Mississippi Freedom Summer Project 1964: Part 1

Part 1: Introduction

Recently the Presbyterian News Service sent out my article “BEYOND MISSISSIPPI BURNING: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project.” A recollection of my experiences as a minister volunteer during that hot August in 1964, while writing it I kept shortening, or eliminating entirely, some meaningful events and persons whom I met. So, this is Part 1 of a series of blogs for the next few weeks or months based on the journal that I kept. I tried to write in it each day, but some days were so full, and by 11 PM or so, I was so exhausted, that a day or two would pass before I could set aside some time for writing. I will be correcting some of the grammar and spelling to spare the reader, and at times I will  insert comments and observations, mainly of a theological nature. These latter additions I will italicize or print in a different color in order to distinguish them from original entries. But first a little personal background.

Racism Not a Matter of Geography

I want to make clear that neither in 1964 nor today have I looked down upon or judged the white Mississippians standing in the way of equality for what were then called “Negroes.” As a Hoosier, born in Indianapolis, I was raised by parents who were just as prejudiced as many white Mississippians. By example they taught me the “N” word before later they showed that in the company of others “Colored” was the proper term to refer to our “inferiors.” By the grace of God I was led out of this sad state by a Fundamentalist preacher, science fiction, and the experience of meeting close up a few African Americans as I was growing up. No need to go into the details here, just to add that had it not been for those liberating experiences, I might also in 1964 have regarded the Freedom Summer Project as an ill-advised invasion by “outside agitators” intent on stirring up trouble, part of what the then respected J. Edgar Hoover regarded as a Communist conspiracy to undermine “The American Way of Life.”.

In 1964 the Rev. Roger Smith and I were pastors of churches in Bottineau, North Dakota, he of the Methodist, and I of the Presbyterian Church. A few months earlier each of us had received a mimeographed letter from the National Council of Churches urging pastors to consider giving up their vacations that summer to join the hoped-for 1000 students that would be working in the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project (MSFP), sponsored by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO–an alliance of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the Southern Christian Leadership Council; The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the Congress for Racial Equality)). I wanted badly to go–a mimeographed letter was no burning bush or shaking of the foundations of the temple, as respectively Moses and Isaiah had experienced, but still, God does move in mysterious ways.

Although my wife Sandra was sympathetic, we did have 4 young children, so we agreed to think and pray about it. Then came the Sunday worship service when God spoke in another way, through a social justice hymn, so that after the worship service, Sandy asked me if I got the same message while singing it that she did–that I should go. And so she gave up our vacation for that year to free up hubby for the Project while she coped with 4 very young children at home by herself. (We used vacation time to forestall any criticism from those who might be upset by what I was doing on “church time.” We were a bit disappointed in our congregation in that only a few came by to see her or ask about my activities in MS while I was away.) One day Roger asked me if I had received a letter from the NCC as he had, and to our mutual surprise we discovered that each of us had signed up. He made a few adjustments in his dates so that we could travel together in our family’s station wagon.

Thus at 6:30 AM on Monday, August 3, we left Bottineau in our family station wagon, both of us praying for a safe journey and for courage and patience “to meet whatever comes.”

Journal entry for Wednesday, Aug. 5, 1964 – 10:30 PM

Note: The dates refer to the entry dates, not the dates of the reported events.

What a day! The hot, dusty trip with our car trouble is behind us now. The Ozarks are certainly beautiful – too bad as travelers we don’t have  – or take – time to enjoy them more. As we drove around a curve, and the vista of the valley with the tiny buildings stretched out before us, I felt very close and thankful to Thee, O God. Another time I felt this when the gold of a grain field  contrasted  so lovely to the multi-shaded  greens of  the rolling hills  around it.  In spite of the poverty, Arkansas  and Missouri are blessed with wonderful scenery.

As we drove through the Arkansas night, we listened to the somber voice of the President (Johnson) explaining to the nation the action he was taking against North Vietnam in retaliation for the P-T boat attacks. Shortly after this we were on the bridge crossing the Mississippi into Vicksburg. At that moment the news of the identification of the 3 bodies found by the FBI was broadcast. Fitting news for entrance into the Citadel of Segregation!  Both of us wondered aloud what lay ahead for us as CR workers.

