Lessons learned in Mississippi

Commentary by David O. Friedrichs, professor

A half-century ago this week — in October, 1964 — I found myself in Greenville, Mississippi, participating in the Freedom Vote project there. It was a wholly unforgettable week, with experiences that still burn bright in my mind all these years later and some valuable lessons learned.

I was a 19-year old college student when I headed for Mississippi. So I had to cut a week of classes at New York University to head to Mississippi, taking a 42-hour bus trip as the sole representative of my campus. In my recollection, I never otherwise cut college classes unless I was truly ill, but I cut my classes that last week of October and have certainly never regretted it. If one has an opportunity to have a truly unique experience – and in this case to participate in something of momentous importance – then there is much to be said for cutting classes.

The previous year, in 1963, I was taking a special history class to make up for lost credits and I informed the instructor that I wanted to cut a three-hour class to participate in the upcoming March on Washington, the event where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I still recall the hostile response of the instructor – he angrily informed me I would be harshly penalized if I cut the class – and not being in a situation where I could afford such a penalty, I attended the class and, to my ever-lasting regret, missed out on being part of a hugely significant historical event. And for what it is worth, I have no idea what I “learned” in the history class I did in fact attend that day. I should be clear, however: Cutting classes – mine or anyone else’s – is generally a bad idea. But as is true with all such propositions, there are exceptions to that rule of thumb.

At the time I participated in the Freedom Vote in Mississippi, African-Americans made up about 42 percent of the population but only 2 percent of the voters in the state. For all practical purposes, they had been disenfranchised. Although unfortunately there are enduring legacies of racism and segregation in the United States today, the overall circumstances are very different and much improved from what they were in 1964. And of course other beleaguered or disadvantaged constituencies – including women and gay people – have experienced dramatic changes in the opportunities and circumstances confronting them since the mid-1960s.

Ideally as many college students as possible of today’s generation will become engaged with social movements and social actions that foster a more just and humane world. Certainly there are some core dimensions of a Jesuit Catholic institution such as The University that promote such engagement. Most immediately, students who are eligible to vote should engage with the significant issues confronting voters today and exercise this right on Nov. 4. Too many people take the right to vote for granted. I witnessed a time when there was no meaningful right to vote for African-Americans in the American South.

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