Miss. Freedom Summer Project Part 16

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Some observations of incidents that occurred on various dates.

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Our “Freedom Center” in Shaw. For many it was the only access to a telephone or a book.

One night while I was on duty at the Center an old man came in and asked to see “My freedoms.” Uncertain as to what he meant, I tried to draw him out. He kept saying, “My freedoms. You know – they’re written down, and I want to see them.” It dawned on me finally that he meant the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. When I showed this to him he said that this was it. He was past 70 years of age and yet he had never seen a copy of the U.S. Constitution!

I may have already included this in the diary, but in case I didn’t: I picked up an elderly hitchhiker one hot day. He was very reserved and polite with a “Yes sir” or “No sir” with each
statement. He was old enough to be my grandfather, yet he was addressing me with “sirs” To one question it was, “No sir, things aren’t too bad here.” Then, as I talked more and revealed that I was a C-R worker, his whole demeanor changed. The “sirs” ceased, and he spoke of some of the hardships he had endured. I learned first hand what some of the blacks at the Center had told us of the pretense, of the mask that blacks had to wear around any whites that they did not know – or whom they knew to be prejudiced. (Years later when I served a church in the city that was poet Laurence Dunbar’s hometown, Dayton, Ohio, I learned of his poem “We Wear the Mask that grins and lies,” with its sad lines “We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries/To thee from tortured souls arise. ” See the whole poem at http://www.potw.org/archive/potw8.html.)
One lady told us they often heard intimate facts from hearing the whites talk while they cleaned or served, “They think of us as the furniture one said.” She and other would always respond with “Every thing’s fine” when asked how things were for them, since she was sure the whites didn’t really want their opinion and would be enraged if they really knew what they thought. Hence the old Miss. smiling mask. The result was that some whites were deluded into thinking that “our nigras” are happy and would remain so if those “outside agitators” would just quit stirring things up. (This is borne out so well in the film The Help!

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Three of the boys who hung out frequently at the Freedom Center.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the frequent use of “Mr. Charlie” which we heard at the Freedom rallies. This was the way that the black speakers spoke of the prejudiced white Southerner.
“Mr. Charlie had his foot on their necks. Mr. Charlie cheated them out of fair wages. Watch out for Mr. Charlie! ” It took us a meeting or two to catch on to this – and also to understand the
meaning of the smiles and nods that the speakers and the audience would direct to us. This meant, “It’s OK. We’re not speaking of you folk. We know you’re one of us.” This feeling of being “one of us” grew stronger as our stay wore on – especially it was strong when we were with the teenagers, as they forgot that we were ministers and came to regard us simply as friends. One day when we were riding in my car we were bantering back and forth, and I commented what a white might say about us riding together, “Now look you heayu, you niggers, I want you to … ” We all laughed – and it didn’t occur to me until later that I would never have used that ugly word with black friends up North, even in such a jest. But here, in the context of our jocular camaraderie, it passed unnoticed.

Another factor that was always with us was our fear. We had been warned never to sit by a lighted window at night – and we didn’t. We were always conscious of the need for security when traveling. Don’t go out alone. Give the Center your destination and estimated time of arrival. Phone that you had arrived safely or that you would be late. Since we all had been through a period of worry when someone forgot to follow through on this, we stuck to the security rules pretty closely.

At times we felt that we were living a modern version of the Book of Acts. The local movement was definitely church centered, all the meetings including fervent prayer and powerful singing. And when the people would recite from the Psalms such lines as “the sun will not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night”, we knew that this was not just Old Testament rhetoric – for outside the church a white policeman always stood taking down the names of all whom he saw entering and leaving. (Ps. 27 was also popular, as well as Ps. 121.) Roger and I felt that we were among the bravest people alive. We knew that many were afraid – for their jobs if not their safety – yet they dared to come out to such meetings. The singing, prayers, and speeches fueled their courage, helping them to realize that, as the anthem put it, “We are not alone, we are not alone, Oh, deep in my heart, I know, we shall overcome someday.”

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One of the SNCC flyers we and the teenagers of Shaw distributed in the area.

