Why I Am Going to Mississippi
Talk by Pam Parker to Her Church
June 9, 1964

Before leaving to attend the orientation in Oxford, Ohio, I spoke to the eight o'clock and eleven o'clock services at my Episcopal church. Trinity Church, Solebury, was a small country church with a red door and three long, narrow stain glass windows. The Parishioners were white and for the most part, upper middle class. They had watched me grow from a small girl to a young woman.

A note about language: In 1964 the term of respect for African Americans was "Negro." "Man" and "mankind" were used to mean both women and men. My friends and I referred to ourselves as "girls" and the male students as "boys."

I spent last semester attending Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Spelman is a Negro women's college. I went there brimming over with life and energy and love for everyone. I was rejected as a northern, white do-gooder.

I knew what it meant to be the object of hostility and suspicion. I knew what it meant to feel alone. I knew what it meant to walk across campus, afraid to smile because I feared rejection. I knew what it meant to be the cause of a friend losing all her friends. I knew what it meant to feel inadequate as a person. And I knew what it meant to wish my skin was a different color -- to wish that it was black so that I would be accepted for me and so that I would not have to feel guilt every time a white man committed an injustice.

But I also learned what it meant to have real friends. To have a boy who tried never to show his feelings tell me that whenever I needed him he was there. To have a friend stick by me even though she was under great pressure to reject me. To have my family and Carleton friends praying for me and loving me even though they could not understand what was happening. And somewhere along the way I learned how to forgive - to forgive not just others but myself.

I am going to Mississippi this summer to teach in the Freedom Schools being set up by the Council of Federated Organizations, the civil rights group made up of workers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference... I am going because I feel that I have learned so much while at Spelman that I would like to share and because I have seen that there is still so much I have to learn about life and love.

I want to help in whatever way I can to alleviate injustice and to help people develop self-esteem and dignity. I want to learn from people who have known more grief, humiliation and misery than I can ever know.

I will be teaching Negro boys and girls who are going into the eleventh and twelfth grades in Mississippi. Some will be as old as I am due to their having had to drop out of school. They will be a unique elite because only about 4% of Mississippi Negroes graduate from high school. They are students who are beginning to see themselves as human beings with dignity of their own. As they will have risked a great deal by coming to the Freedom Schools, their courage makes them potential for future Negro leaders.

I do not know what these students have experienced. I cannot even imagine how much hurt and inferiority and hatred they have felt. We, who are going to Mississippi as teachers, hope to give our students love and support as they develop their minds and leadership potential this summer. We will tutor them where they are weak in their regular studies and in subjects where they wish additional knowledge and skill. We will also teach Negro history to show them that their people have contributed to our country in a way that they can be proud.

We will teach what democracy really means by living democratically within our schools and by following local civil rights cases to the federal courts. Hopefully we can create an atmosphere of mutual respect, which will encourage the students to ask questions and to share their own thoughts. This will be a new experience for them as Mississippi schools discourage the asking of questions and creative discussions of any sort.

I know that one problem we will have is how to balance pride in being Negro with pride in being human. It is necessary for Negroes, who have been told all their lives that they are inferior, to develop pride in themselves as Negroes. But somehow, if possible, we must transcend race and relate as human beings. Whether this will be possible in Mississippi with all the fear and tension that exists between the white and the Negro, I do not know.

There is nothing rooting in your favor when you attempt to become friends with a Negro. First of all you must overcome both your own and your friend's misunderstandings and prejudices. For example, I called Spelman a subculture one day and immediately suspicion and resentment began to build inside a friend of mine at Spelman. Sociologically the word "subculture" has no value judgment, but simply means a smaller culture within a larger culture. Used to being looked down upon, my friend saw the word as meaning substandard. I have no idea how long she mulled that over in her mind before she finally confronted me. Luckily she did confront me and we were able to get the misunderstanding cleared up. But this is an example of what can happen to distort and destroy a friendship if the two people involved are not committed enough to the value of having friendships with people of different racial and cultural backgrounds to confront one another when they have been hurt and insulted by the other.

