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Part 2 MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM SUMMER: MEMOIR OF A CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST

Part 2- A LONG HOT SUMMER  By Charles Dumas

            1964 – The events of 64 generated the first of the long hot urban summers that became typical of the late sixties. 

The country was still in mourning for President Kennedy.  Neither the Warren Commission Report, which identified Oswald as the lone assassin, nor the conviction of Jack Ruby in March for killing Oswald had not allayed suspicion that the assassination was not the work of a lone assassin but aconspiracy. 

            In Jackson, Mississippi, an all white jury wouldn’t convict the murderer of Medger Evers, Byron DeLa Beckwith. He would not serve time until Medger's widow, Merlie relentlessly struggled to bring him to justice years later.

            There was some good news.  The 24thAmendment which prohibited the use of poll taxes in federal elections was ratified. Poll taxes and literary exams were two of the primary legal methods used to deny Black people the right to vote in the South. The US Senate broker the Southern filibuster and passed the Civil Rights Bill in June. Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in LILIES OF THE FIELD.  

           Other events in the cultural world included the American debut of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Muhammed Ali beating  Sonny Liston to win the heavyweightchampionship.

            Internationally,two newly independent African countries, Tanganyika and Zanzibar had merged tobecome Tanzania.  Nelson Mandela and his fellow defendants in the Rivonia Trial were sentenced to life imprisonment.They remained incarcerated on Robben Island for twenty-seven years until democracy came to South Africa.

            In the Mississippi Summer Project the mood had been set by the disappearance and assumed lynching of our fellow activists, Mickey, Andy, and James. It had achilling effect on our work yet inspired us to move to a higher level. Every action for good or bad seemed a matter of life and death.
 

 

LELAND- I had arrived in Greenville, Mississippi around the Summer Solstice in June to work through a Catholic Church. But, that plan hadn’tworked out so I joined the COFO.  Istayed around the Greenville office through early July. Then I was assigned tobe the project director in Leland, a small suburban town about ten miles from the city.  For the first week I was alone trying to build a base. At the reunion last Summer, a fellow volunteer, LisaTodd, shared a report that I wrote at the time to “The Powers That Be inJackson.”  It was dated July 10th.What follows are some excerpts:

 

         “I arrived in Lelandt he evening of the 8th of July. My clothes and work material arrived  the 9th. The first thing I did was to make contact with the police officials, city hall, and the Catholic priest. I secured a map of the town, a list (which I personally copied from the record book) of the Negro registered voters, and a list of the members of the Chamber of Commerce. Copies of the same are in the hands of Charlie Cobb. I subsequently made contact with the weekly newspaper editor, two Negro ministers and a couple of the Negro storeowners.  My work thus far has been imited to accurately laying out different areas on the map, attempting to arrange a place for rallies, meeting, etc, trying to identify and locate the elusive Negro leadership in Leland, and attempting to communicate about various matters with Greenville.

        As I understand I am to concentrate primarily on voter registration with July 16th in mind as Freedom Day for the County. Also I am to secure housing for others who might possibly arrive here. In my analysis ofthe situation, the area (sic) will remain stagnate in this town (by that I mean the stone wall will stand no matter how many times I crack my skull trying to break it down.) unless: 

1) I am either assisted or subordinated by another worker who will be able to spend a goodly portion of time here. 

2) More funds areallocated for future housing, and, more importantly the rental of facilities that could be used as a co-ordinating mechanism. 

3) An adequate communications network is provided between here and Greenville for the transportation of necessities and messages.

          My budget for the week was: Income: $10 from COFO Funds, $5 donated by Father, $5 personal funds; Outgo: $6 rent for living quarters (weekly) $2toilet articles, $2 office supplies, $5 food, communication cost, cigarettes,pool; Balance: 0"

 

            I managed to find an office and a place to stay in a second floor walk-up across the street from railroad station. I finally got a couple of volunteers. Jim, a college student was the only one who stuck around for the long haul. The rest of the staff consisted of several local kids who were in and out of the office all summer. We had a makeshift freedom school, which helped with the basics of literacy. But, the primary activity was registering folks for the Freedom Democratic Party.

 

            MFDP- In the planning for the Summer Project, the original intent was to use the volunteers to register voters and test the parameters of the recently passed Civil Rights Act, by sit-ins,demonstrations, etc. We did some of that. We integrated the main floor ofthe only movie theatre in town. Blacks were only allowed in the balcony. But,our band of merry but scared brothers and sisters purchased our tickets and satdownstairs. The police came and told us we were violating the law. I retorted that the Civil Rights Act superceded the local law. It didn’t matter we were arrested and escorted out. We sent one of the kids to call the Greenville office as we had been instructed to do. But, there was no need. Once outsider he police released us.

