All that weekend while three families mourned, while Mississippi seethed in denial, while America’s discontent deepened, Bob Moses swathed his grief in the solace of the future. The Mississippi Summer Project had claimed four lives. Twenty black churches lay in ruin, and no one knew what further mayhem might soon scar hot and hotter nights. “Success?” Moses told the press. “I have trouble with that word. When we started we hoped no one would be killed.” Yet on the same weekend that Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were laid to rest, more than one hundred Freedom School students gathered at a Baptist seminary in Meridian. What Moses saw there allowed his embattled soul, and Freedom Summer itself, to touch bottom and ascend again.
The students had come neither to mourn nor grieve but, in the old black tradition, to testify. Testify to the joy of their Freedom Schools, to their rights as Americans, to their hunger for learning. Beneath a banner proclaiming “Freedom Is a Struggle,” the Freedom School Convention lasted three days. Moses spoke briefly—his “speech” consisted entirely of questions—but students ran the convention. Forming eight committees, they hammered out a platform demanding equal housing, slum clearance, sanctions against South Africa, and an end to the poll tax. They endorsed a revised Declaration of Independence, declaring independence “from the unjust laws of Mississippi,” and cheered a student play about Medgar Evers. Throughout the convention, Moses wandered shyly from group to group, and though he rarely smiled, his contentment was unmistakable. “It was the single time in my life that I have seen Bob the happiest,” an observer said. “He just ate it up. . . . He just thought this was what it was all about.”
When the convention ended on August 9, students returned to their hometowns to face summer’s meanest days. If July had been an oven, August was a blast furnace. Ninety-plus heat and 90 percent humidity draped a thick gauze over cotton fields and made swamps and the Piney Woods shimmer. Heat hung like a curse, making the slightest motion seem like drowning in quicksand. Although each day seemed endless, Sundays were the longest because nothing happened. Locals melted into the stillness, happy to hunker down for the Sabbath, but for volunteers, Sundays set internal engines grinding. With little to do but go to church, then sit and swelter, they lived the old Delta blues lament—“minutes seem like hours and hours seem like days.” A turtle plodding across a road was a monumental event. A letter to or from a friend was a lifeboat. A lone figure spotted across a field seemed to flutter like a ribbon rising from a heating vent, walking, walking on without moving, like Sunday itself.
Yet unlike July, August offered surprises. Now it might not rain for a week. Dust clung to leaves and turned to slime on sweaty skin. Then in the middle of the night, rain would spatter and pound on tin roofs. And when the sun rose, Mississippi awoke to greens as glistening as the first day of creation. In mid-August, a “cold wave” dropped temperatures to a record low—63 degrees. In Vicksburg, Fran O’Brien felt comfortable for the first time all summer, but her students shivered and complained of the cold. Yet the bonfires were soon rekindled, making everything—cars, coffeepots, human hands—sizzling to the touch.
Throughout the Delta, it was “lay by time.” The cotton had been cleared of weeds, and for the next several weeks, there would be no sharecroppers in the fields, just tightly packed green bolls baking until they burst into fluff. The coming cotton crop was expected to be bountiful, the boll weevils reduced by generous sprayings of DDT. Across the rest of Mississippi, “lay by time” was simply known as August—the month when only a fool or a Yankee went out in the noonday sun. Volunteers knew the daily schedule now, but still they were counting the days.
“I am tired,” a man wrote home. “I want to go very much to a movie or to watch TV even. I want to be in Berkeley and do stupid things and don’t look behind me in the rearview mirror. I want to look at a white man and not hate his guts, and know he doesn’t hate me either.” A Connecticut woman admitted she missed the luxury of Westport—“sailing and swimming and my friends”—yet wrestled with guilt at the thought. A few pleaded with parents to let them stay on into fall:
I have been here nearly two months. I know the drudgery, the dangers, and the disappointments. I know what it’s like to eat meatless dinners, to be so exhausted you feel as though you will drop, to have five people show up at a meeting to which 20 should have come. Yet I also know what it’s like to sing “We Shall Overcome” with 200 others till you think the roof will explode off the church. . . . I know what it’s like to have a choir of little girls sing out, “Hi, Ellen,” as I walk down the road and envelop me in their hugs. . . . I’m going to spend the rest of my life being a white liberal; let me have one year to see what lies below that veneer.
(At her parents’ insistence, Ellen Lake went back to Radcliffe, then returned south the following summer.)
But most were ready for summer’s end. Clarksdale volunteers held a “depression session,” griping about how little they had accomplished. Elsewhere, a woman confessed, “If I stay here much longer, I’ll become hard. That’s what happens. . . . You lose patience with anyone that’s not right square on your side, the liberals and the moderates and ‘the good people’ caught in the middle, and the Negroes who won’t cooperate or are indifferent. They all become enemies.” Fatigue made even gentle hosts seem more like parents than friends. “She’s always in the same rut and the same statements,” one woman wrote of her host. “Very wearisome.”
Whether due to the heat or the ambient hatred, previous Augusts had unleashed numbing brutality—Emmett Till’s murder being just one example. And this August would oblige with a weekend when Mississippi verged on anarchy. Yet just as it ripened the cotton, lay-by time brought the flowering of Freedom Summer. During these “dog days,” Mississippi’s first touring theater dramatized black history on makeshift stages. Folksingers strummed in “hootenannies.” Two of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities snuck into Greenwood. And defying one last Mississippi tradition—of taking it easy in August—volunteers mounted their final surge, knocking on doors, signing up names, helping SNCC finish frantic preparations to take Freedom Summer to the national stage.