I became especially good friends with one girl at Spelman. One night we sat in my room talking. My friend had come in after I had gone to bed and sat at the end of my bed in the dark. In the dark you could not tell what color the two people were who were talking. We were just two girls sitting up talking late at night — a very normal thing which happens in hundreds of colleges all over the country.

We sat in the dark and I heard her say that there were times she hated all white people, that she knew it was irrational but she could not help it. I could not see the color of my skin but I knew what color it was. It didn't seem fair.

I felt so alone — to be hated because my skin was white, for my friend to be hated because her skin was black, to be hated for something you can do nothing about. You want to yell out, "No, no! I am a person. Accept me or reject me for the person I am, not for the color of my skin. Do not let my skin color or what people who have the same skin color as mine have done to you, stand in our way."

My friend did not believe a Negro and a white person could ever be completely friends, that the Negro could ever erase all suspicion and hatred because you are white or that the white could ever be fully rid of a prejudice which says that Negroes are little better than animals and not the equal of the white man.

I lay awake for a while after my friend left almost crying because I could not understand. And then I thought of all the Negro boys and girls who must have cried themselves to sleep because they could not understand the prejudice and injustices of our society.

I found it hard while at Spelman to forget I was white. My friend and I did become very close and forgot about color most of the time. But when some white boys insulted a boyfriend of hers and she told me this one evening, I felt sick again that my skin was white and that I, too, was guilty. I looked at her and said, "I know I am white but I don't understand. I'm sick."

"No, Pam, " she answered, "I don't see you as white." We transcended the color line but it has been difficult. And yet, because we have done it, perhaps it is possible in Mississippi also.

I attended the Spring Conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta, Georgia over Easter weekend. For me the most momentous event was Friday evening, which was devoted solely to singing Freedom Songs (after a powerful speech by John Lewis.) It was in the singing that all the individuals, who had been working throughout the South to win dignity and equal rights for the Negro, became one living mass singing together the hopes and aspirations of all — freedom.

It was in the SNCC theme song, "We Shall Overcome", that the group sang forth most completely in one voice. We stood clasping hands, singing and swaying back and forth to the music, one living, breathing, hopeful mass. And when we sang the verse "Black and white together" we sang "now" instead of the usual "someday" and we raised our clasped hands above our heads and you could see black, brown and white hands held together in one living whole. Here was our goal, our dream -- all mankind joined together for one purpose. May it be this way in Mississippi within the (freedom) schools. And may it be this way someday in our country and in the world. May we be truly united under God.

I am leaving for Mississippi in two weeks. It will cost me about $450 to meet my expenses this summer and at school next year. What else will my going cost? How much it will cost me in suffering, I cannot tell, but I have no doubt that I will receive more in terms of my growth as a human being than I could ever possibly give no matter what happens.

I will be living with a Negro family while teaching in Mississippi. This family will be taking great risks by having me live with them, which could result in the loss of jobs, the destruction of property and even loss of life. For my own family there will be a summer of continual anxiety over my physical wellbeing.

If I may, I would like to ask two things of you: first, that you pray for me and my two families, that we may have the strength of the Holy Spirit with us this summer and second, that if you can, you help me to meet my financial needs of $450.

Individual members of the church contributed to my expense fund. The sewing club sent me $5.00.

Before leaving for Mississippi I sent a copy of this talk to Father Paul Washington, rector of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The church was located in northern Philadelphia in a poor, black community. I'd worked at the Church of the Advocate's day camp the previous summer.

At the end of July I received a letter from Father Washington. "Three weeks ago," he wrote, "I read the address which you had prepared for Solebury — to our congregation. I explained to our congregation that you were not appealing for funds, that you had appealed to your own congregation and that they had responded quite sufficiently to answer this need. Nevertheless, as different ones from the congregation shook my hands while leaving the service, one after the other said, 'take this for Pam,' others said in so many words, 'if she can go down to Mississippi and risk her life, at least we can give something to help support her.' They did not (the congregation this morning) give this whole amount, the balance came from an education fund which has been recently established." In the letter was a check for $25.00.

Copyright © 1964 - 2005, Chude Allen

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