            Our other act of civil disobedience targeted the local public swimming pool, which was all white, all the time.  A dozen or so of us marched to the pool carrying towels and trunks even though we knew that there was no chancet hat we were going to be allowed in. Sure enough when we arrived the policewere already there.  We were informed that the pool was closed for repairs.  (It stayed closed for the rest of the Summer). We were detained for holding ademonstration without a permit. Fortunately we had sent the local kids home so that they would not be in harm’s way either that day or after we left. I remember sitting at that little small town police station waiting for COFO lawyers to arrive from Jackson. It was a terrifying experience.  The three of us passed the time singing freedom songs, which at least gave the appearance that we were courageous freedom fighters. We weren’t. We were scared teenagers, a long way from home and very much in harm’s way. That arrest and the previous one, indeed nearly all of the similar arrests from that summer were thrown out by the Supreme Court as civilrights violations. That and other similar incidents inspired many of us to go to law school. We wanted to become a voice for the voiceless and to defend the civil rights of the oppressed. Of course it took me, eleven years to get there.

            But, legal issues were not our main concern. We were more afraid of the retaliatory violence from the white terrorist groups. One night a pick-up truck sped by and fired a few barrels of buckshot through the window. No one was hurt and fortunately the window was open, so didn’t need to be repaired. At Charlie Cobb’s suggestion, we spent that night and few later on, in the Greenville Freedom house.

             Early in the summer the Project's  strategy changed. Because of the upcoming Presidential election, the “powers that be”decided to forestall any actions that might cause confrontations. They felt that bad publicity might help the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater ge telected. Also no one wanted to create situations, which might result inviolence.  We had already seen what that might bring. Most of our efforts went into registering people for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

            SinceNegroes were systematically denied the right to vote, they were not allowed tojoin a political party. It was our intent to register as many people, black and white, as possible to a new party, the MFDP. These registrations would be presented to the Credentials Committee at the Democratic Party Convention,which was going to be held later that summer. We would argue that the MFDP better represented the democratic and egalitarian principles of the Democratic Party, than did the regular democratswho discriminated against Negroes. By the end of the Project we had registered over 80,000 people under very difficult circumstances.

 

DAILY ROUTINE- Farm workers worked the fields from “can to can’t” -can see to can’t see-, sunrise to sunset. Each morning we would get up beforesunrise to get out to where workers would be picked up to be taken to thefields. We were not allowed on the fields by the plantation owners and we avoided churches out of fear that they would be burned or bombed. We would explain the principles of the MFDP to the workers and ask them to register. We explained that their names would not be revealed to local authorities. Hence they should not be afraid. Some workers enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity to participate in the process, but many didn’t. Despite our assurances they feared reprisals. They knew that many black Mississippians had been attacked, lost their jobs, had their houses and churches burned, even killed for daring to try and vote.

           After a week or so we noticed a strange phenomena. If I made the pitch ,more often than not, people refused to register. But, if one of the white volunteers made the pitch people were more likely to sign the registration form, even some of those who had refused to sign when I had asked them. It was not due to my lack of oratorical skills. Other projects had similar experiences. It was the residue of long infused Jim Crow discrimination.Some black folks would do it just because white folks said to do it, even if they perceived it to be against their self-interest.

           This created an ethical dilemma. An underlying principles of the Movement was to help restore the dignity and self-worth of oppressed African-Americans in the South by facilitating their active engagement with the political process. The MFDP was one of the means to promote that engagement. However, the fear engendered by generations of racial intimidations dissuaded many from joining the MFDP. Ironically we could get people to sign petitions by using the implied power of white presence, our volunteers. But, that power  spewed  from the very systematic discrimination and intimidation which we were trying to dismantle. So, we could use Jim Crow against itself but at what cost?  In the end it became a case-by-case determination.

              Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure)had become project director in nearby Greenwood. We had several talks about this realty of Black folks being kowtowed after years of racial oppression.  He became convinced that only by having just Black people organize Black people could we help liberate them from the psychological depression, which had arisen from institutional racism.Later he became head of SNCC and articulated the idea of Black Power which excluded white activists from the organization. I am sure he drew from these experiences in the Delta. The idea was not so much to punish white activists as to enhance the empowerment of Black people. The other issue we all discussed was the use of nonviolent protest.

