Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.
—William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
I wasn’t even sure, in fact, how voting was supposed to help me, but the more I heard about white people being so against it, the more I started thinking there must be something to this voting.
—Unita Blackwell, Barefootin’
Trembling, nauseous, and terrified, the remedial reading teacher rode the bus toward McComb.
In the two weeks since he had finished classes at P.S. 624, Ira Landess had crossed a cultural divide larger than a continent. After taking a bus from Manhattan to Memphis, he was welcomed to the South by a cabdriver who, upon learning his purpose, hurled his bags to the sidewalk. With other teachers in training, Landess had hung his head to sing, “Three are missing, Lord, Kumbaya. . . .” On the Fourth of July, his group had crossed into Mississippi. Stopping for lunch in “the other Philadelphia,” they stared out a café window, wondering which passing strangers might know where the missing men were. On their way out of town, they passed a billboard with a photo of John F. Kennedy splattered with black paint. Arriving that afternoon at the holiday picnic in Hattiesburg, Landess ate catfish, went on the tractor hayride, and took cover when the pickup with the gun rack passed. That night, he bolted awake, startled by strange sounds. Certain the Klan had come for him, he summoned the courage to look outside. A cow was rubbing against his shack. Later Landess met black kids who asked whether Jews like him had tails. And now here he was, riding this steamy, smoke-filled Greyhound, surrounded by blanched faces, crossing into Pike County with its kudzu-choked trees, its Klansmen in the hills, its bombs and burned-out churches.
When dynamite damaged the McComb Freedom House, SNCC had called for more volunteers to come “share the terror.” Because his former Brandeis classmate, Mendy Samstein, was a SNCC staffer in McComb, Landess signed up. A few days later, terrified at what he had gotten himself into, certain he had been spotted as an “invader,” a Jew, he arrived in the most dangerous town in Mississippi.
By mid-July, when nothing worse than fear had attacked him, Landess had settled in. Glad to be back in a classroom, he had shed his initial terror. But nothing made him feel more at home than the greeting he got one afternoon. He was walking through McComb’s black quarters when a bent, gray-haired woman stepped out of her shack. A big smile broke out on her leathery face. She set aside her broom, waved at Landess, and shouted, “Hello, Freedom!”
As July crawled toward August, volunteers wondered—had it only been a month? The slow, sweltering afternoons, the dark, fearful nights, the roof-lifting mass meetings, the soulful dinners with host families, the Fourth of July picnics, all leading back to the shocking disappearance and rush of arrival—hadn’t the summer lasted forever? Did their comfortable lives back home still exist? Bob Moses had warned of this, too. “When you’re not in Mississippi, it’s not real,” he had told them in Ohio, “and when you’re there the rest of the world isn’t real.”
But one eternal month had not merely warped time—it had accelerated Freedom Summer. Mississippi remained a powder keg, rife with random beatings, absurd arrests, and roaring pickups circling project offices. Several attacks per day were now being chalked onto a blackboard outside COFO headquarters in Jackson.
• McComb: Mount Zion Hill Baptist Church in Pike County bombed or burned to ground.
• Philadelphia: Columbia law student and a writer beaten with chain by two middle-aged white men in early afternoon.
• Batesville: 8 people detained one and one-half hours by sheriff . . . released into crowd of whites standing about. Local volunteer hit hard in jaw by white man.
Encounters with whites had become a manic game of chance. Crossing the tracks and heading downtown, one never knew what might happen. Those huddled men on the bench ahead might just glare or flash their middle fingers. The thin-lipped man in the passing car might merely pass. That trio of young toughs hanging around the gas station might settle for threats. But just as easily, the men on the bench could uncoil. Empty beer bottles could fly from that car. Those three thugs might explode. Volunteers pressed their luck every day, and most came home unscathed. But every day, luck ran out for a few.
A month of Freedom Summer had weeded out the fearful. Several volunteers had given up and gone home. The rest, hardened by Mississippi, inspired by its local heroes, dug in and focused on their jobs—teaching another class, knocking on another door, or just being there, white with black in Mississippi. By the third week of July, the tender wounds of violence were hardening into a callused defiance. The defiance showed in how volunteers joked about their lives. “The mosquitoes down here are vicious,” a Hattiesburg volunteer wrote in her diary. “I’m sure they must be hired by the Klan or the White Citizens Council.” From Ruleville, a man wrote home: “You will all be glad to hear that my odor is strong enough to kill a sunflower at 20 feet.” And in Greenwood, a volunteer gave his parents graphic descriptions of recent mayhem, then concluded, “Ho hum. This violent life rolls on. We Shall Overcome.”
The defiance also revealed itself in a new attitude toward Mississippi’s “tough towns.” Once avoided, places like Drew and McComb were now invaded by volunteers, filling beehive offices, meeting local heroes, daring police and locals to pounce. Even Emmett Till’s watery graveyard—Tallahatchie County—would soon have its day at the courthouse. Finally, the defiance changed the way violence was described. Calls to the WATS line now spoke of “the usual police harassment,” “the usual speech” from a cop, “the usual” phone calls spewing “the usual” hatred. A beating was “nothing serious. Bruises on face. And cuts.”
