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Op-ed: My summer of '64 in the crucible of the civil rights movement

Published June 20, 2014 4:56 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A University of Utah student from Bountiful, I had planned to spend the summer of 1964 working in Jackson, Wyo. A few weeks later, however, I was in a Jackson, Miss., jail for "disorderly conduct" for taking a photo of a "whites only" drinking fountain while taking a local African American to register to vote in the Hinds County Courthouse.

The previous summer of 1963, I had been working on the staff of Utah Republican Congressman Sherm Lloyd. At his request, I accompanied the Utahns who came to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave the famous "I have a dream" speech.

Later that summer of '63 there was a march from the White House to the Justice Department to ask for intervention to help find the killer of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi NAACP field secretary. I went to observe the march with Congressman Lloyd, I turned to him and said, "I feel like I belong in that march, not just observing it."

That fall of '63 I went back to Utah to help the congressman run for Senate but ended up spending most of my time doing press work for the Salt Lake Branch of NAACP and leaving Congressman Lloyd's staff.

We were considering a friendly picket of LDS General Conference to ask them to support civil rights. Dr. Sterling McMurrin of the University of Utah arranged a meeting with First Presidency members Hugh B. Brown and Nathan Elden Tanner. Dr. Charles Nabors of the U. of U., NAACP President Albert Fritz and I met with them and asked for a statement. President Brown said, "The church doesn't get involved in politics." I countered with examples of the church having done so and President Brown allowed that they do if there is "a moral issue involved." We stated this was a moral issue, they asked us to bring them statements other churches had made. We did so and President Brown indicated that President McKay who was aged at the time, "is an old Scotsman and doesn't like a gun pointed at his head."

President Brown called later and indicated there would be a statement in October 1963 General Conference that said, in part, "there is in this church no doctrine, belief or practice that is intended to deny the full enjoyment of civil rights by any person regardless of race, color or creed."

Consequently, the demonstration was called off. President Brown, for this and other expressions predicting black priesthood, was demoted back to the Council of the Twelve, after President McKay's death, by some of the brethren who believed folktales about race and the civil rights movement. Fortunately, a decade or so later, President Brown's views were vindicated by church leaders.

The following early summer of '64 while working in the Tetons, I read of the three civil rights workers who were missing while being part of the "Mississippi Freedom Summer" voter registration drive. This is the 50th anniversary of these events.

I called Dr. Nabors to see about going to Mississippi to participate in the Freedom Summer. He arranged with Robert Freed, an owner and CEO of Lagoon Amusement Park, to pay my way. Mr. Freed had in recent years removed the "whites only" restriction from Lagoon's swimming pools and dance hall.

I went to Mississippi to work in the NAACP field office in Jackson for Charles Evers, the brother of slain hero Medgar Evers. I lived with Jackson NAACP President Doris Allison and her husband, Ben, and their German shepherd named Freedom. In recent times the Allisons had been hauled off in city dump trucks for leading a boycott of segregated Jackson businesses.

Many black churches were bombed or burned that summer in Mississippi. The black church was the moral core of the civil rights movement. Mass meetings were held nightly at black churches to encourage voter registration.

Charles Evers decided to take me along on the trip through Mississippi with the NAACP National Board. Our purpose was to attend voter registration mass meetings in black churches, visit the family of James Chaney, one of the missing civil rights workers, and to meet with the sheriff and deputy in Philadelphia, Miss., who had arrested the three prior to their disappearance.

When we arrived in Philadelphia, it seemed the whole town was waiting for us on the sidewalks by the street, some with rifles. We went into the Neshoba County Courthouse and met with Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price to inquire about the investigation of the disappearance. Many months later they were charged with violating the civil rights of the three, when they took them from jail and delivered them into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered them and buried them in an earthen dam.

I was arrested a few weeks later for taking pictures of "white only" signs while a black woman I brought to the Hinds County Courthouse was trying to register. In 1964, only 18,000 African Americans out of a potential 250,000 had been allowed to register to vote in Mississippi.

Because the jail denied I was there, given the then recent history of the three missing civil rights workers, Gov. George Clyde and Sen. Frank Moss asked the FBI to find me. I was bailed out a few days later by Jews from Great Neck, N.Y.

I came back to school after both summers of '64 and '65 in Mississippi having been arrested again in '65 doing voter registration. Eventually the Voting Rights Bill was passed and signed by President Johnson.

My friends in Mississippi and I kept in touch over the years as they marveled at the election of hundreds of black officials.

After 300 years of grinding and dehumanizing slavery and 100 years of humiliating segregation, we owe African Americans another couple of generations of affirmative action. Recent voter suppression laws are shameful.

Stephen Holbrook founded KRCL FM, served three terms in the Utah Legislature, retired as executive director of Envision Utah and coordinated the development of The Road Home homeless shelter.






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