Into the Circle: Reflections on 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer Commemorative Events in Mississippi—Part 4

Saturday, June 28
All of a sudden, another Saturday had arrived. It was time to reconnect with people I hadn’t yet seen, meet as many more as I could, and say goodbyes. What better place than the 1964 Meridian Freedom School Veterans pavilion at Highland Park during the 48th annual National Council of Meridianites reunion picnic?

I finally got to speak at length with Mark Levy, 1964 Meridian Freedom School principal, and Dr. Bill Scaggs, Meridian Freedom Project—school leaders then and now. Relatives of Mrs. Mable Otis stopped by. Her speech at Wednesday night’s ceremony was enthralling, more poetry than remarks, more reenacted than spoken, as she let us into the darkness and bright light of her life during the movement. I also spoke with relatives of the legendary Mrs. Polly Heidelberg, who marched, picketed, met, organized, and faced down the Klan.

This 50th anniversary commemoration was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. But it’s possible that my daughter, who accompanied me to all the events, may participate in the 100th anniversary. I hope so. I hope she and the young people who took part in the commemoration will carry on the work of the veteran “rock stars,” drawing strength from their dedication and renewing, cementing, and surpassing their achievements. As Gail Falk advised young people in a recent interview for Vermont public radio, “Listen for the call.”

I discovered that the fog machines, though not the “thermal foggers” of the sixties, are running again in Mississippi. I’m saddened, but not surprised. The Fog Machine is both title and overarching metaphor for my novel, with its theme that we are all prejudiced. The metaphor is a compound one. Not just “fog,” which is confusing, mysterious, and obstructive. Not simply a “machine,” which is rhythmic, controlled, and organized. But a “fog machine,” which is poisonous, seductive, pervasive, deadly, distorting, and relentless. I relate the metaphor to the mission statement of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation which describes prejudice as “systemic and institutionalized.”

As for those civil rights movement veteran “rock stars,” whom I had placed on a pedestal for so long, they fell not a notch in my esteem by appearing in the flesh. On the contrary, having dedicated their lives to human rights, they soared even higher. What I learned, though, is that no matter their role in Freedom Summer, they were and are foremost, teachers. We are all graced by their work. For education remains at the core of our citizenry, whether as Americans or humans.

Commentary by Dani Follett-Dion, Susan Follett’s daughter

Arriving at the Meridian Freedom Project on Monday, June 23, the day before my mom’s presentation was scheduled, we had the privilege of previewing the whole school. I got to see the kids learning and having fun in each classroom. We were introduced to Ms. Haywood, Mr. Smith, and Mr. McAlilly, the teachers of each rhetoric class that my mom would be speaking to about her book, The Fog Machine.

As we were setting up back at the rhetoric classroom, the first class came in. These students are going into 8th grade this fall. Although it was a small class, many good thoughts and questions were generated during discussion. One activity that was included in all of the classes was a brainstorming activity. The students were asked to write some ideas finishing the prompt, “I have a dream that one day…” The Fog Machine includes a scene where six students read their “I Have a Dream” compositions at an assembly. In my mom’s research, she obtained compositions written by actual 1964 Meridian Freedom School students. We took the ideas of the students at the MFP and wrote them all out on the board. We then saw how each idea either related to a fictional one from The Fog Machine or one from the actual 1964 compositions, or both. I was surprised how alike the ideas were and how they had only changed slightly because of time. For example, both actual and fictional 1964 students imagined the first black US President. A 2014 dream was about the first woman President. Some of the dreams expressed, for example no more hate and discrimination, were exactly the same as the ones 50 years ago.

Another activity that all of the classes did was a Q&A session. Hands instantly shot up and questions were answered one by one. My mom encouraged lots of questions. The last question asked was by a student looking at the book cover. “Who is Susan Follett?” My mom responded, “That’s me!” The student, perhaps shocked to be talking to an author said, “Get out of here!” The teacher and my mom thanked the student for his question, pointing out that it was important and others may also have wondered the same thing. In the 1964 freedom schools and the Meridian Freedom Project, one of the key lessons taught is the right and responsibility to question.

It was such an exciting experience being with my mom at her very first book talk at a school. I really enjoyed being able to see what the Meridian Freedom Project is like, and I hope my mom can do something like it again.

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.