Freedom Summer: The 50th Anniversary

Maybe I've missed it, but I haven't seen a lot of media attention about this summer being the 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer, the epochal weeks in the American Civil Rights movement that took place in Mississippi during the summer of 1964.

One thing that I have seen is the American Experience documentary Freedom Summer just released. You can watch Freedom Summer online here.

For a gripping history of Freedom Summer I recommend Bruce Watson's excellent book Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy.

For most of the civil rights movement, starting with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott through the early 60s, the focus had been upon "direct action," usually sit ins or boycotts, taking aim at segregated spaces. Public transportation, lunch counters, schools, amusement parks, city swimming pools.

But with Jim Crow segregation legally defeated in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, though actual implementation was slower in following, the movement began to focus more and more upon political empowerment. Blacks could now eat alongside Whites at lunch counters, but few Blacks were registered voters in the South. Consequently, Blacks lacked the political power to influence and shape their local and state governments. So in the early 60s the focus of the civil rights movement began to focus less on direct action and more upon voter registration.

But this was very hard going. Across the South for a Black person to go to the local court house to register to vote was a life or death issue. Beyond facing a host of obstacles, from poll taxes to literacy tests, Blacks who had the temerity to register found themselves fired from their jobs or visited by the Klan at night. City clerks across the South would pick up the phone to inform employers or the Klan whenever a Black person had attempted to register. It was just too hard, expensive or risky to register to vote.

Especially in Mississippi.

And so it was that Bob Moses, who had been working on voter registration in Mississippi for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), came up with the idea of Freedom Summer, an intensive effort to "crack" Mississippi on the issue of voting rights.

The controversial aspect of the idea was to invite White northern college students, among others, to work with black leaders in Mississippi during the summer of '64. The volunteers would work in one of three areas: Voter registration, teaching Black children in "Freedom Schools," or setting up community centers to deliver assistance.

However, the influx and use of well-off White college students was controversial. Would Freedom Summer make it look like Whites were riding in on white horses to save the Blacks who couldn't help themselves?

In the end, a philosophical and a pragmatic argument won the day. Philosophically, the movement vision of "the beloved community" involved people of all races working side by side. And pragmatically, the involvement of Northern White college students would bring a huge amount of media attention.

And that attention, tragically, came almost immediately.

Over a 1,000 volunteers responded to the call of Freedom Summer gathering the weeks of June 14th and June 27 for training sessions at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. During the training the volunteers learned about the history of Mississippi, how to sing freedom songs, the basics of non-violent resistance and, critically for the White volunteers, how to take orders and direction from the Black leaders organizing the summer. For many, that was a new experience.

A critical part of the training involved how to stay safe during the summer in Mississippi. The moral tension at the heart of Freedom Summer was that these idealistic and naive volunteers were being recruited to go into one of the most violent states in the US. Some of these kids, the organizers knew, were going to get killed. And the only way the SNCC leaders could soothe their consciences in this regard was to be very, very upfront about the risks. The volunteers needed to know how dangerous this was going to be. They may get hurt. They may get killed.

That message might have been lost on those who did their training during the week of June 14th. But the mood was much more dark and grim for those who came for the second week of training on June 27th.

Wanting to use the time between the two training sessions to investigate a church burning outside Philadelphia, MS, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman drove to Mississippi. James, who was Black, and Micheal, who was White, were both Freedom Summer organizers and experienced civil rights activists. Andrew, who was White, was a Freedom Summer volunteer from New York.

On the afternoon of June 21st James, Michael and Andrew were arrested by deputy sheriff Cecil Pricede from a Neshoba County Mississippi. Price, it was later discovered, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

James, Michael and Andrew were held in jail until nightfall. They were released around 10:30 pm.

And then they were never heard from again.

Two days after their disappearance, on June 23rd, their burned out station wagon was discovered. The bodies were nowhere to be found. To search for the bodies the FBI brought in busloads of military personnel to search through the snake infested swamps close to where the car was found. They found nothing. 

The disappearance of James, Michael and Andrew was an ominous cloud hanging over the second crop of Freedom Summer volunteers who gathered on the Western College campus just six days after the disappearance.

If those college kids had any illusions about what they were getting into the disappearance of James, Michael and Andrew quickly put those to rest.

Some went home. Because of their own fear or the fears of their parents who were following the news and freaking out about what their son or daughter was getting into.

Mississippi was burning. Be smart. Come on home. Let's vacation by the beach. There is a safe and paying summer job waiting for you here.

But most stayed and went South to Mississippi.

Freedom Schools opened across Mississippi on the first week of July. Welcoming over 2,500 children over those hot summer weeks. Most not teaching in the Schools coordinated or worked with the voter registration efforts, walking miles down dusty roads to visit with Black citizens about the power of their vote.

And all the while, as the FBI continued to search for the bodies of James, Michael and Andrew, the Freedom Summer workers would bring to mind the many directives from the Freedom Summer Security Handbook:
No one should go anywhere alone.

Travel at night should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.

Know locations of sanctuaries and safe homes in the county.

If it can be avoided, try not to sleep near open windows. Try to sleep at the back of the house, i.e., the part farthest from a road or street.

Do not stand in doorways at night with the light at your back.
The tense hot weeks of July wore on.

Then on August 4th, following up on a tip, the FBI discovered the bodies of James, Michael and Andrew. Andrew and Michael had been shot through the heart. James had been severely beaten and shot three times.

In Meridian Pete Seeger was onstage leading the audience in song when someone came up and handed him a note telling of the discovery of the bodies. Seeger stood and shared the news with the crowd. With many weeping or in shock Seeger led a slow and haunting song.
O healing river
Send down your water
Send down your water
Upon this land
O healing river
Send down your water
And wash the blood
From off our sand
Freedom Summer was only halfway over.

When the press asked James Chaney's mother about her son's death her words were few but to the point.

"My boy died a martyr," she said, "for something he believed in."

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7 thoughts on “Freedom Summer: The 50th Anniversary”

  1. Very moving. I really appreciate your pieces on the Civil Rights Movement. I too have been a bit perplexed by the silence on the anniversary - perhaps they are waiting for July? I hope so. Given some of the things happening politically in the country I think we are at great risk of rolling back many of the advances that brave heroes like James, Andrew, and Michael gave their life for.

    A related aside, if you have not read the book 'Devil in the Grove' I would highly recommend it. It follows Thurgood Marshall's involvement in the Groveland Boys case in Lake County, FL in 1951, during the time he was arguing Brown. Great portrait of Thurgood Marshall and survey of the early Civil Rights Movement and NAACP.

  2. I have read it, very good book. During the civil rights movement the younger members of SNCC were very critical of the older, more established NAACP. SNCC thought the NAACP had gotten too passive and timid. But the book Devil in the Grove is a great reminder of just how radical the NAACP was in years before the civil rights struggle in the early 60s..

  3. I remember as a teenager in the south during the sixities hearing white church members say often in regard to the Civil Rights Movement, and I quote, "Good colored members of the Lord's Church don't go for that mess". I am so thankful that I leaned the truth when I was still a young man that many members and leaders from African American congregations of the Church of Christ worked tirelessly for the movement. And it saddens me that the self-deception in too many places, especially churches,still exists.

  4. Although taking place a year later, the Episcopal church remembers Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a seminarian, who was martyred on August 20, 1965, in Hayneville, Alabama (but is remembered on August 14), when he stepped between 16-year old Ruby Sales and a man with a shotgun.

    We've come a long ways, but we still have far to go.

  5. In Charleston, SC, a private donor funded the creation of a statue for Judge Waring. It was dedicated in the garden next to the Federal Circuit Court in May. Judge Waring hired and black bailiff and "integrated" his chamber. He then bucked the entire establishment and ruled in Briggs v Elliot that there was systemic discrimination in SC public schools leading to the Supreme Court's ruling on desegregation. Judge Waring and his wife were assaulted physically and verbally. They became complete social pariahs even at their generationally attended church. (The Waring family is one of the founding families in Charleston.) They left the South in 1952. He died in 1968; his body was returned to Charleston for burial where hundreds of African-Americans but fewer than a dozen whites attended.

    In Charleston, we are only getting around to acknowledging the 1950's. Maybe by the 75th anniversary we will be able to acknowledge the realities of that turbulent decade.

  6. Another interesting angle on Freedom Summer is Charles Marsh's book God's Long Summer. Not a single narrative but an examination of the lives and thoughts of some people living in Mississippi at the time.

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