50 years ago this month, volunteers from across the country came to Oxford, Ohio to prepare for a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Dave Barber created this story for WYSO'S Community Voices.
“We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1000 teachers, ministers and students from all around the country who will engage in what are we calling freedom schools, community center programs, voter registration activities, in general a program designed to open Mississippi to the country.” Bob Moses 1964
Bob Moses was a driving force behind the Mississippi Summer Project. In June 1964 training would take place in Oxford, Ohio for what became better known as Freedom Summer.
Much of the preparation was designed to educate volunteers about what was awaiting them in Mississippi. Charlie Cobb, a field secretary for the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), is the author of a new book titled This Non Violent Stuff'll Get You Killed. He had been on the ground in Mississippi for a year and would remain for four more.
“What was happening was that Mississippi," said Cobb,"was becoming increasingly murderous. We couldn't get the country to pay attention to it. We certainly couldn't get the country's leadership to pay attention to this situation. Aside from that, the usual range of discriminatory facts-denial of the right to vote. segregation in public accommodations, grinding poverty.
A system that really kept people in debt peonage for all practical purposes - enslaved to a plantation system or an economic system that benefited a tiny few. But heading this list clearly the Mississippi that preceded the 1964 summer project was extremely murderous to anyone seeking social change or civil rights.”
"How do I face someone who is not concerned with how bright I am?"
Jim Kates, who had just completed his freshman year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, described meeting up with volunteers, and getting down to the task at hand in Oxford.
“For me coming in and meeting up with the southern African American community on one level but also for those of us who came from so many different backgrounds in the United States among the whites even that we were first meeting up with people who were very different from us even within the white community so that Jewish kids from Queens suddenly being placed in a very intimate relationship with the children of protestant ministers from Nebraska was almost in a small rural campus in Ohio, say for some of the students who came from Harvard or Stanford, privileged backgrounds, some of this was already a mix.
Some of the most valuable things we began to learn was how do I face someone who is not concerned with how bright I am, who doesn't want to get into an argument, but who wants to work through on a deeper, lower level what the problems are, who doesn't come from the background of if it’s a nice day take either side?
Because the problems are too serious. You don't want to take either side. You want to take one side. And stick with it. All of these elements were cultural elements among ourselves that we had to resolve under great tension during those weeks.”
The training would prove essential for Kates. He ended up working alongside native Mississippians in rural Panola County in the effort to register voters.
"Running the gauntlet...."
Rick Momeyer, just graduated from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, had been planning to help register voters in Georgia. He had already gotten to know John Lewis, Chairman of SNCC, during a semester spent with movement leaders in Nashville. Lewis re-directed Momeyer to Oxford to help out.
“You can pass on what you know about non-violent strategy and tactics and how to defend yourself and why we're committed to nonviolence. My contribution was to get beat up. I was the volunteer victim in the simulated play acting we did. Running the gauntlet and then how to fall down and how to protect your genitals and the back of your head. How to protect others who might be being attacked.”
The training was hosted at the Western College for Women after Berea College in Kentucky pulled out late in the planning process. But not everyone in Oxford was embracing the mission. The Friends of the Mississippi Summer project emerged midway through the training to provide support. Miami University professor Bob Stripple and his wife Jane were among the first to step forward.
“The community was divided,” according to Jane Stripple. “There were many people who just didn't understand the purpose of it. They didn't really understand. They were looking at the students more as rabble-rousers. There were letters in the newspaper about it. We weren't attacked personally about it. I never experienced that. I just think they thought that it was not important. That it was controversial and why our community was doing this they just didn't understand.”
In spite of the local resistance, the Friends of the Mississippi summer project gathered up books and typewriters for the teaching effort in Freedom Schools. The group also raised money - to be used for volunteers living expenses and bail.
At the end of the first week in Oxford three participants would leave for Mississippi to investigate the bombing of a church. It had been designated to host a Freedom School. Within 48 hours they would vanish.
NBC News anchorman, Frank McGee, delivered the following report during a newscast:
“First the known facts. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went to Mississippi to help register Negroes as voters. It had been stressed at the training school they had just completed that their purpose was not to stage sit-ins, marches, or demonstrations. It had also been stressed that the federal government could offer them little protection.
Chaney, a 20 year old Mississippian, was a veteran of the civil rights movement in his home state. He assisted in the training classes. Goodman, 20, a New York college student, had never participated in the civil rights movement but a friend said, ‘he could never understand how some people could be so lacking in compassion.’
Schwerner, 24, a seasoned New York social worker left Mississippi, where he had worked since January to assist in the training in Oxford, Ohio.”
Coming midway through the training, their disappearance brought a grim reality. Rita Schwerner, along with her husband Michael, had been working for the Congress of Racial Equality in Meridian, Mississippi. In Oxford, she urged volunteers to call relatives and demand their representatives pressure the Justice Department for protection. It never came. As the first wave of participants left to head south, the second week of training continued, and nearly everyone stayed on.
The Western College for Women was absorbed by Miami University in 1974. The Freedom Summer Memorial, honoring the participants and supporters in Oxford and everyone who was part of the effort that summer in Mississippi was dedicated in 2000 on the campus of Miami University.
To learn more watch the documentary film Freedom Summer on Think TV channel 16, Tuesday June 24th at 9pm.
*Music included in the audio version of this story includes:
Aria Saudade - Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around
R.L. Burnside – Shuck Dub.
Learn more about Freedom Summer
Miami University/Western College digital archive. Mississippi Freedom Summer Project 1964
Letters From Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers and Freedom School Poetry of the 1964 Freedom Summer. Edited with a preface by Elizabeth Martinez. Foreword by Julian Bond. Zephyr Press
We Are Not Afraid by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray. Nation Books.
Freedom Summer by Bruce Watson. Penguin Books.
Finding Freedom— Memorializing the Voices of Freedom Summer. Foreword by Keith Beauchamp. Edited by Jacqueline Johnson. Miami University Press.
On The Road To Freedom—A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail by Charles E. Cobb. Algonquin Books.
This Non Violent Stuff'll Get You Killed—How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible by Charles E. Cobb. Basic Books.