1964 Freedom Summer

June 21, 1964

One morning Mrs. Robert Goodman’s son Andrew kissed her good-bye and went off to fight for freedom. She never saw him again. Andrew was a twenty-year-old Queens College anthropology major when he died on June 21, 1964. He did not fall on foreign soil, nor was he killed by enemy fire. Andrew was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan on an isolated road in rural Mississippi. His death, along with his companions, Michael Schwerner and James Earl Cheney, would change the future of race relations in America.

America, a Democratic Nation?

Thousands of soldiers died at Gettysburg in 1863 to ensure that the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” would not perish. Political writer Herbert Croly wrote in 1909 that the United States was a “Land of Democracy,” a nation “committed to the realization of the democratic ideal.” The nation took a giant step toward that ideal in 1920 when, after a seventy-year campaign for suffrage, women were given the right to vote.

There was one group that was systematically blocked from participating in America’s elections: African Americans. Following World War II a combination of forces began to undermine the pillars of racial segregation in the South. In 1954 the Supreme Court overturned one of the pillars of white supremacy with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In the next year Rosa Parks challenged Alabama’s segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Her simple act of courage showed that intimidation could no longer repress minority aspirations.

Working Together for Freedom

Groups of blacks, impatient for change, began to coordinate peaceful demonstrations. On February 1, 1960, four well-dressed black students sat down at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth’s department store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ordered a cup of coffee. The next day, twenty-seven black students occupied the Woolworth’s lunch counter. The third day it was sixty-three black students. By Friday more than three hundred protesters jammed the store and the nearby Kress’s five-and-dime. By the end of 1960, more than seventy thousand people in more than 150 cities had participated in protests. In April 1960, the more militant protesters formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

At the same time as the lunch counter protests, another group, the Council of Racial Equality (CORE), was protesting segregation in interstate transportation. The Supreme Court had barred segregation in transportation, but the ruling was largely ignored in the South. In May 1961, seven black and six white “freedom riders” set out on two buses from Washington headed for Alabama and Mississippi. CORE national director James Farmer declared, “Our intention is to provoke the southern authorities into arresting us and thereby prod the Justice Department into enforcing the law of the land.” Over the next few months more than three hundred freedom riders were arrested.

Voting Rights

In 1964 only two million of the South’s five million voting age blacks were registered to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed almost a hundred years before, had guaranteed the right to vote. But Washington allowed the states decide the qualifications to vote. Seven states used literacy tests. Five states employed a “poll tax,” which disenfranchised both poor blacks and poor whites. Alabama required blacks to be accompanied to the polls by white citizens who would “vouch” for their character. Mississippi employed both an “understanding test” and one of the highest poll taxes in the South.

Mississippi was a state frozen in time. Not much had changed in relations between the races since the end of the Civil War. In 1960, only about 7 percent of blacks had completed high school and fewer were allowed to vote. Five counties had a majority of blacks but had not one black registered voter among them.

In 1964, SNCC organized a voting rights campaign in Mississippi, where only 5 percent of blacks were registered to vote. Robert Moses, a Harvard-educated philosophy student traveled to Mississippi to help blacks overturn the oppressive Jim Crow system. He had traveled to stay with his uncle in Virginia to observe the sit-ins taking place in Newport News. He joined SNCC in 1961 and traveled to Mississippi. At the end of the next school year he returned to Mississippi to head SNCC’s voting rights campaign. A umbrella organization, Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), was set up to coordinate the work of SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP.

Robert Moses came up with the idea of going to the North to recruit white students to join the struggle. The northern whites were from good schools and their parents were influential. The whites were found to be more newsworthy than blacks and attracted resources to bring the case of the black people to the attention of the nation and the world.

Andrew Goodman fit the profile of the typical application for the “Freedom Summer” program. Like the nearly nine hundred other applicants, he had previous involvement in liberal causes. In June Andres traveled to a SNCC orientation for 750 volunteers at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Moses warned the volunteers, “Don’t come to Mississippi this summer to save the Mississippi Negro. Only come if you understand, really understand, that his freedom and yours are one.”

At the orientation in Ohio, Andrew met two veterans of Mississippi civil rights. Michael Schwerner had come from Manhattan to Mississippi after the 1963 bombing of a Baptist Church in Burmingham, Alabama. Among the Mississippi Klan he was known as “the Jew boy.”

Working in Meridian, Mississippi, the Schwerners became friends with a twenty-one-year-old black man, James Earl Chaney, who had traveled with them to the orientation in Ohio.

On June 21, 1964, the three men were together in a car together to go inspect a church that had been burned out. Not much of the church was left but the metal bell and some charred hymnals. On the way home they were stopped for “speeding” by deputy sheriff, Cecil Price. They were escorted to the local jail where they were released around 10:00 P.M. on a $20 cash bond. After being released they were recaptured by Deputy Sheriff Price and two carload of Klansmen. They were brutally beaten and murdered execution style, and the bodies were buried under a dam that was under construction. Their car was burned out and run into a swamp fifteen miles away.

J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had never involved the agency in the disappearance of blacks in the South. The disappearance of the two white men caused Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send down 140 FBI agents. A few days later 100 sailors from the Meridian naval air station joined the hunt.

The killing of the three volunteers brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which federal examiners to register voters and banned the use of literacy tests. The killings also forced the FBI to take an aggressive stand against racial violence in the South. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover began to use the same techniques against the Klan that he had used against the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s. A counter-intelligence program was instituted against the Klan. On Friday, December 4, 1964, the FBI arrested twenty-one men for the murders. None of them stood trial for murder.

The case inspired a 1989 Hollywood movie, Mississippi Burning. The movie inspired a journalist, Jerry Mitchell, to investigate the murders. He stumbled upon the once-secret files of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. The files contained eighty-seven thousand names and details of many Klan killings of the era. The agency existed from 1956 to 1977, when it was disbanded and its files sealed until 1998. Mitchell started to get access in 1989. Over the next few years, Mitchell exposed a series of Klan murders, bringing the killers to justice. One of the killers of our three 1964 victims was tried for murder in 2005.

Resources:

  • Video:Freedom Summer 1964
  • Lecture:
    Rowe 10 Days Episode 10 Ch. 10 Freedom Summer
  • Study Guide:

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