If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer
by Dick J. Reavis
Publisher: University of North Texas Press
Summary: During 1965 – 1966, Dick Reavis worked to promote civil rights in Demopolis, Alabama. If White Kids Die recounts Reavis’ experiences. It is excellent and offers something original on the Civil Rights movement – a view from the “foot soldiers” rather than the leaders.
Review: Back in the 1990s, my sister attended graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi. At times, I would go visit by by driving down U.S. Highway 80. My route took me through west-central Alabama, which once contained many of the state’s plantations.
Today, the region is very poor and predominantly black. On those rides, I always enjoyed riding through the small town of Demopolis, Alabama. The town sits on the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers and there are many boats on the water. Demopolis also has some pretty homes.
A Different View
Back in the 1960s, Dick Reavis came to Demopolis to help register black Alabamans to vote. His perspective, from the town’s black neighborhoods, was very different from what I saw. He writes that “Demopolis was more wretched than I’d expected, and in places its poverty rivaled even the back streets of northern Mexico” (p. 31).
Twenty-twenty hindsight shows that the Civil Rights movement was turning a corner at the time Reavis arrived in Demopolis in summer 1965. The focus of its leaders was shifting from legal to economic concerns. While Jim Crow laws were disappearing, black Americans’ economic circumstances were still dire.
Reavis writes of the black Alabamans he encountered –
They wanted to participate in the much-vaunted American dream, which was about having the money to live like the white folks lived, to go where the white folks went: it wasn’t, as whites afterward tended to think, a movement about fellowship with white folks (p. 35).
In addition to shifting focus from legal to economic concerns, the movement was also reconsidering what role – if any – whites would play in the struggle. Reavis’ job was to follow the black leaders, as opposed to acting as a leader. Interestingly, Reavis’ account of his meeting with Hosea Williams (pp. 65-66) reveals that – ironically – the movement that forced America to live up to its democratic ideals was often autocratic.
A View from the Trenches
Reavis’ experience with the civil rights movement began by accident when – while attending a small Oklahoma college (Panhandle A&M) – he came across a flyer recruiting summer volunteers for the civil rights movement. At the time, Reavis was secretly dating a black woman. Against his parents’ wishes, Reavis went to Atlanta to train as a volunteer.
After training, Reavis arrived in Demopolis. The arrival was dramatic as two of the blacks riding in the car with Reavis were immediately arrested by the sheriff. The arrests set the tone for Reavis’ dealings with Demopolis’ leaders. As one of the few Southern whites in the movement, Reavis was a source of interest to everyone he met in Demopolis, regardless of race.
The best thing about the book is that it provides a unique perspective on the movement, as Reavis was on the front lines. Moreover, unlike most white liberals, his portrait of the movement is realistic, not sentimental. By providing a “warts and all” account, Reavis provides readers with a good idea of what it was like to be a volunteer.
Volunteering was not easy. During training in Atlanta, someone stole valuables from the volunteers dorm rooms; the rumor was that other civil rights workers – who had keys to the rooms – had committed the burglary. Upon arrival in Demopolis, Reavis lived with a black family, but the arrangement was contentious. The woman of the house, enjoyed testing Reavis by constantly calling him “cracker” and reminding him that he was not a family member. While staying in the house, Reavis never received his stipend ($12.50 per month) and he suspected that his hosts were stealing it. Eventually, Reavis moved out of the house.
Predictably, Reavis eventually ends up in jail, which was a badge of honor among civil rights workers. He provides some good descriptions of jail conditions and of the court system.
The civil rights movement is often regarded as the most-important social movement in 20th Century America. Surprisingly, therefore, the book ends on a discordant note when Reavis asserts that “While we accomplished some of what we set out to do, in the main, I believe that we were defeated” (p. 113). Specifically, he laments that – for all of the legal changes in the U.S. – black citizens have not achieved full equality. Moreover, he laments that his life has lacked meaning since his days as a volunteer ended. So, the book’s close is – in part – a middle-aged man’s lament of the lost promise of his youth.
If White Kids Die is a great read for anyone interested in the civil rights movement. Instead of focusing on the “the generals” (Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace, etc.), Reavis tells what it was like to be one of the many unknown people who helped change America.