Into the Circle: Reflections on 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Commemorative Events in Mississippi—Part 3

Thursday, June 26
The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference was held on the Tougaloo College campus in Jackson June 23-29. It included a youth congress. I attended two panel sessions on Thursday and the authors’ event on Friday night. Of course, rock stars abounded here.

Bob Moses moderated “Structure Opportunities for Educational Access for the Bottom Quartile of the Economic Distribution,” with panelists Marian Wright Edelman and Walt McDonald, CEO of Educational Testing Services. Bob Moses was among the earliest boots on the ground in Mississippi. He came to McComb in 1961 to begin the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and shaped both Freedom Summer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Erudite and intense, he spoke on constitutional eras and educational models, setting the stage for what’s needed today. Mrs. Edelman reminded us that “being a child does not mean being a citizen in waiting.”

Heather Booth moderated “Building Alliances with the Civil Rights Immigrant Rights Movement,” with panelists Julian Bond, Carman Berkley, and Cristina Jimenez. Mr. Bond prefaced his remarks by saying he’s the kind of speaker who prefers to write out and read his speech. He proceeded to deliver his trademark eloquence, with bitingly clever and powerfully inspirational turns of phrases. Passionate now-generation activists Carman Berkley and Cristina Jimenez are both alumni of Ms. Booth’s Midwest Academy, a national training institute committed to advancing the struggle for social, economic, and racial justice. Ms. Berkley is the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director at the AFL-CIO. Ms. Jimenez is a co-founder and Managing Director of United We Dream. I was thrilled to meet Heather in person after the session. She was one of the earliest resources and supporters of my research for my novel, having been an activist since her days at the University of Chicago and in Ruleville as a Freedom Summer volunteer.

Both sessions included lively audience participation from people clearly invested in continuing the movement. The overarching takeaway from each session is that much more remains to be done on behalf of human rights.

Friday, June 27
Meridian Community College hosted a joint book talk in the Homer Casteel Gallery: Freedom Summer-centric works by Meridian natives Bernice Sims and Susan Follett. Ms. Sims, 1964 Meridian Freedom School student and activist, read from and discussed her memoir Detour Before Midnight. I read from and discussed my historical novel The Fog Machine. Dr. Bill Scaggs, MCC President Emeritus and co-founder of the Meridian Freedom Project, moderated.

Audience discussion turned to the need for civil rights education. Eric Porter, son of Reverend R.S. Porter, then head of the Meridian NAACP and pastor of First Union Baptist Church where many civil rights meetings were held, spoke passionately on the need.

It goes beyond the adage by George Santayana that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So many, like me, did not know the history in the first place. The Southern Poverty Law Center issued its original report on the state of civil rights education in the US in 2011, with an update in March of this year. Mississippi was one of 12 states that received a grade of C or higher. Most got an F. Even in Mississippi, the first state to mandate civil rights education K-12, much work is needed. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported on June 22 that, “While state law requires that civil rights lessons be taught in every grade, teachers and students across Mississippi say lessons on the state’s past are uneven at best and sometimes nonexistent.”

Hard-won rights for voting and equal access gained during Freedom Summer have since been taken away or threatened. Knowing the history gives us a foundation for conversations about prejudice so that we may collectively move forward.

That evening, it was back to Jackson for the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Conference authors’ event. Noteworthy among those who stopped by my table were Marlene McCurtis, Director/Producer and Joy Silverman, Producer of “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” with Professor Debbie Harwell, Wednesdays in Mississippi: Proper Ladies Working for Radical Change. WIMS, the only women-run national civil rights organization, sent interfaith/interracial teams of women into Mississippi during the height of Freedom Summer. So wonderful to meet these women dedicated to sharing the WIMS story.

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.