Paving the Way for the Freedom Summer
Martin Luther King Jr. inspired America in August 1963 with his dream of a nation in which all races would be treated equally. Two months later, the first carload of Stanford students left campus for Mississippi.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of STANFORD.
By Bernard Butcher
OCTOBER 26, 1963, is a day that has long remained in the memory of many Stanford football fans. On that mild, sunny Saturday in Stanford Stadium, the lowly “Indians,” who had won only one of five games so far that season, knocked off mighty Notre Dame by a score of 24–14. The Band played late as the crew-cut, lily-white student body went wild. As the revelers celebrated, urgent calls were being made that same day between Jackson, Miss., and the men’s dormitories of Stern and Wilbur Halls. These calls led to events that, in the course of time, would dwarf the significance of this football triumph. The “sixties” were about to begin at Stanford.
Allard K. Lowenstein was the instigator of these calls. A charismatic 34-year-old former student activist, he had been assistant dean of men and head resident at Stern Hall two years earlier. His message from Mississippi was simple: Help is urgently needed to encourage blacks to participate in a mock vote scheduled to parallel the November election in Mississippi. The purpose of this exercise was to highlight the fact that only 5 percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote in the state and to show that blacks would be active participants in the political process if given a chance.
This effort was the first orchestrated use of out-of-state student volunteers to support the registration of black voters in the South. This effort laid the groundwork for the famous “Freedom Summer” of 1964, in which nearly 1,000 students from outside the state descended on Mississippi in a well-organized and highly provocative program of voter registration, education and political organizing. It began the process of change in Mississippi, the most intransigent of Southern states, and was part of a biracial groundswell leading to the epic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It also had significant ripple effects on Stanford and other elite universities, permanently affecting the lives of many of the participants.
Four students immediately packed their bags and left in the first car, which pulled out for Mississippi the morning after the Notre Dame game. Each student either ignored or hastily rearranged midterm exams scheduled for that week. The four included Fred Goff, ’69, a junior, who was then president of the Latin America House; Hugh Smith, ’64, Gr. ’72, who was a senior philosophy major, an East Palo Alto civil rights activist and a freshman sponsor (the equivalent of today’s resident assistant) at Wilbur Hall; sophomore Holt Ruffin, ’66, who had been a member of an advisory group to the student body president called GRIP (“Group with Real Inside Power”); and Dennis Sweeney, ’65, who was a junior, a Wilbur sponsor and speaker of the Stanford Student Congress. Sweeney was the only one at all familiar with Mississippi, having spent a week there the previous summer.
The small group of students from Stanford was among the first to respond to the Mississippi challenge. They joined a similar delegation from Yale, where Lowenstein had been a law student and continued to maintain close ties. The students Lowenstein befriended at Stanford two years earlier had now risen to prestigious positions on campus, many as upperclass sponsors in undergraduate dorms. This core group was well-positioned to respond quickly — and to have a big influence on others.
Even at the time, students realized the significance of the mission. The departure of the four to Mississippi took top billing over the football victory in Monday’s edition of The Stanford Daily. That Monday evening, student body president Bud Wedin, ’65, and Daily editor Ilene Strelitz, ’64, discussed the call for volunteers with 300 students packed into the Junipero lounge at Wilbur.
After the Junipero meeting, Dwight Clark, dean of freshmen men and resident at Wilbur, counseled the 40 or so students most interested in going. Much depended on his gift for providing the proper blend of encouragement and restraint. “I was sympathetic to the cause and to student involvement,” Clark says now, “but I had a responsibility both to the school and to the kids to make sure they fully understood the issues and the risks involved.”
In the end, two more carloads left for Mississippi following the Wilbur meeting on October 28. One group was led by Frank Dubofsky, ’64, a football player and fraternity member with a remarkable array of contacts and commitments who had represented Stanford at the National Student Association convention in Indiana the previous summer. “We knew that we would be stepping into the unknown in Mississippi,” Dubofsky recalls, “and we were all quite apprehensive. But it just seemed too important not to get involved.
