Interview with Peter Orris
QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

[overlap] UH, WHAT I'M TRYING TO GET AT IS BOB AND UH, UNITA AND OTHER PEOPLE HAVE TOLD US STORIES ABOUT, WELL FIRST OF ALL BOB WE INTERVIEWED JUST EARLIER TODAY THE WHOLE STRATEGY OF INTEGRATING THE BLACK[overlap] OKAY, WHAT I'M TRYING TO GET AT IS JUST HOW YOU AND, AND OTHER VOLUNTEERS WERE TRYING TO BREAK DOWN SOME OF THESE BARRIERS THAT HAD BEEN THERE FROM, FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS.

Peter Orris:

In, when we were doing voter registration uh, and would come to a new farm house uh, there were, there was an unwritten agenda that had to be gotten through before one could even discuss the uh, the rudiments of how do you register to vote - because of the fear, because of the terrorism that had been produced by the Klan and the power structure in these areas uh, these individual farmers um, and their families, were very worried about voter registration. Um, they understood well how to protect themselves on their own land uh, or in their own homes, or they, they could not fully protect themselves on their own land and their own homes, but they had an area that they at least stood a better chance at protecting themselves and their family uh, than if they ventured out into the political domain of, of uh, being involved in voter registration. So um, and additionally, because there was safety uh, in these black communities in the, in the rural farming black communities uh, many family members never ventured out for any kind of interaction uh, with the whites in Mississippi - uh, purely, maybe interaction in a store or something of that sort, and then retreat to, to the safety of the black community. We felt that, as, as uh, uh, volunteers there - we, we did not breathe easily until we were back in the relative safety of the black farming communities, in Mileston for instance. Uh, so when we'd go to a new farmer's house uh, the first problem was that uh, we were white uh, northern um, and of uh… there on, on, on a mission so to speak - all of those things uh, uh, were fraught with dangers for the uh, people that we were talking to. And the initial response that we would get would be uh, frequently uh, you… you'd come there, and the first thing was - people would be sitting down and you would say hello and you'd shake their hands. Now that was an usual thing for a white person to do to a black person in Mississippi at that time. The next thing was that, that uh, you would avoid a situation in which you were standing over and talking down to people… a frequent kind of a situation, a, a body message about the uh, power relationship there. So we would always sit down, we'd sit on the, the steps, walking up to the porch. Um, and uh, either be on an equal eye level or uh, on a, on a lower level. We were much younger than many of the people we were speaking to and uh, it was necessary to establish a relationship or an understanding of the respect that we paid to them for their age and for their situation and… uh, in this setting. Because that unwritten agenda of having to establish that relationship of equality and our respect for them which was so contradictory to what they got from whites uh, in Mississippi on a routine basis uh, that that was the first difficult thing to get, to get over in these discussions. Frequently, people would respond by not looking us in the eye uh, at the end of every phrase there would be a ma'am or a sir uh, depending on, on who was there. Uh, and they would say yes to everything we said. We'd say - would you like to uh, be involved in the voter registration project? Will you go down to vote? Yes, sir. Um, and we knew we were not getting across, we knew they were just waiting for us to go away because we were a danger to them, and in many ways we were. Uh, we had much less to risk than they did. This was their lives, their land, their family uh, and they were going to be here uh, when we were gone** uh, so that, uh.