Weren’t you scared?

The question I was most often asked in 1964 continues to be the question I am most often asked today about being to be a civil rights worker in Mississippi:

Aren’t you scared?

Weren’t you scared?

The simple answer is “no.”  The true answer is more complex.

I knew from the beginning that Mississippi could be dangerous for anyone who stepped over the boldface lines of Jim Crow. The SNCC recruiter Al Lowenstein who came to Harvard in March 1964 told us about beatings and shooting attacks on civil rights workers as well as black citizens who attempted to register to vote.  I knew the KKK had murdered state NAACP president Medgar Evers in his Jackson home the summer before. The intense, no-nonsense SNCC staffer Dottie Zellner, who interviewed me that spring to determine whether I seemed to be a suitable volunteer, was intent on on making sure I grasped the risks.  And, lest we might think that white college students might be exempted from violence,  we learned on our first full day of the week-long training for COFO workers in Oxford, OH, that two white COFO workers, together with a black COFO worker from Meridian were missing and presumed dead. I was to go to Meridian.

And yet I did not feel fear.

From the start,  my decision to go to Mississippi was intertwined with the question “Is this something I am willing to die for?” And I had concluded the answer was “Yes.”

I remember how I reasoned it through: I was a 20-year-old college student with no children or husband or house or work that depended on me. True, my friends and family would be sad if I died, but they would understand. My parents would be most upset, particularly as they had worked so hard to be good parents and were deeply invested in my future, but they would still have three other children to love and nurture.

It wasn’t that I wanted to die.  I didn’t.  But if dying was the risk one had to take to be part of the freedom movement, I was willing.  It would be worth it.  I was idealistic and believed in the freedom movement the way some people believe in religion.  Not that I was a fanatic.  I just felt certain that working for justice and equality for black people in my own country was the right thing to do and that this was the right time and place for me to do it.  If I hadn’t had that certainty, I would have felt afraid.

In hindsight, I think I was sincere in my willingness to die for this movement. It has served me well to have had that early practice in thinking hard about what risks are worth taking and about the possibility of death. But I don’t think I really confronted how it would be to be tortured or beaten, which were actually more likely than being killed. I didn’t have the life experiences or knowledge then to be able to truly imagine physical brutality.  In no way can I compare my feelings to those of SNCC field staff who went back time and time again after experiencing beatings and assaults. As Mary King wrote in a recent post on Anticipating Fear,

As  COFO volunteers,  we had training that prepared us mentally and emotionally.  We learned and practiced how to protect our bodies from beating by rolling into a fetal and neck with our arms. We did role-playing to practice responding in a dignified and nonviolent way to harassment and see how it would feel to go limp if we were being dragged away by police.  We learned procedures to be followed if we were arrested.  We were trained to check in and check back if we were going out in the field so that someone would always know where we had gone. We learned not to stand at night in front of a lighted window. We carried dimes in our pockets or shoes in case we needed to make a phone call. This training was practical, but even more important it made us feel we were prepared for what might come.

Looking back now with more understanding about the psychology of war, I don’t see myself as all that different from millions of young men and women of the same age around the globe who have enlisted in military service in answer to the call of patriotism.  At the time, as a strong peace activist committed to nonviolence, I would have been horrified to be compared with a young soldier going off to shoot people, but now I can see the parallel.

And, as so many of those soldiers learn, the reality is more in the slog than in the fireworks. Here’s what I wrote my folks in early July 1964:

For all of us, I think, the first and hardest lesson has been understanding better the meaning of the song we all sang innocently at Oxford, “They say that freedom in a constant struggle.” We heard so much before we came about the danger and extraordinary deprivation and the police state — and all that sort of thing that the magazine articles describe — that we expected, without ever really thinking about it, that the summer would be one of heroics — constantly dodging police or “serving our time in jail” or rolling up in the little balls we learned at Oxford to protect ourselves from police clubs and kicks.  It isn’t. Except for those in the extreme danger areas — the Southwest, parts of the Delta, Canton — there may be one or two incidents like that.  For some, maybe none. And yet just because freedom is not a constant battle, that does not mean it is not a constant struggle.

Once I got to Mississippi, it was immediately clear to me that the people who were actually brave were the black citizens who stepped forward to join the movement. If I was afraid of anything, it was that I would do something stupid to endanger a black person unnecessarily. I was careful not to identify publicly the address of the home where I lived (none of my letters home contain the street address), not that it was any secret to people who lived in the neighborhood.  I never rode or walked alone with a single black male (see my post Arriving Again) for fear of endangering him. Interracial romances were strictly proscribed that summer.  We invited students to attend Freedom School, to participate in demonstrations, to attend meetings, but we never pushed them or their parents: it was essential that each person and family make  his or her own decision about what risks they felt comfortable taking. Many parents were afraid to be seen on a picket line or registering to vote, but were willing for their children to participate.

The families who welcomed us into their homes were so courageous.  They risked losing everything: their livelihoods, their homes, their physical safety. They also risked social ostracism.  I could always go home to Pittsburgh, but this was their home. In Meridian, the home of an elderly widower who had opened his home to two summer volunteers, was shot into. A cross was burned on the lawn of our office manager George Smith.  Later the home of a black dentist we worked with was bombed. Two teens who were active with the Freedom School were permanently expelled from high school for wearing freedom buttons.  In Lauderdale County alone, at least six black churches were burned before sanity started to prevail.  In Lauderdale County, as in Mississippi as a whole, for every white civil rights worker who was jailed or beaten, there were dozens of black Mississippians who were brutalized because they participated in civil rights activities or because someone thought they had or thought they might. 

For all of us, black and white together, our spirits were sustained by the everyday work, by singing and by frequent mass meetings in the churches.  See my post on Freedom Songs. The summer of 1964 demonstrated how different and how much easier it is to take risks with others, as part of a movement, than as an isolated individual.

So how did it turn out for me? In my three years in Mississippi and Alabama, I was taunted and harassed verbally, but not attacked. I was jailed, but not mistreated. I was chased but not caught. I experienced attempted sexual assaults but  not rape.  I will describe some of these incidents in future posts.  At times my heart was wounded, but my body never was.

Nowadays we all know much more about the prevalence of  sexual and physical abuse among women and men, children and adults, black and white, rich and poor, north and south. I realize now that we  civil rights workers were privileged in that the dangers we faced were by choice and for something we believed in. The threats and traumas were real, but they could be told and shared.

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  • Gordon Gibson  On March 3, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    My first real entry to the Movement was in February of 1965. In January of that year a colleague and I were asked to go to a town we had never heard of before, Selma, Alabama, to see whether there might be ways for the Unitarian Universalist Association to be involved. A slightly older friend, Orloff Miller, realized that I was not taking this trip seriously enough and said to me, “Don’t go to Selma unless it is more important that you go than that you come back.” That was an important message for me to hear. I am not aware of being seriously at risk for my life during the time I was in Selma. However, a month later my friend Orloff was one of the hundreds who responded to Dr. King’s appeal after Bloody Sunday on the Pettus Bridge, and he did face the risk of death. Orloff was the person walking right next to Jim Reeb when the two of them and Clark Olsen were attacked by a group of white assailants and Reeb was fatally injured.

    Truly, “Don’t go unless it is more important that you go than that you come back.” Once that decision was made, one’s life was clearer. But that was a different decision-making process than faced the local people. They might be putting the lives, livelihoods, and homes of an entire family at risk.

    The parallel to people serving in the military has become clearer to me with time. In the Movement one faced physical danger and psychological stress, but there is no Veterans Administration for veterans of the Movement. One can notice a lot of untreated PTSD, as well as many people who had the emotional resources to avoid developing PTSD.

    • freedomsongs11  On March 4, 2012 at 12:44 am

      Gordon, you make an important point about the deep emotional damage that many civil rights workers suffered as a result of the traumas they experienced. The term PTSD hadn’t entered our vocabulary then, although it was plain to see how quick to anger and emotionally fragile some civil rights veterans were. And you are right that there was no organization support for civil rights veterans the way there was/is for military veterans, though it would be hard to say that most war veterans have gotten the support and treatment they need either.

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