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Long Road to Freedom 

The tragic tale of one station wagon, as told by New Orleans civil-rights veterans

At the time, a black man driving a new car was an automatic target for Mississippi sheriffs. So Don Hubbard knew his task was dangerous. "I was crazy to even try it," he says now.

Hubbard, a lifelong New Orleans resident, made that drive in early 1964, when he was about 20 years old and active in the local chapter of Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE). His trek started in White Plains, N.Y., where he received the keys for a donated 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon and set off for Mississippi.

The drive included only one detour -- to CORE's national headquarters in New York City, where he and other CORE workers filled the back of the wagon with informational posters and pamphlets, and boxes of buttons and T-shirts emblazoned with CORE's slogans "Freedom Now" and "Vote Baby Vote."

Once they finished loading, they covered it all with a sheet. Then Hubbard took off and drove for hours, stopping only for gas.

He did well, until he neared the Mississippi border. There, exhaustion hit and his mind began to race. Here he was, a young black man driving alone in a brand-new Ford with a temporary New York license plate and controversial cargo -- stacks of barely concealed voting-rights materials. "So I had to drive the speed limit," Hubbard recalls, "because I didn't want to be pulled over and have some Mississippi or Alabama policeman say, 'What you got in the back of this car, boy?'"

Just after crossing into Mississippi, Hubbard stopped to gas up and tried to take a short power nap outside the service station. But some of the people hanging around the parking lot gave him the creeps. He pulled out onto the road again, miserable, because he couldn't keep his eyes open. "I had all kind of things on my mind -- I'm married, I got kids," he says. "I was driving along, trying to look at the sights, just trying to keep myself amused, saying, 'Keep yourself awake.'"

Then he saw the young white guy dressed in an Air Force uniform, standing next to a duffel bag. "He was thumbing a ride to the Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi," Hubbard recalls, "and so I pulled over and said, 'I'll give you a ride, if you don't mind driving.' He said, 'No problem, man.'"

The military man got behind the wheel and Hubbard laid down flat on the backseat of the station wagon and went to sleep. "No one could see me," he says. "All they could see was a white boy driving with a uniform on."

Hubbard believes that he owes his life to that hitchhiker, who drove all the way through Jackson, Miss. A newly rested Hubbard then drove the remaining stretch to Canton, in central Mississippi, where he handed over the keys to native Mississippian and CORE worker James Earl Chaney.

Hubbard was not the first New Orleans connection to this station wagon. Nor would he be the last. As the wagon made its way from New York state, all around Mississippi, up to Ohio, and then back down for its final trip, many of its drivers and passengers came from New Orleans. Some of its main drivers were Chaney and a group of New Orleans CORE members -- Dave Dennis, Mattheo "Flukie" Suarez, and the late George Raymond.

Like the station wagon, the movement itself had connections to New Orleans every step of the way, says Dennis, one of the main leaders in Mississippi civil rights and the effort now known as Freedom Summer. "New Orleans CORE's footprints were all over the place in the movement," says Dennis.

Suarez agrees. "One of the interesting stories that's never been told, in my opinion, is that wherever you went across the South, there were always New Orleans people working in the civil-rights movement." He guesses that, overall, Nashville might have contributed the most people to the movement, through its chapter of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). "But New Orleans was right in there with them," he says. "Practically anywhere you went, there was someone from New Orleans working."

It wasn't that the New Orleans CORE group was so enormous, says Hubbard. "It was just a few of us," he says, "but we went wherever we were needed. We covered a lot of ground."

Hubbard spent time organizing in Bogalusa, in Plaquemines Parish, and across Louisiana and Mississippi. But he was back home in New Orleans in June 1964, when his wife came to the door and told him, "I heard some of the guys in Mississippi are missing. One of them is Chaney -- and they might be in that car."

"My heart just went into my belly," Hubbard recalls. "I later heard about what happened to the car. But I didn't couldn't watch the news; I didn't want to look at it."

During this year's summer camp, 15-year-old Aquila wrote a rap about some girls her age:

"The four little girls went to sing in the choir

"Little did they know that their life was expired.

"Two Klux Klan men bombed the church.

"The four little girls were worse than hurt.

"They were trapped in the basement with no escape.

"And when they finally realized, it was much too late.

"The four little girls mean so much to me.

"That's why we honor them in our history."

Aquila, a camp counselor, says she and her group of 13-year-olds can relate to the girls in her rap -- 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Denise McNair -- who were all killed in 1963 by a bomb detonated in Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Aquila's fellow counselor, Evlischa, sees the same phenomenon with her 10-year-olds -- they connect with children from history. "Like Emmett Till," she says. "He was a 14-year-old kid buying candy and he whistled at a white woman. They can relate to that."