The final car was organized by Larry de Bivort, ’65, a junior brought up in Geneva, Switzerland, whose friend, Foothill College freshman Dedier Milhaud, happened to have a station wagon big enough to transport six people. De Bivort had been sensitized to racial issues after traveling across the South by bus in 1961 with a black Marine friend from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “I was appalled on that trip,” he says, “that such extreme attitudes and racial divisions could still be possible in America.”
Once in Mississippi, the Stanford contingent fanned out across the state under the direction of both Lowenstein and Robert Moses, the charismatic and inspirational state leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Student volunteers joined local civil rights veterans in their efforts to organize a parallel election for governor. Blacks, denied the right to register by white county officials, could then vote for state NAACP President Aaron Henry in addition to the officially sanctioned candidates. The students helped to organize rallies, activate black college campuses and spread the word personally to as many people as possible. In the end, an impressive 80,000 mock votes were cast by disenfranchised blacks across the state.
For everyone in the Stanford delegation, it was a week filled with eye-opening experiences. Freshman Jeff Dennis-Strathmeyer, ’64, remembers the apprehension in the de Bivort station wagon on the first night in Jackson. They found themselves being tailed by a police car while searching for their accommodations in the local “Freedom House.” “It was the first time,” he says, “that I ever looked on the police as the enemy.” De Bivort recalls switching to French when he was talking to his friends back at Stanford because he feared that local authorities might be tapping his phone.
‘I still remember the bullet holes in the car and being awfully scared.’
THE MOVEMENTS of the white students were well publicized locally, drawing the attention of white extremists. De Bivort was returning from a rally one evening in a car that included John Lewis, then chair of SNCC and now a longtime congressman from Georgia. A string of cars tailed them at close range for several miles before peeling off. “Nothing happened that night,” de Bivort says, “but I clearly remember squeezing tight around the driver so that he would be the last hit if shots were fired.
“Police cars shadowed us like sharks,” Goff says, “cruising behind us, just letting us know they were there.” Goff recalls an officer following some black co-workers and himself into a Negro cafe in Jackson one evening. “You can buy a Coke in a nigger restaurant,” Goff was advised, “but you can’t drink it here.”
Hugh Smith had an even closer brush with the white extremists. He and two other SNCC workers were chased down a country road near Natchez one night by gun-wielding rednecks in a dilapidated pick-up truck. “We finally shook them,” he says, “but I still remember the bullet holes in the car and being awfully scared.”
Back at Stanford, Strelitz and her colleagues at the Daily were trying to widen the Mississippi movement beyond the narrow Lowenstein nucleus. She and Carolyn Egan, ’64, raised more than $5,000 in small contributions to be used mostly to post bond for jailed SNCC workers and volunteers.
Strelitz ignored letters to the editor from students like Ralph Peer, ’66, who complained that she was “using the news section to further a cause dear to the editor’s heart.” Instead, she continued to publish firsthand stories from the Stanford contingent and, on their return to campus, organized a well-attended press conference for five members of the group. With Strelitz moderating, Goff praised the active support of an awakened Stanford community. “You can’t realize,” he said, “what it means to these scared people to hear that Stanford has sent $5,000 or that Yale students are in jail. Then they know that they are not alone.” Dubofsky was deeply affected by the high level of fear within the black community. “When we talked to the Negroes, their eyes lit up,” he told the press. “You could see they were frightened to be talking with us.” Dubofsky says now that the mock vote definitely upset the myth of black political apathy, but “we all sympathized with the reticence of many blacks who had to live with the day-to-day consequences of their actions long after we were gone.”
Because of Stanford’s high visibility in the Freedom Vote campaign, many civil rights activists visited campus throughout the fall and winter of 1963–64. These included perennial Socialist Party presidential candidate Norman Thomas, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin of Yale, SNCC field secretary Bruce Gordon and James W. Silver, the noted liberal historian at the University of Mississippi.
