There is a photograph taken in June 1964. I am nineteen years old, standing with my back to a bus in Oxford, Ohio, my right arm crossed over my left, my right hand held by a black man my age, my left by a white woman. We are singing "We Shall Overcome" with our whole heart. A photographer named Steve Shapiro snapped it originally for Life Magazine, and the photograph is owned by a commercial archive. It has become, like photographs of a napalmed Vietnamese child and a screaming college student at Kent State, an emblem of an age, a representative image of a time, and of an event that has passed not only into history, but also into a kind of mythic space.
The first time I came across the picture, on the dust jacket of Doug McAdams' Freedom Summer, I saw it the way almost everyone else does. I recognized the scene (and knew I'd been there) but didn't see myself in it. It took a second look, an almost tactile recall of the roll of a shirt sleeve and the way the wristwatch turned inward on the right wrist for me to recognize myself. And the picture has forced me to accept my own place in it, not as a named figure with a rounded life and children of my own, the whole personality I think myself to be, but, more humbly, as a tiny, anonymous (but not inconsequential) part of something much larger and grander — a generation, an idea, a hope, a universe.
So it's not really a photograph of me. I just happened to be in the range of a camera that was recording — on speculation — something that later came to be called history. The day after that photo was taken, three of my colleagues were dead. And year after year I trot myself out, like the picture, as a living exhibit of history in classrooms and lecture halls. I connect the events of 1964 with the events of today as best I can. Every year I get a little older, my perspective deepens, and every year that nineteen- year old boy keeps singing "We Shall Overcome" with my whole heart.
I am proud of the boy in that picture. What I'm most proud of about him is what makes him different from the running Vietnamese child and the college girl whose arms are flung out over a corpse — he is not a victim of his times, but an agent of them. He did not wait to have things happen to him, but he did what he could to make things happen, and he is memorialized forever in that posture, hoping with my whole heart and an open mouth that "We Shall Overcome." I have put a copy of that picture in my daughter's memory box and labeled it "Papa," not merely out of pride in the boy who is now her father. It is also in the hope that it will help to inspire her to make her place in the world, so that if she ever gets snapped by chance into an emblematic image of her age, it will be not for weeping in pain, but for singing the hope of her own acts.
That summer of 1964 began for me on Broadway, at a production of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The same night, I boarded a Greyhound bus for Columbus, Ohio, on my way to a training session at Western College for Women (now absorbed into Miami University) for the Mississippi Summer Project. Let Hamlet stand in for the world I left when I entered rural, poverty-stricken, segregated Mississippi. It was a sophisticated, literate New York I had come to know by heart, a theatre district I haunted in every spare moment during my high-school years, and to which I would return, irrevocably changed. I hadn't planned on going to Mississippi that summer. My original plans were to take the most junior part in a repertory company planning summer theatre on Nantucket. But those plans fell apart at the end of winter, just when the idea of joining the summer project became interesting.
The civil rights movement in Mississippi had first been brought home to me a year earlier, when I was a high-school senior in White Plains, New York. In March 1963, a former high-school schoolmate — Dave Gelfand, then a freshman at Brandeis — got in touch with a friend of mine, Peter Sandman, saying he was going to drive to Greenwood in a station wagon in a week and a half, and could we please assemble some food and clothing for him to take with him. He sent us some information, including copies of The Student Voice, the propaganda newsletter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, telling the story of sharecroppers expelled from their plantations for trying to register to vote, and of a SNCC civil rights worker, Jimmie Travis, who had been shot by white vigilantes trying to frighten the civil-rights "movement" out of Mississippi. All of it was reasonably new to me. Names like Fannie Lou Hamer's and Jimmie Travis's meant nothing, although I had met John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me, and P.D. East, the editor of The Petal Paper, in my own living room. Peter and I didn't think we could do much — we had a busy week ahead, and our school was in in the middle of its own clothing drive for poor people in Kentucky. But Peter went off to a high-school journalists' conference at Columbia, where he met someone who offered us the use of the mimeograph machine of a long-standing left-wing beehive at 5 Beekman Street. I happened to be in the city that weekend, too, and we got together at my father's apartment over a bottle of chianti, whipped up a propaganda leaflet, borrowed money from still another friend who had come into the City to do research at the Public Library, printed it up, took it back to White Plains, gathered ten of our classmates at my house, divided the city into ten districts, and — by the end of a week of mobilizing more than 200 others to help us canvass the county — filled the Gelfands' two-car garage with donated food and clothing. SNCC arranged for a truck to haul it all down to Mississippi. I went back to my studies, and to summer school in Maine after graduation. During the famous March in Washington, I was hitchhiking with another friend through eastern Canada.
Now, as a freshman at Wesleyan University, I applied for the summer project that has since entered American historical mythology as "Freedom Summer." I was called before a committee for an interview, and they rejected my application. (Not until decades later was I able to color in this picture: that I hadn't been political enough for the Allard Lowenstein contingent trying to control the summer project, and it was Lowenstein's Yale people controlling my interview.) But I wasn't prepared to stop there. The New York leftist literary critic Max Geismar was a friend of my family, and I called on him to try to get me accepted. He succeeded.
Because I was under twenty-one, I needed parental permission to go to Mississippi. I hadn't told either of my parents of my application. I hitchhiked the well- worn route down to White Plains from Wesleyan, and brought the form to my mother.
"I don't want you to go," she said, "but I can't stop you."
"Of course you can stop me," I said. "If you don't sign, I can't go."
"No," she said. "I mean, the way I raised you, I can't stop you."
Sometime that spring, I attended a meeting at Riverside Church in New York City. I have no idea who else was there — I knew no one — but it was a kind of pre-orientation orientation. I recall now only that someone — it must have been a SNCC field secretary — said that he was not talking about the possibility that one of us might be killed, but the probability that more than one of us would. (This statement becomes important in the light of accusations that we were naive innocents led to our slaughter by cynical SNCC staffers looking for martyrs. If anything, we were over-warned.)
And so I went to Hamlet. Burton mouthed his lines like mashed potatoes. Then I boarded the bus at midnight.
In Columbus, a car from Western College met me. I carried a typewriter, a backpack, and a hundred dollars in cash. What I remember of Columbus was that it seemed to be filled with barbers' colleges. Of Oxford itself and of the college, I remember almost as little, except that it was very green. I must have had at least one roommate, I don't recall his name or face.
The loneliness I felt in Oxford was the loneliness I brought with me. I was a white boy who loved Shakespeare and opera, who didn't drive a car, who had grown up hero- worshiping Robert E. Lee, and who had, seven years earlier, taken a one-week car-trip with his father visiting the shrines of the Confederacy. I felt I had very little in common with all the others milling around the Western College campus. Some of these were the children of Midwestern Protestant clergy, others were "Red Diaper" babies or older, political-science types from Stanford and Yale. The experience of those two weeks of intense training and a common political goal bound me to these strangers, but, with no more than one or two exceptions, the bonding went no deeper than the experience.
For reasons both personal and political, I was not particularly indulgent of my own feelings during the orientation. The letters I wrote back to White Plains were composed mostly with the intent of explaining and supporting our activities. These letters (and my later ones from Mississippi, in 1964 and 1965) were mimeographed by my mother and distributed to a list of people, including the editor of the local newspaper, who reprinted them as they came in. Later, they became the nucleus of a collection of letters from more than one hundred fifty of the volunteers, published in 1965 as Letters from Mississippi. (The book has been reprinted by Zephyr Press.)
When the assignments were made to the different projects, I was slotted for the project centered in Vicksburg. Uncomfortable with the director of that project, I signed up for the project farther south, the Third Congressional District, which was considered the most dangerous place to work, and therefore took only those who selected themselves from within the general group of volunteers. I did this after talking with the one person I had become most friendly with in Oxford — Jimmie Travis. (There is an irony here. The year before, working on the leaflet over that bottle of chianti in New York City, I had read the account of Jimmie's shooting and had said to Peter, "I'll do everything I can up here, but I'll be goddamned if you catch me going down there!") The only other person I remember being friendly with was a Western College student who hung around the training, Mary Volk. David Gelfand was a volunteer, but we were never close friends. Two other Wesleyan classmates trained that week. I liked and respected John Suter, but didn't know him very well except as someone who liked Gershwin and Wagner. For nearly half a century, I forgot that Joe Smith had also been in our group; he reminded me at our fortieth college reunion. In general, I continued to feel pretty much alone.
