CINCINNATI – Jim Kates and hundreds of other civil rights activists who gathered at an Ohio college campus in June 1964 to prepare for registering blacks to vote in Mississippi were warned to expect beatings and even death in the Southern hotbed of anti-integration violence.
So he and others among the estimated 800 volunteers training at the Western College for Women (now part of Miami University’s campus) in Oxford say they weren’t shocked when three young activists disappeared June 21, a day after leaving the orientation to start work. Their bodies were found a few weeks later in an earthen dam.
Miami University will hold a ceremony Friday commemorating the 50th anniversary of what became known as Freedom Summer. Three trees will be planted near Miami’s Freedom Summer Memorial as a tribute to the slain men. The school is inviting Freedom Summer volunteers to an October reunion and conference on the campus, about an hour’s drive north of Cincinnati.
Kates and other volunteers have vivid memories of that summer and of learning that three fellow volunteers had disappeared.
There was grief because we knew they must be dead, said Kates, now a writer and publisher in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire. And it happened in an area we considered the safest in Mississippi, so we realized it could happen to any of us.
But the deaths of black Mississippi native James Chaney and white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner didn’t deter Kates and other volunteers – mostly Northern white college students – from the project that also set up Freedom Schools and community centers to aid Mississippi’s black population.
Retired Miami philosophy professor Rick Momeyer, who is helping to organize the October events, participated in the 1964 training that largely focused on nonviolent resistance and avoiding confrontation.
Momeyer played a victim in simulated attacks showing volunteers how to curl their bodies to protect against blows. Workshops also addressed how to teach children basic math and reading skills and black history.
Momeyer was still involved in the two weeks of orientation when the three volunteers went missing.
It was very disturbing and frightening, Momeyer said.
David Kotz, of Northampton, Massachusetts, recalls traveling to Meridian, Mississippi, in a station wagon with seven other volunteers – including the three slain men – after training.
When the three missed a scheduled check-in, fellow volunteers followed their training, checking with local jails and even with federal authorities, to no avail.
We gradually realized that they were probably dead, said Kotz, now an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
But he didn’t consider leaving.
You assume there already was a risk, and leaving at that point would have been a big victory for segregationists, Kotz said. They did a good job teaching us how to behave in difficult circumstances and carry out the work we were doing.
Miami continues to tell the volunteers’ story through guided interactive tours of campus training sites and the memorial.
Guides including Myka Lipscomb, a 23-year-old Miami junior from Middletown, portray volunteers and staff – reading from their letters and diaries to help make the past come alive.
I think it’s a great way to raise awareness about the work they did and the work that still needs to be done, Lipscomb said.
Few of the Mississippi blacks who tried to register that summer succeeded, but the program helped to create momentum for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One of the most important things about that summer was that it showed how ordinary people can change society by working together, Kates said.