Ron Ridenour

About Ron Ridenour
Short stories



Mississippi 1964: Freedom Summer Diary (3)
[November 10, 2008]

As secretary for the Moss Point, Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, I kept a daily report describing events and how we worked. Here are excerpts

June 25: Almost the whole day was spent with the NAACP youth council discussing the registration program, and conducting a workshop on the methods of canvassing and the Freedom Democratic party...lively discussion with the aid of role playing, the kids endeavored to convince people of the benefits of the program...Local kids should always be accompanied by one or more of us.

June 26: Local students canvassed the whole day. The kids said they enjoyed themselves despite the heat. While Fred Meely did the hard work canvassing, our project director Charles Glenn and Mermie McKay, a white college student volunteer, went to Pascagoula on various errands. Mermie was able to develop a rapport with the registrar, Vertis G. Ramsey (also a member of the Board of Directors of the Pascagoula-Moss Point Bank). She obtained photo copies of the numbers of qualified electors in each precinct and a map of the city with the precincts marked on it, the only such map. Mermie did well...The evening was spent watching television news at a neighbor’s house, and arguing about The Truth and about how to solve the problems of the world.

June 27: More canvassing. I got caught up on my paperwork and sent out reports. We met with the youth council to discuss registration efforts then I drove with Lawrence Guyot to Gulfport, about 30 kilometers away. Everyone greeted us cheerfully and expressed concern about my well being: how had I taken my arrest four days before when Howie Kirschenbaum and I were picked up simply because we were civil rights activists. After a chilling night in jail, we were let out. (See my personal story under “Our Stories”). We discussed community problems, and then we were offered a fish fry by fish sellers in the community. Everybody brought us drinks. The host fisherman’s wife told us she had never seen her husband so happy...I cooked the fish and others cleaned up. We sang freedom songs.

Guyot and I drove back to our staff meeting in preparation for our attendance at the First Baptist Church tomorrow. Some white volunteers didn’t want to go to church. I, an atheist, insisted we must understand the beauty and importance of the church to the black people. Regardless of our atheism or agnosticism, and criticisms of the Christian church, the church is more than religion. It is a place of communion, a place and time for black people to feel free. Here they have a chance to release their tensions, to express themselves freely. We must recognize the practicality of the church to black people, and therefore to our project, but also its importance spiritually. Church-going black people do not judge us whites, usually, by our culture or religion but by who we are, by how we act.
It was a useful discussion because everyone showed up in church next day.

June 28, Sunday: Church went fine. We clapped and sang with the packed congregation. I was, in fact, inspired by the experience, even felt “spiritual”... In the afternoon, we had a meeting with the youth council to again discuss voter registration procedures...In the evening, the last five white COFO volunteers came to Moss Point: Debbie Rand, a student from New York, Rita Koplowitz, Susan Ryerson (Moon), a student, Roger, and Tony O’Brien, who soon took over coordinating our Freedom School. We were now nine. We heard from Howie that he would soon return after his father had him flown east following the traumatic jail experience. Charles explained the project to the new workers. He said black people felt positively seeing whites and blacks together, and he noted a positive change of attitude among some whites. Therefore, it was all the more important that we were careful and respectful in our attitudes and behavior. I felt more cognizant about consciously listening to people more than just talking myself, and of being polite. “Little things” made an impression on people here, maybe it does most places, but I and other rebellious New Leftists had cast aside these civic customs that means so much to “ordinary people”.

June 29: I took the new workers on a tour of our neighborhood and project. Then we began setting up our library in the Masonic Hall at 609 Bowen St. People actually came in and skimmed through them; some even checked out a book or two to read...We met with 25 young people who were taking their elders to register to vote. There was good leadership potential among them.

June 30: Now with eight COFOers out and 25 neighborhood youths, a great deal of canvassing and escorting folk to the registrar’s office was taking place. The first applicants had met the initial tests: waiting in line from three to six hours, sometimes being told to return tomorrow as the office would not process more applicants that day; watching white people pass over the long line of blacks and being processed first; watching white applicants being helped with the questions while blacks were not; being jeered and spat at by white toughs showing off their “superiority”. BUT we had begun the first official confrontations with voter segregation and we all felt stronger and proud. In all, we were 35 workers that day and we got 196 Freedom registration forms filled.

I kept the office going, record-keeping and reports. With help from some kids, we finished putting up the 5000 library books. Already many people were coming by, some to work, some just to hang out. And there were white people driving by, sometimes without license plates. They took down the license plate numbers of the cars parked in front. We were keeping a record of their license numbers, as we were with the cars driving past the homes where we were staying...In the evening, we held a meeting with 90 community people, mostly NAACPers. We got many Freedom registrations filled out, and many signed up for classes. Our first breakthrough with a union took place. The International Paper Union donated $50 to the project.

