Edited by Elizabeth Sutherland
"They were called "the volunteers":
650 young people, mostly Northerners and mostly white and mostly students.
They were the largest single group of the many people who went to Mississippi
in the summer of 1964. They were the nonprofessionals. The kids. And they
wrote the letters that make up this book.
Most of them knew why they wanted to go
to Mississippi before they left home or school to join the project. Some
found out at the orientation sessions held in Ohio, Tennessee and other
nearby states. Some learned the best reasons in Mississippi itself. And
perhaps a few understood only when they had left.
All of them realized that the eyes of the
nation were fixed upon their undertaking: from almost every side came
the voices of skepticism as well as admiration. Hostility was not limited
to white Mississippians like Mayor Allen Thompson of Jackson, who stood
ready to greet the "invaders" with his specially built tank
and riot squads.
The first contingent of volunteers - about
250 strong - poured in from all parts of the country for orientation at
Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio during the weekend of June 13-14.
A second orientation period began the following week when the first group
...In these surroundings the volunteers spent a week learning how to avoid
being beaten or killed."(Elizabeth Sutherland)
Dear family and friends, June 18
Sunday evening, the first program was a solemn memorial service for Medgar
Evers conducted by Ed King, a native Mississippian who is Methodist chaplain
and dean at Tougaloo - the Negro college outside of Jackson. Monday morning
King led off the first session with a run-down of some of the factors
which contribute to making Mississippi a police state. ...He told about
the techniques the White Citizens Council, which receives state funds,
has used to keep control of the state. No politician can afford to be
a moderate. Three were voted out recently for voting against an extreme
piece of anti-Negro legislation. In the past six years over 60 Methodist
ministers have been forced out of the Southern half of the state alone.
Merchants who meet the terms of the civil rights groups are economically
coerced to change or leave. All widely read newspapers simply deny the
white guilt for violence and usually ignore incidents entirely. National
news on TV is interrupted by local commercials or by saying, "The
following is an example of biased untrue Yankee reporting. " King
says that he sees how there can be some truth to the contention that many
Germans didn't know about the treatment of the Jew under Hitler.
Next Bob Moses talked to us in his quiet, reasoned manner about the project
and the situation in various parts of the state. Bob warned us that we
are all victims of the plague of prejudice but must not make the mistake
that the authorities in Camus' Plague made by resisting the recognition
of the disease because recognition would have made action necessary...He
said that the mere fact of our spending the summer in Negro homes would
be a very important victory. It is also hoped that we, through our connections
back home will give the project more projection, and bring the Justice
Department into Mississippi in a bigger way....
Dear John and Cleo, June 18
....The director of the Summer Project, as you probably know, is Bob Moses.
He is about thirty, married to a Negro girl, comes, I think, from New
York, but has been a SNCC staff worker in Mississippi for some time. He
is a careful thinker, expresses himself with great economy and honesty,
and with every word one is amazed at the amount of caring in the man.
He is more or less the Jesus of the whole project, not because he asks
to be, but because of everyone's reaction to him. (I forgot so say, he's
a Negro.) He has a very intelligent face, wears glasses, blue denim overalls...
He was not in the least dynamic, but he forced you by what he said and
by his manner of saying it, to want to partake of him, to come to him.
He was not in any way outgoing, yet when he spoke you felt close to him.
Dear People, June 18
All around the campus swarm reporters and photographers....They are not
here to watch the SNCC staff; as Bob Moses said in a speech the first
morning, the press is interested in the students, not the staff, and not
the people of Mississippi..Look Magazine is searching for the ideal naive
northern middle-class white girl. For the national press, that's the big
story. And when one of us gets killed, the story will be even bigger.
....But the big story ought to be Life in Mississippi. If that life is
ugly, then its creators must be villains, and those who endure must be
beautiful....The purpose of this summer's program is to spotlight oppressed
Mississippi; if northern college students dominate the spotlight, the
project will, in large measure, have failed.
