See Mississippi Freedom Summer for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.
In my army days a black sergeant told me that if he had a choice between a house in Mississippi and a house in hell he'd take the house in hell!
In 1964 I had the chance to go to Mississippi as a civil rights worker and see for myself. I wanted to be a missionary and considered this a good opportunity for cross-cultural experience. I was totally unprepared for the world I entered. Hell was indeed an apt comparison. It wasn't just segregated buses and drinking fountains. The whole society was segregated from top to bottom, with blacks getting nothing but leftovers. Hospitals and ambulances were segregated. Even the Red Cross kept separate blood banks for black and white blood. Blacks and whites riding together in the same car were in danger of being stopped and arrested. Ten years after the Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional not a single school in the deep South had been desegregated. The White Citizens Councils issued buttons with one word: Never. All the good jobs were reserved for whites. Black women worked mostly as maids and black men as farm workers for fifteen cents an hour. Those that could went north for better jobs and sent their children back to live with aging grandparents living on welfare payments of fifty dollars a month. Average income for blacks in Mississippi was four hundred dollars a year.
Any attempt to change this was met by incredible violence — bombings, shootings, arrests, and beatings. As Stokely Charmichael was fond of saying, "If they ever drained the Tallahatchie River the bodies would come marching out for the next hundred years!"
My introduction to this came at the one week orientation session in Ohio for 1,000 volunteers. My first night at orientation I ate dinner at a table with a group of elderly black ladies from Hattiesburg. They told of being arrested and beaten for trying to register and vote. "Ooie, I thought they was gone kill me. But I'd do it again." I was assigned to a room with veteran civil rights worker Jimmie Travis. He wasn't very talkative, but I later learned that he had been machine gunned and still had a slug in his back.
The next morning at the opening session Rita Schwerner got up on stage and told how her husband and two other civil rights workers had gone the day before to investigate a church burning in the red clay pine hills outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, and never returned. She described the frantic calls to police and hospitals, then broke down in tears. She was already convinced they were dead.
Whoa! What was I getting myself into? A few of the volunteers caught the next bus home. The rest of the week was spent in introductions to the leaders of the Freedom Summer, singing freedom songs, and daily classes in teaching literacy and the U.S. Constitution. Mixed in were bomb drills and lessons in how to take a beating. We were issued a detailed list of security precautions: never sit with your back to a window; never go anywhere alone; always sign out with your destination and expected time of return. By the end of the week the fear was palpable
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go
As our Greyhound bus headed south from orientation the moon was bright red. Was this an omen? When we finally arrived at our destination of Ruleville we were unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk at the edge of town. There was no bus station. We had no idea where we were. Almost immediately a line of white pickups with rifles and big dogs began circling slowly by us. After what seemed like hours but was probably just a few minutes some of the black ladies we had met at orientation arrived and led us on foot to meet the families we would be staying with.
Late that night the FBI came calling on the women volunteers, questioning their motives. The guys were invited to a meeting with some students from the University of Mississippi who tried to talk us out of coming. "You don't understand," they said. "Everything was fine until outsiders started agitating." They added that their own lives were endangered by trying to meet with us.
The home I was staying in with, the McDonalds, had been shot up the year before after the occupants had gone down to try to register to vote. Rather than scare them off, Ruleville had become a center of civil rights activities. The blacks there were determined to gain their constitutional rights. Only two per cent of blacks were registered to vote while the overall population was twenty-five percent black. Some counties were seventy-five per cent black. The main thrust of the Freedom Summer was a massive voter registration drive accompanied by the formation of the Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white regular Mississippi Democratic Party. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, was virtually non-existent in the South at the time. Because I had a degree in agricultural education I was assigned as a Freedom School teacher to teach literacy and government.
I was only in Ruleville for three days while preparations were being finished for my assignment in Shaw, a small all-black community in the Delta. Our first task in Shaw was fixing up a small one-room shack that had been donated for use as a community center. We added a small library of books, fixed the broken windows, and added a phone. I planted a lawn in front. A passerby told me that once you get Mississippi mud between your toes you can't get it out, but that didn't work on me. I only returned once in 1973 and things were still so bad I have had no desire to return since.
Once the center was ready we held an open house. The day was pretty uneventful with a steady stream of visitors. I had a long conversation with a couple of local black teachers. Since we were planning a standard civics course as part of our program I enquired as to what was being taught in the schools. Nothing! They told me they would be fired immediately if they ever tried to teach the U.S. Constitution!