Aquila and Evlischa help to oversee 300 kids, ages 5 to 13, at the Treme Community Center, where each year's summer camp includes lessons in civil-rights history. This summer, the center's kids have also been studying the story of three slightly older people, men in their early twenties. Banners on the walls display black-and-white photos, three poster-size headshots, arranged side by side as if from a giant yearbook. In the center is 21-year-old James Earl Chaney, flanked by 24-year-old Michael Schwerner and 20-year-old Andrew Goodman -- the civil-rights workers slain in 1964 in what became known as the Mississippi Burning case.

It's early afternoon, almost time to jump in the swimming pool. But first, Evlischa's 10-year-olds gather for a review session about Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Thaddeus knows the story well. "There was black and white people working together, getting black people to vote," he says, pushing his swim goggles to the top of his head. Terrence pipes in. "They were killed in Philadelphia -- Philadelphia, Mississippi," he says.

Charniece, a tall girl standing across from him, nods her head at Terrence and then answers in chorus the name of the 80-year-old ex-Klan leader, Edgar Ray Killen, who last month was convicted of manslaughter by a Mississippi state jury. Then all the kids perform a call-and-response chant they wrote. It ends, "Freedom, freedom, freedom -- we will not forget."

Remembering civil-rights-era martyrs and activists means understanding "a pledge of allegiance to something greater than the individual," says Jerome Smith, longtime Treme Center director. Smith, a New Orleans CORE alumnus and 1961 Freedom Rider, can often be found here, in the center's second-floor art room. Everywhere you look are prints and paintings made by summer-camp kids or children from Tambourine and Fan, the youth club Smith formed in 1968 to preserve New Orleans' cultural traditions.

Smith walks over to a waist-high wall that overlooks the center's main hallway. He gestures toward the children below. "It is important for kids to have a sense of purpose," he says.

Smith had spent time working in Mississippi in the early 1960s. By 1963, he was in New York, being treated by CORE's volunteer doctors and dentists for jaw and head injuries he'd sustained at the hands of white mobs. While there, he was also raising money for CORE. Toward the end of that year, he and his mentor, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, participated in a fundraiser held at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester, a synagogue near her house in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. Smith spoke and Hansberry was chairperson and mistress of ceremonies for an audience 800-strong that included like-minded artists such as actor Ossie Davis, writer James Baldwin, and folksinger Judy Collins, who performed.

In her autobiography, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Hansberry recalled that day. She had told the audience: "Of the three speakers who are with us today from the South, there is one whose name may be now have some familiarity to you, Jerome Smith, field organizer for CORE." His name had become known, she explained, partly as a result of a meeting held in May of that year with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. She and Smith had attended, along with Baldwin, actor Harry Belafonte, singer Lena Horne and others.

Rabbi Mike Robinson, who would himself participate in the Selma March in 1965, headed up the temple's congregation at the time. As he recalls, the fundraiser was one of the first in the New York City area to benefit the civil-rights movement. It was organized, he says, in response to the September 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and raised more than $11,000 for civil-rights groups like SNCC, CORE and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

With Freedom Summer approaching, CORE needed vehicles to transport volunteers and staff. So Smith spoke with Horne, who had a car-dealer friend in upstate New York. With her help, CORE got a good deal on a light-blue 1963 Ford Fairlane station wagon.

Children in the Treme Center feel a personal connection to that station wagon. Mention the car and they will jump up and down and wave their hands, impatient to tell what they know.

Thaddeus doesn't wait to be called on. He grabs the swim goggles off his head and steps forward. "Ms. Lena Horne gave it to Mr. Jerome. Mr. Jerome gave it to Don Hubbard," he says, proudly.

On its last day, the station wagon carried three people to the town of Philadelphia, in Mississippi's Neshoba County. A few others narrowly missed being inside that car.

Two of the most likely candidates were New Orleans CORE members Dave Dennis and Matt Suarez. At the time, Dennis was at his mom's house in Shreveport, recovering from a bronchial infection. Suarez was in Ohio.

CORE owned two station wagons, a white one and blue one, says Dennis. Both racked up the miles hauling volunteers from one place to another. But the blue one was a favorite workhorse for Dennis, Suarez and George Raymond.

