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The Mississippi Freedom Summer Twenty Years Later

by Edward McNulty

Mr. McNulty is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Westfield, New York. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 17, 1984, p. 959. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The 40th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy was grandly celebrated and widely reported by the media. This year also marked the 20th anniversary of another invasion, but this one was little noted. Few of its veterans returned either to celebrate or to relive the harsh experiences of the summer of 1964. Those who did were not besieged by representatives of the press. I was a small part of that exciting “Freedom Summer,” when hundreds of students, lawyers, teachers, doctors and clergy descended on Mississippi. “the last bastion of segregation.” My return exactly 20 years later, in August 1984, was even briefer: it was just a pass through the state on the way to deposit our youngest son (he wasn’t even born in 1964!) at his college in New Orleans and to see an old friend and comrade-in-arms in Greenville.

We entered Mississippi in broad daylight, traveling south from Memphis down U.S. 62. What a contrast to our night crossing at Vicksburg in August of ‘64. President Lyndon Johnson had spoken to the nation over radio and television about the Gulf of Tonkin incident near North Vietnam. As we were on the bridge over Old Man River, the announcement came that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had found the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers. I was traveling with my fellow pastor from a little town in upstate North Dakota. Roger Smith was Methodist, I Presbyterian. As far as we knew, we were the only two pastors from our state to take part in the Mississippi Project. Each of us, independently of the other, had responded to the mimeographed National Council of Churches’ letter appealing to the clergy to join the students and other professionals in voter registration work in “the most segregated state of the nation.”

Today the vast flat expanse of the delta cotton fields looks much the same as then. Gone, of course, was the feeling that we were traveling through enemy territory. No need now to phone ahead to our destination and, on arrival, to phone back to home base that we were safe. The green fields stretched for miles. Few houses of any size were visible as we raced along the straight highway, just clusters of dilapidated shacks. Now that machines had replaced hand pickers, many of the falling- down houses were vacant.

Hours after entering the state we passed the small hamlet of Winstonville. Here was located the headquarters of the COFO (Council of Federated Organizations, an alliance of several civil rights groups that sponsored the Mississippi Summer Project) for Bolivar County, where Roger and I had been assigned. We lived and worked at the Freedom Center in Shaw, a few miles down the road, but came to Winstonville several times for meetings with project director John Bradford. John was a young man with but a year or two of college -- very different from the dozens of highly educated, articulate white volunteers working under him, who often chafed at his direction. Roger and I sometimes served as buffers and interpreters between the critical white students and the frustrated black director. Today Winstonville is a small collection of houses barely discernible from the highway that curves around it.

U.S. 62 now bypasses Mound Bayou as well. I recall when the road led us right by the large brick church where we had once attended a freedom rally. Mound Bayou was the largest all-black community in the state in 1964. You didn’t need to fear the local police here. No one stood outside to take down the names of those who attended the night freedom rallies, as the civil rights meetings were called. We came up here, too, to mail letters which we did not want the Shaw postal people to open -- or when we thought we were being charged too much for our mailings, as we were once or twice.

A few more hot minutes past Mound Bayou and we were approaching Cleveland. But my thoughts turned to Ruleville as we waited for the light to change and I saw the sign pointing east to the seat of Sunflower County, home of that great lover of liberty, Senator James Eastland. It was also home to a genuine freedom fighter, Fannie Lou Hamer. We met her a number of times, this fiery orator who could fill a church with her contralto voice leading us in a freedom song or hymn.  She was often in pain due to a back injury caused by a beating in jail. Her crime: speaking out against injustice and trying to use a bathroom at a bus station.

There was a cadence to her speech that lifted the spirits of the ragged people who risked so much to come to hear her. A few samples recorded in my journal: “If you see a preacher not standing up [for civil rights], there’s something wrong with him. . . . There’s something wrong with teachers who don’t teach citizenship and what it means. There’s something wrong about not knowing about the history of Negroes.” She could be funny in a barbed way, too: “When a preacher says he doesn’t want polities in his church, he’s telling a lie! The pictures on those bills you pay him are of presidents -- he sure doesn’t keep them out!”