And then into the second week. While most of the volunteers went
to their projects, those of us who had volunteered for the
Southwest were held back by Bob Moses, ostensibly for more
training, but mostly because he was reluctant to send us into
what was considered the most volatile and dangerous part of
Mississippi. Several of us in that contingent decided to make a
quick trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and to raise
our visibility in the national press. "
The first group left
Oxford, Ohio, last Saturday and entered the state without
incident," I wrote in a letter dated June 25 but written both
before and after the excursion to Washington. "
The entire state is
now being worked except for the southwest. Bob felt it wise to hold us
back until the reactions in the rest of the state were known. We decided
to use our time in a two-day intensive lobby of Washington, and on
Monday and Tuesday we stormed congressional and senatorial offices.
Tuesday morning we met with John Doar and Burke Marshall of the Justice
Department and presented our demands: Enforcement of sections 241, 242
of Title 18 of the Criminal Code; federal marshals with every project;
and out-of-state F. B. I. investigators to be used in civil rights
cases. We were generally — and
rudely — refused. Tuesday afternoon we held a press
Volunteer Steve Bingham had appointed himself our spokesman at the press conference, because his grandfather (I think) was a representative. But it was Len Edwards' father, Congressman Don Edwards, who gave us his office and his staff for that occasion. (I don't remember Len being with us, but he might have been.) One of the other volunteers, Mario Savio, spoke with a distinct stutter. But, at the press conference, when Bingham was pontificating in a particular windbaggy, self- important way, Mario grabbed the microphone from him and delivered an eloquent, fluent speech, the gist of which drew a connection between economic interests in the North and southern politics, in which he claimed that Harvard University owned a controlling interest in Mississippi Power and Light and could, if it used its influence, bring segregation down. In retrospect, this was a foreshadowing of Mario's taking over the microphone at Sproul Hall the following October, raising an impatient, articulate radical voice against the liberal Establishment wing of what was, for us, the White Power Structure.
... and drove back to Oxford that night. We arrived on Wednesday
to a particularly tense campus: The second orientation people were
shocked by the developments in Philadelphia and seemed more naive than
the group the week before.
That afternoon we conferred with Bob, and decided to move out
with this group into training areas in Mississippi before going into the
southwest. Natchez people will work in Columbus for a while, McComb
people in Holly Springs, and Amite (pronounced ay-MITT) people in Holmes
County. Before we get into our own areas, we intend to give ourselves
extensive and intensive survival training..."
Funny how memory works: Before I re-read this letter, it was stuck in my memory that we made our D. C. dash because of the disappearance of our colleagues James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and fellow volunteer Andrew Goodman. But the letter implies that we had made this decision before what had happened to them was generally known — they were last heard from on Sunday — and it explains why I have no direct memory of hearing the news of their fate at Oxford: I wasn't there when the news sank in. But, when we came back, there was already no assumption other than that the three were dead.
Bob begged us to reconsider our own commitment. In the midst of one long "soul-session" discussion, he sent us away for hours to rethink for ourselves what we were getting into. Certainly I was afraid (most concretely, not of death, which was as abstract to my nineteen-year old understanding as any other concept; nor of pain — because our training had already taught me the distinction between pain and injury — but of castration) and yet I remember thinking quite consciously that, having made one commitment — to join the Mississippi project in the first place — there was no reason to qualify or trim that commitment. I think only one of us backed out, but, in the end, very few of us got to the southwest in 1964. From Holly Springs I was seconded to the Panola County project, which needed people because of its special status under a federal court order.
What's missing from this account is the high rhetoric of racial justice and Freedom Now. While I was sensible of the politics and the responsibility that brought me into the Summer Project, I learned the rhetoric in Oxford along with nonviolence training, the role-playing, the socio-political and anthropological studies and the music that were thrown at us twenty-four hours a day and that were so crucial in binding white and black strangers into a Movement. But these have been written about eloquently, and can be heard and seen in documentaries and the more general historical record. If I had to specify, though, what I learned most during those intensive two weeks, it was one skill taught as part of the training in door-to-door canvassing. I learned how to listen.