A grim irony surrounded the name of the juke joint frequented by volunteers in Greenwood. The sign above the door read Bullin’s Café, but the manager went by the name of Blood, so everyone called the place Blood’s. Inside, where a red neon glow lit pool tables and pinball games, Blood’s offered a safe—even air-conditioned—spot to talk over Greenwood’s escalating violence. More shots fired into the SNCC office. More canvassers assaulted, cars chased, Freedom Democrat forms thrown into the street. While SNCC struggled to quell black rage—“They keep killin’ our people, when are we goin’ to stop them? When? ”—a group of teenagers calling themselves “The Peacemakers” began pushing adults to be more militant. Silas McGhee, still trying to integrate the Leflore Theater, still getting beaten, chased, arrested, was elected Peacemaker president. Silas’s entire family, feisty Laura McGhee and her sons, was now leading the outcries at raucous, bitter mass meetings. So it was with some surprise that, on the night of August 10, a different kind of Freedom Song filled the Elks Hall where Martin Luther King had appeared so triumphantly in July.
Harry Belafonte had responded to a call for help. SNCC did not have enough money to send Freedom Democrats to the convention in Atlantic City. Throughout the first week of August, the world-famous calypso singer, who had helped bankroll the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington, held $50-a-plate dinners in five East Coast cities. With the discovery of bodies making headlines, money poured in, more than Belafonte could safely wire to Mississippi. He decided to go to Greenwood himself—carrying $60,000 in cash. For security, he took a friend. “They might think twice about killing two big niggers,” Belafonte joked to Sidney Poitier. Wary of Mississippi but wanting to help, Poitier agreed. Shortly after midnight on August 10, they sent word ahead. The singer whose “Banana Boat Song” had become a folk standard and the first black to win a Best Actor Oscar would arrive in Greenwood that same evening. Belafonte wanted to be met at the airport “by someone important,” COFO heard. Preferably Bob Moses. “No press on arrival, please.” Word of the visit electrified Greenwood, and by dusk, the Elks Hall was rocking.
Shortly after sunset, skimming in low over the Delta, the Piper Cub arrived right on time. So did the Klan. Three SNCC cars sat on the tarmac in the muggy darkness. From the small plane stepped the two celebrities, Belafonte’s wide smile instantly recognizable, Poitier’s onscreen serenity seeming on edge. James Forman met the pair, shook hands, and steered them to the middle car. The convoy pulled out and drove through the airport gate. Suddenly, headlights flashed in the distance. Belafonte, holding the satchel stuffed with cash, noted how comforting it was to see SNCC support all around them, but Forman told him the headlights belonged to Klansmen. For the next twenty minutes, the three vehicles wove through cotton fields like hunted rabbits. Klansmen repeatedly rammed the rear car, which shifted back and forth as a shield. When the Klan tried to pull alongside, the lead car fell back to block them. Poitier, who would later relive the chase while filming In the Heat of the Night, remembered the harrowing moments as “a ballet, though a nerve-wracking one.” Only when the convoy approached the edge of black Greenwood did the Klan turn back. The three cars finally pulled up at the Elks Hall. As they approached, Poitier and Belafonte could hear rising chants of “Freedom! Freedom! Freedomfreedomfreedomfreedom!”
Jogging behind James Forman, the two stars entered the Elks Hall. The crowd exploded. A woman lowered herself from the balcony to throw her arms around Belafonte. Freedom Songs followed, including one based on Belafonte’s hit:
Freee-dom! I say Free-ee-ee-dom
Freedom’s comin’ and it won’t be long.
Belafonte later sang his own “Day-O,” then, to great cheers, held up his satchel and handed it over. When Poitier stepped to the podium, his suavity failed him. “I have been a lonely man all my life,” he said, choking up, “until I came to Greenwood, Mississippi. I have been lonely because I have not found love, but this room is overflowing with it.” Belafonte and Poitier spent an anxious night in a house guarded by shotguns. To keep calm, they did calisthenics and told ghost stories. The next morning, they flew back to New York.
Harry Belafonte was the biggest star to grace Freedom Summer, but his was not the only famous voice. The Mississippi Caravan of Music ranged from little-known Greenwich Village acts to headliners who had just sold out the Newport Folk Festival. With the folk boom at its height, young urban whites had recently “discovered” old Mississippi bluesmen—Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt had both played at Newport. Now folksingers came south to share their music. Singing in Freedom Schools, they introduced black children to English ballads and American folk songs. Singers were startled to meet kids who had never heard of Leadbelly, or even Mississippi-born “Big Bill” Broonzy. After evening performances at Freedom Houses, the musicians often sang with stragglers till well past midnight. For volunteers, the songs brought relief from long, lingering days. For singers, banjos and guitars kept terror at bay, terror that had gripped them the moment they entered Mississippi.
“Are you coming down here to sing for the niggers?” a man asked Pete Seeger when he landed in Jackson.
“I’ve been asked down here by some friends to sing,” Seeger replied. “I hope that anyone who wants to hear me can come, Negro or white.”
“Well, you just better watch your step,” the man said. “If we hadn’t been on the plane when I heard you talking I would have knocked the shit out of you.”
