UI Archives seeking stories from Freedom Summer participants
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

(Editor’s note: The Old Gold series provides a look at University of Iowa history and tradition through materials housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections.)

The call for civil rights and freedom from racial discrimination were front and center in the summer of 1964, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and several other civil rights organizations staged the Mississippi Project, later known as Freedom Summer. Desegregation of public schools, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, sit-ins, and the 1961 Freedom Rides were among the actions leading up to 1964’s events.

Freedom Summer was an effort to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi, a state that had long denied blacks access to the voting booth. In the 1960 general election, it was estimated that only 7 percent of African-American adults in the Magnolia State were registered voters—the lowest percentage in the U.S. For that reason, Mississippi was identified by civil rights leaders as a priority for the project. One goal was to seat delegates from the newly established Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—a racially mixed group—in place of Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

About 1,000 college and university students from across the U.S. volunteered in the project that summer—a dangerous, risky commitment to aid local residents who had long been subjected to violence, intimidation, and threats solely on the basis of their skin color. The summer work occurred against a backdrop of fear: Three civil rights workers had been reported missing in June, and their bodies were recovered in early August, victims of the Ku Klux Klan.

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By Old Gold’s reckoning, at least 11 people from Iowa City and the State University of Iowa participated, perhaps more. Some were arrested and even beaten while in the custody of local authorities. All were dedicated volunteers who looked beyond their own world to help improve somebody else’s.

As part of a larger project to document the experiences of Iowans who participated in civil rights­–related work, the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network was formed about one year ago. The network consists of archivists, historians, and former civil rights workers from across the state who are gathering the stories of Iowans who contributed in some way to the civil rights movement, whether at home or in the Deep South.

Those from Iowa City or associated with the university who participated in Freedom Summer in 1964 include:

  • Shelton Stromquist, now a UI professor emeritus of history
  • Stephen Smith (1944-2009) of Marion, Iowa
  • Gary Smith of Fairfield, Iowa
  • Ed Spannaus of Elmhurst, Ill.
  • Mike Kenney of San Francisco, Calif.
  • Bambi Brown of Des Moines, Iowa
  • Carl Jablonski of Iowa City
  • Joan Bott of Iowa City
  • Carole Gross of Davenport, Iowa
  • Larry Wright of Chicago, Ill.
  • Raymond Rohrbaugh of Iowa City

Old Gold and his colleagues at the Historical Iowa Civil Rights Network are attempting to locate several of these individuals. Some—including Stromquist, Smith, and Spannaus—already are accounted for or have been contacted, and their memoirs are being developed. We also wish to reach out to others whose stories have not yet been recorded for the University of Iowa Archives.

“[W]hatever happened to us—the students—it was far, far worse for the blacks that lived there, and who had to live through this every day,” said Spannaus, in a recent interview with students from D.C. Everest Schools in Weston, Wis., a copy of which is now in the UI Archives. “We were just there for the summer, but the effect of it lasted. … Because the fear, and the oppression, is just so pervasive. Those are the kind of things that you constantly ran up against.”

If you are in touch with any of the individuals listed above—or know somebody who is—contact Old Gold so that their stories will be remembered. The UI Archives continually develops collections that reflect the experiences of alumni and former students, including those whose work helped to change history.

Additional material:

News accounts appearing in the July 17, 1964, Daily Iowan reported that SUI students Bambi Brown and Steve Smith encountered opposition and violence during their work in Mississippi (Source: The Daily Iowan Collection (RG02.0011.001), Department of Special Collections and University Archives, UI Libraries).