Duncanwood was a 19-year-old freshman at San Francisco State University in 1964 when she volunteered, out of moral outrage, she said, to go to Mississippi to help with Freedom Summer, a project to encourage black citizens to register to vote.
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Even though her father told her she couldn't go, she got a ride with some other students to Ohio, where they were to be trained.
It didn't take long for fear to set in.
At the training site, Duncanwood said Rita Schwerner, the wife of civil-rights worker Michael Schwerner, addressed the 300 new arrivals and explained her husband and two other workers had been missing for 16 hours and were presumed dead. They'd been murdered, it turned out.
At the week-long training, Duncanwood found out much more about civil-rights abuses in the South. She also was taught how to protect her head if police tried to beat her, and she learned rules to try to be safe, such as always to travel in groups and never to leave home after dark.
When she and other new workers arrived in Mississippi by train, two welcoming parties awaited them, she said. The first was a group of about 50 whites who carried signs and shouted insults. The second was a much larger group of blacks, who were very happy to see them.
The blacks took them to a local church for further orientation. But before long, the sheriff appeared at the church saying he wanted the 80 or so volunteers to report to his office.
There, he lectured them on how they were misguided and ought to just go home, she said. The bad people were the black people, he said. Their men robbed white people and raped women.
Duncanwood said she lived with two other women volunteers in the home of an older black couple who grew cotton on five acres. The house was very simple with an outdoor privy. They bathed in a big tub.
Her hosts were warm but reserved at first, for they'd had no social contact with whites, she said.
In Mississippi, the system was rigged so that very few blacks could ever register to vote.
For one thing, they had to pay a poll tax, which few could afford.
Then, they were required to pass a test given by the county registrar of voters. The registrar would take a passage from the state constitution and ask the applicant to paraphrase it.
A third barrier was the fear of reprisal for even attempting to register, Duncanwood said.
The primary job assigned to Duncanwood and her roommates was teaching in a Freedom School.
They taught young blacks the history of their race and other subjects designed to help them break out of the apathy that kept them bound.
"They were so hungry to learn," she said.
One night, however, the church where the school was held was firebombed and destroyed — one of 67 bombings and burnings that occurred that summer.
Duncanwood and her friends were convinced the local sheriff was responsible because they saw his car going in the direction of the church and then leaving in the opposite direction just about the time the building burned.
True to the way things were done in Mississippi at that time, the sheriff tried to blame a young black activist for the deed, Duncanwood said.
Freedom School continued, less conveniently, in the churchyard.
She said she experienced hostility from whites many times that summer.
Once, she said she and a couple of other female volunteers tried to worship at the local Episcopal Church. They wanted to participate in Communion.
Soon after they'd sat down, she said, the elders of the church tapped them on the shoulders and told them they weren't welcome.
They walked out to the church's lobby and spoke to the elders there.
Duncanwood said she explained she'd been raised Episcopalian and that she wanted to join in Communion.
She said the men reiterated they should leave. Then they pulled their hands out of their pockets, revealing that they had on brass knuckles. The women went outside and found the tires on their car slashed.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
California woman recalls Freedom Summer
Paradise, California resident Karen Duncanwood recalled her experiences with Freedom Summer in an interview with the Oroville Mercury-Register: