The face is older but unmarked with the concerns of age. The eyes still sparkle with curiosity behind wire-rimmed glasses. The slender fingers animate every conversation. The mind probes after every stray fact.
Across the polished desk from me in a converted church building in Jackson, Mississippi, sits Roy DeBerry, vice-president for economic development and local government affairs at Jackson State University.
The last time we saw each other, he was a bright young teenager in Holly Springs, about an hour south of Memphis. I was a restless college graduate in search of adventure. It was 1964 — “Freedom Summer” — an era now almost completely forgotten but etched forever in the memory of anyone who was there.
It was the first summer of my life when I didn’t have a school to return to in the fall. Vaguely committed to civil rights in a principled way, I was also looking for excitement. I had forgotten this aspect until a few years ago when a scholar at the University of Arizona studied the volunteers and then sent us all copies of the forms we filled out when we signed up. Among the people I had asked to be notified that I was headed for Mississippi was a girlfriend who had dumped me a year before because I wasn’t radical enough for her. Like any soldier marching off to war, I was trying to make an impression on the ladies.
ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS WE VOLUNTEERS learned was how smart and articulate the local kids were. They piled into the Freedom Schools and hung around the Freedom House all day, eager to learn. The boys were clear-eyed and stoic, the girls sassy and not to be trifled with. We Northern college kids felt we were discovering a hidden national treasure.
Even among this energetic group, Roy stood out. A junior at the segregated high school, he was so bright and curious and affable that everyone knew he was going places. I remember being sprawled on a couch in the Freedom House one afternoon, talking about this and that, when all at once he exclaimed, “I just love a good book. I could stay up all night reading a good book.”
It’s hard to remember now just how far removed Mississippi was from the rest of America in 1964. People were murdered all the time. James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had already disappeared before most of the 1,000 volunteers boarded the buses to head south from Oxford, Ohio. When the FBI began investigating — unprecedented at the time — they turned up three or four corpses of other black men who had disappeared without anyone taking notice. Medgar Evers, a veteran of Normandy and the NAACP’s first field officer in Mississippi, was murdered on his front lawn in Jackson only the year before.
Today, one of the major arteries through Jackson is named the Medgar Evers Expressway. There’s also a statue of him downtown.
In Holly Springs, one of our volunteers helped the kids at the Freedom School write a play about Evers’s death that was later performed in New York. Roy played Darryl, Evers’s oldest son. “I’m gonna kill me a white man, mama! I’m gonna to kill one!” his lines went at one point. Elderly black women in the audience tittered nervously. They had never heard such thoughts expressed aloud. Yet Mama counseled Darryl to be patient and love one another, and somehow the way Roy said the lines you knew he didn’t mean it anyway. He was too young and optimistic for rancor.
Aviva Futorian, a young Brandeis graduate, took Roy under her wing and got him admitted a year later. With Roy’s first trip north, however, he found himself in a different world. “It became obvious that I wasn’t prepared for college so I did a year in prep school,” he says. By the time he started his undergraduate work, the campus was steeped in 1960s’ turmoil. Roy became a student leader. Somewhere along the line he encountered Anthony Lukas, a New York Times reporter doing a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, who wanted to chronicle his experience. “At first I wasn’t interested, but he was very persuasive,” he recalls. Roy ended up on the cover of Lukas’s 1970 book, Don’t Shoot, We Are Your Children.
In those pages, Roy sounded alienated from Northern culture and anxious to get back home. When he returned to Mississippi, he found the state much more receptive to his talents. He got a job as an assistant to Governor William Allain, serving first as director for public policy, then head of job development, and finally as the state’s deputy secretary of education. In 1992, he became County Administrator for Hinds County, home of Jackson and the largest county in the state.
Although the racial roadblocks had been lifted there were still a few institutional barriers. When Roy was nominated for Jackson Superintendent of Schools in the mid-1990s, the teachers’ union objected vociferously because he didn’t have an education degree. At that point he had a Ph.D. from Brandeis and honorary degrees from several institutions, but the NEA opposed him because he hadn’t taken his Mickey-Mouse education courses. After several weeks of turmoil, Roy finally withdrew his nomination. In 1999, he became a professor of public policy at Jackson State.
His younger brother, Andre, is now the mayor of Holly Springs. A nephew is part of the team at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that just won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
THINGS ARE NOW SO DIFFERENT IN Mississippi that it can be disorienting. “I’ll have guys at the university say to me, ‘Nothing has changed. It’s just as bad as ever down here.’ I say to them, ‘Did you ever walk down the street with a white girl?’ ‘Sure,’ they say. ‘Well, then you don’t know what it was like back then.'”
In 1964, Mississippi was mile after mile after mile of kudzu-covered forest exuding exotic menace, occasionally interrupted by tenant shacks where goats lived on the front porch and children had never worn shoes. Today the kudzu forests are interlaced with federal highways and chain restaurants. A Toyota factory almost two miles long sits just north of Jackson. One way or another, Mississippi has joined the world.
“We have these blues festivals down in the Delta in honor of Robert Johnson,” says Roy. “It used to be if you had a guitar and sat on the front porch of your cabin singing about what happened to you that day, that was the blues. It was ingrained in everybody. Now we have these Japanese bands that come over to perform. They’ve got the mechanics down and the music sounds good, but somehow it isn’t the same.”
Then his eyes twinkle again. “But that’s America, isn’t it?”
Roy DeBerry doesn’t just make conversation. His restless mind is always probing. He wants to know my life story, how I got to be a writer, how many kids I have, what they’re doing. A few years ago, when my oldest son was in high school, I arranged to have him interview Roy over the phone for a paper he was doing on the Civil Rights era. Afterwards, Roy had one complaint — my son hadn’t asked enough questions.
And so over an hour’s time, we try to span the years, back to that dilapidated little Freedom House across from Rust College, where 40 of us gathered each day with the sense that — despite the fears, despite the hatred that surrounded us — we were making history. “The thing that was so important to us at the time was to realize that somebody else in the country cared about what was happening to us down here,” he says. “We’d been fighting for civil rights for ten years, but that was the first time we realized someone else was on our side.”
Then, as it comes time to say good-bye, he stops me again. “You know, it brings such joy to see people from the old days.”
It’s been a joyful trip for Roy DeBerry — and for America.