The Agitator's Daughter

A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family


By Sheryll Cashin

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During Reconstruction, Herschel V. Cashin was a radical republican legislator who championed black political enfranchisement throughout the South. His grandson, Dr. John L. Cashin, Jr., inherited that passion for social justice and formed an independent Democratic party to counter George Wallace’s Dixiecrats, electing more blacks to office than in any Southern state. His “uppity” ways attracted many enemies. Twice the private plane Cashin owned and piloted was sabotaged. His dental office and boyhood home were taken by eminent domain. The IRS pursued him, as did the FBI. Ultimately his passions would lead to ruin and leave his daughter, Sheryll, wondering why he would risk so much.

In following generations of Cashins through the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights, and post-civil rights political struggles, Sheryll Cashin conveys how she came to embrace being an agitator’s daughter with humor, honesty, and love.


For Marque Clark Chambliss,
my husband, my best friend.

My Inheritance
It’s August 11, 1969. Another hot day in Greene County, Alabama. I am seven 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 reelect 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 have been driving down to the county a lot this summer. It feels different today, though. We are standing outside the old courthouse in Eutaw, the county seat. Everybody is laughing and smiling. I look up at this chubby woman standing next to me. Her skin is very dark. They call it “blue black.” But I already know that black is beautiful. Her teeth stick out. She is wearing a loud royal-blue polyester dress and white plastic beads that spread across her large bosom. Her hair is fried greasy straight. Because she is sweating, it is starting to go back to nappy. She is shouting, like all the other people around us. “Yes-suh!” she says, affirming the inauguration speaker like she affirms her preacher on Sundays. “It’s a new day in Greene County!” For some reason I will remember her and not Senator Birch Bayh, the man who has been invited here to validate this people’s victory. She doesn’t have much but her dignity. Today she is feeling her power. She’s the kind of person the big men who own everything in the county never have to reckon with. Now they have no choice but to deal with black folks who can and will vote.
The courthouse looks tired. It was erected in 1869 and is about the oldest thing that I have ever seen. Something mossy and green trickles down its white plaster sides. Inside, I sense newness. 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 feeling like I feel on my birthdays: giddy because they know what’s coming. It’s time for the NDPA candidates to be sworn in. 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. Maybe he does want to try. I always want to see the good in people. But Daddy doesn’t believe him. He is laughing because this is the same probate judge, Dennis Herndon, 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 Herndon disobeyed that order, the lawyers went back to the Supreme Court and it ordered a special election just for Greene County. On July 29, 1969, a week after we watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon, 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 twelve 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. I never think to read what the mail says, or to ask Mama about it. 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 behind with babysitters, taking us along when they can. They think that the people of Greene County deserve to be treated like they are somebody and that helping other people be free is what our family is supposed to do.
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 remember most of the names and know that this is the middle part of the state. I also know, because I have been there so much, that it is poor, rural, and black. 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 about her explanation.
On trips to the Black Belt we drive the back roads, sometimes in Daddy’s gold Chrysler 300, sometimes in our camper van. Daddy always does the driving and he 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. Our alliances shift constantly and when they gang up on me I tell Mama or Daddy, which usually works but guarantees that they will exclude me from their next conspiracy.
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 count all the cows on his side of the road. 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 counting 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 thirty points. It’s an easy game to play in the Black Belt because most of the land is used for farms and open pastures.
I like these car rides. The green hills roll by. Mostly things are quiet and still. In the heat, the animals move slowly or not at all. Sometimes we pass an old plantation house, like Thornhill near the farm Daddy bought for the Black Muslims. At the top of a hill, white with pillars, the house stands grandly, defying time. 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 liiiiivenight and dayhe 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. It was only partially effective. She doesn’t have the power of Grandma, or Daddy. Her whippings are mild. Daddy learned from Grandma that whippings are supposed to hurt if a child is to mind because she “whipped him good” when he deserved it. When either of them is in charge, we usually behave. Poor Mama stops her whippings as soon as we start to cry, and crying is easy to fake. 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 go 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. Dad tells them that the “X” is the Greek letter chi, the symbol of Jesus Christ. They can mark their X and bear His cross in the voting booth. But they need a reason to believe that registering to vote and going to the polls will change things. Daddy tries to give it to them. My favorite part is when he quotes Frederick Douglass:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. 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 into it. “Alright.” “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 begin to express that optimism. My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hovik, asks us to write stories in class. I write about family trips to “Muntgumery” and “Sante Lewis.” I also write:
If I could vote I know who would get my vote. But why would he get my vote? Because he will give us better schools and jobs. He will give us better houses and bulidings [sic]. He will give us better bridges and highways. But I won’t tell who he is but why. The end.
Mrs. Hovik is encouraging. She writes “Very Good Stories & Thoughts” on my paper. My activism is launched. I write President Richard Nixon to tell him how to solve the problems of “poulution”: “I feel that we start it and have to end it.” Mr. Nixon must not have liked my idea about sending all our country’s garbage into space on a rocket because he never wrote me back. Or if he did it must have been a form letter because I don’t remember it.
I’m not always happy about Dad’s campaign. “August 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. “November 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, although decades will pass before I understand the real meaning of this. Through the NDPA, my father fulfilled a promise he made to his father, aunts, and uncles about what he would do with his life.
In the meantime, when I am still seven, Election Day is hard to endure at school because everybody seems to think that 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 across California Street, far from the all-white (except for us) neighborhood where we live. 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. What I don’t yet realize is where this family value comes from or why my parents live it so intensely. I also do not yet appreciate the lengths to which my father will go for something or someone he believes in, or the very high price he will pay for being an agitator.

The Lore
A confident man tends to talk about himself, and Daddy is more confident than most. His confidence was my good fortune, though. In talking he shared, and that was how I learned the family lore. He received his emotional inheritance at about the same age that I received mine. Dr. John Logan Cashin Jr., my father, was born in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1928—the second son of Dr. John Logan Cashin Sr. and Grace Brandon Cashin. Daddy was bestowed with the honor of junior even though he was the second son because John Sr. named his first son after his own father, Herschel. That given name would reverberate for four generations. The name John had an even longer etymology in the family.
I don’t remember Daddy’s father. My cousins, who came into this world a few years before me, would recall a sweet, jovial man they called Grand-poppy. When Daddy spoke of his father, he called him Dad. When he spoke of his father’s father, he called him Grandpa Herschel. He never knew this man who became his personal hero because he died before my father was born. One wouldn’t know that from listening to my father talk about him. Grandpa Herschel was three-dimensional in Daddy’s memories because he heard so much about him from the elders. As an uncompromising “race man” who dedicated much of his adult life to uplifting his people, Herschel left a legacy that my father tried his best to live up to. He was determined, he always said, to “finish Grandpa Herschel’s work,” and Herschel became a mythic figure for me as well. In the one head shot we have of him, he stares back at us from a sepia-toned past. His white hair and mustache accentuate handsome features, neither Caucasian nor Negroid. His dress equals any dandy’s. Dignity is his essence. He exudes strength, with slightly squinted eyes that convey a healthy skepticism of the world he inhabits.
Grandpa Herschel—Herschel Vivian Cashin—fathered seven children, four sons and three daughters. A son named Herschel Brewster died before his second birthday. The six remaining Cashin siblings—Vivian, Newlyn, Lillian, John, Pat, and James—all lived to see their hair turn silver, or, in the case of Aunt Vivi, an angelic white. Daddy’s father, John Logan Sr., was the middle son and the twin brother of Aunt Pat.
The elders were all raised in Decatur, Alabama, and by the time my father was born, they were established in careers or marriages from Decatur to Chicago. They would reunite on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and it was at these annual family gatherings that my father absorbed the lore that shaped him indelibly. These stories, in turn, would be passed on to me. I heard fragments as a child. I heard more as a teenager. In my twenties, I stopped listening as I bore down and did my very best to escape the consequences of my father’s activism. By then our family had experienced a great reversal of economic fortune, and the indignities of that reversal culminated in my father’s depositing the Social Security and pension checks of his deceased mother for several years—a “protest” of the Social Security system, he said, for which he was imprisoned. At that point all of his political activism, from the legitimate to the questionable, seemed to carry too high a cost. I would visit my father at the minimum security prison on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, a “camp for wayward boys,” he called it—the place where Nixon’s attorney general John Mitchell and other former luminaries were sent when they fell from grace. And I blamed Daddy for everything. For violating the law when he had to know that, were he caught, his adjudicators were not likely to be merciful. For our impecuniosity and the loss of our wealth, family heirlooms, and our beautiful home. For the indignities he inflicted on Mama and for not being the father he should have been to his sons. He had always put his causes before his family, I thought. “Sometimes I become so angry with Dad that I can’t stop the tears,” I wrote in my diary in 1979 of our “family situation,” which “could best be described as tragic,” I surmised.
