50 years since ‘Freedom Summer’: Keeping the dream alive
by Rebecca Johnston
July 13, 2014 12:22 AM | 3207 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Ozella Stevenson Tanner, left, and daughter Pat Tanner in 2013. <br> Staff/file
Ozella Stevenson Tanner, left, and daughter Pat Tanner in 2013.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1964 in the civil rights movement, a time now known as Freedom Summer, when students were trying to sign up black voters ahead of the November elections.

I was just a child living here in Canton that summer, and remember nothing about tensions that were escalating locally, as well as throughout the South.

It was only a few years ago I found out Canton was gripped in the burning fires of integration that summer, as local African-Americans fought for the right to eat where they wanted, attend classes at the same school as their white neighbors and not face discrimination on a daily basis because of the color of their skin.

And while we like to consider that in those 50 years since that time we have become much more enlightened, I often sadly sense a boiling cauldron of discrimination bubbling still just below the surface.

Back in those days of 1964, we had two relatively new high schools here in town, Cherokee High School and Ralph Bunche School.

Ralph Bunche was built in the 1950s to consolidate all African-American students into one location in the county. Since shortly after the end of the Civil War, community schools around the county had served the students.

The school was built at about the same time as Cherokee High, which opened that same year. So perhaps the idea was to try for equal but separate schools.

That plan would turn out to be short-lived. In the fall of 1965, two young African-American women, Priscilla Strickland and Cynthia Durham, decided to attend Cherokee High. I had the opportunity to interview them a few years ago and the stories they told me of their first days and year in Cherokee High were saddening and disturbing.

When they walked toward the school that first morning, they were met with a wall of discrimination, including racial slurs and even threatening acts.

Not only did the students shun them, but many of the teachers ignored the situation, and a few even contributed to it.

But by 1967, the African-American school was closed and all students attended the regular public schools.

Fifty years ago, the Rev. Ralph Freeman, who was pastor of Hickory Log Baptist Church at the time, began enlisting young African-Americans in Cherokee County to join the Freedom League. Their plan was to try to end the public discrimination they faced.

The Jim Crow laws in effect at the time meant they had to use separate public water fountains, could not eat in local restaurants and had to pass certain tests to be able to vote. Recreational facilities were keep separate and they could not sit in the lower level on the Canton Theatre.

Those young people were willing to risk their safety and that of their families to challenge those laws.

They agreed to go to specific places, peacefully enter and take their seats at the same spot as their white neighbors.

Some went to the local drug store counter and sat down on a stool, waiting to be served. Others went to the Pine Crest restaurant and ordered a meal. On Aug. 11, 1964, several went to the movie theater, bought a ticket and instead of going to the balcony, took a seat where the white folks sat.

When those young African-Americans who attended the movie got up to go home and exited the theater, they were greeted out front by an angry mob with bottles and rocks, and they eventually turned over the young freedom fighters’ car and set it on fire.

That night, a well-respected member of the African-American community, Ozella Tanner and her daughter, Pat, were riding through town in the midst of the turmoil. Some of those in the crowd threw rocks at Tanner’s car as she pulled through town. She saw the young black teens trying to make it to their car and she stopped, rolled down her window and told them to get in.

She probably saved them from the violence that night. She got them safely home, and although Ku Klux Klan members rode through the African-American community in Canton that night, no one was seriously injured.

Ozella Tanner later called that the worst night of racial tensions experienced by Cherokee County.

Pat Tanner would go on to march with those from Selma to Montgomery the following summer. She later said that “you had people fighting for their lives because they wanted the right to cast a ballot.”

Fifty years is not that long since those turbulent times. The scars are still there, the memories fresh for many.

Now, so many people take the right to vote for granted. Sadly, people of every color are equally guilty of failing to exercise that right.

Many once made a difference here; they stood up for what they thought was right and helped initiate great change.

But it is our day-to-day actions that keep that change moving forward and the dream of equality alive. We can never take our freedoms for granted or we will sadly watch them erode away.

Rebecca Johnston is editor of The Cherokee Tribune.
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