We had a confusing experience with a known police informer. He filled out an affidavit about a threat Sheriff Cecil Byrd made to him that if he supported the voter registration program the sheriff would close his cafe business. We were uncertain about the man’s motivation. Had he changed or was he faking a change, in order to find out about our activities and inform on us? He was not well liked in the community, so even if he were sincere his participation could turn others off our program. Tension was growing about “informers”, real and imagined.

July 1: At 5 a.m., Charles, Tony and I drove off to Jackson for a staff meeting. We needed supplies too, especially Freedom registration forms. We were gathering from 100 to 200 each day. At Moss Point, the day went as usual: much activity. The Freedom School would start tomorrow at the Second Baptist Church. Tony would coordinate the courses: English, Spanish, Negro History, History of Religion, History of African Liberation-Revolution, Science, Math, and a play—In White America—would be learned and performed. This was an ambitious program. Forty young people had signed up and we had a volunteer teacher for each class, several were local residents.

Late afternoon, we met with the neighborhood kids at our usual staff meeting. We emphasized the need to always be in large groups if there were blacks and whites together, especially when both sexes were present...In the evening, we had our first mass meeting at Knights of Pythias (KP hall). We presented the Summer Project to 300 people. Since this was a public meeting, the police checked us out. Deputy Sheriff Thomas Palmer sat uncomfortably before us recording the entire proceedings. Police stood by the door and took down license numbers of the cars parked outside.

July 2: CIVIL RIGHTS ACT SIGNED rang out the news! President Johnson signed the bill that forbids discrimination in public accommodations. Big deal, thought most COFOers. The struggle is on voting, the right to vote must be the most important, not where we can buy a cup of coffee. Still, it was a victory. We activists had convinced Kennedy to push for this legislation and we were afraid it would be dropped after his murder. But Johnson had his double track strategy too: war for the Big Money people, some integration for the blacks. It was no longer necessary for big capitalism to continue segregation, which was an economic and cultural lag that only hampered “progress” and angered many millions of people, including many whites. Time to move on. The House of Representatives voted two-to-one for the bill and the Senate finally recognized the need. The most important title of the act, Title 2, section 201 reads:

“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation...without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

There was now a federal law which super-ceded discriminating local and state laws. It would take years for this to have the desired affect, and many public places would simply declare themselves private, accepting only white members for a token membership fee. The racists would find many ways around the law; many would defy it forthright. Still, it was progress. And the Voting Rights Act, in which our freedom project was the catalyst, would come next year.

Only 47 registration forms were filled out today. Local “efficiency experts” helped reorganize the office-library. Freedom School began. All 40 students showed up. I had four girls wanting to learn Spanish. We started with learning how to say: “Yo te amo”—I love you.

July 3: Freedom School sessions were combined in a lively discussion about the Civil Rights Act. Some Freedom School students prepared a list of things they would like to see changed at their Magnolia High School. They would give them to their teachers after the summer vacation. Empowerment was taking place.

There was not much canvassing but some adults came in to ask for help in registering. Most of Most Point already had been covered as far as finding out who was and who was not registered. Now the big task was to get people to go down to the court house.

Someone claiming to be a reporter came in asking to sit in on a class. We told him he must see the project director first. As he never came back, we figured he was an informer. And a high school student we know to be trustworthy said that she heard that an informer—the same man mentioned in June 30 report—had been paid by policemen to get us out of town in any way he could. He apparently told the police when and where we would be canvassing, which may be why our canvassers were increasingly being followed.

We’ve seen copies of the “Klan Ledger”, dropped from an airplane over parts of town, condemning us and suggesting violence is due. There were more cars going around the school site with no license tags. It was necessary to get used to the constant harassment and do so without letting down our guard. Now that the Masons had given us permanent use of their building, we had a telephone put in. We were already receiving many phone calls, both legitimate and fake ones, in which there was no voice at the other end, or someone spewed forth racist epitaphs and murderous threats. We were getting calls at our houses also, sometimes asking for “those white girls”. The police followed us when we drove, and they enjoyed ticketing us for nothing or for a side-view mirror that was half cracked. We had to get used to the racists hurling insults at us, not only over the phone or on the streets, but also the racists who followed us with unfriendly intent. For instance, when I went to get a license plate for my car—I have it before me as I write, still covered with Mississippi mud: license J16684—I had to stomp down on the accelerator as a pickup truck (symbol of unpredictable violence with gun-rack and two-way radio and without license plate: trademark of the redneck, poor white trash) wheeled in from a dirt side road. I could see two shotguns or rifles being pointed at my car. Debbie was asleep. She awoke from the bouncing as we entered town. We talked of this fright and many of the problems bothering us during our evening staff meeting. We let our hair down and gripped over our fears and uncertainties, our irritations and lax attitudes at times.

