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Fran O’Brien’s story is among those told in a new book on civil rights struggles, called Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy (available on Amazon.com). O’Brien has lived in Frazier Park for 34 years. [photo by The Mountain Enterprise]
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Oregon college student Fran O’Brien volunteered to teach in Mississippi, not knowing she would meet both Martin Luther King Jr. and, one night, the Ku Klux Klan (Whittier Daily News, as shown in Bruce Watson’s Freedom Summer).
Chapter excerpt by Bruce Watson based on an essay by Fran O’Brien
Last week Fran O’Brien told of her decision to join in the civil rights movement, joining Freedom School teachers in Mississippi in 1964. See related story in this week’s issue regarding a protest demonstration by local students..
Fran had spent a rather quiet summer in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Despite all the threats and the flashes of violence, she had seen none of the bedlam that scarred the summer elsewhere. One afternoon, two white men barged into her classroom. Students froze. Fran hesitated. But the men just stood, glared, then walked out. By the time she deftly handled the bomb threat on the phone, Fran had become blasé about violence. She was too busy to worry. Her children loved her classes, especially chorus. One Saturday, her singers entertained the whole school with “This Little Light” and “America the Beautiful.” Fran found the latter “a trifle ironic,” but her students made the song their own, changing verses to honor Herbert Lee and Medgar Evers. And when children whose dreams had long been deferred came to the last verse—“O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years”—Fran realized “we’re all dreamers or we wouldn’t be here.”
Evening conversations with her hostess Mrs. Garrett were teaching Fran more about children than she would ever learn in college. Each evening, Mrs. Garrett, her iron hair in a bun, her stout body resting comfortably in a house dress, welcomed Fran home. Over dinner, they talked about the day in class. About simple activities that worked. About “slow learners” only starting to make progress and others so promising or so troubled. By early August, Fran had come to cherish these talks. Other volunteers might frequent juke joints or stay at the Freedom House long after classes had ended. But every evening, Fran caught a ride home in time for dinner and discussion. Back on her Oregon campus, she had imagined doing her part in the Civil Rights movement. She had not expected to make a lifelong friend.
With just two weeks left, Fran was thinking more about going home than about any danger. She planned to leave on Monday, August 17. She hoped to go through New Orleans and do a little sight-seeing. “I could stay longer but there doesn’t seem much point,” she wrote her parents. “I wish we had done more for the kids.” Though complacent, Fran still recalled that morning in early July when she was confronted by cops after rushing out to her ride. She had never repeated the mistake. Each morning she waited inside with Mrs. Garrett until the SNCC car arrived. Each evening, she walked down the long driveway of the Freedom House in a group. Obeying SNCC rules, she could not imagine that Mississippi could concoct dangers impossible to foresee.
One evening, Fran and five others stood at the end of the driveway waiting for the car to take them home. But when the car pulled up, it had seats for only five. Deferring as always, Fran let everyone else pile in. There would be room, she thought. But when she asked if she could squeeze in, the driver cut her off. They could not risk overloading the car, drawing attention, giving cops an excuse for another arrest. “Don’t worry,” she was told. “Someone else will be along in a minute.”
Standing alone, Fran felt a shudder, but told herself not to be such a baby. Another car would be along soon. And there it was, headlights beaming down the road, slowing, slowing, stopping. Eager to get home, Fran rushed past the twin beams. Before she could draw back, she saw four men inside – in white robes and hoods. She was not imagining this. She was not dreaming. She was in Mississippi and the quiet of her summer had ended early.
Before Fran could turn and run, one hooded man leapt out. Clamping a beefy hand over her mouth, he dragged her into the car. It roared away. She was not imagining. She was not dreaming. Rumbling over the dirt road, the four men laughed and joked. Fran could barely see their eyes through the holes in their hoods. Look what they had captured, they seemed to say. A pretty little “invader.” A “little girl” who needed to be taught a lesson. Darkness had engulfed Mississippi by the time the car pulled into a vacant lot or empty field – Fran could not tell which. From that point on, terror veiled her memory. The car lurched and stopped. A deep, drawling voice barked in her ear.
“Now you just be a good little girl and do what we say. We’ve gotta teach you a little lesson so you’ll go home to your Mama and Daddy and mind your own business after this.”
Dragged out of the car, Fran tried to drop into a ball as she had been taught.
“No you don’t, little lady! You bend over that hood and don’t try any more funny business!”
Fran found herself shoved against the car. Somehow she recalled what Bob Moses had told female volunteers in Ohio – that their modesty was not as important as their lives. She clamped her hands over her head. Her cheek pressed against the warm hood. She inhaled the car’s odor of gasoline and dust.
“That’s a good little girl. Stay nice and still now, so we can whup you.” All four men laughed. One said they were going to make her sorry she had ever come to Mississippi. But if she got down on her knees, he said, if she begged forgiveness, they might stop. Any time she wanted. On her knees. Fran vowed she would be thrown in the Mississippi River first. She steeled herself, clenched her teeth, felt warm air on her legs as a hand lifted her skirt. Seconds later came the searing lash of a rubber hose. Breath seized in her throat. Her eyes stung. An acrid odor emerged from nowhere. The hose lashed out again. And again, each time harder than before. Her burning legs turned red, then blue, then purple. The blows continued as the men passed the hose around, taking turns. Time slowed and stopped. The world condensed to this empty lot, in Mississippi, on a quiet summer night. More lashes fell. But there is a God, Fran knew, and so she was spared further suffering. Voices and laughter dimmed, the throbbing faded. The next thing Fran knew, she was lying in the driveway of the Freedom House. Scorching heat flushed her face and seared her body. Sitting up, she struggled for the dignity that had brought her this far. She checked herself, seeing bruises but no blood. Thinking she must have been gone for hours, she ran up the long driveway to find several people on the porch, talking and joking.
“Oh hi, Fran. I thought you’d left.” Fran started to blurt out what she could – the ride. . . no room for her. . . another due any minute. . . .
You should have come back right away,” someone said. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to wander around alone at night? This is Mississippi, you know. A lot of things could happen.”
That was when Fran burst into tears. No words would come, not even when others gathered around.
“Her dress is all dirty.”
“Did she fall down the hill?”
“There was a car circling around here about a half an hour ago – right after those other guys left. Was that it?”
With her head bowed, Fran nodded but could say no more. Her secret remained inside, a private, purple horror.
Even in Mississippi, where a lot of things could happen, no one guessed what had just happened to the shy teacher with the devout love of children. Finally, the woman whose children Fran had befriended on her first day in Mississippi returned the favor. Approaching Fran, putting an arm around her, Bessie whispered, “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
And in the care of another victim, it was okay not to say anything, not to feel anything, just to take deep breaths, to gather herself inside herself and begin the long night of suppression. Fran does not remember how she got home that evening, nor what Mrs. Garrett said about her late arrival. She remembers little of her remaining days in Mississippi. She only knows that she made a rock-firm decision not to tell anyone. She would not become an incident on a blackboard. She would not give newspapers another story. Hoping to recapture the warmth she had felt from her students, Fran kept quiet about her encounter with the Klan, quiet for twenty-five years while the terror of a quiet summer night crouched inside her. She would be leaving on August 17. She wrote home one last time, hiding her horror in vague language. She had decided not to go home through New Orleans, she told her parents. “After recent developments I don’t like the idea of traveling alone through southwest Mississippi. It’s always been the worst section and hasn’t improved this summer.” August 17. A Monday. Fran and her secret were also counting the days.
Bruce Watson’s book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy can be found at www.Amazon.com.
This is part of the February 18, 2011 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.
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