I cannot tell my brief small story without offering a tribute to the real heroes of the freedom movement. For me, they were the local families who risked everything to give us a place to stay. The sharecroppers who had little enough to eat, but found a way to feed us fried chicken for breakfast. We knew that we could return to safety, but they would have to remain. From them, I learned much about strength, endurance, and resilience and true courage.
In 1964, Marcia Aronoff and Joe Gross invited me to join the executive board of the leadershipOberlin College NAACP, later the Oberlin Action for Civil Rights. Oberlin College had sent dozens of students south, especially to Mississippi, but I missed Freedom Summer. In October of 1964, I joined the flood of students who made the trip to the freedom election: I worked out of the Holly Springs office, where I helped with the sharecroppers election, and the MFDP election of Fannie Lou Hamer. While there, I got a ride with Stokely Charmichael in a VW over to Greenwood, I think, to hear Fannie Lou Hamer speak. She spoke, and then Stokely Charmichael spoke, and then the church sang freedom songs, and I was transformed. During the trip, Stokely made me duck down below the dashboard in certain areas where he felt that it wouldn't be wise for a black and white man to be seen driving together.
Shortly after we left that October, several churches, including a rural church in Ripley were burned to the ground. I felt, I think we all felt somehow responsible for that, because the good people of Ripley had provided us with hospitality. It was just beginning to dawn on me that our country actually tolerated the use of terror against its citizens: a church could be burned with total impunity. At Oberlin, we decided that we could not allow that travesty to stand, and so with the blessing of COFO, we organized Carpenters for Christmas, a drive to rebuild the Ripley Church. We organized a national fund raising drive. That Christmas we celebrated christmas in a church built with volunteer labor.
The following summer, Stan Gunterman and I returned to Ripley to work with the young people we met there, Wilbur Colom (now a prominent Alabama lawyer), Charlene Hill and others. The local people decided that their primary goal was school integration, and so we helped them organize a successful school boycott which led to one of the earliest successful school desegregation efforts in rural Missisippi, if not the south. And to those sharecroppers, who saw their children's education as worth tremendous sacrifice goes the credit. I especially remember the day a group of bold black high school students convinced us to integrate the Ripley swimming pool.
When we returned after that summer, we began to think about our responsibility for racism in the North. We joined the NAACP in blocking the construction of the federal building in Cleveland until its workforce was integrated. After Selma, with CT Vivian, we blocked the Hammermill Paper Company's main plant in Erie PA., until it agreed to change its hiring and pay practices in Selma Ala.
Yours in freedom,
Jerry Von Korff