American Experience Examines the Freedom Summer of 1964
In the hot and deadly summer of 1964, the nation could not turn away from Mississippi. Over ten memorable weeks known as Freedom Summer, more than 700 student volunteers joined with organizers and local African Americans in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in one of the nation’s most segregated states. Working together, they canvassed for voter registration, created Freedom Schools and established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the goal of challenging the segregationist state Democratic Party at the national convention in Atlantic City.
Freedom Summer was marked by sustained and deadly violence, including the notorious murders of three civil rights workers, countless beatings, the burning of 35 churches and the bombing of 70 homes and community centers.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till), Freedom Summer airs on KUED Tuesday, June 24 at 8:00 p.m. The film, part of American Experience, highlights an overlooked but essential element of the civil rights movement: the patient and long-term efforts by outside activists and local citizens in Mississippi to organize communities and register black voters — even in the face of intimidation, physical violence, and death. “The Freedom Summer story reminds us that the movement that ended segregation was far more complex than most of us know,” says American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels.
In 1964, less than seven percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote, compared to between 50 and 70 percent in other southern states. In many rural counties, African Americans made up the majority of the population and the segregationist white establishment was prepared to use any means necessary to keep them away from the polls and out of elected office. As Mississippian William Winter recalls, “A lot of white people thought that African Americans in the South would literally take over and white people would have to move, would have to get out of the state.”
For years, local civil rights workers had tried unsuccessfully to increase voter registration amongst African Americans. Those who wished to vote had to face the local registrar, an all-powerful white functionary who would often publish their names in the paper and pass the word on to their employers and bankers. And if loss of jobs and the threat of violence wasn’t enough to dissuade them, the complex and arcane testing policies were certain to keep them off the rolls.
In 1964, a new plan hatched by Bob Moses, a local secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was implemented. For 10 weeks that summer, white students from the North would join activists on the ground for a massive effort that would do what had been impossible so far: force the media and the country to take notice of the shocking violence and massive injustice taking place in Mississippi.
Word of the coming influx spread and Mississippi officials geared up for the newcomers by bolstering police forces, passing new ordinances and purchasing additional riot gear and weaponry. Meanwhile, Mississippi Summer Project (later known as Freedom Summer) students gathered at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio to meet with SNCC leaders for training. After the first week, the volunteers learned that three members of their group who had left early to investigate a church burning — Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney — were missing in Mississippi. As the days passed and the young men were not heard from, people began to fear the worst — that they’d been murdered.
Undaunted, the Freedom Summer volunteers went down to Mississippi, fanning out across the state, embedding themselves with local families, and setting up Freedom Schools where children were taught African American history and culture — subjects forbidden in their regular public schools.
On August 4, 1964, the bodies of the three missing men were finally found, buried beneath an earthen dam. Despite the brutal murders, volunteers and locals were more committed to their cause than ever. Attention was focused on signing people up for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which planned to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Delegates included Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper and SNCC field secretary who had emerged as an authentic and passionate spokeswoman. At the convention, Hamer’s speech moved the crowd, but proved no match for the Johnson machine, which feared that the upheaval would threaten the president’s candidacy.
As activist Charles McLaurin remarks in the film, “I felt really bad that we had not unseated the Mississippi delegation. But Fannie Lou and I came home with the feeling that our mission had not ended. We were coming home to continue to fight for the right to vote. We were charged because we had stuff back here to do.” A year later, Congress finally passed the Voting Rights Act.
The events of Freedom Summer have long been overshadowed by larger-scale public events of the civil rights movement such as the response to the Birmingham church bombing, the Selma to Montgomery marches and the March on Washington. Freedom Summer, told by the brave people who lived it, restores their story to its rightful place in America’s history. Says filmmaker Stanley Nelson, “Nearly 50 years later, we are seeing challenges and rollbacks to the protections that were put into place following Freedom Summer. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 solidified the importance of the basic civil rights that organizers, volunteers and Mississippians were fighting for, and so I think it is incredibly valuable to watch and learn about that summer. It’s still relevant today.”