School was out and summer was making promises across America when three hundred people descended on a leafy campus in Oxford, Ohio, not far from the Indiana border. All were Americans, most were under twenty-five, and all felt their country changing in ways they could not ignore. Beyond these traits, they had little in common.
They came in two distinct groups. The first—mostly white—had just finished another year at Harvard, Yale, Oberlin, Berkeley. . . . Guitars slung over shoulders, idealism lifting their strides, they piled out of cars sporting a Rand McNally of license plates. California. Massachusetts. “Land of Lincoln.” They wore the American Bandstand fashions of 1964—polo shirts and slacks for men, capris and sleeveless blouses for women. Talking of LBJ, Bob Dylan, the civil rights bill struggling in the Senate, they found their way to dorms, met roommates, and settled in to learn about the daring summer they had chosen.
The second group—mostly black—brought no guitars and had little idealism left to pack. They did not wear slacks and polo shirts but denim overalls and white T-shirts. Many sported buttons depicting hands, black and white, clasped above the letters SNCC. And although most were the same age as the students, instead of sharing college stories, they arrived with stories of being beaten, targeted, tortured. Like the students, they sometimes spoke of recent reading—of Kant and Camus, James Baldwin and The Wretched of the Earth. But they did not read for grades; they read to arm themselves against the world. And their world was not sunny California, quaint Massachusetts, or the Land of Lincoln. This second group had come less from a state than from a state of war. They had come from Mississippi.
On Sunday afternoon, June 14, when the two groups met on the campus of the Western College for Women, the Mississippi Summer Project began. But the scene suggested the end of summer rather than the beginning. As if it were September, boxy Corvairs and humpbacked VWs braked in front of Gothic, ivied dorms. From them stepped two, three, or four people, stretching legs and casting glances. Across courtyards strewn with students, an occasional transistor radio blared a hit—“My Guy” or “She Loves You”—yet many students, goateed men or women with long, ironed hair, sat beneath trees strumming guitars, making their own music. Within a few hours, they would learn stirring hymns of freedom, but most only knew one such song now, and now seemed too soon to boast of overcoming someday.
Over dinner in the dining hall, where the food was surprisingly good, students talked about their hopes for the summer. Few harbored even postcard images of the South. Most had been in grade school during the Montgomery bus boycott, slightly older when federal troops desegregated Central High in Little Rock, in high school when spontaneous sit-ins desegregated lunch counters across the South and Freedom Rides made headline violence. The previous year, they had seen the appalling images on TV—attack dogs and fire hoses tearing into blacks in Birmingham, dead children, their dark legs dangling, carried from the rubble of the First Baptist Church. And now they were headed to the South, the Deep South. Most could conjure up only fleeting imagery. “At Oxford, my mental picture of Mississippi contained nothing but an unending series of swamps, bayous, and dark, lonely roads,” one student later wrote. Some thought they knew the South. It was the fabled land of Faulkner’s doomed families, the bittersweet nostalgia of Gone with the Wind, the hokum of TV’s top show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Few had ever seen a spreading live oak dripping in Spanish moss or sweated in the steam-bath of a Mississippi summer. Even fewer had set foot in a sharecropper’s shack, seen a pickup with a gun rack, used an outhouse, been in jail, heard a shotgun blast echo and die in the darkness. They had six days to prepare.
To help them, the denim-clad group from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) arrived in Oxford with a simple plan—tell the truth. The Mississippi Summer Project was a death-defying roll of the dice. In a state where a sassy comment could get a Negro killed or a white battered, it was one thing to risk your own safety; it was another to ask hundreds of strangers to risk theirs. And so, like sergeants in boot camp, SNCC trainers felt duty bound to turn innocent idealists into anxious, even terrified realists. But only after singing.
The Freedom Songs began after dinner. Standing in the cool twilight beside a circle of trees, volunteers were introduced to songs fired in the crucible of “the Movement.” On beyond “We Shall Overcome,” they learned “Wade in the Water,” “Oh, Freedom,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Early that evening, a stocky black woman in a floral dress, her arms thick from a life in the cotton fields, limped to the stage, threw her head back, and belted out song after song, lifting the entire ensemble.
This little light of miii-iiine,
I’m gonna let it shiii-iiine
Soon volunteers and staff were holding hands. Arms crossed, they swayed to the harmonies of songs they would sing all summer without ever tiring of them. Some songs were as feathered as lullabies, others as strident as marches. SNCC veterans stood with eyes closed, heads rolled back, their suffering pouring through the timeless melodies. Volunteers struggled to keep up, fell a syllable behind, then joined in as if they had known the songs since childhood. As the sun set and stars glittered above, the singing continued. The songs made hair stand on end, made souls sink in sorrow and rise again in triumph.
In the coming days, the Mississippi veterans would do their best to scare some sense into the students.
Tuesday: “I may be killed and you may be killed.”
Thursday: “They—the white folk, the police, the county sheriff, the state police—they are all watching for you. They are looking for you. They are ready and they are armed.”
Friday: “They take you to jail, strip you, lay you on the floor and beat you until you’re almost dead.”
On Sunday evening, however, songs kept terror at bay.
Who’s that yonder dressed in red?
Let my people go
Must be the children that Moses led
Let my people go-oooo.
As the week progressed, the truth about Mississippi would sober the volunteers, but it would not send more than a few home. Youthful idealism is more tensile than any truth. Just seven months had passed since John Kennedy had been cut down in Dallas, and his spirit—“Ask not . . .”—suffused the Ohio campus. The summer project reminded many of Kennedy’s Peace Corps and had begun with the same call to commitment. “A great change is at hand,” Kennedy had told the nation in announcing his civil rights bill the previous June. “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing rights as well as reality.” Throughout the spring of 1964, SNCC speakers touring colleges across the country had recruited the bold. Their horror stories from Mississippi captivated entire auditoriums. Was this America?
