Marshmallows and White Hoods

by Lauri Goff
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA

In 1965, in Jackson, Mississippi, racism was still rampant. Civil rights workers from the North had descended upon the state, and the Ku Klux Klan was at its most active since the turn of the century. A lone white woman, Joan, pledged to do her part to make a difference in her world.

Joan decided to assist in starting the first Head Start program in the state. This program was to help young black children be prepared to start first grade. During this time, she became passionately involved in the civil rights movement. She marched with Dr. King, demonstrated with protesters against segregation. Her husband, a Southerner, was also supportive of her efforts.

Joan sparked an interest in her young daughters in the “cause”. They went everywhere with her, including the marches and demonstrations. She became known in all circles as that “white lady” who helped “the darkies”.

Marshmallows and White HoodsOne hot summer night, when Joan’s husband was out of town on business, Joan and her two girls were relaxing in their family room. The air was still and sultry, broken only by the constant chirp of cicadas and the occasional far-off barking dog. Suddenly, the slam of car doors and gruff voices shouting shattered the sleepy stillness. Horns honking, curses disturbed the suburban neighborhood. As a brick came flying through the plate glass window, Joan rushed to the front door. Her front yard was filled with men in white hoods! They had erected an old wooden cross in the middle of the grass. She flung open the door, and, in as growly of a voice as she could muster, the petite woman shouted, “leave my home, you  bastards!” They hurriedly set fire to the cross on the lawn and fled like faceless cowards into the night.

Joan could see the neighbors peeping out from their Venetian blinds. She grabbed some marshmallows from the kitchen, told her oldest daughter to get some coat hangers they had used for a previous cookout. With her two blond-haired children in tow, she marched out to the front yard and proceeded to roast marshmallows by the fire which had been fueled by hate. Slowly, quietly, one neighbor after another joined her small family. The adults whispered quietly, hugging and murmuring as the children cavorted around the fire. The blaze that had been started by bigots was being extinguished by support and love.

Joan was my mom and I am the eldest daughter. Her courage will always live in my mind as an example of true heroism. Her fight for racial equality continued until the day she died.

Originally published as HeroicStories #83 on November 11, 1999
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 1.

4 thoughts on “Marshmallows and White Hoods”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful story of a truly mature and enlightened soul, whose resourcefulness, ingenuity, love and compassion left an indelible impression on this world, not only in the incident described, but in the constant progress of the world, as it moves from ignorance and immaturity to wisdom and light.

  2. I graduated from high school in 1965, with folks who didn’t even know I was in the class. I was so shy and bashful back then that I would have run if someone had so much as said boo to me. But I envy that lady’s courage. As I aged and matured, I became more courageous and have always wished that I could have been able to do the things the marchers and protesters did.

    But as Maya Angelou said, ‘When you know better, you do better.’ In my life’s work with the local preschools, welfare department, and technical schools, I have done what I could. I’m still doing what I can.

  3. In summer of 1964, my best friend moved from San Francisco, CA to Jackson, Mississippi. Her father who was a dedicated attorney was relocating his family there to defend those who needed legal help during this terrifying time of desegregation.

    We were just going to be graduating into our sophomore year in high school. I was heartbroken, although I understood & realized the importance of the dangerous work her father & mother were embarking upon. We were just going to be graduating into our sophomore year in high school and her moving there drew me more personally into the life and death reality of what it may cost to fight for equality, justice, freedom, desegregation and human rights.

    I couldn’t even imagine living in the South as a white person, risking the lives of my children. I’ve never visited that area of the U.S., because I know the historical energy there is more than I want to immerse myself in.

    As a child of your amazingly brave, honorable and open minded mother, you were given an opportunity to see and participate in a historical time that imparted values & teachings you couldn’t have gleaned from anywhere else. How brave all of you were to subject yourselves to that life-altering environment. I wouldn’t have guessed that the neighbors would have even ventured out of their homes to join you in your front yard to roast marshmallows.

    I could feel the wrath of your mother & her determination to disempower the white hooded cowards who dared trespass onto her sacred territory. I wish I could have known her. It’s the kind of fierceness that women are needing to summon now. I’ll remember this story forever.

    Thank you for sharing such a powerful family history & thank you for embodying your own sense of justice & self-determination in our wobbly world. Mahalo.


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