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Mississippi Winter 1964-65

(Continued from Cuba 1963)

In the summer of 1964 the civil rights movement launched a major campaign, Freedom Summer, to bring voter registration and other basic civil rights to the Deep South, centering on Mississippi.  Viki and I spent the summer in New York, working.

I had a summer job with a branch of the city’s welfare department compiling statistics on one of its outreach programs for minority youth.  Most of my work was in an office in downtown Manhattan.  Once a week I would take the subway to an agency office in Bedford-Stuyvesant where I was supposed to tutor high school age black kids in standard English diction.  That was ironic: me, a German immigrant, teaching English to the native-born, in Brooklyn, yet!  The program design was top-down and met with passive resistance from most of the kids.  I didn’t push it.

About the only political activity I can remember doing that summer was a trivial symbolic gesture.  It involved the “Harlem Blood Brothers” hoax.  Seizing on the killing of a fruit stand vendor in Harlem, the New York Times and other papers cooked up a lurid tale of  supposed black youth gangs being trained to murder whites, allegedly under the direction or inspiration of Malcolm X.  As the hoax began to fray, someone printed up “I am a Blood Brother” buttons, and I wore one during my subway commute.

New York civil rights volunteer Jimmy Miller with neighborhood kids in Jackson MS during Freedom Summer 1964

We followed the Mississippi project in the press and got some first-hand reports from friends, such as this photo from Jackson, the capital, showing our friend Jimmy Miller with a group of neighborhood kids.  The Summer Project was an exciting and daring campaign that challenged the segregationist power structure on its home turf.  Despite the many dangers, at the beginning of the summer the project had been flooded with volunteers and didn’t need — and couldn’t handle — additional help.

All of that changed suddenly and dramatically on August 4, when the bodies of three missing civil rights workers were found buried in an earthen dam:  James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.  They were not the only murder victims during that summer, but two of them (Schwerner and Goodman) were from New York City, and the deaths of these local boys fired the outrage of the city’s civil rights community like nothing else.

Viki and I attended a packed memorial meeting at one of the big churches in Manhattan.  The call went out there for a “second wave” of volunteers to go to Mississippi to demonstrate that we would not be cowed, we would not be terrorized.   Viki and I looked at each other and decided we were going.

We wanted to go the next day, but actually getting it together took some time.  We applied for and got a leave of absence from Brandeis, where Viki had been accepted and I was due to start my second year.  We had to line up pledges of financial support from friends and acquaintances, since we couldn’t work in Mississippi.

Then there was the matter of the indictment for the Cuba trip, which confined me to New York City and Long Island, so that I (to be exact, Leonard Boudin) had to get a written order from the Federal District Court permitting me to travel to and reside in Mississippi.

Our panel truck

I traded in the VW beetle for a dark green Dodge panel truck that had belonged to a plumber.  It looked faintly military and offered more protection than the beetle, and we could sleep in it on the way down.[ref]Bruce Hartford, a veteran civil rights volunteer active in most of the Southern campaigns, wrote:  “In the Summer of ’65 I worked on voter registration and desegregation in rural Crenshaw County — 50 miles south of Montgomery [… ] That was deep in Klan country, and I learned that when a dozen carloads of KKK chase you across half the county, a VW bug is not your vehicle of choice.”[/ref]  It was late October before we set off for Jackson.  We rolled up to 1017 Lynch Street, the headquarters of the Summer Project, on the eve of election day, November 3.

Bob Moses, 1964 (Robert Moses Archive photo)

About 15 years ago I described my Mississippi experience in a short post to the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website, and I’ll quote it here by way of summary and overview.  COFO stands for the Council of Federated Organizations, the umbrella group that had charge of the Summer Project.  SNCC (“snick”) was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the core of organizers, almost all of them African-American, who were the primary engine of the project and of a number of other civil rights campaigns.  Bob Moses was then the principal leader of both organizations, and the Summer Project had been in large part his vision.  A gentle, unassuming, soft-spoken man, in later years he launched an innovative program for teaching algebra.  The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was organized by COFO/SNCC as a way of enfranchising the African-American population of the state.

We arrived in Jackson on election eve 1964. Bob Moses greeted us. We sat at the Lynch St. office and watched the election returns with members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. We were part of the second wave that went down after the murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. There had been a huge meeting at a church in Manhattan about it and we were drawn irresistibly. I took a leave of absence from grad school and went.