 

SATYAGRAHA- We had all been instructed in the tactics of nonviolent resistance, based on Dr.King’s interpretation of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of satyagraha or truthforce. In the philosophy of satyagraha, the protestor or activist does not ever use violence to assert his or her cause, even unto death. The satyagrahi believes that the transformative power of love and justice can transform the oppressor.  King believed in the philosophy of nonviolence. Most young people in the Movement didn't. We believed that nonviolence was a tactic to be used in some but not all situations. In the South that tactic was adhered to in almost all situations. Up north it was a different story.

            In New York City, in Harlem, July16, 1964, a fifteen-year old Black youth, James Powell was shot and killed by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan in front of his friends and about a dozen other witnesses. The incident set off six consecutive nights of unrest and rioting. It is estimated that 4,000 New Yorkers participated in the riots whichled to attacks on the New York City Police Department, vandalism, and looting in stores. At the end of the conflict, reports counted one dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested. The Harlem riot arguably set off riots in Philadelphia, Chicago, Rochester and Jersey City later in the summer. 1964’sLong Hot Summer precipitated similar disturbances in dozens of American cities for the rest of the decade. It had little effect on us in Mississippi, where that kind of atrocity and the deplorable living conditions were commonplace. But, it brought the issue of nonviolence, strategy or tactic, to the forefront.

 

THE LAST DAYS OF THE PROJECT- On August 4th the bodes of Jimmy, Andy and Mickey were found buried in an earthen dam near where they had been lynched. (During the 44 days that they had been missing, the bodies of seven other Black men who had been suspiciously killed were discovered buried around the State.) Andy and Mickey had both been shot in the head.  Jimmy had been shot three times after he was severely beaten. The plans were to bury all three of them together. But, there were no cemeteries in Mississippi, which allowed Blacks and Whites to lie at rest together. So, Mickey and Andy’s bodies were sent home to New York.

           On August 6 MFDP held a convention at the MasonicTemple in Jackson. Ella Baker was the keynote and Fannie Lou Hamer, E.W. Steptoe, Winson Hudson, Hazel Palmer, Victoria Gray, Rev. Ed King, Lawrence Guyot, Peggy J. Conner, Aaron Henry, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Bob Moses, were among those elected as delegates to the National Convention to be held in Atlantic City in late August. Two days later on August 8, the body of James Chaney was laid to rest at Okatibee Cemetery in Meridian Mississippi. Many people from the community and  Movement including Rita Schwerner, Mickey’s widow, were inattendance.  Even though there were many hard days to come, including the struggle at The Democratic Party Conventionlater that Summer. Jimmy’s burial was for many of us , the end of the Mississippi Freedom Project.

           It has been hard to put into words what Mississippi Summer meant to me personally.  It changed my life. In a few short months I was transformed from a frustrated teenager into a hardened freedom fighter. At the time, I was not fully aware of the transformative experience I was undergoing.  I wrote the following poem one night at a get together at Hodding Carter’s house. He was my friend and a friend of the Movement. He and his father had used the family newspaper, The Delta Democratic Times, to argue for sanity and civility. For their efforts they had crosses burned in their yard and their family threatened.  Later Hod became a spokes person for the State Department during President Carter’s administration. But, that night Hod was providing a respite and a moment of civility for a few tired civil rights workers.

 

LELAND, MISSISSIPPIJULY 1964

What place am I in?

Am I sitting inLeland, Mississippi or Hyde Park?

From the conversation,cocktails and potato chip dips, I can’t tell.

The banter and chitchat seem banal enough.

Yet through the window a breeze brings hints of kerosene and burnt wood.

Amidst the nightsounds, a muffled trio cries for help.

Strange fruit truly hangs on these Southern trees.

And in the dimmed light I do not see the faces of my people.

Tomorrow as I walk the streets of this town, what will come of this?

As I carry the registration cards to the cotton fields,

As Another black,

Another freedom fighter,

Another target?

Can these worded eflect the hate, stop the bullets?

Or are these juste ulogies, flimsy funeral flower arrangements

To be flung about my charred corpse

What a strange scene,

A Black boy from Chi-town sipping imported vermouth,

Listening to a lot of fancy ideas from a room full of people,

Who could, and would,and should give goddamn.

Mississippi, you don’t really exist

You are a myth that drives men when all else has faded

And no other idea persists except that which screams to be.

Black is the topic of conversation, temporarily.

Black is reason forf orgetting the rest of humanity, temporarily

Black seems lost int he darkness of night, temporarily.

But Black IS, and, oh my God, not temporary.<