ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.
An unusual letter from the civil rights era written on a six-foot stretch of toilet paper is carefully preserved in a Madison, Wisconsin, historical archive. Miriam Real, who was a volunteer for the Congress of Racial Equality, wrote the letter in a Louisiana jail. She was arrested during a voter registration drive in September 1963.
Ms. MIRIAM REAL (Former Volunteer, Congress of Racial Equality): Plaquemines was one of the few areas where there actually had been blacks voting, and we had come into that area to register voters, and people were just so enormously grateful. They never, in a million years, thought that the civil rights movement would reach them. They may have been living in primitive conditions, but they all had televisions, so they saw all the things on TV.
Mr. JAMES FARMER: We're not going to stop them till the bigots of the South and the North no longer challenge a man's right to live simply because he is asking for the rights which the Constitution says are his.
Ms. REAL: James Farmer was an incredible orator, and CORE felt it would be a very good motivational thing to have James Farmer come down to help galvanize the local community. So one night, we had a big rally. There was a lot of singing, and James Farmer gave a very strong motivational speech. Then we took off marching downtown and were met by a massive wall of resistance from the white community, and a lot of the law enforcement people were on horseback. They had cattle prods. They had high-pressure hoses with them. And they drove the marchers back into the black community.
And we all took refuge in the church, figuring that we would be safe there. And they broke through the windows of the church. They lobbed tear gas grenades into the church, turned high-pressure hoses on--in through the windows, thereby forcing everybody to flee. And at first, Mr. Farmer thought that he would, in fact, turn himself in, that that might quiet things down. And he was advised by the local black leaders that he would be, in fact, giving his life away. And at that point, one of the leaders in the black community had a funeral parlor, and he hid him in the back of a hearse so they were able to get Farmer out of town.
Meanwhile, the sheriff's deputies and all the law enforcement people and all the vigilantes were busily trying to round up the rest of us. I happened to be shipped off to the Port Allen jail. Port Allen is a suburb of New Orleans, and it's probably, at this moment, underwater. I was actually the only white woman who was arrested, who at least ended up at Port Allen. And so I was in a cell all by myself. It was maybe eight feet-by-eight feet, with a steel bunk bed with a thin mattress on it, and there were toilet facilities in the cell. And the only paper available was the toilet paper. So I wrote a long letter, description of what had happened on toilet paper.
Unidentified Woman: `Dear Danny, this is the finest of prison stationary, nothing but the best for you.'
Ms. REAL: Danny Mitchell was another CORE person. He was black, and we had just become very good friends, and I don't remember now why I addressed the letter to Danny, except that he probably had told me just before he left, `Please keep me posted on what happens.'
Unidentified Woman: `If they had a prodder, they used them to hurry the process. They pulled down one girl's pants and prodded her between her legs. They prodded an eight-month pregnant lady until she dropped from pain.'
Ms. REAL: This was information that we would need for a variety of reasons, not least because we had hoped that federal authorities would move in and investigate. But the only way I was going to get the toilet paper letter out was to somehow hide it, and I knew that the possibility existed that I would be thoroughly body searched and padded down on the way out. I mean, I don't know that they would have tried to read it, but if they had read it and understood what it was about, they would have flushed it down the toilet immediately. As luck would have it, I had been wearing a dress that had a very full skirt and a fairly deep hem, and I ripped the stitches and slipped the toilet paper letter into the hem, and it was never found.
GORDON: Miriam Real is now an admissions director at a San Francisco area private school. The letter is preserved at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison. Wisconsin Public Radio's Brian Bull produced this story.
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