Letters from Mississippi -- Fall 1964 and Summer 1965
Originally posted: Spring-Summer, 2013
Latest update: 30 September 2020
Site updated: 29 May 2019
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"Make them live
in a valley of fear . . .
a valley guarded by our men
who will both be
their only hope
and the source of their

Adolph Hitler, 1939 *

"Mississippi Law:" an oxymoron of law enforcement violating rights,
a stereotyped southern phenomenon then, but increasingly ubiquitous now,
in the actions of militarized local police and the "anti-terrorist" Dept. of Justice
(quotation and picture: Ramparts Magazine's stunning "Mississippi Eyewitness")


I was in my sophomore year at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1964, when Heather Tobis (later the remarkable Heather Booth) came to the university to recruit students to go south to Mississippi.

A brief bit of background -- In 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the umbrella Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) had been working on black voter registration, but ran into severe opposition, with the Federal government backing away from providing support. So they got almost 30,000 unregistered black people to show up for the August gubernatorial primary with legal provisional ballots. These ballots were all disqualified or thrown out, accompanied by violence. So SNCC and COFO decided to run a separate, symbolic election that fall for the disenfranchised blacks -- the Freedom Vote -- to expose the illegality of what was happening. Amid continued violence, local black organizers and northern white volunteers fanned out everywhere and collected ballots from a fifth of the black voting age population. The election didn't elect anyone, but it was a tremendous symbolic success, and it formed the basis for organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

The next summer -- the legendary Freedom Summer of 1964 -- the activists continued local MFDP party organizing, again against massive and this-time-well-documented violence. It elected delegates to the Democratic National Convention, to be seated in place of the illegally-constituted regular Democratic delegation from Mississippi. In the end this effort was blocked by a Lyndon Johnson afraid to lose the Southern vote. So the goal that fall was instead to get black Mississippians to vote in a reprise of the previous year's Freedom Vote, again staffed by southern blacks (SNCC/COFO/MFDP) and northern whites, including me. The election was not only a contest between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, but also between the regular party candidates and the MFDP's own candidates. (Ironically, in spite of his role in snuffing the MFDP delegation, I found Johnson to be liked by most of the ordinary people I encountered in the black communities in which I worked that fall, because of his connection to the idolized JFK.)

The white hats -- Although the black civil rights movement in the 1950's and early 1960's had been making huge strides on its own, these strides and the associated violence weren't getting the kind of steady high-visibility profile in the rest of the country and government that the use of whites could bring -- particularly if there were the kind of violence and murders that were so often ignored by the press when black activisits were involved. In many ways, the black activists made it clear at the orientations I experienced that they would have much rather continued work on their own. Many, perhaps most, of the northern whites didn't understand at the time that we were to a significant extent racially and culturally clueless and partially blinded by white privilege. But though the black local activists often resented the whites, they apparently felt obliged to accept the publicity value a white contingent could provide.

My own experience -- Unaware of this dynamic -- and I was spared from it in my later on-the-ground work in the Summer of 1965 -- I was quite taken with Heather and her spiel, and resolved to go. However, as a point of clarification, I should mention that had it not been for my growing up in a family involved in peace and social justice work, resulting in a framework some of my peers called "radical," I might never have gone, because I probably wouldn't have been at Heather's event, or been sensitive to its message.

So I ended up on a night train, heading South. I remember vividly passing through Chicago, watching through the window as the streetlight-lit avenues stretched off to the side and disappeared, wondering if I would make it back alive. I did, after spending a total of only ten days in Mississippi prior to the 1964 election, mainly on the Gulf Coast and neighboring towns inland. But a lot can happen in ten days.

It was an intense experience in many ways, to say the least, fraught with both real danger and the racial frictions within the movement. Whenever I hear "She's Not There" by the Zombies, which was playing on a car radio at a dangerous time, I get a chill in my back. When I returned to Chicago, I tried to capture the whole experience in a single letter to my family and friends. But more importantly, I resolved to go down the following summer and try to make a real difference.

The summer of 1965 was aimed voter registration. I went to Mississippi via a long orientation session in Washington and several intermediate stops in Mississippi before ending up in Columbia, the county seat of Marion County. I worked there with Curt Styles -- a superb human being and a wonderful project leader -- and 3 white co-workers.

Because there hadn't been any prior MFDP presence there, we ended up doing more SNCC-type activist civil rights organizing. We experienced phone harassment, malnutrition, fire bombing, shooting, jailing (including beating), and community fear-based apathy. But we also experienced warm support and gutsy (mostly on the part of the younger people) participation in the black community. And that we survived is partly attributed to Columbia's mayor, E.D. "Buddy" McLean, who was determined not to have his town become another Selma or Philadelphia, despite what might have been contrary wishes on the part of some of the area's law enforcement.

And he might not have succeeded had he not two years earlier recruited as his new minister Rev. Bill McAtee from a church in a town 150 miles north of Columbia. What we didn't know at the time was that the mayor was not alone. There was a bi-racial group of ministers working behind the scenes in getting community support for him. Rev. McAtee was one of them and half a century later wrote a book about his experiences. It was while looking for context links to enrich this site that I stumbled on that book and found a whole new world of perspective opening up on our experiences there. I am indebted to Rev. McAtee for his help in gathering this new information.

