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Randall Balmer: Remembering Freedom Summer

Sunday, July 20, 2014
In 1987 I happened to be in Jackson the day the Mississippi Legislature finally passed a bill authorizing a state holiday to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. The Legislature decided, in its infinite wisdom, that the day would also honor Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. In Mississippi, especially in race relations, when one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

The quest for civil rights has never been easy, and 50 years ago this summer all eyes were on Mississippi. The previous year, on June 12, 1963, Medgar Evers, head of the NAACP for Mississippi, was shot dead in the driveway of his home in Jackson. The following April, the Ku Klux Klan burned 61 crosses throughout the state, part of its continuing campaign of intimidation.

African-Americans in Mississippi were mired in poverty. Those who sought to register to vote were confronted with literacy tests and poll taxes. A typical test would require black applicants to read an obscure passage from the Mississippi state constitution and then summarize it to the satisfaction of the registrar. Only 6.7 percent of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote in Mississippi; only 5 percent actually voted.

While blacks struggled to survive, southern politicians invoked the moniker “states’ rights” as a rallying cry against federal mandates to desegregate. States’ rights became a code for white supremacy and resistance to integration. “The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him,” Ross Barnett, Mississippi’s governor in 1964, once declared.

But the winds of change were blowing throughout the nation, even the South. Historians disagree about the origins of the civil rights movement — the conviction of the Scottsboro boys in 1931, the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which began later that year — but the movement drew its energies from a remarkable confluence of faith and activism.

In 1964 a coalition of the National Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ coordinated their efforts with the umbrella organization Council of Federated Organizations, which included the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress on Racial Equality. Together, they collaborated on the Mississippi Summer Project, better known as Freedom Summer, to register voters and teach blacks the rudiments of literacy.

As Bob Moses, coordinator of Freedom Summer, noted in a speech at Stanford University in April, “If you teach people how to read and write, then they’re going to begin to want to govern themselves.”

The Mississippi Summer Project recruited students — black and white, Christian and Jewish — who attended training sessions at the Western College for Women, which is now part of Miami University of Ohio. They boarded buses for Mississippi and conducted Freedom Days and Freedom Schools throughout the state, seeking to embolden African-Americans to claim their rights as citizens. Evening rallies typically were held in churches.

“The atmosphere in the class is unbelievable,” one Freedom School teacher reported. “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.”

Excitement and happiness quickly gave way to tragedy in Mississippi. In Londale, on June 16, segregationists burned Mt. Zion Methodist Church to the ground; the church was the site of a Freedom School. Five days later in Meridian, three civil rights workers failed to return from their organizing activities in Neshoba County. Volunteers searched through the night. The next morning, authorities in Neshoba County confirmed that they had arrested the workers for speeding, detained them for several hours and then released them around 10:30 p.m. Lawrence Rainey, the sheriff, said, “If they’re missing, they just hid somewhere trying to get a lot of publicity out of it, I figure.”

The FBI led a search team, and agents found a smoldering Ford Fairlane near the town of Philadelphia, the county seat. Finally, on Aug. 4, weeks after their disappearance, the mangled bodies of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner — two Jews and an African-American — were discovered in an earthen dam 5 miles from Philadelphia.

The civil rights workers had indeed been arrested and detained on June 21. Then, with the collusion of the sheriff and his deputy, they were released into the hands of the Klan. Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard who authorized the killing of Schwerner, later boasted that “It was the first time that Christians had planned and carried out the execution of a Jew.”

Was Freedom Summer successful? The tally from that summer of 1964 in Mississippi — 50 years ago — includes 250 arrests of civil rights workers, 52 beatings and 20 black churches firebombed. Three civil rights workers were murdered. Mississippi saw only a negligible increase in black voter registration. On the other side of the ledger, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2, which forbade segregation in public accommodations and laid the legal groundwork for further advances in civil rights.

A postscript. On Aug. 3, 1980 —16 years less a day after the discovery of the slain civil rights workers in Neshoba County — Ronald Reagan opened the general election phase of his campaign for the presidency.

Presidential campaigns are exercises in political theater, fraught with symbolism, and no politician of recent memory understood that better than Ronald Reagan. After winning the Republican presidential nomination at his party’s convention in Detroit, Reagan had taken the customary few days off for vacation and then launched into the general election campaign. He might have opened his campaign in any number of places, including his home state of California or his native state of Illinois, both considered strategic battlegrounds in the November election. He might have visited a steel mill or an automobile plant in the so-called rust belt, a region reeling at the time from economic recession. Or he might have sought a loftier venue to emphasize a theme for his candidacy — the Statue of Liberty, perhaps, or the Gettysburg battlefield, where the nation played out its defining moral crisis.

The Reagan campaign, however, chose the Neshoba County Fair for its opening event, in the remote town of Philadelphia, Miss., site of one of the most horrific chapters of the civil rights movement. Reagan, the master of symbolism, might have used the macabre setting to put to rest any lingering suspicions that his campaign would appeal to racism in any form, despite the fact that he had vigorously opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Instead, invoking the battle cry of George Wallace, Ross Barnett and dozens of other segregationist politicians, Reagan declared, “I believe in states’ rights.”

When one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

Randall Balmer is chairman of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.

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