Document 97: Staughton Lynd to Penny Patch, 15 July 2001, Elaine DeLott Baker Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. 2 pp.
Staughton Lynd served as Director of the Freedom Schools in the summer of 1964. In 1965 he published a thoughtful essay describing his experiences in that work, "Freedom Schools: Concept and Organization." ( http://www.crmvet.org/info/fschool1.htm.)
In this letter, written thirty seven years after Freedom Summer, Lynd points to the absolute prohibition against engaging in interracial sex, a message that was repeated over and over as volunteers and staff went into Freedom Summer. Miscegenation was the psychological bedrock of southern racism and as such, interracial sex was a danger to all concerned. The lesson of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, was fresh in everyone's minds. Given that reality, the question is why this prohibition was flaunted, by both black and white civil rights workers.
I was working statewide, rather than on a local project during the summer, and as such I have no first-hand knowledge of the interpersonal relationships of staff and summer volunteers. I can, however, speak about what I experienced and observed among staff, where interracial liaisons were common. In many ways I view our actions, both on a conscious and an unconscious level, as an assault on the traditional dictation of race as defining personal relationships. We were young and vibrant, impassioned by our beliefs, bonded by our wartime experience, at the forefront of the sexual revolution unleashed by reliable birth control, closed off physically and socially from mainstream society, and in constant dialectic with authority. Interracial relationships were a natural consequence of this charged environment. Nonetheless, they were tender and intimate. At the same time, they were not immune from political pressure from within. In the fall, interracial sex fell from grace as politically incorrect, an affront to black pride. The personal pain and confusion that I felt within this new paradigm merged with the frustration I felt toward the political dynamics of the fall. (See Document 98.) In retrospect, I am amazed at my naivete and ignorance of the fact that this great breakthrough with each other was happening within a history of African Americans dating back to the beginnings of slavery, with implications far beyond my capacity to comprehend at the time.
STAUGHTON AND ALICE LYND
1694 Timbers Court
Niles, Ohio 44446
July 15, 2001
Lyndonville VT 05851
Greetings. I am a long way from writing a review of DOWN [sic] IN OUR HEARTS because Alice and I are reading it aloud. However, last night we finished reading your account, and since that happening coincided with a visit from Wesley Hogan and many hours of discussion with her, I lay awake for a long time writing this letter to you in my head.
A number of things you describe are similar to experiences of my own. Driving with Ivanhoe (p. 154): he and I once got lost driving at night from Holly Springs to Memphis, and as my body language became increasingly tense he turned to me and said, "Where's your sense of adventure, Staughton?" The old friend who looked through you (p. 159): I had exactly this experience [with a SNCC staffer] at Waveland. The incoherence of SNCC policy in Selma (pp. 162-163): I was asked to fly down from New Haven to start freedom schools as an alternative to demonstrations, but when I said exactly this at a meeting, SNCC folks said that wasn't what they meant.
My time with SNCC was nowhere near as deep as yours. It was intense for about nine months, because as Freedom School coordinator I was admitted to many SNCC staff meetings. I want to describe three aftershocks/healing experiences.
1. There was a gathering at Dartmouth in the early 1990s. Before the big evening plenary I had supper in the same room as Martha Norman, among others. She was at another table and did not speak to me. Later, as one of the panelists in the plenary, she read aloud a passage that Sara Evans took from an interview she did with me, which I had not been given an opportunity to edit or revise. In that passage I referred to the many instances of sex between black male SNCC (and CORE) staff and white female volunteers during Freedom Summer. Ms. Norman read it aloud and then said, "Staughton Lynd is here. Perhaps he would like to comment." In short I was sandbagged.
I did the best I could. I said that I felt that all that sex was a part of a larger "disorientation" that occurred between SNCC as it was at the beginning of the summer (say, at staff meetings in Atlanta on June 10, 1964, or at Oxford on June 22, 1964), and SNCC as it became at Waveland. What I didn't say
[p. 2]clearly was that as Freedom School coordinator I had a good deal of responsibility for the lives of several dozen volunteers; that at Oxford and elsewhere it was endlessly said that we must be sure not to satisfy white Mississippi's prurient expectations of sex between black men and white women; that it would be dangerous to every one were this to occur; and yet it did occur on a very wide scale. I am not a puritan. I was not condemning sex as such. I thought it was irresponsible, and moreover it was hypocritical, an example of SNCC not walking its talk.
I would especially welcome anything you might say to help me with this experience.
2. At the most recent SDS reunion there was a contrasting experience. I was asked to chair a session in which, rather than commemorate the dead as in past reunions, those present spoke of what they would like to pass on to their children. My initial reaction was, "Oh great, after SDS male heavies doing most of the talking for the last two days (just as in the 1960s), you want me --another white male--to be chairperson." But Alice and Casey offered to help, and someone else said we should put the chairs in a circle, and Casey spoke first, and then Bob Pardun spoke as "one of the men who didn't get to talk at meetings," and we passed the mike around the circle. It worked. At the end Alice and I led a couple of songs we had planned, and just as we finished Bob Zellner came in and said, "Aren't you going to sing more than that?" and we sang for another hour and a half.
3. What has been most important to me is that for about the last ten years we have worked closely with blacks here in Youngstown. The truth is I have gotten to know these folks better, and to work with them less self-consciously, than was the case for me in the 1960s. So this has healed a great, great deal. Since retiring from Legal Services in 1996, Alice and I have done what we could in response to the many new prisons-- including Ohio's first supermax and first private prison--that Youngstown has sought to substitute for the steel mills that closed in 1977-1980. There we have encountered a profound opportunity to observe and nurture the cooperation of white and black prisoners under very difficult circumstances.
Thank you again for the gift of the book. More later.
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