Opposing Freedom Summer
How Local Activists Saw Freedom Summer
White Opposition to Freedom Summer
MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Party Convention
Assessing Freedom Summer
Bruce: The focus of this interview is how native Mississippians experienced and viewed Freedom Summer. Why don't you start by giving some overview of your background?
Wazir: I was born in Charleston, Mississippi. When I was an infant, my father was a farmer.
Bruce: This is in Tallahatchie?
Wazir: Tallahatchie County. He and his brothers, when they had all left home, they had farming equipment, so they didn't sharecrop; they rented. Because most of the plantation owners, they always had some space. They didn't have enough people to deal with it, so they would rent, so the renting thing was good. But something happened. Somebody was stealing cotton out of the cotton house where the people stored their cotton before they took it to the gin to be processed. And so my Daddy got together and organized a few of the farmers and said, We need to lay a trap for whoever is doing this.
Bruce: This is before it was baled?
Wazir: Before it's baled. It's been weighed in the sacks, and it's been dumped into the cotton house, where they can lock it up, keep anybody from — because before it's processed, a bale of cotton probably filled, what is this? About a ten by ten by twelve —
Bruce: It's not yet been compressed into the bale.
Wazir: Right. By the time we weighed it out, we put about fourteen hundred pounds to the bale, and then they would take it to the gin to be processed. So they knew somebody was stealing the cotton, and they didn't know who it was. So they set a trap. And to make a long story short, what happened is that they laid the trap, and they shot this person. I don't know who it was [who did the shooting], if it was my Dad or who it was...
Bruce: When was this?
Wazir: This had to be in the '30s, because I was born in '37. And so when they looked and found — when they saw who they shot, they had shot the plantation owner's son. That's who was doing it, you know?
And so overnight, my Daddy had to — you know, all of them left and went North. Anyway, my Dad, we moved into the town of Charleston, and he left all his farm animals, all his equipment, and everything. He had to just leave.
And I guess I was a little baby, and so the only thing I remember is that we were there in Charleston, and I learned about — it was the kind of thing that wasn't talked about — but me being who I was, from a little boy, I hung around older people, you know? And I'd hear them talking, bits and pieces about what happened and all that. And I put it together. I noticed my father's oldest brother was still renting. He still had his equipment and all that kind of stuff — the sorghum mills, where you made molasses. He still had everything. And my Daddy had nothing, and I couldn't understand that. And then I started putting these pieces together, you know? So that was the beginning of my life. [Laughing]
Wazir: And so I grew up there, and by the time I got to be about eleven years old, we end up moving to a plantation, H.C. Strider's plantation, who became the sheriff when Emmett Till was killed in Tallahatchie County. And that experience, for me, was really a horrific — You know, when I saw the people, the Black people, being treated just like animals. You don't have anything to say, and whatever's being done to you, keep a face like it was all right, like you liked it and all that kind of stuff. And I knew that. I would hear them talking, and I'd see what had happened, and I knew they didn't like it, and the way people left the plantation, they ran way, just like slaves ran away.
And so at an early age, I knew that having had the early experience of those years between the time that I was born until the time that we moved to the plantation, of living free from that kind of thing, just six miles away, there were things that I could not accept and wouldn't accept, and I was always figuring out a way I was going to leave. And by the time I reached thirteen years old, I made my first attempt and didn't go too far. I went six miles and went back to Charleston. [Laughing]
[I was with] Dick Little, who's a Black man who contracted and finished concrete and laid bricks and all that, and I was helping mix concrete and all that. And the plantation owner's son saw me out there. He saw me out there, and he came and got me. He didn't touch me, but he told me that I needed to come on back to the home, to the plantation.
Bruce: You were labor for the plantation.
Wazir: That's right. Right, exactly. So I went back. That first attempt failed. But when I got to fourteen , I did it again, and I went farther. I went a long way away. I went to Grenada [Mississippi]. [Both laughing]
Bruce: Oh shit! [Both laughing]
Wazir: Grenada. Out on the 51 Highway that used to run right through there.
Bruce: Highway 51!
Wazir: And they had a place where the truckers stopped. There was nothing but white truckers at that time running through Mississippi. They had a regular [cafe] — it was a like a restaurant. In the back, they had a place for Black people. And white people up front, naturally. And it was 24 hours. So I would hang out there as long as I could, and the local police would come through every hour on the hour, and these young ladies [who worked in the cafe], they would let me sleep there. And when they would hear [the cops] coming through, they would wake me up, so I wouldn't look like I was some kind of truant. But I was a child. And they must've been — they were about three years older than I was.
