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The Mississippi Summer Project: Holly Springs Participant Reports Nervous Beginnings, Eerie Tension

By Peter Cummings

On June 21, 1964, about 20 "freedom workers" as the local Negro community came to call them, arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Peter Cummings '65 was one of the group which spent the next two months working and living in this small Mississippi town.

HOLLY SPRINGS, Mississippi--Holly Springs, the county seat of Marshall County, is about 30 miles from the Tennessee border. In the summer of 1964, it became the central office for voter registration activities in eight Mississippi counties: Benton, De Soto, Lafeyette, Lee, Marshall, Tate, Tippah, and Union.

Most of these counties, including Marshall and Benton (which adjoins Marshall on its eastern border) lie in the Delta Fringe and Bluff Hills area. This region of Mississippi has a higher proportion of its labor forces in agriculture (59% in 1960) and a lower median family income than any other area of the nation.

Take a look at Walker Evan's pictures of rural Alabama homes during the depression. It is the same here. Small children play in the front yard near the rusting skeleton of an auto chassis. Old people sit on the sagging porch. The others are chopping cotton in the nearby fields, wearing broad hats to keep off the sun. Long rows of cotton and corn lurch unsteadily in the waves of heat. When a car passes the dust seems to boil up off the dirt road and settles everywhere.

And JFK Photo

Inside the house the floorboards are swept clean. On the wall hangs a plaster figurine of Christ and below that is a newspaper photo of President Kennedy. Water comes from a well and the stove is fueled with wood. There is never a telephone, but usually a TV.

The "voter registration worker" drives from house to house on the rural roads, organizing the Negroes in "his" county. His work lasts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It means driving 150 miles per day and talking until he is hoarse. The field worker calls mass meetings, set up youth action groups, and creates local voter's leagues.

Once or twice a week the worker is out until midnight, talking at the meetings he has organized. On Sundays he doffs his jeans, dons his suit and tie, and speaks in two or three rural churches. Usually the minister joins in," . . . These people have come hundreds of miles to help Moses they are going to lead us to freedom. So let's not hang back brothers and sisters, because if we fall back now we will be worse off than ever before. Register and vote..."

'Freedom Registered'

Taking people down to the court house to register was not the main job. Perhaps 200 Negroes took the voter registration test in Marshall County, 350 in Benton and a similar number in De Soto. But in two months the Holly project registered 5500 people in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party (MFDP). Of Benton County's 1419 Negroes over 21 years old, 1100 were "freedom registered."

By Aug. 1, six of the project's eight counties had elected their own 15 man MFDP executive committees, and held precinct meetings and county conventions to elect their delegates to the second congressional district and start MFDP conventions. People who had never voted were forming their own local political action groups with their own local leadership.

Thus the voter registration worker has a 12 hour day, seven days a week. For him, the freedom house is a place to sleep and grab a bite to eat. The Freedom School teacher has a very different life.

The Holly Springs Freedom School was to begin on Thursday, July 2. On Wednesday, about 25 teachers and registration workers roamed the streets of Holly Springs telling everyone they met that Freedom School would begin at 9 a.m. the next day. Because no building was available, classes were to be on the lawn of Rust College (a Negro liberal arts college, across the street from the freedom house). And because no one had any idea of what a freelom school was, the prospective teachers simply told their prospective pupils that the school would be "great" and "fun."

Fifteen "teachers" and 40 "students" assembled nervously on the Rust campus at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. The first few minutes were a combination of freedom songs and Jewish folk songs that roused little excitement. Finally small classes were formed, and somehow a freedom school began.

The next day 60 students came back. Soon there were classes in biology, comparative religions, dance, drama, art, English, literacy (for adults), nursing, history, and baseball, in addition to the core curriculum of the freedom movement and its problems.

A second Freedom School began in Benton County a week later. The rural school was different in that some students had to walk as much as five miles to reach the little church beside a cotton field. Most students came by car or in the back of a pickup. The adults also were involved in the school, and it soon became a community affair, daily involving 60 people from four to 70 years old.

