Activist Karen Duncanwood spoke of sheltering in a dilapidated house outside Jackson, Mississippi. As a 20-year-old San Francisco State freshman she volunteered to be a Freedom Rider the summer of 1964. In the Freedom House, she and a hand full of others put blankets over the windows so their silhouettes wouldn’t be a shotgun target.
She said, “The terror we experienced that summer was something out of a horror movie.”
Duncanwood recently shared her experiences in the crowded community room at the Robbie Waters Pocket Library, a program sponsored by the American Association of University Women.
She told of fire bombings, beatings, murder, and law enforcement officers who wore the uniform in daytime and the Ku Klux Klan sheet at night. She said she was shocked at local, state and even the FBI’s lack of support during that fateful time in our country. In the fall of 1963, a Birmingham, Alabama black church bombing had killed four little girls attending Sunday school, and more than sixty black churches and buildings were burned to the ground by the end of summer 1964.
Freedom Summer of ‘64 found civil rights activists, pushing for black voting rights and school de-segregation in the South. They set up tables across college campuses to recruit blacks and whites to volunteer to go to Mississippi. Although many counties had a predominately black population, few blacks voted because of segregation and American apartheid. Activists thought that if young people risked their lives, the powerful national press would follow so the nation could hear of the atrocities and take action.
The 1960s television news showed police knocking down people with powerful fire hoses, beating them with clubs, and blocking them from schools and voting centers. Strict segregation kept blacks from white businesses, white churches, and white schools.
Karen Duncanwood says she walked by a table set up by the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) on her San Francisco college campus. She saw pictures of police barricades, physical assaults, black church burnings and other attacks on citizens whose actions Southern authorities described as “civil disobedience.” She said she thought it was appalling that people were killed in America for wanting to vote.
Against her parents’ wishes, she signed up for the project to go to Mississippi. She grew up in the small white community of Novato, California where her high school history teacher described happy slaves on the plantation, picking cotton, singing gospel songs and eating watermelon.
Karen was sent to an Ohio college for training in non-violent protest. Her initiation into the real world included training on how to fall on the ground, roll into a ball, and put her hands over her head and neck to protect herself from billy clubs.
Her trainer was Rita Schwerner who told the group that her husband was missing in Mississippi along with two other men among the first volunteers sent. Schwerner said they had been missing for 16 hours and were not expected to be found alive. The other two men, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, along with Mickey Schwerner were later found murdered.
Duncanwood was sent with the second volunteer group. She says the volunteers were greeted by groups of angry white people, yet welcomed by the black community. Karen and several others were taken to the small rural town of Canton, about 10 miles outside of Jackson. They were put in an unfurnished and shabby rural house called the Freedom House that served as dorm and office.
During the whole summer the telephone company refused to install a telephone so the volunteers set up a CB radio in the back room. Fearing attacks and wanting to secret their only means of communication, she says they crawled on their knees under windows to the radio so they could contact headquarters.
The first meeting the volunteers attended was in a black church. Only minutes into the meeting there was a loud pounding on the front door. The local sheriff and deputies had come to tell them they should leave. The sheriff spoke to the group, telling them that the blacks would beat up their men and violate the women. They were taken to the station, fingerprinted and numbered mug shots taken just as though they were criminals.
In other experiences Duncanwood says she and two other white girls attended the Canton Episcopalian Church one Sunday since she had been raised in the religion. Shortly after sitting down an usher tapped her on the shoulder and told them they were not welcome in the church. As they left the service a lineup of men showed brass knuckles.
Community whites who sympathized with the blacks were terriorized with threats. One white woman who owned a grocery store had it fire bombed because she sold the volunteers cold sodas.
Karen was assigned as a Freedom School teacher at a black church. She taught remedial skills required to vote and black history to instill courage and pride in the blacks.
At that time many blacks who tried to vote lost their farm shareholder jobs, were kicked off the land and left homeless. Fear ruled the land and some people disappeared and were later found dead. The Mississippi River was dredged years later and hundreds of body remains were found.
To vote, blacks had to pass strict voting registration exams which could require the registrant to write an essay explaining any paragraph pulled from the Mississippi State constitution. They were also charged a poll tax that would stop any poverty-stricken black from even wanting to vote.
Now in our country 50 years later, citizens are still experiencing voter blocking by cutting off crowds who have stood in lines for hours to vote, asking for ID’s that are not possible for citizens to get, and changing voter rules even after people have voted by absentee ballots. Thousands of eligible people have been purged from voter rolls.
This last summer there was a 50-year reunion of the summer workers in Jackson where they renewed friendships and shared the amazing things that had been accomplished since 1964. Yet they agreed so much still needs to change.
Karen Duncanwood says, “It is my observation that Dixie South lives today in far right politics where politicians vote against any progressive legislation for the country’s majority such as the quality of national healthcare. Sadly there is still privilege for the few and insecurity for many in our country.”
Leigh Stephens is a CSUS retired professor of Journalism and author of Covering the Community.