July 4: Saturday. We held a long staff meeting, discussing mainly security rules. We agreed that there simply could not be interracial sex for fear that someone would get lynched. I proposed that if we had to enforce the racists´ sexual segregation then it was only morally right that there should be no sex at all. We couldn’t just accept sex among whites only and sex among blacks only since we were fighting for integration. I don’t think most were in agreement emotionally and practically, but the logic and moral was correct so we agreed to this strict rule—at least in theory.

We then went to a watermelon party at the home where Debbie and Susan were residing. We ended staying all day as people from the neighborhood kept bringing more and more watermelons. This was typical of how well we were received. Everywhere we went people offered us something to eat. We knew that just about everyone had to scratch to keep food on the table, but we couldn’t refuse their offers else we’d hurt their feelings. While I appreciated our welcome, I wished that more people would support us by registering to vote. Still, hard nosed that I am, I loved being loved. Most all we volunteers felt this way. I will quote a passage about this by another SNCC voter registration worker, Jean Smith, in Dick Cluster’s book: "They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee":

“They loved us before they ever saw us. When you showed up, they didn’t even ask if you were hungry. They would just do for you like you were their own children. I remember that one family I stayed with, I was there about two weeks before I realized that the father was sleeping on the floor so that I could have a place to sleep. They didn’t have any reason to trust us, to trust that our judgment was particularly great, but they had good instincts about our good instincts. Having those people love me before they knew me reinforced for me the idea that people have in them the potential for just—goodness.”

I had exactly the same experience with “my family”. Mr. Colley told me—after we had lived with him a couple weeks although it felt like years of warm acquaintance—“Most of us Negroes say we’re not afraid but most of us are. I guess I’m not any more though. The white man has kept me down so long and I have fought in my little way so long and nothing ever came of it. But now all you people from everywhere are coming here not just to help us but to help everyone, including yourselves. And if you can do all that, I sure can fight for myself.”

And Otis meant it. He encouraged others to make the humiliating but enriching effort to try to register to vote. He learned the basic skills we were teaching and he helped build the Freedom Democratic Party. He also helped lead an unofficial `defense squad´ to protect us COFOers. I learned about this one night when I awoke to relieve the pressure of beer. As I tip-toed across the living room headed toward the toilet, I saw Otis leaning back in his rocking chair facing the front window. In his lap lay a shotgun. We talked of his attitude about defense the next day. Otis explained that we were their “instructors” but they were our foster parents and instructors too. He told me what many black people felt about us in these neighborhood/ghettos: they had to look after us just as they look after their own children.

July 5, Sunday: We attended different churches. Most ministers let us speak to the congregations and pass out literature. Many people said they would register; many signed up for Freedom registration and for the MFDP. First Baptist Church Reverend Winham gave a sermon praising our work and let Fred speak from the pulpit. The minister at another church was known not to like any white person but he let several of us whites speak. Afterwards, he said he changed his mind about “some” whites. He said our work made him feel like a man, a rare feeling. The only negative experience was at the “black” Catholic church with the white priest. He spoke against COFO and the Freedom Summer. At another church, the black minister let us speak but he said he opposed using the church for “political purposes”.

The evening meeting with the youth council opened lively with criticisms of “passive” voting vs. active demonstrations. What can a minority do to change the system anyway, someone rhetorically asked? We had no simple answers. We COFOers were not united on the question of demonstrations during voter registration. But our plan here was to concentrate solely on registering. Some black youths wanted to test the new Civil Rights Act by attending segregated establishments.

July 6: “Tonight the sickness struck. At our mass meeting as we were singing `We Shall Overcome´ a girl was shot in the side and in the chest...I saw a woman lying on the ground clutching her stomach. She was so still and looked like a statue...I ran to call an ambulance...”
This is how my letter began, which was published in Letters from Mississippi.

