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Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964)

Related documents (some are very long; all but <> are for historical purposes without personal comments)
SNCC preparatory document (1963)
COFO (umbrella organization)
Documents for distribution (1: baseline documents; 2: individual harassment accounts)
Security guidelines
Log of summer harassment (Jun. 16-Aug. 26)
Freedom School (project in which I participated)
Sample Hattiesburg newspaper (Aug. 18)
Sample SNCC newsletter (Aug. 19)
Misc. media publications (New Republic, letter to NY Times)
1965 report/fund-raising letter (report = a letter by John Lewis)

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February, 2008

In mid-summer 1964, at 22, I spent a month with the civil rights project in Mississippi.  I was placed with the largest (and hence safest) arm of the project, in Hattiesburg.  This section of the web site covers topics and documents related to my experience there.  My only personal comments are on this page and the page that has samples from a Hattiesburg daily paper; the other pages are all documents I include here for historical purposes, with no comments from me other than summary descriptions.  (Of these, readers might find particular interest in a KKK document setting forth organizationall "principles" and the longggg and dismaying catalogue of summer harassment.)

The project had been well under way when I arrived.  I had just finished a year of master's work in English at Claremont Graduate School (I would finish the MA program in the fall semester), and I was a militant supporter of the civil rights movement.  At least one friend had gone to Mississippi for the project, and I felt a mixture of envy of him and fear of going.  I finally decided that I needed to go despite my fear (the three murdered workers, Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman, had disappeared before I went)--not necessarily for ideal reasons, but because I felt that if I wanted to be present at what would later be historically profound, I needed to participate in the project.  Part of the reason was that I  aspired to be a novelist, and the first-hand experience should be helpful.  Still, I certainly believed whole-heartedly in the cause.

Here is a copy of the time-ravaged 2-page application form I filled out in late July, apparently in Mississippi (since a letter reproduced below, en route to Mississippi, is dated earlier).

People listed on 2nd page:

Lazarus: aunt and uncle, father's side

Cannel: college friend

Maya: aunt and uncle, mother's side

Perlman: roommate at Claremont

Penn: fellow grad student at Claremont

White: college friend, Berkeley grad student; participated in the Miss. project

Fussell: undergraduate professor

Friedman: Claremont professor

Holmes: Claremont professor

Feinberg: probably parents of a fellow grad student, Richard Feinberg

I phoned my parents in New Jersey to tell them what I was planning.  Old lefties themselves, they seemed to me frightened and maybe tried to talk me out of going, though in later years my father, at least, denied this.  (When my mother read that line after I posted this page, she e-mailed me: "I spent an hour on the phone with you when you called trying to persuade you not to go, e.g. there were safer ways to fight Jim Crow.")  It was surely no help for their equanimity that  shortly before I phoned that day my sister had announced she was pregnant and would be getting married.  I had a rare moment of pride in my father when he said to me that he told her he wouldn't let her marry Joe unless she loved him.  (She and Joe ended up having two daughters and divorcing about 10 years later.)

My memory is confused about how I got to Hattiesburg.  This may have been the time I went east after answering a newspaper ad for someone who was driving that way and wanted a companion to share gas and driving; or that may have been a year or two later.  If this was the time, the owner of the car, another young guy, had family in New Orleans, and we stayed there for a night.

Here is a letter (or journal entry?) I wrote en route, presumably in Colorado--not badly written for a 22-year-old's first draft, though perhaps self-conscious in its effort at lyricism.  I remember none of what I wrote.  My handwriting, thank goodness, was much less bad than it became over the years since then, especially as I increasingly came to rely on typewriters and word processing.  I'm not sure who John was (I think he was someone who responded to an ad I posted for a co-driver to share costs, but perhaps that was a different cross-country trip), nor the origin of the "kitties."  I owned a cat at some point but would not have been bringing it to Mississippi.

However I got there, I remember feeling great trepidation as I approached the Mississippi state line from Louisiana.  But when we passed the welcome sign at the border, I relaxed--everything (of course) seemed normal.  How I got to Hattiesburg I also don't remember.  44 years later, several experiences stick out in my memory.

We had a couple of days of training, including in non-violent resistance.  I remember loving that part of the training because, intrinsic coward that I was and am, it would now be the RIGHT thing not to fight.  

All of us volunteers were assured that the office phones were tapped--by the FBI, I think we were told, as opposed to local police.

As I was walking the streets of Hattiesburg one day with a black fellow-worker, a pickup truck drove by and a young white guy gave us the finger and kept going.  (Or maybe it was a white fellow-worker but we were strolling within the black area of town.)  I think we, whistling in the dark, smiled and waved, but perhaps that is just wishful thinking.  In any event, that was the closest I got to danger during my month in Mississippi.

