Civil rights activist Joe Morse vividly remembers the violence he encountered as a volunteer during Freedom Summer 50 years ago.
He was beaten by police and members of the Ku Klux Klan, and threatened with violence from landowners he encountered. He spent days and weeks in jail, repeatedly arrested for his work helping register African-Americans to vote and desegregate public accommodations in and around Meridian, Mississippi.
But it was the courage of the African-Americans he worked with and helped, usually in the face of worse threats and violence, that inspired Morse to go on. At the end of Freedom Summer, he decided not to come back to Winona, turning down his studies in the seminary to become an activist and continue to help in the south, participating in or witnessing some of the iconic civil rights moments like the march from Selma, Alabama.
“It was frightening,” Morse said. “But there was so much courage by the black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. It was really easy to stand up with them to overcome the racism there.”
This week Morse is returning to Meridian and the south to revisit the history of that time. And just like 50 years ago, he won’t be alone. Morse will be traveling with 18 Winona State University students as part of a two-week travel study program studying the history of the civil rights movement from 1955 until the present.
The students will visit historic sites in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, meet with surviving veterans of the movement, and work on group projects and presentations dissecting civil rights events and the response. While the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer will be the core of the program, other events will be investigated, and the students will learn about present-day civil rights issues and how they can incorporate activism into their own life.
“The students will come away very knowledgeable of the civil rights movement,” said John Campbell, WSU history professor and one of the trip’s two organizers. “They’ll also be exposed to ongoing civil rights issues.”
Freedom Summer took place three years after the Freedom Rides, and involved thousands of northern college students traveling to the south to help African-Americans register to vote in Mississippi and founding freedom schools that taught courses including American government and civics, among others.
While most students traveled back to their colleges and universities after the summer was over, Morse stayed, and is beloved for his continuing activism after many of the volunteers left.
“I began to realize in August of 1964 that there was a lot more organizing to be done,” Morse said. “I was also concerned about the danger the local people would be in if all the white volunteers left.”
The travel-study program is the result of years of work by Campbell, Morse, WSU history professor Tomas Tolvaisas and WSU Office of Inclusion and Diversity director Alex Hines. In order to prepare for the trip, Campbell and Tolvaisas spent 11 days last summer scouting locations and meeting with those involved with the movement.
The students had to do their own homework before getting on the bus Monday for the trip. The week before, students spent hours in the four classes associated with the program learning about the movement, and the week after coming back will decompress and debrief about what they have learned.
“It’s one thing to read about the history,” history student Jessica Hepinstall said. “It’s another thing to experience it. I’m looking forward to experiencing what happened as closely as possible.”