Do the Right Thing

By  |  March 12, 2015
"Hall Pass. Pinkston High School. Dallas, Texas" by Allison V. Smith "Hall Pass. Pinkston High School. Dallas, Texas" by Allison V. Smith

Lewis Hyde, the author of The Gift, the classic work on the troubled isolation of the artist in America, spent the summer of 1964 in Laurel, Mississippi. “It was the first time I had ever lived in a police state,” he told me recently, “and it was in my own country.” Hyde had just finished his freshman year at the University of Minnesota and had never been in the Deep South before. He taught math and writing to Laurel’s black residents and walked with them to the courthouse, a symbolic gesture, since the registrar would refuse any voter application submitted by an African American. Hyde’s activities were conspicuous in a South that was still segregated and on the alert for outside agitators, but he does not believe he was in any danger of being lynched. “The head of the Ku Klux Klan for the state of Mississippi, Sam Bowers, lived near us,” he said, “and it’s like living on the street where the mafia boss lived. It’s not the place where they’re going to kill somebody.”

Earlier this year, Hyde came to Jackson to visit with others who had lived in Mississippi that summer. There had been nearly a thousand of them, white students at Northern colleges who volunteered to spend a handful of months teaching and canvassing in the most violent province of Dixie. The Mississippi Summer Project was the formal title for this venture, but everyone knows it as Freedom Summer. Late in June, Tougaloo College hosted the surviving volunteers and directors of Freedom Summer for a week of plenary speeches and workshops and toasts. We all do this now and again: seek out those we knew in our younger lives to have our stock of memories vivified and rearranged. Except this was not like most reunions, for people at such events don’t normally talk about the first time they suffered police harassment or were tailed by the Klan, and they don’t screen a movie that was recently made about their experience—like the PBS documentary Freedom Summer—and then discuss the ways in which the film felt authentic or not.

Hyde and I met in one of the tents that had been set up for lunch. He is short and a little portly and has retained much of the inwardness—a polite, brooding quality—that I imagine he possessed in his youth. I asked of all the things he did that summer what he was proudest of. He gave a low chuckle, the sort that indicates a complicated attitude towards the question, and possibly even a dislike of it, and after a pause said, “Showing up. You have to remember, we were young and naive. All this was a little ad hoc and at some level there was no fruit to point at and say, this was our accomplishment. We just did this work. I’m proud of what we did. But I think pride is a sin. To the degree that you’re proud of something there’s also somebody out there being shamed.”

Of the hundreds gathered at Tougaloo I had sought out Hyde because I thought his portrayal of Freedom Summer would be different from most. Summer Project veterans carry a heavy mantle: they changed the world, it is said, opened up voting rights and represented the first throb of counterculture energy. In fact, the mythology surrounding Freedom Summer is so vast that it can take over everything and launch into memory with the power of a kudzu vine. The same lines get parroted, and those who lived it, oddly, sometimes sound as though they are disseminating their own press releases. I wanted to get away from the party line, to go beyond the cliches and tubthumping that accompany ritual celebrations of this kind, to tap into that part of the brain that is free of politicization and not yet overrun by the culture machine. Seriously now, what did it all mean? What was it really like? And Hyde, I thought, would be the one to take me there. But he wasn’t, and that, I could sense, was because he was looking for the same thing.

 

The Mississippi Summer Project was built on a fairly obvious or logical premise: Mississippi would change only if America fixed its attention on the place. Attention would lead to outrage, and outrage to federal coercion. Without that, schools would never be integrated—the state had not complied with the Brown v. Board of Education decision issued a decade earlier—and African Americans would never enjoy basic constitutional guarantees like a fair trial and the right to vote. Yet in execution the premise was almost indefensible, for it was decided the best way to secure America’s attention was to send young people into the slaughterhouse and let the nation look on in horror, as it did when two of the Summer Project’s organizers and one volunteer were slain in Philadelphia, Mississippi, on the first day of the operation, June 21, 1964.

Every volunteer, in theory, was a necessary sacrifice waiting to happen, and that brought the civil rights movement into a territory it had never been in before. Whether the ends justify the means or whether an evil and ruthless system demands a response that is itself morally impure—these questions were absent from the demonstrations that occurred in Greensboro and Birmingham earlier in the 1960s. Those campaigns were never entirely safe, but they were carried out in cities and public spaces before countless onlookers. Plus no one would dispute the righteousness of nonviolent witness. The Summer Project, on the other hand, was calculated; it recruited those who had connections, who could get in touch through their parents with legislators and lawyers, and it would take place in the woods and along the back roads of Mississippi, in the absolute, spectral darkness that befell the state at night. Everyone was briefed on the danger, which raises yet another question (and the Summer Project is like that, can seem at times like an ethical hall of mirrors): Are you still a sacrifice if you assent to your own doom? “I never felt we were being used as pawns,” said David Gelfand, who now makes his home in Oakland. “We needed to get the press into Mississippi, and the way you got the press to cover the state-sponsored terrorism was to have white students being attacked. I agreed with that strategy.”