We also saw another side that kept us from romanticizing either the blacks or the students. I’ve already referred to the students’ and John Bradford, the County COFO Director, not getting along very wail. A few of the students had problems with their middle classness. Miss. blacks knew almost nothing of screen wire or “neatness”, at least in the white middle class sense. Several students moved out of the black homes where they were staying. One of them – Grace, I think – realized how this would look to their hosts, so she stayed with her family. Once when we were invited to a family’s home for chicken, several students were reluctant to go because of the swarms of flies present. The little house was jammed with kids, some sleeping while flies crawled over their faces. Nonetheless, most of us had a good time with the family, who were trying to say thank you to us by hosting the feast.

We also knew that most blacks were still intimidated by their fear of white reprisals or simply inertia; those who came out to the Freedom rallies were a minority – a fairly large one, but still a minority. And later, when we sent boxes of clothing and materials from the North there was sometimes arguments and squabbling over who should be on the receiving list.

Roger and I both went to Miss. with the knowledge that we would receive more than we would give, learn more than we could teach. Events confirmed this. The two weeks and a few days are among the most memorable of my life. For the next year I spoke more than 50 times around North Dakota in an attempt to interpret what was taking place in Miss. and enlisting help. A number of items, such as our church’s mimeograph machine we had planned to trade in on a newer model, money, and clothing were shipped south. I was very careful not to turn every sermon into a C-R tirade, but many of the insights I had learned entered into my preaching and teaching. I will be always grateful for the way we were received by the black people of Mississippi and for what they taught me about living the Christian Gospel.

The following volunteers are listed in my journal:

Dennis Flannigan – Director (Shaw)
John Bradford – County Director (SNCC Staff)
Douglas Marr; Wallace Roberts; George Robbins; Grace Morton; Lisa Vogel; Morris Reuben; Judy York; Roger Smith

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Some of the volunteer staff outside the Freedom Center. Front row from left: Grace, Judy. Back row: George, Me, Roger.

Next to deciding to follow Christ and marrying my wife, participating in the MS Freedom Summer Project was one of the greatest events of my life. Roger and I would reflect on a night’s Freedom Rally and think that we had seen the church as it was in the Book of Acts–under fire but holding to the faith. As mentioned above, after emerging from the church we would see a white cop making notes. We also realized how fortunate we were, in terms of danger, that the sheriff of Bolivar County had aspirations for higher office, and thus let it be know among whites that he would not tolerate violence. He did not want to have FBI agents stomping around his county.

Our return trip to North Dakota was uneventful. Neither of us could slip back entirely into business as usual. We were the only two pastors from ND that took part in the Project, so at our denominational meetings there was considerable interest in us. One colleague jokingly said that I disappointed him a little–I was neither beaten nor arrested and jailed.

We both eagerly watched the Democratic National Convention, and thrilled at hearing Fannie Lou Hamer speak so eloquently in the attempt to unseat the racist MS. delegation and replace it with those of the MS Freedom Dem. Party, on whose behalf we had worked during the last week in Shaw. We were deeply disappointed in the way that President Johnson tried to maneuver events and get the MFDP delegates to accept a token representation while keeping the bigotted delegation.

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After we were interviewed by a reporter from a Minot newspaper, invitations poured in from around the state. I don’t know how many times Roger spoke, but I have recorded 56 places where I bore witness to what I had seen. We prepared handouts giving statistics and other facts about the state and the Freedom Project. I always shared a little of my family’s racism and said that we did not go down to judge the white Mississippian, but to help as best we could the blacks who had invited us.Many came up to me afterward, and said that they were born in the South and had been worried what I might say, but appreciated the presentation. The modest fees that we received were forwarded to Shaw, and the thank yous kept us abreast of developments there, one of them being SNNC’s decision not to welcome white volunteers in 1965. However, after a year Roger, being single, asked his bishop to allow him to return to MS and join the work of the National Council of Churches’ Delta Ministry. That is a story in itself, one that I hope my friend will one day tell–he was at so many meetings rubbing shoulders with virtually all of the CR leaders, black and white, of the 60s and 70s, including Dr. King.

My experience informed my ministry for the rest of my active career, but that, like Roger’s, is another story. If you have read this far, I thank you for your patience–and ask that you boycott Mississippi Burning, the terrible movie that demeaned the brave blacks whom we knew to be far braver and more faithful to the Gospel than I. They deserve to be remembered as they really were, needing some help, perhaps, but capable of leading their own struggle.

 

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