As night began to fall, a long line of pickups suddenly appeared, driving slowly past over and over again. We all hit the floor and turned the lights off, trying to make the place look empty. We called SNCC headquarters in Greenwood and were told just to stay put. One of the volunteers was the son of a California congressman and he called Washington, the FBI, everyone he could think of. About 10 p.m. our staff contact, Bradford, appeared and told us there were sheriff cars with shotguns on both ends of the street checking everyone entering or leaving (except for the pickups). We ended up spending the night sleeping fitfully on the wooden floor. By morning the pickups were gone. Later the Sheriff came by and chided us for overreacting — they were only trying to protect us. Yeah, right.
We've been buked and we've been scorned
We've been talked about sures your born
But we'll never turn back, no we'll never turn back
Until we've all been free
And we have equality
Our classes started out great. The students were enthusiastic, ready to take on an entrenched system of apartheid. But the local schools opened for the summer and we lost most of our students.
I then spent most of my time canvassing for voter registration. It wasn't an easy sell. The names of applicants were published in the local newspaper. Those that had jobs were usually fired. Worse, homes were shot at and people beaten after trying to register. At one home a disembodied voice came out from the closed shades next to the door: "Go away, I don't want to get killed." He added "See that lady on the porch at the end of the street?" "Yes." "She tells the white folks everything she sees." Not many doors opened to us on that street.
I also accompanied an Episcopal priest from New Hampshire as he visited white church pastors in Greenville. Most refused to see us. The few that did told us that we didn't understand, their blacks were like children who couldn't make it on their own. A couple of pastors told us yes, they agreed with us, but if they ever said so publicly they would be fired.
Weekly meetings were held at night in black churches, with lots of singing, speeches, and testimonials of people who had gone to register to vote. Registering was proving to be a liberating event. One woman testified she was asked, "Hattie Mae, you isn't part of this, is you?" "Yes'm. I is." "You're fired!" Hattie Mae was dancing as she related this. It was her version of, "Take this job and shove it." Another elderly lady confided in me that she was so incensed at her working conditions that she regularly added chicken manure to the food she prepared for the family she was working for twelve hours a day, six days a week for fifteen cents an hour.
Blacks were going to the courthouse daily to register to vote. To my knowledge none of them ever succeeded in registering. They were given a four page application form that included copying a section of the Mississippi constitution, selected by the registrar, and writing an interpretation. Passing or failing was at the discretion of the registrar, with no explanation.
As it turned out, the main point of all this was to document what was happening and present it to the U.S. Congress. One of several civil rights acts was passed in 1964 and a voting rights act was passed in 1965 that sent federal registrars to 14 southern states to register voters.
Towards the end of the summer caucuses were held in each county to elect officers in the Freedom Democratic Party and pass resolutions. The local blacks were familiar with the procedure because they elected leaders in their churches. They were more familiar with Robert's Rules of Order than I was. Delegates were selected to attend a state convention in Jackson. From there, delegates were selected to go to the national Democratic Party convention and challenge the all-white regular Mississippi Democratic Party delegates. Behind the scenes negotiations offered them observer status for two delegates. Even that outraged the regular Mississippi Democratic Party delegates and they stormed out in protest. But that didn't satisfy the Freedom Democratic Party delegates and they refused the offer. They were still able to present their case to the entire convention. They got their point across.
Oh, freedom, oh freedom
Oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave
I'd be buried ina my grave
And go home to my lord and be free
The First Amendment to the constitution guarantees the right of peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. This has generally been interpreted as a right for picketing and peaceful protest demonstrations. Today so many demonstrations take place that most of them aren't even reported in the news. Police seldom interfere and often aren't even present.
But in Mississippi in the 1960s demonstrators were routinely arrested and fined or jailed. The most common charge was parading without a permit. Real parades usually require the closure of streets and requiring permits is generally recognized as legitimate. In Mississippi, however, demonstrators were charge with this even when there were no street closures. Other trumped up charges included loitering, resisting arrest, even inciting to riot.
During the Freedom Summer this was challenged on a massive scale. A day was picked for massive demonstrations across the state. The demonstrations at the Bolivar County Courthouse, where I was, went smoothly as planned. When I and the other summer volunteers arrived the jail was packed with local blacks who had started demonstrating earlier. We could hear them singing freedom songs from their cells. Once the jail was filled the sheriff stopped making arrests and we were free to picket as we pleased. I picked out a picket sign from the discarded placards that said "No Taxation Without Representation". A line of about 100 people were lined up at the registrar's office. The NAACP lawyers obtained the release of the prisoners pending trial, then began the long series of appeals to get the charges thrown out as unconstitutional.
Things didn't go so smoothly in some of the other counties. Several counties lined up buses and took the overflow to Mississippi State Prison in Parchman. This created confusion over who was arrested and there were problems in arranging transportation when they were released. At least one county hastily set up court and tried and convicted everyone before the lawyers could get there. Once convicted it's not as easy to get them out of jail. The Mississippi courts were unsympathetic and the cases had to be taken to federal court. The federal court decisions did create precedents that made it easier to fight future arrests, but that didn't console the unlucky volunteers.
At the beginning of the summer we were warned about the possibility of arrests, beatings, and worse. The volunteers were all required to post for bail in case of arrest. I borrowed the money from my grandfather and was able to return it to him at the end of the summer. My guardian angel was working overtime that summer.
We have hung our heads and cried
For those who like the three have died
Died for you and died for me
Died for the cause of equality
But we'll never turn back, No, we'll never turn back
Until we've all been free
And we have equality
Mississippi was headline news every day for the summer of 1964. The media spotlight was credited for keeping the violence down. At the beginning of the summer some civil rights leaders were openly predicting that the freedom summer would be a bloodbath with the volunteers as sacrificial lambs. But most of the media attention was on church bombings and the search for the three missing civil rights workers. Little was said about voter registration and the plight of the blacks.
The Neshoba County Sheriff's Department was initially in charge of the investigation into the disappearance. Sheriff Rainey was on national television saying "Those boys are probably back in New York having a good laugh."
The FBI declined to enter the case until ordered to do so by Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Even then they spent more time investigating and harassing the civil rights movement than they spent investigating the disappearance. J. Edgar Hoover's antipathy towards Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well documented, and the majority of FBI agents in Mississippi were southerners sympathetic with the prevailing racial hatred.
Had the FBI not conducted a separate investigation into the Ku Klux Klan the case might never have been solved. Towards the middle of the summer a Klan informant revealed that the missing civil rights workers had been in the custody of the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department before they were killed and buried in an earthen dam. The entire Neshoba County Sheriff's Department were members of the Klan! When the bodies were uncovered, the one black worker had every bone in his body broken!
The informant and the wife of one of the deputies were willing to testify in court, but the district attorney refused to file charges. The governor of Mississippi refused to intervene and file state charges. At the time murder was not a federal crime. Had the perpetrators not been peace officers they could have been charged with the federal crime of kidnapping. But an arrest, even a false arrest and murder, does not constitute kidnapping.
The sheriff and five of his deputies were finally tried in federal court on a 19th century Reconstruction law against depriving a person of his civil rights. The five deputies were convicted and received sentences of four to ten years, with time off for good behavior. Sheriff Rainey got off with a not guilty verdict.
Sheriff Rainey made the most of his notoriety and ran for governor of Mississippi. He garnered forty-five per cent of the vote!
With liberty and justice for all. Yeah, right.
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table some of these days, hallelujah
I'm gonna sit at the welcome table
Gonna sit at the welcome table some of these days
The summer ended too soon and not soon enough. Too soon to see any real accomplishments — that would take years — and not soon enough to escape from the effects of the pervasive fear and violence. I was struggling with my own private demons, unwanted feelings of anger, hatred, and depression. Even today I feel queasy whenever I hear a southern accent.
There was widespread concern that once we left and the rest of the world was no longer looking, the blacks we were leaving behind would be facing even more violence. The volunteers were invited to stay if they could, but I had a Masters degree in poultry management waiting to be completed a world away in Michigan. I finished my degree in January of '65 and returned to Mississippi while I was applying to the Peace Corps and several other organizations.
This time I was sent to the tiny community of Mayersville. Even though it was the county seat of Issaquena County there was little more than a courthouse, gas station, grocery store, and a few houses, segregated as always into a black side of town and a white side.
The summer before I had spent Sundays at a variety of black churches, but this time the only church in town was the white Mayersville Baptist Church with perhaps 50 members. I have been a Baptist all my life, so I worked up my courage and went to worship there. No one said a word, even in greeting, as I sat quietly in the back. When I returned the next Sunday I was met at the door by three of their biggest men who told me the church had met and voted not to allow me in their doors. I took this as an opportunity to reason with their pastor, but he just gave me a lecture about the immorality of blacks, and by inference my own immorality. I wrote a letter to Dr. John Lavender, the pastor of my own church, Bakersfield First Baptist Church, asking him to write and verify that I was a member in good standing. He did so, but that didn't get me anywhere. I wasn't really surprised.
A joke was going around about a black child sitting on the steps of a big white church crying, "God, why won't they let me in here?" A voice comes out of the sky, "Don't fret, son. They won't let me in there either!"