In the spring of 1964, Stanford was selected to host a three-day Western States Civil Rights Conference designed to bring in students to hear the Mississippi story and to learn of plans for the upcoming “Summer Project” in which large numbers of student volunteers would be needed to register black voters.
More than one-third of the Stanford students who ultimately spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi credit the excitement generated at the spring conference with solidifying their commitment to the movement. “The key individual who inspired me to go,” Ron Meservey, ’65, says, “was a very persuasive recruiter named Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” King exhorted an overflow crowd in Memorial Auditorium on April 23 to “come South this summer to help create a movement so large it cannot be ignored, pressure so great the federal government will be forced to act.”
David Harris, ’67, the future anti-war activist and student body president, was then an impressionable freshman. In his book, Dreams Die Hard, he describes the scene the following evening as SNCC’s Bob Moses brought Mississippi into the more intimate confines of Cubberley Auditorium. “I can still remember snatches of that Friday night in April,” Harris writes. “Every seat in the auditorium was taken. From the balcony, Bob Moses looked frail, generating an immense, almost Zen presence as he talked.” When he finished, “the hall was absolutely quiet for almost a minute as more than 400 students continued to listen. Then a five-minute standing ovation began.”
Between 40 and 50 Stanford students eventually joined the project. Faculty, especially those in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, were generally supportive, with professors Otis Pease (history), Wilfred Stone (English) and McCord (sociology) actually traveling to Mississippi to teach in the hastily organized and highly popular Freedom Schools. Meeting in churches and community centers, these schools were designed to supplement the meager educational opportunities open to blacks. Pease led discussions around issues raised in a paper he wrote on Negro power in American politics. At the conclusion of the summer, McCord wrote a book called Mississippi: Long Hot Summer, which was one of the first memoirs published about these events.
The project that unfolded in Mississippi that summer was significant in scale despite an operating budget of less than $70,000. It involved approximately 800 students from outside the state and about 600 professional volunteers — teachers, lawyers, doctors and clergy. The first stop for most student volunteers was a week-long training session at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Two of these were held; at them, Moses and other seasoned civil workers tried to prepare the raw recruits not only for the jobs that lay ahead, but for the resistance and abuse to be expected from Mississippi whites.
The level of anxiety shot up considerably on June 21 when the second group of volunteers learned of the disappearance of SNCC staff members James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who had finished his training in Oxford only the week before. Chris Wilson, ’67, then a freshman, remembers that day well. “The night of the disappearances, you could hear a pin drop as Moses filled us in on the details,” he says. “He completely discounted the hopeful slant we were getting from the newscasts and said, ‘These three workers are dead, make no mistake about it.’ “ Moses then encouraged anyone who wished to depart for any reason to do so, with no hard feelings.
LATER THAT SAME EVENING, junior Stuart Rawlings, ’65, made a dispassionate entry in his journal. ‘What are my personal chances?” he asked. After listing six or seven key variables, he concluded that “all considered, I think my chances of being killed are 2 percent, or one in 50.” Rawlings and most of the other volunteers were still in the state when the bodies of the three victims killed in June were recovered by the FBI on August 4, 1964.
The disappearance of the three civil rights workers expanded an already intense national media coverage, first of the training in Ohio and later of volunteer deployment in Mississippi. Stanford people were deeply involved in the press relations office in Jackson. Bob Beyers, for 29 years director of the Stanford News Service, was in charge of that office for the first five weeks, with Ben McKendall, Gr. ’67, and Strelitz arriving later in the summer. “This office is almost beyond description,” grad student Margaret Rose, Gr. ’65, wrote home shortly after her assignment to the Jackson command center. “No windows! Perspiration runs down the back of my legs at 4 a.m.! Plywood desks are nailed to walls around the room. Dogs, paper, pop bottles, glasses, newspapers and people are strewn everywhere. A visitor would see no order in the madness. But it is there.”
