Cracking A Closed Society

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Hunter Gray

INCREASINGLY AND FINALLY, concerns are being vigorously raised, from many global points and — however slowly — from within the United States itself, about the treatment of the obvious prisoners of war held by the United States at Guantanamo.

Further, those concerns are also enveloping the many hundreds of persons illegally held by the U.S. government within the United States itself.

There’s a place and a time that I’ll always remember. Its government — executive, legislative, judicial, and its local subdivisions — was an almost total complex “of one mind” in its determination to maintain its status quo.

That included the undermining and the destruction of due process, and the perversion of the judicial system, and the stifling of dissent by virtually any means possible — even though its Constitution pledged full civil liberty for all. Increasingly, it used various devices of many nefarious kinds to keep a large portion of its populace powerless.

Virtually all of its media — newspapers, radio, television — supported, via selective [omission/commission] reporting and by manipulated interpretation, the government and the status quo. Its official educational system at all levels propounded its orthodoxy, punished questioning students, and fired dissenting educators.

And when much graft and corruption regularly surfaced, they were immediately covered and cloaked by patriotic oratory and frenetically renewed attention to internal and external threats.

As challenges came and mounted, this System became ever more hysterical, adamant, repressive. It developed a formal state secret police agency with wire-tapping and mail tampering and informers.

It built up huge armies of lawmen and volunteers. Its flag and comparable variants were widely and ostentatiously displayed in public. Economic reprisals, forced exile, judicial frameups and murder became more and more common.

Polls were often conducted by quasi-governmental authorities which — well, what do you know! — found that virtually everyone supported the government and its policies on every single point.

And it was a System that consistently made much money — lots and lots and lots of dinero — for a very few.

Breaking Down the System

This System was called Mississippi. When Professor James W. Silver, History, Ole Miss, wrote a great and revealing book about it and called it a Closed Society, he was forced out of the state he’d lived and worked in for many decades. (Mississippi: The Closed Society, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964 and 1966.)

As History certainly knows, Mississippi’s system — and all of the other very akin great big pieces of Dixie (the Magnolia State was certainly far from alone) — were challenged with ever increasing effectiveness by the movement: local and mostly Black people, and outside agitators spanning a variety of ethnicities.

Those challenges went determinedly right into the very Pits of Hell.

I was Advisor to the Jackson Youth Council of NAACP, a member of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi State Conference of NAACP Branches, and Chair of the Strategy Committee of the Jackson Movement. I’m very well versed in what I’m saying — and I’ve written much about it (Jackson, Mississippi: An American Chronicle of Struggle and Schism, Krieger, 1979 and 1987.)

In Mississippi’s hate-filled capital, our carefully organized grassroots Jackson Movement climaxed with intensive and increasingly large non-violent demonstrations in May and June, 1963: pickets, sit-ins, massive marches numbering into the many hundreds.

The System marshaled and used their all-White forces brutally to the hilt. Jackson’s more than 600 police and its 1,000 member police auxiliary — this in a city of 140,000, roughly half-Black, half-White — sheriffs and deputies from every one of the state’s eighty-two counties; almost the entire state highway patrol; hundreds of constables and volunteers — and eventually, via the Governor, the Mississippi National Guard. In addition, huge numbers of armed Klan-types poured into Jackson.

And the FBI was certainly very much an enemy of ours. The Kennedys were not friends.

The very large Mississippi State Fairgrounds on the edge of Jackson was converted into a huge concentration camp. Our demonstrators were all met by swift arrest and frequent brutality, and most were loaded onto garbage trucks and dumped into that Fairgrounds Concentration Camp.

There, they were often forced to stand in the hot Mississippi sun for hours, sometimes leaning against the walls of buildings. Food was often thrown on the ground and they were told, “Eat, dogs, eat.”

Police sometimes urinated in the drinking water buckets. Physical brutality was commonplace. Medical assistance was nil.

Through the almost completely captive media of Mississippi, the White population was told the demonstrators were Communist-inspired and that their leaders were Reds and Race-Mixers bent on destroying the “Mississippi Way of Life” — which was held to be the basic cornerstone of the “American Way of Life.”

Rumors of a probable attack upon Mississippi by Cuba were hysterically featured in some papers.

And through this almost completely pliant Magnolia media, the White population was told again and again that the demonstrators were relatively few in number (before it was over, there were thousands) and that they were being arrested by the authorities in a consistently non-violent and humane fashion.

The World Outside the Gulag

When stories of hideous treatment at the Fairgrounds Concentration Camp began to slowly surface, the obliging state-oriented media spoke reassuringly of good meals and beds and supervised recreation for the youth. Mississippi lawmen at the Concentration Camp were featured as kindly volunteer scout master types.

Our Jackson Movement continued right along — through one wave after another of bloody repression.

Fortunately, there was a world outside the Closed Society and all its Dixie kin: much of the United States and much of the World — with fairly honest media on these issues. The truth, with whatever difficulty, began to emerge and continued to do so with ever increasing coverage and accuracy and vigor.

Outside national and international pressure weighed in on the side of the Movement — our Movement and the other Movements that made up the great, overall Freedom Movement.

Jackson cracked — as other Dixie situations had cracked before it and as many others eventually would. And across the South, there were many positive victories: the hard-lines of resistance to social change were broken.

There was the achievement of the right to organize and dissent and the development of widespread local leadership. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 emerged. The beginnings of widespread desegregation and some integration began and continued. Widespread Black political participation and activism became a major and vital force.

There was an end to most open terrorism. A basis was created for interracial and democratic unionism.

But, of course, the Dixie System is — as it always really was — integrally plugged into the National System and the World System. The few at all levels still make much, much money — lots and lots and lots of dinero — and many bad things are happening, more and more of them, all over the world.

Old and New Struggles

So we still have a very long way to go on all fronts. But when I look at the many, many profoundly negative things that are now going on in this country — sometimes dramatically and often with quiet cunning, and frequently wrapped up in “Security” and “Our Way of Life” — and the very sinister global schemes and situations in which this country has its hands, I often think of Old Mississippi and the other comparable sections of Dixie.

When I hear about people being rounded up in violation of the Constitution and spuriously jailed “under color of law,” I am one of a great many who have been there and experienced it all before.

When I hear of a prison camp with hideous situations — and governmental authorities who, with cold and calculated and perverted alchemy, glowingly depict conditions that are “open” and “warm” and “sunny” and “humane” — well, I know much of that as well.

This country is still somewhat open for sure, and its very bigness assures always some diversity and pluralism. And some constructive dissent is certainly growing — with whatever very deliberate speed.

This isn’t Old Mississippi or Old Dixie. Not quite.

But it’s getting very close to that. And I for one am mighty damn glad that a good part of the Whole Wide World is now beginning to look in and at and around the United States of America.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)