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Scare Some Sense Into Them

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Soon volunteers and staff were holding hands. Arms crossed, they swayed to the harmonies of songs they would sing all summer without ever tiring of them. Some songs were as feathered as lullabies, others as strident as marches. SNCC veterans stood with eyes closed, heads rolled back, their suffering pouring through the timeless melodies. Volunteers struggled to keep up, fell a syllable behind, then joined in as if they had known the songs since childhood. As the sun set and stars glittered above, the singing continued. The songs made hair stand on end, made souls sink in sorrow and rise again in triumph


In the coming days, the Mississippi veterans would do their best to scare some sense into the students.


Tuesday: “I may be killed and you may be killed.”


Thursday: “They – the white folk, the police, the county sheriff, the state police – they are all watching for you. They are looking for you. They are ready and they are armed.”


Friday: “They take you to jail, strip you, lay you on the floor and beat you until you’re almost dead.”


On Sunday evening, however, songs kept terror at bay.


Who’s that yonder dressed in red?
Let my people go
Must be the children that Moses led
Let my people go-oooo


As the week progressed, the truth about Mississippi would sober the volunteers, but it would not send more than a few home. Youthful idealism is more tensile than any truth. Just seven months had passed since John Kennedy had been cut down in Dallas, and his spirit – “Ask not…” – suffused the Ohio campus. The summer project reminded many of Kennedy’s Peace Crops and had begun with the same call to commitment. “A great change is at hand,” Kennedy had told the nation in announcing his civil rights bill the previous June. “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing rights as well as reality.” Throughout the spring of 1964, SNCC speakers touring colleges across the country had recruited the bold. Their horror stories from Mississippi captivated entire auditoriums. Was this America?


By late May, more than seven hundred students had chosen to forgo internships, opt out of summer jobs, let Europe’s cathedrals wait, and instead spend a summer in Mississippi. Cynical friends told them they would be “cannon fodder for the Movement,” yet they saw a higher purpose. Filling out applications, some had quoted the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, or Jesus. But many had cited Kennedy, the need to “honor the memory” and “carry out the legacy.” Sarcasm, burnout, the intense self-consciousness of an entire generation – these would come later in the 1960s. In this crystalline moment on a campus in Ohio, while hundred of young voices sang of freedom, there seemed nothing trite in SNCC’s founding statement: “Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate. Acceptance dissipates prejudice, hope ends despair. Peace dominates war, faith reconciles doubt.”


For all their sincerity, dozens failed their interviews. Guidelines for interviewers were explicit. Each volunteer was asked whether working under black leadership would be difficult. Each had to “possess a learning attitude toward work in Mississippi” and recognize “that his role will to be work with local leadership, not to overwhelm it.” Those displaying a “John Brown complex” were not welcome. “A student who seems determined to carve his own niche, win publicity and glory when he returns home can only have harmful effects on the Mississippi program.” Anyone expressing the slightest interest in interracial sex was rejected. Once accepted, volunteers were divided into groups: Freedom School teachers, who would show up for training the following week, and these first arrivals, whose summer would take them from shack to shack registering voters. But although their jobs would be distinct, Freedom Summer volunteers who made the cut and made it to Ohio presented a group portrait of American idealism.


As volunteers took over the campus, the New York Times saw in their faces “an unmistakable middle-class stamp.” Yet their average family income was 50 percent above the national norm. Just two-fifths were female. As with the whole of America in 1964, 90 percent were white. All but a few were in college, almost half from Ivy League or other top schools. Many were the sons and daughters of success, the children of lawyers, doctors, CEOs, even a congressman, but just as many were the children of teachers, social workers, union organizers, and ministers. Taken together, they were the offspring of the entire nation. While four dozen came from metropolitan New York, three dozen from the San Francisco Bay Area, and two dozen from Southern California, the rest came from every corner of the country. From Flint, Michigan, and What Cheer, Iowa. From Tenafly, New Jersey, and Prairie City, Oregon. From Americus, Georgia, and Peoria, Illinois. From Del Rio, Texas, and Vienna, West Virginia. Raised amid Cold War consensus, the vast majority were true believers in America. Some had been jaded by the Bay of Pigs or darkening reports from Vietnam, yet all clung to the hope that whenever America fell short of its ideals, young Americans could restore them.



Bruce Watson‘s previous books include Sacco & Vanzetti, a finalist for the Edgar Award, and Bread and Roses, a New York Public Library Book to Remember. His journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Smithsonian and Reader’s Digest. He lives in Massachusetts.


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