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Freedom Summer: Reflections from a Freedom Summer Volunteer

Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary

  • Watch PBS’s acclaimed “Freedom Summer” documentary.
  • Find out how much you know about Freedom Summer in this quiz.
  • Read The Root’s article on the murder of civil right activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
  • Explore the myriad resources on Civil Rights Movement Veterans – a website created by veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement, with a wealth of archival material, including historic photos, letters and reports from the field, and personal remembrances.
  • Donate to LDF to help us continue our efforts to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.

by Samuel Walker

In the summer of 1964 I went to Mississippi as a volunteer in Freedom Summer, to register African American voters and confront the entrenched system of racism and segregation in the state. Fast forward nearly 50 years to the spring of 2013, when I spent five yours on the stand in New York City as an expert witness in the suit challenging the discriminatory stop and frisk practices by the police department. 

These two events, 49 years apart, are directly linked and provide meaning to my life.

Samuel WalkerFreedom Summer was a transformative experience for me, at the time a 21-year-old senior at the University of Michigan and a child of the suburbs with no previous experience in social action or politics.  The experience taught me what is really important in life and it has shaped my life ever since, including my choice of career as a professor of criminal justice.

Oddly, I became involved in Freedom Summer almost by accident. It was a Sunday night in the early spring of 1964 in Ann Arbor and I really did not want to study. So I searched the paper for a good movie. I found no movie, but did see a notice indicating that Bob Moses would speak that night on Freedom Summer.  Hmmm, I thought, that sounds interesting.  And so I went. After listening to Bob Moses discuss Freedom Summer for about 15 minutes, I was in. He was (and still is) that kind of a person.

I submitted my application, went to Oberlin for an interview, and was accepted. All that remained was making sure I had $500 for bail money, and telling my parents. My father was from an old Virginia family, and a graduate of VMI, with all of the worst old southern attitudes on race and just about everything else.  We didn’t talk about it. My mother was quietly very supportive; ours was one of those 1950s families, and wives did not confront their husbands.

Our week-long orientation in Oxford, Ohio included the first of several shocks that turned my world upside down.  We were demanding federal protection, but the Justice Department sent a top official to tell us the U.S. had no federal police force. Someone stood up and read him the statute that authorizes FBI agents and others to carry guns and make arrests. This was before Vietnam and Watergate, and I certainly had no experience of the government lying so blatantly.

Four of us drove to Gulfport, Mississippi, where we were assigned, arriving on the morning of June 21st. The next morning we heard the news that three volunteers were missing. It was no surprise, and I think everyone knew they had been killed. We had been well-prepared for the possibility of violence.

The work of Freedom Summer consisted mainly of attempting to register voters, which meant going door-to-door among the houses in the African-American community, many of which were shacks, and trying to persuade them to register.  This brought up the second major shock. People responded to our talk with polite “yes sir.” But it was clear they were not willing to take the risk of attempting to register. They knew that it could bring them job loss or worse, and that we white kids could leave at any moment.

The shock in this was seeing the fear in peoples’ eyes –justifiable fear. It was an unforgettable experience of seeing first-hand the human damage of racism, discrimination, and the ever-present threat of violence.

Gulfport was probably the safest part of Mississippi. On the Gulf Coast, there were tourists and an Air Force Base nearby in Biloxi. The local folks were accustomed to “outsiders,” which was not the case in the other truly dangerous parts of the state. We did not register any voters in Gulfport that I recall. But we won the larger war of establishing our right to be there and organize for civil rights.

Leaving, we drove north through the state and crossed over into Tennessee just south of Memphis. I say “crossed over” because of the palpable sense I had that we had made, we had survived. I still vividly remember our stopping for a late night hamburger, and the song that was on the jukebox: “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.

 Home in Cleveland, I went to see my best friend from high school. We had drifted apart since graduating, but were still friends. That brought another shock. After describing the Mississippi experience, he matter-of-factly asked me, “But are they ready to vote?” I was stunned. His comment dramatized how far I had travelled from my high school years. I have never seen him since.

I had one more semester to finish at Michigan, did that, and returned to Gulfport where I rejoined the project and stayed there for another year and a half.

It took a couple of years, but I finally settled on an academic career. With my PhD in American history, I found a job in criminal justice, where my teaching and writing has always kept issues of race at the forefront. I began with a focus on police-community relations, expanded into a concentration of citizen oversight of the police, which morphed into a broader concern with police accountability.

And that is how I found myself on the stand in New York City in 2013 as an expert witness on the proper remedies for ending unconstitutional stops and frisks by the NYPD, in which over 80 percent of those stopped and frisked by the police over the years were people of color. It was a challenging, demanding, exhausting, but very rewarding experience. Testifying in this important case allowed me to bring my accumulated expertise to bear on a major controversy over policing, presenting my ideas on what administrative remedies that would help to end the stop and frisk controversy that had gripped New York City for 14 years.

 My experience on the stand in New York City connects directly with my experience in Mississippi 49 years earlier. I came away with a strong sense that I had kept the faith, that I had pursued the dream of a racially just society. The specific battles have changed over the years, but the fundamental goal has not changed.

It has been an always-challenging 50 years since that summer in Gulfport, Mississippi. I am proud of what we did that summer, proud that I was a part of it, and proud that I have carried on and translated that experience into useful work trying to put some justice in criminal justice.