By Bruce Watson
As one of 1964’s youngest Freedom ?Riders, Chris Williams, today a College staff member, helped shape Civil Rights in America.
Chris Williams devotes his days to making the College’s buildings flow and function. As assistant director for architectural services, he rattles along access roads in his blue pickup truck, stopping to check a building’s code compliance or survey a future construction site. He’s a world away from the 1960s, the South and the Civil Rights Movement, but mention Mississippi, and watch him light up.
“Not a week goes by when I don’t think about Mississippi,” he says. “I feel grateful every day to have been part of Freedom Summer.”
He began sharing his experience with the wider College community only recently, teaching a Winter Study class in January about the summer he spent registering black voters. It was 1964. The country was still mourning the death of John F. Kennedy. American involvement in Vietnam was deepening. The South reeled from whiplash violence against Civil Rights marchers. And in Mississippi, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was planning a daring social experiment.
That spring, Williams was a high school senior in Amherst, Mass. While his friends talked about summer fun, he had different plans. Years before, while growing up in Maryland, he had befriended a black child. Neighborhood kids had shouted “Nigger lover!”—something Williams never forgot. So when he heard that SNCC was looking for hundreds of college students to spend a sweltering summer in Mississippi registering black voters, Williams didn’t think twice.
“You don’t run into many situations where there is a clear right and wrong,” he says. “In this case, ‘right’ seemed obvious.”
At the age of 18, Williams was one of the youngest of 700 volunteers for Freedom Summer, but he was already deeply attuned to the Civil Rights movement. A century after the Civil War, Mississippi was waging a last-ditch effort to preserve Jim Crow. Murders, assassinations and black bodies floating in rivers scared away even Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Racial savagery had become so common it no longer warranted front-page news.
But Williams felt he had to go. “There was a sense that this was not some crazy escapade,” he says. “This was going to be written down, talked about. This was a sea change in the United States.”
In mid-June, with his parents’ cautious blessing, Williams hitchhiked to a leafy Ohio campus for six days of training. There, SNCC staffers struggled to prepare college kids for Mississippi’s “closed society.” Volunteers were taught how to take a beating—to curl up, cover their heads, protect vital organs. They also heard firsthand stories of drive-by shootings, firebombs exploding in the night and marchers who were beaten in custody. “It just scared the crap out of us,” Williams wrote in his journal at the time. A few students went home. But he and nine others boarded a bus rocking with freedom songs and bound for Panola County, Miss. From tumbledown sharecropper shacks to billboards reading “Impeach Earl Warren,” the rural enclave felt like a foreign country.
Williams had been warned about white Mississippi, but that first day, black Mississippi overwhelmed him. Beneath the scorching sun, blacks rushed up to shake his hand and thank him for coming. At a “juke joint,” he and fellow volunteers drew a crowd eager to meet them and share local moonshine. That evening, however, the welcome turned grim, with reports of the disappearance of two white college kids—Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—and their friend James Chaney, who was black. Williams had met all three during his training in Ohio. Now, although no one dared say it, everyone in SNCC knew the three were dead.
As the slayings drew national attention to Mississippi, Williams began working to take democracy door to door. For generations, sharecroppers who registered to vote were fired from their plantations or shot at from passing pickup trucks. But in Panola County, a recent federal injunction had outlawed the literacy tests and poll taxes that kept black registration to just 7 percent. All summer, Williams recruited dozens of black voters, often accompanying them to the courthouse to register. Retaliation was minimal—there were simply too many targets. Yet he saw his share of Mississippi’s burning rage.
Writing to his parents in early August, Williams predicted trouble: “The whole state is beginning to tighten up. In the last week people have been shot at in the daytime on the streets of Greenwood, and a mob attacked two Civil Rights workers there.” A few days later, a tear gas bomb hit a home where Williams had stayed. Shotgun blasts soon followed. Coming to the courthouse one day, Williams found a dead rattlesnake nailed to the front door.
“All summer, there was a sense that anything could happen at any moment,” he says. “A constant sense of not knowing what to expect.”
But his wry humor kept him on the job. “He was kind of goofy, kind of crazy,” says fellow volunteer Claire O’Connor, who went on to become a community organizer and is now retired. “We could always depend on him to be funny.”
In late August of 1964, Williams journeyed to Atlantic City to witness more history. At the Democratic National Convention there, “Freedom Democrats” demanded to be seated in lieu of Mississippi’s all-white delegation. President Lyndon Johnson’s back-room deals undercut the challenge, but Freedom Democrats were guaranteed that future conventions would never be segregated.
