Summer/Fall 2002

Mississippi Summer
Experiences of a Civil Rights Worker from Wabash

In July 1964, David Kendall ’65, James Bond ’65, and John Moorhouse ’65 traveled to Mississippi to participate in the Freedom Summer Project. Kendall and Bond were assigned to voter registration projects in Hattisburg and Meridian. Moorhouse was assigned to a Freedom School in Jackson. They joined more than 800 volunteers in one of the largest, most publicized civil rights projects of the 1960s. The following is John Moorhouse’s memoir of that summer.

The early 1960s was an exciting and at times dangerous period for participants in the civil rights movement. The Civil Rights Act was about to be passed and the Voters Rights Act was less than a year from becoming law. How significant the Freedom Summer Project was in the passage of the Voters Rights Act is hard to gauge, because, while voter registration was one of the main focuses of the project, the Freedom Summer Project was only one of many voter rights initiatives of the movement in the early 1960s.

It can be difficult for those who did not live through that era to comprehend it. Mississippi was chosen for the Freedom Summer Project because in no other state was a culture of racial discrimination more pronounced, a policy of segregation more manifest, and organized police intimidation of blacks more pervasive. In the 1960s, Mississippi politics meant one party and one race. Its overriding theme was “Segregation now and forever.” Those elected to the highest state and federal offices openly courted support from the Klan and the White Citizens Council. Perhaps most insidious was the endemic threat of violence against blacks.

Those in the movement were fighting state power that was being used systematically to deny blacks equal educational opportunities; access to better jobs, housing, and public transportation; and the right to vote. Institutional racism then meant the force of law. We had come to Mississippi to tear down those institutions that denied blacks equality and the full rights of citizenship.

The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was the umbrella organization overseeing the Freedom Project. COFO was a loose confederation made up principally of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Mississippi NAACP. Conspicuous by its absence was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The architect of COFO was Robert (Bob) Moses, an intense, black, Harvard graduate who had gone to Mississippi in 1961 to organize black voter registration. His work in Greenwood led to his vision of a statewide project involving hundreds of volunteers. Unlike other civil rights projects, the Freedom Summer Project did not employ the tactics of demonstrations, civil disobedience, or direct confrontation.

COFO sponsored three activities: voter registration, Freedom Schools, and the Freedom Democratic Party. Bob Moses’ experience as a civil rights worker led
him to take a long-run perspective. He meant to change “the system” in Mississippi and that meant ending the disenfranchisement of nearly half of the state’s adult population, improving educational opportunities for black youngsters, and building a viable alternative to the corrupt state Democratic Party. While he did not work alone, Bob Moses gave COFO its operating philosophy.


The agenda of the three-day orientation at Tougaloo College included general meetings and specialized sessions. The general meetings covered the purposes of the Summer Freedom Summer Project, the recent history of the movement in Mississippi, our legal status, and security. At an early general session, we were asked to introduce ourselves. When a young man identified himself as a student at Millsaps College in Jackson, he was given a hearty round of applause, for not many white Mississippians were involved in the project. The other volunteers in my discussion group included a chemistry professor from Oregon, a legal secretary from Chicago, a school teacher from Vermont, a graduate student in biology from California, an economics instructor at the University of Wisconsin, and undergraduates from Iowa State, Swarthmore, Reed, and Yale.

For project-specific orientation, the 120 volunteers in attendance were divided into two groups: those assigned to voter registration projects and those of us assigned to Freedom Schools. Black churches all over the state donated space for the Freedom Schools. , COFO scheduled two school sessions, each lasting three weeks, with the first beginning July 7 and the second August 5. Classes met Monday through Friday and lessons focused on English, mathematics, and black history. Instructional materials, which included mimeographed course outlines, lists of discussion questions, and essays, were distributed. These scant materials were a place to start, but they could not sustain a whole course. We were encouraged to go to local black school libraries and branch public libraries for books upon which to base readings and discussions.

Much of our discussion at orientation was sobering, yet volunteers had reason to be optimistic because of the pending passage of the Civil Rights Act and because Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House. Project organizers did sound a note of caution, however. By summer's end we were all less optimistic. For example, soon after the Civil Rights Act was passed in July, a voter registration suit was brought in Mississippi. In dismissing the suit, federal judge W. Harold Cox was quoted in the Jackson Daily News as saying, “I am not interested in whether the registrar is going to give a registration test to a bunch of niggers on a voter drive.” Judge Cox was President John F. Kennedy’s first appointment to the federal bench.

Security was the top priority for those involved in voter registration. Unlike the volunteers at Freedom Schools, who worked within a community and moved around very little, those working on voter registration traveled frequently. They often called on black families in rural areas. Traveling between towns in rural Mississippi was especially dangerous for civil rights workers that summer. Keeping track of volunteers was essential for their safety. Standard procedures required workers to avoid traveling alone
or at night, to learn the locations of safe houses, and to call project headquarters as soon as they arrived at their destination and when they were about to leave. Communications
were improved, for at least some volunteers, when it was announced that the Chrysler Corporation had donated six new sedans complete with two-way radios. In two days we had come to cheer every measure of support. To protect residents who provided volunteers with housing, COFO set up a central mail drop at 852_ Short Street. I lived on Center Street, but never used that address for either incoming or outgoing mail.

All the talk about security made us apprehensive. Not two weeks before, on June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, had disappeared while driving between Philadelphia and Meridian. Only later did we learn that they had been arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price of Neshoba County, “released”, and subsequently lynched. An anonymous tip led to the discovery of their bodies on August 4. In December Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, his deputy Cecil Price, and 19 others were arrested on a federal warrant for violating the civil rights of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. The charges were dropped a week later. Another three years passed before Federal charges were reinstated and Deputy Price and six others were convicted.

The comments of an FBI agent at orientation provided no reassurance. His message: The FBI is an investigative agency that does not and cannot provide protective services. We were advised to rely on local and state police and the Sheriff Raineys of Mississippi for protection! A solemn group of volunteers left the next morning for our assigned projects. Orientation impressed me with the seriousness and potential significance of the Freedom Summer Project, the minimal resources available, and the energy, courage, and organizational ability of project leaders.


I had arrived in Jackson by bus a day before orientation. From the bus station, in downtown Jackson, I took a cab to 1017 Lynch Street, COFO headquarters. The building
was a ramshackle, cement block structure, complete with peeling paint and large front windows, some of which wore protective plywood. At one time the building had housed a store, then a black radio station. At headquarters I checked in and was given my housing and Freedom School assignments.

During my stay in Jackson, I frequented headquarters because that is where volunteers could get the news and hear the gossip. During a visit, I recall stacking boxes of brochures and booklets from the American Communist Party. Gus Hall, the head of the party, and his associates seriously misunderstood our work in Mississippi. As far as I know, the boxes were never opened after the initial check of their contents.

While at headquarters I first heard criticism of the SCLC. Only two SCLC workers participated in the Freedom Summer Project and it was said that they were there in order to keep tabs on COFO. Because COFO was so short of cash, the lack of promised
support from national civil rights groups was a frequent topic. On that account alone, the SCLC received criticism. Some speculated that the reason the SCLC was not participating in the Freedom Summer Project was that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tactics -- demonstrations, marches, and non-violent actions -- did not lend themselves to the protracted projects envisioned by Bob Moses. As a consequence, there was no natural alliance between COFO and the SCLC. Others opined that Dr. King might not wish to jeopardize his newly acquired political foothold in Washington. Official Washington had made known its displeasure with the “massive summer invasion” of Mississippi. In retrospect, it is ironic that as President Kennedy began cultivating Dr. King in the early 1960s, the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was authorizing FBI wiretaps of Dr. King’s home and office telephones. None of us knew about that at the time, of course.

The Robertses

Upon my return from orientation, Helen and Cornelius Roberts, a retired couple living on the north side of town, took me in. The Robertses lived in a modest frame house,
attended the neighborhood AME Church, which was the center of their spiritual and social life, and had raised a son and daughter and put them through college. I learned that when their pastor had asked members of the congregation to provide accommodations for summer civil rights workers, the Robertses were first in line.

My roommate was Allard A. Alliston, a junior at Yale from Washington, DC. Allard was a thin black man who was well versed on the American civil rights movement and had seen much more of the world than I had. Though articulate, Allard spoke infrequently at volunteer meetings; however, his self-assurance allowed him to move easily among people and to gain their attention when he did speak. Although we worked at the same Freedom School, I saw relatively little of Allard, as he was often away working on other projects. On weekends, Allard spent time with a crowd of volunteers his age while I socialized with a group of older volunteers. He went dancing; I drank beer, Mississippi’s own Pearl Beer, at a local bar and grill. For me, those were fabulous evenings of serious and lighthearted conversation -- black and white together.

As adults know, college-age males are ravenous. Allard and I were no exceptions. We ate most of our meals at the Robertses. All summer Mrs. Roberts’ garden supplied us with tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, sweet corn, and okra. Although we each made a modest contribution to the weekly food budget, I later came to realize what a sacrifice the Robertses made just to feed us. One Sunday the Robertses invited Allard and me to attend church with them. During the service the minister called upon us to stand while he showered us with outrageous and unfounded praise. The attention embarrassed both Allard and me, but the Robertses plainly enjoyed the fuss.

My most vivid recollections of living with the Robertses, however, are of the evenings spent on the front porch of the small house. Mr. Roberts, and less frequently Mrs. Roberts, and I sat for hours talking. We adjourned to the porch to escape the heat stored up in the house during the day. Helen Roberts was a tall dignified woman who talked mostly about her children and her church, though rarely of religion. She was proud of her son, who was a medical school student in the Midwest, and her daughter a teacher in the black public school system of Mississippi.

Cornelius Roberts was a huge man with a friendly face. He must have stood six-four and weighted over 275 pounds. What little hair he had was tightly curled and gray. Mr. Roberts talked about being in the Navy during World War I. He and his mates were cooks. These black men were largely segregated from the rest of the crew. They ate and bunked together in a lower level of the bow. The constant and pronounced rolling motion of the sea makes this the least desirable quarters on ship. These men were never given fighting assignments, but instead cooked for the “real” sailors.

Mr. Roberts enjoyed reminiscing about hunting and fishing when he was younger. He explained that it was foolish for a black man to attempt to hunt on state game lands in Mississippi, because police and game wardens used every pretext to arrest blacks carrying firearms on game lands. As an alternative Mr. Roberts and his friends leased private farmland for hunting. “White farmers like our green money,” he observed. Though he did not hunt anymore, Mr. Roberts’ shotgun stood in the corner of his bedroom where it provided a measure of security.

Mr. Roberts spent most of his working life in the U.S. Postal Service. One benefit of his having been in the Navy was a leg-up on the civil service examination. Yet throughout a long career, he was never promoted off the docks where he wrestled with sacks of mail. From the mid-1920s until the mid-1960s, few blacks were promoted in the Jackson Post Office. As he talked of things past on that front porch during those summer evenings, Cornelius Roberts seemed neither bitter nor resigned. To the contrary, he remained hopeful that things would change and people would finally be judged according to merit.

The School

Our Freedom School was located in the basement of the AME Church that the Robertses attended. There were six teachers and our first task was to canvass the neighborhood for students. In two days we enrolled approximately 50 students from the eighth to the twelfth grades, the vast majority of whom were female. Classroom sessions, punctuated by recesses, ran from 8:00 to 1:00. After lunch, some students would come back for softball games or informal discussions. We rarely met any of the parents of our students. Understandably many people in the community gave our school a wide berth. The problem was inherent to the Freedom Summer Project. Residents knew that
volunteers would be in Mississippi for six to eight weeks and then return to school or their jobs “up north.” Mississippians who cooperated with us would remain and, there-fore, could be subjected to overt or subtle retribution. None of us were unmindful of this.

Each teacher had from eight to ten students. I was assigned Black History, a subject I was ill prepared to teach. An early task was to secure books for my students. There was no public library branch in the neighborhood, but students informed me of the location of the nearby middle school. The school librarian became quite flustered when I asked for assistance in selecting books on black history and in checking them out. She called the principal who informed me that as a non-resident I was not entitled to use the library. His argument, of course, made sense. In addition, he and the librarian had nothing to gain and, perhaps, something to lose by assisting me. I now assume that the principal had been warned about cooperating with anyone from the nearby Freedom School. In the end, by going back to the school the next day with several neighborhood students and a black volunteer, I was able to secure half dozen books that proved useful.

I experienced a related phenomenon in an even more vivid incident. After being in Jackson for a week, I wanted to find a laundry where I could have my clothes washed. Mrs. Roberts gave me directions. The moment I entered the small, cement block building, I saw dread in the expression of the woman behind the counter. She recoiled when I spoke because she apparently could not believe that some white man had brought his clothes there to be washed. The rare appearance of white males in that neighborhood usually brought trouble of one sort or another. The woman went into the back and got her husband. After I explained who I was and what I wanted, both relaxed and the woman took my clothes. I used that laundry the rest of the summer. Neither had heard anything about the Freedom School and I could tell that they hoped its presence in the middle of their neighborhood would not lead to trouble. I had never experienced someone becoming so alarmed by me simply because of my race. I will never forget the incident.

Living in the neighborhood brought new concerns. For example, one afternoon as I walked home from school, I was alerted when a group of white males drove past. They had not gone a block before pulling over to the curb. Four men immediately bailed out of the car and came running toward me. I retreated along the sidewalk and then cut through several yards. Watching from behind a garage, I saw them give up the chase and get back into the maroon Chevy. I was badly shaken and took awhile to calm down. That was my most frightening experience in Mississippi.

Unlike in rural areas, overt violence against civil rights workers in Jackson waned during the summer. Workers were still subject, however, to verbal harassment and many to arrest for phony traffic violations. The decline, but not absence, of violence was explained at headquarters as the result of the publicity generated by the wanton murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. That incident brought the three major television networks and a score of newspaper reporters to Jackson. Reporters camped there for the
rest of the summer. Word went out from Governor Paul B. Johnson: Keep cool. No more bad publicity for Mississippi.

Sometimes school sessions seemed long, the students reluctant to talk. And it was always hot, even in the morning. But at other times student observations were eye opening, their discussions lively and candid. Youngsters, who loved their mothers and fathers, expressed mild shame because their parents kowtowed to “the man” as a hedge against job loss, unscheduled rent hikes, or credit problems. They explained that unlike white schools, schools in the separate black school system lacked up-to-date textbooks, science labs, decent libraries, academic counselors, and facilities for showering after gym classes. Or students might ask, “What are you getting out of this?” “Do you have Negro friends?” “Is your family rich?” I rarely gave satisfactory answers to their questions. My students saw that quite plainly, but had forgiving natures. They also surmised that I often was just a chapter ahead of them in some history book. But they knew I worked at night and so overlooked my last-minute preparations. Ravis Scott, Gladys Williams, and Willie Ray, among other students, knew I cared about them and that seemed to made up for my shortcomings. These youngsters were observant and I learned much from them.

In addition to softball, singing was a favorite group activity. No matter the occasion, we always sang two songs made popular by the movement, This Little Light of Mine and
We Shall Overcome. The singing could be quite moving. Compared to the voter registration project, I never became convinced that Freedom Schools generated any
worthwhile long-term benefits, but I did come to believe that the presence of volunteers and their contact with these young people mattered.

One day Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, came by the school and observed classes for an hour. Once the school day was over, he invited several of us to lunch. I remember his enthusiasm for the Freedom Summer Project. In particular, he cited the significance of the voter registration projects around the state and predicted that soon, in many counties, black majority populations would elect local officials. Mr. Evers argued persuasively that the election of black mayors, town council members, and sheriffs and the appointment of police officers, deputies, firemen, and other town employees would materially enhance the welfare of many blacks. He was, of course, correct. Within a decade many blacks were elected or appointed to county and municipal offices across Mississippi and their presence did make a difference.

Though there were no classes on Saturdays, some students would come by the school just to have something to do. But for the most part, weekends were our own. I used the time to prepare for classes and to walk over to the Lynch Street headquarters. On several occasions, project directors arranged for Saturday evening entertainment. A number of individuals and groups volunteered to move around the state and entertain “the troops.” While no fan of folk music, I remember sitting on the ground behind the headquarters building singing along with Pete Seeger. Of the visiting entertainers, he was especially memorable. In addition to leading us in song, Mr. Seeger seemed genuinely interested in our work and asked a number of questions. He was in no hurry to leave and talked late into the night.

On a Saturday afternoon in early August, I walked downtown to look around. I stepped into the state Capitol Building and saw, for the first time in my life, drinking fountains with lettered tiles above them marked “Colored” and “White.” I had, of course, read of such symbols of segregation, but I had never seen with such searing clarity the racial divide that scarred the South. As I turned to walk away, I looked upon two life-sized, black and white photographs of the 1959 and 1960 Miss Americas. Both had been students at Old Miss and both were in the same sorority. The photographs were mounted on two seven-foot sandwich boards and displayed across from each other under the Capitol rotunda. The entire scene seemed surreal. On my way back to the Robertses’, I crossed a major downtown intersection. In the mid-1960s, people still shopped downtown on Saturday. As I looked north on Mill Street, the crowds of shoppers were almost all black and as I looked eastward along Capitol Street, I saw mostly white shoppers. If I had had a camera, one with a wide-angle lens, I could have taken a photograph that, like the drinking fountains, would have documented the poignant reality of segregation.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act brought immediate and not altogether anticipated changes in Jackson. The city padlocked public parks, drained city swimming pools, and closed playgrounds that summer. Better that white children not play in public parks than they swim or hit a ball with black children. To avoid the public accommodation provisions of the Act, restaurants employed several tactics. Some simply closed, others became private clubs, which excluded blacks, and still others removed their chairs. In the latter, blacks and whites might break bread together, but, by heaven, they were not going to be seated when they did!

