Entertainment

06.23.14

When the Right to Vote Wasn’t a Right

The new PBS documentary Freedom Summer lays bare a Deep South world where African Americans risked jobs, homes, and their lives for the right to vote.

In 1890, a delegation appointed by the Mississippi state legislature convened in Jackson to adopt a new state constitution. As one of the delegates candidly explained to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s leading newspaper, the legislature wanted a new constitution for one reason: “The avowed purpose of calling this Convention was to restrict the negro vote.”

In a state where 55 percent of the population in 1890 was African-American and the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been ratified to ensure their right to vote only 20 years before, 133 of the 134 delegates appointed by the legislature to draft the new state constitution were white.

“We want [black people] here,” Judge S.S. Calhoun, the president of the constitutional convention, told the same newspaper, “but their own good and our own demands that we shall devise some means by which they shall be practically excluded from the government control.”

The new Mississippi constitution’s chief mechanisms for reducing black voter participation were a $2 poll tax (in a state where black poverty was staggeringly high) and a literacy test (in a state where 60 percent of black voters were illiterate), both of which would come to be applied almost exclusively to African-Americans.

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Mississippi’s 1890 constitution was remarkably effective at reducing the black vote. Before adoption of the new constitution, 67 percent of voting-age African-Americans in the state were registered to vote. Two years later, it was 5.7 percent. In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, still only 5.7 percent of African-Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote. (By comparison, in Alabama—the state with the South’s second-lowest rate of African-American voter registration—it was 23 percent.)

“People got killed for trying to register to vote,” said Stanley Nelson, director of Freedom Summer, a new documentary in PBS’s long-running American Experience series. “You got fired from your job from trying to register to vote. [County registrars] would publish your name in the paper. Banks might call in your loan. It was not just that you would try to register to vote and couldn’t; it was that there would be serious repercussions.”

Freedom Summer did not result in the registering of a significant number of African-Americans to vote, but it brought public attention to the problem.

Freedom Summer, which airs June 24 on most PBS stations and will be available at pbs.org for the next few weeks, tells three intertwined stories: the organized effort in 1964 to aggressively register African-Americans in Mississippi to vote, the murder of three voter-registration volunteers who disappeared the day the registration program started and the federal manhunt that followed, and the effort to seat an integrated Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

The voting-rights issue in Mississippi was about control of the political machinery and about the “tradition” of white hegemony.

“I think it was totally about power—who has power,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t an abstract privilege, and you see that play out in Mississippi—that if you let African-Americans vote, they’ll vote for people who take care of their needs.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, much of the effort to enforce segregation and subvert black voter participation in Mississippi and across the South was carried out by Citizens’ Councils, white-supremacist civic clubs that operated in many communities.

If a black person tried to register to vote, a county registrar could notify the local bank, which might then cancel the person’s small business loan. Or if a black person tried to shop at a white department store, the storeowner could notify the person’s employer, who might then fire him.

“There was no Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during this early period; there wasn’t any need for one, former Citizens Council member William Scarborough said in one of Freedom Summer’s more remarkable interviews. “The Citizens’ Council was doing everything the Ku Klux Klan would have done. There were a lot of prominent people who were members—businessmen, bankers, lawyers, politicians. I joined it because I believed in what they were doing, and I believed in trying to preserve the society in which we lived.”

There was a Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during this period, but it was largely dormant. That began to change in the ’50s in response to the Supreme Court’s desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights reforms. Klan membership spiked. Klansmen were implicated in the arson of 30 black churches in Mississippi.

The White Knights of Mississippi, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “the most blood-thirsty faction of the Klan since Reconstruction,” had 6,000 to 7,000 members at its peak in the ’60s. Freedom Summer’s images of entire families—men, women, and children—in white Klan robes are a pointed reminder of how institutionalized racism was in Mississippi during that period.

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The Mississippi Summer Project was the formal name of the voting-rights effort in the summer of 1964, but it would come to be known simply as Freedom Summer.

“The idea of Freedom Summer was to bring 700 to 1,000 college students—mostly white—down to Mississippi for the summer in a highly publicized movement that would draw attention to what was happening in Mississippi,” Nelson, the director of the documentary, said, “and that the sheer numbers would encourage people to register to vote and to encourage the federal government to act on what was happening in Mississippi.”

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—usually pronounced as “snick”—and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were two of the major drivers behind Freedom Summer. Organizers from SNCC and CORE, which had been involved in the 1963 March on Washington, lunch-counter sit-ins, and other civil rights efforts, drew college-student volunteers from all over the country to act as volunteers in the summer-long voting-rights drive.

This entrenched social structure of segregation and black oppression in Mississippi was a powerful obstacle for Bob Moses, an organizer who started registering African-Americans in Mississippi to vote in 1961 and would later lead the Freedom Summer effort.

“If you’re not a registered voter, you’re not a first class citizen,” one volunteer says in documentary footage. In most cases, that reasoning did not move African-Americans—who feared serious consequences for even attempting to register to vote—but the volunteers made their point.

Freedom Summer did not result in the registering of a significant number of African-Americans to vote, but it brought public attention to the problem, raised a generation of advocates for social change, and established a narrative that contributed substantially to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“It drew the attention of the federal government, of the whole country, of the world, really, to Mississippi on the first day when three of the volunteers—Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner—disappeared. That cast a pall over the whole summer,” Nelson said.

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The student volunteers knew they were heading into conflict, but few understood the real risks. On June 21, 1964, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner—college students and Freedom Summer volunteers—were arrested on trumped-up charges near Philadelphia, Miss., while investigating the arson of a black church. Police released them after a several hours of interrogation, and they soon disappeared.

Two days later, FBI agents found the burned station wagon that the volunteers had been driving. On August 4, 1964, the FBI found the their bodies. The 1967 trial that led to the conviction of seven men (and the acquittal of six others) would become the basis of the film Mississippi Burning.

According to Nelson, “People in the North and around the country who didn’t think about Mississippi started to wonder, ‘These people disappeared because they simply tried to register people to vote?’ And violence throughout the summer drew more and more attention to Mississippi. And a year later, the Voting Rights Act passed.”

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On August 31, 1962, a sharecropper named Fannie Lou Hamer led a bus ride 26 miles from Ruleville, Miss., to the courthouse in nearby Indianola. Hamer was 44 years old, African-American, and she had never voted. After she took the literacy test, the county registrar brought out a big book, turned to the Mississippi constitution and asked Hamer to interpret a particular section.

It was a section of the constitution, Hamer said later, “dealing with facto laws, and I knowed about as much about facto laws as a horse knows about Christmas Day.” She did not pass. Hamer’s landlord, who in the sharecropper system was also her employer, turned her out of her job and her small shack.

Hamer became a SNCC field secretary. In December—after a crash course on the Mississippi constitution—she went to Indianola and took the test again, and this time the registrar determined that she had passed. In 1964, Hamer was a Freedom Summer volunteer, and, lacking the cooperation of Democrats in her own state in registering black voters and with an election looming in the fall, she helped start the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

“The formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would become a catalyst, and the voter-registration effort would become a catalyst,” said Mark Samels, executive producer of the PBS American Experience series. “Looking back from the vantage point of five or ten years later, you can see that this is where things began to change in Mississippi and throughout the South.”

The new party challenged the seating of the Mississippi Democratic Party’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention and proposed instead an integrated group of delegates. Hamer’s testimony before the 1964 convention credentials committee, which was televised nationally, is featured in Freedom Summer.

As a compromise, the convention organizers offered the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party two seats for African-Americans in the 68-seat Mississippi delegation. Hamer and the other African-American Democrats refused, returned to Mississippi, and continued to register voters.

On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Of particular significance, the Act required “preclearance” of voting legislation in states like Mississippi that had a history of voting-rights violations. The Voting Rights Act was as effective in increasing the registration of black voters in Mississippi as the 1890 state constitution was in reducing it. Black voter registration in Mississippi soared from 6.7 percent in 1964 to 59.4 percent in 1968.