They heard the call of freedom, a summons that still haunts
They were idealists taking on the nation’s shame, students who stood with brave, black Mississippians denied a most basic civil right: the vote.
By Eric Moskowitz | Globe staff
A pop and then a scream. “They’ve shot Silas!”
In an instant, everything stopped up at Lulu’s, where the students who had worked all summer in the civil rights cause were being treated to a goodbye party. They scrambled downstairs and out into the rain, crowding around a car with a shattered window. Someone yanked open the door, and Silas McGhee tumbled out. The 21-year-old black activist had been shot in the face.
“Linda, get in,” Linda Wetmore heard, and the 19-year-old from suburban Boston did as she was told, climbing into another car with two other civil rights workers. They coaxed Silas’s body across the back seat, laying his head on Linda’s lap.
Last summer, she had pulled soft-serve cones at the Hanover Dairy Queen. This summer — Freedom Summer, as it would come to be known, 1964 — she was urging black men and women in the Mississippi Delta to try to register to vote.
And now, about to return home, she was clamping a shirt to the gunshot wound. They whipped over the unpaved roads of black Greenwood and heaved across the hump of the Illinois Central railroad tracks that divided this city by race, and Linda pressed hard against Silas’s face.
Until that moment, she had known him only from afar as a local who had been trying to integrate Greenwood’s nicest movie theater all summer, enduring a beating each time and still going back, before joining the voting drive, too. Now his blood seeped through one shirt, then another, drenching Linda’s blue cotton dress beneath. As they rumbled 2 miles toward Greenwood Leflore Hospital, Silas drifting in and out of consciousness, she prayed that he would not die right then, right there.
They called it the Mississippi Summer Project, a bold civil rights push, with Peace Corps-like volunteers from the North, to bring freedom and the vote to the deepest of the Deep South. Linda first heard the pitch from a young professor named Howard Zinn and his activist friends that March while in North Carolina registering voters over spring break.
She knew little about the civil rights movement, but she was a churchgoer who believed “Jesus loves all the children,” so when she’d heard about YWCA scholarship money to go to Carolina for a few days to help, her hand shot up. She was surprised there to discover that separate water fountains really did exist. Now these professors were saying there was a place that was so much worse — a place where black people risked losing their meager jobs, their homes, and their lives if they tried to register to vote.
Mississippi. Though terror and hardship had driven many to the North, there were still 920,000 black citizens living there, nearly half the state. They had one-quarter the income of white people, twice the infant mortality rate, half the schooling, and almost none of the votes. The country was hurtling into the space age, but not even 10 percent of black people in the Delta had a flush toilet and none had a voice in government. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC, or “snick” — had been dodging bullets and bombings for three years to register black Mississippians, and still just 28,000 of them could vote.
But if enough students — enough white college students from the North — flooded down to help, then the media, and Washington, would be forced to take note. That was the hope. Linda could feel her heart race as the professors spoke. With their help, even Mississippi could change.
Others felt the charge, too. Soon, more than 1,000 students — overwhelmingly from New England, New York, and the West Coast — would fill out applications to spend the summer working for a coalition led by SNCC.
They included Amherst high school senior Chris Williams, who slipped into a civil rights talk at Smith College and heard about the Summer Project from visiting Yale students aligned with SNCC. He was just 18 — Boy Scout rifle team, Beatles haircut — but he, too, had gotten a taste of the movement during a trip to North Carolina. A UMass historian’s son with a spirited streak, he wanted to put himself “on the right side of history.” He saw a chance for more adventure before starting college at Penn in the fall. And civil rights just “seemed like the hot thing.”
University of New Hampshire freshman Ellen Siegel spotted the Summer Project flier amid the clutter of a campus bulletin board. She had grown up with liberal parents in diverse neighborhoods around Boston and felt strongly about civil rights. But few shared her views at the conservative state school, and she shied away from political discussions. She thought of herself as an energetic marcher, not a speechmaker, ready to act but waiting for a push.
Here it was, beckoning from the brochures. “Freedom Now.” “Freedom in Mississippi Depends on You.”
