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Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project) was a campaign in the United Statesmarker launched in June 1964 to attempt to register as many African American voters as possible in Mississippimarker, which up to that time had almost totally excluded black voters. The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of four established civil rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with SNCC playing the lead role. Robert Parris Moses, SNCC field secretary and co-director of COFO, directed the summer project.

Freedom summer was possible because of years of earlier work by numerous African Americans who lived locally in Mississippi. By 1964, students and others had begun the process of integrating public accommodations, registering to vote, and above all organizing a network of local leadership. Well over 1,000 out-of-state volunteers participated in Freedom Summer alongside thousands of black Mississippians. Most of the volunteers were young, most of them from the North, most of them were white and many were Jewish. Two one-week orientation sessions for the volunteers were held at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohiomarker (now part of Miami Universitymarker), from June 14 to June 27.

Organizers focused on Mississippi because it had the lowest percentage of African Americans registered to vote in the country; in 1962 only 6.7 % of eligible black voters were registered.White officials in the South systematically kept African Americans from being able to vote by charging them expensive poll taxes, forcing them to take especially difficult literacy tests, making the application process inconvenient, harassing would-be voters economically (as by denying crop loans), and carrying out arson, battery, and lynching.

During the ten weeks of Freedom Summer, a number of other organizations provided support for the COFO Summer Project. More than 100 volunteer doctors, nurses, psychologists, medical students and other medical professionals from the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) provided emergency care for volunteers and local activists, taught health education classes, and advocated improvements in Mississippi's segregated health system. Volunteer lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Inc ("Ink Fund"), National Lawyers Guild, Lawyer's Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC) an arm of the ACLU, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCR) provided free legal services — handling arrests, freedom of speech, voter registration and other matters. And the Commission on Religion and Race (CORR), an endeavor of the National Council of Churches (NCC), brought Christian and Jewish clergy and divinity students to Mississippi to support the work of the Summer Project. In addition to offering traditional religious support to volunteers and activists, the ministers and rabbis engaged in voting rights protests at courthouses, recruited voter applicants and accompanied them to register, taught in Freedom Schools, and performed office and other support functions.

Violence

Many of Mississippi's white residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society. State and local governments, police, the White Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan used murder, arrests, beatings, arson, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.

Over the course of the ten-week project:

  • four civil rights workers were killed
  • four people were critically wounded
  • eighty Freedom Summer workers were beaten
  • one-thousand people were arrested (volunteers and locals)
  • thirty seven churches were bombed or burned
  • thirty Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned


Violence struck the campaign almost as soon as it started. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney (a black CORE activist from Mississippi), CORE organizer Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman (both of whom were Jews from New Yorkmarker) were arrested by Cecil Price, a Neshoba Countymarker deputy sheriff and member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were held in jail until after nightfall, then released into a waiting ambush by Klansmen who abducted, tortured, and killed them. The volunteers' bodies were found on August 4, 1964, buried in an earthen dam.

Mississippi refused to investigate or indict anyone for the murders. After a year, seven men were tried and convicted for federal crimes related to the murders, but few served time in jail, none more than six years.

As a result of investigative reporting by Jerry Mitchell (an award-winning reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger), high school teacher Barry Bradford, and three students from Illinoismarker (Brittany Saltiel, Sarah Siegel, and Allison Nichols), Edgar Ray Killen, one of the leaders of the killings, was finally indicted for murder and later found guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, the forty-first anniversary of the crime. He appealed the verdict, but his sentence of 3 times 20 years in prison was upheld on January 12, 2007, in a hearing by the Supreme Court of Mississippimarker.

The MFDP

Initially, Freedom Summer volunteers tried to register black voters using the official process of going to the courthouse, filling out the state voter application, and taking the infamous literacy test. SNCC and COFO had hoped that the glare of national publicity focused on the volunteers would deter Mississippi from blocking black voting rights. But of the 17,000 Mississippi blacks who attempted to become registered voters, only 1,600 succeeded.

With participation in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party blocked by segregationists, COFO established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a non-exclusionary rival to the regular party organization with the intention of having the MFDP recognized by the national Democratic Party as the legitimate party organization in Mississippi.