At that time I was married to Viki Ortiz. We lived in the house of “Mama Jenks,” a woman whose own children had grown and left home, and so she had a spare room.  Actually, we had the main bed room and she slept in what had been the kids’ room. It was a typical tar paper shack with no insulation in the poorer Black section of Jackson. There was a picture of John Kennedy and of Martin Luther King alongside a picture of Jesus in the living room.

Mama Jenks treated us wonderfully and I marvel at the courage she had to put up these white Northern civil rights volunteers in her home. We were treated with nothing but courtesy and friendship by the entire Black community. For weeks on end all of our face-to-face contact was with Black people, and I still remember looking in the mirror one morning and having a moment of fright to see a white face.

Voter registration was over by then and most of our work was Freedom Schools. We met in various churches and on the campus of the nearby college with kids of all ages including some grownups. We studied Freedom Road, by Howard Fast, chapter by chapter. We’d read it out loud and discuss it. We’d teach the reading along with the ideas of it. It was part education and part inspiration. We learned more from our students than we taught them, and that was just right.

If I remember correctly, the SNCC field secretary who was in charge of us was Ivanhoe Donaldson. We saw him occasionally and were always impressed. In those days the SNCC field secretaries were about ten feet tall to us.

At some point we were assigned to set up a Freedom Library in the building at 852 Short St., around the corner from the SNCC/COFO office at 1017? Lynch Street. The Short St. building was filled to the rafters with discarded old textbooks that had been sent by the truckload from some Michigan school districts. There was a good reason the textbooks were discarded … they contained a lot of racist trash. They were no good to us and our first job was to get rid of them to clear out the building. How that was done is another story.

When it was done, we set up the W.E.B. DuBois Freedom Library in the space. We had a selection of quality books, and set up a simple card file system, and began circulating them. The rooms were small and cold but we could have Freedom School groups there. We sent letters north to raise donations.

At some point we got news that high school students in Issaquena/Sharkey counties had started a school boycott over a discrimination issue. What the issue was I don’t remember now. We were sent down there to help the students set up Freedom Schools and to bring what supplies we had. We were very glad to go, as Jackson was a bit quiet at this time and we wanted more action.

Issaquena/Sharkey was more of a combat zone. The high school students were not afraid. They marched by the hundreds. We stayed in the home of a local leader and did our schools and brought our supplies.

One rainy night after a meeting my old green panel truck wouldn’t start. We were parked about a mile away from the meeting house, in the boonies, because of security. The engine cranked and cranked. We started sweating. The Klan was very active there and we could see ourselves buried in a landfill somewhere. All of a sudden there was a black face at the window. We were startled, then relieved. Thank God.

Our savior was a farmer with a house nearby. Together we pushed the truck into his garage. He had a welding torch and with that, he dried out the truck’s ignition wires. In his garage we saw posters indicating membership in the NAACP and in the NRA. We were in a safe place. We had a good talk about the local situation, and then the engine caught and we went on our way.

We left Mississippi in April when my teeth rotted out and I had to go north to get dental work done. I went back to grad school at Brandeis, and had many other adventures in life, too long to tell here. None of them compared in formative power to those months with the Southern Freedom Movement.

To this thumbnail sketch, I should add that when Bob Moses greeted us, he told us with a smile that we were expected.  The FBI had phoned the office the day before to let them know “a couple of communists”  were coming.  We laughed.  That was the only time in our stay that the “c-word” was ever mentioned.  People were judged by how they related to people and how they worked, not by ideological labels.

The movement could not have gone anywhere without the solid support of members of the black community in Jackson and elsewhere.  We saw that every day.  One of them was our courageous hostess in Jackson, Mrs. Martha Bell, known to all as “Mama Chenks.”

Mrs. Bell at her back door

She kept herself continuously busy, peeling yams (as in these photos, taken in the good light at her back door), or sweeping, knitting, reading her books, or doing something useful.  She had no television, and we never saw her hands idle.  Her hands were strong, rough, warm, shaped by a lifetime of work, and her mind was eager for new information.  She spent many hours reading the new Pictorial History of the American Negro that someone donated to the Freedom Library and we brought home.

Mrs. Bell reading Pictorial History of the American Negro

She offered her home to us, total strangers from 1200 miles away, no questions asked.  Below is a photo of her home at 1208 Trinity Street, with our panel truck parked in the driveway.  She took an enormous risk in sheltering us, but she never complained or expressed anxiety.

Mrs. Bell’s house in Jackson, where we stayed. Our green panel truck in driveway.

To appreciate the courage of a woman like Mrs. Bell, and many others whom we met, consider this partial toll of the Mississippi movement during the summer:

  • four civil rights workers were killed (one in a head-on collision)
  • at least three Mississippi blacks were murdered because of their support for the civil rights movement
  • four people were critically wounded
  • eighty Freedom Summer workers were beaten
  • one-thousand and sixty-two people were arrested (volunteers and locals)
  • thirty-seven churches were bombed or burned
  • thirty Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned [ref] Freedom Summer, Wikipedia[/ref]

And yet, she and many others like her were undeterred and opened their doors and hearts to us.  Whenever I read historical accounts of liberation movements, stressing that the support of the people is the necessary foundation, I am brought back to my memories of Mrs. Bell and the other heroic people of Mississippi whom we met in the winter of ’64.

When we first came, our picture of leadership focused on the college-educated types from elsewhere, like Bob Moses, born in New York and trained at Harvard.  Those certainly existed, but the movement would have been hollow without the core of local people who became leaders during the struggle.  There were the famous ones, like Fannie Lou Hamer, who had electrified the Democratic National Convention in August, and Lawrence Guyot, the chairman of the statewide Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  There were also scores of others, less well known, but vital to their communities.  Here is a picture of one of them, Mrs. Palmer, who was central to the Freedom Democratic Party organization in Jackson.

Mrs. Hazel T. Palmer, Jackson FDP leader

Here is another photo of Mrs. Palmer, in Mrs. Bell’s living room; the posters in the background are of Aaron Henry, the Freedom Democratic Party candidate, and of Medgar Evers, the NAACP Secretary who was murdered in Jackson in June 1963.

Mrs. Hazel T. Palmer, Jackson FDP leader

When we went down to Issaquena County for the school boycott there, we stayed at the home of Mrs. Unita Blackwell, who was born in Mississippi of sharecropper parents.  She had become involved in SNCC and the Freedom Democratic Party during the summer.  As it happened, her son was one of the children suspended from high school in the incident we reported in our newsletter of February 18, 1965.  Mrs. Blackwell later filed a lawsuit against the school board.  Freedom Schools continued in Issaquena/Sharkey until 1970, when the school system finally desegregated.  Mrs. Blackwell later became the first black woman to be elected mayor of a city in Mississippi, and went on to a distinguished career in public service.

People like Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Blackwell and many others whom we met show that the capacity to lead and to govern slumbers in ordinary people.  In the oppressive atmosphere that passes for “normal,” this capacity never has a chance to develop.  Politics then is mostly in the hands of the wealthy, the ambitious, the egotistical and the sociopathic, who make a thorough mess of things, gorging themselves at the public trough while plunging everyone except their cronies deeper into poverty and misery.  But in the exceptional atmosphere that the Mississippi Summer Project created, people who until then lived in the shadows, unnoticed, unremarkable, unschooled, unpropertied, may step forward into the light, discover their slumbering talent for organizing, leading, and governing, and show the world a long unseen model of political leadership:  honest, courageous, genuinely of, by, and for the people, and dramatically effective in changing the world.

The incident where our truck wouldn’t start in the rain, by the side of a farm road about a mile from Mrs. Blackwell’s house, will remain in my memory as long as I have one.  Issaquena County is Mississippi river bayou country, about as deep South as it gets. Muddy Waters was born there.  With the rain pouring down on the windshield, I cranked and cranked the engine, knowing that the sound was advertising our vulnerability, come-and-get-us, come-and-get-us, like the bleating of a wounded lamb in the land of wolves.  When the profile of a face suddenly appeared in the wash of rain over my window, my heart stopped, until that face, on closer approach, revealed itself to be black.  We were safe!  I remember this because as whites in the Northern cities we were and are conditioned by relentless media exposure to view the presence of black men in the vicinity of our cars as a danger.  In that rainy Mississippi bayou night it was just the opposite.  Had it been a white face, we might be dead.

Mrs. Unita Blackwell (1980 photo in Wikipedia)

We also encountered some remarkable white volunteers passing through Jackson, people like Bruce Hartford who had spent years in different civil rights campaigns in the Deep South, and Bob Zellner, one of the Freedom Bus riders and a SNCC field secretary.  Zellner was later our classmate in graduate sociology at Brandeis.

