There were two major pivotal events in my life almost 58 years ago in the summer of 1965. First, I graduated from college with a BA in Sociology, and second, I participated in the 10 week SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Political Education) Project of SCLC in Alabama.
During my senior year at Hartwick College Dr. Herman S. Keiter, head of the Religion and Philosophy Department, gave me a copy of a letter (dated January 27, 1965) from Hosea Williams which outlined Dr. King s invitation to college students to participate in this summer project. Dr. Keiter knew that I would be interested as I had participated in volunteer work camps before and during college and had a strong social conscience. This was the first time the SCLC would be using white students as volunteers in the deep Black Belt of the South which held elements of possibility and danger for me. Although several fellow students were interested in participating in this project I was the only one who followed through from the 2 colleges in Oneonta, New York.
Leaving home from Long Island, New York, on June 12th I drove to Atlanta Georgia for the orientation which took place during the week of June 14 through mid June 19th. Since I arrived early on the 13th I was put to work sorting applications. And on the 19th, before our caravan of 12 cars headed for our respective counties I drove one of the disappointed applicants to the airport since she was considered not suitable to participate.
The orientation provided much valuable information on different aspects of the black experience in the South with many good presenters like Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and other well known and not so well known civil rights leaders as well as professors and labor leaders. We received practical non-violence focused pointers, information on economic opportunity, poverty issues, community organizing, fair employment, legal and historical issues. It was a lot of material to absorb in such a short time.
Since I was not in a group before coming to orientation I ended up with 3 others that also were on their own: Dottie McMahon from Yale, Lynn Adler from Berkeley, and Tim Mullins from Marquette. We ended up as a group working in Hale County Alabama under the leadership of Rev. A.T.Days and the Hale County Improvement Association.
Since Hale County was already well organized we didn't have to do all the organizing work many other groups had to do. Greensboro, where Rev. Days had his church and parsonage was the center for our activities. Our main focus was to canvass and talk to local people about the value of their vote and get them to register to vote. We were there to serve the interests of the local community that had invited us, not to direct the actions. We spent about 1.5 days canvassing the urban area and the remainder of our canvass time was in the rural areas. We were instructed to be back at home base by 4PM, but in no case were we to be out in the field after dark. As one of the white workers I had to have someone always with me as a witness and protector in case of trouble.
The registrar's office only opened for short periods during 2 days a month and few if any black citizens were allowed to pass the changing rules for registering. Less then 300 (236 to be exact) black voters were registered when we arrived, but over 4500 were on the books when we left. And more than 400 whites were registered to vote beyond the number who were eligible to vote.
But in between those 2 numbers of registered black voters above were countless hours of canvassing, 2 or 3 mass meetings weekly, protest marches, picketing, people sent to the hospital, 500 or 600 of us jailed for several days, lots of freedom songs, Northern ministers at the request of local leaders coming in for a week to aid in the process of improving communications between the black and white leaders, physically being assaulted, and having the the help of Federal Registrars. Hale County was one of the first 5 counties to receive Federal Registrars because of the large discrepancies in the number of registered voters in early August after the Voting Rights Bill was passed. Attending Jonathan Daniels memorial service in Selma, an attempt to integrate a local church, the many threats and threatening situations, 3 burned churches and a lot of good conversations. It was a very active and challenging summer.
Looking back on this time I know that I certainly was naive and had insufficient life experience to fully be present to meet the trauma, drama, and changes required by these experiences, but am very grateful for the privilege to have been a part of this ongoing process of bringing greater equality to our nation s peoples.
The time spent with people struggling for their rights enhanced my appreciation for my rights and helped form bonds with local people that are still internally intact although most of the local leaders have now passed on. My mutual bond with Rev. Days who I last saw in 2012 in Mobile (Rev. Days was moved out of Greensboro shortly after that summer for his safety and his health) will always be a precious part of my life. We learned the importance of mutual acceptance and gained an understanding of our basic unity from and with each other. A sign he gave me reads "A Day Hemmed in Prayer Never Unravels" and hangs proudly by my front door.
Arrangements were made to bring Rev. Days up North to speak at both Yale University and Hartwick College in September of '65. Also that month I had to report to my Draft Board since I no longer had a college deferment. One of the perks of being jailed was that my Draft Board was not interested in a troublemaker like me so they deferred me with a 1Y classification (physical or mental defect) which suited me just fine as I was on record as a Conscientious Objector.
In early October I returned to Greensboro on my own and set up a small library in the parsonage, typed up the voter information of registered voters on 3x5 cards, worked briefly in neighboring Greene County and than returned to my home in New York in mid November. I left with feelings of incompleteness and confusion about the effectiveness of the current tactics. I felt burned out and needed time to heal and sort out my issues.
In the ensuing years I have been active with volunteering in different political campaigns such as George McGovern's presidential run where I worked in 4 states over a 6 month period. And most recently I gathered signatures for a gun-safety initiative petition which was passed at our last election here in Oregon. So as I turn 80 this year (2023) I plan to continue to be active as long as possible in helping to move our country forward to more fully embrace its ideals.
I end with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King: "There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."