Freedom Summer

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For the 2001 children's book, see Freedom Summer (book). For the 2014 documentary film, see Freedom Summer (film).
"Summer Project" redirects here. For work assigned to students during their summer vacation, see Summer project (education).
Mt. Zion Church state history marker near Philadelphia, Mississippi

Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project) was a campaign in the United States launched in June 1964 to attempt to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had historically excluded most blacks from voting. The project also set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout Mississippi to aid the local black population.

The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations (SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC). Most of the impetus, leadership, and financing for the Summer Project came from the SNCC. Robert Parris Moses, SNCC field secretary and co-director of COFO, directed the summer project.[1]

1963 Freedom Vote[edit]

Freedom Summer was built on the years of earlier work by numerous African Americans who lived locally in Mississippi. In 1963, SNCC organized a mock "Freedom Vote" designed to demonstrate the will of Black Mississippians to vote, if not impeded by terror and intimidation. The Mississippi voting procedure at the time required Blacks to fill out a 21-question registration form and to answer, to the satisfaction of the white registrar, a question on interpretation of any one of 285 sections of the state constitution.[2]

In 1963, volunteers set up polling places in Black churches and business establishments across Mississippi. After registering on a simple registration form, voters would select candidates to run in the following year's election. Candidates included Rev. Edwin King of Tougaloo College and Aaron Henry, from Clarksdale, Mississippi.[3] Local civil rights workers and volunteers, along with students from northern universities, organized and implemented the mock election, in which tens of thousands voted.

Planning begins February 1964[edit]

By 1964, students and others had begun the process of integrating public accommodations, registering adults to vote, and above all organizing a network of local leadership. Building on the efforts of 1963 (including the Freedom Ballot and registration efforts in Greenwood), Moses prevailed over doubts among SNCC and COFO workers, and planning for Freedom Summer began in February 1964. Speakers recruited on college campuses across the country, drawing standing ovations for their dedication in braving the routine violence perpetrated by police, sheriffs, and others in Mississippi. SNCC recruiters interviewed dozens of potential volunteers, weeding out those with a John Brown complex (similar to the perception their job was solely a white man's burden, or that they were in some way superior to those who they were helping),[clarification needed] informing others that their job that summer would not be to "save the Mississippi Negro" but to work with local leadership to develop the grassroots movement.

Well over 1,000 out-of-state volunteers participated in Freedom Summer alongside thousands of black Mississippians. Most of the volunteers were young, most of them from the North, 90 percent were white, and many were Jewish. Two one-week orientation sessions for the volunteers were held at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (now part of Miami University), from June 14 to June 27,[4] after Berea College backed out of hosting the sessions due to alumni pressure.[5]

Organizers focused on Mississippi because it had the lowest percentage of African Americans registered to vote in the country. In 1962 only 6.7% of eligible black voters were registered.[6]

Southern states had effectively disfranchised most African Americans and many poor whites in the period from 1890 to 1910 by passing state constitutions, amendments and other laws that imposed burdens on voter registration: charging poll taxes, requiring literacy tests administered subjectively by white registrars, making residency requirements more difficult, as well as record keeping to document required items. They maintained this exclusion from politics into the 1960s.

Most means survived US Supreme Court challenges and, if overruled, states had quickly developed new ways to exclude blacks, such as use of grandfather clauses and white primaries. In some cases, would-be voters were harassed economically, as well as by physical assault. Lynchings had been high at the turn of the century and continued for years.[7]

During the ten weeks of Freedom Summer, a number of other organizations provided support for the COFO Summer Project. More than 100 volunteer doctors, nurses, psychologists, medical students and other medical professionals from the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) provided emergency care for volunteers and local activists, taught health education classes, and advocated improvements in Mississippi's segregated health system.

Volunteer lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Inc ("Ink Fund"), National Lawyers Guild, Lawyer's Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) an arm of the ACLU, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCR) provided free legal services — handling arrests, freedom of speech, voter registration and other matters.

The Commission on Religion and Race (CORR), an endeavor of the National Council of Churches (NCC), brought Christian and Jewish clergy and divinity students to Mississippi to support the work of the Summer Project. In addition to offering traditional religious support to volunteers and activists, the ministers and rabbis engaged in voting rights protests at courthouses, recruited voter applicants and accompanied them to register, taught in Freedom Schools, and performed office and other support functions.

Violence[edit]

A stained glass window honoring the three slain activists in Sage Chapel, Cornell University.

