Mississippi Summer 1964
by Gren Whitman
Reprinted from: Progressive Review

[Forty years ago last summer, three young men — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, were murdered while organizing for black voting rights in Mississippi. Chaney was black; Goodman and Schwerner were white. The case, a major incident in the civil rights struggle, has recently resurfaced with new charges against one of the alleged murderers.

Also in Mississippi that summer — working on the same effort as Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — was Gren Whitman who wrote letters to your editor published in the first issue of the Idler, forerunner of the Progressive Review. Here are some excerpts.]

20 JUNE OXFORD, OHIO — The first week of our training/orientation session here is finishing rapidly, and most of the volunteers are gathering in the parking lot with their baggage, waiting for busses in which they will travel to their various destinations in the sovereign state of Mississippi. The mood is somber, the laughter is nervous rather than genuine, for what we have learned this week, above all, is the seriousness of the accusation that Mississippi is a police state, a domestic Nazi regime, and that each of the volunteers and staff members will be in real danger of harassment and intimidation in the form of arrests, beatings, jail terms, and even murder from the moment they enter the state...

5 JULY BILOXI, MS — "Welcome to Mississippi, the Magnolia State," said the large sign at the border, but it didn't make me feel any more comfortable. The minute we crossed the line, the bus became silent. Indeed, the silence hit me hard, and if there is one thing I'll remember that day, it was the absence of conversation — on the bus, in the restaurant, in bus-stations...

We arrived in Biloxi that evening. We found that the day before, when the rest of the group arrived, they were told that the house we had supposedly rented for the two months was suddenly "unavailable" — the word had already gotten out about us. But we found a suite of rooms in the, get this, Hotel Riviera, the manager not knowing at the time who we were, and now, not really caring. Things do seem to be more open here on the Coast. I've heard that people here believe that, when they die, they go to New Orleans...

27 JULY BILOXI, MS — I am on the go about 14 hours a day. Very busy, with little time to myself.

Actually, writing this, I should be at a mass meeting at the Odd Fellows Hall (now a community center, inspired by COFO workers and begun by the colored community) discussing the Freedom Democratic Party and the impending Biloxi school desegregation...

The objective of beginning to talk this soon is to attempt to get 20-30 Negro children to enroll instead of just one or two. Many parents do not want their children to be subject to an integration ordeal and so are, oddly enough, but understandably, opposed to integration.

I am team teaching about 20 (it varies from day to day) 8th, 9th, and 10th graders, about 3/4th girls. In the mornings, from 9 to 12, we teach Negro history and citizenship. These offer a wide latitude for discussion, and we range far...

Registration work here in Biloxi is not dangerous. The worst incident has been one guy being chased. No shooting, beating, real harassment, etc. We don't let this go to our heads, however, but use this reprieve to increase our activity.

Most of the people we talk to are warm and receptive, but we still have to break down a great deal of hesitation. This hesitation, this fear, is exemplified by the person who agrees with everything we say, sometimes for twenty minutes, says quite honestly that we are right and are doing a good thing — and then refuses to register. This is not discouraging so much as sad...

It is most interesting to talk to whites. Most of them, when they see a white man and black man standing at their door, know what we are doing and immediately turn themselves off — they are "not interested." But the few who do talk to us are great. In spite of the weight of their prejudices, in some cases they are deeply concerned with what is going on about them land want to try to help. One white woman, who I signed up, wanted to come to the meeting tonight. I arranged for a baby-sitter and called her back. She said her husband had learned of what she had done and she was in a bad situation. I am worried about her, but she, because of her husband's antagonism and our very sane and sensible conversation, may become quite active in her own way. It takes a lot of walking and talking on our part to do this, to gain this, but it is worth it, every bit of effort...

The other day, in class, I had to leave the room while teaching a class. I was talking about the American Revolution and the role played by the Negro in Winning independence. I managed to catch some of the high idealism which must have pervaded that era, the triumph — and then had to look at the kids, who were as lifted as I, and began to explain why slavery had continued and deepened and why they were still in bondage today. I had to leave because I was weeping. Luckily, team teaching involves another teacher and Steve took over.

8 AUGUST BILOXI, MS — Too many people have been saying for too long — "it can't happen here." If anyone really believes this, I invite them to join me as a member of a canvassing team as we leave Biloxi on Route 67 and start a 45 minute drive north to Saucier, a small town which straddles US Route 49, running between Gulfport and Hattiesburg.

If you come to our office early, say, half an hour before we leave, you join us in our pre-departure procedure. We examine our list of contacts (in Saucier, only one contact, the owner of a Negro tavern) and make sure, by calling, that we have the telephone number straight. We pull out a Mississippi roadmap 'to determine all the routes and alternate routes in and out of Saucier.

If we are lucky, we have a printed map of the town, but generally, we have to rely on a hand-drawn map or verbal directions.

We check the car we'll be using. Is the tank full? Have we extra gas and oil? Spare tire and tools? Registration papers and permission slip from the owner? Are there locks on the hood and the gas tank? We make out a list of the names of our canvassing team.

We make sure a telephone line will be constantly open — if we have not called within an hour after leaving, the Biloxi office will immediately notify the Jackson COFO office and the FBI, and will start calling the jails along our route without delay. Finally, we check our wallets for identification, draft cards, and sufficient money to nullify a possible charge of vagrancy — and make sure we have a dime for that single precious telephone call from jail.

We leave Biloxi on Route 67 across a long, narrow cement b r i d s across the Back Bay, pass through the tough, poor white community of D'Iberville. Our companions are all local Negro volunteer CR workers. James B, 18. is driving.