Klansmen especially disliked Raymond, a New Orleanian who headed up the CORE project in Canton. As a result, the station wagon's Mississippi license plate -- Hinds County H25503 -- had been widely distributed among Klan members as Raymond's plate number. In fact, when Cecil Price, the Neshoba County sheriff's deputy, pulled over the wagon outside Philadelphia, he radioed in, crowing, "I've got a good one -- George Raymond!"

About a year before, the Klan had even printed up a wanted poster with Raymond's photo on it. Suarez got his hands on a copy while working in Canton. "I don't remember exactly what it said, but it had his picture on it and said something like, 'Wanted: this nigger, dead or alive,'" he says.

Suarez experienced threats of his own. He originally worked with Raymond in Canton. Then, in the winter of 1963-64, he moved a hundred miles east to Meridian, where he launched a CORE operation and recruited Chaney and other locals for the cause. Klansmen called Suarez the "Little Mexican," because of the sombrero he wore all the time. "A couple of times I was able to escape real harm by getting rid of the sombrero," he says.

In May 1964, Klan imperial wizard Sam Bowers ordered the "elimination" of Schwerner, whom they called "Goatee." Klansmen reserved special spite for Schwerner because he was Jewish, was one of the first white civil-rights workers to be based outside Jackson, and had led a black boycott of a white-owned business in Meridian that wouldn't hire blacks.

A month later, Schwerner and Chaney drove to Oxford, Ohio, where they attended a CORE training for hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers, most of them white college students. But the two men decided to leave Ohio early, after hearing that Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Neshoba County had been torched. Suarez planned to leave with them.

In the wee hours of the morning of June 20, Suarez, Schwerner and Chaney filled the blue station wagon with their gear, along with luggage for two new volunteers.

Suarez helped pack up the wagon, then climbed in, ready for the drive to Mississippi. But the combination of five people and all the cargo left everyone pretty cramped. So Suarez climbed out -- at Schwerner's suggestion. "Mickey used to call me the Lord," says Suarez. "And he said, 'Lord, why don't you stay up here and see if you can get us some more people, some good people, and bring them down with you?' So I got out of the car and stood there while they drove off."

Suarez wouldn't see his friends Schwerner and Chaney again. Andrew Goodman, one of the recruits who made the drive from Ohio, was killed during his first full day in Mississippi.

At around 4:30 or 5 o'clock the next night, June 21, Dennis got a phone call at his mother's house in Shreveport telling him that the three men had not checked in at their designated time. He knew that Chaney and Schwerner were seasoned and would have phoned in about car trouble or any other possible delay. So Dennis immediately got on the phone with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. Others phoned area hospitals and jails. At 5:20 p.m., an 18-year-old SNCC volunteer named Ron Carver called the Neshoba County jail and spoke with jailer's wife, Minnie Herring, who lied and said that Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were not being held there.

In the meantime, says Dennis, a nearby CORE project dispatched a car to Philadelphia to see if they were in jail. "Our reports were: they were not in jail, no one knew where they were, and they had left the Neshoba black community," Dennis says. "At that particular time, I knew that they were in very serious trouble or dead. I even told that to my mother."

In Ohio, Suarez felt the same way at around 8 p.m., when he heard they hadn't checked in. "My response was, 'They're dead.' I knew it instantly," he says.

Suarez had been the first civil-rights worker to go into Neshoba County, where he had attempted to organize residents. He assessed the situation and decided that, in other surrounding counties, they could make inroads -- people would talk and were willing to hold clandestine meetings. But Neshoba was too dangerous, he says. "In Neshoba, they'd say, 'You one of those freedom riders?' and start running in the opposite direction."

In fact, Suarez believes that Schwerner got his first successes there because he was white. "I think that, initially, blacks were too frightened not to talk to him. They had to stand there and talk to him or fear the consequences of not talking to a white man," he says.

Soon after hearing the news, Suarez drove down from Ohio. By the next morning, he was at the wheel of a CORE search expedition, chosen to drive because he knew the back roads of Neshoba County. That was thanks to advice from civil-rights leader Bob Moses, he says. "Very early on, Bob told me, "Whenever you enter a town, never depend on one road to get out. You want to know all the ways in and all the ways out."

That expedition came up empty. Later, a Klan informant would tell the FBI that the three men had been pulled over around 3 p.m. on a trumped-up speeding charge. They were taken to the local jail and held for hours while the Klan organized a mob to give the men a "butt-ripping." Deputy Price finally released them just after 10 p.m., only to follow them out of town with his sheriff's car tailed by two cars of Klansmen.

On June 23, two days after the three men had disappeared, the FBI found the car's smoldering shell in the Bogue Chitto swamp, about 13 miles from Philadelphia. The bureau then issued posters with the headline "Missing" above the photographs of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. An informant told agents that the men had been beaten, shot and buried beneath tons of dirt in a nearby dam construction site. More than a month later, 44 days after the men had been reported missing, the FBI found the three bodies.

The first witness at the 2005 trial was Michael Schwerner's widow, Rita Schwerner Bender. On the stand, she recalled seeing the first news photos of the burned-out blue station wagon. "I remember that day," she testified. "It really hit me for the first time that they were dead -- there was no realistic possibility they were alive."

No bodies had yet been found. That made the car the last tie Schwerner had to her husband, and she wanted to see it. "I absolutely insisted," she told the jury.

After repeated requests, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, a Klansman himself, agreed to accompany Rita Schwerner to the garage where the car was being held. She later recalled that visit to investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell, whose work, in large part, led to Killen's arrest.

"Inside the garage, she glimpsed the familiar station wagon that looked anything but familiar," Mitchell wrote in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Set on blocks, the soot-covered vehicle had no tires, no windows and no seats -- the victim of a vicious fire set to destroy any evidence of what she was certain was foul play.

"She stood there, silently, glancing at the charred remnant of what she and Mickey once traveled on the small roads across Mississippi."

Several years later, the Ford Fairlane would become scrap metal. Mitchell tells what he heard. "Judge William Cox, who had presided over the 1967 federal trial, waited until the appeals were exhausted and then ordered the destruction of all exhibits. That included the station wagon," he says.

But, to the general public, the photos of that station wagon are a clear reminder of what happened that day in 1964. "Because they -- Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman -- were riding in the station wagon when the Klan pulled them over, kidnapped them and killed them," Mitchell says. "The station wagon is what the Klan burned. And it was the first thing the FBI found.

"To me, the station wagon, along with the FBI reward poster, is the key symbol of those killings."

click to enlarge   - STEVE SCHAPIRO
click to enlarge After finding the car's smoldering shell in the Bogue - Chitto swamp, the FBI issued posters with the headline - "Missing" above the photographs of Schwerner, Chaney - and Goodman. - QUEENS COLLEGE
  • Queens College
  • After finding the car's smoldering shell in the Bogue Chitto swamp, the FBI issued posters with the headline "Missing" above the photographs of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
click to enlarge New Orleans CORE member Dave Dennis in 1963. When - Dennis learned that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner - were missing, he immediately called the U.S. Department - of Justice and the FBI. "I knew that they were in very - serious trouble or dead," Dennis says. - STEVE SCHAPIRO
  • Steve Schapiro
  • New Orleans CORE member Dave Dennis in 1963. When Dennis learned that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were missing, he immediately called the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. "I knew that they were in very serious trouble or dead," Dennis says.
click to enlarge Matt "Flukie" Suarez (left) in a rare moment without his - sombrero, sharing a laugh with civil-rights workers. - Suarez's sombrero prompted Klansmen to call him "Little - Mexican." - STEVE SCHAPIRO
  • Steve Schapiro
  • Matt "Flukie" Suarez (left) in a rare moment without his sombrero, sharing a laugh with civil-rights workers. Suarez's sombrero prompted Klansmen to call him "Little Mexican."
click to enlarge Newly released from one of his stays in jail, Jerome Smith - carries his son, Jerome Jr. In 1968, Smith formed - Tambourine & Fan to teach local cultural traditions to - children. - STEVE SCHAPIRO
  • Steve Schapiro
  • Newly released from one of his stays in jail, Jerome Smith carries his son, Jerome Jr. In 1968, Smith formed Tambourine & Fan to teach local cultural traditions to children.
click to enlarge A group of civil-rights workers undergo nonviolence - training in 1963. Matt "Flukie" Suarez (seated in center) - was the first organizer to go into Neshoba County. "In - Neshoba, they'd say, 'You one of those freedom riders?' - and start running in the opposite direction." - STEVE SCHAPIRO
  • Steve Schapiro
  • A group of civil-rights workers undergo nonviolence training in 1963. Matt "Flukie" Suarez (seated in center) was the first organizer to go into Neshoba County. "In Neshoba, they'd say, 'You one of those freedom riders?' and start running in the opposite direction."
click to enlarge Jerome Smith (in overalls) and Matt "Flukie" Suarez (in - striped shirt) sing "We Shall Overcome" with other civil- - rights workers. - STEVE SCHAPIRO
  • Steve Schapiro
  • Jerome Smith (in overalls) and Matt "Flukie" Suarez (in striped shirt) sing "We Shall Overcome" with other civil- rights workers.
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