Fe bruary 22, 2014
By Barbara Blake, Asheville Citizen Times
As she walked along a dusty, red-clay road in the backcountry of southern Mississippi in the summer of 1964, Carol Rogoff Hallstrom, barely out of college, was escorted by a local man who held the barrel of a gun to her temple every step of the way.
His face contorted with fury, he spat the words that she would “never get out of Mississippi alive,” her punishment for being a young white woman daring to help black community members register to vote.
Over and over he repeated the words as Hallstrom and her two companions continued walking, eyes downcast and not engaging with the man spewing expletives and saliva, and he kept the gun barrel next to her head as he matched her step for step.
The trio finally reached blacktop and was able to flag down a logging truck whose driver took them to the only home in the rural backwoods that had a telephone, where they followed protocol and called the Department of Justice to report the terrifying event.
And then Hallstrom went back for more.
That incident is just a small frame on the newsreel of Hallstrom’s life, beginning in her 20s with volatile sit-ins and voter registration drives in which she was assaulted and arrested, followed by years as an attorney working with immigration and social justice issues, and continuing with her activism in Asheville today, at age 72.
It is the life she was born to live, in spite of the anguish it caused her parents and the many dangers she encountered on back roads and in rural courthouses during the turbulent ’60s, four of those years with the iconic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Even in the decades after threats to her physical safety had abated, Hallstrom stood up to authorities
and entities whose power was mighty if she saw wrongs she believed needed righting — including her
years as an attorney within the U.S. Department of Justice, encouraged by former Attorney General
Since “retiring” to Asheville in 2009, Hallstrom has been “double-booked” most days, offering her skills to organizations ranging from Building Bridges and the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council to Asheville’s Citizens Police Advisory Committee and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNCA, where she is co-teaching a course on the history of race relations in Asheville.
“This notion of retirement is somewhat elusive,” Hallstrom said with a smile as she reflected on her most recent pro bono efforts in her adopted city. “I think I’ve focused on the areas that reflect the work I’ve done my whole life, and there’s a lot to do, a lot to learn.
“There are important, significant voices here to teach me a lot about a community that I now consider home,” she said. “And any place that’s been home to me is one in which I in turn feel I have an obligation to give something back.”
Carol Rogoff grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of Jacob Rogoff, a Russian Jewish immigrant from Ukraine whose parents escaped persecution of the Jews during the pogroms when he was 5, and Julia Rogoff, a homemaker whose parents also were immigrants from Ukraine.
Through determination and hard work, Jacob Rogoff won full scholarships to Yale University for undergraduate and medical school, becoming a public health physician and later volunteering for military service in World War II.
Hallstrom remembers the morning she was walking from the family’s apartment to her school, P.S. 241, at age 11 or 12, when she was stopped at knifepoint by a group of girls from a nearby Catholic high school.
“They asked me if I was a Jew, and I can recall that moment of paralysis — do I deny who I am, do I admit to that part of my identity, and at what risk?” Hallstrom said. “I did, and they took my quarter or whatever my milk money was, and moved on.
“But that’s a powerful, powerful image, the kind of memory that has a sight and a smell, with all of the senses alerted, how many years later? It’s as fresh to me as all the other threats to my life.”
That image returned again and again as Hallstrom became well known in civil rights activism and had her picture in newspapers after being arrested — or on the walls of businesses, such as ax-wielding Lester Maddox’s restaurants.
“My identity as a Jew was a portion of what came back at me from people who were hateful not only because of the civil rights activities but because of anti-Semitism and all the stereotyping,” she said.
“But that (schoolgirl) event was my first memory of being directly confronted with and confused by what was being thrust at me.”
Taking the challenge
At Beaver College in Philadelphia, which later became Arcadia University, Hallstrom paid attention to news of the anti-segregation student sit-ins that occurred in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960.
Then came the election of President Kennedy and his challenge at his 1961 inauguration to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
“For me, that clicked with what the students were doing in the South, and I took it as a very personal and direct challenge that caused a lot of self-reflection and self-examination — what was I going to do for my country?” Hallstrom said.
By 1962, Hallstrom was going on “freedom rides,” hooking up with others in the Philadelphia area and from Morgan State College, a black school in Baltimore, and traveling in private vehicles and on buses to try to integrate restaurants, bus stations and other venues in the D.C. and Baltimore areas.
“The inevitable result was to be arrested,” she said. “The challenge was to not get beaten up before you got arrested.”
Hallstrom said she initially participated in these demonstrations only if the distance meant she could return to her dorm to beat curfew and avoid her house mother’s wrath. She was the only student from her college taking part in the demonstrations at the time and was basically “shunned,” though two other students and a professor later joined her.
Then came the time “I had to call my house mother and tell her I was going to miss my curfew because I was in jail,” and news reports followed.
“This became a grave concern for the administration, because this was not going to be good for their fundraising, their reputation,” Hallstrom said. “I was called in to see the academic dean and told either I was to cease this activity or I would be suspended from the college.”
Hallstrom did not cease, nor was she suspended. But her activism took a toll on her parents, who worried nonstop for years.
