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Stewart Burns


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Freedom Summer by Stewart Burns






Citizenship Supreme


Testimony by Participants






Edited with Commentary by Stewart Burns


Foreword by Heather Booth










Preface, Introduction, Annotations, & Afterword © by Stewart Burns, 2014

Foreword © by Heather Booth, 2014




AuthorHouse 2014




Dedicated to the memory of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson (1942-1967) and all of the other SNCC and CORE organizers whose spirits inspire us to persevere for freedom and justice






Map of Mississippi


Foreword by Heather Booth


Preface:  Strange Fruit


Introduction: “Let the people decide”





Setting the stage


Act one: late June 1964


Act two: July 1964


Act three:  late July-early August 1964


Act four:  late August 1964


Down and up


Afterword:  “It Is Time to Move”


Appendix:  The Congressional Challenge






 Foreword by Heather Booth

If we organize, we can change the world—but only if we organize. This was the great lesson that I learned from my time in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer Project of 1964.

In the summer of 1964, when I was 18 years old, I had the privilege of participating in Mississippi Freedom Summer, trying to help advance civil rights in Mississippi and highlight the evils of discrimination around the country. The summer project did help change the laws, even helped change the hearts of people in this country. It certainly changed me and the other volunteers, deepening our commitment to struggle for justice and to respect the people of Mississippi who engaged in that struggle with such courage and dedication.

Most people today who know about Mississippi Freedom Summer, know about it because they have heard about the three young Freedom Summer volunteers—Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—who were killed after a local sheriff handed them over to the Ku Klux Klan.

Few heard that while people were looking for the missing volunteers, they found the bodies of eight other Black men, often hands bound or feet chopped off, sometimes thrown in the Tallahatchie River. The deaths were not even reported and (until very recently) not investigated. That is how little the lives of Black people were valued by those in power and authority in Mississippi.

The family that I lived with that summer, Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins and their children, were extraordinary in their commitment to the struggle for civil rights. Who they were and what they did and how they lived had a great impact on me then and now. They were dedicated to the struggle and so caring for us personally. They really lived their beliefs.

The Hawkins family took in four or five of us summer volunteers. Only in hindsight do I realize that they gave over their own beds to us and must have slept on the couches. They shared their food with us. They took us under their wing and into their hearts. They included us in their lives and looked out for our protection, when it was their lives that were really put in peril by having white volunteers living with them.

One of the first nights that we were staying with the Hawkins family, Mr. Hawkins sat down with us and talked about the politics and power relations of Mississippi. For all the college background that we had, he provided us with an education. When he learned I came from Chicago, he talked with us about Chicago politics—and knew more about some aspects of that than I did. The Hawkins were dedicated activists and such decent people. They believed in a vision of a society in which all people could live with dignity and respect. They treated people that way personally and organized to build a society which would act that way.

In 1969, five years after the Summer Project, Andrew, Mary Lou, and twenty other African American residents sued the Town of Shaw for violating their rights as spelled out in the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit—some compared it to Brown v. Board of Education—challenged the town for providing disparate conditions to the White and Blacks part of town—in water supply, sewage exposure, natural gas supply, street lights, and more. Their action inspired me, but it did not surprise me that they would have taken courageous steps for equal treatment of all people. They won their case, Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, in 1971. In May 1972, two months after the decision was confirmed by the 5th Circuit Court, Mary Lou Hawkins was shot and killed by a black “white controlled” police officer in Shaw. Their house was set on fire twice. The first time no one was injured; the second time, their son Andrew Jr. and two grand-daughters were killed. No one was convicted for the murders. So four people were murdered in one family because they stood up for the rights of Black people to be treated with dignity. Almost no one in our country ever knew about these atrocities.

We have come a long way because people organized. Mississippi now has a higher percentage of African American elected officials than any other state. When I returned for a reunion, the mayor and the police chief of Ruleville, one of the towns where I worked, were African American. We have a new generation that believes more deeply in equality across race. Many more people have legal access to many more jobs and opportunities than in the 1960s. Officially sanctioned lynching that haunted the country is mostly a thing of the past. For every African American college graduate in 1963, there are five graduates today. The percentage of Black Americans living in poverty has fallen by 22% since that time.

But clearly we have a long way to go. According to the National Urban League 2013 Report on Black America, African Americans have the shortest lives of any racial group. In the past fifty years, the Black-White income gap has only closed by seven points (now 60%). The unemployment rate gap has only closed by six points (now at 52%). As in 1963, the Black/White unemployment ratio is still about two-to-one, regardless of education, gender, region, or income level. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February 2013 only 6.8 percent of White workers remained unemployed compared to 13.8 percent of Black workers and 9.6 percent of Latinos. The Black youth unemployment rate for ages 16-19 is 400% higher than the national unemployment rate, according to 2013 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The expanded incarceration of African Americans warrants Michelle Alexander condemning it as the New Jim Crow.

Equally troubling is the turning back on voting rights that so many fought for and many died for: the 2013 Supreme Court decision nullifying the heart of the Voting Rights Act, new voter ID laws, limits on voter registration (even efforts to criminalize assistance with registration), voter suppression.

So much work needs to be done. Expanding the rights and wages of low-wage and tipped workers. Winning immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. Advancing a women’s economic agenda. Ensuring that every school supports students and the teachers who teach them. Having healthy people in a healthy and sustainable environment. All this and more.

The struggle certainly continues. The lessons of Mississippi Freedom Summer—that if we organize we can repair and rebuild our world—are as relevant today as they were then. The lessons that if you trust in the concerns and courage of local people, they can build power to challenge successfully even the most entrenched and unaccountable forces of reaction. That the human spirit is unstoppable when people come together to fight for dignity and respect. That if we struggle against injustice, we can build a powerful, enduring grassroots movement for social justice and human rights.

So many conditions in our society cry out for such a movement now. Our new movement will need to be appropriate for these times. It will reflect the new generation of creative and pragmatic young people combined with the insights of those who have been around for the long haul. It will incorporate new tools of online organizing and older tools of on-the-ground, face-to-face organizing. It will engage those of goodwill on the inside and on the outside of the power structures, especially “outsiders within.” It will unite participants across lines of race, religion, and region. It will apply the full power of women, who like me found a new voice in Freedom Summer and helped birth a women’s freedom movement. It will involve the new immigrants to the country and those who have been here a long time, making America a country with a new majority—a Rising American Electorate, Black and Brown and people of all colors. Younger and older. Women and men. Lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, and transgender.

In Freedom Summer many were willing to die for the right to vote, for freedom, for a society with greater justice and democracy.

Now the challenge is to live and fight for those same values. Now the challenge is to do the work every day—door knocking, demonstrating, talking with our neighbors, union organizing, the often boring and frustrating but ultimately joyful work of building democracy.

Ella Baker, the inspiration behind creating the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), said at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party convention: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

Freedom Summer’s power endures because so many were willing to struggle and sacrifice for freedom. We shall feel its still greater power if Freedom Summer can inspire us and lead us to act today, to persist in the struggle so as to hasten the day when we can touch and taste true liberty and justice for all.


Veteran volunteer of Miss. Freedom Summer, Heather Booth persevered in civil rights organizing and antiwar work. In the late 1960s she organized early women’s liberation groups in Chicago before going on to create the Midwest Academy, the esteemed training school for community organizing. Widely respected as a preeminent trainer of organizers, she has concentrated recently on financial reform, immigration rights, and on building sustainable democratic institutions. Her numerous books and manuals on organizing methods are making magic all over the land and overseas. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband Paul Booth.


Why Did I My Don’ts

Sandra Ann Harris, age I7, Jackson, Miss.


why did I my don’ts

why did I my dids

what’s my didn’ts purpose

is it to fulfill my dids

what isn’ts have I proclaimed

what ises have I pronounced

why can’t I do my doings

my couldn’ts do renounce

my wouldn’ts are excuses

my couldn’ts couldn’t be helped

my weren’ts were all willful

my were of lit de help

the haven’ts were just there

my didn’ts did believe

that all my won’ts are daring

my wills to receive




Alice Jackson, age I7, Jackson, Miss.


I want to walk the streets of a town,

Turn into any restaurant and sit down,

And be served the food of my choice,

And not be met by a hostile voice.

I want to live in the best hotel for a week,

Or go for a swim at a public beach.

I want to go to the best University

and not be met with violence or uncertainty.

I want the things my ancestors

thought we’d never have.

They are mine as a Negro, an American;

I shall have them or be dead.


Report of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, April 16, 1963


Since October 1962, the open and flagrant violation of constitutional guarantees in Mississippi has precipitated serious conflict which, on several occasions, has reached the point of crisis. The United States Commission on Civil Rights has become increasingly

alarmed at the defiance of the Constitution. Each week brings fresh evidence of the danger of a complete breakdown of law and order.

Citizens of the United States have been shot, set upon by vicious dogs. beaten and otherwise terrorized because they sought to vote. Since October, students have been fired upon, ministers have been assaulted and the home of the Vice Chairman of the State Advisory Committee of this Commission has been bombed. Another member and his wife were jailed on trumped up charges after their home had been defiled. Even children, at the brink of starvation, have been deprived of assistance by the callous and discriminatory

acts of Mississippi officials administering Federal funds. All this affronts the conscience of the Nation.

The Commission notes the action taken by the President of the United States in employing the force necessary to assure compliance with the court decrees in the University of Mississippi case. It is mindful of the unequivocal public statements of the President expressing his belief that discriminatory practices are morally wrong. The Commission nevertheless believes that the President should, consistent with his Constitucional and statutory authority, employ to the fullest the legal and moral powers of his office to the end that American citizenship will not continue to be degraded in Mississippi.




 Preface:  Strange Fruit


June 21, 1964, Oxford, Ohio

            On the final night of an intensive marathon training at a women’s college in southwest Ohio to prepare students to help enfranchise black voters in Mississippi, a young man named Bob Moses stood up to address the 300 assembled trainees. The 28 year-old director of the Mississippi Summer Project had just been told that three Freedom Summer organizers had disappeared after being jailed for alleged speeding. All three had just left the Ohio training for Mississippi.

            “What happened was quite profound,” Bob Moses recalled. Though all week the leaders had been “trying to sharpen the volunteers’ sense of reality,” they had never expected such a shock so soon.

            “It was very clear to me that they were gone. That they were dead. I knew that in my bones. The die was cast. The stone was thrown.”

            It fell to Moses to do the impossible—to tell the volunteers that Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andy Goodman were most likely murdered, that all of them would risk the same fate, that they should seriously consider not going—yet, that the black citizens of Mississippi were counting on them to come. In his white T-shirt and denim overalls, exuding strength and humility, confidence and uncertainty, he spoke to the college students whom he more than anyone had brought this far along on a dangerous journey.

            “Do whatever you want,” he said, “you can’t bring them back. Now you have a problem. You have got to reevaluate your going to Mississippi in the light of the knowledge that some of your crew are already dead before you even get there. Probably some of you are not going to survive…. You shouldn’t feel like you have to go—but you need to go.

            “I don’t want to put you at risk,” he said quietly. “But I have to put you at risk. All I can say is, I’ll be there with you.”

            “This was one of my most profound experiences of leadership,” student activist Pamela Chude Allen remembered. A few years later she helped found the women’s liberation movement. “This man stood up who was the head of the Mississippi Summer Project. He looked at his feet … and talked to us about how he felt…. I would have gone anywhere. I would have done anything he wanted, I trusted him so much.”

            “It was incredibly powerful,” 18 year-old volunteer Heather Booth recalled. “I left that meeting knowing not only was I going to Mississippi, but that this would be the course for the rest of my life.” As it was the course for many others.

When Moses sat down, all was still for several minutes. Then a black volunteer in the back, Howard University student Jean Wheeler, started singing a spiritual, quietly at first, then forcefully. “They say that freedom is a constant struggle …,” she sang out. Soon all the others stood up and joined in as they walked out of the meeting hall into the darkness.

            The next morning with few exceptions, “we all went to Mississippi,” in the charter buses, Marshall Ganz recalled. Their commitment transformed their lives, and empowered them to help transform America.


            Most of us who aspire to be good citizens today would not be likely to consider the risks and sacrifices shared by the Mississippi Freedom Summer activists as a fundamental responsibility of our citizenship. We delegate such serious commitment to military men and women, do we not, whether they choose it or are forced into it by the “economic draft.” Except during major wars like World War II or Vietnam, military service has engaged only a small minority of young people purportedly to protect the freedom of the rest of us. During our shameful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—costing us several trillion dollars and many thousands of lives—less than 1% of American families participated, the one percent of losers at the bottom a world apart from the one percent of winners at the top.

            “Where is the draft for the freedom fight in the United States?” SNCC activists demanded as they protested and refused to serve in the escalating Vietnam War that was forcing poor black youth—once again!—to fight for freedom overseas that was denied to them at home.

            How much greater might our citizen responsibility feel if we understood our civic duty not only to defend our freedom from presumed enemies overseas—but to achieve freedom in the first place? In a society in which black and brown people have never been truly free but in fact have been systematically plundered by the white majority, and still are; in which voting is suppressed; in which economic inequality has reached obscene new heights; in which the poverty rate of the working poor exceeds the poverty of the jobless; where the middle class has been debilitated; in which slavery persists even in America in the mass incarceration of peoples of color and in the sexual trafficking of girls; where immigrants of color are demonized; where our freewheeling intelligence services spy on virtually all Americans and our president can slay American citizens overseas without due process; where women and girls continue to be beaten, raped, and murdered, keeping them down, just as they are finally advancing economically (an old story to black Americans); where American politicians are imperiling not only the future of our nation but of the planet by failing to fight climate change—when in short, almost all of us have lost much of our freedom (if we ever had it), have given up on equality, and have been betrayed by our democracy—how can any of us sleep at night, how can any of us in good conscience refuse to dedicate a decent portion of our lives to creating and sustaining our freedom, in all of its facets?

            Facing all of these injustices and perils, how can we not consecrate our lives and labor to bring about a new birth of freedom in our land and around the globe?

            But this is not all we owe each other as American citizens. If the United States of America is truly “exceptional,” it has been so in the historical reality that our nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal with inalienable rights—but that its growing prosperity and ephemeral egalitarian moments, and its rise to a world superpower (lately the only one), were enabled and driven by our “peculiar institution” of slavery, upon which the nation was founded and grounded in material terms as much as our nation was morally founded and grounded in the American creed of our world-shaping Declaration of independence. We overthrew the British monarchy only to replace it with new economic royalties—King Cotton and King Railroad, the engines of our industrial revolution, followed by King Oil, King Wall Street, and King Technology.

            Throughout our national story the plunder of African Americans has continued hardly abated. “America begins in black plunder and white democracy,” Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “two features that are not contradictory but complementary…. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experiment in democracy.

            “American prosperity was built on two and a half centuries of slavery, a deep wound that has never been healed or fully atoned for—and that has been deepened by years of discrimination, segregation, and racist housing policies that persist to this day. Until America reckons with the moral debt it has accrued—and the practical damage it has done—to generations of black Americans,” we will continue to despoil our own ideals.

All of us as American citizens (or aspiring ones) face a weightier responsibility of citizenship than in most other countries—to persevere in the nearly 250 year struggle to make us “be true to what we said on paper” (MLK)—to transform by our blood, sweat, and tears, and by our joy and caring for each other, the dream of our founding principles into the tangible everyday options and opportunities of all American citizens and and those who seek citizenship.

            No other nation and citizenry in world history have faced such abominable, morally excruciating, and crazy making contradictions between our world altering values and ideals and our abhorrent original sins of slavery, white supremacy, and genocide.

            This is the deep meaning of Mississippi Freedom Summer. The courage and commitment of its thousand-strong nonviolent army faced up to the challenge and responsibility of being American citizens striving to fulfill the “promissory notes” pledged by our Declaration of Independence and our expanded Bill of Rights.

Moving forward, can each of us, of any age, of any race, ethnicity, or national origin, carry the torch of Freedom Summer—our own little lights—into the 21st century, bedeviled as we are by the quadruple peril of poverty, racism, high-tech warfare, and climate catastrophe, along with every other manner of dehumanization? Can we do no less and still call ourselves human? Can we do any less and still feel self-worth and self-respect?


O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be …

O, yes, I say it plain

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 “Let America Be America Again,” 1938



Key Abbreviations



NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (founded 1909)


CORE: Congress of Racial Equality (1942)


SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957)


SNCC: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960)


COFO: Council of Federated Organizations (Miss., 1962)


SDS: Students for a Democratic Society (1962)


ACMHR: Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, Birmingham (1956)


NAG: Nonviolent Action Group, Howard University (ca. 1960)


WCC: (White) Citizens Councils (1954)


MSSC: Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission (1956)


KKK: Ku Klux Klan (1865, revived early 1920s, revived again 1950s)


Introduction: “Let the People Decide”

            Late Monday afternoon, February 1st , 1960, four well-dressed young men, first-year students at the mainly black North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, bought some school supplies at Woolworth’s, then sat down at the lunch counter and ordered coffee. “I’m sorry,” the waitress said, “we don’t serve you here.” Showing their purchases, the students asked why they could be served at one counter and not at another. She called the manager, who tried to reason with them, and a cop paced back and forth behind them, holding his club but not sure what to do.  The students refused to move until the store, crowded with onlookers, closed for the day.

The four close friends planned this protest the night before; it was the culmination of weeks of “bull sessions” about the injustice of segregation and how it violated the country’s democratic ideals. Franklin McCain later recalled that, though influenced most by Gandhi, what precipitated their action was the “courage that each of us instilled within each other.” They were also encouraged by an older civil rights activist in Greensboro. They quickly organized their college and others nearby and returned to the lunch counter every day that week in growing numbers until by week’s end hundreds had joined the “sit-in.” Soon, more than 90 percent of the area’s black college students were sitting in, picketing, or boycotting segregated eating places.

            By wire service and student grapevine, news of the sudden protest flashed across North Carolina and the nation. Though a few experimental sit-ins had been tried in Nashville and elsewhere, the idea now spread “like a fever.” The next week students staged lunch counter sit-ins in Winston-Salem, Durham, and other North Carolina communities. 

By February’s end protests had erupted in over thirty cities in seven states, and by April sit-in protests pervaded the entire South. Local movements were particularly strong in Nashville, Atlanta, and Orangeburg, South Carolina. Almost without exception the young women and men stayed calm and resolute when ketchup and other food was flung at them, and when they were jabbed with lighted cigarettes and sometimes badly beaten—with little police interference. As the actions grew larger and better organized and moved further south, white violence increased, and so did arrests.  Historian Clayborne Carson notes that “never again during the decade would the proportion of students active in protest equal the level reached at southern black colleges” during this period. Hundreds of lunch counters were desegregated within several months.

When Ella Baker, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), heard about the February 1960 lunch counter sit-ins starting in Greensboro and Nashville that were spreading like crazy, she called her long list of contacts at southern black colleges and community organizations.

“It is time to move,” she told them in her deep resonant voice. Defiance of racial oppression had been a tradition in her family. When she was a child her grandmother, a freed slave, told her tales of slave revolts and of how she had been whipped for refusing to marry the man chosen by her owner. She wed instead a rebellious slave who became a Baptist preacher and was an important role model for his granddaughter.

Baker, fifty-six years old, had been organizing for thirty years, setting up black consumer cooperatives during the Depression, bravely recruiting NAACP members throughout the South, serving as NAACP director of branches, then heading its New York office before helping to found SCLC in 1957, which arose out of the triumphant Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956). She had an extraordinary ability to inspire people of all ages, especially young people, and to offer them a deeper perspective on social change. Rising to the challenge of running SCLC’s Atlanta headquarters, she was never accepted as an equal by King and fellow ministers, despite her organizing genius. She felt that its top-down charismatic leadership had undermined the voting rights campaign she created, called “Crusade for Citizenship.”

Baker realized that the momentous student sit-in movement would not last without a structure to coordinate the local groups. On Easter weekend 1960 she convened a conference of sit-in leaders from over fifty black southern colleges at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she had been class valedictorian in the late 1920s. King spoke to the 200 fervent students, but Baker diverted SCLC’s scheme to capture the student groups as its youth wing. She believed that the students needed an autonomous organization “with the right to direct their own affairs and even make their own mistakes.” She hoped they would be bolder than SCLC. The young activists set up the loosely structured Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and adopted a statement of purpose that affirmed its Christian-based nonviolent philosophy.

As the sit-in movement slowed, SNCC shifted from a coordinating body of student activists to a cadre of ex-students committed to long-term organizing in rural southern communities.

            Inspired by Baker, who had grown so critical of SCLC’s preacher hierarchy that she resigned as interim director in summer 1960, SNCC embodied an alternative style of participatory “group-centered leadership” that would clash with SCLC. She believed that what movements needed was “the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”

SNCC activists lived out the idea that real change came through empowerment of people at the grass roots. They understood that to overcome subjugation, especially in the rural South, black people had to rely on themselves, not on media stars who came and went. Because SNCC activists believed that they had to exemplify their values, prefiguring the redemptive society they sought to create—and because they shared a common risk of death—they were reluctant to recognize leaders among themselves. “We are all leaders,” they proclaimed. Their slogan: “Let the people decide.”

CORE decided to declare victory and leave it there, but Diane Nash and other SNCC activists from Nashville were determined to complete the journey at all cost. Robert Kennedy, the greenhorn attorney general fresh from the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, interceded with Alabama officials. Guarded by police cars and helicopters, the SNCC group rode safely from Birmingham a hundred miles south to Montgomery. But when the bus pulled into the Montgomery terminal the police disappeared. The riders were greeted by another vicious mob that beat them with pipes and baseball bats, almost killing two young men. President Kennedy’s personal emissary, John Siegenthaler, was knocked out. The president publicly expressed his concern and called for peace.

A mass meeting was held the next night at Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church. King flew in to galvanize support for the riders, in the city where his movement leadership had begun. He had already been on the phone with the attorney general. Before the meeting King conferred in the church basement with CORE’s James Farmer and SNCC’s Diane Nash about what to do. The phone rang. Bobby Kennedy was calling again to ask King to stop the freedom ride to allow a cooling-off period. Keeping the attorney general on the line, MLK turned to his colleagues.

“Don’t you think that maybe the freedom ride has already made its point and now should be called off, as the attorney general suggests?” Nash shook her head.

“The Nashville Student Movement wants to go on,” she said sternly. Farmer instructed King to “tell the attorney general that we have been cooling off for 350 years. If we cool off any more we will be in a deep freeze.”

“I understand,” King replied softly, and turned down Kennedy’s request.

Upstairs outside the mass meeting, several hundred rioters were besieging the church, firing rocks through stained-glass windows. Those inside, showered with glass, emboldened themselves for hours with tenacious singing. The mob was about to break down the doors when a battalion of U.S. marshals, sent by the attorney general, scattered them with tear gas.

Robert Kennedy recalled a late night phone call from King, who feared for his life. “I said that our people were down there, and that as long as he was in church, he might say a prayer for us. He didn’t think that was very humorous. He rather berated me for what was happening to him at the time. I said to him that I didn’t think that he’d be alive if it wasn’t for us, and that we were going to keep him alive, and that the marshals would keep the church from burning down.” The outnumbered marshals were reinforced later that night by national guard troops reluctantly activated by Governor John Patterson, a JFK political ally who had been evading his phone calls.

Three days later two busloads of freedom riders, national guard, and reporters left for Jackson, Mississippi, escorted by legions of police in cars and aircraft. Farmer remembered it was like a military maneuver. Jackson onlookers witnessed the spectacle of protesters being led into the interstate terminal by rifle-toting guardsmen, police opening doors for them, then being handcuffed and taken away. Robert Kennedy had made a secret deal with Mississippi politicians, permitting the bust if done with no violence.

The freedom riders served two months at tough Parchman penitentiary in the Mississippi Delta, where prayer and defiant freedom song singing got them through. Over the summer of 1961 hundreds more flocked to Jackson and joined their peers in prison. Prodded by the attorney general, the Interstate Commerce Commission enforced the Supreme Court ruling banning segregation in terminals. The freedom rides gave SNCC its reputation for fearless militancy, steeling cadres for further combat.

            In late August 1962, a tired, strong-willed woman with a great smile and shining eyes strode into a meeting at her Baptist church in Ruleville, a Mississippi Delta town not far from Money, where 14 year-old Emmett Till had been tortured to death seven Augusts before.

“Until then I’d never heard of no mass meeting and I didn’t know that a Negro could register and vote,” Fannie Lou Hamer remembered. SNCC organizers Bob Moses, James Forman, and James Bevel led the meeting at the rural church. Rev. Bevel preached to the poor sharecroppers (from Matthew’s gospel) that they must “discern the signs of the times.” God’s time was upon them, and they must act for their freedom.

            “When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse the next day,” Hamer recalled, “I raised mine. Had it up high as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me, and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

            Forty-four years old, she was the youngest of twenty children of sharecropper parents. She had picked cotton since she was seven, for the previous eighteen years with her husband Pap on a nearby plantation. She had always known poverty and injustice. When she was a young girl, a white farmer had poisoned their mules just when her family was getting ahead. For a long time she had wanted to help her kind. “Just listenin’ at ‘em, I could just see myself votin’ people outa office that I know was wrong and didn’t do nothin’ to help the poor. I said, you know, that’s sumpin’ I really wanna be involved in.” Chief among those who did not care about poor people, in her opinion, was powerful Senator James Eastland, owner of a huge cotton plantation in Hamer’s county. He ruled the county, indeed the whole “magnolia state,” like a feudal baron.

            Hamer rode with seventeen others on a SNCC-chartered bus to the county seat of Indianola, birthplace of the white Citizen Councils in 1954, aimed at blocking desegregation. The registrar “brought a big old book out there, and he gave me the sixteenth section of the Constitution of Mississippi, and that was dealing with de facto laws, and I didn’t know nothin’ about no de facto laws.” She “flunked out” along with the others. Driving home they were all arrested.” She sang spirituals to strengthen them. When she got home the plantation owner kicked her off her land. “I didn’t have no other choice because for one time I wanted things to be different.” The house where she stayed in town was shot up by vigilantes. It was one hell of a winter.

            “Pap couldn’t get a job nowhere ‘cause everybody knew he was my husband. We made it on through, though, and since then I just been trying to work and get our people organized.” Bob Moses recruited the “lady who sings the hymns” to join SNCC, its oldest field organizer. Why was she drawn to this brash young outfit?

            This country has “divided us into classes,” she explained, “and if you hadn’t arrived at a certain level, you wasn’t treated no better by the blacks than you was by the whites. It was these kids what broke a lot of this down. They treated us like we were special and we loved ‘em. We didn’t feel uneasy about our language might not be right or something. We just felt like we could talk to ‘em. We trusted ‘em, and I can tell the world those kids done their share in Mississippi.”

            SNCC had been struggling for a year to register black voters in the “closed society” of Mississippi, kingpin of white supremacy, where rural blacks were still treated a lot like slaves. The state’s official and unofficial terrorism had kept it off-limits to SCLC. Blacks were almost half the population (a majority in numerous counties) but only five percent were registered, in some counties none at all, owing to threats and reprisals in general, the rigged literacy test and poll tax in particular. Registering black people was incendiary.

            Bob Moses, driving force behind the voting campaign, had moved to McComb, in southwest Mississippi, where he set up the first of a string of registration “schools.” In his mid-twenties, the contemplative young man with fiery eyes had grown up in Harlem and had been a Harvard doctoral student in philosophy, drawn to Camus, existentialism, and mathematical theory. (Teaching algebra as experiential learning to disadvantaged youth later became his life’s devotion.) While teaching high school math in New York he had organized with the great civil rights leader Bayard Rustin in the late 1950s. Inspired by the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins, he volunteered for duty at SNCC’s makeshift Atlanta office. Asked by Baker to visit Mississippi, he was convinced by Amzie Moore, a local NAACP leader, that enfranchising black people should be SNCC’s main mission.

Bob Moses would become a legend in SNCC not only for courage but even more for his ability to motivate leadership in others, while staying in the background as much as his co-workers, or his conscience, would let him. With his guidance SNCC activists learned “how to find potential leadership, how to groom it,” Lawrence Guyot recalled, “and the most painful lesson for some of us was how to let it go once you’ve set it into motion.”

            McComb tested the mettle of Moses and his small cadre. They were routinely beaten and arrested when they accompanied local blacks to the county courthouse to try to register to vote. Herbert Lee, a brave farmer who supported them, father of nine, was gunned down by a state legislator who was never prosecuted. After a march to protest the cold-blooded murder, Moses and his associates were jailed for two months. They left McComb in December 1961 and fanned out into several counties in the northwest throughout the Mississippi Delta region.

            Risk, repression, and facing down fear became a way of life. SNCC workers were shot at in their cars, and mobs invaded their offices. When county supervisors cut off federal food aid to poor blacks as punishment, SNCC went all out to mobilize food caravans from the North, helped by comedian Dick Gregory. This boosted the registration campaign as activists drew the connection between children going hungry and lack of political power. In several county seats SNCC organized dramatic Freedom Days with courthouse marches seeking registration.

            Success in turning out 85,000 disfranchised voters to vote in the November 1963 election—though their votes were not counted—convinced SNCC and its partners in the recently formed Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) that black citizens could build an electoral vehicle independent of the segregated state Democratic Party. As its immediate goal the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), founded in early 1964, prepared to challenge the all-white regulars for seating at the August Democratic national convention. When as expected MFDP members were excluded from the party’s precinct and county meetings, they set up their own, meticulously adhering to proper procedures. Four MFDP activists qualified for the June Democratic primary, including Hamer and Victoria Gray Adams campaigning for Congress. Unsuccessful, they ran as independent candidates in the fall.

            Meanwhile, SNCC and its COFO partners launched the Mississippi Summer Project that brought around 700 northern college students, mainly white, to join a climactic voter registration campaign entwined with building the MFDP. For three years SNCC activists had been risking their lives, and the lives of local people, for small gain in black voters. Their go-for-broke gambit was to create a sensational national crisis. Moses and other SNCC leaders calculated that if white students were brutalized, it would seize the nation’s attention and might lead to federal protection of voting rights. Black victims of Mississippi’s reign of terror had been ignored, sometimes even undiscovered. Many in SNCC were concerned, however, that the white students would overshadow the indigenous organizers, take over leadership roles, and worsen the felt powerlessness of poor blacks. In an uncommon instance of asserting his moral authority, Moses insisted—as had Diane Nash with the 1961 freedom rides—that the interracial campaign would go ahead.

Over ten weeks the Mississippi Summer Project planned to construct a network of “parallel institutions,” a Gandhian strategy, for black people who had been shut out of the resolutely white supremacist society. After a week of intensive training the army of volunteers would set up Freedom Schools and community centers, provide medical and legal services, register voters—and build grassroots support for the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party as a direct response to black exclusion by the all-white Democratic Party. With Lawrence Guyot as chair and Fannie Lou Hamer as vice chair, the MFDP’s initial goal was to elect an integrated slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in late August—offering the MFDP as “the only democratically constituted body of Mississippi citizens worthy of taking part in that convention’s business.”


            In mid-June 1964, while volunteers learned the ropes in a marathon training workshop at an Ohio women’s college—Jim Forman and others leading nonviolent training with role playing, Mrs. Hamer lifting them to the heavens with her singing, Moses preparing them for possible death—three Freedom Summer activists disappeared in Neshoba County after a traffic arrest for alleged speeding. Two were white, CORE’s Michael (Mickey) Schwerner, 24, Andrew Goodman, 20, fresh from the first Ohio training session. One of them was black, 21 year-old James Cheney, a CORE organizer from Meridian, Mississippi. Despite explosive media coverage, Attorney General Robert Kennedy—purported champion of voter registration—claimed he had no authority to intervene, though President Johnson sent in a bevy of FBI investigators and a couple hundred Navy personnel.

Six weeks later, FBI and Navy searchers found the three bodies buried in an earthen dam. The deputy sheriff who arrested them had turned them over to the Klan. The triple lynching fastened the eyes of the nation on Mississippi Freedom Summer, especially when their bodies were discovered.

            By late June 1964 the nonviolent soldiers from the North were settling into communities all over the state. White supremacists, still embittered by the Civil War that they were commemorating at the time, perceived it as a literal “invasion”—and prepared accordingly, with doubled police forces, enhanced weaponry, and armored tank trucks with machine guns.

The young women and men stayed with black families or in ramshackle “freedom houses.” In 100-degree heat they trudged along dusty dirt roads in their straw hats and blue denim and nervously talked with people on cabin porches about their right to vote. The students escorted the few who dared register to the courthouse, where most failed the fraudulent exam. Rejected for the ninth time, an old man looked down as he walked out and said wistfully, “I want my freedom all right. I do mighty bad.”

            Over the summer more black people were assaulted for aspiring to be citizens, and dozens of church headquarters were burned or bombed. Volunteers helped organize marches to protest brutality by police and the Klan. Many were beaten or jailed—around a thousand arrests that summer. At times even SNCC had trouble keeping up with the feisty militancy of local teenagers bent on integrating their towns. “The kids were moving, with or without us.”

Unable to make much progress, voter registration gave way to the building of the MFDP.

“Have you freedom-registered?” organizers asked, in churches, on backwoods roads, and riding plantation buses with cotton pickers long before sunup. Following well-attended precinct meetings, MFDP conclaves in each county chose delegates to five congressional district conventions, which in turn sent delegates to the state convention in Jackson.

“People straight out of tarpaper shacks, many illiterate, some wearing a (borrowed) suit for the first time, disenfranchised for three generations, without a living memory of political power, yet caught on with some extraordinary inner sense to how the process worked, down to its smallest nuance and finagle.”

            Ella Baker gave a passionate address to the song and prayer filled Jackson convention. Activist historian Howard Zinn, who participated in and chronicled SNCC’s work (then a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta), observed that the MFDP’s skillfully organized, singing state gathering, was “as close to a grassroots political convention as this country has ever seen.”

Baker’s punch line would echo for generations through a song by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock: “We who believe in freedom cannot wait.”

Most of the 800 delegates were black and poor; many were women. They chose sixty-eight men and women to fight for the party’s recognition at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The MFDP had mushroomed into a serious threat to the Democratic power structure of the magnolia state, and of the nation, and especially to the presidency.

            On August 4, the day after FBI and Navy searchers found the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, President Johnson sent sixty-four jet fighters to cripple an oil depot and naval port in North Vietnam. He announced on TV that the bombing, the first by his country since the Korean War a decade before, was a justified retaliation for a torpedo assault on an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. That incident never happened. But two days earlier, another U.S. destroyer had been attacked a few miles offshore by North Vietnamese patrol boats that suspected its involvement in a raid on two nearby islands, part of intensifying covert warfare against the North orchestrated by the CIA. In response the destroyer had blasted three patrol boats, sinking one.

Johnson and his national security advisers had wanted to leave it there, but when the media got wind of it, LBJ feared that Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee, would have a field day haranguing the president for being soft. Goldwater sounded as hawkish on the Vietnam problem, turning it into a hot-button issue, as he was in condemning the Civil Rights Act he had just voted against. Referring to both fronts, he had declared in his acceptance speech in San Francisco that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

In fact for half a year, LBJ’s inner circle had been looking for a dramatic provocation to secure congressional backing for deeper military involvement in Southeast Asia. Once it hit the air waves and became a campaign issue, this phantom battle in waters claimed by North Vietnam played into their hands. After meetings between the president and leaders of Congress, especially J. William Fulbright, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution sailed through the House unanimously, the Senate with only two dissents. It gave Johnson authority “to take all the necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States to prevent further aggression.” Even Fulbright did not know that the policy makers deemed it a blank check, equivalent to a congressional declaration of war. And the war came.

        The balloons, bright lights, and glitter of Atlantic City—ocean air smelling of seaweed and popcorn—felt like another world to the MFDP delegates arriving by bus from faraway Mississippi. Not that they had left their magnolia state behind. Hundreds of their constituents accompanied them to the fading resort town, all wearing their Sunday best. They intended to button-hole every delegate they could find to back the MFDP challenge, while their home folk kept a round-the-clock vigil on the famous boardwalk in front of the convention hall. SNCC organizers used to wearing faded denim were dressed up in Ivy League suits and pressed the flesh like their lives depended on it.

          With nine supportive state delegations lined up and an unimpeachable legal case submitted by prominent Democratic broker Joseph Rauh, United Auto Workers counsel, the MFDP strategy was to garner enough votes in the credentials committee to force a floor vote to decide on recognition, which they expected to win. Their trump card was that their state’s all-white delegation, like the Wallace-controlled delegates from neighboring Alabama, refused to declare loyalty to the national party and its nominees. They were defiantly in the Goldwater camp.

          King, NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, CORE’s James Farmer, and other notables testified on the MFDP’s behalf at a nationally televised hearing, but more telling oratory came from black Mississippians who explained what happened when they tried to vote. Limping to the table, Fannie Lou Hamer, the MFDP vice chair, stole the show and won her country’s heart with her gripping tale of being beaten in Winona jail till her body “was as navy blue as anything you ever seen.” Her melodic voice rose to a shout.

         “All of this is on account we want to register,” she sang out, “to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America,” she asked, “the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

           The millions watching did not catch the end of Hamer’s live testimony (though it was replayed nationwide that night) because President Johnson deliberately cut it off with an abrupt press conference about trivia. The big man from Texas was more frightened by the little people from Mississippi than by the North Vietnamese peasant army he had just rained bombs upon.

If not the whole loaf, MFDP delegates realistically hoped to get half the seats, which was how such a dispute had been settled in the past. But LBJ feared that giving the MFDP any seats would deliver the message to southern whites that Negroes had taken over the Democratic Party. Feeling vulnerable because of the Civil Rights Act he had championed, the supreme vote counter had calculated that as many as fifteen southern states could be lost to Goldwater if Mississippi and other Deep South regulars stormed out of the convention. To keep a lid on the black insurgency that obsessed him, he had badgered Hoover to approve an elephantine FBI spy operation in Atlantic City, thirty agents plus informants, aimed at SNCC, the MFDP, and of course Dr. King.

Having watched telegenic Mrs. Hamer in all of her righteous glory, LBJ was determined, as Senator Hubert Humphrey put it privately to black leaders, to “not allow that illiterate woman to speak from the floor of the convention”. She was an unlettered, crippled sharecropper whose words might shake the nation to its roots, and possibly even drive the president from office. “I felt just like I was telling it from the mountain,” she tearfully told a reporter. After her high-voltage performance the Democrats were flooded with telegrams and phone calls backing the MFDP’s challenge. Hamer had to be kept off the convention floor at all cost.

           As the convention opened, the prospect of a successful floor vote for the MFDP challenge, inciting mass walkouts by southern delegations, brought Johnson teetering toward an emotional breakdown. If the Negroes’ victory did not open the floodgate to Robert Kennedy stealing the nomination, his personal terror, it might lead to repudiation by the voters in November. LBJ could not imagine winning without a healthy chunk of the South, his home base. Now he might even lose the “lone star state” of Texas. In any event, a narrow win without a strong mandate would doom his dreams of greatness.

           On Monday evening, Aug. 24, Johnson spoke on the phone to his close ally Walter Reuther, the auto workers’ chief. “I think the Negroes are going back to the Reconstruction period,” he said. “They set themselves back a hundred years.” By the next morning his depression had deepened. He read to his press secretary George Reedy a handwritten statement withdrawing from the race: he was “absolutely unavailable.”

              “This will throw the nation into quite an uproar, sir,” Reedy scrambled to reply.

Minutes later LBJ bared himself to special assistant Walter Jenkins: “I don’t see any reason why I ought to seek the right to endure anguish,” he said. “People I think have mistaken judgment. They think I want great power. What I want is great solace—and a little love. That’s all I want.”

“You have a lot more of that,” his confidant struggled to reassure him. The president was listening only to himself.

“Goldwater’s had a couple of nervous breakdowns,” he said. “I don’t want to be in this place like Wilson,” paralyzed by a stroke during his last seventeen months in the White House. Johnson had suffered a major heart attack in 1955, his father had died at his age, and he had had nightmares of paralysis since childhood. “I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the Bomb and the world and the nigras and the South. I know my own limitations.” He did not want to die in office like his father figure FDR.

After vigorous debate on Sunday, Aug. 23, the MFDP delegates had voted to accept a compromise proposed by Oregon congresswoman Edith Green: to seat members of both delegations who would swear loyalty to the party. The Johnson forces countermanded with their own offer: a loyalty oath, two at-large seats for the delegation co-chairs, guest passes for the rest, plus a nondiscrimination pledge for future conventions. Unlike Green’s “honorable” compromise, Johnson’s felt like a slap in the face—two token seats, not even representing Mississippi, handpicked by the white party bosses. The nondiscrimination pledge meant little without guaranteeing black voting rights. The bottom line of Johnson’s compromise was simple: Hamer must be silenced.

            At a Monday meeting Hamer and Humphrey shed tears together after she shamed him: “I been praying about you,” she said, “and you’re a good man. The trouble is, you’re afraid to do what you know is right.” LBJ had put it to him that the price of the vice presidential nod was for him to squelch the Mississippi uprising.

Sixteen years later it was Humphrey’s strange mission to stem another southern walkout over civil rights. Now with so much at stake, he seemed to be sliding backwards from sunshine to shadow. Hamer and her MFDP colleagues told him they would accept nothing less than the Green compromise.

           On Tuesday the 25th, after an MFDP mass meeting ratified the Green compromise, Senator Humphrey convened in his hotel bedroom a summit meeting of movement leaders and LBJ loyalists from which he barred Hamer. He played hardball LBJ-style to hit home the Johnson compromise. With MLK, Moses, Rustin, MFDP delegation chair Aaron Henry, white Tougaloo chaplain Edwin King (co-chair), and others huddled around queen-size beds, UAW’s Reuther warned King: “Your funding is on the line. The kind of money you got from us in Birmingham is there again for Mississippi, but you’ve got to help us and we’ve got to help Johnson.” Reuther had threatened to fire Rauh as UAW counsel.

           King, used to the final say in such decisions, turned to the MFDP leaders. They tried to find wiggle room, but Humphrey indicated that it was take it or leave it, above all on the question of Hamer’s participation.

The struggle that day for a tolerable compromise was cut short by a shock from the convention hall. TV anchors announced that the credentials committee had voted, unanimously, to adopt Johnson’s compromise. Rauh, who in fact voted against it along with others, tried to stave off a vote until he conferred with MFDP leaders, but the Johnson juggernaut, not even permitting a roll call vote, bulldozed it through. Because of fearsome White House pressure, the MFDP no longer had the votes to bring their minority report to the floor.

Back in the hotel suite Moses, known for his calm manner, yelled to Humphrey, “you cheated!” and slammed the door in fury. “I have never seen such just really blatant use of power,” Congresswoman Green recalled, to block her proposal from floor debate.

           During the next twenty-four hours the embattled MFDP held two contentious meetings on the Johnson compromise and rejected it without dissent both times. King, Rauh, Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, and other leaders tried to sway them. As if repudiating his own quarter-century of direct action devotion—he had never embraced electoral politics—Rustin, chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, urged them to make a courageous but painful shift from protest politics to electoral coalition building.

“There is a difference between protest and politics,” he explained. “The former is based on morality and the latter is based on reality and compromise. If you are going to engage in politics then you must give up protest.” Give up protest?

SNCC’s Mendy Samstein stood up. “You’re a traitor, Bayard!” If Rustin had spent the summer in Mississippi, he would have witnessed politics and protest in fruitful collaboration, each indispensable to the other. Instead he had trapped himself in a false dichotomy. What he didn’t seem to realize was that in order for electoral politics to achieve large goals of socioeconomic reform, to move toward democratic socialism (or more realistically, social democracy), the electoral process and party politics would have to be transformed by the moral force of the civil rights movement. This was the importance of refusing the Johnson compromise that meant politics as usual, the disempowerment of grassroots forces.

MLK sought middle ground as always. “I am not going to counsel you to accept or reject. That is your decision.” He said that he could see good reasons for either. He affirmed Rustin’s view that the movement was moving from protest to politics and that in the electoral arena odious compromises were unavoidable. He knew of course that this was hardly less true of protest politics. He had succumbed to as many dubious compromises as he had seen jail cells. But the MFDP and its delegates were, even by the movement’s high standards, of exceptional integrity. Time and again MFDP delegates argued that they were beholden to the folks back home who had chosen them. But they had been willing to accept a fair and respectful compromise like Green’s.

Accepting the compromise might help to build a progressive electoral coalition. But what would be lost?

After listening to the luminaries, the MFDP delegates argued back and forth. Moses pleaded that it was not a choice between morality and politics. Their duty was to bring morality into the political arena. Hamer, who herself had wavered, captured the consensus in a memorable utterance: “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats, when all of us is tired!”

On the brink of torpedoing his political life, President Johnson had been relieved to hear from Humphrey and Reuther that the credentials committee had crumpled. But later Tuesday afternoon he was alerted that it was too late. In a last hurrah, half of the spurned MFDP delegates staged a televised sit-in in the abandoned seats of the Mississippi delegation. Hamer got to speak from the floor after all. Merely floating a compromise with the Negroes had propelled most of the Mississippi regulars to walk out. They could stomach no MFDP delegates, even at-large, and sneered at a loyalty oath. A handful of holdouts turned tail when the black contingent claimed the vacant seats amid a media frenzy.

Johnson’s fears returned with a vengeance when he talked by phone with two southern allies, governors John Connally (Texas) and Carl Sanders (Georgia). “It looks like we’re turning the Democratic party over to the nigras,” Sanders chided him. As both the Montgomery and Birmingham movements proved, any concession to black demand was seen by white elites as a slippery slope toward Reconstruction-style black rule. “It’s gonna cut our throats from ear to ear,” Sanders added.

LBJ replied that the MFDP deserved some recognition: “Pistols kept ‘em out.” He pleaded with his cronies to keep the rest of the Deep South from walking out. These southern pols, his old pals, were not reassuring him. The South seemed to be seceding this time from the Democratic Party itself—his worst nightmare. At midnight, less than twenty-four hours before his own coronation, the crown he had always chased, he was ready to throw in the towel.

“By God, I’m gonna go up there and quit,” he told his distressed press secretary. “Fuck ‘em all.”

By the time Johnson arrived in Atlantic City next afternoon with Humphrey in tow, his operatives had managed to hold off any further walkouts—Alabama was cocked to go. Suddenly,  all on the surface was harmonious uniformity as LBJ was nominated by acclamation on Wednesday night, then Humphrey the next.

Defeated would be too noble a word for the true democrats of Mississippi. Moses was right. They had been cheated in a rigged game of high-stakes politics.

The boardwalk vigil grew monumental on the last night. A thousand spirited voices chanted “freedom now!” With Hamer leading they sang the movement’s anthem, tightly linking arms. The grassroots troops who had tried valiantly to inject moral passion and principle into cautious and unprincipled electoral politics returned to the southern battlefield dejected, disillusioned, angry, but far from giving up. Many had learned that, whether or not they could ever hope to build alliances with white (or black) liberals, they had first to have power of their own. They were determined to seek it, come what may.

Hamer was disappointed with the Democrats, but with her Christian devotion willing to forgive, able to see that “regardless of what they act like, there’s some good there.” Despite their punishing trials she looked back on Freedom Summer as “the result of all our faith. Our prayers and all we had lived for started to be translated into action.” It was “the beginning of a New Kingdom right here on earth,” grounded in the Mississippi movement’s ethos of trust, integrity, moral courage, and spiritual connectedness.

SNCC and MFDP activists could not see it at the time, but Mississippi Freedom Summer and the battle of Atlantic City were no less crucial than the Selma movement in achieving the Voting Rights Act a year later. And the whole experience helped catalyze the movement for Black Power.


            Nothing exposed the chasm between the civil rights elite and the foot soldiers like the lessons each brought home from the Atlantic City debacle. The latter saw it as the cup half empty, the former as the cup half full. The MFDP delegation and their retinue returned to Mississippi with the bitter but defiant realization that they must go it alone. They could depend on no one in high places, not even in their own movement. They had been abandoned by the national party for which they had risked their lives and livelihoods.

The civil rights generals, to the contrary, had an unbeatable presidential candidate who had just rammed through Congress the most significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction and had also declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” They had a vice presidential nominee, whatever his backsliding in Atlantic City, who had fought hard for the civil rights bill and had been the Senate’s conscience on civil rights for fifteen years. They had a commitment from the national party to ban discrimination in delegate selection to future conventions (though no promise on guaranteeing voting rights). Not least, they had forced a walkout of the Mississippi segregationists, possibly the first step toward wholesale party realignment potentially benefiting the civil rights forces, at least in the long run. The sharpest difference was that while grassroots leaders felt deserted by Machiavellian liberal allies, the civil rights elite felt upbeat that they could still work productively with the Democratic power structure. (This perspective was affirmed by passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and LBJ’s social democratic Great Society programs like Medicare and Medicaid.) 

           In November 1964 Johnson was elected by the largest margin since his hero FDR’s sweeping reelection in 1936.

           The great divide in U.S. history between liberal electoral politics that relied on exclusionary procedures to stymie social change, and principled grassroots democracy that was not willing to defer real progress, would only widen during the next decade when disfranchised Americans—black, brown, young, female—gave up on the Democratic Party that had not only stalled racial and economic justice but sacrificed these goals for an impossible victory against communism in Indochina.







Robert Moses, “Mississippi: 1961-1962,” Liberation, Jan. 1970


During the 1950s NAACP activists in Mississippi had faced fierce resistance to their efforts to encourage black voter registration. In 1955 Reverend George Lee had been killed in Belzoni after protesting black disfranchisement; that summer 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago was brutally murdered in Money, Miss. NAACP leader Amzie Moore, a World War II veteran, bravely organized blacks to fight racist killings designed to ensure that returning black soldiers did not disrupt the “southern way of life.” Through Ella Baker, who had long supported his courageous work, Moore invited Bob Moses to visit his state to explore launching a voting rights campaign. Baker, who had helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960, was heading up SNCC’s makeshift Atlanta headquarters, where Moses, a high school math teacher in New York earning his doctorate at Harvard,  had recently arrived to volunteer.  After a fruitful meeting with Moore during summer 1960, Moses settled the next summer in McComb, a town of 13,000 in southwestern Mississippi.