The literature did not hide the dangers. At least four local black men had been killed already in the Mississippi voting drive. But still, for the students, the reality of the risks didn’t quite click.
They were clean-cut idealists, raised in ’50s suburbia. They had no idea then that two months in Mississippi would change them more than it would change that intransigent state, that they would come home unable to resume old routines — that one summer would remain a signal experience of their lives, a source at once of deep pride and disappointment, 10 years, 20 years, and now 50 years out.
Silas McGhee’s childhood expectations were nothing like theirs. He grew up in Greenwood, a cotton-trading city of 20,000 in the heart of the Delta, the fertile floodplain covering the northwest quarter of Mississippi, the blackest part of the state. His father, toiling nights and weekends, had transformed 60 acres of swamp outside of town into rows of cotton and corn — a rare black landowner amid 25-cents-an-hour cotton pickers and tenant farmers in hock to the near-slavery of sharecropping. And then, when Silas was 7, he died of a heart attack, leaving Silas’s mother to raise six children.
Laura McGhee refused to hate people based on the color of their skin. Her children watched her offer a cold drink, a hot meal, to travelers passing regardless of race. She was simply bold enough in midcentury Mississippi to want to be treated like a human being. She rented much of her land to a white cotton grower who often left his son to play with her children. When the boy turned 13, the father insisted that the McGhee kids call his son “sir.”
“I don’t mean no harm, I respect you, but you need to keep your child at home,” Laura McGhee told the man firmly, making a strong impression on Silas, who would remember it for life. “I’m not gonna ask not one of my children to say yessir and no-sir to your child.”
When a boy 10 miles up the road — Emmett Till, barely older than Silas — got snatched in 1955 from his great-uncle’s house by a white gunman for the supposed act of whistling at a white woman, then was beaten, shot through the head, and tossed into the Tallahatchie River, Laura McGhee made another thing clear to her kids: “I don’t care what you do. If you make it back home, I will not let nobody come to this house and take you away. I will die first.”
So it made sense that she would line up with SNCC when the first field organizers came to Greenwood in ’62. But Silas watched from afar. When SNCC held a rally at the McGhee farm in ’63, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger performing before the crop rows, Silas wandered off to play baseball.
And then President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964. It was a landmark victory for the movement, but it did nothing to prevent Mississippi, or any state, from blocking black voting; rather, it barred discrimination at “public accommodations” — restaurants, theaters, and the like. Across Mississippi, many businesses and tax-funded facilities closed or became private clubs overnight; Greenwood’s Olympic-sized municipal swimming pool soon turned over to the Kiwanis Club, open only to white people.
While SNCC was laser-focused on the vote, Silas, at 21, wanted to test the new law. He walked 4 miles from the farm into town, hoping to try the Crystal Grill restaurant. Finding it closed, he kept walking to the Leflore Theatre, the jewel of the city’s four movie houses, two white and two black. He sighed when he saw the marquee (“JERRY LEWIS in ‘The Patsy’ ”), no fan of Lewis comedies, but went to the ticket booth anyway.
The woman behind the glass looked stricken at the sight of Silas, but the manager insisted she sell him a ticket. When other patrons started pouring popcorn and Coke on Silas, though, the manager did nothing. Soon, about a dozen jumped him and beat him.
An immovable two-way end on the black high school football team, stoic Silas simply kept coming back, usually with older brother Jake, 23. They tried the movies every few days, never without a melee; within a week, a mob was boycotting outside, threatening even white people who tried to cross the picket.
On July 15, the McGhees had bottles thrown at them. The next day, Silas was walking downtown when three men pulled up in a pickup, ordered him into the cab at gunpoint, and took him to a distant garage, where they threatened him with a wooden plank and a pipe.
“You the nigger that’s been going to the movies?” one asked, according to SNCC’s detailed records. “Ain’t you been taught better than that?”
Before they could go to Mississippi, the summer volunteers went to Ohio for a pair of weeklong crash courses. Linda and Ellen caught rides, part of a caravan leaving Boston, nearly 50 students coming from Harvard alone. Chris hitchhiked, looking so young that police in one town along the way made him call home to prove he wasn’t a runaway.
By then their numbers had been carved nearly in half, thinned of those not quite up for it, or whose fearful parents made them pull out. On the ivy-covered campus of the Western College for Women that June, they joined roughly 150 field workers, mostly Southern and black, barely older than the volunteers but already bloodied in the voting rights fight.
They learned they would divide among a few dozen Mississippi communities where the field organizers had established a foothold, finding brave locals such as Laura McGhee, and work primarily on registration while also setting up small community centers and Freedom Schools, to teach literacy, black literature, and history. They would be support troops, not saviors.
“Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro,” Bob Moses, SNCC’s Mississippi project director, told them that first week. “Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”
They learned less about the details of their work than the mores of Mississippi: the dangers of being spotted by white people in mixed company by day and at all during the night, how to survive a beating, all the ways the state conspired to keep black people from voting.
The media was there to cover it all. The volunteers sensed tension, even resentment, from some of the veteran field organizers, who had survived real bullets and bombs for years without much notice from the press. But then they crossed arms and sang freedom songs: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” “This Little Light of Mine.”
Ellen felt a charge amid so many like-minded people, following the lead of plantation-worker-turned-SNCC-organizer Fannie Lou Hamer, who had been fired and evicted for trying to register in ’62, beaten with a blackjack while jailed in ’63. She struck Ellen like “an old-fashioned truth teller,” powerful and plainspoken.
“Can you imagine the power behind 300 voices singing about freedom? . . . For us, at this moment, there is nothing else that matters — freedom now,” she wrote to her parents, the words tumbling across the page. “I feel as if I am suddenly living for a reason.”
But they could not miss the coming danger. Chris swallowed hard as he saw the knots on the neck of a 21-year-old SNCC organizer named Jimmie Travis. Riding with Moses the year before, Travis had been strafed by one .45-caliber bullet and taken another in the back of the neck.
In that climate, Moses told the volunteers, maybe they would not get many people registered or many to come to the Freedom Schools.
“Maybe all we’re going to do is live through this summer,” said Moses, a softspoken Harlem native with a master’s degree from Harvard. “In Mississippi, that will be so much.”
Writing to his family back in Leverett, Mass., Chris did not mince words. “Dear People at Home in the Safe, Safe North,” he wrote. “Mississippi is going to be Hell this summer. . . . I have no doubt that people will be killed.”
After an all-night bus ride, Chris and 10 others stepped from a Greyhound in the grey dawn on the outskirts of the tiny city of Batesville, along the ridge where the flat, verdant Delta met the undulating Mississippi Hill Country.
No longer was there any sign of the media. Nor could they see their local contact, a Mr. Robert J. Miles. But though it was barely 5 a.m., an all-white crowd was already lining up to stare them down, Batesville police and Panola County sheriff’s deputies mixed among them.
“We’re gonna give you a hard time, goddamn it!” one man shouted.
“We oughta kill these bastards right now,” another snarled.
They tried hard to look invisible. Then Miles pulled up in a panel truck. They piled in and rumbled off to his farm on the edge of town. Like Laura McGhee 70 miles to the south, he was a rare black landowner, fiercely independent. Before SNCC had even arrived, he helped form a black voting league that appealed to the Justice Department to do something about Panola County, where black people made up more than half the 28,000 residents, but just two black voters had been allowed to register between 1890 and 1960.
At the Miles home on Tubbs Road, they tucked into a breakfast of grits, spicy sausage, and scrambled eggs, donned Sunday clothes, and headed down to West Camp Missionary Baptist Church, framed by cotton and cornfields. As the congregants fanned themselves and studied the students, Miles addressed the pews.
“White people are going to tell you that these people are ‘outside agitators,’ ” Chris would remember him saying. “An agitator is the thing in the middle of a washing machine that spins the clothes around. That’s what these folks are here for . . . to get the dirt out.”
They laid low at first, meeting neighbors, playing with children, getting a feel for using an outhouse and priming a pump. In the evenings, they sat on the porch and sang freedom songs; at night, Chris watched Miles and a cast of local movement members — men such as Miles’s son, Robert Jr., a recent college graduate; John Watters, a cotton compress operator; and Earl Tucker, a World War II veteran — slip into the shadows with sidearms, to stand sentinel against night riders from the Klan.
By midweek, Chris was going door to door, hoping to convince people to come to the courthouse to register. Even if they had never tried, they knew in their bones what it meant. White county clerks had kept black people off the rolls with poll taxes, literacy tests, and a question requiring them to interpret any part of the state constitution to the satisfaction of the clerk. Another state law called for the name of anyone who tried to register to be advertised in the local press. That made it easy for Klansmen, who came out at night, to know where to look.
But the door had just opened a crack, Chris tried to explain at each home he visited. A lawsuit, once dismissed with derision in the courts, had just brought a ban on the most egregious parts of the registration test, just for a year, and only in Batesville’s Panola County. Chris carried brochures stamped “One Man — One Vote,” walked up to houses propped on cinder blocks, stood on sagging porches. He tried to talk about creating a better future for their children or grandchildren. People nodded, mumbled in agreement. Later, he would recall being “yessirred to death.”
“Think you’d like to go down to the courthouse to register?”
It was learned behavior for getting along with white people. Once he left, they’d pull the shades.
By Friday, Chris had convinced four to come down to the Panola County courthouse, a muscular building with plantation-house columns anchoring downtown Batesville.
Meanwhile, two hours south, the media had flooded in to cover the search for three Summer Project workers who had gone missing earlier in the week — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, stopped for suspected “speeding,” turned over by the law into the hands of the Klan — and whose bodies would not be found until August.
Governor Paul Johnson speculated, preposterously, they could be hiding in Cuba, perpetrating a hoax. The FBI moved toward reopening its long-shuttered Mississippi office, though the federal agency made it clear that agents would provide no protection for those in danger, only investigations in cases of crime. Parents back home in the North feared the worst, unable to fend off thoughts of their own children “mutilated or dead,” as the Globe noted. In Batesville, Chris tried to busy himself with the work.
On a hallway bench in the courthouse, he was going over the registration-test questions with one of the applicants when the sheriff approached, scoffing that it was a court, not a school. He asked Chris who he was, where he was from, ordering him out. Chris paused to tell the woman with him he would wait for her outside. “Did you hear me, boy?” the sheriff barked. “Get out.”
Alone on the steps, Chris was thinking not of the missing three — who vanished at night — but of the many SNCC workers beaten in daylight, when a couple of project friends appeared. The sheriff and a deputy followed, jawing at them, calling Chris a troublemaker, telling him to go back to Massachusetts so his parents could teach him to behave. But they did not lock him up.
So often, that was how it went. By the end of the Summer Project, the SNCC-led coalition managed to register 1,600 voters — less than 10 percent of those brave enough to visit courthouses and try — against at least 80 beatings; dozens of shootings; more than 60 black church, home, and business bombings; and 1,000 flimsy arrests. But there were thousands more instances of harassment and intimidation. They were always on edge, never knowing when bluster might become something worse.
Sixty miles southwest in Ruleville, Fannie Lou Hamer’s town, Ellen Siegel stared at a tumbledown house at the edge of the black neighborhood known as Sanctified Quarters and wondered how it would ever become a community center and Freedom School. It wasn’t even a whole house — the front half occupied by a pair of elderly women — but two 12-by-12 rooms, a splintering porch, and a crawlspace above.
Just a few days before, the William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church around the corner had been hit with a molotov cocktail. All 30 of the Ruleville volunteers grabbed buckets and brooms, degrimed the windows, dragged out rusted bedding, covered mildewed walls with brightly colored paper. Neighborhood children scampered about, playing and helping at once.
The previous winter, the Boston Friends of SNCC had sent 30,000 pounds of aid, mostly food and clothing, to Ruleville, population 2,000, part of a wider effort to aid communities suffering reprisals because of the burgeoning voter drive in the Delta. The shipments also included thousands of books, and now Ellen and the others sifted those boxes, improvising their own Dewey Decimal system as they sorted the best of the books onto shelves fashioned from the planks of an old outhouse.
The enthusiasm spread through the quarter, this little building a beacon. Soon they had SNCC posters on the porch wall — one showed a black hand raised at the recent March on Washington, under the word “Now”; another had SNCC chairman John Lewis kneeling in prayer with a couple of youths, captioned, “Come let us build a new world together” — and an antenna on the roof, connecting the Ruleville site with the Summer Project’s phone-and-radio security network around the state.
Everything at first felt overwhelming to Ellen; her senses flooded. The heat that enveloped and drenched and made her want to dunk her head every few hours just to cool off. The spittle and sneer of white people if they wandered downtown for supplies. The roar of the cicadas at night, interrupted by the terrifying rumble of cars coming up the gravel, white people traversing the neighborhood to watch or to strike. The roosters crowing at dawn, the day laborers already off to catch the trucks for the plantations, where the poorest lived amid the fields. The beetles and roaches that scattered whenever she turned on the bulb in her room.
“I feel almost as if I am living in a fictional place with make-believe characters, only I know differently,” Ellen wrote home.
Most mornings, she had “baby minding” duty at the center, while others taught their mothers and grandmothers literacy and health. She had not pictured changing diapers when she first saw the flier at UNH. But just being there felt profound. “You must have a kooky daughter,” she wrote home, “because I am very happy here.”
In the afternoons, the volunteers held classes inside and on the lawn, dozens of children coming after public school let out. Black students in the Delta attended a “split session” year, enduring school in the hottest months because plantation bosses expected them to chop weeds in spring and pick cotton in fall.
While others taught about the Middle Passage and Martin Luther King, Ellen played to her strength as a visual artist. When the children drew only white faces, she encouraged them to imagine African villages, and to express themselves with bold colors and abstract art.
The younger students wrote to pen pals in Australia, arranged by a teacher who had grown up there. One letter struck Ellen so much that she typed a copy to save, an earnest note from 11-year-old Betty Jean Hackett that blended pleasant greetings with descriptions of cotton plants and black faces. “Oh I forgot to tell you,” Betty wrote, “we do not have Freedom in Mississippi but the white folks do. Most of them is rich. We don’t have jobs and our mother and father hardly can’t go register and vote.”
In the evenings, Ellen joined the other volunteers at mass meetings, attendance drummed up by those going door to door, 50, 100, even 300 people straining to stay awake after 12 hours in the fields, learning Freedom Songs, listening to speeches about the vote’s power to end all-white juries and replace racist sheriffs.
In mid-July, they tried to penetrate the little cotton-gin town of Drew just up the road but couldn’t secure a meeting place, staging a gathering instead outdoors on a quiet street. A few of the volunteers got arrested; the mayor berated one — a Rhode Islander working on a history PhD — as a “Communist,” saying that “livin’ with niggers was un-American and anti-Christian.” But they returned in even bigger numbers the next night.
As some locals joined in and many more watched, police shut down the singing and speechmaking, arresting 25 who failed to quickly disperse, black and white, Ellen included. She spent two nights on a grimy mattress in a jail cell.
After her parents and others wired bail (an astonishing $4,860 for the group) and movement lawyers got the case bumped to federal court and dismissed, she wrote a 19-page letter home — “Black and white had stood together, hands crossed in the freedom circle. Black and white had gone to jail in the name of a free America.” She signed off the way she would the rest of the summer, “in freedom and in love.”
In Greenwood, Linda got off to a rocky start, driving local project leader Stokely Carmichael crazy. She floundered teaching lessons in the Freedom School — growing up in Hanover, Mass., she’d never heard of Frederick Douglass or Richard Wright — and on a small team assigned to “federal programs,” investigating how money was spent locally and helping eligible black people access programs they were denied. Then Carmichael, a 23-year-old Howard grad, asked if Linda could register voters. “I can do that!” she said.
The daughter of a traveling salesman, she bounded from home to home, asking if people wanted to register at the courthouse. She also asked them to “freedom register,” by signing a form to support a new organization called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They planned to send their own delegation to the Democratic National Convention in late August and challenge the seating of the official, all-white Mississippi segregationist delegates.
Still, she seemed a magnet for trouble, apple-cheeked and ginger-haired. “Hey, Red!” law enforcement and local white people started taunting her, “we’re gonna get you, Red!”
On July 12, she was walking down the street with a 20-year-old Greenwood black woman, Mayola Anderson, when a couple of white men approached. One swung an elbow at Anderson — “get out, damn nigger, don’t walk over me!” — and the other flashed a lead pipe, so they scurried away. When they called police, the officer dispatched didn’t get out of the cruiser. Asking Anderson if she was “with that thing over there,” meaning Linda, he scoffed and drove off.
Back at the office, Carmichael was furious that they had gone out in a mixed group, telling her to write it up, just like so many incidents before it. “We’ve got to be smart about this,” she remembered him telling her. “This is not the Freedom Rides. This is not the cafeteria tables. We don’t even care if we ever see you guys again. We just want the right to vote.”
A few mornings later, she was walking toward the office — she always took a different route — when a pickup pulled alongside. Four white men about her age jumped out. She tried to keep walking, but they circled her, jabbing and pulling at her skirt. Before she knew it, they had tugged a rope around her neck, her hair catching in the noose. Their slurs and curses spilled over each other, but they were all the same, fixated on rape and interracial sex. She clenched her teeth, pulled at the rope, tried to will her eyes into machine guns, but it was no use.
The men got in the cab. One held the rope, another revved the engine. Linda felt the rope yanked like a leash, and she jerked forward, trying not to fall. Then the truck began to move.
“We ain’t killed ourselves a white girl yet!” one of them yelled, she later recalled.
They never got out of first gear. Laughing, they dropped the rope. “We’ll get you next time, Red!” they called. Shaking and soaked in her own urine, she went home to wash up, collapsed on the bed, cried, then resumed her walk to work. She didn’t dare tell Carmichael, ashamed at having him think she couldn’t avoid trouble.
She just kept trying to round people up for “Freedom Day,” July 16, when they would bring 120 interested voters to the courthouse all at once, along with scores of sign-carrying supporters.
“No one will interfere with people going to register,” the chief declared through a bullhorn — they would surely be rejected inside anyway, while being photographed for potential reprisals — “but there will be no picketing.”
Beneath a Confederate monument, the police — in helmets and clubs — suddenly set upon the picketers, herding them into a caged bus. One dragged a pregnant teen across the pavement by the neck; Linda saw another jolt Carmichael in the groin with a cattle prod, his grimace etching forever on her mind.
One hundred and eleven of them were jailed, Linda and nearly 40 others locked in cells above the courthouse, segregated by race as well as gender, the rest taken to the county penal farm. For five days, they remained incarcerated, black and white communicating in the courthouse jail by secret notes, all on a hunger strike. Three days in, Linda doubled over with cramps. A deputy sheriff just jeered. “What’s goin’ on? You pregnant?” he asked, sounding the same note as the guys with the rope. “I wouldn’t be surprised, all them niggers you livin’ with down there.”
They endured a sham trial — convicted without defense attorneys, sentenced to 30 days — before movement lawyers got their cases nullified in federal court. One of the women locked up with her, the writer Sally Belfrage, turned her Greenwood experience into the 1965 book “Freedom Summer.” She admired Linda, describing her as “a laughing redhead who looked like a cheerleader or a cover girl but had a will which dealt with any opposition as though it didn’t exist.”
While Linda was in jail, Silas McGhee was facing down a pipe and a plank in a shed down the road, getting backed against the wall by a plumber, a plumber’s assistant, and the plumber’s 19-year-old son. He caught a few blows to the head but managed to kick his way out and run back downtown, collapsing at Greenwood’s new FBI office.