Short as the ride is from Vicksburg to Jackson, it seems long if you’re not an ordinary tourist – especially at night. It’s a strange feeling, to feel as if you are in enemy territory in your own country, but we both felt this way. Doubtless due to the preconditioning of our minds from all the press and magazine accounts of Mississippi. No incidents or problems – other than staying awake the last few miles.

Our motel  – the Sun-N-Sand – is certainly a fancy one  – heated pool, restaurant, TV, etc.  And integrated! Right here in Jackson!  As we learned from Warren McKenna (NCC staffer in Jackson whom we ere to meet the next morning), this is a fairly recent development, thanks to the C-R law. (Who says laws such as this don’t help?) They should be grateful here – Civil Rights hasn’t hurt their business. Warren tells us that the motel has received over $30,000 for food and lodging from the NCC & COFO workers and lawyers. Not too bad. Yankee money seems readily acceptable, if not Yankee ways.

This morning began auspiciously. We were eating breakfast when a call for Warren McKenna was announced. Warren was at the table next to us, so we were able to meet him and get directions to the NCC Office for our later meeting.

Upon our arrival we received a folder of materials and forms to fill out. The office itself was quite shabby & run down – but not the staff, with phones constantly ringing, typewriters clacking. Warren started off our orientation by telling us about NCCs involvement. It  seems that the Miss. Summer Project  is COFO’s  with  the NCC helping to “service it” – which sheds some light on our role as minister/counselor.

Friday, August 7, 1964 – 8:15 PM

So much has happened since the above was interrupted. But I’d better continue with what happened that first day before recording something of what we’ve learned about Shaw.

The NCC office at Jackson is in an old building on Farish Street (or it might have been Parish): the offices are terribly run down and shabby but certainly suitable. Their very shabbiness reflects that this is a movement of the people & for the people – very little if any support from the wealthier class – they’re too busy supporting Goldwater or the Birchers.

Our Wednesday orientation continued with a workshop led by ___________ of SNCC on Non-Violence.

(The account breaks off here due to an interruption at the Freedom Center where I was writing. I’d left three pages blank in the hope of going back and filling this in. Our time was so filled with activities that I never did. Had I been able to there would have been more details, but I can recall:

We went from the NCC office to COFO’s office, ironically located on Lynch Street. It was easy to tell which office– the only storefront that was boarded up with plywood. Twice bricks thrown by white toughs had shattered the plate glass window.

The second time it was decided to forget about replacing the glass. COFO was a fantastic place – people coming and going–typing, answering one of the dozen telephones that linked the Center with the many Freedom Centers around the state.

We had been told that we were going one place, but then this was changed when it was learned that Shaw was losing its minister and a couple of other Northerners whose vacations were ending. Although we never got to meet him, we knew that the leader of COFO was Robert Moses – and did many of the Blacks enjoy the symbolism of that last name!

We were given a quick run-down of Mississippi customs and law. We must obey all traffic signals and speed limit signs and remember to always stop at RR crossings. No locals paid attention to this old law¬ but it was a favorite excuse for the police to catch the C-R workers and part them from their scarce money. We were told to demand that we be able to make our phone call if arrested, which should be to one of the Freedom Centers or to Jackson. This was impressed on us in the light of what had happened to the  C-R workers who had been arrested and murdered earlier. Then we were told, “When you are convicted…” Not “if, but  “when,” the arrested C-R worker could expect no justice, just a conviction. There had been the case of a Baptist minister having been arrested and charged with drunkenness, despite his having been a lifelong teetotaler.

We were especially impressed with the young black man who led the non-violence workshop. He told us if we had a gun or knife we should give it up or leave Mississippi. We could not be of any help to them if we felt we needed a weapon. He urged us to keep calm if we were surrounded and never to answer back with insults or in a way that showed that we were afraid. We practiced, after watching him, rolling into a tight ball to protect our stomachs, faces, and private parts. Later we learned from others that this was no academic subject with him. He had been arrested for his C-R work and sent to the infamous Parchman State Prison where he had been singled out by the guards, hung by his hands and beaten.

After such a sobering day it was great to be able to go to the little church where Pete Seeger was giving a concert. One of my favorite human beings, Pete Seeger held us enthralled with his freedom songs and stories. We had to stand up, the church was so crowded. Even though the temperature was above 100 no one left early. What a privilege to get to meet and thank him for such a magic evening!)

Next: Part 2, Our arrival in Shaw and the student boycott of the school.




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