Monday, May 3, 2010

We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: Remembering Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964

Posted By on Mon, May 3, 2010 at 9:30 AM

In the summer of 1964, hundreds of young northerners descended upon Mississippi to register black voters and teach in "Freedom Schools." Among them were Charles McLaurin, Chris Hexter and Tracy Sugarman, who were all based in the town of Ruleville in Sunflower County. McLaurin was the project director for Sunflower County, Hexter was a teacher and Sugarman was a journalist and illustrator who documented the events of that summer.

This Thursday, May 6, at 7:30 p.m. McLaurin, Hexter and Sugarman will be speaking at Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End. McLaurin and Hexter both appear in Sugarman's new book We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi.

Charles McLaurin in 1964, as drawn by Tracy Sugarman. - FROM WE HAD SNEAKERS, THEY HAD GUNS
  • from We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns
  • Charles McLaurin in 1964, as drawn by Tracy Sugarman.

Sugarman went to Mississippi in 1964 to chronicle the experiences of the young voter registration workers and Freedom School teachers. He was, at the time, a veteran journalist and illustrator who had begun his career covering D-Day. We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns is his memoir of both Freedom Summer and a volunteer reunion 40 years later, in the summer of 2004.

The summer of 1964 was not an easy time. Hexter, now a labor lawyer, sat down with Daily RFT a few weeks ago to tell us more about it.

Freedom Summer, says Hexter, was mostly the idea of Robert Moses, a brilliant young African-American math professor.

"In Mississippi," he explains, "civil rights activists were getting nowhere. We needed to break it open. The only way to get Mississippi changed was to bring down the 'cream of America,' middle-class students from New York. If that clump of students went, the eyes of the North would follow and it would bring Mississippi to their attention."

Hexter was, at the time, 19 years old, between his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Wisconsin. His father was a professor of European history at Washington University and Hexter had attended University City High School. Two days before he left for college in August of 1963, he took part in his first sit-in at the Jefferson Bank and Trust downtown. Jefferson Bank had no black employees above the rank of custodian. It also held the pension funds for the city of St. Louis.

Hexter, his sister and hundreds of other students and members of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) which included future U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay and Marian Oldham, a teacher who became the first black woman on the University of Missouri Board of Curators (and for whom a post office is named).

Unlike Clay and Oldham, Hexter wasn't arrested that day. But he was radicalized and when James Silver, a professor at the University of Mississippi, came to speak at Wisconsin and mentioned plans for Freedom Summer, Hexter applied right away. He went through an interview and psychological evaluation and in the spring was accepted to the program.

"It wasn't paid," he recalls. "There was no money. My parents put up the money to get me there. My parents were concerned. The deal I cut with them was that I would not engage in demonstrations and avoid situations where I would be arrested.

"I was arrested three times."

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