Beyond this background, I'll let the letters -- particularly the long November 11, 1964 and August 9, 1965 summaries and Rev. McAtee's September 2, 1965 letter -- speak for themselves. I hope they will add some frank, honest reality to whatever you may know of the voter work done in Mississippi.


Note on the letters:
  • I have intermixed my letters from various civil-rights activity locations with the portions of my parents' letters to me which bore on what I was experiencing; these were not detached parents.
  • The letters are in date order. However, given delays in delivery and the fact that the "August 9" letter was written and mailed in instalments, events referred to in this mixed set may not appear in strict chronological order.
  • The quality of the copy I had of the 1964 letter was sufficient to permit text scanning, with much correction. However, the 1965 letters were hand-written or poor carbon copies, so I ran them through dictation software and then edited corrections. I've attempted to keep them as true as possible to the originals, except for a few punctuation clarifications and paragraph breaking in the August 9 letter, and the addition of links to people and background information, illustrations, and occasional [explanatory comments] and "[snip]" deletions of non-germane personal material.
  • Because of the number of letters and amount of detail, I've also provided a kind of overview outline for those looking for something in particular.
      Overview of Letters

1964 Letter
    November 11, Chicago, IL

1965 Letters
    June 25, Washington, DC
    June 30, Washington, DC
    July 2, Washington, DC
    July 3, from home
    July 7, Hattiesburg, MS
    July 11, from home
    July 11, Laurel, MS
    July 17, Laurel, MS
    July 21,27, from home
    August 9, Columbia, MS
    August 12, Columbia, MS
    August 24, Columbia, MS
    Jail/beating (2013 note)
    Departure (2013 note)
    Epilogue (2013 note)
    September 2 (Rev. McAtee)
    December 21 (Christmas card to mayor)

Interview (2005)

Rev. McAtee recruitment -- 6 primary docs (1964)
Mayor McLean's notes -- 18 primary documents

Mississippi Eyewitness (1964)
    (a special Ramparts magazine supplement)

    State of Mississippi
    Mississippi Congressional Districts
    Amory/Columbia Mississippi (1964)
    North-central portion (1964)
    Southern/coastal Mississippi (1964)
    Columbia sector (July 1965)
    Columbia (July-August 1965)
    Columbia streets
    Nathan Street corner
    Courthouse Square
    Columbia chase

Supplementary information
    People *
    Born of Conviction (1963; manifesto of 28 MS ministers)
    Church Intolerance (1963; book excerpts)
    Mayor McLean's tribute to JFK (1963)
    Permission slip draft (1964)
    Calendars: June-August 1965
    "For Your Consideration" (July 1965; ministers' letter to leaders)
    Pittsburgh COFO/bail-fund notes (1964,65)
    Columbia tied-up phone problem (parent notes, 1965)
    News coverage of fire-bombing/shooting (1965)
    Money and shipping (1965)
    Columbian-Progress editorial (19 Aug 1965)
    A powerful story of sudden racial insight (1965)
    White Privilege, Peggy McIntosh (1989)
    Ira Grupper's article on Curt Styles (2003)
    COFO/SNCC WATS-line logs (Wide-Area Telephone Service; 1964-5)

Three of the songs, one from a labor tradition, two from gospel, which were very important to us in Columbia and for which we composed verses (1,2).

Which Side Are You On (original)

Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

Wade in the Water

Site discoveries: While putting this site together, I realized that some visitors would be unfamiliar with some or all of the players, famous or otherwise, that are mentioned in these letters. So I searched for information to which I could link their names that would put them in context and included this in a "people" file. Several of these searches led me to fascinating resources, of which there are undoubtedly hundreds more. Here are two primary sources in particular:
  1. In the case of Biloxi project director Dickie Flowers, I stumbled on an aspect of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project that I'd forgotten about.

    Because of the dangers involved in this work, particularly in remote places, it was considered necessary to have a way for people to call a central coordinating office at no charge. Before the era of 800-numbers, such a service was called a WATS (wide area telephone service) line. While looking for Dickie, I stumbled on what appears to be a full set of transcripts of the traffic on the Freedom Summer WATS line, in what looks at first to be a graphic of crude typewriting, but is text-searchable. What a resource!

  2. In the case of Greenwood project director John Handy, I found the "Mississippi Summer Project -- running summary of incidents, 1964," a remarkable daily itemization of individual "incidents" in Mississippi towns that summer:

  3. While looking for information on Curt Styles, my project director, I came upon a book written about Columbia at exactly that time by Rev. Bill McAtee, a white minister who, along with another white minister and three black ministers, helped Columbia's visionary mayor shepherd the town through a crucial time in what may have been a uniquely (and relatively) benign process of desegregation:

    Transformed: A White Mississippi Pastor's Journey Into Civil Rights and Beyond

    Since then, I've been engaged with a wonderful correspondence with Bill McAtee, and as a result of that, with Chris Watts of the Marion County Historical Society. Bill has provided me with a whole new world of insights into what the situation looked like from "the other (well-meaning) side," as have some of the materials Chris provided Bill for researching his book and has given me permission to use. They have both enriched this site tremendously.

*   This quote comes from the Mississippi Eyewitness article "Valley of Fear" by David Welsh. In latter years I have tried to locate original authentication for it, but have so far been unable to.