Reunion by Vivian Rothstein
Editor's Note: The Civil Rights Movement was a pivotal event
for American feminism. The struggle to end the evil of racial
discrimination helped motivate women to challenge the evil of
gender discrimination. Former Civil Rights volunteer and CWLU
founder Vivian Rothstein returned to Mississippi in 1994 for
a reunion of Civil Rights workers. This is a report on that
we taxi for takeoff at the Houston airport, the pilot announces:
"If anyone has anything good to say about Jackson, Mississippi,
come to the cockpit and let me know." I glance around the
30-seat plane for anyone around my age and inclination who might
also be heading to Jackson for the Freedom Summer reunion, but
see no familiar faces.
last trip to Mississippi was in 1965. A sophomore at Berkeley,
I traveled by Greyhound bus with my boyfriend from the world
we knew in California through ever deepening poverty and segregation.
Outside New Orleans I sat next to a girl my age who told me
her father was a member of the White Citizens Council. When
she got off the bus I was afraid she'd call ahead and turn us
wonder how I had the courage to make that trip at 19. Even now,
as I return for the 30th reunion, I am apprehensive about what
I will find in Mississippi -- how I will be treated by local
Whites and whether I will find anyone to reconnect with.
am in jail in Jackson Mississippi. You've probably already
read about it. We were put in here Monday at 5:00 pm for marching
on the sidewalk with no permit. We're protesting unconstitutional
laws against demonstrations. On Tuesday 200 more people were
arrested. On Wednesday 150 more people joined us, and on Friday
people will come from all over the nation to demonstrate in
support of our actions -- and will be arrested.
perfectly all right. The food is horrible and it is boring
but we're all right. They segregated the white women from
the black women. We have cells -- 8 in a cell and four beds.
While the Negro women are in a hall at the State Fair grounds
with only two meals, lying on the concrete floor. The boys
are in another building at the fair grounds -- segregated
extensive nationwide publicity, we were all released, and the
unconstitutional ordinance was eventually thrown out. That was
the genius of Freedom Summer: to use the national interest in
White and Black northern student volunteers to focus the public
eye on the repression faced every day by the southern Black
fears eventually give way to memories of the textures of rural
Mississippi -- fields of cotton, lushness, intense poverty,
severe segregation, the hot, damp, close southern-ness of the
"rural." And especially Red Dog Road, where I spent
most of that summer -- a bright orange dirt lane that turned
off from the paved roads leading to the white areas. Weathered,
graying, wooden houses with no exterior or interior paint. Ragged
porches. No electric poles (they also stopped at the white community)
and no indoor plumbing. Only a local minister had the resources
for a pre-fabricated house -- but even his family had an unplumbed
bathroom missing the modern conveniences.
1965 traveling was treacherous. White and Black, especially
of the opposite sex, could not ride together in the front seat
of a car. My presence alone next to a Black male, I was repeatedly
warned, could lead to his death at the hands of a local segregationist.
the Jackson airport I catch a ride with a cabbie and we talk
about how times have changed. His company used to employ and
carry only Blacks. While waiting for a fare he couldn't enter
the terminal except briefly to use the toilet. Now he can go
wherever he wants. But there are few decent paying jobs. And
drugs are a big problem even here. His nephew got hooked on
crack and stole everything he had. Things have changed but there
are still plenty of troubles.
the opening plenary, held at historically Black Tougaloo College,
former SNCC organizer Chuck McDew explained the origins of the
conference. He and other organizers were appalled when Mississippi
Burning, a movie about the murders of three civil rights
workers in 1965, portrayed FBI agents rather than movement activists
as the heroes. When the film was shown to Black students at
Jackson State, even they cheered the FBI. From this experience,
McDew said, he and other organizers learned that they had failed
to teach the young our history. So they decided to recapture
-- and to preserve and pass on -- the history of the Mississippi
civil rights movement. We're not here to see who's gotten fat
or gray, McDew stressed, but to tell our story.
