The Fight for the Right to Vote
Todd London: Let’s talk about Down in Mississippi. In the play, three college students—a black man, a white woman and a white man—travel to the dangerous world of Mississippi in 1964 to register Negro voters. Along the way, they discover that before they can change the world, they have to change themselves. It’s really meaningful to reengage with that historical moment, especially now. I want to start by asking pre-genesis questions about it.
In the first speech, Jimmy, a Black Freedom Summer volunteer from the north, talks about two events that catalyzed his thinking about coming south and working in Freedom Summer with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—one being Emmett Till’s murder, and the other being a young girl integrating New Orleans schools, which I take to be Ruby Bridges. He doesn’t name her, I think.
It made me wonder, where was Carlyle in ‘64? Is there some of you in that thinking? Or is that a historical moment? What was going on for you in 1964?
Carlyle Brown: Yeah, that was certainly a moment that I lived in. Down in Mississippi is a celebration of a movement that gave birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I’m thinking in January 1964, I had a track scholarship to Kentucky State College. The reason that I was there, that’s a whole other story. But I had a track scholarship there.
In 1964, there were always conversations in the home of my grandfather, who was a Garveyite. He even had a ticket on the Black Star Line. He was my step-grandfather, and his son was a Black Muslim. I thought that all Black people had that conversation in their homes: what are we going to do? How do we live in this situation?
Todd: So there wasn’t a moment of awakening to the south? You were in New York?
Carlyle: Yeah, I lived in New York. That was a constant, but I would say that 1964 was critically different. The thing that I was near to, going to Kentucky State College, was Selma. It was a Black college, and people were recruiting buses, and activists were everywhere getting people to go to Selma.
I was on a track scholarship, and I was going to get on one of those buses. My coach, Coach Taylor, got on the bus and said, “We didn’t pay you here to do that.” I look back on that as thinking I didn’t really have enough really consciousness at that time to say, “Well, fuck you.” But that was certainly to come.
I wasn’t really there-there enough to be involved in that Mississippi Freedom Summer. But that was in everybody’s consciousness as well. ‘64 was really critical in so many ways in terms of the Civil Rights Movement.
Todd: You were the age of the characters in the play, because they’re all in college at that moment.
Todd: Was that the first time you were going to live in the South, to go to Kentucky State?
Carlyle: Yeah. Well, my family was from South Carolina, and when I arrived in New York City, I was five years old. Somewhere around when I was maybe ten years old, they went back to the South. That’s again, a whole other story about the conflicting connections of people in the South who leave to go north and what that does to their relationships to what they consider home.
I existed in that generation, which is large. That particular migration, where people are really conflicted about the choice they made. About where they lived. It sucked, but that was their home. Now, they were in exile.
It’s domestic. Some people don’t look at it that way, but I feel that’s the conversations my family, that’s the way they spoke. As I look back, that’s not really something I was aware of at the time. But as I look back, I think that these were people in exiles having conversations about how do they exist in this new territory, which is not explicitly racist, but ambiguously racist? How do they adjust?
Todd: Right. I know you’ve written in other contexts about the difference between Southern racism and Northern racism, about that incredible second act of Pure Confidence, where suddenly we’re in Saratoga Springs. But we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about Down in Mississippi.
Okay, fast forward to 2008, when you’re working on the play. What kicks off the writing of this play?
Carlyle: It was a commission for the theatre department of Miami University of Ohio and their Center for American and World Cultures. Miami University of Ohio is in Oxford, Ohio, and encompassed now in Miami University of Ohio is a women’s college called Western College.
It was at Western College that the volunteers for the Freedom Summer project would train to go down to Mississippi to start registering voters. That’s where they did nonviolent training, and that’s where the dramatic episode—of course the three Civil Rights workers that were murdered, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman—were there then at the beginning of that summer.
All their trainees had been there. All the volunteers that were there, all the white volunteers were there, and they were learning about voter registration, doing things they could do. There were freedom schools, and of course there was the Free Southern Theater. There were lots of things.
