I recently read of the death of a Mississippi civil rights pioneer named Cleveland Donald, and a flood of old memories reminded me, after all these years, of my classmate at Ole Miss in the Fall of 1964.
Cleve and I arrived at the University at the same time, albeit by somewhat different routes. I was an average middle-class somewhat privileged white fraternity boy, whose parents had both attended Ole Miss during and after World War II (so this was actually my second time to matriculate there; the first time I was in a baby stroller).
While I was not unaware of or immune to the waves of change that were washing over my home state, having just lived through “Freedom Summer” in my hometown of Hattiesburg, I had not been directly involved or directly effected by “the movement” at that time.
No doubt Cleve Donald was well trained for what he was about to do and was protected by U. S. Marshals wherever he went.
So, there we were, Cleve and I, about to attend our first class together, Geology 101, meeting in historic Ventress Hall, that beautiful little Victorian castle sitting in The Grove. Cleve was a nice looking, well groomed young guy who, it goes without saying, stayed pretty much to himself in the beginning (kind of hard to make friends with U. S. Marshals at your elbow).
That first day nobody knew what to expect. Few, if any, of us ( Cleve or the rest of us) had ever been to school with a member of the other’s race. And of course things were still very edgy at Ole Miss after the terrible trauma of James Meredith’s admission just two years before. And while the great majority of students were just there to go to school, and didn’t have much of an ax to grind in the great socio-political-legal drama that had been thrust upon Ole Miss without its consent, there were a few of those die-hard types in the classroom that day who still wanted to have a say in the matter.
Fortunately, also present that day was kindly old Dr. Douglas, the Chairman of the Geology Department, who was as much a gentleman as he was a scholar. He was rarely known to raise his voice. Didn’t need to; his presence said it all.
The Marshals would hold Cleve out in the hall until everyone else was seated, and then bring him in (just heightening the drama, of course). That first morning Cleve was brought in and a few of those I mentioned started hissing in the back of the room. The rest of us wondered what would happen next, but we didn’t have to wonder long. The kindly old professor immediately stated loudly and firmly that we were all Ladies and Gentlemen (giving us the benefit of considerable doubt at that moment), and that nothing like that would be tolerated in his classroom. And that was the end of that—no more disturbance.
However, when the bell rang and we all got up to leave, some of the same ones that had hissed earlier shot some verbal insults at Cleve as he left to meet his Marshals. And his reaction surprised me. He seemed genuinely stung or hurt by the slurs which, again, surprised me. I thought that a handpicked veteran of civil rights work would have already seen and heard enough of that to not let it bother him; that he would simply consider the source and let it roll off. But no, he actually seemed hurt or offended by it, and I have obviously never forgotten the look on his face that day forty-eight years ago, as he surreptitiously offered the offenders his middle finger. At that moment, he seemed a vulnerable young player in one of the great dramas of our time.
Cleve and I were History and Political Science majors, and had a number of classes together. And it must be said that things improved markedly for Cleve (and the rest of us) after that first day in Geology class. He stayed at Ole Miss (James Meredith had graduated after only a year), which led to a very memorable Political Science field trip to Washington, D. C. during, of all times, the great “Blizzard of ’66”.
The Blizzard of ’66
Led by our popular Indian political science professor, Dr. Bagat, our little group, including Cleve, took the train from Mississippi to Washington in January, 1966. Between Cleve, Dr. Bagat, and other ethnic types, we were decades ahead in our diversity (a term rarely used at the time), and looked like a delegation of the United Nations in those days.
As we traveled northeast, the weather, specifically the snow, got steadily worse until trains were about the only things moving. As we traveled through Virginia, it was clear that the train had become a very popular mode of transport (perhaps the only mode), and every stop produced more and more passengers—all trying to get to Washington. When we stopped at Staunton, Va., a bunch of seriously cute girls from Mary Baldwin got on, their exclusive girls school having let out due to the storm.
The girls brought with them the traveling troubadours who had performed at their school the night before, namely The Kingston Trio, a popular folk group in the 1960’s, and Godfrey Cambridge, a well known black comedian of the day.
As the girls and the entertainers began to mix with each other, and with our Ole Miss group, and with the normal passengers, a strange and loopy alchemy began to develop — a sort of shipwrecked or marooned mentality. Beer appeared from somewhere and, pretty soon, the Trio’s instruments were up and running. To complete the scene, the imminent Mr. Cambridge, who had recently appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine in, of all things, a pink satin Klan outfit, complete with hood (I remembered seeing the issue), of course had to break it out as well.
Once Godfrey was properly attired, it seemed the appropriate time to tell him that we had with us the second black student at Ole Miss, which he did not believe. So, nothing would do but to produce Cleve, which we did with great fanfare. Most impressed, Godfrey hugged and wrapped Cleve in his Klan outfit, exclaiming, “Come here, you token baby!” We all loved it, especially Cleve. I never saw him happier.
And so the Magical Mystery Train wound on through the Northern Virginia blizzard, with proper young ladies “gatoring” down its aisles until, at some point, it finally entered the District of Columbia. The last of the college girls I saw detraining was wearing a conductor’s hat. I didn’t ask.
The next morning it was at last time to do what we had come there to do, interview Washington luminaries of the day. Dr. Bagat, or someone, had done a great job of lining up potential subjects of interrogation. And even the storm had cooperated, since many who would probably have ducked out on us were now trapped in the city with us, like fish in a barrel!
To say that Bobby Kennedy was somewhat less than overjoyed to see us, even with Cleve, is probably an understatement. I don’t know whether a group from Ole Miss brought back uncomfortable memories for him (as well it could), or whether he would just rather have been doing something else that otherwise beautiful morning (also a distinct possibility). After all, his nearby trophy table prominently displayed a dented U. S. Marshal’s helmet from Ole Miss, and he may have been unsure as to exactly how we felt about all that. I suspect that we were unsure as to exactly how we felt about all that. At any rate, I found him cool, stiff, and pretty uncommunicative. We tried to loosen him up a little, but he would have none of it. He was quite obviously doing the time he had agreed to do, and nothing more.
Mr. Justice Brennan was a bit warmer, but gave you the distinct feeling that he suffered fools poorly (and that we were probably fools). Any time he really didn’t want to get into something, he would just say, “I’ll leave that to your general reading.” (whatever that meant).
Senator Stennis was the warm and genial older gentleman you expected, and we left him feeling warm and fuzzy (no wonder Charles Lawton studied his accent and diction for the movie Advise and Consent).
The rest of the interviews must have been pretty routine, since I don’t even remember them (perhaps I was still remembering the train trip up, something more memorable to a twenty year old kid).
Post Trip, Post Script
After we returned from our field trip, I saw Cleve around campus for the short remainder of our undergraduate careers but, like most of us, lost contact after graduation. I never really knew a lot about what became of him and what he did with the rest of his life (except for the occasional news snippet, not revealing much) until his early death last month, at age 65. And then I learned that Cleve had been busy indeed these last forty-five years: Harvard, Cornell, Ole Miss(again), the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Connecticut at Waterbury, as well as being an ordained minister all the while. Dr. Leslie McLemore summed up Cleve well when he recently said,”Cleve was able to combine his activist nature with academics.”
It’s interesting how life works out some time. From that Geology class in 1964, the average middle-class white kid has remained pretty much just that, while the black kid on a mission has moved onward and upward in many amazing ways.
You did very well, Cleve, and made many people very proud. . . . including me. Godspeed!