Fifty years ago this summer, over 700 students from across the country, joined in the Civil Rights battle in Mississippi, where African-Americans had been demonstratively and, at times, violently denied their basic civil rights, especially the right to vote. These students joined together with the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNNC) under the guidance of Bob Moses, who had been slowly organizing SNNC since 1960. These students, were predominantly white, but included all races and ethnic groups.
The fact that many were white helped bring further attention to the ongoing tragedy going on Mississippi, perpetuated by those in power as the young students lived within the African-American community, taught through Freedom Schools young students about African-American history, literature and rights, items that had been absent from their curriculum. The Freedom Summer project can be viewed up close with an excellent documentary being shown on the PBS American Experience. A link is provided below.* I would encourage you to watch the two-hour film as it can tell a story that requires footages of violence, overt racism, and brave people who spoke up, like Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rita Schwerner and countless others.
Hamer is the face of the effort as evidenced by her speaking passionately in front of the 1964 Democratic Convention committee about how she was arrested, beaten, and tormented when she and others tried to register vote. Schwerner is the widow of one the three Civil Rights workers, Michael Schwerner, who along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were abducted and killed by the KKK who came to abet the efforts of those in power in Mississippi. The widow rightfully pointed out the fact that two of the abducted (at the time) were white, was the only reason people in America started paying attention. She noted it is a shame that many African-Americans had died or were injured merely trying to exercise their right as citizens. Before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, less than 7% of African-Americans in Mississippi were allowed to register due to ostracization, intimidation, and complex constitutional literacy tests.
Since I cannot begin to do justice to this subject, I encourage you to watch the documentary. It will make you ashamed that this could happen in America, while at the same time making you applaud the magnificent courage of all involved, especially those African-Americans who had lived and would continue to live in this Apartheid like state once the freedom summer students went home. Yet, it took the deaths of these three young folks to galvanize and empower people.
It also took the organization of a more representative Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of whites and blacks that went to the national convention to unseat the representatives sent by the state party, who were all white. Since morality was on their side, they almost succeeded, but they ran into the politics of Lyndon B. Johnson, who used his power to squelch the effort for a greater good – he could not help in matters if he did not get elected and he saw this as a means to interfere with that mission, no matter how noble the cause. LBJ accomplished great things for African-Americans, but politics is an ugly thing to watch up close and he looks manipulative in the process.
While their efforts fell short at the convention, their efforts were huge contributors to the passage of the Voting Rights Act the next year. But, one of the young folks who went to the Freedom Schools and is now a PhD., noted that learning about their African-American culture and civil rights that had been denied them, may have been the greatest achievement. I applaud their efforts and bravery. We still have a way to go and are seeing some battles having to be refought with several states passing restrictive Voter ID Laws. Three states have had their new laws ruled unconstitutional, while others are in court now. Yet, just because our President is multi-racial does not mean we are there yet. So, let’s keep in mind the battles these brave folks fought and not let their civil rights be stepped on again, no matter how cleverly masked those efforts.