The land was a pool table of green, the sky was bigger than Montana’s, and the asphalt was long, straight, and empty when eight volunteers and two SNCC staffers were dropped by the side of a highway somewhere in Mississippi. They knew the date—June 21, 1964. They knew the time—5:00 a.m. But where were they?
The last sign had read, “Batesville—Corp Limit,” but there was no town in sight. Other than the felt fields and skinny two-lane, there was nothing in sight except a vacant Greyhound bus station and, across the highway, a squat brick building stamped with the words “Mississippi Highway Patrol.” Chris Williams, still bleary from the bus ride, found this “unpleasant, to say the least.” Where the hell was Batesville? Back in Ohio, they had learned the rudiments of Mississippi geography—the Delta cotton fields, the low central hills, the matchstick Piney Woods farther south—but standing by the road near Batesville, the group saw no cotton, no hills, no woods, just a sweep of emptiness filling them with a vague terror that something had gone very wrong.
Someone was supposed to meet them. Someone had met the dozen people dropped an hour earlier at the small college in Holly Springs. But no one was there now, just the highway patrolman across the street. Sitting in his car. Sunglasses glinting. Volunteers talked among themselves, trying to remain calm, but they had been warned to expect the worst, and it looked as if they had been dumped right into it. Wherever they might be in Mississippi, it seemed far from any America they knew. A billboard farther back had read “Impeach Earl Warren.” Gorgeous white magnolias burst from roadside greenery while lush vines strangled telephone poles, fences, and trees. Even the morning sun was so blinding it hurt. Scattered houses seemed buried in an impoverished past, their faded clapboards barely rising above piles of old refrigerators, rusted sedans, and decaying pickups. The last gas station had advertised “Ethyl—29.9¢/gal,” but it looked as if no one had filled up there since World War II.
SNCC staffer Tillman McKellar, having been to Mississippi, quickly took charge. McKellar walked to a phone booth at the bus depot to call their contact, then returned to the highway to flag down the first passing black driver. The highway patrolman revved his engine, followed, and pulled the car over. The cop seemed to be lecturing—McKellar later said the cop told him they would all end up at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River. Then both cars drove off, leaving nine people by the roadside, alone—but not for long.
June was “hospitality month” in Mississippi, and on Route 6 the hospitality started with mosquitoes. Mississippi “skeeters,” locals joked, were “so big they could stand flatfooted and fuck a turkey.” As they swarmed, their piercing whines and stinging bites made the rising sun feel hotter, the sky more like a pot’s lid than open space. June bugs followed—nasty brown lumps buzzing ears and eyes. Then came the human pests. A pickup roared past, followed by Chevys and Fords, their souped-up engines rumbling through hot-rodders’ glass packs. Each muscle car was filled with “redneck boys” doing their best to look like Elvis. Hair was Brylcreemed, beefy biceps hung out open windows. Some men just sneered. Others bellowed.
“We’re gonna give you a hard time, goddamn it!”
“We ought to kill these bastards right now!”
The volunteers were stunned. Had these stellar specimens of humanity gotten up at 5:00 a.m. to threaten them? Had they stayed up all night? Wasn’t there anything better to do in Batesville—wherever it was? Cars and pickups kept passing. Nine volunteers stood slapping at mosquitoes, their suitcases and duffel bags in a heap, their hopes on hold. Someone had better come soon, someone said.
The opening day of Freedom Summer began with volunteers stranded on Mississippi Route 6. What followed was a day like few others, a day when it seemed possible to believe there were no barriers between black and white, a day when history seemed forgiven and the future worth the wait. Some 250 Americans had come to the poorest, most explosive state in the nation, and even if they were seen as “invaders,” they shrugged off the label and went to work. Back in Ohio, Bob Moses had told them to get busy right away to show “that you did not come down to organize any sit-ins . . . marches or demonstrations.” But it was Sunday, the first day, and their only work was simply to be there, whites walking through the black side of town, eating in black homes, introducing themselves in black churches, sitting on porches where no whites had ever sat before. The day would end ominously, but one woman later recalled its beginning, the first meetings: “Their demeanor, how they treated us, how they approached you, how they were courteous and polite, and how they didn’t talk down to you. There was no fear associated in talking to them. There was no consciousness of your place with them.” This was why, despite all the warnings, the fears, the skepticism about what little they could accomplish, they had come to Mississippi, after all.
On the road somewhere near Batesville, volunteers waited another ten strange minutes. Insect swarms tormented them. More cars and pickups zoomed into view, revved their fury, and roared down the road. A police car passed, then the sheriff. The sun climbed the simmering sky. Finally toward 5:30 a.m., an old white panel truck pulled up. The driver introduced himself as Mr. Miles, their contact, and with a palpable sense of relief, the whole group piled in the back. The highway patrolman quickly pulled the truck over and gave Mr. Miles a ticket for running a stop sign he had not run, but he was allowed to go on. Within minutes the truck had crossed the railroad tracks, had taken a U-turn onto a frontage road, and was approaching a modest house behind the deep drainage ditch that ran the length of Tubbs Street. As they entered Robert Miles’s home, volunteers noted several bullet holes in the white side paneling. Inside they spotted rifles and shotguns behind doors. But the breakfast, served by a middle-aged black woman still in her bathrobe, was all anyone could ask for.
