Remembering Freedom Summer
Gail Falk

Address to state-wide conference of Mississippi Young Professionals, Meridian Mississippi, 2013

See 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.

Forty-nine years ago, in 1964, I was a junior in college up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One evening, just about this time of year, my boyfriend and I decided to go hear a talk by a man named Al Lowenstein, who had come up to the Boston area from Mississippi, where he had been working in a statewide voter registration campaign. That evening Lowenstein described to us how black people all over Mississippi who attempted to register to vote were being put in jail, fired from their jobs, beaten up, having their houses or businesses burned, or, in some cases, shot at and murdered. At that time, not one white person had been convicted in Mississippi for any of these acts of violence. Lowenstein told us the situation was, if anything, getting worse and more violent. Registering to vote had become next to impossible for black Mississippians.

I was astonished to hear what he had witnessed and experienced. I knew that racial discrimination was a problem all over the United States, including in my home state of Pennsylvania. I could remember my astonishment the first time I saw black and white water fountains and restrooms when my family took a drive down to Virginia when I was a girl. I wasn't naove: I knew about discrimination and Jim Crow. But I had no idea that there were places in my country where a man or a woman could be shot for trying to register to vote or for helping someone else to register. I wasn't alone in being unaware. The violence against civil rights workers and blacks attempting to register to vote had received very little notice in the national media (or in the Mississippi media, for that matter).

Al Lowenstein was in Cambridge on a mission. The civil rights organizations working in Mississippi had decided that the way to get national attention on the situation in Mississippi, and thus hopefully to stop the violence, was to bring hundreds of northern college students into the state for the summer. Their thinking was that every student who came would have family, friends, churches, teachers, newspapers back home who would pay attention to what was happening. I had been planning to be a camp counselor that summer at a camp in Vermont, but I decided on the spot that I couldn't go be a camp counselor now that I knew what was happening in Mississippi, and I decided then and there I would be one of those students.

So it was that about two months later, at the end of June, after driving all night, a car-full of northern students, including me, arrived at the COFO office at the corner of 5th Street and 25th Avenue, just about four blocks up the street from here. If you know anything at all about the events of the summer of 1964, you probably know that three Meridian civil rights workers (Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman) were murdered by the Klan. The murders occurred up in Neshoba County, but the office the three of them had been working out of was that office up there on 5th Street.

On the day we arrive, the three had been missing for nearly a week. Mickey Schwerner had been the civil rights project director here in Meridian, and now he was gone. We had no idea what to expect. I was going to be a teacher at a Freedom School. Would any students dare to attend now? Would we be able to find a place to stay? Would we be shunned as too dangerous to associate with by the black community we had come to support?  — The unexpected answers to those questions are to me the most vital aspect of the history of those weeks and months.

What did happen was that we were welcomed by the black community. Not every single person. Naturally there were plenty of people who were intimidated and afraid. But by the end of the day all of us (and there were about 25 of us in all) had a place to stay with a black family in town. Later on, we who were civil rights workers from the North were called brave, but we knew then, and I know all the more clearly now, that the true bravery was shown by those families that opened their homes to us out of a belief that blacks and white could and had to work together to end racism. The families who opened their hopes were so vulnerable — they were cooks and janitors and maids and laborers — so much more vulnerable than we who had families and homes up north. They knew that they might be fired or shot at. Yet they stepped forward and took huge risks out of a commitment to make Mississippi a better place to live.

I lived with a wonderful couple, Sarah and Timothy Graham and their daughter Edna up on 46th Avenue. Two other civil rights workers lived next door with Mrs. Graham's father. One night the father's house was shot into, narrowly missing Freeman Cocroft, who slept under the window that faced the street. But the Grahams just patched up the window and continued to make us feel as welcome as if nothing had happened.

History remembers the summer of 1964 in Meridian for the murders of the three civil rights workers, but what those of us who were here that summer remember it for is the Freedom School. Unlike most of the other freedom schools around the state we had a real school building — the old Baptist Seminary up on 31st Street and 16th Avenue — a two-story beige brick building with classrooms and desks and blackboards. We spent our first few days cleaning it up and, as I said, wondering if any kids would dare to come. Or for that matter, if any children would want to come. None of us had ever wanted to go to school during summer vacation.

Well, from the first day, that building was full of children. More than 300 students were registered. Not all of them came every day. That was a huge part of the magic of it — children came because they wanted to and not because someone was making them. Like most Freedom School teachers, I was not an experienced teacher, but I never had a problem all summer with discipline or attention.

Students told us then how different the Freedom School was from their regular schools. There were used to double hand-me-down books — books that had first been used in the white school and then passed over to the black school. We gave them new books by African American authors, such as Black Boy by Mississippi native son Richard Wright. We taught African/American history. I unexpectedly taught French (although I agree with Mr. Peavey that it would have been more practical for me to teach Spanish). I hadn't come expecting to teach French. But when we arrived, the families asked us to include a foreign language. No black public school in Meridian taught a foreign language. The kids and their families knew that the white schools taught foreign language, and they were keen to try it out.

We taught by asking questions, not by giving answers. Over and over the students told us they had never had a class where the teacher said there could be more than one right answer, or where the teacher wanted to know that the students thought, or was pleased, not angry, when the students asked the teacher challenging questions. Those of us who had the good fortune to be part of one of the Freedom Schools that summer — as students or as teachers — learned that a school in Mississippi that accepts all students who want to come can be an exciting, respectful, serious, creative place.

1964 was a watershed year in Mississippi. The stranglehold of the Klan and White Citizens Council was broken. Violence against civil rights activists continued sporadically into the latter part of the 1960s, but the black citizens of the state had learned they didn't have to react to intimidation with fear and paralysis. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up restaurants and hotels that year. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act provided the legal tools needed to achieve statewide access to voting for all citizens. Hospitals and schools were desegregated. I remained to witness and participate in these changes for three more years. In my last month in Mississippi before going north to law school, I sat in a federal courtroom of the Southern District of Mississippi just two or three blocks from here and heard with my own ears a white jury foreman read an unprecedented verdict of guilty against some of the Klansman who had murdered Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman three and a half years earlier.

As we approach the 50th anniversary next year of Freedom Summer, I've been thinking a lot about its legacy. What should we remember? What should we honor of that part of Mississippi history?

Above all, I would like us all to remember — or learn for the first time — that change didn't happen because of a few famous men and women — Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers — although they surely played their part. It didn't happen because the FBI investigated and started to solve civil rights crimes, although that helped. It didn't change because of Congress or the federal courts, although these played a role. Above all it changed because all over Mississippi that year black teenagers and black adults decided it was time to stand up and claim the basic rights of citizenship and of living in their community. All over the state that year African-Americans whose names history has not recorded walked up to a lunch counter and ordered a vanilla milkshake, walked into the all-white library and asked for a library card, registered their son or daughter at the elementary school nearest their home, even though no black child had ever gone there before, walked into the front door of a downtown restaurant and ordered lunch, went to the Holiday Inn and asked for a room, and walked into a voting booth and cast their first vote. These actions and thousands more like them took place in towns and communities all over Mississippi, and every single one of them involved risk and took courage. Many of these courageous people have passed on, but others are living quietly in your home towns. Go find them. Honor them. Thank them for what they did to make Mississippi the state you are so proud of today.

Copyright © Gail Falk. 2013

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