Remembrances of Mississippi Summer 1964
Karen Duncanwood, a Participating Volunteer
Address to M.L. King's Birthday Celebration, Paradise, CA
January 18, 2010

See Mississippi Freedom Summer for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.

Thank you very much. I am honored to have been asked by the Paradise Center for Tolerance and Nonviolence to speak today. I am excited to have found PCTN in the first few months I've now been in Paradise and hope my remarks will add to its work. And I am most honored to be asked to speak on the birthday of one of our country's greatest people. Martin Luther King challenged us all to keep looking deep within ourselves and always to strive in our actions to contribute to peace, mutual understanding, and most of all to justice. He certainly inspired me and I am honored to contribute to the celebration of his genius and his very patriotic improvement of our democracy against such tall odds. I wonder how many of us here tonight remember exactly where we were when we heard the terrible news from Memphis? (pause) We will choose tonight to remember his brilliant leadership and his callings to us.

My journey to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 started in the spring of my freshman year at SF State College. I walked past the tables with information about different projects on my way to the cafeteria. I glanced at one table with photos of people having high powered water hoses turned on them, knocking them off their feet. I was a typical blue collar young girl who'd been isolated in the white suburban small town of Novato in Marin Co. back when it was a cow town of 6000 people. I knew nothing of the outside world. I was nervous glancing at the photos and walked past thinking "there are all those people who demonstrate ... I want nothing to do with them." But every day I glanced at a new photo until finally my curiosity overcame me and I stopped to find out what it was all about.

What I was told was very alarming to me — people could be fired from their jobs, thrown off the land their family had sharecropped for decades, and out of their meager rental shacks for simply trying to register to vote! To be honest, I wasn't sure I believed it. It's not that I thought they were lying, it's just that it didn't seem possible. My high school US History teacher had taught us that slaves were happy under slavery because they got to sit around and eat watermelon all the time. I knew that wasn't real either, but what was? What I was hearing felt like a story from another planet, not the "land of the free, and home of the brave" I kept hearing about. It was during the buildup of the Vietnam War and I had three brothers who would soon be draft age. Was this the America they would be risking their lives to protect?

I learned there would be a summer project that very summer of northern college students going to Mississippi to help folks feel safe enough to go to their county courthouses and register to vote and other things. It seemed unbelievable that a state that had a large black population (a majority in the county I ended up in), had not been able to elect a single black elected official in the whole state since Reconstruction of about 100 years ago. How could this be? Wasn't our democracy's cornerstone majority rule? Then I learned that the voter registration rate among blacks in the state was very small — some had tried, but only a tiny, tiny few had succeeded. Either they could not afford the poll tax one had to pay to vote, or they could not pass the registration exams in which the local white election officials could pull any paragraph from the Mississippi State constitution and ask the registrant to write an essay explaining it, or they already knew folks, beaten, fired and thrown off the land for daring to register, and could not risk that fate for their families. I had not grown up in a house with more than 15 books, and knew very little real history of the people of my country, beyond the dates and names of wars and famous leaders we were required to memorize. I was astounded.

This problem seemed like it was crying out for help and progress. And so in my naivete, I signed up to go South. My father told me I couldn't go, much as he told me I would never be able to afford college — because that was for middle and upper class kids. I planned to go, much as I started college as a live-in babysitter for rich kids in the City. I learned there were northern support groups forming to help provide meager funds to volunteers for food and basic living expenses for those like me who had no funds. When we arrived for our weeklong Orientation Session at a college campus in Ohio, we were excited, nervous, and very naive — at least I was. I felt police were who you could call on if you needed help.

