HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — Roy DeBerry learned at an early age what could happen to a black boy who violated Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era social code.
His teacher at the one-room church school outside town had arranged for porters to toss copies of the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Jet and other Black publications from passing trains, because mailing them was too risky. One day, the young pupils learned the gruesome tale of Emmett Till, the Chicago boy beaten beyond recognition, shot and dumped in a river in 1955 — for whistling at a White woman.
“There was real terror in Mississippi,” says DeBerry, just 8 at the time. “We knew that this state was capable of killing and lynching a 14-year-old boy — and was also capable of not convicting the people that did it.”
As a teen himself, DeBerry knew he was gambling with his own life when he joined civil rights activists who came to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to challenge its way of life.
During what became known as “Freedom Summer,” hundreds of volunteers— mostly Northern white college students and others, including Aviva Futorian, a young history teacher — descended on the state to focus national attention on the indignities and horrors of segregation. They came to register Blacks to vote, and establish “Freedom Schools” and community centers to help prepare those long disenfranchised for participation in what they hoped would be a new political order.
Opposition was widespread and brutal. Churches were bombed, volunteers were harassed, arrested, beaten — and murdered.
Fifty years later, Freedom Summer stands out as a watershed moment in the long, often bloody drive for civil rights. Mass resistance to integration started to crumble. Congress took a monumental step toward equal rights. And scores of young, idealistic volunteers embarked on long careers of activism that continue to shape American politics and policy today.
And in this vortex of history, lifelong friendships formed between people from vastly different worlds.
So it was that a 16-year-old black factory worker’s son from Mississippi and the 26-year-old daughter of a Jewish furniture mogul from Chicago’s affluent suburbs bonded over bologna and tomato sandwiches and chatter at Modena’s Cafe during a summer that would define their lives.
Sitting side by side recently on a sofa in Futorian’s condominium overlooking Chicago’s fashionable Lincoln Park, the two friends flipped through albums of photos from 1964. They reminisced about Freedom School lessons under a tree in oppressive heat, practice sessions for a sit-in at a segregated theater, taboos that prevented a White woman and Black man from sharing the same seat in a car. As they talked, they sometimes finished each other’s stories as old friends often do.
“Everybody told us our lives would be in danger,” said Futorian, now a 76-year-old attorney. “I probably didn’t have as much trepidation as I should have. Because it’s hard to imagine your own death.”
Freedom Summer followed many winters of discontent in the fight for civil rights. Years of demonstrations by determined local blacks, boycotts, legislative campaigns and bloody pitched battles had not dislodged segregation.
As the summer of 1964 approached, it was clear that more trouble loomed.
“Maybe we’re not going to get many people registered this summer,” Bob Moses, the summer project’s chief architect, cautioned volunteers during a spring training session at a college in Ohio. “Maybe all we’re going to do is live through this summer. In Mississippi, that will be so much!”
Moses, field secretary at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had already endured three years of beatings and police harassment for trying to register blacks in the Klan-infested Mississippi Delta. By 1964, the Harlem native — now co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella organization for civil rights groups — had reached a conclusion: “We had to do something, something big, that would really open the situation up. Otherwise, they’d simply continue to kill the best among us.”
The murder in January of Louis Allen, a Black logger who’d volunteered to register to vote in Amite County, was a turning point. On March 20, SNCC announced the “Mississippi Summer Project.”
Putting Northern Whites in harm’s way was an essential element.
“If White America would not respond to the deaths of our people, the thinking went, maybe it would react to the deaths of its own children,” John Lewis, a coordinator for SNCC then and now a longtime Georgia congressman, wrote in his memoir, “Walking With the Wind.”
As volunteers converged for training at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, (now part of Miami University) Moses told them they should not go south “to save the Mississippi Negro,” but only “if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”
On June 21, even before orientation ended, chilling word spread: Three young volunteers — New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Mississippi native James Chaney — had vanished while investigating the burning of a Black church near the railroad town of Philadelphia. Futorian recalls Schwerner’s wife, Rita, taking the stage in Ohio to declare that she believed they were dead.
Many confronted real terror for the first time, recalled another volunteer, Marshall Ganz, who would become a Harvard professor: “The question was: Could you find enough courage to go, despite your fear?”
