Mississippi Summer: 1963 to February 1964:
A Memory

Oscar Chase
September, 2020

[I was recently asked to speak about my times with SNCC in Mississippi. I send it with the honor of Curtis and of SNCC.]

My talk this evening is about my experiences in the world of Mississippi in 1963 and '64 where I lived. To understand that world we must recall the so- called Reconstruction after the Civil War. For some time after the War the enslaved Black people had obtained some freedom. By about 1875, however, the KluKluxKlan (KKK) and the likes drove the Black people into an era of a second type of slavery. Among others, segregation and the prohibition of voting were part of the appalling world that lasted to roughly 100 years for African American people.

When I was in law school in the early Sixties little had changed, but opposition to segregation was gaining throughout the South. The Freedom Riders, for example, were a group of heroic Blacks and whites who refused to follow the rules of bus riding. Then, segregation allowed "white-only" restrooms. Lunch counters were limited in when or where Blacks could eat if at all. The Freedom Riders absolutely objected and were horribly beaten. One of them was John Lewis, who was one of the original members of SNCC. Many in the north were horrified of what we saw on the T.V.s.

I learned about SNCC when a small group came to Yale led by Bob Moses, the leader of SNCC in Mississippi. He and others were committed to changing Mississippi despite the frequent attacks against them. The obvious wrong of segregation and the courageous work of these activists moved me to help if I could.

I remained connecting with Bob Moses over the time as I was finishing my law school. He invited me to join SNCC in Mississippi. He suggested that I could help working registration of voting, and teaching in Tougaloo, a prominently Black college near Jackson. I felt his proposition as a "call" to do what was right. So, I went to Mississippi in the summer of 1963.

When I got to Jackson I was welcomed by the SNCC men and women, as well as students and professors in the Tugaloo college. The minister of Tugaloo, Reverend Edward King was especially so. Rev. King told me how Mississippi was a "police state." The government, KKKs, the courts, the newspapers, the police, and even the TV news were protecting segregation. Only a few weeks before I arrived, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, had been shot and killed by a rifle.

Many of the SNCC workers had been jailed or beaten or shot at. Several of the SNCCers became close friends with me. One man, Willie Peacock, warned me "When you go down those stairs in the police station you don't know if your coming back or not." Mr. Peacock himself had been beaten in a small town police station.

I saw how the "police state" worked when a mixed SNCC group was invited to a dinner in Jackson by a highly regarded white physician. He told us that we were doing the right thing but there wasn't anything he could do. And he told us that we had to come to his house after dark and to bring the car behind the house.

In addition to my teaching I joined the SNCC main goal — helping African-Americans with getting rights to voting. We worked with leaders, such as clergy, teachers, college students, and business owners to discuss ways of breaking the restriction of voting. We often had canvassing meeting ordinary people just to talk about voting and how they could bring together for their rights. Some would not even speak to us because of their reasonable fears but Mass meetings usually in churches were developing more and more of plans and actions.

An opportunity came up in November 1963 when an election for a Governor was scheduled in Mississippi. Knowing that most African-American people would not be able to vote, we developed the idea of a "Freedom Election," a parallel for their own. The idea was an "alternate" election in which Blacks could choose their own Governor.

Thousands of "Freedom Ballots" were sent by SNCC, NAACP, and others, to many towns. Aaron Henry, a leading civil right activist, was chosen to "win" as a Governor on the Ballots. Men and women slipped "Freedom Ballots"into wooden boxes offered in beauty parlors, barbershops, restaurants, and, especially, lively gathers to hear Mr. Henry mostly in churches. We traveled to organizations for weeks to talk about the importance of the Freedom Election voting in Mississippi. I saw a lot of Mississippi and met a lot of Black people who were almost always welcoming.

We also were reaching to newspapers beyond Mississippi. As one journalist said, "The Freedom Election stirred embers as old as the Civil War, or was it still part of Mississippi." The white powers became aware of the Freedom Election and did what they could to demolition it. Seventy election workers had been arrested in by the end, plus addition of threats and attacks, including on me. I remember one night when we were driving to the next town when some white men stopped us for an hour more, showing guns. I actually wrote a letter to my sister in an "in case" I was killed. Don't know how I thought it would get to her. Fortunately, the white men left after telling us to get out of their town.