The way the movement was then, the way that people organized the movement was, everybody is not going to be a revolutionary or Che Guevara. But there was a structure that you could do whatever you could do. All you have to do was show up. If you said, “I don’t want to do that nonviolent thing,” then they would find something for you to do.
But as I look back, I think that these were people in exiles having conversations about how do they exist in this new territory, which is not explicitly racist, but ambiguously racist? How do they adjust?
Todd: You could organize. You could go and sign people up to vote. You could join the Free Southern Theater and go through the countryside—
Carlyle: Yeah, it was a way to organize people around their ambitions. There were really no distinctions of what contribution had value. The workshop was about sorting out those kinds of things and getting ready to go down to Mississippi.
While that training was going on in Meridian, Mississippi, a church was firebombed about people that were involved in registering. Forgive me if I don’t remember the exact context of why, but these three brothers, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, they went down to investigate. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do, but they went down to check it out.
Todd: Chaney was African-American and Goodman and Schwerner were white.
Carlyle: Right, they were white yeah. Suddenly no one heard from them, and they were anxiety. I reemphasize, they were getting ready to go down there.
It needs to be prefaced, with the idea of having all these white volunteers: it was run by SNCC to get the country to pay attention to the plight of Black people in the south. Particularly around voting, and particularly around Mississippi, if they recruited these white volunteers to go down and do that and face these dangers, then the nation would pay attention.
The guys didn’t disappear. The burnt car was found and then eventually the bodies. This came when it was really maybe a few days, no more than a week, before they had planned to get on the buses and go down to Neshoba County. This whole thing to get the country to pay attention… that became a horrible reality.
Then at the time, the workers went like, “Oh shit. We can get killed. This is real.” The whole thing then was to ask people, do they still want to go?
Todd: Right. There’s a local story too with Oxford, Ohio, with the university there, that you are helping them understand their place in that precise moment, as the Northern world is thinking, “Maybe if white people go down there and participate, it will draw attention in a way that nobody’s been paying attention for the last nine years or the last ninety years.” Then white America waking up to the fact that there are real consequences of this.
Anything else about the writing? Anything you learned in that process with the students from 2008 as you were doing it?
Carlyle: Well, the story was really right there. It was there through my own experience. I was trying to amplify these events. What helped was what I knew about the sweep of African American history and my own involvement in that. When the part of the story that just I said got clarified to me, I said, “Oh my God.” In that room where they decided whether we’re going to go or not, the oldest person in that room was maybe twenty-five.
Todd: Right, the senior member.
Carlyle: The senior member, the elder in that room, was probably twenty-five. They’re going to college, and they’re basically kids. If they weren’t doing this, they’d be trying to figure out who they’re going to screw, or where they were going to go out.
They’re naive, not-having-a-clue kids who, both black and white, have probably never had any meaningful interactions with each other. And then they’re going to share this thing, this extremely dangerous catastrophic thing. You go, “Wow.” There’s a lot of juice in there and more that you can’t really tell.
There’s a book, which was very important to me, called Letters From Mississippi. It’s letters that mostly the white kids wrote to their parents.
Todd: I’ve seen some of those. Wow. You were reading that at the time when you were writing the play?
Carlyle: Yeah, of course.
Todd: But that raises a really interesting question. You capture that experience right at the top of the play with this mock training, with John play acting or role playing the role of a killer redneck to Jimmy. We don’t know at first that they’re role playing.
Todd: But it really struck me thinking about this play this time that two of the three characters are white, mirroring Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. There’s a way in which it reads, at least to me as a white man, as a learning play. Jimmy is on a journey that will lead to his death, but these two white characters learn literally over his dead body. Ellen decides to go in one way, and John decides to go in another.
This context of being at that school, the women’s college within Miami, was there something you were trying to bring the white students into?
Carlyle: It was much more a practical thing in terms of shaping a play in the face of this catastrophic event because the women’s college is now encompassed in Miami University of Ohio, which is in Oxford, Ohio, a very conservative place. I wouldn’t say it’s an Ivy League school, but it’s a very white school.
