This offering may be a somewhat unusual entry among these reflections on Freedom Summer as it comes from the perspective of a somewhat shallow and surprisingly callow white male suburban teenager.
I spent that historic summer of 1964 between my freshman and sophomore years of high school the same way as I had spent the previous summer, working in a neighborhood gas station. I was only paid minimum wage but I could work 40 hours per week and save enough money during the summer that I didn’t have to work during the school year for spending money. That enabled me to tend to the really important things in my life: girls, playing on the tennis team, girls, planning a car purchase when I was old enough to drive, girls, attending football games on Friday nights. Did I mention girls? With all these important things occupying my free time I had little brain power left to dwell on events going on outside my small, self-centered world.
Furthermore, the civil rights movement seemed a galaxy away from the place in which I lived.
My city was a “bedroom community” of Dallas, Texas, and its population was anything but diverse. To be sure, there were some black families living within the suburb’s city limits, but they all lived in one small area of the town and their children attended their own schools. When those schools were closed the previous year and all the black students were integrated into the white school system, there was hardly a ripple among the students, not because racism didn’t exist but because there were so few of these “transferred” students enrolled in my high school.
It was actually something of a status symbol for a white student if a black student befriended them. I was too shy to reach out to any student for friendship, regardless of color. However, the tennis coach teamed me up with the only black male student on the tennis squad, and we became the No. 2 Doubles team for the school.
I wish I could say that my new teammate helped me broaden my horizons concerning that historic summer of 1964, but I cannot. My doubles partner and I only saw one another on the tennis courts and our talk was of tennis, cars, and girls, not of civil rights, discrimination, or racism.
What I am trying to say is that I was a typical teen of that era. Unless something affected me directly I was not concerned nor, usually, even aware of it. It was in a freshman college history class that I first saw those infamous images of the fire hoses and police dogs and I was astounded to learn that those events had occurred as I lobbed tennis balls back across the net.
I then decided to take a couple of more history courses even though they were not in my major field at the time. Eventually I changed majors and began to earnestly study the history of my country.
I continued to study, and eventually to teach, about those events that helped this country to face the issues of racism and discrimination. I am confident that our country will solve its future challenges even as it continues to address the challenges of its past.
Statser is adjunct online U.S. history professor at Wiley College, Marshall, Texas. Wiley is one of The United Methodist Church’s historically black colleges. The denomination supports 11 historically black colleges through the Black College Fund.
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