Our training session opened with white Rita Schwerner (wife of volunteer Mickey Schwerner) telling us that her husband and two others who had left in the first batch of volunteers a week ago had been missing 16 hours, and were not expected to be found alive. Fanny Lou Hamer (a black sharecropper from the upper NW corner of Mississippi) took the stage and started to sing in acappella "Go Tell it On the Mountain", which decades later I found out was a Negro spiritual about the birth of Christ. That day we sang verses who's words had been changed to: "Paul & Silas was bound in jail, had no money for to go their bail", and "The people began to shout, the jail doors opened and they walked out." All of a sudden the reality of black serfdom in the rural south began to come into focus. And I learned the role of music to inspire us through our fear. The soft spoken Gandhian figure Bob Moses, took the stage and said that if some of us felt we no longer wanted to go South, the project would understand. We could leave freely and not be chastised. I was mesmerized. I was learning a reality I had not known existed and could not leave.

We had presentations and discussions of what non-violent resistance meant in such a polarized, dangerous setting. We practiced how to roll into a ball using our hands to protect a little of our necks and skulls during beatings. We were taught never to resist — the forces watching and controlling us were way too powerful, it would have meant slaughter. But we were also reminded we were trying to change the minds of southern white bigots and northern white apathetics by the morality of our witness and presence.

Most of all the black project directors knew that those of us who went would be trailed by the powerful northern media who had ignored the reality of the apartheid south for a century. Although some of us students were from black colleges, most of us were from vastly white northern colleges. Not all, but most of us were middle and upper middle class, who had rarely, if ever, experienced real danger in our lives. We were insulated & privileged and any hint of danger to us would make dramatic news coverage in the north. Finally we hoped there were enough folks and media to hopefully crack American apartheid, reinforced so successfully by the terror of the KKK and the White Citizen's Councils for a century. I felt glad to be a small, tiny part of such a historical and long overdue undertaking, though part of me still did not comprehend what we were doing.

One morning in Ohio we boarded the rented busses that would take us to Nashville, Tenn., where we would spend the night on the floor of a church and board trains the next morning into Jackson, Mississippi. It was not considered safe to let us cross Mississippi state lines in our busses. Too many of the freedom riders in busses had been attacked and burned already. Steel and iron train cars were safer for those who could expect absolutely no police protection from the local, state, or national forces (including the FBI in the state).

Our train slowly rolled into Canton, Mississippi, about an hour outside of Jackson in the center of the state. We peered out the windows of the rail cars and saw two crowds. The first was many whites gathered with confederate flags, signs of hatred, and ugly angry faces, shouting rebukes at us. The second larger crowd of friendly black faces with welcome signs greeted us a little further on, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. We disembarked and got into a cavalcade of cars that took us to a local black church in Canton. After we all had gathered and were seated, project staff began the next phase of our orientation.

About five minutes into that the doors of the church were pounded on, and staff went to see who it was. In stepped the local county sheriff with lots of his deputies. They said they wanted to address us which was allowed (as refusal could have caused untold danger and misery). He told us we were welcome to ask any questions we had at the end of his talk. The sheriff told us that unfortunately we had made the trip for nothing, and should go home. We were "outside agitators" who were not welcome by the residents of Canton, or the rest of the county. He told the men they would be beaten up & robbed by Negroes in the county, and told the women we would be robbed and personally violated by those same black men. (Black women were not mentioned. In his mind they & their danger were invisible.)

Out of my naive belief in his promise that we could ask questions, I raised my hand and was called on. I said politely, "Sheriff, on the way in we saw a small white crowd opposing our coming, but also a much larger Negro crowd welcoming us. Since this county is about 80% Negro, wouldn't the vast majority of residents be welcoming us to stay?" His expression immediately shifted from phony lying paternalism to open hostility. I don't remember what he said, but a wise black woman who was ten years older gently came to my side and whispered that perhaps we should follow the sheriff's instructions. I nodded as we were then instructed that those of us who stayed would have to drive now to the police station to be fingerprinted, and photographed as unwelcome "guests" of the county. And so our day ended with us each getting the numbered mug shots of prisoners.