Freedom Summer’s gathering momentum spread this renewed boldness to every corner of Mississippi. COFO sued Sheriff Rainey, the Klan, and the Citizens’ Council, charging that they had “engaged in widespread terroristic acts . . . to intimidate, punish and deter the Negro citizens of Mississippi.” No one expected to win the suit, but at least the chaw-chewing sheriff would have to hire a lawyer and swagger into court. In Harmony, where a cross had blazed in response to the Civil Rights Act, the rhythmic rapping of hammers echoed across farms and fields. Denied a building for a Freedom School, volunteers and locals had raised enough money to build their own community center. Now, dozens were hammering away. While pickups circled, black women served fried chicken and Kool-Aid. Men in overalls sawed planks and raised skeleton walls beneath the scorching sun. One observer called the Harmony project, which included a honeymooning couple from Milwaukee, “the happiest project I have seen in Mississippi.” Up in the Delta, $4,500 raised by calls to parents was claimed from Western Union at the back of Rexall Drug in Ruleville. All twenty-three prisoners, lice-infested, skin blistered by mosquito and chigger bites, were bailed out of Drew’s miserable jail. Thirty miles south in the Greenwood lockup, bedraggled Freedom Day prisoners continued their hunger strike, fantasizing about ice cream, gin and tonics, and freight trains bringing carloads of chopped liver and bagels from New York.
United in spirit, volunteers also found fresh sources of support. Across the state, the spreading network of CB radios linked more SNCC cars with home bases. If James Chaney had only had such a radio. . . . Dozens of medical teams—doctors, nurses, dentists, psychiatrists—were making two-week tours of Mississippi, tending to volunteers’ health, giving black children their first medical exams, then going home to share stories from the “police state” of Mississippi. More than a hundred lawyers from across America had come to prepare more lawsuits. Celebrities were arriving, too, just to lend support. One afternoon, an attractive woman with bright red hair and blue jeans dropped in on Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer did not recognize the “little white lady.” She was later surprised to hear that “a real movie star” named Shirley MacLaine was in her kitchen stirring the beans. Boston Celtics star Bill Russell was giving basketball clinics in Jackson, and within a few days, the biggest name in the civil rights movement, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would tour the state. Yes, it had been only a month, and more than a month remained, but Freedom Summer rolled on.
The summer had not exhausted its surprises. In Itta Bena, the tobacco-chewing old woman whose spunk had amazed boarders way back in June was now showing off the tea set a volunteer’s girlfriend sent her. You could use the little cups for tea, she told friends on Freedom Street. Or you could use them for whiskey. But a month in Mississippi had finished off the naïveté that had frightened SNCC veterans back in Ohio. Light switches on cars were now taped down, lest an opened door illuminate a nighttime target. Host families no longer found their guests “plain cute.” Volunteers did not wash their hands in the water bucket; they were experts at outhouses, well pumps, and bathing in tin washtubs. They could eat whole plates of collard greens without a grimace. Their internal clocks were now set to the local time zone—Rural Southern Time. “If you want to start a meeting at 8,” one wrote home, “schedule it for 7.” And Fannie Lou Hamer no longer had to worry about white girls “out under the trees in the back yard playin’ cards with the Negro boys!” Still, there were near-misses and constant reminders of danger.
One Saturday evening, Chris Williams was in the Mileses’ backyard in Batesville. Volunteers were standing around trading jokes when the drone of insects was shattered by a rifle blast. Everyone began shouting, diving for cover, until Robert Miles, “laughing his ass off,” came out to explain. Another volunteer, unfamiliar with guns, had picked up a loaded rifle. “Someone shot at you from inside the house,” Miles said. The bullet buried itself in the field out back, near the hogs.
Fred Winn was still mired in Shaw. Since the Saturday night when they had “waited for the bombers,” volunteers had settled down, but the project had not. Like the town itself, strung out along a swamp flanking its main street, Shaw’s project was a backwater. With no local movement to build on, mass meetings drew just a few adults. Rumors rustling through the black community did not help. Some spoke of a white volunteer living with a black woman, even sitting, shirtless, on her porch all morning. Others talked of a tall white woman and a local black man sleeping together in the Freedom House. The California carpenter paid no attention to the rumors. Fred continued to build bookshelves, install screens, fix toilets. Writing home often, he was feeling closer than ever to the father he had barely known. And his father, feeling the same bond, had begun asking friends for donations to SNCC. (One wrote back, “I don’t believe in this sort of thing and think Freddy is a big jerk for doing it.”) But restless nights and disjointed days had left Fred with the nagging certainty that he would always feel like a stranger in Mississippi.
As volunteers struggled to adapt, SNCC leaders were starting to wonder. Precisely what had Freedom Summer accomplished? Freedom Schools were overenrolled, bursting with enthusiasm. A dozen community centers were offering literacy workshops, health classes, day care, sewing lessons, story hours. . . . Yet SNCC’s larger purpose—voter registration—was treading water. Bob Moses had done the math. Despite all the Freedom Days, a SNCC report charted the dismal results: “Canton—Number of those who took the test—22; Number of those who passed—0. Hattiesburg: Number of those who took the test—70. Number of those who passed—5. Greenwood—Number of those who took the test—123. Number of those who passed—2.” In all, of the fifteen hundred blacks who had gone to courthouses, only a handful outside Panola County had successfully registered. If any political progress was to be made in the remaining month, it had to follow the only road left open—the Freedom Party road. This time, however, the stage would not be Mississippi but all of America. On July 19, Moses sent a ten-page memorandum to all staff and canvassers regarding the “high degree of probability that we will not be prepared for the national Democratic Convention.”
Since its founding in March, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had survived on dreams. Fannie Lou Hamer and three other MFDP candidates had run for Congress in the June primary, yet Atlantic City remained the party’s target. Now just over a month remained until the gavel at the Democratic National Convention. There, Freedom Democrats would challenge Mississippi’s all-white delegation. Before a national television audience, blacks could detail Mississippi’s brutal denial of democracy. And with enough support, perhaps even an outpouring of telegrams and phone calls, the MFDP could win a floor fight and be seated, sending Mississippi’s “official” delegation home in disgrace. But it would take names—Moses was still hoping for 400,000—names signed up as Freedom Democrats. At midsummer, Moses had tallied just 21,431 signatures on the parallel party’s roll sheet. At the present rate, just 60,000 would be enrolled when the convention began. It was not hard to imagine a challenge to the challenge—what about all the other blacks in Mississippi? They must not care about voting. Faced with failure, Moses now turned consensus into decree. There would be fewer Freedom Days, which cost too much in bail money and manpower. Instead, “everyone who is not working in Freedom Schools or Community Centers must devote all their time to organizing for the convention challenge.”