My brothers and I each found separate paths to survival, but the friendship we shared in youth did not survive. The lore was a complicated inheritance, and the children of each generation had to choose whether or not to accept the expectations and burdens of social duty that came with it. My father made that choice and, though I was ambivalent about the consequences, ultimately so did I. I suppressed my anger and channeled the fear that came with the shredding of my safety net into school, which led to scholarships and the ability to make my own way. I acquired degrees from Vanderbilt University, Oxford University, and Harvard Law School, and I traveled the world. I worked as a law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall at the Supreme Court. I worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore at the White House. I tried returning home to Alabama in order to run for office and learned that my father’s vision for me—becoming a U.S. senator—was his dream and not mine. I needed to find ways to contribute other than elective politics and became a law professor. I write about race relations and inequality, and I advocate for the change I’d like to see.
As an adult I decided that the lore held the key to understanding my father’s obsessions. In my thirty-seventh year, as Daddy journeyed into old-ness, I extracted a tape recorder from the detritus in my writing desk and began to interview him about the family and his life. For more than two decades, he had been threatening to write a book and I was tired of his inaction. I had heard most of his stories so many times I could repeat them verbatim. I was sick of some of them, sick of the egotism that animated them, sick of the excuses they offered for some of his choices. Still they were his, and mine. I needed to record them so that when he was no longer here I could listen to them and always be with the father I love desperately. I also needed to preserve my inheritance for myself and my children—a rich oral history that reminded me on tough days that I came from a people who persevered and excelled in the face of anything America brought them.
Daddy explained his introduction to the lore this way:
At the holiday gatherings Dad would always get to talkin’ about the doggone family history. He’d bring out these things from his daddy’s box—letters and so forth. It was an ebony box decorated with a silver inlay of an eagle on the top. Grandpa Herschel was like the secretary of his family. There were letters in there that he wrote to his wife when he was a railway mail clerk. There were letters from his brothers. Dad used to read the letters aloud. He’d pull out the accounting book showing the monies that were sent to Grandpa Herschel’s mother and the children in Philadelphia.
And that’s where I got the story from generally, from my dad and Uncle Newlyn. Dad was proud of his father. He would talk about him all the time. The story was that Grandpa Herschel’s father was a white Irishman named John Cashin. Grandpa’s mother was a half-breed who had been in slavery. I guess I was supposed to hate the fact that there was slavery in the family. John Cashin and his mixed-race wife lived in an area in Georgia between the Ogeechee and Savannah rivers where interracial couples could live in reasonable peace. He saw his brothers hobnobbing with the secessionists and slaveholders and he sent his wife and children to Philadelphia because he felt surely that his brothers would sell them into slavery if something happened to him.
Whenever the subject of Grandpa Herschel came up, the conversation would always turn to politics. Grandpa Herschel went to a Quaker school in Philadelphia that is now Cheyney State. He became active in radical Republican politics and was sent to Alabama shortly after the Civil War. He went to Montgomery first. He apprenticed as a lawyer and was elected to the state legislature from Montgomery. He was the receiver of public lands for the Madison Territory, the area north of the Tennessee River. He ran the federal land bank out of an office in Huntsville, and he saw to it that black people got their due. He was the chief architect of Reconstruction in the state. As a result of his activities, in the 1890s we had three black congressmen in Alabama! Blacks had real political influence, about 43 percent of the vote. After the Alabama Constitution of 1901 our vote was less than 1 percent!
In attributing most of the political success of blacks in post-Emancipation Alabama to the grandfather he never met, my father carried a young boy’s blind hero worship, formed during these family gatherings, into adulthood. In his mind, Grandpa Herschel was the person most responsible for Reconstruction in Alabama; hence he viewed the undoing of that epoch as a personal affront to his grandfather. When white supremacists grew tired of suppressing black voters in the state through violence, they held a constitutional convention to use law rather than terror to remove blacks from the voter rolls. The resulting Constitution of 1901 included poll taxes, literacy tests, and other subterfuges that achieved their intended purpose. Dad talked often of the impact of that document on black people and on the elders:
The old folks would tell us about how Grandpa Herschel had a fit over that Alabama Constitution of 1901. Uncle Newlyn is the one who named it the “Cashin Castration Constitution” because that law undid everything Grandpa worked for. As a no-nonsense doctor, Newlyn would use the castration metaphor. He said it in jest, but it affected Dad more than any of them. The first time I remember hearing that term was when I was about seven or eight years old at one of these holiday gatherings. I remember Dad gritting his teeth. It made him angry. He felt helpless. Over the years we had many conversations with Dad like that. Your Uncle Herschel and I knew our daddy and uncles and all the adults in the family were mad about it. We knew blacks had been disenfranchised. We made a pact with each other that we were going to finish Grandpa Herschel’s work.
Herschel was the one saying “we are going to do this.” He was the eldest. If he made a decision, I supported him. We were extremely close. We were born only thirteen months apart. And we were taught you had to work together. In the schoolyard if you attacked one of us, you had to whip both of us, and that became very difficult. Whenever the subject of Grandpa Herschel would come up, we would reaffirm that we were going to do something about [blacks being disenfranchised] to carry through for Grandpa. We made a formal pledge to the family at one of the holiday gatherings.
It was at Aunt Pat’s house on Church Street in Decatur, the house that you now own. I was eleven and Herschel was twelve. We had gotten involved with the Boy Scouts. This was the first organization I was exposed to outside of the family. I started understanding the power of organizations.
Herschel did the talking. We stood side by side. He repeated the historical knowledge that we had picked up from the adults’ conversations and then said that we were going to finish the job. The entire family applauded and patted us on the back: “Yeah,” “Atta boy.” They were proud of us. They were playin’ but we weren’t playin’. We would talk about it at night before bed. We reaffirmed it in high school and college.
I remember when we were at Fisk [University] and we were pledging Omega. It was a ritual. Each pledgee was speaking about what he planned to do with his life for Omega Psi Phi. And Herschel unwrapped ’em all with his plans for the State of Alabama. And I remember these sons of bitches laughing like mad, saying, “Oh, this nigger don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, he’s just full of steam.” But they didn’t know that they were messing with the real thing. ’Cause it wasn’t just Herschel. It was me, too. He was serious, and if he was serious, I was serious.
So it was that family lore—truths and conjectures, anguish and loyalty—cemented the central commitment of my father’s life. Here was the source of his passion. It motivated him to spend his fortune on his causes. In my twenties and thirties, I struggled with anger and resentment over some of his choices. That has given way, in my forties, to a simple need to know and understand the genetic origin of an altruism that has not diminished with time. Dad’s fervor for black political emancipation, his role as an agitator, and my own social justice passions are rooted in the life and choices of his grandfather, Herschel V. Cashin.



On Sale
Jul 31, 2008
Page Count
464 pages

Sheryll Cashin

About the Author

Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, writes about race relations and inequality in America. Her book The Failures of Integration was an Editors’ Choice in the New York Times Book Review, and was a finalist for the 2005 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for nonfiction.

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