In the end, some 82,000 ballots of in favor of Aaron Henry were sent to the SNCC office. Less than we had hoped, but still enough for it to reach beyond Mississippi. And the college kids that had come became a part of the famous 1964 "Freedom Summer."

Another strategy was planned for a led to Hattiesburg, a comparatively large town in southern Mississippi. It was well-known as a place that was fierce in stopping Black people from register to vote. So, in January of 1964 SNCC challenged Hattiesburg by making what was called the "Freedom Day." It was organized by local people, Bob Moses, and John Lewis, and James Forman with SNCC. People came to Hattiesburg from all over the U.S. including lawyers, politicians, the press and people from clergy.

On a steady rain in the morning of the event, hundreds of picketers came to the town courthouse with signs and songs. I still recall James Forman standing up on the steps and with his booming throat sounding out, "Judges open this door! Let us vote! Right now!" The local police prevented anyone from entering the courthouse but, surprisingly, did not drive them out of town. Presumably that was because of the t.v. cameras and journalists all over the day.

The next day, a SNCC friend of mine, Curtis Hayes, and I were needed back in Jackson. Trouble became as soon we reached the Grayhound Bus depot. The ticket counter had a "White only" sign on one part of it and a "Colored only" on another. Curtis looked at me and said "How about we go to the colored side. I always try the White side." The absurd of the rule was that there was only one person selling the tickets, a senior white woman. She sold them on either side as long as you went to the required part of the counter. When we went to the "colored" side she told me that I had to go to the White side. I politely told her that I would not. I told her that Robert Kennedy, the then Attorney General of the United States, had ordered against discrimination in inter- country buses.

She asked me again to move anyway. I didn't. In minutes a police car came by and arrested me. I was put in a jail with a group of white men, some drunk and some were talking about the Black and white picketing and how they wanted to smash some. The jail guarder then, smiling, told the men that I was "one of 'em." Then one said "I fought in the world war. I want to kill you more than any Jap or Nazi." In a few seconds he was punching me. I yelled for the jailer but in a moment I was out and on the floor.

The guard later dragged me out and put me in a holding. The next morning Howard Zinn, the historian who was there during the event, thankfully posted me out by bail. In his article in The Nation magazine, Zinn noted that, as bad as I looked, other SNCC's had gotten much more damage, including killed. Surely, I was lucky to have gotten out of the jail. In June of 1964 during the Freedom Summer three men (two white and one Black), James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were jailed near Hattiesburg. That night they were taken from the jail by some KKK cut-throats who killed every one of them. I will always remember their righteousness and their incredible bravery.

My time in the Hattiesburg court showed an absurd and obnoxious example of Mississippi Jim Crow. The Court room had signs that had one side for the "Colored" and the other for "White." When we, a large group of Blacks and whites, came into the court we ignored the signs. The judge immediately told everyone to go to their "proper" side. Nobody moved. The judge demanded loudly again, and the deputy stood up with a club. Nobody moved. Several minutes went by. The deputy put his glasses off. The judge then said that, "for this time only" the white and colored could stay where they were. As John Lewis might have said: "Good trouble making."

Fifty years later after I had been arrested I was invited to return to Hattiesburg by the Mississippi Center for Justice (A special program, by the way.) The Center asked me and a group of African-Americans and other whites to give a talk on our experiences in Hattiesburg.

That some changes had been made in Mississippi were clear from the time I booked my flight from New York. My air tickets referred to and I quoted the "Medgar Evers Airport." I could hardly believe it, because, as I said earlier this evening, Mr. Evers of the NAACP had been assassinated in 1963. To find that the Mississippi's major airport had been named after him actually brought tears to my eyes.

When we arrived in Hattiesburg in 2014. I learned that the Chief Judge (who was white) had arranged the program to be held in the local courthouse, the very place in which I had been arraigned fifty years earlier. This time the white Chief Judge welcomed the inter-racial guest speakers and added his own reminiscences. We were also welcomed by the Mayor of Hattiesburg, an African- American man, who told us that while deep problems of racism and poverty remained, important strides had been taken. The Mayor also mentioned his efforts to work with the LGBT community. I said to myself, "This is not the Mississippi I remember."

Hattiesburg will always be full of meaning for me in many ways.

Copyright © Oscar Chase. 2020


[See Freedom Ballot in MS and Freedom Day in Hattiesburg for background & more information.]

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