In 1964, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The summer before, Martin Luther King Jr. had led his famous march on Washington. And in Jackson, Mississippi Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP was shot and killed outside his home. His children were in the house.
That summer, in a civil rights fervor, college students from around the country were bussed into Mississippi from Oxford, Ohio to break Jim Crow’s strangle hold on Mississippi. The 300 students were in their mid-twenties, black and white, self-educated and college-educated.
This summer marks 50 years after Freedom Summer.
I moved to Jackson, Mississippi 8 years ago. I had studied the Civil Rights movement in high school, had read MLK Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But nothing prepared me for the stark contrast between white and black in the Deep South.
So much has changed, but also nothing has changed. Everybody can ride the bus and sit in whatever seat they would like, but in Jackson, mostly African-Americans ride the bus. The schools are not segregated, but the public schools of Mississippi’s capital city are comprised mainly of African-American students.
50 years ago, the Freedom workers established Freedom Schools throughout the state to teach disenfranchised people their rights. They came to register voters, but they also came to educate. Many of these freedom workers taught poetry.
One such worker wrote in her journal about a student in Indianola on August 17, 1964: “I can see the change. The 16-year old’s discovery of poetry, of Whitman and Cummings and above all, the struggle to express thoughts in words, to translate ideas into concrete written words. After two weeks a child finally looks me in the eye, unafraid, acknowledging a bond of trust which 300 years of Mississippians said should never, could never exist.”(110).
Poetry, but more importantly, the ability to understand the power of words and naming, the subtlety of language that kept so many African-Americans locked in slavery years after it was abolished, broke chains.
Here is one such poem:
A Negro Condition
by Lillie Mae Powell, Pilgrim’s Rest Mississippi
On a day while I was visiting a certain
City this is what I saw. A Negro
Soldier with a broken arm who
Was wounded in the war.
The wind was blowing from the
North; there was a drizzle of
Rain. He was looking from the
Last place; his arm was in a sling.
The Negro soldier didn’t go
Home. He was looking to the east
And to the west. His broken arm
Was in a sling.
I live in a state that struggles with its past, tries to reconcile wrongs done generations ago. The battle lines have been smudged. Fifty years ago, bravery was found in walking across picket lines, in refusing to move, in silent (and sometimes not silent) protest. And in poetry. Always in poetry.