Summer’s End

In mid-August, several civil rights leaders and a number of politicians visited the state. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, second in command at SCLC; James Farmer, the Head of CORE and who had been in Mississippi much of the summer; and a handful of congressmen stopped by Lynch Street headquarters. With the exception of Mr. Farmer, most were in Mississippi for so short a period as to suggest they came for a photo op. We were sensitive to this because we did not want outsiders, who offered no support throughout the summer, to appear at the eleventh hour in an effort to use the Freedom Summer Project for their own purposes. But with the appearance of politicians, we also knew that summer was almost over and the Freedom Summer Project at an end.

At our school, staffers returned books to the local school library, cleaned the church basement, and said good-bye to students. The latter was hard. As we packed, the news was filled with reports about the credentials fight at the National Democratic Convention, over the seating of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates in lieu of the regular Democratic Party delegates. In the end the Freedom Democratic Party delegates were not seated. They had come to the convention to represent Mississippi and, therefore, rejected Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s compromise to seat three of the 65 as delegates-at-large. The fight lasted three days. Early supporters of seating the entire delegation, including Walter Reuther, President of the United Automobile Workers, Congressman Charles Diggs, Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and Dr. King, all withdrew their support after telephone calls from President Johnson. In his careful orchestration of the convention, the President sought to avoid a major disruption arising from a threatened walkout by five southern state delegations if the Freedom Democrats were seated. Many volunteers were angered by the treatment of “our” delegation.

Project leaders scheduled a daylong debriefing session at Tougaloo College for late August. The purpose was to evaluate the project’s accomplishments and discuss COFO’s future. As it turned out, volunteers had little opportunity to speak. What emerged was a discussion, sometimes heated, by COFO officials. No clear assessment was forthcoming, nor was a vision for the future of COFO outlined. But I missed the real significance of a singular event at that meeting. In the afternoon, a tall, lanky black man dressed in denim overalls and a tee shirt strode to center stage. He used neither the microphone nor the podium. His name was Stokely Carmichael. He proved a powerful orator who condemned the project because, in his view, there was a fatal flaw at its core. The Freedom Summer Project had depended on whites, and whites, he asserted, participated primarily to salve their consciences and then go back home and savor their righteousness. The accusations caught the audience of volunteers completely off guard. While taken aback, I was not unsympathetic to what I interpreted to be his call for more black leaders at the top of the civil rights movement. I heard “more”, but what Stokely Carmichael had said and meant was exclusive black leadership.

The hardest thing for me was saying good-bye to the Robertses, who had been so kind. I have known few people with their moral courage. Early one morning, Mr. Roberts took me to the railroad station where I boarded the Freedom Express, as Illinois Central trains had come to be called.

Stokely Carmichael’s impassioned speech proved a harbinger of the coming struggle to oust whites from leadership roles in the movement. Fourteen months later, in the fall of 1965, I heard the great civil rights activist, Saul Alinsky, shouted down at a meeting on the south side of Chicago. His response to the heckling, “By God, I will not apologize for being born white. My ideas matter, not my race.” That fall I had moved to Evanston to begin graduate school. I also began attending SNCC meetings at the University of Chicago. At the second or third monthly meeting, the head of the chapter unexpectedly asked all white SNCC members to leave and not come back. After a few half-hearted protests, approximately half of us in attendance rose and left. We were no longer welcome because, we were told, the movement had entered a new era.

Perhaps in reaction to the glacial pace of change, a highly visible Black Power movement soon emerged. “Honky” and “Whitey” entered the American lexicon. And that terrible divide widened. It was at this point, I believe, that the American civil rights movement turned its back on the ideals of equality, integration, and a race blind society. The movement came to stand for the proposition that race should matter after all. As I already have suggested, I foresaw none of this that late summer afternoon at Tougaloo College.


What are your thoughts?
Click here to submit feedback on this story.


Return to the table of contents