Bourbon at the Border dramaturgical research

VI. Freedom Summer

Link to Freedom Summer Web site
Climax of intensive voter registration that started in 1961 in the Deep South.  In 1962 only 6.7% of the African American population were registered to vote in Mississippi the lowest percentile out of all 50 states.  The Freedom Summer campaign was organized by a coalition called the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations, which included the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC volunteers, led by Robert Moses, played the largest role, providing 90 to 95 percent of the funding and 95 percent of headquarters staff. By mobilizing volunteer white college students from the North to join them, the coalition scored a major public relations coup as hundreds of reporters came to Mississippi from around the country to cover the voter registration campaign. The organization of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was a major focus of the summer program. More than 80,000 Mississippians joined the new party, which elected a slate of 68 delegates to the national Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The MFDP delegation challenged the seating of delegates representing Mississippi’s all white Democratic Party. Although the effort failed, it drew national attention, particularly through the dramatic televised appeal of MFDP delegate Fannie Lou Hamer. The MFDP challenge also lead to a ban on racially discriminatory delegations at future conventions.

Freedom Summer officials also established 30 Freedom Schools in towns throughout Mississippi to address the racial inequalities in Mississippi’s educational system. Mississippi’s black schools were poorly funded, and teachers had to use hand-me-down textbooks that offered a racist slant on American history. Many white college students were assigned to teach in the Freedom Schools, whose curriculum included black history, the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, and leadership development, in addition to remedial instruction in reading and arithmetic. Freedom School organizers hoped to draw at least 1,000 students that first summer; 3,000 enrolled. The schools later became a model for social programs such as Head Start, as well as alternative educational institutions.

Freedom Summer activists faced threats and harassment throughout the campaign, not only from white supremacist groups but also from local residents and police.

Freedom School buildings and volunteers’ homes were frequent targets; 37 black churches and 30 black homes and businesses were firebombed or burned during that summer, and the cases often went unsolved. More than 1,000 black and white volunteers were arrested, and at least 80 were beaten by white mobs or racist police officers. But the summer’s most infamous act of violence was the murder of three young civil rights workers—a black volunteer, James Chaney, and his white coworkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. On June 21, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner set out to investigate a church bombing near Philadelphia, Mississippi, but were arrested that afternoon and held for several hours on alleged traffic violations. Their release from jail was the last time they were seen alive before their badly decomposed bodies were discovered under a nearby dam six weeks later. Goodman and Schwerner had died from single gunshot wounds to the chest, and Chaney from a savage beating.

The murders made headlines all over the country, and provoked an outpouring of national support for the Civil Rights Movement. But many black volunteers realized that because two of the victims were white, these murders attracted much more attention than previous attacks in which all the victims had been black. This added to a growing resentment that they had already begun to feel toward white volunteers.

There was growing dissension within SNCC’s ranks over charges of white paternalism and elitism. Black volunteers complained that whites seemed to think they had a natural claim on leadership roles, and that they treated rural blacks as though they were ignorant. There was also increasing hostility from black and white workers over interracial romances that developed during the summer. Meanwhile, women volunteers of both races were charging black and white men with sexist behavior. These conflicts led to lasting divisions within SNCC, especially over the role of white volunteers.

Some African American officials, such as Stokely Carmichael, reacted by gravitating toward the all-black Black Power Movement, while many white volunteers returned to their college campuses and became involved in other forms of social activism, such as the antiwar and women’s movements. Despite internal divisions, Freedom Summer left a positive legacy.

The well-publicized voter registration drives brought national attention to the subject of black disfranchisement, and this eventually led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, federal legislation that among other things outlawed the tactics that Southern states used to prevent blacks from voting.

Freedom Summer also instilled among African Americans a new consciousness and a new confidence in political action. As Fannie Lou Hamer later said, “Before the 1964 project there were people that wanted change, but they hadn’t dared to come out. After 1964 people began moving. To me it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened in Mississippi.”

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