Chapter 15: The Civil Rights Movements

A project of the Schumacher Center for New Economics   |   The Autobiography of Bob Swann


Chapter 15

The Civil Rights Movement—The March on Washington, Mississippi Summer, Rebuilding Burned-Out Churches, and the Selma March

The famous March on Washington in 1963 was to be the biggest civil-rights march of all. As CNVA activists our energy along with that of all the other organizations and individuals participating was absorbed by planning for the march, which Bayard Rustin was directing. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I have a dream" speech for an impressive turnout of 250,000. It wasn't coincidence that Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation was enacted the next year. This marked a high point for Johnson; from then on his presidency went downhill.

In 1964 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) called for a "hot summer" in Mississippi. It was mainly a voter registration drive to help black people get on the voting rolls. Hundreds of volunteers, mostly students, came from all over the country to help. Reaction by Southern racists was swift. Three SNCC workers were murdered and twenty churches were burned to the ground within a couple of weeks. Bob Kotitski, a member of a white church in Mississippi, decided to initiate a church rebuilding project. He solicited the aid of a Quaker group in Philadelphia. Larry Scott was the Quaker contact and a good friend of mine. I, as a builder and volunteer supervisor, and Larry as organizer were the only two who came from the North to participate physically in the project. The idea was not simply to rebuild the churches but to enlist local white church members to volunteer together with black church members so that a dialogue could be established. It worked well, and Bob deserves lots of credit for organizing the venture. In the first three months we rebuilt three churches; eventually all twenty were rebuilt (I was involved only in the first three).

The first church we rebuilt was located in a very small town called Philadelphia, which happened to be the same town where the three civil rights workers had been killed a short time earlier. When we arrived, the murderers had not been identified yet nor had the bodies been found. Shortly after we arrived in Mississippi and before beginning the actual church rebuilding, a local Mennonite minister (the only white man in the area willing to talk to me) showed me the site where the church had stood. Only its concrete foundation was left. The church had been in a wooded area hidden from other buildings. I remember having an eerie sensation being there, and I was glad to leave. I had just arrived and was uneasy about what we were about to undertake, but subsequently I overcame my fear.

Things changed fast in the South—at least in Mississippi, where segregation had been put to the test. Only a year after the last demonstration, when I had a chance to visit Mississippi again, I could hardly believe how much change had taken place. I was visiting a young couple who lived in Jackson, a town I had come to know well because we lived there while we were rebuilding the churches. My friends, who had been my associates during the rebuilding, wanted to show me the new life that was emerging in the town. They took me to a black nightclub—something neither they nor I would have considered doing just a short time before. We were welcomed and soon felt at ease. I remember that there were a few other whites there. Then we went to an upscale restaurant, where blacks were in the minority, reflecting the difference in income, no doubt. But the fact that they were there at all was a sign of progress, and there was no visible sign of hostility toward them.

There's no doubt in my mind that the march which dealt the final blow to segregation in the South was the march in Alabama in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery. In some ways this was the march to end all marches—at least civil rights marches. Had it not been for Martin Luther King's dedication to nonviolence and his willingness to take the most vulnerable position at the head of the march, things could have become ugly and violent. But the ugliness came later with his assassination.

Volunteers from all over the country came to Alabama to join the march. I would have been one of them except that I happened to have five kids in tow, my sixteen-year-old daughter Judy and four others from her school, a private Quaker school in New Hampshire called Meeting School. The school encouraged parents to participate in their children's education by planning and carrying out a project outside the classroom.

Because I had just returned from the South and was familiar with the territory, I dreamed up a two-week trip to visit the South to experience first hand the political activity at the time and to visit intentional communities such as Koinonia, Macedonia, and Miles Horton's school in Tennessee. So eight students and I piled into a little yellow school bus and headed south When the kids heard about the march coming up, they got excited and wanted to take part, even though they knew about the white woman who had been shot while she was helping prepare for the march. I was not prepared to take such a risk with the children, so we drove to Atlanta and sought advice from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We were advised not to join the march.

Proceed to Chapter 16 | Return to Table of Contents

©2001 Robert Swann