By Jim H. Smith
In the middle of June 1964, a year almost to the day after the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi, several hundred college students from all over the northern United States descended on Oxford, Ohio. There they encamped at what is now known as Miami University of Ohio for a week of intensive training by members of the Counsel of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of civil rights organizations.
Armed with their wits, the righteousness of their cause, and whatever knowledge they had absorbed in Ohio, the students would travel into the surreal deep south of Mississippi, where their aim was to help American citizens to exercise their rights
John Suter ’70 turned 19 that summer. On Saturday, September 13, at a symposium marking the 50th anniversary of what is remembered as “Freedom Summer,” he and other Wesleyan alumni who participated in the civil rights movement in Mississippi told their stories to a packed house in Fayerweather’s Beckham Hall.
Suter arrived at Wesleyan in the autumn of 1963. A year earlier his mother, a teacher, had encouraged him to become involved with a summer work camp sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that undertakes projects to promote “lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action.”
Suter’s base of operations was Germantown, a historic neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia with a largely African-American population. He and a corps of other youngsters stayed in churches and camped out on the floor. Their summer assignment was to terrace the steep hillside behind a block of row houses that experienced chronic flooding after rainstorms.
When he returned to Connecticut, Suter said, “I was quite radicalized. The degree of injustice and poverty I discovered in Germantown was shocking to me.” It also amounted to “an intense and inspiring education.” So much so that when a civil rights team appeared on campus early in 1964, recruiting students to participate in Freedom Summer, Suter didn’t hesitate to apply.
By the time he boarded the bus for Mississippi the following June, a certain numbness had set in. The COFO trainers had hammered home the fact that he and his fellow freedom rights volunteers were undertaking a dangerous task. Ahead of him lay Clarksdale, epicenter of the Delta Blues, county seat of Mississippi’s Coahoma County, and the place where, in 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had attended the first major meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was a 16-hour trip from Oxford, Ohio.
“Once we entered Mississippi we were followed by cops,” Suter remembered. “It was 7:30 in the morning when we arrived.” And it was Monday, June 22, 1964, the day news broke that three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner—had disappeared overnight. Their bodies would be discovered 44 days later.
Suter began his first day on the job with another volunteer, visiting local residents and encouraging them to register to vote. They were arrested before they got to the fourth house on their list. They were never charged with the bogus crime for which they were arrested, vagrancy, but they were subjected to intimidation tactics by Clarksdale police for several hours before they were released late that afternoon.
It was a harbinger of what the summer would be like. And it was a story with themes that those attending the September symposium would hear again and again.
Suter’s panel included fellow Wesleyan alumni Ron Young ’86 and Stephen Oleskey ’64, both of whom had equally compelling tales for the rapt audience. It was moderated by Professor Ashraf Rushdy, Benjamin Waite Professor of English and professor of African American Studies, whose book, American Lynching, published in 2012, chronicles the long, ugly history of lynching in the United States.
Oleskey, who grew up in New Hampshire, arrived at Wesleyan “at the dawn of the Kennedy administration.” He recalled that in his class there was one African-American student. The year before there had been three.
Though he did not actually participate in Freedom Summer—opting, instead, to attend law school—Oleskey took part in efforts as an undergraduate to recruit more black students to the university, organized civil rights marches and demonstrations and, as chair of the university’s Assembly Program, brought prominent African-American leaders including Malcolm X and James Baldwin to campus to speak.
Still, by the summer of 1966, he said, “I knew I had to go to Mississippi.” He found his way there as a law student, recruited to offer legal advice on issues such as public accommodation, welfare, and school desegregation, through the Jackson-based Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
One evening, against advice he’d been given, he went to Grenada, Mississippi, north of Jackson, and participated in a demonstration. Though he’d been warned not to be out by himself after dark, he began driving back alone around 10 p.m.
“It was a sleepy summer night with cicadas buzzing,” he recalled.
Oleskey hadn’t driven far before he was pulled over by state troopers who arrested him for reckless driving, even though he’d been driving very carefully. What ensued was another protracted episode of intimidation. The police transported him to the country home of a justice of the peace, who presided over a kangaroo court in a building that, said Oleskey, “looked like a chicken shack.” After that, he slept with a gun under his pillow.
Young left Wesleyan for a year in 1962 to work in a black church in Memphis with Rev. J.M. Lawson Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement. “My duties there—the youth fellowship, baseball team, and Boy Scout troop—were ordinary,” said Young. “That I was white, everyone else was black, and it was Memphis in 1962 made my experience extraordinary.” He recalled living in the black community and being tutored by Lawson as his “second baptism.”
Returning to Wesleyan, Young worked with the Admission Office to recruit black students. Then in spring 1965, in response to “Bloody Sunday,” the March 7 incident in which protestors participating in a voting rights march were attacked by state troopers at Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Young and five students drove all night to participate in the voting rights marches in Selma.
Young’s story of his leadership in the anti-Vietnam War movement and, since 1982, in interfaith work for Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace, is told in his memoir, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas, Vietnam and the Middle East, published by Resource Publications this fall.
A second panel, moderated by Anna Wasescha, president of Middlesex Community College, featured three women—Penny Patch, Muriel Tillinghast and Gwendolyn Simmons—also veterans of Freedom Summer with powerful stories. The symposium ended with a keynote lecture, “Freedom Summer 50: Redressing State Violence,” by Margaret Burnham, professor of law and founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Institute at Northeastern University.
Wesleyan’s Freedom Summer celebration was co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies, Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, Olin Library and Special Collections, the Center for the Arts, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, Academic Affairs, Green Street Arts Center, and Cross Street A.M.E. Zion Church. —Jim H. Smith
To read Ron Young’s recollections of his time in Memphis in the spring of 1965, go to: