Thursday, September 10, 2020

Freedom Summer 1964

Hearing Meghna Chakrabarti's On Point roundtable discussion this morning reminded me of The Freedom Summer. During that college vacation three months in 1964, young people from across the nation went down to the dangerous Deep South to help black voters get registered. 

Meghna's primary guest today was Bob Moses, a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during that 1960's time of nation-shaking Civil Rights progress.

Bob Moses

In 2017, I included a paragraph about Bob and his compatriots in my novel, King of Soul. The early chapters take place in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was living and attending grade school. Some of these scenes are quasi-autobiographic.

Here's an excerpt from chapter 5, in which Bob Moses is mentioned:

        But Liberty and Justice for All is not something that just happens.

        As compatriots with liberation and deliverance, liberty and justice emerge triumphant from the very embattlements of human history. Where their zealous advocates manage to grab some foothold in the landscape of human struggle, freedom is fleeting not far behind. Noble aspirations are all summoned up when the careless slayings of men demand value more sacred, more holy, than the mere clashing of weapons and the expiration of breathing bodies.

        In our present exploration’s story, the bad news is: there is an inevitable outflow—the shedding of blood—which propels violence to ever higher levels of atrocity.

        The good news is: where there’s shedding of blood, Soul is not far beneath.

        In the summer of 1964, all of these elements of human struggle converged in an unprecedented way. Way down south, in the piney woods and  sweltering fields of Mississippi, a new activist strain of blood-red camellia was taking root in that freshly-tilled civil rights black delta loam. As God had heard the cry of Abel’s blood arising from Edenic soil, he heard now the beckoning of enshrouded laborers, those dead and these living. Their muted cries called forth  liberation; they demanded deliverance.

        So while black folk of the deep South were struggling to register their right to vote as Americans, a vast brigade of like-minded souls from other regions caught a whiff of their newly-planted liberty, and so the new brigades took it upon themselves to go down to Mississippi and lend a hand.

          Go down, Moses, was the call. Go down, collective Moses.

        There were many who heard that call; there was even a man named Moses, Bob Moses from Harlem.  He, and others who stood with him against discrimination, planted themselves in Mississippi at the crossroads of injustice and opportunity. Down here in the verdant lap of Dixie where the honeysuckles twine sweetly and the slaves had mourned bitterly, a battalion  of wayfaring strangers from far and near came to cultivate the new growth of freedom.

        They were filling a void in the whole of the human soul. Robbed of freedom, the Soul of Man wails out a distress call; then in regions afar, the Soul of Man hears, and resonates with action.  Deep calls unto deep.

        In Berkeley California, Michael Savola answered the call. He knew about the work of the NAACP. He had heard the battle-cry, had felt those deep twelve-bar blues jangling through his heart and across his brain. When Michael got to Mississippi, the civil rights pioneers took him by the hand and lead him into a little church. For the first time ever he felt the flesh and blood plaintive chant of Negroes; they were singing”:

The truth will make us free,

The truth will make us free,

The truth will make us free some day.

Oh deep in my heart I do believe

The truth will make us free some day. 

        In New York City, Andrew Schumer answered the call. He had heard about the work of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had been told of the struggle, had caught the prickly blue-note riff of tragedy; it had morphed as a thorn, a thorn to pierce his comfortable heart of white entitlement. When Andrew got to Mississippi, he wandered into a dusty colored-town boulevard where right there on the sidewalk folks was gathered to do business with the wider world. Now he witnessed the fleshing out of what had been, up until now, mere conceptual liberation. He saw it and heard it in a new way, the tune he had heard before and now heard again for the first time:

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome someday.

Oh, deep in my heart I do believe

We shall overcome someday.

        In Detroit, Tyrone Haydn answered the call. He had read about the great struggle in the newspaper; had heard about it through the grapevine of insatiable youthful idealism, he had  informed himself about the plight of the blacks down South. Now he involved himself as a volunteer in the struggles of the CORE, SNCC, SCLC and COFO. He felt a kinship with them, and, even further along in prescience,  he would sense, in due time, a connection between their dark pain and the anguished Asian faces of war-torn Vietnamese villagers.

King of Soul 

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