Jessie Mae Stallworth was shot as we were holding a mass meeting with 300 people at KP Hall. Again Deputy Sheriff Thomas Palmer had come to record our meeting. Although we had initiated a lot of daily activity, and this was considered a “liberal” area, very few residents had taken the scary steps to register at the court house. Lawrence Guyot´s spoke about this early at the meeting: “What will it take to make you people move? A rape? A shooting? A murder? What will it take?” As the meeting was ending, the sheriff packed up his tape recorder and left. We were singing, “We shall overcome, We are not afraid” when several bullets burst through the front door. We all fell to the floor. A few tried to crawl out windows. My reaction was to grab a woman and pull her back, fearing she would be hit by more shots. The car sped on and some saw that it was a green Comet with four white men. Soon, the whole crowd was in the streets, some were shouting angrily, others were hurrying home. Fred and Lawrence took the wounded voting rights volunteer, 17 year-old Jessie Mae, to the hospital in a taxi. It took the police 15 minutes to arrive on the scene, although some neighbors said they saw two police cars parked just two blocks away when the shooting occurred. After Constable Alford left, more shots were fired in the neighborhood. Some of the black youths went after the perpetrators. “They can’t do this to us any more,” they were shouting. A few threw rocks at a car with whites inside. As the last COFO car left the scene, it was stopped by a police car. The driver was none other than Deputy Palmer. He told us that he had been in the hall to “protect you all”. Sometime past midnight, Fred and Lawrence returned from the hospital. Fred wrote the following:

“When we arrived at the Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, a nurse rolled out a stretcher. We told her the girl was hurt badly. Upon seeing that she was black, the nurse replied: `Did her father shoot her or something?´ Then she began to roll the stretcher back without Jessie. We put Jessie on the stretcher and took her inside...When Dr. Morris (the family doctor) came in to examine the girl on his own, (he told us) she would get treated and he assured us that she was not in serious condition. Meanwhile, I was calling Jackson office and an Atlanta newspaperman from a hospital pay phone. Policemen came up and demanded that we leave the hospital. They walked behind Guyot and me as we walked to the door. As we came out, another policeman outside the door cocked his rifle at us. He ordered us to drive straight home. The sheriff had declared `martial law´. A crowd had gathered in front of the hospital. Lawrence told them to break up. `Let’s not go to jail now; let’s go to jail when we choose to go.´ The youths departed and we drove back to Moss Point, where we were stopped by Highway Patrolmen. After some tense moments we were let go.”

July 7: No whites were arrested for the violent crime last night, yet five black men were. They were searching for the criminals and saw what they thought might be the car. Some of those in the car fired at the blacks, who then drove off and told the police what had happened. But the police arrested them for “carrying a concealed weapon”, and did not pursue the suspicious car...Reverend Winham was accosted by a white man with a black jack. The aggressor had passed threateningly before COFO workers earlier. He was a short, middle-aged man with graying hair. He drove a white Comet with Mississippi license number JB2874...Tony informed a deputy sheriff, Barry, that the Freedom School would not close down. The police were more interested in that than in doing anything about finding the carousing cars with the license numbers we offered them.

Mrs. Elvira Grandison went to the unemployment office to apply for a job. When asked what happened to her last job, she proudly told them: “They let me go. They say I’m an agitator because I house some of those kids doing the Lord’s work for justice.”

Elizabeth Sutherland wrote in Letters from Mississippi about the state of affairs that week in Mississippi.

She started with the shots at KP hall: “It seemed as though a signal had been given. Two days later, the Project headquarters in McComb was bombed. On Friday, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Freedom House in Canton; in Hattiesburg a visiting Rabbi and two volunteers were severely beaten. On Saturday night, the Shaw project workers learned of a bombing plot as whites surrounded their office. The next day, in beautiful old Natchez, a Baptist and a Methodist church were destroyed by fire—two of five Negro churches burned to the ground that week. The week of July 6 showed that while there were relatively `good´ and `bad´ areas, violence could explode anywhere. In the end they all added up, as the song says, to `Mississippi Goddam´.”

“The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…

Don't tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying `Go slow!´...
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
You keep on saying `Go slow!´
`Go slow!´

Nina Simone was in a mad rage after the 16th Street Church was bombed in Birmingham. She even threatened to get a gun and start shooting. But she was seen by many as “the voice” of the Civil Rights Movement as she took this song to millions. She sang it even at Carnegie Hall, four months before we were shot at. More and more blacks, both in and out of the non-violent civil rights movement, were listening to self-defense advocates Malcolm X and Robert Williams. In this song, in which Mississippi is the metaphor of racist violence throughout the south, Simone was on dangerous political territory, seemingly advocating the use of violence in self-defense. These were signals of the turning tide coming next year.

July 8: Although everybody was still shook up about the shooting, we continued our work, and many of the usual local volunteers did so as well.

The NAACP’s local vice-president confronted me about organizational matters. He said our work was going well but we must identify ourselves and our work with NAACP. I saw this as organizational greed. He wanted to increase his group’s prestige and membership. We wanted to increase the numbers of voters, and spread the movement, not an organization. The local NAACP had 90 members and usually 10 to 15 turned out to meetings or activities. Since we had come and attended their meetings, the turnout had grown to 100 and the first two mass meetings attracted 300 people. The program and methods of work continued as COFO was carrying it out.

July 9: Howie returned and everybody embraced him. His return reinforced the project.