Futorian forged ahead.
Her parents were supportive, but anxious. When her father — who owned factories in Mississippi — offered to hire a bodyguard for her, she scoffed.
“Can you imagine what that would look like?” she asked him.
But en route to Mississippi, the menace quickly became clear. Following a gasoline stop in Tennessee, Futorian’s light-blue Chevy Corvair and its mixed-race passengers were chased for miles at high speeds until their pursuers gave up. Exhausted and scared, the volunteers arrived around 3 a.m. at the county square in Bolivar, Tenn., and slept in the Corvair, parking among other cars, hoping that would provide some security.
On another occasion, this time in northern Mississippi, she and SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael — who’d later trade nonviolence for militancy and popularize the phrase “Black Power — picked up a tail.
Carmichael taught her a handy driving tip — how to “pop” a clutch for a quick getaway. He offered some advice, too:
“Keep in mind,” he said, “the escapee wants to escape much more strongly than the chaser wants to catch.”
Maybe it was because his grandparents had been landowners since just after slavery days, or because his father wasn’t dependent on sharecropping a white man’s land. Whatever the source, Roy DeBerry had “an independent streak.”
He sensed the injustice of having to climb to the gallery at the segregated Holly Theatre on the courthouse square. He resented having to call the white kid behind the counter at Tyson’s Drug Store “sir.”
“No one needed to teach you that,” the 66-year-old DeBerry said during a recent visit to Holly Springs. “It was just something that was in your DNA.”
So when a Freedom School opened in an unassuming white-frame building across from historically Black Rust College, DeBerry soon found his way there.
When Futorian — then a teacher at two such schools — met with a group of Black teenage boys, she peppered them with questions: Who are the richest Blacks in town? How do they earn their living? Are they involved in the civil rights movement? If not, why not?
“Roy was the only one who knew the answers,” she recalls with a smile.
DeBerry, nicknamed “Shorty” by his classmates, liked how Futorian “took my views seriously, even though I was a very young person.” It was his first interaction with a White person “on a social level.”
Through donated books, Futorian introduced him to James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and other “subversive” Black authors.
As comfortable as they were together, sharing sandwiches at Modena’s in the “colored” section of town, organizers felt it was too dangerous for a young Black man and a White woman to canvass for voters.
DeBerry joined Michael Clurman, a volunteer from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, knocking on doors to encourage people to register. They didn’t make much progress.
The tensions in Holly Springs were detailed by SNCC organizer Larry Rubin in an article for a student magazine back at Antioch College in Ohio. He wrote of curses, of a beer bottle hurled at his head, and he described the “Freedom Worker’s Walk, which you acquire when fear sinks into you so deep it becomes natural. You walk slouched and slow along the buildings side of the pavement farthest from the street. You register no expression and face straight ahead while your eyes shift from side to side to see who’s following.”
Still, Rubin knew his race afforded him protections not available to Black residents.
“What courage it takes to attempt to register!” wrote Rubin, who became a union official. “Your name is printed in the local paper. You can probably count on being fired or losing your sharecrop. Many who attempted to register have been beaten, or have had their house burned. Some have been killed.”
A suspicious Aug. 1 automobile wreck that killed Wayne Yancey, a 21-year-old Black volunteer from Chicago, rattled Rubin and others in Holly Springs.
Three days later, searchers dug the bodies of the civil rights workers who had disappeared in June — Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner — from an earthen dam. They’d been beaten and shot at close range.
Freedom Summer was lurching toward a bitter close.
By fall, most of the Northern volunteers had returned home. Aviva Futorian remained.
She worked as a field organizer for SNCC and held a weekly college preparatory study group for a few particularly promising students, including DeBerry.
A black farmer offered his dining room as a meeting space. DeBerry joined Futorian after his regular classes for the short ride. They were always careful to do what DeBerry calls “the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ thing.” He’d be at the wheel, she’d be in the back, or vice versa.
“We didn’t know where the Klan were hanging out,” DeBerry recalled recently as he rolled along Highway 4, retracing the familiar route. On one occasion, he felt the need for some protection.