Come September, Williams stayed on in Mississippi, deferring enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania. “I knew Mississippi was far more educational than anything I’d get at Penn,” he says. Through the fall and winter, he drove dusty back roads, stopped at shacks and spoke in one-room churches. One afternoon, as he met with sharecroppers, he spotted the dust plume of pickup trucks roaring toward him. Several white men jumped out and surrounded him, threatening to throw him in the Tallahatchie River. They ultimately took Williams to the sheriff’s office, where he spent two days in jail on a vagrancy charge. By the spring of 1965, Williams’ brushes with violence and danger had grown more frequent, and he decided it was time to leave.
“I’d given it a good shot,” he says. “I had been involved in lot of different parts of it, I’d met extraordinary people, and maybe this was as far as it went.” He and a fellow volunteer left Mississippi and spent the summer at the University of California, Berkeley, where Freedom Summer veteran Mario Savio was leading protests against a ban prohibiting political activity on campus. By August 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, opening the doors to the massive black registration that changed American politics.
After his year in Mississippi, Williams spent a decade roaming, trying to figure out the nation he thought he had known. Finally settling down, he studied architecture at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then worked in Manhattan before coming to Williams College in 1989.
He returned to Mississippi for the first time in 2004 as one of the subjects of a book on Freedom Summer. He barely recognized the place. Despite dogged poverty, Mississippi now has hundreds of black police officers, judges and mayors, and more black legislators than any other state in the U.S. Then, on Inauguration Day 2009, inspired by discussions about inclusivity and privilege taking place at the College, he shared his story with his colleagues in the facilities office.
Sitting in his office strewn with architecture books and building schematics, Williams now looks back with pride. “We came into the state in integrated groups and held mass meetings and went out into plantations,” he said. “We did it in a kind of fearless, in-your-face style. Mississippi was never the same after that.”
Bruce Watson is the author of Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (Viking 2010). Chris Williams is one of four volunteers featured in the book.
Eyewitness to Civil Rights
As an 18-year-old working to register black voters in Mississippi, Chris Williams never imagined he’d be sharing his experience with college students nearly half a century later. In January, students enrolled in his “Eyewitness to the Civil Rights Movement” offered their thoughts on the new Winter Study course:
The Civil Rights movement has always been fascinating to me. I was interested in the “eyewitness” aspect of the class, which has proven to be extremely insightful. Sometimes class feels like story time. The firsthand account gives it an entirely different dynamic. The most challenging aspect of the class is to understand just how segregated society was in Mississippi. In this day and age, it is hard to wrap my head around the intense hatred and violence that embodied the South in the 1960s.
—Tala Abujbara ’14 of Doha, Qatar, plans to attend medical school after Williams.
When I signed up for the course, I wanted to learn about the details you don’t always get from secondary sources, such as the internal debates and strategies SNCC went through before they achieved major victories for the movement. I wanted to understand how their actions might apply to student activism today, particularly here at Williams. What is most striking to me is that even the leaders of SNCC were so young and confident in what they were doing, despite the risks, and the fact that ordinary people were so aware of the fact that they were making history.
—Haley Pessin ’13 of Suffern, N.Y., plans to major in history.
Coming from a background that shares a similar history as that of African Americans in the U.S., I would like to learn about how people finally stood up to demand their rights and freedom. Since it was a class taught by firsthand accounts of this era, it was an appealing class.
—Sikandar Ahmadi ’14 of Kabul, Afghanistan, plans to apply to law school after Williams.
As we often talk about in class, I was overly familiar with the “master narrative” of the Civil Rights movement and wished to learn more about it on a micro level. I jumped at the chance to spend a month learning and conversing with someone who was actually there. I have really come to appreciate the diversity of perspective in the class from our varied backgrounds and upbringings. Stories about the Civil Rights movement conjure up powerful feelings. I find it very hard to understand how activists were able to adhere to the nonviolence initiative. I find myself needing to stifle my emotions—and I’m just somebody learning about it in a class 50 years later!
—Elike Kumahia ’12 of Randolph, Mass., is a history major with a concentration in Africana studies.
I know a lot about the Apartheid regime in South Africa, but I do not feel like I know enough about the Civil Rights movement in America. I wanted to learn more about the movement at the grassroots level. A lot of the material we are covering I had not encountered before, which is interesting considering how significant the events we are studying were to the success of the overall movement. It’s always so hard for me to visualize someone who actually believed that the system of racism in place at that time was a good thing.
—Kushatha Fanikiso ’13 of Gaborone, Botswana, plans to double major in computer science and math.