“Coming from Ukraine, the pogroms … my parents were a generation that strongly believed you didn’t make waves, you didn’t call attention to yourself, and there was always an undercurrent of fear that was not unusual in Jewish households,” she said.
“My father was fearful for me, and my mother’s viewpoint was that I would be an embarrassment to the family, that this is not what a nice, middle-class girl does,” Hallstrom said. “So when my parents were called in to meet with the dean and told their daughter was going to be suspended for disobeying the rules … they were terrified, ashamed and humiliated.”
But they never asked their daughter to stop, then or in the coming few years when her activism became more dangerous, seeming to understand her passion for fighting injustice even as they feared for her safety and endured hate mail and taunts that they had raised a “communist” and a “traitor.”
Hallstrom graduated in 1963, with plans to enter graduate school at Columbia University in the fall. Throughout the summer — which culminated with the historic March on Washington — she volunteered with SNCC and a major desegregation effort on Maryland’s eastern shore, which involved “lots of jailings, gassings, shootings — the level of violence was extraordinary,” Hallstrom said. “We were put under martial law that lasted almost a year.”
When fall came, she dismissed graduate school. “The street had become my classroom, with a combination of politics, history, sociology, every complexity of American life,” Hallstrom said. “I decided I was going to, if they would have me, go to work fulltime, and I chose SNCC.”
Over the next two years, Hallstrom worked for SNCC as an organizer in New York and Maryland, recruiting students and other young people for marches, sit-ins and other activism and eventually worked as a field organizer in southern Mississippi through 1964 and ’65, including the extremely dangerous mission of helping black residents register to vote.
“I had been on the SNCC staff for close to a year and had recruited lots of students to go down to Mississippi, and I understood at some level that this could be about my life, that as a young adult I was figuring out what I’m ready to die for, and I got that, I really did,” Hallstrom said.
“But what was totally new to me was being exposed to those (black residents) whose bravery and convictions I had never encountered and from whom I learned what it is to believe in something, to decide you have value as an individual.”
Hallstrom was referring to the “Freedom Summer” of ’64 and the locals who housed the volunteers, brought them food, took them to their churches, invited them to go squirrel hunting or brought squirrel meat to them. And who would go to the local courthouse to register to vote.
“These were people who were terrified; this was before the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, before there were Department of Justice officials or federal registrants at the courthouse,” Hallstrom said.
“This was (the period) when Medgar Evers got shot, when Herbert Lee got shot, when bodies were pulled out of the Tallahatchie River, when young black men just disappeared,” she said. “This is when even attempting to register to vote could literally cost your life.”
It also was the time young activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered by Mississippi Klansmen in June 1964, sparking a massive federal investigation on which the film “Mississippi Burning” was loosely based — “badly misrepresenting the federal efforts through these events,” Hallstrom said. The incident brought national attention to the voting rights effort in the South.
Patriotism in action
Hallstrom’s years with SNCC were life-changing, working not only with scores of courageous everyday people but with civil rights leaders such as now-U.S. Rep. John Lewis, James Forman and, in the early years, Stokely Carmichael, who later took SNCC in a more nationalistic direction that no longer welcomed white members but encouraged them to organize in white communities.
That work resulted in the slow but steady desegregation of public spaces and in thousands of previously disenfranchised black residents in the deep South being registered to vote — though the triumphs were shadowed by the murders, brutality and disappearances that occurred during the process of opening new doors for all Americans.
“Many of my colleagues over the years in civil rights saw what we did as deeply patriotic. It was what we could do for our country, and this, to me, was about patriotism,” Hallstrom said.
“I was a northern white female on the staff of a predominately black, male, student-led civil rights organization, and there was this extraordinary effort we all made — can we be in the midst of all the violence and hatred and cross gender and racial lines and create beloved community?” she said.
“We were so dependent on each other for our lives … none of us have ever again lived in an environment, a community, that was so filled with the possibility of what we could be as a country.”
Hallstrom and other white SNCC staffers left the organization in 1965, accepting its change in focus under Carmichael. “It made perfect sense that our job as white civil rights workers was to go into the white community. That’s where the problem with discrimination and racism was,” she said.
“Though it was extraordinarily painful to leave those who had become our brothers and sisters in the struggle, we understood why the stronger voices had become (more radical), and the legitimacy of black power that so terrified much of the white community.”
Expanding the work
Hallstrom continued her civil rights work in white communities, eventually married (and later divorced), had a son and earned a law degree from Boston University.
She worked in California for 20 years as executive director of the San Diego Law Center, where she created a model community mediating program and an expansive immigration law coalition, and later as regional director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
“One of my proudest achievements at NCCJ was work I did with middle and high school kids, with full support of the school board in San Diego,” Hallstrom said, adding that in all of her work she used the organizing skills she learned “growing up with SNCC.”
In that project, about 100 students at a time would be taken to an off-campus location, where trained volunteers such as bank presidents, police chiefs, probation officers and college students would expose the students — in a “highly structured and challenging way” — to simulations that let them experience what it was like to be “the person discriminated against, the person receiving racial or religious slurs, isolated because he or she was or was believed to be gay or lesbian,” Hallstrom said.