We were at the outdoor party to celebrate the second year of the Freedom Movement in Ruleville the day that Hamer was served with an injunction by the sheriff. Long before the northern press was interested in covering the beatings of the black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers, Charles McClaron had come to Ruleville to begin voter registration work. There were too many people and it was too hot to meet in the little church, so we ate our chicken outside. You could still see the scorched area above the church door where local whites had hurled a fire bomb. You could also see the cars slow as they passed, their white occupants scarcely believing that whites and blacks would eat and socialize together. The sheriffs injunction was an attempt to scare Hamer from running for the U.S. Senate and from challenging the segregated delegation at the Democratic Convention later that month. She read it and said, “it’s just a scrap of paper. It don’t scare me or anything. I’ll be in Atlantic City, even if I have to go by myself.”

We drove on by Cleveland. It was late and my wife and son were too hot and tired to make the side trip to see the courthouse where we had fruitlessly brought people to register to vote. One woman had been a schoolteacher with two years of college, yet she didn’t pass the same test that hundreds of semiliterate whites were eased through. And what courage it took for the registrants to brave the hate-filled stares and the insolence of the courthouse staff.

I wondered if the monument to the Confederate soldiers still stood, proclaiming that never had so noble a cause and nation risen so cleanly. There would be no statue of Amsie Moore, longtime National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader who bravely carried the torch for justice. His Amoco station no longer stood by the highway -- the only place where we had been able to buy gasoline safely. He had been an eloquent speaker, lacing his speeches with quotations from the Gospels and I John about loving and praying for our enemies.

I wondered too what had happened to the white Presbyterian minister whom Roger and I had called on. He had many of the same books in his library as I, yet we were worlds apart. He knew of no poverty in his area nor of any wrongs committed. Polite to us, he nevertheless regarded us as outsiders, not fellow American Christians who could help each other. He urged us to tell the students to shave and bathe more often. We refrained from telling him how difficult maintaining one’s personal grooming was, when the only running water available for a square block was a pump in the backyard of the shack we slept in.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Shaw, our home base for the two weeks and a few days we had spent in Mississippi. This I couldn’t bypass, filled as I was with the memory of hot, nausea-producing (if you moved too fast) days filled with knocking on doors, talking with adults, and playing with and teaching children at the Freedom Center. The laundromat at the edge of town where we were bawled out by the owner was gone. I still have the slide Roger took showing the large “White” and “Colored” signs on each side. Downtown Shaw itself looked awful -- rundown and seedy. Only a few blacks were out on the sidewalk as we drove along the main street. It appeared so small now; surely it was not the home of 2,300 people! Back then, that street had seemed so long as we walked down it while trying to ignore the hostile stares of the whites who knew -- and disapproved of -- our reason for being in town.

I looked in vain for the library which “our” local youth had so proudly integrated. There was the railroad depot, however, where the white bus had stood, together with hordes of white, helmeted state troopers with their riot guns at the ready. I had cruised slowly down that same street 20 years ago to see how the three brave teenagers who had won the right to integrate the library were faring, since none of us outsiders could accompany them. Fear rode with me and my companions, for a large crowd of angry whites stood on one side of the road. Held back by sheriff’s deputies, they made it clear that they didn’t like what was happening. Even if black taxes also supported the facility, no “nigra” had ever entered it, except to clean up. We had called the FBI to inform them of the planned integration, and the Bureau in turn had notified the state and local authorities. All the chairs had been removed from the little storefront library, but the youths were allowed to take out the books they asked for, a small victory.

On our way back down the main street I saw the new library on the opposite side. It was still a storefront, but neat and well painted, in marked contrast to the faded appearance of most of the shops and stores in town. We passed the large Baptist church which we whites had attended one Sunday. No warm greetings or ‘‘Y’all come back” for us. Nor did we want to, so irrelevant and ‘‘spiritual’’ was the lifeless sermon.

