Civics For Change: Freedom Summer 1964
Young people have always been and will always be the changemakers who push us forward toward a just and inclusive democracy.
Freedom Summer 1964 was a movement led by young people. During a time in our troubled history when the South was still deeply segregated, young people answered the call to make a difference — not just for their futures, but for the generations who would come after them. Whether young people joined the movement because of their parents’ activism, or because they saw posters on their college campuses, one thing was clear: Young people completely transformed the course of history through their advocacy and their commitment to an equitable future. To understand the pivotal role of Freedom Summer 1964, we must begin by understanding why bold action for voting rights for Black Americans was so imperative.
Freedom Summer, or the Mississippi Summer Project, was a 1964 voter registration drive aimed at increasing the number of registered Black voters in Mississippi. The state was chosen as the focus of Freedom Summer 1964 due to its historically low levels of Black voter registration. In fact, in 1962, less than 7 percent of the state’s eligible Black voters were registered to vote. Black Americans often faced violence and intimidation when they attempted to vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests were designed to silence Black voters. With this in mind, over 700 mostly white volunteers joined Black people in Mississippi to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls.
Like most things in history, the events of Freedom Summer 1964 did not happen in a vacuum. By 1964, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. The Freedom Riders had started their direct action against segregated public transportation in 1961, Southern organizers were staging sit-ins to protest Jim Crow Laws, and Dr. Martin Luther King had given his “I Have A Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington as 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. Despite the progress being made, the South remained a hot spot for racial segregation, especially at the polls.
In June 1964, volunteers and organizers arrived in Mississippi after receiving training in Oxford, Ohio. The Chairman of The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Board of Directors, Robert Masters, remembers this time well. In the first season of our podcast, he describes meeting Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner for the first time as they learned voter registration tactics and safety protocols from civil rights leader Robert “Bob” Moses.
Volunteers were constantly reminded of the high probability of being arrested and the need to have enough money for bail. However, no one could have foreseen the horrors that awaited three such volunteers in Neshoba County. Just one day after arriving in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both young Jewish volunteers from the North, accompanied a young Black Mississippian, James Earl Chaney, to investigate a bombed church that was set to be a site for one of their Freedom Schools. On June 21, 1964, all three men disappeared on their way to investigate the church. Their burnt-out car was found three days later near a swamp.
For the next 44 days, a missing persons search and national media attention gripped the nation. The amount of national attention their disappearances garnered was unusual; it was because two of the volunteers were white. In fact, as federal investigators searched for Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, they discovered dozens of other bodies in the swamps of Mississippi. They were all Black, and they were all murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. But none of their disappearances captivated the national news cycle like the disappearance and murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.
Federal investigators eventually found all three of the men’s bodies fifteen feet below an earthen dam on a local farm on August 4, 1964. Neshoba County Sherrif Cecil Price and the Ku Klux Klan were responsible for their disappearance and their brutal murders. State and local law enforcement refused to investigate the murders of the three men, forcing the United States Justice Department to pursue charges. Ultimately, only seven of the twenty-one men responsible for their murders were convicted. None served more than six years in prison. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were not the only ones to suffer at the hands of white supremacy that summer. In total, 1,062 people were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, and 30 Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned.
Despite the horrific events that happened to many Freedom Summer volunteers and organizers, their efforts helped shape history. By the end of the three months, more than 40 Freedom Schools had been established, serving upwards of 3,000 students who not only received a comparable education to their white, upper-class peers but also knowledge on how to exercise their right to vote. Their efforts are widely recognized as the driving force behind the pressure placed on President Lyndon B. Johnson to eventually sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in the following year, which ended segregation in public places, banned employment discrimination, and prohibited discriminatory voting practices.
In 1966, Robert and Carolyn Goodman created The Andrew Goodman Foundation to carry on the spirit and the purpose of their son Andrew’s life. Today, our work mobilizes young people to continue the legacy of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner on college campuses and in their surrounding communities across the country. It is with this same spirit that we are gathering together this summer with our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors for Legacy Summer 2022. We believe the movement of young people that propelled Freedom Summer did not end in 1964, but continues on today and will tomorrow through the spirit of young people who persistently fight for equitable voting rights. On August 11-12, 2022, Andrew Goodman Ambassadors and young people from our partner organizations will gather to hear inspiring panels and participate in training sessions, just as young organizers did ahead of Freedom Summer. They will leave the event prepared and ready to lead the movement of young voters to the 2022 Midterm Elections. Register today and join us as we honor the legacies of voting rights activists who came before us, while also paving the way for the next generation of young people to take bold action and make lasting change.
About The Author
Mo Banks is the Digital Marketing Manager at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. They currently live in Arkansas with their wife and 4 kids, where they’ve been working as a digital communications specialist for the past 4 years.