Thelwell, Professor of African-American Studies at the University
of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed that the assembled group
was unique -- though diverse in ethnic and educational backgrounds,
people in the room shared "a common vision and a common
commitment." The civil rights movement was a singular event
in American history, and that is precisely why its story has
been obscured. "Let's hope for the sake of this republic
that it's not an extinct phenomenon."
attempting to convey the power of Mississippi Freedom Summer,
panelists spoke of "the transformative power of human hopefulness."
"We were energized by each other because of what we believed."
"This was not a summer camp. This was a life and death
situation you were putting yourself in." "As far as
I'm concerned, there are no non-heroes in this room." I
could feel an almost physical longing for a time when the enemy
was so easy to identify and when right action was so clear.
himself a former SNCC organizer, stressed that the daily life
of a Black Mississippian in the 1960s required tremendous courage,
but that northern volunteers also committed an act of uncommon
heroism by placing themselves in a setting of such danger and
August 8, 1965
could not answer your "Jail" letter since at an
emergency meeting of the parents committee I was assured that
at the time I received your letter, none of the arrested kids
were still retained.
far as I can remember, I never could have tried to tell you
that what you are doing is wrong. This would by no means be
in line with my social conscience or ethical philosophy.
that I tried to convey to you and as a matter of fact also
to the parent committee was, that within my knowledge of so
very many revolutionary movements in Europe and elsewhere
I never came across a single fact where young girls have been
sent into the front and fireline, except may be for the so
called "childrens crusade" during the middle ages,
which ended in a catastrophe.
heard also from lawyers during the above mentioned meeting,
that approx. 500 lawyers and other legal trained persons are
constantly busy to get the young freedom fighters out of jail.
I can assure you, that I did not have an easy time, when I
talked against these professional speakers and mentioned after
the above statement, that I believe and sincerely believe,
that demonstrations by these 500 lawyers would have had an
immense valuable effect on the whole nation and that also
these lawyers would have been 1000 times more protected, since
in my opinion no state trooper would have dared to touch them.
. . . And against this suggestion I placed the pitiful or
non existing "protection of our kids" in "enemy"
territory. . . Chicky,
do not take unnecessary risks and that is all we ask for,
that is all we can ask for and if you even are able to do
that we do not know and doubt it, but we hope so with all
our heart. . . .
All my love,
the day, speakers alternated between the optimism of the 1960s
with pride in our mutual accomplishments and despair at the
problems faced today by Blacks in Mississippi. Beatrice Branch,
the first female president of the Mississippi NAACP, painted
a bleak picture: fewer than 1/2 of Black Mississippians currently
vote; some 20% have moved beyond poverty, but 80% live below
the poverty level, earning 45 cents for every dollar earned
by a White male. Moreover, "70% of White Mississippians
hate us like they never did before. And when you talk to young
people they hate us more than their parents and grandparents
did." Blacks in Mississippi today "are in danger of
leaving our situation worse than we found it."
Henry, state representative from Clarksdale, pleaded that "Mississippi
still needs you. The state has a whole litany of problems to
overcome. I wish you would stay around for a while. The energy
the students brought with them -- we are still trying to recapture
that dynamism. We're having trouble getting our people to vote."
Henry, a venerable Black local politician who helped build the
movement and maintained his activism through the years, recalled
trying to buy air-time for his race for governor on an integrated
ticket in the 1960s. "Nigger, are you crazy?" the
station manager said. Henry proudly recounts that "the
nigger who couldn't buy time on that station in 1963 is now
the chair of its Board of Directors." Henry and the other
local elected black officials testify to the pain of the civil
rights movement, and its progress.
the discussion was animated by a spirit of mutual respect, of
generosity -- of being "better than ourselves." I
had not been in such a humane and loving political environment
since leaving the southern civil rights movement of the 1960s.
