An Activist Remembers Her Civil Rights Journey

By | Aug 05, 2015
History, Memoir

by Marione Ingram

For a Jewish girl from Europe in the 1950s, New York City was not the big apple but a fabulously delicious confection—an edible Fabergé egg—created especially for me. I was completely free and on my own for the first time and enjoyed what I and other aspiring artists considered to be the best job in town—working in the film library at the Museum of Modern Art, where I got to meet rising stars of the avant-garde and assist such greats as Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Renoir, and Greta Garbo. Even better, I was living in the heart of Greenwich Village with Daniel, the love of my life. There was, however, a terrible shadow hanging over me.

I wanted readers to see and feel what it was like to be a child subjected to intensive bombing.

During my childhood in Nazi Germany, my grandmother had been pulled from my arms and deported with other relatives to a killing site. When my mother later received our deportation order, she attempted suicide in a desperate attempt to save her children. A few days after she recovered, we were at ground zero and denied access to bomb shelters during what military historians now say was “the worst single bombing raid of the European war and the greatest man-made firestorm the world has ever seen.” Presumed to be among the tens of thousands of mothers and children killed during the firebombing of Hamburg—code-named Operation Gomorrah—we were able to go into hiding until war’s end. But defeat didn’t improve Aryan attitudes toward the few surviving Jews, and for seven years I endured postwar German anti-Semitism, growing angrier by the day.

So even on rapturous days in New York, I was haunted by the past, and a siren, loud noise or any talk of war might trigger an acute attack of what we now call PTSD. I tried to tame my inner demons by writing about them at a table reserved for me at Caffe Reggio, around the corner from where Daniel and I lived on Minetta Lane. And that seemed to help. But it also heightened my awareness that black New Yorkers were confined to the Harlem ghetto and denied jobs and opportunities available to an untrained alien like me. Predictably, my attempts to challenge discrimination were unsuccessful. Worse, the notorious Emmett Till case demonstrated that a black child in Mississippi could be killed with impunity if he so much as winked at a white woman.

Washington, DC, seemed like another foreign country when Daniel and I moved there in 1960. Blacks were in the majority but no one could vote and Southern-style racial discrimination was the rule. I put my unfinished manuscript aside and plunged into the local civil rights movement. As members of the DC Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Daniel and I protested blatant discrimination in employment, housing, education, and most essential services. I also worked for the 1963 March on Washington and protested on the boardwalk of Atlantic City to seat Mississippi Freedom Party delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. At the urging of civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer, I then went to Mississippi to register black voters and teach in a Freedom School. The murderers of three rights activists were still at large when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of my school. In response, I painted FREEDOM on the charred crossbar and kept on working until I was arrested and convicted of trumped-up charges and forced to leave the state.

Throughout the turbulent sixties and seventies and into the eighties Daniel and I continued to participate in nonviolent protests against racism, war, gender inequality, poverty, and related injustices. After a dozen delightful years in “undiscovered” parts of Italy, I returned to my unfinished manuscript, not to tame personal demons but to discourage war and genocide. In Operation Gomorrah, which was first published in Granta and later in The Best American Essays and a Russian literary quarterly, I wanted readers to see and feel what it was like to be a child subjected to intensive bombing. I expanded on that experience in The Hands of War, a memoir chronicling a child’s experience of genocide within a war in which killing became the primary if not exclusive objective of both sides. To me, armed conflict inevitably involves injuring or killing children, by using them as combatants and by viewing them as “collateral damage.” My fervent hope is that enough people eventually will agree to make injuring children a war crime swiftly prosecuted by international law.

The fate of children is also at the heart of The Hands of Peace, A Holocaust Survivor’s Fight for Civil Rights in the American South. Fannie Lou Hamer persuaded me to go to Mississippi in 1964 by telling me, “It’s all about the children.” And when I went back fifty years later I was told the children will lead the way. The gains won in the sixties had changed the political landscape almost as much as Katrina had altered the physical layout. An African-American woman who had attended my freedom school had been elected mayor of Moss Point, the small town in which I had lived with an African-American family. But those gains were under renewed attack because of a recent Supreme Court decision gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The main objective of the civil rights movement in the summer and autumn of 1964 had been to challenge the restrictions on voting rights in Mississippi and other Southern states. After the election of Lyndon Johnson, the focus of attack shifted from Mississippi to Selma, Alabama, where voting-rights marchers were brutally clubbed and trampled by horses. After a week of massive protests, during which I was arrested in front of the White House, Johnson proposed the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of congress. When he closed his address with the words “and we shall overcome,” Daniel and I went outside to see if a flight of angels had landed on the Capitol dome. The Hands of Peace celebrates the countless acts of nonviolent defiance that produced that Act, and is dedicated to “the women of Mississippi who fought for and are still fighting for their rights.” I hope it encourages others to join them.

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