I went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964, after graduating from Temple Univ. Why? Strangely enough, there was a story in one of my mother's New Yorkers about the Freedom Summer Project which captured me. Also, my — umk — friend, Larry Rubin, a fellow Philadelphian, and student at Antioch, who was involved in the early stages of setting up the project at Holly Springs, and maybe some of the other locations as well. I was 21, turning 22 in December.
I was assigned to Marshall County, in the northwest corner of the state, about 40 miles south of Memphis. The project in Holly Springs was courageously sponsored by Rust College, a traditional Black teacher's college. Our first task was to sort through thousands of books that had been donated to the Freedom Summer project. They were stored in the basement of one of the buildings on campus. They had to be sorted by topic, and then boxed so they could be distributed to project centers throughout the state. Of course, we kept some for our library in Holly Springs.
Our project center was a house across the street from the campus on Rust Avenue. Ivanhoe Donaldson and Cleveland Sellers were our "chiefs" during the summer. They held staff meetings at 7 in the morning and made us sing Freedom Songs. Frank Ciecheorka, the illustrator of the "Realist Magazine" was there. So was Karen Kunstler, civil rights attorney William Kunstler's daughter. Among other volunteers were: Andie (?), Barbara Walker, Kathy Dahl, Bob Smith, Harriet Tanzman, Hardy Frye, Ananias McGhee, Ralph Featherstone, Alvin Pam, Pam (Chude) Allen, the dog N-, Aviva Futorian, Marjorie (M?) ... I'm sure other names will come to me. I hope I can come back and edit this posting.
I had volunteered to be a Freedom School teacher. The first thing I did with the teenagers in my class was have them read "Bontche Schveig" by Peretz, the story of an old Russian Jew so poor and so beaten down and so voiceless, that when he got to heaven and was joyfully welcomed by the angels, the only thing he could ask for was a buttered roll for breakfast every morning. (The Angels wept, the Devil laughed.) The story was in one of the books I had kept for our library. The kids told me that the only Jews they knew were shopkeepers in Memphis who would stand at the doorway of their shops and beckon to them to come in and shop.
All in all, I was pretty lost, though I must have made myself useful in some way. I was supposed to teach Black history, and I think I had volunteered to teach French, which I hadn't used since high school. James Foreman came through Holly Springs early in the summer, and started speaking to me in rapid French. I was pretty speechless. I had no teacher training, and didn't really know what to do with the kids, though I think there were a lot of undirected conversations about race, and segregation, and some history. Those kids taught me a lot more than I taught them, though I don't think I realized it at the time. They were living it. I guess they stayed with me through the summer, but I don't really remember much about what we did in our classes.
A few of the names I remember: Jewell, Charles Ira Pegues, Aurelia, Mrs. Lorsie Lee Jones. Aurelia Mitchell was the daughter of the President of Rust College. I was invited to dinner at their house one evening. I remember part of our discussion was a debate with Dr. Mitchell about the merits of socialism.
I got my first driver's license in Holly Springs. I had my driving test on a car that had been donated to the Freedom Summer by Bishop Pike (of San Francisco, I believe) a huge old-fashioned black vehicle with extra pull-out seats in back. (I m not very good with car brand names.) My tester from the county was a deputy sheriff. He put his hand on my knee, but fortunately, didn't follow up. That fabulous old car got us over rain-soaked muddy roads, and across 30-foot-deep gullies on bridges only inches wider than the car.
I actually stayed on after the summer was over — I'm surprised to remember that Ivanhoe invited me to — and went home to Philly in December.
The later months were better. I think by that time I had a little more confidence in myself, and worked on some interesting projects, like helping Black farmers get elected to the Agricultural Allotment boards that had been set up during the Depression, and helping Larry Rubin and the white Marshall County Sheriff "Flick" Ash, organize Black and white workers at a nearby brick factory into a union. The sheriff's brother worked at the factory. Larry, Barbara Walker and I went to Memphis to meet with the Hod Carrier's union. They came down to Holly Springs and led an organizing drive which succeeded in bringing in the union.
Larry, Barbara and I had lunch at a restaurant in Memphis. (Was it a Jewish deli?) The white waitress was incredibly rude to us. (Barbara W. is African American.) Instead of a tip, we left a big SNCC button, with black and white hands clasped.
Other things I was involved in that summer was to canvass in the neighborhoods to invite people to register to vote. To do that in Marshall County, they had to pass a literacy test by reading two or three clauses from the state constitution. Sometimes, we helped people memorize the clauses, because their literacy wasn't too high. The county had made available to us the clauses that had to be read. Why did they do that? Obviously, Marshall County wasn't the worst, most hostile, to our effort. It was adjacent to Tate County, which WAS one of the worst.
Of course, we were also organizing the Freedom Democratic Party including the "mock" election to demonstrate to the Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City the non-negotiable demand for the right to vote by Black people in MS. For some reason, I did not go to Atlantic City. I might have been sick. So, I missed that intense, historic battle.
In 1964, the Mississippi authorities and the Federal Government had made some agreements to accommodate the Freedom Summer project. I don't remember if this was before or after the murder of Goodman, Schwerner and Cheyney. One of the agreements was a moratorium on "demonstrations." No massive marches. But we held a "walk" to the courthouse with the 10 or 20 people who had agreed to register to vote. I wish I remembered their names. We had many meetings in churches to talk about the movement ... many all-day-long Sunday prayer meetings, lunches and speeches hosted by gracious, kindly people, welcoming and curious about us young white Northern folks.
Several months after I returned to Philadelphia, I was hired by the Education Department of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union to help edit their union newspaper. I did that for about a year and a half. Then, I found myself returning to the South to work for the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), under the leadership of Carl and Anne Braden, in Louisville, and Frank Wilkinson, in Los Angeles.
I was there during the Open Housing movement, when the Kentucky Derby was almost cancelled by high school aged protesters running out onto the track during preliminary races. The presence of the National Guard, and the intervention of SCLC, prevented the cancellation. It was also the year that SCEF struggled to free Thomas Wansley, a young man in Lynchburg, VA, falsely accused of rape, and given a life sentence. That was not a successful campaign.
After returning to Philly, I got married, floundered around for about a year, and, in 1970, got hired to work for 1199C, the Hospital Workers Union, which had just come to Philadelphia under Henry Nicholas and Donna Ford's leadership. I did that for 10 years, learning the mechanics of organizing and administering a union.
After I up and quit the union, the result of some trivial disagreement which is hard to remember, I got trained to be a hospital pharmacy technician in a CETA program, and worked at a small hospital for five years. I also had a growing interest in geology. Feeling bored and underpaid, and not successful in my attempts to organize the workers at the hospital, I thought about going back to school for pharmacy, but decided on geology instead. In my 40s, I worked part time at the hospital and finished my undergraduate geology classes. Then I was able to go on and get a master s degree.
I was fortunate to be hired, at the age of 50, by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. I supervised the investigation and cleanup of contaminated groundwater at old industrial sites and gas stations. I was half environmental nurse, half environmental cop. I was an enforcer of government environmental regulations.
When I think about those 5 months in MS, I am ... amazed. When people ask me now why I went, I say "because I was dumb." That's a little flippant, I suppose, but who was I? ... a naive Jewish girl — a red-diaper baby — full of lofty ideas about how the world should be, but not really equipped to deal with all of the complex political issues and personalities and agendas I encountered. When asked what we accomplished, I have said "we tried to bring the South up to the same low level as the rest of the country."
I'm writing this in August of 2020, after many years of inability to talk about my experience, in the midst of a terrifying white backlash and ... oh, yes, a pandemic. As I understand now, every advancement of Black people has been met with a backlash. It s only now, at age 77, that I think I understand what my time in Mississippi meant. Born in late 1942, I was in raised a white, Jewish leftist family in the forties, fifties, and early 60s. I was well programmed to understand the labor union struggles and something of the issues of class struggle, though I was certainly not a deep intellectual. But, honestly, my understanding of the issue of race, despite years of activism, has come late to me.
Though I have taken breaks from activism during my life, including studying geology and learning to play old-time music on the fiddle, I have always come back. I protested the Bush wars in the Middle East. I volunteered with an advocacy group to support passage of the Affordable Care Act, and then I helped people get insurance under the ACA. I've always or mostly, anyway been involved in causes that bring people together.
In the past few years, I ve attended a number of undoing racism workshops. Last year, I read two novels by the Indian authors Rohinton Mistry and Neel Mukherjee. They were deeply disturbing portraits of a society, a family, and individuals permeated and deformed by caste relationships. I came to understand we live in a caste-based society, not as complicated as India's, but nevertheless a caste system. I m looking forward to reading Isabel Wilkerson s new book to help me develop my ideas about this.
Funny how things turn up later in life and in different contexts. Through my interest in old-time music, I learned that the banjo is derived from African gourd-based instruments. I learned about the African -American source of the earliest form of folk music of our country, culturally appropriated and erased by the commercial recording companies of the early 20th century. One of the strains of 19th and early 20th century southern music was fife-and-drum music made by the freed slaves, with instruments that the Confederates (and maybe Union soldiers, too) seem to have dropped on the ground and walked away from when the Civil War ended. Rust College was a repository of some of those instruments and recordings of the fife-and-drum bands that came into being in the south after the war, but are now just about extinct. Someone found those recordings within the last 10 or 15 years, and put them out commercially, and now there is a small revival of fife and drum music. If I had learned about that in 1964, or heard Black fiddlers and banjo players then in Marshall County (oh, how I wish I had), what would I have made of it?