Book Excerpts

"Living with 'Dying' "

At the end of the orientation, the announcements were made telling us where we would be assigned for our stay in Mississippi, I assumed we would be going in groups so I was not only eager to see what town I would go to but also who I would be working with. I heard my name as the list was read, and they said “Meridian” I couldn’t believe my ears. Meridian was the Mississippi town most mentioned in all the newspaper stories I had been reading. Meridian, where James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andy Goodman had lived and worked. I kept listening to see who I would be working with but my name was the lone one going to Meridian. I was taken to the bus station in Jackson, given a phone number and told that when I got to Meridian, someone would be there to pick me up. I climbed onto the bus in a daze and found a seat for what would seem a ride that lasted forever. As the bus pulled out, a wave of terror hit me. I was no longer on my safe college campus in Iowa. I was no longer headed for an orientation with others like myself in a different, but comfortable college setting. No, I was alone in a way I had never been. It seemed I was headed straight for an unknown no-man’s land. I tried to calm myself by looking out the window as we headed out of town and into the countryside. But all I could see were the ditches along the road and the eerie sights that reminded me of the newspaper pictures back home. The FBI had been sent to Mississippi to drag the swamps and ditches, looking for the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers. These could have been some of those same ditches, I kept thinking. The reality of what I was doing hit me. I was here and this was a very dangerous place for anyone who was joining the summer project. The possibility that I too could die this summer became very real. I felt numb and a bit sick to my stomach. Then I began thinking about what it was that I was doing…….and why. I was here because I knew I had to come when I learned there was something that could be done about the terrible injustice and hatred and crimes against my fellow human beings. I was here because I believed so deeply that I could help make this a better country. I was here because I knew it was time that the world I dreamed about as a child became a reality. I was here because I had no other choice. Suddenly, I felt a wave of peace roll over me. I relaxed and felt more “at home” than I ever had before. I might die. This was still true. But if I did, I knew it would be for a great purpose and I got my first taste of true freedom. I will never in my life forget that bus ride.

When I arrived in Meridian and stepped off the bus, I looked around for a friendly face as I waited for my suitcase. This time I was not tempted to sit in the “colored waiting room” but I certainly did not want to wait. As the people cleared, it was evident I was still alone. No one had met me. So I called the phone number that had been given to me. “ Could someone pick me up, please?” I quietly explained to the person on the other end of the line. After some time, I was met by a friendly, but tired face who took me directly to the Community Center where I would be working while in Meridian.

It was a hot and humid day and it was late afternoon by now. As I climbed the stairs and saw the community center for the first time, I was struck with how old and run down the building was. A musty odor filled the rooms and the people all seemed so tired and hot and “worn out” I would later come to understand why The other workers greeted me and welcomed me to Meridian. Someone located an address of where I was to stay and drove me to my home for the month.

I couldn’t have been luckier. I had a wonderful home to stay in. A family of five took me under their wing and treated me like a queen. In my journal at the end of this long and grueling day, I wrote:

"All I know is - that for the 1st time, I feel contentment --- In the midst of fear - anxiety - injustice - hatred - this is contentment at knowing - catching a glimpse of what it is to live."

The next day was my first day at work. It could not have been more shocking nor more challenging. As I walked into the office, I could tell something was really wrong. No one was particularly friendly as I had expected nor did anyone even seem to notice I was there. How strange, I thought to myself. But I soon became aware of why things were as they were. The bodies of the three missing workers had been found! The entire office was in shock. People talked and commented on it, but mostly everyone tried to work. They were trying to put some order in the chaos that we were all feeling. A similar wave of terror came over me as had hit me on the bus trip to Meridian. I spent the day hoping to recapture some of the peace that had surrounded me on the bus, but everything was so new and so strange and now, so terrifying

Back to top of page