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/

Days of Introspection and Reckoning

It is a time of introspection for me, a time for me to once again confront the possible limitations of my own humanity. This time, my internal conversation is about my latent biases.

I think that those of us who happen to be privileged in some way or the other cannot help but have our own biases. Regardless of whether our parents tried to inculcate the right set of values in us, regardless of whether we were taught that all human beings are the same regardless of our race or background, or creed, people can end up feeling not just different, but maybe even superior. I am probably guilty of that even if my first reaction is to try to deny it.

At this time, my thinking is mainly focused on racism against blacks in America. I want to spend some time thinking about my learning process in this regard. As a young person growing up in India, I was not very knowledgeable about the experience of the African American people. I knew about slavery, and I had read Roots by Alex Haley as a youngster before I came to the United States. I also knew about the civil war and events associated with it. That was probably the extent of my exposure. I remember seeing movies from the USIS that talked about America, but the plight of the former slaves was not one of the topics that was touched upon. Lets admit it, the USIS was mainly peddling in propaganda that only presented the country in a positive light.

Before I came to the United States, I did not know much about the Civil Rights movement. I did not know anything about Jim Crow, or the events of the South in those days, in places like Birmingham, Durham, Selma, etc… I had not heard of the Freedom Riders. My real education on this topic started when I came here in 1980 for my higher studies. I would like to believe that I did not have any inherent biases against people of other races that I interacted with when I arrived as a graduate student. I encountered people from all over the world in the university, and we were all going through the same experiences in the same set of circumstances. But I am not sure now if I am remembering things correctly.

My regular trips from the university where I studied to New York City opened up my eyes a little bit to the black inner-city experience of that time. It was not a very happy introduction. You have to first remember that those times were, in general, especially bad for NYC as a whole. The city was still recovering from near-bankruptcy in the 1970s, and the infrastructure was in real bad shape. Times Square was still a red-light district. There were a lot of homeless people in the city, and they seemed to be mainly black. There were people hanging out in street corners who seemed to be looking for trouble. You had to be careful wherever you went because the city could be a dangerous place. There was graffiti and rubbish everywhere. The place was dirty. I remember being attacked by a bunch of kids one evening on a street near Columbia University. I remember the smelly and graffiti-covered subway cars that I traveled on. Often, there were homeless people sleeping on the cars. But I was young, and I found NYC to be a fascinating place. I used to love to travel on the subway system. I tried to experience every subway line there was, and every destination. I even bought a book about the subway (I think I still have it), and also resolved to cover all of the many lines of the subway system within a 24 hour period. Thank goodness I never attempted that in real life. On a different occasion, I remember being stopped by a plainclothes agent of the law (I was not sure he was an official policeman) for inspection at the Pelham Bay Park station, a terminus, because there had been some incident at some previous station on the line. The person wanted to make sure I was not involved in a crime. He let me go after a few minutes. I loved to wander around Central Park. New York City was my backyard, and I really experienced a lot of what it had to offer to a young person living on a shoestring budget.

One of the things you noticed about New York City was that there are a lot of people who were not well off who actually lived there. This was in spite of the fact that the place was very expensive. In my mind, the white man would commute every weekday morning to the downtown area from his suburban home – for his high paying job some big financial company, in one of the massive skyscrapers that dominated downtown. He would arrive in the morning for his work, and then disappear back to his comfortable suburb as soon as he was done in the evening. Such people were actually scared of the real city, and did not seem to want to have anything to do with it. The downtown areas used to become empty shells in the evening, abandoned by the better-off. The other rich who could afford it would live in the expensive apartment buildings around Central Park. The rest of the people who lived in the city were spread out over the five boroughs, depending on the levels of income, and depending on whether they were able to find a rent-stabilized apartment in a reasonably good neighborhood. Many people lived in high-rise apartment complexes in NYC. The poorer you were, the further away you were from downtown. Some of the apartment complexes in the outer boroughs of NYC looked like remains from a battle-zone. Many seemed to have been abandoned. In some cases, all that was left was what looked like a shell. Some of the buildings had fences around them to prevent them from being using for nefarious activities, like drug dealing. Most of the people who seemed to hang around these spaces seemed to be black. And you could ask yourself why things turned out that way for the blacks who occupied these spaces, and you could reach different conclusions based on your biases, and based on how much real studying you bothered to do about the history of the black people in the USA. That was the way it was in the 1980s for me.