“Because of this highly committed volunteer staff who supported me, we were able by the tens and hundreds and thousands to expose these young people to experiences that were really life-changing,” she said.
“When I look back and consider some of the triumphs, that is one legacy … to be able to help develop the next generation of leadership and encourage young people to be willing to take risks, as I was able to take risks.”
As a high-profile fixture in San Diego with involvement in a vast number of boards and commissions involving immigration, police-community relations, border violence and other human rights issues, Hallstrom caught the eye of a U.S. attorney who, in 1995, recommended her for appointment to a federal immigration commission under then-Attorney General Janet Reno.
It was a decision she did not make lightly. After working far outside the establishment in her early years and insisting on significant leeway in her later positions, Hallstrom worried that she might be perceived as “selling out” or becoming “the man” if she joined the Department of Justice.
Her colleagues convinced her that voice was needed inside the government and that she could handle the pressure of “being a voice of an unpopular view.”
For the next nine years, until her retirement, Hallstrom worked in “problem-solving mode” in cities across the country to bring together community organizations and law enforcement officials, “folks who typically had adversarial relationships.”
Her voice was not always received warmly, particularly after 9/11 when Muslims came under intense federal scrutiny. But she never turned the volume down.
Tenacious and fearless
Hallstrom’s son and daughter-in-law had moved to Asheville, and when she visited, she seized every opportunity to get to know the community. “It became pretty clear fairly quickly that the kinds of interests and skill sets I have could have a place here that would be productive and useful, as well as enjoying all of the intense wonders of Asheville,” she said.
Hallstrom leapt into action, signing up for a Building Bridges session a month after her move. She accepted an appointment to the Asheville’s Citizens Police Advisory Committee to be a voice for more community involvement.
She serves on the board of the Community Relations Council, is a member of the Mountain Area Interfaith Forum, is active with the nonprofit Changing Together, which gives formerly incarcerated felons a chance at new starts, and is a volunteer escort at FemCare.
A current focus is Hallstrom’s OLLI class on the history of race relations in Asheville, which she is co-teaching with historian Darin Waters. The pair spent eight months developing a hard-hitting curriculum supported by a stellar cast of local residents comprising panels for discussion with the 90 retirees taking the course.
Jim Lenburg, chair of the steering committee at OLLI, said he encouraged Hallstrom to make a proposal to OLLI’s curriculum committee to teach the course, and “with the same fierce level of determination and passion she demonstrated in the early civil rights movement, she worked diligently with (Waters) to make that proposal, which the committee accepted enthusiastically.”
“Carol is deeply committed to removing the barriers of racism and at the same time making OLLI members more aware and more involved in dealing with racial issues here,” Lenburg said. “On a personal level, I find Carol to be exceptionally bright, passionate and unwavering in her belief that we can make a better world.”
Others who work with Hallstrom testify to her tenacity and fearlessness, all with an eye toward that better world.
“Carol is a person of action who will ask the tough questions and works non-stop to address injustice as it is encountered,” said Larry McCallum, chair of the Community Relations Council. “I am impressed with Carol’s ability to initiate and create programs that provide opportunities for community dialogue where it does not exist.”
Allen Brailsford, who sits on the police advisory committee with Hallstrom, cited her organization of a community conversation after the Trayvon Martin killing and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman.
“Carol can be prickly at times, but always respectful, and always with the aim of getting real answers,” Brailsford said.
Missy Reed, project coordinator for Changing Together, said Hallstrom “is not afraid to challenge others and ask the hard questions, which, many times, gets us to the needed answers and a better understanding of one another.
“Carol is tenacious and funny, and I’m grateful for the commitment she has to this community and to those in need,” Reed said.
Hallstrom thrives on that commitment, slowing down in her volunteer efforts only long enough to enjoy her two rescue dogs, her twin 3 1/2-year-old grandsons and the circle of close friends she’s made these past five years.
She feels a sense of urgency to see “the work” continue with new generations, while honoring — and too often mourning — those who put their lives on the line to open the doors of freedom and equality for all citizens. And she fears the implications of a lack of civility among those who disagree on the most fundamental issues.
“I look to those folks who are going to be willing to take the risks, speak the unpopular, particularly around issues of civil rights, civil liberties, gender equality. Absent our ability and willingness to engage with each other in a respectful and dignified way, I don’t know how we take on climate change, the health care system, the education system,” Hallstrom said.
“Seems to me, if we don’t engage and embrace in a way that allows us to use the talents we have to address these enormous issues facing us all, we’re doomed.”
Hallstrom sees the promise in the younger people in their 30s and 40s, particularly young women who are “smart, engaged, active and tough.”
“That’s what gives me hope, that we are still going to be transforming the lives of others in positive ways because of these young people who are brave and courageous, who will speak their minds,” she said.
“I am so enormously grateful to be included in a community of inter-generational, interracial folks, none of whom have given up, each of whom is supporting the other, all of whom are willing to take some risks, and all of whom recognize that that’s how change is created,” Hallstrom said. “That’s a legacy that I would be proud to be a part of.”