Rights activist Bernice Sims recalls Freedom Summer '64 in memoir


Mineola resident Bernice Sims published "Detour Before Midnight," 50 years after three civil rights workers -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were abducted and murdered the night after meeting Sims and her family at their home in the summer of 1964. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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For the past 50 years, Bernice Sims harbored a secret too painful to reveal.

Sims' memories of a time and place far removed from her comfortable Long Island life had been packed away for self-preservation. Only recently did the retired social worker from Mineola decide to peel back years of protective layers by writing about her experience.

Sims' self-published memoir, "Detour Before Midnight," is about her participation -- and disquieting brush with history -- in what has become known as Freedom Summer, the bloody struggle in 1964 waged for the integration and racial equality of African-Americans in Mississippi, where she spent her childhood.

The most infamous episode of that summer was the slaying of three young men, part of the legions of volunteers from around the country who had flocked to Mississippi to help get black residents registered to vote and establish Freedom Schools. The schools were originally part of the civil rights movement to help African-Americans gain equality.

On the day they were murdered, June 21, 1964, Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, 24, and Andrew Goodman, 20, both from New York, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old from Mississippi -- stopped by Sims' family home in Meridian. Chaney had been a next-door neighbor for years and knew Sims' family, including her two older brothers, who, like Sims, were volunteers for the Congress of Racial Equality, known as CORE, and working for the local movement.

The three visitors were on their way to inspect the rubble of a church that was to have been used as a voter registration site but had been torched. Sims, then 17, asked to go along. "I had been with them before, when we went to voter registration sites," she recalls. But this time, they refused. "Mickey said because it was going to be a lot of charred remains, it wasn't a place for a girl."

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Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner drove away in a station wagon and were killed hours later. No one knew what happened to them at first, although many suspected foul play, given the volatile climate between civil rights volunteers and extreme segregationists. It took 44 days for the bodies to be discovered, buried under an enormous earthen dam on a farm in the nearby Mississippi town of Philadelphia.

Schwerner and Goodman -- both white -- had been shot point-blank. Chaney, an African-American, had been violently beaten before he also was shot. It would emerge later that the three had been arrested by local police and released. Shortly after, driving their station wagon, they were chased down by members of the Ku Klux Klan and killed.


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'Shocked and depressed'

For Sims, the weeks of uncertainty of their fate, and the subsequent black-and-white TV news reports confirming the brutal murders, were traumatizing. "I was shocked and depressed," Sims says, and she felt a complexity of emotions, including survivor guilt, for years after.

In his new book, "The Freedom Summer Murders," Don Mitchell writes that three days after the bodies were discovered, President Lyndon Johnson was told by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that he was confident his agency knew the identity of the killers, but "proving it may be a little harder."

That was an understatement. It was not until 41 years later, in 2005, that Ku Klux Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen was finally convicted of three counts of manslaughter for orchestrating the killings.

By then, Sims had long since graduated from the University of Oklahoma and relocated to New York, where two siblings lived. Eventually she settled on Long Island, moving to Hempstead in 1972. Sims earned a master's degree in social work at Adelphi University in 1982 and worked in the Lawrence and Wyandanch school districts as a social worker.

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In 1989, she was appointed by the Village of Hempstead mayor as a trustee, the first African-American woman to hold that position. During Gov. Mario Cuomo's administration, she served on an advisory board for issues related to child and elderly abuse. She had a private counseling practice before retiring in 2010.

Sims is a professional artist (she designed the cover of her book) and during the past 18 years, she has been an actor, appearing as an extra in many soap operas, TV dramas, music videos and films.

But despite her many accomplishments, Freedom Summer and its most violent event has had an indelible impact on her life. "It haunted me," she says. The death of her three friends, as well as the unsettling knowledge that had she gone that night, she might have been a fourth victim, was too much for the teenager to bear.

"I broke contact with everyone involved," Sims writes in her book. "It was as though everything that had happened was a dream and the reality of the dream was the nightmare, a nightmare that I still find myself waking from."


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Facing the past

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s, she was subject to the Jim Crow laws that kept African-Americans separate and subjugated. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, Sims became involved, as did some of her 13 siblings.

Far removed from those turbulent times, Sims, in the mid-1990s, began jotting down some thoughts about Freedom Summer, but she didn't get far. "It was too painful," she says. As a mental health professional, she realized she was going through an extended grieving process and was afraid of unearthing feelings long buried. But as the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer approached, she decided it was time to face the past. "I said to myself, 'I need to tell this story,' so that people today could learn more about it, and as a final testimony to my friends."

Writing the book is her latest triumph in moving forward. Twice married and divorced -- she has two grown sons, one living in Virginia, the other in California -- Sims now lives alone, surrounded by her paintings and photos of celebrities she has met as an actor.

She was encouraged to tell her story by Keith Medley, author of "We as Freemen: Plessy vs. Ferguson." His book is about the landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision affirming the constitutionality of state laws that allowed racial segregation of public facilities. Medley, who was active in the civil rights movement as a young man, understood what Sims was feeling. "There was so much anguish," the New Orleans-based writer says. "So much happening that was negative. As the years went by, you suppressed it. I understand what she went through."

Sims is not a professional writer, so putting her feelings on paper was a difficult process. Yet her book paints a compelling picture of her childhood and the oppression of segregation. Public facilities -- water fountains, bathrooms, schools, pools, playgrounds and transportation -- marked "white" or "colored" were part of everyday life, as was the burden of discrimination.

Sims endured it but questioned it. She writes: "I still felt instinctively that something was very wrong with one set of human beings standing in the way of another."

Writing about her formative years was cathartic for Sims -- so was discussing her book and experiences at several events in Mississippi this summer for the half-century anniversary of Freedom Summer.

Now, instead of suppressing her past, she embraces it and plans to share her story. While problems still exist, Sims is thrilled, she says, to have lived to see an America in which, 50 years after black citizens were threatened with violence for simply casting a vote, an African-American could be elected president.

"I came along at a revolutionary time," she says. "We knew we were fighting for something bigger than us."



Bernice Sims will be presenting her memoir, "Detour Before Midnight," at the Roosevelt Public Library, 27 W. Fulton Ave., Roosevelt, on Sept. 13 at 2 p.m. There is no fee to attend. For more information, call 516-378-0222 or visit nwsdy.li/rooseveltsims.

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