Connie Des Marais ’17 stood outside 160 Cross Street, gripping an unwieldy stack of signs. Penned in thick black marker, unadorned on white cardboard, the signs were simple: “Stop Police Brutality,” one read. “Justice NOW,” another demanded.
“Take a sign,” Des Marais offered the crowd that had gathered on the grassy lawn in front of the building. The AME Zion Church that once stood at 160 Cross Street has since become the headquarters of the Dance Department, but on Friday, Sept. 12, it was the Freedom Church, all triangular architecture and crosses.
People outside the church-turned-dance-department did take signs: a jolly Middletown couple and their two children, faculty members and students milling about, choir members preparing to sing, and photographers balancing heavy cameras all accepted messages. Some held them high while others examined the writing.
“Most of the signs are recreated from actual Freedom Summer photos,” Des Marais explained. “We chose messages that are broad enough to apply to now, but some still reference the time.”
The time was the summer of 1964, known as the Freedom Summer. It saw young people from across the country flock to Mississippi en masse to register its black citizens to vote and to establish schools, among other civil rights aims.
Anthony Dean ’17 was another sign-wielding volunteer. He heard about the event from a friend and decided that it was the sort of thing in which he wanted to get involved.
“It’s an important thing,” Dean said. “We’re realizing things about the mistakes of the past and acknowledging that those problems are coming through today.”
The signs grew popular as more people strolled up to 160 Cross. Des Marais and Dean were relieved of their burdens.
“I feel connected to this sign,” said Iryelis Lopez ’17, standing with a few friends in front of the building. Lopez’s sign read, “Register to Vote.”
“The right to vote is something that still matters a lot,” Lopez said.
The choir of the AME Zion Church, now located on West Street, crowded together on the grassy hill. After a short sermon from its pastor, the choir began to sing. First came “We Shall Overcome,” written by folk singer Pete Seeger and adopted as the anthem of the civil rights movement; then, at the behest of the pastor, the entire assembled group proceeded to Olin, singing, “I’m Going to Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” The mass swarmed from the former church to Neon Deli. One man held an American flag, others carried their signs. Pedestrians on the street stopped and stared; a few decided to join the parade.
On the steps of Olin, the Middletown High School Choir, teenagers who ranged from blue-haired to business casual, launched into a rendition of “Wade in the Water,” a black spiritual. After a short reading by Victoria McGee ’15, the choir sang a melodious version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Nkosi Archibald ’16 was next to read a short exhortation from the Freedom Summer.
As the group disbanded, most headed to the Memorial Chapel for the concert that was to follow, but some lingered. Lopez stood on the walkway leading to Olin, reflecting.
“Wow,” she said. “It’s very powerful—[Archibald] said maybe seven words, but it was very strong.”
Des Marais, collecting people’s signs en route to the Chapel, agreed.
“It was lovely,” she said. “It was really lovely.”
Inside the Chapel, Director of the Center for African American Studies Lois Brown, Chair of the Freedom Summer Committee, assumed the stage to introduce Freedom Summer and went on to explain the contact and solidarity that made the summer so critical. Director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life and John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Rob Rosenthal, Brown’s co-chair in organizing the Freedom Summer celebration, also shared thoughts. Armani White ’15 read John Lewis’s “The Revolution Is At Hand,” leaning in close to the microphone and speaking with passion.
“Patience is a dirty word, a nasty word,” White read. “We want freedom and we want it now.”
Over at the Chapel, after the AME Zion Church’s children’s choir (consisting, they joked, of former and current children alike) sang two songs, Dar Williams ’89, an activist folk singer-songwriter who has toured widely, was introduced to wild applause. Williams was a visiting professor at the University in 2012; she taught a class called Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy, and it was her suggestion to Rosenthal to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Between the songs “Rainbow Desire” and “Are You Out There?” Williams recognized the women of the civil rights movement.
“These women did so much,” she said, referring specifically to a 19-year-old activist who drove through Mississippi alone, unsure if she would make it out alive.
Kim and Reggie Harris, a dynamic duo who are activists, storytellers, singers, songwriters, and educators, joined Williams onstage for a raucous rendition of “If I Had a Hammer.”
“Sing as loud as you can!” Reggie Harris, energetic and lanky, encouraged the crowd.
The Harrises remained onstage for their own performance. They were hypnotic and enchanting, voices alternating between deep and high, grainy and smooth, yet always loud and clear. Between “Run, Mary, Run,” with Kim Harris wielding a tambourine, and “Get On Board, Children,” the Harrises told stories in smooth rhythm.
“One of the oldest phrases in African American history is, ‘You got a right to the tree of life,’” Kim Harris said, enunciating every word in her inimitable way. The Harrises began with songs of slavery, she explained, because that was the true winter of blacks’ discontent; the Underground Railroad and the alliances with other races and religions that it inspired carried directly over to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Harrises also remarked on the power of song.
“Music allows us to do things that words alone, movements alone, cannot do,” Kim Harris said. She paused, and then asked the audience, “In Ferguson, Missouri, what was the movement? What did people say?”
“‘Don’t shoot,’” someone replied from the pews.
“That’s right—it was ‘don’t shoot,’” Kim Harris said. “I didn’t hear singing in Ferguson, Missouri. As powerful as ‘don’t shoot’ is, there are things only music can do…Songs allow us to cry out, to lament, to express horror at what we’re seeing.”
Reggie Harris agreed.
“Freedom Summer didn’t change America, and it didn’t change Mississippi. But it made it possible for things to change,” he said.
