The following reflection was written by Gordon Gibson, a civil rights leader and organizer.
This was originally posted in The Memphis Commercial Appeal here.
Why would people from around the country go to Mississippi, especially in the heat of July?
50 years ago hundreds of people went to Mississippi in June, July, and August to make a difference by joining with local residents to confront the state’s long history of racial discrimination.
This past July, I co-led a small group that went to Mississippi to encounter the history that was made 50 years ago. This is American history, important American history. Unlike the Shiloh Battlefield or Boston’s Freedom Trail, this is history where you can still meet and talk with some of the history-makers and learn about the history involving deep ethical issues of justice and human rights.
For people of religious sensibility, human rights and elemental justice were important in 1964’s “Freedom Summer,” and those values remain important today. The Living Legacy Project and the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice, co-sponsors of our trip, have been organizing such pilgrimages to introduce people to the sites and veterans of the civil rights movement because both organizations have found that these encounters can transform people from being “concerned for human rights” to being workers for human rights.
Those of us on the bus included a range of ages from teens to seventies, a range of knowledge from virtually none to some civil rights participation, and current residence all across the United States. What were some of the people, places, and issues that we encountered?
We heard from people deeply involved in leadership of the Mississippi Summer Project (the actual name of “Freedom Summer”), that there was disagreement then that continues now over bringing in hundreds of volunteers, most of them white college students. Did this disempower local residents who had been working for several years with the three or four dozen full-time civil rights workers in Mississippi? Or did it affirm the local residents by letting them know that they were not alone and isolated? Did the influx of volunteers put local people at greater risk of harassment by making their civil rights activities more obvious, or did it provide them a measure of protection by making any harassment an issue far beyond Mississippi?
We talked with grassroots volunteers like Roscoe Jones. In 1964, Roscoe Jones was 17 years old and had been assigned by Mickey Schwerner to lead the Freedom School in Meridian. Freedom Schools, one of the three main programs of the Summer Project, taught everything from basic literacy and black history to subjects like French. Roscoe Jones told us that, with 300 children and adults, Meridian’s was the largest Freedom School in the state. He spoke clearly to his goal in Freedom Summer (and in his work since): “equality,” and he noted that equality might or might not include integration.
We met the very impressive family of Vernon Dahmer, Sr. They continue to live on family-owned land north of Hattiesburg, and Mrs. Dahmer lives in the house re-built on the site where Mr. Dahmer was fatally injured in a 1966 arson attack by the Klan. Vernon Dahmer, Sr. was a long-time leader in getting members of the local black community registered to vote. The Klan executed him for advocating this bedrock American right, and three of his sons had to come home from military service to bury their father.
The Dahmer family has continued its service to the community (helping to restore an historic Rosenwald School, for example), and has welcomed successful prosecution of the Klan attackers. But it has also forgiven those involved in the attack who have admitted what they did and sought reconciliation.
The list of people and places we encountered in one week could go on: standing in Medgar Evers’ living room, seeing the crumbling remains of the store in Money where 14 year-old Emmett Till ran afoul of “the southern way of life,” honoring the persons and the burial places of James Chaney and Fannie Lou Hamer, listening to the personal accounts of the Rev. Ed King and Hollis Watkins, hearing people tell of the Klan beating of family members at the Mount Zion United Methodist Church near Philadelphia before the church building was burned…
I hope and believe that members of our group learned in their visit to Mississippi that a small group of dedicated people working in harmony with the best of American and religious principles can bring change. And I look forward to hearing from them over coming years of their own work as change agents.