George M; 19, is constantly peering ahead for cops and other suspicious cars.

Boney T, 16, and I are in back, peering behind. You're right between Boney and myself. Our integrated car gets a few hard stares, but soon we are out of town, picking up speed, and checking behind for any car which may have decided to follow us.

All clear. The road is narrow, two lane, pretty straight, well-paved, and 1Gilely. We drive through long stretches of pine woods and red clay banks. Few houses, few cars, little open country.

Each car from the front, from the rear, from the side is potential trouble. Many civilian cars are equipped with shortwave radios, easy to spot and good to avoid. All state vehicles, from State Patrol cruiser to Highway Department trucks are on the same network. A colored friend of mine told me that while she was being questioned by cops near McComb, she heard on the police radio that another CR worker was being questioned near Tupelo, in the northeast part of the state.

Fear cannot be described, only felt.

I have been frightened many times in my life in varying degrees, in varying circumstances. And courage is not the absence of fear. Fear is the essence of courage. What are your emotions now, driving with us along a lonely highway in rural Mississippi, in an integrated car? If you are frightened, you are with friends, and you are sane. If you are not afraid, you know nothing about Mississippi.

You have never heard of the Freedom Rides and how they ended in Jackson.

You have never heard of Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, and countless others.

You have not heard of Neshoba County. You have never talked with a Mississippi Negro or a CR veteran.

And if your fear has overcome your convictions, you have no business with us. Go home.

Our three colored companions are profoundly aware that two whites are in the car with them and what this will mean if we are stopped for any reason.

The two of us, likewise, know that though we are white, we become as black as tar once we are known to be CR types. White Mississippians make no distinctions. There is a strange and wonderful, and, for you, a new bond between the five of us, compounded of fear, and dedication and brotherhood — and we keep driving. Welcome to the fight, friend.

James B. suddenly reaches for our crude map of Saucier, and starts looking for landmarks and pointing them out to us, in case... He's been here highway, passing a few houses, and then turn again, onto the tavern's dirt driveway. We make a nervous joke about the "Colored only" on the tavern's sign, cross a metal cattle baffle, go a quarter of a mile, and pull up. Immediately, George and I walk inside, heading for the phone to call in.

You follow us, walking across the hard dirt yard, looking at the livestock wandering around outside, hogs poking through old bottles and cans, the cattle thinking about heading out back to the woods and the grass. Inside, the owner asks us if we've had breakfast, and when we say "yes," he gives us all a Coke. We sit down for a few minutes, a last quick war council before jumping off.

"Sooner we start, sooner we can get out." We climb back in and head out. The Biloxi office has told us that another team from Gulfport we expected to meet isn't coming, so we're on our own. Our mission is to pick up Freedom Registration forms which James left at various houses on his first two trips — so our job is simpler than if we had to stop at every house.

At the first house, the woman tells us that she hasn't filled out the form, and won't. This happens all the time, and we expect it. Generally, if a person doesn't agree to register within five minutes after we start talking, they won't, no matter how long we talk, reason, cajole, frighten, reassure, promise, and plead. The excuses are varied, but they are motivated by fear. We understand. We try not to push too hard. We say we'll be back.

We stay at the next house for three-fourths of an hour. James goes in, then George and Boney. You and I stand in the yard. The delay gives us a chance to look around. We are in front of an unpainted, tin-roofed house with a slanted, rickety porch. It sags, as if in resignation. Inside, we hear a TV playing, and ragged children wander out, staring at us with their beautiful eyes.

They smile shyly when we smile, and they go back into the house, away from the amazing strangers. Negro children seem to be aware of color long before white children, long before they know what the difference means. A dog, lying under the house, moves only his eyes, checking us constantly. In back, the man of 'the house plows his little garden with a mule, aided by his son. He does not look at us. His son nods.

Finally, the three others come back out, cursing softly and sadly. We know they haven't gotten anything. They've been talking too long.

The next house is back in the woods, away from the road. Again, unpainted, many small children, clothes on the line, livestock, a garden in back. We get a filled-out form — in fact, two, but the second is no good because the girl is only 16. They smile, and we talk for a few minutes. We want to talk to people, we want them to see "black and white together," as the song says. We want them to see for themselves their first glimpse of the reality of the new order, of the beloved community. Even when folks don't sign up, they see us together — it makes them think. Perhaps, we always like to hope, the next time we come by, they will be ready to sign up for freedom. And there's always a next time. Always.

Our final stop is a colored settlement near a planing mill owned by a Mr. Black. Most of these people are his tenants and employees. We know that he has told them not to talk to us and that they inform him each time we come around. So we keep our visit short. We talk quickly and to the point — "Join the Freedom Party. You need it. It needs you." No one signs. Few talk. James B, sensing that someone has already headed to tell 'Mr. Charlie' that we're talking to 'his niggers," says "let's go," and we git. Fast. There is always the next time. Folks have seen us, some have talked, however briefly. The precious seed is planted. The freedom seed.

After another call to the Biloxi office from the tavern, telling them to expect us in 45 minutes, we pull out of Saucier.

Four hours of talking, four hours of work, four hours of fear, on both sides — and two Freedom forms filled out, one from the woman in the house in the woods, another from a drunk in the tavern.

Back along 67. Same routine. Same apprehension. But heading home. No trouble. Arrive in Biloxi. Sign back in.

Relax. Wait for tomorrow. Can't it happen here? It already has.

Copyright © Gren Whitman, 1964.

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