A little African-American girl dances, does handstands, twirls around. A blonde hipster college student, wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt, holds her hand; a Mexican union worker from California teaches her how to sit Indian style; and a redhead originally from Canada convinces her to sit in a big-kids chair. All this activity occurs in a school library as veterans of the Civil Rights Movement recount their most vivid memories of the 1960s. The discussion is part of a New Freedom Summer training dedicated to teaching a new round of young people how to ensure the rights of immigrants, much as the original effort achieved legal equality for blacks 40 years ago.
The girl jumps into the lap of her grandfather, Bobby Talbert, and he whispers in her ear, "I love you," and she whispers back the same sentiment. He hands her a sheet of paper from his pad—he had been taking notes—and a pen. She places the sheet of paper on top of the glass covering the picture of her grandfather and 12 other students outside the McComb City Hall in 1964.
The photo shows the students being released from jail after they walked out of their high school and marched through the city. The granddaughter watches as her grandpa takes notes, and she tries to mimic his cursive lettering.
The activists, the speakers and the little girl are in the library of Higgins Middle School in McComb, which used to be Burgland High School, the school these men and women walked out of more than 40 years ago, then teen-agers.
Gabe Cruz, a student from Phoenix, Ariz., says to Judge James Taylor: "In the Latino community where I live, we all want the same thing but we can't agree because we are from different countries but all classified in the same way. What can we do to come together besides singing?" Taylor tells him to get people to meet and do anything you can to come together. "Let everyone be heard," he says.
On the way to the panel discussion, as the tour bus sliced the thick rain on the highway to McComb, Hollis Watkins' head was hidden from my sight by rows of people. But I heard him say into his microphone that his family avoided him on the street after he got out of jail the first time for civil rights activity. "I thought they didn't see me, so I went back to my original side, and they crossed over once more." They were afraid, he said.
Watkins told the bus passengers about the significance of the place visible through the bead-filled windows, and sang songs that once gave groups of people a will to go on and reach their goals. As Watkins sang, "Come on up to the front of the bus I'll be driving up there/ If you miss me at the Mississippi River/ Come on over to the swimming pool/ I'll be swimming up there/ If you miss me in the cotton field/ Come on up to Ole Miss/ I'll be studying up there," Ana Munoz, 22, spoke about watching her parents become American citizens when she was 14 years old. Growing up, she spent her summers in Colombia where most of her family still lives. As the years went by, she saw "a place I loved deteriorate." Experiencing her family's struggles within Colombia was formative for Munoz. As a recent Yale graduate with a degree in history, she sees a cycle of repetition amid race and civil struggles today.
The Rev. James Orange had begun the day by explaining the mission of the New Freedom Summer: "You can't deal with a problem starting with the branches and the leaves; you got to start with the root." That "root" is voter registration, education of immigrants, and engaging in rallies and any other job related to developing immigrants rights in those communities.
Later, at the first stop of the large tour buses—before the three groups separated to go to Medgar Evers' home, to the site where Emmett Till was killed, and to McComb City Hall where the high school activists were detained for 39 days—three African American girls in orange shirts with the letters QCDO (Quitman County Development Organization) on the front and the words "Knowledge is Power" on the back sat together on a bench waiting to go into the JSU exhibit of lynching photography, "Without Sanctuary." One girl was talking about a lengthy paper she wrote for her college mathematics course, and the other two stated that they were divided on which law school to attend. These girls occupied a bench on the other side of a wall filled with photos of lynching, newspaper clippings of injustices, and the writings of African American writers imploring their brothers and sisters to persevere through the violence without anger, to achieve legal and educational equality.
As the girls' discussion continued, 150 activists ages 18 to 55, but mostly in their mid-20s, from 23 states and 10 countries of origin, loaded onto the buses. I saw University of Wisconsin hats, a Yale shirt, a man from California holding the hands of his daughter, a man holding a video camera and a woman walking by his side with a large microphone wearing headphones. Project organizer Chris Woods says, "This is what America looks like today."
The original Freedom Summer of 1964 consisted of mostly black and white. Forty years later, the New American Freedom Summer is more complicated. The activists, who arrived here June 28, and the people being helped are from many different countries, backgrounds and have varying skin colors. "This is a new struggle, for the depth of love, a struggle for the soul of our country," Wood says.
Three days later, half this diverse but united group went to various places in Arizona to register immigrant voters, and the other half headed to Miami to help build the Haitian community's sense of civic duty. They will work at their posts for the next six weeks and then return to their home communities to employ the skills they are learning.
The 1964 Freedom Summer project fought to register voters so that African Americans could have jobs, be educated and have basic human rights. Now the college students are talking of graduate schools and essays, the grandchildren of the freedom fighters dance happily in the diversity of their lives and are educated and loved, and the civil rights workers who stood before the group are now judges, principals and community leaders, and they all have more options than they did four decades before.
However, as I learned the day I spent with them, there is still a long way to go for them, and for immigrants' rights. Munoz ended her comments by saying: "It's amazing, totally amazing that people from such diversity can arrive at the same ideal. It makes me hopeful."