John Suter

COFO, 1964-65, Mississippi
21 Brooktondale Rd
Ithaca, NY 14850
Phone: 607.272.0576, Cell & Text: 607-275-6256

Short Piece on Freedom Songs

This will be a brief initial posting — I'll flesh it out later.

I served in Clarksdale, Mississippi during Freedom Summer. It was the end of my freshman year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Our bus from the training at Oxford, OH, arrived in Clarksdale on the morning of June 21. James Chaney, Micky Schwerner, and Andy Goodman were reported missing that night. The next morning, Lew Sitzer and I began canvassing to encourage black citizens to register to vote. We were arrested by police chief Ben Collins as we came out of someone's house, held for six hours, threatened and interrogated but not beaten, to our surprise, first in the city jail, then in the county one, and released, uncharged, late that afternoon. (more on Freedom Summer later)

Coming from a largely white, upper-middle-class community, my first serious encounter with racism and poverty had been during a six-week American Friends Service Committee work camp in a black inner-city neighborhood in Philadelphia, PA, in 1962. That lit the fire that sent me to the March on Washington in '63 and a year later to Mississippi.

Back at Wesleyan in 1965 I chaired the Wesleyan Committee on Civil Rights, coordinated from campus Wesleyan's participation in the Montgomery and Selma demonstrations and march, and later, with another student and a Mississippi-based black civil rights worker, drove a trailer-load of clothing and other relief supplies to a community center in Belzoni, MS.

In early 1966 I dropped out of college and served two years in the Peace Corps in Somalia, returning to the US on the night of August 28, 1968; I turned on the TV in my tiny hotel room in DC, and there was the police riot unfolding at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. It was devastating to see.

My commitment to and enthusiasm for civil rights had been expanded in some ways and diluted in others by the broader world consciousness and radical politics I had acquired in Somalia and by the threat of the draft. With Black Power ascendant, which I supported, there seemed to be no place for me in that struggle. I was at a loss.

In my last two years at Wesleyan I discovered the extraordinary World Music Program, which led eventually to a career leading or helping to lead small arts and cultural organizations that worked to celebrate traditional cultural expressions of immigrant or marginalized communities and bridge cultural divides. Some of the work was overtly political, much of it was not, but my purpose always included a dimension of liberation, justice, and bridge- building. Now retired, I am board president of the Center for Transformative Action, an independent nonprofit based at Cornell University in Ithaca and am active in anti-racism work through Talking Circles on Race and Racism and other community activities.

I have just returned from the Freedom Summer 50th in Jackson. It was a powerful, moving experience in many ways. The most personal and surprising was a story-sharing circle of about 20 Freedom Summer participants. It was the first time in 50 years that I had shared what that summer was really like, what it had felt like and the emotional impact it had had on my life, with others who had been there. The resonance among us, the common experiences during and since 1964, were moving and, for me, cathartic and validating.


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