saw a cluster of rocks, almost a statue. Looking down across the Palouse River we could almost see the house where my mother was born. “Your mother climbed these rocks,” Hilary said. “She sat right here looking down. I know it. I would have.”
Hilary McDevitt, my researcher, had come west to work on this book. She had become focused especially on Palouse Indian grave desecrations, spending months researching that history.
Some of my earliest memories of my mother were stories she told my brother Mikey and me about riding on these buttes.
My mother’s stories were adventures and lullabies. And when I finally saw the buttes for first time, ten years after she died, it seemed I’d always known them, the paths of my mother’s adventures. How she’d ride on trails through the rocks, and how her horse would pull up and shy when coming on a rattlesnake. That always scared me as a child, and now walking anywhere in the Palouse Country I’m still scared of snakes.
As a child I would think about how my mother wasn’t afraid. She had a good horse. When my mother was on the chase, the horse knew when to pull up. She trusted that horse to keep her safe. And when I was young, my mother was young too, her lanky McGregor beauty still inhabited her frame.
Those rides were my mother’s first great adventures, her freedom, her proclamation to the world that if she could ride the buttes on her Indian horse, like the Palouse Indians who had ridden the buttes for centuries, a too was a fearless warrior.
Sometimes she would come across a Palouse Indian grave that had been looted by whites. The graves were nestled in crevices. They were easy to find. And the whites lived along the the Palouse River, men who worked for the MacGregors, looted them for fun. She knew them by name. Hooper is a small town, then and now. Everyone knows everybody. They know the latest gossip. Some were the parents of her friends.
They were grave looters. Hooper was a “company town,” and because my mother was a McGregor and what happened on the McGregor Ranch meant that the family let it happen, for my mother, the McGregors, especially her father, were part of real evil. She didn’t know the word genocide then. But she knew that her family was part of it. Most of the Palouse had been killed, but there were still graves to loot, skulls and bones to throw around and piss on for fun. Then came the stories passed on for generations that claimed the McGregors treated the Palouse honorably.
You still hear some of those stories today. The denials. Even “facts” that prove there never really was a Palouse Tribe. Today we call this cultural genocide.
1978 was the first time I went to the ranch to find my mother’s lullabies, to find the source of the river that made her brave, to walk up the buttes to see the crevices where the graves once were. On that first visit I asked my cousin what he thought about the desecration of the graves.
Never happened he said.
He’s changed his story these days. He told Hilary and me that he knows where a Palouse grave is and that he protects it. Hilary asks, “where is it?” Hilary McDevitt is keen for facts. She likes maps. Like Lewis and Clark she likes coordinates. She wants my cousin to point on her map and tell her where that grave is. She wants to know if my cousin is telling the truth. Hilary wants the history. The real facts, not the ones that were made up.
“Where is it,” Hilary McDevitt asks again – after all she has maps, she knows the history. One thing about Hilary McDevitt, don’t ask her about something she already knows. Or suspects.
My cousin said, sorry, I can’t tell you. I’m protecting it.
My name is not McGregor. I am the son of a McGregor woman and cannot claim the name.
But blood is blood. And what is most telling now is that Scotish families had a history of interbreeding with Indians. And now that all the history is coming forth, that blood is the thickest node of history, a bloodline that will out over ego, land and false memory. There is history in the blood. Perhaps it speaks. Perhaps it sings. Bloodlines are sticky with truth.
Climb the butte today above the town of Hooper Washington and you’ll see the Palouse River. It’s only a stream now. It once flowed wide and deep and filled with fish down to Palouse Falls. The falls where my mother would race to alone, turn that horse and race to the house, her body in the wind.
The falls are still there. And deep in the way the earth commands you to knell.
The Palouse is still rattlesnake country. I’m afraid of snakes. So everywhere I walk in Palouse country, I always look down.
Marjorie Jean McGregor was born in 1916 in Hooper, Washington, on the McGregor ranch. The McGregors had begun in the 1880’s building what would become a small empire next to last protected tribal lands of the Palouse Indians. My mother often told how the Hooper men after church would climb the buttes looking for graves to loot. It was Sunday afternoon recreation. She spoke also about a particular Palouse Indian named Sam Fisher, one of the last of his tribe, who, she claimed, was treated with derision at the family store.
Sam Fisher was his English name. He was Yosyóos Tulikekecíin in Palouse. It’s hard to write real Native American names, the mere appearance of the language so heavily draped in stereotyped imagery. Hard to mention Indians, to honor them as part of the lyricism of the land and its history without feeling somehow one is exploiting them. But Sam’s story is also part of my mother’s and certainly my own.
