Tag Archives: SNCC

When Lenny And Isaac Played Westport

Because the my baby boom generation is so obnoxiously self-important — and because we still cling to control of much of the media — throughout this decade we will insist on foisting 50-year anniversary stories about a mind-numbing number of 1960s events on the rest of the country.

We’ve remembered John Glenn’s orbit of the earth and John Kennedy’s assassination. Next month is the Beatles’ 1st trip to America. On the horizon: the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Soupy Sales’ “The Mouse.”

So — as Martin Luther King Day nears — this is a good time to remember another 50th anniversary: the night Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern played together for the 1st time in public.

It was half a century ago this August. It was a benefit for the Student Nonviolent  Coordinating Committee. And it happened in the Staples High School auditorium.

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day...

Leonard Bernstein, back in the day…

According to the New York Times of August 31, 1964, the concert’s genesis came from Tracy Sugarman. The Westport artist and civil rights activist — who died a year ago, the day before Martin Luther King Day — described his recent “Mississippi Summer” work in Ruleville, Mississippi to Frank Brieff, conductor of the New Haven Symphony.

Brieff called Bernstein, who called Stern. The 2 had played piano and violin together for pleasure, but had never performed in public together.

They were joined by 4 other Fairfield county musicians. The concert sold out, at prices from $3 to $35. That raised $8,250 bringing Westport’s 1964 contributions to the Mississippi Project to $29,000. Previous fundraisers for the NAACP and National Council of Churches included a townwide solicitation, and a small gathering at the home of attorney Alan Nevas. He had just returned from Mississippi where, the Times said, he provided “legal counsel to Negroes.”

Nevas’ son Bernard — age 20 — was one of 6 “freedom workers” honored at the Bernstein/Stern concert. Five were from Westport: Nevas; John Friedland, 22; Martha Honey, 19; Deborah Rand, 20, and John Suter, 19.

...and Isaac Stern.

…and Isaac Stern.

Another guest introduced at the concert was Charles McLaurin. Just a few days earlier, he was a member of the controversial Mississippi Freedom Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Also at the concert, Sugarman displayed 43 pen-and-ink drawings of Mississippi, and 6 photos used by SNCC. He called the involvement of youths like the ones from Westport courageous.

“They went there afraid, lived there afraid and worked there afraid,” Sugarman said.

But, the Times noted, “the experience has affected some so deeply…they are torn between resuming their college careers and going back to Mississippi.”

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for research.)

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.”