And before their shift was over, they would pile a bunch of food up on their plate, and they would feed me. Then it got to a place where it was being noticeable that I was there, so I couldn't — there was a truck that would haul cotton pickers, people to go pick cotton, because this was in the late fall, coming into winter, so I started sleeping out there in the truck, in the bed of the truck with nothing on me and just a little thin cotton sack over me. And I remember I would shiver myself to sleep every night. Actually shivering has a benefit I found out. After awhile, it warms you up. [Laughing]
So that went on. I was determined I wasn't going back to the plantation. And I was doing something — my parents didn't know a lot about how I was thinking when I was growing up, because I was kind of quiet. And it shocked them that I left, and that's what I intended to do, so that they would find a way to leave that plantation. And they did. And when they did, they eventually found me, because I would always leave — my base was Grenada, and I would go other places. I went to different places in Mississippi.
I went to New Orleans, and I would be down there on the wharfs where the ships come in. And because I was too young to carry bananas and all that kind of stuff, it was just — those big old heavy stalks. I would run errands for the guys. And as I was running errands, I would be given packages to take one place, and I would be given another package when I got there to bring back. And I didn't know that I was running drugs. I didn't know that. [Laughing] One thing I did know, I knew it was something wrong, and I knew I wasn't supposed to get caught. And so the cops got at me one day, and I ran. I ran up on the trucks; I ran up on everything. And they were looking for me. The package I had, I dropped it the way I was supposed to drop it. And they caught me. The cops said — that was the nicest word I had ever heard that had come out of any white person's mouth. He said, "Hon, what you doing here?" [Laughing]
Bruce: In that New Orleans Cajun way.
Wazir: Right, yeah! What you doing? What you been doing? I said, I'm just running errands for this ... Where you be from? I said, I'm from — I didn't want to tell him. I told him a lie first, and then he said, Wait a minute. Where you from? I got scared, and I told him, I'm from Mississippi.
He said, Well, let me tell you something. He said, We've been noticing you for the last several days here. You be running packages and errands. We know you were too young to be working down here in the first place, but we wanted to see what you were doing. Do you know what you're doing? I said, Just running errands trying to just make a little bit of change so I can feed myself. He said, What you do, the first truck that's going back to Mississippi, you get yourself on it, hon, and leave here, 'cause what you've been doing — we know what you've been doing. You don't know what you've been doing. See? You've been running drugs.
[Laughing] And I did. I took his advice. And got up out of there. And occasionally, because I was working with Lyles Brothers Produce Company, and that's where they would come and pick up their produce that they were going to distribute throughout the state of Mississippi from New Orleans. And some of the trucks would come in from California. So I decided, I said, Okay. I know what I'm gonna do. I said, I'm going to California. And because I was young, none of the truckers would — for some reason, I would always miss the big trucks when they came in, when they would go back. So I sat out on the highway one day, all day long, trying to hitchhike. Nobody would pick me up. When I changed to the other side of the highway, immediately I got a ride back to Grenada.
It was time. So it was that kind of thing. And when my parents came to Grenada, they had heard that I was in Grenada. And they found the place where I would come to eat. And they asked people about me. They'd say, Oh, that little boy. Yeah, he'll be in here in about another hour. He comes here every day. And just like clockwork, I was there, and there were my parents.
Bruce: Was that in that little neighborhood near Bellflower Church? Right off of 51? Near Pearl Street?
Wazir: Yeah, there's Pearl Street. Let's see, you go — no, this is Cherry Street. You go up Cherry Street all the way close to the jail. And it's a street back there that ran parallel to the jail. In other words, it was almost downtown. I liked coming there, because they had these little ten or fifteen-cent hamburgers. I'd get me about half a dozen of them. I like eating them, you know, because I could eat. I was working at this restaurant this Greek ran. His name was Tom Darius. He served all of the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, Lions Club, all of that, on the days he catered. And I cleaned the — you know, they used silver, and I cleaned the silver.
Bruce: Those were the days. Real silver in a restaurant! [Laughing]
Wazir: Yeah, and you had to clean it right away and do whatever polishing, because it would tarnish.
Wazir: And anyway, so [my parents] found me. Dad asked, When are you coming back home? We moved off the plantation. And I said, Well, okay. I'll be back in the fall, in time to go to school. I said I'd come back, and I did.
And I came back with determination that I was going to do whatever I could to change things. And I started right there in school, you know, looking around and things that were just — weren't right, that seemed like we were being suppressed, oppressed, the students. I would jump on it and talk to other students about it who felt the same way, and I started doing things then. I mean, I remember in my high school class, '58, they were glad that we graduated! Get us out of there.
