A Letter from Mississippi 1964

On today's Brian Lehrer Show we are taking calls and collecting stories from those with connections to 1964's Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Here is Brian Lehrer Show producer Jody Avirgan's contribution.

In August of 1964 my mother, Martha Honey, then a Freshman at Oberlin College in Ohio, traveled to Mississippi as a member of SNCC for the "Freedom Summer" campaign to register Black voters. She attended the funeral of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers - Cheney was a black Southerner; Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were white Northerners - murded by the Klu Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. That evening she wrote a letter to a classmate. It appears in Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States. Here is an excerpt:

There is such an overpowering task ahead of these kids that sometimes I can’t do anything but cry for them. I hope they are up to the task, I’m not sure I would be if I were a Mississippi Negro. As a white northerner I can get involved whenever I feel like it and run home whenever I get bored or frustrated or scared.

I hate the attitude and position of the Northern whites and despise myself when I think that way. Lately I’ve been feeling homesick and longing for pleasant old Westport and sailing and swimming and my friends. I don’t quite know what to do because I can’t ignore my desire to go home and yet I feel I am a much weaker person than I like to think I am because I do have these emotions. I’ve always tried to avoid situations which aren’t so nice, like arguments and dirty houses and now maybe Mississippi.

I asked my father if I could stay down here for a whole year and I was almost glad when he said “no” that we couldn’t afford it because it would mean supporting me this year in addition to three more years of college. I have a desire to go home and to read a lot and go to Quaker meetings and be by myself so I can think about all this rather than being in the middle of it all the time. But I know if my emotions run like they have in the past, that I can only take that pacific sort of life for a little while and then I get the desire to be active again and get involved with knowing other people.

I guess this all sounds crazy and I seem to always think out my problems as I write to you. I am angry because I have a choice as to whether or not to work in the Movement and I am playing upon that choice and leaving here. I wish I could talk with you ’cause I’d like to know if you ever felt this way about anything. I mean have you ever despised yourself for your weak conviction or something. And what is making it worse is that all those damn northerners are thinking of me as a brave hero.