By late May, more than seven hundred students had chosen to forgo intern-ships, opt out of summer jobs, let Europe’s cathedrals wait, and instead spend a summer in Mississippi. Cynical friends told them they would be “cannon fodder for the Movement,” yet they saw a higher purpose. Filling out applications, some had quoted the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Jesus. But many had cited Kennedy, the need to “honor the memory” and “carry out the legacy.” Sarcasm, burnout, the intense self-consciousness of an entire generation—these would come later in the 1960s. In this crystalline moment on a campus in Ohio, while hundreds of young voices sang of freedom, there seemed nothing trite in SNCC’s founding statement: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice, hope ends despair. Peace dominates war, faith reconciles doubt.”
For all their sincerity, dozens failed their interviews. Guidelines for interviewers were explicit. Each volunteer was asked whether working under black leadership would be difficult. Each had to “possess a learning attitude toward work in Mississippi” and recognize “that his role will be to work with local leadership, not to overwhelm it.” Those displaying a “John Brown complex” were not welcome. “A student who seems determined to carve his own niche, win publicity and glory when he returns home can only have harmful effects on the Mississippi program.” Anyone expressing the slightest interest in interracial sex was rejected. Once accepted, volunteers were divided into two groups: Freedom School teachers, who would show up for training the following week, and these first arrivals, whose summer would take them from shack to shack registering voters. But although their jobs would be distinct, Freedom Summer volunteers who made the cut and made it to Ohio presented a group portrait of American idealism.
As volunteers took over the campus, the New York Times saw in their faces “an unmistakable middle-class stamp.” Yet their average family income was 50 percent above the national norm. Just two-fifths were female. As with the whole of America in 1964, 90 percent were white. All but a few were in college, almost half from Ivy League or other top schools. Many were the sons and daughters of success, the children of lawyers, doctors, CEOs, even a congressman, but just as many were the children of teachers, social workers, union organizers, and ministers. Taken together, they were the offspring of the entire nation. While four dozen came from metropolitan New York, three dozen from the San Francisco Bay Area, and two dozen from Southern California, the rest came from every corner of the country. From Flint, Michigan, and What Cheer, Iowa. From Tenafly, New Jersey, and Prairie City, Oregon. From Americus, Georgia, and Peoria, Illinois. From Del Rio, Texas, and Vienna, West Virginia. Raised amid Cold War consensus, the vast majority were true believers in America. Some had been jaded by the Bay of Pigs or darkening reports from Vietnam, yet all clung to the hope that whenever America fell short of its ideals, young Americans could restore them.
Accepted for the summer, volunteers were told to bring $150 in expenses, $500 for bail, and three publicity photos. They were to show up in Oxford, Ohio, for a week of training starting June 14 for canvassers, June 21 for teachers. Applicants under twenty-one needed parental permission. Some had received it grudgingly. “I don’t see how I have any right to stop you,” a mother in Manhattan told her son. She then went in the kitchen, did the dishes, and wept. Others had met resistance. One woman got letters from her grandfather saying, “You’ve deserted us for the niggers.” And a few applicants ran into stone walls. “Absolutely mesmerized” by the recruiter on her campus, a student called home to share her summer plans. “My Mom starts crying. Then my Dad gets on and starts yelling about how he’s not paying $2,000—or whatever my tuition was—for me to run off to Mississippi; that I’m there to get an education and that if I have anything else in mind he’ll be glad to stop sending the check. End of discussion.” Most parents, however, could not argue with ideals that shone so brightly. “Surely, no challenge looms larger than eradicating racial discrimination in this country,” one man wrote on his application. “I want to do my part. There is a moral wave building among today’s youth and I intend to catch it!”
As a high school senior in Amherst, Massachusetts, Chris Williams would have understood the surfing metaphor, but he preferred rhythm and blues to the Beach Boys. Lean and wisecracking, with a rebellious streak and a lust for adventure, Chris welcomed any challenge to the status quo, especially the racial status quo. He had seen racism’s ugly face at an early age. While living in Washington, D.C., Chris had befriended the children of the maid who helped his mother care for his four younger siblings. Neighbors began throwing stones, shouting, “Nigger lover!” The Williams family soon moved north, but Chris never forgot. From the first headlines out of Montgomery, he was drawn to the civil rights movement. “You didn’t run into many situations where there was a clear right and wrong,” he remembered. “In this case, ‘right’ seemed very obvious.”
In the spring of 1964, Chris was of medium height, with a Boy Scout face but brown hair long enough—over his ears, even—to get him suspended from school. During his spring break, he had followed local ministers to Williamston, North Carolina, to picket a courthouse. A melee on Easter Sunday saw one man hit with a baseball bat; Chris was merely arrested. Finding jail more exhilarating than depressing, he whiled away three days listening to Top 40 radio and joking with fellow protesters, black teenagers who, amused by his hair, called him “Ringo.” Bailed out, Chris headed home, vowing to return. The opportunity was not long in coming. At nearby Smith College, he sat in on a civil rights rally that ended with two Yale students describing the Mississippi Summer Project.
Parental permission came readily. Chris’s father understood restlessness. Schafer Williams had dropped out of Harvard in 1928 to bum around America, working in sawmills and pipe gangs. When the adventure wore thin, he had returned to college, earning a Ph.D. in medieval history. Now, having grown skeptical of the generation he taught at the University of Massachusetts, he saw the summer project as a way for his son “to actually do something worthwhile.” Chris’s mother was more apprehensive. “The Birmingham church bombing had occurred the previous fall,” Chris remembered. “Medgar Evers had been assassinated—in Mississippi. She knew the danger.” Still, Jean Williams told local papers that too many Americans considered teenagers “do-nothings.” “American students have finally come around to support something that must be done.”
On fire with his summer plans, Chris did not wait to graduate. In early June, he got a crew cut, handed in his schoolbooks, and hitchhiked back to North Carolina. In Williamston, he passed out leaflets, sat in on boisterous church meetings, and ate collard greens with his host family. Then, as the training in Ohio approached, he stuck out his thumb and hitched west. Picked up by cops, he was questioned “like I was the nation’s most wanted criminal.” Forced to call home to prove he was not a runaway, he cited Thoreau in his journal—“That government which governs best is the government which governs least.” He crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, riding with farmers and soldiers, then waited hours while big, brawny cars roared past, leaving him in the twilight—alone, eighteen, and in love with the road. Somewhere along the way, he lost his wallet and was penniless. But finally, more rides came—from “a homosexual,” “a car full of hoods,” and two off-duty cops drinking beer and throwing the cans out the window. Through Appalachian hollows, across the rolling farmland of southern Ohio, he slowly made his way to the campus, “and the whole Mississippi adventure began.”
Like others at the training, Chris thought he had come solely for the summer. That fall, he expected to enter the University of Pennsylvania. He did not know that in the coming months he would be shot at, smell tear gas, and meet people who would forever become his measure of humanity. He did not know he would meet the woman he would marry. And although he signed up for just a few months, come September he would give up his slot in the Ivy League to continue organizing in rural Mississippi. “I realized Mississippi was more educational than anything I was going to get at Penn. There was a sense that this was not some crazy escapade—this was history in the making. This was going to be written down, talked about. This was a sea change in the United States.”
When the singing ended that Sunday night, SNCC staff stayed up late. Released from Mississippi’s constant terror, some drank, others debated. Many were already anxious about the volunteers. These “kids” seemed so naive, so vulnerable, so maddeningly certain of themselves. The thought of throwing them into the hellhole of Mississippi terrified those who bore its bruises and bullet wounds. How much truth should the kids be told? Could Yale and Harvard students feel the agony of Mississippi? Could they understand what it was like to drive on a dark road and suddenly see headlights flash in the rearview mirror, see a car coming up fast, ramming your bumper at sixty, seventy, eighty miles per hour? Could they know what it was like to hit the floor if the car pulled around and passed? To know that when terror loomed, when a mob gathered, when a sheriff took you in, there was no one to call? Not the cops who would watch as some “good ol’ boy” knocked your teeth out. Not the Justice Department, who cared little. Not the FBI, who cared less. In six days, 250 students would leave for places like McComb, Mississippi, where five black men had been killed and fifty flogged since the first of the year. Would they panic? Flaunt their northern superiority? Could they meet violence with nonviolence? The time had come, as Chris Williams noted in his journal, for “the hairy stories.”
On Monday morning, as students talked and joked in a spacious auditorium, a white man in a minister’s collar stepped before them. The previous evening, the Reverend Edwin King had conducted a memorial for Medgar Evers. From throughout the hall, volunteers had seen the large white bandage on King’s jaw, which had been shattered in a car crash when he was run off the road near Jackson. Now the minister called Mississippi a “police state.” Every institution, he told volunteers, would be against them. The government, the courts, the newspapers, the cops, the wealthy businessmen, the small merchants, and especially the poor whites would stop at nothing—not arson, torture, not even murder—to keep Negroes “in their place.” King described the relentless intimidation, the routine police brutality, the “disappearance” of black men, and the juries that acquitted murderers in less than an hour.
But the reverend’s scenario was tepid compared to stories that followed. One by one, black men in their denim and T-shirts described terrors witnessed or endured. Some told of the notorious prison called Parchman Farm, where they were drenched with water on cold nights, left to swelter in the “hot box” on blistering afternoons. Others described the police dog unleashed on marchers in Greenwood, recent beatings in Canton and Natchez, shotguns fired into black homes in almost every town. Volunteers raised to believe that “the policeman is your friend” now heard about cops in Mississippi. “When you go down those cold stairs at the police station,” said Willie Peacock, beaten in police custody just the week before, “you don’t know if you’re going to come back or not. You don’t know if you can take those licks without fighting back because you might decide to fight back. It all depends on how you wanna die.” One tall SNCC staffer did not have to say anything. The bullet holes in his neck were clearly visible above his white T-shirt. Finally, the same stout woman whose singing had lifted the congregation on Sunday evening described a June night in 1963. Ordered away from a whites-only lunch counter, Fannie Lou Hamer had been led to a cell and forced to lie down as guards handed an inmate a blackjack. “That man beat me till he give out.” The blows had smashed her head, her back, her bare feet. Hamer’s booming voice now chilled the volunteers. “Don’t beat me no more! Don’t beat me no more!” Across the crowded auditorium, hands went to mouths, eyes were averted, tears held back. This was Mississippi—where they would be on Sunday.
At dinner that second evening, the mood on campus resembled that of a prison camp more than a summer camp. Over food that now seemed tasteless, students imagined being battered, shot, killed. White faces seemed whiter somehow. Smiles were gone. Freedom Songs were forgotten. “It just scared the crap out of us,” Chris Williams wrote. Some vented their fears in letters home.
I turned down a chance to work in the southwest part of the state, the most dangerous area. I talked to a staff member covering that area for about fifteen minutes and he told me about the five Negroes who have been taken into the woods and shot in the last three months. . . . I told him that I couldn’t go in there because I was just too scared. I felt so bad I was about to forget about going to Mississippi at all. But I still wanted to go; I just didn’t feel like giving up my life. . . .
Chris found another way of coping. At midnight on Monday, he donned gym shorts and went for a shirtless, barefoot run. Across dewy lawns, beside softly lit dorms, past SNCCs partying in their office, he ran and ran, reconsidering his “Mississippi adventure.” “I just ran until I was really tired and then I wasn’t scared anymore.”
Throughout Tuesday, as workshops focused on Mississippi politics, geography, and history, tensions between the two groups tightened. Some students felt lectured; others lamented the racial divide: “We don’t know what it is to be a Negro, and even if we did, the Negroes here would not accept us. . . . In their eyes we’re rich middle or upper-class whites who’ve taken off a summer to help the Negro.” Yet many were beginning to idolize the Mississippi veterans.
Wherever students met on campus, stories circulated about this organization called SNCC (pronounced “Snick”). How in 1960, a brave and brilliant black woman named Ella Baker, active in civil rights since the 1930s, had gathered dozens of college students fresh from the “sit-ins” that had sprung up at lunch counters in southern cities. How Baker had forged them into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a political force designed to earn blacks “more than a hamburger.” How SNCC soon had chapters on campuses across the country and how its members had kept the Freedom Rides going. (In May 1961, thirteen Freedom Riders—seven blacks and six whites—rode buses into the South, daring the federal government to enforce laws desegregating interstate travel. Freedom Riders were arrested in North Carolina, beaten by mobs in South Carolina, and saw their bus fire-bombed in Alabama. Unprotected by police, they abandoned their ride in Birmingham. But SNCC members soon came from Nashville to continue the Freedom Rides into Mississippi, where they were rounded up in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm Prison.) The Freedom Rides made SNCC the “shock troops” of the Movement, its members pitting Gandhian pacifism against kneejerk brutality, singing through weeks of “jail—no bail,” surviving on spaghetti and hamburgers, talking into the night about love, compassion, and nonviolence. In small projects from Georgia to Arkansas, SNCC members met poor blacks on their porches, slept on cots or floors, ventured into Klan territory, all for a salary of $9.64 a week, after taxes.
Even among daring civil rights workers, SNCC staffers—often just called “SNCCs”—stood out. SNCCs were cooler, braver, feisty to a fault. “They would argue with a signpost,” member Joyce Ladner recalled. Though they waxed eloquent about creating a “beautiful community,” “a circle of trust,” SNCC jargon made the Movement sound like World War II. They spoke of “cracking Mississippi,” of establishing “beachheads,” of working “behind enemy lines.” Historian Howard Zinn, who traveled with SNCC, wrote: “To be with them, walking a picket line in the rain in Hattiesburg, Mississippi . . . to see them jabbed by electric prod poles and flung into paddy wagons in Selma, Alabama, or link arms and sing at the close of a church meeting in the Delta—is to feel the presence of greatness.” And in their presence in Ohio, most volunteers were in awe. The training changed her life, one later said, “because I met those SNCC people and my mouth fell open.”
Disdaining the celebrity status of Martin Luther King, SNCC fostered “group-centered leadership,” no member more important than another, all decisions made by consensus hammered out in meetings that seemed to last for days. SNCC became its own university as members shared books or talked in jail cells—about overcoming fear, about philosophy, mathematics, or sometimes just about women. Seeing themselves not as leaders but as organizers, SNCCs empowered locals to stifle fear and organize the Movement in their own communities. Group-centered leadership meant that while every volunteer in Ohio knew of Dr. King, few recognized the pantheon of future civil rights icons in their midst. In one corner stood James Forman, the suave, pipe-smoking air force veteran who had grown up in Mississippi so poor he had sometimes tried to eat dirt, but who returned from college to forge SNCC’s ragtag revolutionaries into a white-hot force. Elsewhere was John Lewis, the shy son of Alabama sharecroppers who was SNCC’s chairman and would later serve in Congress. Also on campus were other future leaders of this brave new generation of African Americans—Julian Bond, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Victoria Gray, Marion Barry. . . . But even in this remarkable gathering, one SNCC stood out, no matter how hard he tried not to.
With his bib overalls, glasses, and thick, furrowed brow, he looked like a wise sharecropper, and his small stature helped him slip unnoticed through crowds. But when he spoke, he gave himself away. “He is more or less the Jesus of the whole project,” one volunteer noted. This was the man the press recognized as the mastermind, the Negro with “the Masters’ degree from Harvard.” Who left a cushy job teaching math at a New York prep school. Who went to Mississippi in 1960, when no other civil rights leader dared to. Who went there alone. Frequently arrested and attacked, he had developed an icy calm that astounded everyone in his presence. How could one comprehend the courage it took to enter an office just ransacked by a mob, set up a cot, and take a nap? And his name, as if chosen by more than chance, came straight from the Freedom Song they had sung the night before. This was Moses. Bob Moses.
Before he came to Mississippi, there was little in Robert Parris Moses’ life that suggested he would be a leader, let alone a legend. Raised in Harlem, one of three sons of a hardworking janitor, he had excelled in school, earning scholarships to Stuyvesant High, Hamilton College, and finally a doctoral program at Harvard. There he studied mathematical logic, earning his master’s in 1957. The following year, however, his mother died of cancer, and his father, overcome with grief, wound up in a mental institution. Moses left Harvard and went home, taking odd jobs to support the family and his father’s eventual recovery. One job, tutoring the teen crooner Frankie Lymon (“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”), took Moses to ghettos around the country, where he pondered the fate of blacks who had fled the South for “the promised land.” Feeling the hopelessness Harvard had helped him escape, he began seeking answers. Then on February 1, 1960, four black men took seats at an all-white lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Moses studied newspaper photos of that first sit-in, studied them for weeks. Seated at the counter, the four seemed so serene, so confident. “Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing,” he recalled. “This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life. . . . This was the answer.” While in college, Moses had worked in Quaker summer camps in Europe and Japan, building housing for the poor, talking with new friends about pacifism and its power. His favorite author was Albert Camus, whose novels portrayed ordinary men ennobled by their opposition to evil, whose essays convinced him that “words are more powerful than munitions.” Four months after the Greensboro sit-ins, Moses, then twenty-four, put Camus’s philosophy and his own to the test, heading south.
While visiting his uncle, an architect in Virginia, Moses picketed in Newport News. The simple protest brought him great relief. After a lifetime of stifling resentment, of “playing it cool,” he was finally, as Camus would have said, engagé. Heading on to Atlanta, he worked for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), stuffing envelopes at an old desk and discussing Kant with a coworker. The intense newcomer unnerved some in the SCLC office. Julian Bond recalled many thinking the somber, intellectual Moses had to be a Communist. “We were immensely suspicious of him,” Bond remembered. “We had tunnel vision. . . . Bob Moses, on the other hand, had already begun to project a systematic analysis; not just of the South, but of the country, the world.” When SNCC needed someone to go to Mississippi to recruit for a conference, Moses volunteered, paying for his own bus ticket. Armed only with his passport and the names of local NAACP leaders, he crossed Alabama and headed for America’s poorest region, the land of sprawling cotton fields flanked by sharecroppers’ shacks, the land whose sorrows birthed the blues, the land known simply as the Delta.
