I was one of almost a thousand people who went to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to support the southern freedom movement's struggle to end racism. When I speak about my experiences as a white activist in the Mississippi Summer Project -- what is now called "Freedom Summer" - young people ask if I was afraid. I've always hated this question.
My schoolteacher sister says people are really asking how did I transcend the fear. They know they would be afraid, she says, and they want to know how I handled it. But how does one talk about fear or more to the point, the handling of one's fear? How does one speak of something that is general and at the same time, very particular?
Yes, I was afraid. But I also felt part of something greater than myself a movement. At meetings an awesome collective spirit gave us all courage, especially when we sang. If my life were shortened, I felt it would have been worth it to know the black and white activists of the freedom movement and to stand among their number.
I also was a devout Christian and believed I was doing God's will. I didn't expect God to protect me from harm, but I truly believed He would be with me helping me to endure whatever happened. If my dying or being beaten or jailed would help save the United States from the sin of racism, I was willing.
Reflecting the mores of the times female volunteers under 21 needed their parents' written permission to go into Mississippi. I was only 20. I knew my parents were terrified for my safety, but I felt they couldn't do anything else but support me. I was following their beliefs and values. If they denied their permission, they would refute all they professed to believe about God and justice and love.
So with an abiding belief in the love of God and an equally deep belief in the collective spirit of our nonviolent army, I was ready to go and face whatever lay before me.
Two weeklong orientations were held at a university in Ohio. I don't know what this experience was like for the first group. I was in the second group, made up of freedom school teachers and community center volunteers. On the first day of our training we were told that three of the voter registration workers were missing. Rita Schwerner, wife of one of the missing men, stood on the stage of the auditorium and told us to organize by our home states, pool our money and call home. We were to mobilize our parents to call and write their Congressmen, the Justice Department and the President, demanding the Federal Government find the three who were missing and protect all civil rights activists.
Twenty-five years later in the fall of 1989 I sat on the floor of my mother's living room and read through the papers she'd saved in the bottom drawer of her desk. I learned from a carbon of one of my father's letters that a congressman had called him at work and told him to "get her the hell out of there." The letter I read was written to my grandfather. Dad wrote that he'd told the congressman the question wasn't getting me out, but guaranteeing the safety of all civil rights workers. He never told me.
My good Republican father, who voted for Nixon, and my mother, who voted for Kennedy but wouldn't tell anyone, could have stopped me from going into Mississippi. Instead they told me they loved me. Now middle aged and a mother myself, I know the courage required of them was as great, if not greater, than what was required of me. But at 20 my only concern was that they not revoke their permission for me to go.
The last night before we left for Mississippi, Bob Moses, the director of the Summer Project, looked at his feet as he talked about how difficult it was for him to send us in, knowing three were already dead even though their bodies had not been found, knowing they were dead and sending us in not knowing how many of us would die. Speaking softly, his eyes on his shoes, he told us "All I can say is that I'll be there too." And it was enough. It was more than enough. The group sang as one and I knew better than ever before why I was going into Mississippi.
The words "No one can be free until everyone is free" burned in my heart. I knew we carried with us the spirits of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner and all the people in Mississippi who had died and would die for freedom. We sang their souls into the sinews of our bodies. It did not matter whether I lived or died, the movement would flourish and love would triumph over hate.
A PERSONAL LOSS
That last night my boyfriend sat with his head in his hands long after the rest of us rose to join in singing, "They say that freedom is a constant struggle." A friend finally helped him to his feet and we stood, black and white together, holding onto one another while we sang. When I speak about going to Mississippi, I tell people about the singing. But I don't tell them about my boyfriend or that I'd asked to be transferred out of the freedom school he'd be directing. I don't talk about the terrible loneliness I felt.
We'd both been white students in black colleges in Atlanta. I was an exchange student for one semester at Spelman College and he'd been a regular student for two years at Morehouse College across the street. We fell in love in Staughton Lynd's evening seminar on the history of nonviolent protest in the United States. Staughton was directing the freedom schools section of the Mississippi Summer Project and as the semester progressed, the seminar more and more took on the quality of a training session for Mississippi.
After class Dan and I would walk the campus expounding on our ideals and plans. We were going to save the world from injustice through the power of love. The evenings were warm. A church bell chimed in the distance. Our idealism burned. One evening we discovered our feelings for one another. Staughton assigned us to the same freedom school.
