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Mississippi Freedom Summer: Voices of the Volunteers

May 6, 2014

1. Heather Booth

If we organize, we can change the world. I learned this lesson powerfully from my experience with the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964. I was 18, a white Chicago student, joining with others to shine a spotlight on the conditions in Mississippi and the horrors of America’s apartheid system. I went to live with the Hawkins family in Shaw, Mississippi. Andrew Hawkins (the father) was to be a delegate to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Atlantic City. He knew more about Chicago politics than I did. Mary Lou (the mother) organized cotton fieldworkers for better wages and was the first black woman to bring her children to Shaw High School, an all-white school. The family was so generous, giving three of us volunteers their bed to sleep in for that summer. In their family there is a heart-rending tale of courage. [caption id=“attachment_28073” align=“aligncenter” width=“587”]Heather Booth picketing the Bolivar County Courthouse. Photo by Wallace Roberts Heather Booth picketing the Bolivar County Courthouse. Photo by Wallace Roberts[/caption] Five years after the summer project, in 1969, Andrew, Mary Lou and twenty other African-American plaintiffs sued the Town of Shaw for violating their rights, as spelled out in the Fourteenth Amendment. These included their rights to the same town services that white neighborhoods received. The black neighborhoods had inadequate water supplies, exposed sewage, rock roads, inadequate streetlights, and worse. The Hawkins ultimately won their case, and Shaw was prohibited from spending money to improve conditions in white neighborhoods until they improved conditions in black ones. Hawkins v. Town of Shaw is often equated with Brown v. Board of Education as a great pillar of African-American liberation history. In May, 1972, two months after the Fifth Circuit Court affirmed the decision, Mary Lou Hawkins was shot and killed outside of her house by a Town of Shaw police officer (black, but “white controlled,” according to Mississippi Congressional Representative Bennie Thompson). Two fires were then set to their home, and in the second, their son Andrew, Jr. and two granddaughters died. It is not a coincidence that Jews were disproportionately part of the civil rights movement. What is the story of Exodus, the story of Passover, but the struggle for justice against oppression? “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” says the Torah, repeating “justice” because it is that important. Until the late 1960s, Judaism in America and social justice were nearly synonymous. Then came nearly thirty years of distancing — an inward turning by the Jewish community, and a dividing of “black and white together.” Yet we now see a new flowering of Jewish social action, inside the Jewish community and outside of it, with Jews working on voting rights, immigration, low-wage work, unions, women’s rights, climate change, and much more. Organizing for social justice is a precious commitment — and one that we need to support and pass on, a lesson from Mississippi Summer: If we organize, we can change the world! Heather Booth is currently consulting with groups that include the Alliance for Citizenship (working on immigration reform) and Voter Participation Center (working on increasing turnout). She was previously the executive director of Americans for Financial Reform and was the founding director and is now president of the Midwest Academy, training social change leaders and organizers. Booth was the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund.

2. Chude Pam Allen

Whenever I’ve thought of that summer in 1964, I’ve remembered Delois, one of the students in the Freedom School. So many images flood my mind, but the main memory is of us walking along the side of her father’s fields when she brought me home to spend the night. We walked on a dirt tractor road in the quiet of the evening, far from the prying eyes of racist whites. We walked and talked the slow talk of friends out for an evening stroll, with the sounds of the birds and insects keeping us company. It felt so normal. Normal? There was nothing normal about two young women, one black and one white, walking together in Mississippi in 1964. Nothing was the least bit normal about this young 20-year-old white Freedom School teacher visiting a black student’s family, or about the friendship that had developed between the two of us. Yet that’s how I remember it: Delois offered me an evening of quiet friendship in spite of all the fear and tension we faced challenging racism in Mississippi. She wanted me to come see her home and meet her parents. [caption id=“attachment_28074” align=“aligncenter” width=“600”] Delois Polk and Pamela Parker (Chude Pam Allen). Photo by Michael Clurman Delois Polk and Pamela Parker (Chude Pam Allen). Photo by Michael Clurman[/caption] Oh yes, I remember dinner — not the food but the tension as we sat at the table, all of us polite and trying to make conversation. Her parents had a watchfulness that I assumed was from a fear of racist whites as well as their own ambivalence about white civil rights workers. When I think back to that dinner now and see her mother studying me over the bowls of collards and beans, I wonder if it wasn’t also personal. What mother doesn’t study the friend her 18-year-old daughter brings home, the girl who represents the world outside the boundaries of family and community? I don’t know if her mother liked me or whether that was even a question in her mind. But I do think she was looking for what her daughter saw in me, for clues about how her daughter was changing, and I do think she was anxious about what those changes would mean for both herself and her family. I’ve experienced enough of life now to know that all change is difficult, even when you want it, even when you know it is good — and change was what the Freedom Schools and the voter registration work were all about. Changing Mississippi. Changing the relationships between black and white. Changing ourselves. Chude Pam Allen was a Freedom School teacher in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 1964 she was a Christian and a religion major in college. Today she is a member of the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and coordinates speakers for schools and community groups. Her writing can be found at, as well as in the anthologies, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle and Finding Freedom, Memorializing the Voices of Freedom Summer. Some of her letters were included in Letters From Mississippi (New American Library, 1965).