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Freedom Summer remembered Friday at Miami University

Miami University is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer Friday with a 3 o'clock ceremony on Western Campus. WVXU's Tana Weingartner has more about how Oxford figures into civil rights history.

When Berea College in Kentucky turned away groups planning to train volunteers to do voter registration in Mississippi, Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio gladly stepped up. Some 800 college students converged on the campus for two weeks in June 1964 to learn non-violent techniques, how to teach in freedom schools and other skills needed before heading south. Rick Momeyer had just graduated and was brought in to teach the volunteers how to protect themselves if they were attacked.

"One the very first day of training {during week two} Bob Moses told us that three of our brothers had gone missing in Mississippi and we should be very concerned, we should take it seriously, and deal with it," says Momeyer. "It made the training very real very fast because it was hard to sustain any illusion that this was going to be some kind of happy summer venture."

While training took a more serious turn that second week, Oxford resident Sibyl Miller says townspeople largely seemed to wish the volunteers weren't there. There was a small group of people banded together to offer money, housing and other support, but Miller says they were in the minority.

"(Oxford) was a very conservative town that didn't especially want these 'outside agitators' training here and then going south to do real 'outside agitator' stuff," says Miller. "So the town was uneasy during those two weeks of Freedom Summer."

That's not the case these days. Miami University is working hard to make sure Western's role, however small, isn't forgotten. Archivist Jacky Johnson believes it's important to remember and talk about Freedom Summer.

"I don't want us to just have this commemoration for the year and then forget about it," says Johnson. "This is part of an ongoing struggle and we need to remember that if we don't tell the story, if we don't remember and keep this in the forefront, it will be forgotten. And that's why things happen, because we forget about our history."

Rick Momeyer and Sybil Miller agree. They see some of the same struggles continuing today in different movements. Miller worries about current voting rights being eroded. Momeyer says we still have important struggles and are far from being a post-racial society.

"I would also hope that we would reflect on why we pay so much attention to the 50th anniversary of a major civil rights activity that was engaged in by a large number of young white people but we don't pay the same attention, for instance, to theChildren's Crusade in Birmingham, who's 50th anniversary was last year. And was, if anything, was a more significant event in that period of historical change."

Momeyer goes on to ask why we so often remember the three civil rights workers killed that summer, but don't remember the nine black men whose bodies were found during the search for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Besides Friday's commemoration, Miami is planning an October reunion for Freedom Summer volunteers which will be paired with a conference featuring presentations and public discussions.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.