The Story of Freedom Summer


I have been working on this particular blog for a long time now. I have taken long breaks in the process of completing it. I am trying to be as thorough as possible in the background information I am providing, and the source of my information is a documentary video that is not short. I am taking this effort primarily so that I can feel good about what I am doing, even if not many people end up reading the blog itself.

I also gave some additional thought to the reason why I wanted to put a blog on this subject out there. My first thought was that Freedom Summer was a topic that any American knowledgeable about American History would be aware of, even if they did not know all the details. But then I realized that this was probably not the case. First of all, history is not a strong suit for most of us in the general public. We also forget easily, especially if it is a topic that one would not be particularly proud of talking about. Also, since this happened well before the youth among us were born, I suspect that many of them may not even be aware of what happened. I would point them to this video because it is good to be aware of the soul of the country that you call your own.

So, even if it is only a few people who read this, and further follow up, I want to do my little part in providing the opportunity to learn something about this particular episode in American history. Some might even find the circumstances of what was happening in 1964 unbelievable in the context of our lives today. Others may not be that surprised considering the nonsense that is going on in our country today. For those who already know about this part of our history, here is an opportunity to actually delve into the details.

What I am providing here is a link to a PBS episode in the series American Experience. I am able to watch this episode through my browser on my computer. I am hoping that readers will have the ability to view this video in this simple manner even if they cannot find a way to view it through some more traditional means on their television sets.

This episode of American Experience is simply called Freedom Summer. I hope that this link works for everybody.

As I mentioned before, this episode takes you back to the year 1964. This was before the Voting Rights Act was passed. This was the time of the Civil Rights movement, when Jim Crow laws were still being used to subjugate Blacks. The problems were especially bad in the south, and Mississippi might have been considered among the worst of these states. Less than 7% of Blacks there were registered to vote at that time. (In comparison, the numbers ranged between 50 to 60% in other southern states.) The suppression of the black vote was a deliberate effort to ensure that the Whites would not lose their positions of power in localities with majority Black populations. The Whites managed to do this by coming up with a literacy test that the Blacks had to pass in order to be registered to vote, a test that was deliberately rigged to be unfair. The test included questions that most people would not know the answers to – including interpretation of sections of the state constitution. Registrars controlled the process of registration, including the taking of the test. The about 800 White registrars had total power over the process. The process of registration was made even more difficult – even including direct intimidation while taking the voting test, and also public posting of names of those who had taken the test in the newspapers so that they would face a backlash in their businesses and from their employers.

As an aside, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed (shortly after Freedom Summer and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), there was a section, called Section 5, that addressed the voting suppression efforts of the South, in that it required seven states, states with histories of voter suppression, to get pre-clearance from the federal authorities before making any changes to voting rules. This was to ensure that the changes would not discriminate against protected minorities. This regulation was, unfortunately, undone by the Supreme Court in 2013. Unfortunately, voter suppression efforts exist even today, and seem to be getting worse with each election cycle.

The Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a group of Black students who were trying to register Black people to vote. Seeing that they were not making much progress on their own, they decided to get help from outside Mississippi by opening up the state to the rest of the country. They called it the Mississippi Summer Project. They invited young people from all over the country to volunteer to teach in Freedom Schools all over the state during the summer. These volunteers would be embedded in the different black communities, stay in their homes while they were there, and would live just like they did. They would learn what their lives were like. They would teach subjects like Black Literature, Black culture Black History, etc.., topics that were not taught in the regular schools. They would implement community center programs that involved the older people. They would be active in voter registration.

It was mostly White kids, both male and female, who signed up for Freedom Summer. They signed up from all over the country. The SNCC conducted an orientation program in Oxford, Ohio, for the potential volunteers. The kids who wanted to volunteer might have been idealists at heart, but they had no clue what they were getting themselves into. They had no idea about the life circumstances of the Black people of Mississippi. They had no idea about their problems. Even the idea of getting directions from the Black SNCC leaders during the orientation program was something they had to get used to. But, they learnt, and they rose to the occasion. Freedom Summer worked, and if you see the video, you can see some of these folks talk today about the experiences of their youth. This would have been a life-changing experience for them. It was an experience that turned many of them into heroes.

At that time, the White people of Mississippi actually thought that they were a superior race. Maybe some of them still do. The pure hate that you see in some people’s eyes in the video is shocking. (Let me assure you that we are all capable of such hate.) When the Whites learnt about Freedom Summer happening, they were concerned, and even prepared militarily for what might happen. They knew the details of what was being planned. There were police cars waiting in some cases when buses carrying the volunteers crossed the border into Mississippi.

At this point, I will stop talking about what happened in 1964, except to mention the names of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. They were volunteers who went into Mississippi ahead of the rest of the group because of a church burning incident in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They disappeared. James was the only Black person among the three. You have to watch the show to find out what happened to them. The other volunteers still followed James, Michael and Andrew into Mississippi in spite of not knowing what had happened to them – and fearing the worst. Consider how brave their actions were. There were over 700 volunteers who participated.

When thinking about the volunteers of Freedom Summer, I was reminded of the experiences of Peace Corps volunteers who go off to other countries to serve. The bonds that they form, and their experiences in foreign lands, stay with them for life. These kids learn true empathy for other people. These kind of impacts must be much more intense for the youth of Freedom Summer – even if they did not actually leave the country.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in the presentation. You will, in all likelihood, also learn a lot of new things. The documentary (obviously based on real life) is much more engaging, moving, and powerful than any fictional movie that you will find out there today. I am thankful that the voices of some of the older folks who experienced those days have been saved for all time in this film. Listen particularly to the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer (towards the end of the documentary). Watch how Lyndon B. Johnson and the Democratic Party, with their corrupt politics, screwed the Blacks of Mississippi. Listen to the moving last words of the documentary. We should not forget.

Once again, this is the link to the video.
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/freedomsummer/