Civil RightsHistory

Freedom Summer

Freedom Summer, or the Mississippi Summer Project, was a 1964 voter registration drive aimed at increasing the number of registered Black voters in Mississippi. Over 700 mostly white volunteers joined African Americans in Mississippi to fight against voter intimidation and discrimination at the polls.

The movement was organized by civil rights organizations like the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and run by the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Freedom Summer volunteers were met with violent resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and members of state and local law enforcement. News coverage of beatings, false arrests, and even murder drew international attention to the civil rights movement. The increased awareness it brought to voter discrimination helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

What Was The Cause of the Freedom Summer?
By 1964, the civil rights movement was in full swing. The Freedom Riders had spent 1961 riding buses throughout the segregated South, fighting Jim Crow laws that dictated where Black riders could sit, eat, and drink. Martin Luther King, Jr. had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the August 1963 March on Washington as 250,000 people gathered before him at the Lincoln Memorial.

Despite all of this progress, the South remained segregated, especially when it came to the polls, where African Americans faced violence and intimidation when they attempted to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Poll taxes and literacy tests designed to silence Black voters were common. Without access to the polls, political change in favor of civil rights was slow-to-non-existent. Mississippi was chosen as the site of the Freedom Summer project due to its historically low levels of African American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 percent of the state’s eligible Black voters were registered to vote.

Freedom Summer Begins
On June 15, 1964, the first three hundred volunteers arrived in Mississippi. Mississippi Project Director Robert “Bob” Moses had pledged his staff and volunteers to “nonviolence in all situations.” Few could have foreseen how dire the situation would become.

Volunteers and staff had been warned about the high probability of being arrested and the need to have enough money for bail. They had also been encouraged to mentally prepare themselves for the experience by reading books like Dr. King’s memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, and Lillian Smith’s novel Killers of the Dream. No books could have prepared them for what happened next.

Among the first wave of volunteers to arrive on June 15 were two white students from New York, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, a local Black man. The three disappeared after visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, where they were investigating the burning of a church. Their names became nationally known as the hunt for their killers began. Spooked but still determined, the staff and volunteers of the Mississippi Project continued on with their mission to register voters and foster a grassroots freedom movement that would continue after their departure.

Six weeks later, the beaten bodies of the missing volunteers were recovered, killed by a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob that had the protection and help of a local policeman. Public outcry over the killings mounted: Where was Federal protection? Why had the investigations been so slow? Distrust grew between white and Black volunteers and staff.

Was The Freedom Summer A Success?
Voter registration in Mississippi was not greatly impacted by the Freedom Summer. While 17,000 Black Mississippians attempted to register to vote that summer, only 1,200 were successful. The Mississippi Project did establish more than 40 Freedom Schools serving a combined 3,000 students. The Freedom Summer also raised awareness for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 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.” But at the August 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, MFDP delegates were refused seats, dealing another blow to organizers who had risked their lives to make a change.

Impact of The Freedom Summer
Some believe the national attention the Freedom Summer garnered for the civil rights movement helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

After the violence of the Freedom Summer, divisions within the civil rights movement grew between those who continued to believe in non-violence and those who had begun to doubt whether equality could be reached through peaceful means. After 1964, more militant factions would rise as the struggle for equality continued.

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