Dave Dennis, Freedom Summer of 1964, and the Eulogy for James Chaney
“It was the 31st of August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, Highway Patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.” -Fannie Lou Hamer
The Freedom Summer Project of 1964 began with youthful optimism. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been signed into law on July 2. What first began with Kennedy, was ultimately carried through by LBJ and his campaign toward creating the “Great Society.”. However, for many African American’s, getting out to vote or even registering to vote was another issue entirely, especially in the old “Dixie” south. Dixie included among its most staunchest traditionalists states (as in: wanting to keep the “old ways”) was Mississippi. Civil rights organizations, including the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) after establishing themselves as a successful student/youth based movement (Freedom Riders, Sit-ins) organized voter registration drives throughout old miss. This project became known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer. Made up mostly of northern students, both black and white, the Freedom Summer project hosted hundreds of volunteers, who according to Terri Shaw, a student volunteer, opened “freedom schools [which] were the most impressive part of the program. They were directed by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Reese, Negro secondary school teachers from Detroit. The schools were established in six churches for an initial enrollment of 585 persons (we had expected about 75).” While direct-action protest was an important feature among activism, voting and legislation was the most dominate catalyst for change. Without legislation, direct-action would have little lasting effect. However, we should not the particular history of the Civil Rights Movement and take note, much as the McGee’s of Greenwood, Mississippi, that without direct-action, legislation would do little good if someone wasn’t there to test the limits of oppression and the willingness of society (the moderate majority) to enforcing said legislation. Among the leaders organizing operations in Mississippi was Dave Dennis, a young up and coming co-leader of C.O.R.E.
Violence against the Freedom Summer participates grew steadily, according to Shaw the “most serious incidents concerning volunteers were beatings. The first occurred on July 10  when Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, (a Ministers Project volunteer) and two white male college students were beaten while on their way to one of the churches where lunch was served after a morning of canvassing. They were attacked by two white men who had been following them in a pickup truck without license plates. Shouting ‘white nigger’ and ‘nigger lover’ they beat the rabbi and one of the students with an iron bar. The other student was kicked down an embankment, pummeled and kicked, and finally, his assailant shoved his canvassing notes into his mouth, shouting ‘eat this… nigger lover.’ All three were treated at a hospital and the rabbi was hospitalized over night.” Yet, in the face of growing hostility and violence, the students and volunteers carried out their credo of nonviolent resistance.
The Ku Klux Klan, members of the White Citizens Council, and even some local law enforcement authorities, angered by an imagined “threat” the black vote posed and change of tradition, carried out systematic violent attacks against demonstrators and other Freedom Summer volunteers. Some of the incidents were minor, from name calling to false arrests; but as the heat of the summer months intensified, so did the brutality. Beatings, as mentioned against Rabbi Lelyveld, continued, and on August 4, 1964, forty-four days after the disappearance of three Freedom Summer volunteers, while folk singer Pete Seeger was performing for a Meridian, Mississippi church congregation, word spread that the bodies of of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been found. Buried deep in earth beneath a dam. News of the their death shocked an already battle weary nation.
During the funeral for James Chaney, Dave Dennis was asked to give a eulogy. However, Dave, as one of the leaders of Freedom Summer, who had lent his station wagon to Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney the day they disappeared, who could have very well been a fourth victim of the Klan, couldn’t bring himself to give “the traditional thing.” Instead, Dennis (feeling the full weight of grieving family and friends) gave one of the most profound unscripted speeches ever to come from the Civil Rights Movement. Dave Dennis addressed the crowd with such passion and power to move listeners to reevaluate and discern their purpose and solidarity in the fight for racial equality. Dennis was so inflamed that he collapsed into the arms of Rev. Edwin King, unable to finish. Here is a portion of the eulogy given by Dennis, and one of the more moving pieces:
“I’m not here to do the traditional things most of us do at such a gathering…But what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with..
You can also find the American Experience documentary here.
>Sources:Shaw, Terri. “Freedom Summer Recollections.” Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive, The University of Southern Mississippi. http://anna.lib.usm.edu/%7Espcol/crda/shaw/ts001.htm. (accessed Feb. 4 2014). “1964,” American Experience, PBS documentary, 2014. Davis W. Houck, David E. Dixon, “Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965,” Dave Dennis and Rev. Edwin King Address at the Funeral Service for James Chaney, Baylor University, 2006.