MARK LEVY ON THE LEGACY OF FREEDOM SUMMER

May 26, 2011 § 9 Comments

I posted Monday about Freedom Summer in Meridian.  One of the courageous COFO workers who spent time in Meridian in that summer of 1964, and whom I mentioned in my post, was Mark Levy, who came with his wife Betty to Meridian from Queens College in New York.  

Mark took the time to send me a thoughtful response to my post, and I think it is worth your time to read.  He raises some intriguing points about preserving the story of how the civil rights movement touched and changed Meridian, and how it can be passed on.  There is food for thought here, and a call to action. 

As Mark says, there are the seeds of the beginning of a conversation here.  Will you join the discussion?

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 “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”

Meridian Civil Rights Stories Worth Remembering and Telling

The summer of 1964 touched on people’s lives in Meridian in many different ways.  Chancery Judge Primeaux’s narrative is an important and sensitive step in opening up that conversation.  I’m glad that my old photos of daily life in the Freedom School are a contribution. 

Similarly important was last month’s April 29th recognition by the Mississippi Heritage Trust in Jackson that the Fielder and Brooks Drug Store building and site of the 1964 COFO office at 2505 ½ 5th Street is an endangered but historically significant building in the state, well worth preserving.  The Meridian civil rights story needs to be documented and shown.  The 2505 ½  5th Street site would be perfect not only as an interpretive, but also as an educational center and local attraction.

In addition to the pictures I found in my files, I also found the names of about 250 students – ages 8 to 18, at the time – who attended summer classes in the Freedom School.  We, the volunteer teachers, learned as much from our students that summer as we were able to teach them.  The students were brave and serious young people who took all sorts of risks to come to school.  The former students are now in their late 50s and 60s. Where are they today?  How did those experiences touch their lives?  Who stayed, who left, and who has come back to Meridian?  What contributions have those former students made to their respective communities? 

The decisions for students to attend — or not attend — Freedom School were family decisions.  In 1964, that meant that parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. all decided to take on some family risk in sending their kids to the Baptist Seminary.  Not only should a history of Meridian tell the story of how a famous folk singer like Pete Seeger performed in Meridian, but it should also be noted that the room was packed with people who took a risk in coming to hear him.  Another footnote to the Meridian civil rights story is that the Meridian Freedom School at the Baptist Seminary had the honor to play host in August to a state-wide convention of young delegates from Freedom Schools all over Mississippi.  The resolutions passed by the students attending reveal a wide range of issues, concerns, and hopes – worth looking at again to see what progress, if any, has been made since those times.

Similarly, in my files, I’ve found the names of about 45 out-of-state volunteers, in addition to Mickey and Rita Schwerner, who participated – at one time or another — in COFO-sponsored community center, voter registration, freedom school, and MFDP work in Meridian during 1964-65.  We stayed in the homes of some very brave local people, rented some living and office space, ate in selected establishments, cashed personal checks in some stores, asked cab drivers and others how to get around, attended some church services and used some churches for meetings.  In the highly charged atmosphere of the times, those ordinary decisions could have life and death – in addition to job – consequences. We, the volunteers, took risks; but the local families and organizations who invited us to come took far more risks than us.

Several of the pictures I found in my files show a Lauderdale County meeting of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party where Meridian and county “precinct” and “beat” representatives elected ordinary people as local delegates to go to the national convention in Atlantic City.  The MFDP was formed to show that people prevented from registering in 1964 truly wanted to participate in the electoral system.  The civil rights movement in Meridian involved commitment and participation from both young and old.  The pressures against taking a stand were powerful and frightening.

Does anyone know where Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak in Mississippi during the summer of 1964? I believe he spoke in just two places – and that included speaking at two churches in Meridian.  

The civil rights summer of 1964 should be taken as just one moment in history – with important precedents and ongoing effects.  For example: a) In Meridian, an NAACP chapter existed for a number of years prior, sometimes recruiting with quiet, hand-collection of dues. They had a growing youth membership that later became part of the local COFO movement in 1964. That NAACP chapter continues to exist today. b) The Fielder and Brooks pharmacy, itself, was just one example of black professional accomplishment that had been developing for years in Meridian. c) 1965 and the years thereafter, school, college and public facility de-segregation and voter registration brought other challenges and additional sets of heroes and heroines who stepped forward and deserve to be respected and remembered.  

