Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Freedom Summer: Making Mississippi Part of the USA

Freedom Summer
How Civil Rights Activists Braved Violence
to Challenge Racism in 1964 Mississippi
23 January 2014

Hundreds of people marched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Day. On Jan. 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists marched around the Forrest County Courthouse in support of black voting rights. The rally was the beginning of a historic year in Mississippi. Months later, civil rights groups launched Freedom Summer. More than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register voters and set up what they called "Freedom Schools."

Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The period also saw the murders of three civil rights activists—Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Events are being held across Mississippi in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of this historic year. We are joined by Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary, "Freedom Summer." An Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow, Nelson’s past films include "Freedom Riders" and "The Murder of Emmett Till."

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Here at the Sundance Film Festival, a documentary entitled "Freedom Summer," directed by Stanley Nelson, has just premiered.

This is a trailer for the film.

JUDGE TOM P. BRADY: I don’t want the nigger, as I have known him and contacted him during my lifetime, to control the making of a law that controls me, to control the government under which I live.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was. If black people try and vote, they can get hurt or killed.

FREEDOM SUMMER VOLUNTEER: You’re not a registered voter, you’re not a first-class citizen, man.

UNIDENTIFIED: They would say, "You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote. But I ain’t going down there and messing with them white people."

BOB MOSES: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 students from all around the country who will engage in Freedom Schools, voter registration activity, and open up Mississippi to the country.

GOV. ROSS BARNETT: We face absolute extinction of all we hold dear. We must be strong enough to crush the enemy.

REPORTER: The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night still have not been heard from.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was always in the back of everybody’s minds that bad things were going to happen. But if you cared about this country and cared about democracy, then you had to go down there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Freedom Summer. The film’s director, Stanley Nelson, joins us here in Park City, Utah, the Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow. His past films include Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till.

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As remembered by Wally Roberts

I first met Mrs. Hamer in June of 1964 at the Oxford, Ohio training for the first wave of volunteers for the Mississippi Summer Project. I was one of the white volunteers, 22 years old. Having spent the previous two years as a teacher at a small private school in western Massachusetts, I was to be a coordinator at one of the Freedom Schools the project was establishing.

That week Mrs. Hamer, Cordell Reagan, Bernice Johnson and others introduced us to the power of song to quell our fears. I had never heard gospel or a cappella singing of before, and the experience was overwhelming. I was simply astounding by the power and beauty of their voices. At one point, I was so overcome by emotion, I literally could not clap my hands in time to the songs.

As things turned out, I was assigned to the Freedom School being set up in Shaw, Miss. For logistical reasons, however, we could not move into the town for a couple of weeks, so we stayed in Ruleville, Mrs. Hamers hometown. We were put up with families who were involved in the Movement, and since I was to be the Coordinator of the Shaw Freedom School, Mrs. Hamer invited me to stay at her house where the Coordinator of the Ruleville Freedom School was also staying.

The second or third night there several of the women fixed a fried chicken dinner for those of us who staying in houses in Mrs. Hamers neighborhood. We ate at Mrs. Hamers house, though neither she nor her husband, Pap, were there. It was a great dinner, and afterwards, people drifted away. Being raised to show appreciation when someone does a kindness, I started doing the dishes.

As I was finishing up, Pap came home, and when he saw me, he said angrily, "What you doin womens work for?" I started to explain but he turned his back and left.

A while later Mrs. Hamer came in, and when I explained what had happened, she said, "No matter. Pap dont have many ways left of bein a man."

I was simply stunned at the enormity of what she had said and at her compassion. At that precise moment all the abstractions about race, prejudice, bigotry were crystallized in a real person whose life was being destroyed by these evils; it was the beginning of my understanding of the degradation that must be the inevitable consequence of racism.

But it was also a moment when I realized that here was another life that had been at least equally brutalized by the same system, but she had triumphed over the anger and rage that surely had struggled to control her spirit and life. It was an epiphany for me, a moment that changed my life forever.

We moved to Shaw the following week, and I never saw Mrs. Hamer again in person, but I feel like I carry a little bit of her spirit with me. Freedom is a constant struggle. Make a joyful noise.

