Ruth Koenig

SNCC, COFO, Mississippi, 1964-66
Current Residence: Eugene, OR

Who knows where individual passion about injustice comes from? For me it probably rose from my immigrant parents' horror and near-starvation experiences of World War I in Europe; and from the bullying experienced by my brother, in which I tried to intervene on one traumatic occasion when I was a little girl.

The defining moment of the "Civil Rights Movement" for me, was the Birmingham Bombing, Sept. 15, 1963, which took the precious lives of children, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carol Robertson. They were the exact age of kids I was teaching at that beginning year of my career.

When I received a brochure describing the Mississippi Summer Project there was no question that I would participate. This was the only way I knew to try to understand the situation in the South, and if I could contribute anything toward ending the injustice, so much the better.

My time was spent mostly in Holly Springs, with some work at the Freedom School in Benton County, and during the month of July, through the first days of August. I did make a return visit to Holly Springs in '66, and participated in a boycott of local stores demanding equality in employment.

Main activities during Freedom Summer were teaching anatomy and recreational games for kids in the Freedom School, working with Kathy Dahl on a community health survey, canvassing for voting within Holly Springs, and writing a series of articles published in the Schenectady, NY newspaper. Other tasks were clerical activities: typing file cards, mimeographing the student newsletter. Some days we just needed to talk informally with folks about the registration process, or attend a "mass" meeting or a church service to sign up folks for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

But probably the most important part of Freedom Summer for me was the relationships that developed across racial, ethnic, gender lines; the meaningful conversations deep into the night, singing freedom songs and folk songs, several written by volunteer Gene Hunn, who left Mississippi to join the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, I believe. One, the Ballad of Herbert Lee, is part of the archives of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The kindness of local folk, who risked everything to bring us civil rights workers into their homes for meals, was a profound experience; among the greatest gifts of my life. My diary recounted each vegetable, meat dish, dessert served at those meals, so amazingly generous.

There is so much that could be said about Freedom Summer. Somehow, although we lived with the awareness of the potential deadly consequences, our intent and actions transcended fear,perhaps because of the righteousness of the struggle.


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