As we taxi for takeoff at the Houston airport, the pilot announces: "If anyone has anything good to say about Jackson, Mississippi, come to the cockpit and let me know." I glance around the 30-seat plane for anyone around my age and inclination who might also be heading to Jackson for the Freedom Summer reunion, but see no familiar faces.
My last trip to Mississippi was in 1965. A sophomore at Berkeley, I traveled by Greyhound bus with my boyfriend from the world we knew in California through ever deepening poverty and segregation. Outside New Orleans I sat next to a girl my age who told me her father was a member of the White Citizens Council. When she got off the bus I was afraid she'd call ahead and turn us in.
I wonder how I had the courage to make that trip at 19. Even now, as I return for the 30th reunion, I am apprehensive about what I will find in Mississippi -- how I will be treated by local Whites and whether I will find anyone to reconnect with.
I am in jail in Jackson Mississippi. You've probably already read about it. We were put in here Monday at 5:00 pm for marching on the sidewalk with no permit. We're protesting unconstitutional laws against demonstrations. On Tuesday 200 more people were arrested. On Wednesday 150 more people joined us, and on Friday people will come from all over the nation to demonstrate in support of our actions -- and will be arrested.
I'm perfectly all right. The food is horrible and it is boring but we're all right. They segregated the white women from the black women. We have cells -- 8 in a cell and four beds. While the Negro women are in a hall at the State Fair grounds with only two meals, lying on the concrete floor. The boys are in another building at the fair grounds -- segregated of course.
After extensive nationwide publicity, we were all released, and the unconstitutional ordinance was eventually thrown out. That was the genius of Freedom Summer: to use the national interest in White and Black northern student volunteers to focus the public eye on the repression faced every day by the southern Black community.
My fears eventually give way to memories of the textures of rural Mississippi -- fields of cotton, lushness, intense poverty, severe segregation, the hot, damp, close southern-ness of the "rural." And especially Red Dog Road, where I spent most of that summer -- a bright orange dirt lane that turned off from the paved roads leading to the white areas. Weathered, graying, wooden houses with no exterior or interior paint. Ragged porches. No electric poles (they also stopped at the white community) and no indoor plumbing. Only a local minister had the resources for a pre-fabricated house -- but even his family had an unplumbed bathroom missing the modern conveniences.
In 1965 traveling was treacherous. White and Black, especially of the opposite sex, could not ride together in the front seat of a car. My presence alone next to a Black male, I was repeatedly warned, could lead to his death at the hands of a local segregationist.
At the Jackson airport I catch a ride with a cabbie and we talk about how times have changed. His company used to employ and carry only Blacks. While waiting for a fare he couldn't enter the terminal except briefly to use the toilet. Now he can go wherever he wants. But there are few decent paying jobs. And drugs are a big problem even here. His nephew got hooked on crack and stole everything he had. Things have changed but there are still plenty of troubles.
At the opening plenary, held at historically Black Tougaloo College, former SNCC organizer Chuck McDew explained the origins of the conference. He and other organizers were appalled when Mississippi Burning, a movie about the murders of three civil rights workers in 1965, portrayed FBI agents rather than movement activists as the heroes. When the film was shown to Black students at Jackson State, even they cheered the FBI. From this experience, McDew said, he and other organizers learned that they had failed to teach the young our history. So they decided to recapture -- and to preserve and pass on -- the history of the Mississippi civil rights movement. We're not here to see who's gotten fat or gray, McDew stressed, but to tell our story.
Mike Thelwell, Professor of African-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed that the assembled group was unique -- though diverse in ethnic and educational backgrounds, people in the room shared "a common vision and a common commitment." The civil rights movement was a singular event in American history, and that is precisely why its story has been obscured. "Let's hope for the sake of this republic that it's not an extinct phenomenon."
In attempting to convey the power of Mississippi Freedom Summer, panelists spoke of "the transformative power of human hopefulness." "We were energized by each other because of what we believed." "This was not a summer camp. This was a life and death situation you were putting yourself in." "As far as I'm concerned, there are no non-heroes in this room." I could feel an almost physical longing for a time when the enemy was so easy to identify and when right action was so clear.
Thelwell, himself a former SNCC organizer, stressed that the daily life of a Black Mississippian in the 1960s required tremendous courage, but that northern volunteers also committed an act of uncommon heroism by placing themselves in a setting of such danger and violence.
August 8, 1965
I could not answer your "Jail" letter since at an emergency meeting of the parents committee I was assured that at the time I received your letter, none of the arrested kids were still retained.
As far as I can remember, I never could have tried to tell you that what you are doing is wrong. This would by no means be in line with my social conscience or ethical philosophy.
All that I tried to convey to you and as a matter of fact also to the parent committee was, that within my knowledge of so very many revolutionary movements in Europe and elsewhere I never came across a single fact where young girls have been sent into the front and fireline, except may be for the so called "childrens crusade" during the middleages, which ended in a catastrophy.
I heard also from lawyers during the above mentioned meeting, that approx. 500 lawyers and other legal trained persons are constantly busy to get the young freedom fighters out of jail. I can assure you, that I did not have an easy time, when I talked against these professional speakers and mentioned after the above statement, that I believe and sincerely believe, that demonstrations by these 500 lawyers would have had an immense valuable effect on the whole nation and that also these lawyers would have been 1000 times more protected, since in my opinion no state trooper would have dared to touch them. . . . And against this suggestion I placed the pityfull or non existing "protection of our kids" in "ennemy" territory. . . .
Chicky, do not take unnecessary risks and that is all we ask for, that is all we can ask for and if you even are able to do that we do not know and doubt it, but we hope so with all our heart. . . .
All my love,
Throughout the day, speakers alternated between the optimism of the 1960s with pride in our mutual accomplishments and despair at the problems faced today by Blacks in Mississippi. Beatrice Branch, the first female president of the Mississippi NAACP, painted a bleak picture: fewer than 1/2 of Black Mississippians currently vote; some 20% have moved beyond poverty, but 80% live below the poverty level, earning 45 cents for every dollar earned by a White male. Moreover, "70% of White Mississippians hate us like they never did before. And when you talk to young people they hate us more than their parents and grandparents did." Blacks in Mississippi today "are in danger of leaving our situation worse than we found it."
Aaron Henry, state representative from Clarksdale, pleaded that "Mississippi still needs you. The state has a whole litany of problems to overcome. I wish you would stay around for a while. The energy the students brought with them -- we are still trying to recapture that dynamism. We're having trouble getting our people to vote." Henry, a venerable Black local politician who helped build the movement and maintained his activism through the years, recalled trying to buy air-time for his race for governor on an integrated ticket in the 1960s. "Nigger, are you crazy?" the station manager said. Henry proudly recounts that "the nigger who couldn't buy time on that station in 1963 is now the chair of its Board of Directors." Henry and the other local elected black officials testify to the pain of the civil rights movement, and its progress.
Throughout, the discussion was animated by a spirit of mutual respect, of generosity -- of being "better than ourselves." I had not been in such a humane and loving political environment since leaving the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s. I felt proud to have participated in that movement, but also pained by the terrible loss of that sense of collective mission in my life today.
At lunch -- surrounded by eerily familiar faces -- I found three of the seven women with whom I had shared that Hinds County jail cell. Together we remembered the hunger strikes and the commotion we made to annoy the jailers; we even took off all our clothes, one woman recalled, to keep them from bringing local dignitaries to observe us. She remembered this incident in particular, she said, because one of the women (Could it have been you, she asked? No way, I said) had the most perfect breasts she had ever seen. I remembered that a local rabbi was sent to explain to us how difficult we were making the lives of Jackson Jews who were struggling so hard to be accepted. I have since heard that more than half of the northern White summer volunteers were Jewish -- a fact not lost on the white Mississippians who deeply resented our helping to "stir up their Negroes."
June 30, 1965
Yesterday I went into Canton with the Movement people down there and integrated a white park. It was really weird. The white people are like animals here. They hate especially us white folks, because they can't understand us at all. It was the first time I have come face to face with any white Southerners besides the police. The white people were yelling at us and spitting, but we have a court order which makes the integration protected by the court, so they couldn't beat anyone up.
At an afternoon workshop on teaching children about the movement's history, former SNCC leader Bob Moses was scheduled to speak. Instead, he invited everyone born since 1964 to come to the center of the circle and speak to each other. The conversation was a remarkable display of Moses's special gifts -- the charisma and sensitivity that are widely credited with inspiring the participatory, grassroots approach of the 1960s Mississippi movement. This youth caucus met subsequently throughout the weekend and eventually demanded that the leadership torch be passed to them, that the more seasoned organizers help them arrange a youth conference later in the summer.
As the young people spoke in the workshop, a number of them children of '60s civil rights workers, a tan-skinned man in his early 30s with long dark hair, holding a sleepy infant in his arms, rose and explained that he had been adopted and his adoption records permanently sealed. But he knew his parents were both 1964 Freedom Summer volunteers -- his mother White and his father Black. He asked for help in finding them -- in essence to recapture the moment in history in which he was conceived.
I try to recreate for myself the context of his parents' encounter -- the highly segregated America of the 1960s -- and to imagine his parents in a moment of passion, political and physical, coming together in a society that excluded public union between Black and White. She decided against an abortion because she carried the seed of a Black freedom fighter. He feared for his life in marriage with a White woman. Where in America could they live together in 1964? Certainly not in the South. Maybe only in New York City. And how could she tell her parents, or he, his? Was he even told of the pregnancy?
