Freedom Summer and its Legacy
We are in the midst of the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, though you haven’t heard much about it from the media.
There were many events in the history of the civil rights movement, though perhaps none were as important. It had been nearly a decade since the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, yet much of the south was still segregated.
This includes schools, drinking fountains, transportation and most public services.
But maybe more importantly, it was nearly impossible for African Americans to vote.
As late as 1962, the best estimates are that only 6.7 percent of eligible blacks in the state of Mississippi were registered to vote. Between 1890 and 1910, most southern states had instituted a series of measures to repress black voting including literacy tests (with grandfather clauses for illiterate whites), poll taxes, and just plain outright discrimination and refusal when anyone attempted to register.
It went beyond discrimination of course. African Americans in many southern states lived in a state of occupation, not only unable to exercise their rights, but facing violence should they attempt to do so.
This is the world the Freedom Summer volunteers faced. Over 1,000 young people, mostly white college students, many of them Jewish, came from the north to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote.
The project was the result of a well-coordinated group of organizations that came together for a common purpose. Most of the organizing was done by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), but they also had the help of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the NAACP.
Legal support was crucial and was provided by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Lawyers Guild, Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Organizers set up freedom schools and worked with local churches and community center to organize the activities.
What truly radicalized the volunteers was the training they went through in June of 1964. These were young idealists, college students who had been taught and believed in the American Dream. They were coming to find that for a substantial portion of the population, that dream was nowhere near reality.
The students were trained in nonviolent movement tactics, including what to do when confronted by violent police and vigilante groups. The Mississippi they were going into was a place where the rule of law did not apply, certainly not when it came to blacks. Juries, almost always all-white, would routinely ignore evidence and white crimes against blacks went unpunished always and seldom even prosecuted.
The training was crucial. Over the course of the ten-week Freedom Summer project, more than 1,000 people were arrested, dozens of homes and churches were bombed and burned, around 80 volunteers were beaten. Four were killed, at least three by Ku Klux Klan members.
The project may have been a turning point in how law enforcement, particularly the FBI, dealt with the Klan. The Bureau, which had been infiltrating the civil rights movement for several years and were actively attempting to undermine their constitutionally protected activities, finally turned their attention to the real terrorism being carried out by the Klan and other organizations, though still never to the same degree.
Freedom Summer is often given credit for its role in what became the Voting Rights Act (recently undermined by the current Roberts court) which led to African Americans finally getting an opportunity to vote in much of the south.
But the impact of the project is far greater. Though the civil rights movement would fracture over both policy and strategy, those thousand or so volunteers didn’t stop with voter enfranchisement. They were the youthful core of what became several movements in the ensuing years, efforts for women’s rights, to end the war in Vietnam, the war on poverty, the environmental movement and a variety of others.
The free speech movement that began on college campuses, most particularly the University of California at Berkeley owes much of its origins to Freedom Summer.
This is the key thing to remember about participation in events like this. You can never be certain what you will accomplish. Social movements are like a virus–in this case a quite beneficial one–they spread in ways that are unpredictable. What you think you are trying to achieve may just be the starting point. the cause of social justice is often benefited far beyond your original intent. Not only did the volunteers of Freedom Summer continue their efforts in other causes, but their children and grandchildren–both genetic and metaphorical–are now similarly engaged. From the movement to end the Iraq war to Occupy Wall Street, every movement for freedom and equality we see today owes a debt to those of the past.
For those interested in learning more about Freedom Summer, there are many resources, but among the best is Doug McAdam’s 1990 book of that title. I missed getting to work with McAdam as he arrived at Stanford the year after I left. His book on the Freedom Summer project is just one part of his study of social movements.
About the Author: Michael Carley is a writer (among other things) living in central California with his wife an son. In 2013, he self-published the short story People Like That on Amazon.com. He currently writes a weekly column for the Porterville Recorder, a small local newspaper and is working on his first novel. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.