To Seeger, who had cut short a world tour to lend his voice to Freedom Summer, Mississippi was just another impoverished country, but for other singers, it was a nightmare. Judy Collins planned a two-week tour but, after singing in Greenville and Clarksdale, canceled further concerts. Phil Ochs, whose song “Too Many Martyrs” eulogized Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, was convinced he would be shot onstage. At each concert, Ochs had another singer scan the audience, then sprinted offstage after his last song. Black folksinger Julius Lester felt death all around him. “Each morning I wake thinking, today I die,” he wrote in his journal. Touring for two weeks, Lester slept in his car and lost fifteen pounds. Every car backfiring, every slam of a screen door, made him jump. But once back in Greenwich Village, Lester convinced other singers to head south. More came to Mississippi, although the no-shows included the Staples Singers, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Other than polite applause, no one is sure how black kids reacted to whites strumming “Skip to My Lou” and “Hava Nagila.” But none could doubt their reaction to their first live drama.
On a sultry night in early August, beneath spotlights laced with swarming insects, six actors stared out from a barren stage behind the Freedom House in McComb. Adults fanned themselves. Squirming kids fell silent. Finally a white actor spoke.
“If God had intended for the races to mix, he would have mixed them himself. He put each color in a different place.”
Across the stage, a black man responded. “The American white man has a conscience, and the non-violent method appeals to that conscience.”
“Negroes are demanding something that isn’t so unreasonable,” a white woman pleaded. “To get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, to get a decent job.”
“What they really feels on the inside never changes,” answered a black woman. “Eventually they’ll wind up calling you a nigger.”
Throughout August, the Free Southern Theater performed in cramped Freedom Schools, on Freedom House porches, beneath starry skies from McComb to Holly Springs. Pleading, praying, strutting each small stage, actors spoke the words of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and a host of archetypal Americans. Each performance of In White America reviewed subjects Freedom Schools had covered all summer—the Middle Passage to slavery, the truth about Reconstruction, the integration battle at Central High in Little Rock—but actors touched feelings teachers could never reach. For students, the drama re-created classroom history—for adults in the audience, the pain was personal.
In White America drew standing-room-only crowds, stomping, clapping, clamoring for more. As if in church, people shouted, “That’s right!” and “Tell it!” In Mileston, the setting—a community center with one wall open to a bean field—brought Mississippi itself into the play. The new center was the gift of a southern California carpenter. Hearing of Freedom Summer, Abe Osheroff, veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, raised $10,000, then drove to Mississippi to build “a beacon of hope and love in a sea of oppression and hatred.” In the Delta, In White America drew two dozen members of Indianola’s Citizens’ Council. While cops stood guard outside, actors strutted through Indianola’s new Freedom School, hamming it up for whites who watched in silence. All were polite, but one later said the play convinced him the summer project was Communist inspired. Local whites also watched the play on the sagging porch of the Ruleville Freedom School, where chickens and roosters crowded the stage. But regardless of the audience, In White America’s final scene, juxtaposing “We, the people . . .” with the strains of “Oh, Freedom,” brought crowds to their feet, and sent them out singing.
Before I’ d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free.
On Friday, August 14, In White America played in Greenville. Muriel Tillinghast was not in the audience. She had a Freedom Day to run. Since the first of the month, Muriel’s work had taken her deeper into the shimmering plantations of Issaquena and Sharkey counties. Sleeping on the floors of shacks—one host family had sixteen children—she was learning Mississippi from the inside out. She marveled at how sharecroppers could tell whose pickup was roaring past, just by its sound. She had learned which “firecracker” whites were bluffing and which were “not playin’.” Given a single contact in one “nasty little town” or another, she had scrounged up a half dozen with the courage to go to the courthouse. She now knew where to get the best meal in Mississippi—a savory stew of pork, rice, and beans served at Aaron Henry’s drugstore in Clarksdale. And she had mastered black Mississippi’s merciless time clock, waking at ungodly hours to talk to sharecroppers trudging to the fields, sleeping later before meeting maids crossing the tracks to clean and cook in white homes.
Responsibility for the Greenville project had restored all of Muriel’s nerve, with some to spare. Her feistiness came through in her letter to a SNCC staffer.
This letter is being brought to you by Cleve. I do hope that you and Jesse and Cleve and Guyot WILL GET TOGETHER AND WRITE A FORMAT ON WHAT THE HELL NEEDS TO BE DONE. To this date, I have not received a damn thing on what you guys are thinking/what’s working and not working, etc. And I can’t work in a vacuum. . . . Look, you’ll have gotten mighty timid in not closing down these god-forsaking projects and not dispersing staff. Is ya’ or is ya’ ain’t. WRITE ME—EVEN IF IT’S ONLY YOUR NAME!
Added to her inherited bravado, the courage of local blacks gave Muriel a daring she had not known she possessed. She had learned to drive—in Mississippi. Having passed the state’s written test, she even had a Mississippi driver’s license. Now she was badgering others to “let me drive, let me drive!” Fortunately for her passengers, her ancient SNCC car would not go more than fifty, but once behind the wheel, Muriel bounced over rutted roads and careened alongside cotton fields. Her nemesis was the stick shift. One afternoon, she stalled the car on a slight rise, then watched in terror as a cop pulled behind her. Before she could get in gear, the car rolled backward and crunched the police car’s bumper. Storming out, the cop ranted, raved, cursed, but some smooth talking got Muriel back on the road with just a warning to “get the hell out of Issaquena County.” On she drove, covering fifty or more miles each day before hurrying home by sundown. Everyone had to know about Freedom Day.
