The public event “Letters Home From Freedom Summer: Confronting Racism in America” was held in conjunction with the multimedia exhibition "Oh Freedom Over Me."
A capacity crowd filled Antioch College’s Herndon Gallery for a July 15 public reading of a selection of moving letters written by some of the students who volunteered in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project.
The young people who participated in “Letters Home From Freedom Summer: Confronting Racism in America” read personal stories of triumph and struggle while surrounded by large-scale images from the exhibition “Oh Freedom Over Me.”
“Reading from these letters humanizes the exhibition that’s here,” said Tom Sain ’08, one of the readers.
Sarah Buckingham ’08, another reader, called the experience “powerful and moving,” while Erin Winter ’07 remarked on the importance of the first-hand accounts to understanding such a significant period in American history.
That sort of introspection was the point of “Letters Home From Freedom Summer,” an event organized by Anne Bohlen and Jean Gregorek, Arthur E. Morgan Fellows at Antioch College.
Strength of Convictions
“I think that the letters from Mississippi underscore and resonate with contemporary events such as the documented voting irregularities in recent elections that disenfranchised African-American voters and others; the increase in hostile rhetoric aimed at immigrants and other minorities; and the growth of the prison industrial complex,” Bohlen said.
For an hour-and-a-half, and in seamless succession, readers Sain, Buckingham, Winter, Shane Creeping Bear, Molly Finch (photographed), Belle-Pilar Fleming, Rose Pelzl and Dylan Rauch read selections from Letters From Mississippi, a 1965 volume edited by Elizabeth Sutherland-Martinez.
Letter writer Edna wrote in June of 1964: “It’s funny, you know, to come from a place where the police are expected to protect you into one where either you’re not sure or else you know very well they’re against you.”
In a letter to her parents explaining why she chose to undertake this dangerous project, Bonnie writes: “There comes a time when you have to do things which your parents do not agree with. Convictions are worthless in themselves. In fact, if they don’t become actions, they are worse than worthless.”
Another letter writer records his training with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leadership: “As Robert Moses told us: When you’re not in Mississippi, it’s not real and when you’re there, the rest of the world isn’t real.”
Echoes in the Present
In 1961, only about 6% of African-Americans were able to register to vote in Mississippi, the lowest percentage in the nation. That year, SNCC began campaigns against Mississippi's segregated public facilities and a grueling county-by-county voter registration drive.
These intrepid SNCC field secretaries, along with their local supporters, faced massive resistance from elected officials, repeated jailings, beatings, threats from the pro-segregation police forces, and bombings and shootings from a revived Ku Klux Klan.
In the spring of 1964, to draw attention to the Mississippi’s lawlessness and thereby trigger the conscience of the nation, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) invited hundreds of northern college students to Mississippi to participate in voter registration drives, organize community centers, and teach in the Freedom Schools.
The summer of 1964 was the most violent in Mississippi’s history since Reconstruction: 65 churches and homes bombed, 35 shooting incidents, 80 activists beaten, and at least six murders, including the highly-publicized murders of volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Micky Schwerner.
The typical northern volunteer to Freedom Summer was 21 years old, white, affluent, and enrolled at a prestigious college, Gregorek explained. Forty percent were women. The largest numbers were from New York and California. Some Antioch College students participated in Freedom Summer, and an even greater number did their Co-ops with SNCC in the South in the 1960s.
“Our intention in organizing this reading is not only to give people the opportunity to reflect back on the dramatic events in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, but also to become more attuned to its echoes in the present,” Gregorek said. “Our hope is that listening to these echoes can help us all recognize, analyze, and combat our current manifestations of systematic equalities and infringements of human rights.”