A Letter from Mississippi 1964

Monday, June 23, 2014 - 10:00 AM

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.


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Comments [4]

Jeff Scheuer from Manhattan

I was eleven years old during Freedom Summer. I attended a school in New York called Walden, and Andrew Goodman was a Walden student, and I remembered him, though he was much older than I.

We spent the next year having civil rights assemblies almost non-stop, and singing “We Shall Overcome"; it was an indelible part of my youth - and an early wake-up call about evil in America.

So I have enormous respect for anyone who took part in Freedom Summer and fir the courage it must have taken to do that, as well as for all the people who suffered under racism and Jim Crow. I’ve always wondered if I would have had that courage.

Jun. 23 2014 11:38 AM
Catherine from New York City

Thanks so much for this powerful segment.

Would your team or either of the guests be able to suggest a reading list on this (for those of us whose history lessons did not cover this...)

Thanks so much.

Jun. 23 2014 11:24 AM

I was in the 7th grade when my sister Sarah Keys Evans was put off the bus in North Carolina. It was a very sad time for our family, but she did become a very brave hero-for over coming such a traumatic experience. We love you Sarah!

Feb. 09 2011 12:58 PM
eva from california

That is just an incredibly evocative letter. So full of youthful restlessness. Quite a contrast between the summer scene in Westport (the freedom of sailing and swimming!) vs. the hard, sweaty, dangerous work in Mississippi.

My parents weren't part of Freedom Summer. They were a struggling bi-racial couple in grad school at that time, and at that time being 'bi-racial' wasn't trendy, even here in SF. But it was sure easier than what the letter writer was facing. And kids like the letter writer were at the forefront of my parents' minds back then.

Thank you for posting this letter - this one letter from your Mom is practically a film unto itself.

Feb. 09 2011 11:14 AM

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