I first came South in July 1960 on a field trip for SNCC, went through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana gathering people to go to the October SNCC conference. That was the first time that I met Amzie Moore. At that time we sat down and planned the voter registration drive for Mississippi. I returned in the summer of 1961 to start that drive. We were to start in Cleveland, Mississippi, in the [Miss.] Delta. However, we couldn’t; we didn’t have any equipment. We didn’t even have a place at that time to meet. So we went down to McComb at the invitation of C. C. Bryant, who was the local head of the NAACP. And we began setting up a voter registration drive in McComb.

For two weeks I did nothing but drive around the town talking to the business leaders, the ministers, the people in the town, asking them if they would support ten students who had come in to work on a voter registration drive. We got a commitment from them to support students for the month of August and to pay for their room and board and some of their transportation while they were there…. We went around house-to-house, door-to-door in the hot sun everyday because the most important thing was to convince the local townspeople that …  we were people who were responsible. What do you tell somebody when you go to their door? Well, first you tell them who you are, what you’re trying to do, that you’re working on voter registration. You have a form that you try to get them to fill out. . . .

Now we did this for about two weeks and finally began to get results. That is, people began to go down to Magnolia, Miss., the county seat of Pike County, and attempt to register. In the meantime, quite naturally, people from Amite and Walthall County, the two adjacent counties to Pike County, came over asking us if we would accompany them in schools in their counties so they could go down and try to register. And this point should be made quite clear, because many people have been critical of going into such tough counties so early in the game….

The problem is that you can’t be in the position of turning down the tough areas because the people then would simply lose confidence in you. So we accepted this.

We planned to make another registration attempt on the 19th of August…. This was the day that Curtis Dawson and Preacher Knox and I were to go down and try to register. This

was the day that Curtis Dawson drove to Steptoe’s, picked me up and drove down to Liberty. We were to meet Knox at the courthouse lawn. Instead we were to walk through the town and on the way back were accosted by Billy Jack Caston and some other boys. I was severely beaten. I remember very sharply that I didn’t want to go immediately back into McComb because my shirt was very bloody. I figured that if we went back in we would probably be fighting everybody. So instead we went back out to Steptoe’s where we washed down before we came back into McComb.

That very same day they had had the first sit-in in McComb, so when we got back everybody was excited and a mass meeting was planned for that very night. Hollis [Watkins] and Curtis [Hayes] had sat down in the Woolworth lunch counter in McComb and the town was in a big uproar. We had a mass meeting that night and made plans for two things: one, the kids made plans to continue their sit-in activity; two, we made plans to go back down to Liberty to try to register some more. We felt it was extremely important that we try and go back to town immediately so the people in that county wouldn’t feel that we had been frightened off by the beating and before they could get a chance there to rally their forces.

Accordingly, on Thursday, August 31 there was more activity in Liberty and McComb. In McComb there were more sit-ins, in Liberty, another registration attempt coupled with an attempt by us to find the person who had done the beating and have his trial. It turned out that we did find him, that they did have his trial, that they had a six-man Justice of the Peace jury, that in a twinkling of an eye the courthouse was packed. That is, the trial was scheduled that day and in two hours it began. In those two hours farmers came in from all parts of the county bearing their guns, sitting in the courthouse. We were advised not to sit in the courthouse except while we testified; otherwise we were in the back room. After we testified, the sheriff came back and told us that he didn’t think it was safe for us to remain there while the jury gave its decision. Accordingly, he escorted us to the county line. We read in the papers the next day that Bilty Jack Caston had been acquitted.

To top it all off, the next week John Hardy was arrested and put in jail in Walthall County. He had been working there for two weeks. They had been taking people down, and finally one day he had taken some people down to the registrar’s office, had walked in. They had been refused the right to register, and he had asked the registrar why. The registrar recognized him, took the gun out of his drawer and smacked John on the side of his head with a pistol. John staggered out onto the street and was walking down the street when he was accosted by the sheriff who arrested him and charged him with disturbing the peace….

A couple of days before John Hardy was arrested, we had gone back into Amite County to Liberty. This time I was not beaten, but Travis Britt was, on the 5th of September. I stood by and watched Travis get pummeled by an old man, tall, reedy and thin, very, very, very mean with a lot of hatred in him…. At that particular occasion, Travis and I bad been sitting out front of the courthouse and then decided to move around back because the people began to gather out front.

Finally, everybody, about 15 people, gathered around back and began questioning Travis and myself. . . . They were asking him where he was from and how come a nigger from New York City could think that be could come down and teach people down here how to register to vote and have all those problems up there in New York City, problems of white girls going with nigger boys and all such like that….

The Travis Britt incident followed by the John Hardy incident in Walthall County just about cleaned us out. The farmers in both those counties were no longer willing to go down [to register]. People in Pike County and McComb were in an uproar over the sit-in demonstrations and the fact that Brenda Travis, sixteen, was in jail. For the rest of the month of September we just had a tough time. Wasn’t much we could do. The kids were in jail. People were in jail on the sit-in charges, had a $5,000 bail over their heads, and the problem was to raise that money and get them out of jail, and then sit down and see if we couldn’t collect the pieces together.

We got through September aided in great measure by some of the lawyers from the Justice Department who finally began to come in investigating the voting complaints. They stayed for about a two-week period. While they were there they gave a lot of support and confidence to the Negro community and allowed us to go back into Walthall and Amite counties and to interview all the people who had been involved in the voter registration campaign and raise some hope that perhaps something would be done.

Then, finally, the boom lowered on September 30. Herbert Lee was killed in Amite County …. The Sunday before Lee was killed, I was down at Steptoe’s with John Doar from the Justice Department. He asked Steptoe was there any danger in that area, who was causing the trouble and who were the people in danger. Steptoe had told him that E. H. Hurst who lived across from him had been threatening people and that specifically he, Steptoe, Herbert Lee, and George Reese were in danger of losing their lives. We went out but we didn’t see Lee that afternoon. At night John Dear and the other lawyers from the justice Department left. The following morning about 12 noon, Doc Anderson came by tbe Voter Registration office and said a man had been shot in Amite County…. I went down to take a look at the body

and it was Herbert Lee. There was a bullet hole in the left side of his head just above the ear

Our first job was to try to track down those people who had been at the shooting, who had seen the whole incident….

Essentially, the story was this: they were standing at the cotton gin early in the morning and they saw Herbert Lee drive up in his truck with a load of cotton, E. H. Hurst following behind him in an empty truck. Hurst got out of his truck and came to the cab on the driver’s side of Lee’s truck and began arguing with Lee. He began gesticulating towards Lee and pulled out a gun which he had under his shirt and began threatening Lee with it. One of the people that was close by said that Hurst was telling Lee, “I’m not fooling around this time, I really mean business,” and that Lee told him, “Put the gun down. I won’t talk to you unless you put the gun down.” Hurst put the gun back under his coat and then Lee slid out on the other side, on the offside of the cab. As he got out, Hurst ran around the front of the cab, took his gun out again, pointed it at Lee and shot him….

Hurst was acquitted. He never spent a moment in jail. In fact, the sheriff had whisked him away very shortly after the crime was committed. I remember reading very bitterly in the papers the next morning, a little short article on the front page of the McComb Enterprise Journal said

that the Negro had been shot in self-defense as he was trying to attack E. H. Hurst. That was it. You might have thought he had been a bum. There was no mention that Lee was a farmer, that be had a family, that he had nine kids, beautiful kids, that he had been a farmer all his life in Amite County and that he had been a very substantial citizen. It was as if he had been drunk or something and had got into fight and gotten shot…. Now we knew in our hearts and minds that Hurst was attacking Lee because of the voter registration drive, and I suppose that we all felt guilty and felt responsible, because it’s one thing to get beat up and it’s another thing to be responsible, or to participate in some way in a killing.

Shortly after Lee was killed, the kids were released from jail who had been in jail for a month on the sit-in cases, including Brenda. She was not allowed to go back in the school and in early October she and 115 students marched out [of school] and marched downtown.

It’s no doubt in my mind that part of the reason for the march, part of the reason for the willingness of so many students to do it was the whole series of beatings culminating in the killing that had taken place in that area. Well, needless to say, the white community was completely on edge by this time. One hundred fifteen students stopped in front of the city hall to begin praying one by one—Brenda first, then Curtis, then Hollis, then Bobby Talbort and then finally all of us herded up the steps and into the city courthouse, and Bob Zellner, who was the only white participant, was attacked on the steps as he went up and then the mob outside, waiting, milling around, threatening, and inside, the police brought the people down, the white people, the so-called good citizens of the town, to come down and take a look at this Moses guy. They would come down and stand at the front of the jail and say, “Where’s Moses?”….

We were finally taken up one by one into a kind of kangaroo court which they held upstairs that was crowded with citizens from the town: the sheriff, the local county attorney, the local judges…. They let all the kids off who were under eighteen, and took those over eighteen down to the county jail. We stayed in jail for several days….

We were let out a few days later on a bail bond and swept back into the problems in McComb where the balance of the hundred students who had marched out were now being required to fill out a slip saying that they would not participate in any more demonstrations in order to get back in the school. Most of them were refusing to do so, and the community was again in an uproar.

… We finally decided to set up makeshift classes for them. We opened up Nonviolent High in McComb. That was pretty funny. We had about fifty to seventy-five kids in a large room, trying to break them down with the elements of algebra and geometry, a little English, and even a little French, a little history. I think Deon taught physics and chemistry, and [Charles] McDew took charge of history, and I did something with math …. And we carried on our classes for a week or two weeks until finally we got word from Campbell College in Jackson that they would accept them all and that they would make provisions for them immediately.

We spent most of the month of November and on into December in jail. We then regrouped to decide what could be done, what projects we needed to carry out next, how we could pick up the pieces. We had, to put it mildly, got our feet wet. We now knew something of what it took to run a voter registration campaign in Mississippi. We knew some of the obstacles we would have to face. We had some general idea of what had to be done to get such a campaign started.

First there were very few agencies available in the Negro community that could act as a vehicle for any sort of campaign. The Negro churches could not in general be counted on. The Negro business leaders could also not in general be counted on except for under-the-cover help. In general, anybody who had a specific economic tie-in with the white community could not be counted on when the pressure got hot. Therefore, our feeling was that the only way to run this campaign was to begin to build a group of young people who would not be responsible economically to any sector of the white communIty and who would be able to act as free agents.

We began to set about doing this….


Jerry DeMuth, “Tired of Being Sick and Tired,” The Nation, June 1, 1964


May 1964

About 20 feet back from a narrow dirt road just off the state bighway that cuts through Ruleville, Miss., is a small, three room, white frame house with a screened porch. A large pecan tree grows in the front yard and two smaller ones grow out back. Butter bean and okra plants are filling out in the gardens on the lots on either side of the house. Lafayette Street is as quiet as the rest of Ruleville, a town of less than 2,000 located in Sunflower County, 30 miles from the Mississippi River. Sunflower County, home of Senator Eastland and 68 percent Negro, is one of twenty-four counties in the northwestern quarter of the state—the Delta—that make up the Second Congressional District. Since 1941, this district has been represented in Congress by Jamie Whitten, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, who is now seeking his thirteenth term.

From the house on the dirt road there now comes a person to challenge Jamie Whitten: Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. Mrs. Hamer is a Negro and only 6,616 Negroes (or 4.14 percent of voting-age Negroes) were registered to vote in the Second Congressional District in 1960. But in 1962, when Whitten was elected for the twelfth time, only 31,345 persons cast votes, although in 1960 there were more than 300,000 persons of voting age in the district, 59 percent of them Negro. Mrs. Hamer’s bid is sponsored by the Council of Federated Organizations, a Mississippi coalition of local and national civil rights organizations.

Until Mississippi stops its discriminatory voting practices, Mrs. Hamer’s chance of election is slight, but she is waking up the citizens of her district. “I’m showing people that a

Negro can run for office,” she explains. Her deep, powerful voice shakes the air as she sits on the porch or inside, talking to fricnds, relatives and neighbors who drop by on the one day each week when she is not out campaigning. Whatever she is talking about soon becomes an impassioned plea tor a change in the system that exploits the Delta Negroes. “All my life I’ve been sick and tired,” she shakes her head. “Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Mrs. Hamer was born October 6, 1917, in Montgomery County, the twentieth child in a family of six girls and fourteen boys. When she was two her family moved to Sunflower County, 60 miles to the west.

“The family would pick fifty-sixty bales of cotton a year, so my father decided to rent some land. He bought some mules and a cultivator. We were doin’ pretty well. He even started to fix up the house real nice and had bought a car. Then our stock got poisoned. We knowed this white man had done it. He stirred up a gallon of Paris green with the feed. When we got out there, one mule was already dead. T’other two mules and the cow had their stomachs all swelled up. It was too late to save ‘em. That poisoning knocked us right back down flat. We never did get back up again. That white man did it just because we were getting’ somewhere. White people never like to see Negroes get a little success. All of this stuff is no secret in the state of Mississippi.”

Mrs. Hamer pulled her feet under the worn, straight-backed chair she was sitting in. The linoleum under her feet was worn through to another layer of linoleum. Floor boards showed in spots. She folded her large hands on her lap and shifted her weight in the chair. She’s a large and heavy woman, but large and heavy with a power to back up her determination.

“We went back to sharecroppin’, halvin’, it’s called. You split the cotton half and half with the plantation owner. But the seed, fertilizer, cost of hired hands, everything is paid out of the cropper’s half.

“Later, I dropped out of school. I cut corn stalks to help the family. My parents. were gettin’ up in age. They weren’t young when I was born. I was the twentieth child—and my

mother had a bad eye. She was cleanin’ up the owner’s yard for a quarter when somthin’ flew up and hit her in the eye.

So many times for dinner we would have greens with no seasonin’ and flour gravy. My mother would mix flour with a little grease and try to make gravy out of it. Sometimes she’d cook a little meal and we’d have bread. No one can honestly say Negroes are satisfied. We’ve only been patient, but how much more patience can we have?”

Fannie Lou and Perry Hamer have two daughters, 10 and 19, both of whom they adopted. The Hamers adopted the older girl when she was born to give her a home, her mother being unmarried. “I’ve always been concerned with any human being,” Mrs. Hamer explains. The younger girl was given to her at the age of 5 months. She had been burned badly when a tub of boiling water spilled, and her large, impoverished family was not able to care for her.

“We had a little money so we took care of her and raised her. She was sickly too when I got her, suffered from malnutrition. Then she got run over by a car and her leg was broken. So she’s only in fourth grade now.”

The older girl left school after the tenth grade to begin working. Several months ago when she tried to get a job, the employer commented, “You certainly talk like Fannie Lou.”

When the girl replied, “She raised me,” she was denied the job. She has a job now, but Mrs. Hamer explains, “They don’t know she’s my child.”

The intimidation that Mrs. Hamer’s older girl faces is what Mrs. Hamer has faced since August 31, 1962. On that day she and seventeen others went down to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to Vote. From the moment they arrived, police wandered around their bus, keeping an eye on the eighteen. “I wonder what they’ll do,” the bus driver said to Mrs. Hamer. Half way back to Ruleville, the police stopped the bus and ordered it back to Indianola. There they were all arrested. The bus was painted the wrong color, the police told them.

After being bonded out, Mrs. Hamer returned to the plantation where the Hamers had lived for eighteen years.

“My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlowe, the plantation owner, was mad and raisin’ Cain. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and said, “We’re not ready for that in Mississippi now. If you don’t withdraw, I’ll let you go.” I left that night but ‘Pap’—that’s what I call my husband—had to stay on till work on the plantation was through.”

In the spring of last year [1963], Mr. Hamer got a job at a Ruleville cotton gin. But this year, though others are working there already, they haven’t taken him back.


According to Mississippi law the names of all persons who take the registration test must be in the local paper for two weeks. This subjects Negroes, especially Delta Negroes, to all sorts of retaliatory actions. “Most Negroes in the Delta are sharecroppers. It’s not like in the hills where Negroes own land. But everything happened before my name had been in the paper,” Mrs. Hamer adds.

She didn’t pass the test the first time, so she returned on December 4, and took it again. “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass,” she told the registrar. On January 10, she returned and found out that she had passed. “But I still wasn’t allowed to vote last fall because I didn’t have two poll tax receipts. We still have to pay poll tax for state elections. I have two receipts now.”

After being forced to leave the plantation, Mrs. Hamer stayed with various friends and relatives. On September 10 [1962], night riders fired sixteen times into the home of one of these persons, Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Hamer was away at the time. In December, 1962, the Hamers moved into their present home which they rent from a Negro woman.

Mrs. Hamer had by then begun active work in the civil rights movement. She gathered names for a petition to obtain federal commodities for needy Negro families and attended various Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workshops throughout the South. Since then she has been active as a SNCC field secretary in voter registration and welfare programs and has taught classes for SCLC. At present, most of her time is spent campaigning.

In June of last year, Mrs. Hamer was returning from a workshop in Charleston, S.C. She was arrested in Winona, in Montgomery County, 60 miles east of Indianola, the county in which she was born. Along with others, she was taken from the bus to the jail.

“They carried me into a room and there was two Negro boys in this room. The state highway patrolman gave them a , wide blackjack and he told one of tile boys, “Take

this,” and the Negro, he said, “This what you want me to use?” The state patrolman said, “That’s right, and if you don’t use it on her you know what I’ll use on you.” I had to get over on a bed flat on my stomach and that man beat me . . . that man beat me till he give out. And by me screamin’, it made a plain-clothes man—he didn’t have on nothin’ like a uniform—he got so hot and worked up he just run there and started hittin’ me on the back of my head. And I was tryin’ to guard some of the licks with my hands and they just beat my hands till they turned blue. ‘This Negro just beat me till I know he was give out. Then this state patrolman told the other Negro to take me so he take over from there and he just keep beating me.”

The police carried Mrs. Hamer to her cell when they were through beating her. They also beat Annelle Ponder, a SCLC worker who was returning on the bus with her, and Lawrence Guyot, a SNCC field secretary who had traveled from the Greenwood SNCC office to investigate the arrests.

“They whipped Annelle Ponder and I heard her screamin’. After a while she passed by where I was in the cell and her mouth was bleedin’ and her hair was standin’ up on her head and you know it was horrifyin’.

“Over in the night I even heard screamin’. I said, Oh, Lord, somebody else gettin’ it, too.” It was later that we heard that Lawrence Guyot was there. I got to see him. I could walk as far as the cell door and I asked them to please leave that door open so I could get a breath of fresh air every once in a while. That’s how I got to see Guyot. He looked as if he was in pretty bad shape. And it was on my nerves, too, because that was the first time I had seen him and not smilin’.

“After I got out of jail, half dead, I found out that Medgar Evers had been shot down in his own yard.”

Mrs. Hamer paused for a moment, saddened by the recollection. I glanced around the dim room. Faded wallpaper covered the walls and a vase, some framed photos, and a large doll were placed nearly on a chest and on a small table. Three stuffed clowns and a small doll lay on the worn spread on the double bed in the corner. Both the small doll and the larger one had white complexions, a reminder of the world outside.

“We’re tired of all this heatin’, we’re tired of takin’ this. It’s been a hundred years and we’re still being beaten and shot at, crosses are still being burned, because we want to

vote. But I’m goin’ to stay in Mississippi and if they shoot me down, I’ll be buried here.

“But I don’t want equal rights witb the white man; if I did, I’d be a thief and a murderer. But the white man is the scardest person on earth. Out in the daylight he don’t do nothin’. But at night he’ll toss a bomb or pay someone to kill. The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treatin’ Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t solve any problem for me to hate whites just because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

As part of her voter-registration work, Mrs. Hamer has been teaching citizenship classes, working to overcome the bad schooling Delta Negroes have received, when they receive any at all. “We just have nice school buildings,” she says. In Sunflower County there are three buildings for 11,000 Negroes of high school age, six buildings for 4,000 white high school students. In 1960-61, the county spent $5150 per white pupil, $60 per Negro pupil. When applying to register, persons as part of the test must interpret the state constitution but, Mrs. Hamer says, “Mississippi don’t teach it in school.”

The Negro schools close in May, so that the children can help with the planting and chopping; they open again in July and August, only to close in September and October so that the children can pick cotton. Some stay out of school completely to work in the fields. Mississippi has no compulsory school-attendance law; it was abolished after the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision. Many Negro children do not attend school simply because they have no clothes to wear.

Mrs. Hamer has helped distribute clothing sent down from the North. “We owe a lot to people in the North,” she admits. “A lot of people are wearing nice clothes for the first

time. A lot of kids couldn’t go to school otherwise.”

One time when a shipment arrived for distribution, the Ruleville mayor took it upon himself to announce that a lot of clothes were being given out. More than 400 Negroes

showed up and stood in line to receive clothes. Mrs. Hamer, combining human compassion and politicking, told them that the mayor had had nothing to do with the clothing distribution and that if they went and registered they wouldn’t have to stand in line as they were doing. Many went down and took the registration test.

“A couple weeks ago when more clothes arrived,” she relates, “the mayor said that people could go and get clothing, and that if they didn’t get any they should just go and take them. I went and talked to the mayor. I told him not to boss us around. ‘We don’t try to boss you around,’ I told him.”

Obviously, Fannie Lou Hamer will not be easily stopped. “We mean to use every means to try and win. If I lose we have this freedom registration and freedom vote to see how many would have voted if there wasn’t all this red tape and discrimination.”

If Mrs. Hamer is defeated by Jamie Whitten in the primary, she will also file as an independent in the general election.

Last fall, SNCC voter-registration workers attempted to register in freedom-registration books all those not officially registered. These Negroes then voted in an unofficial Freedom Vote campaign, choosing between Democrat Paul Johnson, now Governor, Republican Rubel Phillips, and independent Aaron Henry, state NAACP chairman. Henry received 70,000 votes.

The same thing will be done this summer, and if Mrs. Hamer loses, the Freedom Vote total will be used to challenge Whitten’s election.

Backing up the discrimination charges are nine suits the federal government has pending in seven Second Congressional District counties, including a suit in Sunflower County where, in 1960, only 1.2 percent of voting-age Negroes were registered.

A Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is also being formed which will hold meetings on every level within the state, from precinct on up, finally choosing a delegation to the National Democratic Convention that will challenge the seating of the regular all-white Mississippi delegation.

In addition to Mrs. Hamer, three other Mississippi Negroes are running for national office in the 1964 elections. James Monroe Houston will challenge Robert Bell Williams in the Third Congressional District, the Rev. John E. Cameron faces William Meyers Colmer in the Fifth, and Mrs. Victoria Jackson Gray is campaigning for the Senate seat now held by John Stennis.

This extensive program provides a basis for Negroes organizing throughout the state, and gives a strong democratic base for the Freedom Democratic Party. The wide range of Negro participation will show that the problem in Mississippi is not Negro apathy, but discrimination and fear of physical and economic reprisals for attempting to register.

The Freedom Democratic candidates will also give Mississippians, white as well as Negro, a chance to vote for candidates who do not stand for political, social and economic

exploitation and discrimination, and a chance to vote tor the National Democratic ticket rather than the Mississippi slate of unpledged electors.

“We been waitin’ all our lives,” Mrs. Hamer exclaims, “and still gettin’ killed, still gettin’ hung, still gettin’ beat to death. Now we’re tired waitin’!”


Fannie Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges


Mrs. Hamer emerged as one of SNCC’s most effective and charismastic leaders (and its oldest). Here are excerpts from her memoir, To Praise Our Bridges, taped and edited in 1967 by Julius Lester and Maria Varela of SNCC.

My parents moved to Sunflower County when I was two years old [around 1920], to a plantation about four and a half miles from here, Mr. E. W. Brandon’s plantation. My parents were sharecroppers and they had a big family. Twenty children, fourteen boys and six girls. I’m the twentieth child. All of us worked in the fields, of course, but we never did

get anything out of sharecropping.

My life has been almost like my mother’s was, because I married a man who sharecropped. We didn’t have it easy and the only way we could ever make it through the winter was because Pap had a little juke joint and we made liquor. That was the only way

we made it. I married in 1944 and stayed on the plantation until 1962 when I went down to the courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. That happened because I went to a mass meeting one night.

Until then I’d never heard of no mass meeting and I didn’t know that a Negro could register and vote. Bob Moses, Reggie Robinson, Jim Bevel and James Forman were some of the SNCC workers who ran that meeting. When they asked for those to raise their hands who’d go down to the courthouse the next day, I raised mine. Had it up as high as I could get it. I guess if I’d had any sense I’d a-been a little scared, but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do to me was kill me and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a Iittle bit at a time ever since I could remember.

There was eighteen of us who went down to the courthouse that day and all of us were arrested. Police said the bus was painted the wrong color—said it was too yellow. After I got bailed out I went back to the plantation where Pap and I had lived for eighteen years. My oldest girl met me and told me that Mr. Marlow, the plantation owner, was mad and raising Cain [?]. He had heard that I had tried to register. That night he called on us and

said, “We’re not going to have this in Mississippi and you will have to withdraw. I am looking for your answer, yea or nay?” I just looked. He said, “I will give you until tomorrow morning. And if you don’t withdraw you will have to leave. If you do go withdraw, it’s only how I feel. You might still have to leave.” So I left that same night. Pap had to stay on till work on the plantation was through. Ten days later they fired into Mrs. Tucker’s house

where I was staying. They also shot two girls at Mr. Sissel’s. That was a rough winter. I hadn’t a chance to do any canning before I got kicked off, so didn’t have hardly anything. I always can more than my family can use cause there’s always people who don’t have enough. That winter was bad, though. Pap couldn’t get a job nowhere ’cause everybody knew he was my husband. We made it on through, though, and since then I just been trying

to work and get our people organized….

I’ve worked on voter registration here ever since I went to that

first mass meeeing. In 1964 we registered 63,000 black people from Mississippi to the Freedom Democratic Party. We formed our own party because the whites wouldn’t even let us register. We decided to challenge the white Mississippi Democratic Party at the National Convention. We followed all the laws that the white people themselves made. We tried to attend the precinct meetings and they locked the doors on us or moved the meetings and that’s against the laws they made for their ownselves. So we were the ones that held the real precinct meetings. At these meetings across the state we elected our representatives to go to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. But we learned the hard way that even though we had all the law and all the righteousness on our side—that white man is not going to give up his power to us.

We have to build our own power. We have to win every single political office we can, where we have a majority of black people. The question for black people is not, when is the white man going to give us our rights, or when is he going to give us good education for our children, or when is he going to give us jobs. If the white man gives you anything, just remember when he gets ready he will take it right back. We have to take for ourselves.


Endesha Ida Mae Holland, From the Mississippi Delta


Holland was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, daughter of a disabled and uneducated single mother. This was taken from her autobiography.

At that time, there were very few welfare programs in existence. People who did receive government aid were ashamed to speak of it, and their neighbors knew better than to ask. One of the few assistance programs people were not ashamed to speak of, however, was the Surplus Food Program. Most of the poor people living in the outlying districts and in Greenwood—both black and white—were dependent on the federal government for commodities like cheese, flour, milk, rice, beans, and sometimes canned chopped meat to make it between harvests.

Mama would awaken me early in the morning to go down to the commodity house in the old compress near the railroad track to pick up her supplies. Once inside, we had to form a single line and holler out our names, saying whether we knew how to sign them. The white county worker sitting behind her neat desk enjoyed causing us as much misery and shame as possible.

“Now boy,” she’d say to old Mr. Brace, who was nearly eighty, “you and this gal”—referring to his wife, Miss Beulah—“y’all git up to the white line and don’t move ’til I call yo’ name.” Then she would call on several people and fuss at them because they could only sign their name with an X. Hours later, she would remember the old couple, who were still standing near the white line. They would be tired, hot, and in need of a bathroom, but they hadn’t dared leave the spot for fear of having their food withheld. The surplus food came from the federal government, but the program had always been administered by Leflore County officials. That summer [1962], under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan and its upscale auxiliary, the White Citizens Council, they had stopped distribution and locked up the commodities. I hadn’t minded the interruption, and I hadn’t thought about what had caused it. I hated the trip to the commodity house and back and the humiliation of the process. And since Ike [her son Cedric’s father] sent money and sacks of grocery for Cedric, we were able to get by. But now I was curious about what had given the county the right to withhold goods that weren’t theirs in the first place.

“It be dese Riders,” Miss Nonnie said, “tryin’  t’ reddish us’n t’ vote. Mayor Sampson an’ Chief Lary be all shook up! Dey ain’t gwine gi’e us’n no some-teet ’til de Riders leave dis town.” She rolled her eyes heavenward. “So de Riders tell us’n  t’ c’mere an’ git de grocies sont by folkses up nawth! Jest’ fore you gits here, a carload o’ dem white mens drive by. Dey be talkin’ underneath our closes an’ call us’n ‘Moses niggers’ an’  ‘block coons’ ” an’ ‘peacock skunks,’ an’ dey says for us’n t’ git on home where us’n b’long! But you knows us’n needs de grocies. What else us’n gwine do?”

That was a good question. Though I had lived in Greenwood all my life, I had never seen people scratching for food the way my friends and neighbors were doing now.

“Who you gwine b’lieve,” Miss Nonnie asked no one in particular, “dese white folkses who done been feedin’ you for a long time, or de Riders? Dey be like a birds who be flyin’ ‘cross de sky—dey soon be gone.”

The handsome stranger I had followed stood in the doorway. “We need help to get all these people signed up. Who can read and write and is willing to help us with this task?” His voice was cool and deep—like Ike’s without the jazz, but dressed up with education. He was looking directly at me.  “G’won, Cat.” Miss Nonnie pushed me forward. “Dis ‘un kin read an’ write real good—her make out all my chilluns’ birth ‘tificates!”

Nobody else stepped forward, but if life had taught me nothing else, it had taught me to recognize a cue to get onstage. I followed the stranger inside.

Rows of fluorescent lights glowed overhead, and notices, letters, cards, and clippings were tacked and taped all over the walls. On the far wall was a map of the entire Delta, covered with pushpins. Desks and tabletops sported all kinds of magazines and newspapers I had never seen. Some even had black faces on their covers: Negro Digest, Our World, Ebony, and Jet.

A couple of teenagers 1 knew from Baptist Town said “How do” as I passed and nodded nervously at me, which made me nervous, too. A bunch of colored folks I didn’t know sat in knots about the room, in chairs and on the edge of desks, slouching or standing, and talking with animation and wit. Some just had their heads down, writing busily in notebooks or files as they interviewed pairs of people I knew—the poor people who had come for food. Mixed among them were a handful of white folks, but nobody seemed to be paying attention to them except the black people they were talking to.

I made a beeline to look over the shoulder of the young colored woman who’d been typing. I expected to see a lot of Ps and Qs on the paper, but she hadn’t missed a word.

Someone called out “Bob,” and the stranger I had followed turned his calm eyes to mine.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—SNCC, pronounced “snick” by movement regulars—had been formed a few years earlier in North Carolina after black students there had staged a sit-in at the lunch counter of a local five-and-dime. They thought our older self-help organizations like the NAACP and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, had grown too fat and lazy in their old age. SNCC provided younger blood and new energy to fight a war the Kennedy administration said was just beginning: to wipe out Jim Crow, starting at the ballot box and courthouse. To bring together all the various black groups that had a finger in this pie into one powerful fist, the leaders of SNCC, the SCLC, the NAACP, and CORE founded the

Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a kind of United Nations of black America. And white America, at least in the South, didn’t like that one bit.

Twenty-seven-year-old Bob Moses was director of COFO’s voter registration drive, which brought him—and a whole lot of trouble—to Mississippi. He’d begun in McComb the previous year [1961], and this summer had targeted Greenwood and the Yazoo River region,

where only 2 percent of the black people (compared to 95 percent of the whites) were registered to vote. We were to be a make-or-break showcase project, but at this point, with only a handful of new voters to show for a whole summer’s worth of work, we seemed to be breaking.

At first glance, Moses didn’t look like the inspirational leader some already knew him to be, and the rest of us would soon discover. He was not tall or powerfully built. He had freckles and wore glasses and spoke softly. Yet, as I would soon learn, no packhorse could teach him anything about stamina; no history book patriot or bloodied war hero could show him how to stand firm against his enemies. When the going was toughest, his very presence calmed people better than a shot of whiskey. With quiet, soulful eyes, this math teacher from the Harlem projects shared his creed before each battle: “Each and every one of us can strike a blow for freedom.”

Bob had been preceded in Greenwood by Mississippi natives Sam Block and Willie Peacock. Willie was as handsome as his name: tall, raw-boned, with fine African features—oval head, long jaw, broad, thoughtful forehead. Like Bob Moses, he was a college graduate and one of SNCC’s first field secretaries. When he and Sam first came to Greenwood, neither had a car, so they rode a borrowed mule around town and into the country to register their voters.

Sam Block was a twenty-three-year-old music student from Mississippi Vocational College in nearby Itta Bena. He was not a handsome man, but he had enormous courage. At the beginning of the summer, a Negro man was arrested for “peeping on a white woman.” The man was bull-whipped in jail and might have died if Sam hadn’t made a complaint to the FBI. Nothing happened to his assailants, of course—the FBI was years away from taking a hard

stand against any southern police force—but his action made Sam a folk hero to Greenwood’s blacks.

At SNCC’s first voter registration drive, Leflore County sheriff John Ed Cothron came up to Sam and asked, “Nigger, where you from?” Sam answered, “Well, I’m a native Mississippian.” The sheriff said he knew “every nigger and his mammy” in Greenwood, and he didn’t know Sam. Sam replied, “Well, you know all the niggers, do you know any colored people?”

Sheriff Cothron spat in Sam’s face and told him, “I don’t want to see you in town anymore. The thing you better do is pack your clothes and get out and don’t never come back no more.”

Sam replied, calm as he could be, “Well, Sheriff, if you don’t want to see me here, I think the thing for you to do is pack your clothes and get out of town, ’cause I’m here to stay. I came here to do a job and I’m going to do it.”

Bob Moses arrived in Mississippi with a group of SNCC workers. They were referred to jokingly as “Moses and his Twelve Disciples.” A few local people came forward to help: in addition to the Reverend Aaron Johnson and B. T. McSwine, there were Mr. Robert Burns, the picture taker, the old agitator Mr. Cleveland Jordan, former local NAACP president Edward “Deadeye” Cochran, and Dewey Greene, a classmate of Block’s, among others. Soon the SNCC workers had to flee by the windows of their office to escape a gang of angry white thugs.

That was just the beginning of the backlash, which escalated to firebombs, shotgun blasts, and beatings. Strangely enough, the KKK wasn’t as active in Leflore County as elsewhere in the Delta. It didn’t have to be: before the Movement came, everybody knew their place and stayed in it. But when the local klaverns did strike, they did so with terrible effect, leaving behind wooden crosses wrapped with flaming cloth, dynamite-filled shoeboxes, or whiskey jugs filled with white gas, lighted rags jammed in their mouths. Black people were afraid, and began to denounce the movement and the workers before whites.

“My boss lady axed me ‘f’n I be don’ th’ow in wit’ de votin’ folkses,” Mama’s friend Miss Loddie whispered to her. “I tol’ her dat dem folkses ain’t no earthly good.”

“You be right, Loddie,” Mama whispered back. Greenwood’s Negroes seemed to have lost their ability to speak above a whisper.

But SNCC wasn’t leaving Greenwood; in fact, the troops continued to grow. Lawrence Guyot, a heavyset Tougaloo student, came on board. At eighteen, Luvaghn Brown from Jackson was for a time the youngest SNCC staffer. The white male workers, like Dick Frey, all looked a little older, especially with the tidy mustaches and horn-rimmed glasses some of them sported. Their uniform was the same sweat-stained, open-collared sports shirts many of the black men wore.

The few white women, like Toni Lang and Karen Trusty, looked like no kind of woman I’d seen, with long, wavy hair pulled up in ponytails or pigtails against the heat, thin unpainted lips, earnest eyes, and big hoop earrings that made them look like Gypsies. I stared and stared at them, fascinated and confused.

Bob Moses led me to a desk with two chairs—one empty, the other occupied by the typist who hadn’t missed a word. “Ida—that’s your name?” he asked politely.

“Yassuh,” I said. “Ida Mae Holland. But people jest calls me Cat.”

“Well, Ida, this is Emma Bell—Emma, Ida Mae Holland,” he said, introducing me to the fast-typing gal. She looked up and grinned and crinkled her eyes in a friendly welcome without missing a stroke. “This is your desk,” he said, pulling out the chair for me, like a gentleman on a date.

I sat down softly, feeling as if everyone in the place was looking at me. Of course, they weren’t. They were all busy looking at maps and papers and lists and talking about things like “voter registration forms” and “the food program” and “mass meetings” and such. It was like school—but a school where the students were teachers.

“Don’t worry, Ida,” Emma said. “You’ll get used to this madhouse.”

I watched Emma type for a minute—fingers flying across the keyboard, eyes dancing from line to line on the scrawly notebook beside her—until another man appeared, this one with a typewriter in his arms.

“How you doin’, sister?” he asked.

“I be doin’ fine, how you doin’?” I replied.

“Glad you’re here,” he said, shifting the typewriter in his arms. “We need you bad. Mind if I set this on your desk?”

On my desk! A typewriter on my very own desk? “Sho’ thang,” I said, pushing books, binders, and papers out of the way to make room.

“Okay, now that you’ve got your typewriter,” Emma said, “here ‘s what we’ve got to do.”

What we’ve got to do? Somehow, just by walking in and being who I was, I’d made the grade. I was on the team, and now 1 had responsibilities like everyone else.

A pair of sharecroppers came in—my first customers. Emma and I took their names and addresses and whatever else the form said. Emma typed while I printed neatly on the long yellow-lined pad. I was afraid of the typewriter, but I had them sign their names or leave their mark, then pointed them back to the place where they could pick up some emergency rations. “There,” Emma said, grinning, “you just signed up your first pledge—that fella says he’ll

go down to the courthouse with us and register to vote!” Emma typed the information onto another form as fast as she could, then signaled for the next applicants .

As the afternoon wore on, I began to see my own pride and relief reflected in the faces of our “clients.” Each man or woman was treated with courtesy and respect—no hollering or ignoring or bullying as usually happened at city hall, the county courthouse, the commodity house, or any other place where colored people went to take care of even the most routine business. And although we didn’t know it then, each person we signed up would bring back five, ten, fifteen, even twenty others over the next two years. As one White Citizens Council member said years later, “When we cut out the food giveaway program, that was our biggest mistake—‘cause that’s when our nigras embraced the civil rights crusade!”

Someone—I think it was Willie Peacock—started singing. “One man’s hands can’t change the status quo. Two men’s hands can’t change the status quo. But if one and one and fifty make a million, we’ll see that day come ’round—we’ll see that day come ’round!” Everyone else in the office picked up the tune, and before the song was over I had learned it, too.

By the time we had processed and provisioned the last hungry person, it was dark.

“You did a great job, Ida. Thanks,” Emma said, pulling the plastic cover over her typewriter. “Tomorrow I will show you how to type.” Then she added, “I’m hungry, let’s go eat.”

As I tidied up my desk and got my things together, I realized I had taken to these newcomers like a duck to water. Being treated with respect was something wholly new for me. I was impressed that none of the men in the Freedom Office showed even the slightest interest in wanting to have sex with me. It struck me that the people I was working with—men and women, black and white—were interested in one thing and one thing only: freedom.

I left the Freedom Office feeling ten feet tall, but by the time I had run the gauntlet of cold stares, evasive glances, and unreturned greetings on the way home, I had been whittled down to inches. The news that “Cat be up yon’er wit’ dem Riders” had spread before me like an unwelcome mat in my neighborhood.

Mama shouted my name as soon as I turned off Walthall onto East Gibb. By the time I climbed the steps to the porch, I could see she was spitting mad. “You c’mere, gal, an’ tell me where you be at all day!”

“I be writin’, Mama—signin’ up de folkses to go to de courthouse to vote.” I hoped the worship word writing would calm her down.

“Vote! Vote! You be messin’ ’round wit’ dem Riders—ol’ ‘omanish gal, who ain’t got no sense, who be crazier den a betsy bug! “

“I tol’ you, Mama. I be teachin’ de folkses to write dey name—“ 

“Gal, I ain’t axe you what you be doin’, I axe you where you be doin’ it! Who you be wit’?”

“Be at de Freedom Office,” I said in a small voice.

“De Freedom Office!” She jerked in her wheelchair as if she’d been shot, and her eyes fluttered heavenward. “Lawd, have mercy on yo’ servant!”

Suddenly I was more angry than scared. “Dey be a different kind o’ colored folkses, Mama,” I said firmly. “Dey be real good people. Dis here one lady—she don’t be talkin’ to me, but I hear her say it—say we gonna git our freedom—”

“Git our freedom! Git our freedom! Ida Mae, gal, us’n be already free. Dat dere ‘oman don’t know what she talkin’ ’bout!”

“You oughta hear dem, Mama. Dey talk real pretty and properlike. Dey don’t break no verbs, neither.” Mama loved proper talk.

“Don’t wanna hear dem,” she said, covering both ears with her hands. “Ain’t got no time t’ fool ’round wit’ dat mess. Git our freedom! You best lissen t’ me, gal. Don’ cha git in wit’ dem fools. All dey gwine do is git a lotta folkses kilt. Den dey gwine go back home up nawth—”

“Dey ain’t jest from de nawth, Mama,” I said. “Dey be from de Delta, too—an’ from Jackson, ‘lanta, Memphis—uh, lessee, an’ from Chicago, too!” I tried to think of the places Mama respected.

“Dey c’mere from Hell—stirrin’ up trouble twix de white folkses an’ us coloreds.” Mama rolled her chair away and wouldn’t look at me. “Yo’ mama ain’t jest fall off’n de dray wagon, Ida Mae. Us’n knowed a long time now dat dese folkses be comin’ here, makin’ us ‘ fraid for our life. Dem Freedom Riders done slip in dis town like a thief an’ robber in de night! Dey gwine git us all kilt wit’ dey talk ’bout reddishin’ t’ vote an’ bein’ good as de white olkses. Lawdy, Lawd”—she looked to the sky again—us’n poor ol’ colored folkses needs you now!”

“Mama, dey jest want me to he’p dem write down de folkses’ name an’ show dem how to write.”

“Lawd amercy—you tol’ dem outsiders dat you gots a education?” Now she did look at me, with panic in her eyes.

“Didn’t open my mouth ‘ cept to say yes, Mama. I swears it.” I crossed my heart and hoped to die.

Mama looked at me suspiciously. “Now, I knows you be real ‘omanish—“ 

“Miss Nonnie did it, Marna. She jest ’bout push me through de door! She tol’ de Civil Righters—dat’s what dey is—dat I be de one who fill out de birth ‘tificates for her chilluns.”

“Dat crack-brain ol’ ‘oman! She oughta mind her own dear bidness. Den she oughta payme for catchin’ dat water-head boy o’hers!”

I’d succeeded in getting Mama off on a tangent, the opportunity I’d been looking for. I walked off to tend the mound of dirty laundry that was waiting for me and to kiss sleeping Cedric and Charles.

“But you promise me one thang, Ida Mae,” Mama shouted after me. “Even though you ain’t never once done a thang I axe you—“ 

“What dat, Mama?”

“Promise yo’ ol’ Mama on a stack o’ Bibles dat you ain’t gwine git mix up wit’ dem Righters. C’mon now, gal. Say it.”

I sighed. “Okay, Mama—ain’t never gonna mess ’round wit’ dem Righters.” I crossed my heart again, but in the reverse direction from before. If God was watching as close as Mama, He knew what I meant.

            Despite my promise to Mama, I went back to the Freedom Office the next day. It turned out that learning to type wasn’t as easy for me as Emma imagined. But I got pretty good with two fingers (the way I type to this very day), and I learned my way around an office—filing, answering phones, filling out forms, greeting people, handling problems, even creating problems if that’s what was needed to get things done.

            I began working with Judy Richardson and Sally Belfrage, a white girl from the North, in the Freedom Library, which suited me since I like to read. The Freedom Library supplied books and materials to COFO’s “Freedom Schools,” little one-room, one-teacher “campuses” where black adults and kids could learn something about their own history and legal rights, and brush up on their basic skills.

            In the mornings I filled out forms and taught people how to read and write. When I got to the office each day, there was a crowd waiting to be taught their ABC’s and to print their names in big, awkward letters. I was surprised to discover how many of my neighbors were illiterate. In the afternoons, I would go out into the neighborhoods to canvass for voters with the other SNCC workers, feeling smart and enviable. Sometimes we were chased away from people’s doors at gunpoint. Other times, we were invited in for a meager meal.

            But however well the Freedom Schools and libraries and food-giveaway program were working, the voter registration plan was failing. At this early stage we gauged our progress by the number willing to go and try to register to vote. Most often they were failed by technicalities, in the person of Miss Martha Lamb, the county registrar.

            “You see there, Cleve, you didn’t pass the test. See here—you didn’t write nothing in that section. You didn’t pass!” Miss Martha said sympathetically to Mr. Cleveland Jordan, the old agitator.

            “Can’t nobody pass that test,” Mr. Jordan complained bitterly. “My son can’t pass the test.” Mr. Jordan’s son was a college graduate and president of the local chapter of the NAACP. He reared back and hooked his thumbs under his suspenders. “I bet you Miss Martha Lamb can’t ‘terpret the Con’tution to my sat’faction.”

            In an effort to get the voter registration plan rolling, Greenwood’s SNCC leadership decided to trade their clipboards for the pulpit of Reverend Johnson ‘s Christian Church. I knew right away that would mean another run-in with Mama….

            People who did get involved in the Movement kept their involvement to themselves—no mean feat in a small community where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Brothers lied to brothers, and daughters lied to mothers. Friends and relatives who betrayed them thought of themselves as protecting their families. Some local blacks even curried favor with the police by tipping them off about SNCC’s movements and plans, often for a “reward” of several dollars.

            My reasons for joining were simple. It got the white man’s goat—and it also gave me a reason to flaunt my borrowed clothes. Within the little town of Greenwood, I lived in my own country. I was an outsider on the inside, a bit like the freedom workers. Perhaps this was what growing up really meant, I thought: to take that small space hidden within you and to pull it out, then stretch it until you could fit within it. Being around the SNCC people had turned my narrow space into a country bigger than I’d ever imagined. Still, every country has its borders, and there were always those who lurked outside, trying to beat my borders back, to make me small again. I swore I would not let that happen again….

            I admit I still needed to turn an occasional trick or two when things got really tight, but that was rare. A number of my past tricks gave me money, not for services rendered, but out of friendship and respect for my work in the movement. Sometimes, northern friends of SNCC would send small donations of cash earmarked for us volunteers. Eventually I was promoted to field secretary, which paid the modest salary of $10.10 a week—when we got paid, which wasn’t often. [cut] After taxes I had 9.64. The ends never quite met, but they were real close.

            Sometimes, when I was teaching somebody his ABC’s in the Freedom School, my mind would wander off in search of its “someday space.” But I’d come back to where I was quickly when someone asked me a question about direct action or a group of small children greeted me as a “freedom fighter.” At times like those, I swore I would never leave Mama and Cedric and the Delta. I didn’t have to anymore, and I didn’t want to.





Lawrence Guyot, a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) that he helped organize in spring 1964

Mrs. Hamer was a great gospel singer and a natural leader. She flowed out of the plantation system, she was a timekeeper, a position of trust and honor, if there is such in the plantation schema. James Bevel did most of the talking at the first meeting that Mrs. Hamer attended. Bevel was a great speaker and was a minister. Our being able to use the church as a meeting place and to have a minister speak the social gospel about why we should register to vote, what impact that would have on our lives influenced Mrs. Hamer and twenty-one other people. She decided to go with us the next day to Indianola to register to vote.

Now, registering to vote at that time meant that you filled out a twenty-two question questionnaire. One of the questions was, interpret any of the 286 sections of the Mississippi constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar. Now you have to bear in mind that some of those registrars couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t matter, they could still determine who should be registered, if that person happened to be black. Because all whites who attempted to register were registered. After we went through the process of filling out the questionnaire, we knew that all of the applicants’ names would be posted in the newspaper, serving notice to their creditors and employers that here’s someone who had done something wrong.

As soon as we left the courthouse in Indianola, the bus driver was arrested. He was charged with having a bus that was too yellow. This was a school bus. It was a frivolous charge, but that’s what he was charged with at the time. Upon returning to the plantation, Mrs. Hamer was told that she had a choice. She could take her name off and stay on the plantation, or she could leave her name on and she’d have to leave. She said, “I didn’t register for you. I registered for me.” And I think the act of registration, and making that statement, was the beginning of a history that changed the South.


Unita Blackwell became a voting rights activist after joining a voter registration meeting in a Sunflower County church

In 1963, we had heard that there were supposed to be these Freedom Riders, that’s what they called it, coming to Mississippi. Nobody thought they would ever show up, you know. Everybody talked about it—maybe they would come to Jackson or someplace like that. But I didn’t think they would ever show up in Mayersville, Mississippi, a little small town in the Mississippi Delta. It wasn’t even a town at that time.

And then they showed up. It was two guys, two black fellows. They came walking down the road and I knew they were different, because they was walking fast. We didn’t walk fast at that time. They just waved, you know, and says hello. We didn’t say that either. We always says, “How y’all feeling?” So we knew that that had to be some of them. That evening, we saw the highway patrols and police coming off the highway looking around, so we had an idea that this must be some of these Freedom Riders.

Two Freedom Riders came to Sunday school that morning, and they were pointing the finger at me, saying, “Just like that lady talking back there in the Sunday school class says that God help those who help themselves, you can help yourself by trying to register to vote.” That’s the first time in my life that I ever come in contact with anybody that tells me that I had the right to register to vote.

The white people knew what it meant. The black folks didn’t know that much what it meant. I was only told when I started off that if I registered to vote, I would have food to eat and a better house to stay in, ’cause the one I was staying in was so raggedy you could see anywhere and look outdoors. My child would have a better education. At that particular point, our children only went to school two to three months out of the year. That was what we were told. It was the basic needs of the people. The whites, they understood it even larger than that in terms of political power. We hadn’t even heard that word, “political power,” because it wasn’t taught in the black schools. We didn’t know there was such a thing as a board of supervisors and what they did, and we didn’t know about school board members and what they did.

