Freedom Summer Project

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Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, was a voter registration drive held in 1964, where civil rights activists used peaceful means to increase the number of registered Black voters in Mississippi.

Over 700 volunteers, mostly white, joined African Americans in Mississippi to combat voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls. Civil rights organizations such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized the movement led by the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO).

Volunteers for Freedom Summer faced severe and extreme resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and representatives of state and local law enforcement. The foreign media’s reports of beatings, false convictions, and even murder brought attention to the Civil Rights Movement. This increased recognition of voter segregation helped in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

WHY DID FREEDOM SUMMER HAPPEN?

The civil rights campaign was in full swing by 1964. The Freedom Riders had spent 1961 riding buses through the segregated South and protesting Jim Crow laws that limited where Black riders could eat, drink and sit. The previous year in August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial during March on Washington.

For over a century most African-Americans in Mississippi were prevented from voting or seeking elected offices due to segregation. Housing, colleges, workplaces, and public accommodations were all segregated, denying Black Mississippians political and economic power. Most were poor, indebted to white banks or plantation owners, and were held in place by police and white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. African-Americans who threatened to speak out about these abuses were often murdered, tortured, abused, battered, imprisoned, dismissed by their employers, or evicted from their homes.

Leaders of SNCC and CORE agreed that bringing well-connected white volunteers from northern colleges to Mississippi would bring these conditions into light. They believed that national coverage would push the federal government to enforce civil rights policies that had been violated by city authorities. They also intended to assist Black Mississippians in forming a progressive political party capable of competing with the existing Democratic Party until voting rights were won.

Political reform in favor of human rights was slow and non-existent without recourse to the polls. Mississippi was selected as the location of the Freedom Summer project because of its historically poor levels of African American voter registration; fewer than 7% of the state’s qualifying Black voters were registered to vote in 1962.

WHO PARTICIPATED IN FREEDOM SUMMER?

More than 60,000 Black Mississippians sacrificed their life to attend local gatherings, select candidates and vote in a “Freedom Referendum” held concurrently with the usual 1964 national elections. Hundreds of African-American families welcomed northern volunteers into their households.

Almost 1,500 volunteers worked on this project in offices located throughout Mississippi. They were led by 122 SNCC and CORE paid staff members who worked alongside them or at headquarters in Jackson and Greenwood. The majority of volunteers were white students from northern universities, but 254 were clergy funded by the National Council of Churches. There were 169 attorneys sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild and the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, and 50 were medical practitioners sponsored by the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

Administratively, the effort was overseen by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a 1962 umbrella organization that included not only SNCC and CORE but also the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and some other organizations. SNCC supported about 80% of the project’s personnel and resources, with CORE contributing almost all of the remaining 20%. Bob Moses of SNCC was the director of the Mississippi Summer Project, and Dave Dennis of CORE was the assistant director.

WHO WERE THE KEY PEOPLE INVOLVED?

The idea of strong leaders was rejected by the SNCC. It took all major decisions as a party and envisioned Freedom Summer as a grass-roots uprising with citizens growing up to take control of their destinies. During the summer of 1964, over 500 people worked on the project full-time. Among others who played critical roles were:

Dave Dennis

He was the chief of CORE’s activities in Mississippi and Louisiana, as well as the assistant director of COFO. He was a veteran of previous sit-ins and freedom rides. He oversaw CORE’s involvement in Freedom Summer and, along with Bob Moses, oversaw the initiative as a whole.

Robert Moses

In the fall of 1963, he suggested the concept of Freedom Summer to SNCC and COFO officials, and he was chosen to steer it early in 1964. It was Moses who may be said to have led Freedom Summer.

Mary King and Julian Bond

They oversaw the SNCC Communications Section, ensuring that the national media was available to report activities and the project workers were kept updated with the ever-present risks.

Lawrence Guyot (1939-2012)

He was a driving force behind the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-1977)

She was a member of the MFDP who opposed the white supremacist delegation to the DNC.  She also ran for Congress in the Freedom Election and helped lead the congressional opposition. Her impassioned appeal for voting rights at the DNC was heard by millions of people on national television and epitomized Freedom Summer for many.

Annie Devine (1912-2000) and Victoria Gray (1926-2006)

Annie Devine and Victoria Gray were MFDP representatives who opposed the DNC’s white nationalist delegation, stood for Congress in the Freedom Election, and helped lead the congressional opposition.

WHAT WERE THE GOALS FOR FREEDOM SUMMER?

Its primary aim was to encourage local people to vote in local, state, and federal elections. Another aim was to draw national attention to Mississippi’s circumstances. Freedom Summer objectives included the following:

Boost Voter Registration

Organizers wanted as many Black Mississippians as possible to register to vote. They were right in assuming that the majority would be denied the right to vote and that this inequality would be widely publicized.

Get the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party a reality (MFDP)

Since authorities prevented the majority of Blacks from registering to vote or joining the Democratic Party, organizers attempted to form a new party and host a simultaneous election. The MFDP was open to everyone (Black or white), democratically elected its platform and candidates, and sent a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in August 1964 in the hopes of being accepted as the official voice of Democrats in Mississippi.

Challenge the Democratic National Committee (DNC)

The MFDP challenged the right of the white nationalist delegation to represent Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They opposed it on the basis that Black residents were systematically omitted from party conventions where candidates were elected. Their testimony before the Democratic Party’s Credentials Committee was broadcast around the country.

Create Freedom Schools

Local churches, storefronts, and other structures were converted into schools where children and adults could study Black history, social sciences, literacy, and math, as well as acquire leadership skills.

Open Community Centers

These were developed in existing buildings or new ones built from scratch to provide child care, medical assistance, meals, library books, and other facilities that were unavailable in segregated Black communities.

Conduct a Freedom Vote

Since Black voters were prevented from voting in the regular election for president and city offices, activists held a parallel election in which all residents could vote. It was planned right before the segregated regular elections took place on November 3, 1964.

Challenge Exclusionary Congressional Elections

After the regular election’s all-white winners were sent to Washington, D.C., the MFDP challenged their right to serve in Congress, claiming that Black residents had been systematically excluded from the electoral process.

FREEDOM SUMMER BEGINS

The first 300 volunteers arrived in Mississippi on June 15, 1964. Mississippi Project Director Robert “Bob” Moses had committed his team and volunteers to “nonviolence in all situations,” but no one could have predicted how severe the crisis would get.

Volunteers and employees had been warned of the strong probability of arrest and the importance of having enough funds for bail. They were also advised to emotionally prepare for the experience by reading books such as Dr. King’s biography, Stride toward Freedom, and Lillian Smith’s novel Killers of the Dream. No amount of reading could have prepared them for what happened next.

On June 15, two white students from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and a local Black man, James Chaney, were among the of volunteers to arrive. The three vanished after visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a church. As the search for their assailants started, their names became well-known in the country. The Mississippi Project’s workers and supporters, shocked but determined, resumed their mission to register voters and cultivate a grassroots freedom movement following their departure.

Six weeks later, the beaten bodies of the missing volunteers were discovered, murdered by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob with the aid and assistance of a local police officer.

The public outrage over the killings grew: where was the federal government’s protection? Why were the proceedings taking too long? Distrust grew between white and Black volunteers and staff.

WAS THE FREEDOM SUMMER A SUCCESS?

The Freedom Summer had no impact on voter registration in Mississippi. Just 1,200 of the 17,000 Black Mississippians who attempted to register to vote that summer were successful.

The Mississippi Project did, however, create more than 40 Freedom Schools that served a total of 3,000 students. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was also brought to prominence during the Freedom Summer, about which Dr. King said: “If you value your party, if you value your nation, if you value democratic government, you have no alternative but to recognize, with full voice and vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.”

However, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in August 1964, MFDP delegates were denied seats, dealing another blow to organizers who had sacrificed their lives to effect reform.

Impact of the Freedom Summer

Throughout the South, people fought against segregation and persecution. Conditions changed only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with the federal government sending its officials into local courthouses. More than half of African-Americans in southern states had enrolled to vote by the end of 1966. In the years that followed, many were elected to local offices such as mayors, school boards, and chiefs of police.

Many SNCC and CORE employees went on to important careers in government. John Lewis of the SNCC was elected to the United States Congress, Mary King of the SNCC supervised the Peace Corps and Vista under President Carter, and her colleague Julian Bond led the NAACP after sitting in the Georgia legislature for several years. Other members of the department went on to become well-known academics, lawyers, and civil servants.

Many northern volunteers went on to found or lead significant anti-war, women’s, and gay rights groups. For example, voter registration worker Mario Savio founded the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; freedom school teacher Chude Pam Parker Allen helped promote women’s liberation groups in New York and San Francisco; and Barney Frank, a Jackson office volunteer, became one of the country’s first openly gay politicians in the United States Congress. Many others devoted their careers to legal or social services for the disadvantaged.

Reference:

  1. Freedom Summer. King Institute of Stanford.
  2. The 1964 Miss. Freedom Summer Protests Won Progress At a Bloody Price.
  3. The Daily Beast.
  4. The Tragic Success of Freedom Summer. Politico.
  5. Freedom Summer of 1964 was a mission in hostile territory. USA Today.
  6. https://www.history.com/topics/Black-history/freedom-summer
  7. https://www.womenshistory.org/resources/general/freedom-summer
  8. https://snccdigital.org/events/freedom-summer/
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