In September 2004, I returned to Oxford for a conference of civil-rights veterans and scholars. There, I discovered how much we had become History. On the campus of what was once the Western College for Women, the State of Ohio has erected a roadside- type plaque, and Miami University itself has constructed a small outdoor amphitheatre to commemorate our training. It is hard to be considered, even sat on, as a monument, to be remembered as a stone slab while you're still alive and screaming. Students who were detailed to shepherd us around and cater to our needs — kids the same age I had been in 1964 — were either ignorantly bemused by our presence or awed by our paunchy connection to the contents of their textbooks. Some had researched archives and led us on a guided tour of a week or two out of our own earlier lives. It took almost as much effort to get them to talk about themselves, their aspirations and those for our shared country as it had been four decades earlier to earn the trust of Mississippi sharecroppers, but the exercise proved to be the best part of the return.
For the rest, it was intriguing to realize that I was not alone in the limitations of my memory. "This is the dining room," the student guide announced, and we looked at one another with surprise. While all of us had vivid memories of our college dining facilities, none of us could remember a single meal taken on the Oxford campus. Far more vivid were the spaces in which we had learned Mississippi politics and the techniques of nonviolent protection, where we had debated the uses and efficacy of guns or ballots, and where we had sung those freedom songs that expressed our heart.
In August 1964, nineteen years old, I lived and worked in the small town of Como, in Panola County, Mississippi. When I say a small town, you'll recognize an American stereotype. The Illinois Central Railroad ran north-south down the center. On one side of the railroad tracks, the white residential part of town spread out into shady side streets — bungalows, split- levels, and a few larger, older houses off into the farmland. Next to the tracks stretched the commercial main street, with its older buildings fronting the blacktop and, on the back side of that, the "colored" side of town. Buildings and warehouses that faced the railroad tracks, some of them old-fashioned with rickety arcades, opened their back doors and delivery bays to an unpaved street that paralleled Main and served the black community.
My work was that of a volunteer with the voter registration project, sponsored by a coalition of civil rights organizations (COFO) that has since entered American historical mythology as "Freedom Summer." Day after day I talked with local black citizens in their houses, tried to arrange for the use of a church for organizational meetings, or plotted with high-school students to pressure their elders to apply to register to vote and to support Mississippi's own Freedom Democratic Party. It was work that often didn't feel like work, and one of its principal objects was simply my presence in the community. My very visibility was an advertising billboard. More than thirty years later, Larry Taylor, one of the teen-agers I had met in Como, wrote what it looked like from his point of view:
You probably don't remember this occasion, but you were at our house one day and we were talking about different things, and some how you realized we were ashamed of the way we lived, the homes we lived in, the run down furniture we had, and the overall poverty situation we were all in. You told us that we had nothing to be ashamed of and that it wasn't our fault the way we lived, and you went on to explain why. We were very cautious of you because you were white, and could not understand why someone like you would care whether we lived or died. But after that talk, all fears were gone and for the first time in my life I felt like I was somebody. I participated in the Poor People's March in 1967, and graduated from Como High School in 1968. I went into the Army in 1969, and to Viet Nam in 1970. I am now married and live in Cleveland, Ohio. I have told all of my children over the years how much you inspired me to go out in to the world and learn everything I can about myself and my people. You made me love myself, and that was the best thing you could have done not only for me, but for any human being.
Our project headquarters was several miles south, in the county seat of Batesville, and I was the only visible "outside agitator" resident in Como.
One afternoon I was walking down the unpaved back street that ran parallel to Main. Not alone, no. For safety, we civil rights workers always tried to walk in pairs, and I was working the streets with Willie Curtis Johnson, a local high school student who had organized about twenty of his fellow students into the "North Panola Junior Voters League." Willie Curtis was hanging back a little way away from me and off to the side when three white men stepped out of the back door of a loading bay of one of the commercial buildings, and blocked my passage. I knew the name of only one of them, Frank.
After all these years, I can't recreate most of their exact words, but one sentence stands out clearly: "Boy, you better be out of town by sunset if you don't want to end up like those three."
There was no question who those three were. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner had just been dug out from under a dam in Philadelphia, on the other side of the state. Just a day or two before, I had written, "How the ghosts of those three shadow all our work! 'Did you know them?' I am constantly asked. Did I need to?"
I stood facing Frank and his two friends standing in the road. I couldn't move forward without pushing past them; so, for an instant, we just stood. Then quick-witted Willie Curtis, taking in the stand-off, called over for me to come with him. Slowly, slowly, I turned my back on the three white men, and slowly I walked back towards Willie Curtis and his step-father's barber shop.
