A Serious Security Handbook for Civil Rights Volunteers

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Sept. 20 2013 1:15 PM

A Serious Security Handbook for Civil Rights Volunteers

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This three-page security handbook was issued to Freedom Summer volunteers headed to Mississippi in 1964. The handbook shows how the Freedom Summer organizers tried to orient college students, who had signed up for stints teaching at Freedom Schools, registering voters, and assisting local activists in providing basic social services and organizing protests.

The murders of Congress of Racial Equality workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman on June 21, 1964, as well as countless other incidents of violence against civil rights workers, prompted organizers to establish a series of protocols for minimizing conflict and danger.

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In his history of the movement, Bruce Watson writes that volunteers read the handbook during orientation on their college campuses as part of a larger effort to drive the gravity of the situation home. The advice—students needed to lock their cars, travel with companions, know how to get out of town, sleep at the back of the house, and stay in at night—established the degree to which Mississippi was a hostile environment.

The handbook shows the project’s distrust of local law enforcement. Many measures were meant to minimize the volume of small transgressions that police could use to get student workers out of the way: drinking in a dry state, driving without a license, carrying unmarked medicines or “objects which could be construed as weapons.”

Other bits of advice show how worried organizers were about volunteers’ sensitivity to the even-more-dangerous circumstances citizens experienced. A white female volunteer who didn’t understand local dangers, for example, might put a black resident in peril by associating too freely with him in public. The very last rule in the handbook—“At all times you should be aware of the danger to local residents. White volunteers must be especially careful”— drives this point home.

This handbook was digitized by the Wisconsin Historical Society's 1964 Freedom Summer project, whose Facebook page is well worth a follow.

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