Word from the first Freedom Day in another plantation fiefdom stirred the embers of Muriel’s fear. On August 4 in Tallahatchie County, blacks had emerged from the courthouse to find the street filled with whites, some brandishing shotguns. The mob stood stone-faced, rigid, staring bullets at the small black contingent. Finally one man shouted, “You niggers get away from the courthouse! You don’t have any business up here!” The sheriff soon came striding on the scene. Tallahatchie had just been served with an injunction resembling Panola County’s, barring all voter registration tests, but the sheriff told blacks to get out of town and not come back. Every night since, cars had roared past black homes, the drivers waving guns, flashing headlights. And now, Muriel had scheduled a Freedom Day for Sharkey County, where a crop duster had recently doused canvassers with DDT, where, as one cop had boasted, “they beat a nigger’s ass.”
Muriel had already rescued one volunteer from Sharkey County, a fellow Howard student she remembered from her geology class. Late one afternoon, after going porch-to-porch, the man had made a frantic call from a pay phone. Hurry, he shouted. He was being chased. Men with shotguns. Men with dogs. On the line, Muriel heard the dogs baying in the background. Racing from Greenville into the plantations, she and a friend roamed back roads until they found the man hiding in a drainage ditch. Taking him back to Greenville, they let him relax for a few days, then sent him back to the plantations. As Sharkey County’s Freedom Day approached, two volunteers were arrested for leafleting and held overnight in a squalid little jail. But by August 14, leaflets were spread across the county, registration classes had offered instruction, and Freedom Day was on. The morning arrived, blue and blistering. Blacks awoke, dressed, and prepared to risk their lives to vote. Everyone anticipated the worst. Stories of terror from Tallahatchie County were widely known, but as Muriel had seen all summer, “courage overcame fear.”
Throughout that Friday morning and into the afternoon, blacks approached the small brick courthouse in the county seat of Rolling Fork. They shuffled up the steps, smiled meekly at the registrar, filled out papers, filed out. No one was arrested. No one was threatened or chased out of town. Though it did not produce a single registered voter, Freedom Day in Sharkey County was an unqualified success. Merely by surmounting their terror and showing up at the courthouse, blacks raised under neo-feudalism and steeped in the local lore of lynching had shown they would no longer be intimidated, no longer be denied. Still, Muriel scheduled no more Freedom Days that summer. Instead, with less than a week left before Freedom Democrats headed for Atlantic City, she turned her attention to their challenge, signing up party members, driving the back roads, rooting herself in the Delta topsoil. One day Muriel took Shirley MacLaine to meet her friend Unita Blackwell. The sharecropper and the movie star spent hours on a porch overlooking the fields, drinking beer, and talking about the oppression of women, black and white.
While Freedom Day unfolded in Sharkey County, one hundred miles south in Hattiesburg, a Freedom School teacher helped five teenagers try to get cards at the whites-only library. Sandra Adickes and her students quickly learned another lesson—that in Mississippi, even librarians could be mean. “Look, close your mouth and open your mind,” the librarian snapped at the kids. “Try to act intelligent. You don’t really want to use the library.” When the students insisted, cops came and closed the library. When the students returned the next week, the Hattiesburg Public Library was closed indefinitely.
That same Friday, the Neshoba County Fair drew to a close. Many left disappointed. As expected, the storytelling and singing had lasted till dawn. The smell of kerosene had wafted above the aroma of cotton candy and moonshine sold by strolling vendors. But “Mississippi’s Giant House Party” had long been known for its rousing political speeches kicking off campaigns. (Ronald Reagan would start his presidential campaign there in 1980.) In the summer of 1964, however, the stigma of speaking just two miles from a triple grave had scared politicians away. Barry Goldwater Jr. and George Wallace canceled appearances, leaving crowds to settle for their own governors. Ex-governor Ross Barnett joked about summer volunteers needing “Mr. Clean.” Paul Johnson praised the “law-abiding” people of Neshoba County and blasted Freedom Summer. “The white people of Mississippi know that the vast majority of the colored people of this state have turned their backs on the motley crew of invaders of our state,” the governor said. “We will not permit outsiders to subvert our people and our rights.” In midweek, the Klan leafleted the fair, a small plane dropping billows of brochures calling Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney “Communist Revolutionaries, actively working to undermine and destroy Christian Civilization.” Fairgoers were in no mood. Most simply stepped over the white trash littering the fairgrounds. Following a Friday of harness races and Grand Ole Opry shows, the fair closed just after midnight. By then, the lull following the discovery of three bodies had ended. That weekend, a human firestorm swept across Mississippi.
COFO’s blackboard dutifully charted each incident, but there was no more order to the mayhem than there was to the weather. Starting with a midnight bomb shattering windows and gouging a gaping hole outside a supermarket in McComb, the weekend spiraled into chaos. Shots echoed down the mean streets of Jackson, the quaint streets of Canton, the embattled streets of Greenwood. A bomb meant for the Natchez Freedom House ignited a tavern next door. A mob in Laurel brandished baseball bats. In Greenwood, volunteers were closing the SNCC office when someone shouted, “They’ve shot Silas! They’ve shot Silas in the head!” Peacemaker Silas McGhee, sleeping in a car outside a restaurant, had awoken just in time to see a pistol aim, a spark flash. When the car door was opened, Silas tumbled into the gutter. Frantic SNCC staffers tore off their shirts to soak up the blood, plugged the hole in Silas’s jaw with their fingers, then rushed him to a hospital, where he lay on a gurney in a hall, waiting for the “colored doctor.” Though his jaw was shattered, Silas survived after surgery. Laura McGhee, now even more legendary after decking a cop with a right hook, kept the bullet.
