A Conversation at the Table with Thomas Noer
By Claire Heronemus ’17
In the wake of the recent social and political movements and marches, seeing a play such as A Seat at the Table becomes even more necessary. Carthage commissioned the play by Golden Globe award winning actress and playwright, Regina Taylor. The piece explores the issues of racial oppression and the fight for civil rights through the true story of Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor black sharecropper from Mississippi, who is remembered as one of the most influential civil rights activists of the movement. Hamer, played by Marie Tredway ’17, started out an uneducated woman living in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Over time, she became an integral part of the organization of both the Mississippi Freedom Summer movement of 1964 and the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Eventually, she went on to become the Vice President of the Mississippi Southern Freedom Party and represented them as a delegate at large at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Taylor brings the experience of pivotal moments of both Hamer’s life and the fight for civil rights throughout the 1960’s to the audience, while deftly recognizing and encouraging the fight for justice that continues into present day. I was able to interview Professor Thomas Noer, a professor in the history department, and a participant of the Mississippi Freedom Summer movement of 1964.
What is your position here at Carthage? How did you become interested in history?
Well, I went to a school very much like Carthage, Gustavus Adolphus in Minnesota in the 60s. I was an English Major, but that was during a lot of important historical events such as the Civil Right Movement and the Vietnam War, so I thought I should look more into history and the changes that were going on all around me.
Can you tell us a little about how and when you got involved in fighting for civil rights?
At college there was a group that was interested in what was going on in Mississippi and Alabama, and one of the professors had a contact in Mississippi; they took a group of us down there to bring supplies. We ended up staying in the home of Aaron Henry, and we got involved in what was Mississippi Freedom Summer to try to crack the most racist segregated state in the country. We got into Freedom School which was about trying to get schools back up and running because they had been shut down, and we were incredibly naive. Fear was everywhere. As soon as we crossed the border in our van, a Mississippi highway patrol car followed us until we got to where we were going. We never walked in front of windows because there were too many gunshots. One day I was walking with a black man and he said he would walk on the outside of the sidewalk and a truck tried to run us over. The incredible grinding poverty really hit us. We stayed at an all-black college called Rust College. The dorms had dirt floors. We couldn’t even buy a pitch pipe. If you registered to vote, you lost your job; they were denied federal welfare. Many older blacks said they couldn’t get involved in the Civil Rights Movement because they needed to provide for their family. But Fanny Lou Hamer said that she would rather fight for basic rights. Fear and poverty were the big things, and because of that Mississippi was like a foreign country. Many students today can’t understand the power behind the fear and immense poverty.
Why do you think shows like A Seat at the Table are important for, and pertinent to, our society today?
One reason why is obviously historic impact. The Civil Right Movement was probably one of the most significant movements in the 20th century because it paved the way for other movements such as the Women’s Movement. It’s also important because race is still a dominant issue in America today. There is all the debate about police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. The play not only talks about the historical times but also the race factor, and implies what these issues could mean for the future of our country.
You have written a lot about Black history and liberation in the past. Why do you think it’s also important to portray a story like that of Fannie Lou Hamer on the stage instead of on the page?
Fannie Lou Hamer was a woman who came from a rough background. She was a wonderful example of fighting for the people. Many people don’t know about her, but she fought for those poor, illiterate people. There has been a lot written about her, but people your age are responding more to seeing instead of just hearing. You’ve grown up with movies, TVs, and theatre. I think it’d be much more effective to see her story and showing how she showed so much courage instead of reading about her.
What is your most memorable moment of participating in Freedom Summer?
The time we were almost being run over. The fact that people like Aaron Henry were facing incredible harassment. His cousin once got 142 parking tickets in one night. Physical harassment and economical harassment. I felt afraid, but I didn’t have to live with that forever. I could go home, but they had to stay there. Many blacks got fired; they were kicked out of their house, so we distributed food to those people because they could not provide for themselves. Seeing the poverty was far different than just reading about it in school.
Do you think people from all generations are as engaged in social justice issues today as in previous decades?
A year ago, I would have said no. But I think maybe now you will see more. The issues are not as clear now as they were then. The war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the reemergence of the Feminist Movement. A lot of it was more black and white; it was hard not to be political. Your generation has the environment and the controversy over President Trump; things have begun to pick up. I think there will be more political activity of students in the coming year than there has been in the past.
Any final comments?
One of the big things that we talk about in history is relevance. I think of all the topics that we can think about in recent history, the Civil Rights Movement is one of the most relevant movements today because it led to so many other movements and the pertinence of race today. So I think history is significant because not only of its impact of the time, but also how it makes it more relevant to people today.
Show times are 7:30 p.m. March 3-4 and March 9-11, plus 3 p.m. March 5. All performances are held at the Wartburg Theatre in the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Natural and Social Sciences. Carthage students, faculty, and staff are eligible for two complimentary tickets, which are available at the Fine Arts box office only. Cost to the public is $14, $10 for seniors 55 and older, and $8 for students. Seating is limited. To buy tickets, visit www.carthage.edu/tickets or call the Fine Arts box office at 262-551-6661 between noon and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.