I would begin my answer to "What I Learned from the Freedom Movement" foremost is learning HUMILITY. Then comes GENEROSITY of SPIRIT and COURAGE from the people in Louisiana.
As an eighteen year old New York City girl of mixed race heritage who had been brought up with some privilege, I had no idea of what task lay before me. I had just left my freshman year at Hunter College earlier in the year and had been working in a Harlem literacy project. I lived in Riverdale so I had no Harlem roots to call upon except for my Grandfather's store some blocks away. Before Riverdale, we had lived on Sugar Hill and in Washington Heights I had attended all private schools from 5th grade on.
I didn't last long because I was a wide eyed girl who no one took seriously. The men who were in charge had me fold flyers and stuff envelopes and interview potential students who were for the most part young black men. Besides, who wants to travel over an hour and not be taken seriously.
So when the opportunity to go South with CORE for Freedom Summer, I jumped at the opportunity. I had already been working with Riverdale CORE (my Mom was Chair) since before the March on Washington. I had attended the Sunday meetings at Andrea Simon's house where different strategies for northern issues of housing and jobs were being discussed as well as getting updates on what was going on in the Southern campaigns and how to support them.
I arrived in Baton Rouge in a green and white linen dress, patent leather shoes with purse and gloves, fresh from the beauty parlor. I was met by two CORE task force workers from Plaquemine dressed in denim coveralls and the young woman in a denim skirt and t-shirt. The first thing we did was to go into the airport coffee shop and order cokes. We got stared at, but it seemed that there wasn't going to be any objection so we left and headed to Plaquemine. Those of us who were just arrived were given housing assignments and the outline of what to expect for the upcoming weeks of training.
It was my time in Plaquemine for two weeks that my lessons in humility began. Three of us were assigned to Lettsworth in Pointe Coupe Parish and the home and farm of the Caulfields. The Mother and daughter lived there alone most of the time, as the Father and two brothers worked construction in Baton Rouge and New Orleans (up to 100 miles away) and came home once a month. Again, the Generosity of Spirit and Courage were evident in all that they did for us.
The house was on the main road and in the line of fire of night riders who attempted to intimidate us all. Madear (Mother Dear) got up every morning and fixed breakfast which included home made biscuits, eggs and bacon. Everything we ate came from their land which included chickens. There was no phone or indoor plumbing in the wood house which had thick wallpaper for insulation. There was a chamber pot provided every night and it was gone every morning. There was a house down the road that had a phone and indoor plumbing to which we were invited to take baths every day. We (3) shared the same water so as not to overuse the hot water access.
The Caulfielfd daughter went out everyday with us to recruit volunteers for the voter-education classes, as well as to encourage people to register to vote. We had some folks who supported the classes encouraging their neighbors to become involved. Many owned their land, but the sharecroppers were less brave. I remember speaking on one Sunday at church and while most were agreeing with what we were talking about, only a few at a time moved to get involved.
It did not occur to me in the moment that we left Madear alone when we went out every morning and the house with the bathtub and a couple of other farmers were also left alone. The reality hit when one night the night riders shot into the space under the front porch. The bedroom I shared was a front room off the porch. The Caulfield daughter came to the front door with her rifle, but thank heavens she did not need to fire a shot. It hit me that night that I could leave this danger and go home, but this community lived with this danger every day and night.
They were feeding our every need as best they could and what were we offering in return. I'd like to think some inspiration to better their lives by participating in their government. These folks were looking to live and take care of their children in the midst of inferior housing and scarce jobs. How dare we tell them anything about what they needed to do. Their very lives were in great danger and yet they took care of us task force workers like we were special. The Movement was our priority and their priority was survival.
What I learned was to listen to what their priorities were and how we could merge and facilitate our ideas into how they wanted and needed to do. We were not the great missionaries come to save the uneducated poor Blacks of the South. We had tools to help them reorganize the power structure in their communities, but only if we could bend to the way they thought things should be done. They risked all for us and cared for us with a GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT and COURAGE. They taught me that I had to learn HUMILITY to be effective in the Movement from that time forward.
In all I think they taught me well and prepared me for the activism work I would do successfully since then. Thank you people of Louisiana who love without judgement.
Copyright © Fatima Cortez
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