Reflections on Racial Progress in Mississippi:’Freedom Summer’ After Fifteen Years
By Gordon D. Gibson
Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980, pp. 17-19
Mississippi in 1Q64 had long been”the dark hell-hole of the Black experience,” in the words of Prof. William,Strickland of the University of Massachusetts. But in 1964 the Black people of Mississippi and their Black and White allies from all across the country rose up and proved that, even in Mississippi, change is possible. Looking back recently during a four-day symposium, Strickland and many other participants in Mississippi’s 1964 “Freedom Summer” reflected on various facets of change.
The symposium, even with its many flaws, uninvited people or last minute cancellations, was worthwhile. It focused the attention of Freedom Movement veterans (and a few current students who were in nursery school in 1964) on the changes wrought by Freedom Summer and other Movement efforts. One cannot understand the intervening 15 years without some knowledge of this history. One cannot understand the lesson that change is possible and, sadly, still necessary.
If Freedom Summer proved that change, being possible in Mississippi in 1964, is possible anywhere, it also, revealed in retrospect that the changes wrought were tragically insufficient in some respects, astoundingly profound in other respects, and ironic overall.
“What started here woke up the world,” commented Patt Derian, a Mississippi activist and former president of the Southern Regional Council now serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. That theme was repeated over and over by people who had observed the Movement from afar, people who had by 1964 been jailed scores of times in their efforts to bring change, and even people who, in that earlier era, were often viewed as part of the problem.
Yet too many of the changes were cosmetic and superficial rather than structural. The visionary hope had been “to root out evil and to cast out sin in high places,” but most high places remain high, and too many of them are still seriously tainted if not filled with evil and sin. Where improvement was most desperately needed, in the daily conditions of life for poor people, too little has changed, said most symposium participants. Poor people are still poor, and the system which made them poor and keeps them poor was not brought to its knees.
In its location and sponsorship the symposium on “Mississippi’s Freedom Summer Reviewed” mirrored both the great extent and the superficiality of change. The joint sponsorship of Millsaps and Tougaloo Colleges in Jackson, Mississippi, was itself a major advance over 1964 when then lily-white Millsaps would have resisted even the thought of such a conference. Fifteen years later many of the symposium sessions featuring big-name participants wound up being held, not at Tougaloo, the cradle of the Movement, but in the larger and better facilities of Milisaps. Some Milisaps classes were dismissed so that students could attend symposium sessions, while at Tougaloo mandatory class attendance kept many students away. Part of the symposium funding came from the non-profit corporation which is interim operator of Mississippi’s most successful TV station, once a bastion of segregation but is now under the direction of a bi-racial board and the nation’s first Black general manager. All of these changes between 1964 and 1979 are significant turnabouts in orientation, in thought. But being able to hold part of an inter-racial gathering at Millsaps College puts no money in anyone’s pocket. And it was clear that behind the scenes efforts had succeeded in taking away some of the symposium’s radical potential.
It is hard today to celebrate much over riding in the front of the bus, or to explain to a teenager the significance of being allowed into a once-segregated institution without risking one’s
life. Still, one must rejoice in some of the changes that, although not directly sought, have flowed in the succeeding years.
Certainly the out-of-state volunteers of 1964 were changed by Mississippi. Although some SNCC veterans still resent the view that Freedom Summer was a “profound experience” for White college kids, it is true that many people were changed and will never be able to look at America as naively and uncritically as they did before 1964.
Willie Peacock was among those in SNCC who had opposed the use of volunteers in 1964, feeling that it would undercut the strides already made toward self-determination and community organization for change. He stated during the symposium that he still feels he was right, and others also mentioned the many projects dropped or diverted as volunteers poured in for Freedom Summer. Indeed, it would be fatuous to say that the Freedom Movement fulfilled itself by radicalizing White northern college students.
Yet the fact is, as former Congressman Allard Lowenstein and others noted, that the volunteers who came to Mississippi learned and took home more than they brought with them. America is still feeling the repercussions of what was learned.
For example, Mario Savio was among those volunteers going back to California with a challenge from Mississippians to confront at home the forces that supported oppression. In the struggle to raise funds for Mississippi, the Berkeley campus became an early battleground for the student revolution of the mid-60s. A succession of movements and causes – anti-war, feminist, environmental, ethnic, handicapped, gay, elderly, and so on – have evolved, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes competitively, and almost always involving some leadership tested in the crucible of Mississippi in 1964.
Concretely, the 1964 challenge at Atlantic City to the seating of the regular Mississippi delegation has changed how Democratic presidential candidates are selected. Without the rules changes that ensued, can one imagine the McCarthy challenge of ’68 that unseated LBJ, the McGovern or Carter nominations of ’72 and ’76? The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, now itself ,lily a memory, has shaped the Democratic Party (and by reflection the Republican too) ever since 1964.
Although none of these changes were among the goals of Freedom Summer, although few of them have enriched or ennobled Mississippi, they must be reckoned: a generation radicalized, a host of other movements inspired and peopled, a political party changed.
And therein lies some of the irony of change.
“The Movement” as a whole and Freedom Summer in particular caused many changes and forced response to basic human and community needs from the government and foundations, for without some significant response the problems (and the agitation) would have continued unabated. Yet, while Headstart, CETA, Legal Services, community health care, and various other programs that continue to assist Americans, Black and White, may be seen as a lasting legacy of “The Movement”, some symposium participants cast them in a different light. These programs have made life more bearable without making basic changes in social structure. They formed a way for “The Establishment” to tame “The Movement”, to put it on a payroll, to place it under guidelines, rules, and regulations, and to channel its efforts in less radical directions. “The Movement” and “The Establishment” each re-directed the other.
And as Joyce Ladner, now Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, but in 1964 a Tougaloo student, commented during her address opening the symposium, too many careers have been built in the north on the claim, “I marched with Dr. King.” Too many people waited in the wings while the struggle continued at its greatest intensity, but have now claimed center stage. Too many people have walked through doors that others struggled and even died to open. A Black middle class is prospering and increasing while the poor are still with us.
One of the figures who, though absent, was present at the symposium in frequent references, was Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer was poor when she was thrown off a delta plantation for attempting to register to vote. She stayed poor during the years that she worked in SNCC and MFDP. She died, still poor, in 1977, a heroine of the Movement’s successes, but still a victim of its failure to bring deeper change. In 1964, after the Freedom Democratic Party challenge at Atlantic City had been turned back with the offer of two token seats and the promise of future change, Hamer said, “I question America.”
Hamer’s statement still reverberates. After the symposium one still wonders about the changes wrought. Could they have been more far-reaching, more fundamental? Could they have avoided re-direction by “The Establishment’s” response? If Freedom Summer was possible in the Mississippi of 1964, almost anything is possible. If something better is possible, and we don’t have it, are we working toward it?
“I question America,” still, 15 years after Freedom Summer.
Gordon D. Gibson is a free lance writer and pastor of a Unitarian church in Jackson.