"At Oxford, (around June 21st) Mrs. Rita Schwerner announced to
the new group of volunteers that her husband Michael was missing in Philadelphia,
Mississippi together with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, a New Yorker
who had just arrived (in Philadelphia, Mississippi) after attending the
first orientation session."
"The last night of orientation for the second group at Oxford arrived.
The first bus stood waiting to leave; the volunteers traveled at night
so as to arrive in Mississippi during the daytime. There was little doubt
in anyone's mind that the missing three were dead.
Jim Forman of SNCC spoke, and then Bob Moses." (Elizabeth Sutherland)
Dear Sue, June 26
...Must write-thoughts are going crazy. Bob Moses just told us now is
the time to back out. Should I? I don't know-I am scared shitless. I don't
want to go to Mississippi. Why? It is because I am scared or because the
program isn't for me? No, program is good-people are dedicated-means of
project conforms with the end says mario. Civil Rights Bill won't help-people
are being killed-got to help....
Dear Dad, June 27
...Before the first bus pulled out last night Bob Moses, his head hanging,
his voice barely audible, tried to tell us what he feels about being responsible
for the creation of situations in which people get killed. His only rationales
(and obviously they don't satisfy him) are that he asks no one to risk
what he himself will not risk and that people were getting killed for
similar reasons before Civil Rights workers became active. Looking at
us sitting in the same room where the 3 missing men had been last week,
Moses almost seemed to be wanting all of us to go home.
...He talked of the problem of good and evil...of a book which is one
of my greatest favorites, a rather unknown book by the Englishman, J.R.R.
Tolkien, The Lord of the RIng...the hero gains a means of ultimate power
which he does not want. Yet this power becomes a necessity to him until
in the end he is unable to yield it voluntarily, and in a very great sense,
he must sacrifice that which is best in himself.
....He talked about how when you spend all your times fighting evil, you
become preoccupied with it and terribly weary. There may be more people
killed this summer, but that won't in any way deter us from what we are
trying to do. Negroes who have challenged authorities in Mississippi have
always been harassed or killed and we're trying to change that, not succumb
to it. We're going to do the job we have to do.
....Then Bob talked directly to the freedom school teachers. He begged
them to be patient with their students. There's a difference between being
slow and being stupid, he said. The people you will be working with aren't
stupid, he said. But they're slow, so slow.
He finished, stood for a moment, then walked out the door. Inside the
auditorium there was total silence. Finally, from far in the back, a single
girl's voice started to sing: "They say that freedom is a constant
The entry of the volunteers into Mississippi-mostly by bus and singing
together on the way-was very different from the first lonely trip made
there by Bob Moses four years earlier. Mississippi was almost virgin territory
then. Civil rights workers hadn't even tried to enter the state until
1952; the first "agitator" was shot and killed, the second was
shot and run out of the state. Moses' foray turned out to be the seed
of the Mississippi Summer Project. Between August, 1961, and the fall
of 1963, voter registration workers-mainly from the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee-spread into several parts of the state. That November,
a Freedom Vote took place in which 80,000 disenfranchised negroes cast
their ballots for their own candidates in a mock state election which
demonstrated that they would vote if they could. Students from Yale and
Stanford came down to work on the Freedom Vote, thus extending civil rights
work into seven more counties and establishing a successful precedent
for the 1964 volunteers. After a long winter and spring of analysis, debate,
recruitment, confusion and scrambling for funds, the Summer Project of
1964 finally began. Over 1,000 people entered the state of Mississippi.
...The mechanics of the project's administration bewildered more than
a few observers. Nominally, it was run by COFO-the Council of Federated
Organizations - a Mississippi-based union of local groups,SNCC, CORE,
King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Mississippi State
Conference of NAACP branches.
...In actuality, SNCC and CORE did almost the entire job. Mississippi's
five Congressional districts were divided between those two organizations,
with SNCC staffing and financing the work in four of them. Of the 100
staff members on the Summer Project, 76 were from SNCC. Robert Moses of
SNCC was the director of the project and Program Director for COFO; Dave
Dennis from CORE held the post of Assistant Program Director.