Moses lowered his sights to 200,000 signatures. Even by SNCC standards, it was a quixotic goal, but Moses, as usual, had thought things out. SNCC would flood black quarters with Freedom Registration Centers—in stores, bars, beauty parlors, barbershops, restaurants, pool halls, garages, and churches. Sound trucks would roam backstreets, blaring announcements of the campaign. Radio and newspaper ads would spread the word. “Big name” folksingers were already in Mississippi, holding concerts to promote the MFDP. More, including Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, were said to be on their way. Then there would be “canvassing, which you all know about.” And in a few days, Martin Luther King would tour Mississippi, putting his high profile behind the Freedom Democratic Party.
Moses’ midcourse correction shifted Freedom Summer into high gear. Freedom School teachers began canvassing on weekends. Rollicking mass meetings were now held night after night. Sunday-morning church became obligatory as volunteers—men in shirts and ties, women in stockings and heels—waited until deacons gathered collection plates, then stood to explain the Freedom Democratic Party. They would be outside after the service to sign up everyone. Everyone! The goal of 200,000 signatures—35,000 new names per week—also sent volunteers to the far reaches of each plantation and each day.
Even in late July, morning comes early to the Mississippi Delta. Above the pancake land, the spreading sky turns salmon pink by 5:00 a.m. Here in the summer of 1964, as they had for decades at that hour, buses roam the plantations surrounding Greenwood, stopping to pick up “hands” to chop cotton. Yet for the first time ever, white hands are among the black. Standing beside shacks glowing with kerosene lamps, volunteers make their pitch to tired men in overalls, to weary women in housedresses and bandannas.
No, there’s no danger in signing this paper.
Your name will not be listed in any newspaper.
The boss man will never know. Most whites don’t even know what the MFDP is. What is it? Here’s a brochure (and a flashlight): “The Democratic National Convention is a very big meeting in August. It is a very important meeting because people in the Democratic Party choose the person they want to run for President of the United States. . . . Mississippi sends a group of people to this national meeting. This summer we are going to send a Freedom group to the national meeting.”
The brochure goes on to explain democracy from the ground up. There will be precinct meetings all over the state, then county conventions, and finally a state convention in Jackson to choose delegates who will travel to Atlantic City. But as sharecroppers and canvassers board the bus, as it rumbles through the cotton fields, there is no time to go into all that. The pitch continues. With MFDP registration, there is no poll tax to pay. And no impossible tangle from the state constitution to interpret. Just fill in your name, address, and how long you’ve lived in Leflore County. The forms will be kept secret. No one will know. Sign here.
The pitch is as simple as the brochure, yet resistance remains.
“I got to think about it.”
“I’m too old to fool with it.”
“Not me. I’m the only one my children’s got. I’m all they have.”
Volunteers have not surrendered their summer just to take “I got to think about it” for an answer. Again and again they return to shacks, show up at church, ride the dawn buses, and wear down resistance. If it takes 35,000 new signatures each week, they will give their August as they have given their July. But the obstacles run far deeper than the fear.
No one doubts the convention in Atlantic City will be a show of party unity, nominating an incumbent president with a 70 percent approval rating. Yet the Freedom Democrat challenge threatens to splinter the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson has already enraged the South with his Civil Rights Act. If Democrats seat a black delegation from Mississippi and send whites home, can he win any states south of the Mason-Dixon line? Won’t a convention floor fight based on race make the GOP tussles in San Francisco look like playground spats? And won’t Barry Goldwater be the next president of the United States? News of the upcoming challenge is already salting old wounds, recalling 1948 when “Dixiecrats” stormed out of the Democratic convention in protest of the civil rights platform. The Washington Post warns of a “battle royal.” The Los Angeles Timespredicts a “potentially explosive dilemma.” SNCC and the MFDP, however, are ready for a fight, a fair fight.
For the next five weeks, Freedom Democrats will carefully follow all the rules. They will sign every party form, obey every party bylaw, file every necessary paper. Armed with signatures, fired by the horror stories ready to be shared with America, backed by hundreds ready to rally on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk, they feel certain. They will be heard. They will be seated. They will represent Mississippi. With each new signature, they are still more confident. It just takes names. Sign here.
The making of a parallel political party took more than certitude. Organization and leadership were also vital, and for these, Freedom Democrats relied on SNCC project directors. During Freedom Summer’s opening weeks, a few, like Chris Williams’s “great leader” in Batesville, had to be replaced. A similar breakdown occurred in Vicksburg, where white volunteers rebelled against a young black leader they nicknamed “Papa Doc,” bringing Bob Moses to soothe tensions. But by late July, SNCC had replaced its weaker links, solidifying a corps of black men still in their early twenties yet coordinating manpower like five-star generals.
In Holly Springs, Ivanhoe Donaldson supervised one of Freedom Summer’s most energetic projects. Donaldson had first come south in 1962, leaving Michigan State to make dozens of runs in a truck carrying supplies for ravenous Delta sharecroppers. Thin and wiry, constantly on edge, this son of a New York cop suffered from migraines that sometimes had him lying on the couch in the project office, head in his hands. Tension sometimes led Donaldson to shout at volunteers, especially women. “He has trouble relating to white women,” many said. But no one questioned his dedication nor dared defy his rules. Anyone who broke a rule, Donaldson told volunteers on the first day of summer, “will have to pack his bag and get his ass out of town. We’re here to work! The time for bullshitting is past!” And there would be no surrender to fear. Early that summer when a black volunteer was arrested for “blocking traffic,” Donaldson ordered him back on the street. “We can’t let them think that we are afraid,” he said. “You know that. Go right back to the spot where you were arrested.” Like many other SNCCs, Donaldson had opposed the summer project, convinced it would destroy “the one thing where the Negro can stand first.” But once it began, he ran his project the same way he drove, one foot on the brake, the other on the accelerator, often topping one hundred miles per hour.
