In June 1964 I had just graduated from college and taken my first job as a reporter for a small-town New England newspaper. It was exciting to see my name in print every day for the first time but there were events unfolding out in the world that loomed larger. I remember arguing with my editor about whether a New York City policeman could have avoided shooting a 15-year-old boy, the incident that led to the Harlem riots that July.
As the loneliness of a small town set in, I began spending more and more time visiting friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One day I walked past a church and saw a sign, “Volunteers Still Needed for Voter Registration in Mississippi.” The orientation in Oxford, Ohio, the previous month had received a big write-up in Life magazine and I had recognized one of my classmates among the volunteers. Although I had never been terribly involved in Civil Rights, I suddenly asked myself, “Why not me?” It was one of those youthful moments that can change your life forever.
Soon I was in Washington for a two-day orientation. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had disappeared on June 21 and their bodies had still not been found. There was a palpable tension in the air. It felt like preparing for a war zone. Bob Moses, the heroic volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had pioneered voter registration in Mississippi in 1961, came up for the orientation and tried to rationalize our fears. “There are towns in the state where there’s very little violence,” he told us. “Then there are towns where the authorities seem to be able to turn the violence on and off. Finally there are towns where nobody seems to have control of the violence. McComb is the worst.” Moses had entered McComb all by himself three years before.
He then informed us there would be no interracial dating and no beards or long hair. Michael Schwerner had had a beard and the locals had referred to him contemptuously as “goatee” before he disappeared. We didn’t want to provoke. One Harvard graduate student, slight and balding, objected. He didn’t want to shave his beard. He launched into a long philosophical oration on how we shouldn’t be compromising ourselves and Moses–a Harvard graduate himself–answered in equally lofty terms. I remember feeling the calm of a college classroom settle over the discussion. It made it easier to face what was ahead.
Driving into Mississippi days later, we couldn’t help but notice the number of trucks driving around with no license plates and a shotgun hanging in the back window. The whole state had an air of lawlessness. Not wanting to cause my parents too much anxiety, I opted for Holly Springs, one of the less violent towns. A Freedom House had been set up in an abandoned house right across from Rust College, a prominent black institution. We were the clearinghouse for books donated from the north and much of the work involved driving carloads of books across the state to Freedom Schools (new illegal schools specially created to teach math and reading to black children).
Sir Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning portrays black Mississippians of that summer as a sullen, dispirited crowd sitting on porches warily eyeing strangers, more reminiscent of South Africa under Apartheid than what we encountered. The local youngsters we met were a spirited bunch, the boys voluble and ambitious, the girls verbal and sassy. As I sat in Freedom House the first night still feeling a little disoriented, one high school girl said to me, “I’m going to keep talking to you until I get a smile and a good conversation.” No college girlfriend of mine had ever been that forthright.
Our main task was beating the back roads and crossing wide cotton fields to find tenant shacks where families of as many as a dozen lived with well water and a dirt floor. Often a portrait of John F. Kennedy hung on the wall. We would try to persuade the man and woman of the house to come down to the courthouse to register to vote or, at least, to sign our petition for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which aimed to challenge the white segregationist Mississippi delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City in August. It wasn’t easy. People were frankly afraid. As they told us again and again, “You’re going to go back up north in September but we still have to live down here.” Tenant farmers risked being evicted. Medgar Evers had been shot on his doorstep only a year before and Herbert Lee, an early SNCC organizer, had been murdered in broad daylight by a member of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1961. No convictions ever followed.
Our slow efforts yielded some success, however, and by mid-August there was a daily progression of African Americans to the courthouse to register. Few met the requirements of being able to “read and interpret three passages from the Mississippi state constitution to the satisfaction of the recording officer,” but when Congress adopted the Voting Rights Act in 1965 the dam broke. Today Mississippi has more African American elected officials than any other state.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the project was meeting the ambitious young African Americans who felt the world changing around them and who were ready for the challenge. An unknown sector of American society was being revealed to us. Our prime example: Roy DeBerry, a bright, sweet-natured 15-year-old who helped write a play about the death of Medgar Evers and played the lead. I remember sitting with him one day when he exclaimed, “There’s nothing more I love than reading a good book. I could stay up all night reading a good book.” The director of our Freedom School got him into Brandeis and he ended up on the cover of Anthony Lukas’s book, Don’t Shoot, We Are Your Children!, after leading a college student rebellion. He stayed with his purpose, however, and later became county executive of Hinds County, the most populous county in Mississippi. When my son visited Holly Springs in 2004 on a hitchhiking tour across the country, he found Roy’s younger brother Andre was the mayor.
There were successes and there were failures. Although we were making progress with voting, we could see it was just a beginning. The poverty was overwhelming. I remember just before I left having a heart-to-heart talk with an older woman, confessing to each other our own racial misapprehensions. Finally she said, “There’s just one thing I still don’t understand. How come the colored people have been working so hard all these years and still have nothing to show for it.” I don’t know whether I’ve yet found an answer.
To recapture the history and spirit of the times I’ve recently written a play, Freedom Summer. It was performed last year at several schools and libraries in Rockland Country, New York, and the Brecht Forum in Greenwich Village will be hosting three performances this weekend. It’s my hope that the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer in 2014 may lead to it reaching a wider audience. Both the African Americans and young white members of the cast say it is an era that should not be forgotten and they are eager to tell the story to a new generation. I feel the same way.
William Tucker’s play Freedom Summer will be performed Friday, Feb 17 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Feb 18 at 7:30 PM, and Sunday, Feb 19 at 2:00 PM at the Brecht Forum in New York City. Reserve tickets here.
Also of interest:
- View photographs from Freedom Summer (including some of Holly Springs, MI) on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website
- “The Summer of our Discontent” by Bruce Watson in American Heritage
- Charles Sherrod and Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, August 1964, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Remembering Fred Shuttlesworth, civil rights pioneer who made history on street corners, a previous Reader's Almanac post