A conversation about Freedom Summer with a St. Louisan who was there
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2010 - A century after the Civil War, 19-year-old Chris Hexter of St. Louis joined an army of idealistic youths in blue jeans and sneakers heading south to Mississippi to fight side by side with African-American residents who were demanding -- at long last -- their constitutional right to vote.
It was the Freedom Summer of 1964, and though 46 years have come and gone, the human struggle that ensued during that sweltering summer in the Delta remains seared into American history -- and in the memories of those who were there.
Chris Hexter, now 65, says that summer in Mississippi didn't change who he was but reinforced his decisions to work for civil and social justice.
"It was a question of ordinary people engaged in something that was beyond themselves,'' he said. "You felt that you were engaged in something that was bigger than what you could do alone and that people in Mississippi were enabled to do things they couldn't do alone. To that extent, you felt exhilarated."
While some volunteers worked to organize and register voters, others taught subjects such as civics and philosophy in Freedom Schools set up throughout the state. Hexter taught in two Freedom Schools in Sunflower County -- first in Ruleville, the hometown of renowned civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer -- and then in Indianola, the county seat.
The civil rights volunteers faced threats of violence and mob action. Hundreds were arrested; many were beaten. Homes and Freedom Schools were burned. Three student volunteers -- two white and one black -- disappeared and were later found murdered.
But ultimately, with the eyes of the nation focused on whites and blacks standing together in Mississippi, Congress passed legislation that guaranteed the civil rights of millions of black Americans, finally putting a stop to overt apartheid and the arbitrary rules and requirements that had kept them from voting.
Hexter said he hopes to reach today's high school and college students because this army of activists were about their age.
"People leading the movement were incredibly young, and they were making incredibly significant decisions,'' he said.
Hexter, then a white college student at the University of Wisconsin, has continued to work for civil rights and social causes. He has been a labor attorney with the St. Louis firm of Schuchat, Cook and Werner since 1976. Charles McLaurin, then a black college student who served as an organizer, would later serve as director of public works in Indianola, the town where he once led protests. Tracy Sugarman, a white East Coast journalist, fought his first battles for America as a soldier during World War II.
Hexter said his commitment was an outgrowth of his upbringing by parents who were deeply aware and concerned about social issues. His father Jack Hexter taught history at Washington University and at Yale.
Though he was a child, Hexter said he remembers his parents discussing the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education that overturned school segregation.
"Then I remember when the Montgomery [Alabama] bus boycott occurred -- and my father said, Martin Luther King is going to be going some place,'' Hexter said. "So I think I had a sense of the history.''
During the summer of 1963, before his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, Hexter worked in the St. Louis civil rights movement with Percy Green and the Congress of Racial Equality.
"I ended up sitting in at Jefferson Bank at the end of that summer,'' Hexter said. "St. Louis was not a very perfect place -- I think it's a lot better today, but a lot of people, even Percy, would disagree with me about that. But at that point, the banks in St. Louis had no African-American employees above a custodian. None of the banks. I remember going to his office and trying to persuade the president of then-First National Bank of St. Louis to hire one black teller. We were given a friendly smile, but no guarantees. And there was no law that compelled any of this.''
Hexter said his involvement in Freedom Summer began with a note he scribbled on a napkin and handed to James Silver, an author and professor from the University of Mississippi who spoke at the University of Wisconsin about the inequalities in his home state.
"I literally took out a napkin during this little seminar and wrote on it, 'Dear Professor Silver. I've always wanted to go to Mississippi. I'm fascinated by the state. And if there's any way you can find out if there are any jobs I could do I would love to come down there.' I gave it to him. I didn't expect anything. But then about two months later I got a letter from him saying, 'You'll be contacted by two white students who work underground in the civil rights movement.' They're the ones who told me about the project.''
And so began Hexter's journey -- first to a small college campus in Oxford, Ohio, for orientation -- and then on to the Mississippi Delta for Freedom Summer.
Here are more excerpts from the Beacon's recent interview with Hexter:
You were just 19 -- how did you convince your mom and dad to let you go to Mississippi?
Hexter: The deal we struck was that I went down to teach in the Freedom Schools, and the compromise -- that didn't work -- but the compromise that was struck was that I would not engage in demonstrations and I would not directly engage in voter registration. They were concerned that those (activities) would put me at greater risk for being arrested. So I agreed to that. I think they were nervous, but they did not stop me. My parents were willing to take the risks of their beliefs.
It was a very volatile time; were you afraid?
Hexter: There were times that I was afraid.
I was in what was called the second wave of volunteers. We arrived on a Sunday -- myself and two other volunteers from the St. Louis area drove to Oxford. We arrived and had been in a meeting, and then I was in a room talking to two other people and we were all called back to the main auditorium at the college. And that evening we were told that two volunteers and one of the project directors had disappeared in Mississippi. That turned out to be James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.
The two people who made the announcement were Bob Moses, the director of the Mississippi project, and Rita Schwerner, who was Mickey Schwerner's wife. Basically, the announcement was, "My husband's dead." Though that was not what was on the public media at the time, everybody knew that if you disappeared for any length of time, that was what was going to happen.
That was my first wakeup call. I did call my parents, and everyone was given the option to leave. That tells you that this is going to be dangerous. But nobody left, and I think it's because when you are young, you are more prepared to take risks. Mortality is not something people think that much about at that age. Though I was nervous, I was more nervous when I got to the Memphis bus station the following Sunday to take the ride down to Mississippi. You could sense the hostility. For whatever reason, people could sense that I was going to Mississippi to work in the Freedom Project, and there was definitely hostility.
What was the best part of your work that summer at the Freedom School?
Hexter: I just loved the kids; they were exciting. And these were kids who were taking big risks.
