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50 years ago, ‘Freedom Summer’ changed South, US
Holly Springs, Miss. • As a teenager growing up in a Jim Crow society, Roy DeBerry wasn't waiting for white folks to come down to Mississippi and "save" him. But in the summer of 1964, the factory worker's son was very glad to see people like Aviva Futorian.
The young history teacher from the affluent Chicago suburbs was among hundreds of volunteers — mostly Northern white college students — who descended on Mississippi during what came to be known as "Freedom Summer." They came to register blacks to vote, and to establish "Freedom Schools" and community centers to help prepare those long disenfranchised for participation in what they hoped would be a new political order.
Opposition was brutal. Churches were bombed, volunteers were arrested, beaten — even murdered.
"There was real terror in Mississippi," DeBerry said during a recent visit to his hometown, Holly Springs.
Fifty years later, Freedom Summer stands out as a watershed moment in the long drive for civil rights. Mass resistance to integration started to crumble. Congress took a monumental step toward equal rights. And scores of young, idealistic volunteers embarked on careers of activism that continue to shape American politics and policy today.
And in this vortex of history, lifelong friendships formed between people from vastly different worlds.
So it was that a black 16-year-old from Mississippi and the 26-year-old daughter of a Jewish furniture mogul bonded over books and bologna sandwiches during a summer that would define their lives.
Sitting side by side recently in Futorian's condominium overlooking Chicago's Lincoln Park, the two friends reminisced about lessons under a tree, practice sessions for a sit-in at a segregated theater, taboos that prevented a white woman and black man from sitting next to each other in a car.
"I probably didn't have as much trepidation as I should have," said Futorian, now a 76-year-old attorney. "Because it's hard to imagine your own death."
Years of demonstrations by determined local blacks, boycotts, legislative campaigns and bloody pitched battles had not dislodged segregation. On March 20, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had been fighting for integration, announced the "Mississippi Summer Project." The group concluded it needed a dramatic tactic to draw national attention to the injustices — and putting Northern whites in harm's way seemed sure to accomplish that.
Volunteers converged for training at a college in Ohio. On June 21, even before orientation ended, chilling word spread: Three young volunteers — New Yorkers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and Mississippi native James Chaney — had vanished while investigating the burning of a black church.
En route to Mississippi, the menace quickly became clear to Futorian. Following a gasoline stop in Tennessee, her car and its mixed-race passengers were chased for miles at high speeds. Finally, their pursuers gave up.
Maybe it was because his grandparents had been landowners since just after slavery days, or because his father wasn't dependent on sharecropping a white man's land. Whatever the source, DeBerry had "an independent streak."
He sensed the injustice of having to climb to the gallery at the segregated Holly Theatre. He resented having to call the white kid behind the counter at Tyson's Drug Store "sir."
"No one needed to teach you that," the 66-year-old DeBerry said. "It was just something that was in your DNA."
So when a Freedom School opened in an unassuming white-frame building, DeBerry found his way there.