Freedom Summer was a massive outpouring of political activism during the summer of 1964 when hundreds of black and white college students traveled to Southern states like Mississippi to recruit African people in America to vote. The recruitment efforts included not only registering African people to vote but also educating African people on voting rights. Although civil rights organizers had been working on the Freedom Vote campaign in Mississippi since 1961, Freedom Summer was to be much more intense because it was a presidential election year and recruiting African people to vote was essential to winning the campaign for civil rights.
Although the right to vote was received by men with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 and by women with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, disenfranchisement inhibited African men and women from truly exercising their right to vote. This disenfranchisement occurred in such legal sanctions as poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as outright physical attacks of terror, intimidation, brutality, and even murder. For African Americans, registering to vote in places such as Mississippi literally meant risking their lives and, consequently, only 6% of all African American people in Mississippi were registered to vote. Because this was the lowest percentage of registered voters in the country, Mississippi became the new battleground in the fight for African people to be able to exercise their right to vote in the United States.
Organizing Freedom Summer
Freedom Summer was organized by a coalition of some of the most well known civil rights organizations of the time: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These organizations made up what was known as the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations. Because the white community protested African people's right to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states, volunteers leaving for the South had to be prepared for the strong possibility of encountering violence. College students were trained by SNCC workers in nonviolent protest methods at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Most of the students were around 21 years old, white, and from wealthy families. The students were asked to bring money for bail, expenses, and medical costs, as well as money for transportation home at the end of the summer. After about a week of training, the volunteers were sent to Mississippi. Their goals for the summer were to build freedom schools, open community centers where African people could obtain both legal advice and medical services, register African voters, and establish and organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
College students who participated in Freedom Summer knew that they might encounter violence, harassment, and even death. Many local governmental officials in Mississippi anticipated the arrival of the volunteers by increasing their police force, reinforcing their weaponry, and preparing their jails and prisons. Many political leaders passed laws that would inhibit disruptive activities they thought might occur over the course of the summer. Violence did erupt— when white supremacist groups, community members, and police attacked the Freedom Summer workers numerous times over the duration of the summer. African American homes, churches, and Freedom schools were burned down. Over 1,000 Freedom Summer volunteers were arrested, and many were deliberately beaten while in police custody.
Despite the threat of violence, the Freedom Summer workers were able to accomplish many of their goals. Freedom schools were established throughout Mississippi to teach African American history, leadership, reading, writing, and mathematics to African men, women, and children. Many Southern schools at this time were insufficiently funded and did not have the appropriate supplies, suitable textbooks, or the educated faculty to properly teach the children. The Freedom schools challenged these inequalities and drew about 3,000 students to the 30 schools throughout the South. Although these Freedom schools were deemed illegal by southern lawmakers, both teachers and students still participated in them despite the danger involved. Those who attended the schools risked intimidation and violence, while those who taught in the schools risked imprisonment, as teaching in a Freedom school was punishable by up to 6 months in prison.
Creating Space and Opportunity for Participation
Freedom clinics were also established, attracting doctors from all over the country to provide basic health care at no charge to African people in Mississippi. And legal clinics were created to educate African people in their legal rights, as well as to oversee the Freedom Summer activities to ensure that no constitutional rights were violated. Lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the American Jewish Committee, as well as many law school students, traveled to Mississippi to take part in the legal aspect of the summer's protests.
Although the possibility of violence came with the job, the most well-known case of brutality in the summer of 1964 was the murder of the three civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested for a traffic violation while investigating a church bombing and physical attack on church members in Philadelphia, Mississippi. No one knows what actually happened after they were released from jail, but a few weeks later, the bodies of the men were found in a nearby dam. The black man, Chaney, had been beaten to death, and the two white men, Goodman and Schwerner, had both been shot. These murders received extensive coverage in the media, and many believed that it was because two of the three murdered men where white. Had they all been black, the media most likely would not have covered the story at all, as in the search for the bodies of the three civil rights workers, the bodies of three missing African Americans were found, and their murders did not receive any news coverage.
The Politics of Freedom Summer
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was also established during the Freedom Summer to challenge the historically racist Democratic party. Although many African Americans at this time were Democrats, the Southern Democratic party excluded both African voters and African representatives. This is why African people were not only recruited to register to vote but also to join the MFDP, which more than 80,000 did. Although the MFDP won much national support in places like California, President Lyndon Johnson refused to support the new party. When the MFDP was not included at the Democratic National Convention, delegates from five states threatened to walk out of the convention if the MFDP was not seated. President Johnson was forced to intervene and allowed the MFDP representatives into the convention as at-large delegates. However, the delegates were soon thrown out of the convention after refusing to swear full allegiance to the Democratic party. Fannie Lou Hamer went before the Credentials Committee and the media to discuss how difficult it was for African people in Mississippi to vote and how important the MFDP was for African people. Although the MFDP was not able to accomplish all that it had intended, the party did show the country that political power could be seized and utilized in the advancement of civil rights.
Although the risks were high for all those who participated in Freedom Summer, the achievements made it all worth the risk and effort. Freedom Summer had a huge impact not only on Mississippi but on the entire country. Freedom Summer laid the groundwork for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Freedom schools became the blueprint for future programs such as Head Start. The main idea was if Mississippi's overt racism and discrimination could be conquered, then anything was possible in the struggle to advance civil rights.
- Freedom Summer
- African people
- freedom schools
- voting rights
- Asante, Molefi Kete. (2002). African American History: A Journey of Liberation. Saddlebrook, NJ: Peoples Publishing Group. This is a comprehensive African American history book that covers the civil rights movement as well as the student protests and campaigns in the South.
- Asante, Molefi Kete, and Mattson, Mark. (2000). African American Atlas. New York: Gale Research Group. This is a spatial representation of the key historical events in the history of African Americans.