July 10: J. Edgar Hoover arrived in Jackson to open the first statewide FBI center since World War 11. President Johnson was under pressure to solve the three civil rights workers´ “disappearance”. Nevertheless, the FBI used their federal powers to arrest only two times that entire summer. We were often victims of FBI collaboration with rednecks and local police.

Given the recent violence and publicity, Stokely Carmichael came to visit our project and asked me to take him around locally and drive him through the coastal area. We drove 45 kilometers west to Gulfport and Biloxi. Being with Stokely, I could see why he was a popular and controversial leader. He was very charming, handsome and garrulous. His self-confident behavior, though, bordered on conceit. He did not seem interested in my opinions or judgments, nor those of others.

July 11-12: The five arrested on the night of the racist shooting paid fines of $30 to $72 for carrying concealed weapons and were released...Mary Ellickson took three people to register...Rev. Winham spoke to the AFL-CIO state president, Claude Ramsey, a sympathetic man who said that he agreed that blacks should be members of Mississippi’s unions...Cliff Vaughs went to the hospital to see Miss Stallworth. He took his camera. His film was confiscated. Jessie is doing OK and will soon be released...John Wiley, a black sheriff’s deputy, was fired because the black policemen were ordered for the first time to arrest whites but only white COFO workers and also black COFOers and civil rights volunteers. Wiley said this was discriminatory and wrong, and he told the other black policemen such. So, Sheriff Byrd fired him... Freedom Singers came today and sang to a workshop of 30 people preparing to go to the court house. On Sunday, there were joined by 20 more in another rehearsal. When we sing “We Shall Overcome” it unites us, making us strong in face of the hate-filled racists who often beat us when we sing during demonstrations. Many violent racists react to our incredible energy, our feelings of love for our fellow man. This makes the racists crazy. They can’t stomach our love. Some crumble in their violent hate, uncomprehending the source of our strength to withstand their blows.

July 13: Our steady persistence and daily preparations, and the determination of the local people, were paying off. This was the first day that so many people went to register: all 50 from the workshops came to the court house. It was an all-day demonstration, standing in line from 9 to 5. The sheriff’s office made a new policy to harass us: only one person—that is, black persons—at a time in the court building to register. This resulted in only 17 reaching the point of taking the literacy test and filling out the forms; the remainder would have to return tomorrow. Seven passed the test. This was the first major success, though it was down-heartening to see so many rejected. One 82 year-old woman had trouble seeing and walking. After waiting hours in line, a deputy sheriff refused to let a COFOer help her up the stairs. “She must walk in herself,” he said callously. Later, when another black woman was inside registering, they let a white man come in to register despite the policy of one-at-a-time. Mermie and Debbie went to see registrar Vertis Ramsey about these policies. He listened to them for a minute in the hallway and told them to wait for him in his office where he would meet them soon. He did not return; instead a deputy came in and ordered them out of the building.

In the afternoon, 13 students attended the Freedom School. A new math teacher came all the way from Gulfport to teach...At our third mass meeting, we still had 300 attending, and we had our usual “police protection” with Deputy Palmer and his trusty tape recorder. Victoria Gray gave a rousing speech and many youths spoke up too. 15 signed up to register. As of then, we had 1200 Freedom registration forms filled. Nothing untoward happened at the meeting.

July 14: Howie took 17 people to register; 11 were allowed to take the test, five passed. The others were told to return in 30 days. Although many had to wait up to five hours when they did get inside they saw whites registering without having to wait in line. One black applicant saw the registrar helping a white person with the test. One of the local volunteers went to the court house bathroom. A deputy told another black girl to get her friend out of the “white bathroom.” There is no “black bathroom” in the court house. Ex-sheriff Grimsby threatened Howie standing outside the court house. Clinching his fist at Howie, he said he’d blow his head off.

Fred put an ad in the local “Chronicle” for the upcoming FDP precinct meetings...Charles and Roger went to Biloxi to see the FBI about the court house discrimination and the KP hall shooting. The FBI men acted cordial and said they were doing “all we can”...Guyot spoke to the local Barbers and Beauticians union. He received a warm reception and $150, which would go to the Jackson national office.

