The summer of 1989 has not been kind to civil rights optimists. A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, a sweeping survey released by the National Research Council, reported that many blacks and whites have given up on the goal of integration. The summer’s most incendiary movie, director Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, suggests that race relations are an increasingly volatile mess that America, out of exhaustion or apathy, is doing little to solve.
Against that background, the passion and conviction of the civil rights activists of the ’60s seem remarkable, and remarkably long ago. Yet it has been only 25 years since Freedom Summer, the landmark season in 1964 when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), backed by an army of 1,000 volunteers, braved mob violence and hostile sheriffs to conduct a massive drive for black voter registration in Mississippi. The drama of that summer—highlighted, tragically, by the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—galvanized the nation and helped make the U.S. Voting Rights Act a reality.
Lawrence Guyot, now 50 and a neighborhood commissioner in Washington, D.C., was one of SNCC’s grass-roots organizers from 1962 to 1966. He spoke with reporter Jane Sugden about an era when he and hundreds like him, inspired by a cause and against daunting odds, chose to do the right thing.
I was arrested again and again. I don’t even know how many times. Once during the summer of 1963,63 of us were taken to the state prison in Parchman, Miss. They took all our clothes, and we remained without a stitch for two months. I was in a cell that had a steel bunk, no sheets, no blankets and no mattress—just a commode. To draw more attention to our cause, we staged a hunger strike. I went 18 days before I ate anything solid. By the time the National Council of Churches bailed us out, my weight had dropped from 285 to 185.
In those days Mississippi was an engine for the destruction of black people. Race permeated every aspect of life—public accommodations, medical facilities, schools. But I knew the political process could be made to work. I had seen it as a kid growing up in the little town of Pass Christian. My father, who was president of the black Voter’s League, and my church got me into politics at a very early age. The Catholic church my family attended was interracial and vigorously supported desegregation. My father was a building contractor and absolutely fearless in his dealings with whites. I once saw him beat a white man who had taken advantage of him in business. Nothing was ever done about it. So you see, I had seen examples of people doing things regardless of the possible consequences, and I began to see that I could do it too. When I was a teenager and working as a longshoreman, I used the “white” rest room. I also walked into the “white” library, got some books and sat down. Nobody said anything. My feeling was that I had a right to do it, should do it—to challenge the system.
In 1957, at age 18, I went to Tougaloo College, in Mississippi, where I became increasingly involved in politics. When Bob Moses, a Harvard-educated organizer with SNCC, came to the state to start a black voter-registration drive, I leapt at the opportunity to join. I knew that whites were more afraid of blacks getting the vote than whether or not blacks sat down and ate a hamburger with white people.
One of the first places we did fieldwork was Greenwood, in the heart of the Delta. The area’s population was 60 percent black, but only 1 percent of eligible black voters had registered. If you were black, the registrars would pick one of the 285 sections of the Mississippi constitution and ask you to interpret it. Some of the registrars were illiterate, but there were black Phi Beta Kappas failing the test. When we arrived, I called the SNCC office in Jackson, and before I had even hung up the phone, the operator had told the owner of the rooming house that we were troublemakers. Within 10 minutes there were six cars parked in front with their lights shining in, and we were told to leave. But we couldn’t show any nervousness because we knew that we had to crack fear before we could get people to join us. So we began to knock on doors and invite people to meetings at the churches.
The church in the black community was all-powerful and therefore crucial to us. And three things that were so important to the movement we got from the church: the humor, the oratory and the power of music. Some of us in SNCC were preachers, but those of us who weren’t quickly learned. We practiced and refined our skills. A good sermon is talked about, repeated and passed on, so the church was a perfect way to spread the word for us. We would give speeches on why we should register to vote and why it’s the Christian thing to do.
We were harassed in every way possible. People would stand around at our marches and yell, “Hey, nigger, we’re going to kill you tomorrow morning.” Our phones were tapped by the police or the FBI or both. That’s why the film Mississippi Burning is such an insult. In the movie the FBI are heroes, and all you see is black people running or setting fire to something.
Cops tried to get us on the most absurd charges. Once, when we went to register blacks in another county, our driver was arrested because his school bus was too yellow. The county government cut off the food supply to poor people, so Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory and others helped us raise money to bring in food. Notes were put in people’s Social Security checks threatening to stop their payments if they associated with “agitators.” Individuals showed great courage. What it took to register to vote in Mississippi was to put your life, your family, at immediate risk. And the minute you filled out the voter application, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Once, when I had taken a woman to register, by the time we had gotten back to her home, her employer had sent someone to tell her she was fired.
We were attacked again and again. Moses was beaten almost to death but went back to work the next day. We stuck together like glue. When Jimmie Travis, a SNCC member, was shot in the back of the neck riding in a car, we pulled other members of SNCC into Greenwood instead of pulling out. Our determination surprised most whites, who never expected “niggers” to show such strength. They reacted with more violence. One time, when I went to Winona to bail out several SNCC people, I was arrested. I was beaten by 10 policemen. They threatened to put burning sticks on my genitals, and they wanted me to sign a statement saying I was drunk and fell out of a car. Then they put me in a cell and left the door open and a knife outside. They wanted me to try to escape so they could shoot me. What saved me was SNCC getting people to call from all over the country. I was released. I was one walking bruise but I was alive. I had survived.
Despite the odds, we registered hundreds of people, but many more were turned down. To succeed, we realized we needed to draw more national attention to the +movement and get more protection from the federal government. It was with that goal in mind that Freedom Summer in 1964 was conceived. The project would bring in hundreds of young people from the North, mainly white students, to help us with our registration drive. The volunteers first came to Oxford, Ohio, for a training session. While we were there, I talked with James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. When they left for Philadelphia, Miss., I said, “They can’t afford to kill you all. It would be too much publicity.” That was the last thing I said to them. When they didn’t call in, we knew they were dead. But only about 10 people went back home. So the white students moved in with black families, shared their food and their beds. Together we taught in the Freedom Schools, put on plays, extended health care in the community and registered thousands of people to vote.
Twenty-five years later I look back on Freedom Summer as one of the most creative political things that ever happened in this country. Mario Savio came to the ’64 project and went back to Berkeley and led the Free Speech Movement. Some of the politicizing of women’s rights happened there too. A paper about the need for women to assume more power, written by several members of SNCC, circulated widely. One of the first groups to speak out against the Vietnam War was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which I helped found.
Our greatest triumph came the following year, when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The pressure and publicity created by SNCC helped make that happen. Nowadays, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state in the country.
SNCC’s history was one of commitment and daring. When we were attacked, we didn’t back down. We gave support to one another, and we got it in turn from the people we worked with—poor, black Mississippians who risked everything for the chance to vote. We helped them to see there was no limit to what they could do to change this country.