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Personal Memoir of a Civil Rights Activist by Charles Dumas

 

This is a four-part series chronicling my personal journey as a civil rights activist from the summer of 1963 to the fall of 1964. Nineteen sixty-three to sixty eight was a crucial period in the American Civil Rights Movement and American history. During that period some of the most important civil rights legislation was passed: The 1964 Civil Rights Bill and The 1965 Voting Rights Bill.

 

The “Movement “ changed our lives; our world was transformed. I was one of the “foot soldiers”, as Dr. King called us in the Civil Rights Struggle. I was at the March of Washington in 1963, a project director during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and at the 1964 Democratic Party’s National Convention in Atlantic City. I was blessed to be at the fiftieth reunion at Tougaloo College in Jackson in 2014. This article is based on my best recollection of those times.

 

 

 


By CHARLES DUMAS

cxd28@psu.edu

 

Part 1- The Beginnings

– Before the Project

 

Early in January of 2014, the surviving leaders of The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) announced there was going to be a fiftieth reunion of Mississippi Freedom
Project (MSP). The staff and volunteers from MSP were invited to gather in Jackson for a week in June. 
Fifty years before in 1964 there had been almost a thousand volunteers and a couple hundred staff. There were a few of us left. Some had died. Most of us had lost contact with each other. This would be a chance to reconnect, reminisce, and remember.


There was no question. I was going to go back to Mississippi.

 

EARLY STEPS- The Civil Rights Movement didn’t start with the Project. In 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States announced that racial segregation in public schools, practiced for the first part of the twentieth century, was unconstitutional. The Court declared that racial separation was “inherently unequal” because it discriminated against Negro children. But, that change in the law did not result in a change in the practice or an end to the racist attitudes, which had been the underpinnings of Jim Crow discrimination. That would require people, well meaning people, to act on behalf of the cause, to put at risk their careers, their well-being and sometimes their lives.

 

I had gone to black only schools on the Southside of Chicago for the first part of the fifties. After the Brown decision there was an attempt to integrate schools. So I was transferred to a predominantly white school in the Hyde Park area. It was tough. I had not been around white people, living in Bronzeville, so it was a cultural shock. And they knew nothing about my culture. It was an adventure for all of us.
 

There were other reactions. In the South, the system of Jim Crow segregation was still being enforced by a social and political mechanism, which was maintained by terror and intimidation, both public and private. Governor Wallace had stood in the door of the University of Alabama blocking the entrance of Negro students. The good citizens of Little Rock, Arkansas rioted, threatened and harassed the nine Negro students who tried to attend the formerly all white schools.

 

In 1955, a year after Brown V. Board of Education, Emmett Till, a thirteen year old Black kid from the Southside was lynched. I had met him a few times at the Southside YMCA. He was a few years older than me. He was a bit brash but no more so than most of us who were coming into manhood, feeling our oats, in postwar, boomtown Chicago. He was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi that summer. On a dare, he, allegedly, whistled at a white woman who ran a small convenience store. That night, the woman’s husband and his brother along with some others invaded the community and kidnapped Emmett from his family’s home. To punish him for his “indiscretion”, they tortured and killed him. After they finished lynching him they tied a weight around his neck and threw him in the river. Only after a national outcry, were Emmett’s murderers arrested and put on trial. An all white, male jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing.

THE MARCH. In August of 1963, our Catholic Youth Organization went to Washington for the March for Jobs and Freedom. Most people are familiar with Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech delivered on that summer day, but he was not the only speaker. It was a unified American effort, involving churches, labor, and civil rights organizations. John Lewis, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), (now a Congressman from Georgia) spoke, as did Floyd McKissick, head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of The American Jewish Congress; Whitney Young, head of the Urban League; Roy Wilkins, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers Union; Mathew Ahmann, Head of the National Catholic Conference ; and the co- organizer of the March, A. Phillip R a n d o l p h , founder and president of the B r o t he r ho o d of Sleeping Car Porters. The other co- o r g a n i z e r , Bayard Rustin, didn’t speak. The organizers thought the March might be “Gay baited”, verbally criticized for employing a homosexual in the leadership. Only two women briefly spoke. Daisy Bates one of the heroes of the Little Rock Nine said a few words and Lena Horne, the jazz singer/activist said one word - “Freedom!”

