Freedom Summer (1964)
During the summer of 1964, thousands of civil rights activists, many of them white college students from the North, descended on Mississippi to try to end the longtime political disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Black men had been given the right to vote in 1870 with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, but local laws and intimidation kept them from voting for almost 100 years. Violent harassment and both the threat and reality of lynching kept most blacks from registering to vote, and polling taxes and literacy tests hampered those who were not intimidated. Civil rights leaders had long recognized the need to register black voters in the South, but the massive disparity between the black population and those registered to vote in Mississippi—in 1962, only 6.7 percent of black Mississippians were registered—prompted a more concerted effort in 1964.
Members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led the Freedom Summer campaign. The addition of a large number of white volunteers prompted a dramatic increase in media coverage over the summer. The two primary concerns of the campaign, in addition to the registration of black voters, were (1) the establishment of “freedom schools” to teach black children the philosophy of the civil rights movement in addition to basic skills in reading and arithmetic, and (2) the organization of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to challenge the all-white regular Democratic party in the state.
The MFDP had won crucial support from numerous congressmen and organizations within the Democratic Party in the previous year. During Freedom Summer, however, they hoped to seat their own delegates in the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The MFDP selected a 68-person delegation—including four whites—to send to the convention. However, to have their delegates seated, they had to convince the Credentials Committee to vote in their favor. During an impassioned speech to the committee, MFDP delegate and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer testified about the great difficulties African Americans in Mississippi were forced to endure to claim their lawful right to vote and her concern that a failure to seat the delegates would represent the failure of all that America professed to stand for. The national media broadcast her plea, and it garnered the movement much support across the nation. However, in the end a compromise was reached in which only the white delegates would be seated. While this was a blow to the hopes of the activists, the MFDP did help ensure that segregated delegations would never again be allowed at the convention.
Perhaps the most infamous event of the Freedom Summer was the tragedy in Philadelphia, Mississippi, when three civil rights workers went missing for almost six weeks. Two white workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and a black
volunteer, James Chaney, set out to investigate a local church bombing on June 21. Local police arrested them that afternoon and held them for several hours on alleged traffic violations. It is still unknown what happened to the men after they were released from jail. SNCC leaders reported the men missing when they failed to report in that night, but the sheriff insisted that the men were hiding to gain publicity, and the FBI refused to become involved for over a day. During the ensuing search, the bodies of three lynched black men who had been missing for several weeks were found. The black community noted that the media paid far more attention to the missing white workers than these three lynched black men. The bodies of the civil rights workers were found on August 4 in a dam. All three had been shot, and Chaney had been badly beaten.
Freedom Summer activists faced threats and harassment throughout the campaign, not only from white supremacist groups, but also from local residents and police. By the end of the summer, 37 churches and 30 homes had been firebombed or burned, more than 1,000 volunteers were arrested, at least 80 were beaten, and 4 had been killed. Yet despite this overt violence and the opposition to the MFDP, the Freedom Summer was far from a failure. It showed African Americans that they could have political power and put a spotlight on the rampant black disenfranchisement in the South. In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed in Congress, banning the numerous tactics used to disenfranchise African Americans. By 1969, the number of voting-age Mississippi blacks registered to vote had risen to 66.5%.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Halberstam, David. The Children. New York: Ballantine, 1998.
McAdam, Doug. Freedom Summer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Watson, Bruce. Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy. New York: Penguin, 2010.