I had been assigned to teach Freedom School in Valleyview, a very rural community about ten miles from Canton, which itself had only 10,000 people, and was about an hour from the state capital in Jackson. I was to live with two or three other girls (one black, the rest white) in a spare bedroom of an elderly couple who farmed 5 acres and raised chickens and a small vegetable garden. We settled in well with our hosts, who were shy and told us they had never shook the hand of a white person. A few days later, the Grandma said she was going to the market to buy food and we all volunteered to contribute. She said, "No, I'm just getting chicken this time." We were all a bit confused as they raised about 3 dozen laying hens and a rooster. As we asked her "Don't you eat your own chickens?", she said, "Yes, but we didn't think you would." We were shocked to learn that she had been ashamed to serve us their free range, well fed chickens. It was one of many lessons of internalized discrimination we were to witness that summer.

As a few of us started teaching Freedom School in the local wooden black church, we grappled with the balance between black history, remedial skills (necessary to register to vote), and other subjects. Individually, I grappled with teaching black history (which I knew absolutely nothing about), from a book I struggled to read 2-3 chapters ahead of presenting it, praying my students would ask no far reaching, deep questions (which of course, they occasionally did.) I was as amazed as they were to learn of black empires in Africa before Europe was developed, extensive black and mixed race royalty, advanced systems of economic sustenance, as well as large numbers of slave revolts in the American south, including some that were successful against terrifying odds. I was as amazed as they were to learn of the Underground Railroad and the cooperation between Quaker and other white abolitionists and escaping slaves. I was as thrilled as they to read Fredrick Douglas' speeches & writings, none of which I heard about in my highly biased high school US history class. I learned as they did of great black inventors of many staples of American industry and culture.

An anger began to burn in me as I realized that it was not only blacks who had been kept uniformed but my whole family, my hometown, our state and our nation. How false and arrogant the old debates of segregation vs. integration now sounded to me. My society, our whole society had been deliberately kept ignorant of the real vibrant human history of our nation, and I always wondered how much more I didn't know. In later years I learned of the devastation of Native cultures, the theft of great tracks of land from Mexicans, of the internment of Japanese Americans (while white Germans & Italians were not interned), of the slave labor of Chinese and other immigrants, of the country's history of child labor and violence against working men and women trying to build unions for self-protection against the growing power of Wall Street's capital. And I learned of the history of this nation's wars and how few of them had a legitimate rationale, right through the present ones.

When I wasn't teaching Freedom School in the cooler mornings, I was going to mass meetings of black church goers in their churches in the evenings. I had been raised in the carefully ritualized, reserved Episcopalian faith. If anything, church had been a little boring, not exhuberant. So my first southern black church service was a real eye opener. It was fascinating to watch people sincerely, publically proclaim their faith in prayer or song, or speak in tongues. It was much more interesting to a young mind & spirit.

And I was learning about nature in Mississippi, one time opening the Freedom House refrigerator to stare at a skinned possum, waiting to be cooked. Another time while we were in Canton, sleeping at the Freedom House (half office, half dorm), I got up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom and stepped barefoot on a southern cockroach. Now I don't know how many of you have experienced Southern cockroaches, but they are huge. This one was about 2 inches long and crunched loudly when my bare foot stepped on it. Scared the be-Jesus out of me all right! Never again did I walk barefoot at night in Mississippi.

Another morning a few of us white girls decided to try to attend services at the Episcopal church in Canton. We dressed nicely, and arrived and walked up the stairs to the sanctuary. We quietly entered, crossed ourselves, found seats, and knelt to pray. About two minutes later I got a tap on the shoulder. The usher motioned us to come out of the row and follow him into a hallway. There were about 8-10 "ushers" in a semi-circle around the three of us. They told us we were not welcome to pray in their church. I told them I had been raised Episcopalian and wanted to take communion. They then pulled their fists out of their pockets enough for us to see the shine of their brass knuckles, as they repeated that they wanted us to leave now as we were not welcome. Being confronted with such hostile and overwhelming force we went back downstairs to find the car we had parked now had its tires slashed. So much for Southern Christian brotherly love and so called Southern hospitality. Later that day we found out that the young black male project director had been arrested for supposedly slashing our tires and jailed, getting a vicious beating that broke his arm.

