Training for Freedom

Brass Tacks

Recruiting, selecting, and training new field-workers is the first real task of the Mississippi Summer Project for civil rights. While the detailed four-page application forms are examined by the staff in Jackson, Miss, SNCC workers throughout the South and North are interviewing each student who applies. And before those accepted actually enter the Magnolia State, they will attend orientation meetings in their local areas and an intensive four-day workshop, probably on a college campus. According to Dorothy Zellner, in charge of organizing in New England, "We want the most disciplined group of people we can possibly get."

Two hundred and fifty students have already been accepted for the Summer Project by the Jackson office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Most of them, Negro and white, are from the North, but the group includes 15 to 20 white southerners. SNCC's Atlanta office, which is recruiting Negro field-workers from the South, has already accepted over 100 people. At the rate applications are arriving, SNCC expects to have over 700 Project members before summer begins.

By interviewing students, SNCC hopes to determine how each applicant will act in a totally alien environment; this applies especially to Northern students. The pre-summer meetings are designed to prepare the student for (his or her) role in a Southern community and to weed out those students who may not be able to make the transition.

Questions typical of an interview are: "Imagine you are a voter registration worker. You knock on the door of a share-cropper's home and a 60-year-old Negro woman answers. You introduce yourself and she replies, 'Come in Mr. Jones, my name is Helen.' Now what would you do in this situation?"

"You are walking to the court house with a Negro tenant farmer, to register him to vote. A police officer stops you and says, 'Look sonny, why are you messing around down here where you don't belong, why don't you go back North where you came from?' What do you reply?"


"Do you think you can be nonviolent in all situations?" The Students who are admitted to the Project will be required to attend a preparatory workshop, which was originally to be held at Berea College, Ky. Berea has reneged on its offer of accommodations, but SNCC is already negotiating for another site and is certain to have one by June 15, when the program begins. The trainees will be processed in three shifts over a two week period, each student participating in the workshop four to six days.

A lot must be taught in a very short time. The newcomers will be armed with legal information, both on the laws of Mississippi and on the rights and powers they have under federal law. An attempt will be made to give the students historical background for their work, while pointing out that most of what will be done has never been attempted before, or at least not since Reconstruction and the Freedom's Bureau.

For example, Mrs. Fannie Lou Haimer and Mrs. Victoria Gray, running in SNCC sponsored campaigns for U.S. House and Senate, respectively, are the first Negro women ever to run for national office; and they are doing it in a state where such an action is worth their lives.

Most important, the project members need to learn how to act in a southern rural community. "You have to know that what may be okay in Jackson or Greenville may be unthinkable in Ruleville or Laurel." Northern whites will be spending most of their summers in predominantly rural, Negro areas. According to Penny Patch, a member of the Jackson staff, some people may find it almost impossible to even communicate in this new environment. Success for the summer requires "a whole lot of adjustment coming from both sides--it may work, it may not."

Included in the workshop will be instructions on how to use nonviolent techniques in dangerous situations. In the past such training has included little dramas, in which the trainee will pretend to be a field-worker, while other members of the group curse him, spit on him, shove, slap, and hit him. SNCC members have found that these practice sessions help make the real-life confrontations less strange and frightening.

Experienced staff members will show students how to protect themselves, nonviolently, against clubs, tear gas, and water hoses. With water hoses, for example, the experiences in Danville, Va., showed that as the victims were knocked to the ground by the high pressure blasts, their best protection was to cling together, rather than allow themselves to be swept apart as easy prey for club-swinging policemen.

Naturally enough, many students are worried over violent incidents that might arise; workshops should provide them with specific information on how to act in every conceivable instance. The general rules are: (1) be nonviolent, (2) keep talking, keep the channels of rational communication open as long as possible, (3) protect your companions.

These techniques have been used over and over again throughout the South; two years ago, in McComb, Mississippi, Bob Zellner, a white field-secretary, was being beaten by a mob on the court house steps. Charles McDew (then Chairman of SNCC) and Robert Moses (now Mississippi Project Director) made their way through the crowd to Zellner, and stood shoulder to shoulder in front of him, to absorb the angry blows of the mob.

But heroism is not always what is required, and SNCC feels it has no interest in getting its summer workers hospitalized. "Absenting oneself," as it is wryly put, is often the best answer to a bad situation. Robert E. Wright '65, who worked in Jackson last summer, found that by keeping calm and using good sense it was possible to avoid explosive confrontations. John W. Perdew '64 reports similar experiences from Americas, Ga.

As further protection, each student who goes South is being asked to get in touch with his home community and press. By bringing the summer effort before the nation's eyes, the Project directors hope that Mississippi will be reluctant to make brutality and lawlessness its national hallmark.

SNCC leaders expect that instruction and guidance will continue even after the new workers arrive in Mississippi. "We feel very strongly that the students coming down will be essentially working under the staff [about 50 people] that we have down here now." Strict discipline will be asked of all newcomers, and those who take unnecessary risks, endanger the group, or simply refuse to cooperate, will be dropped from the Project, and asked to leave the state.

Even those students who enter the Summer Project in July or August, will be sent for training sessions in Edwards, Miss, before they are allowed into the field. The freedom movement has too much at stake to see the future botched by unprepared workers; that is why SNCC believes the Summer Project is worth a little careful planning.