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50-year anniversary of ‘Freedom Summer’
The story of 700 students who took a stand against white supremacy (Video)
Published Friday, June 20, 2014 6:00 am
by Bonita Best

“I’m going down to Mississippi

I’m going down a Southern road

And if you never see me again

Remember that I had to go.”

Fifty years ago, over 700 student volunteers joined national organizers and others in Mississippi to begin what would historically be called “Freedom Summer.”

In 1964, less than 7 percent of black Mississippians were registered to vote, compared to 10 times that number in other southern states. But black residents were the majority in most of the rural counties, which threatened the so-called white establishment’s power rule.

“A lot of white people thought that African-Americans in the South would literally take over and white people would have to move, would have to get out of the state,” resident William Winters recalls in the upcoming, groundbreaking PBS documentary, “Freedom Summer.”

Directed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till), the doc highlights the summer that was marked by violence, murders, numerous beatings, bombings and burnings of churches and community centers. Freedom Summer airs June 24, 9 p.m. on local PBS stations.

Civil rights activists had worked for years to increase black voter registration in Mississippi, but threats of violence or loss of jobs kept many citizens at home.

In 1964, Bob Moses, a local secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, began a new plan. For 10 weeks, white students from the North would join activists for a massive effort that would do what had been impossible so far – force the media and the country to take notice of what was happening in Mississippi.

Word of the coming influx spread and officials geared by increasing police forces, passing new ordinances, and purchasing riot gear and weapons. Meanwhile, Mississippi Summer Project (later known as Freedom Summer) students gathered on the campus of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, to meet with SNCC leaders for training.

After the first week, the volunteers learned that three members of their group – Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – had gone missing in Mississippi. As the days passed and the young men were not heard from, people feared the Klu Klux Klan had murdered them.

Undaunted, volunteers invaded the state, staying with local families, and setting up Freedom Schools for children where black history and culture were taught – subjects forbidden in their regular public schools.

Then came the news: On Aug. 4, 1964, the bodies of the three missing men were finally found, buried beneath an earthen dam. Despite that, volunteers and locals remained committed to their cause. They then focused their attention on signing people up for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which planned to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

Delegates included Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who had been beaten while trying to register to vote and who had emerged as a passionate spokeswoman.

As activist Charles McLaurin remarks in the film, “I felt really bad that we had not unseated the Mississippi delegation. But Fannie Lou and I came home with the feeling that our mission had not ended. We were coming home to continue to fight for the right to vote. We were charged because we had stuff back here to do.”

A year later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.




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