In 1964, many University students left Connecticut to participate in Freedom Summer. On the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 13, Ron Young ’86, John Suter ’67, and Stephen Oleskey ’64 spoke at a symposium in Beckham Hall moderated by Professor of African American Studies and English Ashraf Rushdy.
Young took leave from the University to work with a black church in Memphis whose pastor introduced him to the movement. Young cited the march in Selma, Ala. as the tipping point that led to his organizing, marching, and working with nonviolent leaders to enact change. Suter began his work as an activist the summer before his freshman year at the University as a volunteer in Germantown, Penn., working with impoverished black neighborhoods. In 1963, he followed the call of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“It felt natural,” he said.
Suter soon found himself alongside five or six other Wesleyan students, training to register voters in Mississippi. He was arrested by the brutal police chief of Clarksdale, Miss., and his relief at finding himself in a county jail rather than the woods, where it was clear he would have been beaten and left for dead, was palpable in his speech.
According to Oleskey, the election of John F. Kennedy inspired his class at the University to demand integration. But it was only after participating in an exchange with the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, during which time he lived with black students his own age, that Oleskey was galvanized to continue confronting racial issues outside of Wesleyan. He became a lawyer and worked for a summer with rural Mississippi communities to gain legal rights.
The three alumni continued their activist work after leaving Wesleyan, working as lawyers, community organizers, and peacekeepers in the Middle East.
Young succinctly summed up his advice to students.
“I’ve never thought my way into action, but rather acted my way into thinking,” he said.
The second panel of the afternoon consisted of Muriel Tillinghast, Penny Patch, and Gwendolyn Simmons, all members of SNCC before, during, and after Freedom Summer. Tillinghast emphasized the importance of discussion and small community, imploring students to “close mouths and open ears” in the constant journey for knowledge and equality. Patch grew up in post-Holocaust Germany; she rejected the status of bystander and became involved in SNCC’s work in southwest Georgia. Her work as an organizer, teacher, and white female civil rights worker brought national attention to the work of SNCC. Simmons became involved with SNCC at Spelman College and embarked on a career in civil rights. At one point, the Freedom School she had worked to build was burned to the ground. The three women spoke about the importance of resilience.
The final speaker of the afternoon was the keynote lecturer, Margaret Burnham, Professor of Law at Northeastern University and founder of the Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program.
In 1963, Burnham received a puzzling yet enticing invitation from civil rights activist and SNCC leader Bob Moses: “Go down to Jackson and report to Penny Patch.”
Burnham did just that. She dropped out of school and traded Brooklyn, N.Y. for Lynch Street, Miss. The two years that she spent in Mississippi would change the course of her life.
“Our lives revolved around the Lynch Street offices,” Burnham said of her and her colleagues’ summer. “We saw no movies, ate at no restaurants, played no sports, and had no Sunday dinners—we just worked. We met incessantly and interminably. We lived in a permanent state of emergency, of violence and tedium.”
Burnham, who migrated from behind her podium to face the audience directly, spoke candidly and compellingly. The many pregnant pauses in her speech allowed her audience to come to their own conclusions. The irony of working on Lynch Street, the two integrated cafés in Jackson, and finally the brutal murders of her colleagues: these facts were laid bare, provoking gasps from the audience.
Above all, though, Burnham’s speech focused on the importance of seeking justice for past wrongs to ensure equity in the future. The Restorative Justice Program involves combing through abandoned cases, from not only the ’60s but also the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, examining in painstaking detail the circumstances and the evidence. The institution of law, against which many Freedom Summer activists rebelled—it was the enemy, the oppressor—has become for Burnham the ultimate path to peace.
“Freedom Summer opened up the path to law as a way of life,” Burnham said. “[The Restorative Justice Program] is a global reconciliation movement to address and redress past harms.”
Perhaps the most powerful piece of Burnham’s talk was her reading out names of cases from the pre-civil-rights era, cases that she and her students have worked to uncover and for which she will pursue justice.
“Killed for driving too slow on a dirt road…1950,” Burnham read slowly. “Killed for laughing…1949. Killed for not saying, ‘Yes, sir’…1940. Killed for sassing a white store clerk…1946. Killed for sending a Christmas card to a white girl…1944.”
How, Burnham asked, are we to remember the Jim Crow violence as a country, as communities?
It’s a complex question, Burnham acknowledged. Her critics on the right accuse her of dredging up the past with what they consider self-indulgence; her liberal critics choose to dwell on recent racial harmony and integration rather than racism and point to focusing on the past as halting future progress.
To address her critics’ concerns, Burnham closed with a story about a young civil rights activist, a colleague of hers, who died in the summer of 1964 after leaving the Lynch Street office for the night. The Mississippi police concluded that the man had been run over by a car; another activist, this one just 19 years old, had a different story to tell. Fearing that he would be killed for challenging the Mississippi FBI, though, the young witness fled the south and settled in Seattle, where he has lived and worked for the past 50 years.
When Burnham and her students began the Restorative Justice Project, they came upon the case of the activist who died that night in Mississippi in 1964. Burnham called her former colleague in Seattle and asked if he would tell his story. Here Burnham took a sharp breath.
“‘I’ve been waiting for this call my entire life,’” the witness told Burnham.
That is Burnham’s most powerful anecdote, the one that reaffirms for her the importance of seeking restorative justice.
“‘I’ve been waiting for this call my entire life,’” Burnham repeated, shaking her head.
Because that night in Mississippi in 1964, Burnham’s friend—to nobody’s surprise—was murdered. And his slayer, she said, is still alive.