Linda Seese was 22 years old when she traveled to Mississippi with 1,000 other college students for the Freedom Summer Project in 1964
Instead of taking trips to Europe, working in offices to save for school or even staging cafeteria sit-ins as their peers had done in South Carolina and Georgia, these college kids spent their days encouraging the long-disenfranchised population to register to vote. The right was granted by United States but blocked by local cultural norms in a place where 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, people still lived on plantations under the watchful eye of white landowners and where 10 years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools were still segregated. The volunteers set up “Freedom Schools” and libraries in shacks to bolster education about civics and history, and they held rallies to build grassroots political support for black elected representatives.
Their lives would never be the same.
Officials thwarted the process by imposing literacy tests and throwing up other bureaucratic hurdles, and many whites used violence as intimidation—beating, bombing and jailing the visitors from the North along with their hosts. The FBI took reports and promised investigations that came slowly, if ever. The local police were part of the problem. Three volunteers from the program went missing, their bodies found at the end of the summer only when an informant cooperated. Yet, voter rolls slowly swelled, and blacks not only voted, they ran for office and were duly elected.
Now 72, Seese has a lifetime of activism to reflect on. After a short return home to pay off her college loan, she returned to Mississippi to continue voter registration and civil rights advocacy for another nine months, leaving only when it became clear that outsiders needed to get out the way and let the local leadership take root.
Then, it was time for Seese to protest the war in Vietnam, serve poor communities in the Midwest and travel to live with First Nations people in Saskatchewan before finding a niche in the women’s movement in Chicago and Portland. For the last three decades, she’s been living in Northern New Mexico, where most people know her by her nickname “Spes”; all told, she’s spent half of her life in homes without running water.
"You should really think about what you’re doing. Because this is not a church picnic."
While hundreds of her former companions with the SNCC spent a few days at a reunion in Jackson in late June to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom Summer, Seese stayed in Santa Fe, pulling old books off her shelf and reading new ones. She already owned a copy of Letters from Mississippi, a collection first published in 1965 and reissued this year in a special anniversary edition. Editors say her words are among those printed in its pages. She wrote many letters to a Wisconsin church women’s group that sent her $10 a week that year. Yet, so much time has passed that she can’t identify any missives with absolutely certainty. No matter. Any of them could be hers. The shared experiences defy understanding, she says.
SFR: How did you end up in Mississippi?
Linda Seese: I was dating a white South African minister who was opposed to apartheid and was therefore not in South Africa, and he was doing a lot of stuff. He took me to this church and it was the Freedom Singers, one of them was Bernice Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock …and their little bio was that they were all students and they dropped out of school to be in the movement. I kind of thought, ‘Well, that is interesting.’ Ken, that was the minister’s name, was a quite a bit older than me and I was a lesbian, so it was a very platonic relationship. I couldn’t really act on being a lesbian in the ‘60s…He said, ‘Well, you could do it.’ So I tried to find the SNCC office in New York City and it was down by Wall Street, and I think that was about the only time I ever got lost, totally lost on the subway. I never found it. So, back in school I was kind of biding my time until I could graduate, and I heard about the Freedom Summer and so I went and interviewed. I’m pretty sure I would not have been interested if I wasn’t a lesbian. I knew what it was like to not be part of the main society, even though if you saw me you’d probably think I was. Inside I wasn’t. So I went over and interviewed and one guy told me, ‘We thought you were too naïve but you were getting a degree in economics, and so I needed you.’ I had no idea what I was going into.
But you did have some training, right?
There were two trainings in Oxford [Ohio]. The first week was for voter registration people, which they did not think white women should do. The second week was other programs like the Freedom Schools and federal programs. I think we got there, on Sunday and on Monday morning was a big assembly, and this little short woman was up there, and she said, ‘I’m Rita Schwerner and there are three volunteers who have disappeared and one is my husband. We have to assume they’re dead.’ I don’t know she said it [exactly] that way. The whole thrust of the thing was you should really think about what you’re doing. Because this is not a church picnic, you know? I remember talking to my parents who had actually taken me there because we lived in Ohio. I was just 22 and so they couldn’t really stop me, but my mom asked if they were making me go. And I said, ‘No, they’re practically making us not go.’ You really have to be committed. I was shocked. What I remember was that there was a pond there, and there were these ducks, and they would go upside down to get their food, and I thought, ‘That is trust, you know. That is what I’ve got to do.’
What most important about what you did?
We had a reunion that was the 36th anniversary. They tried to do the 35th, but they couldn’t quite get to people. So they did it for the 36th, for the people who worked in Sunflower County. One of the women who organized the reunion was a kid in the Freedom School, and she’s now a published poet. And she remembers being told that black is a good, that black people are smart, that you are smart. As a 10-year-old, that was something she would otherwise never have gotten it down there. It was just to help people’s self-respect. To stand up, to have that, and to say ‘I’m gonna go register. They might beat me up. They might kill me. They could well fire me.’ But people were ready. They were ready to get freedom. And I could really see the changes when I was there 36 years later.
Did you ever feel discouraged?
Oh, I am sure. Somebody got me hooked up with a woman, and I tried to go down with her to help her get welfare and that did not work at all. They weren’t going to let me do anything because I was an outside agitator. There was some regulation, I don’t know what it was, but it was not going anywhere. I came back to Sunflower County later, and they told me one of her kids died from hunger. It was hard. They burned of the house that we’re living in...we were there. Luckily we were up. I heard this glass break, and I thought that somebody had dropped a glass or something and not that it was a window that had broken. They threw in a Coke bottle that was filled with gasoline. That caught the house on fire, and the fire department came and watched. And they finally put it out when it was in danger of going to the neighbors.
After the summer was over and most of the volunteers left Mississippi, why did you go back? I wanted to live there forever at that point. It was my life’s work. I have never found anything quite like it since. It was just so important and it changed me immensely…only people that live it can share it. It’s like people who have been in Iraq together or something. We definitely had PTSD, but we didn’t know what that meant. I can remember going up to Cleveland, Miss., to look into possible projects with poor whites, and somebody knocked a baseball bat over on a porch, and I went through the ceiling because we could be shot at any time.
What was it like seeing hateful stares from whites? I did not see [them] very often because I was surrounded by people that loved us because we came. We always call people Mr. and Mrs., where they never got that from any white person before. They were called Sadie or Auntie—this was sort of new for them to be relating to white people who liked them and who were not their bosses. I was just graduating from college, and all the sudden I was living with people who could not even read or write. But I learned, I really learned to listen. I think that in college I was sitting there and you kind of have to have your answer ready or your rebuttal ready, and these people would sit out on their porch and schmooze away for hours.
How do you feel like your experience in Mississippi has influenced the rest of your life? It changed my life. It was the most important thing in my life even more than coming out. Because I really believed in all the American democracy and I found out it was bullshit. To see a US senator (who owned a plantation) paying people next to nothing and getting them beat up for trying to vote and just the way things were there. It was just not right. The FBI would watch people getting beat up. So I was committed to changing the system. I had a purpose…we were ready to give our lives. I was ready to give my life. Now that I am a Buddhist, I talk about compassion for people, but I wasn’t really enlightened then because I went to sleep every night practically with dreams of blowing up the police station or getting those white racists. We were nonviolent, but we didn’t really love those white racists.
After working so hard for voter registration, you’ve come to be more skeptical about the political system?
I didn’t vote for a candidate for Democrat for governor. I forgot to vote. I was away. I’m kind of glad Gary King got it, but whoever is in is going to be a sacrifice because of all those who are behind Susana. Look what democracy is like now with the Supreme Court decisions. I mean it is being bought. It is totally bought.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.