Freedom Summer, also known as The Mississippi Summer Project, was launched fifty years ago this month. In June, 1964 over one thousand out of state volunteer college students, mostly white, joined thousands of black Mississippians in a campaign to register black voters in the state of Mississippi, which had the lowest number of African American registered voters in the country.
At that time, even though they had the right to vote, southern states prevented blacks from voting by making it extra difficult to register. African Americans were singled out to pass literacy tests or pay a poll tax before they could register to vote. Black Mississippians were required to fill out a 21-question registration form and be prepared to answer a question from any section of the state constitution. African Americans were also intimidated and threatened with violence if they registered to vote.
In many parts of Mississippi, African Americans had large populations and were in the majority, but since they could not vote, they could not influence their governments and remained powerless to change things. That is why it was so important to get them registered.
SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), sponsored Freedom Summer. In addition to registering voters, they established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and brought in doctors, nurses and other medical students and professionals to teach health education. They also set up over 30 Freedom Schools, which taught thousands of children basic literacy, math, black history, and civil rights, in a creative and positive atmosphere.
Freedom Summer was a dangerous undertaking. During the summer, four civil rights workers were killed, three Mississippi blacks who supported the civil rights movement were murdered, four people were critically wounded, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 1,062 people both out of state and locals were arrested, and 30 black homes or businesses, as well as 37churches were burned or bombed.
On June 21, 1964 three young men, James Chaney a black Mississippian activist and member of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), Michael Schwerner, a Jewish CORE member, and Andrew Goodman, a Jewish volunteer, were arrested and held in jail until night. Soon after the police released them, the three were abducted and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. A search that eventually involved the FBI discovered the bodies of the three men on August 4, 1964. In the fall of 1964, the FBI arrested 19 men as suspects for the murders, but all were set free. It wasn’t until 1967 that seven of the men were tried, convicted and sentenced to 3-10 years.
Although they failed to register many voters, the seeds of Freedom Summer took root in Mississippi and all over our country. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave nationwide protection for voters and outlawed literacy tests. It also required some states, which were guilty of preventing blacks from voting, have any changes to their election laws receive federal approval. In 1980s and 90s, thanks to African American voters, Mississippi elected more black officials than any other state. The Freedom Schools inspired educators all over the country. Last year when I went to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, I met teacher from a Freedom School operating now in Rochester, New York.
On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required some states to get federal approval for changes to election laws. Also, several states have passed laws that require voters to have a photo ID in order to vote. Some people feel that these two things will once again make it difficult for African Americans and other minority groups to vote.
If you would like to know more, a movie about Freedom Summer will air on television on PBS, The American Experience – 6/24/14 9pm. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/
Check out http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedom-summer for more information about Freedom Summer.
Read: Freedom Summer and Revolution, the Sixties Trilogy by Deborah Wiles
I hope that you all have a wonderful summer. While you are out having fun, remember the brave people who spent their summer bringing freedom to Mississippi, fifty years ago.