Memories From Shaw, Especially of the Hawkins Family
Heather Tobis Booth

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

In the summer of 1964, when I was 18 years old, I had the privilege of participating in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, trying to help advance civil rights in Mississippi and highlight the evils of discrimination around the country. The summer project did help change the laws, even help change the hearts of people in this country. It certainly changed me and the other volunteers deepening our commitment to struggle for justice and to respect the people of Mississippi who dedicated their lives to that struggle.

The main location that I work was Shaw (though I also was briefly in Ruleville with Mrs. Hamer and Cleveland with Amzie Moore). The family that I lived with in Shaw, Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins and their children, were extraordinary in their commitment in the struggle for civil rights and their generosity and decency as people. Who they were and what they did and how they lived had a great impact on me then and now. They were dedicated to the struggle and so caring for us personally. They really lived their beliefs.

The Hawkins family took in several volunteers (I think 4, but perhaps 5 of us). Only in hindsight do I realize that they gave over their own bed to us and must have slept on the couches. They shared their food with us. They took us under their wing and into their hearts. They included us in their lives and looked out for our protection, when it was their lives that were really put in peril by having white volunteers living with them.

One of the first nights that we were staying with the Hawkins family, Mr. Hawkins sat down with us and talked about the politics and power relations of Mississippi. For all the college background that we had, he really provided us with an education. When he learned I came from Chicago, he talked with us about Chicago politics — and knew more about some aspects of that than I did! He was a dedicated activist and such a decent person. He believed in a vision of a society in which all people could live with dignity and respect and he treated people that way personally and organized to build a society that would act that way also.

We stayed in the Black part of town — for our own safety, as planned by the Summer Project coordinators. In 1964 it was a small rural town, many areas did not have paved streets or sewers. Many homes had their own vegetable or garden plots and some animals. The Hawkins' family had a pig and garden, an outhouse in the back, though they had running water in the house. We went to church (Church of God in Christ) on Sunday, with Mrs. Hawkins — and what a spirited service we always had — reinforcing the commitment to the struggle for a better society, with song and prayer and preaching. It was a time for socializing, and picnic lunch or dinner.

The Freedom School was walking distance from the house and a community gathering place. Young and old and in between aged folks gathered there for discussion and planning meetings. We'd often go out to the cotton fields and even more rural areas near by to talk with people about registering for the Freedom Democratic Party, since registration in town in the "official" system was too dangerous.

I have just recently heard about the heroism they showed in suing the town of Shaw and winning the precedent setting case of Hawkins v Town of Shaw. It inspired me, but did not surprise me that they would have taken courageous steps for equal treatment of all people. I also just heard about the murder of their son Andrew, Jr and two granddaughters with the fire that burned down their house (after they had threats of having their house burned down). I also, just recently, heard about the murder of Mary Lou at the hands of a police officer in the control of the white power structure. I am horrified that this could happen and the national alarm was not rung to pursue the murderers and to have allowed this to happen in the first place.

Ella Baker, the inspiration behind the creation of SNCC (the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee) said, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes." The Hawkins family believed in freedom. They truly gave their lives to the struggle for freedom and have advanced it. What they did inspires us and may it lead to action on our part to see that the day comes more quickly for freedom and justice.

Copyright © Heather Tobis Booth. 2014

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