I felt proud to have participated in that movement, but also
pained by the terrible loss of that sense of collective mission
in my life today.
lunch -- surrounded by eerily familiar faces -- I found three
of the seven women with whom I had shared that Hinds County
jail cell. Together we remembered the hunger strikes and the
commotion we made to annoy the jailers; we even took off all
our clothes, one woman recalled, to keep them from bringing
local dignitaries to observe us. She remembered this incident
in particular, she said, because one of the women (Could it
have been you, she asked? No way, I said) had the most perfect
breasts she had ever seen. I remembered that a local rabbi was
sent to explain to us how difficult we were making the lives
of Jackson Jews who were struggling so hard to be accepted.
I have since heard that more than half of the northern White
summer volunteers were Jewish -- a fact not lost on the white
Mississippians who deeply resented our helping to "stir
up their Negroes."
June 30, 1965
Yesterday I went into Canton with the Movement people down
there and integrated a white park. It was really weird. The
white people are like animals here. They hate especially us
white folks, because they can't understand us at all. It was
the first time I have come face to face with any white Southerners
besides the police. The white people were yelling at us and
spitting, but we have a court order which makes the integration
protected by the court, so they couldn't beat anyone up.
an afternoon workshop on teaching children about the movement's
history, former SNCC leader Bob Moses was scheduled to speak.
Instead, he invited everyone born since 1964 to come to the
center of the circle and speak to each other. The conversation
was a remarkable display of Moses's special gifts -- the charisma
and sensitivity that are widely credited with inspiring the
participatory, grassroots approach of the 1960s Mississippi
movement. This youth caucus met subsequently throughout the
weekend and eventually demanded that the leadership torch be
passed to them, that the more seasoned organizers help them
arrange a youth conference later in the summer.
the young people spoke in the workshop, a number of them children
of '60s civil rights workers, a tan-skinned man in his early
30s with long dark hair, holding a sleepy infant in his arms,
rose and explained that he had been adopted and his adoption
records permanently sealed. But he knew his parents were both
1964 Freedom Summer volunteers -- his mother White and his father
Black. He asked for help in finding them -- in essence to recapture
the moment in history in which he was conceived.
try to recreate for myself the context of his parents' encounter
-- the highly segregated America of the 1960s -- and to imagine
his parents in a moment of passion, political and physical,
coming together in a society that excluded public union between
Black and White. She decided against an abortion because she
carried the seed of a Black freedom fighter. He feared for his
life in marriage with a White woman. Where in America could
they live together in 1964? Certainly not in the South. Maybe
only in New York City. And how could she tell her parents, or
he, his? Was he even told of the pregnancy?
young man's story was felt deeply by many at the workshop but
not only for the desperation of his search. In a way that search
was a metaphor for the entire weekend -- all of us striving
to recapture that moment when we came together, Black and White,
for a righteous purpose, and feeling bereft that we can't capture
it in our present lives.
Saturday the reunion scheduled tours to outlying counties, to
enable volunteers to reconnect with the local people with whom
they had worked and lived. But I had little hope of getting
to Red Dog Road in Leake County -- a less active area in 1965,
nestled between Philadelphia and Canton, two of the tour destinations.
As I had spent some time at the freedom house in Canton, I joined
the van headed there.
tour of Canton was led by local heroine Annie Devine, now living
in Michigan with her daughter, and C.O., Jr., son of C.O. Chinn,
a local movement leader who owned the cafe where the Madison
County civil rights movement began. C.O. took us to several
notable sites -- where demonstrators were tear-gassed near the
local school, where a civil rights worker was slain on a church
lawn, where the old freedom house stood.
a short stop in Valley View, we drove to Lexington, seat of
Holmes County, where a small gathering waited to welcome us
at the courthouse steps with a prayer and reminiscences about
the deep roots of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in
Holmes County. Speakers included the local Black sheriff (one
of five elected in the state), a county supervisor, a member
of the local school board, and the head of a local cultural
center -- all of whom attributed their present success to the
work of the 1960s civil rights movement.
courthouse speeches were a wonderful celebration of the far-reaching
results of our collective action. But we still weren't in Leake
County, where I hoped somehow to find the Wilder family with
whom I had lived. Red Dog Road -- how could we find it, and
who would take the trouble to get me there?
my companions expressed interest in the journey, Annie Devine
discouraged us from deviating from the schedule. We didn't bring
money for bail and we're not prepared to handle your safety,
she said. It was hard to know if this sane advice from the past
had any relevance in 1994. In any case, we decided not to follow
it and headed off to find Red Dog Road.
forests began to close in on the road and the air got even closer.
