On June 25, 1964, The New York Times reported that thirty New York City public school teachers, most of them women, young, and white, would travel to rural Mississippi to teach African American children in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades for six weeks. While in Mississippi the teachers would live in the homes of Black families and join the families on Sundays in “Negro churches.”
On June 30, 1964, at the end of the school year, eight New York City teachers boarded a bus bound for Memphis, Tennessee where they would receive training before continuing on to Mississippi. Another 23 New York City teachers were expected to join them.
There participation in Freedom Summer was financed by the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City chapter of the national American Federation of Teachers union. The group left for Mississippi a week after the disappearance of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in Neshoba County, Mississippi.
Sandra Adickes, an English teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, told The New York Times that she was “sick and sore at heart” by their disappearance, but undeterred. She had previously volunteered in a Freedom School in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
On August 15, 1964, The New York Times reported the arrest of Sandra Adickes, age 29, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Adickes, identified in the article as a “white woman” and a “civil rights worker,” was charged with vagrancy after she and seven African American students in the local Freedom School attempted to integrate the town’s public library. The Mayor and Chief of Police announced they were closing the library to conduct an “inventory of all our books.”
On November 14, 1964, the Times updated its report on the August 14th arrest of Adickes. “Miss Adickes spent the summer as a volunteer teacher at a Freedom School in the Priest Creek Baptist Church in Hattiesburg. The slender, blond teacher had devoted her times to teaching freedom and citizenship to Negro students.”
After Adickes and her African American students, “five girls and one boy ranging in age from 13 to 17 years,” left the public library they headed to the local S.H. Kress & Company department store where they entered the restaurant and sat in a booth while waiting for service. A waitress took the lunch orders from the students but refused to take an order from Adickes, informing her “she would not serve a white person in the company of Negroes.”
Adickes and the students then left the restaurant but once they were outside Adickes was arrested and charged with vagrancy. According to the Times article “She was taken to the city jail, photographed, fingerprinted and ‘booked as a common criminal.’” Adickes was later released on bail of $100. In response to her arrest, Adickes sued Kress in federal court in New York City where the company’s corporate offices were located.
She demanded $50,000 in damages because she was “deprived of the privilege of equal enjoyment in a place of public accommodation by reason of her association with Negroes” and an additional $500,000 because store officials conspired with police to have her arrested when she exited. The same article reported that Adickes was planning to take a leave of absence from her teaching position in New York City schools to return to continue teaching in Mississippi Freedom Schools.
Lower court decisions sided with Kress because it was a private entity, not a government body. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co. eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court which ruled the vagrancy charge against Adickes was “groundless.”
In the majority opinion, Justice John Harlan wrote: “Few principles of law are more firmly stitched into our constitutional fabric than the proposition that a State must not discriminate against a person because of his race or the race of his companions in any way act to compel or encourage racial segregation. Although this is a lawsuit against a private party, not the State or one of its officials, our cases make clear that petitioner will have made out a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment rights and will be entitled to relief . . . The involvement of a state official in such a conspiracy plainly provides the state action essential to show a direct violation of petitioner’s Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, whether or not the actions of the police were officially authorized.”
Sandra Adickes donated her share of the legal settlement to the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF) to be used for student scholarships. She continued her activism as part teacher organizations protesting against the war in Vietnam and she opposed the 1968 New York City teachers’ strike.
Adickes later earned a Ph.D. in English at New York University and taught at colleges including the College of Staten Island – CUNY and Winona State University in Minnesota. She is the author of several books including To Be Young Was Very Heaven: Women in New York Before the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and Legacy of a Freedom School (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Photos, from above: Sandra Adickes teaching at Benjamin Franklin HS; Students at the Hattiesburg freedom Summer school; Pete Seeger singing in Hattiesburg during Freedom Summer; Adickes (standing right) as a Freedom Summer volunteer teacher at Palmer’s Crossing Freedom School with students (left) Rita Mae Crawford and Jimella Stokes; and Adickes (seated right) and freedom school students Ethel Murrel Stokes and Teresa Clark, in Hattiesburg, in 1964.