I then went to Rust College. From Rust College we started — at Rust College we got together with some students there. And immediately, the first thing, for the freshman, they used to just take — you'd just stand up in front of the administration building, and they take a group picture for the yearbook. And we were the first one — we protested. We wouldn't do it. We said, We just won't be in there. We won't be in it. You can't make us take any pictures if we can't have individual pictures. So they started, from that point on, treating freshman just like they did anybody else.
And we looked around for some other things. By 1960, we had worked hard at the cafeteria, for better food and all that kind of stuff. We were getting ourselves together already for something. And then in that same year, 1960 — February 1960 — when the sit-ins in [North Carolina] started, we knew we just had to do something. So we looked around, and the next thing we did — we were the greatest [economic] supporter of the movie theater in downtown Holly Springs — and then we had a sit-in in those — And we boycotted it. Finally we went to the school across the street called Mississippi Industrial College. We got the student government involved in that. First, the president of the school, they had some kind of something on him. He was forcing them to go, and finally, they protested. They got strong enough to stop going. So temporarily — I just learned last year that Mr. Roundtree, after we graduated and left there, he did open that theater back up.
Bruce: Yeah, Don [Jelinek] tells about an issue [with the movie] in '65 or '66 —
Wazir: Yeah, that's when. When Don told that story is when I found out that he — but I didn't know before that that he had opened it like that. But he had closed it. So he got rid of us and then opened it back up, I suppose.
Wazir: But so things — Frank Smith, he and I, we worked together. He came from Morehouse [College] in Atlanta, but now he was on [the Rust] campus, and they were getting suspicious of Dr. [Ernest A.] Smith, the President of Rust College. And he said, You're gonna have to — you enroll at Rust. So he became — he had become a student at Rust College, technically.
Bruce: So [Frank] was helping organize the students around sit-ins and boycotting the theater and all that stuff?
Wazir: No, he wasn't. We had done that before. We had done that before he got there, around '60-'61. He came in the spring of '62, and that's when he and I started working close together. That was the year that I was graduating. He and I worked close together, and we started the real voter registration campaign and working with the local people, the civil organizations, the ones who wanted to — the first thing they wanted to do — you know, part of the organizing is to help people do what they wanted to do, and they wanted to organize a credit union. So me and Frank helped them to organize a credit union in Holly Springs.
And in trade off, they would help us to get people down to register to vote. Mr. [Nero?], he let us have his car to go into other counties. We used to go into Benton County and De Soto County and all them other counties up through there to make contact with people, the leadership people, and get things going like that.
[Frank] moved out of Holly Springs into Columbus, Mississippi and opened up that project [for SNCC].
Bruce: And this would be '62?
Wazir: Yeah. That's right. And so that was, I became [a SNCC] organizer. And the rest of us that had learned to be organizers, we had moved on.
So it had come time for me to — I had some additional courses that kept me around almost that whole summer of '62. I had graduated, but I took a couple courses for the summer, and when that ended, I left and went home and was getting ready to go to Meharry Medical School College in Nashville. And that's when Bob Moses and Amzie Moore — Amzie Moore had a full project going throughout the Delta. You know, he had all these contact people.
[Amzie Moore] was from Cleveland [Mississippi], but he came to Charleston. He would come to Charleston and such people as Birdie Kegler and Mr. Grafton Gray and all these kind of people. He would meet with them in certain places, and they would talk about how they were going to be moving. So they would all come to Mound Bayou [in Bolivar County] once a month.
[Mound Bayou was (and still is) an all-Black town run and controlled by Blacks. In the 1950s, civil rights organizations had their center there, and during the 1960s, it was often used as a safe location for civil rights meetings.]
And when they came to pick me up, that's when I found out all these people in Charleston right around me who were involved. Because before I got to Cleveland, that night, [Amzie] stopped at all these key places. The same time I got there, and we bedded down, and Sam Block and [Lawrence] Guyot and Lavaugn Brown called this distress call that they were about to be lynched.
Bruce: In Greenwood.
Wazir: In Greenwood, yeah. Because I was destined to go to Ruleville, to start — open up a project in Ruleville, but that's how I ended up being in Greenwood.
And so we worked through all of that, and then we had some breakthroughs that came in '63. That's when Jimmy Travis got shot. Then they missed George Green by just a little bit, shooting over his head. All this is happening between January and March of '63. They almost got us — me and Sam Block — right in front of the office, in March. But when they shot Jimmy Travis, that's when things — all hell broke loose for Greenwood, because all of the [SNCC] people pulled out of their projects [around the state], because Wiley Branton who was over at the Voter Education Project had made — he was pissed off, and he made a statement without consulting SNCC or anybody that we were going to make Greenwood a testing ground for democracy.