‘There was a constant feeling that danger was somewhere around.’
The challenge for the press office was to feed reliable information to a hungry national press corps from scraps coming in from the field. Beyers held the first of about 25 news conferences within an hour of his arrival and worked 16 hours most days trying to keep up with developments. “Where civil workers are involved,” he reported later, “the only safe way to establish a fact in Mississippi is to dispatch four lawyers and reporters to the scene. That way you can always have a witness whenever the sheriff makes a statement and you can have two men waiting to make sure those [collecting the] facts aren’t jailed themselves.”
The Jackson press office kept a running log of violent incidents during the summer. The total eventually came to four killed, four critically wounded, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, 67 homes and churches bombed or burned. Many at SNCC felt that the ultimate fear of federal military intervention — a second Reconstruction — was the only factor keeping the white supremacists from fully venting their feelings. Rawlings commented in an unpublished memoir that, while few volunteers met violence on a daily basis, “there was a constant feeling that danger was somewhere around. And then, when something little went wrong — like a flat tire on a country road, or a friend being half an hour late coming back from work — you were worried.”
Some volunteers lived communally in various Freedom Houses throughout the state, but most were billeted with local black families. “Living among these colored people,” Rawlings observed, “was like living underground with all the gas pipes, telephone lines and sewage lines. The underworld’s function was to service the upperworld. The whites up above never looked down, only across at each other. And the Negroes looked up, did a hard day’s work on the surface, and then climbed down into the darkness of their poor homes.”
Rawlings lived in the home of 83-year-old Dillie Stallsworth outside Hattiesburg. “Small, stout and energetic,” he wrote, “Mrs. Stallsworth seemed to be the epitome of the hard-core soldier in the battle for equality. She said that she was afraid to participate in the demonstrations, but only because she thought she would violate the nonviolence rules and fight back if a policeman hit her.”
Chris Wilson, living in similar conditions nearby, also saved his greatest respect for the local people with whom he lived and worked. In a July letter home, he quoted his black host family as telling him, “If they throw a bomb, we’ll die with you.” He concluded that, “while the volunteers only had to survive the summer, the families sheltering them had signed up for a war without a foreseeable end.”
A vivid experience later in the summer bore out this observation for Wilson. “Local civil rights leader Vernon Dahmer had organized an end-of-summer picnic on his farm for all the staff and volunteers in the Hattiesburg area,” he recalls. “It was up on a pretty hill, and I was on a natural high that day. We had registered a lot of voters, had an exhilarating experience, and I had survived. In such a setting, I wondered why Vernon had posted his sons as lookouts with shotguns.” Later that fall, with Wilson and the others safely back in school, Dahmer’s house was set on fire by local Klan members. “Vernon was able to get his family out of the house,” Wilson says, “but he was burned to death inside.”
Dennis Sweeney, who later left school in order to continue his work in Mississippi, asked for assignment to McComb, a bastion of the Ku Klux Klan and the most dangerous region in the state. Sweeney was asleep in the local Freedom House on the night of July 8 when a dynamite blast blew out the front of the building. “Curtis Hayes [a SNCC field secretary] was closer to the blast than I was,” Sweeney says, “and he took more of the flying glass than I did. But I ended up with a pretty severe concussion. I remember all of us in a daze, crawling around on our hands and knees in the dark, wondering if there was still more to come.” Nicholas Von Hoffman, then reporting for the Chicago Daily News, stopped by the house next day to check out the damage. He asked one of the local policemen at the scene what had happened. “Looks like termites to me,” the officer replied.
Further to the north in Meridian, medical student Luke Kabat, MD ’66, was working in a Freedom School when he and a partner decided to take a group of students to test the new Civil Rights Act by integrating the all-white Toddle House Diner. After the others had gone inside, Kabat was trapped in his car in the parking lot by a large crowd. “They were hollering ‘niggah lover!’ he wrote at the time. “‘You’re going to get what Schwerner got. You son of a bitch.’ And they shined bright flashlights in my face. I was terrified. I have never seen human faces with such an animal 1ook, and I will never forget them.” Kabat was eventually rescued by a policeman, and the others escaped. He and his partner wound up in jail anyway, charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors.
