SUMMER PROJECT ’64: Joyce Ladner


In fall 1964 the Washington University Magazine interviewed then graduate student Joyce Ladner about her involvement and perspectives on the civil rights movement.  While at Washington University Ladner completed her Ph.D. (1968), before launching into her career as professor, author, and civil rights activist.  She was honored with a Distinguished Alumni Award from WU in 1998.

(right, Ladner visits campus in December 1999)


Below excerpts of her interview are republished, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer:

Joyce Ladner, a first-year graduate student in Washington University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, celebrated her twenty-first birthday early this fall. But unlike most of her classmates, she will not be able to vote in the November elections. A native Mississippian, she failed the voter registration test in her home city, Hattiesburg. Her sister, who is twenty-five and has a master’s degree, also failed. In this article, Joyce gives a Mississippi Negro’s view of the preparations for and the results of the much publicized “Summer Project,” three of whose participants were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in July.

WHEN JOYCE LADNER boarded a train at Jackson, Miss., last June 15, [1964], heading for her summer job at Washington University, Mississippi’s Negroes were watching with interest the progress of the Civil Rights Bill debate in Congress. They also were watching where they went, avoiding as they have for generations those facilities traditionally reserved for the state’s white citizens. Two months later, on her return to Jackson, Joyce found that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the completion of a unique “Summer Project,” life for the Negro in her home state had changed. Restaurants were serving Negroes without incident, and some hotels and motels were accepting Negro guests. There had been no sudden metamorphosis, no total equality or complete integration, but there had been change. “When a basically religious people (Mississippi’s Negroes) have been told for generations that Cod meant for them to live a certain way, rapid and complete change is impossible,” Joyce says. The changes were the result of neither magnanimous gestures by the state’s white power structure nor a spontaneous decision on the part of the majority of Mississippi’s Negroes. They were planned for and effected by a well-organized group in which Joyce Ladner had been active during its formation: the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), sponsoring group of the widely publicized summer project.

Ladner-64-235A-27(image above: Joyce Ladner in 1964, photographed for the magazine article)

… In 1963, Joyce was one of four persons arrested and jailed for attempting to attend a white Methodist Church in that city; the charges were trespassing and disturbing holy worship. The group served six days in jail. “I know plenty of people who have served six months in jail for similar ‘lawbreaking: so you see, I didn’t suffer very much,” she says….


… She is restless-and concerned about her future in the North. “I know I have to move ahead with my new life, the life made possible by graduate study here, but it’s so new to me not to be confronted with the challenges of the past few years, especially the last year, that I’m finding it difficult to realize those challenges are over, .at least for a while. “I tell my new friends here in St. Louis that I liked living in Mississippi, and they think I must be some kind of a nut. Don’t misunderstand me, life for me here is much easier than there – and that’s the point. Many Negroes in Mississippi, professional people and students, face a difficult choice: to leave Mississippi and find a better life for themselves and their families or to stay and be a part of a movement that is changing an entire society….

…It was decided last fall that SNCC should not try to accomplish the project on its own but rather should enlist the support of other organization…That decision led to the formation of COFO and the appointment of a director, SNCC-leader Bob Moses…. A senior at that time at Tougaloo College, where she received her A.B. degree in May [1964], Joyce devoted as many hours as she could to COFO during its formative stages, serving for a time as Moses’ secretary. She also helped to recruit volunteers while on a two-week student exchange program with Bryn Mawr College.

… Joyce who, during her few weeks at home before the start of the fall semester, visited many project sites. “The freedom schools, where every kind of remedial course was taught and which were attended by 2,500 Negroes, and the community centers, where among other things prospective mothers were instructed in pre-natal care, were unqualified successes. ‘We never imagined such response.” …

Attempts to register Negro voters were less successful, not because of any lack of cooperation by the Negroes, but because many of the registrars decided to meet the effort with stricter requirements than in the past. Joyce learned of her own failure to qualify late in the summer.  An off-shoot of the voter registration drive, the attempted seating of the Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, was to Joyce and her associates also disappointing….

This fall and winter some 200 workers from the summer project are remaining in Mississippi to continue the freedom schools, the community centers, and the voter registration drive. Joyce will continue to watch from her northern sidelines, helping out when she returns during vacations. She and a few of her friends at WU hope to organize a “Friends of SNCC” group on campus, similar to those at other northern and West Coast universities. Joyce says she can’t predict what the future will hold for Mississippi’s two million citizens, but she is hopeful. Both the Civil Rights Act and the success of the summer project make her so. “I realize you don’t gain first-class citizenship by singing songs, but with more and more Mississippi Negroes starting to understand the lyrics, ‘We shall overcome. . . something’s going to happen, you can be sure of that.”

The full 4-page article “Summer Project ’64” is freely available on-line, as are other back-issues of the Magazine.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.