But when we met again at the orientation in Ohio, Dan avoided me. I was both confused and hurt, terribly hurt. Finally I confronted him, asking why. He answered he couldn't handle his fear for me and felt it was wrong to care more about my safety than the others on the project. As director of a freedom school he felt his caring should be equal for all the volunteers and staff on the project.
I knew it would be too painful for me to be in the same project with him. I went to Barbara Walker, a Spelman student who was going to Holly Springs. She was the only one of our Atlanta group to be going without a partner. I asked her if I could come with her and when she said yes, I told Staughton I wanted to be reassigned. I told him why. He agreed. Then I told Dan.
I can't remember what I said to Dan. I only remember the trauma and going first to Barbara and then to Staughton and asking to go into Holly Springs. My letter to my parents, which they saved, speaks of Dan's need to be free of worry about me. Now, looking back I am amazed I wasn't furious. But I was socialized to be understanding of men. Also, it was a complex, difficult time. We were all doing our best. He was 19; I was 20.
The Holly Springs group was among the first to leave. I watched Dan out the window as the bus sat in the hot sun. He and Staughton stood together. Something was holding up the bus and we waited and waited in that hot sun.
Staughton stood vigil as the director of the freedom schools, but I knew Dan was standing there for me alone. It was his way of showing his love, his way of making up for withdrawing from me to cope with the fear. I hated it. I wanted him to leave. I wanted the bus to leave. Having made the terrible decision to separate myself, I wanted to be gone. I sat on that bus and watched Dan standing in the sun waiting for us to leave and I wanted to be gone from the pain of a personal romance.
I didn't know if any of us would survive the white violence, but I felt that whatever the cost, it would be worth it to be part of this moment in history when people's lives would be changed. However much it hurt to have Dan turn away from me, I was excited to be going into Holly Springs with Barbara Walker to do this great thing, to live interracially and to teach in a freedom school.
I'd been a part of a group of black and white students, who'd come from Atlanta after meeting together during the spring. And even if romantic love could not withstand the fear and tension of preparing to go into Mississippi, we did support one another. It was a Morehouse student who helped Dan stand during our singing the last night in Oxford. It was a Spelman professor who reached behind me and held a fellow white student from my home college. Barbara and I sat on that bus together.
THE AWFUL LONELINESS
The details of my Mississippi experience belong to another story. Suffice it to say, I was changed by those two months in Holly Springs. Mississippi forced me to confront the question of poverty. People were very poor. I began to ask why it was that a democracy could allow some people to be so rich and others so poor.
Today when I speak to students and other people interested about my experiences in Mississippi, I ask them would they be content if racism ended but poverty remained. That is, would it be all right for there to continue to be great disparities as long as the privileges of wealth and power as well as the burdens of poverty were equally divided among all racial and ethnic groups? It is not, I tell them, all right as far as I'm concerned. It is not all right that anyone is poor while others have more, so much more, than they humanely need.
I believe there will be another ground swell of protest against a social system that has allowed the rich to get richer and more and more people to fall into poverty. It will take courage to participate in such a movement that places itself against the corrupt forces of power and privilege. There will undoubtedly be terrible repression as well as hurtful mistakes. I knew men who died in the southern freedom struggle. I know people who were maimed physically and psychologically because of their participation. I've never met anyone who regretted his or her choice.
The personal romance with Dan is a painful part of my story and I think it is why I don't like the question about being afraid. It forces me to remember that fear could separate people, who thought they loved one another. Indeed, fear could separate a young man and woman who thought love could conquer all. But now that I have shared this story, I am beginning to wonder if the awful loneliness I felt at Oxford wouldn't have been there even if there'd been no personal failings at love. I am beginning to think that a sense of terrible loneliness is the other side of the incredible sense of oneness in collective struggle.
No matter how joined we were, in the final analysis each of us had to make the decision alone and each of us has had to face the consequences. I believe we are bigger people because we chose to commit ourselves to something larger than our personal lives. But the loneliness, the awful loneliness, was part of the price we paid.
Copyright © Nov 1995/June 2004, Chude Allen
Copyright © 2004
Last Modified: June 16, 2004.