On a hot morning in July I stood before my first class in the Freedom School we had just set up in Canton, Mississippi. It was 1964, and we had traveled south by train from Western Womens College in Ohio, our training site. Our group already had the knowledge that three volunteers were missing and very likely dead. Each of us had to come to a full stop and make the decision to go all over again. Instead of violence we had read about, this was so real it was hard to take in. And then the tough phone call to my parents. I do not remember saying much; there was a long line of volunteers waiting to use the phone. They gave me their blessing without ever saying so, and stood behind me in many ways I did not understand then.
Our group rolled out of Ohio on buses, quietly talking and wondering what was ahead. The plan was tightly scheduled to have all the volunteers arrive at nearly the same time, all over the state. None of us northern white college students knew much of anything about where we were going. Not more than a few of us had ever been in the South. It was black and white images on television, or photos in newspapers.
We had left early, and I imagine we traveled all night until we reached the state border. On a local train that would take us to Canton, I first felt afraid. The other white passengers were looking at us, really staring at us. We had been sitting with black and white volunteers together as a group. Soon one of the leaders reassigned us so we were all sitting white next to white, black next to black and some distance between the two.
When we arrived in Canton, we were quickly put into cars to go to the police station to be fingerprinted, photographed, and to listen to a recording by the governor: go home was his message. We cannot be responsible for your safety. For many years that police ID was a badge of honor, always a little surprising when it showed up in a desk drawer.
We had about a week to quickly get out school set up and meet the family we were staying with. Their kindness was what made our mission possible. The Robinsons moved out of their bedroom and in with their young son so two of us could share the daybed in the living room, and two more, the bedroom. Their welcome was clear and warm and we started to get to know each other and how to navigate around the town.
One of the volunteers had driven his car down, loaded to the roof with books. He was able to drive us to the bank and the post office so we could pick up our mail. A very important package arrived from my mother — skirts, blouses, and a hat. I grasped quickly that I needed to be dressed like a schoolteacher instead of a college student.
In a few weeks we developed a routine and each of us found a good subject area. We had the good luck to be joined by the wife of the white chaplain at Toogaloo College, Jeannette King. She had lots of experience in the south and really wanted to help make our school a success. At the Reunion, we learned that she had a major influence on the curriculum for all the Freedom Schools.
Among the books that came with us was one of plays by black authors. With a little help from us, the students decided they wanted to rewrite Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry to adapt it to their situation. They developed the conflict - between high school students their age, and their parents. The key moment was a sit-in demonstration that meant they might get hurt or put in jail and they needed their parents to let them go to it.
Throughout July we had visitors now and then. Some photographers from Life came and photographed the school for a possible story, though it never ran. Sometimes on the phone calls home we would get the real news. Mostly we operated in a vacuum, and knew very little about what was happening in other parts of the state. We would hear news when some of the lawyers from the SCLC law project stopped in.
The days were long and sometimes hard for us. Jeannette King was a real boost to our morale. She could sympathize, and also be a sounding board. It was good to have someone a few years older to talk to at the end of the day that could help us find the best techniques and questions for our students. She knew the white South from the inside.
On days when we did not have school, we sometimes helped register voters for the Freedom Democratic Party. We would go in pairs and explain why we were asking adults to register. I remember sitting with a woman who must have been in her thirties. None of her children were there that day, so it was quiet as we explained what the Party was going to do - challenge the regular Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. I was happy when she agreed to register, but I felt the awful weight of what we were asking her to do.
As the summer continued, we were mostly getting news from the radio, and calls home. We had to be careful, since we had been told our calls were tapped. Easy to hear the clicks in the background.
Many years later, my mother told me they had gotten death threats about me. Somehow because my father had experience with racists in his field, criminology, they understood the threats were attempts to intimidate them and they never asked me to come home. Though I did promise I would go back to college and finish my degree.
We were hearing that our group would be going to Atlantic City to help support the FDP challenge. We still thought we would have time for our students to perform their play. As it turned out, it was very good fortune that Jeannette King had come to help us.
On August 4th, the bodies of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney were found under a dam where they had been hidden. The entire state, especially the civil rights workers, went on high alert. Many of the senior leaders in the movement felt it was important to get the students home safely. Plans were made quickly about how to do this quietly. Another women and I took shelter at Toogaloo with Jeannette King until our travel arrangements could be made.
It wasn't clear exactly when we would leave to go north and get ready for the convention, though there was a COFO office in Brooklyn, and many volunteer jobs waiting for us. But suddenly I woke up in the middle of the night and was rushed to the hospital. At the University Hospital in Jackson, despite my utter panic that I would not be treated well due to being a civil rights worker, I received very good care for an emergency appendectomy.
While I was in the hospital, all my co-teachers came to visit and I learned that our students had performed the play for their parents and community. It was so well received it went on tour to Toogaloo and any other place that would sponsor it.
The immediate goal for me was to get home and recover. As I watched the MFDP delegates testify about how they had been beaten and jailed for trying to vote, I felt helpless. As the days wore on, it became clear that they would not be seated. As John Lewis said later, Rwe had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face."
When I returned to Syracuse, shortly after registering, it turned out that a junior year medical student whom I knew slightly was really eager to meet me. The years went by quickly and we are about to celebrate our 48th wedding anniversary.
Not very long after we met we realized the civil rights movement was exploring some new directions in the north. Tutoring black students became a new focus, as did voices for Black Power and self- determination. But as we started to see the direction that Johnson was taking in Vietnam, protesting against the war became an urgent focus. We were already aware that black men were greatly over-represented in the draft.
Finally, in Berkeley, where my husband Norman and I relocated for his internship, we made the decision that he would apply to become a conscientious objector. Most of that year I worked with law students from Berkeley to help him put together all the background documentation the draft board needed.
To our amazement the classification came in the mail without fanfare. If he volunteered to do alternate service in rural northern California, he would be able to start his service on his own timing. And so we moved far away from anything we knew, learned how to farm and had our first child, Rebecca, who is joining us at the 50th Anniversary Conference. As they were growing up her two younger brothers heard the Mississippi story, sometimes at family gatherings, and a few times I was asked to speak about it. They and their families will be anticipating seeing the first-hand photos of the 50th Reunion
As I write this, I have been looking back to my family and where I started. All my life I heard how from my mother how her father had been a social activist. He integrated his church in Philadelphia, PA. There are many stories about what happened. One is that congregants belonging to the Klan walked out, and he directed the organist to play the Funeral March. Another is that when he went home that night a cross was burned on his lawn. He died in his forties, long before I was born, but my grandmother, his widow, kept alive that legacy. Well into her eighties, she was addressing envelopes for peace, for as Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned for the United Nations.
Then I remembered the adventure of going to France as a student in France at the University of Poitiers in the first semester abroad from Syracuse University. Long evenings I practiced my conversation skills in the library break room arguing with North African students. It was impressive how politically astute they were. Especially after President Kennedy was assassinated, they kept pressing me to see what I thought should happen in the south. I did not have a good answer for them.
Finally when I was back at school in upstate New York, there was a small student civil rights group, SUSE, Syracuse University Students for Equality. Before I knew quite how I took it on, a good friend thought I could take a larger role. This led to me chairing a controversial lecture series that featured both Ross Barnett and John Lewis.
By the time Lewis had finished explaining what the Mississippi Freedom Summer was, and what our role could be, I knew I had to go. Here I am at the 50th Reunion, with no regrets except perhaps having waited so long to come back.
Copyright © Jennie Nancy Dishotsky, 2014.