The big white church faced the bayou that divided Shaw. Behind the row of fine homes on the other side was “Colored Town.” I was appalled at how dilapidated the area looked, despite a large sign proclaiming the renovations taking place. A closer look showed us that curbs had been put in. The open ditches that had served as a sewage system were gone. Even blacks could have sewers and indoor plumbing now, apparently. There were a few street lights. But the houses and the people seemed locked into a bygone era. Could this be the prosperous America that Ronald Reagan extols so often?

We felt like the outsiders that we were, so I didn’t take time to find the churches where we had met to sing freedom songs and make fervent speeches. No doubt the white policeman who had stood outside taking down names had long since been pensioned off. When the black audience recited, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow . . . ,” they meant it. When they chanted prayers asking to be delivered from the “terror by night and the arrow that flieth by day,” we all meant it. Those meetings -- so filled with joy and the hope of deliverance from Mr. Charlie -- and our daily work with the local blacks came as close to the church of the Book of Acts as I’ve ever been privileged to see. The people taught us so much about faith, hope and love.

We found the grocery where we often ate our breakfast of doughnuts and orange juice. I couldn’t be positive about the present identity of what had been our Freedom Center: a three-room house stuffed with library books, sports equipment, telephone (the only one in the black section) and mimeograph machine and a thousand posters and handbills. There we had talked with people, written reports and letters and kept in touch with the outside world.

We drove out of the black area, crossing the bayou bridge to head south again. Passing the cutoff that led to the settlement of Choctaw, I thought of our forays into the country to register people for the Freedom Democratic Party -- and of the fear that we felt each time a white-driven truck, rifle resting on the rear-window rack, had slowed down to look us over. We had been stopped by one irate white and warned to get moving. As he pulled away, the teens in my car got out to write down his license plate number so we could report the incident to the FBI. The driver saw the kids, screeched to a stop, and backed into a driveway, where he got stuck in the mud. The loud laughter of the teens didn’t help his temper, I’m sure -- though we didn’t wait around to find out.

Our day ended in Greenville. That night we dined with my companion of two decades ago, Roger Smith. Roger had returned to North Dakota for a year and then asked to be assigned to the staff of the Delta Ministry. He was now the only white person on the staff of the Delta Resources Committee, under the direction of native Mississippian Jean Phillips. This Greenville-based group provides emergency assistance, counseling, advocacy and other services for the poor blacks (and those whites who are beginning to see that they too are victims of an unjust system) of a large portion of the Mississippi Delta.

I’ve often wondered if all the work, beatings, bombings and deaths of that 1964 summer were worth it. The World War II veterans who returned to Normandy could be proud and satisfied that their invasion had ended in total victory over the most vicious system in human history. None of us Freedom Summer vets could make such a claim. We succeeded in registering only about 8,000 new voters that summer. Fannie Lou Hamer never made it to the Senate. And some of the people Roger and I knew have been killed. Life still looks much the same: blacks are at the bottom of society and maybe even worse off than before, since machines have taken over much of their work in the cotton fields. There is no longer a government in Washington that cares whether they live or die.

When Roger and I were preparing to leave Shaw 20 years ago an old man told us, “You know why the whites here hate you so? Because you all came down here and opened our eyes. Now we see that things don’t have to stay the same!” (Today they call this process “conscientization.”) Two elderly women thanked us as we came out of the church on our last night there. One said, “I’m old and won’t see the day of freedom. But my grandchild will.” That day still hasn’t come. But as Roger and Jean point out, there are now black mayors, council members and other county and state officials in Mississippi. We could enjoy our dinner together in one of Greenville’s finest restaurants -- whereas once, just a few miles away, we had nearly been attacked because an integrated group of us rode in the same car. Instead of the pitifully few thousand blacks registered to vote, there are now tens of thousands. And there will soon be more, if the Delta Resources Committee staff has anything to do with it.

No monuments or celebrations commemorate the 1964 invasion of Mississippi. Instead, there are dedicated people living and working here, resolved to carry on the way begun then -- and largely abandoned by the rest of the country. Maybe someday, when people can again sing, “We shall overcome” with integrity, there will be celebrations and speeches commemorating slain civil rights workers Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney -- and all other who gave so much, yet received so much more from the quiet courage and faith of the people whom they had come to help.


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