- Historic Sites
1964 - The Year The Sixties Began
Viewing a transformation that still affects all of us—through the prism of a single year
October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
Borrowing from Martin Luther King, Franz Fanon, and Malcolm X, Andy wrote that “a people must have dignity and identity. If they can’t do it peacefully, they will do it defensively.” He grew increasingly troubled by the failure of the federal government to enforce the constitutional liberties to which black Americans were technically entitled and began transferring his fascination with the argot of theater to the world of politics. “The words are illusion if things aren’t so in reality,” he complained to his parents, who approved wholeheartedly of the connections he drew between dramatic and social illusion. Like so many young people coming of age in 1964, Andy Goodman was beginning to sense a crisis of authenticity.
The triple murder in Mississippi had a deep impact on American public opinion.
By April 1964, when Aaron Henry, the state president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, paid a visit to Queens College, Andy was already hooked. “The thundering silence of the good people is disturbing,” Henry warned. Jim Crow was “a family problem, and there are no outsiders.” The semiofficial purpose of his visit was to recruit students to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer, a bold initiative sponsored jointly by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP. The idea was to bring upward of 1,000 white college and graduate students to Mississippi, where they would help experienced civil rights activists register voters and staff alternative summer schools—Freedom Schools—for black youngsters. At the end of the summer they would return home to help raise consciousness there about the black struggle.
Andy Goodman scarcely needed convincing. For several years Ralph Engelman, his best friend in high school, had been talking about his own travels through the South. Ralph, who was studying at Earlham College, a small Quaker school in Indiana that had a strong tradition of intellectual inquiry and social activism, managed to be on the periphery of the great freedom struggles with an uncanny precision that kept Andy in awe.
In late 1961 Ralph and three of his college friends had hitchhiked to Nashville, Tennessee, where a year before, the student sit-in movement had grown to maturity. Obliging passersby offered the boys a lift but warned them against stirring up any trouble in Tennessee. Ralph played it safe and lied, telling people that they were just headed down South to attend a big fraternity party. Upon arriving in Nashville, the group quickly found John Lewis, the national chairman of SNCC. The next day they trained in a church basement with a new group of volunteers and participated in several lunch-counter sit-ins throughout the city.
Two years later, stirred by the wrenching television coverage from Birmingham, where Eugene (“Bull”) Connor’s men turned high-pressure fire hoses on children as young as 10, Ralph hitchhiked down to Alabama and found Rev. James Bevel, Martin Luther King’s chief lieutenant on the ground and a veteran of the Nashville sit-in campaign. For two weeks Ralph worked as a volunteer organizer for Bevel, helping coordinate movement activities out of the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
After years of listening to Ralph’s stories of the Southern movement—of the gospel singing and fiery speeches at Fred Shuttlesworth’s church, of seeing Martin Luther King at the Gaston Hotel, of watching local citizens attack news reporters with clubs and spray-paint their camera lenses—Andy Goodman wanted to be part of the action.
A week after Aaron Henry’s visit to Queens College, Andy interviewed for a spot with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. “I’ve talked with him here,” the SNCC recruiter Jim Monsonis reported to the project headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi, “and feel he ought to be accepted. He is a white student with some political sophistication and knowledge about the state, [and] is particularly interested in voter registration work and the political campaigns.”
Later that month, while Andy joined 200 other Queens College students on a picket line outside the New York City pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens in an attempt to draw attention to white complicity in upholding Jim Crow, the organizers approved his application. Still shy of his twenty-first birthday, Andy would need his parents’ permission before the Freedom Summer staff would agree to include him in the Mississippi voter-registration drive. He waited for an opportune time to broach the subject with them.
Carolyn Goodman would never forget that conversation. “He might just as well have said, ‘I want to go off to war.’” She was tongue-tied when Andy announced that he wanted to join the black freedom struggle in Mississippi. It was left to Bob Goodman to ask, simply, why?
“Because this is the most important thing going on in the country,” Andy replied. “If someone says he cares about people, how can he not be concerned about this?”
In later years Bob and Carolyn relived that moment over and over. They didn’t want to say yes, but they couldn’t say no. “Suddenly,” Carolyn said with a sigh, “here was Andy ready to commit himself in a most real and perhaps terrifying way to a belief which all our lives we had cultivated in our children. Was I to say, ‘Andy, this is none of your business?’