Bob Moses was a little bitty fella. And he stood up to this sheriff and Bob said, “I’m from SNCC.” I had never saw that happen before. From that day on, I said, “Well, I can stand


People remember them people. SNCC went where nobody went. They was about the nuttiest ones they was. Ended up in some of the most isolated places and drug people out of there to vote.

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer said to me, “Girl, these here young people know something, don’t they?” And I said, “Yeah, they sure do.”


Victoria Gray (Adams) lived in Hattiesburg, a county seat in southeastern Mississippi

I applied for voter registration six times before I was able to be accepted. I was only able to be accepted after we had taken our registrar to court. In fact, all of my applications were used by the Justice Department in trying to have the registrar establish why 1 had not been registered in the beginning.

Of course, the very next step after becoming registered is to exercise that right to vote. For those few of us who had managed to become registered voters, we naturally wanted to begin participating at the earliest possible time. So when the time came for [Democratic Party] precinct meetings and county meetings we were all set to attend, but there were all kinds of games played.

The schedules and the places were always deliberately misrepresented. You would get there and there was nothing happening there. Or in many cases, people did actually get there and the meeting was going on, but we were not permitted to go in, pure and simple. We just weren’t permitted to come in. And we realized that even with the vote, you’re not gonna get anyplace if you can’t participate in these meetings. And so, out of the frustration of not being able to participate at the precinct and county levels, was born the idea of holding our own elections.


With blacks barred from registering and voting in the all-white Miss. Democratic Party, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) staged an alternative election in fall 1963, with NAACP state president Aaron Henry as candidate for governor and white Tougaloo College chaplain Edwin King for lieutenant governor. In late October, one hundred white students from Yale and Stanford (recruited by Allard Lowenstein, then a Stanford dean) took two weeks off from school to help canvass black neighborhoods for the Freedom Vote. On election day, over 80,000 blacks cast their ballots. The Freedom Vote showed that black political apathy was a myth. The presence of the white volunteers drew attention from outside the South.


Bob Moses, Mississippi Summer Project Director

There had grown a concern within SNCC and the movement about the involvement of white students in the Deep South as actual organizers and workers in the field. This was first demonstrated in southwest Georgia. In 1962, Martha Prescod and Jean Wheeler, who had been working in southwest Georgia and were two young black girls, left that project and came to Mississippi because of the presence of too many white people who were working there, They mirrored a kind of concern which existed within the Mississippi staff, which was predominantly people who grew up and lived in Mississippi, were from Mississippi, had spent their lives under the Mississippi condition, which was strict segregation and living in this closed society, so they had very little working contact with white people and they weren’t anxious to introduce them into the project, which they viewed—and rightly so—as their project, something which they had created out of nothing and at great risk to themselves.

They had voted down the attempt in SNCC in the beginning of 1963 to introduce white people into Mississippi as part of the Mississippi staff. Then, when the Freedom Vote came and the question arose of bringing in white volunteers, they reluctantly agreed, since they were going along with the campaign, with what Aaron Henry and Ed King wanted, and since they knew that it was only going to last for a couple of weeks. The volunteers from Yale and Stanford would be coming down for a couple of weeks, working with them, mobilizing the vote, and then they would be gone.

Immediately after the Freedom Vote, which was successful, there came the question of should we do this in the summer of 1964. Al Lowenstein proposed that we bring down students from all across the country, from the nation’s most prestigious schools. The discussion then arose within the staff as to do we want to do this or not. And we were split. We met for months over this question. You had the staff on the one hand, and the people that we were working with on the other. Mrs. [Fannie Lou] Hamer was an excellent case in point. She wanted the students to come back, and so we were at loggerheads.


Hollis Watkins, Mississippi SNCC organizer

The summer project to bring students down in Mississippi was a tough issue. Some felt that it would bring out more publicity to get more whites involved, that it would serve as a deterrent to keep the whites in Mississippi from doing things. There were others of us, from Mississippi especially, that was looking at this effort in terms of a long-range project. We felt that even though it would do this, that ultimately it would destroy the grass-roots organizations that we had built and were in the process of building.

For the first time, we had local people who had begun to take the initiative themselves and do things. For the first time, we had local Mississippians who were making decisions about what moves to make next. And where the organization should be going and how the organization politically and economically would work and where it would end up. We felt that with a lot of students from the North coming in, being predominantly white, that they would come in and overshadow these grass-roots organizations, causing the organizations to go on a different course than that which had been started.

At the same time, by the local indigenous people knowing that most of the students would be more educated than themselves, they would feel, “Since they are more educated than I am, maybe I should listen to them, do it their way, do what they say.” Because of that, they would become complacent, they would feel inferior and fall back into the same rut that they were in before we started the grassroots organizations. Ultimately, when the people from the North would go back, people from Mississippi would have to start all over again, and go through that same rebuilding process. All of us knew that it is much harder to rebuild something than to keep it in motion. We wanted to keep what we had in motion rather than stand the risk of destroying it and have to rebuild.


Bob Moses

What was in the offing was whether SNCC could integrate itself, as it were, and live as a sort of island of integration in a sea of separation. SNCC was trying to work itself out as an organization which was integrated in all levels. The question of white volunteers, or white SNCC staffers, came up in this context. Are they to be confined to the Atlanta office? And they’re pushing, those that are there, to get out in the field. If they come over to Mississippi, are they to be confined to Jackson? Is there a way for them to work in the field? There was constant pressure about what the goals of the organization were.

I think it was January 1964, and we were in Hattiesburg having a demonstration, picketing the courthouse. Mrs. Hamer was there and staff from all around the state, and we were taking up the question again. We got a telephone call that Louis Allen [black witness to the 1961 shooting of Herbert Lee] had been murdered on his front lawn in Liberty. I went over there to speak to his wife, who then moved down to Baton Rouge, and in the process of helping her and thinking through this, I felt like I had to step in and make my weight felt in terms of this decision about the summer project. Because up to then I had just been letting the discussion go on. I guess what I felt was that, as we were going now, we couldn’t guarantee the safety of the people we were working with.

There were larger things that were happening in the country. There was the 1963 civil rights bill, Mississippi was reacting to that, and we were feeling the backlash that was growing in Mississippi against gains that were being made nationally, but which were not having any immediate effect in Mississippi in terms of people being able to participate in some of those gains. But what they were feeling was the oppression, the backlash that was rising up in Mississippi— burning churches, the murder of two boys from Alcorn State occurred at that same time, Louis Allen down there in Liberty. We felt that we had to do something. And I felt that in that context that I had to step in between this loggerhead between the staff on the one hand and the people that we were working with. And so that’s how the decision was made to invite the students down for the summer of 1964.


Lawrence Guyot

In early spring 1964 he participated in the meeting during which SNCC organizers first presented the Freedom Summer plan to the entire COFO staff.

First of all, [spring 1964] there was a decision in Mississippi by the Mississippi staff not to have this Freedom Summer. The staff voted not to do it. This part of the staff meeting was held at a little Catholic conference in Greenville. This was the part chaired by Dave Dennis in Moses’ absence. Moses returned on the second day and said, “We’re gonna have it.”


Q. Why did the Mississippi staff initially vote against the project?


Very clear. A large number of people on the staff at the time had not excelled in intellectual rigors. Some of ’em couldn’t read and write, but my God, they could do anything else,  and did. They could get people to register to vote. They could speak well at mass meetings. They could mobilize a community. Any three people in that room could do that to any community anywhere. And here they were faced with competing in this newly found constituency that had developed respect for them with these white, competent people. Why they might even be able to type.That was, as far as I’m concerned, the friction….


SNCC organizer Charles Cobb among others strongly opposed white volunteers. “It was a concession. You’re conceding that you’re not able to deal with the situation. I mean, the reason for the 1964 Summer Project was simply that we weren’t able to cope with the violence in the state. But the opponents never had a chance of stopping the project.”


Lawrence Guyot

Moses came on the second day and said; “Look, I’m not gonna be a part of anything all-black. We’re gonna have the Summer Project. We need it. We need it for these reasons.”And suddenly, there was a reconsideration of the vote. And that’s the way it happened. Moses put himself and his political credibility with the staff on the line and won. See, had Moses not wanted it to happen, it wouldn’ta happened.


Guyot came to agree with Moses because of what he had observed the prior summer and fall.

When a few Yale students visited the SNCC office in Hattiesburg, Miss., wherever those white volunteers went, FBI agents followed. It was really a problem to count the number of FBI agents who were there to protect the students. It was just that gross.

So then we said, “Well, now, why don’t we invite a lot of whites”—we attempted to recruit blacks but that was unsuccessful—” to come and serve as volunteers in the state of Mississippi?” We thought it would bring federal protection. It didn’t bring federal protection early enough for Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman.


Dave Dennis, CORE Miss. Field Director, Deputy Director of Miss. Summer Project

The New Orleans lawyer speaks softly, recalling his years in Mississippi. The state had worn him out. He earned his law degree at University of Michigan. But he could not escape reminders

of Mississippi and the Movement. At the checkout desk in the law library was a young white woman he recognized as a Mississippi veteran, who he remembered had survived ugly abuse by the Natchez police. “They had held a pistol to her head and played Russian roulette.” He eventually learned that her library job was part of her therapy at the hospital she had entered right after the Natchez trauma. “She’s still in a mental institution. That’s around eleven years now.”

He had helped bring that young woman and others like her to Mississippi. In 1961 at age twenty-one he became CORE’s field director for Mississippi. When CORE, NAACP, SCLC, and SNCC joined forces to form a statewide organization called COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) he became a field director second in rank only to Bob Moses.


I’m gonna just tell you what my feeling was about it. We knew that if we had brought in a thousand blacks, the country would have watched them slaughtered without doing anything about it. Bring a thousand whites and the country is going to react to that in two ways.

First of all is to protect. We made sure that we had the children, sons and daughters, of some very powerful people in this country over there, including Jerry Brown, who’s now governor of California, for instance…. We made sure of that. The idea was not only to begin to organize for the Democratic Convention, but also to get the country to begin to respond to what was going on there. They were not gonna respond to a thousand blacks working in that area. They would respond to a thousand young white college students and white college females who were down there. If there were gonna take some deaths to do it, the death of a white college student would bring on more attention to what was going on than for a black college student getting it. That’s cold, but that was also in another sense speaking the language of this country. What we were trying to do was get a message over to the country, so we spoke their language. And that had more to do with that decision to bring ’em in by the two of us at the top than anything else.


Q. You and Bob Moses discussed that clearly?

The two of us discussed it. That was not opened up to the staff and everything else in the meetings, because the fact is that we didn’t know who was working for the press or whatever,

and most things that happened in staff meetings always got out. Now I guess it can be told. We didn’t plan anything that happened for it to happen. That’s what the Klan and the rest of ’em did, you know. We didn’t plan any of the violence. But we just wanted the country to respond to what was going on.


Q. What sorts of problems, if any, did that decision cause you and Moses?

It caused problems—I mean psychologically—for me in terms of the fact that you felt responsible for what happened to people, you know, and I still do. I mean, it’s the price that I had to pay and the price that I still pay for the decision. (Pauses) But it was something that had to be done. You see, one of the things is that we were in a war, and it wasn’t very romantic for those people involved in it. You look at that as an era of our time when there were things happening and you look back on it—some people wishing they were involved, those who were involved happy about it … They might have demonstrated a couple of times [and can claim] “I was a part of that thing.” But the people who were down there staying, that was a real war. We weren’t being slapped on the wrist. Every time people got up the next morning, you didn’t know whether you were going to see ’em again or not as they went out on different assignments, you see. Everything was a risk. We didn’t have much fun. We made our fun. We didn’t have many parties. It was work. Work seven days a week. We didn’t take off for vacations and things of that nature. We worked. Seven days a week. And a lot of people were making twenty-five dollars per week. It wasn’t fun….

At that time, we didn’t spend that much time thinking about death. I mean, it was right there. Very seldom did I think about it until something happened and then you’d say, “Wow, you know that was close.” Most of my thinking or reflecting on death being that close came after I left Mississippi, and more after I got out of the Movement completely, because it was something you just didn’t dwell upon.

There was a shock-fear kind of thing that went through me for several weeks after Chaney and Goodman were missing in terms of closeness to the Freedom Summer volunteers assembled there for orientation….


Sandra Cason (Casey Hayden), SNCC organizer

Cason was a white SNCC worker who had moved into Mississippi the year before at the request of Bob Moses.

I had a lot of contact with northern students previous to my work in Mississippi because I’d been doing fund-raising for SNCC out of Atlanta. I was what was called northern coordinator, so I handled all the correspondence with northern college students that came into the office. And they all wanted to come to where the action was, you know? I mean, what was happening in the

South was so dramatic and heroic. You’ve got to remember, this was the early sixties. Kids on college campuses were reading the existentialists. The black students were like heroes. They were like existentialist heroes, and people wanted to get close to this.

It was beautiful, it was happening. And it drew white intellectuals. It was more real, or more profound, than most anything else happening. They wanted to get close to it.


Peter Orris, Harvard undergraduate

I grew up in New York City. I had been raised in a family where being Jewish was important in terms of identifying with the underdog, with people who were suffering repression and discrimination. I had come into contact with SNCC organizers the summer before, when I worked in the national office of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. I was seventeen at the time, and was very impressed with the SNCC workers that were involved in that organization as well as those that I met in Washington at the time of the march.

Sometime in the spring of my freshman year at college, four of us from the civil rights coordinating committee at the college went to Atlanta for a regional meeting of SNCC and heard about what was going on. We met many people who were involved in voter registration and direct action from the southern states, and it was tremendously impressive and exciting. For me, it was a tremendous privilege to be allowed to participate in this movement for racial justice. At eighteen years old, to be able to be involved in this kind of a struggle was very important to me.

In June of 1964, I arrived in Oxford, Ohio, for the training session for the summer project. I was selected to be part of a group that was going to the southwest area of Mississippi and to do voter registration in that area. A farner had been killed a short time before for being involved in voter registration efforts, and violence had been ongoing in that area. We were a group of fifteen or sixteen people, and we spent many hours with Bob Moses and a variety of other leaders of SNCC who had been in the South and in that area.

Additionally, it was to give us a feeling of exactly what kind of a tense atmosphere we were going into, what kind of violence we should expect, how to avoid the violence, as well as nonviolent responses to violent situations. We play acted situations where angry groups of people, mobs, would be attacking us and how we would handle ourselves in that situation where our life was threatened. The experienced SNCC workers were sure that we were going to meet situations like these during the summer, and they wanted to guarantee that we were going to respond in a nonviolent manner. Then a group of us were asked to go to Washington to make a direct appeal to the deputy attorney general, Nicholas Katzenbach, and others in the government,

that they should pay special attention to what was happening in Mississippi this summer, as we felt, and the organizers felt, that our lives would certainly be at risk for engaging in this activity.


Summer volunteers from the North, whether voting rights organizers or Freedom School teachers, wrote letters home. (First names and dates provided when available.)


June 21, 1964, Oxford, Ohio

Dear folks,

One sees a freedom here that is so much more than just the ironical fact that the enslaved people are, at least relatively, the liberated ones. Some “white” people sit at their feet wondering at this sorrow freed and made beautiful, sensing dimly in themselves a similar pain but knowing, dimly, that they have bound and frustrated it by their fear of it…. I think what is at the root of what I experienced today with these black people was a sense of tragedy. And I mustn’t forget how joy and deep humor are involved in that sense, how they are all one and how that is why it is the key. If we realize that safety is a myth, aren’t we in a sense “saved” by that knowledge and acceptance of death?

… I begin to realize that it is a war that I will enter and that the enemy is even lunatic, even driven into frenzy by his fear. But I also learn that the enemy is very much myself and all of America and, perhaps, of humanity…. I cannot agree with that “sympathetic” American who from his “safe” and carefully maintained distance says that we must slow up, that we must not push. I suspect this attitude, as I suspect that part of it

which I see in myself, because it says that something abnormal and therefore ominous, a naked reality, is drawing too close and threatening the sacred status quo. I think that there is too much piety and wise head-shaking about “Mississippi”…. Has everybody in the U. S. asked himself—asked himself!—am I prejudiced? Asked himself persistently until he arrives at that prejudice that is inevitably there by the nature of our society?

Love, Bret


Late June 1964, Oxford, Ohio

These people—the Mississippians and the SNCC staff members—are the ones who are really free. More free, certainly, than the Southern white imprisoned in his hatred for the Negro. Maybe you have to see the people’s faces, hear them talk and sing and struggle, to understand the Movement. You should—you must—understand this Movement, for it is the most important thing involving people in America today.


The first wave of student volunteers, those focusing on voter registration, departed for Mississippi from Oxford, Ohio, on June 20. Andrew Goodman, a white 20 year-old from Queens College in New York, rode with two veteran organizers from CORE, 21 year-old James Chaney, a black native of Meridian, Miss., and white 24 year-old Michael Schwerner from Brooklyn, N.Y. On Sunday, June 21, they drove to investigate a burned down church in a small town near Philadelphia, Miss, where Chaney and Schwerner had recently helped start a local voting rights effort. The three organizers disappeared after being arrested for alleged speeding and then released that night from the Neshoba County jail.

Two days earlier, the U.S. Senate had finally passed the Civil Rights Act (73-27) after a seventy-day filibuster by southern senators, longest ever. Because House passage was certain (on July 2; President Johnson signed it that day), everyone knew that the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1964 had prevailed.


June 21, 1964, Meridian, Miss.

Dear Stark,

They said that Meridian was an easy town. Comparatively speaking, of course, meaning that the police aren’t altogether that terrible, and they try to hold down the vigilante types. Right now, tho, we’re all sitting here in the office being quietly nervous as hell. This morning Mickey, who’s the project director, and Chaney, a local staff member and Andy, who’s a volunteer, all went out to one of the rougher rural counties to see about a

church that was burned down a few days ago. They said they’d be back by four, and now it’s coming on to ten. We’ve been calling the Jackson office all day, and have checked all the jails around, and they’re not in any of them. No word from them of any kind. We’ve had people out looking for them and they haven’t found anything. We’ve been in touch with the FBI and DJ [Dept. of Justice] but I don’t quite know if they’re doing much of anything. Philadelphia, Miss., that’s where they went to see about the church. The city of brotherly love. Everywhere you go here, there’s hate. Just now when some of us went down the

street for coffee, they were followed by a carload of white hoods. Now that we’re back inside, there are two carloads of hoods and one carload, no two, of police, following each other around in low circles outside. Sometimes when the hoods pass they yell something. “White nigger lover” seems to be a favorite. I wish I knew more what the intentions of the police are. In this town, they probably are trying to keep the hoods from shooting us or

something, but it’s hard to tell. It’s funny, you know, to come from a place where the police are expected to protect you into one where either you’re not sure or else you know very well they’re against you.

Still no word from the missing people. It must be 11 by now. No one has really said anything about the kinds of things that we’re all thinking could have happened to them. The people who’ve been out looking just came back. Now we talk about the Klan. The FBI is trying to find some grounds to get into the case full strength. Wish they’d hurry up about it.

Hot here, down to 95 now in the office, which is an improvement. Everyone now is very quiet, just sitting, and watching out of the darkened windows a little bit, watching the cars that circle. There’s a couple of people standing around on the corner. One of them is a little kid who gets the license number of the circling cars. Besides that, there’s nothing out there, just a kind of brighty lit street, with the electric wires crisscrossing in front of the window, and the darkness behind you when you sit in the window. Nothing to do but play ping pong or read and wait for the phone to ring. I’ve been reading All Quiet on the Western

Front. Somehow it’s appropriate, or maybe not. We’ll see….

Love, Edna


Sandra Cason (Casey Hayden)

Mendy Samstein and I were in the Freedom Summer office in Jackson, which was a storefront. Somehow we’d gotten this storefront together back during the Freedom Vote, and for the summer we’d put in a lot of telephones and a lot of desks. We had these cubicles. It was real hot, super hot. I remember somewhere later in the summer we got fans, which was a big deal. So it was very hot and the phone was ringing. People were calling in with reports, and we got a call that these guys had gone out and hadn’t called back. We had a system where people were to call in every half hour, or to call in at appointed times. And if the call-in didn’t come, then within 15 minutes, whoever was receiving the call-ins was supposed to call the Jackson office. We bad a security system we would then put into operation which involved calling the FBI and calling the Justice Department and calling the local police and in this case, calling back up to Oxford, where people were still training. Sowe did that and we asked the people to call back in half an hour to let us know what was happening. They did, and nothing was happening. At that point, Mendy was in the office and we assumed that they were either in real danger or dead. We got the folks in Oxford on the phone and said, “Well, it’s almost an hour now and we really think that this

is trouble.” And Bob [Moses] started trying to do what he could from Oxford and started calling Washington to try to put pressure on the FBI to send some people to check it out.

We had anticipated that there would be violence, but I remember thinking, boy, they’re really quick, you know. We had a lot of fear. I remember talking to Bob and saying, “You have to tell people to be very careful.” And I remember hearing the way I sounded and thinking, this is so silly, it doesn’t matter how careful they are, you know. There was nothing you could do. There was just nothing you could do.


James Farmer, Director, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)

It was two or three o’clock in the morning when I got a call from one of the CORE staff people in Meridian, telling me that Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were missing, and that I should come down immediately. I told them I would be on the next plane. I called [comedian] Dick Gregory in Chicago and woke him up—he had just gotten back in the country and was jet-lagged—but his reaction was, “Hey, Big Daddy, what’s happening?” Then I told him what had happened and he said, “When are you going?” and I said next flight—seven o’clock in the morning. Dick said, “Well, I’ll get the first plane I can out of Chicago, and I’ll meet you down there.”

We went to Philadelphia in Neshoba County and actually talked with Sheriff [Lawrence] Rainey and his deputy, [Cecil] Price, about the disappearance. They of course denied they knew anything about it. They had arrested the men for speeding, they claimed, and finally had taken them out of jail and headed them back toward Meridian.


Bob Moses

Mickey [Schwerner] had come down I think in 1963 to work for CORE as a volunteer from New York and had been based in Meridian for almost a year or so before the summer project. He had gotten James Chaney to join him. James was black, from Meridian, and his family lived there. He became a part of the CORE staff and of Mickey’s project there. They had some exposure to Mississippi and the conditions. Mickey had been there over a year; James, of course, all his life. When they went to Oxford, they took Andrew Goodman back with them. He had just come to Oxford and knew nothing about Mississippi. The three of them went back to Neshoba County to try and look for some housing for volunteers and for some churches, I think, for meeting places.

We heard that they had been arrested by the sheriff in Neshoba County and then we heard that they had been taken out of the jail. I remember Rita Schwemer, who was Mickey’s wife,

was still at the orientation session and spoke to the volunteers about that incident. And then she left and she was very emotional, and she was asking for students to help put pressure on the

Justice Department and so forth. I spoke after her. I waited until she left, because we had to tell the students what we thought was going on. If, in fact, anyone is arrested and then taken out of the jail, then the chances that they are alive were just almost zero.

We had to confront the students with that before they went down, because now the ball game had changed. We talked to them about the fact that as far as we could see, all three of them were dead. And that they had to make the decision now as to whether they really wanted to carry through on this and go down. We sang a couple of songs, and for a while I was worried because no one was leaving. But finally a few of them did leave [to go home], so I did think that the message had gotten through. You couldn’t think that all of those who came to that orientation session were prepared to face the actual murder of their fellow students.


Alice Lake, “Last Summer in Mississippi,” Redbook, Nov. 1964

The start of the trip seemed a lark-at first. On Sunday, June 2st, Kay arrived by bus at the peaceful green campus of Western College for Women, in Oxford, Ohio, where the National Council of Churches was conducting a week-long orientation session tor the summer volunteers. She was one of the second group of 250 youngsters planning to teach in Freedom Schools and man community centers. The first wave, mostly voter-registration workers, was already filtering into Mississippi.

It looked like a gay college weekend. All day buses spilled out youngsters with sleeping bags and guitars. Cars pulled up with stickers from the University of Oregon, Harvard, Yale, Antioch, Oberlin. New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California were most heavily represented, but students came also from Wyoming, Kansas, Oldahoma. Girls wore bright cottons, and the boys chinos and open-necked shirts. Immnediately they began singing. From the start it was a singing movement.

Many had made sacrifices to come. One girl used her college graduation money to finance the summer. Another took the finances she had saved for a trip to Europe. A third arrived

on what was to have been her wedding day. She had jilted her fiance when she found his ardor for civil rights did not match hers.

Greeting the volunteers were sober staff workers familiar with Mississippi jails, scarred by beatings or bullets. They minced no words about the dangers. There was Bob Moses, leader of the project, 29, shy, serious, a New York Negro who had gone to Mississippi in 1961 and never returned to complete his doctorate at Harvard; his pretty wife Donna, 23, tiny, dressed in brief white shorts, her black hair in a single braid down her back; Annell Ponder, 30, dark and beautiful, a crease of worry etched across her forehead; Jesse Morris, slender, tense, with a phenomenal memory; Jimmy Travis, 22, lanky and nervous, only recently recovered from a sniper’s bullet that nearly killed him.

On Monday morning Bob Moses spoke to the entire group. As you come into Mississippi you bring with you the concern of the country. It does not identify with Negroes. It

identifies with whites. With that concern comes a little more protection for you. It is still up for grabs whether that protection can be transferred to the Negroes of Mississippi.”

He was interrupted by a staff worker approaching the stage. Moses squatted on his haunches and the two whispered briefly. Then for a silent moment Moses remained bent over,

rocking back and forth. He straightened wearily and continued, voice flat, unemotional, eyes bleak behind thick glasses.

“Three of our people from Meridian, two staff workers and a summer volunteer, have been missing since yesterday afternoon.”


Jean Smith Young, “Do Whatever You Are Big Enough to Do”

Young, a black Howard University student, had worked with SNCC for a year in Mississippi.

            Bob explained the project to the volunteers and informed them honestly about the dangers that were ahead. I didn’t listen too closely when he talked about what might happen. After a year in SNCC I had gotten used to the atmosphere of danger and didn’t think very often about dying. Instead of concentrating on Bob’s facts about danger, I was more interested in watching his style and trying to learn how to model his delivery. Bob was good. No matter how determined he was about his own point of view, his presentation was the soul of humility. He rarely placed himself center stage, and this day was no different. He stood on the side of the stage, to the left of the audience. He talked in a conversational tone, so we had to strain to hear him. He paused often to let others speak. He answered all questions at length. He created the real feeling that we would remain in the auditorium for as long as it took to reach a common understanding.

            … I  had just relaxed into Bob’s mood of mutuality and consensus when suddenly the atmosphere became electric with tension. Bob was called offstage for a few minutes. When he came back his body was stiff and it seemed he was being propelled forward by about four staff members, including his wife, Dona. Then these staff members lined up next to Bob as he announced, in an unusually hesitant way, that three of our people—Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney—were missing in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and feared to be dead.


Alice Lake, “Last Summer in Mississippi,”Redbook, Nov. 1964

… Rita Schwerner, 22, painfully thin, dressed in faded blue shorts, her wavy hair piled loosely on top of her head, followed him to the platform. She too seemed unemotional. Later she broke down. “The missing three are my husband Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, of Meridian, and Andrew Goodman, of New York.” She wrote their names on the blackboard, and the place—Philadelphia, Neshoba County. In the heat no one stirred. Only a few days earlier Andy Goodman, 20, had sat in one of these auditorium seats. He was in Mississippi a scant 24 hours before he died.

On the surface the volunteers seemed curiously untouched. They jammed the telephone booths to wire their congressmen to demand a federal search. They stood noisily in line for lunch. “I felt tense, like when President Kennedy died,” Kay said at the lunch table. “I sort of connected it with myself but sort of not. I thought this might have been done to scare the rest of us away.” Had she been scared? She shook her head.

“No, I’d never known violence. No one ever threatened to do anything to me. I had no concept of things like that.”

Through the week, speaker after speaker urged any youngster who had doubts to return home. “If you don’t feel ready for this kind of thing, it is noble, not shameful, to leave,” said

Vincent Harding, director of the Mennonite House in Atlanta.

“Don’t worry if you’re not ready. No one is ever ready to go to Mississippi.” Each evening the telephones shrilled, calls from anxious parents begging their children to leave. Yet

not one youngster did.

Subtly the college-weekend air had changed. Volunteers flocked to the bulletin board where the latest news from Neshoba County was displayed. One boy confessed, “I’ve got

balls in my stomach.” A worship service, held at 11 P.M. after a tightly scheduled day, was heavily attended. Until 1 A.M. one night the students danced Israeli folk dances taught by a Negro girl from Texas. Then they prowled their dormitories, looking tor company.

The days were jammed with classes. Kay attended the general sessions in the morning and the meetings for Freedom School teachers in the afternoon and evening. She learned

that her students would be tenth to twelfth graders, and that the curriculum would be equally divided among academic subjects and citizenship education, Negro history and Negro

rights. In Mississippi there is no compulsory education law, and the average Negro attends school for only six years. His education costs the state annually less than half what it spends

Dlit a white child. One speaker said, “The Negro child is trained to accept without question. Teach him to ask why and the system will fall.”


June 26, 1964, Oxford, Ohio

Must write—thoughts are going crazy. Bob Moses just told us now is the time to back out. Should I? I don’t know—I am scared shitless. I don’t want to go to Mississippi. Why? Is it

because I am scared or because the program isn’t for me? No, program is good—people are dedicated—means of project conform with the end says Mario [Savio]. Civil Rights Bill won’t help—people are being killed—got to help. Pray. [SNCC leader James] Forman says much of the tension will leave when we reach Mississippi. Father Keating says stick it out, give the project a chance. Perhaps I should only write down optimistic things to reduce dissonance but I must be honest. Little Negro kid said I would be killed in Mississippi and not to go if they weren’t paying me. He’s too glib. Nevertheless, he really shook me up. Damon isn’t going. Wish I knew why. I have no one to turn to but me—and God.

Perhaps He will give me a sign.… Tomorrow I am leaving [for Miss.]


June 27, 1964, Oxford, Ohio

Before the first bus pulled out last night Bob Moses, his head hanging, his voice barely audible, tried to tell us what he feels about being responsible for the creation of situations in which people get killed. His only rationales (and obviously they don’t satisfy him) are that he asks no one to risk what he himself will not risk and that people were getting killed before

Civil Rights workers became active. Looking at us sitting in the same room where the 3 missing men had been last week, Moses almost seemed to be wanting all of us to go home.

He talked of the problem of good and evil, of a book which is one of my greatest favorites, a rather unknown book by the Englishman,  J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. The hero gains a means of ultimate power which he does not want. Yet this power becomes a necessity to him until in the end he is unable to yield it voluntarily, and in a very great sense, he must sacrifice that which is best in himself. For those of us who knew the book, it was a great and beautiful moment and it gave us an understanding which we might otherwise never have had … He talked about how, when you spend all your time fighting evil, you become preoccupied with it and terribly weary.

There may be more people killed this summer, but that won’t in any way deter us from what we are trying to do. Negroes who have challenged authorities in Mississippi have always been harassed or killed and we’re trying to change that, not succumb to it. We’re going to do the job we have to do.

Then Bob talked directly to the freedom school teachers. He begged them to be patient with their students. There’s a difference between being slow and being stupid, he said. The

people you will be working with aren’t stupid. But they’re slow, so slow.

He finished, stood for a moment, then walked out the door. Inside the auditorium there was total silence. Finally, from far in the back, a single girl’s voice started to sing: “They say that

freedom is a constant sorrow.”

Slowly the voices in the room joined in. We stood with our arms around each other and we sang for each other. I stood between a boy I knew from Morehouse and a girl I knew from

Carleton. And I felt the boy reach across behind me and hold the girl as well as me. I felt his love go through me, whom he knew and loved, to a girl he did not know well but whom he loved also. On the other side of this girl stood a woman who had taught at Spelman whom I knew and loved and who gave her love to this girl she did not know.

The group sang in one voice, each individual singing not for himself but for the group. As I sang and I felt the love of the group I realized that I loved all equally and that the difference was that I knew some better than others. And I knew better than ever before why I was going to Mississippi and what I am fighting for. It is for freedom—the freedom to love. It is something that none can have until everybody has it. Freedom to love all people equally and unselfishly, freedom to be a man with integrity so that there is no need to try to take others’ integrity from them.

As we sang, we all must have thought of our three who already died this summer in Mississippi. Everyone cried; either inside or out. We sang more, all kinds of songs, but the mood

remained sad—sad because we have to do what we have to do, but not pity.


Peter Orris

Those of us that had gone to Washington returned to Oxford, Ohio, in the middle of the second week of the training session. We had driven thirty hours straight, and we arrived in Oxford late one evening to find the college in a state of extreme remorse. In front of the dormitory area, there was a large circle of volunteers and SNCC organizers. They were in the dark and they were singing freedom songs. They had linked arms. We asked what had happened, and they described the situation to us. Three civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner—had disappeared. Our reaction was horror. The sorrow

that went through the camp was profound.


Late June 1964, Oxford, Ohio

Dear Mom and Dad,      

I cannot begin to tell you how it feels to be here…. Knowing about them. You feel like it couldn’t be real. No—uh-huh. They were in Oxford only a few days before—they couldn’t

already be in such danger. But then all of a sudden—the disbelief is countered by a vivid picture of reality—that it could be you. And then there’s this weird feeling of guilt because it wasn’t you—and here you are on a beautiful campus trying so hard to understand just what danger is anyway. Everyone suspects the worse to have happened to the men but no one says anything …

A lot of kids are trying to be real casual and cool and funny about everything so they don’t worry their folks. This seems silly to me—especially with you—because you’re in this with

us in the sense that unlike a lot of parents—you realize the significance of this summer as much as I do….

Love, Barbara


Claude Sitton, 3 in Rights Drive Reported Missing, June 23, 1964, New York Times

Philadelphia, Miss., June 22—Three workers in a day-old civil rights campaign in Mississippi were reported missing today after their release from jail here last night.

Leaders of the drive said they feared that the three men—two whites, both from New York, and one Negro—had met with foul play.

The three had been held by Neshoba County authorities for four hours following the arrest of one on a speeding charge and the jailing of the others “for investigation.”

Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation began arriving here in force early tonight after the Justice Department ordered a full-scale search.

The Mississippi Highway Patrol issued a missing-persons bulletin, but a spokesman in Jackson indicated late today that it had no plans at present for further action.

All three missing men arrived in Mississippi late Saturday afternoon from Oxford, Ohio, where they had taken part in a one-week orientation course for the statewide project. They were among the advance group of some 175 workers who are expected to be followed by another 800 participants in the campaign of political action, education and cultural activities among Negroes.

One of the missing whites is Michael Schwerner of Brooklyn, a 24-year-old former settlement-house worker. He came here six months ago with his wife, Rita, to open one of the

first community centers for Negroes in Mississippi. Mrs. Schwerner remained at Oxford to take part in the second orientation course for volunteers.

The second missing man is Andrew Goodman, 20, a student volunteer from Queens.

The third is James E. Chaney, 21, a Meridian plasterer and driver of the late-model Ford station wagon in which they were last seen.

Both Mr. Schwerner and Mr. Chaney are members of a civil rights task force organized by the Congress of Racial Equality, which is cooperating with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other organizations in the Mississippi project.

Concern over the fate of the three was heightened by the fact that the two CORE men had always reported their whereabouts before at frequent intervals, according to campaign spokesmen in Jackson. Workers in the Meridian drive headquarters said Mr. Schwerner had repeatedly emphasized the importance of this to the others during their drive here from Oxford.

Further, the prospect of the civil rights campaign had led to an increasing number of violent incidents even before the workers began arriving last Friday.

The three men left Meridian yesterday at about 9:30 A.M. for Philadelphia, about 35 miles away, where they planned to look into the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church

last Tuesday night. The Negro church was in the Longdale community, some I2 miles east of this town of 5,500 persons in east-central Mississippi.

Cecil Price, the Neshoba County deputy sheriff, said he had halted and arrested the three about 5:30 P.M. yesterday. He said Mr. Chaney had been driving 65 miles an hour in a 30-

mile zone on the outskirts of Philadelphia before he stopped them. The whites were held “for investigation.”

The three were released from the county jail here at 10:30 P.M. after Mr. Chaney paid a $20 fine. “I told them to leave the county,” said Mr. Price. The three then drove out along State Highway 19 after having told the deputy they were returning to Meridian, according to him.

Sheriff  L. A. Rainey, a burly, tobacco-chewing man, showed little concern over the report that the workers were missing.         

“If they’re missing, they just hid somewhere trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, I figure,” he said.

Robert Weil, spokesman for the campaign headquarters in Jackson, said campaign leaders “definitely fear that there was foul play, perhaps by the local citizens after they were released.”


With the civil rights bill poised for his pen, President Johnson worries that the South and other parts of the country will explode in anger. Now his immediate priority is no longer gaining votes for the civil rights bill but keeping segregationists and civil rights forces across the nation calm. He knows that the Schwerner-Goodman-Chaney disappearance could touch off a wave of national violence. Told that James Farmer, head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had called to complain that he had not done enough to find them, LBJ conveys his concern to aide Lee White.


Oval Office, White House, June 23, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson Phone Call with Associate Presidential Counsel Lee White, 12:35 PM


LBJ: … I asked [J. Edgar] Hoover two weeks ago, after talking to the attorney general [Robert Kennedy], to fill up Mississippi with FBI men and infiltrate everything he could [Ku Klux Klan and other violent white supremacists], that they haul ‘em in by the dozens…. I’ve asked him to put more men after these three kids…. I’ve asked him for another report today…. I’m shoving in as much as I know how…. I didn’t ask ‘em to go and I can’t control the actions of Mississippi people. The only weapon I have for locating ‘em is the FBI. I haven’t got any state police, any constables. And FBI is better than marshals and I’ve got all of ‘em I’ve got looking after ‘em. I can’t find ‘em myself.

Tell him [James Farmer of CORE] we are doing everything we know how to do with the FBI…. If he needs me to talk to him after you’ve talked to him, you’ll get me to call him…. I want to be awfully careful what I say to this fellow…. What do they think happened? Think they got killed?


Lee White: This morning they had absolutely no trace. There’s no sign of the automobile. They’ve found nobody who’s seen the car or the three people. So as far as they’re concerned, they just disappeared from the face of the earth. This means murder, as they [civil rights leaders] see it.


Oval Office, June 23, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with House Speaker John McCormack (Democrat-Mass.), 12:45 PM


LBJ: About three weeks ago, I called in Edgar Hoover and told him to fill Mississippi—I can’t say this publicly—but load it down with FBI men and put ‘em in every place they anticipate they can as informers and put ‘em in the Klan and infiltrate it and get ‘em up to join up—we can’t advertise this. But get all the informers they need so we know what’s going on and that we can protect these kids as best we can. We don’t recommend it, don’t advise it, but they’re going to do it anyway. So we’re gonna give ‘em as much protection as we can. So he’s shipped the FBI in there and he’s got them joining up on everything and they’re trying to get in the position where they can be helpful. When these kids didn’t show, night before last, yesterday morning we sent a new bunch of FBI in to supplement ‘em…. The FBI’s got two big groups that’ve gone in at my request, although I don’t want to appear to be directing this thing and appear that I’m invading the state and taking the rights of the governor or mayor. Nevertheless I’ve quietly shown plenty of firmness and put plenty of power. That’s the only power I have. The [U.S.] marshals couldn’t do much about it. The FBI’s the best people. Marshals are not investigative in nature and can’t locate anybody. We’ve asked ‘em for a report as quickly as they can get it….

What do you think I ought to do? [about seeing parents of missing men]


McCormack: I wouldn’t see them. Just diplomatically you haven’t got time. In a day or two they’ll catch those three. They can’t disappear forever, can they?


LBJ: No, unless they’ve killed them.


John Doar, U.S. Justice Department Voting Rights Investigator   

On the second day after the disappearances, Burke Marshall [assistant attorney general for civil rights] came into my office one night and said that President Johnson had decided to have Allen Dulles go down, the[former] head of the CIA, to make an investigation of the situation in Mississippi and give his recommendations. And Mr. Dulles came to the Justice Department the next morning, and the attorney general [Robert Kennedy] had me come up and talk to him because I was more familiar with Mississippi than most anyone, probably anybody else in the department. I went to Mississippi with Allen Dulles, and out of that trip the Justice Department made a recommendation that the FBI increase its force in Mississippi substantially. And Mr. Hoover opened an office in Jackson and put some very excellent FBI investigators in charge of that investigation. They were not only good, but there were a lot of them and they worked all that summer and solved that murder. The performance of the Justice Department was something that I am proud of in that respect.


Alice Lake, “Last Summer in Mississippi”

… “Friday was our last night in Oxford,” Kay says, “and most of us didn’t go to bed. I wandered around all evening and ended up in the laundry room of our dorm, where several of

US talked until four A.M.” On Saturday afternoon the volunteers piled into chartered buses that would take them as far as Memphis. Kay, Karol and Natalie learned that they would proceed from there to Columbus, a town on the eastern border of Mississippi. The bus drove through the night, arriving in Memphis at 5 A.M.

“I kept worrying about my knife,” Kay recalls. “It was just an innocent Scout knife, but I cherished it because my brother Charlie gave it to me. Yet I knew I had to get rid of it.” Earlier Bob Moses had said, “We will not allow any staff member or volunteer to carry a weapon. This is absolutely bedrock.” In the Memphis bus station Kay solved her problem. She asked a woman if it would be all right to give the knife to her little boy. The gift was accepted with delight.

In Memphis the three girls learned that they had been reassigned from Columbus to Greenville, a town near the Mississippi River in the rich Delta country of the northwest. The

reason: Columbus Negroes were too frightened to open their homes to civil rights workers. Each volunteer was to be housed in a Negro home. Such hospitality might be perilous.

Some hosts lost their jobs. Tear gas was lobbed into one home, and shots fired through the windows of others. Many feared that after the students left, modest homes, built with

pennies laboriously saved, might go up in flames.

“As we approached the Mississippi border,” Kay recalls, “we kept looking out the window. We weren’t exactly scared, but we were thinking of what might happen. When we saw a big billboard reading ‘Welcome to Mississippi,’ we all laughed nervously. “

They arrived in Greenville at noon after two sleepless nights. Immediately Kay saw a friend from Carbondale. “I was too keyed up to sleep, so we walked through town, expecting

somebody to jump out and massacre us. But it was quiet-on the surface, at least.”

For Mississippi, Greenville is a quiet town. It is the home of Hodding Carter, whose newspaper, the Delta Democrat Times, is one of the few liberal white voices of the state press.

Yet even in Greenville there is some harassment. “In my two weeks in the town,” Kay says, “I lived in two houses. It was thought safer not to have a civil rights worker remain too long in one place. Negroes there work desperately hard. My first hostess rose at four A.M., and worked from five until midafternoon in a restaurant. Then she came home and took in washing, which she scrubbed on an old-fashioned board.

“That’s the way we did our washing too. A little girl of about six watched Karol the first day, and politely told her that she was using the wrong side of the scrub board. We bought

soul food in a Negro grocery store. The proprietor was very friendly until white people came in. Then he acted as if he didn’t know us!’

In Greenville the girls had their first taste of Southern Negro hospitality. One night 35 workers were invited to a fried chicken dinner. Another day they feasted on spaghetti in a local

home. Six hundred people jammed into a steaming hall for a dance on the eve of the Fourth of July. Kay danced with the local boys until she was ready to drop. “They were so anxious

to dance with us. Most of them had never even shaken hands with a white person.”

At Oxford the problem of sexual contacts between white and Negro had been discussed frankly by the ministers. For Kay it soon became a practical dilemma. A 16-year-old boy

developed a crush on her. One night he asked if he could kiss her. “I’ve never kissed a white girl before,” he said shyly.

Kay’s answer was firm. “I don’t want you to treat me as a white object any more than I treat you as a black object. I’m a real person and so are you. If the only basis tor physical contact

is the difference in our color, then there’s no basis at all.”

Teaching briefly in a Freedom School, Kay learned something about the gaps in Negro education. Federal District Judge Sidney Mize had just ordered three Mississippi school

districts to integrate in the fall. His own personal disapproval of the order was implicit in a gratuitous statement that Negro brains were smaller, and thus inferior. Kay and her students

decided to write Judge Mize a letter, giving him the true facts. Together they trooped to the white library, where they were pleasantly received, to marshal their evidence. “These were high-school students,” Kay says, “but they didn’t know how to use an encyclopedia, and they had never been taught how to consult a card catalogue. They’re naturally intelligent but they’re shy about talking up. I had to be careful not to make the mistake I made in college, that if someone is not verbally adept, he’s not quite bright. Everyone doesn’t go wildly yakking the way I do.”

In Greenville the three girls were restless. “There were too many teachers and we felt we were not getting involved with the movement as much as we’d hoped,” Kay explained. Wheu

a phone call came on July 9th from Jackson headquarters, asking if they would like to start a new Freedom School in rural Madison County, Kay hesitated only briefly. She had become

friendly with a boy, another worker in the Greenville project. “I was the only one of the three with any ties,” she said, “but I had come to Mississippi for civil rights, not boy friends.” The next day they set off by bus for Canton.

They learned quickly that Canton was not liberal Greenville. Within minutes after the driver dropped them at a gas station, the police arrived, summoned by the owner, who spotted “those beatniks from the North.” They were questioned briefly and allowed to proceed. They spent their first night in Canton with a young Negro couple who both had just lost their jobs for trying to register to vote. In the middle of the living room was a crated bathtub, ordered a month

earlier. Now there was no money to install it. Yet Kay, always ebullient, was excited by her surroundings. “There’s a fig tree out back, and I ate my first fresh fig,” she told a friend breathlessly.

The story behind their school was exciting too. At the beginning of the summer, leaders scouted through towns, hunting students, homes for teachers, a school site. Now Mississippi

Negroes were coming to them, begging for more schools. A thousand youngsters had been expected to enroll. By midsummer there were already 2,000 in 22 communities.

Two days before the girls reached Canton, a retired Negro schoolteacher had telephoned the Freedom House there. A church was available, he had housing for three teachers, and

at least 40 pupils were eager to start. The next day he walked into the Freedom House and sat down. “I’ve come for my teachers,” he said firmly. He drove the girls on July nth to the Higgins and the Forbes farms. By Mississippi Negro standards, the home of John and Mary Higgins, where Kay and Karol lived for the next six weeks, is middle class. It is a firmly built, green clapboard structure, with a tin roof blazing in the sun. The small living room has dark red upholstered furniture. A rug covers the unvarnished floor, and pink and gray paper, peeling near

the ceiling, decorates the wall. (“At night,” Kay said, “we listened to the mice scrambling around behind the wallpaper.”)

There are four bedrooms, a dining room, where the refrigerator sits, a kitchen with a gas stove. Although there is electricity, a television set and a freezer, there is no plumbing. Water is hoisted in a bucket from a deep cistern out back, carried in pails into the kitchen and warmed on the stove. The outhouse is a primitive structure where chickens are frequently underfoot, and where in the heat of the day wasps buzz in swarms. Frequently they also invade the house. “We took a bath every night,” Kay says. “It was so hot you had to. We soon got the trick of lugging in two bucketfuls of water and kneeling in a large washtub to soap ourselves. When we washed our clothes, we used a scrub board and two tubs, one tor soaping, the other for rinsing.”

The girls helped out with the family chores. Kay hauled the water. Karol sometimes did the family ironing, and they both shared the dishwashing. Often they fixed their own breakfast.

“1 made an omelet,” Kay said, “and Karol promptly burned the toast in the oven. There was a toaster, but the only electrical outlet was the ceiling fixture and the toaster cord was too short to reach.”

Two meals were served daily—breakfast, and at midafternoon, dinner. At other times the girls were free to raid the icebox for cheese, watermelon, and raw milk from the Higgins cows. Beef was rarely served, but there were fried chicken, sausage, brains, hominy grits and golden corn bread; and from the garden, tomatoes, okra, potatoes, beans. The diet was starchy, and Kay, who is five feet six and weighs a slim 125 pounds, kept worrying about getting fat. She and Karol vowed to diet, but their resolve broke down as they visited Negro homes where steamy molasses cakes had just been baked.

Security regulations hemmed in their life. Although the Higgias front porch with its comfortable rocker catches a stray breeze, they were discouraged from sitting on it. Passing cars, a potential source of trouble, could see them from the road. They used the Forbes car to drive to school, but they were not allowed to go farther without first notifying the Canton office. When the grocery telephone was forbidden to them, they had no way of notifying Canton at all.

Exploring  the country roads on foot, except in a small area of Negro homes, was out. After dark they left the house only to go to school or a church meeting. The girls learned one regulation with some pain. They could not ride alone in a car with a Negro boy. If they drove

with Negroes, they sat by themselves either in the front or back. No one had told them this rule when they arrived. One evening after a meeting in a Negro church, Natalie asked a local boy to drive her a quarter of a mile to a grocery store to buy a pack of cigarettes. The innocent trip took ten minutes, but the next day, at the request of the sheriff, the boy was fired from his job. The police spread the word that the two had been seen hugging and kissing in the front seat. (In Oxford, Vincent Harding had warned, “Mississippi whites feel threatened when they see Negro and white together, and they respond to the threat with violence.”)

All summer Natalie felt guilty about the incident. “What I worry about most,” she said, “is the danger we are to others. Sure, the sheriff says he’s not going to kick us, but he might

kick someone else because of us. In a way, I’d feel better if we were kicked.”

The girls had recurrent moments of cabin fever, particularly on quiet Saturday nights. It was dangerous to be seen with the Negro boys who lived in the farmhouses around them. They could not attend parties of the civil rights staff in Canton because of the hazards of driving at night. This was the time when white boys their own age, who lounged at the gas stations during the day, climbed into their cars and went scouting for trouble….


Peter Orris

Following the disappearance of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, there was a decision made by the SNCC leadership that those of us that were going to go to the southwest area of Mississippi shouldn’t go right away, because the situation was too tense and the possibility of mass violence and many more deaths was present. So they decided that we should go in the interim to Holmes County in the Delta and do the voter registration there. So we went to a town called Mileston, which was outside of Tchula, in Holmes County. And we spent two to three weeks there, working on voter registration. What that meant was going to people’s houses who we knew were not registered to vote and we would begin to talk to people about the Freedom Democratic Party, about registering to vote, about the programs that were being put forward, about being ready to drive people to the courthouse, and going with them while they registered.

When we’d go to a new farmer’s house, the first problem was that we were white northerners there on a mission, so to speak all of those things were fraught with danger for the people that we were talking to. You’d get there, and the people would be sitting down and you’d shake their hands. Now, that was an unusual thing for a white person to do to a black person in

Mississippi at that time. The next thing was that you would avoid a situation in which you were standing over and talking down to people—a body message about the power relationship. So we

would always sit down, we’d sit on the steps, walking up to the porch. We’d either be on an equal eye level or on a lower level.

We were much younger than many of the people we were speaking to, and it was necessary to establish a relationship or an understanding of the respect that we paid to them for their age and their situation. Frequently, people would respond by not looking us in the eye. At the end of every phrase there would be a “ma’am” or a “sir,” depending on who was there. And they would say yes to everything we said. We’d say, “Would you like to be involved in the voter registration project? Will you go down to vote?” “Yes, sir.” And we knew we were not getting across, we knew they were just waiting for us to go away because we were a danger to them, and in many ways we were. We had much less to risk than they did. This was their lives, their land, their family, and they were going to be here when we were gone.


Sandra Cason (Casey Hayden)

We wanted to break Mississippi open. It was a kind of blitzkrieg. Previous to that summer, we had been weaving, trying to weave, a network or a community of people who could work to change the system. But it was so slow and so many people were getting picked off one by one, the local leaders were getting murdered, people were being evicted, and the white power structure was so strong that it really seemed like we needed an enormous amount of outside support to punch a hole in the whole system of segregation.

We didn’t have much money, you know. I mean, I can remember a lot of nights we didn’t have gas to get horne, so I slept in offices an awful lot of times. We were eating off the generosity of local black restaurateurs who were feeding us. We wanted to try to create actual human interactions between blacks and whites, which was impossible under the social structure as it was in that day. We wanted to break it open on a personal level in local communities.


Unita Blackwell, Voting Rights Organizer

For black people in Mississippi, Freedom Summer was the beginning of a whole new era. People began to feel that they wasn’t just helpless anymore, that they had come together. Black and white had come from the North and from the West and even from some cities in the South. Students came and we wasn’t a closed society anymore. They came to talk about that we had a right to register to vote, we had a right to stand up for our rights. That’s a whole new era for us. I mean, hadn’t anybody said that to us, in that open way, like what happened in 1964.

There was interaction of blacks and whites. I remember cooking some pinto beans—that’s  all we had—and everybody just got around the pot, you know, and that was an experience just to

see white people coming around the pot and getting a bowl and putting some stuff in and then sitting around talking, sitting on the floor, sitting anywhere, ’cause you know, wasn’t any great

dining room tables and stuff that we had been used to working in the white people houses, where everybody would be sitting and they’d ring a bell and tap and you’d come in and bring the stuff

and put it around. We was sitting on the floor and they was talking and we was sitting there laughing, and I guess they became very real and very human, we each to one another. It was an experience that will last a lifetime.


Bob Moses

There was quite a group of support that was organized around the summer project. In fact, every day we had what we called the COFO Shuttle, which flew over from Atlanta to Jackson and quite literally they filled the plane. There were lawyers representing different lawyers’ groups-the [NAACP] Legal Defense Fund, LCDC [Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee], National Lawyers’ Guild. There were doctors from the Medical Committee

for Human Rights, which Al Poussaint was heading up. There were church people organized around Bob Spike. There was the Free Southern Theater, which Gil Moses and John O’Neil had

organized. Through the Freedom Schools, we tried to develop the idea of alternative education, that is, that what’s important is that the young people in Mississippi have a forum in which they could really think through and discuss problems which were really important for them. And they did. They met in little hot rooms all through the summer and did a lot of things—discussion and

education about the problems in Mississippi. They came out with some statements about Vietnam. They came out with some statements about the politics of Mississippi and lack of representation.






Mississippi press and politicians, and especially the white Citizens Councils, called the influx of northern students an “invasion,” which restimulated the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.The state legislature enacted more than twenty laws to prepare for the students’ arrival. In the capital city of Jackson, Mayor Allen Thompson doubled the size of the police force, then purchased 250 shotguns and a large armored truck carrying machine guns, called the Thompson Tank.


William Simmons, White Citizens Council spokesman

Black people have had voting rights in this state all along. The Citizens’ Council has always taken a position that anyone who is qualified to vote should register and vote and be a good citizen. But there had to be certain qualifications. The objective of this student invasion was to eliminate all of the qualifications. To have mass voting and, frankly, to advance black political power. They were asked to vote not as American citizens, but to vote as blacks. It was a very racist objective. And as such, it was opposed.

I would say the summer project of 1964 was less of a high point in emotion than the Ole Miss events because it was so much less dramatic and did not represent the use of government force. It was more of an annoyance than anything else. When the civil rights workers invaded the state in the summer of 1964 to change us into their own image, they were met with a feeling of some curiosity but mostly resentment. They fanned out across the state, made a great to-do of breaking up our customs, of flaunting social practices that had been respected by people here over the years. That was the time of the hippies just coming in. Many had on hippie uniforms and conducted themselves in hippie ways. They were not exactly the types of models that most people that I knew wanted to emulate. Also, the arrogance that they showed in wanting to reform a whole state in the way they thought it should be created resentment. So, to say that they were not warmly received and welcomed is perhaps an understatement.


Early July 1964, Ruleville, Miss.

There are people here without food and clothing. Kids that eat a bit of bread for breakfast, chicken necks for dinner. Kids that don’t have clothes to go to school in. Old old people, and young people chop [hoe] cotton from sun up till sun down for $3 a day. They come home exhausted, it’s not enough to feed their family on. It’s gone before they earn it…. Some people down here get welfare. It amounts to about $45 a month. Pay the average $15 rent and you have a family “living” on $30 for four weeks….

In Sunflower County alone there are 4,270 Negro families and 720 white families living in poverty. At the same time there are just over 100 families who own and control most of the county. Negro people are being kicked out of jobs, off sharecropping etc. to remove them from Mississippi. Mechanization of farms (plantations), usage of agricultural sprays, etc. provide the excuse and the agency to force the Negro to leave Mississippi. By no means is this the only means used, though…. Mississippi might be described as a state where people are harassed and intimidated—once because they were black and the means of production; now because they are black and a challenge to the status quo.

The other day a shipment of food and clothing arrived for the Negroes. Man, you don’t know the “trouble” that something like this makes. The needs down here have to be measured by the truck loads or train loads. The shipment does not bring enough to go around….


July 16, 1964, Tchula, Miss.

One lady I talked to last Saturday makes $2.50 a day working 7 days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. as cook and maid in a white home. She is old and alone and afraid to do anything for fear she will lose her only income and with it the tiny wooden house she saved for through many years of chopping and picking cotton. She never drinks a coke but fixes instead a penny Kool-aid on a hot day, to save the 9 cents she needs for her house and bills.


July 23, 1964, Mileston, Miss.

Dear Mom, Dad and Shari,

We’ve been learning a little about conditions on some local plantations. One plantation worker secretly left the plantation to come and ask us for help. He gets up at 3:30 a.m. and works on a tractor until dusk–for $5 a day, six days a week. His wife picks cotton for $2.50 a day. Two years ago he borrowed $250 from his plantation owner; since then, his “owner” has taken $10 a week out of his pay and hasn’t stopped. A year and a half ago, when the debt had been paid, he asked the “owner” how much he still owed, he was told $100, and got the same answer ten weeks later (with the $10 a week still being deducted). He asked once too often, because the next week, after his boss discovered that he attended citizenship classes, the boss came to him with a note saying he owed $650. His boss and a local deputy sheriff are co-owners of the plantation….

Love, Joel


July 4, 1964, Shaw, Miss.

Dear Mom and Dad,

One day has passed in Shaw and the other America is opening itself before my naive, middle-class eyes. The cockroaches draw patterns across the floor and table and make a live patchwork on the bed. Sweat covers my skin and cakes brown in my joints—wrist, elbow, knee, neck. Mosquito bites, red specks on white background.

The four-year-old grandson is standing by my side. I wonder how our presence now will affect him when he is a man?

I saw other children today who bore the marks of the Negro in rural Mississippi. One had a protruding navel the size of the stone he held in his hand. Several had distended stomachs.

Is America really the land that greets its visitor with “Send me your tired, your poor, your helpless masses to breathe free”?


July 2, 1964, Ruleville, Miss.

Mass meeting in the evening; Freedom songs, etc. Walking home in the dark, I was stopped by a young Negro man who began a conversation by asking me what went on in the mass meetings; he wanted precise details, where the money went, why do we sing so much? what do the people say? and so forth. He was persistent, forceful, and asking the most difficult questions. It came out that he wanted to join the Movement, but he couldn’t understand nonviolence. “I seen a picture in one of the books of this guy sitting on the ground, with his head down and his arms up, and this other fella was running and hit him on the ear like that. Just hit him. I don’t get it. I couldn’t do that.” His voice was soft. I didn’t see his face, it was dark, but we talked for almost two hours, walking….


August 18, 1964, Como, Miss.

“Good evening, Mr. Wallace.”

“Good evenin’, Won’t you come up and have a seat on the porch?”

“Don’t mind if I do. That heat’s something, isn’t it?”

“Sure is. Water?”

“No, no thank you, sir. This shade is just fine. I didn’t see you at the mass meeting last Thursday night.”

“Well, I reckon you didn’t. I meant to get out there, but Mrs. Wallace, you know, wasn’t up to it. I hear it was a pretty good meetin’, though.”

“Well, you know, we had a lot of spirit there, but not too many people. Lots of young folks, but the adults just didn’t turnout.”

“That’s the way it is—the young folks is always right out there runnin’, and the older folks just sort of trot on behind.”

“Well, we missed you, Mr. Wallace.”

“I planned on bein’ there. You countin’ on having another meetin’ soon?”

“That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about, Mr. Wallace. I understand you’re a deacon right here at the Baptist Church in town.”

“That’s right. Been a deacon there thirty-four years. My brother, George, you know, he’s a deacon, too.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve talked with him…. I’ve already spoken with Mr. Robertson. He said it

would be all right with him if we organized a meeting up at your church next week; but, of course, I’d have to speak to all the deacons first.”

“Jack Robertson told you that?”

“Yes, sir, so I thought I’d come and see you, Mr. Wallace.”

“Well, I’ll give it to you just like it is. I’m with you one hundred per cent, and I’m plannin’ on goin’ down to the courthouse soon, you know. But speakin’ for the church, I’m not so sure about that.”

“Why’s that, sir?”

“Well, I guess just not yet. We’re not ready for that yet, right here. But I’m with you one hundred per cent, and I think you’re fine fellows doin’ a fine job with our folks. The colored people around here have needed this for a long time.”

“We’re not really doing anything here, Mr. Wallace. It’s you local people who have to do things, right here in Como, before the white man stomps you down. We’re just here to let you know what we think can be done—by you.”

“That’s right!”

“And that’s why we need to hold meetings, so we can talk to the people.”

“That’s right. What our people here need is education, and I think you’re doing a fine job. That’s what I tell all the folks around here when they talk against you. You’re here to help us and we should do all we can.”

“That’s why we need your church for a meeting, Mr. Wallace. We’ve held two meetings out of town now at Mountain Hill, and we’d like to talk to the people right here in town.”

“I’m telling you now just the way it is. Some of the white folks have been talkin’ up against you all and your meetings now, and I don’t want any trouble. I’ve been readin’ about all them churches bein’ burned and bombed….”

“But none of that has been here in Panola County, or anywhere around here. We’ve got the FBI watching here and Sheriff Hubbard has helped us out a couple of times.”

“Well, I just don’t want any trouble. You’ve been havin’ your meetin’s out at Mountain Hill—why can’t you keep on havin’ ’em there?”

“That’s two miles out of town, Mr. Wallace, and we’d like to move into town, now, for our meetings. It’s easier for the people who live here.”

“Well, I just can’t say yes.”

“All right, Mr. Wallace. But Mr. Robertson said it was okay. So I think I’ll talk to the other deacons. You haven’t been down to the courthouse yet, sir?”

“No, but I’m plannin’ on goin’ down right soon now,”

“Lots of people are going down this week. Maybe you could get a ride with Mr. Rice tomorrow.”

“Well, not this week—but I’ll be goin’ down soon.”

“All right, Mr. Wallace. I’ll be back to talk to you again soon. I’ve got to be getting along now. I’ll talk to the other deacons, and I hope to see you down at the courthouse soon, sir!”

“That’s right! I’m with you one hundred per cent now. Good luck! And come on back.”

Mr. Wallace represents a large number of people here in Como. Not everyone—far  from  it—but enough people think like him to make work occasionally exasperating, especially for the local people who are not “one hundred per cent with us” but who are working like hell to build a better Como for themselves…. That “one hundred per cent with you” has become a joke with us. So much so that Mr. Howard, who went down with us to Batesville to register this morning, and who is going to be one of the stars of our mass meeting, said, as he left us this noon: “If l’ve passed that test, I’m with you two hundred per cent!”


July 2, 1964, Ruleville, Miss.

            The women make up the lion’s share of the movement. This may be partially because they aren’t as vulnerable economically but I don’t think that factor is very important. Too many women work and oftentimes a man will get fired for the sins of his wife. Perhaps the major reason is that the women have the calm courage necessary for a nonviolent campaign.


In Indianola, seat of Sunflower County (2 % of eligible Negroes registered), the ministers refused to lend their churches, but a Negro Baptist Convention in the area voted unanimously to let the project use a three-room brick schoolhouse. A mass meeting was called for July 23; no more than 100 local people were expected.


July 24, 1964, Indianola, Miss.

Dear Folks,

Last night was one of those times that are so encouraging and inspiring. We had a mass meeting in Indianola. Three weeks ago, there was no movement at all in that community. A few Project workers went in and began canvassing for registration, It was decided to set up a Freedom School. Another few workers went in as staff. In that short time they had generated enough interest and enthusiasm to bring out 350 people to the meeting!

I sat and watched faces that had been transformed with hope and courage. They were so beautiful, those faces. It is hard to put into words an experience like this. That sense of hope was so strong, so pervasive, each of us there felt with complete certainty that there can, there will, be a better world and a good life if we work for it. When James Forman speaks, he talks “soul-talk,” reaching out to that part of us that is vital, that is creative, and the people respond with a radiance and a sureness that is so new to them. The word “new” is very significant—it not only means a change in the externals of their lives. The greatest import of “new” is the emerging new value of themselves as human beings, with the right and will to act, to move, to shape their lives….

Love, Ellen


John Hersey, “A Life for a Vote,” Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 26, 1964, Noonday, Miss.

… At a citizenship meeting the next Wednesday night Varsell Pleas raised his hand and said he would take two students, if he could borrow a bed. The widow from whom he rented his extra acres did soon lend him a double bed which, by knocking down two built-in storage closets, he was able to fit in the back room along with the freezer and the washer, and he shifted from the side room, where there were two beds, the four children who had been sleeping there, and distributed them around. The beds in the house would be crowded through the hot summer—except for the guests, who would each have one to himself.

Before the students arrived in Noonday, there came on television one evening the foreboding announcement of the disappearance of three civil-rights workers in Philadelphia over in Neshoba County. It seemed that the worst fears for the summer were going to be realized. Down the domestic servant grapevine trickled word, a few days later, that the whites were saying those “mixers” had scooted off to Chicago, where they were drinking beer and enjoying the publicity. But Varsell Pleas thought of Henry Larkin and Brutus Simpson and the citizenship teacher hiding in his mother’s loft; he had no doubt the three were dead and in a lake or a swamp.

A week later the Summer Project came to Noonday, and two young men were assigned to Pleas: Tim Shattuck, who was white, a doctor’s son from Roslyn, Long Island, a Yale student, quick-witted and intense; and Bud Samson, a light skinned Negro, a lawyer’s son from Michigan who had been through the civil-rights wars as campus chairman of CORE at a midwestern university—he had a 100-day jail sentence on appeal up home, as a subsequence of some sit-ins he had led.

Elsewhere around Noonday were deposited two sophisticated Negro girls from Baltimore, who had demonstrated in Cambridge, Md., two California students, three white girls from various eastern colleges, a white Indiana boy and two more white Yale students. The leader of the project in the area was a C.O.F.O. veteran who had spent several weeks in the state prison farm at Parchman for disturbing the peace of Mississippi the previous summer.

Because the Mississippi police were following the Philadelphia pattern of arresting Project volunteers tor trivial or trumped-up traffic charges, and because the maximum danger seemed to be upon release from jail after these arrests, the students wanted to follow state driving regulations meticulously.

One of the rules was that they would have to replace their out-of-state license plates, on the three cars they had, with Mississippi plates, if they were going to stay in the state more than a month, and a few days after they arrived, Varsell Pleas drove up to Athens with some of the boys to help them with this transaction. When they left the capital, they were followed for some distance, but nothing happened.

The next day, in a grocery store in Athens, Pleas got notice that the whites, too, had a grapevine. The proprietor sauntered over to Pleas and said, “Varsell, it true what they say,

you got some of these agitators staying with you?”

“I got me couple of students, yes, sir.”

“You ought not to let them stay with you. If they had no place to stay, they’d have to go back where they belong.”

But Pleas was long since hardened to white intimidations. He sent all his children to the freedom school that the students set up in the Baptist church and in an abandoned house. not far down the road from it. The children’s regular public school had never excited them. It had an enrollment for 1963 of 510 but an average daily attendance of only 405.2—many children, especially on the plantations, stayed out to work in the fields. It was housed in a 20-year-old firetrap, with an oil-burning stove in each classroom, and it ran for only eight months of the year. Per-pupil expenditure was less man $50 a year; many first-graders were eight and ten years old; the Negro principal, who had six children, was paid $4,800 a year; and the poorly trained Negro teachers, who got as little as $3,000, were afraid to try to register to vote tor fear of being fired. At the freedom school the children got the first taste they had ever had of unstinting kindness and solicitude from whites, as Yale and Smith students started in with the younger ones, on fundamentals of the three R’s. Robert, the third boy, a teenager, told his mother that he’d learned more Negro history in two days than he had in eleven years of public school.

Robert Pleas had been apt and keen as a small boy, but he had chugged nearly to a stop in school in recent years. He was a good farm worker, particularly on the tractor, poisoning cotton while the plants were low, but now he talked halfheartedly of finishing high school and of trying to get into the Air Force.

He had driven a school bus the previous year for clothing money; had found chemistry and history tolerable but had failed English—he had despised his English teacher, who could not speak as grammatically as his mother and father. What he liked best was hunting. When the muscadines began to ripen, and corn was solid in the ear, and the persimmons were right, then the raccoons would come out, and Robert sometimes winged three or four in an evening. He was a sweet shot—a squirrel would run up a tree to get away from the family Winchester in his hands, but if that squirrel poked two inches of head around to see if the coast was clear, Robert would decap him at 50 feet. Now, however, the freedom school was getting Robert interested, and at meals the two students, Tim and Bud, would fire him up to work for the race. Pretty soon he was saying he thought he’d bone next year, and get to college if he could, and work in The Movement anyway.

Bud and Tim came in excited to the Pleases one night, reporting that at one of the houses over near the highway a white man had been seen fumbling around in the backyard with a flashlight. The owner of the house, with a shotgun on his arm, accosted the man. It turned out to be Bubba Goodheart, a local farmer who had just been made a deputy sheriff in order, it was said, to keep an eye on the invaders. Brought into the cone of a large battery light, Deputy Goodheart shouted that he had had instructions from “higher up” to “protect” a student named Peter Marston. Where was this boy?

One of the Project workers asked Deputy Goodheart why he hadn’t just come straight to the front door, if that was his errand.

The deputy said he’d got lost.

There was in fact a Harvard student named Peter Marston in the Noonday contingent, and it came out later that there had indeed been orders from Jackson to look out tor him. Pete was the son of a wealthy Boston corporation lawyer, a Harvard graduate, one of whose former college classmates was now a big shot in the White Citizens Council down in Jackson. Pete’s father, who disapproved of his being in Mississippi at all, had asked the Citizens Council friend to “keep an eye” on Pete, and an official friend of the friend had obligingly ordered a tail put on the boy. Bubba Goodheart had come blundering forth to carry out this command. Pleas and all his friends beIieved that the reason he was in the backyard was to try to spy out the sleeping arrangements of white girls in colored homes.

Now a wild man came one night to the Noonday citizenship meeting: Isaac (Zingo) Ostrowski, a 52-year-old contractor from Oregon, who told the Noonday farmers that he was going to build them the nicest meeting hall they’d ever see. Six feet tall, built like a pro-football tackle, Zingo had got a bee in his bonnet the previous winter, had visited Mississippi in the spring and had talked with C. O.F. O. leaders, then had gone back to Oregon and had raised, singlehanded, $10,000. With a carpenter friend whom he had enlisted, and with a station wagon full of building tools, he’d taken off for the Mississippi Delta and had wound up in Noonday.

Mrs. Pleas was elected secretary of the new community center that he was to build, and one of the neighbors leased an acre not far from the main road. Zingo ordered lumber from a Jackson firm, but there followed mysterious delays in delivery; so Zingo made a phone call to Tennessee, and a few days later a big shiny trailer truck from that state drove in and unloaded a heap of things. The farmers at citizenship meetings arranged to procure volunteer labor to help Zingo. Please put in a day; workmen began arriving in parties from all over the county, as word went around that a Negro hall was being built where movies would be shown and meetings would be held, and that there was going to be a free library of 7,000 volumes, and a kitchen, and a room for kids, and running water and two flush toilets. When the floor was laid down, everyone turned out with hammers and worked, colored residents and white students together. Randoman Tort said it was the first integrated nailing ever held in Mississippi.

Robert was soon head-over-heels in The Movement; a factor in his sudden dedication may have been the attractiveness of one of the Negro girls from Baltimore, Charlotte Bunson, a student at the University of Maryland, daughter of a high school vice principal. Robert spent much time around the Freedom House, a second abandoned farmhouse, across from the freedom school, where Charlotte and other staff workers lived. There he became interested in what he overheard about the voter-registration canvassing that Tim Shattuck and Bud Samson and others were doing, and soon he got himself excused from freedom school to go out on the voter drive.

The first day he went with Pete Marston to The Bogue. At each house Pete would talk for about 15 minutes about the vote, and about going to the courthouse. His being white was both an advantage and a disadvantage, for though he had to overcome a reflexive suspicion and dislike, he also commanded, even from Negroes three and four times his unripe age, a certain passive respect and obedience, no matter how grudging, that had been bred and drilled into them from birth and from long before birth. Having Robert with him, a local Negro farm boy whom most of the Bogue people knew as the son of Varsell Pleas, was a help.

They took notes:

Mr. Aurelius. Says he backed down but thinks he will go if hehas some support. Mr. and Mrs. Aurelius Jr. Both are scared. Should return.

Mrs. Cunninger. Has tried three times.

Mary and T. C. Hampton. Uncertain and fearful. He is reported to be informcr to Mr. Pine, white planter. Wife, however, might come around. Man is 85, wife 62. Don’t like it here but afraid to vote. Mrs. Shucker. Has tried once. She is 72. Will go down if she feels the energy. She is coming to citizenship meetings.

Mr. Joe Perry Chesnut. Wife works for school. Intimidated through the school system.

Mr. Whitsett. “May have to go to hospital soon.”

Mr. and Mrs. Rankin. He works for white builder in town, both scared. Eddy, the son, is very sharp, says he will go in a full car.

Mr. Sam Harbison. Uncle Tom. Will vote when all Negroes are allowed to vote.

For Varsell Pleas and others of the older generation, citizenship meetings continued in the rickety church next to where the studs of the new meeting hall were already being framed. This church, with a slightly tilted steeple, contained five rows of crude benches, and its walls were decorated with offering banners and a calendar with a picture of Jesus protecting a lamb and a C.O.F.O. poster of a Mississippi highway patrolman out of whose eyebeam jumped the question is he protecting you? Here the Noonday farmers debated whether to try to found a new cooperative store. The farmers felt at the mercy of the white merchants in Athens, and they wanted the economic independence of a low-price supermarket that would belong to Negroes throughout the county. They sought legal advice on this idea from The Movement in Jackson.

A miniature power struggle was developing in citizenship meetings between the firebrands and the more cautious heads; Pleas, always an aloof man, was not in either faction. “I’ll just try to splice in and get you folks to quit arguing,” he said once.

Toward the end of June a large shipment of used clothes, collected in northern drives, came to Noonday, and Pleas volunteered to distribute it. He picked out a few pieces to fill gaps in the wardrobe of his own family—little Larnie was soon sporting a pair of too-large and somewhat frayed sailing shorts, safety-pinned with an overlap at his waist, so that down the sturdy dark thighs ran strings of yacht-club burgees—and then undertook the dangerous work of hauling bundles to the miserable shacks of plantation sharecroppers. The white planters had made bluntly clear their hostility to the Summer Project, and to The Movement as a whole. The threat: “If you want to get in that mess, you’ll have to move off my land.” Pleas was a Baptist, and he attended, as had numerous plantation Negroes, Fair Heaven Church, which had recently hired an itinerant preacher from downstate named Burroughs, a registered voter who preached voting. When word reached the planters, Mr. Pine and Mr. Sutter, that Reverend Burroughs would get his flock worked up with the spirit to where he could do almost anything with them and then would switch off to registering, the planters refused to let their Negroes go to that church anymore. The half-naked dilldren of these depressed and hopeless people flocked around Pleas like sparrows when he drove up with cartons of clothes.

On the first of July, Robert had an accident with his father’s tractor; he collided with a carload of Negroes who had clearly been drinking. The others were let off, but Robert, the son of a Negro who had tried to register, was booked tor reckless driving, failure to yield and drunken driving. Pleas went to court with his son and he told the judge that he couldn’t argue with the first two charges, but that Robert never drank.

“I didn’t make these charges,” the judge said. “Mr. Goodheart made them.”

“I didn’t think that was fair,” Pleas said. “As far as I know, Robert never has taken a drink.”

“All right,” the judge said, “we won’t charge him with that this time.”

This was another confirmation, for Pleas, of the importance of standing up to the white man, in cases where he felt he was tight. Even so, the fine was $55.

Now the solid summer heat came, with temperatures in the 90’s and the air as still as a shameful secret, day after day after day. Mrs. Pleas sat in the shade of the foxtail pine trying to cool herself with a cardboard fan with an ad on it for strowder’s funeral home and burial society. Summer nuisances hummed and crawled—sandflies and mud daubers, robber flies and stinkbugs. The men worked hard poisoning the cotton, and nerves wore thin.

As the meeting hall arose, a massive affront of raw lumber visible to all eyes from Route 57, so also did tension rise in the area. Red-necks drove their pickups and cars slowly along the dirt road past the building, looking it over.

At four in the morning, on Sunday, July 26, a Negro named T. O. Lacey, who lived not far down the road from the construction, was wakened by a flickering light, and running

out, he saw a student’s car, which had been parked in front of the house opposite, in flames. He wakened the people across the road, hosts and students, and they tried vainly to put the fire out with water from a hand pump. At daylight nothing was left of the car but a shell. A shattered gallon jug, which had evidently contained kerosene, was found on the front seat.

After that three Negro families, Pittman, Jones and Tort, who lived along the road, set up an armed night watch, some sleeping during the first part of the night, some staying up till late. In early July, The Movement supplied three short-wave radios for these three families, so when an unknown vehicle drove in the head of the road, the word could be passed along. One night Bunell Jones set out in his pickup to patrol, and a Negro student staying in his house jokingly asked him, “You going out in that dark night all alone?”

“No,” Jones said, “I got thirty-two brothers with me, and six cousins”—two 16-gauge shotguns and a revolver.

Pleas, who lived three miles from the new building and was not involved in the watches, was putting himself more and more deeply in danger, however, by repeatedly taking people to the courthouse in Athens, on gas furnished by collections at citizenship meetings, to try to register. Because no applicants ever passed, taking people to register came to be called “making a waterhaul”—or, getting no-place. But the whites noticed. “Here comes old Varsell,” Pleas heard a deputy sheriff say once. “He sure is up to his ears in it.”

One of Pleas’s guns was old, and he decided to replace it. (Section 12 of the [Miss.] constitution affirmed “the right of every citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person, or property,” and no license was needed.) But in the hardware store in Noondav the dealer refused to sell him one. “Guns is put up now,” he said.

Pleas drove to Jackson and bought a new gun, no questions asked, at Hunt and Whitakers. He took to retiring early, so he would be easy to wake from two o’clock on—when most of the violence against Negroes in the state had been taking place. A shotgun stood at the head of his bed, another by Orsmond’s, and one by Robert’s. Every night four thin dogs and two thin cats lay down in the dust at Pleas’s back door, and the racket they raised when anything moved in the neighborhood quickly wakened the house.

One evening late in July, Tim Shattuck, who had been trying to make friends with white-shy Larnie, the five-year-old, and had once heard Larnie muttering about “the wheet,” asked his host to tell him honestly what he thought about the white students having come down from the North for the summer.

Pleas, after the usual pause for thought, said in an unemotional voice, “It’s the best thing that’s happened since there ever was a Mississippi. I just love the students like I love to eat. Listen: They showed they’re willing to die for us—two of those three at Philadelphia. If more come down here, I’d get out of my bed for them and sleep on a pallet in the tool shed.

“They’re doing things we couldn’t do for ourselves in years on end. They’ve taken away a lot of fear of the courthouse, and people ain’t so scared to come to citizenship meetings anymore. They’re giving some of our older kids subjects they should have had in school all along—French and typing. And they’re so natural—like brothers and sisters. Another thing: The governor is going to have to be more careful what he says now, because a lot of bad smells are getting out to the outside world that never did before. And we got out-of-state FBI in here, and federal lawsuits. It’s all changing, it is sure enough changing, right this summer. I hope you can come back another season. If you can’t, send somebody else in your place.”

Tim asked, “What about the whites? Are we making it worse for you with them?”

“No,” Pleas said. “About the whites, there’s bad ones and right decent ones. The bad ones been shooting colored people all along and throwing them in lakes, a bunch of students don ‘t change that. The all-right ones, they’re kind of gagged up. But we’re going to set them good ones free—ourselves and them. These white folks have ridiculous fears. I tell you, we don’t want nothing from them but stop. The Negro people ain’t going up after them. We country Negroes don’t do people that way. I think we got more real religion in our blood than the white people; we been told since weaning, ‘Don’t throw stone for stone.’ But they better not come messing in our homes, setting fire and getting up a big killing scrape. That won’t never scare us. That ain’t never going to keep me from taking folks up to the courthouse. Because I tell you something, Tim, we’re going to get the vote in three to five years, and when we do, the Negro man’s vote is going to count just as hard as the white man’s vote. I’m paying my poll tax to keep ready.”

A few days later Tim had a story to tell the Pleases; it was a story which, against the background of the three killed at Philadelphia, made a big impression on Robert Pleas:

Tim had just got out of one civil-rights car in Athens, that morning, and was waiting to be picked up by another to go canvassing in Meeks, when a man of about 40, in a blue sport shirt and khaki work pants, stepped out of a knot of men, pointed at Tim’s nose and then touched it repeatedly with a forefinger, and said, “You ain’t dung. You ain’t even dung. You ain’t as good as dung.” Tim, who had been trained in passive responses to abuse and violence, stood absolutely still and looked straight in the man’s blue-gray eyes. The man began hitting Tim in the face, forehand and backhand, and then, as others began closing in with glistening eyes, Tim suddenly assumed “the nonviolent crouch”—dropped to his knees and formed a ball of his body, folding his hands over the nape of his neck, so that as many vital places as possible were protected. The man, who seemed startled by this bizarre defense, kicked him halfheartedly a couple of times and then walked away; the others also drew back.

At about this time the emphasis of the voter-registration drive changed. The student canvassers began registering Negroes for the Freedom Democratic Party, which planned to challenge the seating of the regular Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Robert Pleas began working hard on freedom registrations, and this work took him closer to danger and clinched his commitment to The Movement.

One day he was canvassing in Meeks, a mean town on the eastern border of the county, with Bud Samson, the Negro CORE student. They were standing on the front porch of a house, signing up a Negro woman, when a white deliveryman arrived. He asked the boys what they were doing. Bud explained. The man asked a question.

Bud answered, “Yeah.”

The man said, “You mean, ‘Yes, sir?’”

Bud said, “Where I live we don’t talk that way.”

“You’re where I live now, boy.”

“OK, if it’ll make you happy. Yes, sir.”

The man asked for identification. Bud gave him a clipping from a Chicago paper, showing his picture and identifying him as a leader of a sit-in.

“This you?”

“Yes.” Omission of sir.

“You got a hard head, ain’t you, you colorblind little bastard? I might have to soften it up for you.”

The man moved toward Bud, and Robert, to his own astonishment, found himself making a definite move. He reached his draft I.D. card out toward the deliveryman as he moved on Bud, and this served to distract the man. With further abuse and warnings he left.

The next week Varsell Pleas was told his son Robert would not be given back his school-bus driver’s job in the fall….


White supremacists attacked Freedom Schools and voter registration centers all over the state soon after the volunteers arrived. Despite the hostile climate and improvised quarters, most of the forty-one Freedom Schools (2165 registered students) somehow thrived because of the dedication, resourcefulness, and perseverance of teachers, students, and parents.


July 4, 1964, Hattiesburg, Miss.

            … All this week we have been working on curriculum, schedules, registration of students and assembling materials for the Freedom Schools at Hattiesburg. It became evident quite early that we were going to have many more than the expected 75 students. We called Jackson and got a promise of more teachers—at full strength we wll have 23. This was when we expected 150 students. One registration day, however, we had a completely unexpected deluge: 600 students! They were expecting only 700 for the whole state. After a while, as they were coming in, it changed from a celebration to a crisis. This is 26 students per teacher—much better bthan the local or usual ratios, but still not enough (like 5 to 1) to do all we want to in six weeks. Somehow we must set up a complete school system: 6 churches as schools spread around the city (which makes a huge transportation problem for teachers); next to nothing in materials; and age range from 8 to 82….

            We have been here only a week and we must set up this system before Monday when school starts, but we will do it; in fact the thought that we might not make it hasn’t even occurred to us. The point here, as I told a curious white Baptist minister on registration day, is that the Negroes of Hattiesburg do want to study and learn….


Gluckstadt, Madison County, Miss.

Monday, July 20. The first day of school—14 students, ages 12 to 47. A student was assigned to report on civil rights news for the next few days…. We gathered on benches under the trees. I asked one of the students to read an excerpt from a speech by Frederick Douglass. Asked three others to read aloud poems by Langston Hughes. When we finished, Arthur asked if he could take the Langston Hughes book home overnight.

Tuesday, July 21. Six students took turns standing and reading a play called “Protest,” about a Japanese family confronted ~th change in the form of an alien, a chair. They seemed to emjoy it and three of them were quite good. Several of the boys went off by themselves and read Hughes’ poetry aloud. I spoke Mrs. _ about the possibility of building book shelves so the building could be used as a permanent library for the community (a library that could be increased by books solicited after I go home). I asked if she would be willing to act as librarian. She said she would think it over.

Wednesday, July 22. Discussed origin of slavery in America—slave  revolts—Negroes in the American Revolution—mutiny on the Amistad. It would be fine if we had a Pictorial History of The Negro for every student—less lecturing and more discussion. Two students and I read 3 of James Thurber’s Fables For Our Time. Well received. Summaries written. Books signed out. Mrs. __ said she would act as librarian if we could get permission to use the building.

Thursday, July 23. Reviewed some myths about Negroes, asking students to give reasons why each was false. Some tried to defend them! Indoctrination has been well done … Walter reported on “The Harlem Rent Strike”—without using notes. Summaries of the day’s work or essays on any subject were written.

Friday, July 24. “Lectured” on the Reconstruction period. Discussed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The big hit of the week was the poetry of Langston Hughes. There was hardly a time during the day when someone wasn’t reading our one copy of Selected Poems.

Sunday, July 26. At church today the congregation agreed to have the library. Everyone seemed pleased at the idea because there has never been any library available to the Negroes here.

So it went for another week. More plans for the library. Poetry, plays, oral reports, written reports, study of political and power structure of Mississippi, classes in typing, Spanish, French, Drawing, History. Students driving themselves on in a hot faded wooden building. “I didn’t do so good on that report (an oral report). Could you give me another one?” (Ernest, age 18)

Tuesday, August 11. Gluckstadt Freedom School burned to the ground late last night. There is little doubt of the cause of the fire. There have been too many others like it in Mississippi. We start tomorrow to raise money to rebuild the building.


July 16, 1964, Shaw, Miss.

We held a Freedom Day today at the courthouse of Bolivar county at Cleveland. We brought some 49 Negroes down to register, and 25 were allowed to take the test, an incredible success, and perhaps a record for any courthouse registration ever in Mississippi. For the younger people we held a picket line complete with freedom songs…. Yesterday we had prepared the students for the picketing by special workshops in non-violence and picketing discipline. They had enjoyed them because they understood and valued the end to which we were directing them, and ever since they have been begging to go picketing again. It suddenly became clear to us that what we should do was to have special tutoring in anything the students desired.

Now we have something the students want, and over a third of the high school students—about 35—are coming here in the afternoon. Not only are they having special workshops in leadership and nonviolence, but we are sneaking in all kinds of citizenship education, and they are enjoying it. We even have several  who are interested in straight Negro history, and not too few who want academics, the normal type. So to this more limited, but under the circumstances healthier extent, we are underway as a Freedom School, the last in the state to do so.


Classes in voter registration and political play-acting succeeded everywhere. With innate expertise about their own plight, the kids acted out a congressional committee discussing the pro’s and con’s of a bill to raise Negro wages, and the con’s would discover clever parliamentary tricks for blocking it. Or they’d act out Senator Stennis and his wife having cocktails with Senator and Mrs. Eastland, all talking about their “uppity niggers. Sometimes they played white cops at the courthouse, clobbering applicants with rolled up newspapers.


July 24, 1964, Hattiesburg, Miss.

We had a marvelous time at school today with a mock demonstration as a role-playing device designed to illustrate what Negroes have done to fight for their rights. A Volkswagen bus served as a “white only” restaurant complete with sign. The younger children, carrying and wearing signs, picketed in an orderly and very professional way, first in silence and then singlng, according to the directions of their leader. They even held firm when at one point “a segregationist” poured water on them as they went by from a jug held over their heads. Along with some of the older girls, who played members of the Citizens Council, the white teachers played segregationists. This was a sort of test for both children and teachers: it took courage for us to assume this role and know the children might become frightened and more unsure than they are already of our feelings, and it took courage for the children to accept our position as temporary. It appeared that we all passed. The police, played with a vengeance by some of the older boys, came and hauled the picketers off to jail when they refused to disperse. The whole thing went off beautifully with enthusiasm and spontaneous creativity displayed on all sides. Tomorrow we will hold a trial….


August 1, 1964, Hattiesburg, Miss.

We have an 11-year-old girl named Rita Mae who is the equal of the best of us. At one role-playing session, when I took the part of a Negro unwilling to register, I found myself unable to hold up the argument in the face of Rita Mae’s logic, common sense, and determination. I could find no good reason why I should not register, and was ashamed to admit that I was scared, so I tried a dirty trick: I promised to go down, but said I needed a ride to the courthouse. This Rita Mae said she would provide; but when she came around with a friend in a car, I had skipped out and couldn’t be found. Rita Mae ruefully admitted that the dramatization had a most realistic ending….


Complementing the Freedom Schools were the newly established Community Centers in churches and elsewhere, providing recreation, sports, music, arts, handicrafts, sewing classes, teenage dances, and libraries—lots of books.


About 20 adults, teens and young kids began to come to help clean out this gigantic school house, abandoned for over 6 years. The dust in each was inches thick; books were ripped in shreds and all over the floors and closets; loose glass was everywhere. It was a miracle—just like in Lilies of the Field. We sorted good and usable books from others, knocked all the loose glass out of the windows, 3 & 4 year-olds were sweeping out rooms and carrying books to a huge fire where we were burning all the trash. In less than two hours, we were even pouring water over the floors and scrubbing them clean. Then the sheriff came with about six white men, who were introduced as the “Board of Education.” If they weren’t Klan men, then they were at least Citizens Council people. God, they hated us. After we had finished cleaning the school, they told us we should not use it; it is county property. We told them it is private property. We are getting a lawyer and will fight in court.

Meanwhile, tomorrow, Thursday, we will teach in a nearby church and outside. I fear that they will burn the school, and our library of 2 encyclopedias, hundreds of textbooks and actually thousands of hard and soft-covered books, donated from all across the U.S.A. ….


They lost their case in the local court and were forced to leave the disputed property. Grassroots enterprise swung into action.

July 29, 1964

Every day this week—the 22nd to the 29th—the men of the community hammered and poured cement. At noon, about 7 or 8 women all gathered at the center with fried chicken, fish, salad, gallons of’Kool-Aid and apple turnovers, and served them to the men, we teachers, and each other. It is a thing of beauty to see us all work together. Tuesday and Wednesday was the laying of the sub-floor. Two men cut the wood, two or three teenage boys and girls lay the wood down and hammered it in, a few more are bringing more wood. We are a living repudiation of the “too many cooks” theory. It should be up by Saturday, or at latest Tuesday. The land was given by a local man for “the sum of one dollar,” and deeds were drawn up. The teenagers are selling refreshments to raise money for the center, as well as membership cards for a dollar. It will hold the library, a snackbar, office space and recreation area….


Aug. 6, 1964

The men (and some of us when we have time) work on the building up to 10 hours a day with a 100 degree sun beating down and the humidity so high one’s clothing becomes soaking wet after only a few minutes work. The building is guarded at night because these people, after having had their homes shot into and having a couple of crosses burned in the middle of their community during the last few months, do not intend to have all their hard work go up in flames right away….


Aug. 5, 1964

About 4 men or teenagers armed with rifles and pistols stand guard. Every local car that goes by has to honk a specific number of times…. If anyone does attempt to bomb or burn the center, they haven’t got a chance. I live only about 50 yards away so I take over coffee, cookies, cigarettes, tobacco, etc., to the guards and talk with them ….


In a week their new community center and Freedom School was up and running: a 30-by 60-foot building open to all residents, supervised by a board of trustees elected by the black community.


Aug. 10, 1964, Harmony, Miss.

The decision came Saturday night at a meeting in the Galilee church. The day before the Carthage newspaper came out with the shocking news: the 3 Negro schools of Leake County are opening on Monday, August 20th, three full weeks before the white schools; the reasons:

I) This was an attempt to stop the Freedom Schools two weeks early.

2) They wish to start the Negroes early so that when they pull them out of school in October to pick the white man’s cotton they can claim the Negroes can “afford” the time.

3) August 30th marks the 1st day of white registration. Due to a Federal court order the first grade is to be integrated. But if a first grader has already enrolled in a Negro school (and they’d have to do so if they went 3 weeks early), he cannot transfer. Therefore the idiocy was mainly to prevent school integration.

The parents and students of Harmony were really riled up and voted to boycott totally and use this as a “strike” for demands: equal student-teacher ratio, heat in the winter, better buses, no firing of Negro teachers for registering to vote, no hand-me-down desks, books and buses from the whites, etc.

And so today, the kids didn’t go to school. It began pretty well—I’m told over half were absent….

We spent three hours in Freedom School with all the children, ages 4 through 19. It was exciting and wild—we had the older teenagers each take two or three 2nd and 3rd graders and explain to them why we are boycotting. It was a joy to hear the youngsters work with each other….

Later in August a Leake County school was integrated by a black girl in first grade.


The Klan Ledger, July 1964

Official publication of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi

We are now in the midst of the “long, hot summer” agitation which was promised to the innocent people of Mississippi by the savage blacks and their community masters….

The recent events in Neshoba County and statewide call for a message to the general public and the cltizens of the great State of Mississippi. The arch-traitor and long-time betrayer of patriots the world over, [Allen] Dulles, has used his lying tongue to try and convince the American public that this organization was involved in the so-called “disappearance.” We

WERE NOT involved, and there was NO DISAPPEARANCE.Anyone who is so simple that he cannot recognize a communist hoax which is as plain as the one they pulled on Kennedy in Dallas (and which Earl Warren is working so hard to cover-up), had better do a little reading in J. Edgar Hoover’s primer on communism, “MASTERS OF DECEIT” …

There is no racial problem here in this State. Our system of strict segregation permits the two races to live in close proximity and harmony in each other and eliminates any racial problem … Bi-racial groups are the greatest danger we face in this State today. These groups have absolutely no legal standing whatsoever. Bi-racial groups have brought violence and bloodshed to every area in which they have been recognized. The surest way to have violence in Mississippi is for anyone to give any weight or recognize the authority of a bi-racial group….

We are not going to recognize the authority of any bi-racial group, NOR THE AUTHORITY OF ANY PUBLIC OFFICIAL WHO ENTERS INTO ANY AGREEMENT WITH ANY SUCH SOVIET ORGANIZATION. We Knights are working day and night to preserve Law and Order here in Mississippi, in the only way that it can be preserved; by strict segregation of the races, and the control of the social structure in the hands of the Christian, Anglo-Saxon White men, the only race on earth that can build and maintain just and stable governments.

We are deadly serious about this business. We have taken no action as yet against the enemies of our State, our Nation and our Civilization, but we are not going to sit back and permit our rights and the rights of our posterity to be negotiated away by a group composed of atheistic priests, brain-washed black savages, and mongrelized money-worshippers, meeting with some stupid or cowardly politician. Take heed, atheists and mongrels, we will not travel your path to Leninist Hell, but we will buy YOU a ticket to the eternal if you insist. Take your choice, SEGREGATION, TRANQUILITY AND JUSTICE, OR BI-RACISM, CHAOS AND DEATH.


It felt like a signal had been sent to the local Klan klaverns. In early July the Project headquarters in McComb was bombed. On Friday, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Freedom House in Canton; in Hattiesburg a visiting rabbi and two volunteers were severely beaten. On Saturday night, the Shaw project workers learned of a bombing plot as whites surrounded their office. Next day in Natchez, a Baptist and a Methodist church were destroyed by fire—two of five black churches burned to the ground that week.

The week of July 6 showed that though there were relatively “good” and “bad” areas, violence could explode anywhere. Natchez and McComb had always been trouble, and there was originally some debate as to whether volunteers should go there. Eventually a few black and white male volunteers went to McComb, but no white women until the summer was over. Hattiesburg and Moss Point on the other hand were considered fairly peaceful. In Moss Point on the Gulf Coast, Jessie Mae Stallworth, a 17 year-old black girl, was shot while participating in a voter registration rally.


July 6, 1964, Moss Point, Miss.

Tonight the sickness struck. At our mass meeting as we were singing “We Shall Overcome” a girl was shot in the side and in the chest. We fell to the floor in deathly fear; but soon ,ole recovered and began moving out of the hall to see what had happened…. When I went out I saw a woman lying on the ground clutching her stomach. She was so still and looked like a statue with a tranquil smile on her face. I ran to call an ambulance and police …


July 9, 1964, Moss Point, Miss.

On Monday night we had a mass meeting, and the fifth [congressional] district director, Lawrence Guyot, gave a terrific speech. The gist of his speech was that people say Moss Point is an easy area. “We have nice white folks here,” that everyone has what they want already. But we don’t have such nice white folks here, he said, and even if we did it shouldn’t make us apathetic, it should make us want to take advantage of that extra little space…. He kept saying, “What will it take to make you people move? A rape? A shooting? A murder? What will it take?”

At the very end of the meeting we were singing the last verse of “We Shall Overcome,” 300 people in a huge circle. Suddenly there were gunshots, and all these people including me, hit the floor in a wave … A few seconds later we all got up trembling. A car of whites had gone by on the road outside and fired three shots through the open door. One Negro girl was hit in the side. She is in the hospital and is going to be all right, but nobody knew that at the time. The whole thing was additionally frightening because during the confusion when everybody was taking cover under tables etc., a piece of wire or something got caught in an electric fan and made a noise like a machine gun.

All during the meeting, the deputy sheriff was sitting there and the police patrol outside. The sheriff left shortly before the meeting was over and with him the police protection. At the time of the shooting there were no police anywhere around. Instead, they came fifteen minutes later, long after the whites had gotten away….

The boy who had been standing next to her, just outside the door of the meeting hall, said that there were four white men in the car. Kids were walking around saying, “They can’t do that to us any more.” It was only with much persuasion on the part of some of their friends and the COFO workers that they calmed down a little and went home. That night, the police arrested five Negro men. No white men! These five had gone home for their guns and gone out to see if they could find the car from the description given. They saw what they thought to be the car. Some men in the car apparently fired at the Negroes. The five stopped at a gas station to tell some policemen what had happened. The police searched them, arrested them on charges of carrying “concealed weapons” and never followed the suspicious car….


On the night of July 8, the McComb “freedom house” (living quarters and office) shook to its foundations as a bomb smashed through a large picture window. The blast wrecked the wall

and should have killed project director Curtis Hayes who was sleeping in that room, but only two workers were slightly injured. Like the Molotov cocktail thrown at the freedom house in Canton two days later that failed to explode, it was one of several apparent miracles of the summer.

On Saturday, July 11, about 8:30 PM, Shaw project workers had gathered at the Community Center to relax from the 8 PM curfew they had been observing for security reasons. Project director John Bradford had driven to the nearby town of Mound Bayou, due to return soon.


Mid-July 1964, Shaw, Miss.

Dear Mom and Dad,

… About 8:45 a Negro boy came to the door saying, “Tell Bradford not to come by the main road – there are men waiting for him.”

Our reaction was slow. It was unreal; the night’s heat and mosquitoes held our attention. We called Jackson, kept the line open and tried to contact Bradford.

At 9:00 a 20 year-old Negro ran to the door talking in broken sentences—he had been offered $40 to tell where we were, and $400 to dynamite us. We frantically turned out the light, moved into one small back room—20 people and 100,000 mosquitoes—keep open line with Greenwood, call papers, local police, FBI, noises of cars passing and people outside  listening for bombs. Several people re-emphasizing their conviction that this summer is necessary and right, and glad they came down, regardless….

Love, Heather


Early August, 1964, Clarksdale, Miss.

I was stopped and questioned by the City Marshal, the only police officer in Marks. On finding out who I was, he cussed me out and demanded repeatedly that I hit him—if I was any kind of man. He told me to get into the car; the charge was “suspicion” because there were many “bank robberies and car thefts in the area.” I was taken to the Sheriff’s office and interrogated. The Marshal said he would give me and my fellow civil rights workers no protection and in fact he was looking to “get us” and if he couldn’t get us some of the townspeople would and he would be elsewhere when things were happening.

On the way back to where he picked me up, he stopped at two gas stations to show the folks what a “Communist civil rights worker bastard” looked like. Then I was released…. Angry mobs of whites were gathering at street corners and it was getting late—a sure sign of possible trouble. Finally we got a group of Negroes to escort us home but at that moment “deputies” came and told all the “goddamned black bastards” to go home and told us to get out of town. We had to leave unescorted on the main highway when we had planned on a more discreet route.

We started down the highway and we saw 3 or 4 cars parked ahead and 3 or 4 cars converging on that spot from a side road. We felt sure that it was some type of road block since it was about midnight and we hadn’t seen people congregated on corners and we knew that the deputies and townspeople were in close contact. I turned the car around and headed in the other direction at breakneck speed….


July 11, 1964, Greenwood, Miss.

At the police station the insidious relation between the local law officials and the local law-breakers grew more obvious. A police officer was playing with a knife, rubbing his thumb over its edge. He pointed the knife at a girl, a co-worker, and said he kept it sharp for “niggers like you.” He then pushed her around. My assailant, still present, started in on one of the white workers, accusing him of being a “nigger-lover,” and suggested to the officer that he castrate the boy. A bit later, he and my assailant both drove a Negro boy home who had been in jail.

We finally started to leave the station late that night, but we couldn’t because all four of our car tires had been slashed. The Negro boy who had been driven home by them later told us that as they passed our car, one said, “There’s the car those bastards are driving.” We have good reason to suspect that the law enforcer, and the attacker, slashed the tires. The man who beat me is now free. He paid a $25 fine. He is a friend of the judge’s, of the police, and a member of the Citizens’ Council. It is amazing that he was even fined. He probably would not have been one month ago. Still, it is no comfort to me. He is free, he is angry. He knows that he can get away with much worse. The FBI would not arrest him…. I have no local protection. I have no Federal protection….


July 1964, Ruleville, Miss.

It’s night. It’s hot. No lights because there aren’t any curtains—meaning they can see you and you can’t see them. They, the word they, takes on its full meaning here. You slap at a dozen or so mosquitoes that are buzzing in. You doze off and the phone rings again, about the fifth time, and the other end stays mum. By now you know that somebody, someone on the other side, knows where you are. They know who you’re staying with….

Violence hangs overhead like dead air—it hangs there and maybe it’ll fall and maybe it won’t. Sometimes it’s directed at people in the movement, sometimes it’s indiscriminate. Cars have been roaming around; seven or eight vigilante trucks with their gun racks and no license plates have been seen meeting at the city dump. What will they do? When? Something is in the air, something is going to happen, somewhere, sometime, to someone…. A few nights ago cars roamed the streets, empty bottles flew from their hands, striking cars and homes. They were empty that night—the next night the bottles were loaded exploding as they hit the church and setting it afire.


July 1964, Ruleville, Miss.

To my brother,

Last night I was a long time before sleeping, although I was extremely tired. Every shadow, every noise—the bark of lug, the sound of a car—in my fear and exhaustion was

turned into a terrorist’s approach. And I believed that I heard the back door open and a Klansman walk in, until he was close by the bed. Almost paralyzed by the fear, silent, I finally shone my flashlight on the spot where I thought he was standing…. I tried consciously to overcome this fear. To relax, I began to breathe deep, think the words of a song, pull the sheet up close to my neck … still the tension. Then I rethought why I was here, rethought what could be gained in view of what could be lost.

All this was in rather personal terms, and then in larger scope the whole Project. I remembered Bob Moses saying he had felt justified in asking hundreds of students to go to Mississlppi because he was not asking anyone to do something that he would not do… I became aware of the uselessness of fear that immobilizes an individual. Then I began to relax.

“We are not afraid. Oh Lord, deep in my heart, I do believe, We Shall Overcome Someday” and then I think I began to truly understand what the words meant. Anyone who comes down here and is not afraid I think must be crazy as well as dangerous to this project where security is quite important. But the type of fear that they mean when they, when we, sing “we are not afraid” is the type that immobilizes…. The songs help to dissipate the fear. Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous—but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm…. There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god. It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance. It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man. The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing “God is on our side.” I know I am on that god’s side. And I do hope he is on ours.

Jon, please be considerate to Mom and Dad. The fear I just expressed, I am sure they feel much more intensely without the relief of being here to know exactly how things are. Please don’t go defending me or attacking them if they are critical of the Project…. They said over the phone “Did you know how much it takes to make a child?” and I thought of how much it took to make a Herbert Lee or many others whose names I do not know…. I thought of how much it took to be a Negro in Mississippi twelve months a year for a lifetime. How can such a thing as a life be weighed?

With constant love, Heather


Mary Dora Jones, Cleveland, Miss.

She is a tall, handsome black woman with a mouth full of gold-rimmed teeth. Her home in Cleveland, Miss., is comfortably furnished and spotlessly clean. On the living room wall is a tapestry of the Last Supper. Grouped around the tapestry are photographs of John F.Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy’s photo is in the center and higher than the others—because on a tour of the Delta in 1967, he visited her friend Amzie Moore’s home. She recalls when the Freedom Summer volunteers came to Marks, where she lived before.

I had about seven blacks and four whites in my house, wouldn’t nobody else take ’em … They really move. They comes in, they mean business. They didn’t mind dyin’, and as I see they really mean business. I just love that for ’em, because they was there to help us. And since they was there to help us, I was there to help them….

Some of the black folks got the news that they were gonna burn it [my house] down…. My neighbors was afraid of gettin’ killed, people standin’ behind buildins, peepin’ out behind the buildins, to see what’s goin’ on. So I just told ’em, “Dyin’ is all right. Ain’t but one thing ’bout dyin’, that’s make sure you right, ’cause you gon’ die anyway”…. If they had burnt it down it was just a house burned down…. So that’s the way I thought about it. So those kids, some of ’em from California, some of ’em from Iowa, some of ’em from Cincinnati, they worked, and they shoo had them white people up there shook up.

They had a hard time adjustin’ because most all of the blacks up there didn’t want to see ’em comin’. Said they ain’t lettin’ no damn civil rights come. “If they come up here to my house,  I’m gon’ shoot ’em.” See, this is what the black folks were sayin’, and those kids had went to the preachers’ houses, they had done went to the deacons’ houses. They had done went to the teachers’ houses, all tryin’ to get in. Some of ’em come in around five o’clock that evenin’, landed in my house. I give ’em my house. “My house is yo’ house. I was workin’ for a [white] man, he was workin’ at the Post Office, and he and his wife was beggin’ me everyday, “Don’t fool with them Communists.” That’s what they was tellin’ me, those kids was Communists. I said, “Well, I tell you what. I don’t think they no more Communist than right here where I am, because if they Communists, then you Communists. They cain’t hurt me no mo’ than I already been hurt.” Anything that helped the peoples then I’m right there. So I didn’t stop, although I got him scared to fire me. He would have fired me, but I got him scared to fire me….

This was my white boss I was working for. His wife was sick, and every day she would talk to me about those people, askin’ me where they lived. I said, “Well, they ain’t livin’ at yo’ house. Why you want to know where they live?” So she said, “They ain’t livin’ with you!” And I said, “Well, I’m payin’ the last note on that house,” just like that. And I never did tell her.

Finally one day she brought me home. It was a car sittin’ there in my driveway, and two white men was in there, and there were some sittin’ on the porch. She put me out and she went on back. When I went to work the next morning she say, “Mary, was them, ah, civil rights peoples at yo’ house?” I said, “Now when you turned around and stopped and they were sittin’ there, you oughta been askin’ ’em what they was. They’d a told you.”

And I never did tell ’em anything. So it went on some. She said, “Ain’t but one thing I hate about it, this intermarriage.” And I said, “Well, ain’t no need in worryin’ about that, because if you wanna worry about that, you oughta been talkin’ to your granddaddy.”


Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer, 1965

Belfrage participated in the second of two training sessions in Oxford, Ohio, for student volunteers—“eighty-ftve percent white, one hundred percent middle-class”—and  was then assigned to the Delta city of Greenwood. Her memoir Freedom Summer was published in 1965.

In describing the then Chairman of SNCC with whom he was sharing a Mississippi jail cellI, Bob Moses wrote in 1961 that Chuck McDew “has taken on the deep hates and deep loves which America, and the world, reserve for those who dare to stand in a strong sun and cast a sharp shadow.” This could as well describe many SNCC Negroes. whose deep hates and loves were often translated into simple whites and blacks. They were automatically suspicious of us, the white volunteers; throughout the summer they put us to the test, and few, if any, could pass. Implicit in all the songs, tears, speeches, work. laughter, was the knowledge secure in both them and us that ultimately we could return to a white refuge. But we didn’t have to come, did we? We could have stayed at home and gone to the beach or earned the money we so badly needed for next semester at old Northern White. And here we are. We came. Among all the millions who could have realized their responsibility to this revolution, we alone came. Few Northern Negroes even came. We came. Don’t we earn some recognition if not praise?…

SNCC is not populated with Toms who would wish to be white … who fill closets with bleaches and straighteners, who lead compromise existences between reality and illusion. They accept their color and are engaged in working out its destiny. To bend to us was to corrupt the purity of their goal.

It was the policy of the Summer Project to limit its activities this side of the Civil Rights Act, and not to engage in testing the law or desegregating public facilities…. There were people in Greenwood, however, particularly young admirers of Silas MeGhee, who were quite unmoved by the idea of registering voters. The bill had been passed. and they wanted to see it work. Without COFO help or supervision, teenagers began to make forays over the tracks on their own. As the weeks passed, their frustration fed on itself, white outrage increased, and violence rose nearer to the surface daily.

Meanwhile Silas and Jake [McGhee] kept going to the movies. On July 25 their house was shot into. On July 26 they went to the Leflore Theater. They had been joined near the end of the month by their elder [half-] brother Clarence Robinson, a six-foot-six paratrooper (again on furlough and still out on bail). Clarence had a thirty-six-inch reach and a 136 I.Q., and his Army hat was reinforced with a silver dollar sewn under the emblem. Picked on in a bar once, he had swung the hat and downed two men. He walked down the street in his uniform like Wild Bill Hickock on the way to a duel, cool, tough, infinitely menacing.

He spoke at a mass meeting one night, using his voice as he used his body, with precision and power. “When I went in the Army in April of 1952, I raised my right hand and they told me that I was fighting for my country and my brothers, my sisters, my mother, and my fellow man. And after approximately four months of basic training to teach me how to fight, they sent me to Korea. Now when I come back here and try to go to the Leflore Theater, me and my two brothers, when I got ready to leave, there was a whole mob out there …

“We walked to this car. I opened the rear door, let my two brothers in, and I stood outside for approximately thirty seconds looking around. Nobody threw a brick. at me. They could have, they could have knocked my brains out. I’m the same as anybody else, I can be kilied, very easy. But they didn’t do it. Why? Because I showed that I didn’t mind being hit. That if I could get the man that wants to hit me within my thirty-six-inch reach [he demonstrated], I’d prove to him that I’m a better man than he is. We left from the theater, because there were incidents. When you go to the theater you’ve got to expect incidents. Why? Because the white man is scared of you!”

The “incidents” had been reported to the national SNCC office as they occurred, and most of the mass meeting audience already knew what had happened. The brothers had seen the movie in peace that night—largely because those who objected to their presence inside were on the picket line outside. But when the movie finished there were nearly two hundred whites waiting for them in the street. The McGhees tried to call for a taxi but none would come. The manager ordered them to leave. The theater was closing. They couldn’t risk walking. There was one alternative, to call the SNCC office. Two of our cars volunteered to go down to get them while the office phoned the FBI, relating the facts to local agent Schaum. Schaum, responding that the FBI would not give protection, was told that the purpose of the call was to request FBI witnesses on the scene. Schaum refused to commit himself….

When the cars arrived at the Leflore from the office, the McGhees, inside in the lobby, asked two policemen on duty to escort them through the mob. The policemen took them outside. Then one of them had a look at the crowd and said, “You got yourself into this, you can get yourself out.” The brothers were abandoned between point one and point two.

They made their way toward the car. As they reached it, the whites began to scream at them. They managed to get inside, but the mob, cheated, closed in on them. A bottle was thrown at the rear window with such force that it broke through and sprayed the brothers with glass. Jake was hit by particles in the eye. Instead of returning to the office, they drove to the hospital, where Jake was admitted to the emergency ward.

In the office calls came in on every phone, and the staff, like synchronized parts of a machine, answered them and phoned out again. One of the two cars returned, its occupants reporting that they had been followed by a car of whites and that those at the hospital were in danger. The office sent another car to the hospital. When it arrived Judy Richardson called in to say that they had been shot at from a roadhouse on the way, a white teenagers’ hangout….

At the hospital they found a throng of whites milling around, of whom at least five were seen (by Clarence, who knew such things) to be armed with .22 rifles and .38 pistols. After Jake was treated and discharged a group trying to drive away was threatened with bricks and sticks and blocked at the exit by a car full, of white men. They returned to the hospital. Something had to be done to avert a shooting war. The people in COFO were anxious for peace in which to conduct their work but events were no longer in their control.

The teenagers were mesmerized by the brothers McGhee and felt more and more interested in the tameness of the Freedom School, the Freedom Party. They wanted direct action. The Freedom School teachers, sensing this, invited Clarence Robinson to come to the Friendship Church to debate with Bob Zellner. The audience had defined the confrontation as “Nonviolence against Violence”; but Bob began by mentioning that he and Clarence would “just have a little discussion on the different approaches to social change.”

“It has been proven time and time again,” Clarence said, “that when a man fights back, he is not attacked. Now, I’ve never been the one to start a fight. But if someone is pushing me, I have to defend myself. You got to learn to stay flexible, to fight when you have to, but only when you have to.”

Bob’s respect for Clarence was immediately apparent; he clearly didn’t want to argue with him publicly. He began by quoting Gandhi: “If you can’t be nonviolent, be violent rather than a coward.” Then: “Because we’re organized we have to be nonviolent. We don’t have the strength, even if we wanted to, to carry guns and fight back. We’re facing organizations with more resources, more money, and with unlimited access to weapons.”

Clarence: “I’m not talking about carrying guns. If everybody did that, pretty soon you’d have a revolution on your hands. And I’m not saying we should go out there and start a lot of violence. I’m saying that you only resort to violence after you have done everythlng possible to avoid it.” Speaking to the children, and pointing to Bob: “This man can’t go to the Leflore Theater and integrate it for you, because he’s a white SOB: “There’s more guts per person in the McGhees than in any other family you’ll ever meet. They’re trying to desegregate the Leflore and they’re doing a great job. But we feel that our concentration has to be on voter registration now. Integrating all the movies in the South won’t achieve anything basic.”

Clarence: “You got to act in areas that people understand, not just a nebulous political argument beyond them all. This house-to-house activity is fine, but people are afraid of what they can’t grasp. They never have voted, they don’t know what it’s all about. But they know they can’t go to that movie …. “

The children broke in then. A solemn, composed girl of about sixteen raised her hand and spoke. “You say,” she addressed Bob, “that we have to wait until we get the vote. But you know, by the time that happens the younger people are going to be too old to enjoy the bowling alley and the swimming pool. And the Civil Rights Act was passed this month.” A little girl added, “Yeah, and do you mean we jus’ s’pose to let The Man beat on our head?”

Bob: “Look, I try to be a disciplined man. That means I try to do what I say I’m goin’ to do. When I joined with SNCC I said I’d behave nonviolently. I didn’t say how I’d think, how I’d feel. But the reason I know I can do this, that I can behave nonviolently, is that I’ve done it. I was in McComb. Mississippi, in sixty-one. McComb is not a Freedom School or a playpen. I had eighteen men beatin’ me, stompin’ on me while the cops held my arms. They tried to pull my eyes out by the roots. And I was nonviolent, not only because I said I’d be, but because there were about five hundred people watching, and what am I goin’ to do with five hundred people?”

Clarence: “If anyone has the guts to raise their right hand and say they’Il be nonviolent, I respect that. I haven’t got the guts to to that. If he’s able to do this and maintain it, that’s a fine thing.” Clarence said that actual weapons were not the issue: “They bring trouble with the law, violations of the Sullivan Act. The point is you got a weapon—you got two hands and two feet, and I don’t mean using them, to run on. Only four people can get on a man at one time. If you bring certain death to the first two, then you won’t have much trouble with the others. I’m just talking about if you’re attacked, and you can do some damage, the next time they’ll be a little more cautious….

“Then there’s this argument they’re always having in the movement, you know, about what you are supposed to do if you’re nonviolent and you’re in a house where the man has a gun, and ‘letting him do the dirty work’ if you’re attacked, and should he have that gun at all if you’re involved. Well, all I’m saying is that in a case like that, I’m not doing your dirty work for you. I’m defending my right to have whom I want in my house.”

Bob: “I agree. I don’t see where you get off tellin’ somebody else to be nonviolent because you are.” And he wanted to clear a few things up. “The way I am, I’d batten anybody who came at me on the street. But when you’re pledged to the discipline of a mass movement, you got to behave as you promised.”

The children sat digesting it all for a while, then the same girl who had spoken before raised her hand and Bob recognized her.

“How is it,” she asked, “that SNCC has moved from a militant position to a rather subdued one?” There was a little coughing.

Bob said, “It depends on your definition of the word ‘militant’. This is a policy worked out by the most militant people in the South today. As far as we’re concerned, we’re doing one of the most militant things anybody could be doing: building a new political structure.”


Alice Lake, “Last Summer in Mississippi,” Redbook, Nov. 1964

The dialogue occurred in July behind a small white country church with a single spire and a green roof. One of the participants was a man, over six feet and a heavy 200 pounds. He had sandy hair, and a paunch swelling under a sweaty blue shirt with a sheriff’s insignia on its sleeve. The other was a slim girl, not quite 22 years old, startlingly pretty, with short, light brown hair, bright blue eyes, crooked teeth, and a smile that lighted up her whole face.

It was an unusual conversation because it was friendly, and these two were not friends. The man was a deputy sheriff in Madison County, 30 miles north of Jackson, the Mississippi state capital. The girl, Ruth Kay Prickett, of Carbondale, Illinois, was a volunteer in the Mississippi Summer Project, which brought to the state over 500 young college students.

She had arrived in the county a few days earlier to open a rural Freedom School for Negro teenagers. Although these two did not know each other, both had heard stories. In the newspaper the sheriff read, the volunteers were described as dirty, smelly, unwashed beatniks.

Looking at Kay, immaculate in a white pique, V-necked blouse and a sharp-pleated, coffee-colored skirt, he must have wondered. “I had heard ugly things about his kind too,” Kay says. “I’d hate to say whether they were true or not. When there is no communication between the races, hearsay stories grow on both sides.”

The sheriff drove out from Canton, the county seat, to the one-room church that housed the Freedom School to get Kay and the other two white teachers—Karol Nelson, 25, a tall blonde from Dinuba, California; and Natalie Tompkins, 21, from Melrose, Massachusetts—to register with the local police.

This was a requirement of questionable legality for the 42 summer workers in Madison County, who were running a voter-registration drive, manning a community center and seven schools, and organizing a farmers’ cooperative among the Negroes, who number almost three quarters of the county’s 33,000 population.

The simple task turned out to be more than he had bargained for. When he arrived, Kay and Karol were taking books from cartons and placing them on newly built pine

bookshelves. Natalie was giving a French lesson to two Negro girls. While the others continued their chores, Kay took the surprised visitor in hand, deliberately turning on her most naive manner and the full force of her dazzling smile. She invited him inside to see the school—”we’d  both profit from it,” she said sweetly. She showed him the library, 1,000 books, mostly on Negro history, and offered to lend him one. He declined hastily. She suggested he visit the school when it met that evening. Again he declined.

Behind the church, where his car was parked, the two talked for over half an hour. Kay asked what he thought of the voter-registration drive. In Madison County only 500 Negroes out of 10,000 eligible are registered to vote, a percentage even lower than the state-wide figure of seven per cent.

“I kind of hate for them to vote,” the sheriff answered slowly. “This county is seventy-two per cent nigger. If they get in power, they’re really going to be rough on the white people. I just don’t trust the nigger. They’re not like us.”

Kay drew a deep breath but kept on smiling. They talked about the nearby Negro church that had burned to the ground a few days earlier.

“I bet your people burned that church just for the publicity,” he said.

Kay answered innocently, “I wasn’t there. Were you? Do you have any facts on which to base your opinion?”

The two found one bond. The sheriff was a Mason and so was Kay’s father. He brightened. By the time he drove away he was in high good humor. “Now, don’t you worry, little girl.” he said. “We’re not going to come out here and beat you up.”

Yet through the summer Kay and Karol and Natalie had reason to worry. They lived about 12 miles outside of Canton in two Negro farm homes on a dirt country road, surrounded by stalks of waving corn and the dark green leaves of cotton plants. In a nearby community, bomb threats forced three other volunteers to leave Negro homes. A fire bomb was tossed onto the lawn of the Freedom House, Canton headquarters for the civil rights workers. On Canton’s main street (named, by some irony, Peace Street), white drivers openly displayed rifles on the back seats of their cars. The girls had one lifeline to summon aid in case of trouble—a telephone in a small Negro grocery store four miles away. Soon after the deputy’s visit they lost the lifeline. A sheriff drove up to the store one morning and told its proprietor that he’d be in a peck of trouble if he continued to let those white girls use his phone.

“The nights were the worst,” Kay said. “At first we jumped at every noise. Then we got used to the sound of the cows chewing grass outside the window and the dank of the chain dragging at the pony’s ankle. But when the dogs started barking at midnight, we turned out the lights and hardly breathed in the dark. Once a car stopped and honked invitingly. Another time we heard footsteps running near the house, with the dogs in growling pursuit.”

Kay and Karol shared a big double bed in the front bedroom of the home of John and Mary Higgins, a middle-aged couple. Natalie lived down the road with the Forbes family,

who worked 50 acres of their own land, 21 planted in cotton, the rest in corn, butter beans, sweet potatoes, okra. (The Negro families who offered hospitality to the three girls still live

in Madison County. For their own protection their names have been altered.) Mr. Forbes, a heavy, friendly man, said firmly, “If I catch someone round my gate, I’m going to take a shot

at him.” One Sunday night he almost had that opportunity.

“Some of the married sons and their families were down visiting from Jackson,” Natalie recalls. “At about eleven P.M. all four dogs started to bark, and we heard someone running. One of the boys went into a bedroom for his rifle. It’s like an armory here, rifles in every room. We turned out the lights and saw a dark car parked on the road near the cotton field. The men took their rifles and prowled around outside. Then we heard the motor start up and the car pull away. Just to make sure, two of the boys spent the night in the carport with their rifles ready.” Apologetically she added, “I guess I’m the all-time chicken around here, but I was scared.”

What made these girls come to hot, humid Mississippi, where people of their own color treated them as enemies?

Should they have stayed home, as some advised, and let Mississippi Negroes struggle alone to win their rights? What were their goals? Did they succeed in accomplishing them?

All three girls come from middle-class homes. Kay was a senior at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale; Natalie had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts; and  Karol was a teacher in Pacifica, California, after graduating three years earlier from the University of California. From a glance at Kay’s animated face, it would be easier to imagine

her twisting at a sorority dance than teaching school in a hot tittle Negro church. Like most girls her age, Kay likes to have fun, loves parties and has a healthy interest in young men.

“Why did I come? I feel segregation is morally wrong,” Kay says. “I believe that if we don’t help to right that wrong, our democracy may wither away. And I hoped that the summer would make me a better person. Last May a speaker from C.O.F.O. [Council of Federated Organizations, set up by the major civil rights groups to run the Mississippi project] spoke on our campus, and when he had finished I raised my hand and asked, ‘Where do we get the applications?’ Some people had money to help and others had Time. I had the time. “

Behind the decision lay 21 years of Kay Prickett’s life. “I guess my idealism comes from my father,” she says. “He has great ideas. He taught us not to throw paper on the highways, and to believe that everybody was equally human, no matter what the color of his skin.”

Kay’s mother, Juanita, 46, agrees. Mother and daughter look alike, have the same vivacious manner and quick, breathless voice. “I was born in Oklahoma,” Mrs. Prickett says, “but my people come from all over the South and I was raised with Southern attitudes. I changed my point of view when I met a wonderful man named Ralph Prickett, a man who used words like ‘as’ and ‘ours’ instead of ‘I,’ ‘my,’ ‘me.’ My philosophy is that the world should be a better place because you came through it. That’s the way Kay feels too.” Mrs. Prickett did not have an easy time shedding her own racist childhood. In a gym class at Southern Illinois University in 1936, she and other students were asked to clasp hands and form a circle. “When I saw there was a Negro girl beside me, I broke into a cold sweat,” she recalls. “But I did it, and I said to myself, ‘My land, it doesn’t feel any different from any other girl’s hand.’ I’ve come a long way since. A few months ago our son Charles, who’s twenty, brought home a Negro boy to visit with us. It was a new experience for me. It made me feel ten feet tall.”

Nevertheless, neither Juanita nor Ralph Prickett acquiesced easily in Kay’s plan to summer in Mississippi. “It wasn’t that we were out of sympathy,” Mrs. Prickett says. “We were just plain worried about her safety. We tried up to the last minute to persuade her not to go. I was in tears the whole last week.”

Only one family member never reconciled himself. Kay’s maternal grandfather, 70 years old, is an unreconstructed Southerner who told Kay flatly, “You can choose between the niggers and me.” All summer he wrote her pitiful pleading letters. “I love you so much,” one read, “that I’ve hurt ever since you’ve left. Yet I feel like you’ve deserted us for the niggers. If you would call me any time of the night and say, ‘Grandpa, I want to come home,’ I’d drive right through the night until I reached you.’

Except for one childhood incident, Kay never knew persons of a different color until she started college. “When I was seven,” she recalls, “and my father was a coal chemist with a mining company, be brought home a visitor from Japan. Charlie and I were enchanted, and the next day we took him to see our school. The war had ended only a few years earlier. We were shocked and ashamed when in front of the schoolhouse the other kids yelled, ‘Kill the Jap.'”

Kay grew up in De Soto, a community just outside Carbondale, which boasted that no Negro would dare spend the night there. Even Carbondale maintained a segregated movie theater until a few years ago. In college some of her friends became interested in civil rights. “For a while,” she says, “I dated a boy who was blond and blue-eyed but had almost all Negro friends. At one party we were the only white couple. At first I was self-conscious, but in an hour I really forgot all about it. Last year a group of kids joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I was shy about going to their meetings. I didn’t want to go rushing in. One spring day I was sitting in the cafeteria just before a SNCC meeting, and a friend asked me to come. I guess that started my commitmeat. There are twenty kids in our SNCC chapter at S.I.U. Six of us spent the summer in Mississippi.”

The six students needed financial support, $150 each for transportation and living expenses and a $500 pledge of bail money in case of arrest. The Pricketts are not rich. Juanita is a remedial-reading specialist, and Ralph Prickett only recently started a second career as a schoolteacher. But mends on the campus—faculty wives, the university chaplain, the Student Christian Foundation—gave teas to raise funds. Each student received $10 a week during the summer, enough for pocket money and board and room.…

On one August day, ready to explode after a week of isolation, Kay and Karol broke security rules and went into Canton to get their mail and telephone their parents. A Negro

neighbor drove them three-quarters of the way and then they started walking in the 100-degree heat. Kay recalls, “On the edge of town we stopped at a gas station to use the bathroom. The attendant started asking questions, and we told him we were civil rights workers. He stared rudely and then said with deliberation, ‘If I’d known that, I’d have made you use the colored rest room round back.’

“‘That’s all right with me,’ I said. ‘A toilet’s a toilet.’

“‘Yeah. Next time you use the nigger toilet.’”

To get to the Freedom House they had to walk through the downtown area. Karol had a headache, so they looked for a drugstore. The first one they saw had a sticker on the door reading “White Citizens Council for Racial Integrity.” (The Citizens Council, a dominant force in Mississippi, was the first group in the state to call for defiance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.) They headed for the next place but it had a Citizens Council sticker too. In fact, all the stores had identical stickers. “We both were shocked,” Kay says. “We had no idea that the opposition was so out in the open.”

Brief contacts with whites were unpleasant and carried overtones of danger. The girls had hoped to visit white churches and talk to their parishioners, but the experience of other Canton workers was discouraging. One volunteer, turned away from a white church, discovered that the gas tank of his car had been filled with sugar. On another quiet Sunday two volunteers, rebuffed at church, were set upon by hoodlums and beaten.

It soon became instinctive to distinguish friend from enemy. If a car drove down the road with a white arm protruding from the window, Kay and Karol scurried inside to their room. “I always got shook up when white cars came by,” Kay said. If the arm was black, they relaxed and waved. The two were walking home from Freedom School one day when a large, sweaty man with a ruddy complexion stopped and offered them a ride. They refused politely. He struck up a conversation.

“You’re both purty gals,” he said, “some of the purtiest I’ve ever seen. But I seen you the other day up at that nigger store talking to the worst nigger slum in the country. Why, that nigger slum can’t even count to ten.”

“Yes, we’ve been talking to Negroes at the store,” Karol said, “and we’d be glad to come to your home and talk to your wife and you too.”

“I wouldn’t let the likes of you in my house. Why don’t you go home where you belong?” Then he pulled up the brake and started to get out of the car. The girls didn’t wait to discover his intentions. Hearts pounding, they strode away on the double. He stared but did not follow.

Each girl reacted differently to the summer’s tension. Natalie was the most cautious. One day white friends of hers, working in the project in another part of the state, drove up for a visit, “Until I saw who they were,” she said, “I almost had heart failure.”

Small irritations dogged the Freedom School all summer, and Karol met them with impatience. School was held in the evening because many students chopped weeds in the cotton fields all day. (Three dollars for a ten-hour day was good pay.)

The girls were always prompt, but their students strolled in a half-hour to an hour late. “I just don’t feel I’m doing half the things I could,” Karol grumbled. “In Mississippi every day is like Sunday afternoon at home. It’s like quicksand, and you can’t get out of it.”

Kay is a particularly stable young woman. Small setbacks don’t usually bother her, and she doesn’t worry or get depressed easily. Yet even her equable disposition was ruffled as the lonely summer wore on. “I seem to run a gamut of emotions,” she wrote in August to a friend. “Some days I’m easygoing and relaxed, and others I’m impatient and restless with everyone. One afternoon when Karol said it was too hot to walk to Canton, I felt so angry and frustrated that I almost cried. “

Occasional parties lightened the monotony. One Sunday the girls and about 20 Negro neighbors went swimming in a nearby pond, after first chasing out a horse and some cows. A few weeks later they joined 300 persons at a large Negro farm for a picnic and county convention of the Freedom Democratic party. Kay and Natalie attended a deer hunters’ picnic held on one of the back sloughs of the Pearl River, lined with huge old cypress trees. Food was served from big black iron kettles, one filled with fried fish, the other, a variety stew with meat, lima beans and even lemon peel.

But the heart of the summer was their work, and they loved it. In addition to teaching five evenings a week and preparing their classes, Kay and Karol used free hours for voter registration work, trudging in the hot sun down miles of dusty roads; knocking on the doors of Negro farmhouses, where they met tenant farmers too poor or too tired to attend freedom School or go to church. Many of the houses were constructed of unpainted, weathered boards, looking as if a light breeze would bring them tumbling down. Front steps were rotting, and milk crates served as porch furniture. Old chamber pots held lovingly tended vines. The rooms were dark, often lighted only from the fireplace or by kerosene lamps. In one house two bulging paper bags were tacked high on a wall. Here Sunday clothing was safe from the mice. Walls were plastered with old newspapers. “In one place the effect was charming,” Kay said. “The ceilings were pasted with brightly colored magazine pages, making a collage that would rival some of the pieces in the Chicago Art Institute.”

The shacks were swarming with flies and children. “I counted six children in one,” Kay said, “the oldest only seven. Their bellies were swollen and their eves lackluster. They

looked like pictures of starving Africans. The mother wore ragged housedress. She looked close to 40, but she told the girls she was 22. She kept saying, “Yes, ma’am” until Kay could stand it no longer. “I wish you wouldn’t call me ‘ma’am,'” Kay told her. “The two of us are exactly the same age.” It was dangerous to stay long in the houses of tenant farmers. If their employer knew that civil rights workers had visited, they were likely to lose their homes.

The registration drive that engaged Kay’s energies was not aimed at bringing Negroes down to the county courthouse to register. In Madison County this is still an almost hopeless task. Their job was to register Negroes in the Freedom Democratic party, formed in the spring of 1964 as an alternative structure to the white Democratic party, which systematically excludes Negroes. The goal was to file forms at the national Democratic convention in August in order to challenge the seating of the white Mississippi party. Even the simple form, ten questions long, frightened some persons. “If I fill it out,” one widow asked, “are you sure it won’t knock out my job or anything?”

At one shack Kay and Karol waited patiently on the porch while an old man walked slowly in from the field where he was ploughing. He had a sad, stoic face, a reddish-bronze cast to his skin and an immense, quiet dignity. When they shook his hand he looked surprised but said nothing. As Kay launched into her glib patter, explaining the Freedom Democratic party, he stood quietly, murmuring an occasional “Yes’m.” There was no flicker of recognition when she mentioned the participation of national Negro leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, but his eyes lighted up when she said she lived with the Higgins family. She asked if he wanted to register, and he spoke for the first time. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “No one ever talked to me before about such things.”

Disappointed, the girls shook hands and left. “You’re never sure you’re getting across,” Kay sighed. “You don’t ever get any feedback.”

But when they returned the following week, the old man greeted them with a smile. He announced proudly that he was ready to sign, and that he also would like to attend the

Freedom School. He was 74 years old. Although the school curriculum was designed for high school students, the girls constantly revised it for their pupils, who ranged in age from four to 60. Ten adults came regularly and brought their children. There were four age groups: tiny children, just learning to read; those in the upper elementary grades; teenagers; and adults. Some of the adults were almost illiterate; others were young men and women halfway through college. With rj-mile distances to travel and a paucity of cars, the students usually arrived in groups. One night a young man drove up in a panel truck that disgorged 13 youngsters of assorted ages.

The church that houses the Freedom School is a pleasant one-room structure, its hard wooden benches holding some 15 persons. During the first week the girls realized that anyone seated before an open window, with light streaming out, made an easy target for a shot from a passing car. A few days later they saw a white man peeping in a window. So they set their younger pupils to work making water-color designs on white butcher paper to tack over the windows. The effect was like muted stained glass. One slogan, decorated with curlicues, read simply: “Everybody want freedom. Willie want freedom.” Tacked to the pulpit, neatly printed on blue cardboard, was a section of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . .” Below the pulpit were a blackboard and a desk. Each lesson was tied in to the students’ own lives and to the freedom movement. The two French students conjugated “We love freedom.” To a science class Kay described the scicatific method, emphasizing the necessity for seeking facts befure reaching conclusions. A math class centered on installtnent buying, with an analysis of how much interest a purchaser ended up paying tor his stove or television set. Hate was never taught. The groups discussed stereotypes—the  rich white man, the poor white, the sheriff—and tried to understand why individual whites acted as they did. Negro history, of which all were abysmally ignorant, was the most popular topic.

There were other shocking areas of ignorance. Most of the adults equated citizenship with voting. Asked if he was a citizen of the United States, one countered, “Well, am I?” Some of the children did not know what state they lived in or what other states bordered on it. There was unanimous disapproval of Barry Goldwater, but few knew why they were against him.

The high-school students were sharp in discussion but often deficient in reading ability. Kay stormed, “These kids are so bright and their school shortchanges them so badly. Their textbooks are secondhand. Their high school has only two typewriters. Last year they finally got the equipment to start a woodworking class for the boys, and then found there was no money to buy wood.”

Karol, with three years of experience in teaching middle class white children, said, “Socially these youngsters are much more mature than my students at home. They’ve assumed responsibility since childhood. They’re very sophisticated in dealing with people. But in academic areas they’re far behind. At home some students start off the year with an insolent ‘show me’ attitude. Here they have a blind faith that you have something to offer them. Working with them sometimes makes me ashamed for myself, because I’m not always sure I can live up to that faith.”

If the girls ever had any stereotyped ideas themselves about the Mississippi Negro, the summer dispelled them. “We’ve heard about how backward the Southern Negro is, how lacking in self-respect,” Kay said. “This just hasn’t been true among the families we’ve met. Not one is defeatist or apathetic.

When we stand in front of the store and talk to them, it’s they who are in danger from a passing white car, but they’re quite willing to chance it. They have a caution bred in their bones, but they never cower. One woman I met at church works in the fields, but she has such dignity, such natural manners. She stands like an American Gothic type, straight and spare. And some of the boys—it would be a crime if they didn’t get to college.” …


Victoria Gray Adams, “They Didn’t Know the Power of Women”

A Mississippi businesswoman supports student organizers and becomes a full-time movement activist herself.

I’ve always been in the Movement. I’ve always had my own movement, from the time that I was conscious of the situation, both racially and economically speaking. For example, I was very unhappy with the kinds of employment that were available for black women in Mississippi, so I decided to start my own business. When the Movement that you know about came to town, I was a businesswoman selling cosmetics and household miscellany. My mission, as I understood it, was to help people have a better life by providing employment for black people in general but women in particular. When SNCC people came to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, they represented just one more kind of movement, a way for folks to get a better life. Initially, I got involved from a support stance. At the time the SNCC youngsters arrived, the black powers that be had received their instructions from the white powers that be not to let SNCC in, even though SNCC had been invited to Hattiesburg by a local group, which included Mr. Vernon Dahmer. When the word came down not to let them in, nobody would open their churches or do anything else that might be helpful to these civil rights workers.

I heard that one of the black powers that be was trying to block Mr. Dahmer from inviting the Movement to come to my church. I said, “No, he doesn’t control the church that I go to; SNCC people are welcome there. I’m quite sure that if we meet with my pastor, everything will be okay.” With the cooperation of my pastor, Rev. Leonard P. Ponder, I arranged for my church to be open so that SNCC workers could have meetings there. That’s how the Movement found a place to become a movement in Hattiesburg, in my church, St. John Methodist Episcopal Church, which today is St. John United Methodist Church. For a long time, Reverend Ponder was the only minister who was participating in and supporting the Movement in Hattiesburg.

Arranging a meeting place was the beginning of my involvement. Then the youngsters began to invite me to do other things, including going to Dorchester, Georgia, for the Citizenship Education Program training, an SCLC program run by Septima Clark to train teachers in voter education. I was yery excited when I left Dorchester, and back in Hattiesburg I had a voter education class up and going within a couple of weeks.

First I recruited a class of people from my church and neighborhood. Then I went to other churches and invited them to come also. We could not call it “citizenship education”; we called it “adult education” or a literacy program, in order to camouflage what we were doing. Next the SNCC workers invited me to go to a meeting. I took a bunch of kids in my car, and we met with kids from all over the state.

That’s where I first met Ella Baker. When I met her and that community of youthful civil rights activists, J realized that this was exactly what I’d been looking for all of my conscious existence. Before, I had not found a community of people who understood where I was coming from. It was like coming home. When I met Miss Ella Baker it was like we had always known each other. She was never a stranger, somebody I had to get to know. She was a very little figure, with a very strong and imposing voice. Our understanding of things was just so similar. Miss Baker and I, only two of the four adults at the meeting, reacted in the same way and were affirming, embracing, and supporting the youth. We also talked about finding ways to involve adults in the process. As a result, I became a mediator in Hattiesburg between the young civil rights workers and the local community.

For instance, when SNCC workers Curtis Hayes and Hollis Watkins were walking the dusty roads, encouraging people to register, people in the black community were afraid of them. Their fear was based on articles in the white papers circulated in the city, the Hattiesburg American and the Jackson Clarion Ledger. These papers said the SNCC kids were dangerous, talking about Communism, and that their actions would jeopardize the entire black community. Black people were afraid, among other things, of losing their jobs as well as the few hard-won rights we did have. I would explain, “These young people are here as our friends, as our supporters. But the local white people can’t see civil rights workers in a positive light, because for white folks civil rights workers are the enemy. I went to the black churches describing the projects Hollis and Curtis and the others were planning and encouraged people to support these activities. As I went from place to place for my business. I talked about those young people and why it was important for us to support them. Sometimes the kids had pretty lean days out there. Even though Mr. Dahmer took care of some of their living and shelter needs, he could not do it all.

The local white people spread propaganda that the kids had plenty of money. I emphasized that this was just not true. I told the people I came in contact with, “Oftentimes when these youngsters out here knock on your door, they’re hungry. Sometimes the shoes on these kids’ feet aren’t too solid on the bottom. If you can’t do anything else, certainly you could contribute some food.” I recruited women to come to the freedom house in Hattiesburg and cook. Other people brought food. We organized a telephone tree to be certain that someone would come every day to ensure that the SNCC workers would have at least one hot, well-prepared meal. Some of the working men in the community would come to my house at night and give me money saying, “Take this. We appreciate what you’re doing, but we can’t help you directly.”

We adults provided a little money sometimes and places to stay and work. Mrs. L. E. Woods, a lifelong businesswoman, provided the freedom house. She had the only hotel facility for black people, like the big band folks, coming into the area. She was a very independent and courageous woman, who understood what was going on as soon as the SNCC kids came to work in Hattiesburg. She had always been interested in voter registration and was one of the first to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

The initial SNCC office was in my brother’s place. He and Mr. J. C. Fairlie had a TV repair shop in the downstairs area of the Masonic Temple. SNCC was there, and then the Delta Ministry came. Everybody in the Movement was in that TV shop. Eventually, the Movement outgrew the space. When Miss Woods became aware that the Movement needed a larger space, she opened up the first floor of her hotel across the street from my brother’s TV shop for the office…


Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return, 1973

It was the longest nightmare I have ever had: three months, June, July, and August of 1964. I was nineteen years old, a man-child immersed in the seething core of the “long, hot summer.” These grim statistics relate only a small portion of the horror: one thousand arrests. thirty-five shooting incidents, thirty homes and other buildings bombed: thirty-five churches burned, eighty beatings and at least six persons murdered. Although most of us managed to leave Mississippi, none of us escaped without terrible scars. It happened eight years ago, hut the scars are still there, deep inside, where I suspect they will remain for the rest of our lives.

lt began in earnest for me when I returned from Meridian to Holly Springs, Mississippi, which was to be our home base for the summer. A small group of people ran out of the office at 100 Rust Avenue when we drove up. They were summer volunteers, our coworkers. Most of them had just arrived from the Oxford orientation sessions. Their sad, searching eyes asked questions that would not be answered for many weeks: “Where are they? What happened to Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner?”

Ivanhoe was the Project director. Although he was of medium stature, standing about five ten and weighing no more than 175 pounds, he had tremendous presence and was a natural leader. He had been working with SNCC for more than two years and knew the South well. He’d made his first trip South in 1962 while a student at Michigan State in response to a SNCC appeal for food and clothing for a group of starving sharecroppers in Leflore, Mississippi. Ivanhoe and his companion Ben Taylor, a fellow student from Michigan State, had been arrested in Clarksdale and charged with the possession of dangerous narcotics. The “narcotics” were aspirin and vitamins. The two of them remained in jail for eleven days under fifteen thousand dollars’ bond until nationwide protests brought their release. Despite the threats of Clarksdale’s police, who confiscated the truckload of supplies they had been transporting and warned them not to be caught in Mississippi again, Ivanhoe made twelve more trips from Michigan to Leflore, laden each time with badly needed food and supplies.

We had a long staff meeting on our first night in Holly Springs. Ivanhoe presided. Everyone sat quietly while he explained the long list of rules and regulations he had drawn up. Everyone was to he on his job by 8:30 each morning; no one was to make any trip into the city or county without leaving his time of departure and expected return on the check-out list in the office; no one was to be out after dark unless he was on official business; all shades were to be pulled as soon as the sun went down, and no one was to make a target of himself by casting a shadow on a shade; local whites and the police were to be avoided whenever possible and never unnecessarily provoked.

Ivanhoe was particularly emphatic about affairs between blacks and whites. He told us that he did not intend to have any interracial relationships between staff members. In a very blunt and forceful manner, he told the white females that they were to avoid all romantic entanglements with local black males.

“Interracial relationships will provide local whites with the initiative they need to come in here and kill all of us. Even if the whites don’t find out about them, the people will, and we won’t be able to do anything afterwards to convince them that our primary interest here is political.

“Our entire effort will be negated if we lose the support and respect of the people. I don’t intend for that to happen. Anyone who violates any of these rules will have to pack his bag and get his ass out of town. We’re here to work. The time for bullshitting is past.” Pausing, Ivanhoe looked around the room from face to face. He wanted to make certain that everyone understood. We did.

The remainder of the evening was spent discussing COFO and the scope of the Summer Project. Although a number of organizations were supporting the Project, SNCC was the prime mover. SNCC people were coordinating four of the five Project areas—CORE was coordinating the fifth. SNCC was supplying 95 percent of the money for operating expenses and facilities throughout the state. Although Aaron Henry was president of COFO, Bob Moses was the Project director.

“The Summer Project has three major objectives,” Ivanhoe explained, “registering voters, operating Freedom Schools and organizing Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) precincts. I intend for us to have the best goddamn project in the state. We’re going to register more voters than anyone else, have the most efficient Freedom Schools and the best MFDP precincts!”  

Before the meeting concluded, someone passed around a copy of a COFO publication titled “The General Condition of the Mississippi Negro.” Despite my previous exposure to poverty and deprivation, I found it very disturbing.

The publication revealed that 66 percent of all Mississippi’s blacks were living in “dilapidated or deteriorating” housing; that about one-third more blacks than whites died each year; that the chances of a black baby’s dying in his first year were twice those of a white child; that one-half of the state’s black schools had no equipment whatsoever; that more than 90 percent of the public libraries denied admission to blacks; that the state unemployment rate for blacks was twice that of whites and that the annual income for blacks was 71 percent less than that of whites.

“It really is going to be a long, hot summer,” I muttered to no one in particular before tossing the pamphlet down and heading for bed.

I suspected from the way he conducted our first meeting that Ivanhoe was going to be a tough taskmaster. My suspicions were confirmed a couple of days later when Hardy Frye was arrested. Hardy, who had been assigned to register voters in the downtown area, was new and Ivanhoe told me to keep an eye on him.

I’d been watching Hardy for about a half hour when the chief of police walked up to him. “You’re under arrest,” the chief growled in a loud voice. “Under arrest for what?” Hardy roared in an equally loud voice. They were on the main street, which was moderately crowded with black and white shoppers. Their loud exchange caught the attention of everyone on the block. There must have been seventy people watching to see what would happen. This was the first confrontation between any of our staff members and local police officials. Everyone seemed to sense that it would have an important effect on the remainder of the summer.

“What the hell am I under arrest for? I ain’t done a goddamn thing,” Hardy insisted.

About five seven, Hardy was putting on a good show. Despite the fact that the police chief was several inches taller and probahly fifty pounds heavier, Hardy wasn’t backing down. He had been raised in Alabama and understood the symbolic importance of his confrontation with the chief.

The chief, who had obviously expected a less belligerent response, got confused. “You’re under arrest for uh, uh, uhh, blocking traffic.”

“Okay,” said Hardy. “If I’m under arrest, let’s go!” With that, Hardy raised his hands high over his head and started walking toward the jail. The chief, who had reportedly killed several blacks, was further confused. Hardy was striding dramatically down the street as if on the way to the guillotine. He had a defiant smile playing at the corners of his month. The chief stumbled behind him, trying to catch up.

“Put your hands down, nigra!” he growled self-consciously.

When I got back to the office and told Ivanhoe what had happened, he jumped up from his desk and said, “Let’s go!” Within an hour he had paid Hardy’s fine and had him back in the office.

“You okay, Hardy?” asked Ivanhoe. “Yeah, I’m okay. They didn’t do anything but threaten me.” “Well, go back out there and gel back to work,” Ivanhoe commanded. It was Hardy’s turn to be confused. “Get back out there?”

“Yes, get back out there. There were a lot of people watching when you got arrested. We can’t let them think that we are afraid. You know that. Go right back to the spot where you were when you were arrested and continue to try to register people. Act as if nothing had happened.”

“You’re the boss,” grunted Hardy, who was already on his way out the door. Although the police watched him closely, they did not rearrest him.

Ivanhoe’s handling of the situation established two things: his position as the unquestioned leader of the Project and respect for our staff from the blacks of Holly Springs. If Ivanhoe had handled the situation any differently, if he had been softhearted and allowed Hardy to take the remainder of the day off, we probably would have had many more problems than we did during the rest of the summer.

Although I was the assistant Project director, I did not get to spend much time in the office. I was assigned to coordinate voter registration, Freedom Schools and MFDP organizing in Marshall County. The hardest part of my job was organizing Freedom Days. Every two or three weeks we would schedule a Freedom Day and try to get all the people we had contacted to come into town and try to register. Because numerous people had been killed on Freedom Days in other parts of the state, we had to work extra hard to keep the people from losing their nerve.

As each Freedom Day approached, I would move out of the crowded Holly Springs office and into the county so that I could be closer to the people. Working from sunrise long into the hot, humid nights, I had to keep reassuring the people that all hell was not going to break loose if they tried to register.

“You can do it! You can do it! I’ll be with you every step of the way,” I repeated again and again.

