(Sociologist, civil rights leader, historian and author Hunter Gray, tells a good story of how he landed in Jackson, Mississippi just as the modern civil rights movement was heating up. It’s a good story! Hunter — aka Hunter Bear, Dr. John Salter — was hired in the early 1060s as a sociology professor by small, private and black Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., where he helped organize civil rights protests, in addition to teaching. Once dubbed “Mustard Man” by Jackson media, because of his participation in lunch counter action and a photograph published by the Clarion Ledger after he was assaulted with the yellow condiment, Salter was the perfect person to be in Jackson, at the time, with his uncanny ability to see what was really happening at the time. Hunter gives us an unprecedented look at this important U.S. period of civil rights history through his unique sociology lens. Ed. Susan Klopfer, author of Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.)
At left, Dr. John R. Salter, Jr., sociologist, sits at a Woolworth lunch counter during a sit-in in downtown Jackson in the early 1960s. Salter (aka Hunter Bear, Hunter Gray) was an early leader in the modern civil rights movement. He is the author of Organizer’s Book Jackson Mississippi.)
In the final days of August, 1961, Eldri and I — just married up in Superior, Wisconsin — left my family home at Flagstaff, Arizona en route to Mississippi. I had as my vehicle the 1957 Arizona champion drag strip car, a Chev Bell Air. My brother had gotten that some way, couldn’t keep up the payments, and Dad took it over. Normally, a cautious driver, the racy vehicle with surrealistic designs on its doors, did something to him. And he loved to drive it 90 mph in second gear — and 120 in high.The term was not in vogue back in those days but people, including much impressed students of his, who witnessed this would certainly have noted it in our times as “awesome”. Before long, though, he got something else and passed the Champ on to me — always a pretty sedate guy at the wheel. We were pulling a long U-Haul trailer, covered by a tarp.
The closest I’d ever been to Dixie was extreme northwest Texas and northern Oklahoma. It was clear, from central Texas onward, that it was going to be, for us anyway, an adventure: increasingly hot, humid; and vastly more Black people than I’d seen anywhere before, even in the Army. My rural Northern Arizona accent — sometimes termed “Highland South” by linguists — seemed somewhat anemic compared to those we now began to hear.
Just inside the Louisiana line, on a conventional two lane highway, we stopped at a rural gas station. The owner, who hustled over, was a rather heavy Anglo, maybe about 40. He was genial. His son, mid-teens, was sitting on a chair in front happily strumming a guitar. It was a pleasant, folksy little scene.
When he had filled our tank and I was handing him cash, he asked where we were going.
He nodded approvingly but — but then went on with one of the cruder “jokes” I’d ever heard. Smiling he said, “How in the Hell can the Kennedys get a man on the moon when they can’t get a bus load of n_____ers across Mississippi?” — a reference to the Freedom Rides which had been much in the news earlier in the summer.
Poker faced, we said nothing, collected our change, and drove on.
At about 2 a.m., with mists rising like ghosts all around us, we hit the very long bridge across the very long and wide River — pointed directly into Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the end of the bridge, armed border guards wearing wide-brimmed hats, emerged from the darkness and looked us over carefully. One pulled back the tarp on our trailer, checked the routine items inside. Another asked, “Where y’all headed?”
This was not the point to say we were going to Tougaloo, the Negro college just north of Jackson, and that we thought we might well become involved in the incipient civil rights movement in the state. Instead, pragmatically, and figuratively tossing my old Explorer Scout code into the river below, I muttered that we were going to Birmingham to see my uncle. [And I did indeed have an uncle in that city.]
They collected a one dollar toll and with a pro forma, “Welcome to Miss-sippi,” waved us into the Closed Society.
