In the summer of 1964, after nearly a decade of civil rights demonstrations, more than a thousand people, most of them white northern college students, volunteered to go to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote, and to conduct"freedom schools." The Mississippi Summer Freedom Project was a high point and nearly the end of the integrated, nonvio1ent civil rights movement of the1950s and 1960s. The letters below, from participants in the project testify to the intensity of the volunteers' experiences that summer.
Mileston, August 18
One can't move onto a plantation cold; or canvas a plantation in the same manner as the Negro ghetto in town. It's far too dangerous. Many plantations homes included are posted, meaning that no trespassing is permitted, and the owner feels that he has the prerogative to shoot us on sight when we are in the house of one of his Negroes.
Before we canvas a plantation, our preparation includes finding out whether the houses are posted, driving through or around the plantation without stopping, meanwhile making a detailed map of the plantation.
We're especially concerned with the number of roads in and out of the plantation. For instance, some houses could be too dangerous to canvas because of their location near the boss man's house and on a dead end road.
In addition to mapping, we attempt to talk to some of the tenants when they are off the plantation, and ask them about conditions. The kids often have contacts, and can get on the plantation unnoticed by the boss man, with the pretense of just visiting friends.
Our canvassing includes not only voter registration, but also extensive reports on conditions, wages, treatment by the boss man, condition of the houses, number of acres of cotton, etc. Much more such work needs to be done. The plantation system is crucial in Delta politics and economics, and the plantation system must be brought to an end if democracy is to be brought to the Delta....
. . . Four of us went to distribute flyers announcing the meeting. I
talked to a woman who had been down to register a week before. She was
afraid. Her husband had lost his job. Even before we got there a couple
of her sons had been man-handled by the police. She was now full of wild
rumors about shootings and beatings, etc. I checked out two of them later.
They were groundless. This sort of rumor spreading is quite prevalent when
people get really scared....
At 6 P.M. we returned to Drew for the meeting, to be held in front of a church (they wouldn't let us meet inside, but hadn't told us not to meet outside). A number of kids collected and stood around in a circle with about 15 of us to sing freedom songs. Across the street perhaps100 adults stood watching. Since this was the first meeting in town, we passed out mimeoed song sheets. Fred Miller, Negro from Mobile, stepped out to the edge of the street to give somebody a sheet. The cops nabbed him. I was about to follow suit so he wouldn't be alone, but Mac's policy [Charles McLaurin, SNCC a civil rights group project director] was to ignore the arrest. We sang on mightily "Ain't going to let no jailing turn me around." A group of girls was sort of leaning against the cars on the periphery of the meeting. Mac went over to encourage them to join us. I gave a couple of song sheets to the girls. A cop rushed across the street and told me to come along. I guess I was sort of aware that my actions would get me arrested, but felt that we had to show these girls that we were not afraid. I was also concerned with what might happen to Fred if he was the only one.
The cop at the station was quite scrupulous about letting me make a phone call. I was then driven to a little concrete structure which looked like a power house. I could hear Fred's courageous, off-key rendition of a freedom song from inside and joined him as we approached.
Indianola, August 17
I can see the change. The 16-year-old's discovery of poetry, of Whitman and Cummings and above all, the struggle to express thoughts in words, to translate ideas into concrete written words. After two weeks a child finally looks me in the eye, unafraid, acknowledging a bond of trust which 300 years of Mississippians said should never, could never exist. I can feel the growth of self-confidence. . .
Biloxi, Aug. 16
In the Freedom School one day during poetry writing, a 12-year-old girl handed in this poem to her teacher:
What Is Wrong?
What is wrong with me everywhere I go
No one seems to look at me. Sometimes I cry.
I walk through woods and sit on a stone.
I look at the stars and I sometimes wish.
Probably if my wish ever comes true,
Everyone will look at me.
Then she broke down crying in her sister's arms. The Freedom School
here had given this girl the opportunity of meeting someone she felt she
could express her problems to. . .
To my brother,
Last night, I was a long time before sleeping, although I was extremely tired. Every shadow, every noise, the bark of a dog, the sound of a car, in my fear and exhaustion was turned into a terrorist's approach. And I believed that I heard the back door open and a Klansman walk in, until he was close by the bed. Almost paralyzed by the fear, silent, I finally shone my flashlight on the spot where I thought he was standing. I tried consciously to overcome this fear. To relax, I began to breathe deep, think the words of a song, pull the sheet up close to my neck. . . still the tension. Then I rethought why I was here. All this was in rather personal terms, and then in larger scope of the whole Project. I remembered Bob Moses saying he had felt justified in asking
hundreds of students to go to Mississippi because he was not asking anyone to do something that he would not do. . . I became aware of the uselessness of fear that immobilizes an individual. Then I began to relax.
