Three civil rights workers were already missing when Marvin Gatch arrived in Mississippi for Freedom Summer, the 1964 campaign to register black voters. He knew organizers feared that James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been killed by the Ku Klux Klan.
"It was scary," said Gatch, 74, who lives in Denver. "People were saying, 'If you're heading for Mississippi and you're not scared, you're just dumb.' "
Four days after he arrived, the FBI announced the bodies of the men were found buried beneath an earthen dam. Meanwhile, churches burned, homes were bombed, volunteers — including rabbis and ministers — were beaten bloody or jailed. But Gatch didn't quit.
"It was something I had to do," he said. "I had to be part of the group that put my body on the line."
On the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, celebrations are being held across the nation to commemorate that 10-week campaign, when nearly 1,000 volunteers teamed with local black activists to create momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
On June 24, PBS will show the new documentary, "Freedom Summer" by filmmaker Stanley Nelson, which had an advance screening in Denver at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library.
On June 22, Harry Belafonte — who helped fund civil rights campaigns — will be the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission.
Belafonte's visit will be particularly meaningful for Jeff Fard, a community activist born during Freedom Summer.
"There are just a handful of that generation left," he said. "It's living history. If we're not capturing the wisdom, stories and insights they had firsthand, they become like historical artifacts."
Vincent Harding of Denver, who trained many of the Freedom Summer volunteers, died in May at age 82, just one month before he was to participate in the 50th anniversary Freedom Summer celebration in Mississippi.
Many of the volunteers came from the northern states, but some drove out from western states like Colorado, including people from Denver, Westminster, Arvada and Englewood. Gatch traveled from Indiana, where he was a second lieutenant stationed at Bunker Hill Air Force Base.
He left Indianapolis on July 30, driving through Kentucky and Tennessee, finally reaching the Mississippi state line.
"It didn't hit me until I saw the 'Welcome to Mississippi' sign," he said. "I'd read enough about what was going on that I said to myself, 'I'm leaving the civilized world as I know it.' "
Mississippi had long been violently segregationist, with 581 lynchings from 1882 to 1968 — the most of any state, according to archives of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1955, Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman, and in 1963, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway by a white supremacist.
Gatch, then 24, used his two-week vacation to volunteer at Freedom Summer, but he didn't dare tell anyone on base where he was headed.
"The Air Force was very conservative," he said. "There were no black officers, and very few black enlisted men. My boss was a racist who used racial slurs."
Arriving in Jackson, he attended a two-day crash course that included training in nonviolence and an advisory against traveling in interracial groups, especially not with members of the opposite sex.
Like all volunteers, he stayed with a black family — a widow with young children who lived near the family of Medgar Evers.
His assignment was to start a Freedom School. In addition to voter registration, a key goal of Freedom Summer was to help black children learn things not taught in the state's inferior public schools. More than 40 schools were created in black neighborhoods that summer.
Many of the black churches which burned that summer were connected to Freedom Schools — including the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in rural Longdale, where Michael Schwerner had been attempting to start a Freedom School. After Klan members set the church on fire, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman visited the arson site to investigate just before they were arrested, and killed later that night.
Gatch's school was also to be located in a black church where people overcame fear of firebombs to open a Freedom School. "It was still being used, but it was in very bad shape, almost open to the elements," Gatch said.
On the day that the FBI announced the grim discovery of the three bodies, Gatch was hard at work helping clean up the church and canvass the neighborhood with fliers about the Freedom School. Kids arrived the next day.
"We taught reading, writing and arithmetic," he said. "We talked about black history, black authors, civics, and why it is important to vote."
On June 24, Gatch will return to Mississippi for the first time since Freedom Summer, reuniting with friends at the anniversary celebration in Jackson.
He has also donated his papers to the digital archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, including his 41-page report on Freedom Summer, and a daily summary of all the violent incidents that summer.
"We planted a tiny acorn," Gatch said, "but it took many years to grow."
Today, people like Winston Grady-Willis, chair of African and African American Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver, carry on the voter-education legacy of Freedom Summer.
"I tell my students, 'You may not feel your vote matters in the context of electoral politics, but even if you feel that way, it's so important to vote, particularly in terms of the jury pool,' " he said. "I've been in too many courtrooms, including here in downtown Denver, watching this parade of black and brown souls going before juries, often with individuals who don't look like them."
Colleen O'Connor: 303-954-1083, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/coconnordp
"Freedom Summer" will premiere June 24 at 8 p.m.on Rocky Mountain PBS.
Harry Belafonte will speak at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission fundraiser on June 22 at 4:30 p.m., Renaissance Denver Hotel, 3801 Quebec St., Denver. Tickets are $100.