Student civil rights activists singing as they prepare to leave Ohio to register black voters in Mississippi. The 1964 voter registration campaign was known as Freedom Summer.
Student civil rights activists singing as they prepare to leave Ohio to register black voters in Mississippi. The 1964 voter registration campaign was known as Freedom Summer.

Fifty years on, Reedies reflect on the Summer of ’64

By Nisma Elias ’12 | June 1, 2014

It was a scorching August night, and there was tension in the air. 

David Goodyear ’67 and two other civil-rights workers had stopped to buy cokes at a Texaco station in the little town of Laurel, Mississippi. They had traveled to this remote part of the state to register black voters for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, a movement that triggered a furious backlash from conservative whites. Days before, the dead bodies of three civil-rights workers had been discovered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, less than 100 miles to the north, beaten and shot by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

While they quenched their thirst, a car pulled up. Men got out brandishing clubs. The gas station locked its doors and turned out its lights, and Goodyear knew he and his friends were in trouble . . . 

“If I get emotional, don’t be surprised” warned Bernard Wasow ’65 to the circle of Reedies gathered before him. “This is very personal for me.”

We were standing above the main lobby of the Newseum, a museum in Washington, D.C., that combines news history with state-of-the-art technology and interactive exhibits (it boasts the largest display of unaltered sections of the original Berlin Wall, including a three-story East German guard tower), and Bernard was about to lead us through a new exhibit titled “1964: Civil Rights at 50.”

1964 was a pivotal year for the long struggle for civil rights in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. had electrified the nation with his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington the year before. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy had bequeathed new momentum to his Civil Rights Act, particularly in the Senate, where Southern Democrats had bottled up previous attempts for decades. 

To demonstrate how the Jim Crow system prevented black Americans from voting, civil-rights leaders focused attention on Mississippi, where fewer than 7% of eligible black voters were registered to vote. Groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. The idea was for civil-rights volunteers to go from door to door and encourage voters to register. The project involved black Mississippians and more than 1,000 volunteers from around the country—among them roughly a dozen Reedies.

After the last day of classes in May 1964, Ray Raphael ’65 and Fred Winyard ’65 loaded up a station wagon full of donated clothing and supplies and headed south to the Committee of Federated Organizations’ (COFO) office in Oxford, Mississippi. Raphael was already a committed civil-rights activist; he had spent his freshman summer in North Carolina with the National Students Association, assisting with voter registration, tutoring students in integrated schools, and working to desegregate public facilities such as swimming schools and baseball stadiums. 

One of their first assignments was to take a load of supplies up to Ruleville, to deliver to a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer.

“Nobody knew who Fannie Lou Hamer was at this point, she was just a local activist,” explains Raphael. “At the very last minute they said there were two other people who needed a ride.” The other two turned out to be SNCC field secretaries Stokely Carmichael—who would become a prominent figure in the Black Power movement—and Charlie Cobb—who was instrumental in promoting the concept of Freedom Schools, which were set up to encourage political participation by teaching the history and philosophy of the civil rights movement, along with math, reading and other subjects. 

“We head up with the car full of supplies, and I was driving,” Raphael says. “When on the way, all of a sudden, Charlie and Stokely hit the ground, down on the floor in the backseat and start swearing. ‘Why are they sending us these greenhorns, who don’t know what they’re doing?’”

In his naiveté, Raphael had committed a cardinal sin—he had stopped at a stoplight. For a car carrying both black and white passengers with a Northern license plate, stopping at a stoplight in a small town in Mississippi was an invitation to disaster.

After this dramatic incident, the Reedies drove up to Hamer’s house and were greeted by the matronly trailblazer herself—toting a gun.

Hamer was an inspirational figure in the civil-rights movement. A former cotton picker, she had made headlines by singing hymns while black Mississippians were registering to vote. In 1963, she was arrested and beaten in jail but refused to be intimidated and become a key organizer of the Mississippi Summer.

“She said it was awesome we were down there doing this, and part of their struggle,” says Raphael. “She was the most amazing woman I had ever met in my life.” 

Focusing the Spotlight

The rationale behind the Freedom Summer campaign was not simply to register voters, but also to focus the media spotlight on the issue of racial discrimination in the South. “We were going down there as Northern white volunteers, as privileged people basically, and knocking on the doors of black people who live there and asking them to make a dangerous move, which is to register to vote, and possibly face recrimination from local whites from doing so. Who are we to do that?” mused Raphael. “This is sensitive stuff—and stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and I’m not comfortable with it now. But it was a part of the game—to nationalize the issue. We were kind of tools—our job was to get national attention.”

The work was anything but glamorous. Fred Winyard spent several weeks in a college basement in Holly Springs, unpacking donated books, sorting them, and reboxing them to start libraries. “I went with the first truckload, unpacked the first Freedom Library in Clarksdale,” he says. “The Sheriff told me of a new law in Mississippi which prohibited unlicensed libraries, but was obviously reluctant to enforce a law he thought was dumb.”

Tension was never far from the surface, however. Two libraries were destroyed by arson later that year. In June, three civil-rights workers—Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white students from New York, and a local African-American, James Chaney—disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their torched station wagon was found a few days later.

Despite the sinister circumstances, many Americans refused to believe that the volunteers had been murdered. “I was struck how difficult it was to convince congressmen that they probably had met foul play,” said Wasow, who went to Washington, D.C., with other Freedom Summer volunteers to lobby Congress about civil rights. “Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, for example, wanted to speak of nothing but the danger that Communists would control the summer project.”