The terror we experienced that summer was something out of a horror movie. It was not constant, but frequent enough to remind you where you were and how afraid we had to remain. Please watch again the movie "Mississippi Burning", which you might still be able to rent at the video store. As usual, Hollywood dealt too shallowly with too many complex issues and erroneously portrayed northern whites, instead of indigenous black leadership as the real force for change. But the terror it portrays was real. And one never knew when or where it would come. We would get mimeographed Summer Project News and read pages & pages of church bombings, burnings, and beatings in other locales in the state, almost faster than they could be reported. I remembered 52 black churches being burned to the ground that summer, but in my preparations for today read that 67 churches, homes, and places of business had been destroyed by the Klan terrorists/i.e. Mississippi law enforcement. Remember this is in a state that is smaller than northern California geographically, and as rural. There were only five Congressional districts in all of Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC staffed four of them, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) staffed the project in the center of the state where I was.

One night after a mass meeting at a rural black church about 10-12 miles away, several of us piled into cars to go home, breaking the usual patterns of men and women both in the same car, and three of us women left first, 2 whites and one black. At some point we lost the guys following us in the rear view mirror. But it was getting dark and so we kept going to get back to the Freedom House. We got back after dusk, and thus hadn't had time to nail the nightly blankets up on the windows to block our silhouettes which were perfect shotgun targets when lit from behind. About 3 minutes later we heard loud pounding on the door. As there were only 3 of us women and none were self-defense experts or very strong, we tried to stall by conversation through the door while one woman crawled on her stomach to the back room to use the CB radio to call the headquarters in Canton, telling them the sheriffs were here (in case they didn't hear from us at regular check in time the morning). The two of us at the front door stalled with "Just a minute, we were changing into our PJ's", and "let us find the dog & hold him by leash", etc." We were successful in delaying opening the door till the 3rd girl came back down the hall, and then had to open the door, before it was knocked down. We were waiting for the guys to arrive, as the Klan & WCC terrorists were really cowards who preferred to do their worst beatings & killings without witnesses. We knew once they got back, we would outnumber them and there would be too many witnesses to really play dirty. We were so glad to have the guys arrive about 6 minutes later. They had been held up at a racist roadblock, but thankfully released to come home. It was a nerve jangling evening I will never forget. They could have just as easily ended up like Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. By the way, we the reason we used CB radios to check in every morning & evening was the local telephone company was so racist it would not give us a telephone that whole summer in the Freedom House.

About 3/4 of the way through the summer, we saw the sheriff's deputy's car come down the road toward the Freedom House. The road dead ended near the Freedom House and then turned left to get to the black church where Freedom School was held. We watched the deputy's car and two others turn and go toward the church. About five minutes later, we heard some black neighbors running along the road announcing the church was burning, and looked outside to see the billowing smoke. We stayed a few more minutes in the House, and then saw the sheriff and his cohorts coming back from the church, turn around the Freedom House and hightail it out the road to Canton. There was no doubt in anyone's mind who had fire bombed the church. We were all so sad and angry at this injustice to the brave congregation that had lent us their church. We still conducted Freedom School outside in the cemetery next to the burnt church's shell, but had to quit earlier in the day as it got hotter & more humid.

We heard in the next day or two that the sheriff's department was looking for our local black project director to charge him with burning his own church. He lived with his mother and much younger brother and sister. The project director had disappeared and we were all very worried. We decided that I would go stay with his mother and siblings so that if the sheriff came looking for him there, there would be more witnesses to their behavior. I'll never forget talking to his terrified mother, who confided he was hiding out in the swamp until things cooled down. She showed me the bump under her pillow and said she kept some protection there in case they came to get the rest of her family. It was another life lesson for the white suburban girl about the realities of American racial terrorism in the South.

The Institutional Racism of the Crop Allotment System

I know that many of you know something of the terror of the apartheid south, so I also wanted to tell a story to illustrate the economic foundations of the terrorism that kept the vast black majority so poor and almost powerless. There were a very few independent black farmers around Valleyview that owned and farmed their own land that they had been able to hang onto since Reconstruction. One of them owned about 15-20 acres on which he raised cotton — the cash crop of the deep South. One day I rode with him and another volunteer to Canton on an errand. I got up into his pickup truck and noticed a rifle mounted on a rack that divided the driver's side of the bench seat from the passenger side. He saw my surprise & discomfort and said, "Don't be afraid — this is just for the 2 legged varmints that we occasionally meet out here who might want to punish us for riding in the same car." I was stunned to realize he was taking his life into his hands to simply give us a ride."

He then went on to explain to me how the crop allotment system worked. Each county was allowed to grow only so much cotton so as to keep from flooding the market and plunging prices too low. It was intertwined with the agricultural product price support system in a way I never fully grasped. But this part I knew. Each farmer with land under cultivation in each county would get told how many acres of cotton they could plant. And that was supposed to yield so much cotton per acre. Well, if one were a very small, poor black farmer (like the older couple we lived with), and because of lack of physical help, or poverty that didn't allow buying the best fertilizers or the most up to date irrigation systems and thus one's yield was not up to the standard and say only yielded 4 1/2 acres worth, the other 1/2 acre allotment would be removed for next year and put into a pool of extra acreage that farmers could bid on. The only problem of course was that the notice of when the bidding meeting was to occur was only sent to the white farmers. So each year the large white farmers got richer and the black and poor white farmers got poorer.

And in case you are wondering why the logical thing didn't happen — a racially integrated organization of poor white and poor black farmers to organize against this land stealing, any small attempt toward any friendly contact was quickly smashed by the terror of the cowardly Ku Klux Klan. I knew this to be true both from what I was told and what I observed. On one of the hot, dusty back roads we took to a rural church, there was a small gas station with a one room grocery store, run by a white woman who was not hostile to blacks or to integrated groups of civil rights workers. She was simply gracious to everyone, and sold icy cold Cokes without bias or cheating. Toward the end of the summer her small store & station was fire bombed as she had been friendly to us once too often. We all felt so bad for her, but decided not to organize relief for her openly, fearing she and her family could then be physically harmed or murdered. That's how terrorism in the deep south worked to enforce apartheid among those of the same class.

The last subject I want to address was the passive complicity of the federal authorities, especially the FBI in all of the terror that summer and beyond. The FBI visited the Freedom House in Canton, and interviewed a lot of us. I asked why they had stood by and watched vicious beatings of black men, not taking action to stop it, but only taking notes. They responded that they had to follow the orders of their Washington, D.C. office (at that time headed by the infamous J. Edgar Hoover). Besides they asserted they did not have the authority as agents to do anything independently. The Summer Project had become so frustrated with the complicity of the FBI, that they had researched what agents could in fact do. Actually the law did give them the right and responsibility to intervene to stop any illegal behavior they witnessed, and I and others cited them verse and chapter of the code. They got very uncomfortable and tried to convince us that they were good people who could not act. We told them with friends like them, who needed enemies.

This was the still great unexplored national failure of that summer. The northern authorities knew about the beatings, killings, bombings and burnings and did not act, leaving brave blacks daring to register to vote unprotected not only by their county & state authorities, but also the federal ones. Not only leaving them unprotected but very vulnerable to the attack of the law officials who wore sheriff's uniforms by day and Klan sheets at night all across the South. The shocking thing to witness was that the police power structure in the South was the Klan and the White Citizens Council. These were not small fringe groups, but the majority groups who'd been able to make it into political power.