* * * * *

* * * * *


As Remembered by Curtis Muhammad

This conversation is so good that I have to tell a little story about Mrs. Hamer. Carl and Ann Braden had just made a tour of Mississippi including Ruleville where Mrs. Hamer lived, doing workshops on first amendment rights. After they left, a Jackson newspaper had printed an article that said Ann and Carl were communists and were down in Mississippi teaching us poor weak Negros how to be communists.

Now most of us in Mississippi knew nothing about communism and some of us hadn't even heard the word. At a mass meeting in Ruleville shortly after the article Mrs. Hamer stood up and said, "the newspaper said Ann and Carl are communist and were teaching us how to be communist, well I don't know what communism is but I know white folk don't like it so it must be good."

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Freedom Summer
How Civil Rights Activists Braved Violence
to Challenge Racism in 1964 Mississippi
23 January 2014

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

Well, one of the things that was done in Freedom Summer was to register people in this new party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And the thing about that was, all you had to do was sign your name on a piece of paper. You didn’t have to go down to the courthouse. You didn’t have to expose yourself to this violence, these repercussions that could happen from actually going to the courthouse to register.

So they formed this new political party that—where they registered 60,000 to 80,000 people to be part—because one of the things that was said was that black people didn’t want to vote. That’s why black people couldn’t vote: They didn’t want to vote. And one thing, you know, we have to understand about Mississippi that made Mississippi unique was, African Americans were 50 percent of the population in Mississippi, but only 6.7 percent were registered to vote.

So, they went down to Atlantic City—went up to Atlantic City to challenge the Democratic Party and say, you know, "We should be seated as the delegation from Mississippi, because we are integrated. There’s black people and white people in our party, in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The all-white delegation from Mississippi has not let any black people become part of the delegation. So seat us instead."

So, they did this incredible, passionate plea to be seated. And they had Martin Luther King spoke. They—Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s wife, spoke, who was now known to be dead. But the final speaker, the big speaker, was Fannie Lou Hamer. And that’s a little bit of her speech that you saw there.—STANLEY NELSON

* * * * *

As remembered by Charlie Cobb

In late August of 1962 Mrs. Hamer and 17 or 18 others from Sunflower County, Mississippi boarded an old bus in Ruleville to go to the county seat in Indianola to make an attempt at registering to vote. Charles McLaurin, Bob Moses, Dorie Ladner, Landy McNair, maybe Dave Dennis and myself accompanied them. After allowing people in the group to enter his office one-by-one, the circuit clerk finally closed his office.

By then it was late afternoon—a time in Mississippi, I often say, when even the shadows seem dangerous. Fortunately nothing much had happened at the courthouse—a few whites shouted curses. One white man threw liquid from a cup at us. I remember fearing that it was acid—Indianola, after all, was the birthplace of the White Citizens Council.

The bus headed out of town followed by police. Just as we crossed the bridge on the edge of town the bus was stopped. The driver was placed under arrest for "driving a bus of the wrong color." The cop said the bright yellow bus—usually used for hauling day workers to cotton fields could be confused with a school bus. The fine, he said, would be $100 which we did not have.

Sunset was near. Who could drive the bus without getting arrested? Who wanted to be on that road at dark? We—us organizers—didn't have good answers for the growing fear. Then from the back of the bus this powerful voice broke out in song. I remember hearing "this little light of mine" and "ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'roun."

Bob Moses told me years later that it seemed to him that the person singing knew every church song there was. It was Mrs. Hamer, until then, just one of 17 or 18 people. That voice, of course, would be powerful enough for President Lyndon Johnson, fearful of its impact, to interrupt her testimony before the Credentials Committee at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention two years later.

With the power of her voice alone Mrs. Hamer shored up everybody on the bus. We got off the bus and explained to the policeman that since we didn't have $100 he'd better take us all to jail. And he backed down (no, I don't know why?) and reduced the fine to $30 which we did have. We paid and left town.

* * * * *


As remembered by Franklynn Peterson

Fannie Lou Hamer probably influenced me at least as much as any woman in my life. If only I could have been mature enough and wise enough to have soaked up more of her wisdom when it could have done me some good.

She came up to Brooklyn NY on one of her frequent fundraising trips, and I was living in Brooklyn at the time. She made sure I got notified of the event so I went even though I was just starting to recover from Hepatitis A. She was just recovering from a very serious illness, so when I got to the affair they sent me into a back room where Ms Hamer lying down watching TV.