The whole experience -- for one, it was presumptuous that I was teaching. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, and I was teaching Mississippi history and African-American history, and what was sort of basic legal civil laws of the country.
Back then, the kids in the African-American school system in Mississippi did not go to school in what we would consider the normal school schedule. Their schedule was built around the cotton season. African-American kids started school around the end of October or November and went to school until March. Then they were out of school to work in the fields chopping the soil to plant the cotton. Then they would go back to school in the midsummer when it was stinking hot. They went back to school the day after the Fourth of July until around September when they would be out of school to pick the cotton.
It was a bizarre system based on kids being chattel. So, these kids were sitting in school all day and then would come to the Freedom School. These were kids who today would be the leaders of any school.
The kids were anywhere from elementary school up through high school. That summer, the president of the student council and quarterback on their football team was one of the kids who went to the Freedom School and who became notorious to whites. He had to leave Mississippi because he had become a model to other kids. That was threatening to those who ran the show there.
It was a bizarre world. Imagine being in a state where you're raising students you do not want to go beyond chattel status. The political system wants to keep them in subjugation. I can't imagine what they were taught in any kind of civics program.
Weren't the Freedom Project volunteers being used to attract the nation's attention -- to focus on the plight of black citizens in the South?
Hexter: Mississippi was considered the toughest nut to crack. The state was the most resistant, the most cut off, the most hostile, the most willing to use sheer brutality to keep at least two-fifths to almost one-half of the state's population in a state of peonage.
Going into '64 -- one year after the March on Washington -- the violence seemed to be continuing. It did not appear to people in Mississippi that change was coming about at a speed to convince an ordinary person in Mississippi who was black that it was worth the risk to engage -- that the consequences of doing so were too horrific.
What that summer was intended to do was a very conscious decision. I really think there was a cold calculation -- and I respect it. Making political decisions or socially strategic decisions involves sometimes pretty cold calculations. The leadership in the movement felt -- and this was hotly debated in the movement -- this was not something that people did lightly. Some leaders in the movement felt that the only way to force change was to bring middle- and upper middle-income youths to Mississippi. They were mostly white, but there were also African Americans. They came from the North, primarily, but people came from Atlanta and other Southern areas.
But the sensitivity was to these youths from the North coming into Mississippi -- and by doing so focusing the eyes of the country on Mississippi because they were subjecting themselves to the hazards faced by African-American Mississippians who would step outside of the boundaries. The leadership of the movement was in effect saying, "We're going to put at risk other people's lives to get the eyes of America on Mississippi.''
This is what you do when you're an army going into battle. You make calculated decisions. The flip side of that is (some) people in the movement (were) very much opposed to this because they felt that white kids from the North would stifle the voices of ordinary Mississippians. A lot of people in the movement didn't want to do this. They wanted to encourage people at their own pace to get used to flexing their muscles. That voice didn't prevail, but it was a respected voice in the movement and understandable, in my view.
It was instilled in us from the time we got to Ohio that we were to encourage people to express themselves. We were not to be the big talkers. And that was very important to the summer -- that we were there as facilitators and not show boaters.
Where and how did you live that summer?
Hexter: People who were living in very modest circumstances, at great risk, took into their homes these rich kids. My father was an academic; he was not a multimillionaire by any means. It was at the very beginning of the upward curve in academic salaries. My family did not live high off the hog, but we lived mega-times higher off the hog than the family I lived with.
In Ruleville I lived with an African-American family who didn't have a refrigerator, they didn't have the ordinary amenities that we would just assume. Their house would be incredibly cold in the winter -- people would think of these houses as shacks.
Obviously, you were always on guard, but was there a particular moment that was most frightening?
Hexter: I was arrested three times that summer.
One was an exhilarating moment, and it's dealt with in Tracy Sugarman's book. It was the first mass meeting in Indianola and I was standing very close to Charles McLaurin when this black cop who was there to enforce white man's law came into this meeting to try and get McLaurin. He was stopped and it didn't happen, but -- in terms of potential convulsiveness -- I was right next to where that could have blown wide open. As it turned out, that was a totally exhilarating meeting and set a tone for things in Indianola.
The scariest was when I got arrested for handing out literature. I was just walking down the sidewalk handing out leaflets, and I was arrested for leafleting without a permit. I didn't even know such an ordinance existed. Though I had been arrested before, this time I was placed in a jail cell where I was the only civil rights worker with white guys not in the movement. It was scary in the beginning because I could have easily been victimized then. It was the luck of the draw that I wasn't, and it had to do with the peculiar personalities of the people I was in jail with at the time. Lots of other workers in that circumstance were beaten. I wasn't.
What impressed you about the people you met that summer?
Hexter: Mrs. Hamer and Charles McLaurin are two people who stand out in my mind. Charles was a young guy, 23 years old, and he was just very quiet. He didn't speak much, but when he spoke he was always thoughtful. He was very patient. Very careful about what he did and yet he had a passion for making change down there.
He was the person who persuaded Mrs. Hamer to register to vote and then she became iconic in the movement.
And she was just a powerhouse of a person. She could sweep people up by her singing, her life story. She testified in front of the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic convention. The challenge got national attention.
She took huge risks. She was brutally beaten the summer before I came down, and that affected her mobility.
Mrs. Hamer had about a fourth-grade education but she had incredible common sense. She had amazing dignity. She had tremendous warmth and affection for people. She strongly opposed the Black Power movement. She said, "People, I didn't go through all this stuff to create a separate world."
As time marches on, do you think younger generations of Americans will appreciate the impact of Freedom Summer?
Hexter: I think that is a continuing struggle. People grow up with what they see. They may not experience slights that affect them, and they may not necessarily appreciate what things were like in a different era. It's a tough haul. That's one of the reasons I'm committed to telling this story.