How ‘Freedom Summer’ Changed Mississippi And America

This article is more than 9 years old.

In the summer of 1964, some 700 students went to Mississippi to work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters and set up Freedom Schools for black children whose education suffered in segregated Mississippi.

The volunteers were faced with the constant threat of violence.  Author Bruce Watson writes about that time in the new book, "Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy."

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Book Excerpt: Freedom Summer

By Bruce Watson


Chapter One
“There Is a Moral Wave Building”

Freedom Summer by Bruce WatsonSchool was out and summer was making promises across America when three hundred people descended on a leafy campus in Oxford, Ohio, not far from the Indiana border. All were Americans, most were under twenty-five, and all felt their country changing in ways they could not ignore. Beyond these traits, they had little in common.

They came in two distinct groups. The first – mostly white – had just finished another year at Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, Berkeley…Guitars slung over shoulders, idealism lifting their strides, they piled out of cars sporting a Rand McNally of license plates. California. Massachusetts. “Land of Lincoln.” They wore the American Bandstand fashions of 1964 – polo shirts and slacks for men, capris and sleeveless blouses for women. Talking of LBJ, Bob Dylan, the civil rights bill struggling in the Senate, they found their way to dorms, met roommates, and settled in to learn about the daring summer they had chosen.

The second group – mostly black – brought no guitars and had little idealism left to pack. They did not wear slacks and polo shirts but denim overalls and white T-shirts. Many sported buttons depicting hands, black and white, clasped above the letters SNCC. And although most were the same age as the students, instead of sharing college stories, they arrived with stories of being beaten, targeted, tortured. Like the students, they sometimes spoke of recent reading – of Kant and Camus, James Baldwin and The Wretched of the Earth. But they did not read for grades; they read to arm themselves against the world. And their world was not sunny California, quaint Massachusetts, or the Land of Lincoln. This second group had come less from a state than from a state of war. They had come from Mississippi.

On Sunday afternoon, June 14, when the two groups met on the campus of the Western College for Women, the Mississippi Summer Project began. But the scene suggested the end of the summer rather than the beginning. As if it were September, boxy Corvairs and humpbacked VWs braked in front of the Gothic, ivied dorms. From them stepped two, three, or four people, stretching legs and casting glances. Across courtyards strewn with students, an occasional transistor radio blared a hit – “My Guy” or “She Loves You” – yet many students, goateed men or women with long, ironed hair, sat beneath trees strumming guitars, making their own music. Within a few hours, they would learn stirring hymns of freedom, but most only knew one such song now, and now seemed too soon to boast of overcoming someday.

Over dinner in the dining hall, where the food was surprisingly good, students talked about their hopes for the summer. Few harbored even postcard images of the South. Most had been in grade school during the Montgomery bus boycott, slightly older when the federal troops desegregated Central High in Little Rock, in high school when spontaneous sit-ins desegregated lunch counters across the South and Freedom Rides made deadline violence. The previous year, they had seen the appalling images on TV – attack dogs and fire hoses tearing into blacks in Birmingham, dead children, their dark legs dangling, carried from the rubble of the First Baptist Church. And now they were headed to the South, the Deep South. Most could conjure up only fleeting imagery. “At Oxford, my mental picture of Mississippi contained nothing but an unending series of swamps, bayous, and dark, lonely roads,” one student later wrote. Some thought they knew the South. It was the fabled land of Faulkner’s doomed families, the bittersweet nostalgia of Gone with the Wind, the hokum of TV’s top show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Few had ever seen a spreading live oak dripping in Spanish moss or sweated in the steam-bath of a Mississippi summer. Even fewer had set foot in a sharecropper’s shack, seen a pickup with a gun rack, used an outhouse, been in jail, heard a shotgun blast echo and die in the darkness. They had six days to prepare.

To help them, the denim-clad group from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Oxford with a simple plan – tell the truth. The Mississippi Summer Project was a death-defying role of the dice. In a state where a sassy comment could get a Negro killed or a white battered, it was one thing to risk your own safety; it was another to ask hundred of strangers to risk theirs. And so, like sergeants in boot camp, SNCC trainers felt duty bound to turn innocent idealists into anxious, even terrified realists. But only after singing.

The Freedom Songs began after dinner. Standing in the cool twilight beside a circle of trees, volunteers were introduced to songs fired in the crucible of “the Movement.” On beyond “We Shall Overcome,” they learned “Wade in the Water,” “Oh Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Early that evening, a stocky black woman in a floral dress, her arms thick from a life in the cotton fields, limped to the stage, threw her head back, and belted out song after song, lifting the entire ensemble.

