Students experience Freedom Summer through app

By Kelsey Kimbler - For The Register-Herald

OXFORD – Freedom Summer, the one-week training orientation to register African Americans as voters in Mississippi, first took place in 1964, but on Thursday, Sept. 15, many got to live out the experience through the unveiling of an interactive app funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant of $60,000.

The event was hosted by the Miami University Office of Community Engagement and Service, Department of Theatre, and Miami University Art Museum.

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, everyone was invited to go to Thomson Hall on Western Campus, formerly known as Western College for Women (where Freedom Summer actually took place.) On the front lawn of the residence hall there was a table set up, complete with signs proclaiming messages like, “Help Mississippi vote!”

Once there, participants were invited to download a QR code that led to the application and were urged to team up with others if they didn’t bring a group. Dr. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, Associate Professor of Theatre and Director of Graduate Studies, explained, the game is more enjoyable when played in a group, as that was the intention – to learn together instead of independently.

The app works to replicate the sense of community that Freedom Summer created.

Freedom Summer consisted of groups of people coming to Oxford, to fight for a cause they believed in passionately. They knew that death was possible, as Mississippi was not a safe state at the time – it had many Ku Klux Klan members.

As explained in the app, this truth because glaringly obvious as the summer went on.

The app starts players out by going to Leonard Theater in Peabody Hall to attend a lecture. A player is told that he or she cannot get on the bus to Mississippi unless they have $500 for bail money.

This seems like a lot, and even one’s character in the game seems put off by it, but this was how Freedom Summer operated. Organizers couldn’t afford to pay all of their protesters’ bail money if arrested, and the likelihood of getting arrested was high.

In the game, players are given a situation and a few different answers from which to choose. Based on one’s answer, the game actually drafts dialogue so the player can have a conversation with whomever they are talking to.

Historical documents are infused throughout the game. When one is told to attend a lecture, they actually get to hear an historic speech.

The lecture in Leonard Theater is interrupted. It is breaking news — activists and former Freedom Summer trainees Michael Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, turned up missing after investigating a Klan church burning.

One’s character in the game is given three characters to speak to — two white college students and a black Mississippi native named Keith.

The female college student hopes they are found soon, the male is sure the FBI will help, but it is Keith who responds, “They’re dead.”

From there, the game is personalized based on one’s answers to the prompted questions.

Groups who were playing their own games were sent in different directions based on their responses. If one wants to play as a group, it is best to only play one game (on one phone) instead of multiple.

The storyline states a player is waiting for someone to wire them bail before they can get on the bus, but the player is to take part in additional training and speak to the people around them.

This takes a player all over Western Campus, so one can see exactly where the students of 1964 participated in this training session.

At one point in the game, players are even allowed to speak to their Mother (who urges them to stop) and to a journalist (who misquotes them terribly.)

One interesting aspect of the game is the interactive notes one is prompted to leave. There is a feature called “notebook” within the game, and after certain experiences, like being misquoted, one is supposed to publicly respond.

Notes like, “That is not what I said!” crop up in the app and anyone playing can read them.

Players are even able to role-play as an African American voter from Mississippi at one point in the game.

Those who were urging Mississippians to vote needed to know what they were asking of them, so as part of the 1964 training, they had to experience a taste of what the voter would.

A player goes into the Registrar’s office and sees a white man registering to vote, he has to interpret an easy passage, but his answer is riffled with grammatical errors. He is told that he did great and is extremely literate and now has the right to vote.

One’s character is given a long, winding passage about taxes. The player, has to respond in the “notebook” feature and wait to be told whether they pass or not.

Spoiler alert: you do not pass and are told you are too illiterate to deserve the right to vote.

This was the experience for black Mississippi voters, but the player, as the activist, still has to give them a reason to try and register.

Being denied wasn’t the only reason Mississippi natives might not want to even attempt to register to vote.

They had to post for two weeks in the newspaper they were going to register. Being made so public, many lost their jobs or were harassed. They had to put their lives on the line to even be denied the right to vote.

The player is prompted to respond what reason they might give to a potential voter for still attempting to register.

Once bail is wired, the game begins to wind down. There is an announcement that there was a charred station wagon found on June 23, and the three activist are officially reported dead.

The players are given the choice to leave and not go to Mississippi. It is explained that not going does not make one a coward — if one feels unsafe they shouldn’t go, but many still chose to put their lives on the line.

A player’s final choice in the game is to talk to the journalist (who is extremely apologetic) or sing a song of one’s choice. If the player sings, he or she must record an audio file and post it to their “notebook.”

While one’s character clearly didn’t exist in 1964, the storyline is true, according to organizers. Those 20-year-olds really died.

In fact, the public outrage over these deaths helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The idea for the app was born in 2014, when Dr. Armstrong was performing interactive walking tours for the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

From this point on, developers hope to only expand the application. As of now, it only works on IOS, so only iPhones can use it, but in October they plan to release the Android version.

They’ve already started working on a desktop version of the game, they hope to bring field trips and social studies classes to Western Campus to experience history using the phone app.

The next scheduled day the game was offered was Monday, Sept. 26 from 5-7:30 p.m., with a possible rain date on Wednesday, Sept. 28.

Following the game there was a discussion about the NEH Digital Humanities Project planned at the Leonard Theater, followed by a reception offering wine and cheese.

By Kelsey Kimbler

For The Register-Herald