On Wednesday afternoon at 1:30, Oak Park Public Library showed the edgy 1988 thriller Mississippi Burning as part of its many scheduled programs in their current civil rights series, "Created Equal."
For our discussion after the film, Oak Park's Galen Gockel, a participant in the history portrayed onscreen, talked about his personal experience with the Freedom Summer program of 1964. This historic project, a pivotal moment in America's struggle to truly become a nation of equal justice, occurred 50 years ago.
Mississippi Burning, nominated for seven Oscars, is based on the FBI investigation into the murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi that summer: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were killed while promoting voter registration among African Americans.
It is now assumed that if only Chaney, an African American, had gone missing and not the two Northern "white boys," the case would never have received so much attention. But the murders drew massive media focus to the closed, racist society of the Deep South.
Though some historians criticize aspects of the film for distorting a few facts, Mississippi Burning is a taut and engrossing dramatization, not a documentary. Two FBI agents, played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, based on actual individuals, are assigned to investigate the young men's sudden disappearance and murders while working in a powderkeg of racial tension and hostility.
Galen Gockel, an accomplished, longtime Oak Parker, former township assessor, village trustee, and university researcher, was one of the architects of Oak Park's campaign to welcome African Americans to the community without sparking white flight during the turbulent, insecure late-1960s and '70s.
Five years before he came to Oak Park, while living on the South Side of Chicago with his wife Marge and his small sons in early June, 1964, Gockel was a University of Chicago grad student. He drove to Oxford, Ohio to attend the Freedom Summer training sessions held at Western College for Women (which later merged with Miami University). Gockel was a representative from the Lutheran Human Relations Association.
The project was organized by a coalition of four major civil rights organizations — SNCC ("Snick"), CORE, the NAACP, and SCLC. The majority of the impetus and leadership, however, came from SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"SNCC had a strong presence at Yale and other schools," Gockel recalled. "They set up recruiting tables and drew many volunteers for the Freedom Summer project in 1964."
Black Mississippians were traditionally impeded from voting by restrictive registration, poll tax charges, and rigorous testing — in addition to terrorism and intimidation. Mississippi had the lowest percentage of African-American voters registered in the country. The Ku Klux Klan bragged it had 91,000 members in Mississippi and was also stepping up recruitment that summer.
Training prepared the young volunteers to register African-American voters and set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers. The participants were volunteer doctors, nurses, medical students, future teachers and lawyers. There were Christian and Jewish clergy and divinity students.
"Most of the training sessions were conducted in a big old auditorium at the school," Gockel explained. "It was like a Who's Who of civil rights leaders trying to prepare all these college kids for what they'd encounter once they went south. There was Bob Moses, a calming, soft-spoken, philosophical leader, and Bayard Rustin. Rustin influenced many young activists. I have a photo of him at the mic. He's now cited as the key organizer of the March on Washington. But his homosexuality was often used against him by his opponents.
"Fannie Lou Hamer was an amazing presence. The kids always just clustered around her, hovering and listening while she held court in the student union. In the afternoon outside on the campus grounds there was training in self-defense."
Volunteers learned how to drop, roll into a ball, and absorb the blows they might encounter.
"The majority of the volunteer participants were northern college students," Gockel said. "I was a bit older, but I think I was just as naïve as they were. I brought my Argos C3 camera with my Kodachrome rolls of film and snapped a lot of photos. I did not realize I was capturing history in the making."
Moses (b. 1935), a leading SNCC figure, inspired the volunteers. So did Hamer (1917-1977), the youngest of 20 children, a former sharecropper turned civil rights and voting rights activist. By the time she was 13, Hamer was picking 200-300 pounds of cotton on a daily basis. A motherly, reassuring figure, the students were drawn to her during their training. The year before, she had been savagely beaten, almost to death, in Winona, Miss. Rustin (1912-1987) practiced nonviolence, but at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized, he was often attacked as a "pervert" or immoral influence in the movement.
Not long after Gockel arrived in Ohio for the training, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, three young workers already down in Mississippi, went missing. They were suspected of being killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Gockel snapped several shots of Mickey Schwerner's wife Rita talking to the trainees, announcing their disappearance. She even erased the map of Mississippi congressional districts on the large blackboard and wrote the missing young men's names.
"The students were all petrified," Gockel recalled. "They knew these young men. They tried to read everything they could in the newspapers. But specific details of the case were slow in coming."
"I remember one night the student TV lounge was jam-packed with kids watching a news broadcast," Gockel remembered. "Suddenly they showed footage of Schwerner's burned out Ford station wagon being pulled out of the swamp — the very car that they had all seen leaving campus the week before. Everyone gasped! The kids could vividly see what they were getting into once they got to violent Mississippi."
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered an investigation and dispatched an F.B.I. Team. But Mississippi media perpetuated the widespread belief that the disappearance of the three young men was a hoax intended to generate publicity and sympathy.
The Freedom Schools were housed everywhere from churches to back porches.
"They set up any place they could — in shacks and rundown buildings," Gockel said. The volunteers taught basic literacy, black history, and political organizing skills.
"I'm sure some of the black Mississippians felt all these privileged white kids were Johnny-come-lately participants in their long struggle," said Gockel. "Yet these hundreds of college students descended upon the segregated South and worked side-by-side with members of SNCC, teaching and registering people to vote, many times working in situations of great danger."
Few of the white college student volunteers fully understood what lay ahead. Lots of Southern whites deeply resented outsiders seeking to change their "Jim Crow" way of life. There were many forms of intimidation and harassment — from trumped-up arrests and evictions to beatings and arson — to oppose the project and prevent any efforts toward achieving social equality for blacks.
During the 10 weeks of the program 80-some Freedom Summer workers were beaten. Thirty-seven churches were burned or bombed. Thirty African-American homes and businesses were destroyed.
Though the Freedom Summer project ultimately failed to register as many voters as projected, it had a major impact on the Civil Rights Movement. Their efforts helped break down many decades of isolation and repression in the segregated South. There was no turning back.
The dedication and persistence of the black and white volunteers had a significant impact by focusing national on a festering problem. Because Gockel had young children, he ultimately did not go to Mississippi that summer. But all the participants, including Gockel, would remember the experience for the rest of their lives.
The screening of "Mississippi Burning" is part of the Oak Park Public Library's ongoing series, "Created Equal," about the Open Housing Era locally and Civil Rights Era nationwide. The film was shown at 1:30 p.m. March 12, in the Oak Park Public Library's Veterans Room.
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