Linda Seese was 22 years old when she traveled to Mississippi with 1,000 other college students for the Freedom Summer Project in 1964
Instead of taking trips to Europe, working in offices to save for school or even staging cafeteria sit-ins as their peers had done in South Carolina and Georgia, these college kids spent their days encouraging the long-disenfranchised population to register to vote. The right was granted by United States but blocked by local cultural norms in a place where 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, people still lived on plantations under the watchful eye of white landowners and where 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools were still segregated. The volunteers set up "Freedom Schools" and libraries in shacks to bolster education about civics and history, and they held rallies to build grassroots political support for black elected representatives.
Their lives would never be the same.
Officials thwarted the process by imposing literacy tests and throwing up other bureaucratic hurdles, and many whites used violence as intimidation—beating, bombing and jailing the visitors from the North along with their hosts. The FBI took reports and promised investigations that came slowly, if ever. The local police were part of the problem. Three volunteers from the program went missing, their bodies found at the end of the summer only when an informant cooperated. Yet, voter rolls slowly swelled, and blacks not only voted, they ran for office and were duly elected.
Now 72, Seese has a lifetime of activism to reflect on. After a short return home to pay off her college loan, she returned to Mississippi to continue voter registration and civil rights advocacy for another nine months, leaving only when it became clear that outsiders needed to get out the way and let the local leadership take root.
Then, it was time for Seese to protest the war in Vietnam, serve poor communities in the Midwest and travel to live with First Nations people in Saskatchewan before finding a niche in the women's movement in Chicago and Portland. For the last three decades, she's been living in Northern New Mexico, where most people know her by her nickname "Spes"; all told, she's spent half of her life in homes without running water.
While hundreds of her former companions with the SNCC spent a few days at a reunion in Jackson in late June to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom Summer, Seese stayed in Santa Fe, pulling old books off her shelf and reading new ones. She already owned a copy of Letters from Mississippi, a collection first published in 1965 and reissued this year in a special anniversary edition. Editors say her words are among those printed in its pages. She wrote many letters to a Wisconsin church women's group that sent her $10 a week that year. Yet, so much time has passed that she can't identify any missives with absolutely certainty. No matter. Any of them could be hers. The shared experiences defy understanding, she says.
SFR: How did you end up in Mississippi?
Linda Seese: I was dating a white South African minister who was opposed to apartheid and was therefore not in South Africa, and he was doing a lot of stuff. He took me to this church and it was the Freedom Singers, one of them was Bernice Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock …and their little bio was that they were all students and they dropped out of school to be in the movement. I kind of thought, 'Well, that is interesting.' Ken, that was the minister's name, was a quite a bit older than me and I was a lesbian, so it was a very platonic relationship. I couldn't really act on being a lesbian in the '60s…He said, 'Well, you could do it.' So I tried to find the SNCC office in New York City and it was down by Wall Street, and I think that was about the only time I ever got lost, totally lost on the subway. I never found it. So, back in school I was kind of biding my time until I could graduate, and I heard about the Freedom Summer and so I went and interviewed. I'm pretty sure I would not have been interested if I wasn't a lesbian. I knew what it was like to not be part of the main society, even though if you saw me you'd probably think I was. Inside I wasn't. So I went over and interviewed and one guy told me, 'We thought you were too naïve but you were getting a degree in economics, and so I needed you.' I had no idea what I was going into.
But you did have some training, right?
There were two trainings in Oxford [Ohio]. The first week was for voter registration people, which they did not think white women should do. The second week was other programs like the Freedom Schools and federal programs. I think we got there, on Sunday and on Monday morning was a big assembly, and this little short woman was up there, and she said, 'I'm Rita Schwerner and there are three volunteers who have disappeared and one is my husband. We have to assume they're dead.' I don't know she said it [exactly] that way. The whole thrust of the thing was you should really think about what you're doing. Because this is not a church picnic, you know? I remember talking to my parents who had actually taken me there because we lived in Ohio. I was just 22 and so they couldn't really stop me, but my mom asked if they were making me go. And I said, 'No, they're practically making us not go.' You really have to be committed. I was shocked. What I remember was that there was a pond there, and there were these ducks, and they would go upside down to get their food, and I thought, 'That is trust, you know. That is what I've got to do.'
What most important about what you did?
We had a reunion that was the 36th anniversary. They tried to do the 35th, but they couldn't quite get to people. So they did it for the 36th, for the people who worked in Sunflower County. One of the women who organized the reunion was a kid in the Freedom School, and she's now a published poet. And she remembers being told that black is a good, that black people are smart, that you are smart. As a 10-year-old, that was something she would otherwise never have gotten it down there. It was just to help people's self-respect. To stand up, to have that, and to say 'I'm gonna go register. They might beat me up. They might kill me. They could well fire me.' But people were ready. They were ready to get freedom. And I could really see the changes when I was there 36 years later.
Did you ever feel discouraged?
Oh, I am sure. Somebody got me hooked up with a woman, and I tried to go down with her to help her get welfare and that did not work at all. They weren't going to let me do anything because I was an outside agitator. There was some regulation, I don't know what it was, but it was not going anywhere. I came back to Sunflower County later, and they told me one of her kids died from hunger. It was hard. They burned of the house that we're living in...we were there. Luckily we were up. I heard this glass break, and I thought that somebody had dropped a glass or something and not that it was a window that had broken. They threw in a Coke bottle that was filled with gasoline. That caught the house on fire, and the fire department came and watched. And they finally put it out when it was in danger of going to the neighbors.
After the summer was over and most of the volunteers left Mississippi, why did you go back? I wanted to live there forever at that point. It was my life's work. I have never found anything quite like it since. It was just so important and it changed me immensely…only people that live it can share it. It's like people who have been in Iraq together or something. We definitely had PTSD, but we didn't know what that meant. I can remember going up to Cleveland, Miss., to look into possible projects with poor whites, and somebody knocked a baseball bat over on a porch, and I went through the ceiling because we could be shot at any time.
What was it like seeing hateful stares from whites? I did not see [them] very often because I was surrounded by people that loved us because we came. We always call people Mr. and Mrs., where they never got that from any white person before. They were called Sadie or Auntie—this was sort of new for them to be relating to white people who liked them and who were not their bosses. I was just graduating from college, and all the sudden I was living with people who could not even read or write. But I learned, I really learned to listen. I think that in college I was sitting there and you kind of have to have your answer ready or your rebuttal ready, and these people would sit out on their porch and schmooze away for hours.
How do you feel like your experience in Mississippi has influenced the rest of your life? It changed my life. It was the most important thing in my life even more than coming out. Because I really believed in all the American democracy and I found out it was bullshit. To see a US senator (who owned a plantation) paying people next to nothing and getting them beat up for trying to vote and just the way things were there. It was just not right. The FBI would watch people getting beat up. So I was committed to changing the system. I had a purpose…we were ready to give our lives. I was ready to give my life. Now that I am a Buddhist, I talk about compassion for people, but I wasn't really enlightened then because I went to sleep every night practically with dreams of blowing up the police station or getting those white racists. We were nonviolent, but we didn't really love those white racists.
After working so hard for voter registration, you've come to be more skeptical about the political system?
I didn't vote for a candidate for Democrat for governor. I forgot to vote. I was away. I'm kind of glad Gary King got it, but whoever is in is going to be a sacrifice because of all those who are behind Susana. Look what democracy is like now with the Supreme Court decisions. I mean it is being bought. It is totally bought.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Excerpts from letters written to friends and
family by members of the 1964 Mississippi
How to convey the magic of place names unknown to the rest of America; how to explain that the map of Mississippi could become in a single summer more rich in associations, even nostalgia, than the whole geography of childhood and school—more fabulous that the cities of Europe which one might have known in another kind of summer? The young volunteers said Neshoba, McComb, Tallahatchie in a way that other generation say Barcelona, Iwo Jima, Stalingrad. Not because the Project was like a war, although it sometimes seemed that way, but because both sets of words transmit echoes of pain and courage, and images of a particular sky or earth color or human being. The words became possessions.
The Road to Mississippi
By now you know that what I told you about my plans for the summer was in part a deliberate lie. I’m sorry about this. I thought it was a necessary evil at the time but now I wish I had faced you and told you what I was up to.
The trip through the south was genuine…We saw almost every battle-field in the south, in addition to New Orleans, a few Georgia beaches and a grand old plantation outside Natchez, Miss.
Now the trip is over. I am at the orientation session for the “Mississippi Summer Project” with the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee. (We are called “Snick” for SNCC, kind of a rotten name.) …I am sure that you are convinced that I have fallen in with agitators and a dangerous brand of screwballs. Well for some time I feared the same thing myself. I have found the fact to be otherwise…And there will be no mass demonstrations, there will be no picketing and no sit-ins. We are not even dreaming of total integration this summer and in this decade…
I am, of course, living hand to mouth now. I expect that you are so disgusted with this whole business that you will try to starve me out. You may succeed. I receive no pay from SNCC. If in fact, I have completely misjudged your reaction I would be only too happy—ever grateful indeed—for support.
I will write you once a week. I am sorry if this frightens or saddens you.
