[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.]
I'm taking this occasion to represent and acknowledge the unsung heroes of the Movement, highlighting a few of my experiences when I worked as a Summer Volunteer in 1964 and later as a SNCC Field Secretary out of the Holly Springs, Mississippi office.
Incidentally, there is one person in this room, Chude Allen, who has gone through many simliar experiences in Mississippi during the Summer of 1964. We have known each other a long time. In fact, Chude and I were in the same room on the same day, at the same time when we found out that Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were missing. We hadn't been told they were kidnapped, we weren't told that they had been killed; we were simply told they were missing. Over the next couple of days, with the news hitting all of us, out of the hundred or so summer volunteers and SNCC vets - I don't know, maybe fifty or a hundred of us went to Mississippi- I am aware of only one person out of the whole group who pulled out.
One of my first experiences, when I got to Holly Springs, and Holly Spring was a less hostile community toward us, at least it seemed that way, it wasn't like Greenwood, Mississippi. Holly Springs was a little bit more liberating in the sense that you could goes to Memphis, Tenn., leaving Mississippi for a moment. You could go across the Tennessee border to Memphis and get out of the hostile Mississippi atmosphere.
My first assignment was to canvass the local community, asking people if they wanted to attempt to register to vote. Frank Cieciorka, now deceased, was my canvassing partner. Some of you know of his artistic contributions to the movement. As we were going from door to door in the local black housing project, we walked up to a lady's house, Ms. Rita Walker. We knocked on her door, introducing ourselves as civil rights workers who were coming to talk with her about registering to vote. Rita Walker said, "By God, you finally made it! We been looking for you for a long time! You finally got down here! Yeah, I want to register!" Not only did we get her registered, but she became a SNCC Field Secretary in Mississippi about 18 months later. The people in Mississippi were unbelievable.
My second experience was an assignment to canvass downtown around the square where the Court House was located. When you look on our web site I think, you'll find a picture of me walking around the square with a pair of coveralls, a straw hat, and a big buttons on that read, "Register" and "Vote." My job was to walk around the square all day, representing to the Black people of Mississippi and the White people of Mississippi, telling them that we were not afraid, that we were gonna be there. One afternoon, about noon, with gun drawn, the deputy sheriff came up and arrested me for talking to people about registering to vote.
This deputy was a "poor white." There was a distinction in Mississippi between the sheriffs. One, the well-off sheriff, included those who were controlling the "bootlegging" and other illegal activities. This "type" understood why we were there, although they didn't agree with what we were doing. I guess you could say we had an acknowledgment of sorts; we understood each other. It was the poor white sheriff and deputy you had to be concerned about. Believe me, they would hurt you. Something set him off that afternoon he drew his gun on me, said, "Let's go," and marched me off to jail. If figured if I was going to jail, I did this, put my hands up in the air, so folks would see I was being arrested. He kept knocking my hands down, "Put them down," he repeated and I kept sticking my hands back up. He knocked them down repeatedly on the way to jail. Within about five minutes, the local freedom house office knew about it. Somebody saw it, saw him take me away. They didn't even know my name but they went to our office, walked in and said, "Hey, they got one of yours downtown."
That was an interesting event because the Governor of California got involved as well as the Governor of Mississippi, Paul Johnson. Back at the SNCC office, Ivanhoe Donaldson and other SNCC leaders called California to talk to somebody about getting me out of jail. A friend of mine Sacramento worked for the Governor, Pat Brown, the current Governor Jerry Brown's father, Governor Pat Brown did look into the matter, writing the Governor of Mississippi to say "You've got one of my citizens in jail." The Governor of Mississippi Wrote him back and said, "No, he's not in jail, besides, he's a communist," with some additional discussion about my political background. I still have a copy of Governor Johnson's reply letter to Governor Brown. I was released later that afternoon and returned to the court house square to continue canvassing.
The people were great! The people were unbelievable! Here is another event that always reminds me of this. A summer volunteer, Pat Scudder, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, had gone to the rural part of Marshall County, the county where Holly Springs was located. Pat talked several deacons and several ministers into letting us use their church for a voter registration meeting. Well it was "tricky" to get somebody's church for such political activity. A few days after having the meeting, it was a Friday morning, we get a phone call and were told, "You've got to go there. Something happened." What happened was the church was burned down. So we drove to this area of Marshall County and we told the church leaders how we were going to help them raise money to help rebuild their church. You got to realize, hey, God damn, these were poor people and we got their church burned down. These folks could not just take up a collection and build a new church.
Pat and I took pictures and showed them to the sheriff. He wanted to know how he could be sure that we didn't burn the church down ourselves! All the church leaders kept insisting that "The Lord will find a way. The Lord will find a way." And we did get the church rebuilt.
I told you about entering Mississippi after Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were kidnapped and murdered. On my way out, after two and a half to three years of going back and forth — I had met many many strong people. I want to make it very clear, they were all heroes. They were putting a lot on the line, much more than I was. I could go back to Berkeley or Sacramento. They couldn't. They were putting a lot on the line.
I'll tell you one more story about what happened on my way out. In the African — American community, there have always been strong black people. There are people that may appear "Tomish" in their behavior. There are also others who are just strong people that white people don't "mess" with, they just don't mess with them. In Holly Springs, Mrs. Bodina was one of those people. Now Mrs. Bodina, you have to let me describe her for a second. She was a very strong lady. Mrs. Bodina ran the local black "juke joint" and a little restaurant where she fed the civil rights workers all the time; it was the only racially integrated establishment in Holly Springs because of the arrival of civil rights workers.
The police put out a warrant for my arrest, and were actively looking for me. The word go out through the "grapevine" that they were gonna picked me up and put me in jail for threatening somebody around their right to vote. I still have no idea where the accusation came from. They said a black resident reported that I was intimidating them around the right to vote. A small group of local supporters took me to Mrs. Bodina's restaurant. Mrs. Bodina was a huge lady and I remember that day she was sitting with her back against the wall and she wore a full, long dress. Before the sheriff deputies entered into the restaurant she said, "Sit under here, Frye. Get under here, boy!" She shoved me up under that table and I was sitting with my back to the wall. The dress was draped over me as she talked to the police, "Well, he hasn't been here!" she said, talking real strong back to them, "he hasn't been in here. And why are you lookin' anyway? What do you want to bother him for anyway?" jThe police left.
Two young black women supporters, Chude knows them, the Polk sisters, helped at this point. One of them was the first Black Woman who went to the University of Tennessee campus after integration. After hearing about my situation, their father gave them his car and told them to drive to Holly Spring. They lived out in the country, a rural part of Marshall County. He told them to pick me up, put me on the floor of the car's back seat and drive me up to Memphis, which they did. And I didn't go back to Holly Springs for about 10 years. Thank You! (Laughing and Applause)
Copyright © Hardy Frye, 2013
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