With the threat of the death penalty looming over him, John W. Perdew ’64 found himself sitting in a jail cell in Americus, Georgia the summer after his junior year at the College.
It was August of 1963, and Perdew had been arrested while protesting racial segregation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the organizations that staged sit-ins and freedom rides throughout the South in the 1960s. The charge under which Perdew and three other SNCC activists were being held was “incitement to insurrection”—a capital offense in Georgia at the time.
Perdrew remained in jail for three months, until a three-judge federal court declared the Georgia insurrection law unconstitutional on November 1, 1963, paving the way for his release on bail.
Although Perdew was unable to return to campus in time for the fall semester, news of of his arrest did reach campus at the outset of the 1963-1964 school year, a time when the civil rights movement was capturing attention across the University and across the nation.
Writers at The Crimson raised awareness of the Perdew arrest with news on the latest from Americus. Shocked students collected funds for Perdew’s legal defense. And University officials pressed the federal government to monitor the situation in Georgia.
Among the Harvard community, Perdew’s arrest was widely perceived as an injustice, and faculty and students mobilized to his defense.
AT THE FOREFRONT
When Perdew left for Georgia in June of 1963, civil rights did not yet dominate the national political discussion and the country was two months away from the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Still, on Harvard’s campus, a sizable group of students was already actively following and participating in the nascent civil rights movement.
A white student born in Los Angeles and raised in Denver, Perdew signed up for a summer placement with SNCC in the South, after crossing paths on campus with John J. Hartman ’64, who had volunteered for the organization on weekends.
“[Hartman] said that he had gone to Cambridge, Maryland, where there was a very strong movement associated with SNCC, and that he had been to a sit-in and spent a couple of hours in jail,” Perdew recounted.
Perdew said he was excited at the prospect of actively participating in the movement that he had only watched from afar up to that point.
Underestimating the grave situation in the South, Perdew expected that his work with SNCC would only last the summer and that he would return to Harvard in the fall. However, his experiences with segregationist violence ultimately compelled him to take three years off from Harvard to campaign for civil rights.