The Freedom Schools played a large part in the success of the Freedom Days. The children who came to the schools, many of whom were twelve and thirteen and still couldn’t read or write, understood the meaning of freedom. All the lessons in the schools were tied to the need for blacks to stand up and demand the freedom that was rightfully theirs. The children would return home from the schools and badger their reluctant parents into going to town and registering for freedom.  

By midsummer the periodic Freedom Days had evolved into something more than just “registration” days when blacks asked for the opportunity to get their names on the voter roles. The people saw them as opportunities to stand before their peers, white and black, and declare that freedom was something they intended to have. There is nothing so awe inspiring as a middle-aged sharecropper trudging up the steps to the voter registrar’s office clad in brogans ?, denim overalls and a freshly starched white shirt, his only one. I grew to love the Freedom Days. More than anything else, they provided the motivation that kept me going.

One of our most difficult tasks was getting people to attend the MFDP precinct meetings. Everyone knew that the three missing men were associated in some way with the party. They also knew that all those who attended the precinct meetings were letting themselves in for the same fate as the missing men. Although most people would not openly support the MFDP, we received invaluable assistance from local black ministers. They allowed us to address their congregations after Sunday morning worship service and urge their members to attend the meetings. By my third week on the job, I could deliver a pretty good sermon in support of voter registration and the MFDP.

Although Marshall was supposed to be one of the most liberal counties in Mississippi, we had numerous run-ins with law-enforcement officials. I remember two in particular: an event that I call The Chase, and the death of Wayne Yancey.

The Chase took place late one Friday night, Three carloads of us were on our way back to Holly Springs after a big MFDP rally when we noticed that we were being followed by a police car. I was driving the lead car, a 1962 Volvo.

“Maybe we won’t have to make a run for it. He doesn’t seem to be interested in harassing us,” I said to Ralph Featherstone, who was sitting in the front seat with me.

“I hope you’re right,” he muttered. The police car followed us until we were in the middle of Oxford, Mississippi, before flagging down the two cars following me. I drove on for about four blocks before pulling to the side of the road to see if the other cars were going to be allowed to continue. When it became obvious that they were going to be detained, I swung the Volvo around in a wide U-turn and headed back. By the time I got back and pulled in behind the two cars, the Marshall County sheriff and several other police cars had arrived. The sheriff. a short man who looked like a Bantam rooster, immediately turned the situation into a dangerous game.

While a fast-growing crowd of whites looked on, he called us from the cars one by one and attempted to humiliate us. The police officers looked on, chuckling and smiling.

“What yo’ name, boy?”

“Cleveland Sellers.”

“Where you from?”

“Denmark, South Carolina.”

“What’s a South Carolina nigra doing over heah in Mississippi? Ain’t you South Carolina nigras got enough trouble without cumin’ over heah to Mississippi tryin’ ta stir up our nigras?”

Although his remarks angered me, I remained impassive. I knew that he wanted me to give him an excuse to attack. It took everything in me to keep from spitting in his face and cursing him. His little eyes were shining and his lips were wet. He was really enjoying himself. So was the crowd around us. There were about 250 of them and they were cheering and howling like spectators at a bullfight.

“What’s the matta, nigra? Cain’t chew talk? Ever’ time I turn on the television I sees one of you SNCC nigras talkin’ ’bout how bad us white Mississippians is. What chew got ta say now?”

“I don’t have anything to say,” I replied in a dry voice, which was as devoid of emotion as I could make it.

“Git yo’ slack ass back in that cab. If’’n I ketch you ovah heah ah-gin, urn gonna puhsonally see to it that you leave in a pine box! Now git!” Then turning to the other officers, the sheriff said, “He got a white girl in the back of that cah. Take him back and git huh ovah heah.”

He was talking about Kathy Kunstler, whose father, William Kunstler, was one of the lawyers working with COFO. “Don’t let him get to you,” I whispered to her as she clambered from the car. Although the night air was cool, I noticed small beads of perspiration on her forehead.

The sheriff began by questioning her about her birthplace, occupation and residence. He was speaking in a loud voice so that everyone in the tightly packed crowd could hear. Very quickly, he descended to the level of all too many white minds in Mississippi.

“Which one of them coons is you fuckin’?” The crowd roared its approval of the question. “Slut, I know you fuckin’ them niggers. Why else would you be down heah? Which one is it? If you tell me the truth, I’ll let you go. Which one is it?” Although she was dearly frightened, Kathy did not break. Remaining calm, she spoke when it was appropriate and otherwise remained silent. The crowd, which contained several tobacco-chewing drunks, was so engrossed in the exchange between Kathy and the sheriff that the rest of us were completely forgotten. That was good, because it provided us the opportunity to pass notes from car to car. There was a federal courthouse across the street and we decided to make a run for its steps if the crowd attacked. There were several empty pop bottles in our car and we passed them to the occupants of the other cars. They were our only means of defense. Fortunately we did not have to use them. The sheriff decided to let us go, “Take your white whores and get the hell out of Oxford!” he yelled. “If’n I ketch anyone of you heah again, urn gonna see to it that you git a quick trip to hell!” He then told one of his deputies to escort us to the edge of town.

Just before the deputy headed back for the center of town, we noticed that we were being followed. Featherstone stuck his head out the window as we turned a corner. There were seventeen cars behind us.

“Oh shit,” I muttered under my breath. Just at that moment the deputy sped past us, headed in the opposite direction. There was a big smile on his face.

“Our only chance is to run for it,” said Featherstone. He didn’t have to repeat himself. Within seconds, we were speeding down the dark highway at 105 miles per hour. I was driving the last car and wasn’t at all certain if the little Volvo could keep up with the big Plymouth Furies that Ivanhoe and Hardy were driving in front of me. Featherstone stuck his head out the window again as we sped into a long, sloping curve. “There are twenty-one now,” he said.

Before I had time to dwell on the significance of his report, we were faced with a new peril. Roadblock dead ahead. Ivanhoe, who was driving the lead car, responded immediately. The roadblock was set up in the right lane only. The left lane was open so that oncoming traffic could get through. Swerving into the left lane, Ivanhoe gunned past the startled little group of white men gathered to the right of the road. Before they could respond, Hardy and I did the same.

The only thing that saved us that night was luck. We drove the thirty miles from Oxford to Holly Springs as if we were Grand Prix racers. Our pursuers slowed down for bridges,  sharp curves and small towns. We didn’t. Hitting 105, we roared through the two small towns along the way with our horns blaring and our gas pedals on the floor.

Charlie Scales and Wayne Yancey were not as lucky. Wayne was killed one Sunday afternoon in mid-July in a two-car collision. We were sitting in the office trying to catch up on paperwork when news of the accident arrived: “You folks better get down to the hospital. Two of your boys had a head-on wreck out on the highway and one of ’em is dead!”

When we arrived at the hospital, Wayne Yancey’s body was lying in the rear of the big hearse that had been used as an ambulance. Although the accident had occurred more than an hour before, no doctor had examined him. His blood was seeping through the floor of the hearse and had formed a large dark puddle on the ground.

“Goddammit, what the hell is going on here?” Ivanhoe yelled to one of the white police officers standing nonchalantly in front of the hearse.

“You cain’t move the body,” drawled one of the officers. “Mayor’s orders.”

We rushed to the rear of the hearse, which was owned by Mr. Brittenum, the town’s lone black mortician. One of Wayne’s feet was hanging from one of the doors. It was obvious that his ankle had been broken. We moved closer and looked through the rear window. His face was badly mangled. And his body was bruised and torn by several deep cuts. Blood was everywhere. I was immediately reminded of the magazine pictures of Emmett Till’s corpse. Fighting to control my rage, I harked slowly away from the hearse.

“His head went through the windshield,” I heard someone explain to a group of curious onlookers.

I didn’t have time to mourn Wayne’s death at that moment. We had another problem. Charlie Scales, who had been driving the car in which Wayne was riding, was still alive. Kathy Dahl, who had been with us at the office when the news arrived, was inside the hospital attending him. The white doctors and nurses at the hospital refused to help her. They said they were too busy.

Kathy, who was frantically trying to stem the bleeding of Charlie’s wounds, came out briefly and told us that he was going to die unless he got additional assistance. Because we

couldn’t take a chance on sending him to another Mississippi hospital where he would certainly be refused assistance, we got Mr. Brittenum to agree to transport him to John Gaston Hospital in Memphis. We were preparing to enter the hospital and remove Charlie when we were informed that he was under arrest, for the murder of Wayne Yancey.

‘They’re trying to kill him, too,” bellowed Hardy. In a blind rage, Hardy, Ivanhoe and I rushed the doors of the hospital. We didn’t have a chance. There were almost twenty police officers in front of the doors. Ivanhoe sent for a lawyer, who managed after begging, threatening and pleading. to get the mayor to allow Mr. Brittenum to transport Charlie to the hospital in Memphis. If it had not been for Kathy, who remained with Charlie in the rear of the hearse, he probably would have died then.

Immediately after the hearse left for Memphis, Hardy and Bob Fullilove and I were dispatched to the service station where Charlie and Wayne’s car, in which the two men had been riding, was being held. We had to recover the MFDP membership forms in the car before they were confiscated by the police. We also wanted to inspect the car for signs of foul play.

The car, a brand-new 1964 Ford, was a total loss. It looked as if it had been hit hy an explosion. Glass and blood were everywhere. The force of the collision had smashed the steering column back against the backrest of the front seat. We found one of Wayne’s shoes on the floor in the rear.

We had just finished collecting the registration forms and examining the car when two white men came out of the service station and approached us. “Y’all friends of them two who was riding in this cah?” I shook my head affirmatively.

“Too bad you’all weren’t in it wit’ ’em!”

“Take that bullshit and ram it up your mother’s ass,” I yelled at the men, who were apparently mechanics. The three of us were advancing toward them, ready to lock nuts, when one of them placed a hand in a rear pocket. We stopped and backed slowly toward our car. Jumping into the car, we quickly rolled up the windows.

“Let’s get out of here,” I yelled to Bob, who was sitting in the driver’s seat. The white man,  his hand still in his pocket, was still advancing toward us. “Let’s go!” I yelled as the man began to remove his hand. I was certain that he had a gun. He had a badge instead.

“I’m a police officer. You’re under arrest,” he said to me. “Fuck him! Let’s go!” I yelled to Bob. But Bob froze. I was arrested tor insulting a police officer and resisting arrest. SNCC paid my five-thousand dollar bond just in time for me to get out of jail and attend Wayne’s funeral. Although we tried, we never did find out just how the collision had occurred. There was nothing at the scene we could use to determine what had happened. We questioned the black man who was driving the car Wayne and Charlie collided with, but he couldn’t tell us much.

“I was knocked unconscious immediately,” he said. “All I remember is that when my car came over the hill, there was this other car coming straight for me, in my lane.” Charlie couldn’t tell us much either. He only remembered one thing. “I was thrown from the car and when I came to there was a white man standing over me. He bent over and said, ‘Just lie still and be quiet or you’ll get the same thing as your buddy!’”

Wayne’s death had a tremendous effect on us. After getting crazy drunk and brooding for a week or so, we tried to pull ourselves together and “keep on keepin’ on,” but it was impossible. The weeks of tension and strain, coupled with Wayne’s brutal death, could not be ignored. Hate and viciousness seemed to be everywhere. We realized that the only thing keeping us from sharing Wayne’s fate was dumb luck. Death could come at any time in any form: a bullet between the shoulder blades, a fire bomb in the night, a pistol whipping, a lynching. I had never experienced such tension and near-paralyzing fear.…



 ACT 3


This taped telephone conversation between President Johnson and his close ally and confidant, Texas governor John Connally (who was shot when JFK was assassinated eight months prior), transpired while the MFDP organizers were starting to hold local precinct meetings across Mississippi, three weeks before the Jackson state MFDP convention that selected the national delegates.


Oval Office, White House, July 23, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Texas Gov. John Connally, 5:31 PM


LBJ: I don’t know how anybody can stop what they’re doing on the Freedom Party. I think it’s very bad and I wish they that I could stop it. I tried, but I haven’t been able to…. It may very well be that Bobby [Kennedy] has started it. Last night I couldn’t sleep. About two-thirty I waked up…. Joe Rauh and Martin Luther King and folks that normally run with that crowd are leading ‘em. [Senator Hubert] Humphrey is trying his best to put an end to it, but he hasn’t had much luck with ‘em…. It’s going to be pretty difficult for you or anybody else from that part of the country with a substantial Negro population … to sit by and let their sister states be thrown out when they were duly elected….

            On the other hand, I don’t see how a fellow like [New Jersey governor] Dick Hughes and [Penn.] Governor [David] Lawrence and [Chicago mayor] Dick Daley can possibly go back to their states and say that they were for seating the Alabama group and the Mississippi group when they won’t say they’ll support their nominees…. So it looks like you just pretty well split the party….

              I have the office, but I don’t have much to fight with…. I didn’t sleep two hours last night. It might be this is an easy way maybe to get out—save your face by just getting beat.


John Connally: Aw, you ain’t gonna do that….


LBJ: I don’t see the answer to this damn convention thing on seating.


Connally: That’s going to be a tough problem…. If they have a hundred thousand Negroes up there [far more came to the March on Washington a year before]—or  ten thousand—and they picket this thing because Alabama and Mississippi are being seated and the convention kicks them out, the impression around the country is going to be that they just got kicked out because the niggers wanted them kicked out….


LBJ: You’ve just got more damned problems than I can handle. I’ve got old enough and flabby enough that I can’t surmount all the obstacles. And I don’t have the help and the advice and the counselors and the loved ones around you to do it. Every man in my Cabinet’s a Kennedy man…. I haven’t been able to change ‘em and I don’t have the personnel if I could change ‘em. They didn’t go to San Marcos Teachers College…. It’s just agony…. I don’t really know how to handle it all. That’s the honest truth.


Connally: Oh yes, you do.


LBJ: No, I don’t…. If I win, I lose. [Because I want the South for me]…. Now my judgment is we’re gonna lose every southern state…. I just don’t think they can take this nigra stuff.


Oval Office, White House, Washington, July 30, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with James  Rowe, Hubert Humphrey Adviser, 5:56 PM

LBJ: … Tell him [Sen. Humphrey] that [presidential nominee John F.] Kennedy sat down and had a cold one with me. He said, “Now I want you to understand. I know you don’t believe in a lot of this integration in this platform. But you’ve got to go with it whole hog or I don’t want you to go.” And I want him to know that if he goes [for the vice presidency], the first thing he’d better do is to try to put a stop to this hell-raising so we don’t throw out fifteen states. That’ll defeat us.

Rowe: You’re damn right.

LBJ: He’d better get his [Walter] Reuthers and the rest of ‘em in here—and Joe Rauhs—and make ‘em behave. That’s the first thing. But I got to see that he’s loyal. I’ve got to be sure he’s for me. I got to be sure he won’t be running against me four years from now.


Cleveland Sellers, The River of No Return

… The horror of it all was magnified when [on Aug. 3] the FBI found the decomposed bodies of Mickey, James and Andrew. I don’t remember what I was doing when the news arrived. It doesn’t really matter. What I do remember is the excruciating pain it caused in my stomach. The pain, which remained for several days and nights, plagued my mind until it was impossible for me to rest or to forget what had been done to those three innocent men.

Wrapped in ice and plastic bags to protect them from the intense heat. the three bodies were taken to the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. Mickey and Andrew had been shot through the head once each with a .38 caliber bullet. James Chaney had been shot three times and, according to one of the examining pathologists, brutally beaten.

“In my twenty-five years as a pathologist, I have never witnessed bones so severely shattered,” said Dr. David Spain of New York after examining Chaney’s body at his mother’s request.

The bodies were found beneath an earthen dam on a farm three miles from Philadelphia. The farm belonged to a white trucker, Olen Burrage, who claimed that he did not know how the bodies had gotten beneath the dam. Herman Tucker, who had been paid $I,40O by Mr. Burrage to build the dam over the site early in the summer, pleaded ignorance.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” he said, “don’t care nothing about it and don’t want to discuss it.”

Rita Schwerner, who was working for CORE in Washington when the bodies were found, uttered a terse comment when newsmen inquired about her feelings: “Three good men were killed—three good men who could have done a great deal for their country.”

When asked if she thought something positive might come from the triple assassination, Mrs. Schwerner gave the only answer any of us could: “That is up to the people of the United States.”

We approached our work with additional dedication and purpose. Despite our pain, we were determined to accomplish our goals. Working doggedly from sunup to sundown, we set about the task of organizing precinct, district and state MFDP meetings. We had a good case and we intended to take it to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. We would present it to the party in power, to the elected representatives of “the people of the United States.”


John Steele

The first time that I met Michael Schwerner and James Chaney was at our home [Longdale, Miss.]. I was ten years old. They was telling us about so much wrong, and our rights. Michael Schwerner was always talking about the constitution and what wasn’t right. It was enlightening. Really educated me into knowing that there were rights on written documents, and from 1865 we were free.

Once after a rally Schwerner said, “We have come here to die if necessary.” And that puzzled me. I looked at him and said this man is talking about dying, and I’m just now getting to know him, and I like him, too. After the services I asked him, “Why you want to

talk about dying?” He said, “One day, young Mr. Steele, you might find something worth dying for. Freedom is worth dying for, fighting for other people’s freedom.”


At the end of May 1964 a meeting had taken place at Mount Zion Church in Longdale to discuss setting up a voter registration project. Michael Schwerner and James Chaney spoke, representing COFO. Less than three weeks after this organizing meeting, Mount Zion Church was burned to the ground by a white squad with Klan fingerprints.

I remember that night very vividly. We started off in the truck to go to an official board meeting of the church, my sister, my mama, me, and my daddy. Mr. Jim Cole had walked past going down the road, and we picked him up. When we got to the church, me and my sister stayed outside under the night light.

We were playing with this frog when a car came by and stopped right out in front of the church. We saw a white fella get out and look up at the church. I was curious why he was looking up there.  We went in, and I ran over to my father and I said, “Hey, there’s

somebody out there looking at us.” They carried on with some more church business. Finally we sang the dismissal song, and they said a prayer.

It was my job to cut off the lights in the church. I was standing on top of the bench over the light switch, waiting for them to turn on the headlights of the cars. I looked over in the corner, and I saw the back door of the church was open. It was on the same side as the cemetery. I flicked the lights off in a big hurry, and I saw something white, and I know that door opened. I took me a good look, and CLAP, I ran out and jumped up on the truck and said, “Daddy, somebody’s in the church!” It seemed right then that it was a nightmare.

There was a car sitting in the driveway with three or four white males inside. Mr. Jim Cole got on the back of the truck. My sister was closest to my mother, and I was beside my dad. My mother pushed my sister down as we were going into the road. I popped

up to look. As we got to the road, the cars came up and blocked us in. I was peeping, and the guy told my father to cut off the lights. I looked out the back windshield and I could see the other people leaving. Then they asked my father, “Where are those boys?” Mr. Jim Cole said he’d do the talking because my father had a temper. I instantly knew who he was talking about, Schwerner and  Chaney. Mr. Jim said, “What boys you talking about?”

The white man said, “You know damn well what boys I’m talking about. If you all leave them alone, we’ll help you all.” Meaning we should stay away from the civil rights people. I didn’t know who that white man was, but some of the cars were very familiar. There was a pickup truck, and there were only two in this area. There was a white ’63 Ford Galaxy, and there wasn’t but two of those in this area. One of the guys had a limp, and I didn’t know but one guy who had a limp like that. Then we heard a shot on the other end, and they let us go on home. But during that time we didn’t sleep in the bed. We slept under the bed. The very next day Mr. Bud Cole came over, and we learned about the church burning down. He was beaten so badly, they wanted to take him to the hospital.

Later on that day we went on over to the church. It was in rubble. I had a fear for Michael Schwerner and James Chaney. And also for myself, and more for my father. About spring of 1964 it had gotten dangerous for my family. We received threats in the mail. My father was harassed. They threatened his life and threatened to burn his house. Later on some of them even said he should have died when Michael Schwerner, Jim Chaney, and Andrew Goodman died.

My father didn’t want Schwerner and Chaney to come back because of the danger. When they drove up, it was just like a bad dream. They came to the house that Sunday about two P.M. It was after dinner. My father told them that they shouldn’t have come.

He said, “It’s too dangerous. You need to spend the night. Either that, or let me and my brothers ride with you, and we’ll get our guns.”

Michael Schwerner said no to the guns ’cause the movement wasn’t about violence of any type. He also couldn’t spend the night because he said he had to be back in Meridian. They were having a meeting that evening. I remember even the way they were dressed, where they sat at the table.

The next morning, Monday morning, we were getting ready for breakfast, and the radio station asked anybody who knew the whereabouts of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman to get in touch with the COFO office in Meridian. I knew and everybody else in the house knew that something real bad had happened to them. The possibility of them being dead was actual fact.

Everything went into a turmoil. My cousins, my uncles, and different people from other black neighborhoods were all in the bushes. They were armed and ready. My uncle and cousins, they don’t believe in just giving your life. They believed in protecting

themselves. Cars were coming by. Mailboxes and crosses were being burned. The kids were under the beds.

I remember when the FBI came. I remember this inspector taking me to the church and talking to me. I was telling him he had to find these people who had done this. He said, “Why do you think they did it?” I said, “They threatened to kill my father, so I know they

killed them.”

People were just combing the woods looking for the bodies—the Navy, the National Guard, aircraft flying over, helicopters landing and picking back up again. There was no way you could turn around anywhere.

Just before they found those bodies, it rained, lightning, electrical storms for weeks and weeks, night and day. My mama said, “It’s the Lord. That’s those boys’ blood crying.” And shortly after that, they were found.


Early Aug. 1964. Amidst President Johnson’s deepening worry about the MFDP challenge at the Atlantic City national convention, he ordered an attack by 64 jet fighters on an oil depot and naval port in North Vietnam. He announced on television that the bombing was justified retaliation for a North Vietnames torpedo assault on a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin the day before. That attack never happened. Partly for partisan reasons—he was running against the hawkish Goldwater—Johnson and his advisers pushed through Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (with only two dissents) that gave the president authority “to take all the necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States to prevent further aggression.” The administration considered it equivalent to a congressional declaration of war. From that moment on, the stealthy and then open-ended escalation of the Vietnam War would be inextricably entwined with the struggle for civil rights and economic justice, from the Oval Office down to the everyday risks and sacrifices by ordinary citizens at the grass roots, including civil rights organizers targeted for induction by the burgeoning Selective Service System.


Early Aug. 1964

I could only think “This must not be the beginning of war. There is still a freedom fight, and we are winning. We must have time to live and help Mississippi to be alive.” Half

an hour before, I had understood death in a new way. Now I [realize] that Mississippi, in spite of itself, has given real meaning to life. In Mississippi you never ask, “What is the meaning [of life]” or “Is there any point to it all?” but only that we may have enough life to do all that there is to be done….


Aug. 5, 1964, Meridian, Miss.

At the Freedom school and at the community center, many of the kids had known Mickey and almost all knew Jimmy Chaney. Today we asked the kids to describe Mickey and Jimmy because we had never known them.

“Mickey was a big guy. He wore blue jeans all the time”… I asked the kids, “What did his eyes look like?” and they told me they were “friendly eyes,” “nice eyes.” “Mickey was a man who was at home everywhere and with anybody,” said the 17-year-old girl I stay with. ‘The littlest kids, the 6, 7, 8 year olds, tell about how he played “Frankenstein” with them or took them for drives or talked with them about freedom. Many of the teen-age boys were delinquents until Mickey went down to the bars and jails and showed them that one person at least would respect them if they began to fight for something important … And the grown-ups, too, trusted him. The lady I stay with tells with pride of how Mickey and Rita came to supper at their house,  police cars circled around the house all during the meal. But Mickey could make them feel glad to take the risk.

People talk less about James Chaney here, but feel more. The kids describe a boy who played with them—whom everyone respected but who never had to join in fights to maintain his respect—a quiet boy but very sharp and very understanding when he did speak. Mostly we know James through his brother, Ben. Today Ben was in the Freedom School. At lunchtime the kids have a jazz band (piano, washtub bass, cardboard boxes and bongos as drums)and tiny Ben was there leading it all even with his broken arm, with so much energy and rhythm that even Senator Eastland would have had to stop and listen if he’d been walking by….


Larry Martin, Meridian, Miss.

My father died when we were babies. We were five kids and my mama and my grandmother. My mother fixed hair downtown, and my grandmother had a little eating establishment right next door to the beauty parlor. It was called Calmese’s Grill. We lived across the street from the COFO office, right down in the heart of town [Meridian). We were little kids running around down there, and one day we saw those white guys going up those

stairs. They looked different, not like the ones you’d see around here all the time. They’d talk to us and tell us, “You guys, come over and play sometime.” So we started going up there. We used to go and just read. First time I ever saw so many books. All kinds. I was eleven when Mickey Schwerner came [to Meridian]. I spent lots of timewith Mickey and Rita. They were funny, most always happy. He used to do a lot of magic tricks for us. He’d take Ping-Pong balls in his hands and say, “It’s over here,” and pull it from somewhere

else. It fascinated us. We had never seen that before. Rita and Frankie Wright taught us freedom songs. We used to sing “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Genna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” [Those were my favorites.]

When James Chaney came on the scene, I learned what it was all about. James was a nice, easygoing fella, quiet most of the time. Come around with his hands in his overalls. He wore a blue T-shirt. He was real friendly. He was different from most black guys you’d see. Most guys would be hanging in the pool rooms, or hanging on the corner. But he was up there. He had his job to do. Always seemed to be happy and ready to work.

I was listening to what they were talking about. About how the white man was treating the blacks so bad, couldn’t get decent jobs, coloreds had to drink out of a certain water fountain, and things like that. And I said to myself, I think that’s right to fight against that ’cause a man is a man. I don’t have some business about somebody because of what color they are. Ever since I was a little bitty boy, I felt like that.

We’d go to the COFO office every day and stay until night. They never told us to go home. They let us stay and play as long as we wanted to. We’d read and talk and play games. I wanted to be in the demonstrations. I wanted to be a part of it. At the airport, for

instance, they wouldn’t serve blacks. I remember Mickey, Preston, James Chaney, and, I believe, Ben [James’s 11-year-old brother], we all went out one day to eat. We all ordered apple pie. The lady served us, but she put salt on the pie. We ate it. We also went uptown to Kress’s. They had a certain side for blacks to eat on. Mickey said, “Well, we’re going to change that.” So we went up there to eat dinner, and we all sat on the white side.

They served us. They didn’t really want to do it, but they served us. Me and Ben Chaney were the youngest in most everything we did.

I was arrested a couple of times. Once when we were boycotting Kress’s, like always, the policemen came and put us all in the paddy wagon. They kept me and Ben, and then let us go. They’d take us to scare us, talk to us real mean, tell us to go on. But the older men, they kept them. We went back to tell Rita at the COFO office what happened.

At the time, I knew there weren’t black people voting, and we needed those votes so we could get people in office that we thought would do a good job. My mama and grandmother got registered when COFO came. They used to have those big rallies and meetings. We went to different churches here, getting people registered to vote.

I remember Mickey saying if we get the vote, we can make a change. That sounded about right to me. We started passing out leaflets saying there was going to be a meeting. We’d walk for miles a day passing out pamphlets, trying to get people registered. We

weren’t out there shooting basketball or playing marbles. A lot of times I didn’t even go swimming. I’d rather pass out leaflets, sit-in, or something. I enjoyed doing what I was doing. I felt it was right.

My mama didn’t worry about us when we were at the office ’cause she knew we was with Mickey, and we were in good hands. My grandmother would cook the meals at the restaurant, and they’d come and eat, Mickey and Rita, Frank and Judy Wright. They were the very first whites that ate there. That’s where all the  people from the COFO office would come. She’d fix them a big dinner free.

Before COFO, I didn’t really come in contact with white people at all. School was all black, teachers were all black, principal was black. Stores had white people. We’d buy tennis shoes, or candy, but as far as talking with them, or communicating with them, we

didn’t do that. They were very mean in those days. They would not give you money in your hand. They’d throw it down. They’d watch you real hard when you were going out, as if you were going to steal something. I didn’t like that. I’ve never been a thief, and it made you feel bad.

The Klan were hateful, rednecks you call them nowadays. Just real coldhearted to black people. They were young guys, middleaged, and old men. Like the guy that owned this electric company. He was an old man, and he didn’t like nobody black. I mean just

for nothing. We’d walk by and he’d come out and try and make us get off the sidewalk. “Get off the sidewalk, get in the streets!” he’d yell.

And the people at the laundry right down the street from the COFO office, we saw them loading the sheets up in there one Saturday night. And the laundry wasn’t open at night. They had a lot of Klansmen there.

We had some mean policemen. They were so mean, you’d know them by name. We had one who became a judge. He finally got voted out. He tried to change his image, but he didn’t change his heart.

When the policemen used to see us just walking together, black and white, they’d stop us for nothing, and take the men to jail….

Mickey and the others had told us there was going to be a lot of people coming down for the summer. People were coming from everywhere, black and white, to work with us, give us help and support. We was glad. We needed it. Mississippi, ooh it got really rough down here, especially back in the sixties. Black man didn’t hardly stand a chance. I remember about Medgar Evers [NAACP director in Mississippi]. He was in the same field of work as Mickey and Chaney, and he’d lost his life in it. Mickey and them were saying that they had to go to Philadelphia [Miss.] where the black church had been burned. They were going to check things out and see what was going on. We knew they were going up there early Sunday morning.  

Andrew Goodman was here just that one day. He got here that Saturday, and they left that Sunday morning. I didn’t get to know him good. Ben and I were the ringleaders of the young guys. They let us go where other kids couldn’t go, or didn’t want to go, ’cause we weren’t scared of anything. At eleven and twelve years old, we weren’t afraid. On Saturday Mickey had promised us that we could go with them, but later Saturday night he said, “No, you guys can’t go. Something might happen. It just might not work.” So Ben and I got mad. Oh, we were angry.

We never saw them alive again.

Ben and I were waiting in the COFO office because they were supposed to have been back. We waited and waited and waited. Still no word. Then someone got in touch with the sheriff up there.

The sheriff told them that he had arrested them, and then let them go. I thought they were dead, killed. I believed they were dead ’cause I knew Philadelphia was mean, mean people there, very hateful and prejudiced people. In 1964 they didn’t want to see no

blacks riding together with no whites. They’d rather see anything than that. That’s why Mickey told us we couldn’t go.

The policemen and sheriffs were coming up, asking questions. All kinds of men with suits on, asking questions. The office was busy then. People were trying to find out what was going on. You heard so many stories. I think it was my grandmother said she

remembered a man come in to eat and said that when it started to rain, he saw three streaks of lightning in the sky. I never will forget that as long as I live. I thought it meant they were dead and buried. One white man used to bring bread and things to my grandmother’s place. One day she said to him, “Sure was awful what they did to those three guys up there, isn’t it?” My grandma said he dropped his head and he looked so funny. When they did get the men who killed them, he was in that group. Bringing her bread like

that for years. He was a little short man.

After we found out for sure they were dead, it was chaos in the COFO office. There was a lot of crying going on. Everything went wild. Right after that it looked like the whole office just vanished. Like the heart of it was gone. Those guys were the backbone. After

they left, everybody else started leaving. Never an office again. I wish somebody would have stayed here, keep that place open. Why did everybody seem like they had to give up because they  were gone? There was a leader in the crowd somewhere. Somebody

could have carried the torch on after all they’d been through. I sure missed it. I missed it a lot. It was all of our friends, all of our fun. I miss Mickey and James. And I miss Rita. I miss the work, too, that we did there. It made you feel good. Like you were doing something that really meant something.

When we got older, Ben and I talked on making a new COFO office. I would like to get the same office that Mickey and James used. It brings back so many memories, that building. I’d do what Mickey and them did. We got a man here says he can’t find nobody

black good enough to stay working for him. I know that’s a lie. I would get on his case first. Get him to straighten out, or we’re going to boycott his store.

I would work with kids. I’d spend time with them like Mickey and them did with us, soften their hearts up. A lot of times it’ll save you from being in trouble later in your life.

I believe if it weren’t for Mickey and them now, I don’t know what kind of guy I would have been. That’s right. They really made a difference when I was growing up. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to meet those guys and to know them and work with

them. I loved the work they were doing. I’d really like to be a part of it again.


Ben Chaney

We used to watch the Freedom Riders on television. In early ’63 my brother got involved in the freedom rides. By him talking to me and my family, that’s when I got an idea what the movement was about. To be a Freedom Rider meant sitting in the front of the bus.

But it didn’t only mean riding on a bus. Bucking the system, not getting off the sidewalk when white people walked by, not saying “mister.” Anything that would be a sign of rebellion, rebelling against the system, rebelling against the status quo, rebelling

against segregation.

My brother was scolded and told not to do that anymore by my father and my mother. The older people were telling him not to get involved, but he continued. I thought about being a Freedom Rider. Whatever my brother wanted to do or did, I wanted to do.

Mickey and Rita [Schwerner] organized the community center in the spring, and I went every day. I was in school at the time, and usually after school I would come by the center. Sometimes my brother would bring me home. I was eleven years old. I played with

the typewriter, played Ping-Pong, sang freedom songs. “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” was my favorite. The one I disliked the most was “We Shall Overcome.” It was so slow.

There were no organized activities for black kids in the community, and the Freedom Center offered some. We were kept pretty busy. It was also a learning experience. There was a Freedom School where we received tutoring in English, arithmetic, writing,

those things. There was always something happening then. You never got bored.

We would sit around on the floor in a group and everybody would sing. There was always a discussion going on. Mostly adults would talk about voter registration, and what was happening. They talked about the latest attack, who got whupped recently by the racists. And we were listening. It was usual for a black person to get beaten up by southern segregationists. It was unusual for a white person to get beaten up by other whites for being with blacks. But over a period of time, you understand, the whites hated those other whites just as much as they hated the blacks.  We was picketing some five-and-ten stores, Woolworth’s, Kress’s, and others that wouldn’t hire blacks behind the counter. Outside

there would be a circle, marching in front of the store. Depending upon how many people you had, the circle might stretch for a whole block. If there were not too many, then it would just be around the entrance of the store. You would march around, carrying your sign and singing freedom songs.

I think the worst demonstration I was on was where this big redneck, this big racist, took my picket sign away and tore it up. Then he grabbed me up in the collar, threw me down, and told me to leave and that he’d better not see me again. I walked around the

corner and I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. So I went to the COFO office, got another sign, and went back on the demonstration.

That’s where I got hit in the head. I was bleeding, but it was okay. It was okay to be hit. It was okay to go to jail. I was arrested more than twenty-one times before I was twelve

years old. “Demonstrating without a permit.” That was what they locked everybody up for. Because I was a juvenile, only eleven for most of my arrests, I would go to jail, and then they would put me in a holding cell, or they would set me on a bench right outside the

courtroom. We would wait until an adult came and got us out. In a couple of demonstrations, Mickey Schwerner would come and get me out. Most of the time it would be my brother. He was pretty quiet, but I remember waiting one time for him to come and

get me. I could hear his steps in the hallway, and he was saying, “I come for my brother.” I was glad. He was proud of me. I was glad to be there too. That’s where the action was at in the sixties. That was it.

My brother and Mickey and Goodman left on a Sunday morning [to Philadelphia, Miss.] The next morning I woke up, expecting my brother to be back. They had promised to take me somewhere, and they didn’t come back. The minister who lived down the street from my house came up and told my mom that nobody’d heard from them all day. He was going to Philadelphia to look for them. That’s how we got the word. Reverend Porter came up and told us.

During the summer, during the disappearance [June 21 to August 3], I was very much involved. That’s when I got arrested quite a few times. Before the summer, I could go off by myself sometimes and do things on my own. But during that summer, I always had to have an adult. My momma said that. She was more and more nervous about the whole situation. She grew up in an environment where from a very early age she had seen others in her family disappear, and no one knew anything. I think that my mother believed that my brother and the others were dead. I think she believed that because she’s been there longer

and that was the way of life with her. I think my sisters believed that they were dead. But I can pretty much say that until the funeral, I didn’t think so. I just knew my brother. I knew that he would find a way to come through. He always came through. And I just knew that if there was any way for him to come through, he would be driving up the driveway in the morning. No doubt about it.


Ben Chaney spoke at the memorial service for his older brother. Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price, who were later arrested in the case, werepresent. Ben ended with: “And I want us all to stand up here together and say just one thing. I want the sheriff to hear this good. We ain’t scared no more of Sheriff Rainey!”


I had been told a thousand times by people who shaped my whole thinking pattern that they [Rainey and Price] killed my brother. I thought, How can I get back? What can I do to them to hurt them also? At the memorial somebody asked me what I thought, so I just

said what I thought at the moment. After I made that speech, my father gave me a hard time. He was talking, “Forget it. Let bygones be bygones.” I guess he was saying mercy, or forgiveness, and all that stuff.

What I remember most is how sad the whole affair was. Throughout the funeral and the memorial service, I kept wondering why didn’t people do something. Why didn’t my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather? Why wasn’t things made different? Why wasn’t change taking place then, so that this event wouldn’t be taking place now? I felt a desire to do something to hurt the people that hurt my brother. At that time I couldn’t do

anything. Even now I can’t do anything. But now I’m mature enough to realize that there are things in the work I’m now doing with the James Earl Chaney Foundation about voter registration that I think is not for revenge. It’s like a continuation of what happened in the sixties.

I didn’t have any idea this would be history. Having a sense of black people being put in an American history book was unrealistic. That’s the way it was. When my brother and his companions were missing and they were looking for the bodies, they found more than seven additional black people who had died over that period of time who were involved in the movement. They had disappeared. Nobody searched for them. Nobody was concerned about them. Nobody even talks about them now. So it was like another black person gone.


Rumors had spread among segregationists about Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner throughout  the summer. One story claimed they were in Cuba with Fidel Castro and the communists. Another had them in Chicago. laughing at the efforts to find them. The search, and the rumors, ended on Aug. 3. After paying an informer, FBI agents found the bodies of the three young men buried in an earthen dam, freshly built, on a farm near Philadelphia, as Cleveland Sellers reported above. All three had been shot. James Chaney, the black Mississippian, had been savagely beaten, bones broken and crushed.


Dave Dennis

During the time they were looking for the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, they found other bodies throughout the state. They found torsos in the Mississippi River, they found people who were buried, they even found a few bodies of people on the side of roads…. There was an abundant supply of black bodies in Mississippi that summer. In searching for the bodies of the Philadelphia victims federal agents found several unidentified corpses. One of these, the body of a fourteen-year-old boy wearing a CORE T-shirt, was found floating in the Big Black River….

As soon as it was determined that these bodies were not the three missing workers, or one of the three, those deaths were forgotten. That’s what we were talking about in terms of what the Freedom Summer was all about, in terms of why it was necessary to bring that attention there. Because people forgot, and if it had just been blacks there, they would have forgotten again. It would just have been three black people missing….

After the bodies were found, there was basic concern about cooling things down because the country was angry. I had been told I was gonna give a eulogy at the church, in Meridian, for James Chaney, and I had been approached by my national office of CORE and others to make sure that the speech that’s given is calm. They don’t want a lot of things stirred up and everything else like that, and I said okay, fine, that’s good. Then when I got up there and I looked out there and I saw little Ben Chaney, things just sort of snapped and

I was in a fantasy world, to be sitting up here talking about things gonna get better, and we should do it in an easy manner, and with nonviolence and stuff like that. It’s because this country—you cannot make a man change by speaking a foreign language, he has to understand what you’re talking about—this country operates, operated then and still operates, on violence. I mean, it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That’s what we respect. So I just stopped and said what I felt. And there was no need to stand in front of that kid Ben Chaney and lie to him.


Dave Dennis, Eulogy for James Chaney, Aug. 7, 1964, Meridian, Miss.

            I’m not here to do the traditional thing most of us do at such a gathering. And that is to tell of what a great person the individual was and some of the great works the person was involved in and etc. I think we all know because he walked these dusty streets of Meridian and around here before I came here. With you and around you. Played with your kids and [he talked to all of them]. And what I want to talk about is really what I learned to grieve about. I don’t grieve for Chaney because . . .  [he lived] a fuller life than many of us will ever live. I feel that he’s got his freedom and he’s still fighting for it. But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst not only in the state of Mississippi but through out the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those that do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it and those people who sit up and watch it in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics. That includes the president on down to the government of the state of Mississippi, you see. And my opinion, as I stand here? I not only blame the people who pulled the trigger or did the beating or dug the hole with the shovel. But I blame the people in Washington, D.C. and on down to the state of Mississippi for what happened just as much as I blame those who pulled the trigger. Because I feel that a hundred years ago if the proper thing had been done by the founders of this particular country and by the other people responsible or irresponsible we wouldn’t be here to mourn the death of  a brave young man like James Chaney, you see. 

            As I stand here a lot of things pass through my mind. I can remember the Emmett Till case, what happened to him, and what happened to the people who killed him. They’re walking the streets right now. I remember that town right below us here a man by the name of Mike Parker and exactly what happened to him and what happened to the people who beat, killed him and drug him down the streets and threw him in the river. I know that those people were caught but they were never brought to trial. I can remember back in Birmingham of the four young kids who were bombed in church and had just went to service and I know what has happened to the people who killed them—nothing. Remember the little thirteen year-old kid who was riding a bicycle and who was shot in the back? And the youth who shot him who was a white guy from Birmingham got off with three months. I can remember all of that right now. Or I can remember the Medgar Evers case with Beckwith. The person who was governor of the state at that particular time going up and shaking his hand when the jury said that it could not come to a verdict. I can remember all of that and I can remember [down in southwest Miss.,] where you had six Negroes who’d been killed and I can remember these and all these particular people who know what has happened to those who have been killing them. I know what is happening to the people who are bombing the churches, who’ve been bombing the homes, who are doing the beatings around our state and country. 

            Well I’m getting sick and tired. I’m sick and tired of going to memorials, I’m sick and tired of going to funerals. I’ve got a bitter vengeance in my heart tonight. And I’m sick and tired and can’t help but feel bitter, you see, deep in down inside and I’m not going to stand here and ask anybody here not to be angry tonight. Yeah, we have love in our hearts and we’ve had it for years and years in this country. We’ve died on the battlefield to protect the people in this country. We’ve gone out in . . . in 1942 millions of us died too, you see. Meanwhile, you understand, there are people in this country with no eyes, without a leg, without an arm to defend this country and to come back and do what? To live as slaves and I’m sick and tired of that . . .

            Got a lot more I want to say. You see we’re all tired. You see I know what’s gonna happen—I feel it deep in my heart when they find the people who killed these guys in Neshoba county. You’ve got to come back to the state of Mississippi and have a jury of their cousins, their aunts and their uncles. And I know what they’re going to say—not guilty. Because no one saw them pull the trigger. I’m tired of that. See another thing that makes me even tireder though and that is the fact that we as people here in the state and the country are allowing this to continue to happen. Even us as black folk.

            So I look at the young folks here—that’s  something else that I grieve about. For young Ben Chaney here and the other ones like him around in this audience and out on the streets. I grieve because sometimes they make me feel that maybe they have to go through the same things, you see. And they don’t have to go through the same thing.

            Unless we as individuals begin to stand up and demand our rights in this God-blasted country, you see, we have to stand and demand it because tomorrow baby it could be your child. One thing that I’m worried about is just exactly what are we going to do as people, is what happened to this… what this guy died for and the other people who died for. We are going to come to this memorial here, say oh, what a shame. Go back home and pray to the Lord as we’ve done for years. We go back to work in the same white folks’ kitchen tomorrow and forget about the whole God-blasted thing, you see. 

            Don’t applaud! Don’t applaud! Don’t get your frustration out by clapping your hands. Each and everyone of us as individuals is going to have to take it upon ourselves to become leaders in our community. Block by block, house by house, city by city, county by county, state by state throughout this entire country. Taking our black brothers by the hand [raised high ]… stepping our clothes and our feet through the mighty oceans through the mighty country of Africa. Holding our hands up high telling them that if they’re not ready for us, too bad, baby, ‘cause we’re coming anyway, you see. So we have to do as people. We can’t take it any longer and be wiped off the face of the earth. I look at the people of gray hair down here, the Tigers in the face and think about, for $10 a week, $25 a week, whatever you could get to eat. I watch the people here who go out there and wash dishes and you cook for them. For the whites in the community and those same ones you cook for wash and iron for who come right out and say I can’t sit down and eat beside a nigger or anything like that. I’m tire of that you see. I’m tired of him talking about how much he hates me and he can’t stand for me to go to school with his children and all of that. But yet when he wants someone to babysit for them he gets my black mammy to hold that baby. 

            And as long as he can do that, he can sit down beside me, he can watch me go up there and register to vote and he can watch me take some type of public office in this state and he can sit down as I rule over him as he’s ruled over me for years, you see. This is our country too, we didn’t ask to come here, they brought us over here and I hear the old statement over and over again about me to go back to Africa. Well, I’m ready to go back to Africa baby when all the Jews, the Poles, the Russians, the Germans and they all go back to that country where they came fro too, you see. And they have to remember that they took this land from the Indians. And just as much as it’s theirs, it’s our too now. 

            We’ve got to stand up. The best thing that we cand do for Mr. Chaney, for Mickey Schwerner, for Andrew Goodman, is stand up and demand our rights. All these people here who are not registered voters should be on line in the morning from one to the next demanding to ask if I can become a registered voter, demand, say baby, I’m here. People, you’ve got relatives in places like Neshoba County, talk to them. They’re at a disadvantage. They only have 12% of the population that’s black over there. Said man thinks he’s going to run over us over there. But we’re going in there, baby. We’re going to organize in there. And we’re going to get those people registered to vote and organized. I don’t care if we are just 12%. Because that 12% is part of the almost 50% of this whole entire state, you see.  

            Don’t just look at me and the people here and go back and say that you been to a nice service, a lot of people came, there were a lot of God blasted newsmen around, anything like that. But your work is just beginning. I’m going to tell you deep down in my heart what I feel like right now. If you do go back home and sit down and take it, God damn your souls! Stand up! Your neighbors down there were too afraid to come to this memorial? Take them to another memorial. Take them up and take them down there. Make them register to vote and you register to vote. I doubt if one fourth of this hose is registered. Go down there and do it. Don’t bow down anymore. Hold your heads up!


Rev. Edwin King, Eulogy for James Chaney, Aug. 7, 1964, Meridian, Miss.

            At Medgar’s funeral last summer, we sang “O Freedom.” At the funerals over in Biringham we sang “O Freedom.” When our brother John Kennedy died and the students at Tougaloo heard we sang “O Freedom” and I think that this is a time we should sing “O Freedom.” Will you come help lead us? 


O freedom

O freedom

O freedom

Over me, over me

And before I’ll be afraid I’ll be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free

And be free


No more killing

No more shooting

No more shooting

Over me, over me

And before . . .  etc.


No more burning churches (3x’s)

Over me, over me  . . .


I’m glad Dave got angry tonight. Any of you who are not angry in your heart will not find the strength to go on. You have to hate this thing that has been done. And then have to somehow be able to forgive the people who have done it. But I don’t think we start off by automatically forgiving. If we cannot admit when we feel pain, when we feel anger, when we feel hate then we are not using the feelings that God gave us. Our hatred should be to destroy the system, but it is destroying the souls and bodies of men. Dave and I have been to several funerals together. I think I know how Dave feels. I don’t think that I an fully ever know how another brother feels.

What Dave did not say I must say as we begin. We’re not here talking about a crime that has just been committed in Mississippi. We are not here to talk about the love for one that will not again walk in our midst in this life. This murder was not just done by sick white Mississippians. You and I know that we’re probably not supposed to say it out loud but these would not be dead if the U.S. government cared. The government may care now, the lives of other people may be protected because of this sacrifice, but if the justice department and the FBI had done the minimum that we requested, going to Philadelphia when we first asked them, these men might not have died. Of course, people are killed frequently in Mississippi and we don’t say that our government should protect every person who believes in democracy from being murdered by those who don’t. But the U.S government must bear part of the responsibility along with the murderer who sits in the governor’s mansion in Jackson and the rest of the murderers who tolerate murder in this state. And the American people American people must examine themselves for allowing a government to allow white Mississippians to kill black Mississippians at will and now because white blood has been shed; also our country is looking for the first time.  I come before you now, some of you know me, some of you don’t. I’m a Mississippian. I’m the chaplain out of Tougaloo College. I ran for lieutenant governor with Aaron Henry last fall. My wife is from Jackson, Mississippi. My parents used to live in Mississippi before they were run out of Mississippi. By the same kind of people who do this kind of thing and the silent people who I think are just as guilty and more are damned in their souls because they know it’s wrong.

 But I’ve said enough about the country, we’ll just talk about Mississippi. I come before you to say that brothers have killed my brothers. For the first time bloody Neshoba has had the red blood fo black men and the red blood of white men enrich its soil. I don’t think we will ever forget this. Too often in Mississippi in these last 300 years Negro mothers, Negro wives, Negro brothers and sisters have had to cry alone have had to go into the white kitchen and wipe away the tears so that nobody would know it mattered when a person died. But we are now saying that no longer will a person die in Mississippi and the world not know about it. And this country and the people of this world not grieve with us. If we can die together with Mississippi surely we can find a way to live together. To grow together, to learn together, to love together. This will take great strength, great courage that God alone can give.

I met Andrew Goodman, only in Ohio. I remember him as a person who seemed to be full of love for himself and his fellow man. A quiet, easy-going, friendly fellow—I wish I could have known him better. I know James Chaney a little better. But here in Mississippi people like Edwin King from Vicksburg and James Chaney from Meridian are not supposed to be able to know each other as brothers. And people killed James Chaney so that we could not live in a society where white men and Negro men in Mississippi could know each other. I had met James when he was with the Schwerners. I had heard Mickey Schwerner say wonderful things about James Chaney. I have heard Rita Schwerner this summer say wonderful things about James Chaney.  James Chaney helped support the Schwerners to give them strength when they came as stranger to this community, but full of love for this community. James befriended them and worked with them and truly, they were brothers. Rita has often talked about this summer of how important James was to this project, for this freedom. She said he was willing just as Mickey was willing, just as she was willing to give all to this project, for this freedom.

