I worked in Vicksburg, MS during the summers of 1964 and 1965 with COFO/SNCC. I also joined the second attempted Selma march two days following Bloody Sunday and remained in Selma for a few days thereafter until it was clear the march to Montgomery would eventually go forward. And, in June 1966, Bruce Detwiler and I joined the Meredith March in the Delta after delivering a truckload of clothes to the movement in Vicksburg. We stayed with the march to the outskirts of Jackson, including the police confrontation in Canton and the march through Philadelphia.
I had dropped out of Yale during 1963-64 and was observing developments from abroad, first in India and then in Germany. Through contacts in the Northern Student Movement (NSM) I got in touch with SNCC recruiters in the Chicago area and when I returned in late May/early June was interviewed to join the first wave of summer volunteers going to Mississippi. I attended the first training session in Oxford, OH and agreed to go to Vicksburg. The focus of my work with the project in Vicksburg was voter registration and preparations for the MFDP challenge through precinct organizing in rural parts of Warren County. I worked closely on the county work with Bill (Willie) Johnson.
During the second summer, 1965, I decided to return to Vicksburg to continue project work that included voter registration but now with a focus as well on community organizing around economic issues.
My movement involvement was transformative for me personally and politically. Especially after the Atlantic City convention it deepened my skepticism toward the corporate liberals who ran the Democratic Party and whose rhetorical commitment to Civil Rights and social justice I now recognized as skin deep at best. Their escalation of the Vietnam War would further contribute to that alienation from the mainstream Democratic Party and to lifelong political activism in progressive movements.
By 1966, I believed that the time for active involvement of whites in the movement was passing. I supported black power and the self-determination of black communities. I left that summer to work in Tanzania, East Africa with the American Friends Service Committee for two years, with hopes initially to work with political refugees from southern African liberation movements. For a variety of reasons, I ended up working primarily in Ujamaa (socialist) villages around rural cooperative development.
After two incredibly meaningful years in Tanzania, I returned, now married to Ann Mullin Stromquist, to work full-time in the antiwar movement in Milwaukee, with AFSC and then with Casa Maria, the Catholic Worker house. I also did community organizing around anti-poverty issues, and participated in a variety of anti-US imperialism efforts.
I joined the International Association of Machinists (IAM) during a period of factory work, grew increasingly interested in labor history and eventually decided in 1971 to go to graduate school to study labor history with David Montgomery at the University of Pittsburgh. During 1975-78 we lived on a small farm in SW Wisconsin as part of the back to the land movement in that area, while I also worked on my dissertation. I worked for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1978-1982 coordinating its Office of Local History. After receiving my PhD in 1981, I got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Iowa in 1982 and have been teaching and directing graduate students work in labor and social history since then. I just retired on January 1, 2014. My wife, Ann, and I had three children, Chris, Matt and Elizabeth.
My personal papers related to Civil Rights and other social movement activity are deposited at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin as part of its Social Action Collection. I did an extended oral history interview in 1981 with John Dittmer about my work in Mississippi. And I've done a variety of interviews and talks over the years about my civil rights work, the latest being an hour-long interview on Talk of Iowa on January 21, 2014 (available online.)
Copyright, Shelton Stromquist, February 20, 2014.