The main thing I did was to go down to Mississippi in 1964, as a volunteer for Freedom Summer, and come back alive. At that time, this was considered an accomplishment. It's no joke — we know that three civil-rights workers & at least 3 others were killed that summer in Mississippi, and about forty people lost their lives in the Civil-Rights Movement years.
That summer, I was mostly in Greenwood, Mississippi. This was a good place to be because Sally Belfrage was there & she was writing about her & our experiences, which then appeared as the book, Freedom Summer (1965). She also mentioned my main claim to fame, which was getting arrested 3 times & having the windshield of my car smashed by the police during the night. My car, a VW bug, got to be pretty well known in Greenwood. White folks would pull up beside it & tell me what they were going to do to me when they got a hold of me. Or they would bump up against the rear bumper. Remember, in Mississippi, a feature of every pickup truck was that a hunting rifle would be hanging over the rear window. So, I was kind of nervous & did some fancy driving to get away from these guys, with the result that I got arrested twice for "reckless driving."
The other thing was that I got involved in a demonstration & march by the teenagers of Greenwood. You see, there had been a "Freedom Day" in which black folks went down to try to register to vote. About a hundred people got arrested. And one of the white policemen had dragged a pregnant black woman along the sidewalk by her hair. Well, it turned out that this policeman had a grocery store in the black neighborhood. So, because of what he had done, the teenagers decided to march to his store & picket it shouting, "Boycott this store!"
I decided to join this demonstration. And the result was that I ended up being arrested while on my way walking back to the SNCC office. The charge this time was a bit more serious: "parading without a permit & contributing to the delinquency of minors." I was put in jail for a few hours. Although the movement policy was "Jail, no bail!" I decided, rather than be in jail overnight, to play it safe & bail myself out. This cost $500 of bail money.
There were so many cases like these, that summer, that my 3 arrests as well as many others were lumped together & removed to federal court under the contention that these civil-rights arrests would not get a fair trial in Mississippi courts. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the civil-rights movement & returned these cases to the Mississippi courts, where they seem to have died quietly. (See U.S. Supreme Court: 384 U.S. 808 - City of Greenwood v. Peacock, et al Decided June 20, 1966. See NY Times June 21 1966 & TIME magazine July 1 1966)
When I got back to New York City, in August, I continued my involvement with the MFDP challenge mostly by attending meetings & sending out info to Queens County churches, trying to get them to support the MFDP challenge in any way that they could. During these various activities & meetings, I also met Mickey Schwerner's father, Nat, who was also trying to get support for the MFDP challenge.
In December 1964, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer had also come to Harlem's Williams CME Church to speak & try to get support for the MFDP challenge. I went there to hear her speak. Malcolm X was also there & spoke as well, calling for a "Mau-Mau in Mississippi." The newspapers made big headlines out of this, and it is regarded as one of his most violent utterances. For myself, I understood that he was trying to find his place as part of the civil-rights movement & just reckoned that scaring the white folks in Mississippi into the arms of SNCC & Martin Luther King, Jr was what he should try to do.
All of these activities continued until the climax, when The House of Representatives, on September 17th 1965, had the final roll-call vote on whether to unseat the newly, supposedly "duly elected," representatives from Mississippi. Remember, African-American folks in Mississippi were not allowed to vote, so the election blatantly violated their Constitutional rights. I went to Washington DC for the vote. The roll-call vote, as I recall it, was a travesty. The so-called "liberal" representatives from New York City abstained to start with, in order to see if it would actually win or lose. When they saw it would lose, then, and only then, did they vote FOR it. So, as far as I understood it, total hypocrisy was the best that the House of Representatives could manage!
When I was in Mississippi, I got to know about a remarkable & brave woman named Fannie Lou Hamer. She was an African-American woman in the delta of northwest Mississippi, where cotton is grown, and she worked on a cotton plantation. When the civil-rights movement came to her town, she immediately joined up and went and tried to register to vote. Remember, segregation was the law in Mississippi at that time, & black folks were not allowed to vote. So, after she tried to register, the Ku Klux Klan came & shot through her home, and she & her husband got fired from their jobs & thrown out of their home. But that only made her more determined & she became a real fighter in the civil-rights movement. She was a person of real soul & spirit, & a wonderful singer who inspired many people to become active in the civil-rights struggle. Here's a little bit about her from Sojourners magazine (Dec 1982):
Mrs. Hamer accepted the power of the Gospel within, & the joyful work of shouting & sharing & spreading the Light. She was the leading woman in the black civil-rights struggle, & she was out to destroy the root causes of oppression, but hatred of whites or any person, that she resisted. "I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Ain't no such thing as I can hate anybody and hope to see God's face."
Well, that was her attitude. A most extraordinary woman!
In August 1964, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City - NJ, where Lyndon Johnson was expecting a kind of "coronation" ceremony to nominate him, well, Mrs. Hamer & the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were also there looking for democracy & de-segregation. It's quite a story. You can read about it online or in the book Local People by John Dittmer (1994).
And this challenge by Mrs. Hamer & the MFDP to the national political system, that was one of the main things I was involved with from 1964 to 1965, also back in New York City, where I tried to drum up support for the MFDP challenge, mostly by contacting churches in Queens County, to get the struggle of these people from Mississippi recognized.
Copyright © George Albertz. 2011
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