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Civil rights movement

Freedom Summer

Professor Simon Hall

In June 1964 around 800 white, mainly middle-class northern students travelled to Mississippi to spend the summer working alongside veteran Black activists. It was a bold and creative attempt to advance the cause of civil rights and to force decisive action from the federal government.

Living with local Black families, the volunteers – who fanned out across the state – assisted with voter registration efforts, taught in ‘Freedom Schools’ and helped organise support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was challenging the power of the lily-white state Democratic organisation.

Organised under the auspices of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) – a coalition of civil rights groups in which the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) played a leading role – the Mississippi Summer Project, better known today as ‘Freedom Summer’, was a defining event of the 1960s.

Idealistic, optimistic and fired by a strong sense of generational mission (average age: 23), the white volunteers hailed from some of the country’s finest colleges. About 40% attended elite private universities, such as Harvard and Yale; and students from prestigious public institutions like the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, and the University of California were also well represented.

Mississippi – the state that many of them were visiting for the first time – had a fearsome reputation. Known as the ‘closed society’, political and economic power was firmly in the hand of a small white elite and segregation was enforced rigidly. Barely seven percent of eligible African Americans were on the voter registration rolls (in a state where Blacks made up 40% of the population).

The whole rotten system was undergirded by violence. In August 1955, the Black teenager Emmett Till, while visiting family from his native Chicago, was brutally lynched after allegedly disrespecting a white woman.

During the early 1960s, SNCC field secretaries, working in collaboration with an older generation of Black activists, began the painstaking and dangerous work of organising local people to challenge the entrenched racial order. It was slow, difficult work.

Bob Moses, who helped spearhead SNCC’s organising efforts in Mississippi during 1961-62, explained how:

“We went around house-to-house, door-to-door in the hot sun every day because the most important thing was to convince the local townspeople that … we were people who were responsible.”

Progress was painfully slow, not helped by the federal government’s enormous reluctance to intervene to protect activists who, along with local Black residents, were targeted repeatedly by white racists. This was the context in which, over the winter of 1963-64, civil rights activists turned to northern white college students for help.

It was a move not without controversy. Empowering ordinary people at the local level – to show Black sharecroppers, for instance, that they had within themselves the power bring about political change – was central to SNCC’s approach. There was, then, an understandable fear that, as Hollis Watkins put it, these white, articulate and well-educated northern students “would come in and overshadow these grass-roots organisations” and that local, indigenous Black Mississippians “would feel inferior and fall back into the same rut that they were in before”.

But, on balance, it was felt that the additional manpower and the political interest and national and international media attention that was bound to follow (the volunteers included the sons and daughters of business executives, congressmen, and state governors) outweighed the risks.

Living with Black families, eating in Black restaurants, and worshipping in Black churches, the white volunteers experienced a deep sense of congregation and community. Although some Blacks were ambivalent, or even sceptical, the volunteers were generally accepted by the wider community. One white student explained how the local Black population “feed us, take care of us, protect us”, while another described being “constantly on display when we’re at the house; neighbours file in and out to have a look at us.”

Despite the difficulties and dangers, morale remained high. Jonathan Steele – a British student volunteer (and future Guardian foreign correspondent) who was on a Harkness Fellowship at Yale – explained how the

“story of one old man of 72 has been particularly encouraging … He emerged from the courthouse [in Vicksburg] after his first attempt to register with a broad smile on his face.”

Although he had failed to have his name added to the rolls: “…the experience of going to the courthouse and demanding his right to vote as a first-class citizen had completely changed him. He is determined to try again tomorrow and the next day until he succeeds”.

Another volunteer described how the Black people: “… we are living with have enormous hope and are extremely practical about achieving their goals. This community is an oasis of hope…”

Aside from voter registration work (17,000 Blacks were persuaded to make the attempt to register, although only 1,600 were successful) and organising support for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (80,000 Black people eventually registered as supporters of the party), the other main focus of Freedom Summer revolved around the operation of 41 ‘Freedom Schools’. 

Typically housed in Black churches, these schools were designed to challenge the lack of educational opportunities available to Blacks (Mississippi spent four times as much on white schools as it did on Black schools), and the white supremacist bias of the official school curriculum. Often staffed by female volunteers (who made up about 40% of the total recruits), the schools also encouraged the 2,000 or more Black students – of all ages –to think creatively and develop their own ideas about what a truly free society would look like.

On the eve of the Summer Project, as some 300 volunteers were assembling in Oxford, Ohio, for a two-week orientation session, news broke that three civil rights workers – James Chaney, a 21-year-old Black Mississippian, and two white New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman (20) and James Chaney (21) – had gone missing. They had, in fact, been abducted, and then murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, with the active complicity of Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, on the evening of 21 June after traveling to the county seat of Philadelphia to investigate the burning of a black church.

The bodies of the three men were eventually found, buried in an earthen dam, following a major FBI operation, 44 days later. Although the use of lethal force proved relatively rare (a further person lost their life that summer, taking the total death toll to four), there was no escaping the wider climate of violence. That summer, in Mississippi, 80 people were beaten, 1,000 were arrested, and more than 60 black churches, homes, and businesses were bombed. This account, from 4 August, was typical:

“At the very end of the meeting we were singing the last verse of “We Shall Overcome,” 300 people in a huge circle. Suddenly there were gunshots, and all these people, including me, hit the floor in a wave … A few seconds later, we all got up trembling. A car of whites had gone by on the road outside and fired three shots through the open door. One Negro girl was hit in the side. She is in the hospital and is going to be all right, but nobody knew that at the time…

“All during the meeting, the deputy sheriff was sitting there and the police patrol outside. The sheriff left shortly before the meeting was over and with him the police protection. At the time of the shooting there were no police anywhere around. Instead, they came fifteen minutes later, long after the whites had gotten away …”

Black Mississippians and seasoned civil rights workers had long understood the violence that underpinned race relations and institutionalised white supremacy in the Magnolia State. But for the hundreds of white volunteers, it came as a shock. One volunteer, Michael Kenney, wrote that Mississippi was the only state where “you can drag a river any time and find bodies you were not expecting … Negroes disappear down here every week and are never heard about.”

Kenney explained that “things are really much better for the rabbits here. There is a closed season on rabbits when they may not be killed. Negroes are killed all year round. So are rabbits. The difference is that arrests are made for killing rabbits out of season … Jesus Christ, this is supposed to be America in 1964.”

The volunteers also found the reluctance – or refusal – of the federal authorities (and, particularly, the FBI) to intervene, surprising and disturbing. Karen Duncanwood, a freshman at San Francisco State College, explained that “people were getting fire-bombed and shot up and beat up, and the FBI knew exactly who was doing it. It was a real shock to realise that the federal government didn’t give a hoot if you lived or died.”

Events at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City at the end of August, meanwhile, proved similarly disheartening. The architects of the MFDP had hoped to challenge the power of the racist official state party by pressing for Freedom Party delegates to be recognised as the official state delegation. Their claim rested on the fact that, unlike the interracial MFDP, the state regulars prevented Blacks from participating in precinct, county and state elections.

The MFDP’s leaders believed that they had both compelling evidence, and sufficient support from northern white liberals on the credentials committee, to force a debate and ‘roll call’ vote on the convention floor to decide the issue (a vote that they were very confident of winning). But once it became clear that any seating of the MFDP would precipitate a walk-out by the other southern delegations, President Lyndon Johnson intervened.

Working behind the scenes, LBJ persuaded liberals to offer a ‘compromise’ that would see the MFDP accept two ‘at-large seats’ (meaning that they would not be representing the state of Mississippi in any capacity) and a promise of future reform. It was an offer that, after an emotional debate, was rejected.

Mississippi sharecropper, and MFDP spokesperson, Fannie Lou Hamer – who had earlier delivered electrifying testimony about her own experiences of racial violence before the credentials committee – explained that she and her colleagues had not risked their lives, and traveled all the way to Atlantic City, for “no two seats” because “all of us is tired”.

Freedom Summer had a transformational effect on its participants. For the white volunteers, many struck profoundly by the deep-rooted poverty of Mississippi and the federal government’s complicity in maintenance of the system of Jim Crow segregation, the experience was a profoundly radicalising one. As Carl Davidson, a future vice-president of Students for a Democratic Society, recalled:

“I learned it from the Ku Klux Klan and the Mississippi Highway Patrol, that you needed revolution, and that there wasn’t any other way.”

In his landmark study of the Freedom Summer volunteers, sociologist Doug McAdam discovered that the students who headed home that autumn were a changed lot. Politically they had become more radical as a result of their experiences in Mississippi, and personally they found themselves attracted to an embryonic counterculture stressing community and an ideology of personal liberation.  Returning North, most of the volunteers had every intention of acting on the personal and political lessons they had learned.

In the months and years that followed Freedom Summer volunteers were prominent in the protest movements that dominated the era, including the student movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the women’s liberation struggle. As a leading spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, in the autumn of 1964, Freedom Summer veteran Mario Savio was explicit about the connection.

An elderly female volunteer for the Freedom Summer movement works with children. The Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, was a movement to register as many new African American voters as possible in Mississippi during the summer of 1964

“Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall, I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different to some observers, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places – the right to participate as citizens in democratic society …”

Freedom Summer also proved to be a turning point for the civil rights movement. The influx of so many white students, and the decision of a number of them to stay on afterwards, placed SNCC’s long-standing commitment to inter-racial organising under enormous pressure.

Too often, it seemed, the presence of white activists served to undermine efforts to empower local African American communities and facilitate local independent Black leadership. SNCC’s commitment to exclusively nonviolent protest also came under strain as activists, reliant on the hospitality and goodwill of local Black families, encountered a rural tradition of armed self-defence that was, as Bob Moses noted, “so deeply ingrained that we as a small group can’t effect it.”

When their hosts sat up at night, shotgun in hand, to defend their property – and their guests – from racist vigilantes, civil rights activists began to wonder whether they should, perhaps, offer to take a turn on the porch themselves. Meanwhile, the failure of the MFDP challenge at Atlantic City was the source of tremendous bitterness and disillusionment among SNCC activists.

James Forman, the organisation’s Executive Secretary, recalled:

“Atlantic City was a powerful lesson … No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South.”

As a result of their experiences, SNCC activists had evolved “from idealistic reformers to full-time revolutionaries”, said Forman. Within two years of Freedom Summer, SNCC was calling for "Black Power".


Simon Hall is a professor of American History at Leeds University