Family Inheritance

From the time she was arrested at the age of 4 months, Sheryll Cashin's life was shaped by her parents' activism

It’s Aug. 11, 1969. Another hot day in Greene County, Ala. I am 7 years old, about to start the second grade. We are here to watch the swearing in of six men who were elected thanks to the NDPA. Daddy created the National Democratic Party of Alabama because he thought Alabamians deserved to vote for national Democrats rather than George Wallace for president. In 1964, he told me, Alabamians could not even vote to re-elect Lyndon Johnson because his name did not appear on the ballot.

Daddy also thought that black people needed a new party because they deserved to elect themselves. For the first time since 1816, when the Choctaw Nation had to give Greene County over to white people, some “colored” people will have a say.

We are standing outside the old courthouse in Eutaw, the county seat. Everybody is laughing and smiling. In this courtroom black people used to sit with fear in their stomachs, Daddy told me, afraid of what judgment would bring. Today they are giddy because they know what’s coming.

A white man with sagging jowls sits in the big chair in the courtroom, surrounded by other white, official-looking people. He gives this speech about how he is ready to work with the new (black) men coming in. He’s looking everybody dead in the eye, like he really means what he’s saying. Daddy is laughing because this is the same judge who left the NDPA candidates off the ballot last fall. Daddy’s lawyers had to go all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States to get an order giving the NDPA the right to run candidates throughout the state. When the judge disobeyed that order, the lawyers went back to the Supreme Court and it ordered a special election just for Greene County. Blacks shocked everyone in the state, maybe the whole country, when they swept the election.

Something begins to stir in me at the swearing in. Before then, all the NDPA really meant to me was time away from Daddy—and licking envelopes.

We have a huge dining-room table that seats about 12 people the two times a year we use it for eating meals: Christmas and Thanksgiving. Otherwise, that table is always piled with NDPA stuff. Mama gathers us around the table—me and my two older brothers, Johnny and Carroll—and some kids from the neighborhood. Mama is our commander, and she teaches us how to fold, stuff, lick and then stamp the NDPA mail.

In this courtroom I begin to understand why my parents care so much about politics and civil rights, why they are always traveling, going to meetings, leaving us with babysitters, taking us along when they can.

I understand even more the following year when Dad decides to run for governor against George Wallace. I think he could win. Daddy can do anything. He’s the only black dentist in Huntsville, where we live. He flies his own airplane. He seems smarter than anyone else in the world.

The summer and fall of 1970, we are always going down to the “Black Belt.” Lowndes County. Marengo. Greene. Sumter. Wilcox. I always thought it was called the Black Belt because so many black people live there. My teacher tells me the area is named after its dark soil. I know that the dirt in other areas of Alabama tends to be red, so she could be right. But I still have doubts.

We drive the back roads, sometimes in Daddy’s gold Chrysler 300, sometimes in our camper van. Daddy always does the driving and always breaks the speed limit, by a lot. Mama sits in the front seat with him. The three of us are in the back. Carroll is one year older than me, and Johnny is one year older than him.

We play cow poker to pass the time. Grandma Grace, Daddy’s mother, taught us this game. I count all the cows on my side of the road. Johnny or Carroll counts all the cows on his side. Whoever has the most cows when we get to our destination wins. A cemetery on your side kills all your cows and you have to start from zero, if your opponent sees the cemetery. A white horse or mule is worth five, but otherwise horses and mules don’t count. A white cow costs you 30 points.

Sometimes we pass an old plantation house, like Thornhill near the farm Daddy bought for the Black Muslims. I think only of its beauty, never about the slaves who used to work these fields. The car radio is tuned to a soul station. That song “Oh Happy Day” plays constantly. Oh happy day. Oh happy da-ay. When Jesus washed, he washed my sins away. The chorus is the best part, a sea of black voices rising: He taught me hoooow, to liiiive—night and day—he washed my sins away. The chorus washes over me. We are Unitarians, but I still like the song.

Throughout Dad’s campaign it seems like we go to every church in the Black Belt, sometimes three or four in a day. Sometimes we act up, embarrassing Mama, although Daddy laughs when she tells him what we did. Like the time one of us farted; it made a loud sound against the wood of the church pew while the minister was talking. All three of us giggled. We couldn’t help it. Mama gave us that “stop it” look with her eyes, but it was only partially effective. She doesn’t have the power of Grandma, or Daddy. Her whippings are mild. With her we can, and often do, run wild.

I watch Daddy give the same speech, and I never get tired of it. The point is to get people to the polls on election day and vote the straight NDPA ticket by marking their “X” under the party’s ballot symbol, the eagle.

The symbol for the George Wallace Democrats is a white rooster. Folks don’t have to be able to read or write to know the difference. That rooster means everything bad that blacks have lived with in this state.