This young man's story was felt deeply by many at the workshop but not only for the desperation of his search. In a way that search was a metaphor for the entire weekend -- all of us striving to recapture that moment when we came together, Black and White, for a righteous purpose, and feeling bereft that we can't capture it in our present lives.
On Saturday the reunion scheduled tours to outlying counties, to enable volunteers to reconnect with the local people with whom they had worked and lived. But I had little hope of getting to Red Dog Road in Leake County -- a less active area in 1965, nestled between Philadelphia and Canton, two of the tour destinations. As I had spent some time at the freedom house in Canton, I joined the van headed there.
Our tour of Canton was led by local heroine Annie Devine, now living in Michigan with her daughter, and C.O., Jr., son of C.O. Chinn, a local movement leader who owned the cafe where the Madison County civil rights movement began. C.O. took us to several notable sites -- where demonstrators were tear-gassed near the local school, where a civil rights worker was slain on a church lawn, where the old freedom house stood.
After a short stop in Valley View, we drove to Lexington, seat of Holmes County, where a small gathering waited to welcome us at the courthouse steps with a prayer and reminiscences about the deep roots of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Holmes County. Speakers included the local Black sheriff (one of five elected in the state), a county supervisor, a member of the local school board, and the head of a local cultural center -- all of whom attributed their present success to the work of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The courthouse speeches were a wonderful celebration of the far-reaching results of our collective action. But we still weren't in Leake County, where I hoped somehow to find the Wilder family with whom I had lived. Red Dog Road -- how could we find it, and who would take the trouble to get me there?
When my companions expressed interest in the journey, Annie Devine discouraged us from deviating from the schedule. We didn't bring money for bail and we're not prepared to handle your safety, she said. It was hard to know if this sane advice from the past had any relevance in 1994. In any case, we decided not to follow it and headed off to find Red Dog Road.
The forests began to close in on the road and the air got even closer. Dirt-poor shacks, run-down trailers, and the occasional brick house dotted the land. But Red Dog Road wasn't on the map, and I knew it only as clay dirt with wooden-porched houses on either side -- most belonging to the Wilder family: Alton and his brother Elton and their wives Stella and Emma, cousin John Wilder and his wife Carien, Mary Williams, the 83-year-old grandmother of Stella with whom I lived, and Stella's girls Ruby and Bernice who were my age. Willy Wilder, Carien's son, a civil rights worker assigned elsewhere, occasionally came by.
We drove the highway into the county seat, straining to read the names on the tiny lanes cutting off from the main road. I was afraid I'd led everyone on a wild goose chase. Then, on the Carthage city limits we stopped at a small gas station and were told we could find Red Dog Road if we took a left at the junkyard.
The road was paved and didn't match my memory, but we drove on, checking the names on mailboxes. Leflore, Wylie, but no Wilder. Distinguishing the Black homes from the White by their poverty, we pulled up near a small, gray plank house and I timidly approached a Black man cutting weeds with a scythe. Wilder? He didn't think so. Then a woman answered from inside the darkened shack where we could see only the edge of a bed and the glow of a television through the narrow doorway. She thinks there's a Wilder down the next road. Turn left; go down about a mile past St. Ann's Catholic church. A dirt road forks in two. Don't take the right fork. Continue straight and the road dead-ends at a house that might know the Wilders.
No one was home at that house. But the air, the lush vegetable gardens, and the smells were all so familiar. We were close but clearly not there. My companions were still up to pushing on. They had been able to see their families; I had a right to see mine. After all, wasn't that the one reason we had all come back?
We pulled back on the paved Red Dog Road and drove on until we met the Natchez Trace. Crossing the Trace, the road indeed became dirt -- and just a few yards further we found Mr. John Wilder's mailbox in front of a small house adorned with ceramic geese and a twirling plastic sunflower. I knocked on the door and spoke through the screen to a Black man in his late 20s.
I was a civil rights worker 30 years ago, I said, and I was looking for the Wilder family that had taken me in, Alton Wilder and his brother Elton, their wives Stella and Emma. . . . His mother came to the door. Wait a minute. I had a girl worker here for one night who slept right on that couch. It was me, I said, and just to assure her, I recalled having heard Ruby cry out with labor pains from across the road.
Well, come right on in. Alton died but his wife Stella still lives up the road. And Ruby had five more kids, and Bernice is married and works for Head Start. After an animated exchange, Carien and her son decided to climb into our van and drive the short way up the road to Stella Wilder's house.
June 30, 1965
Yesterday I was sent to Leake County to work in the new office started there. We are out in rural Mississippi. The closest store is about 5 miles and the closest town about 25 miles. . . .There is no movement around here yet, and if one starts it will be through the efforts of three of us volunteers and about four local people. The office is in a tiny shack and was given to us after the man who lived in it died. Water comes from an old pump, and we use an outhouse which belongs to the family next door.
I was stunned to be in the place I had returned to so many times in my mind. The freedom house was gone but the Wilder's gray wooden house remained, with its tiny porch and rutted front hill. Stella and her daughter gave me a big hug and looked at me in disbelief. I can see your face now. Of course we remember you. Any children? Your daughter is just how you looked then. This four-week-old baby is my great-grandson. I'm 73 now you know. You were a sweet girl and used to cook dinner in the kitchen in the back of my house for the two other workers.
Mary Williams died at 93. Her house is still there but overgrown with trees and weeds. Emma's dead and her son Oscar's not here. But here's his brother. I'll call Ruby and tell her to come right over. Won't she be surprised.
Have things changed? Well, the schools got integrated but the White people all send their kids to a private school. I don't know how they pay for it. The baby born in '65 is in the army now and two other of Ruby's kids are at an Upward Bound program at Tougaloo. We can go into the cafe in Thomastown now; remember how they kept closing it down to keep us out? A lot has changed. But we have to lock our doors now. People get robbed.
We sat on Stella's porch in the steamy heat remembering how her daughters hid under the bed when it thundered. I see your faces in my mind so often I say. We talk about you all the time. Come back to see us. Write a letter. Thank you for being so kind. You were always a sweet girl.
I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the connection I still feel with Stella and her family -- a connection cemented during a period that transformed all our lives. (The Wilder wives went up to D.C. for the Mississippi Challenge with Annie Devine and Victoria Gray, two of the honored reunion participants. I doubt they've been to Washington since.) And I was moved, as I was in 1965, by the intense poverty of Stella's home -- one bare light bulb hanging from the low ceiling of her tiny front room, broken-down porch furniture, no escape from the heat and humidity.
Reunions like mine happened throughout the weekend. An old friend from Chicago who has been driving a cab for the last few years and whose life is at loose ends after two marriages, was unexpectedly greeted in Hattiesburg by his former Freedom School students. They gave him the key to the city and described how he had changed their lives: one is now a school psychologist; another a Ph.D. with a book in the Hattiesburg library -- a building she wasn't allowed to enter in 1964. He had taught them to think, they said, and given
them a new vision of the possibilities
in their lives.
The reunion had four goals. To bring the volunteers back to the state where they had worked, in the bloom
of their youth, for Black civil rights.
To meet and honor the Black elected officials whose careers had been made possible by their efforts. To give the volunteers a chance for a reunion with the families who had taken them in, an opportunity to meet their children and grandchildren. And to return home with a keener awareness of current threats to Black voting rights.
The wrap-up Sunday sessions focused on the importance of the Voting Rights Act. In Mississippi today there are more Black elected officials than in any other state in the Union. All but one have been elected from majority Black districts. (The one exception won only because the White votes were split between two candidates.) Voting in Mississippi today is racially polarized, with 80% of White Mississippians bloc-voting for White candidates against Black candidates. It was only after massive voter registration efforts within majority Black voting districts that Black candidates were able to win elections.
But numerous challenges have been made to the creation of majority-minority districts and life-long organizer Lawrence Guyot stressed that "if we blink we could lose it all. If the Supreme Court decides the Voting Rights Act is inconsistent with the 14th Amendment, then we're finished."
Discussion focused on how to organize locally to get Congress to validate the creation of minority districts if the Supreme Court doesn't uphold them. But there wasn't time to explore the complexity of this issue; the reunion was drawing to a close and people began leaving for the airport.
The brillance of the Freedom Summer strategy was not simply that it brought northern youth to Mississippi to focus the eyes of the nation on the lack of basic democratic rights for Mississippi Blacks. It also recognized the transformative possibilities that are created when people connect to each other across formerly impenetrable barriers of class and race. For Whites to see the nobility and intelligence of poor Black Mississippians standing up courageously for their rights. For Black Mississippi youth to feel respect and validation from White freedom school teachers. For northern volunteers to feel the power of a movement of ordinary people. For rural Blacks to overcome the isolation imposed by poverty and segregation.
Freedom Summer took us all past
the segregation that defines American life -- the divisions of Black and White, rich and poor, northern and southern. Connecting us in pursuit of a larger moral purpose, it made us bigger than ourselves; ordinary people did extraordinary things in pursuit of racial equality. Compelled by conviction to stand up for basic human rights, we stepped out of the confines of our personal lives and experienced the ecstasy of participating in a righteous political movement. At the time, we did not think about the likely success of our efforts, but only about taking action against racial injustice. In the end, however, we did succeed, reaping history's rewards for doing what is right.
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