 

 


I remember sitting at the reflecting pool with my tired feet in the cooling water listening to speaker after speaker proclaim that a “change was going to come.”

It was the greatest gathering of people marching for civil rights that the country had even seen.


 

I remember sitting at the reflecting pool with my tired feet in the cooling water listening to speaker after speaker proclaim that a “change was going to come.” It was the greatest gathering of people marching for civil rights that the country had ever seen. A quarter million people, black, white, young, old, workers and farmers, Sunday church-goers mixed with Saturday blues people, were all united in our quest for equal rights. We left Washington fired up and ready to take on the bigots and segregation. President Kennedy who had been nervous about the March beforehand met with the leaders afterwards to congratulate them on a successful and peaceful event. He promised to work to pass a civil rights bill, which he had introduced in a June speech. He set the political machinery in motion. With so many of the people united there was no question that we could not be defeated. The arc of the universe was truly bending toward justice. We went home filled with energy and hopeful. We had taken two steps forward on the road to equality.

 

AFTERMATH. But, we were not the only ones energized. White terrorists had their own response. Two weeks after the March, racists planted a bomb in a Birmingham Church. Four little girls at Sunday School were killed in the explosion. The Black community reacted in a grief driven demonstration during which two more black children, boys, were gunned down and killed.


A couple of months after that on November 22nd, the world changed. Our hope was deflated. President Kennedy who had proven himself to be a friend of the Movement, was gunned down in Dallas. Every adult American who was alive during that time remembers what they were doing that day. It was our generation’s 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. I was on Michigan Avenue downtown when Walter Cronkite announced that the President was dead. That day and for the next four days we were all transfixed watching television. Most of the people in my neighborhood didn’t have a TV so we gathered at a neighbor’s house to see JFK lying in State at The Capitol, the funeral with horse drawn caisson followed by most of the world’s leaders, the burial at Arlington, lighting of the eternal flame. Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who had been a Senator from Texas. It felt as if we had taken one step back.

 

MSP. In the summer of 1964, COFO, a joint effort of SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and the NAACP had sent out a request for volunteers to go to Mississippi to register people to vote. They were joining forces to fight for equality for Blacks in Mississippi. At the time Mississippi was the worst of the Jim Crow segregation states. Less than one percent of the eligible Black voters were registered. Living conditions among Negroes were deplorable. The Black agricultural workers, called sharecroppers, lived hand to mouth, barely scratching out a means of survival while working long and difficult days from “sun up to sundown.”

 

There was just one Black elected official in the whole state, and he was the mayor of an all Black town. In June 1963 Medger Evers, a courageous freedom fighter and head of the state’s NAACP, was gunned down in the driveway of his home. Dozens of other Black freedom fighters had been harassed and slaughtered for daring to attempt to vote. Dogs and fire hoses had been turned on student protestors who had dared to demand the equality of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

 

There was some relief in sight. Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. President Johnson acting in the spirit of Kennedy had gotten it through. He was about to sign it into law. Movement leaders were well aware that laws are not enough to change behavior. Laws need to be tested in the real world by people with the courage to stand up against the forces of injustice. It required the attention of the American people. It would be necessary to shine a light into the dark and dismal recesses of discrimination and that was dangerous. The regressive forces of Southern bigotry resisted progressive change by committing violent acts against Black people. Churches, schools, homes, nothing was off limits to these racists terrorists. The idea was to bring hundreds of these committed “soldiers” for freedom to work in Mississippi. They would register voters. They would test the parameters of the new Civil Rights Act. White students and activists were recruited through churches, colleges and human rights groups. The thought was that terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council would be less likely to viciously attack the children of the white middle class. At least that was the theory.The request for volunteers to register voters in Mississippi had come to our parish office in the spring of 1964. I was a teenager, with aspirations of being a writer but I had lost my job as a mail clerk at the Chicago Sun-Times. I had been involved in some civil rights activities as a CORE supporter. Though too young to vote (voting age was still twenty-one), I was still involved in local Democratic Party youth organizing. I asked my mentor, Father George Clements, to help me sign up for the Mississippi Project. He understood; he had been at the March in Washington. At the time he was one of only two Black priests in Chicago, a city which was predominantly Catholic. He started making arrangements for me to live at a Catholic Church in Greenville in the Delta region of the State.



