By DEBORAH BARFIELD BERRY
August 19, 2010
WASHINGTON For many young civil rights workers in 1964, there was
no better place than Mississippi to challenge a system that kept
blacks voiceless and disenfranchised.
The state had one of the largest black populations in the South. Yet,
less than 5 percent of blacks were registered to vote, according to
the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. In some
counties, not a single black person was registered.
"Mississippi was the last bastion of apartheid," recalled Marion
Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., who was the first
chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"Mississippi was famous for the exploitation and the destruction of
"If you wanted to change the face of the nation, you started where
the problems were the worst," said Barry, 74, now a councilman in
Washington. "You crack that - you can crack anything. That was our
philosophy. We were fearless. We were the revolutionary storm troopers."
Forty six years later, civil rights workers recall how they spent
"Freedom Summer," taking shelter with Mississippians in small towns
and rural counties while helping blacks register to vote.
It was a dangerous mission. In a state vehemently opposed to change,
murder, lynchings and beatings were used to intimidate blacks and
keep in place segregation in schools and other public places. Student
activists, led by SNCC, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial
Equality, were determined to challenge registration requirements
such as poll taxes or literacy tests intended to prevent blacks from voting.
"It's a moment in history where all these people came from all across
the country, lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, activists,
historians," said Robert Moses, 74, who headed SNCC's Mississippi
operation and now runs The Algebra Project, a nonprofit education
program in Massachusetts. "They just converge for a brief moment in
time and make something happen that nobody thought could happen."
Creating a national scene
This summer marked the 45th anniversary of the signing of the 1965
Voting Rights Act, which political experts say happened in part
because of Freedom Summer.
"It was a major national event and it had an impact on shaping public
opinion on civil rights nationally," said David Bositis, a senior
analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"Freedom Summer was important because it brought to the North what
was going on in Mississippi."
SNCC workers went north mostly to universities and big cities to
Soon an army of volunteers, many of them white college students,
headed to Oxford, Ohio, for training in nonviolent protest.
Barry, then a student at Fisk University, said organizers hoped the
involvement of white volunteers would attract national media and
pressure the establishment to change. "There were all kinds of
atrocities going on," said Barry, who was born in Itta Bena, Miss.
"The media wasn't covering it that much."
Heather Booth was a freshman at the University of Chicago when a
recruiter visited campus.
"I thought how wonderful it was to be involved in the civil rights
movement when you're fighting for things we believe in and alongside
others," recalled Booth, 65, who raised money for her trip by
knocking on doors on campus and back home in New York.
Volunteers relied on the generosity of Mississippians to house and
feed them. Often those locals helped at great risk of losing their
jobs and in some cases their lives.
"So many of them opened their arms to us," remembered Wallace
Roberts, 69, who left behind a family in Massachusetts to volunteer.
Roberts helped start a "Freedom School" in Shaw, Miss., one of about
40 such schools around the state where blacks were taught math,
reading and black history and encouraged to be active citizens.
Intimidation and strategy
Roberts and Booth stayed briefly with civil rights legend Fannie Lou
Hamer, who played a key role not only in organizing Freedom Summer,
but also in leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which
fought for representation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention
in Atlantic City, N.J.
Six weeks after Roberts arrived in Mississippi, he and other
protesters, including students, went to the courthouse in Cleveland,
Miss., to hand out leaflets and urge residents to register to vote.
Roberts remembers white men in khaki pants and white helmets
surrounding the building.
"They just watched. They were there to intimidate us," recalled
Roberts, now a freelance writer. "It was a way to instill fear."
Protesters were jailed and questioned by FBI agents. As he and other
volunteers were trained to do, Roberts said he called his wife, who
then called his local congressman who called county officials in
Mississippi. Soon he was released.
"That was the strategy that made a lot of difference," Roberts said.
Despite attempts at nonviolent protests, Freedom Summer was marked by
violence, including the deaths of civil rights workers James Chaney,
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Although there had been other
murders, the deaths of the two white men and one black in June 1964
drew national media attention.
Booth said she was "horrified" by the news, but was even more
determined to go to Mississippi.
"It reinforced how people are living with such terror and brutality
every day," said Booth, who now heads Americans for Financial Reform,
a group pressing for changes in the financial sector. "If my going
meant that I could help support a real freedom struggle ... then I
wanted to go."
In McComb, Miss., where SNCC began its efforts, Moses said Webb
Owens, then a treasurer for the local NAACP, would take him to black
churches and businesses to ask for money to support the project. "It
was people like that who provided the foundation, the soil in which a
movement could grow," Moses said.
A difference seen today
While activists say not as many blacks as they wanted registered that
summer, the movement made a difference.
Today, Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other
state. In 1970, the state had 95 black elected officials, according
to the Joint Center. In 2004, there were 950.
By 1968, voter registration among blacks had jumped to 60 percent up
from 5.8 percent in 1960, the Joint Center said. In 2008, nearly 82
percent of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote.
Euvester Simpson, then a senior high school student from Itta Bena,
had watched her parents and others in her community endure enough
segregation and racism.
"It was like this was what I was waiting for all my life," said
Simpson, 64, now a board member for the Veterans of the Mississippi
Civil Rights Movement. "I knew I wasn't going to live the way my parents did."
Simpson's most memorable moment came in 1965 when her parents
registered to vote for the first time. "They were so proud and so
thankful for the movement," she said.