At Home in a Black World
There are old men and women in old clothing whom you know have little money and none to spare, who stop you as you are leaving the church after addressing the congregation and press a dollar into your hand and say, “I’ve waited 80 years for you to come and I just have to give you this little bit to let you all know how much we appreciate your coming. I prays for your safety every night, son. God bless you all.” And then they move down the stone steps and disappear along the red clay road lined with tall green trees and houses tumbling down.
Shaw, July 4
Dear Mom and Dad,
One day has passed in Shaw and the other America is opening itself before my naïve, middle-class eyes. The cockroaches draw patterns across the floor and table and make a live patchwork on the bed. Sweat covers my skin and cakes brown in my joints—wrists, elbow, knee, neck. Mosquito bites, red specks on a white background.
The four-year-old grandson is standing by my side. I wonder how our presence now will affect him when he is a man?
I saw other children today who bore the marks of the Negro in rural Mississippi. One had a protruding navel the size of the stone he held in his hand. Several had distended stomachs.
Is America really the land that greets its visitor with “Send me your tired, your poor, your helpless masses to breathe free…”
There is no Golden Door in Shaw.
The Long Walk to the Courthouse
There were still a lot of folks who didn’t want to have anything to do with it all because it meant trouble. I met a very tall freshman at the local high school who said he wasn’t afraid of the “man.” As I walked down the road with him, his mother came to warn him not to get mixed up with us. She said they probably wouldn’t hurt us but would beat him as soon as we had left. She told me she was afraid for her boys. She wants to raise them safely and get them out of here…There was an old couple, married 62 years, who said they couldn’t pull much anymore but could still push. This seems to be the sentiment of many of the people in this town. They would be willing to take a step but they don’t want to be first. We are gradually getting a list of about half a dozen people who say they are now willing to go down to the courthouse.
Batesville, August 1
We’re all a little nervous. Four COFO (Council of Federated Organizations) workers—including me—are staying with the Robert Miles’ on their farm just outside of Batesville. Mrs. Miles’ 25 yr. old son Robert Jr. is stationed out in the yard with a gun. (Yes, the Movement is still non-violent; but every farmer—white and black—in the Delta has a gun…) Since last Saturday night when the Miles’ house was bombed with a tear gas grenade, several other Negroes in town have received bomb threats…
We think that the heightened tension is pretty much a testimonial to the success of our voter registration drive. About 500 Negroes have registered since the summer volunteers arrived in Batesville—this in a county where until recently only two Negroes had been able to register in seventy years …
School for Freedom
Yesterday I decided to find out just how much they, (mostly 6th and 7th graders), knew about our federal government. When I got discouraged by the blank looks on their faces, I asked, “What is the capital of the United States?” “Jackson?” …”How many states are there in the US?” “??...82?”(82 counties in Miss.) Is this symbolic?
The students are taught nothing of their heritage. The only outstanding Negroes they are told about are Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. They learn nothing of the contributions Negroes have made to our culture or anything else which could give them any reason to disbelieve the lies they are told about Negroes being unable to do anything worthwhile …
It’s night. It’s hot. No lights because there aren’t any curtains—meaning they can see you and you can’t see them. They, the word they, takes on its full meaning here. You slap at a dozen or so mosquitoes that are buzzing in. You doze off and the phone rings again, about the fifth time, and the other end stays mum. By now you know that somebody, someone on the other side, knows where you are. They know who you’re staying with.
Violence hangs overhead like dead air—it hangs there and maybe it’ll fall and maybe it won’t. Sometimes it’s directed at people in the movement, sometimes it’s indiscriminate. Cars have been roaming around; seven or eight vigilante trucks with their gun racks and no license plates have been seen meeting at the city dump. What will they do? When? Something is in the air, something is going to happen, somewhere, sometime, to someone…A few nights ago cars roamed the streets, empty bottles flew from their hands, striking cars and homes. They were empty that night—the next night the bottles were loaded—exploding as they hit the church and setting it afire.
The Nitty Gritty
The roads are clay and dusty. Red dust that kicks up when the breeze passes. It gets into your clothes and your hair. The red mud on the side of the road left over from yesterday’s rain storm clogs your shoes and somehow leaves stains on your pants. But somehow none of this matters when you are welcomed into a person’s home and talk to him about registering for the vote…and so clothes cease to be a real concern. “Image” ceases to be a real concern. If it ever was. In spite of the national Council of Churches’ advice, we crap on the clean, antiseptic, acceptable, decent middle-class “image.” It is that decency that we want to change, to “overcome.” It is that decency which shuts these “niggers” in their board shacks with their middle class-television antennas rising above tarpaper roofs. So crap on your middle class, on your decency, mister Churches man. Get out of your god-damned new rented car. Get out of your pressed, proper clothes. Get out of your unoffensive, shit-eating smile and crew-cut. Come join us who are sleeping on the floor…Come with us and walk, not ride, the dusty streets of north Gulfport.