From Ed Garvey Unvarnished: Lessons from a Visionary Progressive by Rob Zaleski. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2019 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
Available for purchase here.
Zaleski: When did you start leaning left politically?
Garvey: When I joined student government at the University of Wisconsin, really, and the NSA, primarily. Everybody who was involved with the NSA was liberal—well, not everybody, but almost everybody. And it was right around that time that William F. Buckley started the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, which would attack us as communists and so forth.
I remember we had the NSA Congress in Madison in 1961, and Buckley came here to urge students to withdraw from the NSA because he said we were so far to the left we were essentially pinkos. It was also the period in history when the sit-ins were beginning in the South and you had the Freedom Ride, and there was this ferment on the campuses that civil rights was moving to the front of all other issues.
So here was William Buckley telling students to get away from the NSA because we were too far to the left, and so forth—caring not one whit about what was going on with black students either in the North or the South.
In my junior year I was elected student body president, and the sit-ins had just begun in Greensboro, North Carolina. So the student senate at the UW invited students from Fisk University, a black college in Tennessee, to take buses that we chartered to Madison to speak to our student senate about what was going on down there.
So they came here and we all sang “We Shall Overcome,” and then we all marched to the Capitol and picketed Woolworth’s, which was across the street on the Capitol Square, because the Woolworth’s down South all had segregated lunch counters.
Zaleski: Your first taste of real activism?
Garvey: Right. And when we got to the store, the people there were saying, “Why are you picketing here—why don’t you go down South and picket?” And we said, “Well, because you’re all part of the same chain and your company ought to stop discriminating.”
And just doing that and talking to these kids my age, who were participating in nonviolent protests, sitting in and being beaten up, thrown in jail, having cigarettes snuffed out on their backs, whatever, it was a life-changing event for me. Because I saw that this took enormous courage on the part of these young people who were risking their lives, really, for the right to do things that white people could do automatically.
Zaleski: Another life-changing event was going to Jackson, Mississippi, just as the civil rights movement was heating up in 1961. How did that come about?
Garvey: When I ran for president at that NSA Congress right after we graduated, civil rights was a major focus. I was elected SNC [Student Nonviolent Committee] president in August 1961, and the first SNC event I ever attended was in Jackson, Mississippi, in September 1961.
I got on the plane—alone—and flew to Jackson. And I remember the cab driver saying, “Where to?” and I gave him the address and he said, “You mean you want to go down there with those niggers?” And I said, “No, I want to go down there and meet with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.” And he said, “Yeah, the niggers.” And I thought, what do you do at this point? So I said, “Just take me.” So he drove me there, and I gave him a nickel for a tip.
Zaleski: A precursor of sorts?
Garvey: Yeah. And it was interesting because we all stayed with black families. It was just a totally different experience for me as a young twenty-one-year-old white kid going to Jackson, Mississippi. And on the second day of the SNC meetings, the police came to the door and told us that the restaurant across the street—which was owned by blacks—was no longer integrated, and that any whites who went there would be arrested.
So we discussed what we should do and again sang “We Shall Overcome,” and decided that we should go across the street, past the police dogs, and into the restaurant. I can’t remember exactly, but there must have been fifteen or twenty of us.
Zaleski: Police dogs—meaning German shepherds. Obviously a terrifying moment.
Garvey: Whoa! I’ve never been so scared in my life! I mean, we’re walking out singing, “We are not afraid,” and here are these German shepherds, teeth bared, and all these cops in riot gear, and I thought, oh my God, this is not going to be a good time. I mean, I was sure I was going to end up in jail, and I was just hoping they weren’t going to release the dogs. [Smiles.]
I’ve never liked German shepherds since—Oh Jesus, no thanks. But they didn’t release the dogs, and they didn’t arrest us. And as we sat around and talked about it later, we decided the reason was that the cops were confused and couldn’t comprehend why a white person would want to eat in a black restaurant. Because the whole point of segregation was to keep the blacks out of the white restaurants.
So we decided it was either too embarrassing for them or they weren’t organized and weren’t prepared for that. But keep in mind this was 1961—so it was still quite a long time before the stuff you saw in Mississippi Burning.
But it was a tough time, and people in the restaurant—middle-aged blacks in particular—said to us, “You know, you really shouldn’t be down here stirring things up, because we haven’t had a lynching in several months.” So their attitude was, are you sure you want to be down here? Because the white people down here are going to get pretty ticked off if you hassle them. And you had to sort of ask yourself, were we doing good or bad by being there? What was the deal?
And right after that I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which had been shut down because of civil rights activity, and the white leaders in the community said nobody should be allowed on the Louisiana State campus. Looking back now, I was just incredibly lucky. But those kinds of experience shape your life.