This Saturday marks a the 50th anniversary of a dark day in America’s march for racial equality. On June 21, 1964 three civil rights workers, Andrew Goodwin, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were murdered as they investigated the burning of a Mississippi church. There story is well known, but there are many more stories from the period dubbed Freedom Summer that should be retold.
Freedom Summer (aka the Mississippi Summer Project) began as the joint effort of several organizations including the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The primary thrust was a voter registration drive, aimed at significantly increasing minority voter participation.
According to History.com, Mississippi was chosen as the site of the Freedom Summer project due to its historically low levels of African-American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 percent of the state’s eligible black voters were registered to vote. Owing to this paucity, Freedom Summer attracted the hard work of thousands of Mississippians, and more than 1,000 out-of-state (primarily white, northern) college students.
Their efforts were met with substantial, often violent opposition. Freedom Summer volunteers faced a systematic campaign of harassment and abuse not only form predictable foes like the Ku Klux Klan, but more shamefully from state and local authorities. The workers endured beatings, arson, false arrests and as above, even murder.
By most accounts, the results of Freedom Summer were at best mixed. While volunteers managed to form more than 40 so-called “Freedom Schools.” Conceived by Charles Cobb, an SNCC activist, these temporary schools were intended to hasten the end of minority political and social displacement as well as providing some more traditional academic curricula. During the summer of 1964, over 3,000 African-Americans attended these schools. They attracted a full range of students — from small children to the elderly.
For all its successes, Freedom Summer only managed to register approximately 1,200 new black voters. Perhaps more damaging was the toll exacted on the broader civil rights movement.
With the Democratic Convention came a new frontier in the fight for freedom — intra-party politics. By many accounts more liberal party leaders and certain civil rights leaders had acquiesced to the party’s refusal to seat delegates elected through Council of Federated Organization’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.
As historians, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty explain, the events of Freedom Summer deepened the division between those in the Civil Rights movement who still believed in integration and nonviolence and others, especially young blacks, who now doubted whether racial equality was achievable by peaceful means. The Civil Rights movement continued to be active, but after 1964, the solidarity that had infused its earlier years was weakened.
Even if the grand ideals espoused by the participants in Freedom Summer were not realized immediately, their commitment and willingness to sustain loss sparked something deep in the public conscience.
Among its most important fruits is the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A very personal project for President Lyndon Johnson, the Act contains provisions that regulate the administration of elections. The “General Provisions” of the Act provide federal protections for voting rights. Key among these is Section 2, which prohibits any state or local government from imposing any voting law that results in discrimination against racial or language minorities. The Act also outlaws literacy tests and similar devices that were historically used to disfranchise racial minorities.
As we contemplate the impending summer heat 50 years later, it is fitting that we pause for a moment to reflect on idealism and sacrifice of those intrepid souls and their Mississippi crusade.