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One Volunteer's Freedom Summer, 1964

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Freedom Summer volunteer Terri Shaw traveled south to Mississippi to work at the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) office in Hattiesburg. COFO was the coalition of workers from SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and the NAACP.

Her days in the nerve center of local operations put her in the perfect position to observe voter registration and education activities; responses from local people, black and white; and the birth of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her account, written in 1964 but not published, forms a part of the Civil Rights in Mississippi Archive at the University of Southern Mississippi.


Orientation

... the weeklong orientation session at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, should have prepared us for everything that happened this summer. We were exposed to every possibility and given guidelines for behavior in almost any contingency...

... lessons were given in how to protect your vital organs while being beaten and what happens when a mob gets out of hand. In an auditorium more often used for assemblies and class days, stories were told of beatings and shootings and bombings, by the witnesses themselves...

...The battle scarred veterans who tried to prepare us for what we might meet in Mississippi were mostly young field secretaries of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)...


Heading South

...Traveling through the South in an integrated car is an experience every white American should have. The full impact of what segregation in public accommodations has meant to Negro Americans is a sobering experience. No matter how hot and dusty it gets, you have to think twice about stopping for a drink, and usually there is no place you can stop at all. No matter how tired you are, the motels "owned and operated by colored" are few and far between. And with a white girl in the car, you have to keep driving fast, and choose the places to buy gas with extreme caution...

...[In] Meridian... I heard my first Mississippi news broadcast:

"The so-called Council of Federated Organizations announced this morning that three so-called civil rights workers have been missing since last night when they went to Philadelphia to investigate a so-called church burning..."

... We knew right away that there was little hope for the three if they had been missing overnight. We had all been trained to call the office at regular intervals if we were away and never to stay away overnight without letting someone know about it...


Where Shaw Worked and Lived

...Palmers Crossing, a rural area about 3 miles from Hattiesburg, looked... like Guatemala. There is no mail delivery there. Very few families have running water or plumbing of any kind. Few stores are owned by whites and law enforcement is handled by whites...

...My job was called "communications." ... My duties included, handling the press, FBI, Justice Dept. and local law enforcement officers; keeping a daily log; handling telephone communications with the Jackson, Greenwood and Atlanta offices; sending a daily written report to Jackson and weekly reports to the Justice Dept., Atlanta and Greenwood; and an infinite variety of other duties stemming from answering the constantly ringing telephone. The office was hot, hectic, noisy and nerve-wracking, and sometimes I spent as many as 15 hours a day in it. Therefore it was always a great pleasure to come home to the wonderful family that had consented to take me in.

It was pure luck that I was assigned to the Longs....

...Mr. [John Gould] Long had built up his own business on Mobile St., and had also done many different sorts of work to provide his family with a comfortable home and financial security. Unlike other volunteers, I made no sacrifice as far as living conditions were concerned. My roommate, a freedom school teacher, and I shared a large, comfortable room. Mr. Long, now retired, is a college graduate who tried to register to vote and to form a Negro Voters League, back in the 40's. He is well-read and informed, especially in national, state and local politics. However, because the local registrar, who never went beyond sixth grade, failed him every time he took the voter registration test, Mr. Long was not able to vote until his case figured in a Justice Dept. suit.


Mixed Reception from the Locals

...The ladies of the Negro community pitched in immediately to see that we were well taken care of. During the first few weeks of the summer they served huge lunches to all 60 volunteers every day in the office. Later, when the freedom schools were set up, equally huge lunches were served in four separate churches every weekday. Several ladies took in washing and one made her bathtub available to the volunteers who lived in Palmers Crossing and other areas without running water.

Our reception from the white community was not so warm. After the first meeting, held the day we arrived, two cars drove past the office tossing out handfuls of most scurrilous hate literature I have ever seen.

Another night a caravan of about a dozen cars drove slowly past the office. White men in cars, some carrying guns, followed the voter registration workers as they canvassed in the Negro neighborhoods. Other carloads of whites drove up and down in front of the office. Quite often these cars did not have license plates although we never heard of anyone being arrested for failure to have a plate on a car...

... There were a couple of small-time "bombings" which caused no damage but added to the atmosphere of fear. A few local supporters received anonymous telephone calls and threats of assassination. Many more were fired from their jobs or taken off welfare, although this supposedly is illegal. The welfare workers especially delighted in dropping "subtle" hints to Negro welfare recipients. One woman who had nothing to do with the movement was told that she might be taken off the rolls because they had to "cut off some good niggers as well as the bad niggers so it won't look so bad."

Local police soon came to know our cars and stopped them frequently. Payment of traffic fines -- many undeserved and others for violations which would have gone undetected if committed by anyone else -- took an important chunk out of the weekly budget....