The next week, he was back at the movies with his brother, catching glass shards in the face when someone in the mob outside the theater threw a bottle that smashed the window of a SNCC car sent to pick them up. While they were treated at the hospital, another mob — many brandishing guns — surrounded the exits before the Justice Department intervened, coaxing local law enforcement to lead the McGhees out with an escort.
Along the way that summer, the McGhee home got firebombed — unsuccessfully, though it would burn down two years later — and shot up three times. Vigilantes killed their dog, their cow, and their horse.
And then, Aug. 15, a Saturday. The black teenagers in Greenwood had become energized, boycotting a grocery store owned by the cop who had dragged the pregnant teen on Freedom Day, then other stores, too. That afternoon, Silas parked at the end of a row near one of the boycotts, and an officer ordered him to move. He said he would, at his own speed. The cop pointed his handgun at Silas’s face, threatening to shoot him right there.
“If that’s what you want to do, you do it,” Silas said, but the officer holstered his weapon. “I’ll get your ass later,” the officer said.
So that night, when he dozed off in his car outside the going-away party for the summer volunteers that night, waiting for the rain to subside before going in, he was not the least bit surprised to awaken just in time to see a pistol against the fogged glass.
“Oh no,” he says today, “not at all.”
Fifty years out, the blood is not what Linda remembers most. It’s what happened at the hospital: Cross-armed cops turned them away at the emergency entrance, ordering them around to the “colored” door instead. When they got there, they had to fetch their own stretcher. And when they lugged Silas to the threshold, the two SNCC workers with her — the ones who had removed their shirts to stanch the bleeding — got turned away for being shirtless. So she pulled Silas inside on her own.
Breathless, drenched in blood, she found a payphone and called the Greenwood project office, relaying that the black doctor had finally arrived, telling them Silas’s condition was critical, and describing what she witnessed in the hall — the police, the orderlies, none hiding their pleasure.
“They finally got that nigger Silas,” she heard a cop say, a grinning officer with pomaded hair. “Ain’t it wonderful?”
For a girl who had grown up waving to officers and believing all doctors felt a deep obligation to treat the sick, that was harder to process than the idea of violent vigilantes riding in the night.
“It was a summer of disillusionment,” she says now, the summer she stopped wearing her cross — supremacists were as churchgoing as anyone — and started signing letters, “yours in the struggle.” “Everything you were taught just seemed to dissolve.”
Like Ellen and Chris, Linda returned to Massachusetts via Atlantic City, holding signs on the boardwalk to support the 68 delegates from the Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert Miles among them, backed by the signatures of 60,000 disenfranchised black voters. President Johnson would try to dispatch them with a “compromise,” no voting power and just two at-large seats, wary of scaring off the fragile Democratic vote in the South. It was a betrayal for those who had placed faith in the system, and the Freedom Democrats rejected it. “We didn’t come all this way,” Hamer said, “for no two seats.”
And then Linda was home in Hanover, a high school Latin teacher acidly calling her a “carpetbagger.” On a double-date to get frappes, the other three declared they would “never kiss a Negro” — or anyone who had. “Well, we better go home right now,” Linda blurted, though she had been too busy to kiss anyone that summer, “because I’ve kissed a lot!”
She returned for her junior year at Pennsylvania’s Beaver College but felt out of place; she spent every weekend in Philadelphia, demonstrating with SNCC for school desegregation, reading black literature, tutoring in a women’s prison. Wanting to understand the roots of black history, she signed up for the Peace Corps and went to Togo.
She never stopped thinking about something Carmichael — soon to become Kwame Ture — told her in Greenwood: When this is all over, “You can go back to your lily-white neighborhoods,” but this is “our struggle” for life.
She moved into Newark when every other white person seemed to be moving out. She taught for decades at an inner-city high school in Oakland, while other white teachers came and went. She never stopped picketing or registering voters. Sometimes people ask her, “When are you going to come out of the ’60s?” Never, she says.
Ellen felt the work was just beginning, but her parents made her return to UNH. She wrote letters to newspapers and politicians, mounted an exhibit of Freedom School art and poetry, corresponded with students in Ruleville. “I was surprised when you said it was a lot of people who didn’t know about Mississippi in the North,” one of them, a girl named Imogene, wrote back. “I used to think everybody knew but nobody cared.”
By spring, Ellen had dropped out. “I was a wreck,” she said. “In Mississippi, I felt so purposeful, and nothing else had that immediacy, for a long time.” She moved to Boston, to New York, to Israel at the spur of the moment, helping with a kibbutz harvest after the ’67 war broke out. She marched against Vietnam, for the women’s movement. She returned to UNH, graduating at 26.
She left activism but raised her son to be attuned to injustice. A lawyer, he has worked for human rights in Guatemala, for gay rights, women’s rights, and civil liberties in Boston. Today, she owns an art gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. The entrance to her home is filled with the same SNCC posters that once decorated the Ruleville Freedom School.
Chris came home, hiked the White Mountains to clear his head, and decided he would not be going to Penn after all. He returned to Mississippi for 14 months, registering voters, establishing a co-op for black farmers, standing guard in the shadows of the Miles house. He survived a near-miss shooting, a mob attack, multiple arrests. Wearied, he decamped for Berkeley in ’65 with an exhausted girlfriend from SNCC, studying agriculture and joining Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers movement. Within a few years, they were married and living on a commune in northern Vermont.
“We felt like America was incapable of redeeming itself,” he recalls, “that the country was screwed up down to its very bones, and that if we wanted a better world, we’d have to make it ourselves.”
The marriage and commune dissolved. Chris drifted, worked construction in Jamaica, studied architecture in New York. Retired now after many years as an architect for Williams College, he serves on his town’s planning board and affordable housing corporation in southern Vermont, trying to make his community a better place.
Chris, like Linda and Ellen, remains deeply proud of participating in Freedom Summer, which helped prod Congress toward passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year. All three see much still — institutionalized racism, a stubborn socioeconomic gap — that needs work. “It doesn’t mean that wasn’t the best thing to do at the time,” Ellen says, “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t significant. It just means we didn’t come very far after that.”
Still, with time, Chris says, Mississippi — he has been back three times in recent years — has become a very different place.
“The slogan during Freedom Summer was ‘Freedom Now,’ ” he says. “But it turned it out it wasn’t going to be instantaneous like that.”
Silas McGhee is still on the farm where he grew up, out on Highway 82, the same road he walked to the Leflore Theatre. The house that burned was never rebuilt; he lives in a rusting trailer amid a collection of junked cars, some of them tangled in kudzu. A dime-sized scar only hints at the bullet that just missed his temple, piercing his left cheek and lodging in his throat. His daughter was 35 before she discovered that it was not a birthmark.
Silas rarely talks about those days, not because they were hard but because he has never been one to look back. Also, he says, “it wasn’t about me.” But when he does, he laughs. There was pain, of course, but also the satisfaction of the good fight. “I really was having a ball,” he says. “I’m serious. It was fun!” He still wonders why anyone cared so much about him trying to go to the movies, but he was never surprised that they did.
Silas values what the Freedom Summer volunteers did but doesn’t share their disappointment that they couldn’t do more. His expectations, then and now, were lower. He grew up with violently enforced segregation as a fact of Delta life.
“They thought they were going to change the world,” he says of the volunteers. “They didn’t expect that white folks would be so vicious.”
After 10 days in the hospital, he went back to work, staying active in the movement until he was drafted in 1966. When he returned from the Army two years later, he found his childhood home burned, and the Leflore Theatre, hobbled by the white boycott, had shuttered, soon to be razed. All these years later, it is still a parking lot.
And Silas still lives amid the red dirt fields and the crops, soybeans now instead of cotton. He worked 15 years as a federal cotton classer, then two decades as a county highway foreman. That he could get and keep a decent job with the government as a black man in Mississippi was something. That he could go so long without anyone else trying to shoot him or burn down his home was something else. In Mississippi, in 1964, that would have been so much.