Donaldson was known and respected in Holly Springs, but the Delta’s project director was known all over Mississippi and would soon be notorious across the nation. Tall and lanky, with huge eyes and a savage wit, Stokely Carmichael followed his intellect from his native Trinidad to the South Bronx, then on to Howard University. Like Bob Moses, Carmichael had majored in philosophy, and the two sometimes discussed Gödel’s theorems late into the night. Like Moses, Carmichael had won a full graduate scholarship to Harvard, though he turned it down to remain on the front lines. And like Moses, Carmichael seemed to be everywhere that summer—at every meeting, every rally, every protest. Volunteers struggled to keep up with his lightning-quick references to Frantz Fanon and other philosophers of black liberation. Based in the Greenwood office, where his charisma earned him the nickname “Stokely Starmichael,” Carmichael was more relaxed than his peers. He openly flirted with women, leading to speculation on how many he slept with. His constant jive kept the office as loose as his rules. Most project offices had code names on the CB network, names based on John—John Schwarz (Shaw); John August (Clarksdale), etc. But because Carmichael called everyone “Sweets,” he named his CB base “Greenwood Sweets.” Every week or so, when a package arrived at the office addressed to FASC, Carmichael would gather volunteers to share the latest gifts from the group he called “The Friends and Admirers of Stokely Carmichael.” “Young man,” he would say to a volunteer. “Tell FASC what you want and FASC will see to it.” Opening the package, he would pass out toothpaste, candy, insect repellent, and other goodies mailed from “friends and admirers” volunteers could only guess at. But Carmichael was also fearless to a fault. Everyone knew how many times he had been arrested, how he was on the picket lines on Freedom Day, and in the Greenwood jail right along with them. In the coming years, when his “Black Power!” chant terrified white America, when he led an all-black SNCC, some whites would feel rejected, but Greenwood volunteers would come to his defense. Stokely had been there for them.
In contrast to Donaldson and Carmichael, Hollis Watkins was modest and unassuming, with a sweet Mississippi drawl that melted into a beautiful tenor when Freedom Songs broke out. The twelfth child of Pike County sharecroppers, Watkins had left Mississippi for California before coming home hoping to join the Freedom Rides. He arrived too late—“the Riders,” including Carmichael, had been arrested in Jackson and sent to Parchman Farm. Instead of becoming a Freedom Rider, Watkins had joined Bob Moses in McComb. A SNCC staffer ever since, Watkins was known as a soulful presence, as smooth as molasses. Yet when put in charge of two dozen volunteers in Holmes County, he imposed Freedom Summer’s most ironclad rules. No going out at night unless to a mass meeting. No drinking—not even a beer. No one should even visit the little country store across Highway 49 in Mileston. Who knew what redneck might show up? “I felt personally responsible for the lives of everyone who worked on my project,” Watkins remembered. “These young people had come down here, and if they were serious and dedicated to the cause, they should be willing to make sacrifices.” Watkins’s final rule was the harshest—no dating. Period. The Holmes County project was just two days old when a female volunteer went out with a local white man. The next day, Watkins took her to Jackson and had her reassigned. Watkins’s friend and peer, the equally congenial Charlie Cobb, faced the same problem in Greenville. The Mississippi river town may have been moderate, but interracial dating remained taboo. When cops arrested a black man spotted hand in hand with a white volunteer, Cobb gave the couple a choice: dating or the summer project. “They both left together,” Cobb remembered. “I never saw them again.”
Dedicated, brilliant, determined, such was the staff Muriel Tillinghast joined in mid-July when she became SNCC’s only female project director in Mississippi. Three weeks earlier, Muriel had been afraid to leave the Greenville office. Now she was expected to run it. In turning over his command, Charlie Cobb had few reservations. “Muriel was tough, you could see that,” Cobb remembered. “And I knew her reputation at Howard. She was smart, and she had experience in the sit-in movement, which doesn’t tell you how she’s going to be as an organizer in rural Mississippi but it’s a good bet.” Before leaving to tour Freedom Schools, Cobb tested Muriel in Issaquena County. The snake-shaped, bayou-infested region ran along the Mississippi River just south of Greenville. Like some remote feudal fiefdom, Issaquena was desperately poor, patrolled by the shotgun and the pickup, and as brutal as any county in Mississippi. Blacks made up more than half the population, yet none were registered to vote. In early July, two white volunteers had risked their lives to “crack” this plantation stronghold. They were instantly spotted by their pace. “We had never seen anybody walk that fast in the summer in the Mississippi Delta,” sharecropper Unita Blackwell remembered.
The twentieth century came to Issaquena County the night the volunteers called a meeting at the Moon Lake Baptist Church in the county seat of Mayersville (pop. 700). Standing before rows of black faces, a pale man from Brooklyn spoke until it became clear that no one could understand a word he said. His counterpart from Virginia took over, telling locals of the movement, the summer project, their right to vote. At the back of the church, a terrified deacon sat moaning—“Oh Lord, Lord . . .” but Unita Blackwell felt “like a big drenching rain had finally come after a long dry spell.” Blackwell, a sturdy, towering woman who had worked her entire life in the cotton fields, soon went with SNCC to the courthouse. She “failed” the registration test and was instantly thrown off the plantation, never to pick another boll of cotton. The movement was her new job. Two weeks later, when Muriel Tillinghast came to Issaquena County, Blackwell became her pupil, her disciple, her friend.