The national Democractic Party at that time had a main pillar that was based squarely on the racism of a century in the South. None of the Democratic elected officials in the Deep South of 1964 favored integration — they were virtually all segregationists. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, he commented that he knew it meant the Democratic Party would lose the South for generations. That is he knew that the Democratic elected officials enforcing the continuation of segregation would leave the Party in droves, defecting to the Republican Party if integration threatened the stranglehold on the black majority there. And that is exactly what happened.

And it is my observation that the Dixie South lives on today in the far right political block of the Republican South that votes against any progressive legislation for the democratic majority over & over & over. So when you think that national quality healthcare of reasonable price should be available or better yet, a national healthcare system of free public health that any other advanced industrial democracy in the world has, please remember the high price we have paid for centuries of segregation. Please remember that when sane national leaders try to pursue a policy of world peace and international respect for our country, where the major resistance comes from and why.

When public officials try to openly defend their policies of privilege for the few and insecurity for the many, please look at how the votes line up. Conservative, racist votes come from some places in the north and the rural west also, of course, but without the stranglehold of the unequal South living today, we would have a much more peace loving, humanly supportive system than we do today. Whenever I see a Confederate flag or bumper sticker that says "The South lives on!", I sadly have to agree. What took centuries to construct and maintain does not disappear in 46 years. I believe the South does live on in the backwardness of our national dialogue, the ghettos of every major city, and in the continuing significant failures of our democracy.

I'd like to mention also that I am fortunate to have a son, Ryan Duncanwood (here with us tonight), who uses a wheelchair and a computer to speak with. (Come on up Ryan, so folks can meet you.) The experience of having a person with a significant disability (but also significant abilities) in your family is a unique and rich one. Especially if you already have a commitment to improving human rights when he arrives. The struggles of our family over the constant barriers we faced to Ryan's dignity and right to participate and contribute to our common wisdom were sometimes too much. The forces of devaluing, lack of knowledge, discomfort, segregation and exclusion are still quite strong, though less so all the time, as people with disAbilities continue to show us their talents and refusal to live by how we think they should. Ryan has a 45 minute professionally edited DVD of his life that we hope to someday be able to share. It begins with him being on Tom Brokaw's national NBC news and ends with him tandem parachuting out of an airplane thousands of feet up over a narrow beach in Hawaii. He definitely has more guts than his Mom or Dad.

I mention him tonight as we have always taught Ryan that the roots of his civil rights/disability rights movement are in the black south, where common people stood up over & over & over for both their dignity and their human rights to equal treatment. Our family was lucky enough a few year's back to go to the National Education Association's national teacher's conference in New Orleans (the old, beautiful New Orleans). So, we took the opportunity to visit Birmingham & Montgomery, Alabama, and the church I taught Freedom School in in Mississippi in 1964. We visited the national bus boycott museum (which has a great active exhibit of the heroic boycott that the community there rallied so courageously to carry out for such a long time until victory was won), the national Civil Rights museum, the church the 4 precious little girls attending Sunday school were killed in, as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center. I urge all of you to visit these monuments to our nation's democracy if you are ever able to. We were so glad to see that the burnt church in rural Valleyview, outside Canton, outside Jackson, Mississippi had been rebuilt in less flamable brick, and was still living on. Ryan loved the civil rights tour we were on as he instinctively knew the dignity of those who marched was similar to that he & others possessed while surrounding and blocking inaccessible Greyhound buses in LA.

But let us never forget that we have much still to do. And if there is much doubt about that, please remember that President Bush left one FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) official in New Orleans while he continued his vacation in Texas during the country's most serious storm warning in many decades. Was this not a clearly racist act and an abandonment of real national security? And do we not all know, that we still have so very much to do to realize King's dream that we are all judged not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our characters? Let us all pledge to persevere tonight in celebration of Martin's legacy. Thank you very much.

Copyright © Karen Duncanwood, 2010
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