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Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer aka Mississippi Summer Project
June 1964 – August 1964
Notable: Multi-faceted Statewide Civil Rights Campaign
Location: Mississippi, United States

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Denying Black citizens the right to vote helped to reinforce segregation by limiting their recourse for voting against officials and laws intended to oppress. The problem was widespread throughout the South as local governments fought to continue the suppression of Black people. Several campaigns would be launched in Alabama with key historic demonstrations taking place in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma. But, a different approach was required for addressing Mississippi’s pervasive and especially violent oppression.

In Mississippi, many individuals who attempted to register or managed to vote faced retaliation. The Mississippi State Legislature created the Sovereignty Commission in response to the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Black citizens who even so much as attempted to register might have their names turned over to the Sovereignty Commission by voter registrars. Sharecroppers such as Fannie Lou Hamer who farmed rented land found themselves evicted by landowners, losing both their shelter and source of employment. School teachers were reported to superintendents of education who would then pressure them to cease their voting activities.

Under the leadership of Bob Moses, SNCC had begun a voter registration drive in Mississippi in 1961. The state was selected as the next site in the battle for civil rights because it had the country’s lowest percentage of registered Black voters, with only a paltry 7% of eligible Black voters registered to vote. A coalition of civil rights organizations joined forces as the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to organize a series of local campaigns throughout Mississippi during the summer of 1964.

Beginning in 1963, efforts were made to recruit college students from the North to travel to and spend the summer working on campaigns in Mississippi. The assembled group of volunteers primarily consisted of White college students from middle to upper-class backgrounds. But volunteers also included clergy members, lawyers, and medical professionals.

Organizers hoped that bringing these volunteers to the South would not only improve voter registration but also increase awareness and bring attention to the conditions in Mississippi. The plan called for volunteers to be distributed across field offices spread throughout the state. From there, volunteers would work to get eligible Black voters registered while also holding literacy and civics classes at Freedom Schools.

When word of the campaign reached Southern officials, they regarded the planned arrival of volunteers as an invasion of sorts. Sensing a threat to the status quo, they denounced the campaign and made an effort to thwart its success. The number of state troopers was nearly doubled and local law enforcement saw an increase in manpower as well as weapons. New legislation was passed in an attempt to outlaw demonstrations. Private citizens violently attacked both volunteers and locals who were involved in any civil rights activities.

By the end of the summer, there would be an estimated 29-35 shootings, 50 bombings, 60-80 assaults, 400-1,000 arrests. There were also at least six murders which included the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County. The trio consisted of a Black local man, James Chaney, and two White volunteers from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The men visited the area to investigate a church burning and were detained by police for an alleged traffic violation. They were last seen alive at the time of their release from jail and their bodies were recovered six weeks later.

The violent response to Freedom Summer contributed to the push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it also exposed divisions within the Civil Rights Movement and would be one of the last large-scale interracial campaigns of the Movement. The murder of the civil rights workers garnered a lot of attention because two of the men were White, while the deaths of Black activists had received little attention from the media or federal government.

There was a feeling within the campaign that the White volunteers acted as though they were automatically entitled to lead. They were also seen as patronizing the local Black activists and participants though they’d been active before the volunteers’ arrival. Romantic relationships, some of which crossed racial groups, added drama. And women found both the Black and White male participants to be sexist.

Overall, Freedom Summer was not a resounding success as the campaign was met with strong resistance that prevented the large increase in voters that was hoped for. But, it did garner a great deal of media attention and increased membership in the Mississippi Freedom Party (MFDP) which challenged racial discrimination at political conventions. And Freedom Schools helped to supplement the inadequate resources and education provided at the segregated schools set aside for Black students.

Bibliography

  1. “Freedom Summer.” 2020. SNCC Digital Gateway. July 15, 2020. https://snccdigital.org/events/freedom-summer/.
  2. “Freedom Summer.” 2020. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. August 4, 2020. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/freedom-summer.
  3. “Freedom Summer.” n.d. CORE – Congress of Racial Equality. Accessed November 1, 2020. http://www.core-online.org/History/freedom_summer.htm.
  4. Guy, James Cameron. 2019. “Freedom Summer (1964).” Blackpast. October 28, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/freedom-summer-1964/.
  5. History.com Editors. 2020. “Freedom Summer.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. January 16, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedom-summer.

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