See Southern Christian
Leadership Conference for web links.
See also Review of You Came Here to Die, Didn't You?
My Summer Vacation: 1965
By Mary Swope
Self-published, 2011, 127 pp
Available from the author at email@example.com
The summer of 1965 was an important one for the civil rights movement, but about the only event that is remembered is the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Believing that it would become law in June, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a summer project called SCOPE.
Mary Swope was one of those who went South with SCOPE, and is only the third to write a book about it. She learned about SCOPE at San Francisco State College where she was finishing her M.A. in art. Her family had taught her that "if you see an injustice and have a chance to right it, you should," so she took a very unusual "summer vacation."
When she returned home she hastily typed up a rough account of her experiences, then put it away. Four decades later she polished the manuscript and published it herself, along with lots of photos she took at the time. The result is a fascinating look at the day-to-day work of these summer volunteers.
SCOPE brought between three and four hundred young people to work in six Southern states. They spent a lot of time canvassing to bring prospective voters to the county registrars, but the removal of the tests which restricted black registration didn't take effect until August 6, and only a few counties got federal examiners before the summer ended.
Arriving at the Atlanta Freedom House in July, Mary missed orientation and was not sent to a county project. For the first month she worked in the Atlanta office, keeping the books and putting out the only issue of the SCOPE newsletter. (A copy is at the back of the book). Her descriptions of life in the Freedom House and the people she met are very poignant.
SCOPE director Hosea Williams finally let her get out of the office. She went with other staff to Crawfordville, GA to assist at a march, and to Greensboro, AL to photograph more marches.
In Greensboro, county seat of Hale County in Alabama's black belt, local African-Americans were staging marches to the courthouse to protest the stiff literacy test which kept so many from registering to vote. By the time Mary arrived in late July, several locals had been beaten while marching and two black churches had been burned.
She never got to march, arriving just in time to photograph an attempted march which was met by barricades and teargas. The movement responded by holding a vigil at the barricades which lasted for over two days. It ended when the city arrested almost five hundred demonstrators, including about 20 white SCOPE workers brought in from other counties. (Mostly students from the University of Illinois who were working in Greene County).
This was Mary's first arrest, and she devotes an entire chapter to life in the women's prison compound. If you want to know what it's like to be cooped up in overcrowded conditions with lots of unmet needs, read this chapter.
Mary wanted to stay in Greensboro, but Hosea wanted her back in the Atlanta office, so after first going to the SCLC convention in Birmingham she returned to the Freedom House.
Her next field trip was to Petersburg, Virginia, where once again she worked on marches. The literacy tests were gone by then, but other restrictions on voter registration still remained in all but those few counties which had federal examiners. This time the locals were protesting the fact that the registration office was open only one day a month, and at a time when most people were working.
By the time the summer was over, Mary was "bone tired" and ready to leave. Coping with the chaos of movement life and the frustrations of just getting people registered to vote had worn her down. We are fortunate that before returning to normal life, she took the time to put on paper her memories of her "summer vacation." It's a rich resource for those who want to know what it was like to be a civil rights worker in the South, even for a summer.
Copyright © 2011, Jo Freeman
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