We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns
The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Syracuse University Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
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Perhaps it is true that history is written only by the victors. Maybe in the long chronicling of winners and losers it has always been so. But in a much more intimate sense, I think every victor and every loser ultimately write, or rewrite, their own odysseys. I, too, am seeking my own clarity about the wheres, the whys, and the why-nots that composed my ...
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In 1964, all hell seemed to be breaking loose in the American South. The nonviolent challenge to a centuries-old racial apartheid was being answered with state-sanctioned violence, the unbridled violence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the apparent collusion of the white establishment. For me, who had been happily documenting the wonders of postwar ...
Part One: The Long, Hot Summer, 1964
One. Charles McLaurin
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In 1963, Charles McLaurin walked warily into our lives, pushing through the lilacs that crowded the entrance to our yard. He stepped out of the shrubbery and paused for a beat. The brilliant May sun reflected on his dark glasses as he carefully surveyed the old, red colonial house, the green sweep of the lawn, and the pool that sparkled beyond. The Connecticut ...
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It is still easy to remember the warm, beautiful moonlit evening in the heart of a bucolic Ohio countryside when I first met the young men and women who were going to Mississippi. On the moon-swept campus of the Western College for Women, a cool breeze lightening the evening air, they moved casually toward the lighted buildings beyond the green. The sound ...
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I picked up a Hertz car in Memphis and drove due south into the Mississippi Delta, heading for the first meeting with Charles McLaurin in Ruleville. I would need it for my reportorial work, and Mac had told me how invaluable to the movement my car would be. There were not many wheels in the black community, and Indianola, the county seat where ...
Four. Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney
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all the talk that first morning was of the missing students. The news of their disappearance had flown through the Sanctified Quarter, our neighborhood, and when Dale and I reached the chapel for the first meeting, the kids were standing in knots around the steps. “Gee, I had lunch with Andy last Friday!” ...
Five. The Lindseys
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At the edge of town I wheeled the Chevy under the overhang at the gas station, rolled past the tanks, and stopped in the knife edge of shade thrown by the building. I moved to the rear of the car and with a paper towel started to wipe away the scrawled freedom now! that some kid at the Freedom School had left on my dust-covered hood. Go live with ...
Six. Blacks, Whites, and Whites
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The few times when most of us in the Ruleville project spoke to whites at all, it was at arm’s length, most often in an official encounter or in a highly charged confrontation. Ours was a reality of “them and us,” a besieged garrison mentality. What made it more bizarre for the student volunteers was that the “them” were whites who were dangerous and ...
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We’re going to Drew.” McLaurin’s voice was tight as he looked around the group of us gathered under Mrs. Hamer’s pecan tree. “We’ll pull off the highway next to the school and park near the church. Go in twos, and fan out through the neighborhood on that side of the tracks. I’ll work on the far side of town. At seven, sharp, we’ll meet ...
Eight. Freedom School
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Alongside the highway that bisected the black quarter stood an ancient house of gray, unpainted wood. It stood on the corner of a dirt road that met the highway. This, I had been told with great pride by McLaurin, was to be our Freedom House, and the home of our Freedom School. I stood surveying the wreck, appalled at the state of hopeless disrepair. Grinding, ...
Nine. Fannie Lou Hamer
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When we had all arrived in Ruleville from Oxford, we had assembled with Charles McLaurin in the shade of Mrs. Hamer’s pecan tree. “Sorry Mrs. Hamer isn’t here to meet you. She’s up north meeting the teachers, singing, raising funds for the movement,” Charles told us. “Be back tomorrow, Vergie,” he called to Mrs. Hamer’s little girl who sat on the ...
Ten. Drawing Conclusions
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Every night before going to sleep in the stifling back room of Jim and Rennie Williams’s house, I would struggle to write down my impressions of that day before falling deep asleep. The incessant heat, the tension generated by every confrontational crisis, and my strained focus on every drawing simply drained me and left me exhausted. Page after page in my ...
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For weeks, the volunteers had been walking the dusty roads of Ruleville, Shaw, and Drew, building support for the voter registration drive. It was tedious and dangerous work, but it slowly built understanding and momentum. More and more local black high school students were joining in the forays into hostile or indifferent neighborhoods. The ...
Twelve. The Civil Rights Bill
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Late one afternoon I sat rocking in Mr. and Mrs. Williams’s doorway. The carillon in the Baptist church across the highway was sounding for vespers, and the old, beautiful hymns winged through the weary quarter. I wondered if the Baptists knew or cared that the Negroes who couldn’t enter their church doors were enjoying their music. A loud peal of laughter and a raised ...