"We are not afraid. Oh Lord, deep in my heart, I do believe. We Shall Overcome Someday" and then I think I began to truly understand what the words meant. Anyone who comes down here and is not afraid I think must be crazy as well as dangerous to this project where security is quite important. But the type of fear that they mean when they, when we, sing "we are not afraid" is the type that immobilizes.... The songs help to dissipate the fear. Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous, but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm . . . There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing "God is on our side." I know I am on that god's side. And I do hope he is on ours.
Jon, please be considerate to Mom and Dad. The fear I just expressed, I am sure they feel much more intensely without the relief of being here to know exactly how things are. Please don't go defending me or attacking them if they are critical of the Project....
They said over the phone "Did you know how much it takes to make a child?" and I thought of how much it took to make a Herbert Lee (or many others whose names I do not know) . . . I thought of how much it took to be a Negro in Mississippi twelve months a year for a lifetime. How can such a thing as a life be weighed?. . .
With constant love, Heather
Greenwood, June 29
We have heard rumors twice to the effect that the three men were found weighted down in that river. Both stories, though the same, were later completely dropped in an hour or so. How do you like that guy Gov. Johnson saying that they might be hiding in the North or maybe in Cuba for all he knew. . .
Tchula, July 16
Yesterday while the Mississippi River was being dragged looking for the three missing civil rights workers, two bodies of Negroes were found - one cut in half and one without a head. Mississippi is the only state where you can drag a river any time and find bodies you were not expecting. Things are really much better for rabbits - there's a closed season on rabbits.
Como, August 3
About three weeks ago there was a flying rumor that they had been found in a rural jail. Tonight it was said that three graves had been found near Philadelphia. How the ghosts of those three shadow all our work! "Did you know them?" I am constantly asked. Did I need to?
Meridian, August 4
Last night Pete Seeger was giving a concert in Meridian. We sang alot
of freedom songs, and every time a verse like 'No more lynchings' was sung,
or 'before I'd be a slave I'd be buried in my grave,' I had the flash
of understanding that sometimes comes when you suddenly think about the
meaning of a familiar song. . . I wanted to stand up and shout to them,
"Think about what you are singing people really have died to keep us all
from being slaves." Most of the people there still did not know that the
bodies had been found. Finally just before the singing of "We Shall Overcome,"
Pete Seeger made the announcement. "We must sing 'We Shall Overcome' now,"
said Seeger. "The three boys would not have wanted us to weep now, but
to sing and understand this song." That seems to me the best way to explain
the greatness of this project - that death can have this meaning. Dying
is not an ever present possibility in Meridian, the way some reports may
suggest. Nor do any of us want to die. Yet in a moment like last night,
we can feel that anyone who did die for the Project would wish to be remembered
not by tributes or grief but by understanding and continuation of what
he was doing. . .
As we left the church, we heard on the radio the end of President Johnson's speech announcing the air attacks on Vietnam. . . I could only think "This must not be the beginning of a war. There is still a freedom fight, and we are winning. We must have time to live and help Mississippi to be alive." Half an hour before, I had
understood death in a new way. Now I realized that Mississippi, in spite of itself, has given real meaning to life. In Mississippi you never ask, "What is the meaning of life?" or "Is there any point to it all?" but only that we may have enough life to do all that there is to be done....
Meridian, August 5
At the Freedom school and at the community center, many of the kids
had known Mickey and almost all knew Jimmy Chaney. That day we asked the
kids to describe Mickey and Jimmy because we had never known them.
"Mickey was a big guy. He wore blue jeans all the time" . . . I asked the kids, "What did his eyes look like?" and they told me they were "friendly eyes" "nice eyes" ("nice" is a lovely word in a Mississippi accent). "Mickey was a man who was at home everywhere and with anybody," said the 17-year-old girl I stay with. The littlest kids, the 6,7, 8 years olds, tell about how he played "Frankenstein" with them or took them for drives or talked with them about Freedom. Many of the teen-age boys were delinquents until Mickey went down to the bars and jails and showed them that one person at least would respect them if they began to fight for something important. . . And the grownups too, trusted him. The lady I stay with tells with pride of how Mickey and Rita came to supper at their house, and police cars circled around the house all during the meal. But Mickey could make them feel glad to take the risk.
People talk less about James Chaney here, but feel more. The kids describe a boy who played with them, whom everyone respected but who never had to join in fights to maintain this respect, a quiet boy but very sharp and very understanding when he did speak. Mostly we know James through his sisters and especially his 12-year-old brother, Ben. Today Ben was in the Freedom School. At lunchtime the kids have a jazz band (piano, washtub bass, cardboard boxes and bongos as drums) and tiny Ben was there leading all even with his broken arm, with so much energy and rhythm that even Senator Eastland would have had to stop and listen if he'd been walking by....
Meridian, August 8
. . . The service was preceded by several silent marches beginning at churches throughout Meridian and converging on the First Union Baptist Church. I have been on a large number of walks, marches, vigils tickets, etc., in my life, but I can't remember anything which was quite like this one. In the first place, it was completely silent (at least, the march I was on), even though it lasted over 50 minutes, and even though there were a fair number of children involved....
Meridian, August 11
. . . In the line I was in, there were about 150 people - white and Negro
- walking solemnly, quietly, and without incident for about a mile and
half through white and Negro neighborhoods (segregation is like a checkerboard
here). The police held up traffic at the stoplights, and of all the white
people watching only one girl heckled. I dislike remembering the service
- the photographers with their television cameras were omnipresent,
it was really bad. And cameras when people are crying
. . . and bright lights. Someone said it was on television later. I suppose it was. Dave Dennis spoke - it was as if he was realizing his anger and feeling only as he spoke. As if the deepest emotion - the bitterness, then hatred - came as he expressed it, and could not have been planned or forethought. . .
Laurel, August 11
. . . The memorial service began around 7:30 with over 120 people filling
the small, wooden-pew lined church. David Dennis of CORE [a civil rights
group], the Assistant Director for the Mississippi Summer Project, spoke
for COFO [an amalgam of civil rights organizations]. He talked to the Negro
people of Meridian - it was a speech to move people, to end the lethargy,
to make people stand up. It went something like this:
"I am not here to memorialize James Chaney, I am not here to pay tribute. I am too sick and tired. Do YOU hear me, I am S-I-C-K and T-I-R-E-D. I have attended too many memorials, too many funerals.
This has got to stop. Mack Parker, Medgar Evers, Herbert Lee, Lewis Allen, Emmett Till, four little girls in Birmingham, a 13-year old boy in Birmingham, and the list goes on and on. I have attended these funerals and memorials and I am SICK and TIRED. But the trouble is that YOU are NOT sick and tired and for that reason YOU, yes YOU, are to blame. Everyone of your damn souls. And if you are going to let this continue now then you are to blame, yes YOU. Just as much as the monsters of hate who pulled the trigger or brought down the club; just as much to blame as the sheriff and the chief of police, as the governor in Jackson who said that he 'did not have time' for Mrs. Schwerner when she went to see him, and just as much to blame as the President and Attorney General in Washington who wouldn't provide protection for Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner when we told them that protection was necessary in Neshoba County. . . Yes, I am angry, l AM. And it's high time that you got angry too, angry enough to go up to the courthouse Monday and register - everyone of you. Angry enough to take five and then other people with you. Then and only then can these brutal killings be stopped. Remember it is your sons and your daughters who have been killed all these years and you have done nothing about it, and if you don't do nothing NOW baby, I say God Damn Your Souls....
Mileston, August 9
. . Dave finally broke down and couldn't finish and the Chaney family
was moaning and much of the audience and I were also crying.
It's such an impossible thing to describe but suddenly again, as I'd first realized when I heard the three men were missing when we were still training up at Oxford [Ohio], I felt the sacrifice the Negroes have been making for so long. How the Negro people are able to accept all the abuses of the whites - all the insults and injustices which make me ashamed to be white - and then turn around and say they want to love us, is beyond me. There are Negros who want to kill whites and many Negros have much bitterness but still the majority seem to have the quality of being able to look for a future in which whites will love the Negroes. Our kids talk very critically of all the whites around here and still they have a dream of freedom in which both races understand and accept each other. There is such an overpowering task ahead of these kids that sometimes I can't do anything but cry for them. I hope they are up to the task, I'm not sure I would be if I were a Mississippi Negro. As a white northerner I can get involved whenever I feel like it and run home whenever I get bored or frustrated or scared. I hate the attitude and position of the Northern whites and despise myself when I think that way. Lately I've been feeling homesick and longing for pleasant old Westport and sailing and swimming and my friends. I don't quite know what to do because I can't ignore my desire to go home and yet I feel I am a much weaker person shall I like to think I am because I do have these emotions. I've always tried to avoid situations which aren't so nice, like arguments and dirty houses and now maybe Mississippi. I asked my father if I could stay down here for a whole year and I was almost glad when he said "no" that we couldn't afford it because it would mean supporting me this year in addition to three more years of college. I have a desire to go home and to read a lot and go to Quaker meetings and be by myself so I can think about all this rather than being in the middle of it all the time. But I know if my emotions run like they have in the past, that I can only take that pacific sort of life for a little while and then I get the desire to be active again and get involved with knowing other people. I guess this all sounds crazy and I seem to always think out my problems as I write to you. I am angry because I have a choice as to whether or not to work in the Movement and I am playing upon that choice and leaving here. I wish I could talk with you 'cause I'd like to know if you ever felt this way about anything. I mean have you ever despised yourself for your weak conviction or something. And what is making it worse is that all those damn northerners are thinking of me as a brave hero....