Seated in Blackwell’s shack, surrounded by fields of waist-high cotton, Muriel found the voice of her ancestors. She began holding forth on voting rights, citizenship, and black history. “For someone so young and petite, she had a serene strength about her,” Blackwell remembered. When Muriel called herself a teacher, Blackwell assumed she taught school, yet “Muriel taught things more rare and precious.” Blackwell was soon gathering a dozen or more in her home or in church to hear Muriel talk about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and W. E. B. DuBois. Muriel read from black poetry and literature. She told them about her own family, the grandmother who had walked from Texas to D.C. and the proud generations since. “What Muriel Tillinghast really taught us was to have pride in ourselves,” Blackwell remembered. Though impressed by her knowledge and spark, locals were startled by Muriel’s hair. None had ever seen what would soon be called an “Afro.” Some women giggled behind Muriel’s back, and Blackwell constantly urged her to straighten her “nappy-headed” hair. “Okay, I’ll do that sometime,” Muriel would reply. Or “I’ve got to wash it.” But Muriel let her hair grow, and within a year, Blackwell and countless other African-American women were wearing theirs the same way.
Not long after Muriel arrived in Issaquena County, calls from Greenville to Jackson reported: “Things getting pretty tight in Issaquena—whites circling certain key houses, churches.” Yet Blackwell and others continued to take Muriel and her volunteers into their homes, feeding them, sheltering them, talking, learning, sharing strength. “They recognized we were in their hands,” Muriel remembered. “We couldn’t have lasted a single day without them.” On July 20, whites fired nine shots into a car parked outside a mass meeting. Neighboring Sharkey County, where Muriel was also working, was equally feudal, equally hotheaded. When a black volunteer’s car broke down there, a cop arrested the man and smashed his skull with a blackjack. “Go back to Greenville,” the cop said, “and tell all the niggers in Greenville that they beat a nigger’s ass in Sharkey County.” But by then, locals were talking about opening a Freedom School. And more and more blacks were signing Freedom Democrat forms, singing in church, and coming out to meet Muriel and her staff. A Freedom Democratic Party precinct meeting was scheduled at the Moon Lake Baptist Church for July 26, the day after Martin Luther King’s Mississippi tour would end. Unita Blackwell would be there, and so would her teacher, her friend, who now knew she could handle Mississippi.
Shortly after noon on Tuesday, July 21, Robert Kennedy phoned the White House. Another crisis in a summer of crises was pending. Martin Luther King was on a plane to Mississippi. “If he gets killed,” Kennedy told LBJ, “it creates all kinds of problems. Not just being dead, but also a lot of other kind of problems.” The president instantly phoned J. Edgar Hoover. Though the FBI director loathed King and was already bugging his hotel rooms, he recognized the danger. “There are threats that they’re going to kill him,” Hoover said. Johnson shuddered at the thought. “Talk to your man in Jackson,” the president said, “and tell him that we think that it would be the better part of wisdom, in the national interest, that they work out some arrangement where somebody’s in front of him and behind him when he goes over there. . . . So that we won’t find another burning car. It’s a hell of a lot easier to watch a situation like that before it happens than it is to call out the Navy after it happens.”
King had not been to Mississippi since Medgar Evers’s funeral in June 1963. There he had kept a low profile, but when the procession threatened to break into a riot, he had hustled to the airport. King’s loyalists were terrified of Mississippi. “We tried to warn SNCC,” Andrew Young noted. “We were all Southerners and we knew the depth of the depravity of southern racism. We knew better than to try to take on Mississippi.” In the thirteen months since he had fled Jackson, King had seen his fame soar. He had shared his dream with a quarter million people on the Washington mall and was about to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He had the highest approval ratings of any Negro in America. Yet to whites in Mississippi, he was “Martin Luther Coon.” Billboards along Mississippi highways showed King at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the caption reading “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” Mississippi newspapers wrote of “the unspeakable Martin Luther King,” and “The Reverend Dr. Extremist Agitator Martin Luther King Junior.”
King knew the risks in going to Mississippi. All that weekend before his departure, he wrestled with thoughts of dying. “I want to live a normal life,” he told an aide. After pleading with King not to go, his associates enlisted one of his former professors to tell him it would be “just suicidal for you to go there.” King accepted Bob Moses’ invitation anyway. He did not know that SNCCs sometimes mocked him as “de Lawd.” He had been warned that a “guerilla group” would try to kill him in Mississippi, but he considered SNCC’s summer project “the most creative thing happening today in civil rights.” And he knew the Freedom Democratic Party deserved his support. His first stop would be Greenwood.
Blacks in the volatile cotton capital could scarcely believe the news. The man whose photo graced so many walls in so many shacks was coming to be among them. Where would Dr. King speak in Greenwood? Where would he stay? On the day before King’s arrival, homes were dusted, mopped, swept. Women spent the afternoon in hot kitchens, pumping out fried chicken and cornbread, pies and cakes. Preachers argued over whose church the reverend should grace. The following morning, reporters swarmed all over the quarters. Arriving in Jackson on a flight from Atlanta, King spoke on the shimmering tarmac, saying he had come “to demonstrate the absolute support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for this summer project . . . [and] support the tremendous quest for the right to vote on the part of the people of the state of Mississippi in the midst of bombings, murders, and many other difficult experiences.” When King finished, an FBI agent stepped up, introduced himself, and remained with him, waiting while he met with SNCC and COFO leaders, then boarding his connecting flight.
