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The Power of Stories

Freedom Summer, 50 Years After

by ROSEMARY LÉVY ZUMWALT

In his memoir, Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers, Memories of Mississippi 1964-65, Jim Dann put to paper the stories from his time in Mississippi 50 years ago, working as a young college student for fifteen months in Sunflower County to establish Freedom Schools and to help register African-Americans to vote. Folklorists will recognize in this account what Frank deCaro refers to as “our life memory . . . informed by and greatly influenced by the oral stories that we tell . . . about our lives” and “the social importance” and “considerable power” of life memory and oral stories (2013:ix).

Jim Dann did not initially think of these narratives as worthy of the printed page. Simply accounts of his own life, he recalls that his children were “his first audience”: “. . . they listened to these stories in the car and on vacations. I was just trying to keep them from being bored till we got to our destination, but they genuinely looked forward to the next ‘chapter’ and years later asked me to write them down” (233). Dann did not live to see the book published, though just before his death he saw the page proofs (Publisher’s Note).

Memory, Webster’s Dictionary reminds us, “applies both to the power of remembering and to what is remembered.”  There is, indeed, power in this book – power and struggle and heroism. There is the day-to-day heroism of the African-American residents of Ruleville, Drew and Indianola, of the pastors of the Black churches and the teachers in the segregated schools. Woven into these stories is the heart and soul of community struggle for respect and human rights, a struggle that depended on the common folk standing up for their rights in the face of the entrenched and vicious white power structure.

We know some of these stories, e.g., the brutal murders of the young Civil Rights works, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Meridian, Mississippi (45-46); the impassioned testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer before the Democratic Party Credential’s Committee; and the attempt for recognition at the 1964 Democratic Convention of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (114-19).

However, with more intimate detail, Jim Dann – to be nicknamed, “Jim Dandy,” by the young people with whom he worked in Mississippi – takes us into his dorm room at the training center in Oxford, Ohio, when James Foreman as an organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) asked if he would go to Meridian. “I said I would be happy to but I had already promised that I would go to Ruleville” (45). Foreman turned to Dunn’s challengingfirebombersroommate, Andrew Goodman, and asked him to go. Goodman readily agreed. “We liked each other, and I was a bit disappointed and a bit envious when he told me before the end of the training that he had to leave early with [James] Chaney. There was some kind of emergency and the CORE leader at Meridian, Michael Schwerner, decided that the three of them should skip the final days of training and return to Meridian” (45).

By the end of the training session, when the young freedom workers were boarding the bus for Mississippi, rumors were circulating that three volunteers were missing; their bodies would be found over a month later, cast into a muddy dam near the site of the murder (109). The grim reality of the triumvirate – torture, lynching and the hateful grip of the Ku Klux Klan – awaited these young people at the end of the journey for their volunteer work in Mississippi. Dann recalls,

Everyone’s fear and nervousness evaporated under the warm and sunny greeting we received from Fannie Lou Hamer. We had stopped in front of her house, and she came bounding out . . . shouting her greetings before we could collect our luggage from the bus driver, who was as eager to leave as Hamer was to have us here. (49-50)

As William A. Wilson notes in “Personal Narratives,” stories are crafted “from carefully selected details from the worlds of their authors” (Wilson 2006:268). Wilson quotes Neil Postman, who writes in the Atlantic Monthly, that stories give meaning to our existence, “‘Without air, our cells die. Without a story our selves die’” (Postman in Wilson 2006:68). The cautionary stories recounted in Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers did indeed contain wisdom for staying alive. Behind each axiom for security was a story,

* Never tell anyone where we are going or where we had been . . . .

* Don’t even tell people when we leave. Disconnect the interior dome lights so we can’t be seen when entering and exiting a car. (That was how Medgar Evers had been killed.)

* Never let a car pass you on the highway no matter how fast you have to drive. (. . . Jimmy Travis had been shot in that fashion). (64, parenthetical comments in original)

Dann recollected, “I sometimes had to drive one hundred miles per hour to avoid being passed, but nobody ever passed our car when I was driving. . . . One time, however, I lost control and ended in a ditch, but I managed to drive out without a car passing us” (64). In a harrowing account, Dann tells of driving out to “the tiny hamlet of Tippo,” on a single-lane dirt road, bordered on both sides by cotton fields (149).

There was not another vehicle on that road. In about five miles we passed a road grader off the dirt road parked in the field with a white driver who watched us. Something about that did not seem right to us so John [Harris] started fiddling with our two-way radio in the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] car, just randomly moving the tuner dial, while I drove. After a minute or two of just static we heard the following conversation: ‘Where are they?’ ‘About ten miles from Tippo. There’s a nigger and a nigger-lover.’  ‘What’s the car look like?’  ‘It is a white Plymouth.’  ‘Well, by the time it gets to Tippo it will be red with their blood.’  I looked at John and he looked at me and without missing a second I wheeled the car around and at top speed raced back down the dirt road. (150)

Jim Dann’s account takes the reader through the momentous enactment of the Voter’s Rights Act and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty with the initiation of the Head Start Program. He reflects, “No doubt voter registration, desegregation and Freedom Schools had a long-range revolutionary aspect, but of all the things I was involved with, Head Start provided the most immediately palpable results in bettering the condition of the people then and there” (188).

Dann left Mississippi to return to UCLA for the fall semester in 1965 (200). He would go back to Mississippi in June 2000 for a reunion of those who had worked together in 1964-65, and who had embraced the SNCC anthem adapted from a song popular in 1964, “Keep on Pushing,” and changed by Fannie Lou Hammer to “Keep on keeping on” (157). Jim Dann, John Harris and Karen Koonan drove together from the Memphis airport, passed Winona, Mississippi, where Fannie Lou Hamer “had been savagely beaten thirty-years earlier” (204), and arrived at the Holiday Inn in Indianola.

Black hotel clerks kindly greeted us in a place they never would have been allowed inside in 1965. We got directions to the B. B. King concert that was to be in a park near Main Street, not far from the Indianola jail. . . . The crowd was totally integrated and white sat next to black, both cheering King and his music. I would encounter many other changes in the weekend, but this integrated crowd, who loved B. B. King so much, was the biggest surprise of the reunion. My mind went back to his concerts at the all-black Club Ebony where he bought us chicken dinners. (205)

The next day they visited the jail in Drew, where Dann and others had been repeatedly incarcerated for civil disobedience and simply as the result of police harassment. In 2000, it was “dilapidated and overgrown with weeds.”  In Ruleville, “the new black mayor” greeted them, and they visited the memorial gravesite of Fannie Lou Hamer (205).

Jim Dann does not present himself as a hero, or even as having been courageous. Rather he portrays himself as a young person who was committed to working with others, some of those who were whites and blacks from other parts of the United States, who would spend some months in Mississippi trying to bring about change; and others who were African-Americans living a life steeped in the oppression of the segregated South. It is indeed in the lived lives of the ordinary people, recounted in this memoir, who lived out the lyrics of “Keep on Keeping on,” who were heroes of monumental everyday courage. Jim Dann has enriched us all by chronicling his memories in Challenging the Mississippi Firebombers: Memoirs of Mississippi 1964-65.

Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt is Dean of the College Emerita and Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, USA. Her most recent publication is Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University, 1906 (2008) for which she received the John Frederick Lewis Award from the American Philosophical Society.  She can be reached at rosemarylevyzumwalt@gmail.com.

References Cited

De Caro, Frank. 2013. Stories of Our Lives, Memory, History, Narrative. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionnary. 1963. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Company, Publishers.

Wilson, William A. 2006. “Personal Narratives,” in The Marrow of Human Experience, Essays on Folklore, ed. Jill Terry Rudy, 261-81. Logan: Utah State University Press.