Tougaloo had promised us on-campus housing but that was filled up. They found a temporary place for us on the edge of Lamar Avenue, near all-White Millsaps College, with a Black neighborhood right across the street. But we were soon evicted from that a day after we had two Tougaloo students over for supper. The college then found us another place, on a sort of almost low-income White street, Bailey Avenue. We had Black friends over to that one but they slipped in and out at night. Early on, the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission began surveilling us, even following Eldri, who was pregnant with Maria, in a big white car with a long aerial when she walked up several blocks to a small grocery store.
Bailey Avenue saw the death one night of our Arizona Champ. It was parked on level turf, right in front of our house. We had gone to bed but, before I slipped off into sleep, I inexplicably arose, partially got dressed, and went out and put the car into neutral gear. The emergency brake was rather poor but, as I’ve noted, everything was level turf. Eldri was a little puzzled at my action, which I couldn’t quite explain, but we were soon asleep.
We were awakened in the middle of the night by a very loud crash immediately outside. Turned out that a drunk driver, coming up Bailey Avenue which was lined with parked vehicles, crashed directly into ours. If it hadn’t been in neutral, he would have been killed. My car, smashed, was up on a neighbor’s lawn. We immediately replaced it with a brand new little “robin’s egg blue” AMC Rambler. When we were at the junkyard to take a last fond look at the Champ, we were approached by a man from nearby Rankin County very closely resembling the years-later Boss Hogg of the Dukes of Hazard. He was friendly, interested in the car’s history, and I think he took the remains of the Champ for whatever purposes.
Quite soon after the Champ died, we had dinner at Tougaloo with good friends, the Zunes family. I recited the events of that night and the small family — John, Helen, and little Stephen — listened raptly. They found it all very strange. But actually Eldri and I did not.
Soon thereafter, we moved on-campus.
The Blue Rambler itself died in a famous wreck — a few days after Martin King and some of his advisers had ridden in it — on June 18, 1963, on Hanging Moss Road on the north edge of Jackson. It was totaled. I was severely injured and almost killed, as was my colleague, Ed King.
Much happened with us and everyone and everything else in the six years we spent in Dixie — years forever contained deeply and pervasively within us. Two of our four children were born there; and, almost twenty years later, in early January, 1981, our oldest son, John, was with me when we left the Navajo reservation in our big yellow Chev pickup — with McKinley County, New Mexico plates — for Jackson. There I was scheduled to do a very extensive oral history interview with Jon Jones of the State Department of Archives and History. Normally, when coming from the west, we went to the Magnolia State by way of Oklahoma City and Memphis but this time we were taking the original trail that Eldri and I had followed so long before. The conventional two lane had been replaced ages ago by an Interstate.
Just inside the Louisiana line, I glimpsed, through a few trees, a service station on the old, original road and pulled into it. It didn’t quite register until we were right close — and I realized it was the same station of long, long ago. It was a little more worn, as was the very same owner, who came, a little more slowly than before, to us. His son and the guitar were obviously long gone.
The man was initially not genial, but rather cold. John, closest to him, was 15 and we had a big feather hanging conspicuously from the inside mirror bracket. I don’t think he really saw me that well or, at that point, noted my 45/70 Marlin lever action rifle in the cab’s gun rack. (I only have very traditional firearms.) It occurred to me that he might think we were Hippies — not always popular in the rural grassroots anywhere in those days. He went to the back of our vehicle to fill it — but there he had to see our bumper sticker, “MICMAC INDIANS TRAVEL MORE.”
When he returned, this time to my window, he was extremely cordial. And he asked, as he had almost twenty years before, where were we headed.
And, as per the old script, I said, “Jackson.”
But there was no joke — not this time, not now.
I gave him a friendly, cursory wave and, smiling, he reciprocated. John and I drove on.
There were no guards on the Mississippi end of the long bridge.
Hunter Gray [Hunter Bear]
HUNTER GRAY [HUNTER BEAR/JOHN R SALTER JR] Mi’kmaq /St. Francis
Abenaki/St. Regis Mohawk
Protected by Na´shdo´i´ba´i´
Member, National Writers Union AFL-CIO
(much social justice material)