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Freedom Summer Transcripts



Susan Goldman Rubin
July 11, 2014 Transcript of interview with Len Edwards on the phone, February 10, 2013

LE: I was in Ruleville for three months. I was the only lawyer, a law student. Lawyers would come down and assist them [the members of the black community]. They taught me a lot. I saw what locals were trying to do. Two of our voter registration workers were put in jail. We filed for federal protection. The federal judge came out and said, "Look, my local friends, your heart is in the right place but you can't do this. Don't do this."

SGR: What happened when you arrived in Mississippi?

LE: I was eating in a restaurant. A guy came up to me and said, "Are you one of them Freedom Riders? Finish your breakfast and get out of here."

SGR: Where did you stay?

LE: Joe Smith, one of the volunteers, a student at University of Chicago law school, put me up with Mrs. Hamer. I was next door. Threats would go out. Mrs. Hamer was the most inspirational person I ever met. I'd go out with her, take her to a neighboring town that was all black. . . stir people up to register to vote. [Len had a car] My car was firebombed and trashed. I was followed by Mississippi Highway Patrol every day. People were down there before [Freedom] summer started. The first group was in Ruleville.

SGR: What happened when you heard that the three civil rights workers were missing? LE: Everybody knew they were dead. The first night I was there [in Ruleville] eating a hamburger. Two guys came up to me and said, "We think you should go home now.. . . for your own safety. There are a lot of crazies around here." SGR: How did you become involved in civil rights and Freedom Summer?

LE: At Chicago Law School I did my thesis on the great migration, migratory patterns. Images of blacks and whites broke my heart.

SGR: What was it like living in Ruleville?

LE: I lost about thirty pounds. I was living on adrenaline. There was no indoor plumbing. We used an outhouse. We washed with an outdoor hose. We all stank. White people would say, "those n- - - - -s, they stink." I met Linda [Davis] down there. We love each other, really liked each other. We were subsumed under daily fright. The FBI followed me everywhere. J. Edgar Hoover supported the South. He said all those kids are duped by communists.

SGR: How did you recognize or identify the FBI men?

LE: They had suits. I talked to a couple of agents. Ruleville was a big site because of Mrs. Hamer. In the Freedom Schools kids were learning black history. It was very very nice.

SGR: What work did you do there?

LE: I was on the road all the time [working on voter registration]. Charles [McLaurin] and I drove to Jackson. I drove, he was in the back seat. Liz Fusco and I became friends. We were sharing an experience unique to all of us. We were in shock. I'm a sensitive guy. It didn't just go away. [Freedom Summer] was a life-changing experience.

SGR: Did the press interview you?

LE: I was interviewed all the time. There is footage of me on the Walter Cronkite show.

SGR: Can you describe the house where you stayed?

LE: It was next door to Mrs. Hamer's. It was a ramshackle house. . . bullet holes. She [Mrs. Hamer] was an outlaw. I took a couple of clips [films or photographs] and used it to show what Mississippi looked like then, that people lived like that.

SGR: How did you hear about Freedom Summer?

LE: I met with Charles [McLaurin]. He had a list of all of us. They knew we were coming. Mrs. Hamer wrote a letter to me [before I left for Mississippi]. She wrote, "You've got to be careful. The Highway Patrol will be waiting for you at the border. There have been some shootings down here." She wrote in longhand on 4 or 5 sides of the paper . " She said, "I'm glad you're coming down but be careful."

May 8, 2014 Freedom Summer: The 1964 Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi

Transcripts of interviews with people who were there.

Andy Schiffrin, Freedom Summer volunteer.

Interviewed on the phone March 6, 2013.


SGR: How did you hear about the program?


AS: I saw some flier or pamphlet at UCLA [he had just graduated].


SGR: Can you tell me about your experience?


AS: I was at Oxford [training] and I drove down with them [Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, Louise Hermey, David Cotz, John Stevenson, and Edna Perkins]. When we drove in the South Chaney had to hide himself. It was dangerous to be seen with civil rights activists. Mickey organized Meridian. I was assigned to assist him recording power structures. The program assigned me to him. Andy Goodman was going to be doing community organizing.


SGR: How old were you? AS: Twenty one, becoming twenty-one.


SGR: Can you tell me more about the trip down to Mississippi?


AS: It was a long drive. We talked. More getting to know each other. Three of us were Jewish [Schiffrin, Schwerner and Goodman]. Mickey did all the driving. It was a blue station wagon, his car . [Rita Schwerner Bender corrected this remark. CORE provided the staff with the station wagon]. I'm very tall. I sat in front. Chaney had to duck down. A black man with a white woman was a problem. Once we hit the South there was a lot of talk about safety. Not wanting to be stopped. Important for cars to be in good shape to outrun the police cars in daylight.


SGR: What happened when the three civil rights workers didn't return?


AS: There was such chaos. Louise was manning the phone. My parents called me and told me to come home.


SGR: Where did you stay in Meridian?


AS: I stayed with the Waterhouse family. There were three daughters. The oldest was Lelia Jean, sixteen. Mothers were critical of letting kids participate [in the Freedom Schools and community centers]. All were at risk. But the kids were so energetic. Older guys were more cynical, less optimistic about possibility of change. The kids were sure that change was going to come. Their rights were worth fighting for. I met my first wife there [Meridian]. She was writing about her experience in a novel but never finished it. [Elinor Tideman]. She taught in a Freedom School.


SGR: Can you go back to the day after you arrived in Meridian?


AS: Mickey was going to introduce Andy [Goodman] where he'd be working. It was dangerous. One of the news articles says that I was asked to go with the three guys but declined. This is not true. I was never asked because the trip [to Neshoba County] was not related to the job I was sent to do. We hung out at headquarters figuring out what to do [when the three didn't return]. There was growing fear as time went on. They had to be dead. I was stunned. Years later I found out that the Klan killed them.


SGR: Can you tell me more about staying with the Waterhouse family?


AS: Meridian was the second biggest town in Mississippi. Fairly prosperous. The Waterhouse family lived in the poor part of town. Not New York City ghetto poor. It was not safe to walk a lot. They lived in a little house. Simple but well kept up.


SGR: What happened when the three young men disappeared?


AS: Nobody tried to replace Mickey. I spent time not knowing what I was supposed to do. The press came down. Reporters started to call. There was lots of activity. I was there to do what I was told. I played a low-key role. Peripheral. Voter registration was not big in Meridian. I was there to do research. Very difficult situation for everybody. There was tension throughout the summer.


SGR: Can you tell me more about the Waterhouse family?


AS: Lelia Jean , age 16, and Patricia [age twelve or thirteen] had incredible energy. They were going all the time. They were part of a restaurant desegregation action. We did picket lines together. It was the beginning of black power. There were lots of debates about bringing whites down to help.


SGR: Tell me more about Meridian.


AS: The Jewish community was very nervous. We [Freedom Summer volunteers] were making a precarious situation more precarious. Stirring up Klansmen and racism. Elinor and I had dinner with the rabbi. We tried to explain why we were there. Change was slow. Do you push or do you hope for things getting better over time?


SGR: What do you think Freedom Summer accomplished?


AS: It led to the anti-discrimination rights act, the agreement Johnson made with the liberals. He signed the Civil Rights Act. It started a huge change in terms of change in attitude. State supported racism - that doesn't exist anymore.