I will keep this short. I am white and came from Seattle. I wanted to come in 1965 but my parents thought I was too young so I was able to volunteer in the summer of 1966 when I was 19. I volunteered with SCLC/Scope voter registration.
We participated in the latter half of the Meredith March from roughly Greenwood to Jackson, did voter registration work in Georgia, and then Grenada, Mississippi.
This was the most important experience of my life. Confronting my own racism, seeing poverty firsthand, getting some sense of what it meant to be Black in the south in 1966, and understanding what the struggle meant, the list could go on.
I have drawn on this experience my whole life to try to participate in meaningful ways in the fight for racial justice. I teach at a university and still rely on this experience to inspire my work and keep myself focused on what is important.
And I realize today more than ever the importance of having a Movement ....
I went to the south in the summer of 1966. I had wanted to go in 1965 but my parents said "No" but that I could go the next year. I was 19 when I took the Trailways bus from Seattle to Atlanta. I joined other volunteers for an orientation and then some of us were sent to the Meredith March. We arrived at the march either in Greenwood or the evening after, and of course, Greenwood was where Stokely Carmichael introduced the call for "Black Power." I believe that is the beginning of the turn to the progressive politics of today but this is for my classes in sociology.
The Meredith March remains one of, for me, critical experiences. The impact of the call for "Black Power" was electric. It electrified the crowds and made a deep impression on me. (I never saw anything like it again until the Trump rallies and I realize this is a troublesome comparison.) Participating in the march deepened my commitment to the Movement, also to non-violence, and an appreciation for internal politics.
After the march, it was back to Atlanta and then down to the vicinity of Waycross Georgia. (I apologize, my memory is not the best.) We stayed in a small town and I lived with a family there. Our job, I was paired with an SCLC staffer who had relatively recently joined SCLC. Our job was to go out into the countryside and convince people to come with us to the courthouse to register to vote. We were only semi-successful, and I imagine my experiences matched many others.
I wished I had been a bit more mature and had had more experience. It was another important experience living with the family. I was continually battling my own naivete.
This family was relatively well off. The families we stayed with during the march were often times very poor. Southern rural poverty was new to me. I had read about but had never experienced it. Those memories remain vivid.
The other memory I have, and this was from the March, was being with a father who took us in ... this was probably just a day before Jackson ... or so. He was so generous, and he had so little. The lesson for me, which has stayed with me to this day is that morality and decency are not to be confused with education and intelligence. As an educator, I am humbled by those who are truly decent and caring.
Then back to Atlanta and then almost immediately to Grenada Mississippi. Now I was with a whole group of people. This was really a focused project. Hosea Williams was there. I did a variety of tasks, a little mimeographing, voter registration but the main tasks were demonstrating at the city square in the early evening.
Being there for some time meant getting to know people. It was obvious that one of the issues (speaking broadly) was what was to be done. The issue was poverty and one answer seemed to be forming cooperatives.
I had to deal with realizing my own racism as I misunderstood some of the dangers faced by Black and white workers, not always being the most disciplined in demonstrations when I needed to be. I had to leave before more significant violence broke out. Being tear gassed again (the Meredith March was the first time) became more of a usual occurrence.
It is really difficult for me to put into words what these experiences meant and mean to me. I generally do not discuss them and although I teach sociology and do occasionally show the clip of the Meredith March (SNCC, March Against Fear), I usually do not mention that I was there. I know that these experiences shaped my orientation to issues of racial justice over my lifetime. I know that my efforts to teach about racism, oppression, white supremacy, etc., have been driven by these experiences.
To be at least temporarily on the other side of the color line, to experience just a little bit of what it meant to live in a racist society from the perspective of Black Americans to experience, if only briefly, the poverty of rural Mississippi and Georgia has informed what I try to do in the classroom. I am taking no credit here but one of my undergraduate students, Robin DiAngelo, is the author of White Fragility.
I remember on the March, I think around Belzoni, and saw a young fellow in the crowd who looked exactly like my younger brother. This is another one of those experiences that have stayed with me.
Another part of this experience was gaining an understanding of nonviolence which fed into my becoming a conscientious objector ... and as alternative service and working in the poor neighborhoods of Harlem and witnessing urban poverty.
The lessons I learned during that summer, the solidarity I experienced, the joining together with people from all sorts of life situations, understanding that the virtues that count are not those that are found in a college seminar, that justice and the battle for racial justice is a never ending struggle ... these are some of the things that I have learned and am still working on in my teaching life and my personal life. Understanding my own racism and trying at the same time to teach both about these times and our own, these are the challenges that have their roots in that summer in 1966. I apologize for the inartful narrative here. How does one communicate which in many ways is incommunicable. I owe so many people from that summer so much.