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How I Grew Up in the Epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement,
Yet Discovered its History and Lessons Decades Later

Copyright © 2013, Susan Follett

In 1984, my roof was, literally and figuratively, ripped from my house. That night, staying with a friend and unable to sleep, I turned on the television and happened upon a documentary about the March from Selma to Montgomery. I watched, riveted, as unfamiliar history unfolded.

On a Sunday in March, 1965, 600 people headed east out of Selma, Alabama on U.S. Route 80. They reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away. There, state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.

The images I saw on the TV screen—dangerous, brutal, and arbitrary—somehow combined with images of the tornado and the devastation it wreaked upon my suburban Minnesota neighborhood, to heighten my reaction. That reaction was confusion, tinged with shame. What was this event in Alabama, scarcely more than 100 miles from where I grew up in Meridian, Mississippi? And why hadn’t I known about it?  Though I was a mere child at the time, what might I have done had I been older?

Bloody Sunday:  March 7, 1965

For years, while pursuing my career, these questions lay just beneath the surface. But finally, in 2000, I could no longer ignore them. I did my first interview then.  Meridian civil rights attorney Bill Ready, Sr.  painted a picture of the time and place in which I grew up. One TV station. One newspaper. Each owned by the same man. Parents, white and black, intent on protecting their children from harsh realities.

As the instigating questions led to many more questions, I began to read—dozens of oral histories captured as part of the Civil Rights Documentation Project on the University of Southern Mississippi web site.  And I wrote—what I now refer to as “my essay about the story I wanted to write.”

In 2007, I began to interview in earnest, across the movements: civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women’s rights. I spoke with Ben Chaney, voter rights activist whose brother James was murdered along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman outside Philadelphia, Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I consulted Reverend Ed King, native white Mississippi Methodist minister who, with Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and others, attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention representing the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. They tried, and failed, to unseat the Dixiecrats, the all-white state Democratic Party delegation; yet MFDP opened many Americans’ eyes to voter discrimination. I learned from Heather Tobis Booth who was an important contributor to the early women’s movement in Chicago and, like my character Zach Bernstein, went to Mississippi from the University of Chicago during Freedom Summer.

FBI reward poster for three missing civil rights workers

Fannie Lou Hamer:
1964 Democratic
National Convention

Whereas the story had drawn me in, it was the research that hooked me, making me determined to capture and present it as authentic historical fiction.  As Zach’s character became an integral part of my story, I needed to educate myself about Judaism—from the food, to worship practices, to beliefs. I recalled how, in 1968, Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi was bombed and rumors spread labeling the act as Klan retaliation against civil rights sympathizers. Knowing of the role of reform Jews in the civil rights movement, I connected with reform rabbis and congregants in Chicago. I was informed by people too numerous to mention but am especially indebted to Chicago Sinai Congregation, Harriet Hausman, Rabbi Robert J. Marx, Chuck Mervis,  and Rabbi Paul Saiger. Chuck Mervis graciously shared archived sermons written by his late father, Rabbi Leonard Mervis, in the time around when Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Mrs. Hausman and Rabbi Marx participated in the March on D.C. and brought that particular moment in history to life for me. Rabbi Marx was also with Dr. King in Selma.

In 2010 I shared my developing manuscript with those I’d interviewed and with new people I’d begun to meet: educators, movement figures, and book groups.

Social studies teacher Vickie Malone, who piloted civil rights education at Mississippi’s McComb High School. Vickie’s local cultures class inspired Mississippi’s K-12 public school mandated civil rights education curriculum.  Mississippi is the first state in the U.S. to issue such a mandate.

Mississippi Mandates K-12 Civil Rights Education

2006 Unveiling:  “The 5 in ’65” by Robert McDowell  

Former language arts teacher and Freedom School student Faye Inge, who is one of the “Meridian 5.” These five African American women desegregated Meridian High in 1965, well before Mississippi finally complied with federally mandated desegregation in January 1970.

