I served in Meridian, MS, during the summer of 1964 as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School. In 1965, I returned to work with a Jackson, MS, school desegregation project. Since that time, I've continued to be active in social justice struggles. I taught social sciences in junior high and college for about 10 years, and then switched careers to work in the labor movement — in the electrical manufacturing, then healthcare industries — for over 30 years in various organizing and staff positions. Work in unions, for me, continued much of the effort of the civil rights movement and presented the opportunity to combine issues of class, race, gender, age, ethnicity and nationality within a practical framework for fighting discrimination and improving lives of working people.
Since retiring, I've worked on two civil rights-related projects: 1) helping initiate a civil rights and activist archive at Queens College/CUNY (Q.C.) in NYC, finding other alumni who were civil rights activists in the South, and collecting their stories and materials for use by today's students — as well as hosting Movement speakers on campus; and 2) working with former Meridian, MS, Freedom School students and community activists to preserve and use their own movement's history.
At Queens College, I've found that the list of students who served in the 1964 Mississippi summer project, besides myself, includes: Betty Bollinger Levy, Dottie Miller Zellner, Rita Levant Schwerner Bender, Nancy Cooper Samstein, Joseph Liesner, Barbara Jones Omolade, Mario Savio, Robert Masters, as well as the murdered Andy Goodman. Two Q.C. faculty summer volunteers were Bell Gale Chevigny and Anthony O'Brien. Mickey Schwerner's brother, Steve Schwerner, was also on the Q.C. faculty. Before 1964, QC alumna Lucy Komisar had been editor of the Mississippi Free Press; Mike Wenger, Stan Shaw, Ronald Pollack, Gary Ackerman (currently Congressman (D-NY), and others held a Freedom Fast in July '64 and organized Queens campus and community support work for Freedom Summer. Later in '64-'65 several contingents of students and faculty — including Prof. Sid Simon, Art Gatti, Walt Jarsky, Ron Pollack — travelled to MS to help rebuild burned churches there.
In an interesting QC precedent to Mississippi Summer '64, Mike Wenger, Stan Shaw, Prof. Rachel Weddington and group of about 17 Queens College students staffed freedom schools in 1963 in Prince Edward County, VA, where public schools had been closed in the face of a federal de-segregation order. The Virginia volunteers later returned to QC to play major roles in campus civil rights activities.
Two Mississippians, after being young activists there, came to NYC and earned their undergraduate degrees at Q.C. 1) Isaac Foster had been a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union and Freedom City and then trained at Q.C. to become a teacher. 2) Frankye Adams-Johnson worked with SNCC in MS at a young age, moved to NY, graduated from QC, and now back in MS serves as Chair of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. She is a poet, fiction writer, and JSU faculty member.
A number of current QC faculty — including Prof. Dean Savage — participated in the SCLC SCOPE southern voter registration project. Two other QC grads who participated in the southern civil rights movement and continue in a host of related struggles are Joan Nestle and Martha Livingston.
Altogether, this is a proud and growing roll call of '60s Q.C. civil rights activist names from one of NYC's local, public colleges.
Meridian Freedom School photos taken by myself and Donna Garde in 1964 can be seen at Freedom Summer 1964 Pix. Roscoe Jones — a high school leader at the Freedom School there, and still a local activist — has made giant strides to secure and preserve the 1964 Meridian COFO office and turn that building into a center for education and inspiration for rising generations of young Mississippians. There is a growing and worthwhile interest in Meridian for the preservation and appreciation of the civil rights struggles that went on there.
The project at Q.C. and the one in Meridian focus on telling the stories of local unsung heroes and heroines. A NYC high school social studies teacher I recently met starts the semester with the question: "What pisses you off?" — and then he builds the semester's work based on what the students say and ask, and on the issues they identify. New generations of social justice activists will speak out on their own issues and redefine their own tactics and strategies. Hopefully, the stories of "ordinary people doing extraordinary things" in previous struggles can add support — and possibly some inspiration and even good ideas — as young folks look around and assess their world. Helping with that is part of the unfinished business of our "civil rights" generation.
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