2 share memories of Freedom Summer in Miss.

Published 8:49 pm Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two men gathered on a recent sunny morning in Vicksburg to enjoy a cup of coffee and reminisce — their first chance to do so in quite a while.

Laughs intermingled with remembrances of what David Riley and Frank Crump experienced. How different from their first meeting when fear of bodily harm was very real.

“It’s kind of exciting to see him,” Crump said.

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They last saw each other during the summer of 1964, the first of many turbulent seasons in a violent decade in Mississippi, across the South and in many large American cities.

Riley was one of more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers who flocked to Mississippi during Freedom Summer, organized by four civil rights organizations that coalesced as the Council of Federated Organizations. Their mission was to register black voters and initiate a slow sunset for Jim Crow laws and practices in the state.

Riley, then 22 and fresh out of Middlebury College in Connecticut, and Crump, then a math teacher at Rosa A. Temple High School, braved the same types of threats and danger in Vicksburg broadcast to the world from other locales in the 1960s gunfire aimed at council headquarters, bombings of known gatherings of COFO volunteers and phone threats.

Riley said the week he arrived in Vicksburg coincided with the indelible event of the Freedom Summer project, the June 21, 1964, arrest in Neshoba County and the murders of volunteers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

“They told us in Memphis for orientation we wouldn’t be called cowards for not going,” Riley said.

A freedom school was set up at the Warren County Baptist Association. There, Riley, Crump and about 20 others registered blacks in the run-up to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. An early morning explosion rocked the building Oct. 4, 1964, leaving a woman and her 2-month-old grandson injured.

A dozen other locals and volunteers escaped unharmed. Riley, who maintained a bed inside the building, said he escaped death because he happened to be at the home of Rosa and James T. Chiplin that night.

The men helped coordinate the Vicksburg Citizens’ Appeal, a newspaper aimed at publicizing news events involving blacks worldwide, as well as social events and happenings in the black community.

The paper was printed in New Orleans, the men said, because no one would print it locally. Its first editor was Ollye Shirley, wife of Jackson physician Dr. Aaron Shirley who Riley said inspired his first visit to Mississippi in 45 years by contacting him “out of the blue” after searching for his name on the Internet.

“I was there helping them with the newspaper,” Crump said, adding his chief duties consisted of gathering news material for stories that often appeared without bylines. “I thought I could make a contribution.”

The paper published from August 1964 to March 1967 and included reprints of legendary essayist Ralph McGill.

In the decades that have followed, Riley, 66, followed a life of community activism in Rhode Island and Crump continued service to youth through teaching, retiring in 1986 from what is now Hinds Community College’s Utica campus.

“For a lot of us, it was an extremely powerful experience to be here,” Riley said, “But ones who died are the real heroes.”

Crump, 82, takes pleasure in the seemingly small accomplishments that helped shape his students’ careers, such as teaching high school math courses using a slide rule. One former student, he said, is his own cardiologist, Vicksburg-born Dr. Malcolm Taylor.

“To think, they gave me a section of the Constitution (to interpret) and pay the poll tax to vote,” Crump said.

Much has changed. So much that somber reminiscing over coffee can include laughter.