Freedom summer was not popular with many mainstream civil rights leaders and liberals, even thought it was working within the mainstream on voter registration. Mississippi was too dangerous and intractable. James Foreman, Executive Director of SNNC, told me, “We rejected that concept. We rejected it first of all because people were suffering; secondly, other people were not prepared to go there and we were; thirdly because of the political significance of that area.” COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) had been working in Mississippi, and Freedom Summer was an outgrowth of that work, Foreman explained. In the end, almost 1000 northern students went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964.
The big red Ford that Hertz gave me at the airport (the last car available from any car rental agency they said) carried county plates that identified it as an airport rental. That tabbed me as a northern reporter, a form of humanity even lower than civil rights workers in the minds of many Mississippi whites. In the capital of Jackson, I stayed in hotels and motels with other members of the press, but as I began to work the back roads of the state I found myself often alone, the only outsider in town.
The isolation caught up with me in Greenville. I was in town to interview the crusading, liberal newspaper editor Hodding Carter, but the Carters were in Maine for the summer. Greenville had been a center of civil rights action for years, but on that July evening of 1964 I had a funny feeling. I propped a chair under the door handle to jam it shut before falling asleep.
The next morning when I came down for an early breakfast the dining room was packed and people started snickering as soon as they saw me, holding their hands up to cover their mouths. I sat down at the counter and ordered breakfast. I ate quickly, paid for the night and breakfast, headed out to my car, which I’d parked directly in front of the hotel’s entrance the night before for security reasons. All four tires on the red ford were slashed.
According to the hotel desk clerk, no one was available to help me, so I jacked the car up and rolled the first tire down the street toward a gas station a couple of blocks away. I had to walk in the street, because white boys leaning against the store fronts on the sidewalks would stick their feet out and try to trip me up, which seemed like great fun for them. The first gas station, white owned, wouldn’t help. The next, just across the railroad tracks, was black owned, but they also refused. I pleaded. The black attendant told me to wheel the tires down one more block, turn left and work my way to the back of his station, where no one could see. I did this with each of the four tires. I was the town’s entertainment for several hours, but nobody slashed the tires again. I got my bag from the desk clerk and headed out-of-town. I never stayed in a hotel or motel again in Mississippi. I stayed in the homes of black folks.
Those warm nights in the back woods of Mississippi, surrounded by gracious members of large, extended families, remain vivid. There was an incredible acceptance of vast differences of behavior, all included in the whole of the community. On the two occasions when white night riders drove by firing guns at homes I was staying in, the women and children calmly took cover while the men got their shotguns and hunting rifles and waited quietly to see if that was the end of it. Then the chatter and the music would begin again. There was always music, from rocking gospels at church on Sunday to dances on Saturday night and the guitar blues on lonely porches as the heat began to cool in the evenings.
Valley View was seventy miles north of Philadelphia, a small, poor, rural community outside of Canton, Mississippi. Kids told me they went to work in the cotton fields at age ten and made $2.25 a day, the same as their parents. I listened to their dreams of becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers and asked if they thought they could ever go to college. They mumbled “No.” All the children wanted to leave Mississippi. One youngster said she’d like to go to “the North pole, because it’s just way away.” An older man I asked to describe Mississippi, told me to the raucous laughter of his friends, “If you don’t mind my using the word, I’d say Mississippi’s Hell.”
Harmony was twenty miles south of the church where the three civil rights workers disappeared, but it was an oasis in Black Mississippi, about as good as it got. Civil Rights workers were happy to get an assignment to Harmony. It had been a self-sufficient African-American Community for a hundred years. Five square miles of Black owned land purchased after the civil war. Harmony had the first school for ex-slaves in Mississippi.
It was a successful school until 1954, when the Supreme Court decision to integrate public schools led the State to take control of local schools and systematically destroy successful black schools. On average, the state of Mississippi spent four times as much educating a white child as a black child. “Colored” schools, as they called them, glorified the “Southern way of life,” ignored Black contributions and distorted history and science to justify segregation. At least one county board of education mandated . “Neither foreign languages nor civics shall be taught in Negro schools. Nor shall American history from 1860 to 1875 be taught.”
Harmony resisted and an interlocked white ruling elite that included lawyers, judges, bankers and newspaper editors, made them pay for it. As one Harmony mother told me, “We been on the freezing outside ever since.” The mothers who were waging a legal battle to regain control of their schools had lost almost everything, land to unwarranted bank foreclosures and even work at low paying jobs plucking chicken feathers.
When I arrived, the people of Harmony were building a community center after being denied access to their old, now closed school across the street. John Polcheck a Harvard graduate student, was brought to Mississippi, like many other volunteers he said, “by conscience,” Polcheck taught in a Freedom school in Harmony.
Staunton Lynd, who helped plan the Freedom Schools, hoped to open twenty for 11th and 12th graders, the generation he saw as tomorrow’s movement leaders. Despite intense hostility from the authorities, volunteers opened forty Freedom Schools that summer, teaching the U.S. Constitution and a less white-centric history of Mississippi.
- Part 2 – Valley View. A portrait of small, rural Mississippi town on a quiet Sunday, as people explain the daily routine of their hard lives. Rachel Moore summed it up, “I don’t know what else they could do to us, unless they hitched us up and plowed with us.”
- Part 3 – Harmony. An oasis in Negro Mississippi. It had been a self-sufficient African-American Community for a hundred years. Five square miles of Black owned land purchased after the civil war. Harmony had the first school for ex-slaves in Mississippi. But since 1954, their school has been under attack by the state.