Former Civil-Rights Activists Recall a Historic Alabama Summer
by Michelle Simmons
April 1, 2011
“A lot of people in Fort Myers have relatives in Eufala,” says Larry Butler ’65, a SCOPE volunteer in the Alabama town who now lives in Florida. “People go up for reunions, so I’ve kept tabs through the years.”
As Larry Butler ’65 made his way across campus one spring day in 1965, he was stopped by Herbert Royce, professor of modern languages. Civil-rights worker LeRoy Moton, who had been with fellow volunteer Viola Liuzzo when she was killed by Klansmen earlier that year, was speaking at Dickinson, said Royce.
Moton was recruiting college students for the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) program to register African-American voters. An expansion of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, SCOPE would bring Northern whites to some of the most heavily segregated areas in the South, place them with black families and train them in nonviolence.
“After he spoke, we got together and decided to just go,” says the former history major, who, along with Su Carroll Kenderdine ’66, was a member of the Carlisle chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality.
So in June 1965, a small contingent of Dickinson students—Butler, Kenderdine, Michael Laupheimer ’65 and Jeanette Allen Abbott ’69—and an equally small group from Gettysburg College clambered into Laupheimer’s green Valiant and a Volkswagen bus driven by a Gettysburg-area Mennonite minister and headed south.
They soon joined more than 500 other Northern, mostly white and equally idealistic college students, as volunteers throughout the South. The Dickinson-Gettysburg group was assigned to Barbour County, Ala., home to notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace.
Throughout the summer they registered voters, held political-education campaigns and organized marches. At first, there was just a trickle of interest. “People came to hear us because we were a curiosity—a bunch of white kids from a privileged college,” says Butler. “When we got there, we were trying to run the show. We weren’t successful, and we didn’t know why.”
Not only did white Southerners mistrust the “outside agitators,” as the volunteers were called, but so did black residents. “This was a small town,” says Kenderdine. “People knew one another. There was always potential retribution close at hand.”
Local authorities jailed Kenderdine and Laupheimer twice that summer, and Butler once in the fall, in attempts to stymie their efforts. (Butler knew he would be arrested, he says, and brought his toothbrush with him to the demonstration.)
Area segregationists repeatedly threatened their lives. En route to a demonstration one day, “I had to travel through the county in the floor of the car with a rug over me,” Butler recalls. “People were sitting with their feet on top of me—there was a price on my head.
“I expected it intellectually, but emotionally it was difficult to handle,” he says. “All of the civil and political institutions were absolutely opposed to us. That shocked me—all the hatred that was expressed toward the white members of the civil-rights movement. It was palpable.”
In August, when the Voting Rights Act finally passed, the tide turned for the volunteers, who by then had also experienced a “change in attitude” and “stopped telling people what to do,” says Butler.
According to the journal that he kept at the time, “When SCOPE first came, there were approximately 450 Negro registered voters. At this date (Dec. 10) there are 2,693.”
Through innumerable voter-registration drives at area churches and outside county courthouses, SCOPE volunteers throughout the South registered about 50,000 black voters by the end of 1965. Thousands more learned about the political process.
“The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article. “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.”
It took more than “ideological fervor” to succeed, noted Gladwell. “What mattered more was the [participant’s] degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement.”
“Bearing witness, taking a stand,” is how Kenderdine, a former philosophy major, describes it. “Putting young, white, privileged college kids in the line of danger was a powerful emotional and political tool. Dr. King was very much attuned to moral imperatives as much as strategic goals.”
Michael Birkner, professor of history at Gettysburg College, has been researching SCOPE and the Dickin-son-Gettysburg group. He describes the summer as a transcendent experience for many, noting that Richard Hutch, one of the Gettysburg students, was “propelled” into a religious-studies graduate program as a result of the summer. Hutch had been shot at by local segregationists, and “others were roughed up,” says Birkner. “They came out all right, but their lives were not the same.”
Most of the volunteers went back to college or graduate school in August. Butler continued working in Alabama until December, when he returned to Pennsylvania. After earning a master’s in history at Temple University, he taught social studies and religion at the Friends Select School in Philadel-phia.
Butler later moved to Florida, where he carved out a second career with the state working with mentally challenged adults. He recently donated his SCOPE diary and collection of photographs to Dickinson’s Archives & Special Collections.
The long-practicing Quaker says one of the key lessons he brought home was that the civil-rights movement “gave a factual, on-the-ground basis for Quaker nonviolence. Dr. King preached that, and I saw it actually work.”
Kenderdine went on to earn an M.D. at Hahnemann University and launch a successful career in family medicine, including a teaching stint at Jefferson Medical College. She recently retired from private practice. Still, her recollections of that summer in Alabama are multilayered. “[It] was eye-opening, in a very existential sense,” she says. “Did it cost me in some ways? Yes, but I never regretted it.”
“These young people from Gettysburg and Dickinson had a lot of moxie to do what they did,” says Birkner. “They were heroic, even if they didn’t self-identify that way. There are few causes as pure as this voting-rights effort. The students were on the right side of history.”
Read “A Short History of the Freedom Movement in Barbour County, Alabama.” (PDF)