Over eggs, spicy sausage, and the first grits most had tasted, volunteers met the Miles family. Dressed most often in white shirt and tie, fifty-year-old Robert Miles exuded confidence, though whites called it “arrogance.” “He thinks out his moves carefully and doesn’t take any crap from the white man,” Chris Williams wrote home. Since returning from World War II, Miles had been a civil rights pioneer. In the late 1950s, he had cofounded the Panola County Voters League, which had sued the county to open up voter registration. For his courage, Miles had seen his home shot into and a cross burned on his lawn. Violence, he had long ago decided, was “something I had to live with . . . we weren’t going anywhere, we didn’t have anywhere to go.”
At the breakfast table, volunteers smiled at eight-year-old Kevin Miles and his younger brother Vernon who, if they were startled to see white faces at their table, did nothing more than giggle. Later that week volunteers would learn why Mrs. Miles—Mona—seemed on edge. A few years earlier, a town marshal had badly beaten her niece “on account of your father being a smart NAACP nigger!” Bullets later blasted into Mona’s brother’s house and a cross was burned on his lawn, causing him to move to Detroit. The stress had left Mrs. Miles with a “nervous condition.” She spoke freely, read widely, but lived in her bathrobe, never going outside. Still, she managed to temper the constant danger with humor. “I don’t see why they don’t let us swim in segregated pools,” she often said. “It’s been proven that we don’t fade.” When talk at the table turned to farming, Mr. Miles—volunteers would always call him that—spoke of his six hundred acres of wheat, soybeans, cotton, and corn. After breakfast, “Junior,” the Mileses’ oldest son, recently graduated from Alcorn A & M, took the group around the farm. Chris was amazed by the pigs, especially an eight-hundred-pound sow buried to its snout in mud to escape the heat that by 10:00 a.m. already topped 90 degrees. A tour of the discolored old barn filled the remaining time until church.
West Camp Baptist Church stood just a few blocks from the Miles home, but it was a world away from any church Chris or the others knew. There were no soaring ceilings, just one small room filled with people in their “Sunday best.” Little girls wore cotton-candy dresses, boys chafed at coat and tie, men and women were decked out as if for a wedding. When the hymns began, the music burst from every soul. The preacher’s exhortations were punctuated by calls of “Amen!” or “Tell it!” that filled the room with power and purpose. At the close of the service, “Deacon Miles” introduced the volunteers. Each stood, shyly offering a name and hometown. Baltimore. Ann Arbor. Amherst, Massachusetts. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Then their host warned the congregation. “Y’all gonna hear a lot of different stories from white folks about what these people are and why they’re down here,” Robert Miles said. “White folks are gonna tell you they’re agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine that spins around to get dirt out. Well, that’s what these people are here for. They’re here to get dirt out.” After parting handshakes and pleased-to meet-you’s, it was back home for lunch. While volunteers ate, then sat out sweltering hours beneath a tree, Robert Miles was on the phone arranging last-minute housing.
Meanwhile across Mississippi, a century of Jim Crow began its long, slow thaw. For this one day, at least until sunset, a sense of wonder drowned all sense of foreboding. Host families took volunteers around “the quarters,” showing them off like prized possessions. “Have you seen my girls yet? ” Old women stopped young “girls” and touched their skin, calling them “skinny” or “pretty.” Children fingered their hair. Hands waved from porches, smiling faces leaned out of windows. Everywhere volunteers walked on that sultry afternoon, down dirt roads leading deeper into labyrinths of shacks, along dust-deviled streets teeming with children, past stoop-shouldered old men sitting and staring, they noticed themselves being noticed. Strangers came out to greet them. Careful to say “Yes, sir” and “No, sir,” they were unfettered in their gratitude.
“We’re mighty glad the good Lord sent you to us.”
“It’s a right fine Christian thing, a fine thing that you all have come here.”
Children ran to the newcomers, asking their names, or stood shyly in the background, whispering behind cupped hands: “There they is!” And from every soul crushed into the Mississippi soil, the same feeling emerged. “I’ve waited eighty years for you to come,” the gray-haired son of a slave told one volunteer. Pressing a dollar into the white hand, he added, “I just have to give you this little bit to let you all know how much we appreciate your coming. I prays for your safety every night, son. God bless you all.”
They had been told to expect the worst—beatings, blackjacks, shotguns. But none of the horror stories in Ohio had prepared them for this. They had been warned about white Mississippi, but on this first day, black Mississippi overwhelmed them. Along with swarms of well-wishers, sounds swirled around them—the drone of insects, the rumble of passing trains, a baby’s cry from a shack that looked empty and abandoned. Savory odors of fried food mixed with the foul stench of outhouses. Sights from a distant past surprised them: washed-out ads for Camels and Lucky Strikes painted on splintering wood; women bent over washboards; laundry on a line. They were charmed by the folk art of poor folk desperate for finery. Ornate hub-caps were nailed to walls. Blue milk-of-magnesia bottles hung glittering from trees. Rotting porches were graced with pink geraniums in rusted tin cans. This new world also attacked their skin. Mosquito bites were nothing new, but what were these things called chiggers? Why couldn’t you even see them? How could anything itch so much? And if the sun was this mean in June, what oven temperatures awaited in July, what furnace would fire up come August?
But despite the heat, the bugs, the swarm of sounds, nothing startled the volunteers as much as the destitution all around them. Raised in “the affluent society,” where poverty had supposedly been conquered, they walked that day into its shadows. Most were appalled; some were enraged. Where was the pavement? The plumbing? The streetlights? Their hosts, with their modest two-bedroom homes, were rich compared to those living in the shacks just down the gravel road and around the corner. “There are people here without food and clothing,” one volunteer wrote home. “Kids that eat a bit of bread for breakfast, chicken necks for dinner. Kids that don’t have clothes to go to school in. Old old people, and young people chop cotton from sun up till sundown for $3 a day. They come home exhausted, it’s not enough to feed their family on. It’s gone before they earn it.” Many children running to greet volunteers had open sores on their limbs. In doorways of the more desperate shacks, some infants were too weak, too bloated, to run at all. Ancient black hands reaching out to shake a white hand—for the first time—were callused or crippled. For every smiling face, another on some distant porch was vacant, broken, defeated. On the newcomers walked, past homes “I could kick down with my feet and a small hammer.” Some shacks had raw sewage out back. Others, propped on cinder blocks, seemed sunken in their own stench. This was America, many had to remind themselves. This was “the most appalling example of deprivation ever seen.” Against these odds, what could one volunteer—or a thousand—hope to accomplish? And yet they were in Mississippi now; they had nothing else to do but try.
Returning to their homes, volunteers found everyday heroics. In the town of Itta Bena, in the heart of the Delta, two young men marveled at their hostess, a sixty-seven-year-old woman living alone beside the railroad tracks that ran along Freedom Street. Limping on a leg long ago broken and badly set, Rosa Lee Williams was “a fiery and fast moving old woman.” A retired midwife, she had lost her children in the 1918 flu epidemic, her husband some years later. Happy to have the four dollars a week each volunteer paid her, she kept an immaculate house, constantly sweeping dust stirred by passing trains, battling horseflies with insecticides she sprayed from aerosol cans. When the men moved a bed into the living room, she was quick to put a can under it—for “spittin’.” She chewed tobacco, didn’t they?
Soon they would get used to Mississippi, sooner than black Mississippi expected. College students would sit at tables piled with fried chicken, collards, even “chitlins”—spicy pig intestines—and eat their fill. A woman from Long Island would plunge her chigger-infested legs into a bucket of gasoline, and the nasty bugs would be gone. “And the outhouse that we had to use?” remembered Greenwood author Endesha Ida Mae Holland. “I was really surprised because I said, ‘Well, I know this white girl ain’t gonna go use this outhouse like everybody else.’ And the girl would use the outhouse like she was born to it and that made us all gang around them.” Soon volunteers would take evening “showers” out back with buckets of cold water and wake the next morning to the assault of sounds—roosters and barking dogs and a radio blaring down the block—and not even complain . . . much. But on that Sunday, everything was new, exciting, something to write home about.
June 21, 1964
Greetings from Batesville, Miss. The Freedom Riders, as we are called by the locals, arrived here at 5 a.m. after leaving Oxford at about 2 p.m. Sat. . . . This morning as we waited to be picked up at Batesville, we were greeted by the police, sheriff, and members of the White Citizens Council. One heckler told us, “We’re going to give you a hard time, goddamn it.” Another fellow said to his companion, “We ought to kill these bastards right now.” However, the Negro community assures us that this is the common bluff. The people here are very friendly and Panola County should be easy. Send mail to Rev. Robert Miles, Route 2, Box 20, Batesville, Miss.
Late that afternoon, Chris and other volunteers dropped in at Batesville’s two juke joints. Dimly lit bars festooned with beer signs and Christmas lights, each had a soda fountain and general store up front. On Saturday nights, there would be live music, but it was Sunday afternoon down at the Thomas Sundry, and even if it looked like the kind of place their parents warned them against, Chris and other volunteers passed beneath the neon Coca-Cola sign and were inside. Moving deeper into a room that reeked of barbecue sauce and kerosene, they found a bar, a pool table, and a jukebox with the best R & B selection Chris had ever seen. The volunteers were soon surrounded by dozens crowding in to meet “The Riders.” After a half hour, the crowd followed Chris and his new friends through the black section of Batesville—little more than a drugstore, beauty parlor, and gas station—to the H & H Café. There locals convinced Chris to try “some good old southern bourbon.” Eager to oblige, amazed to be served hometown hooch in the last dry state in America, the teenager had his first burning sip of moonshine. It was shaping up to be quite a summer.
No one is certain who dreamed up Freedom Summer. Some say Bob Moses, some say Allard Lowenstein. A quixotic academic and Pied Piper of young idealists, Lowenstein had brought Stanford and Yale students to the previous fall’s Freedom Election, then suggested a larger white influx the following summer. But this much is agreed upon: “Had Moses not wanted it to happen, it wouldn’ta happened.” And the summer project almost did not happen. Hotly debated throughout the winter of 1963, the idea had seemed to Stokely Carmichael “either an act of madness or a daring stroke of genius.” Carmichael had not been the only skeptic. Many SNCC veterans felt theirs was the rightful claim to any progress Mississippi might make. They had braved Mississippi when no one else would. They still bore the scars—bloody welts, broken bones, bullet wounds you could put your finger in. And now a bunch of white college kids with names like Pam and Geoff were being invited to Mississippi to gather headlines and plaudits for bravery. Mississippi natives had other reasons to oppose the project. “We had worked so hard trying to get local people to take initiative for their own movement,” Hollis Watkins recalled. “That process was beginning to take place. And I felt that bringing a large number down from the North would snatch the rug right from under the people in the local communities.”