‘I was terrified. I have never seen human faces with such an animal look.’
On July I0, junior Larry Spears, ’65, described to New York Times reporter David Halberstam the details of a savage beating administered that day to himself, volunteer David Owen and Arthur Lilyveld, a prominent rabbi from Cleveland. These three, along with two black women, were walking to lunch along some railroad tracks outside of Hattiesburg when two white men got out of a truck carrying two-foot-long iron bars. The younger attacker went after Larry, calling him a “nigger-lover,” “white-nigger,” “commie” and “Jew,” while the other took on Owen and the rabbi, who was seriously injured in the incident. “After we had recovered enough to try to make it back to town,” Spears says now, “the same truck appeared unexpectedly and tried to run us down. Rabbi Lilyveld was dazed and bleeding profusely and was just able to make it into a ditch nearby.”
Professor Otis Pease, who was rooming with Spears at the time, was picking up a car at a nearby garage a short while after the incident. “I remember the radio was on to the midday news,” Pease says. “The mechanics all whooped for joy when the beating was described.”
Female volunteers were generally assigned to the Freedom Schools, community centers or administrative duties rather than the more dangerous voter registration efforts. Senior Anne Lindsay, ’63, was an exception because she had that most valuable of commodities — a car. “The problem,” Lindsay says, “was that my car was a not-inconspicuous red Ford Fairlane hardtop convertible with out-of-state plates. It seemed like I was always at the head of a parade.” One day, a county sheriff followed her along the dirt backroads, stopped her car and began to interrogate her with a gun held squarely at the side of her nose. “Somehow I had the presence of mind to remind the officer that we had just crossed the county line and were out of his jurisdiction,” she says. “He got a little less confrontational after that.”
Single male volunteers were usually assigned to voter registration efforts, which were active in all 38 project sites. Generally working in pairs, volunteers and staff would spend the hot days trudging from house to house asking people to take the sizable and very real personal risk of appearing at the courthouse in the usually futile effort to pass the registration requirements.
For its July 13, 1964 cover story on the turmoil in Mississippi, a Newsweek reporter followed freshman Bob Newbery, ’67, and his partner as they tried to convince a 74-year-old man, rocking on his front porch, that he wasn’t too old to register. “You have a chance to leave a heritage of freedom. Don’t you want to be free?” Newbery is quoted as imploring. The old man responded, “Yessuh, thass right.” But the reporter concluded that “his set, lined face was a map of the black man’s world in Mississippi, a world imprisoned by color and caste and poverty, and his face said no even before he spoke.”
Senior Carolyn Egan, working in Greenwood, was also impressed with the sanctuary represented by the front porch of Negro homes. These porches, she wrote, “seem to have become both a haven and prison — built from the Negro’s fear by the ‘laws of White Supremacy.’ ”
Harold Ickes, ’64, who was a senior at the time and later deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, recalls that most volunteers were frustrated at this seeming attitude of indifference and undue deference. “At the time,” he says, “most of us didn’t have a full appreciation of the reasons behind the fear exhibited by most Mississippi blacks. What we took as recalcitrance was, on reflection, fully justified. The meager existence they maintained as sharecroppers, laborers or domestics could be shattered overnight at the whim of the white bosses or landowners. Under the circumstances, the courage many of them showed was quite remarkable.”
But even with the fears they had for their lives and livelihoods, more than 17,000 blacks responded to the call and attempted to register that summer. Of these, less than 10 percent were successful in passing the tests designed by the white county registrars, Rawlings remembers wheeling a courageous, crippled lady named Mrs. Pillars in to see Hattiesburg voter registrar Theron Lynd. “He must have weighed over 300 pounds,” he recalls. “His body was shaped like a pear. On top was a crew-cut hair style, then narrow shoulders, and an enormous waist and buttocks, which ballooned out on all sides of his chair.” After two grueling hours, Pillars and several others came out of the registration room looking grim, exhausted and defeated.