Obstacles to Voter Registration

...Thanks to the Justice Department [JD] case, the registration test had been simplified somewhat. Although it still included interpretation of a section of the Mississippi constitution, the registrar had to choose from 14 sections selected by the JD rather than the entire 286. However, it is still up to the registrar to decide whether the interpretation is correct or not, and the JD's brief has page after page showing tests carelessly written by almost illiterate whites who "passed" contrasted with meticulously accurate interpretations by educated Negroes who, of course, "failed." The names of all those who take the test are published in the local newspaper for 2 weeks, leaving them open to reprisals.

But even against these formidable odds, many Negroes have gone to the courthouse time and time again, determined to take the test until they pass. Some have tried as many as a dozen times...


Educational Activities

... Hattiesburg was a beehive of educational activity. In fact we had less violence and harassment than almost any other projects, especially those in the Southwest and the Delta, both areas with much larger Negro populations and therefore more intense fears among the whites.

The freedom schools were the most impressive part of the program. They were directed by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Reese, Negro secondary school teachers from Detroit. The schools were established in six churches for an initial enrollment of 585 persons. (We had expected about 75).

The oldest student was an 85-year-old man who had taught himself to read, but wanted to learn more in order to take the registration test...

...The community center staff was small, but talented, and a varied program was developed -- day care for younger children in the morning, recreation for the older ones in the afternoon, and classes in first aid, sewing and literacy in the evening. Mary Sue Gellatly, white, of Portland, Ore., taught eight persons to read and write and another eight to teach literacy. Phyllis Cunningham, white, RN, of Chicago, got a medical care program going and taught, hygiene and first aid. Both plan to stay in Mississippi indefinitely. A library was set up next door to the office with homemade shelves and handwritten catalogue cards...


Registering Voters and Forming a Party

Voter registration was hot, dusty work. The less than 20 workers were divided into four teams working in three city areas and Palmers Crossing. In Palmers it was particularly difficult to keep records as there were no street names or house numbers. So the workers made their own map and their own street names. The main intersection became the corner of Freedom St. and Now Rd., and other streets were named after famous Negroes and civil rights workers. Three short roads in a corner of the settlement became, poignantly, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman Sts...

...During the last few weeks of the summer, teams of four ventured into rural counties near Hattiesburg, where both fear among Negroes and harassment on the part of whites, were heavier.

An important part of the work of the voter registration workers was local organization of the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP). Any resident of Forrest County over 21 -- literate or illiterate -- was eligible to fill out a "freedom registration form," patterned after the official registration application, but much simpler, and thus become a member of the FDP. One of the purposes of freedom registration, was to disprove the Southern contention that Negroes don't register to vote simply because they don't want to.

The next step in the campaign was to elect delegates to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City with a procedure as closely parallel as possible to the procedure used by the MDP. We held four precinct meetings, advertised by legal notices in the newspaper and spot announcements on the one radio station which would accept them. These were followed by a county meeting, a caucus of all the delegations from the sixth congressional district and state convention.

The FDP meetings were very successful in Forrest County. The local people took over the leadership right away, which was one of the main purposes of the program. People like Mr. Long [John Gould] who had been interested observers of the political process for years were delighted at the opportunity to actually participate.

From the precinct meetings, local civic associations also grew, with a minimum of prodding from the voter registration workers. One of the FDP leaders also began to work on a Voters League for those Negroes who finally did get registered.


Violence Against Volunteers

...The... most serious incidents concerning volunteers were beatings. The first occurred on July 10 when the Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, (a Ministers Project volunteer) and two white male college students were beaten while on their way to one of the churches where lunch was served after a morning of canvassing. They were attacked by two white men who had been following them in a pickup truck without license plates. Shouting "white nigger" and "nigger lover" they beat the rabbi and one of the students with an iron bar. The other student was kicked down an embankment, pummeled and kicked, and finally, his assailant shoved his canvassing notes into his mouth, shouting "eat this... nigger lover." All three were treated at a hospital and the rabbi was hospitalized over night.

For a city whose white population continually expresses its shock and righteous indignation at the "lawlessness" of New York City, Hattiesburg didn't do too well that day. White people watched the beating from their porches and front lawns, but no one called the police until other volunteers returned to the scene to look for the rabbi's glasses.

Both the police chief and the mayor issued strong statements, saying the assailants would be sought and prosecuted for "assault and battery with intent to kill," a felony. The FBI investigated and a week later, one of the assailants turned himself in. The two were charged with "assault and battery with intent to maim, also a felony, but the grand jury refused to indict them. The district attorney then charged them with simple assault and battery (a misdemeanor) and they each paid a $500 fine. Each also received a suspended sentence of 90 days.

...The civil rights act, signed on July 2, brought little change in Hattiesburg. Some local Negroes tested the lunch counters and were served at Woolworths's and Kress's both of which immediately became the objects of Citizens' Council boycotts. (Mississippi's anti-boycott law is enforced only against civil rights groups.) Walgreens took the coward's way out and closed the lunch counter...

Source: Shaw, Terri. "Freedom Summer Recollections." Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive, The University of Southern Mississippi. http://anna.lib.usm.edu/%7Espcol/crda/shaw/ts001.htm

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