Socialist Worker

The freedom summer of 1964

Black and white civil rights activists made a stand that become a turning point in US history. WEYMAN BENNETT and KEVIN OVENDEN tell the story

Issue No. 1911

THOUSANDS OF civil rights activists flock to a place where the state is systematically persecuting an ethnic minority. Idealistic young people are beaten and even killed by police in alliance with paramilitary gangs, who bomb churches and homes.

The ruling party itself organises the violence and claims a democratic mandate while denying a vote to those who oppose it.

The place is not some Third World dictatorship, but the Southern US state of Mississippi 40 years ago.

Then, as now, the US claimed to be the defender of freedom across the globe. But the world looked on in horror at the immense brutality hurled at black people and their white supporters in Mississippi in the summer of 1964.

This season of struggle marked a turning point in the battle for black civil rights.

The Freedom Summer campaign lasted for six weeks. When it was over, six black people had been murdered, 1,000 arrested, 30 buildings bombed and three dozen black churches gutted by fire. But the violence did not stop the mobilisation.

It was this heroic movement which ended a century of apartheid-style segregation in the US, rather than the passing of bills through Congress.

The Freedom Summer campaigners were fighting not simply against the racism which continues to infect US society today.

They were up against a system of legally enforced segregation, backed up by extreme violence.

Rich landowners put this system in place across the Southern states of the US when they were forced to give up owning black slaves in the 1860s.

“Jim Crow” segregation affected all areas of life. It meant separate schooling, housing and jobs.

It meant racist police, courts and local authorities. Laws prevented black and white people mixing. Black people who stood up for themselves risked being lynched.

The Democratic Party, which had been the party of the Southern slave-owners, ran Mississippi and the rest of the South. It prevented black people from voting by a combination of discriminatory tests, poll taxes and sheer intimidation.

Black people made up 45 percent of the population of Mississippi, but only 6.7 percent of them were registered to vote.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King highlighted Mississippi in his famous “I have a dream” speech, delivered at the march on Washington in August 1963.

A month earlier white supremacists had gunned down Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader in Mississippi. His life summed up the experience of many Southern black people.

He was a World War Two veteran who had been attacked by a mob of whites with guns when he returned from the war and tried to register to vote.

He was later denied admission to the University of Mississippi law school.

The man who murdered him was set free after two trials, and later ran for lieutenant governor of the state. He was only convicted recently. Folk singer Bob Dylan wrote one of the greatest protest songs of all time about Evers’s murder, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”.

Evers’s murder spurred young activists in the civil rights movement, centred on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to call for a major effort in Mississippi. SNCC had pioneered sit-ins to force the desegregation of restaurants and public buildings.

They ran interracial Freedom Rides on buses in defiance of the Jim Crow laws.

The civil rights movement’s aim was to force the federal government in Washington, which was formally committed to ending segregation, to intervene in the South.

The Democrat federal government was caught in a dilemma. It wanted to present a clean image to the rest of the world, and to deepen its electoral support among blacks and liberal whites in the Northern states.

But in the South it depended in each state on local Democrat parties that were thoroughly racist.

1964 was a presidential election year. So activists chose that summer to launch a voter registration drive and desegregation campaign in Mississippi in order to embarrass the Democrat hierarchy.

A thousand students gathered for a week of training in June. They were mostly white, with an average age of 21. Most were from middle class families.

SNCC’s James Forman told them to be prepared for death: “I may be killed. You may be killed.” Days later three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi.

Black volunteer James Chaney and his white co-workers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (who were both Jewish) were arrested for alleged speeding.

Their release from jail was the last time they were seen alive.

Their badly decomposed bodies were discovered two months later. Goodman and Schwerner died from single gunshot wounds to the chest, and Chaney from a savage beating.

Government indifference and racist violence did not break the movement—in fact it radicalised it. By late 1964 over 70,000 students had taken part in Freedom Summer alongside many more poor black workers in Mississippi.

They set up “Freedom Schools” where they would illegally teach black young people of all ages English, maths and the history of black people in the US.

Youngsters would go home from the schools and encourage their families to register to vote and to join the movement.

The campaign also set up a rival to the official Democratic Party in Mississippi.

The integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) rapidly attracted 80,000 members.

It elected a 68-strong delegation—64 blacks and four whites—to send to the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City and aimed to take the place of the official, segregationist Democrats.

The convention was preparing to nominate Lyndon Johnson as its presidential candidate. The party’s Northern leadership wanted no controversy and was not prepared to confront the Southern segregationists.

Testifying before the credentials committee, the Freedom Democrats argued they were the only legitimate delegation from Mississippi.

Their leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, was the daughter of poor black sharecroppers. From the age of six she worked in the fields picking cotton, and was forced to leave her home and family when she tried to register to vote. She became an SNCC organiser and travelled across the South.

She was arrested on many occasions, and was beaten so badly in June 1963 that her injuries plagued her for the rest of her life.

Before the great and the good of the Democratic Party she demanded to be heard. She detailed how Mississippi’s white power structure used the state’s political and legal systems to oppress and brutalise blacks. She said, “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.

“Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

Democratic Party officials came up with a compromise, with the Freedom Democrats being given just two non-voting seats.

The Freedom Democrats threw it out. They occupied the Mississippi delegation seats and were eventually ejected by the police. But Johnson could not ignore events in Mississippi and the mass movement for civil rights.

The following year a stronger civil rights act was passed and, more importantly, the federal government was forced to break more decisively with the segregationists.

The mainstream of the civil rights movement continued to look to cooperation with the Democrats to win change. But many younger activists went in a more radical direction.

Black revolutionary Malcolm X called the Republican election candidate a wolf, while the Democratic candidate was a fox: “No matter what, they’ll both eat you.

“The shrewd capitalists, the shrewd imperialists, knew that the only way people would run towards the fox would be if you showed them the wolf.

“So they created a ghastly alternative. And at that moment Johnson had troops invading the Congo and South Vietnam.”

SNCC invited Malcolm X to speak at its next convention. Malcolm X himself was murdered in February, 1965, but many activists never forgot what they learnt during the Freedom Summer. They went on to create the Black Power movement.

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Sat 24 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1911
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