Fifty years after Freedom Summer, when students risked their lives to advance the cause of civil rights, intern Sydney Johnson explores audio recordings of the movement.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. implored that we "let freedom ring," was he literally referring to voices ringing out in dutiful protest against racial oppression? Or was he being more figurative, suggesting that freedom should be applied so equitably that it abound freely like sound waves? Either way, King's allusion to sound in reference to the hope of freedom is appropriate given the amplitude of distinctive sounds during the Freedom Movement of the 1960s: the searing splash of fire hoses against protesters skin, the deafening silence at undeserved funerals, and the unified roar of activists singing freedom songs. Undoubtedly, the sounds most closely identified with the Civil Rights Movement are those of people singing—in the face of fear, in the face of uncertainty, and in the face of triumph. Singing rang out as the unifying chord of the Movement.
However, chants, sermons, and meetings were just as unifying as freedom songs. Moses Moon, formerly Alan Ribback, a self-proclaimed "audio man" must have understood this. In 1962, he left his post as owner of the Chicago folk club, The Gate of Horn, and went south to record the revolutionary activity he encountered. Accompanying Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers into the field, Moon was able to record and archive rallies, speeches, and, of course, songs of the Freedom Movement.
In 1964 when SNCC, as a part of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), helped to plan and implement the Freedom Summer initiative, Moon was there. Freedom Summer aimed to combat the stifling effects of segregation on black Mississippians by registering them to vote, setting up community centers and aide programs, and building Freedom Schools to properly educate black youth. Many Freedom Summer participants sacrificed their livelihoods and even their lives to see that equality truly be granted to all Americans. Moses Moon was able to capture this struggle in such a unique way—aurally.
Words cannot describe the overwhelming sense of wonder I felt as I listened to Moon's recordings. Reading the words is one thing, but physically hearing them? Indescribable. Hearing a mother's frustration with a segregated and ineffectual school system, listening to children chatter about their activism, humming along with Fannie Lou Hamer's convicted alto—literally gave me chills. As I listened the museum's reading room no longer existed for me. The fourth wall had been broken—I was in Mississippi. I was in Indianola and Monroe County, I was a part of the Civil Rights Movement of 1964.
Pinpointing one specific part of the recording as the most impactful is impossible because all of what I heard affected me. But two recordings stand out. There was a clip of kids preparing a community center in Milston, Mississippi, for a dance. In the midst of hammering and laughter you can hear one young girl clapping and singing "Gonna lay down my burdens/Down by the riverside/Ain't gonna segregate no more" and then others joining in, voices melding together, ascending to the heavens in an innocent plea for freedom. The kids were at a social event, yet they still sang freedom songs; the desire for equality so fierce that it manifested itself everywhere.
Just as memorable was an interview between Moon and a 14-year-old boy charged with guarding the Monroe County Freedom House. His rhetoric is so militant and his tone so assured as he describes using rocks (or guns if necessary) to protect the house. Most notably, in response to a question about separate swimming pools for blacks he commented, "We not choicey, we just want our equal rights."
This year is special in that it marks the 50th anniversary of three pivotal moments in the Movement—Freedom Summer, the vicious murders of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman—three Freedom Summer volunteers who were slain in Mississippi while investigating the burning of a black church—and the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And thanks to Moses Moon and the presence of his audio collection, the past can be memorialized via primary source material (which is available to anyone who makes an appointment through the museum's Archives Center explore the recordings from home by looking up the collection descriptions or even listening to a bit of it.
Moon, and most importantly, the Movement will be forever preserved through authentic sound. Stumbling upon this archival gem showed me that the Smithsonian is not ONLY a place where history can be seen, touched, and felt, but where it can be heard.
Sydney Johnson is an intern in the Office of Programs and Strategic Initiatives. She recently graduated from Miami University in Ohio and will be starting a graduate program in public history at American University in the fall.