My Jonah Experience – Freedom Summer 1964
Don Nead (one of the original members of the LUM dream team and retired Presbyterian campus minister) and his wife, Caryl, were recently invited to an advanced screening of the PBS American Experience new film, Freedom Summer. When Don Nead responded to the invitation he shared that he had been directly involved in the Freedom Ballot work in Mississippi in the spring of 1964. WFYI then asked if Don would be willing to share some of his stories from that work. And of course his response was YES.
As a member of the Presbyterian Church USA staff working in Texas in the early 1960s, Don Nead had an opportunity to travel to Hattiesburg, Mississippi in April of 1964 to participate in the voter registration initiative called the Freedom Ballot. Don’s eyes were soon open to the seriousness of the racial issues in Mississippi at the time and the difficulties faced particularly by African-Americans to simply register and vote — issues that have reappeared in today’s political landscape. It wasn’t until this invitation to attend the preview of the American Experience: Freedom Summer, that Don Nead wrote and spoke about his reflections and experiences of that historic work. Don Nead shared his story last week; and now he invites you — and LUM encourages you — to read his entire story below entitled “My Jonah Experience – Trip to Mississippi to Participate in the Freedom Ballot Voter Registration Campaign in Hattiesburg.”
My Jonah Experience
Trip to Mississippi to Participate in the Freedom Ballot Voter Registration Campaign in Hattiesburg, Mississippi – April 6-10, 1964
by Don Nead
The Presbyterian Church, USA, was involved in the Civil Rights Struggle of the early 1960s in several different ways. Through its Social Education and Action program a Commission on Race and Religion was established with a staff of three at the national level. Since I was a member of the Board of Christian Education Field Staff I got to know this staff pretty well and spent time with them at national meetings of the Board. They were involved in recruiting PCUSA clergy to go to Hattiesburg in late 1963 and through the year of 1964. This was also true for a number of other denominations. The clergy involvement was to be as support and witnesses to the work of the “freedom ballot” workers who were attempting to register African-Americans to vote in the 1964 elections. It was a protest against the restrictive voting laws in the state of Mississippi.
I was living in Denton, Texas at the time and was a member of the Synod Staff of the United PCUSA (covering the states of Texas and Louisiana). Early in 1964 at a national meeting Metx Rollins, one of the staff members of the Commission on Religion and Race confronted me with an invitation to go to Hattiesburg and gave me the specific dates. I looked at my calendar and said that I was sorry but I had two commitments that particular week that were stated meetings and could not be moved. So he said OK, but they would call again. It was about three weeks later when I got call from Metx and he had another set of dates, and again I had conflicts and had to say no. Then about a month later he called again and this time I looked at my calendar and the week was without meetings, and so I had no other alternative then to say I would go.
After making the decision to make this journey I informed my boss, the Synod Executive, J. Hoytt Boles, that I was doing it and asked him if he would help me if I was arrested. He said that he could not support the idea of what I was doing, but that if I ran into trouble he would personally step up and help me with financial aid to pay for legal assistance, if I got into trouble.
So on the morning of April 6, 1964, I headed for Hattiesburg and arrived there in late afternoon. I had good directions and so I made my way to the church where we were to stay and where daily meetings were held to lay out the work of the day. The work to be done was picketing the courthouse for a couple of hours each day, generally in the morning. Then in the afternoon we were paired with a young African-American man to do canvassing in the black communities of Hattiesburg, to get people to register for the Freedom Ballot vote. Each evening in one of the African-American churches of Hattiesburg they held a prayer meeting and worship service. Each evening the service was closed with the singing of We Shall Overcome, and in that context this spiritual took on a new meaning for me, because it was sung not only as a prayer, but also a statement!
In addition to the evening meetings and prayer services – which were always done with a spirit of hope and celebration, I have remembrances of five other happenings of that week. These encounters are as follows:
Encounter with a Mother and Daughter.
The mother was 92 years old and the daughter was 70. When we asked the mother if she wanted to register to vote – she responded with a strong affirmation, and then she looked at me and said Reverend – I would like to be able to vote at least on time before I die!
Encounter with a Man, who was Native American, Afro-American and Caucasian.
He was very bitter and angry, as he was looked at as a nobody. He had served in the military during WWII, but when he was discharged he came back home and was rejected because he was a mixture of three races. He responded when asked if he wanted to register, and his response was YES – so that he could vote NO!
Encounter with a Mississippi State Trooper.
That day I was paired off with an Afro-American college student who had dropped out of school for the semester to work on the Freedom Ballot Registration project. We had just finished canvassing a small neighborhood off of the state highway on the southeast edge of town and were heading for another pocket of residents about a half mile away. We were walking on the edge of the highway when this trooper pulled up in front of us and stopped. He got out and came back to us and basically ignored the young man with me and addressed me directly. He was very courteous to me, but he made it clear in no uncertain terms that I was not welcome to be in this county and Mississippi and that I should go back to where ever I had come from! And then he made it quite clear to me that while I was still in the state that I had better obey all of the laws.
A Break from the Tension on a Drive out into the County.
On one of the afternoons we had a break from the work to do; and so, another clergy person and I hopped into my car and drove out into the county for about an hour. That part of Mississippi is very pretty with rolling hills and beautiful wooded lands, as well as fields for crops. A lot of cotton but also other crops, but cotton was the high cash crop. It wasn’t until later that year that I realized how dumb we were to take that drive, when I heard the news about the disappearance of three white college students who were in Mississippi to work for the summer on the Freedom Ballot. Later they were discovered buried in an earthen dam in a location not far from Hattiesburg.
A New Mississippi Law Enacted on April 9, 1964.
At the strategy meeting on the last night that I was in Mississippi we planned the strategy for the next day. It had been announced earlier in the day that the State Legislature in Jackson, Mississippi had passed a law making it illegal to have a picket line on public property. We were quite aware that this new law was focused on the voter registration picket lines, and we felt sure that it would be enforced in Hattiesburg the next day. The decision at the strategy meeting that night was that the picket line would be put in place the next morning and stay until confronted by the state authorities. Since I had already made my decision to return to Texas the next morning I did leave before the picket line took its place in front of the courthouse. I have often thought, did I compromise my commitment to racial justice by not staying and confronting the authorities by engaging in an act of civil disobedience? After 50 years I still struggle with that question.
The occasion that has finally bought me to the point of writing this experience was an invitation by WFYI – Channel 20, our public TV channel from Indianapolis, to attend a preview of the PBS American Experience film, Freedom Summer. In responding to the invitation I shared with them that I had been a participant in the Freedom Ballot work in the spring of 1964. Their response was, would you be willing to share some of your experience? I said YES, and then started doing some reflection and developed the outline for this piece of my work history.
It was one of those life experiences that stay with you throughout your whole life!
PBS American Experience – Freedom Summer
After viewing the film last week, Don Nead encourages you to watch the PBS American Experience film, Freedom Summer — which premiers June 24, 2014 on PBS from 9-11 p.m. EST (locally on WFYI—Channel 20—Indianapolis).
Here is the PBS description of the film:
Over 10 memorable weeks in 1964 known as Freedom Summer, more than 700 student volunteers from around the country joined organizers and local African Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in what was one of the nation’s most viciously racist, segregated states.
More information about the American Experience: Freedom Summer film may be found on the PBS website — click HERE.
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