by the Editorial Board
Photos, unless otherwise indicated, by Mark Levy, from the Queens College/CUNY Civil Rights Archive.
SOON, TOO, THERE WOULD BE REPORTERS AND FBI AGENTS, as on the very first day of the ten weeks of Freedom Summer, June 21st, 1964, three participants were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were investigating one of the more than three dozen church bombings that were part of the racist reaction to the Freedom Summer “invasion,” when they were arrested and handed over to the Klan. Schwerner, who was Jewish, headed the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) field office in Meridian, Mississippi and was an indispensable organizer;
Goodman was a Queens College student from a progressive Jewish New York family; Chaney was a black Freedom Rider and CORE activist from Meridian, Mississippi. Their corpses were successfully hidden from dozens of search parties for forty-four days (in the course of which eight bodies of missing black Mississippians thought to have been murdered by the Klan were recovered).
Attorney Martin Popper, speaking for the Goodman family, called the murder “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.” The request of Schwerner’s family to have their son buried alongside James Chaney was refused by the State of Mississippi, which still enforced racial segregation in its cemeteries.
ALONGSIDE THIS TRIPLE MURDER, violence was ever-present throughout the non-violent Freedom Summer campaign. Activists were driven off the road in high speed chases, one of which took the life of Wayne Yancey, a black volunteer from Chicago. Four other volunteers were critically wounded, and at least eighty received beatings. More than a thousand were arrested, and thirty black homes or businesses were bombed or burned. Still, the black community was undeterred. In Hattiesburg, a Freedom School based in six churches attracted an initial enrollment of 585 — “We had expected seventy-five,” said Terri Shaw, who did communications work for the school — with the eldest student a man of 85 who “had taught himself to read, but wanted to learn more in order to take the registration test.” (Hattiesburg was also where Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld of Cleveland, Ohio was savagely attacked with a tire iron and hospitalized. Before going home to recuperate, he told reporters that Mississippi Jews should “stand up for decency and freedom with all the risks involved…”) Overall, more than three thousand black Mississippians attended the Freedom Schools — many of them gaining basic literacy and critical-thinking skills, as well as knowledge of black history and other subjects, while encountering white people as peers and comrades for the first time in their lives.
According to Bruce Watson, it was primarily dirt-poor farmers, independent small business people, and a federally employed postal worker or two who took the risks of providing housing, food, protection, and support to the Freedom Summer volunteers. People employed by the white establishment, or domestic workers who depended upon white households for their livelihood, or local government employees such as school teachers, could not afford the exposure. Among the most notable of the local leaders whom Watson cites in his book were Fannie Lou Hamer, the twentieth child of sharecroppers who’d been viciously beaten by police and was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”; Aaron Henry, a pharmacist who succeeded the assassinated Medgar Evers as black Mississippi’s spokesperson; Victoria Gray, who ran a cosmetics business and became a SNCC field secretary; and Amzie Moore, a postal worker, World War II veteran, and “father figure to Bob Moses” whose home in McComb served as a meeting place and shelter for civil rights activists.
VOTER REGISTRATION EFFORTS DURING FREEDOM SUMMER WERE THWARTED, as they had been since Bob Moses first attempted to lead a registration drive in Mississippi in 1961, by racist officials, a heritage of terror among rural black Mississippians, and a lack of adequate resources for what Terri Shaw called the “hot, dusty work” of visiting rural communities that had dirt roads and little telephone service, to help people find the courage and the transportation to attempt to register to vote. “Registering to vote had always carried grave risks in Mississippi,” writes Bruce Watson, “but Freedom Summer saw those risks stalk the streets. Canvassers were often followed by a police car, inching along, shotgun on display, tires popping the gravel. One look at a cop was enough to send weary bodies scurrying inside.” Nevertheless, approximately 17,000 blacks made the attempt, with less than ten percent having their applications accepted by local white registrars. The results made crystal clear the need for federal voting rights enforcement, and helped set in motion the political energy that forced passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Freedom Summer also made a reality of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which had been established in April, 1964 by COFO with the aim of challenging a Jim Crow delegate-selection system that invariably produced an all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Throughout the summer, the MFDP held precinct and district caucuses open to all races and gathered signatures of potential black voters who wanted to register. A state convention then gathered in Jackson, where a slate of sixty-eight delegates, including four whites, was elected to go to the DNC in Atlantic City. Sixty-four of them came by bus to New Jersey.
Speaking on behalf of the MFDP’s challenge to the seating of the segregationist delegation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told the DNC’s credential committee that “if you value your party, if you value your nation, if you value democratic government, you have no alternative but to recognize, with full voice and vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.” Fannie Lou Hamer gave moving testimony about the dangers she and other African Americans faced when they tried to exercise their right to register and vote. Her words were so potent that President Johnson scheduled an impromptu press conference to upstage her, but she was nevertheless heard by the nation on late-night news.
