David M. Shribman: Freedom Summer, 50 years later

Even now, in this cynical age, we can appreciate the purity of its cause and the impact of its idealism

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Today the phrase “Freedom Summer” has a romantic tint, colored in idealism, shaded in glory: a noble moment of grandeur when blacks and whites from Mississippi and beyond united in a brave effort to fight segregation and register blacks to vote.

But a half-century ago, the effort known formally as the Mississippi Summer Project was both audacious and dangerous. Three civil-rights workers were ambushed, kidnapped and killed. Another died in a car crash. Scores of Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten. Three dozen churches were bombed or burned. The granite walls of resistance were only barely penetrated. And when the summer ended, the progress that we today regard as inevitable still seemed impossible.

But 50 summers on, we now recognize that this was one of the signature episodes in America’s long story of racial strife and racial reconciliation.

It was a movement that was multifaith and multiracial but not really multigenerational. It was a youth campaign with almost no equal, except perhaps the flood of anti-war college students into New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential effort four years later — and there the principal obstacle was frigid temperatures and the only danger was icy stares.

“Freedom Summer,” said Charles R. McLaurin, a civil-rights activist who directed the program’s activities in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta, “opened doors and eyes about what was happening in Mississippi and helped change Mississippi.”

This month, the anniversary of the movement’s start, will bring forth a flood of testimonials but almost no reappraisals — for the effort now is seen as so pure in its purpose, so righteous in its goals, so wholesome in its intentions that, even in our contemporary culture of criticism, hardly anyone can condemn this mobilization of idealism.

As for the three who were abducted, murdered and found 44 days later, they are rightly remembered as martyrs to a sacred cause, and they are often remembered, surnames only, as if their names were the tolling of a bell: Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner.

Today those names are honored around the nation, even in Mississippi. Here in Pittsburgh, Rabbi James A. Gibson of Temple Sinai includes their names in the listing of the anniversary of the congregation’s dead, an annual ritual of remembrance known as Yahrtzeit. And though the three have been transformed into symbols of hope, their disappearance at the time was regarded as a symbol of hopelessness.

Indeed, from the moment of their disappearance there was little hope for their safe return. Here is the fifth paragraph of The New York Times story on their disappearance, written by Claude Sitton, the newspaper’s pioneering civil-rights reporter:

“The Mississippi Highway Patrol issued a missing-persons bulletin, but a spokesman in Jackson indicated late today that it had no plans at present for further action.”

The Summer Project was born of despair, even desperation. Mississippi, where 93 percent of blacks of voting age were unable to vote, was an isolated backwater of the Deep South, a world unto its own, determined to remain that way, to retain its ancient outlook, folkways and viewpoints, and to resist even the tiniest and most tentative movements toward racial integration.

Listen to the testimony of Dorie Ann Ladner, born in Hattiesburg, drawn into the civil-rights movement by the murder of Emmitt Till, expelled from Jackson State College for her activism and instrumental in Freedom Summer:

“This was a very important part of our history because blacks were being killed, segregation was at its highest peak, we could not get public utilities, we could not try on clothes in stores, our education was very poor,” she said in a conversation this spring. “We were not treated like human beings.”

This sense of hopelessness led her to support bringing outsiders to the state, surely to bear witness, perhaps to spur change. “We thought that college students from outside would bring along their parents, and their parents would bring along congressmen, and congressmen would bring along the federal government,” she said.

Not all the outsiders were white. Some were like Charlie Cobb, born in Washington and reared in Springfield, Mass., but with farm roots in Mississippi. He was field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at the time. This is his testimony, rendered on the phone this spring:

“Freedom Summer focused for the first time the attention of the nation on Mississippi. The idea was to bring the nation’s children — mostly white, mostly middle-class or upper-middle-class children, many from politically connected families — to Mississippi and, as a result, the nation did look at Mississippi. That experience not only changed the students. It also changed the nation.”

The mastermind of the effort was Robert Parris Moses, almost always known as Bob, then as now a figure of great probity and perspective. Beaten and bloodied but determined to change both Mississippi and the nation, he was at once combative and comforting, particularly after the three abductees were found buried six weeks after their disappearance. Today, at age 79, he believes the effects of Freedom Summer were profound:

“It’s pretty clear now that it was absolutely critical, part of an earthquake. The March on Washington, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery — they were mobilizing efforts around specific targets. The Mississippi theater was the only place where the whole state was the target.”

And it had vast political impact, eroding Dixiecrat control of the Democratic Party, itself buttressed by a one-party system in Mississippi that gave the region outsized power on Capitol Hill and outsized influence on civil rights. Its power in Washington hobbled Washington’s ability to exercise power in Mississippi.

Then came the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The group mounted a challenge to the state’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention that summer in Atlantic City, N.J. That, too, was a Bob Moses movement.

“All the social, political, cultural and economic factors in Mississippi were for decades controlled only by Mississippi,” Mr. Moses said. “The rest of the country had nothing to say about it. And that meant institutionalizing black inferiority and white supremacy in the state and across the South — until then.”

To the horror of party regulars, already seared by the death of John F. Kennedy only nine months earlier, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party pressed its case at Boardwalk Hall and on television sets around the country. In the midst of the Cold War and its rhetoric of freedom, those television broadcasts caught Annie Devine of Canton, Miss., speaking amid tears:

“We have been treated like beasts in Mississippi. They shot us down like animals.”

Fannie Lou Hamer, a Freedom Summer organizer and vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, said of the party regulars in her state: “I feel sorry for anybody that could let hate wrap them up. Hate will not only destroy us, it will destroy them.”

In the end, labor leader Walter Reuther and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, about to be nominated as Lyndon B. Johnson’s running mate, sculpted a compromise that allowed the delegation to remain at the session, largely as non-voting delegates, and that assured that Mississippi would never again send to a nominating convention delegates chosen in a discriminatory process.

“It is only now that a voice is being heard in our land,” Charles M. Sherrod, a SNCC field secretary, said in Atlantic City. “It is the voice of the poor; it is the tongue of the underprivileged; it is from the lips of the desperate.”

A half century later, the work of freeing the black and the poor from the legacy of Mississippi oppression remains unfinished. Next week, at the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson, veterans of the effort will look back — and forward.

“It is too often that we don’t know a history of the past and because of that we have the wrong understanding of where we came from, where we are and where we are going,” Hollis Watkins, the chairman of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, wrote in an essay this month.

The phrase “summer of love” customarily is associated with the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in 1967, but somehow it seems more appropriate to the more enduring activities of Mississippi Summer. The actual results of Freedom Summer were modest: a few hundred new registered voters, so few that Martin Luther King Jr. said that at that rate it would take 270 years to register all the eligible black voters in Mississippi.

And yet that was not really the point. “[T]he work in voter registration involves, most importantly, the development of the will to stand up and act,” argued the Southern writer Robert Penn Warren in a 1965 book. “All of these things are basic for the long-range growth of political power, but they are equally important for the growth of other kinds of power — and for the fulfillment of a person.”

Indeed, Mr. Watkins, a county organizer for Freedom Summer, and his compatriots were not summer soldiers and sunshine patriots — the phrase comes from Thomas Paine and an earlier American struggle for liberty — and their efforts did not end in 1964.

Still, the Summer of ’64 — in many ways more important than the Summer of ’42, a time (and a movie) celebrated in American folklore — was a sunshine moment.

The Mississippi project was inspired in part by two white men, Allard Lowenstein, who later led the “Dump Johnson” movement and served in Congress, and Robert Spike, executive director of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Religion and Race, both credited by Mr. Moses for mobilizing student and church forces.

Later, interracial strife would bloom inside SNCC and new voices of black separatism such as Stokley Carmichael would emerge. Within two years, Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, would replace John Lewis, a storied civil-rights activist and now a Democratic congressman, at the top of the organization. Carmichael died in 1998.

But that summer — tumultuous, thrilling, tragic — a bunch of largely white students led by a largely black organization helped change Mississippi, and the country beyond. Mississippi Summer was a summertime moment for us all.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890).

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