Janie McKinney who, in 1961 as a twelve-year-old white girl, gave aid when one of the Freedom Riders’ buses was attacked outside her Anniston, Alabama home. Hearing her story in the PBS American Experience Documentary “Freedom Riders” caused my heart to ache for the schism she must have felt—needing to honor her faith and basic humanity, fearing what might happen to her father and family’s livelihood, terrorized by her own fear and the overwhelming circumstances surrounding her.

Freedom Riders’ Bus Firebombed in Anniston, Alabama

The first book group to take up my pre-published manuscript was Seattle’s The BookClub. Jackie Roberts, member and co-founder of Seattle’s Interracial Dialogue Series, was my gracious host. Since then, book groups nationwide have read and shared their reactions.


Council of Federated Organizations (COFO):
   First Office at 2502 ½ 5th Street, 2nd floor

Source: Photo courtesy of Gail Falk

Dr. Scaggs introduced me to Gail Falk, who taught at the Meridian Freedom School 1964-65. Gail has become both mentor and muse, informing and enlightening me about the Mississippi Summer Project in Meridian in 1964 and provoking me to dig deeper to convey the complex mix of emotions experienced during that time.

Reader feedback suggested that I had two books in one and that, though Freedom Summer was the pivotal element in my story, it was underdeveloped. Fleshing out the summer of 1964 in Mississippi required more research. Through Dr. Bill Scaggs, immediate past president and senior fellow of The Montgomery Institute, I learned of Freedom 64. This education and restoration project—founded by Roscoe Jones, Meridian Freedom School student and longtime activist—is working to preserve the historic Fielder & Brooks Drug Store, which housed the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in 1964.

Gail Falk (front), teaching:
Meridian Freedom School, 1964

My passion lies in tackling such complexities, via themes of everyday heroism, prejudice, and personal change. The novel’s overarching metaphor is a compound one. Not just “fog”—confusing, mysterious, obstructive. Not simply a “machine”—rhythmic, controlled, organized. But a “fog machine”—poisonous, seductive, pervasive, deadly, distorting, relentless. I relate my title to the mission statement of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation which describes prejudice as “systemic and institutionalized.” I hope my story can entertain as well as inform and that The Fog Machine will find its way into the hands of countless more book groups, individual readers, students, and teachers.

Reflecting Pool:
1963 March on Washington

Each time I think about the people I’ve been honored to interact with during the writing of The Fog Machine, I am awestruck. I’ve tried to capture history from aging history makers and present it through relationships. One example is the scene at the Reflecting Pool during the March on D.C.

“Seventy-five years now I been living in this country,” said the old Negro in a voice that rang out like Mahalia Jackson’s. “But today’s the one I become a man.” — from a true story, shared by Rabbi Robert J. Marx

I hope The Fog Machine honors the strength and human frailty of everyday heroes like C.J. Evans. 

Before Zach met Grandma Willie, C.J. was the strongest woman he knew. Yet he couldn’t imagine her family bringing a volunteer into their home. — Zach Bernstein

It’s of fundamental importance to me to portray prejudice as a shared human challenge, not a “Mississippi thing” or “southern problem.” Differing degrees of prejudice among my characters, then, serve to compare and contrast, never to excuse or mitigate.

“We thought it was about Mississippi. But Zach taught us it’s about the possibility. That we’ll consider ourselves better or worse because we belong to some group. Or take advantage because we have the power. Or stand by, making no move to stop what isn’t right.” — Rosalee Evans


Overarching it all, the writing of The Fog Machine has been a journey of discovery. Capturing history, lest we forget or never even know it, and exploring what enables and disables change in human beings. I’ve found, as other fiction writers have described, that writing is an organic process. If you create characters, then set them free, they will lead you to answers to questions you pose to them. Through the lives of C.J. Evans, Joan Barnes, Zach Bernstein, and all their friends, families, and people they crossed paths with, I’ve concluded this:  a complex interaction of family, culture, society, politics, personality, religion, what we value, what we fear, and who we meet determines both what prejudice we feel and our ability to change.

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