In the flat, sun-baked town of Cleveland, Mississippi, Moses met NAACP organizer Amzie Moore. The Harvard Ph.D. candidate and the owner of a Delta gas station became instant friends. Moore saw in Moses the quiet courage black Mississippi needed to “uncover what is covered.” And to Moses, the stout, stocky Moore suggested the old spiritual, “a tree beside the water” that would not be moved. Amzie Moore wasn’t interested in sit-ins, Moses learned. Sharecroppers earning $500 a year could not afford to eat at lunch counters. Voting, Moore said, was the key to change in Mississippi. Blacks outnumbered whites two to one in the Delta, but only 3 percent could vote. Since World War II, even the smallest registration campaigns had sparked shattering violence. As they talked in the fading light, Moses noticed the loaded rifle Moore kept at his side and the bright lights outside protecting him from the drive-by shooting, the sniper, the firestorm in the night. And as they talked, Moses drafted a plan for voter registration to begin the following summer. Moore soon drove his young protégé around the Delta, talking of local politics, explaining how a burdened people moved and survived—a black ocean, deep and serene, encircling human volcanoes. Moore had Moses speak to church groups, watching to see how Delta folk responded. “There’s something coming,” Moses told the tired faces in each tiny church. “Get ready. It’s inevitably coming your way whether you like it or not. It sent me to tell you that.” Most people lowered their eyes, but some softly said, “Amen.” With these few, a handful of seeds in each terrified town, Moses and SNCC would sow the Movement in Mississippi.
Reluctantly, Moses returned to New York for a final year in his teaching contract. In the summer of 1961, he headed south again. He would stay in Mississippi nearly four years. By the time he left, embittered, exhausted, but somehow still alive, Mississippi would be swarming with voting campaigns, Freedom Schools, and change that had been centuries in coming.
At the Ohio training, volunteers quickly recognized Moses’ inner strength, and some tried to copy him, walking and speaking slowly, wearing bib overalls. But because he was too self-effacing to share his own tales of terror, few yet knew them. Later they would learn how, in August 1961, Moses had set up voter registration classes in the backwoods hill country of southwest Mississippi, a place he described as so “rural, impoverished, brutal that [it] hardly seemed a part of America.” They would hear of him leading blacks to courthouses, walking right up to sour-faced registrars, answering their hatred with gentle words. And how curious clerks had dropped into one registrar’s office to see this “New York nigger,” and how a highway patrolman had pulled him over on his way out of town.
“You the nigger that came down from New York to stir up a lot of trouble? ”
“I’m the Negro who came down from New York to instruct people in voter registration,” Moses corrected. Then he began to take down the cop’s badge number.
“Get in the car, nigger!”
Taken to the police station, Moses was allowed the customary phone call. Cops listened as he asked the operator to call the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Collect. He then detailed the violations of civil rights laws in Amite County. Startled cops asked Moses to pay just five dollars in court costs. He refused and spent two days in jail. The NAACP finally bailed him out, but not before a local asked him, “Boy, are you sure you know what you’re about?”
Within weeks, word spread. Blacks heard that “Dr. King and some other big people” were in the area. Teenagers Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes went searching for King, found Moses, and joined SNCC. Meanwhile, whites heard that some “nigger from New York” was stirring up trouble, and the name Bob Moses soon topped a Klan hit list. The hit was not long in coming. In late August, as Moses led three people to the squat brick courthouse in Liberty, a man pounced, smashing his head with a knife handle. With blood streaming down his face, Moses led the trembling applicants up the courthouse steps. The registrar’s office was closed. After getting nine stitches, Moses then did another thing blacks simply did not do in Mississippi in 1961—he pressed charges. Before a courtroom packed with shotgun-toting farmers, Moses coolly testified about the beating, then let the sheriff escort him to city limits. His assailant was acquitted—self-defense. The terror soon escalated, culminating in the murder of Herbert Lee. Fear crippled the Movement, and SNCC pulled out of southwest Mississippi, but stories about Bob Moses inspired more to join him in SNCC’s new beachhead—the Delta. By 1964, Moses was little known outside civil rights circles but a legend within. Still, those few volunteers who had heard of him must have been surprised when they heard him speak.
In a voice as soft as silk, Moses spoke briefly on Sunday night, then periodically throughout the week. He broke every rule of elocution. He often looked at his feet. He never repeated himself, rarely told stories, never smiled. And yet, because in the timeless tradition of genuine leaders he spoke truth to power, he had everyone’s attention.
“No administration in this country is going to commit political suicide over the rights of Negroes,” Moses told volunteers. “This is part of what we are doing . . . getting the country involved through yourselves.” Convinced that only a bold move would change Mississippi, Moses had lobbied heavily for the summer project, overcoming strong objections by Movement veterans. But now he did not seem so sure: “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro,” he told volunteers. “Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one. Maybe we’re not going to get very many people registered this summer. Maybe, even, we’re not going to get very many people into Freedom Schools. Maybe all we’re going to do is live through this summer. In Mississippi, that will be so much.”
Sighing as if the world were on his shoulders, Moses told volunteers about the murder of Herbert Lee. But he did not tell them about his nagging concerns. By Tuesday afternoon, he was very worried. Despite all the “hairy stories,” no one had gone home. In long, soul-searching discussions, volunteers had aired their doubts. Weren’t they being egocentric? Masochistic? Did they have Messiah complexes? As whites raised in America, weren’t they also steeped in racism? Volunteers quoted Gandhi, Tolstoy, and James Baldwin, yet none took the commonsense option of leaving. Moses’ concern was shared by other SNCCs.
