Into the Circle: Reflections on 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Commemorative Events in Mississippi—Part 1

I traveled home to Mississippi for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer with a multitude of expectations and hopes. I’d grown up in Meridian. As a white child in 1964, I lived unaware of history swirling around me, naïvely perpetuating Jim Crow. But I’d spent the better part of the last seven years researching and writing about that history. I’d been guided in my work by many who were on the front lines during Freedom Summer. And I’d read and watched documentary footage about so many others. All had acquired “rock star” status in my mind. Larger than life, braver than most, belonging to a community of purpose—people I never dreamed I’d meet in person.

But 50th anniversary commemorative events beckoned the movement veterans back to Mississippi and invited students young and old to participate. What, I wondered, would these distant heroes be like in person? What would and would not be as I’d expected and hoped? Travel with me, to the events I was privileged to take part in.

Saturday, June 21

Meridian planned and hosted a robust schedule of commemorative events. I arrived in time to attend the Martyr Commemoration and Bell Toll Ceremony on Saturday, June 21 in the historic Temple Theatre where, in 1964, Meridian’s black citizens were relegated to the balcony. From our seats in the back row of the lower level, daughter Dani and I watched as a mostly black crowd assembled. Peace lilies graced the stage, both a fitting tribute and call to action. The program opened with a wonderful performance of freedom songs such as “Oh Freedom” and “Walk in the Water.” A poor singer, I nonetheless joined in with the audience, imagining the songs being sung in 1964, feeling their power.

Two African American mayors were part of the program. Second-term Mayor James Young, Philadelphia, Mississippi’s first African American mayor, urged us to “celebrate and cry,” for the freedoms we’ve gained and lost since the summer of 1964. First-term Mayor Percy Bland, Meridian’s first African American mayor, spoke of media control of the message and African American/civil rights history not being taught in our schools, both during the time of Freedom Summer and today.

Gail Falk, 1964-65 Meridian Freedom School teacher, shared a moving and richly detailed letter she wrote to her parents shortly after the discovery of the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. I’d spent hours over the past several years, emailing and talking on the phone with Gail, but never met her in person until shortly before the program when she greeted me with a hug.

Precisely at noon, in the midst of a performance by the Fitkins Memorial Church of Nazarene Choir, we paused as bells tolled around Meridian in memory of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner and all the martyrs.

One of the last to take the podium was James Chaney’s daughter, Angela Lewis, who spoke to the storyteller in all of us, “The movement stopped when we stopped telling our story.” The program closed with the anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Those on stage crossed arms and joined hands with their neighbors, as I knew Freedom Summer volunteers did after every meeting. In the audience, we joined hands.

And then, the unexpected. I was asked to join the group photo. Little white girl grown up. Passive participant then in “separate but equal,” now a more aware storyteller. Admiring from afar those who risked their lives for change. I’d been drawn into the circle, and I saw how large it is, how large it needs to be. I discovered, just as fictional Freedom Summer volunteer Zach Bernstein does in my novel, that freedom is an ever-expanding circle, like a balloon that can be blown up bigger and bigger without bursting.

About the Author

Susan Follett grew up in Meridian, MS, home in 1964 of the largest freedom school and the COFO office where Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney stopped before their fateful trip to Mount Zion. Her debut historical novel The Fog Machine, set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964, explores prejudice and what enables change, from the perspectives of a 12-year-old white girl, a young black woman who has left Mississippi for Chicago, and a Jewish Freedom Summer volunteer from New York City.