In the summer of 1964, I was determined to go to Mississippi. I had attended the June orientation session for Freedom Summer on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. There I had participated in nonviolence resistance training — lying on the ground and covering my head with my hands while experienced civil rights workers, pretending to be hostile, berated and yelled at us volunteers.
A day or two into the training I had stood with hundreds of others in a big circle as learned that three volunteers, two very much like many of us white northerners, had gone missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi. I listened as Bob Moses, quietly as always, told us that if anyone wanted to leave because of the lynching we feared had taken place, no one would question your judgment. Hardly anyone left.
Unlike most of the others who were going directly to Mississippi, my plan was to go south in August, after completing a course I thought I had to take. That's why I was able to go to Atlantic City in July and participate at the periphery of efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to seat its delegates at the Democratic Convention. Some of us were recruited to lobby delegates to the Convention. Because I was a graduate student at Princeton I sought out a delegate from New Jersey. With one or two others I was able to get into his hotel suite, where, contemptuously, he let us know he had no use for our cause.
My parents were not happy with my decision to go to Mississippi. Accepting my commitment to go, my father concentrated on whether I had to go as a civil rights volunteer. He tried to find a way that would satisfy my commitment to participate but would not place me directly in the line of fire.
In pursuit of this strategy he contacted his good friend Ben Epstein, then the director of the Anti-Defamation League, to explore whether I could represent this important civil rights ally on the ground. He also suggested that I could represent the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, of which my father was President, as a journalist. Press credentials and filing news reports might keep me out of trouble, he said. Since I had experience as a journalist he thought this might appeal to me. I wouldn't have any of it.
As the date of my departure became imminent he made a final effort to find me a measure of protection. I had been assigned to the freedom house in Holly Springs, a small college town in Marshall County on Mississippi's northern border. He contacted a friend in Memphis, TN — a lawyer he knew through connections — who gave him a contact in Marshall County. If I got into trouble, I would be able to appeal to this person for help.
I wrote down the name and phone number of this man on a scrap of paper and put it in my wallet. It seemed innocent enough, and it would make my father happy. Why not?
On a day in August I started out for Mississippi by bus. I remember going through Cincinnati and changing buses in Memphis. I arrived in Holly Springs early in the morning.
The day was cool, with the promise of heat in the afternoon. The bus station was a few blocks from the town square. I wandered up to the courthouse, where a demonstration was in progress. African-Americans were lined up to try to register to vote. An all-white crowd had gathered in opposition.
My strongest memory of the day is watching men in suits — certainly FBI agents — sitting in unmarked cars in front of the court house, waiting and watching as abuse was heaped on the people trying to register.
Later that morning I made my way to the freedom house, which was located at the base of the hill at the foot of the Rust College campus. I met the other volunteers and the staff, including Cleve Sellers and Ivanhoe Donaldson, two black men who were already major figures in SNCC, and younger than me. (I was 24 at the time.) I was also shown where I would be staying — in a room in a building next door that served as a dormitory.
During the next weeks I went with other volunteers to visit people in the country to talk about registering to vote. Once a state patrol officer stopped us, asked us what we were doing, and told us we weren't welcome. He said, for our own safety, we should leave the state. The encounter had all the trappings of our worst fears. We were on a country road with local law officer with a gun on his hip. Nothing came of it.
At one point I was singled out to monitor the freedom house radios. These were devices that allowed workers driving around the countryside in the motley freedom house vehicles to communicate with headquarters. I was given this assignment, I was told, because I was very calm and unexcitable. I was astonished by this explanation, which I took to be a sincere but incredibly misguided perception.
Each team in the field was to call headquarters on a regular basis. If a team wasn't heard from at a designated time, we would assume that the team had been detained, or worse. There was a plan in place to initiate communications with the freedom summer state headquarters if one of the teams did not call in.
Sometime during those first days the SNCC leaders called for a meeting to map the community's power structure. This was and remains a staple of community organizing. It's not enough to march and demonstrate. The key to change is to apply pressure on the people who pull the strings. Without a power analysis a group seeking social change is wasting time.
A power mapping session would have been of little use in pursuing the freedom summer strategy of impressing northerners of the depth and consequences of racism in Mississippi. But SNCC workers and local leaders had another purpose. On the ground, they were building a movement county by county.
Power mapping would have started with a listing of elected and appointed officials: the sheriff, the mayor, the head of the school board, and so on. The conversation would have continued to ask about powerful people who exercised power behind the scenes, people whose consent one needed in order to get anything consequential done.
The name of one man stood out: a lawyer at the pinnacle of the Marshall County power structure. I don't remember his name but I do remember that his name and phone number were written on a piece of scrap paper in my wallet.
I instantly understood that in his fear for my safety my father had contrived to place me in great jeopardy. If someone at the Freedom House had undertaken to search my wallet — and someone very well might have because there was plenty of talk about guarding against spies — I would have been revealed as someone who was working with the enemy.
At the first opportunity I tore up the scrap of paper and scattered the pieces to the wind.
Copyright © Michael Lipsky. 2023
See 1964 Mississippi
Freedom Summer Events for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.
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