It was long ago in a different South -- the days of freedom riders and freedom songs, of SNCC workers and sit-ins. The bad old days of Orval Faubus and George Wallace and Ross Barnett. They were the good old days, too -- the days of Martin Luther King, when the choice between good and evil, law and defiance of it was clear, when justice rolled down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. And we would overcome some day.
One day somebody in the newsroom of the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, where I was the editorial writer back then, said a bunch of kids staging a sit-in at the McDonald's on Main had been trapped there. A mob had formed outside and was throwing ammonia under the locked door, and wouldn't let the kids out. I went over to see for myself. Not a cop in sight. And if there had been? Would the cops have broken up the mob or just arrested the demonstrators?
I must have stood out in my old blue-cord suit and narrow 1960-ish tie and eyeglasses with the thick frames. Because I heard a mounting murmur behind me: "He's with the Commercial," which was always an incitement in those days. For our editorial views were well known, and well despised.
The murmurs behind me began to mount. "That's him, all right! Get him!" No hero I, and with no taste for martyrdom, I began to walk slowly, deliberately away. No hurry. I proceeded down the broken old sidewalk next to the McDonald's, with its uneven slabs dotted with the season's smushed chinaberries, toward my old Mercury coupe down the block. Calmly, very calmly, ever so calmly. Step by controlled step. Never let 'em see you sweat. I clambered into the car, slammed the door behind me, turned the key in the ignition, and was out of there.
Bill Hansen, the local SNCC worker, didn't fare as well. He'd been trapped inside with the kids. One of the bravest souls I've ever known, he'd been beaten up all across the South -- from Albany, Ga., to points west till he got to Arkansas, organizing as he went. He had the crushed jaw and broken ribs to show for it. The kind of martial decorations I was not eager to earn.
Mobs are like that. One minute simmering, the next explosive. Mercurial. A mob has no need for a leader; it has a mindlessness of its own. You can never tell when it will crystallize, and what it'll do when it does. It has no intelligence, just a kind of blind instinct. The individual is lost in it; the mob moves of its own.