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Transcription below by: Elizabeth Lowman (2010 adult workshop). Edited transcription by: Judy Minton (volunteer). Please report errors to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Introductions and Overview
My name is Noemi Teppang. My name is Bradley Baker. My name is Elizabeth Lowman. My name is Jessie Alsop. My name is Sasha Oster, and we are interviewing Matt Herron here for Telling Their Stories at The Urban School in San Franciso on July 21, 2010.
My name is Matt Herron, and I agree to the contract as read to me and as I looked it over, and this is July 21, 2010. include video
Excellent. Let's start with the paragraph about yourself.
My name is Matt Herron. I was born on August 3, 1931, in Rochester, New York. I grew up there. I was the only child of a Depression family. I went to high school at Benjamin Franklin High School and left Rochester more or less for good when I attended Princeton University. I graduated from Princeton with honors with a B.A. and honors in English. I did a masters program at the University of Michigan in Middle East Studies and Arabic. And during this time I became a conscientious objector to war. My particular war was the Korean War.
As part of my alternative service, I got a job in Ramallah, Jordan, teaching in an Arab secondary school. I spent three years in the Middle East, two teaching at a school, and then a further year in Beirut, pursuing a masters degree, women, and various other things. I met my wife in Jordan; we were married in Beirut. We came back to the United States, settled for a couple of years in Rochester, had a couple of children—actually one child.
My first job as a photographer was carrying a Speed Graphic for the Eastman Kodak Company and illustrating the plant newspaper, the Kodakery. And that was my taste of corporate life, and I never went back to it. Through that work I met a well known teacher of photography, Minor White, and Minor, at a certain point, asked me to become his private student. I spent six months working with Minor and that really focused my whole life and my whole orientation toward photography as more than a business and more a life calling. From there I moved with my growing family to Philadelphia.
I had formed a connection to the Quakers because of my pacifism, and I took a job at the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia as a writer and eventually as a photographer. I was there for two and a half years and that was the last time in my life I ever signed a W-2 form. I've been self-employed ever since.
While I was there, I began working with the Friends Peace Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and became Director of Public Witness, which meant that I was a street agitator and put on peace demonstrations. At a certain point, we grew to the point where we could get a thousand well-dressed Quakers with neatly lettered signs, circling Philadelphia city hall, saying "Stop the War," "No More Bombs," and so on.
And I woke up in the middle of the night and realized that what I was doing was just as much a part of the establishment as the police who were so cooperative with us. Meanwhile, kids were getting the shit beat out of them at lunch counters in the South, and it was like a siren call to my wife and myself. This was the early sixties. This was the Cold War. We had been through the Cuban Missile Crisis. We had clung to each other in bed at night and wondered whether we would wake up in the morning. It was a very interesting period in American life. My wife was a member of Women Strike for Peace. She'd been to Geneva with Coretta King, Mrs. Cyrus Eaton, demonstrated at the Disarmament Conference.
What is your wife's name?
My wife's name is Jeannine, Jeannine Herron. So, when she got a call from a Women Strike for Peace person, saying that a civil rights leader had been murdered in Jackson, Mississippi—his name was Medgar Evers—and there weren't going to be many white faces in the funeral cortege, would she come down? She did. And she came with two purposes: to march for Medgar and to see whether it would be safe for us to move to Mississippi with our two small children and start working in the Civil Rights Movement. Our feeling was that our work in nonviolence was leading nowhere, but that here was a protest movement based on nonviolence.
What year did you guys finally end up deciding to move to Mississippi? What years were you involved with the Civil Rights Movement?
We moved in the summer of 1963 and we were in the South until the summer of 1970, when we climbed aboard our thirty-one foot sailboat and sailed to West Africa. So, we lived in Mississippi only one year. We were thrown out of our house in Jackson in the summer of 1964.
Why were you thrown out?
My wife attended a White Citizens Council meeting and was exposed. And then we began getting threatening telephone calls. Eventually, our landlord informed us that he was going to remodel the house, so we'd have to move.
But that was the beginning of the summer when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] brought a thousand students from the north into Mississippi. It was a very tumultuous summer. I was helping SNCC set up a photo team at this time, and I also fielded my own team of six documentary photographers.
Were you hired by SNCC?
You were volunteering for them?
We were all volunteers. I mean, SNCC field secretaries made twenty five dollars a week when there was money. I was, well, I should retreat a little bit and talk about how I saw my role.