THE MFDP’S CHALLENGE WAS KEPT OFF THE CONVENTION FLOOR by the credentials committee long enough for vice-presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, United Auto Workers’ Walter Reuther, and civil rights leaders including Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin to bring forth a “compromise” (which was ultimately backed, reluctantly, by Dr. King). At-large seats would be assigned to two MFDP delegates hand-picked by Democratic power-brokers. Mississippi’s segregationist delegation would be fully seated, but only if they pledged to back Johnson and Humphrey in the campaign. A promise was also made that the DNC would bar segregated delegations from the 1968 convention.
The MFDP refused the compromise — as did all but three of the Mississippi segregationists by refusing to pledge themselves to the Johnson-Humphrey ticket (at election time, 87 percent of Mississippi’s mostly white vote would go to Barry Goldwater). The Mississippi delegation’s empty seats in the convention hall were then occupied by the MFDP activists, using borrowed passes from other state delegations — and when their chairs were removed, they stood and protested with freedom songs.
In his 1998 book, Walking with the Wind, Congressman John Lewis, who chaired SNCC during Freedom Summer and is a storied veteran of many other key civil rights campaigns, described the Atlantic City “compromise” as “the turning point of the civil rights movement….
Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond. Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.
The result of this sense of betrayal, and of the intense encounter with naked racism that marked Mississippi Freedom Summer, was radicalization for many of the staffers and volunteers. While the Freedom Schools and voter registration campaigns continued in 1965, SNCC became riven with painful internal conflicts over its relationship with the rest of the civil rights movement, over white participation in the organization, about sexual tensions, over top-down versus grassroots leadership, and over appeals-to-conscience non-violence versus disruptive non-violence versus armed self-defense.
Bob Moses soon resigned as SNCC field secretary and left Mississippi; John Lewis returned to his home state of Alabama (where in March, 1965 he and Hosea Williams would lead a march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma and face a head-cracking police attack). Under Stokely Carmichael’s leadership, 1966-’68, SNCC became reoriented toward “Black Power” and enraged and revolutionary in its rhetoric — particularly so after the 1966 gunning down of James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi four years earlier (Meredith survived the shooting), and the 1968 assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement’s great prophet of non-violence.
Expanding SNCC’s concerns to “anti-imperialism” — including repeated denunciations of Zionism that were tinged with anti-Semitism — Carmichael (later renamed Kwame Ture) alienated many liberal civil rights supporters, both white and black, which resulted in the loss of much of SNCC’s funding base in northern liberal and Jewish communities. In many instances, Jewish neoconservatives-in-the-making used the rhetorical excesses of Carmichael and other black activists to cultivate distrust within a Jewish community that was itself emerging, with the help of civil rights transformations, into a newly middle-class, mainstream status. The well-spoken social action leader of the movement for Reform Judaism, Albert Vorspan, who had been arrested in an integration campaign in St. Augustine, Florida, pushed back with a critique of Jews who were “carrying their synagogues on their backs into the homogenized white suburbs of our nation,” he wrote, and “laps[ing] into hysteria when integration plans seem to threaten the academic standards of their children’s schools…”
Even amid these conflicts, however, as Michael E. Staub notes in his 2002 study of Jewish liberalism, Torn at the Roots (Columbia University Press), “1965 was also the zenith of inter-religious cooperation and interracial solidarity” in the civil rights movement, with “Jewish leaders and leading Jewish organizations remain[ing] highly visible in their advocacy of a civil rights agenda. Most memorably, in March of that year the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Community Relations Advisory Council all sent large delegations to the mass march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama…” Nevertheless, SNCC was being deliberately sidelined by Democratic Party liberals, and the days of black-Jewish solidarity and church-synagogue bonding were growing short and cold.
A survey of 250 Freedom Summer veterans by sociologist Doug McAdam, writes Bruce Watson, found that their Mississippi experiences, including the Democratic establishment’s power-play in Atlantic City, had “moved two thirds leftward and crippled [their] respect for authority…. In the fall of 1964, this sea change spearheaded a generational challenge to America…” That challenge included the emergence of the Black Panther Party, intensification of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and sectarian splits within the New Left. The feminist movement, too, was fueled by the disgruntlement and political acumen of SNCC women, two of whom, Casey Hayden and Mary King, would write a paper after Freedom Summer, “Women in the Movement,” which was read in many women’s consciousness-raising circles.
For Judy Richardson, a SNCC staffer from 1963 to 1966, working within the organization “truly transformed me: it changed the entire direction of my life; it irrevocably changed how I saw my world. It made me understand that if you do nothing, nothing changes” (Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, 2012, Illinois University Press). It is safe to say that many Mississippi Freedom Summer veterans would agree with her.
To be continued.