Yet as Carmichael noted, “This was Bob Moses talking.” As the idea gained credence, several in SNCC tried to limit white involvement. Hadn’t those arrogant Stanford and Yale students “taken over the Jackson office”? Hadn’t it been impossible to maintain SNCC’s “beautiful community” when every office had “a bunch of Yalies running around in their Triumphs” ? But how could SNCC reject whites? “If we’re trying to break down the barrier of segregation,” Fannie Lou Hamer argued, “we can’t segregate ourselves.” Others disagreed. “We don’t have much to gain from Negroes meeting whites,” cautioned MacArthur Cotton, a Freedom Rider who had been hung by his thumbs in Parchman Farm Penitentiary. “We’ve got too much to lose if they come down here and create a disturbance in two or three months, and they’re gone.” Learning of the attempt to “get rid of the whites,” Moses flatly declared he would not be part of anything “all black.” Only when blacks in Mississippi were joined by whites, he argued, would civil rights be no longer a question of skin color but “a question of rational people against irrational people. . . . I always thought that the one thing we can do for the country that no one else could do is to be above the race issue.”
The debate had continued in grueling meetings that began with eloquent arguments, rose to righteous anger, and ended with hands clasped, songs sung, and no agreement. As 1964 began, the summer project remained in doubt. “How large a force of volunteer summer workers should we recruit? ” Moses asked in a memo. “100? 1,000? 2,000?” Had SNCC made this decision by consensus, the answer might have been zero. In late January, another meeting deadlocked. “Too difficult.” The “huge influx” would overwhelm SNCC. Why waste an entire summer on “sociological research” ? The turning point came a week later, prompted by another murder.
Nearly three years after Herbert Lee had been gunned down, the killing still tormented Moses. At Lee’s funeral, his wife had approached Moses, screaming, “You killed my husband! You killed my husband!” Following the funeral, Moses and fellow organizers had gone looking for witnesses. Knocking on doors at night, they met a burly logger named Louis Allen who had seen it all. Herbert Lee had not brandished a tire iron, Allen assured Moses. He had been killed in cold blood. Allen had only testified otherwise after coming home to find his living room filled with white men toting shotguns. Later Allen told the FBI the truth and agreed to testify if he could get federal protection. None was offered. When word leaked of what Allen knew, locals stopped buying his logs. His credit was cut off. A sheriff stopped him, repeated his FBI testimony word for word, then broke his jaw with a flashlight. Hounded and harassed, Allen made plans to flee Mississippi. He did not want to die, he told his wife, because “when you’re dead, you’re dead a long time.” On the evening of January 31, 1964, just hours before he was to leave for Milwaukee, Louis Allen pulled his pickup into his driveway and got out to open the barbed-wire gate. From inside his tarpaper shack, his wife heard three shots. The crack of a shotgun in Mississippi was nothing unusual, and Elizabeth Allen stayed inside watching TV while her husband lay in the driveway, clinging to life as the truck’s headlights slowly dimmed. Shortly after midnight, her son found the body. That morning, Moses got a phone call.
“For me, it was as if everything had come full circle,” he remembered. “I had started in Amite County, unable to offer protection or force the federal government to provide it. Herbert Lee had been killed; Louis Allen had witnessed it and now he was dead.” In 1961, the fledgling SNCC had no power to respond to Lee’s murder “other than to dedicate our own lives to what we were doing,” Moses said. “But Louis Allen’s murder happened at a moment in history when we had another option.” Moses threw his full influence and reputation behind the summer project. “The staff had been deadlocked, at loggerheads with each other; this decided it.”
The timing could not have been better. Nearly nine years had passed since the victorious Montgomery bus boycott had elevated Martin Luther King to national status and stirred so much hope. But by the spring of 1964, the civil rights movement was spinning its wheels. While lifting spirits and making headlines, the movement had changed few laws or customs. After years of foot dragging, John F. Kennedy had proposed his civil rights bill, but ten months later it remained stalled by a Senate filibuster. Few held out any hope that Lyndon Johnson, a southerner with no great track record on civil rights, would risk his reputation and power for the bill. “Whites Only” signs remained throughout the South, and Dixie politicians were getting attention and votes by denouncing integration in terms reminiscent of the Civil War. In the past year, shotguns and bombs had shaken the certainty of the most devoutly nonviolent. And the Klan was rising. Martin Luther King was soaring to new heights of eloquence, but for most whites outside the South, civil rights remained some distant struggle that concerned them little and their children even less. Freedom Summer, now that SNCC had finally made up its mind, would get everyone’s attention and get the civil rights movement rolling again.
Once deciding on the project, SNCC was consumed by it. Meetings wore down even the most tireless talkers. SNCC staffers, like the grad students many later became, churned out reports: “Notes on Teaching in Mississippi”; “Techniques for Field Work—Voter Registration”; “The General Condition of the Mississippi Negro.” SNCC staff in Atlanta turned much of their energy to Mississippi. The cautious NAACP warned that a summer of racial unrest in Mississippi might cause a white “backlash,” putting Barry Goldwater in the White House, yet SNCC forged ahead. Bob Moses fought off a power play by Allard Lowenstein. After recruiting students across the country, Lowenstein tried to put Stanford- and Boston-area volunteers under his aegis, then, fearing SNCC had been infiltrated by Communists, abruptly left the project, leaving Moses with precious little time to prepare. Working with staffers, Moses defined four strict jobs for summer volunteers: registering voters, teaching in Freedom Schools, running community centers (often called Freedom Houses), and a fourth task that would take Freedom Summer to the national stage.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, formed that spring, would be the beacon of Freedom Summer. Like the Freedom Election the previous autumn, the MFDP was an exercise in parallel democracy. Summer volunteers, SNCCs decided, would register as many voters as Mississippi’s closed system might allow, but blacks unwilling to take the risk could safely register as Freedom Democrats just by signing a form. Moses envisioned 400,000 names on MFDP rolls, a massive outpouring that would prove that blacks were desperate to vote in Mississippi. Armed with these names, and their own delegates to be chosen that summer, Freedom Democrats would go to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City at the end of August. There they would plead their case—perhaps even on TV—telling the nation of beatings, drive-by shootings, and other outrages denying blacks the vote. With enough support, Freedom Democrats might even unseat Mississippi’s all-white delegates and become the state’s official delegation. But all that was for later in the summer. Throughout that spring, SNCC staff remained focused on the one ingredient—aside from idealism—essential to the coming summer.