The Newsweek cover story featuring Bob Newbery concluded that the student volunteers were scared and brave all at once, but “somehow the mix of courage and energy and naiveté seemed to make, here and there, some small dents in the wall. Across the state, the first thin lines of Negroes queued up in dusty court-house squares to register.”
On his return from Mississippi, Professor Wilfred Stone wrote that the long, hot summer was a time “when right and wrong seemed clearly defined and opposed.” However, Stone could already see polarization developing within the movement. “I seriously wonder,” he said, “whether that experience will be available another summer, or ever again, for as I feel the pulse of this revolution, it now has a different beat.”
Indeed, 1964 is now generally considered to have been the high point, not only of white intransigence in the Deep South but of biracial cooperation in the pursuit of civil rights goals. Urban riots and black impatience with the slow pace of change would lead to calls for Black Power and the gradual exclusion of Northern whites from the Southern freedom struggle. Activist students, many using techniques learned in Mississippi, would soon rechannel their energy into the convulsive upheavals of the late 1960s — the Free Speech movement, student power, anti-Vietnam War protests, and the struggles of women, gays and other minorities.
But the accomplishments in the early 1960s of the nonviolent Mississippi rnovement, supported so courageously by students from Stanford and elsewhere, cannot be denied. The Voting Rights Act of I965 would result in more than 60 percent of eligible blacks actually registered to vote in Mississippi by the early 1970s, more than 10 times the 1964 figure. Mississippi today has the highest number of black elected officials of any state in the nation. In the summer of 1994, volunteers returning for a 30th reunion were welcomed by civic banners at the Jackson airport. And in Hattiesburg, the town in which Larry Spears had been savagely beaten 30 years before, the local newspaper featured the volunteer reunion on its front page, paying tribute to those local people who had been “pioneers in the struggles of the early 1960s in Hattiesburg.” Vernon Dahmer, the unfortunate host at Chris Wilson’s picnic, was one of the 29 pioneers receiving belated — and in his case, posthumous — accolades.
MOST OF THOSE Stanford students who went to Mississippi believe that the experience was one of the defining moments of their lives. Since that time, they have maintained an unusually high level of commitment to social causes. The subsequent careers of the four young men in the first car to Mississippi on that Sunday morning in October 1963 are perhaps extreme but not atypical examples. Holt Ruffin is now executive director of the nonprofit Center for Civil Society International, based in Seattle. Fred Goff, in Oakland, is a consultant to grassroots, public-interest organizations. Hugh Smith lives in Sacramento and is active in many causes, including the successful effort to protect California’s Mono Lake.
The tragedy of this lead group is Dennis Sweeney. A complex confluence of politics, personality and psychosis led Sweeney to shoot Allard Lowenstein to death in Lowenstein’s New York City law office in April 1980. Sweeney was found guilty of manslaughter and served several years on Rikers Island in New York. He is now working as a store manager while he continues the successful completion of a long, step-by-step program designed to lead ultimately to a full discharge by the New York State Mental Health Department.
Many members of the Stanford community date their own personal sixties experience from the November 1963 Big Game postponed one week, until after the funeral of President Kennedy. A hushed crowd at Stanford Stadium heard the National Anthem, played for the first time by a single trumpet. In fact, the sixties at Stanford may have started one month earlier, when that first car pulled out for Mississippi. The four young men who traveled in it nurtured the dream of a new era — one of racial equality and true democracy. And their journey into the deep South brought that dream one step closer. •
Bernard Butcher, ’64, had a career in banking before he returned to Stanford in 1994 to study history. He was not personally involved in the events described in this article, which is based on his master’s thesis.