Tracy Sugarman’s Mississippi Summer

In the early 1960s Tracy Sugarman was a successful Westport artist.  With plenty of magazine and corporate work, he was happily illustrating “other people’s fantasies about America after the war.”

Tracy Sugarman

But different images — of police dogs, fire hoses and beatings — filtered up from the South, intruding on his sense of contentment.  He and his family wondered how they could help the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Tracy decided to go South, and draw what was happening.

In late spring of 1964 Tracy arrived in Ruleville, Mississippi.  Segregation and hatred were worse there than even Alabama or Georgia.

“Mississippi blew me away,” Tracy recalls.  “The only pool in town was closed, so blacks wouldn’t contaminate it.  Only 5% of blacks were registered to vote.  Convincing poor, illiterate people to let us stay in their homes was huge.”

But thanks to the young leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — who Tracy calls “the cutting edge against the worst apartheid in America” — college students, and a few older folks like Tracy, arrived for “Freedom Summer.”

On his 2nd day there, 3 young volunteers disappeared.  Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney had been in the same training program as Tracy.

Andrew Goodman's grave

“We immediately knew they’d been killed,” Tracy says.  It took weeks for the FBI to open a field office to investigate the triple murder that galvanized America.

“It was a crazy summer,” Tracy says.  “I was more scared in Mississippi than I had been on D-Day.”

In World War II he’d been backed up by thousands of ships, planes and soldiers.  Down South, he says, “We couldn’t call the press, the clergy, the mayor or the police for help.”

So he called home whenever bail money was needed.  That summer, Westport raised $10,000.

Tracy developed strong bonds with the college students — black and white — he befriended.  “They were terrified every day, but they went out and did their job,” he says.  “American kids, when challenged, do remarkable things.”

The following summer, Tracy returned.  He worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, the sharecropper’s daughter who was the voice and symbol of SNCC’s Mississippi work.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Their friendship — which lasted until her death in 1977 — included visits to the Sugarmans’ Westport home.  “She was one of the smartest, most Christian women I’ve known,” he says.  “She was beaten, and people fired on her house.  But she said, ‘If I hate them, I’ll be just like them.'”

Tracy has carried Mississippi with him ever since those days.  Earlier this year — when he heard that SNCC was planning a celebration of the 50th anniversary of its founding — he knew he had to attend.

This past weekend, Tracy traveled South again — this time to Shaw University in Raleigh.  Organizers expected 300 people.  900 came.

There were — like 4 decades earlier — plenty of workshops and speeches.  Attorney General Eric Holder was there; so was SNCC benefactor Harry Belafonte.  The real stars, Tracy says, were unsung heroes like Charles Cobb, Hollis Watkins, and longtime friend Charles McLaurin.

But this was not a nostalgic look back at a watershed moment in American history.  The weekend, Tracy says, was “much more about tomorrow than yesterday.”

The crowd included many young social studies teachers and professors.  They discussed ideas like economic empowerment, and how to keep America moving forward.

“They’re very enthusiastic,” Tracy — now well into his 80s — says.  “The bit is in their mouth.  They asked good questions of those who came before them, like how do you organize a movement?

“It’s tough to pass on.  There was no rulebook.  SNCC’s strength was working things out as we went along.  I guess the legacy was:  Have faith in people.  Inspire them by your example, that you can make a difference.”

Back in Westport, Tracy says:  “It was a very affirmative weekend.  The baton is being passed.  I wanted to be there for that.

“You know,” he continues, “I never stayed in touch with anyone I served with in the Navy.  But the people from that summer — when we see each other across a crowded room, we rush to embrace.

“I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything else in the world.”

26 responses to “Tracy Sugarman’s Mississippi Summer

  1. As a longtime Westport illustrator, my mother, Buzz Allen, knew Tracy and all the Sugarmans — his late wife, June, son Dick SHS ’64 and daughter Laurie ’69 — very well. For Westport teenagers like me in mid-60s, Tracy’s presence in Mississippi, which we all were aware of, brought home the horror we witnessed daily on TV, a horror that seemed to be happening far away, in another country. I’ve told the story of that time, and of Tracy’s role in it, numerous times to my two teenaged daughters, who happen to be African American. I’ve told them that without individuals like Tracy and so many others like those he named in this article, not to mention my daughters’ own great grand parents, grand parents and their mother — who integrated two schools in the South in the 1960s — it might still be a crime for their mother and me to be married in many states. Tracy Sugarman’s story should be retold for as long as there’s a Westport.