Money was not merely the name of the Mississippi hamlet where Emmett Till had been killed. Money was the lifeblood of the summer project. Calculating a cost of $200,000, SNCC began fund-raising in February with a full-page ad in the New York Times. Campus-based “Friends of SNCC” chapters around the country held benefits. A speaker’s bureau visited campuses from Smith to Stanford. Dick Gregory gave benefit performances, while the SNCC Freedom Singers drove an old station wagon from concert to concert, earning $5,000 a week. James Baldwin, then the most highly touted black writer in America, sent out a personal appeal to thousands, and the National Council of Churches agreed to bankroll two training sessions in Ohio. By the end of March, SNCC had raised $97,000. Yet some staffers were still going weeks without pay. More mailings were needed. More fund-raisers. More money.
SNCC’s New York Times ad drew hate mail—“Niggers . . . Beatnicks . . . NIGGER LOVERS”—but it also tapped America’s rising concern about a state long neglected or dismissed. For several years after the uproar over Emmett Till’s lynching, hardly any news had come from Mississippi. But the bloody riots at Ole Miss, the shocking assassination of Medgar Evers, and the daring of the summer project had turned Mississippi into America’s hotbed of civil rights. Even if most Americans felt Mississippi’s problems were not their business, hundreds responded to SNCC’s appeal. An interracial women’s group in Harvey, Illinois, sent $25. A California woman sent a box of pencils, asking, “Would you please give these to Negro children under 10. . . . Tell them each one was touched with love and understanding.” A Manhattan lawyer gave $25 “for the good work that you are doing.” A clergyman from Yazoo City, a Mississippi town SNCC thought too dangerous to organize, sent five dollars. Those who could not give money sent books.
The previous October, a Harper’s article on SNCC asked readers to send used books to “Robert Moses, 708 Avenue N, Greenwood, Mississippi.” Within three months, enough arrived to open Freedom House libraries in Greenwood and Meridian. In the latter city, New Yorker Rita Schwerner and her husband, Mickey, working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), were managing a library of ten thousand books. Kids were checking out fifty a day, Rita reported. Now, with more than two dozen Freedom Schools planned for summer, more books were needed. When another call went out, boxes of tattered books were shipped to Mississippi. A New Hampshire woman sent forty-five cartons, mostly histories and dog-eared copies of Reader’s Digest. She also sent two dollars and an apology: “I’m sorry it isn’t more but a relatively poor school teacher doesn’t have too much.” At the University of Minnesota, a teaching assistant persuaded his class to turn in their texts at term’s end, then sent multiple copies of Black Like Me and The Other America. School committees in California, Arkansas, and the Bronx held book drives and sent the collections to Mississippi. By June, project offices overflowed with books, enough to fill every Freedom School library, assuming school buildings could be found. SNCC staffers began combing black communities for Freedom School sites, convincing church deacons to offer their small rectories or locating abandoned shacks that eager volunteers could refurbish into classrooms.
With money and books coming in, planners solicited other materials they would need that summer—typewriters, mimeograph machines, blackboards, bulletin boards, and office supplies. “It would be very difficult for us to get too much of anything,” one appeal letter said. Next on the agenda was publicity. Though known as community organizers, SNCC staffers were also masters at public relations, or as they called it, “hooking people up.” Media targets, national and local, were pinpointed. Each new press release was sent to the AP, UPI, the New York Times. . . . Before heading for Ohio, volunteers were urged to contact hometown papers—“The mass media are always interested in local angles.” To ensure widespread publicity throughout the summer, each volunteer gave SNCC ten contacts likely to run news of a “local girl” or “area man” working in Mississippi. With publicity covered, SNCC then reached out to the power brokers of American culture.
In the year leading up to Freedom Summer, SNCC had convinced several celebrities to cancel appearances in Mississippi to protest its lockstep segregation. The “no-shows” were an eclectic group, including trumpeter Al Hirt, baseball player Stan Musial, the stars of Bonanza, and the entire lineup of ABC’s folk music show Hootenanny. Come spring, SNCC continued its celebrity outreach, sending summer project brochures to big names known for supporting civil rights: Sidney Poitier, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, the folksinger Odetta, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Lancaster, Van Cliburn, Lena Horne, Thelonious Monk. . . . Meanwhile COFO contacted more than a hundred professors and deans, “for we think it is important for the best minds in the country to know what is happening in Mississippi.” The “best minds” were invited to observe Freedom Schools or advise research projects. Among the invited: author Irving Howe, Lonely Crowd sociologist David Riesman, black historian John Hope Franklin, southern historian C. Vann Woodward, and noted intellectuals Hannah Arendt, Bruno Bettelheim, Herbert Marcuse, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. None accepted the invitation, but SNCCs were accustomed to rejection. The outreach continued.
Early that spring, Bob Moses formed “Friends of Freedom in Mississippi.” The ad hoc group of civil rights leaders and celebrities soon wrote President Lyndon Johnson. Calling Mississippi “a virtual police state,” the Friends of Freedom warned of “a clear and present danger” of violence that summer, and urged federal protection for volunteers. Receiving no answer, SNCC took its appeal closer to the White House—within a few blocks.