My favorite part is when Daddy quotes Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

Then Dad tells stories about people who won’t do for themselves. A man has tight new shoes. They hurt his feet. He wants to take them off, he could take them off, but he chooses to look good even if it hurts. A woman sits down on a nail. She doesn’t want to jump up and risk looking silly. Then Daddy’s voice rises to a crescendo. “Well, if you won’t get up, then you deserve that nail in your tail!”

The crowd begins to get it. “All right.” “Speak, Doc Cashin.” They like him and what he has to say. He is not one of them. He is from north Alabama, which may as well be Chicago. Yet they know he is with them and something is about to change.

I’m not always happy about Dad’s campaign. “Aug. 11, 1970. Dear Diary, Daddy is running for Gov. I don’t ever hardly get to talk to him.” Still, I am his only daughter and I support him. “Nov. 5, 1970. Dear Diary, the election is over. My father did not win, but I’m still proud of him.” Wallace won by a landslide.

Daddy chose to focus on the positive. On a shoestring budget he convinced 125,000 people to vote for him and the NDPA, nearly 15 percent of the total. Over the years, in his retelling, this will be the election in which the NDPA “swept four counties,” and his vote tally will rise to 175,000 votes. This is close enough to the truth. Dad and the NDPA did outpoll Wallace in four Black Belt counties, beginning a revolution that brought blacks back into the state legislature for the first time in nearly a century.

It was family lore that drove Dad. My great-grandfather H.V. Cashin—a radical Republican legislator in Alabama during Reconstruction—was born in antebellum Georgia, the child of a white Irishman and a free mulatto woman, the story went. He was sent north to be educated and avoid the possibility of enslavement. During Reconstruction he returned south and became the 

architect of that effort in Alabama, according to the embellishments of subsequent gener-ations. When the white supremacist Democrats extinguished the black vote in 1901, H.V. Cashin was helpless to stop it; he soldiered on with dignity as one of the first black lawyers of the state.

At a tender age, Dad had committed to returning blacks to their rightful place in democracy as a matter of family honor. A scion of a professional family, he graduated first in his class from Meharry Medical College in Nashville but refused to settle into bourgeois comfort.

My family endured a dramatic reversal of economic fortunes when I was entering the sixth grade. Some of this was due to economic and political reprisals against Dad’s activism. Some of it was due to the passion that blinded him. He spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars for his causes.

There were death threats and attempts. Twice the private plane he owned and piloted was sabotaged. He stopped flying when he survived a crash that was supposed to have killed him. His dental office and boyhood home were taken by eminent domain; the IRS harassed him for years on questionable charges.

The end result was a dramatic change in lifestyle for our family. Before the reversal we were the only black family in an all-white neighborhood, living in a grand house on a hill, a vintage Rolls Royce among the cars in the driveway. That ended when we returned to the all-black neighborhood where our 

family started out and Dad permanently stopped practicing dentistry. Henceforth, our family of five lived on my mother’s modest salary as a coordinator of federal anti-poverty programs and our home was filled with strife, even as love endured.

From the time I was arrested at the age of 4 months, along with my mother as she sat-in at a lunch counter, my life was shaped by my parents’ activism. My emotional inheritance of family pride and social commitment, and the confidence it engendered, enabled me to excel. I would go on to graduate co-valedictorian of my high school class, attend Vanderbilt on an honors scholarship, and graduate summa cum laude with a near-perfect GPA in electrical engineering. I would continue my studies as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, from which I received a degree in English law with honors, and would graduate from Harvard Law School with honors, working as an editor on the Harvard Law Review and a researcher for the Dukakis presidential campaign, clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court and working in the Clinton White House, developing policies for inner cities.

In the meantime, though, while I am still 7 years old, election day is hard to endure at school because everybody seems to think my father lost badly. All eyes are on me, one of only two black kids in the class.

The other black student, Jennifer, lives in one of the poor neighborhoods. She smells bad and has a lot of wax in her ears. The teacher sits her next to me. I bring Kleenex to school with Mama’s perfume on it and sniff it every now and then to get over Jennifer’s funk.

I defend her, though, when the other kids look funny at the lunch she brings to school—nasty-looking cold cuts and cheese with crackers instead of bread. In the last year or so, I have begun to internalize my parents’ creed of caring deeply, especially about black people who have a lot less than we do, and I act on it now at the lunch table. I answer my classmates’ stares at Jennifer’s food.

“It’s a sandwich!” I declare, telling them with my eyes to stop making her feel different.

I don’t even like Jennifer, really. “She thinks she’s so tough,” I write in my diary.

But like Mama and Daddy, I am supposed to fight injustice where I find it, and I try to now. My activism is launched. 


This article has been adapted from Sheryll Cashin’s book The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family (2008, PublicAffairs).

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