Charcoal clouds loomed above the Delta as King, escorted by four FBI agents, began his stroll past the shakedown hovels, along the gravel roads, through the heart of the raw poverty and rising anger of black Greenwood. Trailing admirers and reporters, King stopped traffic, turned heads, and astonished those who had never heard him in person. As rain began to pelt down, his spine-tingling baritone rolled across streets lined with pool halls and juke joints. Standing on a bench outside the Savoy Café, he waved his arms above the crowd. “You must not allow anybody to make you feel you are not significant,” he said. “Every Negro has worth and dignity. Mississippi has treated the Negro as if he is a thing instead of a person.” King delighted followers by stepping inside a pool hall and interrupting a game. “Gentlemen, I will be brief,” he said. While young men stood, cue sticks in hand, King spoke about the need to “make it clear to everybody in the world that Negroes desire to be free and to be a registered voter.” Moving back to the street, King urged people to sign Freedom Democratic Party papers, papers volunteers handed out in his wake.
That evening, King spoke at a small church, then headed for the Elks Hall. Waiting in the audience were Chris Williams, who had come with other Batesville volunteers, and Greenwood’s Freedom Day picketers, just released from six days behind bars. The picketers had been sentenced to $100 fines and thirty days in jail. Out on appeal, they broke their hunger strike with chicken and collards, then sat waiting for “de Lawd.” As the crowd swelled in anticipation, not even the worst cynic in SNCC could deny King’s appeal. When his entourage arrived at the Elks Hall, crowds swarmed the stage. Hundreds clapped and chanted, “We Want Free-dom! We Want Free-dom!” Stepping to the podium, King thrilled the audience that spilled out of the seats, lined the walls, peered in windows. If Negroes “mobilize the power of their souls,” he said, they could “turn this nation upside down in order to turn it right side up.” Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, King noted, had been “murdered by the silence and apathy of good people.” Barry Goldwater, he added, gave aid to segregationists. And the FBI—having seen its quick work in other cases, King found it hard to believe “that these same efficient FBI men cannot locate the missing workers.” King concluded with a rhythmic chant—“Seat the Freedom Democratic Party! Seat the Freedom Democratic Party!”
As King spoke, a small plane with its navigation lights off buzzed the Elks Hall. On its second pass, a white cloud of leaflets fluttered to the ground. This latest issue of The Klansman denounced “the Right Rev. Riot Inciter, Martin Luther King, Jr.” come to “bring riot, strife, and turmoil to . . . Greenwood, Mississippi [and] to milk all available cash from the local niggers.” At dawn the next day, volunteers again rode buses among field hands, finding them more willing to sign their names. That morning’s Jackson Clarion-Ledger headline read “Small Crowd Greets King at Greenwood.” At 8:23 a.m., King’s flight left for Jackson.
With the movement’s leading light touring Mississippi, with volunteers refusing to cower in the face of violence, those determined to derail Freedom Summer made their own midcourse correction. Rank violence and vile hatred were not enough to end the invasion. Across America, Mississippi’s image had sunk so low that residents traveling to the New York World’s Fair were changing their license plates to out-of-state tags. Someone had to stand up for Mississippi.
Lawrence Rainey stood up first. The Neshoba County sheriff filed a $1 million libel suit against NBC, charging that a Huntley-Brinkley News interview had implicated him in the disappearance. (The suit was ultimately dismissed.) Three days later, Mississippi newspapers reprinted a letter to NBC’s Today show, whose host had criticized the state. “It is a known fact,” a Hattiesburg man wrote, “that more violence has occurred in one subway in the city of New York in the last three months than in the whole state of Mississippi in the last year.” Next, with riots raging in Harlem, whites gloated. “It is a sad commentary,” a Mississippi congressman said on Capitol Hill, “that while mobs stalk the streets of New York . . . some 1,500 so-called civil rights workers and troublemakers are in Mississippi—a state with the nation’s lowest crime rate—subjecting innocent, law abiding people to insult, national scorn and creating trouble.” Mississippi newspapers, known for plastering northern crime stories on front pages, delighted in the Harlem riots. “Latest Wave of Invaders Badly Needed in New York Area Today,” the Jackson Clarion-Ledger sneered. Batesville’s weekly Panolian, noting the tension caused by summer volunteers, concluded, “Happily, the inclination toward violence is less in Mississippi than in New York. Otherwise there could have been a holocaust.” But in Mississippi’s propaganda arsenal, the strongest weapon was the oldest.
Accusations of communism in the civil rights movement dated to the Brown decision, handed down in the waning days of McCarthyism. Kneejerk red-baiting did not die with McCarthy, however. It just moved south. Into the 1960s, J. Edgar Hoover fanned Cold War suspicions—“We do know that Communist influence does exist in the Negro movement and it is this influence which is vitally important.” Hoover’s charges, constantly invoked by southern congressmen, were woven into the fabric of the white South—anyone who worked for civil rights had to be a Communist. SNCCs had heard the red-baiting so often they could joke about it. “Hey, you don’t worry about the communists,” Stokely Carmichael often told the press. “Worry about SNCC. We way more dangerous, Jack.” Just as the red-baiting was growing stale, Freedom Summer brought hordes of “Communists” to Mississippi. All summer, volunteers heard “the usual” taunts. Cops and sheriffs asked them whether they (1) believed in Jesus; (2) believed in God; and (3) were Communists. A Batesville volunteer was stopped on the street and asked to say something in Russian because “all communists speak Russian.” But now, with Mississippi in disgrace, it was time to name names.
On July 22, as Martin Luther King toured Jackson, Senator James Eastland charged that the “mass invasion of Mississippi by demonstrators, agitators, agents of provocation, and inciters to mob violence” was a Communist conspiracy. Eastland spoke on the Senate floor for an hour, citing J. Edgar Hoover, and producing a long list of names. According to the senator, volunteer Larry Rubin had cochaired the Fair Play for Cuba Committee at Antioch College in Ohio. When arrested in Holly Springs, Eastland said, Rubin had an address book containing names of known Communists. Eastland’s list of Communist “stooges and pawns” went on. A Moss Point volunteer had been thrown out of Costa Rica for distributing Communist literature. The National Lawyers Guild, notorious since the 1930s for defending Communists, was working with SNCC in Mississippi. And attorney Martin Popper, representing Andrew Goodman’s family, was “a long-time Communist legal eagle.” Rising to a fist-flailing righteousness, the senator charged that the summer invasion had subjected Mississippi to “a degree of vilification . . . unequaled since the black days of Reconstruction.” Mississippians, he concluded, deserved “everlasting credit [for] holding their tempers so well.”