The theatre department and the Center for American and World Cultures, being very progressive, wanted to do this. They’ve even had reunions, which have been very interesting, of the volunteers and the SNCC workers from that moment. They wanted to do this play about that.
I’ve worked a little bit in the museum world. This whole idea of constructing stories in space with objects that have meaning for us in terms of historical events. They wanted me to stay there a semester and do that with two professors to create an exhibit. The whole thing was very active and looked at that history, which they embraced.
But the reality of the environment is there’s not a lot of equity. It’s not really integrated. The long and the short of it was there was no black student who would be in this play. They didn’t have any black students in there in their class.
Todd: Did you have to play Jimmy?
The story was really right there. It was there through my own experience. I was trying to amplify these events.
Carlyle: Yeah, I played Jimmy. Right, yeah. Just the notion of having three characters was a way to deal with, which was really a lack of equity, for whatever reason at—
Carlyle: But that was available. It could’ve been populated with black people ... I don’t know what my thinking was at the time. Maybe there would be more black characters with more agency. But my palette was these three people. That was something that was a can-do proposition. Then, reading those letters from Mississippi... Outlining Jimmy’s character: right in the first monologue, Jimmy says what he wants to be. He wants to be like that little girl. He wants to be able to master himself as a person. Now, the white people, John and Ellen, they don’t really know in the beginning. They learn what they want, but they start off not really having a clue. John has some experience, but he doesn’t really have as much self-awareness as he wants.
Todd: Yeah. It’s a little bit of role-playing for them.
Carlyle: Well, it’s different. I had direct contact with Freedom Summer when I was a student at NYU. That was after this moment. Those white students that went down to Mississippi, at the end of that year, in that November was a democratic convention in Atlantic City. What resulted from that Freedom Summer was not only did they get a lot of people to register to vote, but they had a Black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They went to the convention in Atlantic City, and they wanted to have seats.
Todd: Along with Fannie Lou Hamer, who you talk about in the play as well, right? She’s there as well.
Carlyle: Right, that sharecropper. Johnson, whatever his thing was, he could not win the election without the Dixiecrats. They pulled one of these political deals, which really destroyed all these young people who had risked their lives doing this really idealistic thing.
Of course the Black people were very angry, and the multicultural unity of that moment was destroyed in that convention. The Black people said, “You can’t trust white people for anything. Fuck them. Even you guys who got beat and thrown in jail with us, even y’all. We’re Black Power”.
It was at that convention that Black Power was born. When I transferred from Kentucky State and went to NYU-
Todd: Was that Stokley Carmichael? Was he part of that Mississippi freedom delegation?
Carlyle: Yeah. Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. They were SNCC. That whole political strategy… before ‘64, they had done a mock registration drive in Mississippi before. They were a sophisticated political organization, so they knew they could do it. But registering was the problem, getting in that door at the courthouse. They decided, “Well, maybe they won’t beat us so bad if there are white people down there with us. Maybe people will pay attention that this outrage is happening.”
Todd: Those events are so powerful and clear, and yet we’re in another moment now that has a whole different kind of power and clarity, and that is much more implicating of the north as well. You’re in Minneapolis I know, and we spoke in the weeks after George Floyd’s murder. Listening to the play now, how does it differ? What’s it bringing up for you?
I want to say one little thing that it brings up for me. I didn’t know the background of the writing of the play at the college, but I felt there is this learning aspect. There’s that thing that we talk about a lot now, which is the additional burden that marginalized and oppressed people have to train their oppressors, or to teach the white people. I was thinking about that in a way I don’t think I would have in 2008—how much this feels like it’s about Ellen’s learning and John’s learning, even as it’s about Jimmy’s awakening. That feels like a burden I wouldn’t want you to have to assume if you were writing a play today. But I wonder what feels different or the same to you hearing the play now?