Thirteen. Birth of a Party
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The struggle to politically empower the Mississippi Negro was begun in countless lonely battles over the many years since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it would not be until 1964 that the battle would be joined on a national stage and carried “live” into the living rooms of America and across the world. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a new ...
Part Two: Return to the Delta
Fourteen. June 1965
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Two work-shirted youngsters placing colored pins in a wall map looked curiously at me as I entered the MFDP headquarters in Jackson. A third was talking excitedly into a phone. “Tractor drivers! Yeah. You’re sure they were tractor drivers? Great! We’ll check you later.” He scribbled on a pad and called across to the ...
Fifteen. Return to the Lindseys
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Come the day after tomorra,” Bette had said on the phone. “You can meet our new son. He arrived in November.” I had wondered how she would sound. At Christmas I had sent them my card, a sketch of black and white kids racing across a meadow, and I had speculated about the Lindseys’ reaction. Bette’s voice was warm. “We got your card at Christmas ...
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During the months I had been back home, an ambitious fund-raising effort was undertaken in the North to build a community center for the black community in Ruleville. Triggered by Linda Davis’s family in Illinois and our efforts in Connecticut and Boston, the drive had been successful, and I was eager to discuss the project with Mayor Durrough when ...
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I woke early on a steamy June morning, moving quietly so as not to rouse the Williamses. But there was no escaping the sharp ears and insatiable curiosity of Rennie Williams. As I tiptoed across the worn linoleum to the door, I could hear her voice: “Sharon, go tell Tracy he ain’t had breakfast yet.” Then her voice rose: “Where in the world you goin’ so early ...
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When I reunited with Linda Davis, I was struck by the gravity of her demeanor, the quiet watchfulness of the merry young woman I remembered from our Freedom School. “How was it, Linda? All that I really knew up home was that it sounded hard. For a while I was sending books to McLaurin at the Indianola jail, and then I knew he went back ...
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I found him with a few other teenagers in the yard of the mostly abandoned Freedom House. Without the remembered frantic and noisy confusions of the young people that had filled the yard with laughter in the previous summer, the old farmhouse once more appeared the weary relic we had rescued. When he caught my eye, I waved him over to my car. ...
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A small addition was being constructed at the Negro high school. White carpenters shifted lumber as a ragged handful of Negro children, playing tag, scattered like sparrows across the tufted weeds of the playground. I slowed my car as I spotted an eighteen-year-old girl carrying a tiny infant in a flowered cotton wrapper. She stepped from the doorstep ...
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Liz Fusco had not gone home when the students departed at summer’s end. She had left Ruleville and for five months had toured Mississippi, distributing educational materials to the widely scattered Freedom Schools. On my return to the Delta, when I found her at an organizing meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union in the poor, tiny town of ...
Twenty-two. Farewell to the Lindseys
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It was not until my last morning in Ruleville that I found the time to return to the Lindsey home. I mounted the porch steps and knocked on the door. Ora May appeared immediately, and for the first time met my eyes and smiled. “Good morning, Mr. Sugarman,” she said in a soft voice. “Good morning, Ora. It’s good to see you again. Is Mrs. Lindsey up ...
Twenty-three. Farewell to the Delta
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In my 1965 notes: Tent cities of impoverished plantation castoffs are rising in the Delta. The “Magnolia State” is still shrinking from the hard questions and the honest answers. The exciting promise that the Movement brought here last year is fading. But when I sat with Fannie Lou Hamer, I was reminded ...
Part Three: The Roads from the Delta
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For millennia, the great Mississippi River has majestically surged south from its headwaters in the Far North, carrying its wealth from the very heartland of America. In its waters it has borne nutrients and mineral riches from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee. And when it has overrun its banks in the Mississippi
Twenty-five. My Road
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Perhaps my road from the Delta was a little easier to navigate than the one traveled by the kids I had come to know so well. I was twenty years older than they, and I had been on an invasion before. My road was to dip and turn, twist around, and return again and again to this Mississippi they were leaving. I didn’t have a map, but I was certain of my ...
Twenty-six. Bette Lindsey
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In 1978, while doing research for our Rediscovery film Never Turn Back: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, I was able to renew a unique friendship with the white Lindsey family who had first invited me to their home in Ruleville in 1964. On a rainy September Sunday, June and I were greeted at the door by Bette Lindsey with the kind of affectionate ...
Twenty-seven. June Johnson
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When I first saw June Johnson in 1978, it was on the sun-dappled campus of Tougaloo College. Dressed in white, a very tall and striking woman with glowing dark skin, she commanded the scene merely by her presence. I was immediately aware of the total composure of the young woman. She was a person who was comfortable with her height, ...
Twenty-eight. L. C. Dorsey
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Fannie Lou Hamer’s death in 1977 left a tragic void in the grieving community of the freedom struggle. She had been the fount of courage and hope that had nourished so many in the movement in Mississippi and far across the nation. Her passionate voice was now still, and she was sorely missed. In 1978 we resolved at Rediscovery Productions to ...
Twenty-nine. Charlie Cobb
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Charlie might have been the template for the SNCC leaders who had gone to Mississippi in the early 1960s. Unlike their rural and urban comrades from that state, they had been mostly kids from the world of academia and from the black middle class of the North. Our paths had first crossed at a civil rights reunion at Jackson State in 1994. I recall a ...
Thirty. Martha Honey
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It was astonishing that nearly forty years had passed since that day I visited with Martha Honey at the Turnbow house in the Delta in 1964. Fresh from the orientation at Oxford, Ohio, I remember Martha as an eager, highly motivated pilgrim, wanting to find her way to help the Turnbows and their neighbors find real justice. Today she is a vigorous, confident, ...
Thirty-one. Owen Brooks
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Any conversation with Owen Brooks was overtly challenging. It was invariably a mixed, invigorating salad of opinions, shared experiences, and questions, all served with a robust humor and vigor. More than anyone else I met in my time in Mississippi, Brooks was the most challenging and provocative. When I would leave, there invariably were ideas ...
Thirty-two. Leslie McLemore
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Very different voices could be heard from many new black elected officials who had finally achieved a place where they felt they could finally effect change. When I met Dr. Leslie McLemore, a professor of political science at Jackson State University, he had just been elected to the city council in Jackson. I had sought him out at the suggestion of ...
Thirty-three. In Memoriam
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The time Fannie Lou Hamer and I had spent working together in Mississippi in 1964 and 1965 and on her trips north at our home in Connecticut was a rich gift to me and to our life as a family. June and Fannie Lou shared a special bond of affection and mutual respect, delighting in hours of conversation. Richard and my daughter, Laurie, came to treasure ...
Thirty-four. Linda Davis
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in November 2001, I had the chance to have Gloria meet the woman whom I got to know best among the summer volunteers. Linda Davis laughed with pleasure when she heard we were in Washington. “Come on over. There’s so much to catch up on!” “Let me bring in some coffee,” Linda said. “It’ll just take a minute. It’s ...
Thirty-five. John Lewis
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Before going to Mississippi in 2001, Gloria and I met with John Lewis in his congressional office in Washington. Of all the leadership I had come to know in SNCC, this former chairman was the only one who could speak of love with a religious simplicity that did not permit embarrassment. Unlike many in the movement who regarded love and nonviolence ...
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There’s a whole story could be written about guns and Mississippi,” said Charlie Cobb. “Nonviolence was never an issue when I came to the Delta in 1961; it never came up. Maybe if you were doing sit-ins, where you had to protect yourself, it would be something to talk about. But we weren’t doing sit-ins in the Delta. Violence in Mississippi was always mob ...
Thirty-seven. Julian Bond
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As I eased our car alongside the curb, Gloria asked, “Isn’t that Julian? I think I recognize him from seeing him on The Today Show.” She paused. “Maybe not. That fellow looks too young.” I turned off the ignition and stared out the rear window. The tall, slim man waiting at the corner spotted us and smiled. “That’s Julian,” I laughed. “And he’s always
Part Four: Mississippi, October 2001
Thirty-eight. Mississippi Redux
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The terminal felt awfully quiet for a Friday morning,” said Gloria, as she stowed her portfolio in the overhead rack. “Didn’t you think so?” “Yeah,” I agreed. “But I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised.” It was only weeks since the terrorists had leveled the Twin Towers. ...
Thirty-nine. Return to Ruleville
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It was Gloria who first spotted the sign from the backseat. “Ruleville. The Home of Fannie Lou Hamer,” she said excitedly. “Isn’t that nice!” I had to smile. “It is. Wouldn’t Mrs. Hamer be proud? But where’s the Billups Gas Station, Mac? Used to be right over there on the left.” McLaurin turned in the passenger seat and looked at me. “Long gone. ...
Forty. Jack Harper
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In response to my telephone call, Harper invited me to come to his house. Following a long, private driveway that wound beneath fine old shade trees, I reached his substantial brick home. It was generous, handsome, and confidently unpretentious, an inviting oasis in more than a hundred acres of sun-drenched farmland. When he greeted me at the ...
Forty-one. Losing the Children
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I heard Owen Brooks’s distinctive voice even before we stepped into the busy cafeteria. His is a storyteller’s voice. It challenges you to listen, and when I spotted the leonine head at a far table, I was not surprised to see he had an audience. The timbre of his voice was as I remembered it from the eighties, but the wild black Afro was gone now. In its place is a ...