  2. “Tracy Sugarman’s story should be retold for as long as there’s a Westport.”

    Where and when. Sounds like a McManus Room meeting is in order.

  3. In 1964 I was a teenager here in Westport. I was a good friend of Tracy’s son Richard. Westport was just peaking out of its suburban cocoon to recognize that beyond our safe and prosperous borders there was a war going on down south. Lives were being lost (Andrew Goodman’s parents were family friends), in the battle over segregation and racism. I remember the courageous role Tracy and others played in conveying the horrors of that war home to Westport. It should be noted that 40 odd years later, he’s still at it – in his books and his films – reminding us of our not so admirable past, and pointing us to the unfinished work Westport and the rest of the country still us ahead of it.

  4. The Dude Abides

    Excellent article about an unsung hero. Certainly with recent blog entries on the passing of Cliff Barton and Mr. Sugarman’s revelation one summer in 1964, we are reminded how far we have come. However, it should be reminded that the President of the Staples class of 1964 was African American and has recently experienced homelessness in Westport and the ABC students at Staples feel some form of alienation every day at school. So there is much left to be done even here at home. Unfortunately the recent outbursts of the Tea Baggers, another extensive blog discussion here, brings a sickening echo to that mandate.

    • Dude,

      If you insist on using the derogatory term ‘Tea Baggers’, to describe freedom loving Americans then you leave me no choice but to refer to you as a ‘douche bag’…seems only fair.

      The ironic thing is you probably think of yourself as an open minded, tolerant, enlightened person of Superior intellect, but come across less than that (to put it nicely).

  5. The Dude Abides

    Mr. Raho:

    I am not sure why you find the term “Tea Baggers” derogatory? I find the movement repulsive. I see the Tea Party as a bunch of reactionaries who are using falsehoods and idiocy to garner their resentments against the changing culturiologial and racial changes in this country. You are afraid poor sir.

    As to your personal assault on me, that is a common practice among those of your denominator. I guess “douche bag” is a step up from calling our President “Hitler.”

    I read an interesting letter in today’s “USA Today” where a writer suggested that perhaps we should give the Tea Baggers what they want: no taxes. As a result, such advocates can do without Social Security, Medicare, police, fire, ambulances, schools . . . while those of who do pay our taxes with pride shall enjoy such “freedoms.”

    P.S. I kinda stopped worrying about what people thought about me at junior high graduation and come to think of it, that was that last time I heard the word “douche bag” used.

    • My poor misguided and uninformed neighbor.

      You’re the one who likes to call others names as evident in your post above, I’m sure you’re fully aware of what the term ‘Tea Bagger’ means.

      It’s obvious you never viewed the clips I posted of the woman who’s the president of the Idaho Tea Party who was on Dave Letterman. If you had, you would not have bought in to the propaganda and would have shown a more original opinion, i.e. It ain’t about taxes.

      From this point on I won’t continue to try and have a rationale discussion with you, since you incapable of having an honest debate with any original thoughts and opinions of your own without echoing Keith Olbermann.

      Good day Dude and maybe after November 2nd you’ll face reality and I’ll explain to you where you went wrong and why you shouldn’t believe everything you read in USA Today.

      • “Teabagger” is the name the Baggers chose for themselves. It’s the original name until they realized what it meant.

  6. The Dude Abides

    I would gladly debate the issues. If you will remember, I asked you where the Tea Party stood on the environment, education, immigration and bank regulation. You failed to respond and instead site late night gossip shows. But I won’t continue to besmirch a blog entry honoring Mr. Sugarman’s heroics. Unfortunately, the “Crackers” he challenged so admirably in 1964 are alive and well in the 2010 Tea Party.

  7. Just so you know President Lincoln was a Republican and abolished slavery, and Martin Luther King jr. was a Republican.

    The Democrats (Dixiecrats) were the segregationist and Democratic Senator Robert Byrd was a klans man.

    Just so you know the truth, not that you’re really interested in that sort of thing.