In Mississippi the rural schools are open during the summer and so Freedom School classes have to be held in the evening. Mississippi students get their "vacation" in September, October, and November when they join their parents in the fields, working 10 hours a day, six days a week, picking the 'white gold' for $2.50 a day (standard wage for adults in Benton and Marshall counties). Another school break occurs in May and June, so that the children can help 'chop' cotton (essentially weeding with a hoe).

Negroes Receptive

The reaction of Negroes to the summer project was uniform; the mother of twelve children said quietly, "For years we've heard of the freedom workers, but I never thought I'd live to see them in -- County. And then I heard that they were in Holly Springs, but still it was hard to believe that they would come here, but every day I hoped they would. And then you came here and all my prayers were answered."

An 18 year-old girl wrote "...To us this is one of the most wonderful things that has happened since we were actually freed from slavery ... The freedom workers have the blessings and prayers of the Negroes of Mississippi. We will be forever grateful." An older farmer addresses a meeting, "Mr. -- and Mr. -- have come to us like Moses and opened the door to freedom. Now we just have to get together and walk through..."

Another farmer, to a white freedom worker: "If anyone, white or black, so much as hurts your little fingernail, he'll have to reckon with me and all the rest of us."

White reaction was considerably different and more varied. Before the summer was over, perhaps a dozen whites had expressed sympathy for the freedom movement and a desire to help. But even those few who spoke up are afraid of what might strike them if they did anything. So they do nothing. "I think it's terrible what's happening down here. If a man can pay for the meal, why shouldn't he eat at the same lunch counter with me? Really, I was brought up in this custom, you know, but I just feel like I'm sinning every time I sit in a citizen's council meeting and don't say what I feel. Those meetings aren't helping anybody. I wish I knew what I could do about it."

Whites Curious

Many whites are just curious about the "commie-Jew-beatnik-nigger-lovers" that have invaded their town. Most of the freedom workers seem polite and friendly and this puzzles many whites. A white female cashier in a Holly Springs five and ten stopped serving customers in order to get a better look at the group of young men escorting Negroes to the court house; then she commented to a friend, "I didn't know communists were so handsome,"

But by and large those are not the kind of white people that the civil rights worker gets to know in Mississippi. Most workers get used to the cars that slowly circle the freedom house, drivers glaring at summer volunteers who sit on the porch. Or the carloads of white men, speeding past on the highway screaming curses into the wind and thrusting their arms into the air in obscene gestures. Every field worker experienced the automobile chases by dark and daylight. Seventeen cars chased freedom workers back to Holly Springs at speeds over 100 m.p.h. after one night meeting in Oxford, Miss. But more often its just a pickup without any license plates or a police car.

"After I heard the first shot I rolled down the car window and looked back, just in time to see him (a Lafeyette County deputy) aim his shotgun and fire the second shot. Then I just said, 'OK Ford baby, show your stuff 'cause it's time for you and me to get out of here,' and I put the pedal on the floor. When I got over the county line I changed the tire that he had shot and then went back into the county."

Ivanhoe Donaldson SNCC staff and director of the Holly Springs project tells his story with a smile and most workers can't help but laugh.

Routine Scares

True, when a worker is chased he may be honestly frightened, but soon the scares of the day become routine and serve as exciting tales for the evening while hungry freedom workers devour plates of butter beans and corn in the "living room" of the freedom house. Cleveland Sellers, SNCC staff workers, jokes with a vounteer, "What you need is someone to ride shotgun."

The first arrest shook up a few of the summer volunteers and excited everyone. But the Holly Springs project had over 18 arrests (mostly traffic charges) and soon they too just became an interesting part of the job, "Dave's in jail again? How does he do it, he was just in yesterday...Driving without an inspection sticker?...How soon will he be out? Good. You eaten yet?...

Through jails and trials the project members had their closest contact with whites. John Faresse, and his nephew Tony, the two lawyers who run Marshall and Benton Counties; Sheriff J. M. "Flick" Ash of Marshall County, and Roach, his redheaded deputy who carries a hefty cane on Freedom Days, and whose face turns nearly as red as his hair when a freedom worker approaches; Sheriff Brooks Ward and Deputy Oliver Crumpton, the "laws" of Benton County: some of the workers got to know these men quite well.

