I want to thank Dean Gracie and the professors who worked with him for inviting me to give this first talk in the lecture series on Letters from Mississippi and Social Justice. I am honored and I hope you, the students, will find my words of value.
I am your real live body — an actual volunteer who came to Western College for Women for the orientation and then went to Mississippi, in my case to be a freedom school teacher. You have read portions of my letters to my parents in Letters from Mississippi. They were usually signed, Pam.
I returned here last year for the Freedom Summer reunion and conference. That was a most rich and moving experience. Seeing other volunteers and fulltime activists and having the opportunity to read my poetry was wonderful. But what truly moved me the most were those events conducted by Miami University students.
Two of us went on a student-led history tour of the places that had been used for training volunteers in 1964. All of the other participants on our tour were university and community people. Saturday night, students presented a dramatic reading of letters, most from the book you have read, but some from the archives. This powerful reading was open to the public. Sunday an ecumenical service was held at the Freedom Summer Memorial where students read prayers from numerous religions. It was beautiful.
You freshmen have joined a truly special educational community.
Before I start my remarks, I want to express my concern for any of you who have lost your homes or have family who suffered from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. May you and they all have the right as well as the ability to return and rebuild, if they so wish.
When I speak about my experiences as a volunteer in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project — what we now call Freedom Summer — young people always want to know how my parents felt. I assume you also want to know and so, I will begin with them.
My parents were not activists. They were white middle class Protestants, active members of their church, who voted Republican until the 1960 election when Mother voted for Kennedy but wouldn't tell anyone. We lived in Pennsylvania in the country across the river from Trenton, New Jersey where my father worked. My mother was a housewife until she started a nursery school when my youngest brother was three. He was six when I went to Mississippi.
In 1964 most young women were closely supervised. Colleges had hours and other rules for controlling our activities. It was called in loco parentis and applied only to the female students. The Mississippi Summer Project could not risk angry parents, much less lawsuits. Any girl under 21 had to get signed permission from her parents. I was only 20.
I never had any question my parents would sign the permission form. To not do so would have been to contradict everything they'd taught me about following one's conscience. About everyone being equal in the eyes of God. About discrimination and injustice being wrong. I told them God wanted me to help redeem our country from the sin of racism. If I were hurt or died, I said, my suffering would not be in vain.
When I came home from college before going to Mississippi, I took a walk with my father in the field in front of our house. He told me he could have refused to sign the permission slip. He wanted me to acknowledge the difficult thing he had done. But I was too young and too eager then to understand just how hard it had been to sign that paper, to actively say yes. I dismissed his comment, telling him he had no choice.
It wasn't just the danger that made that decision so difficult for Dad. He knew that many of the men with whom he worked did not approve of the Civil Rights Movement. They would not approve of his giving me permission to go. He was a man who basked in people's approval. Yet once he made the decision, my father never wavered.
Years later my sister and I sat around my uncle's table with Mother. Dad had died many years before. We began discussing that summer and Mother said she'd argued and argued with Dad to get him to agree to let me go. I knew nothing of those arguments and wouldn't have cared if I had.
When I was trying to figure out how to write about the terror and fear of going to Mississippi, I wrote my mother and asked her about the times she'd been terrified. She wrote back that there'd been two times. First, when she was a young girl her parents had left her to care for her younger brother while they went to the movies. During the evening she heard fire engines on the street where the movie theater was. She was convinced that the theater had burned down and that she and her brother were orphans. She remained terrified until they returned unharmed.
"The other time," she wrote, "was the night we took you to the entrance to the turnpike to catch your ride to Oxford, Ohio." (I was going to the orientation at Western College for Women before going into Mississippi.) She reminded me that the car was late and we'd sat all night long by the tollbooth waiting, not knowing what had happened or when they'd come.
There were no cell phones, of course. No way to get information. We just had to wait, my parents and I. They didn't know if they'd ever see me again. All three of us were scared. The difference was that while I was going to Mississippi, they were going home to hope and pray I would come back alive.
The car finally arrived. It had broken down on the way from New York City, but after that we got to Oxford without a problem. The next morning on the first day of our orientation, we heard that three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi were missing. We were told to call our parents and ask them to put pressure on their congressmen and senators to get federal protection for us. My parents, my grandparents and other relatives and friends did so. My grandfather wrote my parents that only the senator up for election even bothered to answer.
One of my father's senators called him at work. He said, "Get her the hell out of there." Dad answered that the issue was not his daughter's safety but the safety of all the civil rights workers. My father was not an activist and worried about what other people would think because his daughter was going to Mississippi. Yet he did not use the senator's admonition as an excuse to make me come home.
My father died before I understood how brave and noble he'd been. I never said "thank you."
Twenty-five years after Freedom Summer I was invited to speak to an assembly at my old high school. Mother came with me. I told the students I'd had to have my parents' permission to go. I said my mother was here and even though she was scared, she let me go. The students and faculty began clapping. Mother was a small woman. She stood surrounded by people, all focused on her, all honoring her. Tears filled my eyes. They still do.
Mississippi was a scary place. We lived and worked under the stress of never knowing when racist white men would try to hurt or kill one of us. Numerous activists were beaten; a few injured in explosions. Many, myself included, drove in cars at unsafe speeds to escape white men with guns. You read about that chase in my letter about going to speak at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.
Four of our number died that summer, three of them murdered. The fourth died in an automobile accident. I knew him. Wayne Yancey was on my project. He was a black welder from Chicago, who worked on voter registration in the northern counties around Holly Springs.
Towards the end of the summer Wayne and another activist drove two women to Memphis. These women were white freedom school teachers going home. As the two black men drove back to Holly Springs, there was an accident. Wayne was killed.
It was never clear what happened — why the accident happened and why white men were at the crash scene immediately. (There'd been other accidents that civil rights workers believed were engineered.)
But what was clear was that the surviving man needed medical attention. Our project nurse said he would die, if he didn't get help.
Yet the Holly Springs hospital refused to treat him. The black funeral director saved his life, driving him to Memphis in his hearse. Then the sheriff threatened that if the injured man came back to Holly Springs, the sheriff would charge him with Wayne's murder. This activist was a local man. He couldn't come back to his family. We didn't know if he'd really been driving.
Before we went to Mississippi we knew we might die. Before I went, being in the second group of trainees, I knew that three civil rights workers were missing. I also knew the fulltime SNCC activists assumed they were dead. That last night at the orientation in Oxford, Ohio I sang freedom songs and held onto those dear to me. I fully expected more of us would die. And yet, when the news came that Wayne had been killed, I was completely unprepared.
The students were working on their play, Seeds of Freedom, when someone came to tell us of the accident. We stood in shock. I felt someone had to say something. The other teacher, although older than myself, remained silent. I tried to find words of comfort, but I knew my words were not helping.
I now know there are no words to blunt the horror of death, especially untimely death. You reach out because it's all you can do, but there are no magic words. I was young, however. I thought there was a right thing to say. I blamed myself for not knowing what it was. The truth was I hadn't liked Wayne and as I struggled to find the right words, I wondered if that was the reason I was failing.
The first time I met Wayne, I'd been alone in the project's kitchen. Wayne came bounding in and asked me if I would like to have sex with him. No! I said in my most self-righteous voice. I was outraged. I also felt completely dehumanized. What did he know of me except that I was white? How could he assume I would want to sleep with him? Just because he was black?
Wayne had accepted my angry "No!" gracefully and in truth, nothing but my own prudery caused me to continue to dislike him and more importantly, to not get to know him. Recently I heard a story about Wayne that captures another side of his character.
Freedom school teachers from Holly Springs went out to Benton County in the afternoon to teach the children. They used a small rural church. One day when it was pouring rain, they decided to cancel school. There was no way to be sure all the children would find out.
Wayne was concerned. What if some students showed up in that pouring rain? He took one of the freedom school teachers with him and drove out to the church. They found two students waiting, two brothers who got a ride to school but would be walking eight miles home. It was the freedom school teacher who told me this story. Wayne, she said, drove them home.
But I didn't know about this aspect of Wayne. It was a large project and I had just avoided him, feeling morally superior the whole time. And then he was dead and I felt guilty. So guilty I made myself go to his wake.
I stood above the casket looking down. Wayne was a big man in death, just as he'd been a big man in life. But where there'd been such energy, there was nothing. I was unprepared for this absence. Episcopalians didn't view bodies. Wayne's was the first dead body I'd ever seen. I was stunned by the physicality of death.
We didn't live with the people in the community as so many activists did that summer. The women were housed on the Rust College campus and the men lived in the freedom house and freedom school. I saw the older people of the community only at meetings or gatherings, such as the wake. Perhaps if I had been able to sit around the kitchen table in the home where I was staying, my hosts could have helped me deal with the shock of death. Perhaps they could have helped me forgive myself for not finding the right words to comfort the students. Perhaps they could have helped me forgive myself for not having liked Wayne.
The other project members were also having difficulty dealing with Wayne's death. One of the freedom school teachers Wayne drove to Memphis called to say she was home safe and to ask how things were. The woman who'd answered the phone was in shock and said everything was fine.
A new volunteer came the next day after the accident. Someone pointed to a bed, saying. "You can have that one. The guy who had it died yesterday."
We didn't know how to act or how to handle our feelings, including our own fear. Some people got drunk. Others, like me, went about their work, numb and silent.
And then word came that the bodies of the missing civil rights workers had been found buried in an earthen dam. There was no ambiguity about these men's deaths. James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had been murdered.
Yet, in spite of the fear and terror, in spite of the killings and death, I treasure the time I worked in the southern freedom movement. I know this is true of most all of the other volunteers and fulltime activists. It was a privilege to be a part of such a struggle and to know such courageous and beautiful people. Yes, it was hard and frightening. We did fail sometimes in our attempts to transcend racism. We sometimes didn't like each other. But there were profound moments of sharing, times when we transcended the distrust and ignorance racism had bred. Mississippi was never just about terror and trauma.
I was a freedom school teacher and the children and young people rewarded us with enthusiasm and commitment. They came because they hungered for knowledge and a connection to a broader world. They risked their lives and their parent's livelihoods to come to school. They received no credit. The young women I taught stimulated me to learn more so that I could share more. For me teaching was an ecstatic experience.
I worked with people who gave me a new understanding of the meaning of community, not just the brave and dignified local people, but SNCC activists and volunteers as well. Many had beliefs that were different from my own and came from backgrounds I knew little about. We were black and white women and men. On our project we also had one Asian man from Hawaii. There were Jews and atheists as well as Christians. We came from cities, suburbs and the countryside.
This was true diversity and although we sometimes had difficulty with one another, there was the bond that we were in Mississippi together, risking our lives, putting our bodies on the line for justice. I felt a deep respect for the local people and for us. When I left Mississippi, I stopped calling myself a girl and began referring to myself as a woman.
I wasn't prepared for how hard it would be when I left Mississippi. First I went to Atlantic City to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge at the Democratic Convention. The liberal politicians refused to seat the MFDP delegates in place of the racist Democratic Party. I was stunned. And then I was home.
My parents asked me to go with them to visit friends in New Hampshire. All summer long Mother and Dad had focused on this trip. Driving to New Hampshire meant I'd returned from Mississippi. Driving to New Hampshire meant I was alive.
We arrived in the late afternoon at the summer home of my parents' friends. After dinner I accepted an invitation to go along to a party at neighbors, rather than stay with our hosts' younger children.
It was a cocktail party. Middle aged white people with enough money for summer homes stood around drinking and talking. I walked around looking at the many paintings that filled the house. I wore my SNCC button on my blouse. It was round and showed a black hand and a white hand clasped in a handshake, with the letters S-N-C-C around the bottom.
I wore my SNCC button everywhere. The button was my anchor, the symbol of where my heart lay and with whom I identified. It connected me to the students and activists I loved. It was my grounding.
I was standing alone looking at a painting when a man came up to me. Laughing he pointed to my button and said, "What's that stand for? Some Niggers Can't Count?"
I told this man what S-N-C-C stood for — the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That SNCC was the student wing of the Civil Rights Movement. I said SNCC workers were the primary leadership of the Mississippi Summer Project. That I'd worked in Holly Springs, Mississippi, teaching in a freedom school. I spoke calmly. Then I excused myself.
Telling my parents I was leaving and saying good-bye to the hosts, I walked back to the house where we were staying. The stars were brilliant. The air was cool, the night quiet. How many times had I looked forward to walking without fear, to feel the peace that comes with physical safety? Yet I felt no peace in my heart. I'd seen the racist underbelly of upper middle class white culture and I finally understood why black activists said they preferred the blatant racism of white southerners. I felt as if I'd been blindsided.
I didn't say anything to my parents or their friends about what had happened. The next evening when they invited me to accompany them to another party, I declined. Later that night, Mother told me the man with whom I'd spoken had come to her. He'd said how embarrassed he was and how moved he'd been by my response. Mother said she was so impressed that I had remained calm and explained things. She would have exploded. She said I'd handled the situation better than she would have.
I knew the difference between us was that I'd been in Mississippi. I had my experience to share. I'd been trained in nonviolence, including the idea that an "enemy" was also a human being and was to be responded to with love. I'm not sure I acted from that philosophical place, however. I think I simply stood my ground as to what SNCC was and what I'd done.
That evening in the kitchen of my parents' friends' summer home I stood looking at Mother, feeling the gulf between us. I realized I could no longer count on my mother for guidance. I'd had experiences she hadn't had and in some ways, I understood more.
My parents believed as I had when I left for Mississippi that the Deep South was an aberration, a cancerous growth on what was otherwise a good and just system. Now I was beginning to question that. I'd seen the federal government do nothing to protect the lives of people fighting for their civil rights. I'd seen the Democratic Party allow blatant discrimination. I'd seen cruelty and violence.
I didn't know how to talk with my parents and share my questions. They believed in the electoral process. They believed our country was essentially good. I was beginning to wonder.
In addition, I was beginning to question how a good and just society could allow disparities in wealth. I knew people were poor in the North, but I'd seen poverty in Mississippi. I began to question whether it was possible to have integrity if you were rich while others were poor. We were not rich; we were comfortably middle class. Yet it still seemed obscene to have so much when others had so little.
It would take me almost a full year to reconnect with my parents. It required differentiating from them and becoming my own person, while learning how to continue to love them. I needed to discover how I wanted to live my life. Yet I resented them for not being able to help me. They were hurt when I stopped sharing my feelings.
For my mother the gulf between us was so painful that she wrote a letter to the mother of Andrew Goodman, the summer volunteer who'd been murdered in Mississippi. You lost a son, she wrote, but I lost a daughter. Mother never sent that letter. She knew it wasn't the same, but at the time she could think of no one else who could understand her pain.
I titled this talk, "Why struggle? Why care?" and then I emphasized in my own story how hard it was. Why? Why didn't I just tell you the good things that happened to me and how proud I am to have been part of such a noble venture as the Mississippi Summer Project? Why not tell you anecdotes from others about how much Freedom Summer meant to them? Why not tell you how some consider it the best thing they ever did? How a SNCC activist who opposed the Summer Project said at a book party for Letters From Mississippi that he's proud we white activists learned our organizing skills in Mississippi?
No one stays in the struggle for social change because it is easy. No one stays because it brings you wealth or prestige. No one continues during the hard times if all they wanted was an adventure. Or romance.
People keep on keeping on because they believe in something greater than themselves. They want to live their lives knowing they contributed in some small way to making this a more humane and just world.
This society vilifies the poor, especially the black poor. But you saw in our letters from Mississippi that we white volunteers benefited so much from working with the black people of Mississippi, most of whom were poor. We struggled. We cared. We benefited.
Copyright © 2005, Chude Allen