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Alice Lake, "Last Summer in Mississippi," Redbook
November 1964

The registration drive that engaged Kay's energies was not aimed at bringing Negroes down to the county courthouse to register. In Madison County this is still an almost hopeless task. Their job was to register Negroes in the Freedom Democratic party, formed in the spring of 1964 as an alternative structure to the white Democratic party, which systematically excludes Negroes. The goal was to file 100,000 forms at the national Democratic convention in August in order to challenge the seating of the white Mississippi party. Even the simple form, ten questions long, frightened some persons. "If I fill it out," one widow asked, "are you sure it won't knock out my job or anything?"

At one shack Kay and Karol waited patiently on the porch while an old man walked slowly in from the field where he was ploughing. He had a sad, stoic face, a reddish-bronze cast to his skin and an immense, quiet dignity. When they shook his hand he looked surprised but said nothing. As Kay launched into her glib patter, explaining the Freedom Democratic party, he stood quietly, murmuring an occasional "Yes'm." There was no flicker of recognition when she mentioned the participation of national Negro leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, but his eyes lighted up when she said she lived with the Higgins family. She asked if he wanted to register, and he spoke for the first time. "I don't know about that," he said. "No one ever talked to me before about such things."

Disappointed, the girls shook hands and left. "You're never sure you're getting across," Kay sighed. "You don't ever get any feedback."

But when they returned the following week, the old man greeted them with a smile. He announced proudly that he was ready to sign, and that he also would like to attend the Freedom School. He was 74 years old.

Selected from the Library of America anthology.  See  Reporting  Civil  Rights:  American Journalism 1963-1973.