Color Reaction

It is small wonder then that after being in Mississippi for a week, everyone develops a certain set of reactions to color. A pair of freedom workers walks down a street at night in Holly Springs to buy a late supper. A car edges slowly along the curb, and both workers gaze intently trying to see the passengers in the light of the streetlamp. One finally speaks, "'s okay, they're the right color." And as the car of Negroes passes, the two white freedom workers relax a bit.

The constant harassment, the knowledge of dangers breeds a tension that even jokes and laughter never throw off. When the COFO worker leaves the freedom house he signs out for a specific time--if he is not back at the office at that time, or has not phoned or radioed in (by August most project cars had two-way radios), a local search will begin. As time passes, the Greenwood and Jackson COFO offices are notified and the search is extended. The FBI is called.

The Meridian COFO office, for example, called the FBI at 9 p.m. on June 21, notifying them that the trio of workers was missing. Had the FBI acted then, with a routine visit or phone call to local jails, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman might be alive today.

The freedom worker also takes a "buddy" with him when he leaves. Thus he has someone to help in case of any trouble, he has a witness, and he has the eerie comfort of knowing that at least he will probably not die

Usually this tension is ignored or alone in Mississippi. As he drives, his eyes constantly flit to the rear view mirror and he habitually notes the make and color of every car he sees. immersed in the work of the moment. Often it rises to the surface in a stupid argument with a fellow worker. And sometimes workers express it to each other, because they all feel it, "By accident I crossed into Tennessee today. Man, did it feel good up there!"

It is the success of the project and the enthusiasm of the local people that helps offset this tension or at least make it worthwhile. Running a mass meeting may be tiring after 11 hours on the road canvassing for the MFDP. But such is fun too--the worker cannot help but feel pleasure and pride as he listens to the people speak their thoughts. To him, these are "my people." When he called the first meeting hardly anyone would speak up and the freedom worker had to talk himself hoarse. Now the local people have elected their own officers and run the meetings by themselves. Nearly everyone speaks, and the freedom worker can just listen and relax among friends.

A Freedom Day in Holly Springs can bring the same kind of happiness. City police, Sheriff Ash and his deputies, and the highway patrol stand around the court house. Forty lawmen, many with clubs, all with guns. A large yellow paddy wagon. A voter registration worker walks up West College Avenue, from the Anderson Chapel. Behind him is a sixty year old Negro woman and behind her a man of the same age. These people are going to register to vote. The three people must walk eight feet apart, or police say they will arrest them.

May Lose All

The freedom worker knows that he may be beaten or jailed. (On the first Freedom Day one worker was jailed, two were jailed on the second.) But the two people walking behind him stand to lose all they have ever had in their lives. In addition to a jailing or beating they are risking their jobs or their small farms, their homes, their families. They may have to stand in the hot sun in front of the court house for two hours, waiting to go in and take the registration test. The police question them in order to frighten them. And yet still they walk up West College Avenue. The freedom worker knows all this, and cannot help but admire the people who follow him. If he goes to jail they have made it a pleasure.

Everywhere farmers, ministers mechanics, many of them illiterate, turn out to be natural political leaders, speaking with ease and skill at meetings, helping the people reach decisions. The young people are perhaps the most-exciting. Few are in their twenties, because most people of that age leave the state. But the teenagers appear capable of anything.

It seems a miracle that these students who attend the nation's poorest school system, are so eager to learn, and so ready to pass their lessons on to others. Many join in or take over the work of the project (such as running the Freedom School or canvassing for the MFDP) and are soon "freedom workers" themselves.

Mississippi is at once the worst and the best. It is a nightmare of fear and tension, quite literally a police state. Yet it also has the most thoroughly organized and strongest freedom movement in the nation and, on occasion, can seem like a dreamland of youth and hope. The freedom worker lives in the nightmare and the dream world every day

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