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Column: The Work of ‘Freedom Summer’ Goes On

This photograph taken in the summer of 1964 on what is now the campus of Miami (Ohio) University in Oxford, Ohio, and provided by the Smith Library of Regional History, shows some of the hundreds of civil rights activists who gathered there in June 1964 to train for voter registration of blacks in Mississippi. (AP Photo/courtesy of Smith Library of Regional History, George R. Hoxie)

This photograph taken in the summer of 1964 on what is now the campus of Miami (Ohio) University in Oxford, Ohio, and provided by the Smith Library of Regional History, shows some of the hundreds of civil rights activists who gathered there in June 1964 to train for voter registration of blacks in Mississippi. (AP Photo/courtesy of Smith Library of Regional History, George R. Hoxie)

Until she went to college, Patti Miller had never so much as spoken to a black person. There were few opportunities in her hometown of Jefferson, Iowa. And when she might see someone of African ancestry in Des Moines, her mother would admonish her not to stare, telling her, “They’re no different than we are.”

Miller was born in 1943 to a high-school principal father and stay-at-home mother, and raised in what she calls an insular Ozzie and Harriet childhood. She revered Abraham Lincoln and assumed the problems of slave descendants ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. So Miller coasted happily on the image of smiling children holding hands around the globe.

But history lessons delivered in the abstract can have crater-size gaps. Segregation and the racism, violence and economic conditions that enforced it were a far cry from the idyllic images she had harbored for 21 years. On a trip south in 1963 with fellow Drake University students, the music major found herself looking in on a filthy, crammed train station waiting room marked “Colored,” next to a pristine “Whites Only” one. “Something just snapped in me,” she said.

A year later, she would join hundreds of other college students responding to an appeal from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to spend the summer living with black host families in Mississippi and working for desegregation. She helped children in a community center in a black neighborhood in Meridian. That was the hometown of James Chaney, 21, one of three young Congress of Racial Equality workers trying to register blacks in Mississippi to vote. Chaney was black and had been with white New Yorkers Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, when the three disappeared. That was the fateful Freedom Summer, chronicled in Stanley Nelson’s documentary of the same name, airing on PBS stations this week in observance of the 50th anniversary. Patti Miller is in it.

That summer was filled with violence, church burnings and home bombings. Cars of white people would drive through Miller’s black neighborhood yelling slurs. Then on Aug. 4, she was at a concert for civil rights workers by folk musician Pete Seeger, when news came that the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found. They’d been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan working in concert with the local sheriff. It fell to Seeger to tell the group.

Miller passed out leaflets inviting people to join a march to Chaney’s funeral. It went through white neighborhoods, and she still remembers a white woman in curlers sitting on a porch yelling, “White girl!” and asking why she cared about a dead black man. “You gonna marry one of them?” she sneered.

Miller also vividly remembers the powerful eulogy delivered by a CORE field secretary, Dave Dennis. “He said, ‘If we don’t solve this problem, then God damn our souls.’ When I came back, I was asked to speak at churches all around Iowa. I would end with that quote.”

Back at Drake, Miller helped change housing policies that allowed off-campus landlords to discriminate against black students. But her eagerness to share what she had witnessed, especially with her hometown Methodist minister and mentor, did not get the supportive response she had expected. “He let me know that he didn’t think what I was doing was right,” Miller remembers. Women in her music sorority also disapproved of her civil rights activities, which came to occupy all her time when she wasn’t studying.

After graduating, she moved to Chicago to join the staff of Martin Luther King Jr., who had relocated the Southern Christian Leadership Conference there. She helped organize college students while teaching music in an all-black high school. She was teaching the day in 1968 that King was killed in Memphis. “Things never have been the same since,” she says.

But much has changed since that summer. The work of civil rights activists led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But in many college dining halls, black and white students still sit separately. Miller thinks the political conditions for African-Americans are not much better, because racism has been institutionalized.

“This country was built by slaves,” Miller muses. “And it has lasted so long that it’s in the DNA of the country, even though we’ve got a black president.”

Maybe that’s why a white Roosevelt High School teacher in Des Moines felt comfortable recently telling a black student to address him as “Master, Sir.” Maybe it’s why African-Americans still live disproportionately in poverty and in prisons.

But in the absence of mass violence and separate waiting rooms, students today don’t seem to see the imperative — or maybe the hope — of renewing the campaign against racism. Many looking to make a difference are instead heading abroad.

That’s why every American household should watch Freedom Summer — not just to be reminded of how young people’s passion for justice changed the country, but of the work that is yet to be done.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.