Ohh – ohhhhhhh
This little light of miii-iiine,
I’m gonna let it shiii-iiine

Soon volunteers and staff were holding hands. Arms crossed, they swayed to the harmonies of songs they would sing all summer without ever tiring of them. Some songs were as feathered as lullabies, others as strident as marches. SNCC veterans stood with eyes closed, heads rolled back, their suffering pouring through the timeless melodies. Volunteers struggled to keep up, fell a syllable behind, then joined in as if they had known the songs since childhood. As the sun set and stars glittered above, the singing continued. The songs made hair stand on end, made souls sink in sorrow and rise again in triumph.

In the coming days, the Mississippi veterans would do their best to scare some sense into the students.

Tuesday: “I may be killed and you may be killed.”

Thursday: “They – the white folk, the police, the county sheriff, the state police – they are all watching for you. They are looking for you. They are ready and they are armed.”

Friday: “They take you to jail, strip you, lay you on the floor and beat you until you’re almost dead.”

On Sunday evening, however, songs kept terror at bay.

Who’s that yonder dressed in red?
Let my people go
Must be the children that Moses led
Let my people go-oooo

As the week progressed, the truth about Mississippi would sober the volunteers, but it would not send more than a few home. Youthful idealism is more tensile than any truth. Just seven months had passed since John Kennedy had been cut down in Dallas, and his spirit – “Ask not…” – suffused the Ohio campus. The summer project reminded many of Kennedy’s Peace Corps and had begun with the same call to commitment. “A great change is at hand,” Kennedy had told the nation in announcing his civil rights bill the previous June. “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing rights as well as reality.” Throughout the spring of 1964, SNCC speakers touring colleges across the country had recruited the bold. Their horror stories from Mississippi captivated entire auditoriums. Was this America?

By late May, more than seven hundred students had chosen to forgo internships, opt out of summer jobs, let Europe’s cathedrals wait, and instead spend a summer in Mississippi. Cynical friends told them they would be “cannon fodder for the Movement,” yet they saw a higher purpose. Filling out applications, some had quoted the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Jesus. But many had cited Kennedy, the need to “honor the memory” and “carry out the legacy.” Sarcasm, burnout, the intense self-consciousness of an entire generation – these would come later in the 1960s. In this crystalline moment on a campus in Ohio, while hundred of young voices sang of freedom, there seemed nothing trite in SNCC’s founding statement: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice, hope ends despair. Peace dominates war, faith reconciles doubt.”

For all their sincerity, dozens failed their interviews. Guidelines for interviewers were explicit. Each volunteer was asked whether working under black leadership would be difficult. Each had to “possess a learning attitude toward work in Mississippi” and recognize “that his role will to be work with local leadership, not to overwhelm it.” Those displaying a “John Brown complex” were not welcome. “A student who seems determined to carve his own niche, win publicity and glory when he returns home can only have harmful effects on the Mississippi program.” Anyone expressing the slightest interest in interracial sex was rejected. Once accepted, volunteers were divided into groups: Freedom School teachers, who would show up for training the following week, and these first arrivals, whose summer would take them from shack to shack registering voters. But although their jobs would be distinct, Freedom Summer volunteers who made the cut and made it to Ohio presented a group portrait of American idealism.

As volunteers took over the campus, the New York Times saw in their faces “an unmistakable middle-class stamp.” Yet their average family income was 50 percent above the national norm. Just two-fifths were female. As with the whole of America in 1964, 90 percent were white. All but a few were in college, almost half from Ivy League or other top schools. Many were the sons and daughters of success, the children of lawyers, doctors, CEOs, even a congressman, but just as many were the children of teachers, social workers, union organizers, and ministers. Taken together, they were the offspring of the entire nation. While four dozen came from metropolitan New York, three dozen from the San Francisco Bay Area, and two dozen from Southern California, the rest came from every corner of the country. From Flint, Michigan, and What Cheer, Iowa. From Tenafly, New Jersey, and Prairie City, Oregon. From Americus, Georgia, and Peoria, Illinois. From Del Rio, Texas, and Vienna, West Virginia. Raised amid Cold War consensus, the vast majority were true believers in America. Some had been jaded by the Bay of Pigs or darkening reports from Vietnam, yet all clung to the hope that whenever America fell short of its ideals, young Americans could restore them.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "Freedom Summer" by Bruce Watson. Copyright © 2010 by Bruce Watson

This program aired on September 9, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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