Mississippi Freedom Summer Project 1964: Part 3

MSFP titl

I’m still trying to record the happenings of the first day in Shaw! Note that current reflections/comments are in blue print.

After we arrived, we were taken to the one house where baths are available – once a week. While a couple of the men were bathing,we sat around and got acquainted. Doug Mann is a young UCC pastor from Conn., graduated same year that I did. Wally teaches history, is married & has two children. George is working on a PhD in political science in California.

We ate supper in Cleveland (the seat of Bolivar County, about 10 miles north of Shaw) at a little Negro restaurant and then went to a rally being held in a near-by church. John Black of COFO was leading and doing a good job of communicating with his audience. Amens, and Yes, that’s right swept through the audience after each particularly meaningful sentence. There was a great deal of laughter, especially when the name of Sheriff Capp was mentioned. Two girls who had been among the 13 arrested in Cleveland for “demonstrating” for voter registration spoke of their experiences in jail.

(Although SNCC was the originator of the Freedom Summer Project, it could not have come about without the cooperation of a number of black churches and their courageous pastors. Intimidation and actual violence had long been the method of the ruling class to keep blacks “in their place.” During the summer over 30 churches were burned to the ground, and others attacked. Thus “courageous” is indeed the word to describe the pastors and their people who were willing to open their doors to us deemed “outside agitators.” There will be more on this later on.)

Both showed that they were not afraid, neither now nor then. “You niggers ain’t ever goin to see daylight,” dear old Sheriff Capp told them as they were led to their cells. Several of the “regular”  prisoners asked that the COFO workers be placed in their cells – for ominous reasons. (This has been done in other places. At  one location a group of CR workers were placed in a cell with a prisoner who had been given a knife by the deputies with instructions to cut up a bit the nigger lovers. The group had to maintain a watch over him 24 hours a day. Nothing happened until near the end of their stay — he attempted to carry out his orders. The deputies egged him on and made no attempt to help the volunteers overpower him. In still another case a volunteer was badly beaten by a prisoner. Again the deputies merely stood by and cheered and encouraged the attacker.)

One of the girls reported that while they were singing Freedom Songs the Sheriff kept saying, “Shut up, you niggers!” and “Stop that!” But they kept right on singing. This must have been somewhat disquieting to the Sheriff who wasn’t used to this kind of behavior from Negroes.

The 13 were released the day after their arrest with no  charges being pressed against them. “They’ve learned their lesson,” was the Sheriff’s attempt to save face. Actually, he got more than he bargained for. The FBI and national news reporters were following the events in Cleveland” Sheriff Capp wants to avoid like the plague anything that would draw national attention to Bolivar County – at least while the Volunteers are here.

We left the Cleveland Rally to go up to Mound Bayou where still another Freedom Rally was in session. Mound Bayou is quite a unique community. It’s the largest all Negro town in Miss. The stores, civic offices, schools – all are in the hands of Negroes. The Rally was held in a large A.M.E. Church. There must have been about 100 – 120 people there listening to a rather inane talk by one of the COFO Volunteers. Lee, the minister-counselor at M-Â gave an excellent talk based on Jonah and the great fish. He compared Jonah’s reluctance to do his duty to that of many of the Negroes; he warned them that they too could be gobbled up.

John Bradford’ County COFO Director, a tall muscular Negro, spoke briefly & was followed by Rev. Surney who proceeded to really stir up the crowd. Speaking rapidly in the Miss. dialect, he was hard to follow at first, but what we Northerners could catch sounded good. He was really giving hell to those who haven’t become involved in the movement. Especially to Negro preachers. Mincing no words, he made it clear that in his opinion they were the devil’s workers doomed to hell. Dennis F. of Shaw challenged the group to improve their inept singing, which they did admirably. The meeting closed as customary with the crowd joining hands and singing  “We Shall Overcome.”

After the meeting I met a number of people, including a young boy just entering high school. He spoke like an evangelist, speaking of the great need for the Gospel and its message of love which can change men’s hearts. Our trip back was another sober reminder of the danger of traveling at night through hostile Miss. Since we were a mixed group, our car was marked as that of “those agitators.” Before we passed a slow moving car we tried to see if the occupants were white or not. Usually they were Negro, but once we passed a white man’s car, the group urged me to press on with due speed – though not too fast due to the sudden vigilance of the police and their great concern that C-R workers follow the letter of the law. (No doubt they’re solicitous of our health and safety!) It was also standard operating procedure to have Negro boys and the white girls sit apart, either all in front or the back. We made it back with no trouble, congregated for a while at the Freedom House and finally went to our homes.

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