In the summer of 1964—Freedom Summer—more than 1,000 Northern white students traveled for the first time into the Deep South. It was nearly a year since Martin Luther King’s now iconic “I Have A Dream,” speech but back then much of the nation was still either unaware of or uninterested in the ongoing campaign of legal terrorism visited by whites on southern blacks. Freedom Summer, mainly a voter registration project, aimed to change that by waging nonviolence and using young, white bodies to prick the nation’s conscience. And at great cost, it did. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, throughout June, Colorlines will chat with some of its participants. First up, we hear not from a visiting northerner but from one of the southern black students whose lives they touched. Sixty-three-year-old writer and researcher Zellie Orr (pictured at her sophomore prom) was 13 that summer.
I grew up thinking the world was like my hometown, Indianola, Mississippi. The state was basically a closed society. You didn’t really ask questions. What little bit we heard on TV about civil rights, when we asked our teacher she’d say, “We don’t talk about that.” Some of them warned us not to get involved or we’d fail their classes. In Mississippi back then you did what you were told to do. And this wasn’t just blacks. This was the way of life for whites, too. They had their place. We had ours.
That summer at least 30 or 40 mainly white college students came through Indianola. In the first wave I remember a young man named Charlie Scattergood, 23, from the University of Washington-Seattle. He was a field representative for SNCC so he was on the road a lot, registering blacks to vote. A couple of weeks later a second wave would come through and others would leave. They were constantly coming in and out and they stayed with black families. This was totally new for us. It was not permitted in Mississippi for blacks and whites to live together. I used to call it our underground railroad. This time, it was blacks providing the transients with food and lodging.
If I didn’t have Freedom School that summer I’d have probably been in the cotton fields a little more. It was held in the old Baptist school on Jefferson St. and kids like myself, poor people, went. We were afraid but I think our parents felt like we had so little to lose by going, they already made so little money. For the first time I got to see blacks in books and books written by blacks. I remember reading one of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry books. I’d never even known blacks were writers. I actually wrote to Brooks. Of course I never heard back but that didn’t matter. For the first time, teachers were encouraging us to ask questions.
Take our books. Each year at the start of the school year, our teacher would say, “Look at your new books!” And for the world of me I couldn’t figure out why our new books always had names in them. We all thought the names in the books were other black kids who’d graduated and moved on. It was only later that I figured out we were getting used books passed on from the white school. Now I realize, we weren’t even taught to ask a question until the civil rights movement.
I don’t recall when the bombings started but there were at least five between June ‘64 and June the following year. They bombed the old Baptist school. Two houses down from me, they bombed Mrs. Irene Magruder’s home because she had hosted Charlie and so many of the Northerners coming through Indianola. I remember them and the neighbors trying to put the fire out and the fire truck was moving so slow. The firemen* claimed they couldn’t get the hose connected to the fire hydrant fast enough. Even before that happened though we’d been getting calls at our house. A gentleman would be on the other end saying things like, “Don’t get involved,” or “If you keep on working with ‘em, you gon’ get it.” It was a scary time if you challenged the normal way of life.
I’m called a veteran of the civil rights movement but to me I didn’t really do any thing. I just walked with a sign. My friends went and marched so I wanted to march too. I went to Freedom School and most people did not do that. Looking back now, I’m very grateful for the stand I took. My mom especially who was a domestic, a maid, she gave me the incentive. Our push in Mississippi wasn’t to integrate restaurants. It was for the right to vote.
In 1997, Charlie Scattergood and I reconnected and fell in love. He lived in Virginia, I in Georgia so he moved at the end of ‘98. We planned to be married the following year. That February while on his way home from work*, he was rear-ended in a traffic accident and killed. I took his ashes back to Indianola. He always said I would be the one to tell his story.
Want to see if anyone from your state or hometown participated in Freedom Summer ‘64? Check out the Wisconsin Historical Society.
* Post has been updated.