About the middle of my stay, I flew north to attend my sister's wedding.  In Hattiesburg, two fellow white workers drove me to the bus station. As we were driving, I realized I would have to decide whether to go in the white or colored (I assume that's what it was labeled) entrance.  Exiting the car, I walked slowly, hoping it would drive away.  But I could sense that it had lingered and the occupants were watching.  Slowly I walked up some wooden steps onto a wooden verandah, two doors facing me just a few feet apart.  I walked through the "whites" door.  Inside was one large room.  My eyes took in the ticket counter and the room.  An invisible line separated the two parts, and I walked at a diagonal to cross to the black side of the counter.  I received a glower and prim treatment, but no unpleasant words.  I bought my ticket and sat in the colored section.  I was scared the whole time, but perhaps the bright lights and the presence of many people reassured me.  I think the waiting blacks avoided looking at me (no less reasonable a posture than my entering the unknown by the whites door).  I don't remember if the bus itself was segregated, but if so presumably I sat in the back.  I remember being pissed off at a number of things--that given the actual nature of the station I could have walked in the colored door, that the two workers in the car watched me enter the "wrong" door, that I was scared of walking in the colored door lest something dangerous greet me on the other side, that the workers in the car hadn't seen what I did as soon as I entered the room and cased it, that I didn't know what I would have done had there in fact been some more foreboding separation within the station.  I still don't know what I should have done, though I'm proud that once in the station I acted as I did.

The bus took me to Jackson, where I boarded a plane north, whether to one of the New York City airports or Newark I don't remember. Nor do I remember how I got to my parents' home in New Brunswick (NJ).  Once there, I have a vague memory of walking around town in a daze, alienated or experiencing dissonance at the different environment.  (My mother adds: "While you were home for the wedding, you said you'd forget where you were and keep watching your back  You also said that you hated to return to Miss. but you went anyway.")  

At one point, accosted and then pursued by a panhandler, probably black, after many steps I finally turned to her and shouted something like, "Leave me alone!"  She walked off.  Was I a cheapskate?  Too distracted to deal with the woman?  Broke?  Unconscious of the irony?  All that and more?

At my sister's wedding, sitting near the back of the synagogue, I watched her walk down a side aisle, in white, her face paler than her dress.  I don't remember anything further about my couple of days North, nor about my return to Hattiesburg except that this time I used the colored doors at the Jackson and Hattiesburg bus stations.  Of course, by now I knew what the inside of both stations looked like.

In Hattiesburg, we took turns sleeping in the office.  On my night, I lay on the large office desk and struggled to sleep.  At some time like 2 am, the phone rang.  I picked it up with trepidation.  A Southern male voice said, "May I speak to James Chaney?"  By that time we must have known he had been murdered.  I imagined bright headlights screeching up to the front of the office and blinding me while I was holding the phone.  To the caller I said in as matter-of-fact a voice as I could muster, "I'm sorry, he isn't here."  Perhaps I added, "Why don't you call back in the morning?"  I think I understood that my reaction would fluster the caller, and indeed he asked a few more times to speak with Chaney, clearly puzzled that I didn't respond by shouting in rage at this sacrilege.  I maintained the same cordial, seeking-to-be-helpful voice.

Finally he hung up and I tried to go back to sleep.  A minute later the phone rang again.  Same voice.  This time, however, he explained that he was a white student at the local university and wanted to talk to me about why the project was there, why outside agitators (the common phrase for Northern civil rights workers) would intrude on this peaceful town where whites and Negroes (probably the word he used) had long gotten along just fine without any outside help.  He sounded thoughtful and curious, albeit disapproving; I like to think that the way I handled his first call had not only disarmed him but made him follow up with this conversation.  I doubt I did anything to change his mind at that moment, but I also like to think that our conversation helped him change over time.  Who knows?  No matter what, it was a totally unexpected and, in a sense, gratifying experience.

On one occasion I got into a conversation with a white priest volunteer, and before long some statement prompted me to say that I was an atheist.  In a friendly way, he started asking me why and setting forth the teleological argument for God.  I interrupted (politely, I expect--or hope) and said that I was familiar with the argument and that anyway faith, of course, wasn't a matter of reason but of belief.   He accepted this and we went on to other things.  My undergraduate degree in philosophy was paying off--and always has on this point.

I got seriously ill and delerious for a few days at one point.  I don't remember what I ranted about, but I do have an almost psychedelic memory of the middle-aged, traditional woman, in whose house I was staying, on her knees beside my bed at least once, praying for me.  A black doctor, a urologist or gastro-enterologist, from the North I think, treated me and diagnosed me with an infection (urinary tract?) pertinent to his specialty.  I have always wondered whether, presumably with minimal equipment at his disposal (I certainly was given no tests), he could really tell or was falling back on what he knew.  I have also always wondered whether that is a racist thought.

I got very chummy with a black English teacher from Detroit, much older than I, and at one point when discussing Huckleberry Finn I asked her how she handled Nigger Jim's name in class.  (In 3rd grade, a black classmate had goaded me into saying the word, which I had never heard of but could tell from her tone must be rude, and after learning its meaning I was fanatic about never using it or tolerating its use by anyone else.*)  Probably finding me both naive and endearing, she replied, as I recall, that she accepted it historically, both as usage at the time Twain wrote and as a likely ironic term that Twain was trying to ridicule by his contrast of the good Jim with Huck's white-trash (a term I use here for what it evokes, not for its legitimacy) Pappy.

I chose a project activity only after I arrived in Mississippi, and presumably this was common.  There were three: registering blacks to vote, teaching Freedom School, and a third on which I am blocking.  The first, a convoluted process that would made it nearly impossible for blacks to register until Congressional passage the next year of the Voting Rights Act, required volunteers to go house to house and persuade people to register, then accompany them to the Registrar's office and help them through the process.  I have a lifetime distaste for selling (though I have occasionally done it in a form such as soliciting parent donations for my son's high school debate team), and much as Southern resistance to black voter registration enraged me, I nonetheless felt incapable of going up to local people and trying to persuade them to do something they often were reluctant to do, especially since their reluctance was likely a function of fear of physical retribution from which I or the project would have no way of protecting them. 

Whatever the third option was, I was only comfortable with teaching Freedom School.  Judging by documents I kept about Freedom School, before leaving home at least some volunteers had "applied" to teach it and were "accepted."  (Organizers probably did reject people without at least a semblance of relevant experience.)    I don't remember the class options (though the general goal was described in a COFO document), but I chose to coach debate. [Added June, 2010: Glancing at this document, I see that if I hadn't already been in MS, I would have been expected to bring a number of school supplies.  I don't remember anyone ever suggesting I go out and get them.]

I knew virtually nothing about debate (and did not add to this knowledge during my time in Hattiesburg), though I expect I was aided by at least one explanatory document distributed to teachers.  Presumably I chose it because my primary teaching concern (not necessarily primary interest) has always been to develop critical thinking.  25 years later or so, my son was a whiz on his debate team in Lexington, Mass., but not because I taught him anything about it.

I remember only bits and pieces of the program.  I taught my students, who were junior high and/or early high school age and maybe all girls, to call each other "my worthy opponent" and generally to be polite and wait their turns.  My general impression now is that they were all eager to participate but confused about how to argue ideas with which they disagreed.

My group's topic, I remember (I think there were a few), was whether the civil rights movement should use violence.  I don't know if the creators of this topic had an agenda for one side or another, though of course the project was rooted in non-violence.  It is possible that the kids were expected to hold a NO position privately but better understand the reasons for that belief; it is also possible that, with questions being raised in the movement about the efficacy of non-violence, the kids were supposed to think seriously about alternatives.  And it is possible that the intent was, as it was for me (and got me into a lot of trouble when I later taught in England), to hone the mind's analytical abilities and to identify with other points of view without having to support them.  I have long believed that seeing the ambiguity in moral issues is healthy, although I have never inferred from that principle that one shouldn't choose sides or that one side isn't better than another.  And from a different perspective, it had to be good for the kids to get practice feeling comfortable about public presentation.

I pressed my students to think carefully about both (are there ever only two?) sides of the issue, and in at least one debate (I think they had a few, though I don't remember whether they were with other Hattiesburg kids or kids from other towns) they had to take the pro-violence side and did a good job with it. By the time I was leaving Mississippi a month later, one of my better students told me, "Before we did this, I thought I knew what I believed, but now I'm not sure."  

From time to time I think back on this experience and wonder what became of the kids, who would be in their 50s now and perhaps even grandparents.

Here's a cover perhaps created by one of my students for class material, perhaps created by some other student for some handout in the summer project.

I don't remember how I departed the project or where I initially went (presumably straight back to Claremont), but while it may not hold the profound place in US history that I anticipated, I have always been glad I joined the project, and the experience has remained a part of my life.

*After I posted this parenthesis, my mother e-mailed me: "Did you stop to think why you had never heard 'nigger?'  Once, Mrs. Ernst [wife of our family doctor] had a friend in her car when she dropped Doris off to play.  Judi was sunburned and fairly dark, causing the friend to tell her she "looked like a little nigger."  Judi stood there unmoved and I maliciously explained that my daughter hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about, that it was the first time she'd ever heard the word."
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