Eastland’s charges made headlines across Mississippi. Within days, the Sovereignty Commission began trailing Larry Rubin and his “beatnik looking crowd.” The FBI did likewise, and the Mississippi legislature opened a full-scale inquiry into Communist influence in Freedom Summer. The red-baiters would find kernels of truth in Eastland’s diatribe. A handful of summer volunteers, many of them “red diaper” offspring of former Communists, did sympathize with Cuba and other left-wing causes. And the National Lawyers Guild was working with SNCC, which refused to be cowed by neo-McCarthyism. “If they ain’t calling you a Communist,” Fannie Lou Hamer often said, “you ain’t doing your job.” Yet as the summer accelerated, the vast majority of volunteers were far too busy to fight the Cold War—on either side.
At the Vicksburg Community Center, Fran O’Brien had been teaching arts and crafts for three weeks when her students demanded meatier subjects. One day, rummaging through the center’s library, the children spotted an American history text. They brought it to the gentle, dark-haired teacher with the funny accent. They wanted to learn history too, they told Fran. Just like the big kids. With a slight smile, Fran opened the tattered book and instantly noticed the publishing date—1930. The narrative began, “The history of America really begins in England because all Americans come from England.” She looked at the faces before her. She closed the book.
Three weeks in Mississippi had taught Fran far more than she had taught her students. When a girl in a school variety show recited “Four score and seven years ago,” Fran had learned not to be impressed by rote memory. “Do you know what the Gettysburg Address means?” she asked. “Yes,” the girl replied. “It means that all the slaves were free, and it was signed July 4, 1776.” Reading to her students, Fran learned that Little House on the Prairie books did not mean as much to black kids in Mississippi as they did to a white girl growing up in southern California. She began searching for other stories. When Fran got nervous, she learned not to speak too quickly. After moments of blank stares, one boy finally said, “We can’t understand y’all.” And one morning, when a car came to take her to the Freedom House, Fran learned to check carefully before going outside. The car was not her morning ride. She and her roommate were left standing by the road when a motorcycle cop pulled up. He asked the women if they were runaways, if they were “of age.” Then a second cop came and asked if they were civil rights workers. Fran’s roommate sweet-talked the cops into letting them go. The education of Fran O’Brien continued.
On the evening a bomb hit Vicksburg’s Melody Lounge, Fran learned not to tell her mother the whole truth about Mississippi. “You haven’t a thing to worry about,” she wrote home that night. “Vicksburg is a very quiet town.” And with each class, Fran was learning that not all children are charming. During her afternoon chorus, two boys insisted on croaking like frogs until Fran blew up at “the little darlings.” Another girl did daily “Jekyll-Hyde transformations,” racing around the room, threatening other students. But Mississippi’s saddest lesson taught Fran how Jim Crow crippled every black child’s confidence. Thrilled by her students’ creativity, she was dismayed to see so many kids throw their paintings in the wastebasket. She took them out and put them on her classroom wall.
Freedom Summer’s makeshift logistics had bounced Fran around Vicksburg. In mid-July, the community center was condemned. Fran and her colleagues packed their supplies and moved two blocks to the Freedom House, where their classes had to compete with voter registration. Next, Fran had to leave her host home. The woman there had grown terrified of retaliation. Fran moved into a larger home with antique furniture and even china, all proudly tended by the black woman Fran would forever call “Mrs. Garrett.” The match was ideal. Mrs. Garrett, a rotund woman with thick iron gray hair, was a retired teacher with ample advice for a beginner. Every evening, after Fran came home from a long day of classes, Mrs. Garrett sat and talked. Talked about her grandmother, who when freed, got down on her knees and hugged her children, thanking Jesus that “my babies can’t be sold away.” Talked about teaching in Vicksburg’s black schools, with few books, few resources, just empathy and common sense. Talked about what to do with a history book decades old and whitewashed with lies—“Well, you just read the book and then you give them the right information.”
The next day, Fran started teaching American history. Opening the 1930 text, she read, “The history of America really begins in England.” “Now,” she said, “what might be wrong with that sentence? ” A hand went up.
“Well, lots of people came here who weren’t from England.”
Fran smiled. And what other countries might Americans have come from? Her students began touring the globe.
They moved on to Mexico and South America. Fran was impressed with their geography, but couldn’t help wonder. After they tried China and India, Fran asked, “Well, what about Africa?” The classroom fell silent. Finally, a little girl raised her hand.
“Does that count? ”
Fran had to blink back tears. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, that counts.”
A few days later, Fran wrote home again:
Sometimes I feel I’m not doing much, but . . . I still feel our real hope of success is in the children. They can’t avoid fear, being intelligent, nor resentment, being human. But I hope the stimulation of the Freedom School and the examples of determination set by Negro workers will save them from the apathetic “What’s the use? ” attitude which oppresses and binds people more than the law ever could.
On Thursday, July 23, Fran found Vicksburg’s Freedom House “in a dither.” All afternoon, people ran in and out, straightening, cleaning, preparing. Martin Luther King was coming. He was due around 6:00 p.m. The day before, King had shared coffee with COFO workers in Jackson, then canvassed for Freedom Democrats. That night, he had spoken at the Masonic Temple. The following morning, an FBI wiretap of King’s Atlanta home picked up a death threat. But Hoover, afraid the eavesdropping would be revealed, had given a standing order not to tell King about such threats, so the FBI merely tightened its guard. On Thursday afternoon, King met with Bob Moses, James Farmer, and other leaders, discussing strategies for Atlantic City. After a press conference where he called Mississippi “the worst state in the Union,” he headed for Vicksburg.
