By Eddie Wong. Posted November 11, 2023.
Sixty years ago on November 14, 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the young, militant component of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), led the organization towards a bold strategy to confront entrenched white supremacy in Mississippi. COFO, which also included the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched the Mississippi Summer Project. The project was known for the 1,000 volunteers, most of them white but also some northern Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans, who went to Mississippi, the bastion of white supremacy and virtually a police state. They came to not only register voters but to establish Freedom Schools. Smaller Freedom Summer projects were also undertaken in northern Florida and northern Louisiana by CORE. Hailed as a communist invasion by Southern racists and greeted with lukewarm to hostile reaction by some in the civil rights establishment, SNCC and CORE demonstrated decisive leadership, bold vision, and grim determination to carry out the campaign despite the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner that took place right as the campaign kicked off in June 1964.
As I read about the deliberations that surrounded the controversial decision to recruit hundreds of white students and place them and their Black host families in great danger, I was impressed by SNCC’s ability to analyze the situation, devise a multi-part strategy, and execute the campaign all within a matter of months. Bob Moses, who led the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, argued that little progress had been made in recruiting Black Mississippians to face the daunting registration process. Although several local Blacks were recruited to lead the campaign, ordinary citizens who went to register faced the violent response of the white city and town officials and the Ku Klux Klan. People who marched in front of local courthouses (the site of many city registrars) were beaten and arrested by police. Those who survived the registration process had their names published in the local newspaper which was quickly followed by the loss of their jobs. Out of the 425,000 eligible Black voters in Mississippi, only 5% of them were registered to vote in 1963. Without federal intervention to challenge state-sanctioned denial of Black voting rights and the intervention of the FBI and US Justice Department to investigate attacks on civil rights advocates, Mississippi and other southern states would allow police and the local judges to squash the voter registration drives. Something had to be done.
Bob Moses, leader of SNCC’s Voter Registration Drive, told SNCC Conference attendees in December 1963 that “there was little possibility that the white population would make any real changes in the status of the Negro voluntarily, and that it would not accept any substantial changes in the ‘power structure’ without federal intervention. SNCC’s job is to bring about just such a confrontation.” White students from liberal colleges in the North, Midwest, and West would become the shock troops and their participation would elicit northern concern from middle-class and upper-class white parents and bring extensive media coverage.
Once the decision was affirmed, a vigorous fundraising campaign was started in February 1964 and a rigorous recruitment process was established to ensure that the northern volunteers would follow Black leadership, adhere to security and mandated social practices, and learn from the local communities. They did not want people with a white savior complex or unstable people who could become violent in face of provocations.
Making an assessment of the situation and finding a creative and daring strategy is certainly a major lesson from Freedom Summer that can be applied to our current stalemate between the multiracial democratic forces and the MAGA authoritarians. Secondly, being able to build a united front with labor, liberals, progressive clergy, and national foundations was another achievement by the Freedom Summer organizers. Lastly and most importantly, having an established base in the Black community was critical to the success of Freedom Summer. Let’s explore how all of this evolved in the course of 1963 to 1964.
“Give Light and People Will Find The Way”
In many ways, this short and memorable phrase by Ella Baker, who worked with the NAACP and SCLC, and then joined SNCC captured the spirit she fostered, i.e., people can lead themselves once they are given the tools for their own liberation. In 1963, SNCC turned on the light. They took local voter registration drives and developed a statewide campaign which engaged thousands of Black Mississippians and made the national headlines.
Black Mississippians who sought to become registered voters faced many obstacles: poll taxes and a “literary” test where registrars asked applicants to read one of 285 sections of the Mississippi Constitution and interpret it to the registrar’s satisfaction. As a result, only 12,000 African Americans in Mississippi were registered to vote in 1963. The white establishment used this fact to say that Blacks weren’t interested in voting and for many African Americans voting just wasn’t worth the suffering that would result for having one’s life and livelihood jeopardized. There had to be a way to break the chain of fear that shackled Black Mississippians and to demonstrate to the nation and federal authorities that Black people wanted to vote.
In summer 1963, COFO decided to launch Freedom Vote and register Black Mississippians to vote for its own slate of candidates for Governor, Lt. Governor and other county offices in a community-run election. At a statewide convention in October, regional delegates nominated Aaron Henry, state NAACP chair, for Governor and Rev. Ed King, Chaplin at Tugaloo College as Lt. Governor, creating the first bi-racial slate in Mississippi history. The convention also drafted a progressive program that included raising the minimum wage, creating a farmer loan program, and guaranteeing voting rights for all Blacks.
