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

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.