Freedom School students rehearsed a play, “Amistad Mutiny”. A new art class was offered. There were 14 students. Tony wrote a report on the school’s progress and attendance problems. “We began with 40 students and at the second session there were 80. Attendance averaged about 35-40 for two weeks, and then dropped drastically. At this time, it is between 10 and 15. Many parents are fearful for their children’s safety, and many youths prefer to canvass and take people to court. The shooting is evidence of terror, which influences. And there is effective propaganda against us from the sheriff’s office and a few anti-COFO Negroes, although not any from the local community. In Pascagouola, some have been passing out leaflets against us and we can’t find a site for a new school there. Many of our older students are totally absorbed in voter registration. They see the school as something for ninth and tenth graders. On the staff side, we have failed to make the morning classes on citizenship concrete enough. Apparently, the students want more formal teaching, and they wish written assignments. Afternoon classes work better: languages, math and history subjects. We propose to appeal to parents at mass meetings and personally, and recruit door-to-door, which we did not have to do in the beginning. We’ll make more recreational assignments and take trips to other Freedom schools and see things. We will work with the inertia, but we must realize that there is a strong belief in happy now.”

July 15: Roger was the court house responsible-reporter today: 8 people tried to come in; only 5 made it, 2 passed. To date, we have taken 100 to register, 40 were admitted, 15 passed. Roger was hauled before a circuit court judge because he insisted in coming into the court house. The judge told him he’d go to jail for contempt of court if he tried to enter the building again...Linda conducted three meetings for block captains with 20 women and two men; most of the men willing to participate were at work. Afterwards, she conducted a meeting with 30 youths and adults on the struggle and to establish a community center that could reach more than NAACPers.

Freedom School: 15 practiced a play about the Dred Scott case and the abolitionist underground railroad; there were 30 in classes, an increase...I was interviewed on a Chicago radio program...In the evening, we held another mass meeting with 300 people again, almost all the same people.

July 16: Eight COFOers and three local activists drove in two cars to Greenwood. Near Biloxi, they stopped momentarily before a private driveway to exchange drivers. The Highway Patrol following them arrested the drivers for illegal parking and one for vagrancy, despite the fact that he had $57 in cash. All 11 were taken to Biloxi court house. Bail was set at $325 for the two drivers and they were placed in a cell. A lawyer helped us secure property bonds. Both were released in the afternoon on bail, but had to appear at 4 p.m. for trial. The judge promptly increased the bond by $100, despite the property bonds just secured. The drivers were rearrested and locked up overnight, until we could raise the extra money to bail them out again.

Thirteen people in Moss Point went to register, 8 were allowed inside and 5 passed. They experienced the usual discrimination of whites passing over the line, getting served before them and offered help on the test. The clerk closed the office early and told those in line to return tomorrow. Howie was able to ask her why, and she replied, “I have to go home to cook supper for my son.”

There was an impromptu grand jury hearing and 14 blacks were subpoenaed. Most of them were subpoenaed only the day before and most had connections with us COFOers. The subject at hand was not criminal, as is the task of grand juries, but an inquisition into COFO. My name was brought up and an article about me in a Los Angeles newspaper read. The purpose was to discredit me, and thus COFO. I was portrayed as a “derelict subversive”, who needed to return to California “to take care of himself.” Nothing concrete came out of the hearing, but some blacks felt threatened. A rumor was circulating that the person who shot Jessie had supposedly been brought to a judge, who told him: “Don’t kill any more niggers right now”, and released him. It was difficult to know how true this was...The phone was ringing constantly with no one saying anything...The FBI came to interview me again about my arrest...A new volunteer came today, law student Allen Verson. We were then ten COFOers in our project.

July 17: The president of the local NAACP, Justice Robinson, signed a statement protesting the grand jury hearing. As a witness, Robinson asserted that it was arranged in unprecedented haste, and done so unconstitutionally since it had no criminal purpose, only one of intimidation. In one case, a witness was subpoenaed just 20 minutes before the hearing started. Robinson backed up our work, stating that COFO was doing what the black community needed and wanted; there was no “outside agitation”.

Five of the10 attempting to register passed.

July 18-19: I had been enforcing, the best I could, strict rules about minimal drinking and no sex. We were tired of this. We needed a break. Two white women, another white man and I decided to drive to New Orleans to stress out. The staff agreed that there would be minimal activities over the weekend. There was not room in the car for everyone; the others would relax as best they could. We four unwound as we partied in this gay city of sin. The jazz, booze, dancing and the absence of tension and fear felt great, and this made us feel guilty. We couldn’t have been “free” had we taken blacks with us. I had a much harder time thereafter enforcing equality rules.

July 20-22: These days went by as usual: much activity. The media was filled with news of riots in Harlem, spreading to other eastern ghettos. Dissatisfaction with official segregation in the south and unofficial segregation in the north, coupled with perpetual racist violence against blacks throughout the country, especially by police, exploded in an uproar in Harlem. It began just three days after Barry Goldwater—a spokesman for racism, male chauvinism and national jingoism—was nominated for the presidency by the Republicans.