When the forces of white supremacy continued to block black voter registration, the Summer Project switched to building the MFDP, using a simple, alternate, process of signing up party supporters that did not require blacks to openly defy whites by trying to register at the courthouse. By summer's end more than 80,000 blacks had joined the MFDP.

At the Democratic Party Convention in Atlantic Citymarker, New Jerseymarker in August, the integrated, democraticially-elected MFDP delegation tried to unseat the white-only delegation from Mississippi. Though the MFDP challenge had wide support among many convention delegates, Lyndon B. Johnson feared losing Southern support in the coming campaign and he prevented the MFDP from replacing the regulars.

Freedom Schools

In addition to voter registration and the MFDP, the Summer Project also established a network 30 to 40 voluntary summer schools — called "Freedom Schools" — as an alternative to Mississippi's totally segregated and underfunded school system. Over the course of the summer, more than 3,500 students attended Freedom Schools which taught subjects that the public schools avoided such as black history and constitutional rights.

Freedom Schools were held in churches, on back porches, and under the trees of Mississippi. Students ranged from small children to elderly adults, with the average age around 15. Most of the volunteer teachers were college students. Under the direction of Spelman College professor Staughton Lynd, the goal was to teach confidence, voter literacy, and political organization skills as well as academic skills. The curriculum was directly linked to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. As Edwin King, who ran for Lieutenant Governor on the MFDP ticket, stated, “Our assumption was that the parents of the Freedom School children, when we met them at night, that the Freedom Democratic Party would be the PTA.”

The Freedom Schools operated on a basis of close interaction and mutual trust between teachers and students. The core curriculum focused on basic literacy and arithmetic, black history and current status, political processes, civil rights, and the freedom movement. But the actual content varied from place to place and day to day according to the questions and interests of the students.

The volunteer Freedom School teachers were as profoundly affected by their experience as were the students. Pam Parker, a teacher in the Holly Springs school, wrote about of experience:
"The atmosphere in the class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about — real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy in spirit..."


Aftermath of Freedom Summer

Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers, but when the lives of affluent northern white students were threatened the full attention of the media spotlight was turned on the state. This evident disparity between the value that the media placed on the lives of whites and blacks embittered many black activists. Perhaps the most significant affect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers themselves, almost all of whom — black and white — still consider it one of the defining moments of their lives.

The structure of the civil rights movement remained after freedom summer. In September and October, leading up to the November election, a series of repressive events occurred. Nuisance arrests; beatings; church burnings continued. Long term volunteers continued to staff the COFO and SNCC offices throughout Mississippi. After the flood of summer workers in 1964, it was decided that projects should continue in the following summer, but under the direction of local leadership. In the following summer, and thereafter, the priorities for action were set by locals.

Among many notable veterans of Freedom Summer were Heather Booth, Marshall Ganz, and Mario Savio. After the summer, Heather Booth returned to Illinois, where she became a founder of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and later the Midwest Academy. Marshall Ganz returned to Californiamarker and worked for many years on the staff of the United Farm Workers, later taught organizing strategies, and in 2008 played a crucial role in organizing Barack Obama's field staff for the campaign. Mario Savio returned to the University of California, Berkeleymarker, where he became a leader of the Free Speech Movement.

Notes

  1. Clayborne Carson, In Struggle (Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 114.
  2. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 66.
  3. Mississippi: Subversion of the Right to Vote ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  4. Lynching of Chaney, Schwerner & Goodman ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  5. Freedom Summer and Freedom Schools ~Education & Democracy
  6. Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum ~Education & Democracy
  7. Mississippi Freedom Summer — 1964 ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  8. Veterans Roll Call ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans


References

  • Sally Belfrage, Freedom Summer (University of Virginia Press, 1965, reissued 1990). ISBN 978-0813912998
  • Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Harvard University Press, 1981). ISBN 0-674-44726-3
  • Susie Erenrich, editor, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement (Montgomery, AL: Black Belt Press, 1999). ISBN 1-881320-58-8
  • Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). ISBN 0-19-504367-7
  • Elizabeth Martnez, editor, Letter from Mississippi (Zephyr Press, 2002). ISBN 0939010712


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