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In the immediate aftermath of Freedom Summer, many young organizers felt they'd placed themselves in the path of American racism—and gotten trampled. They'd endured violence and harassment; three of their fellow workers had been murdered. They'd registered few black voters. The Democratic Party had turned aside their challenge in Atlantic City.

"What [the Summer Project] achieved more than anything else, I think, it exposed the system—from top to bottom," says Dave Dennis, who was the Mississippi Director of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1964. "And what it did was to show that there was a conspiracy, to some extent, unwritten—that was just so far that people were going to go to make changes, they weren't gonna step on too many people's toes at this time in this country, and really what type of a rock this country was built upon."

The sense that Freedom Summer had not brought tangible political change was exacerbated by frustrations inside the movement. Some felt the intense experiment in integrated activism had failed. The Northern white volunteers came with good intentions, "but it was like they thought they were coming to deal with a bunch of ignorant slobs, because we weren't formal in our practices, because we did things in a different way. They felt they knew better," says Matt Suarez, a former CORE staffer from Louisiana.

"There was a bit of a situation there," agrees Bob Zellner, the white Alabamian and former SNCC staff member. Conflicts over tasks like typing and copy making led to wounded feelings in the makeshift and harried civil rights offices during Freedom Summer, says Zellner. "And these were places where young Mississippians, mostly black, had gone through a lot of pain and suffering to learn some of those skills and techniques. And suddenly someone from, you know, Bryn Mawr or Brown or Stanford or wherever—'Well, I can type a hundred words a minute. Let me do that.' 'I know how to run that machine, I can even fix that machine.' So there was a certain amount of shouldering aside."

Personal entanglements sometimes turned into racial conflicts. White women angered black women by forming relationships with black men. At the same time, some of the women who volunteered for Freedom Summer were forming ideas that would lead to the founding of the modern women's movement. Their criticisms of men, black and white, alienated some African American women, recalls Unita Blackwell: "I remember Fanny Lou Hamer says, you know, 'I'm not gonna liberate myself from Pap.' That was her husband. She did not want to liberate herself from Pap. She wanted Pap to be liberated."

Some whites struggled to understand when their black colleagues in the Mississippi movement got angry with them.

"If you were naïve like I was, and you came from a relatively sheltered background, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, what is going on,'" says Betty Garman Robinson, a native of suburban New York who had joined the SNCC staff in the spring of 1964. "And that said to me that the whites, myself included, didn't understand the anger" that comes out of being oppressed. "We didn't have a clue what that was about."

"I think that the Summer Project, by virtue of creating integration in a sheltered manner, allowed the tensions which were present in the society to surface," says Casey Hayden, also a white SNCC staff member at the time.

Others, perhaps, approached Freedom Summer with lower expectations for racial harmony, and were less disappointed. Most black Mississippians had never known whites who would shake their hands, talk to them as equals, or ride as passengers in their cars.

The Reverend J.J. Russell hosted white volunteers at his home in the Delta.

"The law of the county, they didn't want it to happen. They didn't want white students staying in the black homes, but we did it." The elderly Russell chuckles with pleasure at the memory. "And [they] didn't want us to ride together, but we rode together. Other words, we worked just like sisters and brothers."

But after Freedom Summer, bitterness and separation won out within the Mississippi movement. SNCC, the group that led the Summer Project, had been founded as an integrated movement committed to nonviolent resistance. But within two years of Freedom Summer, SNCC had new, more militant leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael, who declared the Black Power movement and dismissed the group's white staff members.

Former SNCC staffer John O'Neal says the summer of '64 helped him grasp the true nature of the relationship between blacks and whites in America—a relationship that, he argues, has not changed in the intervening decades.

"Black people, as a matter of necessity, have to deal with white people in one way or another all the time, and have a pretty good notion of who they are and how they function, what they do, and generally recognize that most of them don't understand the relationship that we have to each other, and generally don't recognize the racism in themselves, and generally are like bulls in china shops when it comes to trying to be in the world," O'Neal says.


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