February 18, 2010

Civil Rights Activist Recounts Her Experiences at Cook House

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Students and faculty gathered around Susan Cloke, guest speaker for the celebration of Black History Month, in Alice Cook House last night, to hear the personal anecdotes that she collected as a civil rights worker in the 1960s.

Cloke opened her talk with an invitation to a retrospective journey to the ’60s. “I would like to take you back to the summer of 1965, in Baker County, Southwest Georgia,” Cloke said.

Prior to heading south, Cloke fundraised for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Commission in California. SNCC asked for student volunteers to assist with the voter registration program and participate in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Cloke arrived as the first white civil rights worker in Baker County, known to the locals as “Bad Baker.”

Nonviolence, to Cloke, was both a philosophy and a tactic.

“Nonviolence teaches you to respect your enemy,“ Cloke said, “It teaches you to find a common ground with people you disagree with and a just solution that they can also be a part of.”

Cloke described her experience in Baker County as “a surreal version of Alice in Wonderland.”

“I can never figure out the rules [when I was there as a civil rights worker],” Cloke explained, “One morning I was making breakfast for myself at the house of the family I stayed with. I was making soft-boiled eggs for breakfast and I offered the little boy [in the family]. But he shook his head and said soft-boiled eggs were only for white people. Already, it seems I have done something wrong.”

As a self-proclaimed “patriot,” the issue of racial inequality deeply troubled Cloke.

“How can the same person share an intimate and at the same time a superior relationship with you? Nothing made any sense to me,” Cloke said. “I am a strong defender of American ideals. I love the Bill of Rights. I love the Declaration of Independence. But this is wrong. This is not American. This is not what we believed in.”

During that time, the courthouse would only approve voter registration if the applicant passed the literacy test. To help as many African-Americans register as possible, Cloke ran literacy classes with other civil rights workers from SNCC. For her involvement, she was arrested and jailed.

“Being an 18-year-old, my parents were of course reasonably concerned. My mother called Congress people in Washington everyday and she got everyone she knew to do the same thing,” Cloke said. “She told them that it was the government’s responsibility to make sure everyone was registered to vote. She asked them why her daughter was doing their work.”

According to Cloke, she regarded the opportunity to fight for black voting rights as a blessing.

“To have a successful life, you have to see what’s in front of you,“ Cloke said. “If you are constantly seeing reality through a screen, it’s hard to have a successful life. My experience in Georgia allowed me to see what was in front of me.”

As a result of her civil rights activism, Cloke developed a nonviolent attitude towards the world, that she said has carried with her to this day into her work as an environmental activist.

Cloke chose to recount her story because she felt that it would add some authenticity and substance to what most people read from books.

“It is difficult for students to understand history. You can read the facts and learn about what happened but you cannot find out how people felt about it from textbooks,“ Cloke said, “I hope that my unique experiences will bring the history to life. I want to tell stories and show how history changed people and their lives.”

Audience members expressed general enthusiasm for the lecture.

“It was really cool how she was able to see the changes in her lifetime,“ Eli Luxenberg ’10, who attended the talk, said.

“Stories are compelling, they are the ground on which history is made. I think it’s important for people to tell stories of how history got changed,“ Prof. Risa Leiberwitz, industrial and labor relations, said.

Original Author: Jackie Lam