Dirt-poor shacks, run-down trailers, and the occasional brick
house dotted the land. But Red Dog Road wasn't on the map, and
I knew it only as clay dirt with wooden-porched houses on either
side -- most belonging to the Wilder family: Alton and his brother
Elton and their wives Stella and Emma, cousin John Wilder and
his wife Carien, Mary Williams, the 83-year-old grandmother
of Stella with whom I lived, and Stella's girls Ruby and Bernice
who were my age. Willy Wilder, Carien's son, a civil rights
worker assigned elsewhere, occasionally came by.
drove the highway into the county seat, straining to read the
names on the tiny lanes cutting off from the main road. I was
afraid I'd led everyone on a wild goose chase. Then, on the
Carthage city limits we stopped at a small gas station and were
told we could find Red Dog Road if we took a left at the junkyard.
road was paved and didn't match my memory, but we drove on,
checking the names on mailboxes. Leflore, Wylie, but no Wilder.
Distinguishing the Black homes from the White by their poverty,
we pulled up near a small, gray plank house and I timidly approached
a Black man cutting weeds with a scythe. Wilder? He didn't think
so. Then a woman answered from inside the darkened shack where
we could see only the edge of a bed and the glow of a television
through the narrow doorway. She thinks there's a Wilder down
the next road. Turn left; go down about a mile past St. Ann's
Catholic church. A dirt road forks in two. Don't take the right
fork. Continue straight and the road dead-ends at a house that
might know the Wilders.
one was home at that house. But the air, the lush vegetable
gardens, and the smells were all so familiar. We were close
but clearly not there. My companions were still up to pushing
on. They had been able to see their families; I had a right
to see mine. After all, wasn't that the one reason we had all
pulled back on the paved Red Dog Road and drove on until we
met the Natchez Trace. Crossing the Trace, the road indeed became
dirt -- and just a few yards further we found Mr. John Wilder's
mailbox in front of a small house adorned with ceramic geese
and a twirling plastic sunflower. I knocked on the door and
spoke through the screen to a Black man in his late 20s.
was a civil rights worker 30 years ago, I said, and I was looking
for the Wilder family that had taken me in, Alton Wilder and
his brother Elton, their wives Stella and Emma. . . . His mother
came to the door. Wait a minute. I had a girl worker here for
one night who slept right on that couch. It was me, I said,
and just to assure her, I recalled having heard Ruby cry out
with labor pains from across the road.
come right on in. Alton died but his wife Stella still lives
up the road. And Ruby had five more kids, and Bernice is married
and works for Head Start. After an animated exchange, Carien
and her son decided to climb into our van and drive the short
way up the road to Stella Wilder's house.
June 30, 1965
Yesterday I was sent to Leake County to work in the new office
started there. We are out in rural Mississippi. The closest
store is about 5 miles and the closest town about 25 miles.
. . .There is no movement around here yet, and if one starts
it will be through the efforts of three of us volunteers and
about four local people. The office is in a tiny shack and
was given to us after the man who lived in it died. Water
comes from an old pump, and we use an outhouse which belongs
to the family next door.
was stunned to be in the place I had returned to so many times
in my mind. The freedom house was gone but the Wilder's gray
wooden house remained, with its tiny porch and rutted front
hill. Stella and her daughter gave me a big hug and looked at
me in disbelief. I can see your face now. Of course we remember
you. Any children? Your daughter is just how you looked then.
This four-week-old baby is my great-grandson. I'm 73 now you
know. You were a sweet girl and used to cook dinner in the kitchen
in the back of my house for the two other workers.
Williams died at 93. Her house is still there but overgrown
with trees and weeds. Emma's dead and her son Oscar's not here.
