Freedom Summer Remembered

Against the Current, No. 170, May/June 2014

interview with Walter Kaufmann

WALTER KAUFMANN IS a retired attorney, psychotherapist and former community college teacher living in Berkeley, California. He was a participant in the 1964 Freedom Summer, working in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Against the Current editor David Finkel interviewed him for the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer project.

Against the Current: Please tell us something about your background and how you came to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Walter Kaufmann: To begin at the beginning, I was eight when I came with my parents as German Jewish refugees in 1940. Even as a child I was viscerally conscious of issues of racism and anti-semitism. I became involved with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) while I was teaching at a community college in Bakersfield, California. It was a town very much like the South in some ways, settled by immigrants from the Dust Bowl [the region devastated by drought and soil loss in the 1930s — ed.]. The economy centered around cotton, oil, and in Delano the grape industry.

I was very active in CORE there and organized a boycott of Bank of America which resulted in changing their hiring policies — forcing them to hire Black tellers — and I did legal work challenging the Bakersfield sheriff’s policies attempting to prevent high school students from picketing.

I wanted to go where the action was, so I decided to leave my job and get involved in Mississippi. I went to the offices in Jackson of COFO (Congress of Federated Organizations), which was an umbrella group for SNCC, CORE and the NAACP. When I volunteered my services there I met the historian Staughton Lynd, who was a senior adviser to the movement.

I had done a little bit of canvassing for voter registration in Jackson. One day Lynd came to me and said they’d pulled out of Philadelphia, Neshoba County after the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, but wanted to go back — and would I be willing to go. That’s how I went to Neshoba County. It was considered just about the worst place anywhere.

I was there through the summer of ’64 – I came in late spring and left that fall.

ATC: What’s it like now, do you know?

WK: Well, it has to be better, but I don’t really know. It was a very rural and backward place where Black people were intimidated and terrorized.

For example, it was a local joke in the Black community that one knew you were there when the pavement stopped and the roads became pitted and dusty. Or when you wanted to mail a letter and couldn’t find a mailbox. The sheriff and his deputy would speed down the road spraying dust on people, laughing while forcing them into the ditch. It was a game they would play.

You’d go into a gas station or grocery store, and there would be pictures of civil rights workers, or a list of our license plates tacked on the wall. I would get phone calls from city officials or the sheriff: “Is this Walter Kaufmann? Are you replacing that Jew that used to live there? Well, we’re having a beer party. Would you all like to come on over? Aren’t you the guy teaching nigger history there? It’s very unfortunate what happened to those three fellows. We wouldn’t anything to happen to you all now.

Every couple days or so I’d get calls like this. I lived in the Black community. It wasn’t safe to leave. There was one other white volunteer there, Alan Schiffman.

Sometimes we’d go up to Memphis or down to New Orleans. Neshoba was kind of like a Mississippi within Mississippi; when you got out of there you breathed a little easier, and it was a lot less threatening when you crossed into Louisiana or Tennessee. It was very much the center of backwardness and intense racism, so I’m sure it has to be better today. [In May 2009, James Young was elected, becoming the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia, Mississippi — ed.]

ATC: What kind of activities were you doing?

WK: We had history classes, community meetings, and tried to persuade people to register to vote which was difficult because generally they just wouldn’t let you. We did some very basic legal work, like when someone was beaten up, but I dropped the case because there was so much intimidation I could see it was impossible.

ATC: What was the level of community involvement? I assume some people must have been very scared, but some stepped up?

WK: There were people who were surprisingly involved. I lived in a little “shotgun shack,” the home of Lillie Jones, her daughter and grandchild. Mrs. Jones was a respected leader in the Black community, a very brave woman who took enormous risks to support the civil rights workers. I will never forget the warmth and hospitality she showed me.

We lived across the street from our little center, which was called the “Evers Hotel” — I believe it was owned by the Evers family — with a long corridor and a few offices. I don’t know what happened to it after we left.

We would get people to come to our meetings — if 20 people came that would be very successful. We would go to the small rural churches and explain about civil rights and voting. Most of the people were respectful, but afraid to get involved.

ATC: In assessing the experience of Freedom Summer, how do you think it changed things — and how did it change you?

WK: Well, it changed me dramatically — it made me much more respectful and admiring of Black people’s struggles and dignity. I was never treated better than when I was there, and I found a special rapport with Black people from a rural Southern background that I would never have had without that experience. It disabused me of a lot of subtle prejudices that even a lot of white liberals have, and made me intensely intolerant of that kind of prejudice, which I find repugnant.

It changed the South fundamentally by bringing national attention to the severe and even lethal discrimination, resulting in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. It gave political power to Black people. It made the South a different place.

At the same time that it improved the living conditions of Black people, it also realigned the political parties, with the white racist Democrats becoming Republicans and leading toward some of the polarization and political gridlock we now have.

ATC: That gets to a point I want to discuss about the present — after all the voting rights struggles that took place, we now see voter suppression tactics and laws all over the South, and elsewhere.

WK: Exactly. These are more sophisticated and subtle methods of what we saw in the Deep South prior to the mid-1960s. Then, if Blacks tried to vote they would just tell you to go home. You couldn’t vote. If you tried your house might be burned down, or your wife might be fired from her job as somebody’s housemaid.

But now, they make it as difficult as possible under the law. They can’t just disenfranchise the whole Black community, but they want to reduce the voting numbers as much as possible, and they do what they can get away with — not as much as before, but they can still pass a law, for example, that you can’t vote on Sunday which is when a lot of African-American churches have their advance voting parties.

The churches have a celebration after services, like Jews have their Oneg Shabbat, then get everyone to the voting place. If there’s no Sunday voting, you can’t do that. The right wing can’t prevent the Black vote, but they’re out to discourage and reduce it.

There is this “voting fraud” myth. Black people are the least likely of any group to engage in vote fraud, given the history and the risks involved.

May/June 2014, ATC 170

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