Forty-two. The Story to Tell
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June Johnson was an engaged participant in the spiritual and political development of her son. Her level of expectation consistently remained high, a challenge to the young man, but the daily dynamic of the street culture for his generation has made June impatient and angry. “I don’t think his generation has a real perception of what’s actually happening in ...
Forty-three. Young Power
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The malaise among young blacks that June Johnson observed had disturbing echoes in our conversation with L. C. Dorsey. As a professor who had long been teaching black students at Jackson State University, we welcomed her candid and penetrating insights. L.C.’s astonishing success in the maturing and education of her own five children seemed to be a triumphant ...
Forty-four. Standing on Shoulders
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I was eager to see Leslie McLemore again. Mississippi was never a simple historical, psychological, or political equation for me, and my old friend had helped for decades to reset my compass whenever I visited his chosen turf. Traveling now with Gloria, reexploring this memory-laden place, I felt the need of Dr. Leslie McLemore’s insightful perspective. Les ...
Forty-five. Long Time Passing
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There is a special place in the heart for those with whom you shared danger, hope, apprehension, and even exultation when, together, you found joy in unexpected victories. For me that part of my heart will always be filled with the memory of those young men and women I first met at Oxford, Ohio, and accompanied to Mississippi in 1964. They were ...
Forty-six. Dale Gronemeier
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When I spoke with Dale Gronemeier in the spring of 2002, he was busy on a pro bono civil liberties case in his Pasadena law office. Years had passed, yet the conversation instantaneously moved us both back in time, and we might have been still chatting on the front stoop of Rennie Williams’s house. We laughed again, recalling our first frenetic ...
Forty-seven. Len Edwards
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thirty-eight years after Congressman Don Edwards had joined his son at that Ruleville meeting in the Williams Chapel, I asked Len, now a superior court judge in California, if it was his father’s political activism that had induced him to come to Mississippi. “I joined the movement because it was the right thing to do,” said Len ...
Forty-eight. Fortieth Reunion, 2004
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when I moved into the noisy reunion in Indianola in the summer of 2004, it was a homecoming unlike any I had ever been part of. Tears, embraces, and shouts of delighted recognition gave the room a palpable feeling of celebration. Unlike college and fraternity and military service reunions I had been part of, this was family. These were the kids
Forty-nine. Jim Dann
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I find Jim Dann in a lot of my sketches from the summer. It’s not surprising. Built like a welterweight, tough and fearless as any of the workers that summer, he was in the middle of every confrontation and every police bust. Nothing seemed to cow him, and his righteous wrath could be turned on a sheriff, a policeman, or a hostile redneck. Were it not for ...
Fifty. John Harris
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A reportorial artist has to be a sponge, capturing the truth of his subject through fugitive clues of body language, carriage, tilt of the head, a set of the jaw. Those images are preserved in your head, waiting to be transferred to your hand. They provide the alphabet you must use, the way you create the particular visual image you want to save on paper or canvas ...
Fifty-one. Liz Fusco
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There was no way not to recognize Liz Fusco at the fortieth reunion in Indianola. Only two things had really changed. Her name on the name tag was now Aaronsohn, not Fusco. And some very becoming gray was threading through her smart, short-cropped hair. She remained remarkably young and trim, still quietly watchful, but relaxed and seemingly ...
Fifty-two. Chris Hexter
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From the corner of the room, there were hoots of laughter, and I could plainly hear the ringing, happy voice of Chris Hexter. Head back, Chris was the consummate storyteller, chortling happily and commenting at full decibel, as delighted with the circle of his old friends as he was by the yarn he was recalling. This was a man who seemed always ...
Fifty-three. Unsettling Memories
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The call from my old friend from Tougaloo College, Susan McClamroch, was, as always, high-spirited and enthusiastic. Her southern belle voice was tripping with exciting news. “An exhibit, Tracy, and at the Smith Robertson Museum, the first black ethnic museum in Jackson! Not only your drawings from Freedom Summer you gave to Tougaloo, but all ...
Fifty-four. Crossing the Highway
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we were awaiting the arrival of the Lindseys in front of the hotel when the large black automobile swept up the drive. A tall, sturdy, smiling man left the car and strode up the walk. I was struck by how much a slightly graying Lake Lindsey looked as I remembered him from nearly forty years ago. “Hey there, Tracy! And this must be Gloria! Glad ...
Fifty-five. Not a Stranger
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For sixty years my life as an artist has taken me to places I could never have dreamed of as a fledgling illustrator who wished only to draw and paint. Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts had given me the tools, but not the reason, to be an artist. But as I sought to understand the carnage and losses that I encountered as a naval officer on the D-day ...
Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 64 black and white illustrations
Publication Year: 2009