Elsewhere in Mississippi, a pickup rammed a SNCC car in some little hamlet where everyone knew everyone and everything had been peaceful before the invaders came. Then there were arrests for no sane reason, a mindless beating or two, four random shootings that missed. And to cap the madness, at precisely 10:00 p.m. Saturday night, a hundred crosses blazed across southern Mississippi and into Louisiana. Flames wafted smoke into the sky. Six crosses burned in Jackson, one a block from the COFO office, drawing volunteers to study this century-old symbol of hate burning in August 1964. Before the chaos ended, two dozen cops had raided the McComb Freedom House, ostensibly looking for liquor but rifling through papers, reading letters, enraging SNCCs, who responded by scheduling Pike County’s first Freedom Day. And it took a cop to sum up the weekend. The cop was standing on a street corner in Gulfport when a man rushed up. “I got me one,” he said, rubbing his knuckles after pummeling a volunteer. Then the man asked the cop whether he was “the law.” The officer replied, “We don’t have any law in Mississippi.”
With the Atlantic City convention looming, SNCC had become a well-oiled machine, churning out position papers, brochures, lists of delegates to be lobbied. The president of the United States, however, was not sleeping well. For weeks, LBJ had been sitting up nights brooding about the Freedom Democrats. To some, their challenge appeared quixotic, but Johnson knew that if Freedom Democrats came before the full convention, and if, moved by a summer of horror stories from Mississippi, delegates seated them and snubbed Mississippi’s white power elite, the “Solid South” would be solidly incensed. On August 6, Johnson and his advisers met in the Oval Office to discuss this “ticking time bomb.” A week later, they were still seeking a solution. “There’s no compromise,” the president said. “You can seat one or the other. You can’t seat both of them because if you do, then the other one walks out.” And the walkout, LBJ knew, would not be limited to Mississippi. “If we mess with the group of Negroes that were elected to nothing, that met in a hotel room . . . and throw out the governor and elected officials of the state—if we mess with them, we will lose fifteen states without even campaigning.” With just a week left until the convention, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther agreed with Johnson—if the Freedom Democrats did not drop their challenge, “We’re going to lose the election. . . . We really think that Goldwater’s going to be president.”
With Harry Belafonte’s cash, SNCC had chartered buses to leave for the Democratic Convention on August 19. As the days dwindled, canvassers accelerated their last-ditch drive. Register. Sign here. “Help make Mississippi part of the U.S.A.” Because sharecroppers were no longer in the fields, Greenwood volunteers set up tables in the quarters. Whites drove past, glaring, threatening, but signatures piled up. The trick, SNCC had taught volunteers, was to link the political to the personal. Tired of trudging dirt roads? Join the Freedom Democrats, and someday your streets will be paved. Fed up with senators like John Stennis, mouthpiece of Delta planters, and James Eastland, a Delta planter himself? “If we can get enough people to register, we can throw out Senator Eastland’s party at the big National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. . . . Yes, Mr. Jackson signed. No, no one sees these forms except us, and we take good care of them.” Register. Sign here.
Freedom Schools also did their part. Teachers continued to canvass on weekends, and some even sent their older students door-to-door. The teens were appalled to meet elders who insisted they did not care about voting or “just didn’t have the time.” “I just stood there wondering why he kept saying ‘I don’t have the time,’ ” a student wrote, “because all he was doing was just sitting there doing nothing. . . . As I walked away, my mind kept wondering, ‘Why? Why?’ ”
Back in class, Freedom Schools continued to surpass all expectations. A thousand students had been expected; twice that many were now enrolled. Some schools remained little more than shacks lit only by curiosity. Others met in dingy church basements or in the ample shade of chinaberry trees. Yet regardless of the setting, each school dared Mississippi to dampen its spirit. Hands flew in the air, waved, begged to be called on. Backyard games were as lively as dances. Coming back to class, teachers and students together, rare was the pale hand that did not hold a smaller, darker one. Classes relied more on enthusiasm than on textbooks. Moss Point students dramatized the Dred Scott decision. Ruleville students piled onto the floor to reenact slavery’s Middle Passage. Several schools held formal debates on nonviolence, and many did role-playing, with students playing the parts of Barry Goldwater, Senator Eastland, or members of their hometown Citizens’ Council. And almost every Freedom School published a newspaper. Typed by teachers onto mimeograph sheets, decorated with the students’ line drawings, the Ruleville Freedom Fighter, the Shaw Freedom Flame, and the Meridian Freedom Star featured poetry, essays on civil rights, and news of the Freedom Democrat drive.
No matter how upbeat teachers remained, however, they could not hide one harsh truth known to all students—that when the summer ended, Mississippi would be waiting for them. To keep freedom’s flame burning, students were encouraged to question Mississippi, to question their lives, to question, to question, to question.
“Why did Harriet Tubman go back into the South after she had gotten herself free in the North? ”
“Why doesn’t Mrs. Hamer stay in the North once she gets there? ”
“Who do you think the Movement is proving right—Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. Du Bois? ”
“And what comment on your own upbringing is made by the fact that you knew all about Booker T. Washington but most of you had never heard of W. E. B. DuBois? ”
One afternoon at the Harmony Freedom School, twelve-year-old Ida Ruth Griffin read her latest poem:
I am Mississippi fed
I am Mississippi bred
Nothing but a poor black boy.
