There were state-wide efforts going on — the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. Young social workers, lawyers, organizers and others in the civil rights movement felt moral outrage when we saw police-state tactics being used on African-American young people. Whites were sometimes beaten and arrested as well. Our families worried a great deal about those of us who went South to battle apartheid; there were over 800 of us who traveled to work as volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer — 400 of us were women.
After teaching for three weeks in Jackson, at the Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, during the summer I went back and resigned from my job in Washington D.C. I began to work full time for the Medical Committee for Human Rights Office, Jackson MS, fall 1964. It was under the general aegis of the National Council of Churches. I was the office administrator at the MCHR office for a few months while the organization recruited a doctor to run the program. We were coordinating the schedules of volunteer doctors and clergy who were helping civil rights volunteers. They were also writing up reports for colleagues around the U.S. on the conditions under which poor Blacks received medical care in the Deep South.
Through trying to resolve a serious MCHR case-a civil rights worker in jail who'd been injured in a car crash — in 1964 I met the civil liberties lawyer Ben Smith, from New Orleans. We married the next year. The marriage lasted until 1973. Ben died in 1976.
After I married and moved to New Orleans in 1965 some of us civil rights volunteers started a Freedom School. We used the Sunday School classrooms of the Mt Zion Lutheran Church on Simon Bolivar Avenue, Central City. It was a summer program, informal and free. We taught math, reading, and the background ofthe civil rights movement. We teachers walked the neighborhood to enroll children. Their parents came to look over our classes and make sure it was okay for their kids.
Did we have discipline problems? Not really-everyone associated with our little School was there because they wanted to be. I had a class of about 9 boys-they were around 11 or 12 years old and pretty well mannered. I read to them part of each day out of the novel "The Light in the Forest" (Conrad Richter) about a boy caught in a sobering Indians-vs-whites situation during colonial times. One day the boys were acting up and pelting each other with crunched up paper balls. I stopped reading, pointed out to them that I was not required to be with them in the classroom. I told them I was leaving for the day and that if they wanted to have me as a Freedom School teacher and hear the rest of the story they needed to mind their manners and pay attention. I left.
From that day on I had no problems with their behavior!
At the end of the summer Pastor obliged us to clean his church building. There ensued a struggle over male-female roles: we women objected to the male teachers' assumption that we would do all the dirty work! We ended up sweeping and mopping together. This was exactly the summer during which the Women's Liberation Movement was affecting American culture and American young women.)
Ironically, a few weeks later Hurricane Betsy struck — kindling wood was all that was left after the storm, of the ancient school we'd taught in and had cleaned up.
I appreciated deeply the community sense in the African-American neighborhoods. People wanting to help us, to help each other. It resembled the organizing done in Montgomery, Alabama during the year-long bus boycott in 1954. Sharing of car rides, blankets, meals, homes to sleep in. What we were doing during those summers in that unfamiliar heat was exciting-and perilous.
We younger, white volunteers had good relationships with the African American Freedom School kids. We weren't being paid, we had almost no expenses, and we could be brave and a little crazy.
The mass meetings at the churches in the evenings (in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964) were very important. Especially to me, as I had been raised by a family that had been missionaries for 134 years. I had learned about volunteering and discovered others outside my family circle by attending church worship, youth groups, and summer camps. Singing simple hymns came naturally to me.
Only, I could not figure out why the local people in the churches in Mississippi were singing "flat," or off-key. I knew nothing about gospel, the African roots of the music, and the way rural people worshipped.
Our curriculum? Reading and writing, math, Black history, citizenship, political power, and the Freedom Movement. Being close to the Black kids was the main point of our summers. The kids were learning how to participate in a huge change that was political and religious. And sometimes risky.
We made mistakes, I am sure. I had a hard time understanding the younger pupils, and I gradually had to learn to slow down my Yankee-style speaking. I used blackboards and paper to draw what I was teaching.
Desegregating New Orleans was not easy. One hot day an African American teacher, Betty, and I went to a French Quarter bistro to get a late lunch. However, segregationists still controlled the city. After we waited a long time for our orders, our gumbo was brought to us. The hostile staff had dumped a huge amount of hot, red pepper sauce into the soup-we could not eat it. When we jumped up and complained and asked for glasses of water, we were physically thrown out on the sidewalk.
In August 1965 I took my class of boys downtown (a mile away, but they had never visited there) to the main, segregated public library. But- that's another story.
Corinne Barnwell lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. This update written July, 2014.
Copyright © Corinne Freeman Barnwell, 2014.