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06.21.14

The 1964 Miss. Freedom Summer Protests Won Progress At a Bloody Price

Bob Moses talks about the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer protests that he helped organize—protests that changed the status quo forever.

Fifty years ago this June, Mississippi Freedom Summer began. Under the direction of Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer who had been doing voter registration in Mississippi since 1961, Freedom Summer sought to challenge the racism of the state that with its long history of lynching (534 between 1882 and 1952) epitomized how far the Deep South would go to preserve segregation.

Today when people think of Freedom Summer, they recall the horrifying murders—which occurred 50 years ago today—of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, but their deaths are far from the whole story.

In a year in which Malcolm X had staked out the territory that he believed the fight for racial justice should take with his essay, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” all sides knew how big a gamble Freedom Summer was when, as Moses publicly announced, “All workers, staff, and Summer Volunteers alike, are pledged to nonviolence in all situations.”

The aim of Freedom Summer, officially the Mississippi Summer Project, was to turn the national spotlight on Mississippi in 1964 by bringing in hundreds of college students to help register black voters and start Freedom Schools designed to supplement the education black children received in Mississippi’s predominantly segregated schools.

On June 13 the first group of Freedom Summer volunteers began arriving at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for their training session. “If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country,” said John Lewis, today a long-serving Democratic congressman from Georgia, in 1964 chairman of SNCC.

Lewis was right about the impact Freedom Summer would have. What he could not foresee was that a half century later Freedom Summer would not be ancient history. The values it stood for are under siege again—this time by modern voter suppression legislation that, instead of brutalizing minorities, uses onerous ID requirements to keep them from the polls.

The broad link between America’s racial past and present is one that Bob Moses, now in his seventies, finds compelling. When I interviewed him earlier this year, we talked at length about Freedom Summer, but what preoccupies Moses today is continuing to organize around the changes Freedom Summer sought to make permanent.

In addition to the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, there would be four shootings, 52 serious beatings, 250 arrests, and 13 black churches burned to the ground by summer’s end.

Since 1982 Moses, a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner, has devoted himself to the Algebra Project, which he began as an undertaking designed to help poor, minority children acquire the tools needed for success in school. As Moses observed in Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project, a book he wrote with Charles Cobb Jr., another veteran of the civil rights movement and Freedom Summer, “Organizing around algebra has the potential to open a doorway that’s been locked. Math literacy and economic access are the Algebra Project’s foci for giving hope to the younger generation.”  

Fifty year ago defining the goals of the Mississippi Summer Project was equally crucial for Moses. Freedom Summer never became associated in the media with the kind of soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Nonetheless, behind Freedom Summer lay a similar idealism.

The lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the early ’60s had already made ending desegregation a dramatic issue for the nation. The aim of Freedom Summer was to build on that momentum by giving an explicitly political focus, centered on the right to vote, to the civil rights movement.

For Moses, the idealism of Freedom Summer was inseparable from the practical task of making it work. In 1962 SNCC and a group of civil rights organizations—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—had joined together to form The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).

A year later in the fall 1963 Mississippi state elections, COFO aided by Yale and Stanford students staged a symbolic “freedom vote” to show that if blacks could go to the polls without fear of reprisals, they would do so in record numbers. At unofficial polling booths set up in black communities across Mississippi, more than 80,000 blacks cast their protest votes for COFO’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor candidates, Aaron Henry, the president of the Mississippi NAACP, and Ed King, a white chaplain at historically black Tougaloo College in Jackson.

Intrigued by out-of-state college students working as volunteers in a Mississippi election, the media gave the freedom vote campaign the kind of publicity SNCC had not received in its earlier voter registration efforts.

In the summer of 1964 Moses sought to build on the fall freedom-vote campaign. This time a presidential election, not simply statewide elections, would be at issue, but the publicity the freedom vote had won earlier was not all that led Moses to favor the Mississippi Summer Project, despite the doubts many in COFO had about the values of bringing large numbers of white college students to Mississippi.

The response of the white South to the 1963 March on Washington was a new wave of racial violence. The bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963 was the event that got the most public attention in this period because it resulted in the deaths of four black girls who had been attending Sunday school.

Like everyone in the civil rights movement, Moses was horrified by the killings in Birmingham, but he was equally shaken by the death months later of Lewis Allen in January 1964. Allen was an eyewitness to the fatal 1961 shooting of Herbert Lee, a black farmer from Amite County who had been helping Moses with voter registration. The shooter was E. H. Hurst, a white state representative who was never indicted by a coroner’s jury after he claimed he was defending himself against Lee.

Allen offered to testify against Hurst, but when Moses asked the Justice Department to give Allen protection, Justice Department officials refused to do so, paving the way for Allen’s death. Moses believed such civil rights-inspired murders would continue to go unpunished in Mississippi if the victims were black, and he saw Freedom Summer as one antidote to that problem. 

Moses was candid in 1964 about his motives for bringing white students to Mississippi at a time when so much of the country was indifferent to the killing of blacks in Mississippi. “When you come south, you bring with you the concern of the country—because the people of the country don’t identify with Negroes,” Moses told the predominantly white summer volunteers during their June training sessions at Oxford, Ohio.

Moses was right about the impact of so many white college students going to Mississippi. On June 21, three Mississippi Freedom Summer workers—James Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white New Yorkers—disappeared shortly after arriving in Meridian, Mississippi, from Oxford, Ohio. Their disappearance became national news.

CBS made the disappearance of the three men the subject of an evening special, “The Search in Mississippi” with Walter Cronkite. President Johnson ordered the FBI into action, and the House and Senate reached agreement on July 2 over a Civil Rights Bill that the president wanted to sign no later than July 4.

The Johnson administration even reached out to Moses. John Doar, the deputy attorney general for Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, arranged for Moses to meet with former CIA director Allen Dulles, who had been sent to Mississippi to help set up a new FBI operation there. Moses still remembers the meeting in Jackson, which included among others Mississippi civil rights leaders Aaron Henry and Charles Evers. Dulles, Moses recalls, sat as silent as a sphinx, and the meeting ended inconclusively.

By contrast, there was a much better outcome to the Justice Department meeting that Doar arranged in which Moses and veteran SNCC organizer James Foreman met with Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the former special assistant to President Kennedy, and Burke Marshall, head of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

Marshall was worried, Moses recalls, about the rumors that the Summer Project was interested in provoking more violence for the sake of publicity. The meeting gave Moses the chance to remind Marshall, whom he had met with before, that COFO was not going to be carrying out demonstrations that were sure to result in mass arrests and expensive legal fees the alliance could not afford.

There would, nonetheless, be more violence before the summer was over. In addition to the three murders, COFO would report four shootings, 52 serious beatings, 250 arrests, and 13 black churches burned to the ground by summer’s end.

The violence would not, however, accomplish its purpose of ending the Summer Project. Moses can recall only one volunteer deciding to go home after Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner disappeared. And in Mississippi, volunteers quickly accustomed themselves to the dangers they faced. As the summer wore on, Mississippi officials, not the Freedom Summer workers, were the ones put on the defensive.

On August 4, the degree to which the old way of doing business in Mississippi was in jeopardy became clear when the FBI found the bodies of the three murdered civil rights workers buried in an earthen dam. In the past, little would have happened when such a crime was committed, but this time the discovery of the bodies began an investigation that would lead to arrests in December of the men responsible for the deaths of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman.

The arrests were just one of many breakthroughs produced by Freedom Summer.  In its structure the Mississippi Summer Project defied the stereotypical pattern of racial power in America. The leaders of the Mississippi Summer Project were predominantly black; the foot soldiers who took orders from them were predominantly white. It upended the normal social order, but over the course of the Summer Project, the new social order held.

The big disappointment for the Mississippi Summer Project came at the end of August when the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) challenged the seating of the segregated Mississippi Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

President Johnson, fearful of losing the South to conservative Barry Goldwater in the upcoming election, refused to sanction the seating of the Freedom Democratic Party over the Mississippi regulars. He sent Senator Hubert Humphrey, a longtime champion of civil rights who aspired to be Johnson’s running mate in 1964, and Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, to negotiate a deal with the MFDP.

It was a futile mission. Humphrey and Reuther got nowhere when the MFDP delegates declined the token compromise they were offered of two at-large seats at the convention.

“We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” declared Fannie Lou Hamer, who had become the public face of the Freedom Party following a nationwide television appearance in which she described the beating she took in a Mississippi jail after being arrested for attending a voter registration workshop.

The refusal of the two-seat offer sparked a debate within the MFDP and COFO over trying to work with the National Democratic Party. At the time Moses thought the decision of how to deal with the National Democratic Party was one for the MFDP, not COFO, to make, and he willingly joined the MFDP’s protest outside the Democratic National Convention.

Moses has not changed his thinking about the MFDP’s strategy in 1964, but today he believes the most important consequence of the Atlantic City Convention protest was its effect on the Democratic Party. As he now puts it, “They did not want to go through this again four years later.”

By the time the convention was over, the Democratic Party had completed rules that in the future prohibited the seating of segregated delegations. At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the credentials committee barred the segregationist Mississippi delegation by an 84-10 vote, seating an integrated delegation in its place.

Even before then it was clear, however, that Freedom Summer had taken on a life of its own. In December 1964 Martin Luther King could count on his worldwide audience understanding his reference to the Summer Project when, during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he declared, “I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.”

Despite the absence of a modern publicity machine, Freedom Summer had become a global event. As Bob Moses observed at the conclusion of our interview, it was now apparent to friend and foe alike, “The black community of the South had the capacity to be change agents for America.”

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like A Holy Crusade:  Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in Americ.