On June 8, a distinguished panel gathered at the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue. Seated beneath the glittering chandeliers of the stately old theater, the panel included authors Joseph Heller and Paul Goodman, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles, and various educators. With grim faces, panelists listened to Fannie Lou Hamer recount her savage beating in jail. “I can say there will be a hot summer in Mississippi,” Hamer said, “and I don’t mean the weather.” Elizabeth Allen, widow of Louis Allen, told of the murders of her husband and Herbert Lee. Panelists were shocked. Hadn’t anyone been charged? “They don’t arrest white people in Mississippi,” Allen’s widow replied. “They arrest Negroes, but they don’t do anything to white people.” A stocky farmer named Hartman Turnbow charmed the group with his sweet Mississippi drawl, then told how his house in Tchula was firebombed after he tried to register. Again, wasn’t anyone arrested? “I was,” Turnbow replied. Police had charged him with arson. After the hearing, the panel wrote to LBJ describing “incidents of brutality and terror we scarcely believed could have happened in the United States. . . . children beaten . . . people shot . . . men murdered for no other offense than seeking to vote.” Citing threats to human life and to “the moral integrity of this country,” panelists urged the president to send federal marshals, to hold hearings, to enforce voting rights. The president did not respond. In private, LBJ’s special counsel mocked requests for protection, finding it “nearly incredible that those people who are voluntarily sticking their heads into the lion’s mouth would ask for somebody to come down and shoot the lion.” Freedom Summer planners, having expected little from the president, turned to each other for support.
Two days after the D.C. hearing, on a sweltering evening in Atlanta, SNCC convened a final meeting to discuss the looming summer. Everything seemed set. Money had come in and rolled out. Books were stacked up, ready to fill Freedom Schools. The “Sojourner Motor Fleet,” dozens of beat-up old cars and a handful of new white Plymouths, was ready to drive volunteers from site to site. SNCC, COFO, and CORE, though they would quarrel over details all summer, had their territories—who would coordinate what in which region. (Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference approved of the summer project but was not involved. The NAACP still disapproved, its leader saying, “We’re sitting this one out.”) And despite threats of retaliation, hundreds of blacks across Mississippi had agreed to open their homes to volunteers. Now, two dozen people crammed into a basement around a table strewn with papers and pitchers of iced tea. For the next several hours, SNCCs wrestled lingering doubts to one last draw.
Faces at the table were anxious, worn, weighted with thoughts of mortality. This was new ground. The summer project was far scarier than anything SNCC had ever dared. What might go wrong? What had they not anticipated? Should they send volunteers to southwest Mississippi, where the Klan was most vicious? The danger had to be weighed against the “danger to local Negroes if we don’t work there.” Perhaps Natchez, they decided, but definitely not McComb. Not yet. Talk then turned to nonviolence. SNCC’s founding faith—“through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate”—was breaking down. The Greenwood SNCC office, Bob Moses now learned, had a few guns. No one was preaching violence, but shouldn’t an office firebombed and sprayed with bullets be able to defend itself? The argument lasted nearly an hour. Mississippi was explosive—blacks arming themselves, whites “more convinced than ever that they can kill a Negro and get away with it.” Wasn’t it time to fight back? How long would SNCC “lead people into the fire, then ask them to sing a song and return to church? ” Long silences brought only one consensus—death would hover over Mississippi all summer.
Finally, a deeply religious woman many times jailed and once shot spoke up. All heads turned to the slight, somber Prathia Hall. “No one can be rational about death,” Hall began. “For the first time we are facing that this may be the last time. We are fighting because we want life to be worth living. . . . When the kids in Birmingham were killed, I wanted to pick up a gun until I realized that by destroying lives we don’t preserve them.” The answer, Hall said, lay not just in nonviolence but in national awareness. “We must bring the reality of our situation to the nation. Bring our blood onto the White House door. If we die here, it’s the whole society which has pulled the trigger by its silence.” Consensus was finally reached. SNCC would not discourage locals from self-defense, which, Moses said, “is so deeply ingrained in rural southern America that we as a small group can’t affect it.” But SNCC staffers “have committed ourselves not to carry guns.” Weapons in the Greenwood office would be removed. No SNCCs would be armed that summer.
The meeting lasted until early morning. Race proved the thorniest issue. Would white volunteers take over from locals? Should they be allowed any authority at all? “When whites come into a project,” one man said, “the ego of Negroes is destroyed.” But Ella Baker objected. Since forming SNCC in 1960, Baker had seen her lifelong ideals taken up by the young organizers she often called “the kids.” But the kids were quarreling now, arguing over black and white. Believing in consensus, Baker usually let her protégés argue on, but now she spoke up. Might it be time, she suggested, “to take the revolution one step further?” “We have a responsibility to live up to an agreement,” she added. “The agreement is not that the white volunteers are coming as emissaries to the white community. One of the reasons we’re going into Mississippi is that the rest of the United States has never felt much responsibility for what happens in the Deep South. If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something.” The meeting concluded with a financial report. SNCC had $11,600 in the bank. Bills totaled $17,600. Everything—money, time, energy, and spirit—had been spent on the summer project. Eleven days later, on the first day of summer, volunteers had been welcomed beyond all expectation. Yet no amount of spending, planning, or caution could stop the night from coming.
Evening came late on the longest day of the year. Adults rose from porches. Children were called home from their games. Twilight lingered as if, like the old blues lyric, it hated “to see that evenin’ sun go down.” Finally just after 8:00 p.m., the last pink filaments faded over the Mississippi River, taking with them the last welcomes of the day. Fireflies startled volunteers from out west who had never seen whole fields glitter. Despite such magic, fear crept over volunteers’ host homes and over their souls. Night had come to Mississippi. Night so far south and so rural was darker than any the volunteers had seen, darker and warmer—a muggy greenhouse heat that stifled any hope of a breeze. And then there was the symphony of a southern night, bullfrogs throat-singing and crickets humming as if 10,000 volts pulsed through the trees. The constant screeee of cicadas blasted like a referee’s whistle until a low whoo-whoo interrupted. And then the crickets again, and the whistle and the frogs and the heat—on into the night.
Night had a reputation in Mississippi. Volunteers had heard much about it, and none of what they heard was comforting. Night was when “things happened” here, when “riders” meant not Freedom Riders but night riders, no longer on horseback but in pickups, yet still seeding the darkness with terror. SNCC’s safety handbook was explicit about night: “Do not stand in doorways at night. . . . No one should go anywhere alone, but certainly not in an automobile and certainly not at night.” None were likely to flout these rules, but the Mississippi night could easily enter their new homes, their “safe” homes, where streets were pitch-black, where their mere presence put a bull’s-eye on each house. Night had come, all the welcoming people were off the streets, and who knew what type of people were out, fired by a century-old rage.
Across Mississippi, in villages dotting the darkening landscape, locals cleaned up from Father’s Day suppers, then settled in to watch TV—The Ed Sullivan Show, Bonanza, Candid Camera. In Batesville, Chris Williams and others were in the Miles backyard, arms linked, singing Freedom Songs. “Get on Board, Children” and “We’ll Never Turn Back” kept fear at bay, yet when the songs were done, Robert Miles and “Junior” went inside and came out with shotguns. Mounting a flatbed truck, they sat, ready to fire at any car entering the driveway without giving the signal—headlights blinked three times. The scene was mirrored in host homes across Mississippi—dark-skinned men with guns sitting in driveways, on porches, standing guard beneath a sparkling blanket of stars. From inside, volunteers parted curtains and peered into the blackness. Then, weary from the amazing day, they went to bed and tried, for all the mosquitoes, all the sticky heat, all the shrill sounds of night, to get a little sleep.
Night found Muriel Tillinghast upstairs in the project office in Greenville—alone. She was just eight blocks from the Mississippi River, but so far from home and so far south that it made her tremble. Since she had crossed into Mississippi on the midnight bus that turned from singing to silence, the quaking in her stomach had worsened. Riding south along Highway 61, the blues highway whose escape route she was traveling in reverse, she had watched others step off the bus and into the early morning. Town by town, winding through the Delta, she had said good-bye to old friends from Howard and new ones from Ohio. “It was so quick,” she recalled. “Bye, see you later. Ummm, I hope I will see you later.” Shortly after 8:00 a.m., her turn had come. The bus rattled through the empty streets of downtown Greenville, past churches and cafés, drugstores and parks, before reaching the “colored” section. As if she had crossed into another country, Muriel saw sidewalks cracked and broken, houses suddenly smaller, and a slipshod sadness pervading the streets. When she and a half dozen others were dropped off at 901½ Nelson Street, sheer terror sent Muriel straight upstairs into the office. There she stayed, in cluttered rooms above a dry cleaner’s—all day. While other volunteers were welcomed into homes, Muriel huddled inside, terrified by just being in “the black hole” of Mississippi.
White Greenville, a mile south along the mounded levee, was a thriving city, but black Greenville was like no place Muriel had ever seen. Decades earlier, Nelson Street had been the living, pulsing heart of the black community, attracting top blues singers and inspiring a song, the “Nelson Street Blues.” But by 1964 the street was just a shadow of itself, with just a drugstore, a few juke joints, and some boarded-up blues clubs clinging to life. To a young woman from Washington, D.C., Nelson Street looked like a one-horse town from an old Western movie. Muriel had seen poverty before. As part of a Lutheran mission to Guyana, she had traveled into “the bush,” met descendants of slaves living in bamboo huts, saw a child die of malnutrition. But that was another country; this was her own. All her life she had heard about the Mississippi her mother had fled, and now she was there. Gone were the idealism, the solidarity that had sent her south. In their place was a primal dread that recalled every tale of lynching she had ever read, every southern horror she had ever heard. Greenville project director Charlie Cobb, the man she had called each Sunday throughout the spring, might have calmed her, but he was still in Ohio, preparing for the second training. And nothing any fresh-faced volunteer said could convince Muriel to leave the office. “I was petrified,” she recalled.
Bob Moses had told her, “Mississippi can’t be exaggerated.” Now it did not need to be. As night blackened office windows, as other volunteers went to their homes, leaving her alone with a sleeping bag and a host of mice scurrying in the walls, her sense of alarm spiraled. Holed up in the office, she asked herself hard questions. All right, she had always been the organizer, the take-charge person. What now? How could she survive the summer? How could she canvass door-to-door if she could not even force herself to leave the office? Greenville, everyone assured her, was known for its moderation. Freshened by new people and new ideas that came along the river, it had a reputation as “different.” SNCCs said they would “rather get arrested in Greenville than any town in Mississippi.” Yet Muriel did not kid herself.
