Violence was on the minds of everyone who worked the back roads of Mississippi in the summer of 1964. In the nine years since Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi, on August 28 1955, Clinton Melton had been murdered in Glendora and the Rev. George W. Lee in Belzoni. In 1956 all nine members of the Taplin family were killed in Centerville. O. Moore was murdered in Jackson, in 1957. Woodrow Daniel was murdered in 1958. In 1959, Mack Parker was lynched in Poplarville and Luther Jackson was murdered in Philadelphia in October. Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson in 1963. And in 1964, before Chainy, Schwener and Goodman, disappeared Charles E. Moore and Henry Dee were lynched in Jackson on May 2nd. So far as we knew, nobody had ever been brought to justice for any of these killings.
After a warning from a spokesman for the Mississippi state police, Dale left Philadelphia and moved down State Highway 19 to Meridian. We were back in Philadelphia the next morning and interviewed those who would talk to us. Most people were cordial and honest about their feelings, but everyone in Mississippi was afraid, both white and Black. Every black family we talked to had a story about a family member or a neighbor who had been shot or hung or beaten or had his property taken away. Whatever part of the state I was in, black families told me the same story: “I know it’s hard all over Mississippi, but it’s hardest right here.”
A young volunteer from Indiana, Jane Adams told me, “I thought that if I could live through the first fifteen minutes, I’d be all right.” But it wasn’t like that. There wasn’t constant, imminent danger, only random moments when you’d find yourself in a situation where you could be beaten or killed. One volunteer I talked to told me he had been in the state for several weeks when he decided to visit a Presbyterian church in Canton. He and two other friends dressed in suits and ties were turned away at the door and told they were not welcome. On the way back to their temporary Canton lodgings, they were jumped and beaten by a group of white men. Those moments were much more terrifying than you ever thought they would be.
Dale and I went to the banks of the Neshoba River as police dragged the bottom from small motor boats, looking for the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, policemen laughing quietly among themselves when the weight at the end of the drag line turned out to be a newspaper coin machine.
We returned to New York and produced a show on the Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman’s disappearance and the Freedom Summer project. It got us a grant to cover the summer and I had the responsibility of finding a reporter both skilled enough and savvy enough to work in the South.
In the end I assigned myself the job. I had already been initiated. I knew how to speak in whispers in public places, never to mention race or Negroes or even journalism in public. I knew to be particularly careful in restaurants. I knew that when traveling on back country roads to drive quickly, never to stop, to avoid stores and gas stations that did not cater to tourists or were black owned. I knew to stay in my room after dark. Never walk on dark streets alone, to tape the car door light switch so it wouldn’t go on when you opened the door, making yourself an easy target. I knew to make sure the hood and gas cap were locked.
I needed a reliable portable audio recording machine. The best in the world was the NAGRA, manufactured by hand in those days by Rudolph Gudelski in the garage of his home outside Basel Switzerland. We called Gudelsky. He explained that there was a long waiting list for a new NAGRA. Shipping one to us was out of the question. I booked a flight to Geneva and left the next day with enough cash to buy a NAGRA.
I rented a car in Geneva and drove to Gudelski’s home. He was working in his garage, assembling one of the sleek, machine tooled portable recorders. My eagerness, enterprise and the stories of the dangers that I faced in Mississippi, convinced Gudelski to sell me one on the spot. I flew back to New York, packed and headed to Mississippi with a suitcase of clothes, a new NAGRA, a COMREX wireless audio system, a hidden microphone and a box full of audio tapes.
SNCC targeted Mississippi for voter registration because it had the lowest percentage of African-Americans registered to vote in the country. In 1964 less than seven percent of eligible black voters were registered and many of those registered were afraid to actually go the polls. Seventy thousand African-Americans had tried, only to be beaten back by poll taxes, rigged literacy tests, impossible office hours and, when none of that worked, by economic retaliation, arson, beatings and lynching. There was no reason to believe that “outside agitators,” in this case northern college students and journalists, would be treated any differently. As governor Ross Barnet told an enthusiastic audience in Jackson, “Thank God when the freedom riders get to Jackson, they go to jail.”
The series of 12 half hour radio documentaries I produced on Freedom Summer called This Little Light can be found at: https://chriskochmedia.com/this-little-light-mississippi-freedom-summer-1964/