Rita has lost a husband. People here had lost a son that they had known for 20 years. You have lost a friend. The tragedy of a time like this is, like me, many of you realize I never came to know James Chaney. What a wonderful person he must have been. I wish I could have known him better. But I will remember James Chaney and I will remember his friends and I will remember what he gave his life for.

The greatest tragedy that has occurred here is not just these deaths but the failure in the white community that has brought this about. That has brought this about, that has tolerated it. Many white people talk of being Christians. They are afraid of Christianity as much as they are afraid of you. And they are afraid of you. They are afraid because of a guilty conscience. Afraid that you would treat us as we we have treated you. I don’t believe it will be that way, but that is what they fear. So their fear allows a few men to commit murder. But it doesn’t matter if a few men do the murders and burn the churches, the rest of the people are responsible.

The white Christians of the city of Meridian, tonight, here, need your prayers because God almighty sees them and knows in his eyes that every white Christian that did not come to this church is no Christian. The symbol of white Mississippi is a burning cross as it has always been. A symbol of destruction of the Christian faith a symbol of destroying [what] they say they are upholding and it is very interesting that they must burn the cross and leave it only a charred ruin, a thing with no power. But our cross is not a burned cross, it is the one cross of Calvary that is stained with the blood of Jesus, God’s son. God gave his son for all of us and this is the cross that we follow, the cross that means victory not emptiness and decay. The cross that means victory over death. The victory in this life. The cross that means we can forgive. God will help us to love. The cross that means we will have a new beginning, a new resurrection, a new birth.

            Voice:  Would all the members of the Meridian staff, corporal staff please come up to the front and join hands and lead in the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”


We shall overcome (2x’s)


Deep in my hear I know that I do believe

We shall overcome someday

We are not afraid (2x’s)


Deep in my heart . . .


Benediction by Rev. Edwin King, Aug. 7, 1964, Meridian, Miss.

            Lord have mercy upon us. Christ have mercy upon us. Lord have mercy upon us. The God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the everlasting covenant make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is working in you, that which is well pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ to whom be glory forever and ever, amen.


Early Aug. 1964, Mileston, Miss.

Dear Blake,

… Dave finally broke down and couldn’t finish and the Chaney family was moaning and much of the audience and I was also crying. It’s such an impossible thing to describe but suddenly again, as I’d first realized when I heard the three men were missing when we were still training up at Oxford, I felt the sacrifice the Negroes have been making for so long. How the Negro people are able to accept all the abuses of the whites—and the insults and injustices which make me ashamed to be white—and then turn around and say they want to love us [is] beyond me. There are Negroes who want to kill whites and many Negroes have much bitterness but still the majority seem to have the quality of being able to look for a future in which whites will love the Negroes. Our kids talk very critically of all the whites around here and still they have a dream of freedom in which both races understand and accept each other. ‘There is such an overpowering task ahead of these kids that sometimes I can’t do anything but cry for them. I hope they are up to the task, I’m not sure I would be if I were a Mississippi Negro. As a white northerner I can get involved whenever I feel like it and run home whenever I get bored or frustrated or scared. I hate the attitude and position of the Northern whites and despise myself when I think that way.



Dave Dennis

You see for a long time in the Movement … one of the problems I had was the problem of nonviolence. I had tried it, and I was going around to areas in the backwoods talking to people who were saying, “If they come after me, I’m going to shoot ’em.” And I would go through the “love-thy-neighbor” bit: “Put your gun down.” And they would get beaten, and again people getting killed. I don’t know. When I got up there [at Chaney’s funeral] and I looked at all those faces, everything seemed so useless. I knew the power of the government to do whatever they wanted to do, whenever they wanted to do it…. They all told us the same thing: “There’s nothing that we can do. It’s up to the states to prosecute because there are no laws.”

… And the other thing that I thought about was, during the time that Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner were missing … it would be interesting to find out how many bodies did they find. It was almost a daily thing. A body was found here. Two bodies were found ftoating in the river…. Most people I talked to were saying the same thing: “Whew. That wasn’t them either.” They were finding people, black people, floating in rivers and everyplace else, and nothing was being done about it. And I just began to think about what was going on … I really got tired, mentally tired of the whole scene.

I felt then that there was only one solution. If we’re gonna have a war, let’s have it. And that people ought not to say, “Let’s leave it up to the government to take care of this.” Let’s do it ourselves, let’s go on and get it over with, one way or the other. That’s the emotion I felt. I was just tired of going to funerals. I’m still tired of going to funerals. That’s what that was all about. I never did try to deal with anybody on nonviolence again. I would never do it.


Late July 1964, Greenwood, Miss.

What a meeting it was—a totally unorganized group of people had come together for the first of many steps in organizing a local political party. And it was truly democratic. Hundreds of people came from each precinct, compared to the five or ten Mississippi whites who show up for their precinct meetings….


Early Aug. 1964, Columbus, Miss.

Dear folks,

The precinct meeting was the first political experience for those who attended, and we were sure that the job of explaining to them nominations, delegations, resolutions, would be impossibly complicated. It was tremendously interesting to watch and indicative, I think, of the innate political nature of all men. Within ten minutes they were completely at ease and had elected a chairman, secretary, and ten delegates to the district convention in Tippah.The delegates were teachers, housewives, packinghouse workers, a toy factory worker, in short, a genuine cross-section of the community….

Love, Joel


Early Aug. 1964, Greenwood, Miss.

Of even more significance than the precinct meetings was the County meeting. Here all the delegates from Leflore County met, and a real convention was held with candidates vying for election—with serious discussions of issues and of problems facing the community, the county. You should have seen me after the meeting. I was so excited that I kept running around outside. I was overwhelmed by the history of the meeting!…


Late July 1964, Moss Point, Miss.

… The County convention was held here last Saturday. It was just amazing seeing these people, many, or rather most, of whom have never had any experience at all in politics running the meeting, electing the people and passing resolutions for a state platform. These people, housewives, unskilled workers, many, but not all, uneducated, are fantastic. People who have never spoken publicly before get up and make the greatest speeches….


Aug. 3, 1964, Vicksburg, Miss.

After those great precinct meetings which I told you about on the phone, the county convention was a disappointment. The Old Guard—the Warren County Improvement League—the comfortable middle-aged “We Don’t Want Any Trouble” Uncle Toms—monopolized the meeting and the votes. Most of the Great New Blood which pulsed through the precinct meeting was slyly siphoned out. It was a sad night for all of us. We had forgotten that machinery is quickly formed even in something as new as the FDP and our defenses were down….


Aug. 6, 1964. Jackson, Miss.

From the floor of the State Convention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party:

This is the most exciting, moving and impressive thing I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing—let alone be a part of. Miss Ella Baker presented a very stirring keynote address. She hit very hard on the necessity for all the delegates to work and study very hard so they can prepare themselves for the new type of fight—a political fight. She also put great stress upon the fact that these people here today have braved extreme danger and now must redouble their efforts to get all their neighbors to join them in this struggle for Freedom. Right after Miss Baker’s speech, there was a march of all the delegates around the convention hall—singing Freedom Songs, waving American flags, banners and county signs. This was probably the most soul-felt march ever to occur in a politital convention, I felt, as we marched with a mixture of sadness annd joy—of humility and pride—of fear and courage, singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Ain’t Gonna Let NobodyTurn Me Round,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” You would just about have to be here to really feel and see what this means to the people who are here. Attorney Joseph Rauh, a member of the Credentials Committee of the National Democratic Convention, then addressed the group. Mr. Rauh is also Walter Reuther’s attorney and his appearance indicated the support of Mr. Reuther who is, of course, one of the powers of the Democratic Party.

Mr. Rauh presented quite an optimistic picture concerning the chances of getting the FDP seated in Atlantic City, explaining that if the Credentials Committee does not want to seat us it will only take the support of eleven members of the 108-member Credentials Committee and the support of eight states to get the matter onto the floor of the convention where we will almost certainly win the fight…. Bob Moses didn’t seem so confident. President Johnson is afraid he will lose the whole South if he seats the FDP. My own opinion is that we will not be seated, but will have won partial victory by exposing the terrible situation in Mississippi, and by forming some groundwork for progress in later years….

The delegates then elected and ratified the district choices of delegates to the National Convention. There will be 44 delegates and 22 alternates going….


Aug. 6, 1964, Moss Point, Miss.

Thursday I was in Jackson at the state convention of the Freedom Democratic Party. Man, this is the stuff democracy is made of. All of us here are pretty emotional about the names of the counties of Mississippi. Amite and Sunflower and Tallahatchie have always meant where this one was shot, where this one was beaten, where civil rights workers feared for their lives the minute they arrived. But on Thursday Amite, and Tallahatchie, and Sunflower, and Neshoba didn’t mean another man’s gone. They meant people are voting from there, it meant people who work 14 hours a day from sun-up to sun-down picking cotton and live in homes with no plumbing and no paint, were casting ballots to send a delegation to Atlantic City. As the keynote speaker said, it was not a political convention, it was a demonstration that the people of Mississippi want to be let into America….

Love, Rita


Aug. 16, 1964, Biloxi, Miss.

Dear Mom, Dad, and kids,

The purpose of the [statewide youth] convention was to formulate a youth platform for the Freedom Democratic Party, and the kids did a fantastic job of it. Each school sent three student representatives—about 120 in all—and a coordinator. There were eight different committees, each concerning a different area of legislation: jobs, schools, federal aid, foreign affairs, voting, housing, public accommodations, health. Sometimes the committee discussions were long and even bitter, particularly on foreign aid where a demand to boycott Cuba and all countries that trade with Cuba was adopted but then finally voted out in the general session.

Resolutions in favor of land reform were voted down because they were considered too socialistic, but there is a history of Negroes’ land being taken away from them here that was the basis of these vetoes. The kids really learned something from the convention; for the first time, Negro students from all over the state came together to discuss their common aims….

Love to all, Al







Victoria Gray Adams

We went to Atlantic City with lots of optimism, because at this point we were still idealistic enough to believe that the constitutional rights were all there to be ours as soon as we met the requirements. So we had documented, in all of the ways possible, the fact that black people in particular in Mississippi were being denied the right to participate, were being denied the right to representation. You know the old story: taxation without representation. And so we were indeed off to Atlantic City for the Democratic National Convention.

The difference between the regular Democratic party delegation and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party delegation was that the election process within the MFDP was open at every level to the total populace, whereas in the regular Democratic party, this was not the case. The delegation from the regular party was almost totally unrepresentative of the populace of Mississippi; our delegation was representative of blacks, whites, the spectrum.

I think one of the things that made the delegation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party so hopeful, so expectant, was the fact that people had made a discovery that there is a way out of much that is wrong with our lives, there is a way to change it, and that is through the execution of this vote. We can’t get past these people at the state level, because they’ve locked us out, but we just know that once we get to the national level, with all of the proof that we had been locked out and the fact that we’ve had the courage to go ahead and create our own party, then we feel like we were going to get that representation that we’d been denied for so long. That’s the way we arrived in Atlantic City—really excited about the fact that we were at long last going to be able to participate, to be represented.


 Unita Blackwell, MFDP delegate

The bus ride to Atlantic City was full of enthusiasm. We had done this. We had had our own elections. We had our delegates. And we were going to challenge the regular party. I remember one man, he was supposed to have been nonviolent, but he was sitting there with an old rusty gun and he said, “Well, if the Klans come at us I think that’s when I’m going to have to take care of business this time.” We were going with that feeling of nonviolence, but trying to see what we could get. When we left Jackson, Mississippi, to pick up people and head toward Atlantic City, we went saying we were coming at all of the seats or half, nothing less. And we kept to that.


Oval Office, Aug. 9, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Reuther, 8:50 AM

LBJ: If you and Hubert Humphrey have got any leadership, you’d get Joe Rauh off that damn television. The only thing that can really screw us good is to seat that group of challengers from Mississippi…. He said he’s going to take it to the convention floor. Now there’s not a damn vote that we get by seating these folks. What we want to do is to elect some Congressmen to keep ‘em from repealing this [Civil Rights] act. And who’s seated at this convention don’t amount to a damn. Only reason I would let Mississippi come in is because I don’t want to run off fourteen border states, like Oklahoma and like Kentucky…. We don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face. If they give us four years, I’ll guarantee the Freedom delegation somebody representing views like that will be seated four years from now. But we can’t do it all before breakfast.

Hearing, Committee of Massachusetts Delegation to the Democratic National Convention on Seating of the Mississippi Delegation, Aug. 12, 1964, State House, Boston, Mass.


The Massachusetts delegation was one of nine state Democratic delegations (including from large states like New York and California) that voted to support the MFDP’s challenge prior to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Thirty-five witnesses, mostly Mass. Democrats and labor, fair housing, and religious representatives, testified at the hearing, including the physician father of Charles Cobb, a SNCC leader in Mississippi who had grown up in Massachusetts.


Aaron Henry: My name is Aaron Henry. I serve as Delegation Chairman for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. I serve as President of the NAACP for the State of Mississippi and Chairman of the COFO Movement, the organization that is sponsoring the Mississippi Freedom Summer Program that is now in vogue in our state….

            Nine hundred fifty thousand Negroes and thousands of white people in our State are asking you to vote to seat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. 

            We do this perhaps for several reasons. The main reason I think is because of the fact that the political structure of our State as it is presently constituted is the greatest factor in denying the right to vote to thousands of our citizens. We tried to become a part of the Mississippi Democratic Party as it is constituted, we attempted to go to the precinct conventions, we attempted to go to the county conventions, to district and state conventions. In most instances, this right was denied, and because of that fact, that America has as a part of its silhouette the State of Mississippi, we feel that Americans everywhere have the right, not only the right but the obligation, to try to see to it that as the silhouette of America is cast, that no state will so conduct itself that we Americans will be ashamed of our total country. Only in this manner will America really ever become the land of the free and the home of the brave.

            The delegation that we will send to Atlantic City representing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party will be a group of people who out of their frustrations of trying to become involved in the Mississippi Democratic Party were rebuffed at every hand and then we decided to hold precinct, county, district and state conventions under the name of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These meetings were open to all of our citizens, both negro and white and many people did come. 

            Our delegation will consist of persons who will support the National Democratic philosophy. We will support the platform of the National Democratic Party. We will support the nominees of the National Democratic Party. The delegates from the Mississippi Democratic Party will include many members of the White Citizens Council, many members of the Ku Klux Klan and of course, some members of the John Birch Society that we do not feel really hold the ideal of America sacred and hence have no right in their desire to be representatives of this our great State and of course, of this, our nation. 

            The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party will support the Civil Rights Bill. The Mississippi Democratic Party has not supported the National Democratic Party since 1948, and the only reason they might agree to support the National Party this year is because of our presence at the Convention, asking for the right to be seated and they will only do so then until the Convention is over and will come home and do exactly as they did last year, hold another meeting of of the Mississippi Democratic Party and vote to withhold their votes from Lyndon Johnson and whomever happens to be the Vice Presidential running mate.

            A change of the personnel in the Democratic Party in our State we feel will have the effect of at least a beginning of a vibrant and healthy Mississippi. A change in the leadership from the present Mississippi Democratic Party to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party will destroy the racist element that now pervades our State, the kind of element that permits fear and hate to so capture the State that in crimes by white people against Negroes, even to the situation of murder, the white men usually go unpunished. To deny your vote will be another example of a dream deferred. In Langston Hughes’ immortal poem: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?” He said, “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load, or does it explode?”

            Thank you for your attention.


Chairman: Mr. Henry, one of the things that I would like to ask is if you would, for the Committee, explain a little more about how your Freedom Democratic Party was organized and how you held these elections and so forth.


Mr. Henry: The Freedom Democratic Party came into being as a result of an experience in 1963 in November when I ran for Governor of the State. This was done because Mr. Eastman and Mr. Stennis and many of the Congressional representatives of our State were saying that the reason that Negroes don’t vote is not because they are denied the right to vote but because they are too apathetic and that they don’t desire the right to vote. So we effected a freedom Vote campaign and we carried our campaign into every county and to every community in t he State and we attracted between 83,000 and 90,000 Negroes that voted, well, 83,000 to 90,000 people. Of course some are white, most are Negro, that voted for us in this particular campaign, which to some degree gave the lie to the statement that the Negroes did not vote because they were not denied the right to vote. And upon observing this great number of Negroes who had this real desire, we then decided that we would effect the registration. Whet we called the Freedom Registration that is much more simple than is the regular registration. 

            In order to become a registered voter in my home state today, you’ve got to be able to interpret any of 286 sections of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi to the satisfaction of the Circuit Clerk, that’s the gimmick. Not that the answer is right or wrong but that you satisfy the clerk. And I feel very confident that no member of this panel could pass and become a registered voter in Mississippi if the clerk did not want you to so pass. So those are the rules with which we have to play the game to become a registered voter in the regular Democratic Party in our State.

            So we envisioned a registration form that is fairly a replica of what is used in other states in this Nation in much simpler form, wherein we are now in the process of registering Negroes, registering people, mostly Negroes with our own registration book, called the “Freedom Registration.”

            In June when the precinct conventions were called for the Democratic Party, we decided to try to become involved in the intricate workings of the Party and present ourselves as regular Democrats, hoping to purify, change the party from within.

            In our own state the conventions were called for 10:00 o’clock at particular places. In many instances the site of the meeting was changed without any general publication, only the white members knew where the meetings were to be held, and in other areas where Negroes came and were perhaps in a pretty good majority as far as the persons present at the meeting were concerned, the meetings were delayed from one to two hours to give the white members a chance to call back home and to tell all their mothers and cousins to come on out because the Negroes were there in large numbers. In many instances the Negroes appeared and the meetings where they were being held in a particular building we were not allowed to come in because we were not white and consequently denied the right to enter.  

            So as a result of this, beginning with the first Tuesday in July, we held precinct conventions in some 48 precincts all over the state. As a result of these conventions one week later we held county conventions and of course delegates were elected at these precinct conventions and went over to the county, and from the county to the district. The state convention was held last Thursday.

            At the district conventions some 30 delegates were selected to go to Atlantic City to represent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and at the district conventions the presidential electors were also selected.

            At the [Miss. state] convention last Thursday, we selected a Committeeman and Committeewoman and the other delegates to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, making a total of 68. Our delegation will be bi-racial, and as I have said before, we are persons who are committed to support the National Democratic Party, its policies, its platform, its candidates, and we will work for their election.


Oval Office, Aug. 21, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Jenkins

Jenkins: Now, this is a hell of a thing to be taking up with you, but I am kind of scared to make a decision by myself…. They had scheduled their Credentials Committee in a small room that holds 300. Joe Rauh is raising hell that he can’t even get his witnesses in. The television people are raising hell because they will have to have a pool camera, and they want to have separate cameras. And they are trying to pressure them into moving it into the ballroom, which holds 1,000 or more. My own feeling is that the more you get in there, the more chance you have for trouble.


LBJ: Just tell them you couldn’t change it—We don’t have to have an audience.


Jenkins: Well, Rauh says that he ought to be able to have the judges see the defendants [Miss. regulars], and that they’re going to their plan to have the defendants in a different room, just tied up by a sound thing. I—


LBJ: Well, now wait a minute. You can have all the Freedom delegation and all the Platform Committee members—Credentials Committee. Can’t you?


Jenkins: No, there is not room to have the regular delegation and the Freedom delegation and the press and the Credentials Committee in this room. And they were going to have only the spokesmen for the two delegations. They were going to sit in another room adjacent, the way they had this planned, where they would be wired for sound, that they could listen. And Rauh, they claim, is just raising hell, that you have got to let them see what clean, upstanding people he’s got. I think maybe there’s some merit in that, but I would hate for it to get in such a big room that …


LBJ: Yeah, I do too.


Jenkins: Now, Bailey says they can police it because you can’t get into the building unless you’ve got a pass, and that they can move into the bigger room and put both delegations and whatever the press wanted to, and then just close it off and not let anybody else in.


LBJ: Wouldn’t you have trouble, though, cutting out a governor of Texas who wanted to come in and hear?


Jenkins: Yes, sir, you would.


LBJ: My inclination is to keep it in the room where they are because I think that they—Joe Rauh would try to storm it and try to have a bunch of applause like they do in these conventions. That’s a Communist effort.


Jenkins: That’s right.


LBJ: And I don’t think it is up to the individuals. They are not going to participate. If he wants to bring any witness in, he can bring him in. But that would be my offhand judgment. Let me ask Jack  [to Jack Valenti in Oval Office]: Well, they may play it up and raise so much hell about it, though. [back to Jenkins] I don’t see why if the Mississippi delegation, when they are being heard, why they can’t send in some representatives of their delegation, and why the others have to … It looks like to me that each delegation could have, say, ten representatives.


Jenkins: I think they could do that.


LBJ: That would be twenty. Then the press could have their 100, or 200, whatever it is. How many of the press?


Jenkins: Well, they don’t know. They just kind of have to guess at that.


LBJ: I’d have something else in the ballroom, and I’d have no other room available. I sure wouldn’t let them say that … You’ll have a big stirring up. And I think, I don’t know why they can’t have three cameras. It doesn’t take much room for three cameras, more than it does much for one. I would try to see if they couldn’t work it out some way … why they’d have to be there raising hell.


Jenkins: They have been talking to Rauh, and they said he’s emotional about it and says that this is just terrible to keep his delegation from being in there to witness, and that they ought to have a chance to have their wives, who have never been to anything like this before, and their children who’ve come with them. And that he says it’s going to be awful hard to get them to accept any compromise if you don’t let them even see what’s going on. Of course, that’s part of the strategy, I’m sure.


LBJ: … I think you ought to call Humphrey, too, when you hang up and say, “Now, you better get Reuther, and you better get Rauh, and quit causing these goddamn troubles, Hubert, because this is going to make a bad convention if you don’t tell them to quit doing stuff like this.”


Fannie Lou Hamer Testimony to Credentials Committee of Democratic National Convention, Aug. 22, 1964, Atlantic City, N.J.

            Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland and Senator Stennis.

            It was the 31st of August in 1962, that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolmen and carried back to Insianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.

            After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down, tried to register. After they told me, my husband came and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. And before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said, “Fannie Lou, do you know—did Pap tell you what I said?”

            And I said, “Yes, sir.”

            He said, “Well, I mean that.” Said, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave.” Said, “Then if you go down and withdraw, then you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.”

            And I addressed him and told him and said, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.” I had to leave that same night.

            On the tenth of December 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls was shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also, Mr. Joe McDonald’s shouse was shot in.

            And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop—was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailways bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is in Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people—to use the restaurant—two of the people wanted to use the washroom. The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out, I got off the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, “It was a state highway patrolman and a chief of police ordered us out.”

            I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too. As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman’s car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, “Get that one there.” And when I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.

            I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Euvester Simpson. After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger? Can you say ‘yes, sir’?” And they would say other horrible names.

            She would say, “Yes, I can say ‘yes, sir.’”

            “So, well, say it.”

            She said, “I don’t know you well enough.” They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.

            And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a state highway patrolman and he asked me where I was from. And I told him Ruleville and he said, “We are going to check this.” And they left my cell and it wasn’t too long before they came back. He said, “You’s from Ruleville, all right,” and he used a curse word. And he said, “We are going to make you wish you was dead.”   

            I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the state highway patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.

            And I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old. After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro had beat me to sit on my feet—to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush. One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress, I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.

            I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

            All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America? Thank you.


Joseph Rauh, General Counsel, United Auto Workers

I was general counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a group then of, say, sixty civil rights organizations. I had been in the various fights for civil rights. For example, in 1957 I had been the chief lobbyist along with Clarence Mitchell for the 1957 Civil Rights Act. That was a pretty pale one, but it was better than nothing. It dealt with voting rights. In 1963, I lobbied for the bill that was passed the next year. I helped with the March on Washington.   

In March of 1964, I first heard of the MFDP and their challenge. There was a meeting of the National Civil Liberties Clearinghouse—It’s now defunct—and we were having a discussion of the whole problem of black voting. Out of the audience rose a man I had never met, Bob Moses. I was the chairman of the panel that they had at that moment, and Bob rose from the audience and said, “Mr. Rauh, we are thinking of taking a challenge to the lily-white Mississippi delegation at the upcoming convention in August. What do you think our chances would be?”

Well, I thought for a second and I said, “I think your chances are pretty good, and the reason I think that is there’s not going to be any excitement at the convention. Johnson’s going to be renominated for president. He’s going to choose the vice president. He’s going to write the platform. This might be the one thing that would stir up the convention. I think you’ve got a good chance.” That’s where I first saw Bob Moses. I liked him, he liked me. And we started in partnership there for the August fight.

I went to the convention of the MFDP in early August. It was in Jackson, at the Masonic Temple on Lynn Street. I’ll never forget it. It was practically all black. There may have been a couple of white ringers, but it was a black party.

When I returned from Jackson, the pressure was incredible. President Johnson was a man who believed every man has his price. And he had two things on me which he could squeeze with. One was that I loved Hubert Humphrey, and I wanted Hubert to be vice president and hopefully one day president. The other was that I was general counsel of the UAW [United Auto Workers], and Walter Reuther could have some effect, he figured. So they would call and sort of say, “The president is very angry, Joe, you’ve got to stop it.” And Walter would be very serious. He’d pound on me, and I’d say, “Walter, I just can’t give up. I believe in this, Walter. After all, I’m an employee of the UAW, but I’m not operating that way here.”

With Hubert, it was a little bit different. It was more fun. He’d say, “Joe, just give me something to tell the president!” And I’d say, “Why don’t you tell him that I’m a dirty bastard who is absolutely uncontrollable.” And he says, “Well, the president wouldn’t like that if I told him I couldn’t control you.”

And I said, “Well, then, you’ll have to think of what you want to tell him yourself, because that’s the only thing I can think of telling him.”


Nan Robertson, “Got to Be a Change,” Aug. 24, 1964, New York Times 

Atlantic City, Aug. 23—Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer sat in a stifling motel room near the boardwalk here today, mopping her streaming brow and saying:

“Why should I leave Ruleville and why should I leave Mississippi? I go to the big city and with the kind of education they give us in Mississippi I got problems. I’d wind up in a soup line there. That’s why I want to change things in Mississippi. You don’t run away from problems—you just face them.”

Mrs. Hamer, the 46-year-old wife of a Ruleville sharecropper, was seen by millions of Americans on television yesterday as she told the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention how she had been jailed and beaten for trying to register Negroes to vote.

She is a member of the biracial delegation of the Freedom Democratic Party, which is challenging the regular delegation from Mississippi. The confrontation of the two forces yesterday before the committee produced the most spell-binding moments so far in the convention preliminaries. Mrs. Hamer’s testimony was the most dramatic. The Credentials Committee has not yet decided which of the delegations should be seated as the official representation from Mississippi.

Today, in her husky, powerful voice, Mrs. Hamer spoke of her life, her family and her hopes for the future. She also gave her reactions to the white spokesmen for the regular Mississippi party.

“Maybe plenty people could hate them,” she said. “I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Hate will not only destroy us. It will destroy them.”

Mrs. Hamer was the 20th and last child of a Negro farmer, living since her second year in the Mississippi delta town of Ruleville. She began picking cotton with her other brothers and sisters in her father’s fields when she was six. She went to school on and off for eight years.

“It looked like the more we worked the less we would have,” she said. For a long time, she said, she wished she was white “so bad.” But with all his children in the fields, Mrs. Hamer’s father was finally able to buy mules and cows and wagons and a place of his own. Then one day someone put poison in the feed “and killed everything in our barn, our mules, our cows,” she remembers. “My father never was able to get a foothold again.”

Mrs. Hamer, a hefty woman weighing 200 pounds, continued to work in the cotton fields. Eventually she was made a checker and time-keeper who paid the other pickers. She became

active in voter registration and a field worker for the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee in December, 1962. She was dismissed from her job shortly thereafter. This year, the day after she qualified as a Democratic Congressional candidate in the June primary, Mrs. Hamer’s husband lost his job.

“I was shocked yesterday when Collins [State Senator E. K. Collins, chief spokesman for the Mississippi regulars] said I got better than 600 votes in the primary,” Mrs. Hamer said. “The

official count last June was 388 votes. They said we could watch the ballot box but we had to stand across the street to watch it. There’s no way of seeing through a concrete wall I know of.”

As Mrs. Hamer spoke, her tone ranged from outrage to resignation to hope.

“Is this America?” she asked as she had yesterday before the committee.

“Do you think I came here to compromise and sit in a back seat at this convention? People from all the states are watching us now.

“I’m not proud of being black more than being white, I’m proud of being black because of my heritage. The Negroes are the only race in America that had babies sold from their breasts and mothers sold from their families.”

 Mrs. Hamer groaned as she took off her shoes and said her feet hurt. She relaxed and said:

“One day I know the struggle will change. There’s got to be a change—not only for Mississippi, not only for the people in the United States, but people all over the world.”


Oval Office, Aug. 23, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Miss. Senator James Eastland, 3:35 PM

Though most Democratic Party leaders had gathered in Atlantic City, President Johnson reached Senator Eastland at a fishing lodge near the Mississippi River. He continued prodding the dean of Deep South senators to get the Mississippi delegates to pledge their loyalty to the party and its nominees. He began talking about the Alabama delegation, led by Gov. George Wallace, that was at least as anti-LBJ as the all-white Miss. delegates.


LBJ: Jim?


Eastland: Yeah. How are you, Mr. President?


LBJ: You got everything straightened out?


Eastland: No, I haven’t got anything straightened out.


LBJ: Well, by God, I turned it over to you. I thought you’d have it fixed.


Eastland: Well, now wait a minute; I couldn’t do it.


LBJ: I thought you’d have things fixed up.


Eastland: I didn’t think that.


LBJ: I’ve been working you a long time, and I thought you pretty—got results. Have you heard what—


Eastland: Well … I thought you wanted me to be honest with you.


LBJ: Have you heard what happened to Alabama?


Eastland: No.


LBJ: Just made a motion seat anybody from Alabama that affirmed their intention to support the nominees and that would use their influence if they had any, to get the electors to vote—put their name on a ticket.


Eastland: Uh-huh.


LBJ: And they didn’t even have a roll call, and they said it didn’t sound like they had over four or five no’s. And it passed overwhelming. So—


Eastland: They had what?


LBJ: [loudly] It passed overwhelming, didn’t even have a roll call.


Eastland: Uh-huh.


LBJ: Walter Jenkins says that Alabama’s got a much worse case than Mississippi.


Eastland: Well, of course they have, your name is not on the ballot.


LBJ: So he thinks that that’s encouraging. And he says that the Mississippi—


Eastland: Now, he [Miss. governor Paul Johnson] and Wallace have been talking.


LBJ: Well, Alabama is taken care of pretty well. He [Jenkins] says the Mississippi delegation, there’s two things wrong with it. Said, first, you didn’t put forward your best case legally. That you or [Miss. senator] John Stennis or somebody that people respected, that they [had] heard of, ought to put it forward because it’s got a good legal case. They did the right thing, but they just played hell when they got down to the hundred yard line.


Eastland: I saw that, yes.


LBJ: He said the second thing that’s wrong with it, he said it would already be in with our backing, with our support, if they weren’t scared to death of the governor. He says they don’t want the governor to tell them to do it. They don’t want him to even recommend they do it, that they all say if there just wouldn’t be any recriminations. And they’re telling folks around up there that they want to do the right thing but they’re afraid when they go back home that the same thing will happen to them that happened to some other folks. They’ll just get ostracized. And—


Eastland: Well, I don’t think that there’s anything to that.


LBJ: Well, but, you know, if you and I are on a team together, you kind of like to play with a man whose team you’re on, don’t you?


Eastland: Yeah, sure.


LBJ: And that’s the way they feel … that’s the way a good many of them feel…. What you ought to tell him [Gov. Johnson] is this: that Alabama has been voted in, and they’ve got a worse case than Mississippi. [Eastland acknowledges.] That the Mississippi fellows up there are popular with everybody from the governor of Texas on down. He’s going with them. He’s for them…. He wants to help them. But they’ve got to help themselves a little bit, and all of them want to help themselves. The people up there have made a good impression.

All they’re scared of is that there’ll be … that he … if he will just tell the first man [that] talks to him—some of them are even afraid to call him—if he would just tell the first man that talks to him, “You all do what you think you ought to do, and if it’s your intention to support the nominees—”


Eastland: Well, now, I told him exactly that.


LBJ: “—you just say so, and there won’t be any trouble from me.”


Eastland: Oh.


LBJ: “I won’t be committed. I’m not up there. I’m not going to make a decision.”


Eastland: Well, of course if Alabama has done this, it puts an entirely different light on it because, by God, he and Wallace have been talking and talked last night.


LBJ: Mm-hmm. Well, now, of course, I don’t know what the Alabama people themselves are going to do. All I know is what the convention has done for Alabama. [Eastland acknowledges.] And Alabama has got a hell of a lot worse shape. I wouldn’t feel … my conscience wouldn’t hurt me to kick Alabama out. But my conscience wouldn’t go—my liberal lawyers, Abe Fortas said he wouldn’t have anything to do with the presidency if they were against seating Mississippi because Mississippi had an airtight legal case. He studied it, and he said they were completely right.


Eastland: I think that’s right.


LBJ: He called me up at 6:30 in the morning, said that “if there is nobody for them but me and you, we ought to be. Because,” [he] said, “if you go to saying that a sovereign state can’t follow its procedures and elect a delegation and send them up there, that you won’t seat them because they don’t agree with you.” He said, “Tomorrow, when they get in the majority, Eastland and Russell won’t let you be seated.” You just say to him [Gov. Paul Johnson?] this, just one thing: that the committee voted without even a roll call. They said only four or five no’s. They’ve got to have eleven for a minority report, so they can’t even have a minority report on Alabama.


Eastland: Uh-huh.


LBJ: [emphatically] Anyone in Alabama that affirms their intention to support the nominees is seated and casts a vote of that state. And they’re going to do the same thing for Mississippi if they can get the votes to do it…. And if the people of Mississippi … there may not any of them want to.…


Eastland: Well, good God, man.


LBJ: They say the delegation … a good many of them would do it if they weren’t—


Eastland: Well, we deliberately put people on there. You know that.


LBJ: If they weren’t scared … if they weren’t scared…. So if I were the governor, I would say, “Boys, I’m not up there, I don’t know this picture. But any of you that want to, affirm your intention if that’s your judgment. You won’t get any criticism out of me, and I may not … I may not do it myself. I don’t know what I’ll do. We’ll have to see how it develops. But I’m keeping the platform—”


Eastland: Well, now you let me get him and call you back …


LBJ: That’s all right. All we say in the platform is the Civil Rights Act of ’64 deserves to be observed by every American. Now if it’s not observed, we say “and fair and just enforcement if there is default.” [Eastland acknowledges; LBJ repeats for emphasis] “Fair and just enforcement if there is default.” But it deserves to be observed, that’s what [Georgia Senator Richard] Russell said. That’s what [Louisiana senator Allen] Ellender said. That’s what all of you have said.…


Eastland: I haven’t said that.


LBJ: Well, I thought you had. I thought you said you believed in law and order; that’s what you told me.


Eastland: Well, I … [Johnson laughs deeply.] Well, OK.


LBJ: OK, so it’s going to be pretty easy, and—


Eastland: I’ll get you back, now, and tell you what he says.


LBJ: All right.


Eastland: But I’ve got to know that he wouldn’t go any further than that statement.


LBJ: Well, that statement, all he’s got to do is just say to them, “I approve of this statement,” and there’s not . . . this affirming the intention doesn’t even go as far as your statement. What we want to know is are they … in there as traitors to the party, or are they going to try to be helpful if their conscience will permit. And all they’ve got to do is to say they’ll try to be helpful if their conscience will permit. And the governor’s not there, and he’s not bound. He can do what he damn pleases. I don’t care about carrying Mississippi; I don’t think I’ve got a chance.


Eastland: Well, now, you just… my God.


LBJ: I just think that they’re going, and I’m going to let Goldwater cut out all your goddamn [agricultural] subsidies and stop your six billion cotton program, and I’ll—


Eastland: That’s what the trouble with …


LBJ: I’m going to balance my budget, and I’m going to do it.… I cut it from 9 billion deficit last year to 4.5. The first year I was in, I cut the deficit in half. Now, the next year, I’m going to cut out all this damn wheat stuff because I’m not going to carry North Dakota, and I don’t give a damn about it. And then I will cut out all the cotton. I won’t carry Mississippi and West Texas; they’re all against me. So I’ll save that 6 billion I’m spending on agriculture. [LBJ laughs heartily.]


Eastland: Well, we’re not going to let that get by.


LBJ: All right. Good-bye, Jim.


Eastland: I’ll call you.


Oval Office, Aug. 23, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Jenkins, 3:45 PM

Speaking from his Atlantic City hotel suite, Johnson’s close aide told him of a new compromise plan by Oregon Congressman Al Ullman to allow two at-large delegates from the MFDP. This feature would become the core of the compromise, but Johnson reacted negatively, predicting that it would trigger a southern walkout, accurately assessing most regular delegates from Miss. and Alabama.


LBJ: Jim Eastland talked to the governor [Paul Johnson], and the governor said that he was going to tell them [Miss. delegates] that it’s up to their own judgment. They could do what they wanted to, and there would be no recriminations.


Jenkins: Oh, that’s excellent.


LBJ: And he said that [Governor George] Wallace and the governor had been talking. It may be too late. They may have already told him they wouldn’t go along. But if it wasn’t too late, he’d call them and tell them that.


Jenkins: All right. That’s excellent. Now, there’s been a little new development just now. The general plan was offered as a motion—


LBJ: What?


Jenkins: The general plan, you know, the sort of a compromise plan—


LBJ: Yeah.


Jenkins: —was offered as a motion a few minutes ago. Congressman Ullman of Oregon offered a substitute motion, which contained all of it but provided an additional provision that two members of the Freedom Party would be seated as members of the delegation as a token of appreciation and esteem and so on.


LBJ: We’ve got no right to pick their delegates.


Jenkins: That’s right. And they’ll vote it down. But in his statement where he offered it, he stated that they have sufficient people for a minority report and for a floor fight and expected to carry it there if they were voted down. That’s just right up to the exact moment. The governor—[Credentials Committee chair] Governor [David] Lawrence plans to put it to a vote and vote it down. We’ll see whether they’ve got, I guess …


LBJ: I thought he was going to procrastinate.


Jenkins: Oh, he’s still going to procrastinate. He’ll put it to a vote, but then he won’t … He’ll recess until 8:00 tonight for further consideration, then recess till sometime tomorrow.


LBJ: Well, does he think they’ll have a vote to pass this, to seat two of them?


Jenkins: Oh, there won’t be enough votes to do it. It’s just a question of how fast it would be defeated. It will be a question of whether they’ll have enough to get a minority report.


LBJ: You know they’ll have eleven.


Jenkins: Well, Congressman Ullman says they have, and with him saying that, it probably means they will, because they weren’t counting him as a sure one…. And I think when they see exactly what the vote is, why, before they get ready to write any reports, I think there’s a chance, at least, that another minority—another motion to substitute will be offered by one of the members from West Virginia to just seat the regular party. I’m not sure that it will be, but that was sort of the plan when they went into session.


LBJ: Yeah, and if it’s not there, they ought to get one from somebody else to offer it: West Virginia, Oklahoma.… Now, I guess the South would all walk out if they seated two of them, wouldn’t they?


Jenkins: I would think so, sir. In the discussions they’ve had with the southern delegates, they’ve been able to accept nearly anything but seating the Freedom Party. And I’d say two, probably, from their standpoint, is as bad as fifty-two.


LBJ: Well, now, I think Ken [O’Donnell] ought to tell Joe Rauh if he plans to play with us, be [with] this administration, he better not let that get out on the floor. I’d just tell him that. If he don’t, you tell him. Just say, “Now, we’re going to be here a while, if you want to work with us, well, this is no way to work with us because this is just doing nothing. All day long the President said he watched you on TV, and you didn’t do anything but hurt us.”


Oval Office, Aug. 24, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Reuther, 8:46 AM

With the Democratic National Convention opening that evening, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther called from Michigan advising that they  return to an earlier strategy regarding the MFDP crisis to buy time. Instead of voting right away on the MFDP matter, the Credentials Committee created a subcommittee of five individuals to study it, fitting with Reuther’s advice on Aug. 17 to “just procrastinate until it’s too late.” Heading the subcommittee was Minnesota attorney general Walter Mondale, who would take Humphrey’s place as senator (and later serve as Jimmy Carter’s vice president, 1977-81). Other members of the subcommittee were Congressman Charles Diggs (Democrat-Michigan), former Texas governor Price Daniel, Johnson aide Sherwin Markman (who had argued the case against seating the MFDP to the Credentials Committee), and Atlanta lawyer Irving Kaler. Eventually, Mondale, Diggs, and Markman voted to accept a version of a compromise, offered on Aug. 23 by Oregon congressman Al Ullman, that the MFDP be given two at-large seats. Kaler and Daniel voted against, but later backed it.


Reuther: Good morning.


LBJ: Hi, Walter.


Reuther: Sorry I didn’t call you last night but was out till 3:00 this morning, and I didn’t want to bother you that late. I worked on this thing, and it’s my considered judgment, Mr. President, and all the other people there that I think were really making sincere efforts to work this thing out, that with Edith Green and [Robert] Kastenmeier and a few other people helping Martin Luther King and his people fan the emotional flames, we believe that what we ought to do is to revert back to your original strategy, which everybody thinks is the way out. What they propose—They have this subcommittee, you know about that.


LBJ: Yeah.


Reuther: Which is a very good subcommittee. And those fellows can keep this thing under control, and what they think ought to be done is when the convention meets tonight, have the Credentials Committee make a partial report, which means seating everybody but Mississippi. Tell the convention that the subcommittee was set up, that this was a very complex problem about Mississippi, got all kind of legal ramifications. Say the subcommittee is going to have further meetings to study this thing further. And just keep the thing going. And then, tomorrow night, the convention schedule is busy. And our people down there believe that if we handle it this way, we can avoid a floor fight, and then the thing will get lost in the shuffle of the business of the convention.

And I’ve gone over this with everybody whose judgment I respect down there. I talked to Hubert Humphrey about it about 3:00 this morning, and he feels this is the way out. Joe Rauh is perfectly willing to break with these fellows, but he says then you’ll have no contact with them. They went over at 2:00 this morning to talk to Martin Luther King at his hotel. They would have a small meeting with Roy Wilkins and a few other people. And when they get over there, King is surrounded by a bunch of young people who are so emotional that you can’t reach him. So our fellows believe that the thing that you had suggested originally be made—they don’t know this, but I know this—of letting this thing just procrastinate and get lost in the shuffle of the work of the convention. And with the mechanism of the subcommittee, which is an excellent subcommittee, you could do this, I think, with assurance that things will be under control, and you could avoid a floor fight. That’s their judgment, and I share that judgment at this point.


LBJ: It’s going to be a mighty hard four days of it, though. My judgment is—my guess is this morning—that you’ll have a bunch of walkouts long before that. I think if they see a legally elected delegation that’s sitting there and not seated, it will have the effect of just depriving them of representation…. Alabama’s done gone, and they tell me that Louisiana and Arkansas are going with them. And I’m afraid it’s going to spread to eight or ten. That’s what I’m very afraid of, and I don’t believe that we’re getting ourselves a vote any other place. Now, if they want to do that …


Reuther: Well, I—


LBJ: This may be the only alternative, and this is better than just—


Reuther: A floor fight.


LBJ: But I just can’t, for the life of me, see what they think they’re getting out of it.


Reuther: Well, I don’t either. I agree with you completely. But I think that this is the best of a bad set of alternatives. I think it would be tragic. … Now, they tell me that Edith Green and Kastenmeier are just seething.… We’ve got, for example—[Charles] Diggs has said that he will come through and do what we want him to do.


LBJ: Who’s that?


Reuther: Diggs. Even though he’s a Negro. But it makes for a very difficult situation … to get a responsible Negro leader to stand up when you’ve got some white person blaming the [unclear]. This is the problem. It’s an emotional thing. So everybody there has helped. But the important thing is to avoid a floor fight, which could be a nasty, ugly thing.


LBJ: Mmm.


Reuther: And they all felt that the simplest way out is to avoid a floor fight, is to just have the subcommittee try to keep working on this thing and keep it off the floor.


LBJ: I think if they have to do that, Walter, that would be better than the other. Let’s just reason this, now. I doubt that you’re going to be able to keep intelligent people there. Put yourself in that place, that you were there, legally elected, from Michigan, whether you would stay there for four days waiting. My judgment is you would call together your sympathizers, and you would apply the pressure. I believe that’s what they’ll do. I believe that our great danger here—


Reuther: Well, you think that what will happen is that Alabama will trigger the walkout of a number of southern delegations?


LBJ: They already have with four, and when you don’t seat Mississippi, my guess is that you’re going to be losing Georgia and states that we oughtn’t to be losing. It’s just difficult…. I don’t know why Joe Rauh originally suggested this thing. I think our people made a mistake in agreeing to go along with him.… He told Dick Goodwin and some of our people if we’d just give him something to go with them that it would work. Of course, they gave him everything they could give him—a resolution saying it wouldn’t happen anymore.… They talk about a seat in the back of the bus. I don’t see why if you admit them to the floor, and they sit there just like the Texas delegation does—no voting is going to take place anyway—I don’t see why it wouldn’t be a pretty good victory for them.


Reuther: I think it would be a tremendous victory. But I think that the problem here is you’re dealing with people who are so emotional they can’t be rational about these things. But I think that we do have the mechanism in the subcommittee to try to at least keep working on this without having it go on to the floor. It may be a little bit of time. Maybe they’ll sober up a little bit, and maybe you can get some sense into it. But certainly the only way our fellows feel you can avoid a floor fight, which I think would be really tragic. Tonight, the opening evening of the convention, is this procedure to have a partial report; seat everybody but Mississippi, have the subcommittee, which has already been agreed to by the full committee, have them pursue this further. At least you’ve got a mechanism to keep working on this and to try to keep it off the floor. Maybe you could work something out. You’ve got to get over the hurdle tonight. Everybody down there feels this is the only way to do it.


LBJ: Mmm.


Reuther: I know it’s not an ideal solution, but I think, under the circumstances, we ought to try it.


LBJ: OK. I can go along with anything that the Democratic Party can. I just I think they’re digging their grave, and digging it slowly. And I think we’re going to hurt ourselves not only with ten or twelve states down there, but I think we’re going to materially hurt ourselves in other places in the country if we refuse to seat a legally elected delegation.… I think it’s going to hurt us right in New York City.


Reuther: Well, I see that difficulty too.


LBJ: Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford and every boy that’s studied this thing just said it’s outrageous, and the ones that will pay the most for it in the long run will be the liberals, because they’re the minority, generally. And when a majority can just refuse and defy a legally elected minority, it’s pretty bad, and particularly when you don’t need to…. Well, I think that ought to be avoided as long as possible. OK.


Oval Office, Aug. 24, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, 11:10 AM

Johnson sought advice from his Senate mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia, on replying to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Aug. 19 telegram to LBJ supporting the MFDP. The president continued to suggest that the crisis was orchestrated by Robert Kennedy’s people to cause problems for the fall campaign.


Richard Russell: … I don’t know, but what a benevolent neutrality attitude is not the proper one to take. But if there’s any exposé in the campaign, and they happen to get ahold of anything that would tie the Communists all into that Mississippi crowd, it’d be mighty bad. Of course, I don’t think anything could happen now that could possibly defeat you, but it sure could … switch a couple of million votes, or more.


LBJ: I think that I’ve got to decide, first, how I reply to his [King’s] wire—


Russell: Right.


LBJ: And whether I take a position before—


Russell: I heard King addressing that crowd down there on the boardwalk, or wherever they had him. I heard him in my car radio coming down here. And he was just openly threatening. I don’t see how you could possibly do business with a man, black, white, green, or yellow, that just comes out and intimidates you, says, “If you don’t do this, we are going to take it out of you, your hide.” He said on the radio, said, “They say we niggers haven’t got anywhere else to go.” He says, “We’ll show them we have got somewhere else to go.”


LBJ: He’s been saying that in private, and he said it on television yesterday.


Russell: I heard him say it on the radio.


LBJ: But that’s really not the question. The question is, “What you do when they are getting ready to take charge of the convention?” Now, if you say they can’t and they run over you, which they will, then what do you do?


Russell: You don’t do a thing but say you’re sorry, but you think they’re ill-advised. And let it go. You think they’ve made a mistake. You think they’re ill-advised. They ought to put them on notice that they wasn’t going to never seat another delegation … Undoubtedly, there may have been irregularities in selecting the white delegation, but likewise, this Freedom delegation was not wholly representative of the state. as I understand it, they didn’t have conventions in but about 18 or 20 counties out of the 90-odd in the state. I don’t see how the hell they claim they represent it. If they do run over you, which I don’t believe they’ll do, but I don’t think it would be disastrous if they did. I think all you’d do is say that you thought the convention made a mistake, and you still held your views. That’s all you’d say. It ain’t going to hurt you any in the country to get run over. It would hurt your pride like hell, I know, but it isn’t going to hurt you politically.


LBJ: I would think that they’d say that hell, the Nigras got more power in the Democratic Party than the President has. And the damned Nigras are taking it over, and to hell with the Democratic Party.


Russell: Well, it’d increase the backlash a little bit. No question about that, whatever the backlash is. See, this is August. It’s over … it’s over two months before the election. I don’t believe that they’ll run over you out there. If they do, I’d just say I thought they’d made a mistake, that they hadn’t gone into the question as fully as they should.


LBJ: They got the civil rights provision agreed to unanimously.


Russell: Yes? My God, that’s a miracle of major proportions. You mean everybody agreed to it?


LBJ: That’s what I think. I don’t think they had a roll call. There may have been a few “no’s,” but I don’t believe so. It says, “The Civil Rights Act of ’64 deserves and requires full observance by every American and fair and effective enforcement.”


Russell: Yes. Well, that’s about as little as could have been expected, I suppose. This other thing, I just don’t …


LBJ: What would you do about his wire?


