HARVARD DIARY
Memories of 1964

March 1989By Robert Coles



As I write this column, America’s magazines and newspapers are offering a fairly extended dis­cussion of the movie Mississippi Burning. Critics ar­gue pro and con — the movie as an important stimulus to social reflection (with respect to our nation­al history of racial exploitation) or as an exercise in self-indulgent melodrama, with no serious effort to convey what happened in 1964, the year the civil rights movement in the deep South crested. The film is meant to tell today’s viewers about a terri­ble tragedy, the murder (in June) of three civil rights activists (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) in Neshoba County, Mis­sissippi. Those young men, one black and two white, were the vanguard of the Mississippi Sum­mer Project, a bold attempt on the part of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) to take on directly the then bastion of Southern segre­gationist power — the rural communities of a state long associated with fierce resistance to federal integrationist pressures.

I met those three men in Oxford, Ohio, where a number of us who had worked in the South — in­volved one way or another in the desegregation struggles of the early 1960s — were trying to pre­pare some 500 student volunteers from all over America for what they soon might be experiencing. They were a diverse lot — Ivy Leaguers, youths from small Midwestern Christian colleges, students from Berkeley, men and women connected with the Catholic Worker Movement. Most of them had never stepped foot in Mississippi; many had not once visited the South. They were a decent, earnest lot — but I remember well the words of Robert Moses, the SNCC veteran who had helped conceive and organize the project: “We originally thought we’d ask some idealistic young people to come to the Delta and live with the [black] people, and stand by them as they tried to register to vote. But now I realize we’ve got a major problem on our hands — how to educate these folks about where they’re going and what they’ll be up against.”

Our hope was that clusters of young people from, say, New England or Chicago or the Western states, mostly white, would offer the hard-pressed and justifiably fearful blacks of towns such as Can­ton or Greenwood or McComb a sense of solidar­ity — would hearten those men and women as they contemplated the consequences of that long march up the stairs of one or another county courthouse in hopes of securing the right to vote. Moreover, we not only had voter registration in mind that summer. We were going to do some teaching — Head Start had not yet come into being — and some medical work among families which, in the main, had virtually no access to any doctor, clinic, or hospital. But first came the “orientation” — talks by some of us, discussions among the young people, and some movies and newsreel footage to watch. Just before Chaney, Goodman, and Schwer­ner left, I had lunch with them. They kidded me: come along, and then we’d be a “real shrink team” — Micky Schwerner was a social worker, Andy Goodman’s mother a psychologist, I was a psychia­trist, and Jim Chaney would be the “mobile clinic administrator.” We had a lot of fun with that fan­tasy — Chaney, at one point, saying we ought to go “all over the South, to treat the craziness of rac­ism.” But in no time the four of us were remarking on the social and economic and political aspects of that phenomenon — lest an assertively unqualified psychology be allowed to strip a particular human scene of its thickly textured complexity.


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