Freedom Summer of 1964: Interracial Success Story

Article excerpt

THIRTY years ago Mississippi Freedom Summer began. Along with many others who had done civil rights work in Mississippi during the 1960s, I returned there last month for ceremonies marking the anniversary.

It was a time for nostalgia. But it was not, I believe, just nostalgia. It was the sense that the legacy of Freedom Summer remains relevant.

The idea behind Freedom Summer was to turn a spotlight on Mississippi so that the country could see the level of racism the state was organized to defend. Since 1961, under Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been doing civil rights work in Mississippi. SNCC had, however, received little attention from the media and virtually no protection from the federal government.

Freedom Summer was designed to end SNCC's isolation. A task force of a thousand volunteers, most of them white, Northern college students, was recruited to come to Mississippi and under a SNCC-led civil rights coalition to do voter registration, start Freedom Schools, and help build a political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, open to all races. Without money, without political clout, without significant numbers, Freedom Summer would show that the segregationist laws keeping more than 90 percent of Mississippi's blacks from voting could be overcome.

IF we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country," declared John Lewis, SNCC's chairman in 1964 and today a Democratic congressman from Georgia.

Freedom Summer did not accomplish all that its organizers wanted. But it did, as John Lewis hoped, crack Mississippi and give new momentum to the civil rights movement in America.

Once Freedom Summer began, racial violence in Mississippi no longer went unreported. On June 21, when three civil rights workers - Mississippian James Chaney and Northerners Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - disappeared, it was front-page news. President Johnson responded by sending the FBI to help search for them (44 days later they were found shot and buried under an earthen dam) and by calling for immediate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, languishing in Congress.

The July 2 passage of the Civil Rights Act, plus stepped-up federal involvement in Mississippi, increased the violence against Freedom Summer workers. By the end of August, in addition to the three deaths, there would be 80 beatings, 37 church burnings, and more than a thousand arrests. But the violence proved self-defeating. It showed the Mississippi that state officials hoped outsiders would not see, and it showed that no area in the Deep South was now beyond the reach of the civil rights movement. …