In the seventh part of our history of the US Civil Rights movement, Julia Armstrong looks at the Freedom Summer of 1964 when volunteers campaigned in Mississippi to make sure that black people were allowed to take part in politics
US Civil Rights Movement part 7: The Freedom Summer
From Unity, anti-racist and anti-fascist magazine September-October 2016 / issue 17
Civil rights activists launched what was later dubbed the Freedom Summer in the southern state of Mississippi in 1964 to try to achieve the integration of the political system. At the time, only 7% of black people who had the right to vote in Mississippi were registered to vote.
But while the civil rights volunteers kept to their ideal of non-violence, the white racists defending the apartheid “Jim Crow” regime used extreme violence. Between 16th June and 30th September, there were at least six murders, 29 shootings, 50 bombings, more than 60 beatings and more than 400 arrests of project workers and supporters.
The previous winter, two key organisations, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had begun recruiting hundreds of mainly white college students from northern US states to spend the summer in Mississippi.
Hundreds of African-American families welcomed volunteers to stay in their homes. Around 1,500 volunteers included students, lawyers, medical staff and clergy, working alongside paid staff from several civil rights groups.
They headed a registration drive among African-American voters, set up a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MDFP), and taught history and politics in Freedom Schools.
Black people in Mississippi were not allowed to take part in Democratic Party events to choose presidential candidates, so the Freedom Summer activists challenged the right of an all-white delegation to represent the state at the party’s National Convention that August.
As had happened throughout the civil rights struggle, the activists had to face a violent reaction to their activities. They knew their lives could be on the line — activists were murdered, kidnapped and tortured and car bombs were planted on their vehicles.
On day one of the Freedom Summer in June, three volunteers, black Mississippi resident James Chaney, aged 21, and two white men from New York, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, went missing.
All three were kidnapped, shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan and their bodies were buried in a dam close to a church where a Freedom School had been set up to train volunteers.
The search for the men grabbed national media attention until their bodies were found in August, so that many Americans had to confront the issues involved for the first time.
Schwerner’s wife and fellow volunteer Rita said that if only the black volunteer Chaney had disappeared, it wouldn’t even have been in the news.
It wasn’t just white extremist groups such as the Klan who opposed Civil Rights activities, though. The state senator and governor publicly flouted integration laws, and banned picketing and leafleting. The sheriff’s and police departments were hugely expanded with personnel and more weapons.
Local business leaders formed citizens’ councils to punish local residents who took part in the Freedom Summer. Workers lost their jobs, homeowners had their mortgages foreclosed, customers were banned from stores and food banks for poor people were shut down.
Only a few hundred new black voters successfully registered to vote but the harassment and reprisals that resulted became the focus of a lot of media attention.
A public outcry finally forced the government to introduce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In all, more than 60,000 black Mississippi residents risked their lives to attend meetings, choose candidates, and vote in a Freedom Election that ran at the same time as the official 1964 elections.
At least 62,000 people managed to vote in the alternative poll, despite shootings, beatings, intimidation and arrests. They outnumbered Democratic Party voters in many areas.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was open to anyone, black or white, who supported its platform. Members chose their own delegation to the Democratic National Convention and hoped it would be recognised as the legitimate voice of Democrats in Mississippi.
The MDFP appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in order to contest the right of an all-white delegation to represent the state when black residents had been systematically excluded from any meetings held to choose candidates. Their case was broadcast nationally.
Inevitably, following a nine-month legal battle, the MDFP delegation was not recognised by the party leaders and was refused the right to take seats at the convention.
Volunteers set up Freedom Schools in churches, shops and other buildings in more than 40 communities to teach people of all ages about black history, social issues and leadership skills, as well as literacy and maths. They attracted more than 2,000 students, taught by 175 teachers.
Community centres were also created to provide access to childcare, library books, food, medical assistance and other services that people living in black areas had no access to.
The Freedom Summer helped to expose to the rest of America and the world exactly what life was like for black people living in southern states like Mississippi.
The US state was forced to react by bringing in new laws and many new activists were created, learning a host of new skills in the tough school of racist America.
However, the brutality of what they had endured took its toll, too. Many civil rights activists came to feel that traditional political routes were closed to them,. They would have to find other ways to gain freedom and equality.
Leaders such as Stokely Carmichael of SNCC started looking more to the ideas of radical leader Malcolm X rather than the non-violence of Martin Luther King.
Many of the volunteers went on to take leading roles in anti-war, women’s and gay rights organisations.
They included Freedom School teacher Chude Pam Parker Allen, who helped organise women’s liberation groups in New York and San Francisco, and Barney Frank, who worked in one of the campaign offices, and who became one of the first openly gay politicians in the US Congress.
But the Civil Rights movement continued as the voting rights campaign marched from Selma in 1965. And Martin Luther King would continued to fight against discrimination right up to his assassination in Memphis in 1968, as we will see in future columns.