Carlyle: Well, I wanted to do the play introducing me to the Illusion’s constituency as a Mellon writer. It was simply that the play resonates today. What’s said, there’s nothing different about it, that it’s the same. It’s a continuity.
I think a lot of my work tries to point that out. The methods change, and the illusions change. It’s not different. It’s always, “I thought he had a gun.” There’s no new excuse or whatever. Now we can see, maybe even white people can see, how abusive it is.
All the decisions and calculations that are made by the pundits and stuff like that are really predicated on trying to persuade the body public of white people to be more humane than they actually are.
Jimmy is out of the play because Jimmy knew where he was going from the beginning. Maybe he reached it when he died. But like he says in that scene, it isn’t about them. Even though black people appeal to white people assuming or whatever, that’s because it’s what we have to do. White people like to think it’s about them. But we could really do without that shit.
Todd: Yeah. You’ve done this one reading of the play now? Is there future for it?
Carlyle: I think you can click on it. This is doing our bit for what’s happening up. We want people to—
Todd: It’s a great moment for it, to do it before the election.
It’s always, “I thought he had a gun.” There’s no new excuse or whatever. Now we can see, maybe even white people can see, how abusive it is.
Carlyle: We want people to encourage, like, everybody, to vote. Do whatever you have to do. Go as far as you have to go. Wait as long as you have to wait. Whatever. Vote. That’s it.
Todd: That’s what it was in ‘64. That’s what it is today.
Carlyle: That’s what it is now. Exactly.
Todd: Hopefully the numbers have swollen, against your statement just now that I’m still digesting, about how it really is the same.
Carlyle: Well, there is something that’s different. There is something different about it.
Todd: What’s that?
Carlyle: To my mind, there have been three significant multicultural movements towards American democracy. That is, the abolitionist movement. Then there’s the Civil Rights Movement, something that occurred over not a long period of time, and not really a lot of people actively engaged.
Todd: Right. We’re talking about fourteen, fifteen years, right?
Carlyle: Right, less. Now, with the murder of George Floyd, it is suddenly massively different. The number of people is massively different. I think it’s hope. I think there’s a lot of hope.
Todd: Yeah. A lot of Black Lives Matter following on George Floyd’s killing.
Carlyle: There have been a tremendous number of people who are not people of color who have been putting their bodies on the line to do what’s right. That is significantly different. The rest of the narrative is the same, but that is significantly different. I believe in it. I have faith.
Todd: I’m glad to hear it. I certainly do too. I think I’m still recovering, and I’m reading other people recovering from, the “stand back and stand by” statement by the President speaking to the white supremacist Proud Boys just two nights ago. The power of that, the rallying to stand up against that.
I read what I thought was a really great suggestion this morning. I’m going to say it from myself. I know we’re not in proselytizing mode. But Aaron Landsman, a playwright and artist, posted about writing senators and congressmen to invite international peacekeepers to oversee the vote here, which I think is a brilliant idea.
Another thing that was so resonant to me about Down in Mississippi, and about that moment, is that the fucking government would not provide backup. The FBI was taking names, was working against the peace movement, and the government would not send backup until it got so bad. The government now is in charge of the backup, but they don’t want to back up the people. They want to back up the Proud Boys. How do we get the help that we need? Where does it come from to make sure that we have fair elections?
Carlyle: I think the light switch has come on. Just as you said before, the mechanism for this oppression was always there. The murder of George Floyd and COVID revealed that it was always there. It’s not like, “Well, the system is broken.” It’s not broken. It works exactly as it was meant to do. Reform and dismantling means something entirely different.
It’s really curious now to a lot of Black people coming from that period because the FBI is such a model of freedom and justice, when some of us believe that the FBI was created to surveil the other. We have to win this fight, and then we have to really get deep, deep, deep down into where we’re coming from to find out what it is we really want.
We have to win this fight, because this is just a beginning. It is a long journey to come. Some of us feel differently because we’ve been on that trail a while and we feel differently about it. Given what’s going on, I have faith.