Story by Avery Gregurich
Photos Courtesy of Patti Miller
“All the way through grade school and high school we weren’t learning about the civil rights movement,” Miller said. “There were things happening, but we weren’t learning about that in school, and it wasn’t in the newspapers.”
Miller remembers her hometown of Jefferson, Iowa, and many of the surrounding towns as being “lily-white communities.” Her first realization of difference came in the form of a now-iconic image: a rotating Earth surrounded by smiling children of many races.
“I can remember as a very young child in Sunday School seeing that image of black, brown, red and Asian children all holding hands around the globe,” Miller said. “I was very, very moved by that.”
When Miller came to Drake University, her perception of the world was transformed further.
During the spring break of her freshman year in 1963, Miller and a group of fellow members of the Wesley Foundation, a student Methodist organization, took a trip through the “deep South.” Loaded into a converted hearse they called the Swinging Chariot, the students drove from Des Moines, Iowa, to New Orleans.
Miller had been fascinated with Abe Lincoln growing up and believed everyone was being treated equally under the provisions he signed into effect 100 years before.
Through the windows of a hearse, Miller saw the living conditions caused by the Jim Crow laws.
An apparent outrage still fills Miller as she remembers the segregated water fountains, bathrooms, bus station waiting rooms and restaurants.
“I was stunned, completely taken aback,” Miller said.
When she returned to Drake, she was determined to do anything within her power to change the atrocities she had witnessed. A brochure she saw on campus a year later provided her the perfect opportunity.
It read “Mississippi Summer Project” in white letters over an image of a distraught African-American face.
Immediately, she applied to the program and was accepted. Her parents were rightfully worried but ultimately supportive of their daughter’s decision.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘If it is something you really believe you should do, then we will support you,’” Miller said. “They were even criticized by people in our hometown who thought that the Civil Rights Movement was wrong.”
After finishing summer school, Miller took a long bus ride to Jackson, Miss. She didn’t dare reveal she was going to work as a civil-rights activist.
“You never knew when someone found out what they were going to do to you,” Miller said, so she said she was visiting family.
When she arrived, she did her orientation at Tougaloo College where she learned various methods and techniques of nonviolence. She was the only one of her orientation group assigned to Meridian, Miss.
“It just so happened that Meridian was where the three civil rights workers who were missing were working,” Miller said.
On her first day in Meridian, the police announced they had found the missing activists’ bodies. One of the men was James Chaney, a black activist and native of Meridan.
“Everyone was hit with the reality of what the situation was,” Miller remembers.
She canvassed the local neighborhoods that day, organizing a silent march to Chaney’s funeral.
Miller spent over a month in Meridan, staying with a local family and working out of a community center. She worked mainly with young children, taking them to all-black playgrounds, feeding them lunches and reading to them. Because there were no all-black libraries, Miller said activists turned the community center into a mock archive of books.
When Miller returned to Des Moines, Iowa, her hunger for activism did not diminish.
As part of the Human Relations Council of the Student Government on campus, Miller almost single-handedly changed the off-campus housing policies. At the time, off-campus housing had to be approved by a faculty committee that oversaw the student government.
“I went to all the apartments (approved by the committee) and I asked them if, ‘I were black would you rent to me?’” Miller said. “No one would rent to me.”
Miller and the council worked and succeeded in passing a law requiring all approved off-campus housing to rent to any student, regardless of race.
Following her graduation, Miller worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues in inner-city Chicago as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There, the SCLC worked to end the segregated housing by organizing marches through the suburbs.
After two years, Miller devoted her life to music, teaching music in two Chicago schools and even becoming a folk singer. For four years, Patti Miller and the Dandelion Wine toured the country, playing shows at college campuses including a stop at Drake in 1973.
Miller now lives in Fairfield, Iowa, and is finishing up a documentary about her experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964. She plans to return to Mississippi this summer as part of the historic event’s 50th anniversary.
When asked why she continues to work to preserve the history she was an active part of, Miller thinks solely about the future.
“There’s so much sense of separation in this country between people of different backgrounds and colors,” Miller said. “If we don’t keep our awareness on how things used to be, we really can start to go backwards.”