Bruce: I always thought that SNCC had called everybody in for that. I didn't know it was Wiley Branton.
Wazir: Wiley Branton made the statement, and we backed him up. [Laughing] Because he went to the press.
Bruce: Besides, he was distributing the money. [Laughing]
Wazir: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and we in the field didn't think that much about the money, but I guess the leadership did. And we did feel that he was one of us, and we needed to back up what he said. So people pulled out of Hattiesburg and McComb and all these other places and came to Greenwood. And Dick Gregory and everybody came down. And after that, I was spending time in jail and all that kind of thing.
Wazir: And it rocks on until — then in the fall of '63 is when I first heard about the possibility of there being a Summer Project of 1964. We met in Greenville, Mississippi the first time for it to be talked about, and I remember Myles Horton was there and Al Lowenstein and Aaron Henry and Bob [Moses] and everybody. And the field staff had come, and they were talking about this possibility of having it. And immediately, just about all of us opposed it at first. Just about all of us opposed it, because of the fact we knew the danger of it. And in the way the [volunteers] had to [financially] support themselves when they came down. We knew that it would limit the amount of Black [volunteers], the [number of] Black students that could come.
Bruce: Because the volunteers from out of state had to bring their own money, which would mean that very few Black students could afford to do that. Is that what you're saying?
Wazir: That's what I'm saying, exactly.
The kicker was that we had ways of hiding from the police and the Klan at night, you know? Disappearing into the Black community. And we couldn't figure out how we were going to hide all these white [volunteers]. [Laughing] How we were going to keep them safe.
And the next kicker was, we had experience of certain students coming down from Yale in the spring of '63, and they had been very disrespectful. And they were coming from the Young Republican Party, I think, from Yale. And it didn't matter what we advised them to do, they would do the opposite. They didn't believe anything we'd say. They went down and interviewed some of the officials of the city of Greenwood, who told them that everything was okay and that yeah, Blacks could go to the library, which was a lie. And so what they did, these young Republicans, they went back and they put in their college newsletter that we were liars and that we were doing — all these things that we were saying were false. They interviewed the city officials, and it was that all this was just a bunch of crap, that we weren't doing anything. So when we got the news, George —
Bruce: Wait a minute. Are these the same students from Yale who came down to help with the Freedom Ballot that Al Lowenstein had worked with? Or is this a different group of Yale students?
Wazir: This is a different group. So we had that kind of a negative experience with them. What it is, they're programmed in a different way. They had never in their life met Black leadership before and especially young Black leadership — we were in their age group. And they didn't feel to oblige us in any kind of way, so far as advising them as to what they should do. They came knowing what they should do and to disprove the things that we were saying, we were doing there in Greenwood and different parts of Mississippi.
So having had that experience with them, that made us feel, okay, if we're going to be in leadership, how are we going to — we are the ones who know what's going on, and how are we going to be able to direct them as to how to move, if they're not going to listen to us? And especially that many. And then my compromise was, okay, we can spread about forty of them throughout places, throughout different projects. And people said, No, we're talking about numbers much bigger than that. And they said, We're talking about five or six hundred people.
And I said, No. We said, No way. No way. Everything that we've started, the grassroots organizations whereby people were becoming autonomous, taking over, we were preparing people to take over their own operations. We were really being organizers. And we'd tell them, We'll bring you the tools. We can do research. We can bring you the tools to do what you want to do, what you want to do. And all of that — I saw all of that having to be set aside to make a dramatic statement.
I had been so involved in trying to get this — like everybody else, all of the other organizers, to get this thing at a place where the local Black leadership would feel comfortable in taking over their own projects and doing what they want to do and using us as needed to show them expertise and resources to whatever they wanted to do. And I saw that being disrupted. And it did become disruptive.
And the next meeting that we had in Greenville, again in the spring of 1964, before the Summer Project started, this was the last meeting where — Guyot was there. Guyot was for the Summer Project. So this was the final meeting in Greenville where it was supposed to be decided whether or not — and when I got there, to my surprise, most of the organizers were still kind of wavering, kind of undecided. And finally, it came down, and I found out later, and I don't know what inspired this, but it had already been decided that it was going to be.
And it had already been decided to replace certain organizers in Mississippi and give it to — like the project of me and Sam Block, the Second Congressional District. That was [assigned] to Stokely Carmichael. In other words, the Howard group —
Bruce: Howard University.
Wazir: Yeah. NAG [Nonviolent Action Group of Howard University] people had been put in different positions already. And we didn't know that until that last meeting. Actually, it was after the meeting was over that we knew that it was coming anyway. We didn't have any say. So I decided — I was really pissed off the way it was done, and the person who I loved and had much respect for and had a lot of confidence in, and he was one of the main ones who came and asked me to come and work [for SNCC]. And I didn't go to school. I didn't go to Meharry.
