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  • 16 Sep 2014

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Freedom Summer, 50 years later

In 1964, a civil rights and voting campaign drew young volunteers to Mississippi; the experience helped change not only that state, but the rest of the nation and the volunteers themselves


Photo Credit: JIM CLARK - From left: Annie Popkin, Karen Haberman Trusty and Joyce Braden Harris get together to talk about Freedom Summer. Popkin and Haberman Trusty were among the hundreds of young people who took part in the 1964 campaign; all three attended the 50th anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss., in June.

In the summer of 1964, hundreds of volunteers from all over the United States — most of them young, white Northerners — went to Mississippi to join local civil rights activists in a campaign to end segregation in what was considered the nation’s most racially oppressive state.

The 10-week campaign, known as Freedom Summer, registered African Americans to vote, set up schools and community centers, and shined a light on what some called a “closed society.”

Violence, including murder, marred that Mississippi summer. No sooner had the campaign begun than three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — disappeared shortly after they were arrested and briefly jailed. Their bodies later were found buried in an earthen dam, according to news reports that shocked the nation.

Other Freedom Summer workers were threatened or beaten; churches and homes were bombed or burned; hundreds of people were arrested.

And yet the volunteers kept arriving. The campaign moved forward. And Freedom Summer is credited with helping to change not just Mississippi but the rest of the nation and even the people who experienced it.

“I believed we helped break up the police state of Mississippi and of the Deep South,” says Karen Haberman Trusty, who joined Freedom Summer as a 19-year-old college student from New York state.

Freedom Summer expanded the work that Mississippians had begun years earlier, says Haberman Trusty, who now lives in Portland. “The local people built the movement that allowed us to show up. They knew what they risked; everyone knew someone who’d been run out or lynched.”

The recruitment of young white people for Freedom Summer drew media attention to what was going on in Mississippi, says Portland resident Annie Popkin, who also grew up in New York and joined Freedom Summer as an 18-year-old Radcliffe College freshman.

“We couldn’t not do it,” Popkin says, recalling she needed her parents’ permission to go.

The north needs help, too, her father had told her. Yes, she agreed, but she would do that later.

Fifty years later

Joyce Braden Harris was too young to join Freedom Summer — she was 13 at the time — but she watched the news on TV from her home in New York City, a young African American inspired to continue the cause for social justice.

“This piece of history is phenomenal. This to me rises up to the top of making change happen,” says Harris, a Portland resident and director of Education Northwest’s Region X Equity Assistance Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide training and technical assistance to public schools in the areas of race, gender and national origin. She also is co-chair of the African American Alliance.

Harris, Popkin and Haberman Trusty all attended Freedom Summer’s 50th anniversary conference held in late June at Tougaloo College, a historic African American college in Jackson, Miss. They were among eight Oregonians who attended the event, which drew not only civil rights veterans but also students from all over Mississippi as well as youth organizers, and included workshops for young people.

The conference’s focus on youth represents the next step, Harris says: to educate young people about Freedom Summer, “how I can share what I learned and what kids can learn from Freedom Summer participants.”

Haberman Trusty and Popkin agree. So many people don’t know what Freedom Summer was, its role in the civil rights movement and the events that followed — the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the women’s movement, the emphasis on black history. Just as important, young people need to know that they can change things.

“If young people knew how much power they have, they’d step up,” says Haberman Trusty, who enjoys speaking to classes about Freedom Summer and wants to do more of it.

Says Popkin, “There’s some sense that there’s no movement now, that was then and it’s over, but that’s what the conference was about. It wasn’t just honoring the past, but inspiring what young people are doing now.”

Photo Credit: JIM CLARK - From left: Annie Popkin, Karen Haberman Trusty and Joyce Braden Harris attended the 50th anniversary conference of Freedom Summer in MIssissippi.

Karen Haberman Trusty: Attacked in Atlanta

Haberman Trusty grew up mostly on Long Island and in 1963 was a white exchange student at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta. There she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, took part in sit-ins and got arrested twice.

“When I got involved in Atlanta, I was so moved, it was all I wanted to do after that,” she says. “People say, ‘Why are you so brave?’ But I didn’t feel that way.”

She started the summer of 1964 working in Oxford, Ohio, with SNCC staff that was training volunteers for Freedom Summer, after which she returned to Atlanta. At Stone Mountain, Ga., she and three young African Americans walked into a public stadium where a Fourth of July segregationist rally was taking place.

“I don’t think we really knew what we were getting into,” she says. “There were 10,000 people at that rally, chanting ‘kill the ...”

The crowd attacked them. “They started hitting us with metal chairs,” she says. “They hit the police who were trying to protect us. It was really scary; I thought I was going to die.”

A white man attending the rally pulled her to safety, and they returned to get the other three out of there. “I believe in segregation, but I don’t believe in violence,” she remembers the man saying.

From Atlanta, Haberman Trusty went to Greenwood, Miss., as part of the SNCC communications staff that kept tabs on the comings and goings of Freedom Summer workers, tracked incidents of violence and sent news reports to SNCC headquarters, from where press releases were issued. The communications department reported good news, too, “if 50 people registered to vote,” Haberman Trusty says.

After Freedom Summer, SNCC challenged participants to work in poor white communities. Haberman Trusty went to Appalachia and Detroit, organizing and teaching in economically depressed areas.

“The movement was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Haberman Trusty says.

The Freedom Summer community meetings held in churches and centers especially inspired her, she recalls. “I do believe it was a spiritual experience, not caring about your safety, not caring what happens to you in a way. I was afraid in one way, but I was so moved by it. I had never experienced that kind of power. Even now when I’m stressed, I sing a freedom song in my head.”

At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about Freedom Summer for years, “not just the attack in Atlanta but the whole experience,” she says. “When we came out of it, I was very scared, very upset. It was wonderful, and it was also traumatic.”

Annie Popkin: an activist since age 13

Popkin walked her first picket line with her mother when she was 13. An African American family had moved to a nearby neighborhood, and their house was burned down, she said, so they joined a rally for fair housing.

In ninth grade, Popkin helped organize a picket of the local Woolworth’s store to pressure the retail chain to abolish segregation in their Southern stores.

She grew up in a progressive family — “not lefties or Communists, but they were progressive at the time,” she says.

“When I was 5 years old I saw the poor black neighborhoods didn’t have grass or sidewalks and the white neighborhoods did. I just had this sense of fairness of what was right and what wasn’t right.”

She spent Freedom Summer in Vicksburg, Miss., the state’s second largest city, where she registered voters and worked at a community center. The night before she was to leave, news arrived that an African American man who had been seen with a white woman had been castrated and murdered, his body thrown into a ditch. “That made us question whether we’d make it worse or better (by going to Mississippi),” Popkin says. “So we called our project leader in Vicksburg and said, ‘Do you still want us to come?’ and he said, ‘Yes, now more than ever.’ There were about 20 of us.”

In Vicksburg, Popkin lived with a sharecropper family and shared a room with another civil rights worker. “We were all housed in the black community; they were very brave to have us,” she says.

And she felt relatively safe: “I think I was insulated from the worst of it because I was in a bigger town.”

Going door to door to register voters “was amazing,” she says. “Every house had a picture of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. White people didn’t usually come to the black community unless they were bill collectors, but once the people knew that their names wouldn’t be publicized and there was no fear of reprisal, they were more willing to register.”

After Freedom Summer, Popkin continued working in many movements for social change. In her career, she spent many years as a women’s studies and ethnic studies teacher and counselor, and now mostly offers counseling in her private practice.

But Freedom Summer stands out as a special time for her. “What I missed from our time in the Mississippi civil rights movement was the vision and embodiment of beloved community — so much singing to keep our spirits safe, so much infusion of the souls of the older folks through our attending church services, being fed at church dinners, which helped mend/heal our bodies and spirits,” she says.

“And we were really very different kinds of folks joined together — the folks sent by their northern churches ... movement folks like myself, sorority sisters sent to do community service and so many more ... All of us were part of creating that beloved community.”

Online info

* To learn more about Mississippi Freedom Summer and its 50th anniversary, visit freedom50.org.

* For more information about Karen Haberman Trusty and the civil rights movement, visit www.inrarefiedair.com.