WARREN, NJ - The Rev. Brooks Smith, a retired pastor at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church, North Plainfield, spoke on Friday, Feb. 27, to English and Social Studies students at Watchung Hills Regional High School about his experiences as a student civil rights volunteer during the 1964 “Freedom Summer.”
He spoke at the invitation of English teacher Laura Goodson, who said Smith was invited in part to celebrate February as Black History Month, and in part to give a broader context to the subject of this year’s Academy Award-nominated movie, “Selma.“ Selma is about the struggle in the 1960s to help Black Americans in the South register to vote. “Jim Crow” laws had for decades made it virtually impossible for blacks to vote, Smith said.
Over the weekend of March 7 and 8, President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush joined Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who had marched and was badly beaten at Selma 50 years ago, hundreds of other Members of Congress, elected officials and civil rights leaders, along with thousands of supporters at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma march for voter rights.
Smith recalled how dangerous it was for young civil rights volunteers in the South during the summer of 1964. Three of his fellow student volunteers that summer were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Two others were kidnapped. And many, including Smith, were arrested.
He was arrested for the trumped-up misdemeanor charge of “inciting a riot,” Smith said. He had been the only white person in attendance of a local church field to view a Black youth football practice. Being arrested, even for peaceful nonviolent opposition, was a traumatizing experience, Smith said. He was held overnight in jail, and charged the next day, even though all he had done was stand and watch a football practice. He posted bail and was released.
Smith recalled how among the provisions he and his fellow volunteers were advised to bring with them for their summer in Mississippi was $500, to be used for bail in the event of being arrested. The student volunteers were also instructed to make out a “Last Will and Testament,” Smith said, in the event that they were killed while volunteering in Mississippi. “Most of us were scared all the time we were there,” Smith said. “I remember one of the students saying he wore sunglasses all the time because he didn’t want people to see the fear in his eyes.”
Smith made it clear the volunteers did not fear going door-to-door to meet and register new black voters, or being among the black community. On the contrary, the volunteers feared the white opponents who resisted changing Jim Crow laws and practices designed to suppress black voting. Some local blacks in Mississippi became hesitant to be seen with the white student volunteers, fearing reprisals to them and their families by the white opponents.
The whole program had anticipated local opposition to their efforts to help potential new black voters take advantage of the newly approved and historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. The effort was also in anticipation of the equally historic Voting Rights Act, which was approved in August 1965, right after Selma.
Smith, whose wife is the former Watchung Hills Guidance Counselor Gail Smith, said his participation on Freedom Summer led to a lifelong interest in the civil rights movement, and various other movements started in the 1960s. While a minister at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church from 1978 to 2007, the church was known for having outreach programs to the Hispanic community, to residents in Plainfield and to programs to help people in Central America.
The subject of demanding that black American citizens be guaranteed their fundamental right to vote was the subject of the movie, “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVarnay. It premiered in 2014, and was featured prominently in the Academy Awards show in in February. The movie’s featured song, “Glory,” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and when it was performed during the broadcast, the performance received an extended standing ovation. Selma is the chronicle of efforts by civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to secure equal rights and the exercise of voting rights for Black citizens. The title refers to the historic march in 1965 from Selma, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River to the Alabama capital, Montgomery, some 50 miles to the east.
Among the many other previous movies about the civil rights movement, one is the 1988 movie, “Mississippi Burning,” about the murder of three of Smith’s fellow Freedom Summer volunteers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Mississippi Burning was directed by Alan Parker, and featured Academy Award-winning actors Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe and actress Frances McDormand. The three students were murdered by local members of the all-white Ku Klux Klan for attempting to organize a voter registration clinic for potential new black voters. For more information about Mississippi Burning, go to
A broader discussion of Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s was documented in the 14-hour award-winning PBS American Experience TV series, “Eyes on the Prize,” which premiered in 1987. It was narrated by Civil Rights leader Julian Bond, who is a former member of the Georgia state House of Representatives and Georgia state Senate, and former chairman of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
Smith appears on camera several times during the Eyes on the Prize segment about Freedom Summer as one of the student volunteers trained in the techniques of non-violent protest. Among the other scenes in which Smith appears, he is seen going door to door offering to register new Black voters. The Freedom Summer segment of Eyes on the Prize can be viewed free of charge online at:
Just months after the historic “March on Washington” in August 1963, when King delivered his historic “I have a Dream” speech, the civil rights leader spoke at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Conn. Smith was a freshman. After hearing King in person, and speaking to other students who were becoming involved in the Civil Rights movement, Smith attended a gathering of Civil Rights speakers and student volunteers at Boston University. It was there he learned about the call for college students to volunteer the following summer for Freedom Summer.
In anticipation of going to Mississippi, Smith said, he and his fellow volunteers went to training at Western College for Women, now a part of Miami University of Ohio, Oxford, Ohio. There, members of the civil rights organizations, SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), trained the student volunteers in the techniques of successful nonviolent protests. Smith said the students learned these techniques in part because of their moral opposition to violent protests, and in part as a pragmatic survival skill. They anticipated being arrested, and they needed to know how to survive being arrested without being injured or killed. Among the leaders of SNCC involved in training volunteers for the Freedom Summer, Smith said, was historic Civil Rights Movement leader Stokely Carmichael, a graduate of Bronx High School of Science, New York, and Howard University, Washington, D.C. Many of the volunteers, including the student college volunteers, and leaders like Carmichael, were in the late teens and 20s.
While he was in Mississippi, Smith and one of his fellow volunteers, a student from Chicago, were housed by a poor black family. The family was very welcoming, but their home had no water, other than the pipe for the kitchen sink, Smith said. There was no bathtub, no shower. The bathroom facilities were an outhouse.
The organizers of Freedom Summer intentionally recruited white volunteers from well-to-do colleges in the north, northeast and California in part so that they would return to their communities, and call attention to the inequality and the withholding of fundamental American rights, starting with the right to vote, Smith said.
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