Fifty years ago, a small group of young people—white and Black—set out to push the cause of civil rights in the South. They boarded buses from the college campuses of northern cities to head south. Under threat of death, they walked door to door to register Black voters and established “Freedom Schools” to teach reading, civics and history to Black children. The campaign, which lasted 10 weeks, came to be called the Freedom Summer – one of the most significant events of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
NewsOne sat down with four people who participated in Freedom Summer, as volunteers and Freedom School students. They shared with us the sights and sounds of that summer as witnesses to history.
Bright Winn is a retired plumbing contractor and avid bird watcher. During the summer of 1964, he was a college student and travelled to Mississippi to build Freedom School houses and other structures as part of the Freedom Summer campaign.
That summer I was a pink-cheeked college kid and not terribly mature but I knew the difference between right and wrong. Charles McLaurin came to my campus to speak about voter registration and civil rights. It was an opportunity to go down and right a wrong, so I signed on.
Volunteers had training at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A group of lawyers came and presented seminars and classes on what we were to expected to do. There were less than 1,000 students there that participated over the course of a couple of weeks. I came in the second week. The three volunteers that would later be killed, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner – were in the first group.
Coming from San Francisco, the South was atrociously hot. I’d never lived like that in my life. We didn’t sleep well. I slept my first week at the Freedom House. We had to ply the windows at night to protect from firebombs, and that was in a totally unairconditioned place. You can’t imagine the fatigue from sleeping like that at night and walking door to door during the day. It zaps your strength.
I was a handyman. They told us to bring down our tools if we were tradespeople. I wasn’t yet a plumber but I was handy. So, I built bookshelves for the Freedom Schools, put in new doors, built makeshift desks. I even once made a bookcase out of an old outhouse.
“There was friendship and camaraderie but there was also tension. There was a degree of hostility between Black and white. The Black workers had a degree of resentment for the white workers. We were middle class, some upper middle class, and had never suffered. There were social mores that we didn’t understand.”
While in Mississippi, I in stayed the home of Mrs. Irene McGruder. There were three to five us staying there at any one time and we paid her $10 a week. For that we got a bed. We were to make our beds. She made “dinner” every day. In the South, dinner was your midday meal. The main meal in the evening was “supper.” Mrs. McGruder would fix dinner and leave it on the stove. There was always what she called “pan bread” that she made in a skillet. Most people today would call it cornbread. And she’d cook a meat – usually pork chops, hamburger, fried chicken and two or three vegetables. She was a good cook.
Mrs. McGruder was an old lady then and retired. She owned her own home and took in roomers. When our project director got to her, she said she’d rent to us. She knew doing so would make her a target but she knew the system was evil and had to be challenged. She was a brave woman and she paid the price for it. We lived there about nine months before her home was bombed.
There was friendship and camaraderie between workers but there was also tension. There was a degree of hostility between Black and white. The Black workers had a degree of resentment for the white workers. We were middle class, some upper middle class, and had never suffered. There were social mores that we didn’t understand. There were things that we did and said that were offensive to Black people. We were cohesive, though, around the violence. We were all young and scared shitless but we didn’t ever really get over our personality and social differences.