Many of Mississippi's white residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society. Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Newspapers called them "unshaven and unwashed trash." Their presence in local black communities sparked drive-by shootings, Molotov cocktails, and constant harassment. State and local governments, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission (which was tax-supported and spied on citizens), police, the White Citizens' Council, and the Ku Klux Klan used murder, arrests, beatings, arson, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.[8]

Over the course of the ten-week project:

  • four civil rights workers were killed (one in a head-on collision)
  • at least three Mississippi blacks were murdered because of their support for the civil rights movement
  • four people were critically wounded
  • 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten
  • 1,062 people were arrested (out-of-state volunteers and locals)
  • 37 churches were bombed or burned
  • 30 Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned[9]

Volunteers were attacked almost as soon as the campaign started. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney (a black CORE activist from Mississippi), CORE organizer Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman (both of whom were Jews from New York) were arrested by Cecil Price, a Neshoba County deputy sheriff. Price was a member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were held in jail until after nightfall, then released. They drove away into an ambush on the road by Klansmen, who abducted and killed them. Goodman and Schwerner were shot at point-blank range. Chaney was chased, beaten mercilessly, and shot three times. They were later found to have been buried in an earthen dam. The disappearance of the three men the night of their release from jail was reported on TV and on newspaper front pages, shocking the nation. It drew massive media attention to Freedom Summer and to "the closed society" of Mississippi.

When the men went missing, SNCC and COFO workers began phoning the FBI asking for an investigation. FBI agents refused, saying it was a local matter. Finally, after some 36 hours, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered an investigation. FBI agents began swarming around Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been arrested. For the next seven weeks, FBI agents and sailors from a nearby naval airbase searched for the bodies, wading into swamps, and hacking through underbrush. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover went to Mississippi on July 10 to open the first FBI branch office there.

Throughout the search, Mississippi newspapers and word of mouth perpetuated the common belief that the disappearance was "a hoax" designed to draw publicity. The search of rivers and swamps turned up the bodies of eight other black men. Herbert Oarsby, a 14-year old youth, was found wearing a CORE T-shirt. Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore had been expelled from Alcorn A&M for participating in civil rights protests. The other five men were never identified. On August 4, 1964, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found buried beneath an earthen dam.[10]

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party[edit]

With participation in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party blocked by segregationists, COFO established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a non-exclusionary rival to the regular party organization. It intended to gain recognition of the MFDP by the national Democratic Party as the legitimate party organization in Mississippi. Delegates were elected to go to Democratic national convention to be held that year.

Before the convention was held, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When the forces of white supremacy continued to block black voter registration, the Summer Project switched to building the MFDP. Though the MFDP challenge had wide support among many convention delegates, Lyndon B. Johnson feared losing Southern support in the coming campaign. He did not allow the MFDP to replace the regulars, but the continuing issues of political oppression in Mississippi was covered widely by the national press.

Freedom Schools[edit]

Main article: Freedom Schools

In addition to voter registration and the MFDP, the Summer Project also established a network 30 to 40 voluntary summer schools – called "Freedom Schools" – as an alternative to Mississippi's totally segregated and underfunded schools for blacks. Over the course of the summer, more than 3,500 students attended Freedom Schools, which taught subjects that the public schools avoided, such as black history and constitutional rights.[11]

Freedom Schools were held in churches, on back porches, and under the trees of Mississippi. Students ranged from small children to elderly adults, with the average age around 15. Most of the volunteer teachers were college students. Under the direction of Spelman College professor Staughton Lynd, the goal was to teach voter literacy, and political organization skills, as well as academic skills, and to help with confidence. The curriculum was directly linked to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. As Edwin King, who ran for Lieutenant Governor on the MFDP ticket, stated, “Our assumption was that the parents of the Freedom School children, when we met them at night, that the Freedom Democratic Party would be the PTA.”

The Freedom Schools operated on a basis of close interaction and mutual trust between teachers and students. The core curriculum focused on basic literacy and arithmetic, black history and current status, political processes, civil rights, and the freedom movement. The content varied from place to place and day to day according to the questions and interests of the students.[12]

The volunteer Freedom School teachers were as profoundly affected by their experience as were the students. Pam Parker, a teacher in the Holly Springs school, wrote of the experience:

"The atmosphere in the class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about — real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy in spirit..."[13]

Aftermath[edit]

Freedom Summer did not succeed in getting many voters registered, but it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of isolation and repression that had supported the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers. The events that summer had captured national attention (as had the mass protests and demonstrations in previous years). Some black activists felt the media had reacted only because northern white students were killed and felt embittered.[6] Almost all the volunteers have recounted believing that summer was one of the defining periods of their lives.[14]

The structure of the civil rights movement remained after Freedom Summer. In September and October, leading up to the November 1964 election, a series of repressive events occurred in Mississippi. Nuisance arrests, beatings, and church burnings continued. Long-term volunteers staffed the COFO and SNCC offices throughout Mississippi. After the flood of summer workers in 1964, their leadership decided that projects should continue in the following summer, but under the direction of local leadership. In the following summer, and thereafter, the priorities were set by locals.

Among many notable veterans of Freedom Summer were Heather Booth, Marshall Ganz, and Mario Savio. Julian Bond has led civil rights in a variety of positions, including as an elected official. After the summer, Heather Booth returned to Illinois, where she became a founder of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and later the Midwest Academy. Marshall Ganz returned to California, where he worked for many years on the staff of the United Farm Workers. He later taught organizing strategies. In 2008 he played a crucial role in organizing Barack Obama's field staff for the campaign. Mario Savio returned to the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a leader of the Free Speech Movement.

In Mississippi, controversy raged over the three murders. Mississippi state and local officials did not indict anyone. The FBI continued to investigate. Agents infiltrated the KKK and paid informers to reveal secrets of their "klaverns". In the fall of 1964, informants told the FBI about the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. On December 4, the FBI arrested 19 men as suspects.

All were freed on a technicality, starting a three-year battle to bring them to justice. In October 1967, the men, including the Klan's Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, who had allegedly ordered the murders, went on trial in the federal courthouse in Meridian. Seven were ultimately convicted for federal crimes related to the murders. All were sentenced to 3–10 years, but none served more than six years. This marked the first time since Reconstruction that white men had been convicted of civil rights violations against blacks in Mississippi.

Mississippi began to make some racial progress but white supremacy was resilient, especially in rural areas. In 1965 Congress passed the federal Voting Rights Act, which provided for federal oversight and enforcement to facilitate registration and voting in areas of historically low turnout. Mississippi's legislature passed several laws to dilute the power of black votes. Only with Supreme Court rulings and more than a decade of cooling did black voting become a reality in Mississippi. The seeds planted during Freedom Summer bore fruit in the 1980s and 1990s, when Mississippi elected more black officials than any other state. Since redistricting in 2003, Mississippi has had four congressional districts. Mississippi's 2nd congressional district, covering a concentration of black population in the western part of the state, including the Mississippi Delta, is black majority.

Renewed investigation of the 1964 Mississippi civil rights workers murders led to a trial by the state in 2005. As a result of investigative reporting by Jerry Mitchell (an award-winning reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger), high school teacher Barry Bradford, and three of his students from Illinois (Brittany Saltiel, Sarah Siegel, and Allison Nichols), Edgar Ray Killen, one of the leaders of the killings and a former Ku Klux Klan klavern recruiter, was indicted for murder. He was convicted of three counts of manslaughter.[15] The Killen verdict was announced on June 21, 2005, the forty-first anniversary of the crime. Killen's lawyers appealed the verdict, but his sentence of 3 times 20 years in prison was upheld on January 12, 2007, in a hearing by the Supreme Court of Mississippi.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Clayborne Carson, In Struggle (Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 114.
  2. ^ Sargent, The Civil Rights Revolution: Events and Leaders, 1955-1968, McFarland, 2004, p 72
  3. ^ "Freedom Vote Flyer", Amistad Research Center, Tulane University
  4. ^ Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 66.
  5. ^ Wang, Hansi Lo (June 14, 2014). "50 Years Ago, Freedom Summer Began By Training For Battle". NPR. 
  6. ^ a b "Freedom Summer". CORE. 2006. Retrieved 2009-02-06. 
  7. ^ "Voting Rights". Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. 2003. Retrieved 2009-02-06. 
  8. ^ Mississippi: Subversion of the Right to Vote ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  9. ^ McAdam, Doug (1988). Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press. 
  10. ^ Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  11. ^ "Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools", ~Education & Democracy
  12. ^ Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum ~Education & Democracy
  13. ^ Mississippi Freedom Summer — 1964 ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  14. ^ Veterans Roll Call ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  15. ^ Mitchell, Jerry (February 4, 2014). "Congressional Honor Sought for Freedom Summer Martyrs". USA Today. 

References[edit]

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