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Town Hall
En Espanol

Why I Go to Mississippi: In October of 1963, Joseph Lieberman, a student at Yale, went down to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote. This is his essay to the student body of Yale, on why he felt the need to go.

-- Joseph I. Lieberman [Yale Daily News, 10/28/63]

It is with some trepidation that I leave the grandiose security of the first-person plural-the royal "we" of editorials-and write in the first-person singular. But I want to explain why I am going to Mississippi to campaign for Aaron Henry. It is my hope, however, that in most parts of this explanation I will be speaking for the rest of those who have gone to the Magnolia State.

Let me begin with a few personal first principles. I look at the men in the world which exists around me and I tell myself: It is possible that man was born to hate, to be petty, to destroy. No, I must conclude that if there is any reason to human existence-and I am convinced there must be-that man exists to love, that he was created for harmony and growth. Men are called to act in love towards each other, as the fact of their existence, and the fact that this existence is at a primary level so good, indicates to me that human existence is an act of love. All who exist-joined by the common factor of their experience-are loved equally. And so the love which men must exude among each other is not to be limited. It must extend to all men. All men are equally deserving of deference, of access to develop their unique "selves."

Laws and Principles

In a real sense, the guiding principles and laws of America are a meaningful embodiment of this call to love among men, to the right of each man to self-development.

No group in America has collectively carried the burden of a lack of love toward them more than Negro Americans. American reaps the bitter harvest of this hatred today in the boiling Negro ghettoes of the North and the festering farmlands of the South. In 1963, more Negroes than ever before are impatient with their plight, and is it any wonder? Negro Americans want progress. They want freedom now. Men of good will are called to consideration, are challenged to commitment. They must look into themselves and decide, in the light of the facts of the day and the goals which guide them-whether they wish to commit themselves, and how they wish to act.


I am going to Mississippi because there is much work to be done there and few men are doing it. I look to the facts of the history of this State's treatment of its Negro citizens and I see very little but hatred and painful dehumanization. I move through the record of the years, the decades, the centuries and I see embarrassingly little effort by white Mississippians to change this situation. I see countless Negro Mississippians who are too terrorized to act. It all becomes a personal matter to me. I am challenged personally. As the Talmudic fathers have written with such sagacity, "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself (alone) what am I? And if not now, when then?"

So I am going to Mississippi. And I do not feel you are justified if you speak snidely of me as an "outside agitator." I am an American. This is one nation or it is nothing. The war we fought among ourselves as well as the great wars we fought with other nations proved, I would think, once and for all that America is one nation. If the laws and principles of this country are not alive in Indianola, Mississippi, it is as much a concern to me-as an American-as when those tenets are not adhered to in New Haven, Connecticut. Perhaps Indianola is of greater concert to me, because there the disobedience is so much greater. As one fights against hatred and illegality in New Haven, so too does one have the right, and indeed, the duty to oppose malice and injustice in Indianola.

Nor do I think you are fair if you accuse those who go to Mississippi of "grandstanding" and suggest that they might do better to stay in New Haven doing the "less-publicized" but necessary work in Dixwell Avenue or in the Winchester School. First, you must understand that little or no publicity has come to the specific individuals involved in this Mississippi project. Most of them, in fact, seem to prefer anonymity (with the exception, perhaps, of NEWS chairman-types who traditionally feel called upon to exploit the public prerogatives of their office.) They are simply Yale students going to Mississippi. And you must realize further that they go to Mississippi at considerable personal expense, with some possibility of bodily harm or, at least, arrest, and with the understanding that they are missing a week of academic work which will have to be made up. Certainly, there must be easier ways to "grandstand."

You will find too, that most of those going have been involved in civil rights causes here in New Haven or in their home communities. But I for one am not at all critical of the student who has not been active in the cause of Negro rights before, but who decides the call [to] Mississippi is urgent and that it is time for self-commitment. There is work to be done there, and so I gratefully applaud his action.

Making Sense

The mock election itself is not the most exciting civil rights project ever to come down the pike, but it makes good sense. There is no doubt that Negroes in Mississippi are in countless cases brutally and illegally denied the right to register and vote. Our political system is emasculated as long as some of its rightful participants are excluded. In one county in Mississippi, civil rights representatives worked two years and brought some 2800 Negroes to the registrar's office, to have only 56 of these overcome the insults, the chicanery, and the brutality to be able to register. And so, Negroes in Mississippi have been forced to the world in a mock election. A significant vote for Aaron Henry will demonstrate the scope of voting denials in the Magnolia State, and it can add a new dynamism to the Negro Movement in Mississippi by giving Negroes there a sense of common purpose, a glimpse of the potential statewide strength they have. In my few days in Mississippi, I hope to be able to help in some small way, to realize the potentials of this project. If I am able to carry across the concept of voting and the need for an all out voter registration effort to 25 or 50 or perhaps 100 Negroes who have never been so confronted before, then I will return to New Haven with a sense of satisfaction. I go to Mississippi because I think this can be done.

Perhaps more important than aiding in the mock election itself, I am going to Mississippi because I feel that my presence, as a white man, can indicate to Negro Mississippians that there are white men who care about their plight, that there are white men whose insides burn with anxiety and guilt when they consider the way in which other white men have sought to rob the black man of his humanity. The Rev. Coffin put it so well recently when he said that the presence of Yale students in Mississippi would make it clear to Negro Mississippians that this struggle is "not one which puts white men against black men; rather, it is a struggle which puts white and black men against injustice."

I must finally say that all this does fill me with an exhilarating sense of personal freedom as I depart for Mississippi.


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