New 'Letters from Mississippi' Addresses Omissions The 1965 book documented the experiences of volunteers who registered black voters in so-called freedom schools in the summer of 1964. It was dismissed by many of the volunteers who were embarrassed that it included the experiences of white volunteers only.
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New 'Letters from Mississippi' Addresses Omissions

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New 'Letters from Mississippi' Addresses Omissions

New 'Letters from Mississippi' Addresses Omissions

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Most people know about the Mississippi Freedom Summer because of the murder of three civil rights workers.

The Mississippi Summer Project sent hundreds of volunteers to register black voters and work in the schools in 1964. A book about the project was published less than a year later. "Letters from Mississippi" included personal accounts and reporting. But it was rejected by some civil rights workers because it only told the story of the white volunteers. A new edition of "Letters from Mississippi" corrects that.

Here's NPR's Margot Adler.

MARGOT ADLER: When the original "Letters from Mississippi" was published, Jim Kates and Kathie Sarachild, both volunteers during the summer of '64, kind of dismissed it.

JIM KATES: At the time, I think those of us who contributed to the book paid no attention to it whatsoever. It was a book primarily focused on the white volunteers.

KATHIE SARACHILD: I didn't even send my letters. I was kind of embarrassed by the book.

ADLER: "Letters from Mississippi" went out of print in 1970, but it never really disappeared. Some of the letters found their way into other books and anthologies. And many civil rights activists, both black and white, have always considered the book important.

JULIAN BOND: Even though the focus is on the volunteers themselves, there's plenty of hope and admiration expressed in these letters for the people with whom they worked and admiration for their courage and bravery.

ADLER: That's Julian Bond, one of the founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee of SNCC, and now chairman of the NAACP.

BOND: The whole thrust of the movement, you know, as often characterized as what Martin Luther King did and without taking anything away from him, had it not been for the people in this book, we wouldn't think of Dr. King in the same kind of way.

ADLER: The idea for republishing "Letters from Mississippi" came from former volunteer Jim Kates, who is now co-director of a small independent publishing company, Zephyr Press, and Elizabeth Martinez, the original editor of the book. They asked Julian Bond to write an introduction giving the history of SNCC and the summer project.

Originally, 153 different people contributed letters to the book, not all were printed. In the current edition, 90 of the authors were found, and the new edition describes what happened to each of them. The book puts people in places referred to in the letters in context. And there are 40 pages of poems by black kids who went to the freedom schools.

Jim Kates.

KATES: Part of this is to shift the balance more toward the local communities and part of it was just for the interest of the poems themselves.

ADLER: One poem was written by a young woman only identified as Linda.

Once I wanted to fill the Earth with laughter and ease the world of all its grief and pain, to make the world a marvelous place to live in as in the woods after a summer's rain. When I had finished, nothing would it lack, I had not learned as yet, my skin was black. The world will heed neither my help or desires. It doesn't care what comes from within. It silently sits and turns to me deaf ears for it has seen the color of my skin.

The heart of the book is still the letters. Kathie Sarachild worked in Batesville, Mississippi. She recounts staying with the Miles family, a family of black farmers. Here is a passage from a letter she wrote to a friend, who sent it into the book.

SARACHILD: We're all a little nervous. Mrs. Miles' 25-year-old son, Robert, Jr., is stationed out in the yard with a gun. Yes, the movement is still non- violent, but every farmer, white and black, in the Delta has a gun. Mr. Miles has seven, all loaded. Last night while I was eating a peanut butter sandwich in the kitchen and talking to the other white girl staying here, two shots whizzed right by the kitchen window. I could even see a flash of light from the gun. Since last Saturday night when the Miles' house was bombed with a teargas grenade, several other negroes in town had received bomb threats.

ADLER: What most people forget besides the palpable fear that community activists and volunteers face daily, says Julian Bond, is that most of the people who went down were...

BOND: Just ordinary, young people who, for a variety of motivations, decided to undertake this dangerous exercise. It ought to remind present day readers of what teenagers were capable of then and surely are capable of now, if not even more so.

ADLER: That's exactly what struck Kathie Sarachild looking back 40 years.

SARACHILD: How young people were when they got involved both in the black movement and the white volunteers, and the young people were behind such important things. Things that had real impact.

ADLER: One of those young people was Mark Levy, who taught in the freedom schools. He says it is the poems in the new edition that truly changed the book. He reads one of them by 15-year-old Edith Moore(ph) from Malcolm.

MARK LEVY: Isn't it awful not to be able to eat in a public place without being arrested or snarled at right in your face? Isn't it awful not to be able to go to a public library and get an interesting book without being put out and given a hateful look?

ADLER: Levy says he, too, once dismissed the book, but he says it has a very different meaning to a new generation that wants a different story about what is possible in the world. The publishers of the new edition of "Letters from Mississippi" will provide discounts and even free copies to activist groups in Mississippi and elsewhere with the hope that students will be motivated to become activists.

Margot Adler, NPR News.

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