Freedom Summer Editorial 6/24/2014

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 23, 2014

Welcome, COFO workers of Freedom Summer, 1964

Boy, you’d hardly have found that headline over an editorial in a Mississippi newspaper 50 years ago. 

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By the time most of you arrived in Panola County that summer, three of your co-workers from the Mississippi Summer Project had already disappeared in Neshoba County. There was no reason anyone thought that could turn out but badly.

Yet you came, first to the home of the late Robert Miles from where you were eventually dispersed into the homes of other volunteer hosts who also put themselves at risk of retaliation for that simple hospitality.

If anyone in the white community welcomed you, they kept it to themselves. The white community at that time totally resented your being here. Some gave vent to their resentment with violence, others simply with hateful looks, unkind words, and subtle and not-so-subtle sabotage of anything with which you had to do in this county.

Yet you came, some for the summer, some longer and some later.

A handful of people in the black community welcomed and encouraged you from the start, others warmed up to you as you overcame their suspicions with your sincerity, determination and sense of mission.

Though it took longer for some of us to realize it than others, you left us better off than you found us.

Among many of us in the white community at the time, there was a feeling that the rigid code of social and systemic separation was untenable but that it should be resolved more slowly. The timetable varied widely from one opinion to the next.

Your work that summer — living with local black people, becoming part of their lives, encouraging them to go to the courthouse to register to vote, operating a freedom school, organizing — was something like having a mirror held up before us, forcing us to realize the emperor has no clothes.

Your work that summer also honed the nascent political skills of a group of Panola’s black leaders, empowering them to continue the work you encouraged and nurtured with your presence. By the end of the summer, according to figures provided by the late Robert Miles Sr. for a 1984 feature series, the number of black voters registered in Panola County went from one — 1 — at the beginning of the summer to 1,000 by summer’s end. It is hard to comprehend 50 years hence just how monumental was that accomplishment.

We are glad that you have come again as we mark the 50th anniversary of that summer. Some of you have visited from time to time during the intervening years, but for others this is your first trip back to Panola County. You will find us drastically changed in some ways and unchanged in others. Racial tension often lies below the surface, but the desire for racial harmony often calms those roiled waters. We are old enough to recall when that was much less so.

We are also old enough to have observed that the Summer of 1964 was pivotal in putting into motion positive changes that improved the lives of this county’s citizens, all of us.

You did that.