Mitchell Zimmerman

SNCC 1965-66, Arkansas
Current Residence: Palo Alto, CA

In the spring of 1964, I was a graduate student in Political Science at Princeton, and heard about SNCC and the Mississippi Summer Project from an itinerant recruiter for SNCC.

I had been inspired by what I had learned of the growing freedom struggle of African American people that had exploded with the 1960 sit- in movement and the freedom rides. Though the evils of racism were in a way abstract to me in 1964, I wanted to join that struggle.

I believed that masses of people, ordinary people, could cause our society to change. And I was young and eager for adventure. So I went south.

I wound up working mostly in Atlanta in the summer of 1964, in SNCC's national office. But I spent about two weeks traveling through Mississippi, meeting volunteers, doing freedom registration, talking to people and writing articles for volunteers' home town newspapers about the freedom struggle in Mississippi. I went to mass meetings, and small meetings — some of the mass meetings were small meetings. I spoke to local people who were leaders and local people who were just starting to get involved in the movement.

I was often frightened, and I was shocked at seeing the reality of a police state in America. I had read about the things that happened in the deep South. But experiencing it myself was a epiphany.

In 1965-66, I went to Arkansas, where I was a SNCC field secretary for a year. For most of that time, I was based in Little Rock, and what I did was basically support work and political outreach.

One project was typical of the kind of thing I did. In the fall of 1965, SNCC had encouraged and supported a widespread movement to run black candidates for school board in numerous districts across eastern Arkansas. As the elections approached, we needed information on how polling places were supposed to operate, what a candidate's rights were concerning poll watchers, watching the vote count, and so on. I found the answers, and turned what I had learned into a readable manual that people could use.

I wanted to observe one of the elections myself, so I drove down to the small town of Gould. But I was promptly arrested and spent the night in the Gould city jail instead of observing the voting.

Every black candidate in the school board elections had lost, even in Gould where blacks were the overwhelming majority. The elections were characterized by widespread fraud.

I conducted an investigation to document the fraud and wrote a report on school board election fraud that we sent to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, as well as to news media and sympathetic people in Congress.

In 1965, SNCC became a open opponent of the escalating Vietnam War, and I embraced that as part of SNCC's activities. As co-chair of Arkansans for Peace, I became one of the leaders of the state's emerging anti-war movement.

In September 1966, I left Arkansas and returned north. I became more deeply active in the anti-Vietnam war struggle. I spoke at teach-ins, was arrested at protest demonstrations, studied our country's involvement in southeast Asia, and co-authored a book against the war with the famous baby doctor, Benjamin Spock.

Eventually, after a few other turns, I went to law school and became a high technology, intellectual property lawyer in Silicon Valley. Alongside that, I engaged in a range of pro bono legal projects. The largest was a death penalty appeal in which I represented a black man convicted and sentenced to death who, I became convinced, was not the actual killer. After a 22-year legal struggle, we succeeded in overturning his death penalty.

I retired at the beginning of 2019.

My latest "project" is a novel, Mississippi Reckoning. The book is a thriller/historical novel about racism, the movement and the death penalty which Diane Nash calls "Gripping, wonderful story- telling ... an historical novel that depicts the impact of white supremacy on four generations of an African American family." See for more information.

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