[Chude Allen was a summer volunteer in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer project.]
I was twenty years old, a junior in college, when I wrote my parents that I wanted to apply to be a freedom school teacher in Mississippi. Since I was a girl and not yet twenty-one, I needed their permission. It was against the law for blacks and whites to live and work together in Mississippi in 1964, and they knew I might be put in jail or beaten, perhaps killed. Even though my parents had never been to a demonstration or walked on a picket line, I was sure they would say yes.
They'd let me come to Spelman College as an exchange student that spring. Spelman is a black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1964 I was one of thirteen white students among 500 African American students. All spring I'd been writing letters home telling them about what I was learning about racism and segregation in my classes, about my discussions with other students and the conferences and mass meetings I attended. I wrote about the philosophy of pacifism and nonviolent direct action. I told them about my experiences on picket lines at segregated restaurants in downtown Atlanta. And I described the plans for the Mississippi Summer Project, even before I decided I wanted to apply.
I also wrote them about my new best friend. She lived in Montgomery, Alabama. I couldn't visit her home during spring vacation because I was white and she was black. She told me it would be too dangerous for us to be together. "I am no longer an outsider," I wrote my parents. "This system has hurt me."
Not everyone who went to Mississippi that summer or who participated in the Civil Rights Movement would say they had been willing to die. Most would probably say — as some of my friends have said — that they were willing to risk dying, but didn't really believe it would happen. I did think I might die. I wrote my parents that they might have to sacrifice a daughter.
I was a devout Christian and believed God wanted me to go to Mississippi. I was willing to die for the right of whites and blacks to live together and to be treated equally. Being a Christian I believed in the concept of redemptive suffering, sacrificing oneself for something greater. Jesus, after all, had died for our sins. I wanted to help redeem the United States from the terrible sin of racism.
That was the philosophical belief underlying my willingness to risk my life teaching in a freedom school in Mississippi. Not being able to visit my friend in Montgomery, Alabama was the personal reason.
I think the fact that I wrote to my parents all spring, sharing with them what I was learning, helped them make the decision to allow me to go to Mississippi. It was especially difficult for my father, who was a manager in a rubber goods factory. The other managers did not support the Civil Rights Movement. My mother, who was a nursery school teacher in our small community, didn't face the same opposition. Yet, as I've said, they weren't activists, and they knew I might die.
What, then, enabled them to sign that permission slip? They too were devout Christians and could not refuse me when I said I believed God wanted me to be part of this attempt to break the racist stranglehold in Mississippi. Yet, it wasn't just signing that permission slip. They were tested again and again.
We lived in eastern Pennsylvania. I arranged to ride with a couple of volunteers who were driving from New York City to Western College for Women in Ohio for our week-long training before we went to Mississippi. My parents drove me to an exit on the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike where we were to meet the volunteers.
There was no restaurant or public phone at the turnpike exit (and no cell phones in 1964). My father parked by the side of the road and we waited. The evening grew dark, but no car came. I sat in the back seat, my parents in the front. We knew we might never see each other again. We sat there all night. Dawn had come before the Volkswagen bug pulled up. The car had broken down, but there had been no way to tell us. I climbed into the car and we started for Ohio. Years later Mother would tell me that that night was one of the hardest nights of her life.
We were in the second group of trainees, freedom school teachers, and community center volunteers. On the first day of our training we learned that three of the voter registration workers were missing. Rita Schwerner, wife of one of the missing men, stood on the stage of the auditorium and told us to organize by our home states, pool our money and call home. We were to mobilize our parents to call and write their Congressmen, the Justice Department, and the President, demanding that the Federal Government find the three who were missing and protect all civil rights activists.
Twenty-five years later in the fall of 1989 I sat on the floor of my mother's living room and read through the papers she'd saved in the bottom drawer of her desk. I learned from a carbon copy of one of my father's letters to my grandfather that a congressman Dad had written had called him at work and told him to "get her the hell out of there." Dad wrote that he'd told the congressman the question wasn't getting me out, but guaranteeing the safety of all civil rights workers. He never told me.
The last night before we left for Mississippi, Bob Moses, the director of the Mississippi Summer Project, looked at his feet as he talked about how difficult it was for him to send us in, knowing three were already dead even though their bodies had not been found, sending us in not knowing how many of us would die. Speaking softly, his eyes on his shoes, he told us, "All I can say is that I'll be there too."
The group sang as one. The words "They say that freedom is a constant struggle" burned in my heart. I knew we carried with us the spirits of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and all the people who had died and would die for freedom. We sang their souls into the sinews of our bodies. It did not matter whether I lived or died. I believed the movement would flourish and love would triumph over hate.
Yet I didn't appreciate my parents' courage. They could have stopped me from going into Mississippi as some girls' parents did. They could have made me come home. Instead they told me they loved me. They joined with other parents in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area for mutual support and to raise money for the freedom movement. They duplicated my letters and sent them to relatives, friends, supporters, and the press. By the end of the summer they were distributing 80 copies.
It was not an easy summer for them. They looked forward to my coming home. Yet when I did come home, I couldn't adjust. I was distant and uncommunicative. It was especially difficult for my mother. She became so distraught she wrote a letter to Carolyn Goodman, the mother of Andrew Goodman, who'd been murdered that summer. "You lost a son," she wrote, "but I lost a daughter." Of course she knew it wasn't the same. She didn't send the letter; I have it among my things. But her suffering was real. It took a full year before I could share my feelings with her.
In 1989, the same year that I found my father's letter about the congressman telling him to get me out of Mississippi, I spoke at an assembly at my old high school. Mother came with me. I told the students I'd had to have my parents' permission to go. I said, "My mother is here today; even though she was scared, she let me go." Mother stood up. The students and faculty began clapping. She was a small woman, surrounded by people honoring her. Unfortunately, my father had already passed away. How I wish he too could have felt the faculty and students' appreciation for what he'd done.
My parents and I had the chance to contribute to making the world a better place. Regardless of the consequences, they joined me in the struggle to bring justice and equality to this country. That week when I was at Oxford was a time of soul searching for both my parents and myself. They could have called me home. Instead they let me continue the training and recommit myself to going to Mississippi. Like me, they had come to understand that none of us can be free until all of us are free.
[This article was originally published in Finding Freedom: Memorializing the Voices of Freedom Summer, edited by Jacqueline Johnson. An excerpt was published in The Miamian, the alumni magazine of Miami University. Western College for Women, where volunteers trained before going to Mississippi, is now part of Miami University. ]
Copyright © Chude Allen, 2014.