The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer is being commemorated this week in Mississippi and it provides the perfect backdrop to reflect on the transformation of not only Mississippi, then the deadliest state in the nation, but the entire region.
As I have written in the space before, there was a popular joke about Mississippi making the rounds during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Supposedly, a Chicago seminary student was awakened at 3 a.m. by a voice imploring him: “Go to Mississippi! Go to Mississippi!! Go to Mississippi!!!” The seminary student said, “Lord, you said that you will be with me always, even until the end of the earth. If I go to Mississippi, will you go with me?” The heavenly voice replied, “I’ll go as far as Memphis.”
Of course, if the Lord was reluctant to go to Mississippi, the chances of a Black surviving there were slim and none. I had just completed my junior year at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in the summer of 1964. Alabama had its own violent history when it came to race relations, but Mississippi was the one state we knew was worse. In fact, whenever a national ranking of any kind came out, we would always say, “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Of course, we all awaited the beginning of Freedom Summer, a national mobilization of mostly college students who would descend upon Mississippi in 1964 to help civil rights activists, led by Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), assist Blacks in voter education and voting.
More than 1,000 students, about 90 percent of them White, participated. With so many northern Whites descending on the state, the nation would be watching. And Blacks like me, who grew up under America’s version of apartheid, knew that virulent White racists in Mississippi would not go quietly into the dark. They would go into the dark – where they did their most tawdry work – but they wouldn’t be quiet about it.
And sure enough, at the outset of Freedom Summer, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – were arrested in Nashoba County by Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That night, they were released. Tipped off about their impending departure, Klansmen abducted the three and murdered them. Their bodies were discovered seven weeks later 15 feet below an earthen dam.
While looking for the three civil rights workers in rivers and swamps, other Black bodies were discovered. One was Herbert Oarsby, a 14-year-old boy who was wearing a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) T-shirt. The bodies of Henry Hezekiah Dee and Eddie Moore, who had been expelled from Alcorn A&M College for civil rights activities, were also discovered. The remains of five more Black men were found, but never identified.
It wasn’t until 1970 that anyone was imprisoned for the slayings of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, with six years being the longest time served.
In 1964, only 6.7 percent of Blacks were registered to vote, the lowest in the nation. Today, more than a third of Mississippi’s voters are Black and the state has the largest number of Black elected officials in the nation.
But that progress came with a price, with people losing their jobs –and even their lives – simply because they wanted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The casualities extended beyond the three civil rights workers.
According to the book, Freedom Summer by Doug McAdam, in the summer of 1964 alone:
- At least four Blacks from Mississippi were murdered because of their civil rights activities;
- Four people were seriously wounded;
- 80 summer workers were beaten
- 1,062 people were arrested’
- 37 churches were burned or bombed and
- The homes or businesses of 30 African Americans were bombed or burned.
Visiting college students weren’t the only ones responsible for the success of that summer. When Berea College withdrew as a training site for students headed South, Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, now part of Miami University, stepped forward.
Attorneys volunteered from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Lawyers Guild and the ACLU. Medical professionals, participating as individuals as well as members of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, also joined the caravans headed to Mississippi.
The level of national support emboldened Black Mississippians, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, to challenge the seating of the all-White Mississippi delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
As Attorney Thomas N. Todd likes to remind us, this was done before the existence of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media.
It’s good that civil rights vets are celebrating Freedom Summer this week. But the challenge today is to reignite that passion and sense of commitment. Many of the problems of 1964 are still prevalent today. We need another Freedom Summer, Winter, Fall and Spring.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.