She was watching “All in the Family” (the "Archie Bunker" show)!!! "Is that the best show you can find?" I asked. "I try to never miss it," she told me. "It's the only TV show that tells it like it really is!" So we sat and watched America's professional racist do his thing, and oh how she could laugh at it.

* * * * *


As remembered by Bob Zellner

I have several memories of Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer of Ruleville, Mississippi. I hope I don't duplicate stories that Dottie may send in because we experienced some of these together with Mrs. Hamer.

She was always "Mrs. Hamer." I never heard a SNCC person call her anything else. She was a giant—the essence of the soul of SNCC, and she was adopted by Rose and Ralph Fishman in Boston.

Dottie was head of the New England SNCC office with offices in the basement of the Epworth Methodist Church, which was situated on the Harvard Law School campus. The church was progressive and had been pastored by Rev. Dan Whitset, a fellow dissident and friend of my father's, who had been "run out" of Alabama on account of his views on race.

Dottie often arranged for Mrs. Hamer to stay with the Fishman's because Rose adored her and would cluck over Mrs. Hamer like a mother hen, making sure she had enough to eat and was warm at night. Rose loved to shop for bargains and got clothes for Mrs. Hamer and James Forman who stayed there sometimes too. (One time Rose got Ralph to hide Jim's old raggedy shoes so he would be forced to let her buy him some new ones.)
One morning Rose asked Mrs. Hamer if she would like some peanut butter on her toast and she said she would. Next morning Rose asked the same question and Mrs. Hamer, looking all innocent like, allowed as how she would like some peanut butter. When Rose reached for the jar in the cupboard, it was empty.

"That's funny," Rose remembered saying, "I thought that jar was full yesterday."
"It was," said Mrs. Hamer sheepishly, "I ate it."

Rose was a sentimental sort. She cried when she learned Mrs. Hamer had never, in her whole life, had all the peanut butter she wanted. Mrs. Hamer said she was sorry she took advantage of Rose's good nature and had eaten up all her peanut butter.

Dottie and Maggie Knowland (Donovan) arrived at the Fishman household about that time to take Mrs. Hamer to see Cardinal Cushing on some important SNCC matter. The two and Rose and Mrs. Hamer had a quick workshop on the proper protocol to observe when meeting the Cardinal. Here are two Jewish mothers trying to tell a Black Mississippi sharecropper SNCC organizer how to act in front of a Catholic Prince of the Church. Luckily Maggie grew up Irish Catholic in Boston.

"First you curtsey, then you kiss his ring and say, 'Pleased to meet you, Your Imminence.'"

"I can't do all that," Mrs. Hamer said.

"Why not?" Maggie asked.

"Well in the first place," giving them each a baleful stare, "What is a "curtsy?"

"A curtsy," Dottie explained patiently, "Is when you put one foot back, bend both knees, and bow your head at the same time while holding your skirt up with both hands."

"Hold up my what? Kiss his what? Now that's a good example of what I'm talking about when I told you all I can't do all that stuff."

"Why not, Mrs. Hamer? Rose pleaded.

"Well first of all, can't you see, if I do that . . . what you call 'courtesy' and get down like you all said, I'll never be able to get up off the floor to kiss his . . . ring. Even if I do I'll never be able to remember what to call him. I'm afraid I'll call him 'Your enema.'"

With great relief Dottie, Maggie, and Rose reported that the meeting went well, in spite of the fact that the Cardinal claimed he couldn't help. When asked to convince President Johnson to provide more protection for civil rights workers and Black citizens attempting to register to vote, he said, "My president is dead."

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Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer (University of Virginia Press, 1965, reissued 1990). ISBN 978-0-8139-1299-8

Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981). ISBN 0-674-44726-3

Susie Erenrich, editor, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press, 1999). ISBN 1-881320-58-8

Adam Hochschild, Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels (Syracuse University Press, 1997), "Summer of Violence," pp. 140–150. ISBN 978-0815605942.

Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). ISBN 0-19-504367-7

Elizabeth Martnez, editor, Letter from Mississippi (Zephyr Press, 2002). ISBN 0-939010-71-2

Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (New York, NY: Viking, 2010). ISBN 978-0670021703

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