Obituary: Sally Belfrage

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The Independent Online
JESSICA MITFORD is right to say (obituary, 16 March) that Sally Belfrage's Freedom Summer is the one book of the many on the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 to have the 'authentic ring of an enduring classic', writes Professor Tony Badger.

It was rightly, albeit all-too-belatedly, republished by the University of Virginia Press in paperback in 1990. Sally wrote a new, stylish, eloquent introduction in which she addressed the issues of food, sex and violence to which she had given short shrift in the original text. Sex and violence in the Summer Project have much attracted scholars since 1964: Sally placed the dietary deficiencies of black Mississippians in a global context.

Last April she came to Cambridge to join American and British scholars talking to final-year history students studying the civil- rights movement. She had never spoken on a British campus about her time in Mississippi; she professed to hate talking and to doubt her qualifications to talk alongside the academics. But, of course, she stole the show. The audience was engrossed as she recaptured the spirit of innocence, optimism and gut-wrenching fear that grabbed the young idealists who had gone south in 1964 and starkly described the reality of life for black Mississippians. As one student plaintively asked her, 'Why don't young people do that sort of thing nowadays?'

Sally admitted that she was 'pretty riled up' by the time she spoke. Academics, she thought 'don't get it and never will . . . It has to do with passion. What on earth do they really think it was about?' As for research students, 'I've decided that, when I'm in charge, personality tests will be required for PhD candidates in certain subjects.'

There were two things she made clear she was going to do. She had never been back to Mississippi since the summer of 1964. At the colloquium she pointed out that volunteers had completely failed to make any meaningful contact with white Mississippians. A visiting professor for the University of Arkansas, who as a white 19-year-old from Mississippi had gone to Washington to testify in support of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, recalled that she had sought out the northern volunteers but had been greeted with complete hostility. At the end of the day, she and Sally got together to plan a trip to Mississippi to see how things had changed and to introduce Sally to some of those whites she had not met 30 years before.

Sally was already planning to be in New York in November 1994 for the 90th birthday of her much-loved family friend Alger Hiss.