“It’s not working,” said Charles McLaurin, still nursing bruises from a recent beating. “It’s really not working. They’re really not getting through to each other.” Sitting through sessions that ranged from the character of southern whites to the history of slavery, volunteers seemed studious, solemn. But when released from workshops, they played touch football or strummed “Blowin’ in the Wind,” acting as if headed for summer at the seashore. Students read SNCC’s security handbook: “No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night. . . . Try not to sleep near open windows; try to sleep at the back of the house. . . . Do not stand in doorways at night with the light at your back.” But just as Mississippi’s strange savagery was sinking in, the naïveté resurfaced. During a frank discussion on sex, one woman asked, “We have talked about interracial dating. Is there a policy you’d like for us to follow? ” SNCC staffers were incredulous. A policy? Had anyone heard of Emmett Till? Beaten to a pulp, shot in the head, tied to a fan, and thrown in the Tallahatchie River for just whistling at a white woman? Emmett Till was fourteen years old. It wasn’t working. Further proof came Tuesday night.
After dinner, volunteers watched Mississippi and the Fifteenth Amendment . The CBS documentary detailed how the Magnolia State had defied the Constitution by disenfranchising its black populace. The federal government had filed lawsuits, but Mississippi judges had stonewalled, nitpicked, thrown most out of court. Volunteers seethed or sat disgusted. But then the camera fell on a hideously fat man in a white shirt and horn-rimmed glasses. Laughter rippled through the auditorium. SNCC staffers fumed. This was no comical stereotype. This was Theron Lynd, registrar in Forrest County, who had never registered a Negro until hit by a lawsuit. The audience quieted as a black man onscreen told of a shotgun fired into his home, wounding two little girls, but when his wife came on in a funny hat, some giggled. Several SNCCs stormed out. When the documentary ended, another jumped onstage. “You should be ashamed! You could laugh at that film!”
“The flash point,” as one volunteer called it, had arrived. Across the auditorium, whispers and stares punctuated an aching silence. A few volunteers stood and spoke, calling SNCC staffers distant, arrogant, patronizing. They acted superior to anyone who had not shared their suffering. In one corner, Bob Moses stood with his arm around his wife, Dona, a recent University of Chicago philosophy grad. Both were stone-faced. Other SNCCs let the tension linger, as in their own meetings, before finally lifting it. They told of the fat registrar—“We know that bastard.” The previous January, Theron Lynd had been the target of Hattiesburg’s Freedom Day. Hundreds had picketed in the rain. Moses was arrested, one marcher was beaten in jail, and here these kids were, safe in Ohio, laughing. Another SNCC erupted: “Ask Jimmie over there what he thinks about Mississippi. He has six slugs in him, man, and the last one went right through the back of his neck. . . . Ask Jesse here—he’s been beaten so we couldn’t recognize him, time and time and time and time again. If you don’t get scared, pack up and get the hell out of here because we don’t need any people who don’t know what they’re doing.” The confrontation went on until 2:00 a.m. When it was over, everyone joined hands and sang SNCC’s mournful anthem, “Never Turn Back,” written in memory of Herbert Lee. Volunteers slowly filed back to their dorms, but staff again stayed up, talking, drinking, more worried than ever. Bob Moses and his wife were near tears, but one volunteer, crying as he wrote home, noted: “The crisis is past, I think.”
On Wednesday, a workshop turned into a heated debate. The Reverend James Lawson, who had written SNCC’s lofty mission statement on nonviolence, argued with Stokely Carmichael, who would later take SNCC into the realm of Black Power. As rapt volunteers watched, the tall, gangly Carmichael said nonviolence had once worked because it was new and made news. But having been beaten in jail and tortured in Parchman Farm, he considered nonviolence useless against vicious racists. Lawson admitted goodness had its price. “When you turn the other cheek,” he said, “you must accept the fact that you will get clobbered on it.” Many volunteers remained uncertain. Wasn’t violence sometimes justified? In self-defense? Finally, one of the few white SNCC staffers spoke up. Alabaman Bob Zellner had been the lone white in a peaceful protest in McComb in 1961. Singled out by a mob, he was clubbed, beaten, and had his eyes gouged while he gripped a railing, holding on for his life. “You must understand that nonviolence is essential to our program this summer,” Zellner told the group. “If you can’t accept this, please don’t come with us.” Again, no one left.
After lunch, an outdoor workshop beneath a bright blue sky taught volunteers how to take a beating. Near a tree pinned with a sign—“Courthouse”—students became a mob, shouting “Nigger!” and “Commie bastard!” swarming around their new friends, lashing out, knocking some to the ground. Volunteers learned to fall, roll in a ball, absorb the blows. “Your legs, your thighs, your buttocks, your kidneys, your back can take a kick or a billy club. So can your arms and your hands. Your head can’t. Your neck can’t. Your groin can’t.” Some students shuddered at the viciousness of the “mob.” One attacker, twenty-year-old Andrew Goodman, seemed to lose himself in the moment, shouting, screaming, then looking slightly sheepish at the anger within. Yet this faux Mississippi still seemed surreal—college kids playing at violence on a green lawn in Ohio. College kids who would be in Mississippi in just four days.
That Wednesday afternoon, a call came to SNCC’s campus office. The long-distance line was scratchy, but the voice had an unmistakable drawl. No one ever found out how the caller got the number. “I got me a twen’y foot pit out bay-ack,” the voice said. “Y’all just come on down.” SNCC did not tell volunteers about the call, but the following afternoon, staffers shared hate mail that had come to the campus. Phrases from one letter leaped out: “morally rotten outcasts of the White race. . . . ‘White Negroes’ are the rottenest of the race-mixing criminals. . . . it will be a long, hot, summer—but the ‘heat’ will be applied to the race-mixing TRASH by the DECENT people who do not believe in racial mongrelization through racial prostitution.”
Volunteers listened, sickened by the hatred. But for one black woman, the hate mail was just more information to be filed under “Survival.” Like other volunteers, Muriel Tillinghast had come to Ohio straight from another campus. Two weeks earlier, she had graduated from Howard University, where she had majored in sociology and political science but spent most of her time with NAG, Howard’s Non-Violent Action Group. “We were renegades,” Muriel recalled with pride. “Within the black community of Washington, D.C., we were an alienated group. We looked different, we talked differently, we hung together.” Centered around Stokely Carmichael, then a Howard philosophy student, NAG’s “Weekend Warriors” held endless late-night discussions, talking, passing a hat to send someone out for cold cuts, talking more. Protesting on weekends, NAG members kept pressure on segregated Maryland, Delaware, and D.C. In Cambridge, Maryland, Muriel had survived “NAG’s local Mississippi,” when marchers confronted the Maryland National Guard. With bayonets fixed, guardsmen laced the streets with tear gas, sending Muriel, Carmichael, and others coughing, vomiting, burning in retreat.