The Summer Project was a five-pronged assault on the status quo:
1)voter registration and organization of the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic
Party; 2)the Freedom Schools; 3) community centers; 4) the white community
project; 5) Federal programs research (to see how Negroes might obtain
aid under existing or potential government arrangements). ...The largest
number of volunteers were assigned to what they called VR-voter registration.
They had two, simultaneous tasks: to help Negroes register in the conventional
way, and to help build up the Freedom Democratic Party, a new political
organization designed to give a voice to disenfranchised Negro voters.
Dear friends, July 3
The county Sheriff and the chief of police asked us to go down to the
police station to register. ... We were told that we are uninvited guests
in the county-which remark was challenged by one of the workers who reminded
the chief of police that we had been invited by the Negro citizens of
the county, if not by the whites. This would seem to constitute a rather
good invitation as the county is 72% Negro...
Moss Point July 9
On Monday night we had a mass meeting, and the fifth district director,
Lawrence Guyot, gave a terrific speech. The gist of his speech was that
people say Moss Point is an easy area, "we have nice white folks
here, " that everyone has what they want already. But we don't have
such nice white folks here, he said, and even if we did it shouldn't make
us apathetic, it should make us want to take advantage of that extra little
space.. He kept saying, "What will it take to make you people move?
A rape? A shooting? A murder? What will it take?
At the very end of the meeting we were singing the last verse of
"We Shall Overcome", 300 people in a huge circle. Suddenly there
were gunshots, and all these people including me, hit the floor in a wave...A
few seconds later we all got up trembling. A car of whites had gone by
the road outside and fired three shots through the open door. One Negro
girl was hit in the side. She is in the hospital and is going to be all
right, but nobody knew that at the time. ...That night, the police arrested
five Negro men. No white men! These five had gone home for their guns
and gone out to see if they could find the car from the description given.
They saw what they thought to be the car....The five stopped at a gas
station to tell some policemen what had happened. The police searched
them, arrested them on charges of carrying "concealed weapons"
and never followed the suspicious car...
Biloxi, August 16
In the Freedom School one day during poetry writing, a 12 year old girl
handed in this poem to her teacher:
What is Wrong?
What is wrong with me everywhere I go
No one seems to look at me.
Sometimes I cry.
I walk through woods and sit on a stone.
I look a the stars and I sometimes wish.
Probably if my wish ever comes true,
Everyone will look at me.
Then she broke down crying in her sister's arms. The Freedom School here
had given this girl the opportunity of meeting someone she felt she could
express her problems to...
Interaction between the classroom and life, education and politics came
to a climax at the Freedom School Convention in Meridian on August 7-9.
Dear Mom, Dad and kids... Biloxi, August 16
The purpose of the convention was to formulate a youth platform
for the Freedom Democratic Party, and the kids did a fantastic job of
it. Each school sent three student representatives- about 120 in all-
and a coordinator. There were eight different committees, each concerning
a different area of legislation: jobs, schools, federal aid, foreign affairs,
voting, housing, public accommodations, health. Sometimes the committee
discussions were long and even bitter, particularly on foreign aid where
a demand to boycott Cuba and all countries that trade with Cuba was adopted
but then finally voted out in the general session. Resolutions in favor
of land reform were voted down because they were considered too socialistic,
but there is a history of Negroes' land being taken away from them here
that was the basis of these vetoes. The kids really learned something
from the convention; for the first time, Negro students from all over
the state same together to discuss their common aims...
Love to all,
A Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Freedom House in Canton, in Hattiesburg
a visiting Rabbi and two volunteers were severely beaten. ...The Shaw
project workers learned of a bombing plot was whites surrouned their office.
The next day in beautiful old Natchez, a Baptist and a Methodist church
were destroyed by fire-two of five Negro churches burned to the ground
The week of July 6 showed that while there were relatively "good"
and "bad" areas, violence could explode anywhere...
Each of the incidents had something to teach the volunteers about the
attitude of Mississippi police and the pattern of law enforcement. In