What does all of this mean today – especially for younger people?  What can research projects in Meridian’s high school, junior college, and senior college contribute to finding, recording, and telling about local people’s hopes, fears, and contributions?  What remains to be improved? What stories do old-timers – both black and white – have to tell of those times in Meridian? How would preserving the Fielder/COFO building help in both saving and using that history? 

I believe that Judge Primeaux has done a great service in his blog starting a new discussion of those questions.

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§ 9 Responses to MARK LEVY ON THE LEGACY OF FREEDOM SUMMER

  • […] other major sites. Many Civil Rights Movement veterans and Meridian citizens, such as Gail Falk, Mark Levy, and Judge Larry Primeaux, appalled at the disinvestment plaguing most of downtown Meridian, began […]

  • […] I posted here about the events of 1964 Freedom Summer in Meridian.  Mark Levy of New York, director of Meridian’s Freedom School that summer, sent a reply that I posted here. […]

  • My book, “A Brief History of Lauderdale County, Mississippi” being published by History Press this year includes Freedom Summer. In addition to extensive research on Freedom Summer, I attended the session Mark, Bill and Roscoe helped facilitate at First Union Church. I have been in touch with Mark, Roscoe and Patti Miller for accurate information on the true mission of Freedom Summer in Meridian. After spending about a year in the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History and Meridian Public Library, it’s a travesty that neither historical information nor photos are available on Freedom Summer or the Civil Rights Movement. Oral histories of the Meridian locals, volunteers and students involved in Meridian’s Freedom Summer 64 need to be done before it’s too late. I would be honored to be a part of building common ground in the community and developing a solid, factual history to benefit our children and our children’s children.

  • Bill Scaggs says:

    Larry:
    Mark’s a teacher! However, these were not “ordinary people.” These were extraordinary people witnessing truth to power.
    As you correctly observed:
    “Blacks were not the only victims of racism. We were enslaved by it and injured by it, too. Our wounds, however, were self-inflicted”.
    I would argue with your verb tense. I believe our mutual wounds continue to injury our public life in ways we don’t recognize. And my use of “we” includes all Americans. Quite simply, we don’t know how to build and share common ground.
    Mark continues to teach the lessons of the Freedom School. He challenges us ordinary people to do extraordinary things. I’m on his class roll.
    Bill Scaggs

    • Larry says:

      Excellent observations, all of which I accept and adopt.

      I just now finished reading Debra Spencer’s exhaustive interview with Sam Bowers, the murderer of Vernon Dahmer, on the Mississippi Department of Archives and History web site (click on digital archives to locate it). It’s a breathtaking journey through the same sort of philosophical tangle that the architects of the Holocaust employed. I confess that it challenges my natural optimism and confirms your statement that “we don’t know how to build and share common ground.” I would add that there are some who not only do not know, but emphatically do not care to know and would actively work against any effort to share.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Bill and Larry,
        I’d like to offer two notes of optimism on the very real challenge of building common ground.
        First, a November 30 post on Teaching for Tolerance congratulating Tracy Oliver-Gary, one of the five honorees of the first Teaching Tolerance Award. Watching the videos of the honorees in their classrooms, I am encouraged by both their efforts and success in building common ground.
        Second, my own experience in having middle and high school kids read my historical novel THE FOG MACHINE, then getting together for a conversation. The kids “get” that change has little to do with where we live or what we’ve been taught; rather, change begins when we see ourselves in someone else who appears to be different. And the kids are starved for “history presented through relationships” and “real conversations” around that history.
        I look forward to events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Meridian and to meeting and talking with you both.
        Susan

      • I look forward to being a part of coming together and learning how to to share and build common ground.

  • bill may says:

    I would be honored to join the discussion. Thanks to both of you( Judge Primeaux and Mark Levy) for sharing your thoughts and furthering this dialogue.

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