I am a Mississippi slave
I shall be buried in a Mississippi grave.
Nothing but a poor, dead boy.
The class was soon tangled in debate.
“We’re not black slaves!”
“We certainly are!”
“Can your father vote? ”
“Can he eat where he wants to? ”
At another school a boy refused to believe what his teacher said about the proud civilizations of Africa. “I think you’re lying,” he said, and burst into tears. The teacher also cried.
By mid-August, students were already lamenting the imminent end of Freedom School. A teacher in Canton noticed the change: “Some of them are beginning to realize, now that we’re talking about the end of school and our departures, that we’re not saviors and we’re not staying forever and we’re not leaving any miracles behind.” But not all teachers were so discouraged. In Shaw, in Ruleville, in Hattiesburg, teachers knew they would be sending students back to their regular schools, fired up, demanding more. And each morning when students rushed to greet them, each evening when a gray old man read his first words, most teachers knew their summer had been worth all the sweat, the fear, the occasional chaos. “We’re giving these kids a start,” one said. “They’ll never be the same again. This isn’t something anyone can just snap off when the summer ends.”
Holding hands, dancing, sharing meals, teachers and students broke racial taboos. But outside the Freedom Schools, in crowded project offices and cluttered community centers, racial harmony was proving more elusive in August than it had been in June. As long as three men were missing, race had been just another cog in Freedom Summer. Black and white were working together, missing together, equally likely to be arrested, beaten, killed. But once Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were found, mourned, eulogized with “bitter vengeance,” black and white were suddenly that again—black and white. And everyone on every project knew that within a few weeks, black would be staying in Mississippi, and white would be gone.
With equal alarm, blacks and whites noticed the rising tension. SNCC had integrated prior to Freedom Summer. Bob Zellner and Mendy Samstein, Sandra “Casey” Hayden and Mary King, had pioneered a small white contingent. But Freedom Summer had inundated SNCC offices with whites, and by August, their enthusiasm was wearing thin. “I saw the rug pulled out every day,” Holmes County project director Hollis Watkins recalled. “Suppose we needed some paper to make fliers. Mr. Local may have been going into town and could have brought it back. But a volunteer would say, ‘Oh no no, I’ll run and get it.’ Local people who had felt pride in operating mimeograph machines now saw that taken away. In meetings, very vocal volunteers automatically shut down a number of people who were struggling to come forward and talk.”
Recent news from the North was driving another wedge between the races. Profiling Freedom Summer, magazines such as Look and the Saturday Evening Post focused on whites, especially white women, making blacks feel their own struggles hardly mattered. And then there were the riots. The day after Harlem erupted, staffers and volunteers sat on the lawn outside the Holly Springs Freedom School discussing the news. With few exceptions, whites deplored the riot, but blacks said it was “about time something happened to force America to wake up to racism in the North.” Teacher Pamela Allen was shocked. Though she said nothing, she saw that “the project was polarized. I found it didn’t matter that I never condemned the riots. I hadn’t supported them. And I was white.”
Yet nothing was eroding racial harmony more than sex. From their first day in their sites, volunteers who had never thought much about interracial sex found Mississippi obsessed with it. All summer long, white terror of “mongrelization,” dating to slave days, had surfaced at every encounter. A Jackson cop asked a medical student if he had come south “to give abortions to all them white gals pregnant by nigrahs.” A white woman invited to visit a project office responded, “And get raped?” SNCC recruiters had tried to weed out whites who expressed sexual interest in blacks, and vice versa. In Ohio, Bob Moses had warned against pursuing “My Summer Negro” or “the white girl I made.” Yet all summer blacks and whites had worked together, gotten drunk together, faced danger together, suffusing the summer project with a wartime sexual tension. And the fact that it was 1964, with mores changing, birth control pills available (though not in Mississippi), and hundreds in their early twenties suddenly on their own far from the strictures of home . . .
Many have speculated on the sexuality of that summer. One observer claimed, “Every black SNCC worker with perhaps a few exceptions counted it a notch on his gun to have slept with a white woman—as many as possible.” But others remembered Freedom Summer as far too chaotic for sex. “I didn’t see any white women being victimized by black men,” volunteer Sally Belfrage recalled. “We were just too busy and crowded. I can’t even work out where they did it, where people went to be victimized. My greatest problem in Greenwood was the absolute impossibility of being alone.” Fred Winn offered tacit agreement in a letter: “Now, Dad, I know the I.C.C. might object to you sending certain things in the mail but would it be possible for you to send a local S.F. girl? ” Nonetheless, in late July, a visiting doctor had warned volunteers of venereal disease spreading through the ranks of SNCC and COFO. And although how much went on behind closed doors will never be certain, many volunteers were startled by a sexual frankness unknown back home.
Black men raised with an exacting terror—“jus’ one boy touch a white girl’s hand, he be in the river in two hours”—now met white “girls” whose gaze they did not have to avoid. And white women, suddenly the object of obsession and desire, were confused, flattered, charmed. A strange and enticing courtship dance sometimes began, driven as much by taboo as temptation. The dance accelerated when female volunteers wore makeup, earrings, and décolletage that marked them as “easy” in a state where men did not even wear shorts in public. Approached again and again, some surrendered to curiosity or a need to prove they were not racist. The result, Mary King recalled, was that some white women “fluttered like butterflies from one tryst to another.” For much of the summer, black women seemed to look the other way. The same could not always be said of black men. “All these black guys were dating the white volunteers,” one woman remembered, “and then one of the black girls . . . had one date one night with a white guy.” The next morning, four black SNCC men “were over at her house chewing her out.”