BACK TO THE SOUTH. It would not be my first visit south. My father’s family was from Vicksburg, also in the Delta. Most of them had migrated to Chicago before the war. It was still a tradition to send young folks down South to stay with relatives during the summer, at least until, Emmett Till.
 

Most of the summer volunteers went to Oxford, Ohio for a two-week training course in nonviolent tactics before being sent to Mississippi. Passive resistance is not easy to learn especially for young folks with little experience in the Movement. It is hard to remain peaceful when you are being beaten by police clubs or attacked by dogs. It is difficult not to
get angry when you are being vilified by angry mobs and called everything but a child of God. It is frightening, when you see police who are supposedly sworn to protect you, stand mute, and often side with the mobs against you. So the volunteers had to be taught, had to be carefully taught to survive under such suffering. Because I was Black and already active in the movement, (I had been detained twice in Chicago at protests), I didn’t go to Ohio for training. I also didn’t go to Vicksburg since I didn’t want to put my family at risk.


 


It became clear that our worst fears were grounded in reality. Some members of the white terrorist organizations had made it plain that if you were a freedom worker in Mississippi your life was in jeopardy, whether you were black or white.

 

The first large group of volunteers, about two hundred, were scheduled to leave Oxford at the Summer solstice. Around the same time three of our fellow freedom fighters went to investigate a Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which had been burned presumably by the white terrorists: James Chaney, a black CORE worker, Mickey Schwerner, a white CORE worker from New York and Andrew Goodman, a white summer volunteer also from New York. On the way back from the church they had been arrested in Neshoba County and supposedly released. But, they had disappeared. Because of the dangerous nature of the project, it was a hard and fast rule that workers out in the field had to call into the office every couple of hours. No one had heard from them all night. We sat by the phone hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Mickey’s burned out car was discovered a few days later.

 

It became clear that our worst fears were grounded in reality. Some members of the white terrorist organizations had made it plain that if you were a freedom worker in Mississippi your life was in jeopardy, whether you were black or white.

 

The next several days many people called​ home from Mississippi and Ohio. The stakes had changed. What had begun as a pledge to spend a summer volunteering to register people to vote was transformed into a life and death commitment to work for freedom and equality. A lot of praying was involved. Some people returned home to Long Island or California usually at the insistence of their parents. But, most of the volunteers to their credit remained in the project. A thousand people, mostly young, mostly white, mostly untrained, and all scarred to death, stayed the course. I had a decision to make.​

 

In Greenville my host priest started to get cold feet. I am not sure but I think he got a warning from some local officials. Several churches, used by activists from the Movement had been bombed. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to his church. Fortunately by then, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office was open. So I headed over there. Charlie Cobb was head of the Greenville office. Stokely Carmichael was the coordinator of the area, which included Washington County. They asked me if I wanted to be the project director in a small town near Greenville called Leland. I enthusiastically accepted the assignment.

 

The attorney general, Robert Kennedy, ordered the FBI to send agents to Mississippi to investigate and to provide some protection to workers. One-hundred- fifty came out of New Orleans alone. Several came from the Philadelphia office. Kennedy’s associate, Nick Katzenbach, who had confronted Governor Wallace at the door of The University of Alabama, came to Jackson along with Burke Marshall, head of the Civil Rights Division. Forty-four days later, our brothers’ bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.

 

The murder of the three civil rights workers had the opposite effect from what was intended by the white terrorists. First it brought several hundred federal agents, who provided some protection to those of us organizing there. Second, shining the light of truth in the shadows of Mississippi mobilized the country against the segregationists. Finally, it helped energize our efforts to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was signed into law by President Johnson on July second. Two steps forward. 

 

Charles Dumas, a Fulbright Fellow, is a theatre professor at Penn State, a professional actor, director and writer, and the artistic director and co-founder of The Loaves and Fish Traveling Rep Company.

 

 

COMING NEXT MONTH

A Long Hot Summer -part two of four articles by Charles Dumas, professor in the

School of Theatre at Penn State, concerning his experiences in the civil rights movement.