But here's his brother. I'll call Ruby and tell her to come
right over. Won't she be surprised.
things changed? Well, the schools got integrated but the White
people all send their kids to a private school. I don't know
how they pay for it. The baby born in '65 is in the army now
and two other of Ruby's kids are at an Upward Bound program
at Tougaloo. We can go into the cafe in Thomastown now; remember
how they kept closing it down to keep us out? A lot has changed.
But we have to lock our doors now. People get robbed.
sat on Stella's porch in the steamy heat remembering how her
daughters hid under the bed when it thundered. I see your faces
in my mind so often I say. We talk about you all the time. Come
back to see us. Write a letter. Thank you for being so kind.
You were always a sweet girl.
was overwhelmed by the intensity of the connection I still feel
with Stella and her family -- a connection cemented during a
period that transformed all our lives. (The Wilder wives went
up to D.C. for the Mississippi Challenge with Annie Devine and
Victoria Gray, two of the honored reunion participants. I doubt
they've been to Washington since.) And I was moved, as I was
in 1965, by the intense poverty of Stella's home -- one bare
light bulb hanging from the low ceiling of her tiny front room,
broken-down porch furniture, no escape from the heat and humidity.
like mine happened throughout the weekend. An old friend from
Chicago who has been driving a cab for the last few years and
whose life is at loose ends after two marriages, was unexpectedly
greeted in Hattiesburg by his former Freedom School students.
They gave him the key to the city and described how he had changed
their lives: one is now a school psychologist; another a Ph.D.
with a book in the Hattiesburg library -- a building she wasn't
allowed to enter in 1964. He had taught them to think, they
said, and given them a new vision of the possibilities in their
reunion had four goals.
- To bring the volunteers back to the state where
they had worked, in the bloom of their youth, for Black civil
- To meet and honor the Black elected officials
whose careers had been made possible by their efforts.
- To give the volunteers a chance for a reunion
with the families who had taken them in, an opportunity to
meet their children and grandchildren.
- And to return home with a keener awareness of
current threats to Black voting rights.
wrap-up Sunday sessions focused on the importance of the Voting
Rights Act. In Mississippi today there are more Black elected
officials than in any other state in the Union. All but one
have been elected from majority Black districts. (The one exception
won only because the White votes were split between two candidates.)
Voting in Mississippi today is racially polarized, with 80%
of White Mississippians bloc-voting for White candidates against
Black candidates. It was only after massive voter registration
efforts within majority Black voting districts that Black candidates
were able to win elections.
numerous challenges have been made to the creation of majority-minority
districts and life-long organizer Lawrence Guyot stressed that
"if we blink we could lose it all. If the Supreme Court
decides the Voting Rights Act is inconsistent with the 14th
Amendment, then we're finished."
focused on how to organize locally to get Congress to validate
the creation of minority districts if the Supreme Court doesn't
uphold them. But there wasn't time to explore the complexity
of this issue; the reunion was drawing to a close and people
began leaving for the airport.
brilliance of the Freedom Summer strategy was not simply that
it brought northern youth to Mississippi to focus the eyes of
the nation on the lack of basic democratic rights for Mississippi
Blacks. It also recognized the transformative possibilities
that are created when people connect to each other across formerly
impenetrable barriers of class and race. For Whites to see the
nobility and intelligence of poor Black Mississippians standing
up courageously for their rights. For Black Mississippi youth
to feel respect and validation from White freedom school teachers.
For northern volunteers to feel the power of a movement of ordinary
people. For rural Blacks to overcome the isolation imposed by
poverty and segregation.
Summer took us all past the segregation that defines American
life -- the divisions of Black and White, rich and poor, northern
and southern. Connecting us in pursuit of a larger moral purpose,
it made us bigger than ourselves; ordinary people did extraordinary
things in pursuit of racial equality. Compelled by conviction
to stand up for basic human rights, we stepped out of the confines
of our personal lives and experienced the ecstasy of participating
in a righteous political movement. At the time, we did not think
about the likely success of our efforts, but only about taking
action against racial injustice. In the end, however, we did
succeed, reaping history's rewards for doing what is right.