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How Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 Can Inspire Us in 2024

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Everything about this moment cries out for a bold intervention like that SNCC knew they had to make in 1963. Their clarity and creativity offers a major lesson that can be applied to our current stalemate between the multiracial democratic forces and the MAGA authoritarians.

Just over 60 years ago, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the young, militant component of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), led the organization towards a bold strategy to confront entrenched white supremacy in Mississippi. COFO, which also included the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), launched the Mississippi Summer Project. The project was known for the 1,000 volunteers who went to Mississippi, the bastion of white supremacy and virtually a police state. Most of them were white, but some northern Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans also signed on. They came to not only register voters but to establish Freedom Schools. Smaller Freedom Summer projects were also undertaken in northern Florida and northern Louisiana by CORE.

Southern racists vilified the project as a Communist invasion and some in the civil rights establishment met it with a lack of enthusiasm or downright hostility. But SNCC and CORE demonstrated decisive leadership, bold vision, and grim determination to carry out the campaign despite the murders of CORE workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner that took place right as the campaign kicked off in June 1964.

As I read about the deliberations that surrounded the controversial decision to recruit hundreds of white students and place them and their Black host families in great danger, I was impressed by SNCC’s ability to analyze the situation, devise a multi-part strategy, and execute the campaign all within a matter of months. Their clarity, creativity and boldness offer a major lesson that can be applied to our current stalemate between the multiracial democratic forces and the MAGA authoritarians. We can learn from the success of Freedom Summer organizers in building a united front with labor, liberals, progressive clergy, and national foundations. Lastly and most importantly, we can note the critical significance of the established base in the Black community that Freedom Summer drew on. 

Engaging the base: the Freedom Vote campaign

Black Mississippians who sought to become registered voters faced many obstacles: poll taxes and a “literary” test where registrars asked applicants to read one of 285 sections of the Mississippi Constitution and interpret it to the registrar’s satisfaction. Ordinary citizens who went to register faced the violent response of the white city and town officials and the Ku Klux Klan. People who marched in front of local courthouses (the site of many city registrars) were beaten and arrested by police. Those who survived the registration process had their names published in the local newspaper which was quickly followed by the loss of their jobs. Out of the 425,000 eligible Black voters in Mississippi, only 12,000—5% of them—were registered to vote in 1963. The white establishment used this fact to say that Blacks weren’t interested in voting, and for many African Americans voting just wasn’t worth the suffering that would result for having one’s life and livelihood jeopardized. There had to be a way to break the chain of fear that shackled Black Mississippians and to demonstrate to the nation and federal authorities that Black people wanted to vote.

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Give light and people will find the way.

—Ella Baker

In many ways, this short and memorable phrase by Ella Baker, who worked with the NAACP and SCLC and then joined SNCC, captured the spirit she fostered, i.e., people can lead themselves once they are given the tools for their own liberation. In 1963, SNCC turned on the light. They took local voter registration drives and developed a statewide campaign which engaged thousands of Black Mississippians and made the national headlines.

In summer 1963, COFO decided to launch Freedom Vote and register Black Mississippians to vote for its own slate of candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and other county offices in a community-run election. At a statewide convention in October, regional delegates nominated Aaron Henry, state NAACP chair, for Governor and Rev. Ed King, Chaplin at Tougaloo College as Lt. Governor, creating the first bi-racial slate in Mississippi history. The convention also drafted a progressive program that included raising the minimum wage, creating a farmer loan program, and guaranteeing voting rights for all Blacks.

SNCC and other civil rights activists fanned across the state telling folks that registering to vote in Freedom Vote simply entailed going to a polling site—a church, a beauty parlor, a barbershop —between Nov. 2 and 4 to cast a ballot. Aaron Henry spoke from one end of the state to the other and drew huge crowds, including a crowd of 1,000 people in Hattiesburg.

Freedom Vote was also the first time that large numbers of white students from Yale University and Stanford University were asked to come to Mississippi. Over 100 students answered the call and arrived to distribute leaflets and work in COFO offices. The white students who were leafletting in Jackson, Columbus, and Indianola soon experienced the same harassment SNCC and COFO workers had always faced; they got arrested for “racial disturbance” and had to be bailed out. These arrests naturally attracted press coverage and focused attention on the repressive measures Blacks faced in order to vote.

Over 80,000 Black Mississippians voted and gave the Henry/King ticket 90% of their votes. There could be no doubt that a mighty collective voice had refuted the lie that Blacks weren’t interested in voting. Moreover, this organizing drive demonstrated that there was a deep base of support for COFO and the civil rights struggle. This statewide campaign brought new activists into the movement and gave them vital skills that would be applied in subsequent campaigns.

Facing the stalemate

Freedom Vote also led to a wider debate about bringing in more white students. Bob Moses, leader of SNCC’s voter registration drive, had proposed recruiting 1,000 white students from the north to do voter registration work in Summer 1964. At a Nov. 14 COFO meeting attended by seven white staff and 35 Black SNCC field secretaries (full-time organizers who were paid $10/week), the proposal was presented and hotly debated. Some SNCC veterans argued that the infusion of a large number of white students would take the focus away from local Black leadership. Others such as Fannie Lou Hamer responded, “If we’re trying to break down the barriers of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.”

The debate continued until December. “There was little possibility that the white population would make any real changes in the status of the Negro voluntarily, and that it would not accept any substantial changes in the ‘power structure’ without federal intervention,” Bob Moses argued at a SNCC conference. “SNCC’s job is to bring about just such a confrontation.” White students from liberal colleges in the North, Midwest, and West would become the shock troops and their participation would elicit northern concern from middle-class and upper-class white parents and bring extensive media coverage.

When a final decision to bring in 100 white students was approved that month, the response was so great that in the end 1,000 students from the North, Midwest and West were recruited by COFO. Similar recruitment efforts resulted roughly 100 white students coming to CORE’s northern Florida and northern Louisiana summer projects.

Bringing the resources

Once the decision was affirmed, a rigorous recruitment process was established to ensure that the northern volunteers would follow Black leadership, adhere to security and mandated social practices, and learn from the local communities. They did not want people with a white savior complex or unstable people who could become violent in face of provocations.

With recruitment in motion, a vigorous fundraising campaign launched in February 1964. Responsibility for that fell upon the Friends of SNCC chapters on campuses and cities. SNCC’s Freedom Singers, which was composed of Bernice Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Rutha Mae Harris, Chuck Neblett, and Bertha Gober, traveled around the country giving concerts; they raised $5,000 per week. A fundraising Town Hall event at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. drew a packed house. By the end of March 1964, SNCC had raised $97,000. Additional funds to meet the estimated $200,000 budget came from labor unions, religious organizations, and individuals.

Volunteers went through a week-long training in Oxford, OH where they practiced non-violent resistance and learned about how to work with the COFO staff, which mainly consisted of SNCC and CORE workers. They were dispatched throughout the state of Mississippi from the hill country to the verdant Mississippi Delta. Greeting them were thousands of Black Mississippians who worked alongside the white volunteers. They sheltered them in the Black community and in some cases the host families provided armed security to protect them against night riders. Many direct accounts written about Mississippi Freedom Summer testify to the danger and tension in the air as white racists did all they could to deter their voter registration efforts. But there are also many accounts of the joy in solidarity and for a brief moment the experience of being in a beloved community.

What did Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 accomplish?

The organizing efforts that were part of MS Freedom Summer accomplished many of the key goals articulated by Bob Moses and other SNCC leaders.

First, bringing white students did attract massive press coverage. The white students often wrote to their hometown and college newspapers. Their accounts of the drive-by shootings and bombing directed at them and the local Black community by the KKK and other white racists made people aware of the civil rights struggle on a personal level.

National press coverage focused on Mississippi from June to August 1964 after the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who went to investigate the firebombing of Mt. Zion Baptist Church near Philadelphia, MS. After weeks of searching, an informant directed officials to an earthen dam on a farm where their bodies were exhumed on Aug. 4, 1964. Their murders are remembered to this day as a prime example of the police’s collusion with the Ku Klux Klan. 

Secondly, the organizing drive exposed the horrible conditions of poverty and institutional neglect and suppression that the state of Mississippi enacted upon Black Mississippians. Volunteers set up health clinics, legal aid, and Freedom Schools, with support and donations from outside the South. By the end of Freedom Summer, 40 Freedom Schools in 20 communities had been established. They served 2,000 students, including adults who sought literacy education.

Sandra Adickes, a schoolteacher in Prince Edward County, Virginia, taught at a Freedom School in Hattiesburg, MS and she made the following observations in an oral history interview in Mississippi – A Documentary History (University of Mississippi Press, 2003):

They (the Black high school students) were furious at the inequity. .. they couldn’t use the public library. They had a little room downtown where they could go where all the cast-off books were kept. 

 There was a sense of ‘Here, we know what a school is finally. We have teachers who respect us, who want to hear what we have to say, who care about us, who want something for us in this life.’ Having tasted what school was… it changed their aspirations.

Clarence Johnson, who is the pastor of Mills Grove Christian Church in East Oakland, CA, was 14 years old when he attended the Freedom School in Greenwood, MS.

“We did math, English and Spanish. Wendy (Klein) was a Spanish speaker and I remember, ‘Me llamo, Lorenzo.’ That’s as close as we could get to Clarence in Spanish. We had a good time. We would also sing songs and share some of our experiences about those things that were important to us. We also did writing. I wanted to be a writer like Richard Wright, and I wrote about him being one of my favorite authors… We had dramatic presentations from time to time. They (the Free Southern Theater directed by John O’Neill) came to do Waiting for Godot and Ossie Davis’ play Purlie Victorius.”

The Freedom School movement led to the formation of the Child Development Group of Mississippi that started 84 summer school centers that served 5,600 children in July 1965. This became the precursor of the Head Start program for early childhood education.

Third, voter registration drives succeeded in bringing 17,000 people to the courthouses where the vast majority were refused the right to vote on spurious grounds. Although 1,600 new registrants were accepted in the official channels, tens of thousands demonstrated their desire to vote via COFO’s 1963 Freedom Vote campaign. Concurrent with the recruitment of students to help with voter registration work and to establish Freedom Schools was the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was organized out of the momentum created by Freedom Vote. MFDP’s goal was to attend the national Democratic Party convention in August in Atlantic City and ask that their slate of 68 delegates be seated instead of the official party delegation, which only represented white voters

Volunteers from Mississippi Summer Project helped the MFDP sign up 80,000 members. Although MFDP did not succeed in its bid to be seated as the official Mississippi delegation to the DNC—they rejected a compromise offer to seat just two of the MFDP delegates—an impassioned speech by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Democratic Party Rules Committee was broadcast nationally on television. MFDP also held several rallies on the Atlantic City boardwalk to decry the terrible violations of civil rights and the exploitation of Black people in Mississippi.

The MFDP continued to organize in Greenwood, the largest town in the Mississippi Delta; Sam Block, who had been SNCC’s representative in Greenwood since 1962 helped organize the Greenwood Voter’s League in 1965. Organizing around the state continued throughout the mid to late 1960s, highlighted by James Meredith’s March Against Fear in June 1966.

CORE’s Freedom Summer project in northern Louisiana brought in 31 volunteers from the North to set up voting rights clinics in rural counties to teach literacy to hundreds of Black plantation workers. However, when applicants went to the courthouse to register to vote, they faced violence, i.e., a man shot at civil rights workers near the St. Francesville, LA courthouse. They escaped unharmed and held a 100-person rally that night at the Masonic Temple at Laurel Hill. Once more, shots were fired at the gathering. In face of intimidation, local residents and the northern volunteers, carried on the work.

Nearly 10,000 new Black voters sought to become registered in CORE’s Freedom Summer project in Alabama. After Freedom Summer ended, a Civic Interest Group was established in Gadsden, AL and a Voter’s League was set up in Jefferson, AL.

This work and more undertaken by COFO, SNCC, Mississippi NAACP, National Council of Churches and CORE aided the larger push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act, signed on Aug. 6, 1965, mandated federal oversight of state elections, the removal of the poll tax and literacy tests, and provided for federal review of the drawing of legislative district lines. Black voter registration climbed from 35% of eligible voters to 65% by 1969.

Personal and societal transformation

Perhaps the most profound outgrowth of MS Freedom Summer was the personal transformation it brought for the students and the local residents alike. The experience would reverberate throughout their lives, as it did for Carl Imiola Young,  a Chinese American volunteer from Honolulu, HI who went to Hattiesburg, MS.

This was the first time that some Black Mississippians interacted with sympathetic whites, and it was the first time some white students had worked closely with Black people. The experience of being under fire for civil rights activities during Freedom Summer marked them deeply: 1,063 civil rights workers were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, and Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered.

Many of the white students were struck by the sacrifices made by their local hosts. Veteran organizer and progressive leader Heather Booth spoke with me about Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins, who hosted her and three others in Shaw, MS.

As she shared her experiences with the Hawkins family, the rising indignation in her voice underscored the hardships Black Mississippians faced.

“They took in four students and all of us slept in the same bed. I didn’t realize that we were in the parents’ bed, they were sleeping on the couch. They had four little kids in this little house. They fed us and cared for us… I learned that Mr. Hawkins challenged the town of Shaw in a lawsuit over how in the Black part of town there were no streetlamps, there was no sewer system, there were no paved roads, no indoor plumbing. In the white part of town, they had a tennis court and a swimming pool. Following that (lawsuit) his home was firebombed twice and in the second firebombing his son Andrew, Jr. and two of his grandkids were killed.”

Like many of the northern volunteers, Booth had to learn to live with fear and steadfastly carry out the day-to-day work of registering voters and teaching in a Freedom School.

When we crossed the Mississippi state line, there was a hush on the bus. I remember literally the symbolism of crossing the state line. We were warned about having mixed race groups and of how you’re jeopardizing people’s lives in that way. And I took it very seriously. Our first stop was in Ruleville, MS and we met with Mrs. Hamer and her friends. She was as remarkable as everyone has said. She brought a moral honesty and clarity even in the smallest things. I was an 18-year-old who didn’t know which end was up. And she was caring and respectful towards me.

Booth also recounted the daily pressure civil rights workers encountered in Shaw, MS.

Stokely (Carmichael) was our regional director and at one point there was a decision that our project would break up. We had threats to the project and one night we had night riders coming around the Freedom House when we were having a mass meeting. We had to lie down on the concrete floor for hours. People were saying ‘we’re going to kill you,’ and they’re throwing lit gasoline filled bottles at the house. 

The impact on me was profound both just seeing the reality of the horrors of what life is like, of what desperate poverty means and seeing the incredible generosity of people in hard circumstances. And also learning about other cultures, the music of the Spirit, the joys of being together and seeing the level of political strategy, that it wasn’t just random action. Black people outnumbered whites but you gotta get registered and vote to change the laws.

Freedom Summer also transformed the lives of young Black Mississippians, not only via the enrichment opportunities in the Freedom School but the encouragement to become political activists. Rev. Clarence Johnson remembered it clearly:

“It was probably around mid-day that we would go to Freedom School. There were probably 15 or 20 of us in the session that I attended. But it was from that group that they were able to recruit some of the youngsters to be part of those marches around the courthouse. And that’s when some of us were arrested. We also went with some of them (the northern volunteers) to do voter registration work. We would watch as they would interview people, talking about the importance of being registered voters. We would accompany them. They had very serious security measures to follow and I just remember feeling really great walking for the first time down the streets of my hometown with some whites, and we were holding hands. We were friends. It was just a magnificent feeling to be able to do that in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1964.”

Rev. Johnson too was mindful of the risks the Freedom Summer volunteers were taking:

“The thing that was important to me was that those young people who came to Greenwood that summer, even the SNCC workers (who had already been in town since 1962) were so young – 18, 19 20, 21, 22, and 23 years old. The youths who came put their lives on the line to create opportunity for us to go to school and to get jobs and to be able to buy homes …Things have changed tremendously but Mississippi is still at the bottom in terms of economics. They have a gerrymandered legislature. There has to be some work done there. We have to tip our hats to those who were courageous enough to put their lives on the time at such a young age like Bob Moses.”

Freedom Summer calls us to step up

What does the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 mean for us today as we face an election that could return a racist, misogynist authoritarian to the White House? Everything about this moment cries out for a bold intervention like that SNCC knew they had to make in 1963.

We must assess what it would take to change the equation in battleground states that were won narrowly by Biden in 2020 and which could easily fall back to Trump if progressive voter turnout is low. We must have sufficient numbers of election monitors to secure a fair election. And we must provide counseling and education on reproductive rights to combat continued attempts to make the federal ban on abortion even more punitive.

There is no single organization on the current scene that is positioned to fulfill SNCC’s role, i.e., rally support from progressive allies, build a fundraising effort, recruit and train volunteers, find host families, and carry out a sophisticated strategy that employed multiple programmatic aspects. But there are several national organizations and state-based groups which are concerned about maximizing voter registration, voter education, and turnout in the battleground states. Many of them have recruited volunteers to join their field operations in past elections. But 2024 will be different because the stakes are so much higher and the MAGA forces are determined to deter voters from going to the polls.

We need to scale up to meet the massive challenge of registering new voters in the face of voter suppression laws. We need to motivate people to vote, especially younger people whose politics are progressive but who also feel that Biden has betrayed them on key issues. Nor can we afford a dip in voter turnout among African Americans who have been consistently the most progressive segment of the electorate. With the MAGA right-wingers now unabashed followers of white Christian nationalism (Speaker Mike Johnson flies the New Apostolic Reformation flag outside his office), this election will determine if we will live in a multiracial democracy or under an authoritarian, white supremacist regime. It’s time to get busy.

There are several national groups active in the field, including Black Voters Matter, Progressive Turnout Project, Seed the Vote, Swing Left and others. Several national organizations and coalitions such as the Working Families Party and People’s Action have state-based organizing and they run campaigns throughout the year, not just at election time. Lastly, there are groups such as House Majority Forward that are affiliated with the Democratic Party.

Several organizations focus on expanding the growing Latinx and Asian Pacific American vote. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, League of United Latin American Citizens, Voto Latino, and Mi Familia Vota all run non-partisan voter registration drives in Latinx communities. The Asian Pacific Islander American Vote and AAPI Civic Engagement Fund support voter education and registration activities in diverse APA communities. The Native Voter Fund via the Movement Voter Project directs funds towards Native American voter mobilization efforts in Arizona, Alaska, and Montana.

There is no shortage of efforts that conduct voter engagement work. Having them issue the kind of urgent call that came from SNCC in 1963 will be critical in growing the volunteer force needed to enlarge the electorate, educate them to become life-long progressive voters, and deliver victories on election day. It is the spirit of moral courage and steely determination that characterized Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 that should inspire us today.

Additional resources for information about the Civil Rights Movement and Freedom Summer:

Featured image © Ted Polumbaum, used with permission. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement Archive.

An earlier version of this article appeared on East Wind E-Zine; Convergence and The Forge are co-publishing this version.