Mississippi Freedom Summer Project 1964: Part 2

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The following excerpt from my journal describes a portion of our arrival in Shaw, MS, and first impressions–on Thursday, August 6, 1964.

Our trip from Jackson to Shaw was uneventful. (Unlike the experience of a group of volunteers who were shot at on the same road two days before!) Warren warned us, “Remember, you will be in enemy territory. Don’t stop anywhere for anything. Never ask a white man for directions. If you get lost, look for the Negro Section of the town to get directions.  Certainly  sobering advice.  The drive was hot but rather pleasant. Certainly interesting. The other pastors stayed fairly close behind us so that  we could spot one another if one of us  were  stopped. The shacks along the road are so much alike. Unpainted boards (running vertically), a roof usually made of pieces of corrugated iron sheeting. Two or three sitting in rocking chairs on the porch or on the steps. We saw a number of Negroes out in the fields chopping weeds. We never saw a white person doing any of the physical work  – whether ditch digging, street repairing, or tractor driving.

We pulled into Shaw about 4:30 P Mon Thurs. and promptly got lost due to the poor directions given us. We finally found the Freedom House, just a few minutes before the Jackson office was to call to check that we had arrived.

The Freedom House, of course, is located in the Negro section of town. In Shaw this is the north end, separated from the main section by a stream (or bayou). The white section is quite lovely – shady, tree lined streets, neat, trimmed yards & modern houses along with the usual assortment of beautiful and garish old houses. The downtown center is a little different  – the street is very narrow¦ the sidewalks even more so, making it appear from a distance that the stores are built right onto the street. The effect was a little similar to some of the towns & villages in French Canada.

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The Negro section almost defies description. The accounts given by various journalists of the lot of Negroes is by no means exaggerated. As we got out of the car at one place we were warned, “Be careful of the ditch there. It’s an open sewer.” And sure enough it was!  Not only are there no regular sewers here, there are also no street lights (except along the north-south highway at the edge of the section where the white folks have to drive by), no sidewalks, no paved streets. Most of the houses have no indoor water supply. Many do not even have an out-house. You have to look hard for a house that’s painted. Many have porches rotting away. Many Peace Corpsmen will find better living conditions than in Shaw, Miss., U.S.A.

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The Freedom House itself stood vacant for some time, but has been fixed up rather well. A crude sign outside announces this as the Freedom House, “Everyone welcome.” The porch is screened in. The living room has four or five large bookshelves jammed full. The walls are covered with posters and slogans – “One Man, One Vote,” “We Shall Overcome” – as well as notices of the various classes & meetings. From the ceiling hung a couple dozen-paper chains made by the children in crafts. The office, or communications room houses the telephone (obtained after much delay), typewriters, the mimeograph machine and office supplies.

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The third room of the Freedom House is the library containing well over a 1000 books. Many of them are old textbooks & ex-library books, but there are also many dealing with Negro history & civil rights. So far most of the users seem to be children.

Yesterday a staff meeting was called for 9:30 AM – it got underway at 11. This seems to be typical. The chief topic was the Freedom School. The children of the Negro school are out on boycott. (They, unlike the white children, have to attend a split session – from Nov. through May and in July & Aug. – because of the cotton planting & harvesting season). The Jr. Class a week ago was sponsoring a spaghetti supper, and several of the COFO volunteers were invited. They paid for their plates but when they went to sit down, the principal came over and told them they couldn’t, that they would have to obtain permission from the superintendent of the schools, a white, naturally. After a brief exchange, the Volunteers took their food outside and sat on the ground. They were joined by the angry students. The next day the students decided to boycott the cafeteria  – if their friends couldn’t eat there; neither would they. Many of them gathered outside  the doors to warn anyone who might enter. The students then conceived the idea among themselves of boycotting the school itself to dramatize their grievances.

Their complaints are certainly long and just. The school on the outside appears rather nice. I can see the average Northerner driving by and saying, “See, look at that. They certainly provide well for their Negroes here.” However, like a book, the outside can be deceiving. The inside of the school is different. There is not a saw or hammer in the so-called shop. Foreign languages are not taught. The textbooks are used, castoffs from the white schools. Other equipment is old and seldom replaced with new. Many of the teachers need to be taught themselves.

(Another interruption. A phone call just came through with disturbing news. The brother-in-law of one of the girls jailed recently had a cross burned on his land recently. The local police told him that they knew everything she was doing. There was nothing she could do to hide it, and that after the COFO workers leave, they would know what to do with her. This is a very real fear among many of the Negroes here. Ironically enough, it is strongest among those who have not joined the Movement.)

The students drew up a list of four or five of the major grievances and presented it to the principal. They got no action, other than the fact that the school was closed down. This itself was somewhat of a victory – the first time that the Negro community has dared to defy their oppressors and get away with it. The younger kids probably do not understand everything about it, though they sing the freedom songs enthusiastically, but the high school kids are really behind the Movement (actually in the forefront would be a better way to put it). One of them- Charles Bonds – usually goes to Detroit to spend the summer with relatives, but he decided to remain to work in the Movement.

Charles is an interesting youth – a Sr. in high school, he has put his graduation in jeopardy – as have the 50 other seniors – by taking part in the boycott, and especially by his leadership in the C-R Movement. He hopes to go to college, probably here in Miss. (He could never make it into a Northern school unless they relaxed their qualifications for him. If they did he could easily catch up with intensive study as he is very intelligent. Such a difference from the stereotype promulgated by the White Southerner who refers with so much patronization & condescension to “our nigras”. Charles also plans to join SNCC, perhaps becoming a full time worker. He enjoys the Movement’s work very much and sees it as the only hope for himself & his people. I visited his grandmother yesterday when we went out to pick up his clothes (He is attending along with two volunteers & two other students a state-wide conference).

Next time in Part 3 some of the events of that incredibly full first day in Shaw. To read earlier parts, scroll down the screen.

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