Andy Moore tells a fascinating story in his recent Reflector article recounting his summer internship in Meridian, where he worked in a multiracial Freedom Project modeled after the Freedom Summer initiatives in Meridian, Starkville and throughout the state 50 years ago.
Some of his observations bring back memories, sweet and terrifying, of my own experience as a “Freedom Rider” in Starkville in 1964. Like Andy, I grew up in a white community and had much to learn about life on the other side of town. The Freedom School I was part of was located on the hill across from the graveyard on Henderson Street, just North of Mississippi Highway 82. Three of us, two white and one black, lived in a two-room shack without running water. So did all of the black families on the street, which must be why it was called “The Bottom,” even though it was one of the highest points in town.
We activists were harassed and arrested by “the law” for silly things like improper parking and an endless list of imagined traffic infractions. But those who survived to tell the tale were the lucky ones. My worst experience was informing parents of slain civil rights workers, Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner, that their sons were missing and likely victims of foul play. I have never been able to escape the excruciating memory of those conversations.
As Andy described, we probably learned at least as much as the children to whom we taught crafts, poetry and black history. While helping adults who came to us for training on voter registration, we all learned that the local registrar had the leeway to fail a black college professor while passing an illiterate white applicant.
The Freedom Schools were the community outreach tools of our movement, but the tools that really facilitated change were those of leadership development and respect for the black community’s own self-determination. This approach is what stood us apart from the paternalism that justified both segregation and a value system that proclaimed white superiority.
Students and faculty at MSU will gain greater insight into the “bad old days” by attending the conference, “Remembering Freedom Summer: Building a Better Future,” Oct. 19-21 at the Colvard Student Union. The conference is sponsored by Mississippi State’s African American Studies Program.
The campus community can also gain insight on what has changed and what hasn’t by critically examining MSU Public Affairs Director Sid Salter’s recent criticism of Mississippi’s black leaders, whom he labeled “hired or rented guns,” because they support the slogan of the mostly black Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi: “Union Rights are Civil Rights.”
Those who fought for justice 50 years ago fought bias and dodged bullets, risking life and limb. But their most insidious opponent was the white community’s culture of paternalism and the belief that they knew what was best for “their Negroes.” Sadly, as Salter shows with his insulting putdown of today’s black leaders, many white Americans still have a long way to go to shed attitudes of racial superiority.