Students and faculty gathered in the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery on April 14, for a panel discussion with volunteers from Freedom Summer 1964.
Freedom Summer was a project in Mississippi that attempted to register as many African-Americans to vote as possible.
Members of the panel were Jim Kates, John Suter, Carl Pomerance and Nancy Schieffelin.
Them and approximately 1,000 other students from the north did day-to-day work to encourage African-Americans to register to vote.
These volunteers trained in Ohio and then traveled to Mississippi.
“Mississippi was the most difficult state in terms of political rights and segregation in the early 1960s,” Kates said. “Attempts to get people to register to vote had been met with not only legal obstructions but also with murder and all kinds of intimidation.”
The event was held in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, as well as John Daniel’s death.
Daniels was a local civil rights activist who was born in Keene and murdered in 1965 in Alabama.
Schieffelin said that the conditions in Mississippi for African-Americans were incredibly poor, and Freedom Summer worked to put these conditions in the public’s eye and force the government to change.
However, while the Voting Rights Act was years ago, the fight for equality is ongoing to this day.
Members of the panel mentioned that progress has been made, but there is still a ways to go.
“You could argue, where has there been progress?” Schieffelin said.
According to her, only 6.7 percent of the African-American community in Mississippi was registered to vote prior to the project. After two years, about 60 percent of the community had registered.
“It was a huge jump because of the Voting Rights Act,” Schieffelin said.
Kates responded with an anecdote about a student who asked him if things had really been as bad as they were described.
“No matter what racism you experience in your life, your question means that we’ve won,” Kates said to him. “If you can’t even imagine how bad it was, we can talk about economic inequality and we can talk about ongoing racism, but it is immeasurably different from how it was.”
While there has been quite a bit of visible progress, the panel agreed that there is still a far ways to go.
“If I were black and I walked into a grocery store, someone would follow me around to see if I were shoplifting,” Suter said.
Suter continued, “There are all these little insults, as well as big insults, that people deal with everyday.”
“The Civil Rights Movement had a very obvious issue that everybody understood: the ability to vote or not. And now we’ve been through this period where racism was happening but there wasn’t a clear, focused thing that we can agree on and have a movement on until Ferguson happened.”
“You yourselves by just sitting here are being a part of this activism,” Kates said.
Samantha Pineau, KSC student, spoke out about how these issues are ignored by so many people.
“I feel like it’s a very not-in-my-backyard type of viewing, thinking ‘I’m not the one being prejudiced against, even though I agree with this party I’m just going to pretend that I don’t,” Pineau said.
Savannah Hobbs, sophomore, was in attendance at the panel.
“It was very compelling what they talked about. The issues today, the issues past, and how they tied those together. I think we just need more education, we need to get it out there, because a lot of people have misconceptions,” Hobbs said. As far as moving forward, there is still a lot of progress to be made in the fight for equality.
“Racism is everywhere . . . We all have these prejudices that we have to sort of be aware of,” Schieffelin said. Becoming aware of these prejudices is the first step to overcoming them.
Devon Roberts can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org