The earliest times I can place the sound of my mother’s voice were in stories about Hooper. They weren’t told in anger, but almost like fairy tales, told at night as my brother and I went to sleep, stories of the McGregor ranch in Hooper became my mother’s lullabies to her sons. How she rode among the buttes and across hills of grass, her horse sometimes shying away from rattlesnakes. Indian graves weren’t always looted. She might find them untouched, among on the buttes or in the valleys, along the dry cuts from old rivulets along the sheep trails across the expanse of McGregor land. My mother was always alone and free in these stories. I see her that way today when I’m on that land. Everywhere you look seems like forever.
Looking down from the rock, hearing my mother’s voice I thought: Here is the map where my mother’s journeys began, to Hollywood and New York, and to the politics of the Left. But that journey was more than mere politics. It was seamless with her dreams of living in the world. My mother’s journey became mine, also. And looking down from that rock from the butte above the house where my mother was born, I was at my own beginning on the way to Mississippi and my night with the gun.
The files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission– the state agency allied with the police and the Klan to preserve segregation — were declassified in 1998. I found my name online in the index. But I’d have to fly to Jackson to read the files- not just my files, but thousands that unveiled the secrets and the names. Recently, access to the actual files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission came online. Now, in a keystroke, I could see any files, including my own. Time and space reduced to electrons, history relieved from its occasional tediousness through this new mode of instant viewing.
The files showed how much the police knew about us. They had lists of civil rights workers, their addresses and phone numbers, and names of schools for the students. They knew that I went to a music conservatory in New York. I also had a guitar in Mississippi, a stereotypical standout for the police. Canton and New York. I existed then in two milieus: summer, a guitar- playing CORE worker singing freedom songs and Mississippi blues; winter, a piano, composition and conducting student. Which Side Are You On Boys and Bach’s B minor Mass. Two different musics and lives, but each held passionately, and without either I would have lost the sense of myself.
Canton, Mississippi 1964-65
Real history is the grand drama, its paths, signposts and places of remembering deeper than imagination.
In summer 1964 I’d been lucky with the violence. After three CORE boys, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner -pictured above in an FBI poster - were murdered in Neshoba, all of us were protected for a time. Two of them had been white. The unspeakable plan had worked. Only the death of white civil rights workers might force a change that centuries of black lynchings had not. The projected deaths of civil rights workers going to Mississippi that summer had been a hundred. But the first three stopped the killing for a few months.
My luck changed a year later in June 1965 during the mass arrests in Jackson. Several hundred demonstrators were held and brutalized at the Jackson Fairgrounds. One reason that writing about Mississippi would stall was my memory of that particular arrest. There were reasons to question it. Sleeping on concrete floors had made it easy to deprive us of sleep. A cop would hold a metal chair above his head and drop on to the floor throughout the night. Sound-shots to the head. Sleep without sleeping. Time -fast, slow. The vivid dream of no-time. You can’t write history from dreams.
The most violent feeling that I remembered from the Jackson Arrests in June 1965 was witnessing violence against someone else. Cops beating and kicking a pregnant woman. But had I really seen it? Memories of the events in the Jackson Fairgrounds were vivid but also scattered and blurred. When the files came online, I started looking for a document to support that memory, to prove that something so important for my book actually happened. I found it [Click on red to see]. As it came up on the screen I got nauseous. It was a newspaper account of the beating. The Sovereignty Commission collected newspaper articles from around the country about the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I couldn’t go on. Reading the account put me inside fairgrounds again, the first physical sense of those days I’d had since 1965. I emailed Hilary. Please continue with the files. Track the memories. I told her that something happened with my hands. The cops, a vat of boiling water.
The official purpose of that boiling water -a full-sized metal trash can over some kind of burning fire–was for prisoners to clean a metal plate after a meal. When the plate touched the water the metal went hot. Then the cop, on a whim, might grab your arm and push the hand holding the plate down into the boiling water. How long could you hold on? If you dropped the plate you had to reach down and get it. So, you held on. You waited for the cop to let your hand up from the water. Sometimes it happened sometimes not. How many times had my hand been in the water? Time. No-time. Hilary emailed back in an hour. She’d found another news clipping in the files [Click on red to see. There are two pages at the site. Use the small NEXT button at lower left of the first page to read the more important beyond the headline]. The beatings again, and how hands were forced down into the vats of boiling water.
I had new energy for the writing. Not only Mississippi, but for all of it. The great issue with a political memoir would be veracity. Would people believe what happened? Would it be just my stories? But in the next year, memories turned to facts. Documents. Pictures. Words in print. Stories of the blacklist, of people dead a hundred years, of actors and communists, heroes and informers- all seemed within reach.
Accurate history of the civil rights movement is dominated by the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr., and with nonviolence as the pillar of its moral center. Nonviolence was dogma for students who went south, taught as both tactic and belief. But it was always debated in the movement, especially among local blacks. Nonviolence worked when witnessed and reported. Images on national news of passive civil rights workers taking a beating made sense. But what did it mean on some back dirt road -no cameras, no reporters, no witnesses? Three months after the Neshoba murders, and after most of the white workers had gone home, the Klan kidnapped a fourteen-year-old boy wearing a CORE shirt in Canton, lynched him and left the body in the river. No mention in the press.
A year after Neshoba, a handful of CORE activists remained working Canton to Meridian, and in Canton, working within a strong local movement, among them Bill Hamlin.
Mornings, Bill and I would set out by jeep to rural areas of Madison County organizing black farmers. Forty percent of Madison County land was black- owned. But black farmers were shut out from voting for the local board of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service-the ASCS- that made the yearly allotments that determined federal crop support money. Bill was one of those farmers.
The jeep was army surplus, open with no canopy. We drove wearing CORE T- shirts -”CORE” on the front and “Freedom Now” on the back. “Two fools with targets on our backs,” Bill would laugh. But the bravado wasn’t personal. It was tactical. Show strength. Break through that part of fear that made blacks become invisible when “The Man” demanded subservience. We had a hand-drawn map of the countyfrom a previous organizer, showing which farms were owned by whites and which were owned by blacks.
Bill was quiet and funny, but could turn tough and mean when provoked. Once, we drove to a farm owned by an old black man. Maybe he was eighty. His parents would have been slaves. When Bill spoke, the old farmer looked at him. When I talked, he looked down. “Yes suh, no suh” he’d say as I talked. “Look up!” Bill demanded. “You’re a grown man. This white boy is the boy. Then the farmer looked down as Bill talked. “Yes suh, no suh.” I had a hard time with it. I talked apologetically and offered a leaflet as Bill made for the jeep. “No point here,” Bill said.
The farms were always a long way up from the main road, up one dirt road and then onto the farm a quarter mile or so to the house. We drove up on one of those long dirt roads marked as a black farm on our map. I was driving. As we got near the house a white man with a shotgun came out. I backed that jeep down faster than I thought you could drive backwards. Bill was laughing. Another day as we set out, Bill pulled a pistol from under his seat. “What if we get caught with that,” I said. “I’d rather be caught with it than without it. No cracker going to kill me on these back roads. And when I have children, they won’t kill them either. If you can’t be with me get out of the jeep and go home.”
Self-defense meant standing shifts at night to protect the Freedom House. Not only did we live there, but also it was a gathering place for teenagers involved in the movement. We had an old farmer’s shotgun, doubled barreled. No one knew the last time it had been shot. The joke around the Freedom House was that the first one to shoot would kill himself when it blew up in his face.
The Freedom House was often a target. Drive-bys. Shots fired at the house. Firebombs. Hard to distinguish between the Klan and some of the local police. Local youth were shot at while walking to the house. Sometimes by police. The “boys” would call and say that they were coming that night. By summer 1965, when they called they got an answer. Come on then.
A few weeks later in Canton, The Klan called the Freedom House and said they said they were coming. Local teens set up barricades at the house. The second night a black kid came in yelling at me, “there’s a white guy in a car with a gun.” This was my responsibility. Not just the Freedom House, but the kids in the street.
I came out with the shotgun. A car drove slowly some twenty yards in front of me –some kind of Ford sedan maybe. The kind of car usually seen in a drive- by. But it wasn’t going fast. It moved in front of me to my right. I could see an arm hanging from the passenger window with a pistol pointing down and flat against the car door. There were two men. I don’t remember if I cocked a barrel. I don’t think I did. But I raised the shotgun and began tracking the car. Not the man, but the pistol. It drove to the end of the block, turned and came back. Slowly. I couldn’t see the pistol now, the passenger side out of view. The car stopped in front of me. The man on the driver’s side got out and stood up. As he did he called out my name. He said he was a policeman and that I was under arrest. He told me to put down the gun.
I lowered it immediately. He was up on me in a few seconds. He took the gun and cuffed me. One of the other workers -a law student from Connecticut who’d been sleeping- came out and tried to get arrested with me. They didn’t want him. I remember that tight feeling of the cuffs up from my wrists to my shoulders, wondering how long the ride to the jail would last. Street lights shone into the police car, I remember, each light moving back way past the window as the car rode the half mile to the city jail.
There were perhaps ten cops at the police station. We all knew each other by name. We had a history, after all. The cop in charge had a reputation as a moderate, someone who would go “by the book.” I looked at him and said I want my one phone call. Yes, I know it sounds like a movie, but that’s what I said. I probably only knew from the movies that I was supposed to get the call.
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