SNCC and other civil rights activists fanned across the state telling folks that registering to vote in Freedom Vote simply entailed going to a polling site – a church, a beauty parlor, a barbershop – between Nov. 2 and 4 to cast a ballot. Aaron Henry spoke from one end of the state to the other and drew huge crowds, including a crowd of 1,000 people in Hattiesburg, MS.
Freedom Vote was also the first time that large numbers of white students from Yale University and Stanford University were asked to come to Mississippi. Over 100 students answered the call and arrived to distribute leaflets and work in COFO offices. The white students who were leafletting in Jackson, Columbus, and Indianola soon experienced the same harassment SNCC and COFO workers had always faced; they got arrested for “racial disturbance” and had to be bailed out. These arrests naturally attracted press coverage and focused attention on the repressive measures Blacks faced in order to vote.
Over 80,000 Black Mississippians voted and given the Henry/King ticket 90% of their votes. There could be no doubt that a mighty collective voice had refuted the lie that Blacks weren’t interested in voting. Moreover, this organizing drive demonstrated that there was a deep base of support for COFO and the civil rights struggle. This statewide campaign brought new activists into the movement and gave them vital skills that would be applied in subsequent campaigns.
Freedom Vote also led to a wider debate about bringing in more white students. Thus, on Nov. 14, 1963 at a COFO meeting attended by seven white staff and 35 Black SNCC field secretaries (full-time organizers who were paid $10/week), Bob Moses’ proposal for the recruitment of 1,000 white students from the North for voter registration work in summer 1964 was presented and hotly debated. Some SNCC veterans argued that the infusion of a large number of white students would take the focus away from local Black leadership. Others such as Fannie Lou Hamer responded, “If we’re trying to break down the barriers of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.” The debate continued until December when a final decision to bring in 100 white students was approved. The response was so great that in the end 1,000 students from the North, Midwest and West were recruited by COFO. Similar recruitment efforts resulted roughly 100 white students coming to CORE’s northern Florida and northern Louisiana summer projects.
With recruitment in motion, the task of fundraising fell upon the Friends of SNCC chapters on campuses and cities. SNCC’s Freedom Singers, which was composed of Bernice Reagon, Cordell Reagon, Rutha Mae Harris, Chuck Neblett, and Bertha Gober, traveled around the country giving concerts; they raised $5,000 per week. A fundraising Town Hall event at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. with writer Joseph Heller, author of the best-seller “Catch-22,” child psychiatrist Robert Coles, and Mississippi activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Elizabeth Allen, widow of Louis Allen who was killed for testifying about the murder of Herbert Lee, drew a packed house. By the end of March 1964, SNCC had raised $97,000. Additional funds to meet the estimated $200,000 budget came from labor unions, religious organizations, and individuals.
Volunteers went through a week-long training in Oxford, OH where they practiced non-violent resistance and learned about how to work with the COFO staff, which mainly consisted of SNCC and CORE workers. They were dispatched throughout the state of Mississippi from the hill country to the verdant Mississippi Delta. Greeting them were thousands of Black Mississippians who worked alongside with the white volunteers. They sheltered them in the Black community and in some cases the host families provided armed security to protect them against night riders. Many direct accounts written about Mississippi Freedom Summer testify to the danger and tension in the air as white racists did all they could to deter their voter registration efforts. But there are also many accounts of the joy in solidarity and for a brief moment the experience of being in a beloved community.
What Did Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 Accomplish?
The organizing efforts that were part of MS Freedom Summer accomplished many of the key goals articulated by Bob Moses and other SNCC leaders.
First, bringing white students did attract massive press coverage, particularly from hometown newspapers of the students. The white students often wrote to their local newspapers and to their college newspapers and gave first-hand testimony about the systematic racism faced by Black Mississippians. Their accounts of the drive-by shootings and bombing directed at them and the local Black community by the KKK and other white racists made people aware of the civil rights struggle on a personal level. (Note: For a personal account, see East Wind ezine’s profile of Carl Imiola Young, a Chinese American volunteer from Honolulu, HI who went to Hattiesburg, MS.)
National press coverage focused on Mississippi from June to August 1964 after the disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three CORE volunteers who went to investigate the firebombing of Mt. Zion Baptist Church near Philadelphia, MS. Hundreds of FBI agents and the U.S. Navy were dispatched to Mississippi to drag rivers and search for the men. That search did find the remains of eight Black youth, including that of 14-year-old Herbert Oarsby who was wearing a CORE T-shirt at the time of his murder. After weeks of searching, an informant directed officials to an earthen dam on a farm where the bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were exhumed on Aug. 4, 1964.
At the funeral of James Chaney, who was a Black plasterer’s apprentice and CORE worker from Meridian, MS, 500 people were galvanized by the fiery speech of Dave Dennis, the CORE Director in Mississippi. The murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner are remembered to this day as a prime example of the police’s collusion with the Ku Klux Klan.
Secondly, the organizing drive exposed the horrible conditions of poverty and institutional neglect and suppression that the state of Mississippi enacted upon Black Mississippians. Health care was barely available for poor Blacks. Twelve doctors from New York answered COFO’s call for medical assistance for the civil rights workers. They formed the Medical Committee for Human Rights and brought 100 medical volunteers to Mississippi during Freedom Summer to work with local Black doctors to run health clinics at the Freedom Schools and community centers. The doctors were not granted medical licenses to practice in Mississippi but could give “emergency” treatment. Some of the clinics continued after Freedom Summer.
Legal aid was non-existent in Black communities and COFO knew that the number of arrests would increase in summer 1964 as thousands of volunteers, black and white, posed a direct challenge to local authorities. Thus, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) stepped in with 70 volunteers who worked with the three Black attorneys in Mississippi. NLG lawyers in the Committee for Legal Assistance to the South handled 45 cases and represented 315 defendants. Some attorneys interviewed Black residents as witnesses in the harassment of civil rights workers by police and white racists. Although red-baited by the press and some in the civil rights establishment, SNCC welcomed the NLG’s participation.
Mississippi had segregated schools and Black schools barely had books and supplies. So the call went out via SNCC newsletters and a full-page ad in Harper’s Magazine for people around the country to donate books, pencils, pens, paper, typewriters and mimeograph machines. By the end of Freedom Summer, 40 Freedom Schools in 20 communities had been established. They served 2,000 students, including adults who sought literacy education. The Freedom Schools were staffed by 175 teachers, many of whom were college students. A people’s history curriculum designed by history professor and activist Staughton Lynd from Spelman College.
Sandra Adickes, a school teacher in Prince Edward County, Virginia, taught at a Freedom School in Hattiesburg, MS and she made the following observations in an oral history interview in Mississippi – A Documentary History (University of Mississippi Press, 2003):
They (the Black high school students) were furious at the inequity. .. they couldn’t use the public library. They had a little room downtown where they could go where all the cast-off books were kept.
There was a sense of ‘Here, we know what a school is finally. We have teachers who respect us, who want to hear what we have to say, who care about us, who want something for us in this life.’ Having tasted what school was… it changed their aspirations.
Students in Philadelphia, MS returned to schools in the fall wearing “One Man, One Vote” buttons that COFO used to promote the Freedom Vote campaign. When school principals in Issaquena and Sharkey counties banned students from wearing the buttons, they launched an eight-month boycott.
The Freedom School movement led to the formation of the Child Development Group of Mississippi that started 84 summer school centers that served 5,600 children in July 1965. This became the precursor of the Head Start program for early childhood education.
Third, voter registration drives succeeded in bringing 17,000 people to the courthouses where the vast majority were refused the right to vote on spurious grounds. Only 1,600 new registrants were accepted in the official channels, but tens of thousands demonstrated their desire to vote via the mock elections process. Concurrent with the recruitment of students to help with voter registration work and to establish Freedom Schools was the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which was organized out of the momentum created by COFO’s Freedom Vote campaign in fall 1963. Volunteers from Mississippi Summer Project helped the MFDP sign up 80,000 members. Precinct and county organizations were established which in turn elected delegates to a state convention attended by 2,500 people. MFDP’s goal was to attend the national Democratic Party convention in August in Atlantic City and ask that their slate of 68 delegates be seated instead of the official party delegation, which only represented white voters. Although MFDP were not successful in their bid – they rejected a compromise offer to seat just two of the MFDP delegates – an impassioned speech by Fannie Lou Hamer before the Democratic Party Rules Committee was broadcast nationally on television. MFDP also held several rallies on the Atlantic City boardwalk to decry the terrible violations of civil rights and the exploitation of Black people in Mississippi.