One Jackson-based volunteer who sticks in my memory is Fred Heinze.  He suffered from polio since childhood, and the disease had warped his face to one side, disfigured his hands and reduced his walking to a shuffle.  Yet he was out there with us every day, canvassing door to door, doing whatever was necessary, unafraid.

Shortly after we arrived, there happened to be a retreat of sorts involving SNCC and COFO volunteers from the region.  We listened to status reports from Moses and Guyot, and a number of SNCC field secretaries gave local updates, some of which were like battlefield reports.  We hung on every word and tried to take it all in.  Toward the end, after the important business was over, the new volunteers were asked to say a few words.  By prearrangement, I read off a short paper I had written about the Vietnam war and its relation to the civil rights struggle.  I relayed some of the knowledge I’d gained from listening to the NLF people in Havana in the summer of ’63.  I’ve lost that paper, but I remember the closing line, something like, “Let the Vietnamese have their freedom, and give us ours!”  Bob Moses’ comment to me was “Not bad.”  There was a great deal of interest in the Vietnam war among the civil rights workers and the people we met; there’s more about that in the newsletters.

One incident mentioned in the newsletters concerns the problem of clearing the building to set up a Freedom Library.  Our newsletters told a sanitized version of our solution.  As I said earlier, that building was jammed floor to ceiling with discarded textbooks dumped on COFO by some Northern school districts.  We had to get rid of them in order to clear the rooms and make the place usable.  But how?  Recycling was still unheard of; the word probably hadn’t been coined yet.  Someone suggested we burn them in the back yard, the way that everybody burned their trash then, and that became my assignment.  There I was, a German immigrant from an anti-Nazi family burning books for the civil rights movement.  It was a pissy irony.  What’s more, it was impractical.  Books burn very slowly.  You have to turn the pages with a stick.  It takes forever.  (Years later I researched it and learned that the Nazis drenched the books in gasoline.)  After a couple of depressing hours, I gave up.  We had to find another way.  The books sat for days, a week, longer, while desperate minds searched for a solution.

Finally a local volunteer came up with an idea.  There was a certain white landlord, not beloved by the community, who had a double garage to rent.  A deal was struck, a month’s rent was paid in advance.  A crew of volunteers came in and we toted boxes of books from sunup to sundown, like bales of cotton, into a truck and then into the rented garage, euphemistically dubbed “the new warehouse.”  I don’t know if a second month’s rent was ever paid, but I suspect not.  That was the real story.  It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.  After a week or two of patching, painting, shelving, fixing, and sorting, the W.E.B. DuBois Freedom Library opened at 852 Short Street, in half of a building that COFO rented.

Here’s a picture of the building; that’s Viki on the front steps.  Our truck in the driveway.

The Freedom Library at 852 Short Street, early 1965

The Freedom Democratic Party office moved into the other half.

The Freedom Democratic Party office next door

Here’s a snapshot inside the library.  The posters are of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and W.C. Handy.  We had a basic but helpful library of African-American history books.  It wasn’t a large collection, but it was a much broader collection than the nearby college had, as we found out from visitors, described in the newsletters.  Here is a list of the books as it stood early in 1965.  There were kids as well as adults who came in and read when it was not too cold (there was no heat in the building for many weeks) and we had a simple file card system that kept track of books checked out.   We also brought books with us to the different Freedom School classes and saw that they found readers.  More details about the library are in the newsletters.

The book room in the Freedom Library in Jackson, 1965

The library also had some art supplies and a table, and one of our regulars — a boy of about 14 known as “Crow” because he was very dark and had a bad “wing” and was very smart — drew this cartoon with his good arm:

“They are SNCCing” — Freedom School Drawing

The legend on the ribbon connecting the two says “They are SNCCing.”  Black and white having an animated friendly dialogue was something that had not been seen much in Mississippi until SNCC came along, so using SNCC as a verb for black-white communication made total sense.

The work made us happy.  Here are snapshots of Viki and me in the library supply room/office cubbyhole, February 1965.   The library was popular and busy and had a lot of support both locally and from donors far away.  I don’t know that we turned any lives around immediately, but you never know with libraries, sometimes there’s a long fuse before the light goes on in somebody’s mind.  We also saw to it that we had a typewriter, a mimeograph machine, and a supply of paper, both for educational materials and for community announcements and bulletins.  We made ourselves useful in small ways to the SNCC/COFO office, and we produced a stream of paper for the local Freedom Democratic Party organization which had its office next door, in the other half of the house.  There’s more detail about it in the newsletters.