But beyond the novelty of interracial sex, how many fell in love during Freedom Summer? “I’m sure I wasn’t the only white woman to fall in love with a black man during that summer of 1964,” Pamela Allen (née Parker) wrote years later. Allen went on to describe “an innocent romance” of holding hands, holding each other, then bidding good-bye to the black man just transferred to McComb. In small-town fishbowls where they dared not be seen together in public, how many other men and women, black and white, courted, touched, dared to cross one line or another, then came home changed? “There’s a very good chance that a large number of white women had good friendships [with black men] that might have developed into something else in a different time,” Allen recalled. “But given the times, it didn’t. Still, that’s much more profound than whether or not you had sex. The heart connections are the ones you remember without ambivalence.”
Fran O’Brien speaks cautiously about her “heart connection” that summer. Like her, the black man she admired worked with children in the Vicksburg Freedom House. Like her, he had come from a college in the Northwest. She walked with him whenever possible, spoke quietly in quiet moments. More than once he stepped into her classroom to handle older children she could not control. He had written home, telling his parents about this woman he liked. This white woman. They warned him, and he told Fran about the warning. When she wrote home and mentioned the man she liked, she was afraid to reveal that he was black. Throughout the summer, Fran wanted more to happen between them. Nothing did. And nothing more was said. She never saw the man after the summer, but she never forgot him. In her memories, he remains the sweeter side of that summer, easily, fondly recalled. The savage side would prove harder to summon.
Fran had spent a rather quiet summer in Vicksburg. Despite all the threats, the flashes of violence, she had seen none of the bedlam that scarred the summer elsewhere. One afternoon, two white men barged into her classroom. Students froze. Fran hesitated. But the men just stood, glared, then walked out. By the time she deftly handled the bomb threat on the phone, Fran had become blasé about violence. She was too busy to worry. Her children loved her classes, especially chorus. One Saturday, her singers entertained the whole school with “This Little Light” and “America the Beautiful.” Fran found the latter “a trifle ironic,” but her students made the song their own, changing verses to honor Herbert Lee and Medgar Evers. And when children whose dreams had long been deferred came to the last verse—“O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years”—Fran realized, “we’re all dreamers or we wouldn’t be here.”
Evening conversations with Mrs. Garrett were teaching Fran more about children than she would ever learn in college. Each evening, Mrs. Garrett, her iron hair in a bun, her stout body resting comfortably in a housedress, welcomed Fran home. Over dinner, they talked about the day in class. About simple activities that worked. About “slow learners” only starting to make progress, and others so promising or so troubled. By early August, Fran had come to cherish these talks. Other volunteers might frequent juke joints or stay at the Freedom House long after classes had ended. But every evening, Fran caught a ride home in time for dinner and discussion. Back on her Oregon campus, she had imagined doing her part in the civil rights movement. She had not expected to make a lifelong friend.
With just two weeks left, Fran was thinking more about going home than about any danger. She planned to leave on Monday, August 17. She hoped to go through New Orleans and do a little sightseeing. “I could stay longer but there doesn’t seem much point,” she wrote her parents. “I wish we had done more for the kids.” Though complacent, Fran still recalled that morning in early July when she was confronted by cops after rushing out to her ride. She had never repeated the mistake. Each morning she waited inside with Mrs. Garrett until the SNCC car arrived. Each evening, she walked down the long driveway of the Freedom House in a group. Obeying SNCC rules, she could not imagine that Mississippi could concoct dangers impossible to foresee.
One evening, Fran and five others stood at the end of the driveway, waiting for the car to take them home. But when the car pulled up, it had seats for only five. Deferring as always, Fran let everyone else pile in. There would be room, she thought. But when she asked if she could squeeze in, the driver cut her off. They could not risk overloading the car, drawing attention, giving cops an excuse for another arrest. “Don’t worry,” she was told. “Someone else will be along in a minute.”
Standing alone, Fran felt a shudder, but told herself not to be such a baby. Another car would be along soon. And there it was, headlights beaming down the road, slowing, slowing, stopping. Eager to get home, Fran rushed past the twin beams. Before she could draw back, she saw four men inside—in white robes and hoods. She was not imagining this. She was not dreaming. She was in Mississippi, and the quiet of her summer had ended early.
Before Fran could turn and run, one hooded man leaped out. Clamping a beefy hand over her mouth, he dragged her into the car. It roared away. She was not imagining. She was not dreaming. Rumbling over the dirt road, the four men laughed and joked. Fran could barely see their eyes through the holes in their hoods. Look what they had captured, they seemed to say. A pretty little “invader.” A “little girl” who needed to be taught a lesson. Darkness had engulfed Mississippi by the time the car pulled into a vacant lot or empty field—Fran could not tell which. From that point on, terror veiled her memory. The car lurched and stopped. A deep, drawling voice barked in her ear.
“Now you just be a good little girl and do what we say. We’ve gotta teach you a little lesson so you’ll go home to your Mama and Daddy and mind your own business after this.”
Dragged out of the car, Fran tried to drop into a ball as she had been taught.
“No you don’t, little lady! You bend over that hood and don’t try any more funny business!”
