Lifelong Princeton Activist Recalls Her Role in Freedom Summer
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, some 2500 young activists, civil rights veterans, and historians met for a week in late June at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Mary Stevens of Princeton was among the three hundred or so veterans of the civil rights project to share memories of the grassroots effort to register as many of Mississippi’s African American voters as possible.
Mississippi changed my life; it made me who I am,” said Ms. Stevens, before going on to describe some history prior to Freedom Summer: “Buses were integrated by the Supreme Court in the 1950s but segregation was the norm in the South. Freedom Riders from the North, both black and white, went South in the early sixties to test the law. They ran into incredible danger. One bus was set afire with people locked inside. People were beaten, jailed, and killed. In the early 1960s only five percent of registered voters in Mississippi were black.”
“But by 1964, publicity had waned; people were still being killed. SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Convention] and CORE [Council of Racial Equality] realized that if white kids from the North, the sons and daughters of the powerful, got involved, then there would be interest and concern,” said Ms. Stevens. “It worked. Freedom Summer, which was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations, had three parts: Freedom Schools, voter registration, and enrollment in the Freedom Democratic Party.”
Ms. Stevens remembered her own fear on the journey south. “I got rides with SNCC people down to Atlanta. From there I rode with another white gal and three black guys to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We were okay until we got to Alabama, but after that, interracial cars were dangerous. So Wendy and I shrunk down on the floor in back with a blanket over us. We were scared. I’m tall, Wendy was tiny, thank goodness we could fit.”
Ms. Stevens was housed with an African American couple, at some risk to themselves, in the black section of town with dirt streets, and no sidewalks. Although spotlessly clean, the four-room house was old and unpainted; there was no electricity or indoor facilities, only an outhouse and a kerosene lantern. Their host “stayed up in the dark with a shotgun in his lap,” said Ms. Stevens, whose summer 2014 accommodation was an air conditioned room in a suite with bath, kitchen, and living-dining room, shared with a British pediatrician who had been part of Freedom Summer’s medical corps.
“I met lots of people who were thrilled to meet me because I had been the girl on the phone at the COFO headquarters. We were the people who checked in with them twice a day to make sure they were okay, or to see if they needed anything. There were dozens of field offices like Hattiesburg throughout the state and COFO headquarters was their life line. We were their source of protection and their 911. They certainly couldn’t depend on the local police or the FBI if there was trouble. [The telephone was crucial to our safety, she said. Her desk is now part of a museum exhibit. It was nice to see it! visit it at: http://cofocivilrightseducationcenter.devhub.com/]
One of the most tragic events of that time was the murder of three young civil rights volunteers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney on the first day of the project. “Their deaths cast a pall on the whole summer but the fact that two of the victims were white northerners captured the nation’s attention,” said Ms. Stevens. “Black people had been working and suffering for freedom for decades, but up to that point it was seen as just a Southern Problem,” said Ms. Stevens. “Everybody knew immediately that they had been murdered; it was only the racists who suggested that they were alive somewhere.” Their bodies were unearthed on August 4 as a result of a tip from an FBI informant inside the Ku Klux Klan.
Their deaths and the events of Freedom Summer helped to precipitate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A Life in Law
“After Mississippi, I’d saved up enough money from my job as a research technician at Mass General to support myself for a year. I went to Berkeley, California, where I was part of the steering committee of the Vietnam Teach-In,” recalled Ms. Stevens, who hoped to become a lawyer at a time when the field was less than welcoming to women. She became active in NOW, the Woman’s Political Congress, and the Gay Rights Movement, and organized the first national conference on gay law while studying at Rutgers Law School. She went on to teach at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and retired in 1996. At 72, Ms. Stevens is still active with MOVEON.org and New Jersey groups active in gun control and politics.
Ms. Stevens has three children, a daughter, Elizabeth, 40, from her first marriage and two sons adopted with her second husband, Charlie Parker, who is now deceased. Together, they fostered 37 children as short-term foster care givers. Then they adopted two infants, David, 22, and Isaiah, 20. All three graduated from Princeton High School, David in 2012.
To fund her reunion trip, Ms. Stevens turned to “Go Fund Me,” and elicited $1100 from supporters. To pay back such kindness, she has written about her experiences for alumnae magazines, contrasting 1964 and 2014.
Among the topics at this summer’s conference were contemporary threats to voting rights and the disproportionate incarceration of young black men. “The newest threat,” said Ms. Stevens “is the demand for all kinds of government issued IDs, a measure intended to disenfranchise black, women, and young people. Many people born at home in rural communities don’t have birth certificates, and there are people without any way of getting to the DMV in order to apply for voter IDs,” she said.
“Through all the shared danger, shared commitment, and shared sacrifice, SNCC tried to be ‘the beloved community,’” said Ms. Stevens, quoting the phrase used by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
The beloved community was abundantly evident at the 50th Anniversary Conference,” said Ms. Stevens. “Black and white together again.”