July 23: “Eastland Names Specific Communist Agents Or Sympathizers Agitating In Mississippi: Senator Charges Heavy Infiltrations Throughout Nation; Man Arrested in Moss Point Is Revealed To Have Been Kicked Out Of Costa Rica” read the front page headline in “The Mississippi Press Register,” and similar headlines in most state and national newspapers.

“Eastland charged that leaders of the new and militant civil rights organizations `have let Communists infiltrate their groups...have let Communists rise to positions of power.´”

The article named just two civil rights workers in Mississippi as offspring or relatives of Communist Party members, and two lawyers who defended communists in court cases. I was also named. In actuality, I was the only activist named who was a member. I later learned that I was one of only two CP members in the entire project. My arrest in Costa Rica for “carrying Communist literature in that country” was the main “evidence” of “communist subversion.” The FBI had given Eastland their dossier on my “infamous” activity two years before in Costa Rica, which he read before the Senate and it was duly noted in the Congressional Record. This was often used against me long after I left the CP in 1969.

Besides the absurd claim that the entire Mississippi Summer Project was a communist plot, the most insidious aspect of the attack was that on our still missing comrades Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman. Martin Popper, a “long-time Communist legal eagle” was castigated as having “showed up as counsel for the family of Michael Schwerner”.

The article continued: “The mysterious disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi might have been a hoax. (Eastland) said an intensive, month-long investigation and search has failed to produce a `shred of evidence´ that the three were victims of racial violence.”

“Many people in our state assert that there is just as much evidence, as of today, that they are voluntarily missing as there is that they have been abducted.” Eastland praised Mississippians to their “everlasting credit” for “holding their tempers so well.”

In the two years before Eastland’s praise, at least 19 Mississippi blacks had been murdered by racists with impunity. Scores of black churches had been burned to the ground.

Eastland’s performance was a blight on our missing co-workers and on our entire project. SNCC leader James Foreman called me to find out if the Costa Rica story was true. It was, in its essence, I replied. He was livid, but stuck to the SNCC principle of non-exclusive on political grounds. I was a good worker albeit a publicity burden. The local rag rang me for an interview. The essence appeared the next day, a rather lame reply. I stated that the big crime of “carrying communist literature” was a “hoax”, in that most of the books were novels or about Latin American history. But I need not have felt so badly as the mass meeting that night proved. The usual number attended and they gave me a standing ovation.

July 24-August 3: In the days between Eastland’s attack and the uncovering of our brothers, there had been an increase in terror actions, including some near fatal shootings. SNCC workers thought that the Eastland witch-hunting attack had encouraged racist killers. And we weren’t making satisfactory progress in the voter registration program. A good example of how hard it was to break through the racists´ determination to defy us and Congress is taken from a Greenwood report in Letters from Mississippi:

“...three Congressmen came by to observe voter registration practices...A 24-year old Negro girl had tried to register nine times in the past three years. Each time she failed. When we asked her to try again, she broke down in tears, saying she just couldn’t take any more degradation. However, Bill Ryan, one of the Congressmen, demanded to see her back tests. (We were never allowed to see them ourselves.) He felt strongly that her answers were better than some of the whites who had passed. So Ryan convinced her to try again. We learned later that she did pass, with Congressman Ryan breathing down the registrar’s neck. She was the only Negro to be registered in Leflore County all summer.”

August 4: Forty-four days after their disappearance, federal troops found our co-workers buried under an earthen dam construction site not far from the burned church, which they had come to investigate. Sheriff Rainey and his deputy Price had turned them over to fellow KKKers after releasing them from arrest. They were killed that night. First, Mickey was shot in the heart, and then Andy. They apparently had not struggled. James may have struggled. The murderers tortured him first, cutting and smashing a wrist, a shoulder and his skull. They beat him with a chain and then shot him three times. Seven men then buried them using a bulldozer.

Most everybody assumed the sheriffs were in on it, but the local circuit judge, O.H. Barnett, announced, “Sheriff Rainey is the bravest sheriff in America”. Generally, local whites didn’t consider the murdered youths as victims, rather as “outsiders” provoking trouble.

James was a 21 year-old Mississippian and a plasterer’s apprentice. Mickey was 24 and Goodman 20, both college students. Their parents were middle-class professionals.

A memorial service was held for all three beside the ashes of the burnt Mount Zion Methodist Church, which they had come to investigate. Rainey and Price came to spy on those gathered at the service. Chaney’s brother, Ben, at that time 11 years old, made a speech. He closed by saying, “I want the sheriff to hear this good. We ain’t scared no more of Sheriff Rainey.”

We in COFO felt depressed about the loss of our brothers, and the ensuing officialdom charade. There was also another feeling, one difficult to speak about openly. It was the knowledge that if two of the murdered had not been white, there never would have been even civil rights convictions with light jail sentences for some of the murders, or the national attention about the work we were doing in the South. Many more northern whites, even some in the south, could now see what life was like for blacks and began to oppose the undemocratic voting discrimination. Our cause for justice shook the nation’s moral conscience. I believe that the two white youths would have been glad that their deaths helped the cause. It may sound cynical but I know that we never convince enough people to fight for any justice, be it against racism and for freedom, against war and for peace, until many people either struggling for justice and/or until many of “our boys” fighting in an aggressive war are killed. This view is not due to any “saved soul” attitude but is based on the reality that the majority of people choose to ignore the reality of their violent society and economic system and to live ego-oriented “happy lives.”

August 5-26: In Moss Point, we did a bit better in getting blacks registered to vote but not enough to give us a felling that we had accomplished what we had set out to. “Because official registration is hopeless for the moment, we are concentrating our efforts on FDP registration,” wrote the Greenwood worker cited above. The same occurred in Moss Point and most of the state. Although I had no faith in the Freedom registration drive, I remained silent about my analysis. My view was that even if blacks could get seated at the Democratic Party convention and even if any of them eventually got elected to congress, no changes of any structural-economic nature would occur so long as capitalism rules. My point of view—fight for a socialist, or at least non-capitalist, ticket—was just too impossible to “sell” and therefore considered sectarian.

Many of the civil rights activists went door-to-door collecting signatures for the FDP delegation, while a few concentrated on the official voter registration project and the Freedom schools. “LBJ for President” and “ONE MAN-ONE VOTE” placards could be seen in many black neighborhoods, almost never in white ones. Some COFOers were enthusiastic about it all. Many blacks attended precinct meetings and county conventions. People who had never spoken publicly made speeches.

Martin Luther King came to Mississippi to back up the FDP. The regular Mississippi Democratic Party’s all white-delegates were overwhelmingly in favor of Goldwater and thus avoided making any commitment to Democratic candidates and platform. When the FDP held its state convention, August 6, our Rita attended and wrote the following:

“Man, this is the stuff democracy is made meant people who work 14 hours a day from sun-up to sun-down picking cotton and live in homes with no plumbing and no paint were casting ballots to send a delegation to Atlantic City. As the keynote speaker said, it was not a political convention it was a demonstration that the people of Mississippi want to be let into America...”

President Johnson ordered Hoover to spy on the MFDP delegates and whipped up his quasi-liberal forces in the Democratic party—Hubert Humphrey, Bayard Rustin and Walter Reuther—to stop the MFDP from winning any victory. Hoover sent in 30 FBI agents; he was already spying on SNCC. The convention ended in disappointment for many who worked for the FDP. Despite the fact that Eastland was a Democrat, who almost always voted against Democratic presidential programs and presidents, and the Mississippi party voted more often for Republicans than for Democrats, the majority on the credentials committee voted against seating the FDP candidates, who were for the Democrat President. The National Credentials Committee accepted the racist, pro-war, anti-labor delegation even though they would vote for Goldwater. The status quo was safer in the long run for the national party, more so than if they had seated black delegates. They just might be more of a threat to the system than Goldwater Democrats.

Yet some FDP members and most national black leaders were pleased with the outcome because the credentials committee offered a compromise. While seating the regular racist Democrats, it would recognize two FDPers, Aaron Henry and Edwin King, as delegates at large; the other FDP delegates were allowed to remain as “honored guests”.

Most blacks were tired of oft-repeated empty promises and there was a sit-in by FDP delegates. No tokenism would be enough, not now after a summer of hard work and massive violence against us. Delegate Fannie Lou Hamer, who had been beaten and fired from her 18-year sharecropper job for having registered to vote, gave a rousing speech. She spoke of the hypocrisy all over the US, and of how President Johnson had shown his hand against the FDP by preventing a floor fight. She also denounced the big civil rights leaders—King, Rustin, NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, CORE’s James Farmer, and Aaron Henry—for willingness to accept this token compromise, and it was rejected

As the summer was ending with the emphasis on FDP, many civil rights volunteers returned home. I drove Debbie and Susan to their homes in New York and later back to Los Angeles where I continued to work for SNCC for a time.

Though some of Freedom Summer’s objectives were not realized we did make a big dent in the racist system, we were instrumental in building a new or renewed sense of self-worth among blacks and whites, northerners and southerners. I concur with Lawrence Guyot’s analysis: “The Freedom Summer was the most creative, concentrated, multi-layered attack on oppression in this country”. But the few of us who realized that true equality and freedom cannot be realized within the framework of a greedy, warmongering capitalist economy did not convince enough activists and well-meaning non-activists to lay the basis for a truly liberating revolution. As I write in 2008, this is still the fundamental challenge!

Copyright © 2006-2012