Of course I was terrified. But I turned my back and walked off without showing my fear. Equally of course, I didn't leave town. The incident reverberated nowhere except in my own head, or so I thought, for twenty years. Then, in 1984, I returned to Como. The instant I had taken a seat in the black cafi, and in spite of age and a beard, I was instantly recognized. The local town gossip of two decades before slid into the seat next to me, and with barely an introduction, asked straight out as if it had been the day before, without even bothering to specify the event, "Did Frank really slap your head?" Black Como had watched the incident from its own distance, and never forgotten it.
"No," I answered Cleve. "He just tried to scare me."
Why hadn't I turned tail and run? Why wasn't I out of town by sunset? It wasn't the training from COFO that held me to my purpose and overrode my fear, but a simple mistake made by Frank and his buddies. When they faced me down on that dusty road, when they uttered the magic words, "Be out of town by sunset," they propelled all of us into an American scenario that proceeded according to its own script. I was no longer standing there alone with Willie Curtis Johnson off to my side. I was standing in a much larger mythical street with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Alan Ladd and Gregory Peck backing me up. The music of "Do not forsake me, oh, my darling," swelled on the sound-track. I knew how to behave because my country's culture embodied in Hollywood and television had taught me how to behave.
(Slightly more than three years later, riffing away as he presided over a sit-in on the steps of the Pentagon and contemplating a Lone Ranger lunchbox, Abbie Hoffman talked about the same influences on his own radical career. Not Marx, not Mao, not Che Guevara, but a flash of silver and a cry of "Hi ho, Silver, away!" Who was that masked man?)
Perhaps it was the same for Frank and his friends. They said what they said and acted as they acted because their America had taught them to play — how consciously I don't know — at Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. If anything, they thought they were the ones standing for law and order against the marauding outlaw gang shooting up the local saloons and terrifying the womenfolk. Frank had long since died by 1984 (Cleve informed me) so I couldn't ask him.
If I were to stop here, this essay might be about the power of art to inspire and organize our lives. And certainly that power has shaped mine.
But that high noon was not in Hollywood. It was Mississippi. What was the difference? What made it new?
The difference was Willie Curtis Johnson, that high-school kid, now a retired businessman in St. Louis. Willie Curtis was no comic sidekick stumbling onto the scene of a showdown by accident, no foil for the heroic stance of standing tall, but the actual reason we were on that street and the intelligent agent who could rewrite the script and defuse the violence with its underlying assumptions, and who, in his thousands in the American South, continued over the next decades to do exactly that. The dramatic stories will be remembered and rewritten by people like me, who sauntered on and off the set, leaving Willie Curtis and Larry Taylor to grow up not only with Frank and his buddies, but also with Mary Short Wilson, a North Panola white woman who wrote me in 1984 her own memory of another encounter that summer with another of the volunteers:
[A] young man came to my door ... It was hot and I asked if a coke and having his coat off would be better. Since he had not had lunch a sandwich or cake and a glass of milk was served and my late husband who was retired from the rural route due to heart trouble was visiting with the guest. All of a sudden it occurred to me who the young man was and with my mind on the finishing up details before going into a Memphis hospital for serious lung surgery the next day, I was shocked at my unguarded remarks. Nothing unkind or abusive entered the conversation and as we were all leaving — we had plans to eat supper with our daughter in Oxford — the young man said to my husband "you sound just like my father." That may not have been intended as a compliment but we accepted it as one. Following surgery, the first get-well card or note I received — addressed to the intensive care unit — was from the civil rights worker.
The everyday kindness, hospitality or just acceptable behavior on our part and his understanding of our concern — and quiet action to set my mind at ease — have always come to mind when working with situations of change and integration. If southern people as a whole had not been so fearful and had been so fortunate — as we were — to meet the strangers in our area as guests in the living room, a lot of pain could have been avoided. I felt thankful that I had met and liked a nice person from New Hampshire or Vermont who deserved better than an icy reception in an uncomfortably hot, tense, rural area.
Mrs. Short died in a retirement community in Mississippi. Larry Taylor lives in Cleveland, Ohio, now — having tracked down across the decades the daughter he had fathered during a genuine love affair in Vietnam. In December 2010, Willie Curtis's son Jeffery, now an administrator at Providence College in Rhode Island, married the college's volleyball coach. For the first time since 1964, Willie Curtis and I met again, and finally reconstituted our old alliance as a friendship.
Copyright © Jim Kates, 2011.