Viki and I wrote these newsletters to our friends and supporters up North to keep them informed and to remind them of our need for support.  A number of those writings have survived.  I am grateful to Viki Ortiz for preserving them and sharing her copies with me, and for permission to reproduce them here.  They were her writing as much as mine.  We produced them with a manual typewriter on mimeograph stencil and ran them off on an ancient hand-crank mimeograph machine.  The first issue looked like this:

Portion of our first newsletter from Mississippi

Later, our mimeograph technique improved and they became more legible.  Because they’re long, I’m just going to give the opening paragraphs of each one in this post, and I’ve run the full text in separate posts connected here by hyperlinks.  In the full texts I’ve broken up the original long paragraphs (stencils and paper were expensive then) and added a few notes and references. If you’re only going to read one of these, read December 25, 1964.

Newsletter of November 10, 1964

Well, we’re finally getting to work, in a manner of speaking, and if things continue the way they’ve started out, it should be a terrific year.  So far we have one Freedom School class going — about thirty high school students, all bright and eager to talk.  It’s not a highly organized class, but a discussion ____ is good because it lets the kids speak and articulate all the things they’ve been thinking and that one one has, till now, been interested in hearing.  (Read full text)

 Newsletter of November 28, 1964

Sorry we’ve been silent,for so long, but as you can imagine, we have been pretty busy, especially this past week.We are finally official — that is to say, we how make up half of the Jackson Project, which, depending on staff and other resources is in charge of all programs in the city of Jackson. Since there are only four of us (permanent or semi) and two who leave in a month, our activities are limited.  But what we are doing is going very well.  So far, our emphasis has been on starting as many of the Freedom Schools which went during the summer as possible. (Read full text)

 Newsletter of December 9, 1964

Things have been happening at last.  Two weeks ago the State COFO coordinator and Jackson office manager, Jesse Morris, called a meeting to reorganize the office and to tackle the problems of the city.  At that meeting, the Jackson Project was formally re-launched and assigned the former book-warehouse as headquarters.  Immediately thereafter, we organized a gang of helpers, rented an 18-foot van, and moved the books to the new warehouse.  This took a full day, during which the rain streamed down endlessly.  Then Viki and I spent a week removing remnants of clothes and more books, and we put our heads together to plan.  Next I bought some paint and hardware.  Then we began to build a model project office.  (Read full text)
Today is the birthday of the King of Kings. We celebrated it among the “people that walk in darkness, who have seen a great light: they that dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” In the church-burning capital of the world, Mississippi, we two non-believers went to church twice, or rather, four times, including our two appearances as pagan benefactors to the very young and to the very poor. And, counting Freedom School on the 23rd, we have entered into the holy place five times in three days.   (Read full text)
We went into the center of town the other day with Mrs Bell, our landlady:  tax paying time had rolled around again, and we drove her to City Hall and then to the County Court House.  Both coming and going our ride was uneventful; upon our arrival at 1208 Trinity, Mrs. Bell said quietly to Bobbye:  “Well, we weren’t arrested.”  Mississippi 1965 …..  (Read full text)
Here is the story that no Mississippi newspaper dares to print:More than a thousand students in Issaquena and Sharkey counties have refused to go back to school because the principal, following the orders of an all-white school board, has not permitted them to wear SNCC pins.  Most of these students are now attending Freedom Schools which they themselves organized in local churches.   (Read full text)
We enclose this time a flyer which we wrote for distribution to Jackson students, but which we thought you would find interesting.  Last Tuesday we travelled to Issaquena county to get first-hand information — the press has blacked it out completely — and came away very impressed by the importance of these events.  We plan to spend more time in the weeks to come in close contact with Issaquena, and will be able to give more first-hand accounts.   (Read full text)
There were more newsletters than these, but neither Viki nor I have preserved any.  If by chance a reader of this blog has one of them we would be very grateful for a copy.  A number of my photographs, in addition to the ones reproduced above, have also survived.  I’ve made a web album in a separate post of a series of snapshots taken in various Freedom School classes together with a few snapshots of the office and its neighborhood.
(Continued in Viet-Report)

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