Fran found herself shoved against the car. Somehow she recalled what Bob Moses had told female volunteers in Ohio—that their modesty was not as important as their lives. She clamped her hands over her head. Her cheek pressed against the warm hood. She inhaled the car’s odor of gasoline and dust.
“That’s a good little girl. Stay nice and still now, so we can whup you.” All four men laughed. One said they were going to make her sorry she had ever come to Mississippi. But if she got down on her knees, he said, if she begged forgiveness, they might stop. Any time she wanted. On her knees. Fran vowed she would be thrown in the Mississippi River first. She steeled herself, clenched her teeth, felt warm air on her legs as a hand lifted her skirt. Seconds later came the searing lash of a rubber hose. Breath seized in her throat. Her eyes stung. An acrid odor emerged from nowhere. The hose lashed out again. And again, each time harder than before. Her burning legs turned red, then blue, then purple. The blows continued as the men passed the hose around, taking turns. Time slowed and stopped. The world condensed to this empty lot, in Mississippi, on a quiet summer night. More lashes fell. But there is a God, Fran knew, and so she was spared further suffering. Voices and laughter dimmed, the throbbing faded. The next thing Fran knew, she was lying in the driveway of the Freedom House. Scorching heat flushed her face and seared her body. Sitting up, she struggled for the dignity that had brought her this far. She checked herself, seeing bruises but no blood. Thinking she must have been gone for hours, she ran up the long driveway to find several people on the porch, talking and joking.
“Oh hi, Fran. I thought you’d left.”
Fran started to blurt out what she could—the ride . . . no room for her . . . another due any minute . . .
“You should have come back right away,” someone said. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to wander around alone at night? This is Mississippi, you know. A lot of things could happen.”
That was when Fran burst into tears. No words would come, not even when others gathered around.
“Her dress is all dirty.”
“Did she fall down the hill? ”
“There was a car circling around here about a half an hour ago—right after those other guys left. Was that it? ”
With her head bowed, Fran nodded but could say no more. Her secret remained inside, a private, purple horror. Even in Mississippi, where a lot of things could happen, no one guessed what had just happened to the shy teacher with the devout love of children. Finally, the woman whose children Fran had befriended on her first day in Mississippi returned the favor. Approaching Fran, putting an arm around her, Bessie whispered, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
And in the care of another victim, it was okay not to say anything, not to feel anything, just to take deep breaths, to gather herself inside herself and begin the long night of suppression. Fran does not remember how she got home that evening, nor what Mrs. Garrett said about her late arrival. She remembers little of her remaining days in Mississippi. She only knows that she made a rock-firm decision not to tell anyone. She would not become an incident on a blackboard. She would not give newspapers another story. Hoping to recapture the warmth she had felt from her students, Fran kept quiet about her encounter with the Klan, quiet for twenty-five years while the terror of a quiet summer night crouched inside her. She would be leaving on August 17. She wrote home one last time, hiding her horror in vague language. She had decided not to go home through New Orleans, she told her parents. “After recent developments I don’t like the idea of traveling alone through southwest Mississippi. It’s always been the worst section and hasn’t improved this summer.” August 17. A Monday. Fran and her secret were also counting the days.
After a headline June, a lunatic July, and August’s endless lay-by time, Freedom Summer had arrived at its own crossroads. On the evening of August 19, three buses stood outside the COFO office on Lynch Street in Jackson. More than a hundred people stood around them, talking, singing, their faces reflected in bus windows beside the neon red signs of the Streamline Bar. At a press conference earlier that day, Bob Moses, though troubled by the word “success,” said the summer project had changed Mississippi. “The whole pattern of law enforcement of the past hundred years has been reversed,” he noted. “In some areas the police are offering protection where they never did before.” And Freedom Summer was not finished, Moses announced. Many volunteers were staying on to intensify voting drives in Panola and Tallahatchie counties, and to staff community centers, adult literacy programs, and mobile libraries in rural areas. But all that would only unfold after Freedom Democrats helped make Mississippi part of the U.S.A.
Since July 19, armies of canvassers had held Atlantic City aloft like some Promised Land. Now the Promised Land was just a bus ride away. Tallied in signatures alone, the Freedom Democrat drive had been disappointing. Moses had hoped for 400,000 names, then lowered his sights to 200,000, then 100,000. He had to settle for 63,000. But as delegates milled beside the buses, their hopes shone as brightly as that evening’s “We Shall Overcome,” belted out to the ring of a folksinger’s banjo. The Freedom Democrats would be on Atlantic City’s famous Boardwalk by Friday. They had followed Democratic Party rules explicitly. Papers had been filed. Affidavits and testimonies of terror were ready to be shared. After a summer of violence, could Americans deny that Mississippi was a blot on democracy? Could President Johnson, having signed the Civil Rights Act, turn them away? One by one, Freedom Democrats boarded the buses. Casey Hayden stood with a clipboard, checking off dozens of names. Arms waved out the window. Approaching the bus with his wife, Bob Moses was not as optimistic as the rest, but he was seen to smile.
At 10:00 p.m., the buses pulled out with a great cheer that broke into Freedom Songs. Instructions had been left in the COFO office—a delegate would call once the buses were safely out of Mississippi. Calculating the distance over winding roads, leaders said the call would come by 3:00 a.m. If no one checked in by 3:15, “begin action.” Singing, shouting out, marveling at the Promised Land where they were bound, delegates rolled north toward the Tennessee line. The call came at 3:02 a.m. The Freedom Democrats were on their way.
If you ask what my politics are, I am a Humanitarian.