Remembering Freedom Summer
It was a summer that saw a national spotlight turned on injustice, as more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers joined activists who had been doing the work on the ground in Mississippi with a goal of teaching and registering voters. Just 50 years ago, for a black citizen in many Southern states, going to the local county courthouse to register to exercise the fundamental right to vote meant risking your job, everything you owned, and your life. Many took that risk and paid the price.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July and, the next year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that put into action democracy’s promise. Fifty years later, as we take note of the events of summer 1964, activists are mobilizing again to fight back against new assaults on voting rights.
The optimism and commitment of the mostly white volunteers—from 37 states, England, Australia, and New Zealand—who traveled to Mississippi were tempered by the instructions they received at training sessions at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio: to fall to the ground, roll themselves into a ball, and cover their heads with their arms in order to protect their head and vital organs from serious injury when attacked.
Trainers also emphasized that black activists and citizens brave enough to resist the social order were already leading the fight; the volunteers were there to assist. The murders that June of civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner spurred international outrage and action; in the process of searching for them, investigators discovered the bodies of missing African Americans whose disappearances had received little notice outside of their own communities.
The summer project was run by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the major civil rights organizations—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the NAACP. In 1962, fewer than 7 percent of Mississippi’s eligible black citizens were registered to vote, making the state fertile ground for voting and education efforts. Bob Moses, a Freedom Summer organizer, born and raised in Harlem, had been taking Mississippi sharecroppers to register, and suffered arrests and beatings before the volunteers arrived in 1964.
The exhibit “Faces of Freedom Summer: The Photographs of Herbert Randall,” which has traveled throughout the country since 1999, chronicles the events of that summer. The 102 photos are culled from the 1,759 Randall took when he became the official photographer for the Freedom Summer project. Randall donated his entire collection to the University of Southern Mississippi in 1998.
Viewing the exhibit—at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., through August 17—the faces become real and their cause urgent: Dorie Ladner, SNCC field secretary, active in civil rights work since adolescence; Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld from Cleveland, blood running down his face after being beaten by segregationists with a tire iron; actress Denise Nicholas—later known for roles in TV’s Room 222 and In the Heat of the Night—a player in Free Southern Theater productions.
Pictured in the exhibit are Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Jackson Gray, the first three African American women invited as guests on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Through the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) they helped found, they challenged their state’s all-white delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer’s speech there galvanized the nation. In 1964, Gray became the first woman from her state to seek a seat in the U.S. Senate.
A recent event at the Levine Museum recognized the Freedom Summer anniversary and, in a program called “Freedom Schools, Then and Now,” a new generation of the schools, which were an integral part of that summer and continue in Charlotte, N.C., and other cities.
Charlotte civil rights activist and attorney J. Charles Jones, 76, recalled his own transformational involvement in 1960s social justice efforts in the Carolinas and in his travels further south. He warned against current laws that restrict access to voting throughout the country, particularly after last June’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. By a 5-to-4 vote, it freed nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election rules and laws without preclearance, or advance approval from the federal government.
Today’s challenges appear more subtle than the poll taxes, literacy tests, and multi-page Constitutional quizzes that once blocked African Americans’ path to the voting booth, but the impact is just as dire. “We’ve got to keep the movement going,” Jones said.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority in Shelby. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the act had evolved from fighting “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” such as racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority. Since then, bipartisan legislation to uphold the guts of the Voting Rights Act by updating the coverage formula has stalled.
Even before the Shelby ruling, however, many states had passed or were on the road to passing rules restricting voting, some, but not all, in the South—from Texas and Pennsylvania to Wisconsin and North Carolina. Supporters of such bills said the legislation would reduce fraud and ensure the integrity of the vote; opponents said the real motivation was to suppress the votes of groups that traditionally lean Democratic and voters who disproportionately lack photo ID—young voters, minorities, the poor, and the elderly.
The bills are being challenged by rights groups and, in some cases, overturned.
Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has decided not to appeal a state judge’s January decision that struck down Pennsylvania’s law as hindering qualified voters who lacked approved ID. In Wisconsin, GOP Gov. Gov. Scott Walker has said his office will appeal a federal judge's ruling that his state’s voter ID law unfairly burdens low-income and minority voters.
The U.S. Justice Department is challenging voting regulations in Texas and North Carolina. In a conversation late last year in Washington, which I wrote about for The Root, Attorney General Eric Holder said: “The courts might say that the suits that we brought are not winnable or that we can’t win them, but we’re going to use every tool that we have in the Justice Department to try to make sure that every person who wants to cast a ballot has the opportunity to do so in a way that’s not hindered unnecessarily by practices and procedures that are put in place to deal with nonexistent problems.”
Holder said he remembered how Vivian Malone, the woman who would become his sister-in-law, integrated the University of Alabama. “The notion that here we are 50 years later, still dealing with these kinds of issues, is something that for me is extremely troubling.”
Besides strict photo voter ID requirements, North Carolina’s law shortens the early voting period from 17 to 10 days, ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old voters who will be 18 on election day, eliminates same-day voter registration, Sunday voting, and straight-ticket voting, prohibits university students from using their college IDs, prohibits paid voter registration drives, and increases the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina’s NAACP, one of the groups challenging the law, since last year has been leading “Moral Monday” demonstrations at the state capital in Raleigh to protest a wave of conservative legislation, including the new voting rules. In a recent conference call with reporters, joined by representatives of the Advancement Project, a national rights group that is supporting the NAACP’s suit, he called the legislation the “worst voter suppression law in the country,” one that he said also hurts women.
At one of last summer’s protests, 90-plus-year-old Rosanell Eaton joined because, her daughter said, of “the possibility of requiring voter ID. She was required when she was 21 years old to repeat the preamble to the Constitution in order to register.” Eaton, a named plaintiff in a suit challenging the bill, has said the name on her birth certificate does not match the name on her driver’s license or on her voter registration card, which could complicate her efforts to obtain the ID card the new law requires. That kind of discrepancy is not uncommon for women; last year a judge in Texas was nearly barred from voting because of confusion around her birth name and married name on her IDs.
In North Carolina, Barber is channeling the spirit of 50 years ago for part of his solution. “Young people are going to be re-enacting Freedom Summer,” he said. “They will be in 50 counties throughout this state registering people to vote, working on voter education, voter registration, voter participation.”
Fifty years later, the lessons of the coalition that came together for change continue to inspire those who will never forget.
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