As you get ready for summer and all the fun that comes with it, today’s closing edition of “Amsterdam News in the Classroom” looks back at one of the most important summers in our history.
A Black president in the White House is the culmination of a long, slow, violent and nonviolent, vigilant progression to secure full civil and voting rights for Black people. It is a trip that has taken more than 100 years, from the Emancipation Proclamation and the 15th Amendment, which gave voting rights to Black men, to pioneering Black politicians such as Hiram Revels and Blanche Kelso Bruce and to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
One crucial stop on that long journey took place in 1964. It is known as Freedom Summer.
Freedom Summer was a 10-week campaign organized by a coalition called the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations, which was led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Also joining the effort were thousands of white college students from the North. Organizers began laying the groundwork in 1961.
The Freedom Campaign focused on Mississippi, which had the lowest number of Black registered voters in the country. In 1962 only 6.7 percent of Blacks living in the state were registered to vote. Violently enforced Jim Crow laws as well as registration tests designed to disqualify Black voters kept the numbers low.
In 1963, the SNCC organized a mock vote called the Freedom Vote. Polling places were set up in Black businesses and churches. Voters filled out a simple registration form and selected candidates to run in the next year’s election. Tens of thousands participated. From that success, organizers began planning in February of 1964 for a massive Black voter registration effort.
The work was dangerous and volunteers routinely met with violence at the hands of white supremacists and their supporters, which included law enforcement authorities and the Ku Klux Klan. Volunteers were given instructions on how to keep safe, including directions to never travel alone and to not stand in lit doorways.
In addition to the registration efforts, the Freedom Summer project also established Mississippi Freedom Schools in towns throughout the state. The Freedom Schools focused on the needs of Black students, teaching Black history as well as leadership, math and reading skills.
More than 3,000 students attended the Freedom Schools, ranging from elementary school age to the elderly. The average age was 15. The program became a successful model for initiatives like Head Start and other social programs.
Another important result of the campaign was the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), of which Fannie Lou Hamer was a delegate. The party was organized in April of 1964 to challenge the Democratic Party in the state, which, for decades, had denied the Black vote.
The most infamous incident linked with Freedom Summer was the murder of CORE workers James Chaney of Mississippi and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner of New York.
The three had been investigating a church bombing in Philadelphia, Miss., when they were arrested June 14, 1964, for a bogus traffic violation, then released. It was the last time they were seen alive. Klansmen caught up with the three and murdered them, burying the bodies beneath a 15-foot earthen dam. They were found 44 days later.
The murder of the three young men outraged the country and caused a surge of support for the campaign, but it also caused conflicts within the organization. Many Black volunteers were angry that the incident got so much attention just because two of the victims were white, while Blacks’ murders had routinely gone unnoticed. The federal government and media were concerned about the safety of white student volunteers, while the cause that brought them to Mississippi, the brutal suppression of Black rights, went unpunished.
The murder also went unpunished until 2005, when Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of masterminding the killings. This was the first time a civil rights case was successfully prosecuted in Mississippi.
By the end of the Freedom Summer, seven volunteers had been killed. Freedom School buildings were the targets of bombings and burnings, as were 37 Black churches and 30 Black homes and businesses. More than 1,000 workers were arrested and beaten.
Those sacrifices were not in vain. On July 2, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed. On Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed, enforcing the 15th Amendment of the Constitution, giving full voting rights to Blacks.
Freedom Summer must always be remembered in honor of the courageous men and women, both Black and white, who dared to stare down Jim Crow. The events of that summer marked a milestone in the fight for civil rights for Black people. Freedom Summer is a lasting example of how ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
- Look It Up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about Freedom Summer and the people and events that made it happen.
- Talk About It: In addition to being a catalyst for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, what other positive permanent changes resulted from Freedom Summer?
- Write It Down: After researching and discussing the events mentioned in this article, write an essay about the importance of Freedom Summer and your feelings about the event.
This Week in Black History
- June 19, 1865: Juneteenth, or Emancipation Day, is first celebrated as the last of the nation’s slaves are freed in Galveston, Texas.
- June 20, 1911: The NAACP, which was founded in February of 1909, is incorporated in New York.
- June 23, 2007: Anthony Reed becomes the first African-American to complete a 26.2-mile marathon on every continent.
Enjoy your summer vacation. Be sure to enjoy a few good books or read more about any of the events discussed in this article or others that appeared previously. You can check them out at www.amsterdamnews.com.
“Amsterdam News in the Classroom” will return for the 2012-2013 school year.