When the whole world was watching Mississippi

June 11, 2014

Marlene Martin tells the story of Freedom Summer 50 years ago--another high point of the civil rights movement that helped change the political landscape in the U.S.

THEY CAME--filled with hope, determination and a truckload of idealism--to be a part of ridding the U.S. of the scourge of racism. "Surely, no challenge looms larger than eradicating racial discrimination in this country," one wrote on the application form, "I want to do my part. There is a moral wave building among today's youth, and I intend to catch it!"

In the summer of 1964, 1,000 Northern students--mostly white and from affluent backgrounds--answered the call put out by civil rights organizations for volunteers to take part in a summer-long Freedom Project in Mississippi.

It was a bold strategy that aimed to build on years of organizing by Southern activists and organizations of the civil rights movement.

The Freedom Project would concentrate on three specific areas: registering Blacks to vote; setting up Freedom Schools to teach Black students lessons in math, English and science, but also Black history and grassroots organizing; and launching the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a direct challenge to the racist state Democratic Party.

Civil rights activists during Freedom Summer in Mississippi
Civil rights activists during Freedom Summer in Mississippi

The main groups leading Freedom Summer were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), working under the umbrella Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference endorsed the project, but didn't participate. The NAACP declined to endorse, stating, "We're sitting this one out."

Why make the call for mostly white students from Ivy League schools to come to Mississippi? The answer was simple: To get the U.S. public to pay attention. According to CORE member Dave Dennis, a leader of COFO:

We knew that if we had brought a thousand Blacks, the country would have watched them slaughtered without doing anything about it. Bring a thousand whites, and the country is going to react to that...We made sure we had the children--sons and daughters--of some of the very powerful people in this country.

There was disagreement within SNCC about the Freedom Project--some veterans feared the white volunteers would take over. Ella Baker, a veteran of the movement and SNCC's adviser from its founding, carried the debate with her argument:

One of the reasons we're going into Mississippi is that the rest of the United States has never felt much responsibility for what happens in the Deep South. If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something.

THE MAIN impetus for Freedom Summer came from SNCC--the radical, youth-led grassroots organization born out of the lunch-counter sit-in movement that began in Greensboro, N.C. in February 1960 and spread across the South. SNCC went on to participate in the Freedom Rides, where Black and white activists traveled on buses into the South in order to desegregate them.

SNCC was known for its fearless and confrontational approach to activism. As the people's historian Howard Zinn, who was living and teaching in the South as SNCC was formed, wrote:

To be with them, walking a picket line in the rain in Hattiesburg, Mississippi...to see them jabbed by electric prod poles and flung into paddy wagons in Selma, Alabama, or link arms and sing at the close of a church meeting in the Delta--is to feel the presence of greatness.

SNCC was equally committed to working alongside impoverished and disenfranchised Black Southerners, rather than acting on their behalf. This was a hallmark of the group, and it shaped the concept of Freedom Summer and ran through every activity.

1964 was a year of growing racial tension. The civil rights movement had first emerged almost a decade before with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which won desegregation of city buses after a year of struggle. The wave of lunch counter sit-ins was now four years in the past, the March on Washington had brought 200,000 people to the nation's capital the year before, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham had almost set off a Black general strike across the South.

Yet the civil rights movement's goal of winning federal civil rights legislation still seemed distant--the Civil Rights Act was stalled after a Senate filibuster by the Dixiecrats.

The Mississippi Summer Project was intended to use direct action to increase the pressure still more on national politics.

For years, Blacks in Mississippi who tried to register to vote ran up against a wall of white supremacy--they were ignored, lied to, beaten and terrorized. Fannie Lou Hamer, the middle-aged Black woman who came to prominence during Freedom Summer as the voice of the MFDP--had tried to register twice before, and failed. For daring to try, she was beaten and fired from her plantation job where she had worked for 18 years.

"There is no state with a record which approached that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality and racial hatred," said Roy Wilkerson of the NAACP. "It is absolutely the bottom of the list."

Mississippi had the lowest number of Blacks registered to vote of any other Southern state. In some counties where African Americans were the majority, not a single Black was registered at all. This was the state with the largest Klan membership--91,000 and growing--and the largest number of lynchings.

SNCC and the other civil rights organizations were determined to focus their efforts here because, as one organizer said, "If we break through here, it breaks the dam on segregation."

THE WORK that went into organizing the Mississippi Summer Project was intense.

Every applicant had to be interviewed. They were asked outright if they would have any problem working under Black leadership, and told they weren't there to overwhelm local leaders. Applicants who made the cut were asked to come up with $500 in case they needed to be bonded out of jail.

Before heading to Mississippi, the students spent a week in training at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Here, SNCC veterans were brutally honest about what the volunteers should expect. The Klan had done its own organizing in preparation for the volunteers, holding late-night meetings and buying more guns and ammunition.

As the second one-week orientation was beginning, news arrived that three civil rights workers--CORE members James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--had disappeared on their way back to COFO headquarters in Meridian, Miss., after investigating the bombing of a Black church in Longdale.

Back in Ohio, SNCC leader and COFO co-director Bob Moses spoke to the volunteers:

There may be more deaths. I justify myself because I'm taking risks myself. And I'm not asking people to do things I'm not willing to do. And the other thing is, people were being killed already, the Negroes of Mississippi...Herbert Lee killed, Louis Allen killed, five others killed this year.

In some way, you have to come to grips with that--know what it means...If you are going to do anything about it, other people are going to be killed. No privileged group in history has ever given up anything, without some kind of blood sacrifice."

The fate of the missing civil rights workers would hang over the summer--their bodies were finally discovered in August. Each had been shot and buried in an earthen dam--the one Black among them, James Chaney, had been singled out for a savage beating before he was killed.

Rita Schwerner, Michael's wife, told the press that the only reason this tragedy got any media attention at all was because it involved the death of two white people. She was right--during the search for the missing civil rights workers, authorities discovered the remains of eight Black Mississippians, several of them civil rights activists, whose disappearances weren't known outside of their communities.

But the murders didn't have the effect the Klan had hoped. Overwhelmingly, the volunteers redoubled their commitment to the Mississippi Summer Project. The names of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner became internationally known as victims of racist barbarism in the "world's greatest democracy."

GIVEN THE hostility and violence, one organizing challenge was to find Mississippi homes for the volunteers to stay in. Black families understood that by agreeing to be hosts for the civil rights workers, they were placing a target on their backs.

Yet many did so proudly. "We were glad to see them," one woman said. "[H]ere were young people from big cities and places, and we found out they were just like anyone else." Another said, "They were very kind. They were different from white Southerners. They treated us with respect and dignity."

Any Black who worked with SNCC and the volunteers knew they would be accused of bringing "outside agitators" into their midst. Robert Miles, a civil rights pioneer himself, had an answer to that objection when he spoke at a church meeting in Batesville:

White folks are gonna tell you they're agitators. You know what an agitator is? An agitator is the piece in the center of a washing machine that spins around to get the dirt out. Well, that's what these people are here for. They're here to get the dirt out.

The volunteers were assigned to different areas, alongside experienced activists. Those working on voter registration went to towns and rural areas, going door to door and field to field, talking with people on their porches about how to register and assisting those who were willing to attempt it.

Police and Klan members would follow the civil rights workers around, shotguns held in plain sight. If the volunteers felt the threat of violence, it was much worse for Black residents, who understood that even trying to register could cost them their job, their home and possibly their life.

This made the voter registration work slow and difficult. As Bruce Watson recounted in his history of Freedom Summer, "Canvassing is like conversation, volunteers are learning--something of an art. They know how to converse, but how do you converse with someone too terrified to say, 'No,' too tired to say much else?"

By the end of the summer, some 17,000 Blacks had attempted to register--but only 1,600 were allowed to do so by state officials. These numbers were fewer than organizers had hoped for, but still an accomplishment considering the real terrorism people faced when they made a stand in 1964 Mississippi.

Other volunteers were teachers in the Freedom Schools. The goal had been to attract 1,000 students, but organizers were overwhelmed when more than 3,000 showed up.

These schools were to be different from regular schools in every way. They were voluntary--there were no grades, no testing, no pass or fail. Students were taught core subjects like math and English, but they also learned about Black history and organizing. The teaching format--later taken up in the teach-ins of the antiwar movement--was to encourage participation by asking students questions and allowing them to ask questions back. As the SNCC manual for the volunteers explained:

You will be teaching young people who have lived in Mississippi all their lives. That means that they have been deprived of a decent education from first grade all through high school. It means that they have been denied free expression and free thought. Most of all, it means that they have been denied the right to question. The purpose of the Freedom Schools is to help them begin to question.

The manual went on to explain that while students would carry the "scars of the system," they would also have a "knowledge beyond their years. This knowledge is the knowledge of how to survive in a society that is out to destroy you."

The day for Freedom School teachers typically started at 7 a.m., with a break for lunch and dinner, then classes for adults in the evening. But the volunteers would recall this as one of the most important things they ever did. One student wrote in a letter to her parents:

The atmosphere in class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about--real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything...They drain me of everything that I have to offer, so that I go home at night completely exhausted, but very happy.

THE MISSISSIPPI Freedom Democratic Party was launched during the Summer Project as a challenge to the racist system. Blacks who weren't allowed to register or vote were encouraged to sign up with the MFDP--some 80,000 people did so.

The party held caucuses, county assemblies and a statewide convention, where 68 people were chosen as delegates to go the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where they challenged the all-white delegation for the state's seats at the convention.

The drama of the MFDP's appearance at the convention is a story in its own right. President Lyndon Johnson and the northern wing of the Democrats paid lip service to supporting civil rights, but they weren't prepared to abandon the Dixiecrat wing of the party that dominated in the South.

Ultimately, the MFDP was offered a rotten compromise: two seats, but without voting rights, while the all-white delegation remained intact. Stunned, the MFDP turned down the offer and walked out of the convention.

The national Democratic Party's betrayal of the MFDP was a turning point for many veteran activists who were already becoming more and more radicalized. As SNCC organizer Cleveland Sellers recalled:

Never again were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the "good" people of America could eliminate them. We left Atlantic City with the knowledge that our movement had turned into something else. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.

Freedom Summer also transformed the volunteers brought by SNCC to Mississippi to get the country to pay attention. The civil rights movement not only inspired other social and political struggles to come--it directly politicized and trained their leaders.

Mario Savio had traveled to Mississippi as a civil rights volunteer in the summer of 1964. A few months later, he put the lessons he learned to use in the Free Speech Movement that erupted in Berkeley, Calif.--a forerunner of the movements for justice and democracy that would grip college campuses later in the 1960s.

Years later, he explained the impact Freedom Summer had on him, referring to one particular encounter with a Black man trying to register to vote:

Until then, I was sort of an observer in a certain way...but here was somebody who, because of something I had done, was maybe risking his family and facing that kind of humiliation. [The registrar] made him eat shit before finally giving him that form. He was afraid, but he stood his ground.

That man's courage changed my life. You know, we used to sing about how we'll never turn back, ain't gonna turn around. [Freedom Summer] was the point at which it became real for me. That is, I'd chosen sides for the rest of my life.

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