In 1964, when I was a graduate student in Engineering at Cornell University, a group of student activists were invited to develop a summer project to support the struggle for voting rights in Fayette County Tennessee. African Americans were in the majority in the county — but for a century, they had been systematically denied the right to register and to vote. When local leaders organized a campaign for voting rights, those who registered were evicted and blacklisted.
The Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, led by John and Viola McFerren, Harpman and Minnie Jameson, Square Mormon, and others, were convinced that with the support (and publicity) from a dozen or so northern civil rights workers, they could register enough voters, and turn out enough voters on election day, to actually elect a sympathetic white farmer as sheriff and an African American minister as Country Tax Assessor.
It was the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, in which hundreds of students went to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Movement. After a year of planning, nonviolence training and fundraising, forty of us, mostly graduate and undergraduate students at Cornell, spent the summer in Fayette County. We helped register hundreds more voters that summer, and despite a large turnout on election day, the incumbent candidates were declared the winners. We documented dozens of irregularities and illegalities but the federal government declined to intervene.
We left Fayette County discouraged. Yet on a 2007 visit to the county I learned that in 1966, two years after our project, two African Americans were elected to the county board of supervisors, and African Americans have served in county offices (including sheriff) ever since.
I have written extensively about my experiences in Fayette County, in my 2017 book, History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family. The book is available in Paperback and for Kindle, at Amazon and other online retailers.
In 2013, my wife, Molly Lynn Watt, and I were interviewed by the American Repertory Theater about our experiences as civil rights workers during 1963 and 1964. This was part of the A.R.T.'s community outreach for the play, "All The Way," about Lyndon Johnson's first year as president, and the political struggle leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Molly's experiences in the movement — years before she and I met — are also described on another page of this web site.
These short interviews are now posted on YouTube as:
"My Story - Dan Lynn Watt" about my experiences in Fayette County Tennessee in 1964.
"My Story - Molly Lynn Watt" about Molly's experiences while working For Highlander in 1963.