We now live in Montgomery County in Maryland. It is a diverse community overall, and we would like to believe that we are enlightened, but I wonder. In spite of all its affluence, there are pockets of poverty, and places where people need help. People who are well off do not generally wander to these places. I have tried to tell myself that I am one of the enlightened people who understands where people come from, but how can I be so sure. I try to keep up with all aspects of American History these days, not just from the perspective of the White Man, so that I know what I am talking about. I have educated myself about the time of Jim Crow. I have educated myself about the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about the experiences of people of those times who spoke up, people like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. I have listened to the speeches of MLK. We have watched shows like 13th, and When They See Us by younger film makers like Ava DuVernay. I learned about the workings of police forces all over the country. I learned about the Southern Democrats, and about the Freedom Riders, Birmingham, Selma. I learned about Rosa Parks, and discrimination, and lynching. I learned about the biases and the racism in the system. The white people actually thought they were superior human beings in those days, and, even though they may not admit it, many probably still have a few subconscious biases about this even to today.

And we now arrive at this moment in the history of this country, and the horrible incidents of today. I tell others that in order to understand the situation properly and achieve empathy, you have to study the history that brought us to this point. But now I am not convinced that even this is sufficient. Something more basic has to change. So I continue to try to educate myself about myself even more. Teresa and I watched the videos of Jane Elliot. We realize that there are insidious ways in which we can develop our biases, and it is not just about color. It is not simply a matter of empathy. It is not just a matter of knowing the true story. There is something more basic within oneself that is not good that is just waiting to come out. I realize that I have developed my own biases without really thinking about it. I really need to act with more thought and purpose in each and every moment going forward.

Today, we listen to the many, many, voices, some of them young, providing perspectives on the lives of the black people, especially in the inner cities. Social and news media are, thankfully, providing the outlets for people to speak. And I have hope. There is a significant push back from the black community every time some kind of police-on-black atrocity takes place, and it has become more and more effective. The voices are being heard, and they are voices that speak with a clarity of vision. They speak with reason. And I become a little hopeful that the push back will trigger some real change.

The first major backlash I remember from police on black violence in recent times was after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The only reason why people knew about the incident was because somebody had made a video recording of it. Similar backlash, and accompanying violence, happened big time most recently in Ferguson, MO, when Michael Brown was murdered by a cop. Many other incidents have happened in the time between Rodney King and Michael Brown. The police officer got off without any punishment in Ferguson, just as has happened countless times in the past every time blacks have been killed by cops. Unfortunately, the focus of the press and others in these situations in the past seemed to be on the violent aftermaths. So, it is a legitimate question to wonder if things could go in a different direction this time.

I do think it is possible! One of the differences is that the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was so blatant that it is not just the blacks in the community who are outraged and are actively responding. And the response to the murder is happening not just in Minneapolis. It is happening not just in the USA. It is happening everywhere! The press has picked up on the important narrative of racism, injustice, and police violence. The white people in the country are actually joining the marches in large numbers. And the youth of all backgrounds are involved. And it is also multi-generational. And the police have responded in many places with their entire arsenal of military-grade hardware and shown their true colors by using these against the citizens. And every single thing that happens out there is being video-recorded. Every mindless violent act of an out-of-control police officer gets shown to the whole world. I think every reasonable person who sees the official violence has to be angry. And , for a change, social and television media has been very good at amplifying the positive messages coming from the protestors. I hope for something concrete to happen before the momentum fades away.

But a reactive response to the moment is not sufficient. We need fundamental change in our mindset as a society. A band-aid simply will not cut it. It is going to take much more hard work by every single one of us to get a better understanding of our our biases and our racism, and to effect real change. It is not easy.

I want to conclude with a few links that caught my attention.

This is a interview on CNN.
https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2020/06/10/cornel-west-george-floyd-cooper-ac360-vpx.cnn

Here is a blog about the murals that are coming up in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the shooting.
The George Floyd Murals of Minneapolis: A Demand for Justice, Hope and a Better Humanity

There are moments of humanity in the middle of the violence. Here is a nice story.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/breonna-taylor-protesters-protected-lone-lmpd-officer/3166914001/

We shall overcome.