Bringing History to Life

By Daney Daniel Kepple


From Freedom Summer to the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike

Events that dominated U.S. news coverage for several decades don’t get much ink these days. Are civil rights issues still relevant? Rhodes Professor Russ Wigginton, who teaches a course about the American civil rights movement, is concerned about his students′ answers to that question.

“This generation sees the struggles of 40-50 years ago as being the resolution of those issues rather than merely bringing to the attention of the country all of the disparities that exist,” he says. “They think we fixed it. I think we just began to define the problems. We’re still in ′fixit′ mode.”

Wigginton joined forces with Dr. Leslie McLemore, professor of political science at Jackson State University in Mississippi, to try to do some “fixing.” McLemore is also director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute on Citizenship and Democracy, named for the famed civil rights activist and cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of the 1960s. The two requested funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to inspire elementary, middle, junior and high school teachers from around the country to teach the civil rights movement in compelling ways. They received the funding, and the program, titled “From Freedom Summer to the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike,” got under way in summer 2004.

Many Voices

 The program is the first collaboration between Rhodes and the Hamer Institute and a continuation of the growing partnership between the college and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Focusing on the 1964 “Freedom Summer” voter registration drive in Mississippi and the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that led to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, it attracted teachers from all over the country to study in Jackson and Memphis, tour landmark sites, meet veterans of the movement and hear their firsthand recollections. For example:

  • Wazir Peacock, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stood in front of the home of the late Medgar Evers and gave a moving account of the assassinated NAACP field secretary’s courage and service to the movement.

    “There was absolutely nowhere, no matter what time of day or night, that he wouldn’t go to offer encouragement and support,” Peacock said. “I saw him stand in front of the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood without moving for an entire day to give people the courage to walk past a big crowd of white people to get inside and register to vote.”
  • The Rev. Billy Kyles of Memphis recounted his memories of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final hour of life.

    “We were three ministers shut up in a room together, talking about preacher things,” he said. “Martin was in a lighthearted mood. He and Andy Young actually had a pillow fight.” Then, “There simply are no words to describe how I felt when he was killed.”
  • Rims Barber, a Presbyterian minister from Iowa who came to Mississippi for Freedom Summer and stayed, told a harrowing tale of lying on the floor with a terrified family while a cross burned in their yard.

    “I couldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” Then he added, “We didn’t know we were going to win. They had all the guns and all the laws.”

Strong Community

Woven through the stories of grief and hardship was a love of people and place remarkable to program participants from outside the South. For example, Dr. L.C. Dorsey, associate director of the Delta Research and Cultural Institute at Mississippi Valley State University, spoke fondly of her childhood even though she grew up in poverty.

“There was a closeness in the community that I’ve never experienced since. There was no welfare or food stamps because food was shared. People planted and canned extra for the needy or those who just couldn’t get it together. When someone lost their housing, they moved in with someone else. I never saw a homeless person until I got to Washington. We never knew how poor we were because we had gardens and there were always fish and rabbits to eat.”

Dr. Beverly Bond, director of African and African-American Studies and associate professor of history at the University of Memphis, grew up in a middle class family in Memphis. Although she spoke with passion about the humiliations of segregation, she added, “I don’t remember my childhood with horror because I grew up in a very strong, rich community. That is something I will always have.”

Celebrating Progress

And among the sadness and regret, the faculty and speakers found much progress to celebrate:

  • Dr. McLemore noted that Mississippi currently has more African-American elected officials than any other state.
  • Dr. Vasco Smith, a Memphis activist, pointed out that the Memphis and Shelby County mayors and a significant portion of the members of the Memphis City School Board and City Council and the Shelby County Commission are African-American.
  • During the first week of the program, the surviving members of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation were honored guests of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. McLemore, who was vice chair of the original delegation, stayed in Jackson to co-lead the program.
  • Professors Wigginton and Bond both cited the progress and accomplishments achieved by organizations such as the Metropolitan Inter-faith Association which was founded in Memphis after the assassination of Dr. King. “I’m very proud of the growth and changes here,” Bond said.
  • The Rev. Kyles noted that the general manager of a company that once insisted on his arrest for sitting in front of a city bus is now the board chair of his church. “I grew up in Chicago and made a conscious decision to come back to the South,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the movement because I knew that once we got the segregation thing settled, the South would be the garden spot of the nation. I feel blessed to still be around to see integration.”

Politics of a Movement

Another highlight for the visiting historians was their growing understanding of the politics of the movement. They learned facts and figures about the various organizations involved and the strategies adopted by each.

“They all had some common bonds, but very different methods,” Wigginton noted.

Prof. John Dittmer of DePauw University pointed out that SNCC chose to concentrate on voter registration rather than direct action such as sit-ins to integrate public facilities.

“Many people thought it odd that the organization that became one of the most militant ones chose votes rather than hamburgers. They chose the strategic way.”

He added that the existence of the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella group that fostered communications among various factions of the movement in Mississippi, “minimized the competition that was so rampant in Alabama.”

Peacock and fellow SNCC organizer Hollis Watkins gave a peek behind the scenes as they discussed their initial opposition to Freedom Summer, noting that all the SNCC regional organizers were against it.

“We had been working so hard to get people who were terrified to stand up to their oppressors and we were making good progress,” Watkins said. “Our concern was that all that ground would be lost if a bunch of white people came in to take over the hard work. That happened in many cases, but a lot of good came out of it, too.”

The real-life stories were fascinating to the historians. Amy Kendall, who teaches in a Seattle suburb, was already preparing her lesson plan:

“I think we’ll start with the Harlem Renaissance, then look at the South to see why people were leaving. We’ll spend some time on protest forms and I want to bring alive for them some of the unsung heroes, martyrs and champions. We’ll discuss the meaning of freedom. When we get to the organizations and their leadership I will ask the students to put themselves inside each group and figure out what their position would have been. They will like that.”

Worth the Effort

 Many visitors were astounded to learn that the South, where segregation was institutionalized, had no corner on discrimination.

“In most areas of the North, blacks could vote but they had the same Jim Crow customs and limited job opportunities,” Dittmer noted. “It was a national surprise when Watts erupted after King’s assassination,” referring to the area of Los Angeles, that went up in flames.

Naturally, there was a great deal of discussion about whether the struggle was worth the pain and whether the civil rights movement is over. The answer to the first question was an unequivocal “yes.”

“The things that happened that first summer made it all worthwhile,” said activist Barber. “People changed their point of view from ‘life is something that happens to you,’ to ‘my life is something I can create.’”

The second question is harder.

“Issues of injustice are much more subtle and complicated today,” says Wigginton. “The movement shined a light on all kinds of injustice and served as a catalyst for movement by other groups—women, gays, Native Americans. In a sense you could say that the movement died a natural death, but in another sense you can say that it has expanded to so many more areas. I have always thought Martin Luther King was the backbone of the movement because he understood that the issue is so much bigger than race.”

Bigger than race and bigger than place, perhaps as large as the human struggle itself. The 100 teachers who visited Memphis and Mississippi last summer seemed to feel wiser for their experience and inspired to help their students grapple with questions of injustice and other issues that cause confusion and pain to seekers of all ages. Wigginton believes that the colossal effort that went into the program paid off royally.

“We learned a lot that we can do better next year,” he mused. “As Hollis Watkins said, ‘The room for improvement is the biggest room of all.’ But one thing I learned from him and the other brave people we were privileged to spend time with is this—standing up for what you believe in is worth paying a heavy price.”

DO Try This At Home

A group of history teachers from around the country recently got first-hand proof that oral history is one of the most compelling techniques for bringing the past to life. Participants in the “From Freedom Summer to the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike” program, co-directed by Rhodes history professor Russell Wigginton and Jackson State political scientist Leslie McLemore, were eager to pick up oral history techniques to pass along to their middle-, junior- and high school students.

“The lead questions are the key,” Wigginton told them. “Your job is to help students craft questions that will significantly influence the outcome of the interview. The questions have to motivate the interviewee to respond and make the student want to know more.”

Wigginton’s sample questions:

  • What was the first concert you ever attended?
  • What were you involved in when you were in your 20s?

After such ice breakers, students can begin to ask about the matter at hand, he said.

For example, regarding the civil rights movement:

  • What’s happening with white flight in this community today?
  • Has education here changed since Brown v. Board of Education?
  • What happened here after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
  • What constitutes the civil rights movement now?

“Get them to talk about injustices they have experienced in their own lives,” Wigginton suggested. “Everyone has at least some experience with injustice.”