Bruce: And you're talking about —
Wazir: I'm talking about Bob Moses, which he hates for me to talk about it, and I hate to talk about it, but I'm just, for the truth of it, telling you like it is. I was very — I was hurt and disappointed that he had not confided in me and Sam. I said, Look, part of this is political and part of this is personal. And the next thing I realized that most of the SNCC organizers in Mississippi had had some college. I had graduated from college. But at the same time, they were Mississippians, with the exception of Ivanhoe [Donaldson] and Charlie Cobb. Not just Bob. Ella [Baker] had made statements that she didn't feel that we had the sophistication, education, and political awareness of how the system works to really do certain things. So when they really got ready to say — it made me feel like they say in the military, like we were just grunts. And when they got ready to do other things, Okay now, we'll take it from here, kind of thing. And that pissed me off, it really did.
Bruce: What was their assumption of the role you would have if you were being removed from leadership of the Leflore County or the Second Congressional District? What role did they see you playing in the summer?
Wazir: The role that they saw — come to find out when I went to Oxford, Ohio — I went to Oxford for the first orientation. And I don't know where they wanted me to go, but Jim [Forman] and Bob wanted me to leave Greenwood. And I found out a few days later that the whole SNCC headquarters was going to be moved to Greenwood. So they knew that I was not for this project, and part of it was that they wanted me and Sam out of there, because we had influence and leadership. We were looked up to. And since we weren't for the project, we stood to be there to sabotage things by word or mouth. So I didn't want to be seen in that light, and so I said, OK, I'm leaving Greenwood. I need to get myself together and check on my health and all that.
So I went to New York and went to the doctors and all that kind of stuff. And the doctors were checking me out, and I stayed there for most of the summer. James Arthur, my brother, James Arthur Peacock, was with the Freedom Singers along with Matt Jones and all those guys, and he got — all of them got dehydrated and sick there in Madison, Wisconsin. That's where they broke down. They were doing matinees during the day and doing dinner main concerts at night, and my brother got the worst of it. He was in the hospital, so they sent for me, because actually — what had happened? I had been back in Greenwood. I had left New York, and I had been back in Greenwood, I think, about a week. And that's when I found out that he was sick. So I went to Madison, Wisconsin, and I was there with him. And while I was there, I decided I'm not going back to Greenwood. I did come back for a short while, but that's when I left for Tuskegee [University] that fall. I left for Tuskegee and went to graduate school, try to get myself back up to speed to go to medical school.
Bruce: Let's go back to when you're first hearing about the Summer Project, and you were opposed to it, for the reasons you said. What did the local activists and local leadership in Greenwood — how did they think about it? What did they feel when they first heard about it?
Wazir: When they first heard about it, and that's another reason why we had to be — from where they were coming from, we'd been working to bring equality, justice and all that together. And they saw this as symbolizing — with all the white [volunteers] coming down and all that — they saw it as symbolizing a great move in that direction. So in mass meetings or whatever, I never said anything against it.
Bruce: Because the local people were for it.
Wazir: That's right. Yeah.
Bruce: Why? Why were they for it?
Wazir: They were for it, because it was seen as like a beacon of light to the kind of freedom that they wanted to see. Because before that, all they had seen was the brutality of white people. They had begun to see that there were good people, good white people, good people in all races, which that was a good thing. And it was such a good thing, the way they were seeing it, that it made —
Another thing, a reason why, it made me look like I was being selfish and narrow, although I thought the greater good was for them to be able to — That that could come later, maybe a year later, you know? When they had a much stronger footing in taking charge of their local organizations that they were building. Because my dream was that for the first time that a state of people would be in control of the people that they put in office, that they would be definitely — that the people who they put in office would be definitely answerable to them. And that's the thing around the country that ain't happening.
Bruce: Well, let me flip it around then. So the local Black activist leadership in Greenwood were favorable toward the Summer Project. What about the local white folk? How did they react when they heard about this?
Wazir: The way they reacted, when they heard about it, they started to stockpile whatever they needed, legally and illegally, to — it felt like it was an invasion that they needed to defend themselves from, and to make it not pleasant at all for the [volunteers] would be coming. And they demonstrated that immediately by what happened to Mickey Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney right away, you know? And this is in Greenwood, Sunflower County, McComb, and places like that, they were definitely set up to do harm. You know, we had bombings in McComb, SNCC house, and all that kind of thing. Greenwood, several churches got burned. So they were prepared to make mayhem for the project, to make it not be successful. They saw the Freedom Vote that had happened earlier, they saw what that was. That was getting these people politically ready to challenge them, on their own turf, in their own terms.