Russell: Well, it all depends on how you think is the best way for you to make your announcement about it. I don’t think, personally, I’d send a wire to Martin Luther King. If you’ve decided that the Mississippi delegation, under all these stipulations—the white delegation—ought to be seated, I think I’d say so to a press conference. I wouldn’t say it in a wire to Martin Luther King, I don’t think. I wouldn’t dignify him that much, and not only that, it would look like you’d just accepted his challenge. It would magnify his importance and strength.  After you’d given it out to a press conference, you might wire him, “Dr. King, I regret that I cannot come to the same conclusions on the facts as I know them in this case.” And leave it there. But I don’t think I’d make it in a wire to him. Do you think that’d be a good thing?


LBJ: No, I don’t think so.


Russell: I think I’d have a press conference and say it….


LBJ: It would be so much better if I’d stay out of that convention if I could.


Russell: Yes, I agree with you.


LBJ: All of my people say I ought to [stay out], but I just hate to see this go right along. He’s trying to get me in it every way he can, and I think this is Bobby’s [Kennedy’s] trap.


Russell: Well, I wouldn’t answer that wire….


LBJ: Yeah. That’s right. Now the question is, do we do it at all? I don’t think there’s any question, what Martin Luther King and that group wants [is for] me to be in a position of giving them an excuse to say that I’ve turned on the Negro.


Russell: Well, I don’t believe they can sell that to the Negro, even.


LBJ: Yeah, I think that’s Bobby’s strategy, though, Dick. It goes—


Russell: Do you think Bobby would like to see Goldwater elected president?


LBJ: No, but I think he’d like to see me caused all the damned trouble he can, and maybe elected. He told me when he left me, with a sneer on his face, “I think I would have been able to help you a lot.” I think he wants to prove that. And I have got Burke Marshall talking to King and them on some of these things. I think that’s what we have got to watch very carefully.


Russell: Well, the time was coming when King was going to come head-on into whoever was up there, whether it was you, or Kennedy, or whoever. He’s a very arrogant fellow. And he has just overridden and bluffed smaller fellows around down here. For example, in Atlanta, he can scare the hell out of [Mayor] Ivan Allen anytime he wants to. And rightly so, because from a political standpoint, they control the balance of power in the city of Atlanta.


White House, Aug. 24, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Reuther, 8:25 PM

Reuther told Johnson that, despite contract talks with the Big Three automakers, he was rushing to Atlantic City to aid Humphrey with squelching the MFDP revolt. LBJ expressed confidence that they might reduce the Credentials Committee members willing to sign a minority report under the required eleven members.


LBJ: … I think the Negroes are going back to Reconstruction period and going right where they were then. They’ve set themselves back a hundred years.


Reuther: They’re just so completely irrational. They don’t know. The victory they’ve got is the proposition that next time, no one can discriminate against Negroes. That’s the victory.


LBJ: That’s right. … And then I’m just trying to get a vice president for them. And I want to try to get him accepted by the country pretty well, if I can. And I don’t know why they don’t let us do it. Then I want to try to get some appropriations to carry this thing out [Civil Rights Act]. I haven’t got a dime. I’m using my emergency fund. I can’t even name an Equal Employment [Opportunity] Commission by the bill. And here are these folks—they’ve got everybody in the North … Hell, the northerners are more upset about this. They call me and wire me, Walter, and write, say that the Negroes are taking over the country. They’re running the White House. They’re running the Democratic Party. And it’s not Mississippi and Alabama anymore.


Reuther: Yes, I know.


LBJ: Hell, you’re catching your hell from Michigan, Ohio, Philadelphia, New York.


Reuther: Yeah.


LBJ: And they don’t understand that. They’re there before that television. They don’t understand that nearly every white man in this country would be frightened if he thought the Negroes were going to take him over.


Reuther: That’s right.


LBJ: They don’t understand that. But they’re on the television showing it. We can’t ever buy spots that will equal this. We’ve got 5 million budgeted, but we can’t undo what they’ve done in the last two days, unless you do it tomorrow, or I—


Reuther: I’ll get in there and do my level best because we see eye-to-eye. And then I’ll be in touch, and I’ll see you, then …


LBJ: They’ve got that list down to about thirteen, counting the two from Michigan, counting them all. And I think they could get it where they didn’t have a minority report if some of them would reason. But you look at it, and whatever you-all do is all right.


Reuther: All right.


LBJ: Just don’t quote me, because I’m going to leave it all up to that convention.


Reuther: Very good. I’ll be in touch with you and see you Wednesday morning.


White House, Aug. 24, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Jenkins and Clark Clifford, 4:31 PM

Senator Humphrey had just met with Martin Luther King Jr. and MFDP leaders in his hotel suite. Jenkins relays Humphrey’s recap to the President, then reports on discomfort in the Credentials Committee and its subcommittee.


LBJ: Go ahead.


Jenkins: He said, “I’m a hell of a salesman. I walked into the lion’s den. I listened patiently. I argued fervently. I used all the heartstrings that I had, and I made no headway. That the least, the very minimum they would accept, would be something that would involve giving them some votes. The minimum is the Ullman proposal that gives them two.” He said, “If I thought we could get by with it, I would postpone it. Perhaps, I think, we ought to postpone it for one night and see if there’s any more hope, although I think we can forget, now, any possibility of them not trying for a floor fight.” And he said he asked some of the people there the result of giving them two votes. He didn’t quite know who this came from, but Texas would stay. Georgia would stay. Florida would stay. North Carolina would stay. Arkansas and Louisiana doubtful. I don’t agree with much of that. I don’t think many of them would stay…. He says he’s racked his brain for anything further to do. He’s not making a suggestion that you get into it. But he said the fellow [Aaron] Henry is quite intelligent, that he’s more reasonable than some, that [Rev. Edwin] King is more moderate than some, although this too is the best they would take. They both said they could understand all his difficulties and that maybe they ought to come to Washington tonight. He said, “I’m not suggesting that. I’m just trying to rack my brain.” I said, “Well, what can be done there that you haven’t been able to do? My feeling is that you do more than anybody.” He said, “Well, maybe you’re right.” Said, “I just don’t know.”


LBJ: I don’t want to see them at all. I don’t want to have anything to do with them. If they are interested in the slightest in what concerns me, it is to go on and take the compromise that Rauh proposed. And that’s what they ought to do. And other than that, there’s not anything I can do for them, or want to do with them. And if they want Goldwater, they can have Goldwater. That’s all there is to it. If he’s [Humphrey] got no influence with them, why, I don’t know who has. It’s that simple. But I sure don’t want them down here.


Jenkins: No.


LBJ: I think that maybe Reuther will be down there in the morning. See if he can talk to them. I don’t think he can. I think that what we ought to try to do is see if we can get them to suggest that they try to sell this two-vote thing with some folks and never get it out of that subcommittee, just bury it in that subcommittee if we possibly can. I don’t know whether we can keep it there that long or not. But I’d go on and get the credentials for the rest of them out of the way.


Jenkins: Yeah, we almost have to do that.


Calling LBJ on Aug. 24 at 7:07 PM, Jenkins and LBJ operative Tom Finney reported that the southern delegations were unhappy about the at-large seating compromise, but most would not walk out. Johnson wanted to ram through the at-large compromise as soon as the convention opened in an hour. By voice vote the delegates affirmed the compromise by a wide margin, despite noisy opposition from Alabama. All but three Mississippi regular delegates walked out.


Oval Office, Aug. 25, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Press Secretary George Reedy, 11:06 AM


Reedy: I’m set to brief.


LBJ: Good.


Reedy: What shall I tell them about this morning?


LBJ: I don’t know, George. There is really not much to tell them.


Reedy: That’s what I think.


LBJ: I am just writing out a little statement that I think I am going to make either at a press conference here or go up to Atlantic City this afternoon to make, but I don’t think we can tell them about it now. I’ll talk to you about it and go it over with you, but I think it is best to say that I am preparing for a meeting this morning with these people I am meeting with.


Reedy: Good.


LBJ: I’m meeting with the [National] Security Council. I’m having lunch with them. [to Jack Valenti] Jack, who do I see this afternoon? I’ve forgotten somebody.


Reedy: You’ve got lunch with [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk, [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara, and [National Security Special Assistant McGeorge] Bundy.


LBJ: Yeah, but this afternoon, at 5:00? I’ve got General [Curtis] LeMay, that’s off the record….


Reedy: All right. Incidentally, the Attorney General [Robert Kennedy] just announced for the New York state [U.S.] senate.


LBJ: Was he on TV, I wonder? What did he say? … Here is what I think I am going to say to them—whatever number of months it is. “Forty-four months ago I was selected to be the Democratic vice president. Because I felt I could best serve my country and my party, I left the majority leadership in the Senate to seek the vice president’s post, believing I could unify the country and thus better serve it. In the time given me, I did my best. On that fateful November day last year, I accepted the responsibility of the presidency, asking God’s guidance and the help of all of our people. In nine months, I have carried on as effectively as I could. Our country faces grave dangers. These dangers must be faced and met by a united people under a leader they do not doubt. After thirty-three years in political life, most men acquire enemies; their ships accumulate barnacles. The times require leadership about which there is no doubt and a voice that men of all parties and sections and color can follow. I have learned after trying very hard that I am not that voice or that leader. Then I am going to say, “Therefore, I suggest that the representatives from all states of this union selected for the purpose of selecting a Democratic nominee for president and vice president proceed to do their duty and that no consideration be given to me because I am absolutely unavailable.” I think, then, they can just pick the two they want for the two places. We’ll take the nominee and do the best we can to help him till January. And then, if he’s elected, why, that’s fine, I think he will be. And they can have a new and fresh fellow without any of the old scars.

I don’t want this power of the bomb. And I just don’t want these decisions I am being required to make. And I don’t want the conniving that’s required. I don’t want the disloyalty that’s around. I don’t want the bungling and the inefficiencies of our people. And all of them talk too much….


Reedy: This will throw the nation in quite an uproar, sir.


LBJ: Yeah, I think so. I think that now is the time, though. I don’t know any better time…. I am absolutely positive that I cannot lead the South, the North and the South, and I don’t want to lead the nation without my own state, without my own section. I’m very convinced that the Negroes will not listen to me. They are not going to follow a white southerner, and I think the stakes are too big to try to compromise. I looked at the [New York] Herald Tribune, and there is nothing but things that we have done terrible. I read the New York Times, we had a “pallid platform,” and that was outrageous. I picked up every paper I had this morning, and we had just played hell. There are just bound to be a lot of people that don’t have these doubts and these angers and these barnacles and these things I have to carry. The nation ought to have a chance to get the best available. That’s who I want my children to have, and I know that I am not.


Reedy: I think it’s too late, sir. I know it’s your decision, because you’re the man that has to bear the brunt, but right now, I think this just gives the country to Goldwater.


LBJ: Well, that’s all right. I don’t care.… I’m just willing to … I don’t agree with that fellow, but I think he can do better than I can because …


Reedy: He can’t, sir. He’s just a child. And look at our side. We don’t have anybody. The only man around I’d trust to be president would be McNamara, and he wouldn’t stand a chance.


LBJ: We didn’t trust any of the rest of them, you know. We didn’t trust Eisenhower or Jack Kennedy. That’s a matter for them. Anyway, they’ve been running their business for a couple of hundred years, and I leave it up to them, and their processes can work without any dictation, without any influence from me. I don’t feel like that I want to live with my wife and my daughters with things going through like Time magazine this week and the lies that they published. I don’t want to be the center of attention enough that they’re interested in publishing that stuff. I just want to be away from it. And I know that a man ought to have a hide of a rhinoceros to be in this job, but I don’t have the hide of a rhinoceros, and I am not seeking happiness. I’m just seeking a little comfort once in a while, getting away from it. I think I have earned it after thirty-three years, and I don’t see any reason why I must die in it.


Reedy: I think you’ve earned it too, sir, but I don’t think it’s a question of having a hide of a rhinoceros. It’s kind of a question of rising above these things.


LBJ: Well, I can’t do that. I can’t do that. I have a desire to unite people. And the South is against me and the North’s against me and the Negroes are against me and the press doesn’t really have an affection for me.…


Reedy: I think, sir, that to a certain extent you have to remember [Edmund] Burke’s dictum about the “presumptuous judgment of the ignorant.” And much worse things than that have been said about presidents, sir. Abraham Lincoln was called a baboon.


LBJ: I know another Johnson [Andrew Johnson] sat in this same place and suffered more anguish than I am suffering, but I don’t see any reason why I need to. And I think it’s a pretty peaceful period. And I think they’re there, and I think they can work it out, and I know that I’m not the best in the country, and I have faith the system can select him so. They may not know I’m not the best….

But, if you’ve got any thoughts or any way that you can improve this—I am not going to make it very long; I am just about ready to sign it off—I’d be glad to have them.


Reedy: Well, I think that your statement is as good as it can be made, sir.


LBJ: OK. Bye.


Oval Office, Aug. 25, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with Walter Jenkins, 11:23 AM


LBJ: We’ve got no organization. And I haven’t got the organization that could handle the bomb, here, Walter. The people who do that want to do it. You know what our limitations are. You’ve been with them. And they all have the right to do it. I think that I can hold this thing together. I don’t believe there will be many attacks on the orders I issue on Tonkin Gulf if I’m not a candidate. And then I think the people can give the man that they want such a mandate that he might continue the good work we’ve done. And I don’t know who it’d be. I expect it’d be Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. But I believe they can get along with the Negroes better than I can.

… It’s obvious to me that I haven’t got any influence on them. Here at the crowning point in my life when I need people’s help, I haven’t even got the loyalty of Ken O’Donnell, Larry O’Brien, my attorney general, or anything like that. So I just think that … I don’t see any reason why I ought to seek the right to endure anguish that I do endure. People, I think, have a mistaken judgment. They think I want great power. What I want is great solace, a little love. That’s all I want.


Jenkins: You have a lot more of that than you think you do—


LBJ: Well, I don’t know…. I don’t think a white southerner is the man to unite this nation in this hour. And I don’t know who is. I don’t even want that responsibility…. I really—I do not believe, Walter, that I can physically and mentally … [Barry] Goldwater’s had a couple of nervous breakdowns, and I don’t want to be in this place like [Woodrow] Wilson. I do not believe I can physically and mentally carry the responsibilities of the bomb and the world and the Nigras and the South, and so on and so forth. Now, there are younger men and better-prepared men and better-trained men and Harvard-educated men, and I know my own limitations. I just don’t believe that I have the physical and mental strength to carry them. And I think the time to make that decision is while they’re there and not after they go home. I thought about it a good deal this morning. And I haven’t written a statement in twenty years! But I’m just getting ready to write this one. I’ve just got one more sentence on it, and I told them to have a helicopter stand by, and I’ll decide during the lunch hour. I’m going to meet with the Security Council. And I’ll decide during the lunch hour what I’ll do about it and either come on up there or call in a press conference here. You have any idea which would be better from your vantage point?


Jenkins: I would—


LBJ: From my standpoint, it’d be better here because you don’t have to … you don’t have to go through any of the handshaking and the folderol. On the other hand, you kind of hate the managers, you know, the folks that are for you, to hear it through the press. [LBJ’s voice quivers]


Jenkins: I think that if you were going to do it …


LBJ: If I’m going to do it? I’m going to do it. I told you that.


Oval Office, Aug. 25, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with A.W. Moursund, 12 PM

Johnson’s old friend and business partner phoned with news about Humphrey.


LBJ: Here, I’m just finishing this sentence. I’m going into the [National] Security Council in about one minute. I’ve just written me out a little statement, and I’m deciding whether I’m going to come up there and make it or make it at a 3:00 press conference down here. [reading] “Forty-four months ago I was elected to be the Democratic vice president. Because I felt I could best serve my country and my party, I left the majority leadership of the Senate to seek this post, believing I could help unify the country and thus better serve it. In the time given me, I did my best. On that fateful, November day last year, I accepted the responsibilities of the presidency, asking God’s guidance and the help of all of our people. For nine months, I’ve carried on as effectively as I could. Our country faces grave dangers. These dangers must be faced and met by a united people under a leader they do not doubt. After three years—after thirty-three years in political life, most men acquire enemies, as ships accumulate barnacles. The times require leadership about which there is no doubt, and a voice that men of all parties, sections, and color can follow. I’ve learned after trying very hard that I am not that voice or that leader. Therefore, I shall carry forward with your help until a new president is sworn in next January and then return to my home as I’ve wanted to since the day I took this job.” That’ll allow them to select two of them [presidential and vice presidential nominees]. They are there, and they are not going to be there anymore, and I think it is better to do that than to do it a month or two, or three months from now.

I just don’t believe I have the physical and mental stability to endure the Nigras on one hand and the Vietnamese on the other hand and the Cyprus, the Cypriots on the other hand and the big bomber boys and the big missile boys and the Congress and the Republicans and the Democrats and the Goldwaters. I rather think that no man’s going to be in political life as long as I’ve been. I’m like your daddy and my daddy. You acquire enough enemies. And this country ought to have a man that can get some Republicans and Democrats to pull together, get the Nigras and the whites to pull together. Now, I’m not that man. I don’t know whether they can get him or not. I want to give them a chance to, and I think that your kids and mine are entitled to have somebody to do it. You can see from what’s happening in Mississippi and Alabama that the southerners don’t want me, and the Nigras don’t want me. And I don’t want it. So I don’t know what the hell we are fighting to … seeking to … for what purpose? Who are we going to serve?


Moursund: Sir, I know your statement is on a hell of a lot higher level than 98 percent of the people think. Because they’ll end up nominating this little bastard Bobby Kennedy.


LBJ: Yeah.


Moursund: And he’s a lightweight, and Goldwater’s a lightweight, and where we go, I don’t know.


LBJ: I don’t know. They’ve done it 200 years, though, and we’ve come through pretty well. They have this machinery … and I don’t think you’ve got much time. I think that clock’s ticking.


Moursund: Damn. I don’t want to ever be in the position of saying you ought to do this. But you’re the only man that can do it right now.


LBJ: Well, we’ll see. Much obliged.


Oval Office, Aug. 25, 1964, LBJ, Gov. Carl Sanders, and Gov. John Connally, 4:32 PM

Georgia governor Carl Sanders called President Johnson from Atlantic City upset about the compromise allowing for two at-large delegates from the MFDP. In an often testy exchange [in a half-hour recording], Sanders expressed fear about a walkout by southern delegates because “it looks like we’re turning the Democratic Party over to the nigras,” while Johnson defended the at-large compromise as purely a “Johnson move” designed to hold the convention together and fervently criticized the regular Democrats in Mississippi for denying black participation in the political process. Toward the end of the call, Sanders handed the phone to Texas governor John Connally, the president’s protégé, his chief liaison to southern governors.


LBJ: Hi, Carl, how are you?


Gov. Carl Sanders: Fine. How are you doing?


LBJ: Oh, I’m kind of beat up, but I’m doing all right, I guess.


Sanders: We’re running into a situation now that could create complete havoc, and that’s this: As you know, as far as I’m concerned, we’re in great shape now. We’ve solidified everybody. We’ve even got Alabama folks jumping up and down and saying we got a great platform, and I honestly believe that we’re in better shape than we’ve ever been. But now, this idea that has seemingly sort of come forth about the possibility of this convention creating two delegates-at-large, and seating this nigra from Mississippi [Aaron Henry] and a white man from Mississippi [Ed King], recognizing … two members of this Freedom crowd and give them the status of an official delegate to the convention on the basis that they recognize their protest, next time—our people have already said to me—next time, they could give twenty-two people in Georgia or any other place—the Democratic Convention could—they could create twenty-two delegates-at-large and give them to somebody else on some other basis. What I’m afraid of—and this is the thing that I wanted to be sure that you understood—if they start seating two delegates, even though they try to disassociate them in the convention, I honestly believe you’re going to have a wholesale walkout from the South. And if it gets down to that point, of course, I don’t know what we’re going to be able to do.

Because my position is, I’m for Lyndon Johnson, and I’m going to stay for Lyndon Johnson, and I’m for him for President. But I don’t know whether I could sit in a convention that would turn around and seat some folks and name them delegates and give them the status of delegates in a convention without any legal right to do so. Now, I don’t mind … I talked to a lot of these people, and, hell, they can rope off a blue-ribbon section for them right in the middle of the damn floor, so far as I’m concerned, and seat them all there, and give them the status as honored guests, anything they want. But for God’s sakes, if they make delegates out of them, it’s going to just tear the thing up. We’ve got the South now, solid, it looks like to me. I understand George Wallace is going to get on an airplane from Atlanta to come back up here, because we ruined him in Alabama with the Alabama setup we worked out so far. There’s no way you can pick up that telephone and talk to some of those crazy people—


LBJ: Carl, I thought this would be the best thing that could happen. I don’t see how it hurts anybody. It’s got no connection to Mississippi. Mississippi has got every vote they ever had. Georgia has got every vote they ever had. We’re not going to have any votes to begin with. This is a pure sop to two people to sit over there that never cast a vote, so we don’t have a brawl. I think we’re going to have it anyway, because [Joe] Rauh is just raising hell about it.


Sanders: You know what it looks like to the South. I’m just telling you because you want me to tell you the truth.


LBJ: Yes, sure do.


Sanders: It looks like we’re turning the Democratic Party over to the Nigras…. It’s all related right back to this damn Freedom crowd and Rauh …


LBJ: Rauh and his Freedom crowd are raising hell.


Sanders: We’re for you, and I’m going to stay with you as an individual. But I’m not going to sit in a convention up there, and I think the rest of them feel the same way, if they’re going to start making delegates-at-large out of this Freedom crowd over there. Because there ain’t any damn way in the world that we can justify that. All we’ve done there is put the Negro—Martin Luther King and a few of them—we’ve just given in and letting them decide who’s going to be the delegates to the Democratic Convention. And Joe Rauh, to hell with Joe Rauh. I don’t know Joe Rauh. I’ve sat beside him once or twice. [LBJ chuckles] But I’ll be damned if I believe he’s your friend, the way he’s acting.


LBJ: He’s opposed to this, Carl. This is a pure Johnson move to try not to call the roll in that convention. I don’t see how it could hurt a human being. Mississippi has got every vote they’ve got. They didn’t allow anybody to go in the primary. They wouldn’t allow the Negroes to come into the convention. Nevertheless, we’re going ahead and seating them. We’re giving them every vote they’ve got…. We’re just saying on a national basis, we’re going to recognize two of them when we’re not going to vote. It’s a pure symbolic thing.

Nobody’s ever going to call the roll. All it does is just keep from calling that damn roll and dividing it up. We’ve just got to find some way to keep them from calling the roll. Now, Rauh won’t go with us. Rauh’s down there fighting it…. Didn’t hurt Mississippi—Mississippi’s fight’s won. She comes there with legal delegates. They’re recognized—


Sanders: I’ll bet you they’ll turn right around and walk out, the whole delegation.


LBJ: I think probably—who?


Sanders: Mississippi.


LBJ: Well, they may do it. If the South’s that way, why, they’ve won. They’ve got seated. They’ve caused more goddamned trouble and done less for it than any two states I ever heard of in my life to the party that they’re supposed to like.


Sanders: You know damn well that I care less what happens in Mississippi.


LBJ: If they can’t get a minority report where we can kill it, without a minority report in that [Credentials] Committee, where they can’t get a roll call, now we’ll sail through there like nobody’s business. And Mississippi, we can say we seated every damn one of them. We didn’t touch their state. We recognized them. We voted to take every vote they had. We didn’t take anything away from them….


Sanders: You’re making them delegates!


LBJ: We, as a symbolic gesture, are going to say, “Here’s two people, now, and you can go and say, by God, that your protest was heard, and your protest was recognized.” They ought to be members of the Mississippi delegation.


Sanders: Can you call them something but delegates? Can you can call them honorary?


LBJ: If I could do it and get by with them, Carl, I would. But what they ought to be, now, honestly, between you and me, with their population 50 percent, they ought to be delegates to the Mississippi group.


Sanders: Not unless they’re Democrats, Mr. President.


LBJ: [forcefully] They’re Democrats! And by God, they tried to attend the convention, and pistols kept them out! These people went in and begged to go and participate in the conventions. And they’ve got half the population. And they won’t let them. They lock them out.


Sanders: They aren’t registered. They’ve got half the population—


LBJ: Well, some of them are registered. I think you’ve got a good, legitimate case to say that the state of Mississippi wouldn’t let a Negro come into their damn convention, and therefore they violated the law and wouldn’t let them vote. Wouldn’t let them register. Intimidated them. And, by God, they oughtn’t to be seated. I think there’s a legitimate case to be made there, but I don’t want to make it. But I don’t see how they [Miss. regulars] could raise hell that they have their cake and eat it too and just say, “By God, I’m going to be a dog in the manger. I’m going to have all I got, every vote that the state of Mississippi’s got, and then, by God, I’m going to bark if somebody across the hall gets a couple.”


Sanders: I ain’t interested in Mississippi—


LBJ: That ain’t going to take a vote away from a human. All it does is just stop the agony and the pain and the bad publicity of three damn days here on television and gets us out of there with a unanimous vote. And I can’t see that it costs a man a dime.


Sanders: It’s going cost a hell of a lot down there…. Publicity-wise, they’re going to say the nigras took over the damn convention, and—


LBJ: Two nigras can’t take over anything, Carl…. They’ve got to let them vote. And they’ve got to let them shave. And they’ve got to let them eat, and things like that. And they don’t do it. And however much we love Jim Eastland and John Stennis, they get a governor like Ross Barnett, and he’s messing around there with Wallace, and they won’t let one man go in a precinct convention.… We’ve got to put a stop to that because that’s just like the old days, by God, when they wouldn’t let them go in and cast a vote of any kind. And you’ve put a stop to it in your state. But we’re going to ignore that. We’re going to say, “Hell, yes, you did it. You’re wrong. You violated the ’57 law, and you violated the ’60 law, and you violated the ’64 law, but we’re going to seat you, every damn one of you. You lily-white babies, we’re going to salute you.”


Oval Office, Aug 25, 1964, LBJ Phone Conversation with Walter Jenkins, 9:33 PM


Jenkins: … You know they’re rioting outside. They closed the convention, and the California delegation is not here because they caucused late, and they can’t get in. The Freedom Party are now demonstrating very heavily in what borders on being a riot outside of the Convention Hall, about 2,000 of them, and delegates cannot get through…. There’s no violence. I think that’s probably good.


LBJ: … They refuse to come in, Aaron [Henry, MFDP leader] and them?


Jenkins: Yes, sir. They’ve announced they are not coming.


LBJ: Why did they do that after [Martin Luther] King and them recommended it?


Jenkins: … Let me read you one note. It’s in my pocket. “Martin Luther King is very, very unhappy about the way things have turned out. He went to the Freedom Party at the [Union] Temple Baptist Church late this afternoon. They refused to let him even speak at the caucus. They wouldn’t let the man [Aaron Henry] that came with him speak. They shouted him down, and he left. The younger members of the Freedom Democratic Party were unwilling to accept the compromise.” Interesting, isn’t it?


LBJ: Huh?


Jenkins: I said that’s interesting, isn’t it? They won’t listen to Martin Luther King?


LBJ: Yeah. Well, will this make the Negroes mad all over the country, do you think?


Jenkins: I don’t think so. I don’t see how it could.


LBJ: Well, what are they raising hell about?


Jenkins: Well, it’s the wild crowd, the students, who have come up here. They’ve come up here to raise hell, but didn’t get everything they wanted, why …


LBJ: Are you hearing that? [TV loudly in the background.] The Freedom Party’s coming in with credentials and then shifting the credentials out. [CBS reporter Mike Wallace reports on the MFDP taking the empty seats of the Mississippi delegation.] You better stop that, Walter. The Freedom Party has got the seats of the regular Mississippi delegates, and they’re coming in and taking them.


Jenkins: I wonder how they got them.


LBJ: I don’t know. They’re getting badges and bringing them in, and then shuffling them back out again. So just turn over. I’d put a security man around the Mississippi delegation. I’d just put a bunch of them, not let anybody come into the seats. Of course, don’t embarrass them. Just put a guard around them—


Jenkins: We did this last night with Alabama, and the Alabama delegates forced their way in. They called me. I had to make a quick decision. I said if it’s a question of using force or not using force … but we told them that they’re not entitled to these seats, and I said, “Do not use any force.”


LBJ: Well, you better do it now, because you’ve got a riot on right there, right quick. Somebody better get …


SNCC Organizer

At 7 p.m. [Tuesday, Aug. 25] we met and arranged a system of runners to bring badges from regular delegates inside the hall to FDP delegates outside. I was appointed to receive badges inside and carry them outside to a person who passed them on to delegates waiting in small groups on street corners near the hall. I made about four or five trips in and out—it was really exciting. I felt like Mata Hari and the French Resistance and the Underground Railroad all rolled into one. I had very little trouble getting back into the hall, because I wore a press badge which was honored. Just to disguise myself further I wore a red, white, and blue striped vest of the kind worn by the Young Citizens for Johnson who were roaming around….


Virginia Gray Adams

… I don’t know where the idea came from to occupy the seats on the floor of the convention during the 1964 challenge. We were outside, picketing and singing. Then we decided to take those seats on the convention floor that had been vacated by the white delegation. They had left those seats because they had received premature and incorrect information that the MFDP had accepted the “two-seat compromise.” Incensed by the idea of giving up even two seats to civil rights activists, they walked out. Some of our friends on the floor, friends in the delegations from places like Michigan and California, sent back their passes to the MFDP members.

We entered one by one and sent those passes back to somebody else from the MFDP who would come in and repeat the process. We just kept passing those passes around until finally all of us were inside. Then we unfurled our Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party banner and sat in the seats vacated by the white Democratic delegation from Mississippi.


Oval Office, Aug. 25, 1964, LBJ Phone Call with aide Clifton Carter, 9:50 PM


LBJ: Hello?


Carter: Yes, sir.


LBJ: How you doing?


Carter: Rolling fine. We’ve got a little disturbance over in the Mississippi area that … I’ve got twenty over there—plainclothesmen and sergeant at arms there trying to square it away. We have—


LBJ: They’re just coming in, according to the television, by droves. They’re exchanging badges out there and bringing them in under photographers’ badges, and others.


Carter: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.


LBJ: Can’t we stop that?


Carter: Yes, sir. We’re in the process of stopping it right now and clearing it up. I got right on it just—We got a report just immediately as it started.


LBJ: How did they do it?


Carter: Pass badges back and forth to each other. One man comes in and picks up three or four badges of people already in and then takes those back out and gives them to people so they can come back in on them.


LBJ: How do you stop it?


Carter: What we’re going to have to do is just stop anybody from coming in at all. Stop any flow of traffic. Take these badges away, and pick them up—


LBJ: OK. Well, do it. And I understand you’ve got a riot going on outside.


Courtland Cox, SNCC organizer in Mississippi

What happened in Atlantic City was that we went through all the processes that the Democratic party said one had to go through in order to be credentialized, though the white delegation from Mississippi went through none of the processes and violated all of them. So the question was, would the Democratic party obey its own rules, or would it favor those whites who had been in the party all the time? The credentials committee would make a decision as to who would be able to represent the state of Mississippi on the floor. A presentation was made by both groups. Now, what happened was that the MFDP in that environment in 1964 had a tremendous sympathy among white liberals, the black community, the church community. The person who seems to symbolize that, who thrust out from Mississippi, was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou Hamer spoke on television, was very effective in her presentation of what was going on in Mississippi. And what Johnson did at that time when she was beginning to ruin his congress, he called the TV stations and preempted her in the middle of her speech, literally preempted her in the middle of her speech. I think he spoke about his trip to the hospital or some other foolishness, his beagles, or something inconsequential.

After that, Johnson called Humphrey up and told him, “Hubert, if you want to be vice president of the United States, you’ve got to stop these people from Mississippi.” Humphrey called Walter Reuther from the UAW and a number of other people and said to them that these people had to be stopped.

We knew that if we could get eleven of the hundred and ten delegates on the credentials committee, ten percent of them, to vote that the Mississippians had a valid case, then it could be brought to the floor for the entire convention to vote on. And Johnson knew that in fact if that happened, then it was all downhill in terms of his convention. So what Johnson did is he got a Negro congressman to “befriend” the group. We had a strategy session in the convention hall, deep in the bowels of the convention hall. Mrs. Hamer was there, Edith Green [congresswoman] from Oregon, Bob Moses, Donna Moses. We had a list of delegates who we felt were solid. The Negro congressman asked us for the list, and Bob did not want to give it to him. I said to Bob, “Do you think this man is going to steal this list of names?” And the congressman said, “Yes, I want to give this list of names to credentials committee chairman David Lawrence, to show him we have the strength to pull a minority vote on the floor.”

In my ignorance, I pressed Bob to give him the list so that he could show that we had some clout. Bob gave the list reluctantly, and what happened next was something unbelievable. Every person on that list, every member of that credentials committee who was going to vote for the minority, got a call. They said. “Your husband is up for a judgeship, and if you don’t shape up, he won’t get it.” “You’re up for a loan. If you don’t shape up, you won’t get it.” And you began to see how things worked in the real world. I mean everybody, including a number of the people in the civil rights movement, a number of people in the religious community, a number of people in the liberal community, all came out and tried to blunt the thrust of the MFDP to take its rightful place as the lawful delegation from Mississippi.


Walter Mondale, Minnesota attorney general

Mondale was asked by his political mentor Hubert Humphrey to arrange an acceptable solution.

We started out with that vast credentials committee—there must have been a hundred people there. It couldn’t handle that kind of  burden. So we set up a subcommittee, which I chaired, and I think we had seven or eight members. We tried for the better part of two and a half days, maybe three, to come up with a resolution that would satisfy everyone.

They were pushing against an open door in terms of the objective of civil rights and preventing any future lily-white, segregated delegations. We expected the all-white delegations

from Alabama and Mississippi to walk out. That was almost preordained. And that was fine by us, because you couldn’t justify what they’d done. The tough question was, How do we handle it?

One theory was you just take the black delegation and seat them, kick the white delegation out, and that’s all you needed to do.

Well, that didn’t solve any long-term problems. It didn’t establish any rule of law for civil rights, and if all it’s going to be is blacks or whites, one winning, one losing, then there was no hope for a healthy political party, an integrated party. Everybody was trying to think of something that was simple, that would solve it, and would satisfy everybody. The problem was there was no such solution. We’d go around and around and around, and everybody would try this and try that, and writers would see if they could write around the problem, and philosophers

see if they could dream of something to dream over the problem. It wouldn’t go away. It had to be resolved. It had to be compromised, I think, in the way we did it. And it was inevitable that some people would be unhappy.


Joseph Rauh

There was a stalemate. On Tuesday morning, about three in the morning, Walter Reuther comes in, Johnson orders him in. He’s actually in negotiations, I think, with General Motors. Johnson orders him to come. You know, Johnson’s a pretty tough character. So Reuther comes in and they make the deal that they offer us. Namely, two delegates-at-large. They promised us that no lily-white delegation would ever be seated again. And that they would set up a civil rights committee of the Democratic National Committee so that no lily-white delegation could ever be seated again.

We’re about to have a meeting of the credentials committee and I get a call from Reuther. He said, “This is what the convention has decided.” What he meant was, this is what he and

Johnson had agreed to, and I want you to accept it. He tells me that’s it.

Well, I thought it was wonderful. I mean, it is wonderful. It’s the basis from which the whole Democratic Party has been opened up, to blacks, to women, to Hispanics, to everything. It

was a great, great, great victory, but I couldn’t accept it. I said, “Walter, look, I cannot accept this without talking to Aaron Henry. We have a deal sealed in blood that neither of us will ever take

anything without talking to the other. You get me a postponement. Tell me where Aaron is. We can possibly make this unanimous.” Walter said he would.

So I went back into the credentials committee room and said to David Lawrence, the chairman, “I want a postponement for this purpose.” And he said, “Well, go ask Mondale, who is the chairman of the subcommittee which is walking up the stairs there.” So I did, and Mondale says, “Well, of course, Joe, you can have a postponement.” And some little punk, I think his name was Sherwin Markman, from Iowa, says, “No postponement. We’re going ahead.” He was the one Johnson had put in there to watch Mondale, to be sure Mondale wasn’t fair. So Mondale says, “Well, Joe, that’s the way the ball bounces.”

They all went in. I tried to get the floor for a postponement. So then Mondale announces what the compromise is. He made it sound so favorable to us, and he would interject all the time

about how much I had won, and that made it harder to fight. But I got up and said, “I’m not arguing whether this is good or bad. Life alone will tell that. But what I am saying is we ought to have a postponement so Aaron Henry’s views can be injected here and we can decide probably that we’re all in agreement.”

It was like a lynch mob: a hundred people shouting “Vote, vote, vote!” while I’m talking. I finally had to say, “It’s your rudeness that’s the problem. I’ve got a right to speak. I’ve got the floor. You ought to shut up.” “Vote, vote, vote!” I moved for a postponement. I moved for a roll call. I moved for everything, but I didn’t get it. Then they take a vote on the Mondale proposal, the proposal that I knew in my heart was a victory, but I had to vote no. There were eight of us who voted no. It was a ragtag eight. They had gotten the rest of them away from us.

While I am in the credentials committee, trying to get the postponement, Reuther, Humphrey, and others from the administration are talking to Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Abernathy, Moses, Henry, and a few others from the MFDP. While they’re talking. the television is going, low. Somebody shouts out, “It’s all over. It was unanimous for the compromise.”

Bob Moses lost his cool. It was like hitting him with a whip, like a white man hitting him with a whip, everybody had ratted on him. It wasn’t true, of course. The fact is, I had even voted no. It was not unanimous. We went outside and Mondale and I had a little pushing match for the television cameras. The cameras really wanted Mondale. They want the majority before they get the minority, and I understood that. So I waited. Mondale filibustered a little bit. He was savoring his victory. He was having a good time talking.

So I didn’t get the floor for about fifteen minutes. And then I blew up the idea that there was any unanimity. I said we may try to get enough votes so that we can go to the floor tonight. Bob was angry. This had struck him like a bolt of lightning. That evening, we were on the evening news. I said we would continue the fight. But I also said it was my position that this is a great victory which is going to end up with a new Democratic Party because of their promise that there will never be a lily-white group again.

Bob got on and said, “You cannot trust the political system. I will have nothing to do with the political system any longer.”


SNCC Organizer Courtland Cox

All the people that you thought were on your side began to crumble. I mean, the liberals began to crumble. The labor movement began to crumble. A number of the civil rights leaders

began to crumble. The only people who did not crumble in the final analysis were the people from Mississippi. They’re the people who stood firm. Mrs. Hamer stood firm. And the people

whose lives depended upon the benevolence of either the Democratic Party, the labor movement, or the liberal movement, they caved in under the pressure, because that’s where their bread and

butter lay.


Unita Blackwell, MFDP Delegate

Here we were at first, we wasn’t recognized at all. And then they said they was gonna give us two seats. So these leaders talked to us and tried to show us what we ought to do. Take these two seats, and at least then we would have somethin’. Roy Wilkins, he told us that we was ignorant. Dr. King was there, too. He didn’t call us ignorant. He just said we should seriously think about taking the compromise.

And we told them we might be some ignorant folks from the sticks in Mississippi, but our people was also back there, ignorant and from the sticks. And we promised them that we would not take the compromise. Praise God today, we did not take that compromise. And there was a group of people that stood up in this country. And stood up to the payoffs and buyoffs and so forth.


Victoria Gray Adams, “We Need Something New and Different”

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party grew out of the frustrations of people attempting to participate in the regular political structure. First of all we were not getting registered. Our primary effort in Hattiesburg and Forrest County was just trying to get registered. During this time we launched the Freedom Vote campaign. We’d run our own candidates for the purpose of showing the larger national community that people would register and vote if they were granted fair access.

Some of the most significant voting rights suits came out of Hattiesburg. The circuit clerk, named Theron Lynd, was also the voting registrar. He was as obstinate as he was big and tall. He thought all the records, everything, belonged to him. He just did not pay court rulings any attention. Eventually the Justice Department filed a suit against Lynd and his tactics. It was only after that suit was won sometime in late 1963, early 1964, that we began to get registered. When we started to get registered, white officials played all kinds of games. They would say that the precinct meeting was going to be one place at a certain time. We’d get there and there would be nobody there. Or we’d get there and the meeting would be over. Or we’d get there and they just wouldn’t let us in.

This is why in 1964 the MFDP emerged. The party came alive for me when we started having our state meetings in Jackson, Mississippi. It was wonderful. It was just the most exciting thing to think that we were going to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation. We were doing our politicking; we were making our speeches. At these statewide meetings I spoke, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer spoke, Miss Annie Devine spoke, Miss Ella Baker spoke, as did many others. Miss Devine, Mrs. Hamer, and I, we talked to each other about everything under the sun.There’s not anything we didn’t talk about. None of us could remember when we first met; we just clicked. We were just perfect accompaniments for each other….

I was always opposed to the compromise. We spent hours and hours and hours discussing this, because not all the other MFDP delegates were as clear. There was a lot of pressure being brought from the big guns, such as Roy Wilkins from the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of SCLC, trying to get us to accept. The big guns thought we should accept the compromise; it would be a victory. They said, “The people have worked so hard and they need a victory.” They were political animals, in the sense of how politics worked at that time. But we were tired of it. We were a different kind of political animal, desperate political animals, with our lives and everything staked on this. To add insult to the injury of offering us only two seats, the white government officials and others were so audacious and arrogant as to tell us who they would have sit in those seats—Dr. Aaron Henry and Rev. Ed King. So what kind of compromise was that? It wasn’t one. I said, “What kind of a victory? A victory of what? Two seats at-large. Who does that represent? Nobody. We came here with nothing and we leave here with nothing.” Oh, it was heavy. It was very, very, very heavy.

I wasn’t at all sure which way the vote was going to go. When local people are listening to the big guys, the national figures, the people tend to say, “Well, they’re smart. They know.” Here 1 was in the position of saying, “They may he smart, but right now they are wrong.”

Rev. Andrew Young, an aide to Dr. King, came to my hotel room and said, “Vicky, why won’t you accept it?” I responded, “Andy, because it really is nothing. That’s why.” I continued, “You need to understand something, Andy. We’re not asking you to make this decision for us. We’re asking you to support us. You live in Georgia. We live in Mississippi. What goes on in Mississippi is not always the same thing that goes on in Georgia. We’re going to make our own decisions. because the decisions that are made here affect our lives. All we’re asking from you is support, not that you necessarily agree with us. Just support us the same way we support you when you call us to come to Alabama or whatever. That’s all we want from you.” And he said, “Okay.”

During the meeting to decide about the compromise, the big guns talked on and on. Mrs. Hamer and Miss Devine and I didn’t say anything for hours. It’s amazing how we clicked that day. We were not sitting anywhere near each other in that church in Atlantic City. I think Mrs. Hamer was down near the front, Miss Devine was somewhere at the midsection, and I was near the back, We three just sat and listened and listened. Finally, when I got convinced that something was about to happen, I decided I’d better get on the floor. And I did.

I said, “We are here representing people in Mississippi who have everything on the line. And they’re looking to us to bring back something that’s going to make a difference. Two seats at-large aren’t going to make any difference. So I’m not going back to the people and lie. We came here with nothing, so let’s go on back with nothing. Quite frankly, if what I’ve seen since we’ve been here is what it’s like, I’m not sure I even want to be a part of it.” That’s exactly what I said.

Next Miss Devine hit the floor. Miss Devine is always very quiet and very deep. Then Mrs. Hamer hit the floor. Of course, once Mrs. Hamer took hold of an issue and went with it, everybody listened. The other point we made that day was that we can go back and fight another day. We’ll go back and continue the struggle until we get what it is that we need and what we want. That was the final word on that. I think that’s what swayed the MFDP—the three of us up there like that.

I remember clearly that both Dr. Aaron Henry and Rev. Ed King were disappointed. They would have been the persons seated by the Democratic party, but I don’t think that was the source of their disappointment. They were thinking that the MFDP lawyers were the experts on these matters and that they had recommended accepting the compromise. Our lawyers might have been experts, but they were the experts at things as they were. The last thing we needed was things as they were. We needed something new and different. Ed and his wife, Jeannette, Mrs. Hamer, and I left Atlantic City and went on to New York to keep a speaking engagement. Ed remained enthusiastic about the Movement, but Dr. Henry only kind of lip-serviced from then on.

Later, at the I968 convention, with a truly integrated delegation, both Henry and King were seated….


Victoria Gray Adams, “Dangerous Times and the Role of Women”

… When I was moving around the country, speaking on behalf of our challenge to the Democratic Party and other civil rights matters, the issue of women’s leadership came up frequently. Many leaders of the MFDP were women. People wanted to know: Why is it that women are out front in the MFDP? Women were out front as a survival tactic. Men could not function in high visibility, high-profile roles where we come from, because they would be plucked off. There would have been a lot more deaths like those of Vernon Dahmer and George Lee. Think about the black men of the early days of the Movement. Think about how many of them were killed simply because they went down and tried to register to vote or simply because they gave shelter to somebody. The women had to do it.

Dying isn’t so bad, but dying and nothing is ever going to be done about it, that’s foolish. That’s very foolish. You don’t sacrifice your life just for the heck of courageousness when you know nothing is going to come of it. Nobody’s going to pay the price of having taken your life. Nothing is going to happen to discourage it from happening again and again. So that’s what it was all about. That’s why the women were out front. The white folks didn’t see the women as that much of a threat. White thinking has always been, if you controlled the men, you got the rest of them covered. They didn’t know the power of women, especially black women.

Yet men were involved in less public ways. I knew some of the men in my community who appeared totally uninterested and uninvolved, but when night fell they set up guards at every entry route that could be taken to my house. I remember seeing them sitting there—they sat up on the nearby ice house, watching. Besides, the men had to be willing for us to be active. Otherwise, you know, as wives and mothers and sisters and sweethearts, we couldn’t have done it.

Some of the killings of black people were known and called what they were. Others were called accidents. But your life was in danger; you could be walking down the highway and somebody could come by and purposely bump you off and go on about their business. It would be called hit-and-run, not murder. Sometimes the targets were women. I escaped an attempt like that myself one night….

… If you’re going to ask for something, ask for something that can make a difference. The strength of the Civil Rights Movement was in the fact that there were so many local people involved. We had marvelous high-profile national spokespersons, but the day-to-day work, the hanging in there was done by the local people. Once they were able to rise above their fear, they had the courage to stand up for what was rightfully theirs as citizens of this country. Local people  made the difference.

To young people today, I would say, “Get to know everyday people. Make sure you acquire, to the degree possible, the wisdom and knowledge of these people. Everybody has something to say and something to offer. There should be an opportunity for that to happen. Make the information available and all of the sources accessible. Then hear what the people have to say. If you do, you will find, to borrow a phrase from Miss Ella Baker, ‘Strong people don’t need strong leaders.’”


SNCC Organizer Charles M. Sherrod, Mississippi at Atlantic City, Grains of Salt, Union Theological Seminary, Oct. 12, 1964

It was a cool day in August beside the ocean. Atlantic City, New Jersey, was waiting for the Democratic National Convention to begin. In that Republican fortress history was

about to be made. High on a billboard smiling out at the breakers was a picture of Barry Goldwater and an inscription “In your heart you know he’s right.” Later someone had

written underneath, “Yes, extreme right.” Goldwater had had his “moment,” two weeks before on the other ocean. This was to be LBJ’s “moment,” and we were to find out that this was also his convention.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had been working rather loosely all summer. Money was as scarce as prominent friends. A small band of dedicated persons forged out of the frustration and aspirations of an oppressed people a wedge; a moral wedge which brought the monstrous political machinery of the greatest power on earth to a screeching halt.

The Freedom Democratic Party was formed through precinct, county, district and state conventions. An attempt to register with the state was frustrated. But the party was opened to both black and white voters and non-voters for the State of Mississippi had denied the right to vote to thousands.

Ninety-three percent of the Negroes twenty-one years of age or older in Mississippi are denied the right to vote. To show to the Convention and to the country that people want to vote in Mississippi, we held a Freedom Registration campaign. In other words, a voter registration blank from a northern state was used. Sixty-thousand persons signed up in less than three months. We presented our registration books to the Credentials Committee. Both the facts and the law were ably represented by our attorney, Joseph Rauh, Jr., who was also a member of the Credentials Committee.

No one could say that we were a renegade group. We had tried to work within the structure of the state Party. In fact, we were not only trying to be included in the state Party, but we also sought to insure that the state Party would remain loyal to the candidates of the National Democratic Party in November. We attended precinct meetings in several parts of Mississippi.

In eight precincts in six different counties, we went to polling stations before the time legally designated tor the precinct meeting, 10:00 A.M., but were unable to find any evidence of a meeting. Some officials denied knowledge of any meeting; others claimed the meeting had already taken place. In these precincts we proceeded to hold our own meetings and elected our own delegates to the county conventions. In six different counties where we found the white precinct meetings, we were excluded from the meetings. In Hattiesburg we were told that we could not participate without poll tax receipts, despite the recent constitutional amendment, outlawing such provisions.

In ten precincts in five different counties, we were allowed to attend meetings but were restricted from exercising full rights; some were not allowed to vote; some were not allowed to nominate delegates from the floor; others were not allowed to choose who tallied the votes. No One could say that we had not tried. We had no alternative but to form a State Party that would include everyone.

So sixty-eight delegates came from Mississippi—black, white, maids, ministers, carpenters, farmers, painters, rnechanics, schoolteachers, the young, the old—they were ordinary people but each had an extraordinary story to tell. And they could tell the story! The Saturday before the convention began, they presented their case to the Credentials Committee, and through television, to the nation and to the world. No human being confronted with the truth of our testimony could remain indifferent to it. Many tears fell. Our position was valid and our cause was just.

But the word had been given. The Freedom Party was to be seated without voting rights as honored guests of the Convention. The Party caucused and rejected the proposed

“compromise.” The slow and now frantic machinery of the administration was grinding against itself. President Johnson had given Senator Humphrey the specific task of dealing with us. They were desperately seeking ways to seat the regular Mississippi delegation without any show of disunity. The administration needed time.

Sunday evening, there was a somewhat secret meeting held at the Deauville Hotel, for all Ne