If you miss me at the back of the bus
You can't find me nowhere
Come on over to the front of the bus
I'll be riding up there
I'll be riding up there, I'll be riding up there,
Come on over to the front of the bus
I'll be riding up there
The South was changing, slowly but surely. By 1965 Greyhound bus stations were integrated even in Mississippi, but little else was. At the beginning of the 1964 Freedom Summer we were warned that Mississippi was too dangerous to try some of the integration tactics used elsewhere. We were told specifically not to try any sit-ins.
When I returned in 65 some of the more militant blacks were chafing at the restrictions and decided to set off on their own. I was invited to join them in their sit-in in Greenwood. We marched into the Woolworth's and sat down on the stools at the lunch counter. We were immediately told that the store was closed and asked to leave. They added they were calling the police. We weren't foolish enough to wait around for the police to get there and quietly left. The door was locked behind us. This was better than sitting all day. We closed them down with hardly any effort.
We headed toward another lunch counter across the street. There we were told "Sure, what'll you have?" and given menus. Surprised, we each ordered small items. We were served promptly and courteously. That ended our sit-ins. None of us had any money left to try that again.
Most of what we did in 65 was the same as the summer before — civil rights meetings in the churches and getting people to try to register to vote. I started a class preparing people to fill out the four page registration form. Using some discarded civics textbooks from Michigan, I expanded the scope of the class. The first chapter described the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship. At the end of the chapter the students were asked if they were living in a democracy or a dictatorship. To my surprise, the class unanimously agreed they were in a dictatorship. I shouldn't have been surprised. None of them had ever voted and they had no say in how the government treated them.
One elderly black told me he had regularly gone to register to vote for 30 years. He did succeed in registering once, only to be turned away when he went to vote. His name had been removed from the list. Why continue to beat your head against a brick wall? As long as the wall was still there he was determined to make a statement. Even that got him in trouble. The Klan tried to burn a cross at his house, but he drove them away with his rifle. He was one of the first to register under the new 1965 Voting Rights Act.
And sit-ins? "Not worth the trouble. Once you got the vote you don't need no sit-ins."
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand
We'll walk hand in hand someday
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We'll walk hand in hand some day
I once met a black man who told me he had lived in Bakersfield, CA for a while before moving back to Mississippi. "What on earth for?" I asked. "Because here I knew where I stood" was the reply. Knowing the situation, no matter how bad, was seen as better than never knowing what you were up against. The polls at the time said one person in three in California was just as racist as those in Mississippi. But how do you tell which one? And what were the other two thinking?
In February three Mayersville students were suspended from school for wearing a civil rights button depicting black and white hands clasped together in friendship. The black community saw this as a challenge. Suddenly everyone wanted a button. Only 100 were available on short notice, but by passing them around 300 students were expelled over the course of three days.
The superintendent of schools met with the parents and offered to take the students back with a simple apology. The parents didn't think they had anything to apologize for. They tried to use this as an opportunity to vent all of their complaints about a school system that wouldn't listen to them. The all-white school board had a standing policy not to allow blacks to appear before them and the superintendant only talked to them over disciplinary issues. The meeting went nowhere and left 300 students without a school. Mississippi had dropped their compulsory attendance law several years earlier in an attempt to get around desegregation, so the school district had no leverage left.
I wasn't there at the confrontation, but I heard plenty from the angry parents afterward. They decided to start their own Freedom Schools. The schools were set up in black churches in three locations, two in Issaquena County and one in neighboring Sharkey County. I was asked to direct the one 10 miles from Mayersville and moved in with a family close to the school.
At first I was concerned that the kids would be better off in the public schools, but once I started working with them I found the segregated public schools hadn't taught them much. White Mississippi didn't want uppity blacks. They didn't provide any textbooks and hired poorly educated teachers. Some of the black school teachers I met were themselves unable to read or write.
I was already familiar with lesson plans, but starting a whole curriculum from scratch was new to me. I obtained some used textbooks and concentrated on teaching reading and math to the high schoolers, then had them teach what they were learning to the younger kids. The parents at the other Freedom Schools were more imaginative. They had their kids write and perform plays about civil rights.
I thought Mayersville was small, but the school I was teaching at was in an even smaller rural enclave of black farmers. Some of the students came from a nearby plantation. After I was chased at 90 miles an hour by the angry plantation owner I learned to get around on foot by following old Indian trails through the woods. My Boy Scout training was put to good use.
In May the schools were getting ready to close for the summer. I accepted a position as an agricultural volunteer with International Voluntary Services and was off to Viet Nam. Out of the frying pan into the fire. I didn't know it at the time, but President Johnson had just sent the first combat soldiers to Viet Nam. But after Mississippi, living in a war zone was a vacation.
Copyright © Robert C. Hargreaves. 2013