Stopping at the home of an NAACP activist, DeBerry asked Futorian to wait while he went inside. A few minutes later, he emerged and placed something in the trunk of her Corvair: It was a shotgun.
Futorian returned to Chicago after a year and a half. Believing her color limited her abilities as a civil rights organizer, she decided to pursue justice another way. “I thought maybe I could be some kind of catalyst, and lawyers seemed to be good catalysts,” she says.
With her help, DeBerry was accepted at her alma mater, Brandeis University in Massachusetts. He helped found a black student association there, and led a sit-in to push for a Black studies department and more minority faculty members.
Others’ lives, too, were transformed by that summer:
Ganz, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, spent 16 years as an organizer for the United Farm Workers. Mario Savio, another volunteer, became a fiery student leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California-Berkeley. Barney Frank served more than 30 years as a representative from Massachusetts in the U.S. House.
Changes also came to Mississippi.
Widespread resistance to integration began fading, and businesses grudgingly complied with the Civil Rights Act signed that summer, says John Dittmer, a professor emeritus at DePauw University and author of “Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.”
“You still had violence, no question about that,” he says. “But it wasn’t that systematic use of terror that had intimidated people for so long. That was gone.”
Carmichael, the SNCC leader who later took the name Kwame Ture, called Freedom Summer “a turning point for a whole generation of us. It was certainly the boldest, most dramatic, and traumatic single event of the entire movement.”
Political progress, though, was limited.
At the national convention that summer, the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party tried to be seated as the official delegation, arguing the all-White Mississippi Democrats had been elected from districts where Blacks couldn’t vote. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing a revolt from Southern states, engineered a compromise that would give the Freedom Democrats two at-large seats but no power to vote. The group rejected the offer.
But in televised hearings, the nation heard Freedom Party delegate Fannie Lou Hamer’s passionate call for inclusion. Speaking before the credentials committee, she described being jailed for trying to register to vote, and police forcing other Black inmates to repeatedly beat her with a blackjack.
“Is this America,” she asked, “the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”
Although only 10 percent of the 17,000 Black residents who attempted to register that summer succeeded, the effort helped create momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Some also believe this activism planted the seeds for history-making events generations later. “If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer,” John Lewis wrote, “there would be no Barack Obama.”
But Rita Bender, Michael Schwerner’s widow, is far less optimistic.
She says a refusal by some to recognize past inequities is partly to blame for today’s social ills. Now an attorney in Seattle, she’s dismayed at recent developments — a Supreme Court decision that nullified portions of the Voting Rights Act, numerous voter identification laws, the proliferation of so-called stand-your-ground laws. The country, she says, is “moving backward.”
“There’s an old song that says freedom is a constant struggle,” she says. “That sounds corny as I say it. But, I mean, the reality is nations, people evolve. And they either evolve for the better, or they stagnate … If you don’t address inequities, then they fester.”
Back on that comfortable sofa in Chicago, Futorian and DeBerry chat about that sweltering season 50 years ago — and the legacy they share.
“I think it was a defining moment for the state, for the South, for the country,” DeBerry says.
“It really sort of made a crack in the dike,” adds Futorian. “And then this flood came rushing through. So much happened over the next years. But … it started there.”
If not for Freedom Summer, DeBerry says he probably would have left Mississippi permanently. Instead, he returned and held a variety of administrative positions in higher education and government.
At one point, as Hinds County executive, he found himself in a strange position. Byron De La Beckwith, the man who assassinated NAACP organizer Medgar Evers in 1963, was being held in the county jail and was receiving fan mail. DeBerry determined how many stamps he’d receive for replies: one a week.
And Mississippi led Futorian to a legal career, focusing in recent decades on death row inmates and a successful campaign to abolish capital punishment in Illinois. She’s now advocating for prison reform.
Following a 1995 SNCC reunion in Holly Springs, the former teacher and student began collecting the oral histories of those who’d lived under Jim Crow in Mississippi’s Benton and Marshall counties. In 2004, they formally launched the Hill Country Project, which has since grown to include education support and economic development.
Through all the change over the last five decades, there has been one constant for DeBerry and Futorian — their friendship.
It is, says DeBerry, “just as real, is just as interesting, is just as enriching and is just as powerful and sweet as it was in 1964.”