Student Activism and Voting Rights: Continuing the Work of Freedom Summer
Voting rights have come a long way since Andrew Goodman lost his life during Freedom Summer in 1964, but with new voting restrictions, it’s just as important to fight for voting rights today.
Following the American Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African Americans the legal right to vote for the first time. Within a few years, more than 500,000 African Americans registered to vote in the South. In some locations, they made up the majority of the state’s voting population, with numerous Confederate officials temporarily disfranchised after the war. Dominating the polls, 20,000 African Americans took office for the first time.
Despite the rapid post-war expansion of voting rights for African Americans, backlash to Reconstruction took hold by 1876, with a movement white Southerners called “Redemption.” With federal troops removed and voting restrictions on former Confederates lifted after the Compromise of 1877, Southern states began to pass laws and amend their constitutions to eliminate African-American voters from the electorate. White supremacists in the South came up with thinly-veiled tactics for restricting African-American voters, attempting to appear “color-blind” on the surface. States instituted poll taxes, rigged literacy tests, and other biased devices to determine voter eligibility. They added grandfather clauses to protect voting rights for poor or illiterate whites. Many states also denied the elective franchise to anyone convicted of even a minor crime, such as stealing livestock. While the Supreme Court ruled grandfather clauses unconstitutional in 1915, most of these restrictions remained unchallenged for decades, collectively disfranchising most African-American voters in the South.
By the 1960s, little had changed. In 1964, less than 7% of African Americans in Mississippi had successfully registered to vote, and intimidation often deterred those who registered from ever casting a vote. Recognizing the need for decisive action, James Farmer of CORE, James Forman of SNCC, and Robert Moses of Council of Federated Organizations decided to recruit students and faculty to travel to Mississippi to tackle the systemic injustice. The movement, which participants referred to as “the Summer Project,” rather than “Freedom Summer,” as it is better known today, aimed to register African-American voters and create a culture of civic engagement in the South. In addition to the “Freedom Vote” campaign, Freedom Summer participants organized Freedom Schools, Freedom Newspapers, and an effort to unseat the all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention through the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The organizers hoped the presence of white students would bring visibility to the dismal state of civil rights in Mississippi.
During Freedom Summer, activists opened 41 Freedom Schools, serving over 2,100 students. The movement placed local students at the forefront of change. The Freedom Schools focused on African-American history, and particularly on traditions of protests and social activism. Freedom School students studied cases of people of African descent standing up to oppression, including the Haitian Revolution and the Amistad case, an successful uprising aboard a slave ship. This focus starkly contrasted Mississippi’s curriculum in black public schools, which aimed to discourage resistance. As newly empowered citizens, the local students who enrolled in the Freedom Schools became active in voter registration and agitation for integrated schools in their communities.
The whites of Mississippi reacted harshly to the visiting students. They classified the movement as an “invasion” and ridiculed, physically assaulted, and arrested student workers and volunteers. Locals assaulted over 80 individuals, burned down churches, and firebombed local homes where volunteers stayed. State legislatures rapidly passed laws outlawing most Summer Project activities, such as distributing leaflets and running unlicensed schools, and cracked down on minor infractions, often without basis. Local officials arrested over a thousand workers on charges such as loitering, failure to have a selective service card, and exaggerated traffic infractions. The threat of arrest was so severe that organizers of Freedom Summer asked volunteers to provide bond money in advance of their trips.
Within this antagonistic climate, members of the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and murdered Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner on June 21, 1964, Andy’s first day in Mississippi. The tragedy of their disappearance and deaths brought national attention to Freedom Summer and the injustices taking place in Mississippi.
In the wake of the national attention garnered by Freedom Summer, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the following year. Johnson aimed to strengthen the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment and make voting rights a reality for African Americans in the South. The Act outlawed literacy tests and other restrictive measures and endowed Federal examiners with the power to register qualified citizens to vote. It also required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to obtain federal “preclearance” for any new voting procedure. By the end of the year, 250,000 new African-American voters registered. Congress extended and strengthened the act in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006.
The act provided a legal method to overcome racial discrimination in voting, but in recent years, the protections of the Voting Rights Act have eroded. In 2013, Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder removed the federal government’s preclearance authority, claiming the formula used to determine which states must seek preclearance no longer held relevance. For this reason, the court declared the use of this formula unconstitutional, effectively removing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was designed to prevent states and counties with a history of racial discrimination from abridging voting rights for minority groups.
Since then, states historically covered by this provision of the Voting Rights Act have passed new laws without preclearance, including strict photo ID laws. These laws disproportionately affect voters of color, low-income voters, and voters at either extreme of the age spectrum. Such individuals often do not hold traditional forms of identification and may have less stable living arrangements than their white, middle-class, middle-age counterparts.
In the face of the continuing difficulty of poll access for many across the nation, the work of Freedom Summer is not complete. The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program empowers young people on college campuses to register their peers and to identify and tackle systemic issues preventing people in their communities from voting. Taking a similar approach to the Freedom Schools, Vote Everywhere trains and educates young leaders to be active agents in bringing about change in their communities.
With the guidance and resources of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, Vote Everywhere Ambassadors address issues that affect voters on their campuses. These students work to institutionalize voter registration, helping fellow students navigate the complicated voting laws that vary by state. They help their peers become informed voters by hosting debate-watch parties and issue-based workshops. They also work with their college administrations and community partners to change regulations that impede student voting. Recently, our Vote Everywhere Ambassadors have added on-campus polling places in several locations, made receiving absentee ballots easier for students at University of Alabama, and helped pass a Louisiana state law, changing student ID cards issued at state-funded, four-year universities to comply with voter identification regulations.
Though not nearly to the same extent as during Freedom Summer, some locals classify student voters and activists as “outsiders” trying to change the established way of life. In areas where student populations are comparatively high and tend to vote differently than established residents, some claim that four-year residency does not give students a permanent stake in the community. One Dartmouth College student defended this argument, stating, “I wouldn’t particularly feel comfortable having a student population that generally tends to vote liberal and only lives in a place for four years to affect local elections or even national elections.” Legislators use this claim to justify restrictive identification and residency requirements that adversely affect students. Despite this limited opposition, our Vote Everywhere Ambassadors work within a formal partnership with their college or university, making them welcome agents of change on campus, rather than dreaded outsiders.
The circumstances are very different today than when Andy travelled to Mississippi to participate in the Summer Project, but the stakes remain high. Restrictions today do not prevent voting as systematically as those in place decades ago, when barely any African Americans could successfully reach the polls in the Southern states. Despite the reduced scale of the problem, the effect remains the same for citizens blocked from the polls. If a student fails to fulfill residency requirements in the city she calls home, her constitutional right to vote is violated. Since Andy’s life was taken on his first day working for the Summer Project, we owe it to him to continue fighting until every eligible American can vote without barriers.
Hale, Jon. “The Student as a Force for Social Change’: The Mississippi Freedom Schools and Student Engagement.” The Journal of African American History Vol. 96, No. 3 (Summer 2011): 325-347. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.96.3.0325.
Holloway, Pippa. “‘A Chicken-Stealer Shall Lose His Vote’: Disfranchisement for Larceny in the South, 1874-1890.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 75, No. 4 (November 2009): 931-962. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27779119.
“Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws.” The United States Department of Justice. Updated August 6, 2015. https://www.justice.gov/crt/introduction-federal-voting-rights-laws.
Rachal, John R. “‘The Long, Hot Summer’: The Mississippi Response to Freedom Summer, 1964.” The Journal of Negro History Vol. 84, No. 4 (Autumn, 1999): 315-339. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2649035.
Riser, R. Volney. “Disfranchisement, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federal Courts: Alabama’s 1901 Constitutional Convention Debates the Grandfather Clause.” The American Journal of Legal History Vol. 48, No. 3 (July, 2006): 237-279. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25434804.
About the Author
Emily Curran is the Communications and Development Manager of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Emily holds a Ph.D. in History and Culture from Drew University, where she focused on twentieth-century American cultural history, culminating in a dissertation entitled, “Natural and Technological Wonders: Embracing Modernity at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” She received her Bachelor’s degree in History and American Studies from Ramapo College, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor. Prior to joining AGF, she worked as the Visitor Services Coordinator at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and she remains an active volunteer with the museum.