Savvy, street-smart, and fiercely independent, Muriel Tillinghast was the latest incarnation of the rock-solid women who helped generations survive slavery. When gripped by fear, she was sometimes overwhelmed, yet able to summon deep rivers within. When despair surfaced, a quick and sarcastic wit kept her going. And when these resources failed, she fell back on her family. “I did not come out of a family where you played the victim,” she said, “but from multi generations of people who fought back.” The Tillinghasts, intensely involved in the Lutheran church and “about eighty other groups,” had long been an “organizational family.” Even in 1964, they still shared the story of how, sometime around 1900, Muriel’s grandmother had left a Texas plantation and walked to Washington, D.C. There Gloria Carter had married a “race man.” Muriel’s grandfather was “no bigger than a match stick” but, widely traveled and defiantly self-educated, he shared a household where books were cherished, college was mandatory, and children “spent time in meetings from when we could walk.”
Growing up in D.C., Muriel rarely encountered the dark racism of the Deep South. But she remembered a visit to Florida where she was told not to even touch the clothes in a department store, and never to try them on. And closer to home, she had often met racism’s lighter-skinned cousin. Like the old spiritual turned into SNCC’s anthem, she had been “ ’buked and scorned” more times than she cared to count. Her sophomore class had been the first to integrate D.C.’s Roosevelt High School, facing down the hatred of the principal and student body. Each affront gave Muriel a steely strength hidden in a slight frame. By the time she reached Howard, meticulous and driven, she was a natural for NAG’s nonviolent protests. But as an urbanite who knew the Deep South only in legend and in Movement lore, was she ready for Mississippi? As a woman who had not yet learned to drive, was she prepared for harrowing chases down back roads? And as a black woman who chose not to straighten her hair, instead letting it grow into an Afro long before the style became popular, could she stand up to the relentless bigotry she was about to encounter?
Muriel knew Mississippi only as “a distant well of human woe,” yet human woe had been beckoning. During the winter of 1963, when Delta officials cut off federal food allotments, she had collected enough clothes and food to fill half a semitruck, then found a teamster willing to arm himself and drive it to Leflore County. A year later, she had again reached out to Mississippi when NAG members began calling isolated SNCCs there, offering solidarity, friendship, human contact. Muriel recognized one name on the list—Charlie Cobb in Greenville. Cobb had been a fellow Howard student and NAG member. His aunt had also been Muriel’s fifth-grade teacher, so she called him up unannounced. Cobb soon became her “Sunday call.” “He would tell me about what they were doing, their daily work which was mostly staying alive.” As plans for the summer solidified, Cobb began telling this kind female voice on the phone about the upcoming project.
Some volunteers had agonized about going to Mississippi. Others had leaped at the chance. For Muriel, Mississippi was simply the next logical step. Her mother, having taught school in Mississippi, was “beside herself” over her daughter’s decision, but Muriel did not consider it a decision. “At NAG meetings, I was informed around February that something was going on in Mississippi that summer and the attitude was, ‘You’re going, aren’t you?’ As we got into May, it was, ‘The bus is leaving at such and such a time—you’re going to be on it, right?’ ” On June 12, NAG members left Washington, D.C., for Ohio. Seated beside her battered blue suitcase filled with more books than clothes, twenty-two-year-old Muriel Tillinghast was on the bus.
Once on the Ohio campus, Muriel did not concern herself with the tension between staff and recruits. As she had all her life, she got down to business. Her experience with NAG immediately moved her from volunteer to SNCC staffer, privy to all the endless meetings, strategies, and concerns. Becoming “a sponge” of information, she pestered Charlie Cobb and other veterans for survival tips. She learned how she would have to walk in Mississippi—a slow rural pace that did not call attention to her. She learned how she would have to address people, and how she could organize small, quarreling communities into cohesive armies united in the fight. SNCC’s horror stories “brought us to the stark reality that some of us were not going to come back,” but Muriel tried not to think about that. Instead, she called on her inherited strength, her organizational skills, the solidarity she had learned at Howard, and prepared to take them south. Courage had nothing to do with it. “It was esprit de corps. These were my friends and they were going and I was going with them.”
Suddenly there were just two days till departure. Volunteers wrote to President Lyndon Johnson, asking, “As we depart for that troubled state, to hear your voice in support of those principles to which Americans have dedicated and sacrificed themselves.” Bob Moses had already written LBJ requesting federal protection for the project. Neither Moses nor volunteers heard from the president.
Buses would head south on Saturday afternoon, entering Mississippi on Sunday under cover of darkness. As if to highlight the danger, the media began to swarm over the campus. Final workshops unfolded before TV cameras. Volunteers were interviewed again and again. “Are you scared?” “Do you really think it will do any good?” “You are scared, aren’t you?” Besieged by reporters, volunteers tried to explain their motives. “Part of it is the American dream, you know, and part is shame,” one told the Saturday Evening Post. “I feel a very real sense of guilt. But I hope I’m not going down there to get my little red badge of liberalism.” Berkeley student Mario Savio told the Los Angeles Times, “The injustices to the Negro in Mississippi are also an infringement upon my rights.” Newspapers alerted the country—Mississippi was in for “a long, hot summer,” a “racial explosion.” Syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop feared “guerilla war.”
Muriel Tillinghast barely noticed the media, but Chris Williams was incensed. “The guy from Life was a real jerk,” he wrote in his journal. “The TV men were a pain in the neck as well with their big grinding cameras. They loved Non-Violent Workshops because that was where the action was. It was the closest thing to actual violence they could find. Sadists!” Volunteers wrote to parents, telling Mom and Dad to look for them in print or on TV. “Look magazine is searching for the ideal naïve northern middle-class white girl,” one wrote. “For the national press, that’s the big story. And when one of us gets killed, the story will be even bigger.” Two days left.