And when they saw this coming, their response was they felt like they — in my own words, they felt like they were at war — war had been declared. And their position was to shoot, no quarter. And this is why all the SNCC people who drove cars, we did not respect the highway patrolmen or the local — when we saw them, we knew they were the enemy. Zoom, as fast as those cars could go. And we had some good drivers. [Laughing]
So they knew if they got after us that it was all the time a lost cause. And it was my understanding — I didn't know Chaney personally, but they tell me that he was one of those drivers. And I knew the character of Mickey Schwerner, because as soon as I heard it, I was in — I had left Oxford, Ohio and gone to New York, and I was at Bill [William] Worthy's. Bill Worthy had just [had his passport restored after traveling to China and Cuba against a State Department edict]. He had just been reinstated where he could travel again, and I was staying at his house.
And he said, You heard about what happened, blah-blah-blah. The first thing that come out, I said, Damn it, Mickey got 'em killed. That's the first thing that came out of my mouth. Because Mickey used to go down there talking to them good ol' boys, and I could tell every time, and he'd come up to Greenwood telling me, Oh, things are not like they seem, so you don't have a stand telling me what I — you know, you don't understand. And I said — and I would tell him, I said, They are snow-jobbing you. I said, Those good ol' boys, they're good at that. I said, You know, [Senator Theodore] Bilbo and all them filibusters? I said, It came natural. I said, It came natural for them to do that. That's what they do.
I said, They enjoy that. They're having a good time with you. And the part of it is, you want to believe it. You don't want to believe that they're as bad as hell. And so my thing is, being that Chaney was one of those kind of drivers, I believe that — it's not a fact, but I believe that Mickey Schwerner made them stop. We [SNCC drivers] didn't stop. We didn't stop at night. We didn't stop. First of all, we didn't leave jail at night. That was against the whole thing of protecting. They're gonna let you — if they try to release you, you say: Well, I'm not leaving. You can arrest me if you want to. [Laughing] You know, get crazy.
Bruce: Yeah, that was, in a sense, similar to what happened in Lowndes County with the killing of Jonathan Daniels.
Wazir: They left him out of jail.
Bruce: Let's jump forward. You were in Atlantic City for the MFDP Convention Challenge. Talk about that.
Wazir: At the Challenge, I was out there on the Boardwalk, walking with the people, sitting there on the — with the vigil all night long sometimes. And what happened with that is that, from where I was standing, I knew — I would hear Joseph Rauh come back and make a report and talk with us.
Bruce: He was the UAW lawyer who was also working as the MFDP's attorney.
Wazir: And so what I remember distinctly that happened after the meeting, when the meeting was taking place for them to accept or not accept the compromise of those two seats at large, and that was still held to them to do that, although the Mississippi delegation had walked out.
Bruce: The white Mississippi delegation.
Wazir: Had walked out. And Joseph Rauh was kind of happy, you know, he thought he could report to the UAW and whoever else that he had it in the bag, that we were going to take those [two token seats]. So to him, he would've been victorious. He would've had a victory. And Bayard Rustin and all of these people, the people were debating whether — in this church, whether or not they were going to take it or were not going to take the compromise. And what was surprising to the people like those, Bayard Rustin and all of them, is that the people were sincere about not taking those seats. They had worked hard. They had seen people killed. They had seen how they'd been opposed, how they weren't allowed to go to their regular Democratic Party representative meetings and all that kind of stuff. And how we had to set up our own meetings, following the law and all that. We were the ones who followed the law, completely, to the letter. And these people were totally illegal. This is the way that — and we had, as organizers, we had been able to convey to the people in their own language how to understand what had happened, and we didn't tell them what to do; we told them how things worked.
Bruce: And when you said these people were illegal, you're referring to the white Mississippi delegation.
Bruce: Because they had not followed the rules that you followed.
Wazir: They had not followed those rules. They had not followed those rules. And that's what was staring the whole Democratic convention straight in the face, because they still wanted to seat the white delegation with the knowledge — knowing that they had not followed the rules — and with the knowledge, knowing that the MFDP had followed the rules completely.
And I heard rumor before Fannie Lou Hamer spoke, that Lyndon Baines Johnson wanted to shut it down any way it could be done. He wanted it shut down, because he didn't want to upset these Dixiecrats. He's looking at the election. And the MFDP, we were looking at it as a freedom now issue.
And people like — there was a higher echelon, let me just say, and I use Bayard Rustin, because he's the one that spoke when the MFDP was deciding one way or the other how they were gonna do. They hadn't been in the trenches like us organizers. They didn't know the mentality of the people who had come, and they thought that they could sell them this compromise. And in their deepest heart of hearts they thought that would've been a good thing, that this [was an] incremental victory. But as like Fannie Lou Hamer, they were sick and tired of this stuff. They were completely tired of it, and they thought this was a good time to meet the competition. And so Mr. Hartman Turnbow he understood what they were doing, and he said after Bayard — after he had spoken, you know, in his vernacular, he said, Ain't gonna be no "concomise."
And I understood later — I know Bob [Moses] was wise not to take that on. Fannie Lou Hamer went to him. I wasn't there, but I was told by reliable sources, and she said, Bob, what should we do? What should we do? He said, You all are adults, and you're grown. You know what to do. You do what you think you should do. And that was good enough. He didn't have to say no more to her. That was it. And that's when she was able to come strongly and say, We didn't come all this way for no two seats. We all is tired.
Bruce: Looking back now, after 50 years, what's your assessment of Freedom Summer? Not the whole Freedom Movement, but the Freedom Summer Project.
Wazir: Freedom Summer. Freedom Summer Project, one of the best things — it took me — I was so bitter against it, that I — It was around in the '80s, I started loosening up and looking at it. What did they do? I had been so negative and so — I had been so against everything, that I started desperately looking for something to be for.
And so I started looking. I said, The Freedom Schools. I had had contact with some of the teachers. They were sincere, and they did good work. They did absolute good work. And like some of them — many of them said, We learned so much, simply because not just kids came; adults came, wanting to know things. And so naturally we didn't turn away nobody. And they did good work.
One of the Freedom School persons, students, from Holly Springs, Mississippi, there was two brothers, and one became a full professor at Jackson State University, and he served on the penal commission who decided — found decisions about having to change their situation. This is one of the Newbury boys I'm talking about. I think Roy Dewbury — I think Roy is his name. And one of them became — he just stepped down and they got a new mayor now, he became the mayor of Holly Springs, all that kind of stuff. Ed Carthyn became the mayor of Tchula and with full knowledge of what he was doing, they had to — he had to get his cabinet together, and they had to run the other folks out, because they weren't going to leave office. That kind of thing. And there were other instances, many instances like what I'm talking about. Arance Brooks Williams became the President of the City Council of Greenwood.
Bruce: These were all Freedom School students?
Wazir: Freedom School students I'm talking about here now, yeah.
Bruce: What about other aspects of Freedom Summer?
Wazir: The other aspects of Freedom Summer, when I started looking at it really, you know, in a positive vein, the manpower that was offered to get the MFDP Challenge off the ground — if SNCC's or CORE's staff had pulled out, we just couldn't have done it by ourselves. It expedited it for the time. They had expertise, and they knew how to go and get resources and all that kind of stuff. And it made — we were ready, but it helped us to get our stuff together. Yeah, absolutely. It expedited the time, so when it came time for the Atlantic City Challenge, we were ready. When I say "we were ready," I'm identifying with the [MFDP] delegates. Victoria Gray and all them; Annie Devine, Ms. Palmer, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and all them people. They were ready. Ed King and all them.
Bruce: How do you evaluate, looking back now, the concern you had before the Project about — you said that local leadership would be set aside, that the local Black leadership wouldn't develop. How do you evaluate Freedom Summer's effect on that?
Wazir: I was kind of right about that one. Not kind of right; I was right about that one. They're struggling still to try to — once the horses are out of the corral, you can't herd them back together. So most of the local and statewide Mississippians who had worked in the Movement who had put their staff and their families on the line and taken chances, even the lawyers like R. Gess Brown who could not even be elected to Justice of the Peace — he ran for Justice of the Peace a couple of times, anyway, and he couldn't get elected. Fred Banks got elected. Fred Banks is now a federal judge.
Bruce: But that was because of opposition from the white Mississippians, wasn't it?
Wazir: It was white Mississippians, yeah. They helped to finance whatever opposition and helped finance whoever was running against them.
Bruce: But how did the Freedom Summer play into that? I mean, that would've happened whether there was Freedom Summer or not. They would've opposed politically-active candidates who were not under their thumb.
Wazir: What I'm saying is that had we been able to build the kind of local political organization from the ground up and ran our own officials when the vote came, that there would've been more accountability and more representative of what the Black community was about and wanted. Which would've been good for the state. Period. And so it's been all kind of — some of those good people, Black people, getting into office is, for the last four or five years, is beginning to happen. The first wave of people, as we say, have petered out. They're just gone, the first wave, and certain organizations, especially [ECHO], which Hollis Watkins is the president of. They had worked to keep gerrymandering and zoning and all that kind of stuff in different areas, kind of all over the state, especially the hardcore counties. Just like in my county, Tallahatchie County, where I was born and raised, they just elected a Black mayor of Charleston, Mississippi. And I know the family from which that young man came from. So that's the kind of people we're talking about here. And you heard in our meeting Saturday, this new Black mayor in Jackson, Mississippi.
Bruce: Chokwe Lumumba?
Wazir: Yeah. Chokwe Lumumba, I've known him for a long, long time. And that's definitely the kind of people that we would've wanted, that would be accountable to the people. Period.
Bruce: You've talked about how Freedom Summer affected the Black community. How would you assess the effect of Freedom Summer not on Mississippi in particular but on the nation as a whole?
Wazir: Freedom Summer, on the nation as a whole, it had great effect on mass education of the nation as a whole. Those who, as they said, if they had ears and could hear and those who had eyes and could see, they could see that something had been and still is very wrong in the political system and justice system in this country and that it exposed the kind of way the political system out of Washington, D.C. is run. And it exposed the haves and have nots and the color line. It exposed — people who didn't even want to look, they had to see it. They had to see it.
And they saw the extent that the people would go when they killed those three Civil Rights workers. They saw that that was just the peak of the iceberg, how bad racism was in this country and that it did exist in this country and started people to look at the forms in which racism exhibited itself, how it showed up in different kinds of ways.
And it spurred — it put fire under many types of minority people. The women's movement took off — the feminist movement took off. The gay liberation movement took off. People said, We can do something. We need to get together to do something, because this racism stuff affects everything. Everything. And we ain't going back. This mentality is deadly. And it's not that people didn't know that racism existed, but they didn't know all the forms. Race discrimination. They didn't know it all. They hadn't been to the subtle, distant forms. They hadn't had a chance to really have cause to look at all the forms that it took. And the people that were affected by it, who were aware, it gave them more gas or fuel to start uniting and doing something about it. And it's still rolling.
Bruce: How do you think — what is your assessment of how Freedom Summer affected the volunteers?
Wazir: It affected the volunteers. Every one of the volunteers was affected in some way, some negatively and some positively. For awhile, even the ones I have talked to who are active trying to do something now, some of them had at least a year on the average to three years' hiatus where they tried to go somewhere and do something and get their — All of them knew that they were affected, that it had done something to them.
Certain things, standards and things that they thought they could hold onto and believe in had been shaken to the roots. They had been shaken. They knew that something was wrong, and for this hiatus period, they didn't know how to get at it, and even to some today are affected to the point that they — they did some good things. They were out in front. They just hid away. When we had to find Rita Schwerner, her children didn't know anything about it. The man she married knew, but her children didn't know nothing. Not nothing about her past. And she had to figure out how she was — when this thing came to the fore, how she was going to explain to the children about her other life. That's really dramatic, but that's kind of like something that — would you call that negative? I'd count that as a bad effect. I mean, I don't know what to say, bad effect that it had on some, to that —
Wazir: Traumatic, yeah. Traumatic. That's what I want to say. Yeah. Some of it was very, very traumatic. And some of them handled their trauma in different kinds of way. Some of them just went stone crazy. [Laughing]
Bruce: And some of them just went stoned.
Wazir: That's right! [Laughing] Yeah, exactly! Exactly. But they found a way to start getting themselves somewhat healthy by participating, like the Civil Rights Movement Vets, and starting finding ways to do things. Like we admitted to ourselves that we were walking wounded, you know? We cannot maybe say that to other vets, but we admit it to ourselves. And that's what they say when you go to Alcoholics Anonymous. The first thing is you admit that you are an alcoholic or that you've been affected, but we've admitted to that. And then it was healthy. And we've been trying to do something all the time. And even the ones of us who came together to do that, we had gotten healthy enough to keep doing some things in the first place. Yeah.
Bruce: All right, last question. So if you had to tell somebody what they needed to understand about the Summer Project, if they didn't know anything about it, what would you say? You need to know this about the Summer Project, what would it be?
Wazir: I would say Mississippi's history of its violence and its ability to not hesitate to put violence on anything or anybody. What you have to know is that the people who participated in the Summer Project were some of the bravest people that I have ever known. Some might have been naive when they first came, and some might've thought that they weren't so brave, and they found out that it didn't mean that you didn't get scared. That it meant what you did in spite of fear. And they stayed. Most of the people stayed. A few couldn't handle it, and that was best bravery. They were honest enough to know that, and they left. A few here and there wouldn't admit that they couldn't handle it, and they had to be given encouragement to leave. But as a whole, I would say that this is what you have to know about the people of the Summer Project. As it melts down, they were some of the bravest people I ever met.
Copyright © Wazir Peacock. 2014
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