Evaluating the Southern Freedom Movement
 — Eugene Turitz

From comments during the 50-Year Retrospective Discussions of April, 2014

I think that one of the issues is what your expectations are versus what was achieved. I never had an expectation that we were going to end racism. So that is not part of what I think is either an achievement or a failure of the Movement. I thought that what we were dealing with were issues of power. I think the '64 project, bringing all these white people from the North but also '65 and before, had to do with opening space for the local people. It wasnt that we arrived and then people started doing things. They were already in motion.

There were all these people trying to do things. There was organization going on. And in a way, we gave them space. In Panola County [MS], the leader of the Movement was a man named Robert Miles, and he had that space, in a way, because he had gotten enough money together to buy his own farm. So he couldn't be kicked off the land. There were a few farmers like that who were probably central. There were also sharecroppers. But the people who had some stability they became able to operate in a statewide way when we were there.

I mean that's what SNCC did with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They opened up a process where they said, "This is a statewide thing." It's not just that you're working in Panola County or in Amite County or wherever. Even though you can say that the MFDP Challenge to the [Democratic] Party wasn't successful, it was important that people got a notion that this was a statewide issue.

And it was the Movement that gave the space to these people to move in that direction. And I think that was a phenomenal achievement.

I went to jail for 10 days in Jackson. We protested [for] the Voting Rights Act, which the Mississippi legislature was trying to avoid, by making cosmetic changes to the states voting laws. So we had demonstrations in Jackson, and we got arrested. Hundreds of us got arrested and spent time in jail there. But I think that we did achieve something. We did say to people, "You don't just accept these things. You can speak about them. You can fight them."

And the fact that we had Freedom Schools, that people who worked in the fields from five in the morning until eight at night, that they would come after that to learn to sign their name, to learn to answer [the voter application] questions. That was an achievement. That said to people, "We have a right to do this." As many times as we were denied at the courthouse to vote; we could do this. And we were able to say to people: "Yes, you already read. You know how much the gasoline costs at the pump. You know there are things that you know. Use that." And we got them to think like that.

And in '65, and I don't know where the decision came from, we started talking about the Vietnam War, and so when we first talked about it, people said, "Oh, we should be in Vietnam." We said, "Why?" "Well, we have to fight the Communists." And we said, "Who are the Communists in Mississippi?" And people looked at us and said, "Well, you are." [Laughter]

So we said, "Well, what does that say?" And so we started that conversation, and that was an achievement. Now, I don't know if people refused to go to fight. I don't know anything of whether that was successful. But all those issues were changes. It was changes of consciousness. It was changes of a sense of what was possible.

We were a small group of people. We may have caused a lot of trouble, but we were an infinitesimally small group of people who caused a lot of stuff to be talked about and to be thought about. And I think that's a fantastic achievement, and there are young people today my grandchildren, my own children, my son-in-law asking, "How did you do it?" To them, who cannot think about how do you commit yourself? How do you do it? They want to know that. That was an achievement in itself. We were lucky there was a Movement, and we could become part of it. That was an achievement in itself.

Copyright © Gene Turitz


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