White Vicksburg paid no attention to Martin Luther King. The Miss Mississippi pageant was under way. Captivating the town with parades and parties, the pageant was in its third night—the swimsuit competition. Across town, Fran O’Brien was finishing classes as the dinner hour approached. King was scheduled to dine with volunteers, then speak at a church, but he was late, and some were beginning to wonder if he was coming at all. Toward 6:15 p.m., Fran was straightening her classroom when someone told her to hurry. The last car was leaving. She rushed down the long driveway, and there in the front seat was Martin Luther King.
At first, Fran thought it must be someone who merely looked like him, but when a friend asked whether she was just going to stand there gawking, Fran jumped in the back. All the way to dinner, other volunteers fell over themselves to tell King about their summer work. Fran sat in silence. Finally, King turned around. “And what about you, young lady? ” he asked. “What do you do in the project? ”
“Nothing,” Fran managed to say. “I just work with the kids.”
“What do you do with the kids? ”
Shyness stifled Fran, but another volunteer burst in and told King what a great teacher she was, doing arts and crafts, backyard games, and now a chorus and piano and sewing lessons. . . . Fran smiled weakly. King studied her, then asked, “Do you call that ‘nothing’? ”
Then, getting serious as only Martin Luther King could get serious, he said, “Young lady, don’t you ever say you ‘just work with the kids.’ Our children are the future and you are forming it.” After dinner, King spoke to a boisterous crowd, but Fran O’Brien would not remember a thing he said that was more important than what he said to her.
The following morning, back in Jackson, King taped a TV show, then headed for Philadelphia. Bob Moses had not wanted King to venture into the town where a mob had recently driven off NAACP leaders, but King insisted. No events were planned there; no locals were expecting him. FBI agents met his caravan at the Neshoba County line and cleared the road ahead. An hour later, blacks in Independence Quarters were startled to see fifteen cars rumble over the railroad tracks. Kicking up red clouds of dust, the caravan came to a halt in front of a church. King walked again through the streets and stopped at another pool hall, this time taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and playing a game of eight ball. He lost. Climbing on a bench, he addressed the crowd: “Three young men came here to help set you free. They probably lost their lives. I know what you have suffered in this state, the lynchings and the murders. But things are going to get better.” Then, quoting an old spiritual, King told the group, “Walk together, children, don’t you get weary.” As he left the pool hall, an old woman approached and reached out a withered hand. “I just want to touch you,” she said. King moved on beneath afternoon thunder and rain. He stood on the ashes of the Mt. Zion Church, sharing parishioners’ sorrow but rejoicing “that there are churches relevant enough that people of ill will will be willing to burn them.” He spoke that Friday evening in Meridian before returning to his hotel to sweat out his last night in Mississippi, sitting in his boxer shorts and drinking beer with friends. His plane left for Atlanta the next morning.
The night after King left Mississippi, Rita Schwerner spoke to blacks in Greenwood. “I know what fear is,” she said, “but I know that you can risk much more by doing nothing. It’s not unnatural to be afraid but you’re cheating your children if your being afraid stops them from having something.” Fear, however, had met its match in Mississippi. Another weekend of violence saw a volunteer’s car burned in Mileston and another bomb thrown in McComb. In Batesville, tear gas engulfed the Mileses’ home. Coughing and choking, Robert and Mona Miles grabbed their sons and, with volunteers right behind them, staggered out into the night. But with all eyes on a new prize—the Democratic National Convention—fear had become like summer thunder, startling at first but no longer sending anyone for cover.
For every bomb and beating, there was now a symbol of hope—thousands of Freedom Democrat brochures sent out across the state, hundreds of signatures gathered. Precinct meetings drew two hundred in Clarksdale, three hundred in Canton, still more in Holly Springs, where a crowd surrounded police cars and sang Freedom Songs. In the tiny hamlet of Starkville, two volunteers were dropped off alone. Confronted by the sheriff, they were soon surrounded and protected by blacks. “We’ve been waiting for you,” several said. Nearly five hundred signed Freedom Democrat forms.
Whites in Mississippi might bloody and bruise Freedom Summer, but they could not douse its revived spirit. When Mississippi’s secretary of state declared Freedom Democratic Party meetings illegal, Barney Frank fired off a mocking memo—“RE: Arguing with the Red Queen About Precinct Meetings.” “We have a perfect right to hold meetings and call them precinct meetings, nominating conventions, coronations, séances, or whatever we damn well please,” Frank wrote, signing the memo—Alice. And in Ruleville: “Mrs. Hamer is back. Things moving. . . .”
Even the reticent Fran O’Brien was emboldened by the collective courage. Five nights after meeting Martin Luther King, she found herself alone upstairs in the Freedom House. Everyone else had gone to Vicksburg’s Freedom Democrat precinct meeting. The office was silent, dimly lit, slightly eerie. Then the phone rang. The drawl on the other end of the line asked Fran where she was from. Whittier, California. How did she like Mississippi? Oh, just fine. Then the caller casually said everyone in the Freedom House had three days to get out. Three days before the house was bombed. Fran thanked the man for calling. There was a brief silence.
“Listen,” the man said. “I said I’m gonna bomb y’all. And there ain’t gonna be no Freedom School and no freedom there or anyplace else, and no nothin’!”
“Yes sir,” Fran replied. “I understood you the first time. Was there anything else? ”
“No. . . . No, I don’t believe so. But I’ll call again.”
“Oh, feel free,” Fran said. “We’d love to hear from you. Thank you for calling. Good night.”
The line fell silent. Then, “G’ night.”
Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.
Let a bloody peace be written in the sky.
—Margaret Walker Alexander, “For My People”