Nobody had any illusions about transforming Mississippi in a single summer. The idea was to empower a new generation of African-Americans to shape their own lives in Mississippi. James Forman, the executive director of SNNC, speaking at a rally in Indianola, Sunflower County, on a hot afternoon in an opened windowed room to a group of young people, spoke directly to the sheriff and his deputies, standing cross-armed in the back of the room to intimidate the students, “Don’t bother to lock us up, don’t bother to beat us, ’cause we’re going to keep coming down to the court house to register to vote.”
It was explicitly a movement of young people. Forman went on, “There ain’t too much we can do with them Uncle Toms. And there ain’t much we can do with those Aunt Nellies, now listen to me now, there ain’t nothing much we can do with those Aunt Nellies who are scared to get up off their rocking chair. You go up and try to talk to them and they say, hey no, you get away from here with all that mess. But there is something you and Mike Law and myself, (although I’m getting on up in there in age, I got my walking stick), can do. And one thing it seems to me that every child is this room has got to say tonight, is that he’s not going to run away from Sunflower County and go up to Chicago and live in no slum. He’s not going to run away up to Harlem in New York, but he’s going to stay here in Indianola and fight for his freedom.”
The new Negro, Forman told the students, was proud to be a Negro, he didn’t see anything wrong with being a Negro. Forman retold the old whispered joke in both the South and the North, “If you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, you can hang around, but if you’re black, stay back! We are here to tell the state of Mississippi that the New Negro is not afraid of being black and he ain’t gonna get back, but he’s gonna get up front.”
Freedom Summer would also put white young people at risk, drawing media attention to the situations African-Americans faced all their lives. John Polcheck, from Harvard, had been beaten once when I met him mid-summer. He’d developed blisters from his construction work and gone to a clinic outside Harmony for treatment. Using standard precautions, he took along another volunteer, a white minister from Wisconsin. The two men entered the whites-only waiting room. The clinic had 14 beds for whites, three for Negroes and two for Choctaw Indians.
Polcheck and the minister were as low key as possible. The doctor in charge of the clinic came out and asked where they were from. As they answered truthfully, several men gathered behind them. Without warning, the doctor struck the minister in the face with his fist, throwing him back into the arms of a large burly man who held the minister while the doctor continued his beating. Polcheck tried to intervene and was beaten himself. The minister lost consciousness. The beatings stopped. The doctor told Polcheck to get out. Polcheck dragged the minister to the car and got out his keys. One of the men grabbed them. He said he’d called the sheriff. A deputy arrived in a pickup truck, hand cuffed the two men together and loaded them into the pickup. Pointing a finger at one or the other he told them, “That’s the one I want to kill.”
Polcheck and the minister were released the next morning unharmed. Both stayed through the summer.
In situations of random danger, time slows down and every moment stretches out with a heightened sense of awareness. Emotions run close to the surface, friendships developed for survival run deep, the stakes of every endeavor assume earth shaking proportions. Add to this the righteousness of their cause, which seemed undeniable. Life during Freedom Summer was all consuming.
Morris Rubin, a school teacher from New York City, had been assigned to Shaw, in the Delta West of Greenwood, “I didn’t know there were still places like Shaw in the United States. There’s an unpaved street with an open sewer, chickens running across the road, unpainted houses, one with a model A Ford parked outside.” Shaw looked like photographs taken during the Thirties. The state had given Shaw a brand new school, but one without test tubes or burners for the laboratories, tools for the workshops, drinking fountains, student lockers, or text books for foreign languages.
Hartman Turnbow from Holmes County expressed SNCC’s inspiration and its courage: “Power seek tha weak places, water seek tha low places, but SNCC done seek the hard places, seem like t’ me.”