A college student from Michigan finds her calling and her voice during the Mississippi Summer Project.
Part 2 – Mississippi Spirit
The Free Southern Theater was in the beginning stages when I arrived in Jackson. We were operating out of Tougaloo College and the COFO office in Jackson. SNCC folk had mixed feelings about a theater. Some people felt the theater and the arts, basically, were frivolous in the face of what needed to be done in terms of voter registration. They couldn’t see how it would help or how it could be anything but a nuisance to have us running around all over the place with our sets, props, and costumes. It was an interesting challenge even from the inside. Gil and John O’Neal had put out the word that they were looking for people among the summer volunteers who were theater majors or who had an interest in the theater. That’s how we got the first group. I wasn’t there as an actress; I was reading scripts and writing critiques. John and Gil decided to do Martin Duberman’s play, In White America, that summer, and they needed a black actress. They asked me to read for it and I read, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. They said, “Well, that’s good enough.” What a start!
By the time I arrived in Jackson, James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were missing. We were afraid, but I think because everybody believed very much in what we were doing, we tightened up and we just kept going. We went all over Mississippi that first summer, performing in seventeen cities. They found those boys on August 4. I remember, from pictures or television, seeing these white sheriffs with body bags, like Vietnam body bags, bringing in the remains. I have that in my head, right with the Emmett Till photo. Those visuals never, ever go away. There were other unforgettable moments when Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s wife, who was also working in Mississippi that summer, came to a number of our performances and spoke at the churches where we were. Her fragile appearance contrasted with her strength as she stood there assuring us that she would not leave Mississippi that summer, but would stay and do the work we all had come to do.
That first summer there was violence everywhere. We could feel it in the air all the time. Even when we were dancing and letting off steam in some Dew Drop Inn with a jukebox that was leaning over three feet to the side, danger was always part of the equation. It was always there. In McComb, someone threw a bomb at the stage. In another location – Holmes County, I think – men with shotguns sat on the porch all night guarding us while we slept.
Once we performed in a half-finished community center building. Some young builders from California had come out to reconstruct it after the original one had been bombed. When we performed, half the roof was there, the posts were there, but the walls were not up yet. It was incredible and beautiful. We did In White America in that space, and local people guarded us while we performed. Our performances were held in the early evening. We had to follow all the regulations and rules coming out of Jackson, just as the COFO and SNCC workers did, as far as being on the road–, for example, making sure the cars were serviced, because you didn’t want to have a breakdown on the road in a rural area;, driving a little bit under the speed, and being very polite with people all the time. We walked around with our necks so stiff from tension. We were having this extraordinary experience, but, at the same time, we were always riding on top of terror, constantly trying to leap up on top of our own fear and do the things were there to do.
The Free Southern Theater toured towns where there was a COFO project, places like Canton, Greenville, Meridian, and Hattiesburg. People on our staff worked with the COFO people in the towns we went to. Our housing, how things would be set up, what church we would perform in, publicity, all of these kinds of necessities were worked out between our staff, the local people, and the COFO volunteers in that particular town. COFO workers and local people helped us with advertising by handing out flyers. Young people from the town helped us unload the equipment, do the setup, then helped us take it down and load it onto the truck. Older people in these communities housed and fed us; they really took care of us.
In most of the communities we toured to, the local people had no conception of the conventions of the theater. Often people spoke to us from the audience during performances. During one tour we were doing a one-act that Gil Moses had written, and in that play my character, Dottie, is onstage trying to open a jar but can’t get it open. The husband character takes it, but he can open it either and gives it back to her. Dottie tries again. At that point, an older, slightly built man came right up on the stage from the audience and said, “I’ll help you,” took the jar, and opened it. It was so sweet and kind. Things like that happened all the time.
People reacted with joy to our performances. They were happy to have us there and said so. I think it was all a part of the world opening to them, letting them know that we cared enough to come see about them. It was beautiful. It was beautiful to be in the place, to be there. We had discussions after all the performances, so people had an opportunity to voice what they got from the experience of the play and how it and we connected to their lives and how we connected to the political changes that were going on in the South. The theater, like literature, can be a tool of community, of illumination of the human condition.
There was so much energy that first summer in Mississippi; even backwater, teeny-weeny little places picked up the zeal of what was going on in the whole state. In a sense it was like the entire state was in performance. It was uplifting, very uplifting. That whole summer was an incredible moment. We went to places like Mound Bayou, an all-black town with no paved streets. As a young woman from Detroit and Ann Arbor, I saw how poor, rural, and forgotten some places were, but at the same time I saw how wonderful these people and these places were. The spirit was so strong. It was us picking up their spirit and giving back what we had. It was an exchange, a pure exchange.
I was always very shy. It is hard to believe now, because theater made me into a talker. Theater is a group experience, which gave me courage and helped me to develop a personality. I don’t think I projected a whole lot; I wasn’t pushed through to myself until I’d worked for a while in the theater. I’ve heard other actors say this also, that the theater experience, the act of doing it, this group experience, developed them as personalities.
(Excerpted from Hands on the Freedom Plow, Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, University of Illinois Press 2010)