  8. Enough. The Dude is aware that President Lincoln freed the slaves and was a Republican and is also likely aware that most African Americans voted Republican — when they could vote — until the New Deal. Yes, the Dixiecrats were Democrats and were a stain on this nation. But their descendants have constituted the backbone of the Republican Party for 40 years, a fact that causes me great pain as I’ve been a Republican for many years, albeit the old-fashioned kind. This also pains former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips who designed the Southern Strategy and now regrets its long-term result. Tea Partiers are the Know-Nothings of our era. Like their 19th century predecessors they will see many of their wishes coopted by both major parties and then disappear. Now back to Tracy Sugarman, please.

    • Well put, but…”origin of the “Know Nothing” term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, “I know nothing.”

  9. Tracy Sugarman? I thought we were talking about Burt Sugarman and The Midnight Special!…nevermind.

  10. Carl A. Swanson

    Tracey Sugarman is a very special man and this blog entry is a tribute to his accomplishments. I am sorry that I had some part in a tangential departure from that honor. For you, Mr. Raho, I feel nothing but sorrow. From a review of your numerous entries here and on the various blogs around Westport as well as your own websites, I witness a very troubled individual whose ego is so shallow and insecure that it insists on promulgating hate and conflict wherever it finds opportunity. You may cloak it in political verbiage, witless humor or personal attacks but, in essence, it all boils down to you being just one sick human being.

    • Mr. Swanson,

      I’m sorry you feel that way, was it something I said?

      What exactly offends your delicate sensibilities?

      Surely if I’m such a ‘sick human being’ you must be able to give one, just one example of something I wrote that got your undies in a bunch. Or did I just hit the truth a little too close for your comfort?

      Odds say I never hear from you again.

  11. Carl A. Swanson

    I suggest that you THINK about my comments, Mr. Raho and perhaps discuss it with a professional. I believe you know exactly what you are doing and that makes it even sicker. But one of your underlying themes of assault is that individuals don’t THINK. They are somehow manipulated by the media especially if they disagree with you. Yet, many of us actually form our own opinions by interacting with others or experience things that you can only read. Your narrow-mindedness and selfish ego prohibit this exchange and education. You defeat the entire purpose of this blog by your taunting and bullying. No more for me, thanks.

    • You still haven’t given an example of something I said that makes me a ‘sick human being’ as you put it.

      Yet you call me a ‘bully’ when you’re the one name calling and throwing around accusations.

      What color is the sky in your world?

  12. Can’t we all just get along?

    • I agree Dan, and for the record I’m not the one calling people ‘Tea Baggers’ or ‘sick human beings’.

  13. Outside Observer

    Mr. Raho,

    You called someone a “Douche Bag”. I find that far more offensive. Maybe were brought up differently.

  14. OO,

    I didn’t call someone a ‘douche bag’ if you can read I said:

    ‘If you insist on using the derogatory term ‘Tea Baggers’, to describe freedom loving Americans then you leave me no choice but to refer to you as a ‘douche bag’…seems only fair.’

    If someone hits you and you warn them, ‘if you hit me again, then I’ll hit you back’. It doesn’t mean I hit them, I’m just saying if you continue do that then I will hit back.

    Where I’m brought up this is called common sense, which seems to be greatly lacking on the part of my many tolerant, open minded friends.

    What say you?

  15. Outside Oberver

    WOW. I’m speachless. You are one of a kind.
    Thank God for that. I am sure God loves you and will take care of you. Someone needs to.
    Someone must have been very mean to you.
    Life can be Really Nice . You should try living without a chip on your shoulder. You sound scared. Hope you get better soon. Have a nice life
    God Bless You,
    Over and Out

  16. Hush McCormick

    I think the term “Teabagger” has several meanings. One being the one with sexual overtones that is too grosteque for this place and a second, that means “a conservative who is an idiot.” I think the Dude meant the latter and would certainly apply here.

    • You guys are good…you almost had me!

      Then I realized no normal person wouldn’t be able to understand the difference between, ‘if you do this, than I will do that’ or call me names, yet say, ‘I’m the bully’. It wasn’t as if I were writing in some finely nuanced way that you just weren’t able to comprehend.

      It didn’t make sense…this isn’t the thought pattern of a rationale person. Then it hit me, it became so obvious!

      So I traced the ip address and just as I suspected. All those comments came from the same computer which is located in the common area of Hall-Brooke Behavioral Health Center.

      That explains the lack of rationale thought completely absent of any logic.

      I tip my hat to you guys, you’re good…now go back to your shock therapy!

  17. Addison Fletcher

    Sir, I think we all know who belongs in Hall-Brooke.

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