Wally Roberts

CORE, NAACP, SNCC, 1962-66, Mississippi
Current Residence:
453 Washington Rd.
Williamstown, VT 05679
Phone: 802.433.1329
Email: wroberts@sover.net

Long Time Coming (Obama Election)
Sheriff Capps & the Shaw Freedom School

My main civil rights work was as a Freedom School Coordinator in Shaw, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer (1964). The following is a description of that work that I wrote a while back.

The Freedom Schools had three main goals. 1) One was to provide students with basic remedial education, based on the known fact that the quality of their education in the local public schools was grossly inadequate. 2) Another goal was to teach the kids Black history, which was really an almost unknown subject, not only in the South but in the whole nation, including me! 3) A third goal of the Freedom Schools, related to the second, was not explicit that I remember, but was clearly important, and that was to use the Freedom Schools as a way to inspire the students, especially those in high school, and to recruit them to the Freedom Movement.

From what I heard, there was a wide variety of responses to the way the different Freedom Schools worked to achieve these goals.I can probably address the way SNCC achieved the third goal by describing our experience in Shaw. In the first place, we had exceptional logistical problems getting set up in Shaw because no civil rights work had been done there before. For a variety of reasons, it took us two weeks to find places in the community to live, a building to rent for the school and to recruit the students. Once we were set up and ready to start, however, we discovered that in this part of Mississippi, the students had no summer vacation because it was prime cotton-growing country and the students were given a month vacation in the spring to chop cotton (weed the new plants with hoes) and then another month of "vacation" in the fall when they were needed to pick the cotton.

What this meant for us was that after a full day of regular school in July and August, the students were not about to attend another school after 3 PM, even if it was a Freedom School. At first, we were at a loss about what to do, but the students themselves solved that problem by coming to us and saying, "Look, we appreciate what you want to do, but what we want you to do is to help us become Freedom Fighters. We want to go on picket lines and do protests. Teach us how to do that."

Well, we were in something of a quandary because we had been instructed by SNCC/COFO not to let the kids get involved in these kinds of activities because they were so dangerous, especially in the Delta, which was more dangerous than most of the rest of the state, and because there were not enough experienced SNCC staff members to help out. But we discussed this all with Staughton Lynd, who was a white college professor from the north who was director of the whole Freedom School effort in the state, and with Stokely Carmichael, who was the SNCC staff person in charge of the Delta, and they both agreed we should go ahead, train the students in non-violent protest tactics, work out a protest strategy with them, and go from there.

Which we did. Our strategy was to asked the county board of supervisors for a permit to distribute pamphlets urging people to register to vote. Our request was denied, as we expected, so one day about a dozen Freedom School teachers and a dozen students mounted a picket line outside the county courthouse, protesting the denial of the permit and the discrimination in the voter registration process. We also passed out the leaflets, which virtually guaranteed our arrest, and we were all arrested. The kids were delighted--it was kind of like a graduation ceremony. We were in jail for only 24 hours and then released and the charges dropped. We were released so quickly because we volunteers all used our one phone call from jail to call our Congressmen and NBC News, etc. to tell them what happened, and the heat came down on the country sheriff from Washington and New York. The sheriff admitted frankly he did not want the bad publicity for the county (Boliver).

The arrests happened on August 3. After we got out, we found there was a lot of support in the community for what we had done and for the Movement in general, so we stopped all pretense at the Freedom School educational activities, held mass meetings around the county, registered members for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and organized the party machinery in the county. By the end of the Summer Project in the third week of August, the local people had taken over the civil rights work in the area, and our work was done.

It's comforting to think that we did a good job, but the truth is they, the students and other people in the community, did the good work, and they were the really brave ones. True, our presence in Boliver County gave them strength, hope and courage, but it was only our presence there, it was nothing we did besides showing up, listening to what they wanted and providing some minimal instruction. We knew we were going to leave, indeed, could leave at any point, but they had to live there with the consequences of their actions and ours, and that took great courage.

I later heard that the African-Americans in Shaw organized a labor union for the cotton field workers and then took over the local school board. I was very proud of them, and very happy. I hope to go back someday.

Copyright © 2001 Wallace Roberts


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