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Maxwell: The courageous whites of the civil rights struggle

I came of age during the summer of 1964, when I was an 18-year-old sophomore at a historically black college in east Texas. It was a special 10 weeks, 50 years ago, known today as Freedom Summer. It is a fitting name because of the hope we sensed around us, hope that inspired more than 800 student volunteers from around the nation to put their bodies in harm's way in some of the most violent, racist places in the American South, a region apart from the rest of the nation.

I came of age, and the nation itself came of age, or, at the very least, learned that a new day had dawned for human rights in the so-called "Land of the Free." As a child of the South, that summer gave me my first white friends and acquaintances. Until then, I had seen all whites as the enemy. I had never had a whole conversation with a white person, my interactions with them having been primarily four simple utterances: "yes, sir," "no, sir," "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am." White people were not in my intimate life, not in a positive way.

All that changed when I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the federally endorsed Voter Education Project as an organizer. I was dispatched to Alabama and Mississippi where I met idealistic white students determined to subdue Jim Crow. They believed they could help improve the lives of African-Americans. Most of these students were with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led by Stokley Carmichael, and most hailed from colleges and universities in the Northeast.

When I arrived in Mississippi during the first week of July, white New Yorkers Michael Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, had been shot to death on a roadside along with their companion James Chaney, a 21-year-old black Mississippi native. Their bodies had been found in an earthen dam near the small town of Philadelphia.

Eight white students and I were assigned to register voters in Nashoba County. The church where we were to work had been burned to the ground weeks earlier. Public accommodations were closed to us, so we stayed in the homes of blacks and whites who risked everything to shelter and feed us. We changed locations each night trying to avoid the Ku Klux Klan. We were shocked that Schwerner and Goodman were killed, naively believing that Mississippi racists would not kill whites. How wrong we were. Other whites would be killed during the movement.

Unable to establish a suitable location for our work, we were dispersed to other parts of the state. I joined a group, mostly whites, in Greenwood to register voters and assist in a Freedom School. I was awed by the courage and selflessness of my white companions who apparently were unafraid to trek into remote areas. They did not have to be there, and I respected them. Because I was familiar with the klan's violence from my experiences in Central and Northeast Florida, I was wary of venturing into the unknown. However, to save face, I always went along.

The white students had been trained to endure abuse the same way we black students had been trained. They, too, had been taught, for example, what to do if someone spat in their faces or yelled abusive names. They knew what to do if arrested or beaten by a civilian mob or by policemen, many of whom were deputized klansmen. Knowing how to react to insult and violence saved our lives, prevented many injuries and often kept us out of jail.

The landmark Civil Rights Act was passed that summer, paving the way for future legislation and societal changes that made all the sacrifices worthwhile. Although irreparable conflict developed between some of the prominent black and white leaders of the movement, many student volunteers forged lifelong friendships. Doubtless, the civil rights movement would have taken a different course if courageous whites had not joined the front line of the battle. Many paid dearly, losing their personal wealth and social standing — some dying for the cause.

Maxwell: The courageous whites of the civil rights struggle 07/03/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 3, 2014 7:37pm]
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