[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
Well, there's a lot more people here than I [thought]. It's what happens when you sit up front.
My name is Ronald Bridgeforth, but before I start, I'd like to honor my aunt. Her name was Maudelle Miller-Shirek, and she passed away on April 11th at 101. We celebrated her life last Tuesday in Berkeley where she lived, and as much as anyone in life, she's responsible for me being here today.
When I worked for SNCC in Mississippi and in the Bay Area, from June of 1964 to 1967, I only stayed in Mississippi that one year till June of '65, and then I came to the Bay Area and worked with Mike Miller to help raise money and to tell about the Southern struggle. In truth, I think a year was about as much as I could take in Mississippi. I was a student at Knoxville College in Tennessee when I was recruited by Marion Berry to participate in the Mississippi voter registration project that summer.
I don't remember exactly what attracted me to go to Mississippi. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. I didn't really understand the Southern struggle. However, I do remember that my family was terrified, and the college administration made it clear that any student who joined SNCC would not be welcome back that fall. But of course, like so many others, I went anyway. That's been sort of the theme of my life. By June 22nd of '64, after going through a week of training at Oxford, Ohio, I found myself in Columbus, Mississippi which is in the northeast of Mississippi, along with several other students who were fresh from college.
None of us knew much about the reality of Mississippi, and after a couple of weeks of "orientation," and I put that in quotes, by veteran Mississippi field secretaries, we were divided in twos and threes and taken to our assignment in adjoining counties, where our job was to open COFO voter registration project offices. Steve Frasier, who is now a professor of history at NYU, was my partner, and at the time, he was 18 years old. He was a white male from New York, and we were assigned to Starkville, in the adjoining Oktibbeha County.
It's funny how we name these places after Indians, and that's after we do away with the Indians. Starkville is the home of Mississippi State University and perhaps not much else. We had contact information for one local person, a WATS line number to keep us connected to the Jackson office, COFO office, in case of emergencies.
We had lots of work to do. In the beginning, we were dropped off in the morning, and we would spend the day talking to people and looking for a place to live and work. We'd be picked up in the evening and driven back to Columbus. And after a few weeks, we were able to establish a place to live and open a COFO office, and I became a project director. I was 19.
Over the course of the next year, more students from all over the country came to join the Starkville project. We worked with high school students, started the Freedom Schools, sparked local integration efforts, and visited folks all over the county to talk to them about voter registration.
While I was threatened, harassed, jailed for trying to help people to register to vote, I never felt that I personally accomplished as much as was needed. It was difficult to truly quantify our accomplishments. In my case, I've often thought that Mississippi changed me far more than I changed it. But change, like learning, is like a ripple on a pond. We're not privy to when and where it hits shore, or what tidal waves it gives birth to.
In some ways, I came to feel that my most important accomplishment as part of the first wave of what the local community folks often call Freedom Riders, who came to Oktibbeha County and actually stayed there, was that we survived. That was the lesson that we taught that first summer of '64. You could stand up. You could speak your mind. And you can survive in Mississippi. But as I said earlier, Mississippi changed me far more than I changed it.
There's one incident that I'd like to share with you that, for me, captures much of the contradictory nature of the life in America at that time as well as the transformative power of the people of Mississippi. One evening in January of '65, two of us were out in a small rural town called Maben, Mississippi, about 20 miles from Starkville. We were at the home of a local leader by the name of Mrs. Graham, a 40-year-old mother with four or five children. The family lived in a two or three-room house made of flat boards, heated by a pot belly stove, insulated against cold with newspaper tacked to the walls to stop the wind from blowing between the planks.
That evening, as we got ready to make the 20-mile drive over the country roads back to Starkville, we noticed three carloads of young white men driving up and down the dirt road in front of the house. I never felt so isolated and defenseless before. Night was coming, and this was going to be a long and potentially dangerous ride. We were very much aware that we were barely 60 miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi where Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner had been murdered the year before. That evening, Mrs. Graham made a difficult decision. She sent her 18-year-old son, James, to join us for the ride home. While we were sworn to non-violence, he was not. He brought with him a long gun that the family used for hunting. As we left the quarter where the family lived, the three carloads followed us. When we reached the paved road, one of them cars pulled alongside us and gestured us to pull over. James, who was sitting behind me, placed the butt of the rifle on the car floor, so that the barrel was visible through the side window. He never pointed it at anyone. He just made it visible. At that point, the cars that were following began to fall back, and eventually they broke off their pursuit. James went back home the next morning, and he still lives in Mississippi today. Mrs. Graham has passed on, and like so many of the brave people who put their lives on the line to transform America, her spirit is still with us.
As for me, like so many others who joined the Movement, it was a life-altering experience. My life never was the same. The people of Mississippi gave me far more than I gave them. As one local woman once told me, I gave her hope, but what they gave me was purpose. What I found in Mississippi was a sense of identity. It seemed that when I looked into eyes of the people who welcomed me into their homes, I saw for the first time, a true reflection of who I could be as a young Black man in America. In Mississippi, for the first time in my life, I found a purpose beyond myself. The Graham family, like so many others, risked everything to feed and shelter and sometimes protect people like myself, people like us. They gave me a purpose, and they helped me define my identity. I spent my life trying to be worthy of their belief in me.
Copyright © Ron Bridgeforth, 2013
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