“Many Mississippi towns were predatory,” she said. “Greenville was not predatory, but it was reactionary. In West Hell the heat may not be boiling, but . . .” For a young black woman on her own a thousand miles from home, accustomed to big cities with well-lit streets, regular traffic, pragmatic people, night released inherited terrors. Night was when Muriel’s grandmother, walking from Texas to D.C., had taken refuge in barns to hide from the Klan. Night was when crosses were burned. Night had been her introduction to Mississippi, and now night had come again. “Mississippi has a black and inky night,” she recalled. “Most of us were city kids. We’d never been in a rural area, certainly had never been in a southern area at night. I shed all the veneer of urban life and got down to basics—food, water, paying attention to even the smallest detail.” All that first night alone in the office, the smallest details made her heart race. Each headlight flashing across a wall startled her. Each shout from the street sat her up. Each creak on the office stairs made her jump. Mississippi, it seemed, could be exaggerated.
To cope with the night, COFO had set up a warning system. All project offices were connected to the Jackson headquarters by a WATS (wide area transmission service) line. Long-distance calls in 1964 were expensive, reserved for emergencies, but the WATS line allowed unlimited calling for a monthly fee, enabling hourly check-ins from offices throughout Mississippi. Like a delicate spiderweb stretched across the state, COFO’s phone network kept a vigil on the summer project, recoiling with each report of violence, relaxing with each report of calm. That first day, only minor flare-ups had been phoned in. Cops had detained a CBS camera crew in Ruleville. A Molotov cocktail exploded in a church basement near Jackson, causing minor damage. That was all. But night had just begun.
COFO’s phone network also protected workers traveling through Mississippi. Anyone sent out from a Freedom House provided a precise return time and promised to phone in if delayed. If the hour came and went with no contact, calls went out to all area jails and police departments. Often these calls turned up a worker arrested and detained. Sometimes the call, alerting cops that someone was watching, prevented a beating. More often it did not. On June 21, as darkness fell, the alarm system was put to a test that justified the worst fears.
Shortly after noon that Sunday, three men had set out from Meridian, in the eastern part of the state, for the remote backwater of Longdale, Mississippi. These were the three who had left Ohio before dawn on Saturday to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County. Arriving in Meridian that Saturday night, they had slept, eaten breakfast, had their hair cut, then headed for the ash and twisted rubble that had once been the Mt. Zion Methodist Church. Before entering Neshoba County, a sparsely populated tangle of swamps and fields known to be thick with Klansmen, the group’s leader had issued strict instructions. If they were not back by 4:00 p.m. that Sunday, the calls should begin. The hour came and went. The three did not return. Back in the Meridian office, a volunteer on her first day in Mississippi immediately called COFO in Jackson. But Bob Moses and all the rest were in Ohio, welcoming more volunteers. Without their seasoned fear as guide, the worker on the WATS line advised waiting an hour before calling jails. If the men had car trouble or had taken a longer route home, they would arrive soon. They would arrive soon.
During the endless hour that followed, the three men still did not return. At 5:00 p.m., the WATS line in Jackson rang again. The volunteer penciled phone numbers on paper.
Meridian City Jail 485-9811
Within minutes, phones rang in jails throughout Neshoba and surrounding counties. The men’s names were Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman. None of the jail clerks admitted having the three in custody, nor any record of their arrest. Philadelphia police “said they knew nothing at all about the case,” that the Neshoba County sheriff was visiting his wife in the hospital and could not be reached. The wait continued. Six p.m. Seven. Seven thirty. Night descended. More calls brought the same answers. The black ribbon roads of Neshoba County were quiet. Volunteers knew nothing about the disappearance, yet a mounting dread was spreading among staffers across the state.
Back in Meridian, Sam Block, whose courage in standing up to Greenwood cops was the stuff of SNCC lore, went to the local jail. Everyone knew Block would settle for no nonsense, but he returned with no news. Eight p.m. They would arrive soon. Pickups began circling the office. The grinding of engines and shouts of “Nigger lovers!” unsettled the steamy, disheveled rooms more than usual. The next hour was even longer. Volunteers and locals, black and white, sat on desks, on floors, waiting, waiting. Some played Ping-Pong in a back room, the click-clock of paddles only tightening the tension. A few walked down the street to get coffee. A volunteer just arrived from Massachusetts read All Quiet on the Western Front, its wartime terror seeming to fit the moment. Others just sat beneath a slow ceiling fan. Sweat darkened shirts and blouses. Nine p.m. Should they call Schwerner’s wife, Rita, who was also in Ohio? They had to call someone. They called SNCC in Atlanta. Staffer Mary King began posing as an Atlanta Constitution reporter, making her own calls to county jails in Mississippi. Still no trace.
Shortly after 10:00 p.m., a law student taking over the WATS line phoned an FBI agent at his home in Jackson. The student gave the agent the three names and where they had been traveling, then demanded an immediate investigation. The agent said only, “Keep me informed of what happens.” Half an hour later, the CORE office contacted the FBI in Meridian. The agent listened to frantic concerns, just listened. He listened during a second call at 11:00 p.m. and listened some more at midnight. Finally he said he was going to bed. The FBI was not a police force, he said. The wait continued.
Fears were deepening like darkness itself when the first day of Freedom Summer ended. Chris Williams was asleep in Batesville. Muriel Tillinghast was awake and alone amid the shifting shadows of the Greenville office. The rest of the volunteers, having enjoyed the most heartfelt welcome of their lives, were in host homes, asleep or else alert to each whisper of the night. None knew that three men they had seen back in Ohio just two days earlier were missing in Neshoba County. On into the early morning hours, the calls continued—to the Mississippi Highway Patrol, to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., finally to fathers, mothers, a wife. No one offered any answers, any explanation. Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman had vanished without a clue.
Before the sit-in, I had always hated the whites in Mississippi. Now I knew it was impossible for me to hate sickness. The whites had a disease, an incurable disease in its final stage. What were our chances against such a disease?
—Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi