Freedom Summer Project – Those who braved Mississippi burning

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.


18 thoughts on “Freedom Summer Project – Those who braved Mississippi burning

  1. This sounds like an amazing film. We recently watched the movie The Butler, which highlights some of this, and as I watched the Freedom Riders, I was overwhelmed by fear for them. I can’t imagine the bravery it took to do what they did, to sit at white lunch counters and be abused and spit at and beaten, to ride through dangerous areas and blaze a trail for everybody. It is awe-inspiring. Thanks for highlighting this film.

    • Thanks Emily. There is also a dramatic movie whose title I use in mine with Gene Hackman and Willem DaFoe called “Mississippi Burning.” The documentary whose so well done and compelling, especially from the reflective words from those who were part of it. Thanks for stopping by, BTG

  2. I knew some students who went on the march. it was quite a time. As you correctly pointed out, we are slowly moving back towards those days of voter suppressions. I’ve just begun a great book called “The Fifties.” In it there is the Repubs of the 30’s through the 50’s playing out the exact same game plan as they are today. Nothing for the poor, cut taxes on the wealthy, no entitlement programs. They failed miserably then, perhaps they will move to the same results today.

    Great post

  3. i will never forget, through the ears of a wide-eyed six year old, the drama that unfolded in my family’s kitchen, where my parents listened to the sobs of my oldest sister phoning home from the university of mississippi. of course you know that story – why she was crying – and of course she was frightened.

    i’ll be going ‘home’ later this year and will ask kate and her husband don to tell me the story.

    many times when i meet foreigners, they’ll say, ‘mississippi.. i saw mississippi burning…’

    oh my… i will forever be ashamed, especially when i read those racial stories. now greg iles of natchez has birthed his newest, natchez burning. if you read it before i do, let me know what you think!


    • Z, I will take a look at these. One of the comments made by an African-American in the documentary is white people that wanted to speak up were also ostracized. They use a blatant example where the parents of the reigning Miss Mississippi invited several of the students over to learn more and share that not all white Mississippians were like that. Within minutes of arrival, they had neighbors at their house asking about the cars in the streets and soon had a number of folks on their lawn. Eventually, they had to move out of the state.

      There are so many examples of African-Americans being put down that it boggles the mind. If you tried to register to vote, your name made the paper and you or your relatives lost their job. Also, there was required tipping of the hat, required moving off the sidewalk, required obsequies manner, etc. And, to hear some of the racists talk will amaze you that they thought this way.

      Have a great trip back home. I would love to hear about your conversations. BTG

      • yes, i remain ashamed at our past, and sometimes i think we’ve not advanced much.. racism is still an issue, though some are masters at masking their opinions where others proudly boast that they’re better than others. it often saddens me, and i wonder why we can’t all put egos away and just be nice to each other…

      • Since May, 2013, as the result of several enactments or failures to enact legislation by the North Carolina General Assembly, a growing group of ministers, doctors, teachers, attorneys and folks of other disciplines began a series of Monday protests in Raleigh throughout the duration of the General Assembly session. The NAACP has led the efforts. After the close of session, the protests did a road show to other cities and now have been back in Raleigh. I have attended two of them.

        The dilemma here shows what can happen when Republicans command both houses and the governor’s office. Over the past two years, the following has been enacted or failed to be enacted, all of which harm the environment or people in need.

        – we cut off long term unemployment benefits and cut back short term benefits (cuts were needed, but these are a bridge too far);
        – teacher pay remained frozen, tenure was eliminated (this has been held up in court), added pay for masters degrees were eliminated (the Moral Monday and teacher backlash is remedying this as we speak)
        – a voter suppressive Voter ID Law (which has multiple parts) was passed and is being sued for unconstitutionality be four groups (it is more severe than what was passed in three other states that have been also ruled unconstitutional)
        – we did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act which would have helped over 300,000 people
        – we have passed several laws that harm the environment ranging from less protection over trees, not accepting a peer reviewed report on sea rise that had been accepted in several states, allowing fracking to progress, gutting the Dept of Environment and Natural Resources, etc.
        – we have also passed tax cuts that benefit the wealthy while cutting the state earned income tax credit for those not so well off.

        Over 900 of these protestors have been arrested, poked fun at on websites and referred to by our Speaker of the House Thom Tillis (who is running for Senate) as “whiners and losers.” I have left several other things off, but as an Independent voter, what has been done in our state is a damn shame.

      • Serious brain cramp reading that list of awful things. Thank goodness, there are those of you brave enough to stand up and say “ENOUGH!”

      • Thanks. The teacher issue had to be addressed as they were voting with their feet. The other stuff is an uphill battle.

  4. CNN is also featuring a new series called “The Sixties” developed in part by Tom Hanks! Excellent review of the tumultuous times of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement!

    Great post!

  5. In looking back on those days, what I take away is that injustices were (and still are) ingrained in our society. People were inured to them, and practiced at just looking away. It seems the tide turned when suddenly there were also victims coming from the majority–the whites. I see the same in the social struggles we face today. The LGBTQ movement is finally making inroads into having a voice and a place in society. It took having allies from the majority standing side-by-side with the gay community in protest to gain any traction at all. Of course, there’s still a long way to go. But I’m struck by the impact of a broad coalition strengthens any protest.

    • Good observations Linda. The coalition on any change has to be broad to provide air cover for those disenfranchised. I am in awe of the courage of all involved. Thanks for your thoughts.

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