The bodies of the three men were found on August 4, 1964, brutally beaten and shot by members of the KKK. Their murders drew national headlines and shook the movement to its core. 

Murder and Intimidation

When the lights of the Texaco Station winked out and the doors were bolted shut, David Goodyear and his two companions knew they were in for trouble. The Freedom House they had been working on to serve as a center for the registration drive in Jones County had stirred up a lot of resentment in the community.

Within moments, a group of men confronted them, threw them to the ground, and attacked them. Luckily, someone called the police. “We ourselves would never call the police for any reason, of course,” says Goodyear. “I will never know who that good citizen was or how long the beating with clubs and hob-nailed boots would have continued without the cops rolling by. We were pretty much unconscious by then.”

When the case went to court, Goodyear was represented by a lawyer by the name of Ed Koch—who would later become Mayor of New York City. Koch jotted down some notes on the case in the September 1964 issue of The Mississippi Front:

“...On Friday, I returned to Laurel to assist in the trial of two more cases. This time they involved two white COFO workers, a young man and woman who had been engaged in voter registration. They had been assaulted—thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten—at a gas station while buying cokes. Their alleged assailant appeared in court with witnesses who testified that he had been at home during the time of the assault watching Bonanza on TV. The cases were dismissed.” 

The alleged assailant was also the nephew of the judge for the case. During the trial, Goodyear was spat on and told “You’re dead!” by KKK members. Goodyear recounted how even Koch bore his share of spit and RC cola bottles thrown at them in court.

“We got out as fast as we could, but the next morning the Laurel newspaper blasted my picture on the front page so everybody in town would know who to look for,” he wrote. “The FBI had given the paper one of the photos they had taken during their ‘investigation.’ A fellow worker named Ulysses and I drove straight back to L.A. the next day without stopping.”

Two months later the Freedom House that Goodyear had been building in Laurel was blown up with dynamite. The FBI didn’t solve that case. Goodyear continued to be persecuted by the FBI, who interrogated him for hours. 

“They were more interested in my political affiliations and the plans of the COFO project than the beating,” says Goodyear, now an artist living in San Francisco. “They opened a file on me and followed my activities for several years after that summer.”

The Aftermath

Coming back to Reed after the summer was almost surreal for some volunteers. “I think going to Mississippi was a bit like going to war,” says Wasow. “One returned having experienced so much, finding it so difficult to make it real to others, who had just had another ordinary summer.”

Winyard resumed his studies at Reed, wrote his economics thesis on the status of minorities in the postwar American economy, and later became a systems analyst. “Just an unglamorous guy doing unglamorous things,” he says modestly.

Other returning activists were irked by their classmates’ disengagement with civil-rights issues. “There was very little action at Reed other than collecting for the summer; there were only a handful of activists,” Raphael laments. “I remember trying to organize at Reed felt a little bit like pushing uphill. When I would try to coordinate people toward some action, I would hear replies like ‘I’m working on my thesis,’ or ‘I’m working on the qual.’” 

“It seemed like people were putting more emphasis on their personal careers—for me that was a point of frustration. I was more motivated by something that was larger than our academic careers. It felt like swimming against the tide.”

Wasow agrees. In terms of advocating for civil rights, “there was nothing serious on campus as far as I remember,” he says. “I felt Reed was an inward looking world. It made no effort to be inclusive of black culture. It felt itself little responsible for bearing the change that the whole country had to bear.”

Portland may have a progressive reputation today, but it was a different city in the ’60s. “Portland was very backward on these issues. When we had the first peace demonstrations in ’64-65, small ones, we had stuff thrown at us,” says Raphael. 

“I drove around a very noticeable black ‘54 Pontiac hearse that could carry a lot of people in the back, going to demonstrations and such,” he says. “This right-wing group called Young Americans for Freedom put sugar in my gas tank at one of the demonstrations. I had to redo the entire fuel system one at a time to get that stuff out of there. Now (Portland) has a great liberal reputation; then it was not hospitable at all to the peace movement. It wasn’t until much later that Portland liberalized.”

Against this conservative backdrop, the Reed activists kept a high profile. “Portland-wide peace movements probably had a third of the demonstrators from Reed,” says Raphael. “We were known as being radical, although in my mind we were not radical enough. When we had demonstrations, the local (Portland) papers, which were very conservative, would make a point of saying it was just a bunch of Reed students, even though two-thirds of the crowd were not from Reed.”

Considering the perils of being involved in Freedom Summer, hazards that could continue long after the summer was over, what compelled these Reedies to put their lives at risk? 

Wasow, who pursued a career in economics and serves as chief US economist for the Globalist Research Center, puts it simply. 

“Somebody had to do it,” he says. “Why somebody else?” 

Fifty years later, the legacy of Freedom Summer is still coming into focus. While it did not succeed in registering many black voters, it galvanized national support for ending segregation and dismantling Jim Crow laws, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It paved the way for young people across the country to get involved with political issues, and provided an organizational template for student opposition to the war in Vietnam. 

But Freedom Summer was not only a historical event. It had a profound impact on the volunteers who took part in it. “It was pivotal for me, and my personal development as a citizen and a human being,” says Raphael, who is now a historian and author in Northern California. “It was a compelling, driving interest that really still shapes me.”

The volunteers took part in the campaign because they wanted to change America. What they didn’t realize at the time was that they would also change themselves.

Tags: Reed History, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion