An In-depth Look Back at the Young Civil Rights Fighters Of 1964’s “Freedom Summer”

DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF Silas McGhee, who lives on the farm on which he grew up, was shot in the face in 1964 when he was 21. He tried that summer to integrate the nicest movie theater in Greenwood, Miss., enduring a beating each time.
DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF
Silas McGhee, who lives on the farm on which he grew up, was shot in the face in 1964 when he was 21. He tried that summer to integrate the nicest movie theater in Greenwood, Miss., enduring a beating each time.

They were idealists taking on the nation’s shame, students who stood with brave, black Mississippians denied a most basic civil right: the vote.

GREENWOOD, Miss.

A pop and then a scream. “They’ve shot Silas!”

In an instant, everything stopped up at Lulu’s, where the students who had worked all summer in the civil rights cause were being treated to a goodbye party. They scrambled downstairs and out into the rain, crowding around a car with a shattered window. Someone yanked open the door, and Silas McGhee tumbled out. The 21-year-old black activist had been shot in the face.

“Linda, get in,” Linda Wetmore heard, and the 19-year-old from suburban Boston did as she was told, climbing into another car with two other civil rights workers. They coaxed Silas’s body across the back seat, laying his head on Linda’s lap.

Last summer, she had pulled soft-serve cones at the Hanover Dairy Queen. This summer — Freedom Summer, as it would come to be known, 1964 — she was urging black men and women in the Mississippi Delta to try to register to vote.

And now, about to return home, she was clamping a shirt to the gunshot wound. They whipped over the unpaved roads of black Greenwood and heaved across the hump of the Illinois Central railroad tracks that divided this city by race, and Linda pressed hard against Silas’s face.

Until that moment, she had known him only from afar as a local who had been trying to integrate Greenwood’s nicest movie theater all summer, enduring a beating each time and still going back, before joining the voting drive, too. Now his blood seeped through one shirt, then another, drenching Linda’s blue cotton dress beneath. As they rumbled 2 miles toward Greenwood Leflore Hospital, Silas drifting in and out of consciousness, she prayed that he would not die right then, right there.

They called it the Mississippi Summer Project, a bold civil rights push, with Peace Corps-like volunteers from the North, to bring freedom and the vote to the deepest of the Deep South. Linda first heard the pitch from a young professor named Howard Zinn and his activist friends that March while in North Carolina registering voters over spring break.

She knew little about the civil rights movement, but she was a churchgoer who believed “Jesus loves all the children,” so when she’d heard about YWCA scholarship money to go to Carolina for a few days to help, her hand shot up. She was surprised there to discover that separate water fountains really did exist. Now these professors were saying there was a place that was so much worse — a place where black people risked losing their meager jobs, their homes, and their lives if they tried to register to vote.

Mississippi. Though terror and hardship had driven many to the North, there were still 920,000 black citizens living there, nearly half the state. They had one-quarter the income of white people, twice the infant mortality rate, half the schooling, and almost none of the votes. The country was hurtling into the space age, but not even 10 percent of black people in the Delta had a flush toilet and none had a voice in government. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC, or “snick” — had been dodging bullets and bombings for three years to register black Mississippians, and still just 28,000 of them could vote.

But if enough students — enough white college students from the North — flooded down to help, then the media, and Washington, would be forced to take note. That was the hope. Linda could feel her heart race as the professors spoke. With their help, even Mississippi could change.

Others felt the charge, too. Soon, more than 1,000 students — overwhelmingly from New England, New York, and the West Coast — would fill out applications to spend the summer working for a coalition led by SNCC.

They included Amherst high school senior Chris Williams, who slipped into a civil rights talk at Smith College and heard about the Summer Project from visiting Yale students aligned with SNCC. He was just 18 — Boy Scout rifle team, Beatles haircut — but he, too, had gotten a taste of the movement during a trip to North Carolina. A UMass historian’s son with a spirited streak, he wanted to put himself “on the right side of history.” He saw a chance for more adventure before starting college at Penn in the fall. And civil rights just “seemed like the hot thing.”

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SOURCE: The Boston Globe – Eric Moskowitz

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