This past summer, I had the privilege of doing on-campus research through a pompously named grant known as a “Student-Faculty Research Internship Award.” Just the title of this position alone made me cringe, and, eventually, laugh a bit at its pretentiousness. One of the main reasons I had decided to transfer to Wesleyan a few years ago was to escape the culture of sycophantic resume-building that prevails at many of this country’s elite, private colleges. Yet here I was, working on something called an “internship award.”
The purpose of this particular “internship award” was to perform archival research in preparation for “a two-day event that would mark the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, the moment in 1964 when thousands of college students traveled to the South as part of a historic and far-reaching voter registration effort.” The specific focus of my research was to look into the involvement of Wesleyan students in the “Mississippi Summer Project,” as Freedom Summer was officially titled. I did not expect to find much archival material to work with. My impression of Wesleyan in the early 1960s was that it was a bastion of patriarchal privilege, a campus populated almost entirely by white males blithely preparing for careers in a Mad Men-esque world. And, to some degree, I found that my assumptions were not unfounded.
However, behind early 1960s Wesleyan’s ivied veneer, I found a much more nuanced portrait of the campus climate. At the beginning of the 1960s, most Argus articles merely publicized fraternity events and football scores. Yet, as I worked my way forward through time, other types of stories began to appear, stories with headlines like “Administration Announces Wes-Tuskegee Exchange Plan” and “WSA Fund Drive Aimed at Assisting Negro Voting Rights.” Before long, the Argus was filled with announcements for social justice benefits and on-campus talks by some of the leading Civil Rights leaders of the day, leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Marian Wright Edelman, and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. This buildup reached a crescendo when, on May 12, 1964, the Argus published the following headline: “Five Wesmen to Fight Voter Discrimination in Mississippi.”
Now, Wesleyan students were not only talking about Civil Rights or contributing money to different Civil Rights organizations, they were actively participating in the movement with their minds and bodies. And, the amazing thing is, this active participation proved utterly contagious. The small number of Wesleyan students who took part in Freedom Summer had no idea what they were getting themselves into, little conception of the pervasiveness of racism in America or of discrimination’s soul-crushing effects on the individual and on the community. They returned from Mississippi profoundly changed. Whereas before the summer of 1964 the Civil Rights-related articles in the Argus had a detached, academic quality to them—“Aptheker Examines Relation of Capitalism to Negro Oppression”—now students were publishing impassioned editorials about their experiences in Mississippi, about the obligation of the Wesleyan community to participate in the movement on a personal level. By the time mass demonstrations erupted in Washington DC, Selma, and Montgomery in the spring of 1965, the number of Wesleyan students who were involved in the Civil Rights movement had grown dramatically. According to the Argus, that March and April, 29 Wesleyan students traveled to Washington to “picket the White House,” eight went to Montgomery to join protests there, and seven more to Selma. Five professors flew to Montgomery as well. In short, Wesleyan had become a community that not only discussed the pressing issues of the day, but also attempted to address them through committed, direct action.
On a personal level, the research I did this summer reminded me of something that we all know deep down, but all too often forget during the day-to-day grind. It reminded me that oftentimes the most valuable and important things that we choose to pursue in our lives have nothing to do with adding to our resumes, or obtaining “Research Internship Awards,” or even developing ourselves at all. The Wesleyan students who traveled to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 didn’t do so because they thought it would open doors for them later in life. They did not travel to the South to “network” with prominent Civil Rights leaders, or to develop “organizational skills” in a “real world setting.” They did it because it was the right thing to do.
I invite you all to attend the “Freedom Summer” events scheduled for the next couple of days. At the very least, you will hear some excellent music, listen to some very smart and interesting people, and learn a little bit about Wesleyan history, about how Wesleyan became the community it is today. Maybe it will even inspire you to think a bit more broadly about what you want to do next summer. I know it has for me.
Patrick Glass is a member of the class of 2015.