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The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer was commemorated this week in Mississippi and it provides the perfect backdrop to reflect on the transformation of not only Mississippi, then the deadliest state in the nation, but the entire region.
As I have written in the space before, there was a popular joke about Mississippi making the rounds during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Supposedly, a Chicago seminary student was awakened at 3 a.m. by a voice imploring him: “Go to Mississippi! Go to Mississippi!! Go to Mississippi!!!” The seminary student said, “Lord, you said that you will be with me always, even until the end of the earth. If I go to Mississippi, will you go with me?” The heavenly voice replied, “I’ll go as far as Memphis.”
Of course, if the Lord was reluctant to go to Mississippi, the chances of a Black surviving there were slim and none. I had just completed my junior year at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in the summer of 1964. Alabama had its own violent history when it came to race relations, but Mississippi was the one state we knew was worse. In fact, whenever a national ranking of any kind came out, we would always say, “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Of course, we all awaited the beginning of Freedom Summer, a national mobilization of mostly college students who would descend upon Mississippi in 1964 to help civil rights activists, led by Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), assist Blacks in voter education and voting.
More than 1,000 students, about 90 percent of them White, participated. With so many northern Whites descending on the state, the nation would be watching. And Blacks like me, who grew up under America’s version of apartheid, knew that virulent White racists in Mississippi would not go quietly into the dark. They would go into the dark – where they did their most tawdry work – but they wouldn’t be quiet about it.