CORE's Freedom Summer 1964 — My Experiences in Louisiana
Jeff Schwartz

Beginings
CORE's Freedom Summer, 1964
The Louisiana Literacy Test and How It Worked to Deny Black Voting Rights
Enforcing the New Civil Rights Act of 1964
Driving Back from a Voter Registration Clinic
Changing Viewpoints/Walking in the Moccasins of the Other
Summer's End

Beginings

My experiences as a civil rights worker began in my hometown, Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1950s or early 1960s. There was a public roller skating rink on the east side of the city called "Rollerland." For all practical purposes, even though far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, it practiced segregation. African-American young people were not allowed to skate except on certain limited days or times. The local chapter of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed the rink protesting racial segregation. My older brother, Niki, and younger sister, Sondra, joined the picket line. It was my first engagement as an activist.

In 1963, I attended the August 28 March on Washington along with my brother. We were no more than 100 yards from where Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream Speech." When he began to urge the crowd to "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana ..." I thought about the courageous student sit-in leaders, Freedom Riders, Birmingham school children and Medgar Evers, who had been willing to sacrifice everything to end racial segregation, and I vowed to do my small part. That is where I formed the intention to go south the next summer and help with the voter registration drive in Louisiana. (I foolishly thought that this would be less dangerous than going to Mississippi the next summer.)

 

CORE's Freedom Summer, 1964

The summer of 1964 started with an orientation and training session organized by CORE for its summer volunteers in Plaquemines, LA. Among other things, we received training in the voter registration procedures and literacy test that Black citizens would be subject to. Our goal was to canvass Black neighborhoods and hold meetings at Black churches to encourage Black members of the communities where we would be stationed to attempt to register to vote. We knew most of these attempts would be unsuccessful, but we hoped that these community organizing efforts would strengthen the will in the African-American community to claim their voting rights and provide documentation for the Justice Department of systemic denial of Black voting rights by the parish (county in Louisiana) and state governments. We were also trained in non-violent responses to threats and violence.

After the orientation and training sessions, small groups of us were deployed to various areas around the state. I was sent to Tangipahoa Parish, to the towns of Hammond and Ponchatoula, Louisiana.

[Tangipahoa Parish is adjacent to Washington Parish and "Bloody Bogalusa"]

 

The Louisiana Literacy Test and How It Worked to Deny Black Voting Rights

You can find a copy of the Louisiana Literacy test online here. How it works at one level was very simple. Every white applicant passed the test and, every African-American applicant failed. How is this possible? Here's how:

One error and you didn't pass — if you were African-American. The white voter registrars made the pass-fail decisions. Who appointed these voter registrars? The white parish (county) commissioners — that's who. Who elected the white parish commissioners? The mostly white population of registered voters, that's who — even if they were not really a majority of the parish population. If you're not registered to vote, you can't vote. Therefore, all the politicians who made the rules were white. And the police chiefs that enforce the laws were all white. And the policemen they hired were all white. If you are not registered to vote, you can't serve on a jury, so any time there's a criminal charge or a civil dispute in the courts, the judges and juries are all white. That's how it was in Tangipahoa Parish in the summer of 1964, and throughout most of Louisiana.

It was a vicious cycle, and no way for the African-American residents to win. Yet the courage of the Black community led many determined souls to go to Freedom Schools, learn how to take the test and make no easy mistakes, endure the slights, derision, and stonewalling (and even threats) from white registrars, and come back again and again, more determined than ever to win the right to vote and demonstrate the illegitimacy of the system that kept them from exercising that right.

At the end of the summer of 1964, I went back to Ohio State University in Columbus, and together with other freedom summer workers organized the "I'm illiterate" campaign. We made up buttons that said "I'm Illiterate". We administered the Louisiana voter registration test to our fellow college students, then flunked all the white students and passed all the Black ones — just to show how the Louisiana system worked (only in reverse). We gave all the students who took the test an "I'm Illiterate" button and told them to explain it to their friends, family, roommates, and others. This led to a 1964 voting rights march on campus — to urge our U.S. senators to vote for the Voting Rights bill. In 1965, after the police brutality at the Selma Bridge march, that bill became law.

 

Enforcing the New Civil Rights Act of 1964

On July 4, 1964, only a few weeks while after we arrived in Louisiana, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That new law made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in public accommodations (such as restaurants, hotels, bus stations, etc.) So we thought we would test the new law (and also be able to eat in some local lunch places). On July 6, a racially integrated group of voter registration workers entered one of the two lunchrooms in Hammond, Louisiana, sat down, and waited to be served. We waited. And we waited. At long last the waitress came over to us and told us we would have to leave, that she wasn't serving "No coloreds here, and no nigger lovers either."

We told the waitress we wanted to talk to the manager. Eventually, he came out from the back, and we explained a new law had passed making it illegal to discriminate against us because some in our party were Black. After a long delay and his making many phone calls, he came back and said ok. Eventually we were served. It was a great victory: the new law was working, and we were helping to make a new South — or so we thought!

So the next day we came back. Again the same waitress refused to serve us. We could hardly believe it. Again we explained about the law. This time she had an answer: "The law only says we got to be integrated, right?" We replied, "That's right. That's what it says — no discrimination." She said, "Well, yesterday we got integrated, so we don't have to serve you anymore. We aren't discriminating. We won't serve any of you COREs — Black or white." She walked away, and we were never served there again.

 

Driving Back from a Voter Registration Clinic

One night after running an evening voter registration training session at a rural Black church not far from Amite, LA, we drove down a narrow two lane road on our way back to our home base in Hammond — to the Black families who housed us, fed us, and stood watch over us. Joanne, a college student from Wisconsin, was driving. One of the local kids, a Black girl, 16 years old, was in the front seat with JoAnne, and I was in back. We had been warned to be careful on these back roads, because earlier that summer, three other voter registration workers in Mississippi had disappeared at night, and had not been heard from since. We feared they had been killed. Their names were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner. Eventually, months later their bodies were discovered in an unmarked earthen dam in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and eventually Sheriff Rainey, his deputy Price, and other members of the Klu Klux Klan of Philadelphia, Mississippi, were charged with stopping the three boys' car, beating them, and shooting them to death.

On this particular dark night, however, we only had fears for the three boys, not the certain knowledge we would later gain as to what had become of them. But we also had fears for ourselves. So when a car tried to pass us in the dark, Joanne sped up to try not to let the car pass — as we had been trained. But the car sped up faster, and soon I heard two loud "pop pop" sounds. Joanne yelled, "Get down" and I did. She braked and swerved the car to the side of the road, fighting to get it under control. The other car sped off in the dark of the night. Joanne yelled, "Is everyone ok?" We both said, "Yeah, are you?" She sighed deeply and said quietly, "Yeah, I'm ok."

We waited in silence, our hearts pounding. Finally, Joanne said, "We'd better get out and see if they got any of the tires." We all got out of the car and took a look. There — in the hub cap of the rear left tire — was a hole the size of a bullet. But somehow, the tire wasn't flat. "Let's get out of here," we all agreed, and we did. We didn't wait around to look for the spent shell casing in the dark.

When we got back to Hammond, we called CORE Louisiana headquarters and reported what had happened. They called the FBI. The FBI's offices were in New Orleans, however, roughly 60 miles away, and said they'd come and take our statements the next afternoon. They said there was no hurry to come that night.

When the FBI did come to Hammond, they were clearly hostile — to us. They asked very few questions about what had happened on the darkened road or about the car that had evidently fired shots at us. Instead they asked whether we had come from out of state and, if so, from whether we had come from New York, what we were doing in Louisiana, why we were stirring up trouble, what business was it of ours how Louisiana runs its elections, whether we think illiterate people should be able to vote, etc. Remember, these were FBI men (all men at that time, and all white southerners), not local sheriffs. Yet they treated us like we were the criminals. We never heard anything more about our complaints after they took our statements and finger printed us.

 

Changing Viewpoints/Walking in the Moccasins of the Other

As a young child growing up in white middle class suburb in the Midwest, I had learned: "The policeman is your friend." And because I lived in a community where all the faces were white, I felt safe around white faces. I thought Black people were entitled to equal rights, but I had rarely spent much time around Black people when I was growing up. So the idea of being the only white person or one of only a few white people in a crowd of Black people would have been scary to me.

Then I went to Louisiana, and there my whole vision and understanding changed. It was the Black farmers, teachers, preachers, and house wives who took care of us, fed us, sheltered us, and protected us. It was white faces that looked at us with hatred, that threatened us, arrested some of our colleagues and friends, beat some of us, shot at some of us, and in the case of the three young men in Mississippi killed some of us. The white police were the scariest of all, because they could stop us whenever they wanted. So I began to see the world differently. And I could start to understand how some Black people feel when they are the only Black faces in sea of white faces.

Almost 30 years later, when I returned to Hammond, Louisiana, I was astonished to notice how startled I was, how fast my heart beat when I noticed a town police car pull up behind me. I had not been speeding or violating any traffic rules, but my reactions from 30 years before flooded back over me. It was only when I looked more closely in my rear view mirror and saw that the policeman behind the wheel was — Black — that I relaxed. And then I came to a new understanding of the ways in which the shift in political power that came with the right-to-vote had led to changes in the life of that small community. Now the police included Black as well as white faces. And 2 of the 5 city councilmen of Hammond were Black.

Note: Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, only 31.6 percent of the Black population in Louisiana was registered to vote statewide — mostly in the New Orleans area — and a far lower percentage in the counties where we worked. By 1988, the percentage of Blacks registered to vote had increased to 77.1 percent, a higher percentage than whites by 2 percent. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, there were only 72 elected African-American office-holders in the South. By 1976, that number had increased to 1,944 men and women of color.

 

Summer's End

At the end of the summer of 1964, the CORE voting rights workers went to New Orleans. There we had two very moving experiences. The first happened at an upscale restaurant in New Orleans called Dooky Chases. The clientele were well-to-do and well-dressed African-American residents of New Orleans, and even though we arrived in dusty jeans and stained CORE T-shirts, we received an ovation from the diners. Later, a group of us decided to go to the French Quarter. When we tried to enter one of the bars there, the bouncer at the door said, "You guys get the #### out of here. No niggers are getting in here. And you know," glaring at us, "I hate you white nigger-lovers even more, because they wouldn't have the guts to try to come in here if you hadn't put them up to it."

Did we change the world in the Louisiana Freedom summer? Not so much. But did the Louisiana Freedom Summer change us? Absolutely.

At the end, we learned that we summer warriors were not the ones exhibiting real courage. The real courage was exhibited by those ordinary people who came to the voter registration clinics, who tried to gain their rights knowing they would face opposition and possible retaliation, who housed us and fed us and protected us, and who stayed on after we left carrying on with their lives and with the struggle for civil rights and human dignity.

Copyright © Jeff Schwartz. 2010


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