This past June, civil rights veteran and Freedom Summer volunteer George Albertz took six high school students to the “Freedom 50” conference, a gathering to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer in 1964.
“Is this America?” That was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s question about Mississippi fifty years ago. The heart and soul of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and a powerful speaker and singer, Hamer was elected a Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party (MFDP) delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City which took place at the end of Freedom Summer, 1964. Hoping to unseat the regular Mississippi Democratic delegates to the convention because they had been unfairly chosen by a white-only political system, MFDP delegates testified before the Credentials Committee about the white supremacist regime of terror that kept black people from voting.
In many ways, the Mississippi of fifty years ago was not part of America. The Confederate – not the American – flag was flown. A huge segment of the population (black people) was excluded from public and civic office. Any black person daring to question the status quo faced immediate and serious consequences: the loss of their job, eviction from their home, harassment of their relatives, and often death.
It was against this backdrop that young civil rights workers set up headquarters in the state, hoping to achieve change by registering black Mississippians to vote. By bringing Northern college students – black and white – into the state for a summer, they hoped to focus the awareness of the country on the situation. I felt a responsibility to answer the call for students to come down because I had had the nerve to ask my relatives living in Germany during WWII if they had done anything to stop the Nazis. Now the finger was pointing at me.
In 1964, I was part of the second group to leave for Mississippi after a week-long training session at a college in Ohio. The first thing that confronted us when we arrived for training was the disappearance of COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, who had traveled to Mississippi two days before. Those familiar with the situation in Mississippi guessed they had been murdered, but it was not until the end of the summer, when their bodies were found buried deep inside a newly-constructed earthen dam, that this could be confirmed. The fear and uncertainty surrounding their fate – and the knowledge that their fate could well become ours – hung heavy in the oppressive delta heat all summer.
I brought a car down to Greenwood, where I was stationed, and spent most of the summer driving volunteers and local black people around the city and surrounding area. Local whites would drive up next to me in their pickups with gun racks, roll down the window, and tell me what they were going to do when they got their hands on me. Or they would bump my car from the rear and then have me arrested for reckless driving. They certainly succeeded in making me nervous. I was arrested three times in the same week, my car windshield was smashed one night, and I was stopped once at midnight on a quiet country road near Canton, returning from a Movement event with a young black man as my passenger. Although I thought the moment had come for us to pay the ultimate price, the policeman merely heaped verbal abuse on us then let us go. By that time the FBI had set up a field office in Mississippi, and even though they made it clear to us that we could not expect any protection from them, I think the Ku Klux Klan were beginning to realize they no longer had complete freedom to act.
Far more than us volunteers, the local black people who took us white, Northern “outside agitators” into their homes were the ones who were truly risking everything. They had faced generations of violent oppression and would of course be left to face white Mississippi’s wrath long after we were gone. These were people of great courage and determination, fueled by their deep faith in Jesus. Experiencing their solidity and spirit was one of the defining aspects of the summer. Of these local people, Fannie Lou Hamer was able to most powerfully give voice to their sufferings and the urgent need for change. She also understood that a system that enslaves one group of people ultimately enslaves all. As she famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Fifty years later, Mississippi (and the South and the rest of our nation) is still working out exactly what that change means. Attending the Freedom 50 conference, we realized how much Mississippi has changed: public racial segregation is no more; Mississippi has more black local elected officials than any other state, American flags fly in place of Confederate, Civil Rights photos are exhibited at the Mississippi State Historical Museum, and historic markers have been placed at sites significant to the Civil Rights struggle, including the place at the side of a deserted gravel road where it is believed the murders of the three COFO workers took place.
Mississippi now has an Institute for Racial Reconciliation whose work consists of advocating for positive social change in partnerships with local communities wanting to achieve fuller cooperation between the races. Former Mississippi Governor William Winter, who founded the Institute, recently told a crowd of white Mississippians, “If you asked me what were the most important things that happened in Mississippi in my lifetime, I would unhesitatingly tell you that it was the elimination of racial segregation in the 1960s.” Additionally, learning about Civil Rights Movement history is now part of the required curriculum for all K–12 Mississippi students, and “A New History of Mississippi” has just been published, re-examining the past and including those who were previously excluded.
At the same time, tremendous inequalities do still exist in Mississippian society. It could be said that the divide now separates rich and poor. The fact that most of Mississippi’s wealthy are white and most of its impoverished are black must have its roots in historic racial segregation. Yet how can equal educational opportunities be offered when funding is routinely diverted from public schools (the poor) to private academies (the rich)?
How can children imagine a just society when they grow up in the abject poverty we witnessed in the ghettos of Jackson and Greenwood? The tumble-down, boarded-up shacks, often less than a quarter mile away across the railroad tracks from upper-middle-class mansions with three car garages and perfectly manicured front yards, must be one of the crassest examples of the class divide in America today. Isn’t it a form of class warfare when Mississippi politicians decide not to expand Medicaid with federal funding to these poorest of Americans?
Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
-Fanny Lou Hamer
There is still much to be accomplished in Mississippi – and in many parts of our nation, as Ferguson, Missouri, has shown us. We need a new movement that will speak up and effect change on behalf of our poorest citizens. Where are the leaders of today who have the insight necessary to unite groups and individuals nationwide around a single cause? Where are the songs that will carry it forward? Where, most of all, is the deep faith and morality that will see it to fruition? I believe Mississippi, with its history, the change it has already experienced, and its ongoing challenges, could pave the way for America and stand at the forefront of such a struggle.
But change means sacrifice. Where are those willing to give unreservedly of their time, their strength, their lives? I pray that young people of faith will now step up and become part of the peaceful struggle for true brotherhood. As Martin Luther King Jr. said of this struggle, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”