Gelfand was also assigned to Laurel, and like Hyde he felt safe there, though for a different reason. He boarded with a black family, staying in a two-room house set on cinderblocks, and can remember how his host “sat in a rocking chair in the screened-in front porch with a double barrel shotgun across his legs and a 30–30 behind him. I was not afraid. We were protected.”

Nevertheless Gelfand was beaten that summer, one afternoon when he traveled several miles outside of town. A picnic was held, and he was playing guitar by a pond when three Klansmen stepped out of the woods. One grabbed the instrument and struck Gelfand over the head. He dove deep into the water and a bullet caught him as he swam to the opposite shore. The posse was waiting as he came up, so he paddled back to a briar patch and ran through it to a nearby farmhouse, where he telephoned the FBI. Against the sound of gunfire, for shots were now battering one side of the house, Gelfand heard the agent say he was unauthorized to offer protection. Soon thereafter he fell unconscious. The town’s ambulance refused to fetch him, and finally a hearse owned by a black mortician brought him to the Laurel hospital.

One lesson of the reunion was that there were several Mississippis to be lived through that summer. More than any state, perhaps, it was once an aggregate of localities, each one distinctive, with its own flavor and mores. In Panola County in the northern part of the state, federal overseers had been able to strip the voter registration application of all interpretive questions, the ones about the state constitution, for instance, that would be used to turn away black applicants. As a result the volunteers in Panola, like Jim Kates, who was also at the Tougaloo reunion, registered hundreds of new voters.

Kates is one of the major keepers of Summer Project history; he runs a press in Brookline, Massachusetts, that published Letters from Mississippi, an anthology of correspondence volunteers wrote home that summer. He goes back to Panola often, seeking, as he says, more and more of the backstory, trying to pick up on what he was unaware of then. There is something understandable though restive about the avocation, as though the Summer Project were something he could never exhaust but also never quite grasp. “One of the backstories we just learned the other day,” he said. “We were up in Panola County, our project had a reunion, and were talking to the Rotary Club at the country club, nothing we could have done fifty years ago. One of the white Rotary Club members was fourteen; his sister was fifteen. His father had a small business reconditioning football helmets. He said, My father, one day when all of you guys were down in line in front of the courthouse, picked my sister and me up and brought us down to the square and dropped us off and said, You want to see this; this is history in the making.”

Still, what Kates marvels at five decades later is not the roll of new voters or the history that was made but the gulf, as he put it, between “the changes we thought we were making and the changes that occurred.” He remembers a reunion in Panola County thirty years ago when Robert Miles, the leader of the local movement, said, “‘Look, we got a McDonald’s now, we wouldn’t have been able to have a McDonald’s without integration.’ And what I was thinking to myself was hey, we were working for the beloved community, and we got McDonald’s? Is that a win or a loss? Weigh that one up.”

Unforeseen consequences occurred at the time too, notably in the freedom schools, as they were called, which had a curriculum unlike any the South had ever seen. Howard Kirschenbaum taught in the one in Moss Point and asked his students to write simple stories in the manner of Langston Hughes. He sent them to the poet, who wrote a note of thanks to every child. Mark Levy, another New Yorker, was assigned to Meridian and could not figure out why the students wanted to learn French and typing above all else—until they told him it was because those were the subjects taught in the white part of town. But the transaction was probably most impactful on the other side. Hyde recalled this about the freedom school in Laurel: “We taught Negro history, but I didn’t know this history. When I grew up in Pittsburgh I took English classes. Nobody ever taught a slave narrative in the 1960s. In a funny way, the white folk from the North were teaching it to themselves as well as to those kids.”

The freedom schools illustrate what was most ingenious about the Summer Project, more novel and daring than the element of necessary violence. The idea was that if Mississippi would not admit blacks into the mainstream then the movement would create a parallel state, administering its own schools and begetting a political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The constituency of this rival state was unprecedented. “The Summer Project,” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1965, “was undertaken as an extremely ambitious experiment in bi-racial cooperation, the most ambitious thing of the sort to date.” Well, fifty years on it is still that, which is why the trick to understanding it, I decided, was to realize the memory of it can haunt as well as inspire. What became clear in Jackson was that nobody ever saw the likes of the Summer Project again. Were those hundred days in 1964 a turning point? Sure, and when they were up many of the volunteers moved South, changed their career plans or dropped out of college. Yet for all that their tenure in Mississippi remained a curio, an anomaly rather than the beginning of something. “It was the only time in my life,” said Hyde, “when I’ve been able to live with black and white people together, with a common set of concerns, a real intimacy, and on top of that it was an experience of living with poor people, not as a social worker or as somebody coming in to do a survey, but sleeping in their bedrooms and eating their food and seeing their intelligence and their courage.” Even today, Freedom Summer lies outside our reality and not subsumed within it. It is still something too radical or outlandish for the United States, a little bit beyond us all.


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Benjamin Hedin is the producer and writer of the documentary Two Trains Runnin’. He is also the author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now and the editor of an anthology, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader.