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Ellen, Bonnie, Heather, and Sylvie write home from Freedom Summer

August 12, 1964

“This summer is only the briefest beginning of this experience, both for myself and for the Negroes of Mississippi.” – Ellen Siegel

Summers often are the times that young people go on vacations, to summer camps, or on hiking trips away from their parents.  But for over 1,000 young people from the northern states in 1964, Freedom Summer was a season of learning, organizing, singing, and change-making in the state of Mississippi.  Their letters home were collected in the book Letters from Mississippi, edited by Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez.  One of them wrote, “Baby, it takes coming down here to grasp all this no matter how many books we’ve read.”

They were brought there by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which focused on fighting racial segregation through mass action and intensive, local, community-based activities.  Their work involved running Freedom Schools and community centers for local African American communities, helping residents to register to vote, and helping to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an integrated alternative to the state’s all-white Democratic party.  As Bonnie Guy wrote to her parents, “There comes a time when you have to do things which your parents do not agree with … Convictions are worthless in themselves. In fact, if they don’t become actions, they are worse than worthless—they become a force of evil in themselves. You can’t run away from a broadened awareness… if you try, it follows you in your conscience, or you become a self-deceiving person who has numbed some of his humanness.”

It was not a summer free of danger.  There were deaths, beatings, bombings, and intimidation. Most infamous was the abduction and murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner in late June. Despite the constant threat on their lives, Freedom Summer volunteers found strength and comfort in one another and in the black community.  Heather Tobis Booth, another volunteer, wrote, “The songs help to dissipate the fear.  Some of the words in the songs do not hold real meaning on their own, others become rather monotonous—but when they are sung in unison, or sung silently by oneself, they take on new meaning beyond words or rhythm…There is almost a religious quality about some of these songs, having little to do with the usual concept of a god.  It has to do with the miracle that youth has organized to fight hatred and ignorance.  It has to do with the holiness of the dignity of man.  The god that makes such miracles is the god I do believe in when we sing “God is on our side.”  I know I am on that god’s side.  And I do hope he is on ours.”

But the intensity of the experience also created a powerful sense of purpose and community, of blacks and whites working together for a common cause.  Many Freedom Summer volunteers recall their time in the South as the most powerful and transformative experience of their lives.  Their letters home reflect the power of that experience.  As Sylvie Woog put it to her father, “I’m no different from anyone else and if they’re risking their lives, then so must I. But I just can’t comprehend why people must die to achieve something so basic and simple as Freedom…”

On this date in 1964, Ellen Siegel wrote, “For the first time in my life, I am seeing what it is like to be poor, oppressed, and hated. And what I see here does not apply only to Gulfport or to Mississippi or even to the South … The people we’re killing in Viet Nam are the same people whom we’ve been killing for years in Mississippi. True, we didn’t tie the knot in Mississippi and we didn’t pull the trigger in Viet Nam—that is, we personally—but we’ve been standing behind the knot-tiers and the trigger-pullers too long.”

Sources: “Voices Home” and “Introductory Essay,” Living the Legacy: Community Organizing I; Elizabeth Martínez, ed. Letters from Mississippi. (Brookline, MA: Zephyr Press, 2002)

Image of Heather Booth and Fannie Lou Hamer
Full image
Heather Booth playing guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi, 1964. Photo credit: Wallace Roberts. Permission to use granted by Heather Booth.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Ellen, Bonnie, Heather, and Sylvie write home from Freedom Summer." (Viewed on September 20, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/12/1964/ellen-bonnie-heather-and-sylvie-write-home-from-freedom-summer>.

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