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Mississippi 1964 Tracy Sugarman and the Freedom Summer Project

Tracy Sugarman (1921-2013) — beloved Westport resident, renowned artist, prolific illustrator, author, and social justice activist — was among those who participated in the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, historically known as Freedom Summer, an important chapter in the Civil Rights Movement.

The project brought northern, predominantly white, student volunteers to the South to support Black-led voter registration and civil rights efforts. Organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the project drew sustained national attention to the oppression and disenfranchisement of African-American citizens and ultimately contributed momentum to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Voting rights demonstration at the U.S. Capitol via Wisconsin Historical Society Freedom Summer Digital Collection

After meeting SNCC field secretary Charles McLaurin in Westport, Tracy Sugarman, several decades older than most of the student volunteers, decided to join those heading to Mississippi to cover the Freedom Summer as an artist-reporter.

I was determined to bring back real images of real people and real places so everyone could see American apartheid for what it really was.”

His moving images from the summers of 1964 and 1965 have been published in his illustrated memoirs, featured in exhibitions, included in documentary films, and used as large scale graphics in the rotunda of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, MS. They continue to play an important role in bringing the Civil Rights Movement to life for new generations.

Press the play button above to listen to a quote from Sugarman's memoir read by his daughter, Laurie Sugarman-Whittier. To return to this page, please use the "x" in the upper right corner.

Westport Public Art Collections holds six lithographs from Sugarman's Mississippi 1964 portfolio. In 2021, these prints, along with his original pen-and-ink sketches from World War II, are the focus of a special exhibit at Westport Town Hall. This virtual exhibit presents Sugarman's art from the civil rights era to a broader audience.

WestPAC would like to thank the Town of Westport, the Westport Arts Advisory Committee, Friends of WestPAC, and the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center for financial support for this exhibition and related programming.

Installation view of Mississippi 1964: Tracy Sugarman and the Freedom Summer Project, Westport Town Hall, 2021

The Mississippi 1964 Portfolio

The lithographs in the Westport Public Art Collections are based on Sugarman’s over 100 pen-and-ink drawings from his time in Mississippi, many in turn executed after photographs he took during the summers of 1964 and 1965. They demonstrate Sugarman's characteristic lively and spontaneous penwork, evocative ink wash technique, and focused compositions, effectively conveying the indelible moments, people, and places he encountered.

In 1968, Sugarman donated his original civil rights-era drawings and photographs to Tougaloo College, which published a selection of his drawings as lithographs in a 1996 portfolio. The WestPAC lithographs included in this exhibition form part of that portfolio, and entered the collection through the artist's estate via his widow, Gloria Sugarman.

"A View of White Ruleville from Black Ruleville"

In the 1960's, Ruleville MS, where Sugarman lived during the summer of 1964, had a population of about 1,900 residents, with just over 50% African Americans. Like most towns in Mississippi, it was racially segregated, mandated by Jim Crow laws put in place after the Civil War and enforced through terror and intimidation.

Tracy Sugarman, A View of White Ruleville from Black Ruleville, 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1614.2

Sugarman and other white volunteers lived with families in the Black section of town, represented by the viewer's position in this landscape sketch. Many years later, he returned to visit the gravesite of Ruleville activist Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977) and reflected on residing here and making this specific image. In We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns (2009) he wrote:

I gazed up and past the silent headstones, tracing with my eye the long, naked rows of cotton as they stretched farther and farther, ending at the low silhouette of the stand of trees in white Ruleville. I remember making a drawing from this place during that long-ago summer of '64. I felt I was barely perceiving another world - distant, forbidding, and alien from my protected haven on this side of Highway 41."
Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic National Convention, 1964. Library of Congress, ds.07134 via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fannie_Lou_Hamer_1964-08-22.jpg

Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer was a Ruleville resident, civil rights leader, community organizer and one of the founders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Her riveting testimony at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 galvanized national attention to the struggle for voting rights in Mississippi and across the South. Below is a video clip from the 2014 PBS documentary Freedom Summer.

Hamer and Sugarman maintained a life-long friendship, visiting each other in Connecticut and Mississippi on numerous occasions. A biography of Hamer was one of the films produced by Rediscovery Productions, the documentary film company he founded with Bill Buckley (1928-2017), with a mission to honor the contributions of Black men and women to American society.

"Mr. Williams, Sharecropper, Church Deacon"

In Mississippi, as elsewhere across the South, the Black workforce was exploited by white landowners through sharecropping and tenant farming systems in place since the Civil War. Sharecroppers, like Mr. James Williams, portrayed here, rarely broke even with each harvest, paying a share of their crop’s revenue to cover their rent, equipment and wages.

Tracy Sugarman, Mr. Williams – Sharecropper, Church Deacon, 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1614.4

During the Freedom Summer, Black families seeking change and social justice hosted volunteers from across the country, often at great personal risk. In Ruleville, James and Rennie Williams opened their home to Sugarman and another field volunteer. That summer, the Williams Chapel, a seat of local civil rights activism where James was pastor, was attacked by arsonists, a violent act repeated across the South to deter civil rights initiatives.

"Noon Shade"

The 1964 Mississippi Summer Project established Freedom Schools across the state to help counter the inequitable public education provided to African-American children. The schools, attended by over 3,000 students (children and adults), taught literacy and other core courses, but also offered critical instruction in Black history, civil rights philosophy, and leadership to foster a new generation of activists.

Tracy Sugarman, Noon Shade (July and 100 Degrees in the Shade at the Sanctified Church for Freedom School Kids, Ruleville), 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1614.6

Above is a video clip about freedom schools from the 2014 PBS Freedom Summer documentary.

"Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney are Still Missing"

On June 21, 1964, – the day Sugarman arrived in Mississippi – three young civil rights workers were reported missing after being arrested and released while investigating a church burning. Though officially “missing” for most of that summer, the men had been brutally killed by a mob of Klansmen; their bodies were found on August 4.

Tracy Sugarman, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney are Still Missing, 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no.1614.5

Although lesser chargers were brought against the men who participated in the killing of James Chaney (age 21), Michael Schwerner (age 20) and Andrew Goodman (age 24), no one was convicted of their murder until 2005.

FBI Poster of Missing Civil Rights Workers, 1964, via Wikimedia Commons

Sugarman and the Freedom Summer volunteers were well aware of the violence regularly experienced by activists and citizens in Mississippi, and knew the danger they themselves would face as participants in the movement. The abduction and murder of these three men - occurring just as the summer activities got underway - brought home the reality of the threat for many.

"Lawyer"

In addition to students, many attorneys volunteered with the Freedom Summer project to provide free legal services in voter registration and other civil rights cases, and to assist arrested demonstrators. Inspired by their experiences, numerous student volunteers would later pursue civil rights and anti-discrimination law in their careers.

Tracy Sugarman, Lawyer, 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no.1614.1
Tracy Sugarman, Mississippi Policemen, 1964 Offset lithograph from Mississippi – 1964 portfolio, 1996. Westport Public Art Collections, no.1614.3

Sketches from World War II

Tracy Sugarman identified two formative experiences in his life and artistic career. One was his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. The other was serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. He participated in the 1944 D-Day amphibious invasion of Normandy, an experience he documented in sketches and illustrated letters home to his wife. Westport Public Art Collections holds four original pen-and-ink drawings from Sugarman's wartime sketches, recently conserved and framed.

Tracy Sugarman, “Memory Note of D+1. A story goes with it, when I get home, pooch,” c. 1945, pen and ink on paper. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1594
Above: Tracy Sugarman, Three WWII Soldiers, c. 1945, pen and ink on paper. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1597; Right: Tracy Sugarman, Three GIs Stand at Attention Before Invading on D-Day, c. 1945, pen and ink on paper. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1593
Tracy Sugarman, Pilgrim Landing at Plymouth England, 1945, pen and ink on paper. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 1596

Approximately 2,000 African-American troops participated in the D-Day invasions of Normandy, including soldiers in both combat and support roles, even as the U.S. Armed Forces remained officially segregated until 1948. Many returning Black veterans, including Medgar Evers (1925-1963) and Amzie Moore (1911-1982) went on to play pivotal roles in the fight for civil rights, while Black Americans across the country advocated the "Double V" campaign: victory abroad against fascism and victory at home over white supremacy. In many ways, Sugarman’s wartime experiences also shaped his personal commitment to civil rights activism.

Tracy Sugarman, Black Sailor, LST 491, 1944, ink on paper, Library of Congress. Courtesy of Veteran's History Project Collection.
If I were king in America, I would start every radio program with ‘Don’t go to sleep America.' I’d have every front page carry a banner headline seven days a week that says, 'Nothing is over but the shouting.'

Hear an extended version of this quote, from a letter to his wife after the D-Day invasions, recorded by Sugarman's friend and Westport resident, Harold Bailey, Jr.

Tracy Sugarman (1921-2013)

Tracy Sugarman was born and raised in Syracuse, NY, and studied art at Syracuse University where he met his wife, June. After serving in the U.S. Navy, he and June settled in Westport in 1950. Sugarman became a beloved member of the local community of artists, and remained in Westport for over 60 years until his passing at the age of 91.

Tracy Sugarman, First and Goal, charcoal and watercolor on board, undated. Westport Public Art Collections, no. 347.

A prolific illustrator, Sugarman chronicled post-war America through his sharply-observed, energetic sketches and watercolors. His drawings appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, Colliers Magazine, and Forbes among other national publications. He illustrated hundreds of children's books, and nurtured new generations of artists as a generous mentor. The Westport Public Art Collections holds over 25 original drawings and paintings by Sugarman, on display in schools and municipal buildings throughout the town.

Left and above, Tracy Sugarman in his studio. Photographs courtesy of Laurie Sugarman-Whittier
"My thrust as an artist is to winnow from the scene the single true note...If the moment is worth preserving, then I have the responsibility of trying to endow the drawing with the compassion that comes from understanding. "

Below you can hear an extended version of this quote recorded by Westport resident and artist, Miggs Burroughs.

Sugarman's 1964 Sketches in Print, On Screen, and in Museums

Tracy Sugarman's Freedom Summer images were displayed to raise awareness about the civil rights struggle in Mississippi almost as soon as they were created. In August of 1964, 43 sketches were displayed during a concert by Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern held at Staples High School in Westport, raising funds for SNCC and the Freedom Summer project and honoring local participants.

Sugarman used his sketches from the summers of 1964 and 65 to extensively illustrate his two memoirs of the Freedom Summer project. Stranger at the Gates was first published in 1966 by Hill and Wang, and republished in 2014 by Prospecta Press, with a new foreword by Charles McLaurin. We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns was published in 2009 by Syracuse University Press. Click on these links to listen to short quotes from Sugarman's memoirs read by Westport poet laureate, Diane Lowman, and Westport resident, John Dodig.

Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, MS

Sugarman's lithographs were featured at the Mississippi Museum of Art in 2019-20 in the exhibition The Prize: Seven Decades of Lyrical Response to the Call for Civil Rights curated by Dr. Redell Hearn as part of the Art and Civil Rights Initiative by the Mississippi Museum of Art and Tougaloo College. The Prize was "a visual and lyrical offering of how the quest for social justice in the era of Civil Rights continues to inspire freedom of expression today," and paired Sugarman’s illustrations from the summer of 1964 with song lyrics ranging from Alice Wine’s 1956 rendition of “Eyes on the Prize” to Childish Gambino’s 2018 song, “This is America.” Photograph by Mark Geil, courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Jackson MS

Tracy Sugarman's illustrations are reproduced in large scale in the rotunda of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. As described by the museum, this central gallery "is the heart of the museum, a soaring space filled with natural light from large windows. Civil rights activists are honored with words and images, and the music of the Movement emanates from a dramatic light sculpture. As more visitors gather and interact with the sculpture—adding their own 'light'—it shines brighter and the music grows stronger."
Images courtesy of Laurie Sugarman-Whittier.
Staples High School Learning Gallery, Westport, 2019-20

In Westport, Sugarman's lithographs in the Westport Public Art Collections were used in a Staples High School Learning Gallery installation to support the Social Studies curriculum in 2019-2020. Selected works were also lent to the World Peace exhibition at MoCA Westport (2020). Sugarman's activism and art were also included in the exhibition Remembered: The History of African Americans in Westport (2019) at the Westport Museum for History and Culture.

It's very important for young people to know that just real people make changes. They're not superman - none of these kids were - they're just people who care deeply and are willing to put themselves on the line. And I find that an inspiration every day."

Video of Tracy Sugarman speaking about his Freedom Summer experience, from the documentary, Years in the Making: A Journey into Late Life Creativity. (Martin West; Ada Lambert; Keir Dullea; Fine Fettle Films, 2009).

To visit the Westport Town Hall exhibition in person, on view through June 2021, please make an appointment (frontdesk@westportct.gov or 203-341-5072), as Covid-19 precautions are still in place.

Click here for further resources on Tracy Sugarman and the 1964 Freedom Summer

Links to the works in the exhibition on WestPAC's Connecticut Collections Database: Lawyer (1614.1); A View of White Ruleville from Black Ruleville (1614.2); Mississippi Policemen (1614.3); Mr. Williams (1614.4); Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney (1614.5); Noon Shade (1614.6); Account (1614.7); Freedom School Christmas (1608); Three GIs Stand at Attention (1593); Three WWII Soldiers (1594); Pilgrim Landing (1596); Memory Note of D+1 (1597).

Thank you for exploring with us!

To learn more about the Westport Public Art Collections (WestPAC) and to search the collections visit westportarts.org

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Credits:

Photographs by Westport Public Art Collections, unless otherwise noted in captions. WestPAC would like to thank the following individuals and organizations for their kind assistance with this project: James S. Marpe, Westport First Selectman; Sara Harris, Westport Operations Director; Pete Ratkiewich, Director of Public Works; Mike Frawley, Public Works Superintendent of Facilities; Lauren Francese, Westport Public Schools Social Studies Coordinator; Kathleen Motes Bennewitz, Westport Town Curator; Harold Bailey, Jr., Chair TEAM Westport; Ramin Ganeshram, Executive Director Westport Museum for History and Culture, TEAM Westport member; Nancy Diamond, Chair Westport Arts Advisory Committee (WAAC); Miggs Burroughs (WAAC), John Dodig (WAAC), Diane Lowman (WAAC), Redell Hearn, Founding Director of Academic Affairs, Mississippi Museum of Art; Laurie Sugarman-Whittier, Carole Erger-Fass, Bug Design; Jay Cimbak, Rockwell Framing; Ive Covaci, Education Chair WestPAC and exhibition curator; Randa Trivisonno, Chair, WestPAC; Friends of WestPAC and the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center.