On Thursday, volunteers learned of their legal rights and how little they would mean that summer. Chris met attorney William Kunstler, later famous for defending the Chicago Seven, who was handling his case in North Carolina. Kunstler’s daughter, Karin, was among the volunteers. That morning, a graying man puffing a cigar stepped before the group. Jess Brown, one of four black lawyers in Mississippi, pointed a bony finger at the sweep of faces before him. “Now get this in your heads and remember what I am going to say!” Brown began. Mississippi sheriffs, cops, and highway patrolmen already knew their names, their hometowns, their full descriptions. “All I can do is give you some pointers on how to stay alive. If you are riding down the highway—say, on Highway 80 near Bolton, Mississippi—and the police stop you and arrest you, don’t get out and argue with the cops and say, ‘I know my rights.’ You may invite that club on your head. There ain’t no point in standing there trying to teach them some constitutional law at twelve o’clock at night. Go to jail and wait for your lawyer.” In Mississippi, Brown warned, they would be classified into two groups—“niggers and nigger-lovers. And they’re tougher on nigger-lovers.” That night, Muriel Tillinghast gathered more survival tips; Chris Williams took another midnight run.
On Friday morning, volunteers heard from the Department of Justice. In the field of civil rights, John Doar was as close to a hero as anyone at the federal level. As assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Doar had filed lawsuits against the fat registrar in Forrest County and elsewhere. He had worked closely with Bob Moses, taking his collect call from jail in Liberty, coming to Amite County to investigate threats against Herbert Lee, only to learn back in D.C. of his murder. At Medgar Evers’s funeral in Jackson, Doar had helped calm angry marchers, averting a riot. Now he praised the volunteers as “real heroes.” But when someone asked, “What are you going to do to enable us to see the fall?” Doar answered, “Nothing. There is no federal police force. The responsibility for protection is that of the local police.” Boos filled the auditorium. Shouts erupted. “We can protect the Vietnamese, but not the Americans, is that right? ” Finally, Moses stepped beside his friend. “We don’t do that,” he cautioned. The room fell silent. Doar was just being honest, Moses said. The session left volunteers feeling more vulnerable than ever. Back in Massachusetts, Jean Williams felt her son’s fears in a letter arriving that afternoon.
Dear People at home in the Safe, Safe North,
Mississippi is going to be hell this summer. We are going into the very hard-core of segregation and White Supremacy. . . . I’d venture to say that every member of the Mississippi staff has been beaten up at least once and he who has not been shot at is rare. It is impossible for you to imagine what we are going in to, as it is for me now, but I’m beginning to see. . . .
On the last night in “the Safe, Safe North,” the singing again began after dinner. Crossing arms and holding hands, volunteers sang the songs they now knew well, songs of jail, of picket lines, of endurance. Despite all the truth told about Mississippi, idealism still trumped fear. SNCC staffers had a term for such spirit—“freedom high”—and it kept the singing going till midnight. Between songs, some shared the news they had just heard on the radio. LBJ’s civil rights bill had finally passed the Senate. Now the South would be forced to desegregate. And they would be in Mississippi to see history happen. After midnight, most volunteers tried to sleep. A few stayed up drinking beer, talking, trying to imagine the mysterious places they were headed—Tchula, Mississippi. Moss Point. Itta Bena. At 3:00 a.m., a station wagon crammed with two trainers and six volunteers left for Mississippi to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County. No one saw them drive away.
Saturday: packing, a lingering lunch, long good-byes. At makeshift barbers’ chairs, lines were three deep as men had hair trimmed, beards shaved. “Before You Leave Oxford,” a sign announced, “Write Your Congressmen Asking Them to Act to Insure Your Safety.” The afternoon was as bright and sunny as the day the students had arrived. Beside green lawns, two rattletrap charter buses waited, but no one seemed eager to board. Encircled by TV cameras and reporters, volunteers and staffers again joined hands and sang. They had been two groups when they arrived; they were one now.
Finally, the call came to depart. Black and white sang one last chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” Then volunteers piled duffel bags, suitcases, and guitars in the back of each bus and crammed into seats. Some hung out windows to clasp hands with staffers who were staying to train the next group. Others just stared blankly, eyes fixed straight ahead. From inside the buses came sad voices singing SNCC’s woeful anthem, “We’ll Never Turn Back”:
We have walked through the shadows of death,
We’ve had to walk all by ourselves.
We have hung our head and cried
For those like Lee who died. . . .
And the buses pulled away.
Across the cornfields of southern Ohio, where fugitive slaves had first tasted freedom, the singing continued. In the Cincinnati bus terminal, charter buses were exchanged for Greyhounds while students sang “Freedom Train.” Filled with song, two buses crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. Volunteers stopped for dinner in Louisville, saw a livid red sun disappear behind the hills, and continued into Tennessee. Nashville, then through the warm night to Memphis. Looking out the bus window, Chris Williams spotted the “little guy” from Life and knew the press was still following. He tried to read but fell asleep. In the bus farther ahead, Muriel Tillinghast was wide awake. All her confidence, all her take-charge spirit, were beginning to wither. In the black southern night, she felt fear mounting. Leaving Memphis, Muriel’s bus was still rocking, singing. “We hit the Mississippi state line at midnight,” she recalled, “and the bus went silent. There was no turning back now.” Through windows, some volunteers spotted a billboard depicting an antebellum mansion, a sailboat, and a flowering magnolia beside tall pines. Above the bucolic scene were the words “Welcome to Mississippi.” Beyond the billboard, lined up along the highway, stood several highway patrol cars. A welcoming committee.
Ours is surely the black belt. It is all very well for Cheyenne or Schenectady or Stockholm or Moscow, where a black-faced visitor is a day’s wonder, to exclaim: “There is no race problem! Southerners are barbarians and brutes.” There never is a race problem until the two races living in close contact approach numerical equality.
—William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee