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.”
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.
“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.
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.”