A platitude often repeated in small Southern towns pertains to a wistful yearning to return to “easier” times. However, this idyllic view of the past perceived through the hazy lens of nostalgia is highly inaccurate, tainted by the stain of injustice. Fifty-six years ago this summer, a group of mostly white 700 college students from the North came to Mississippi, known then as “the most totalitarian state in the country,” to try to rectify this injustice by assisting African-Americans in the voter registration process.
In 1964, only 6.7 percent of the registered voters in Mississippi were African-American. In Neshoba County, where Philadelphia is located, not a single African-American was registered to vote.
This endeavor, which came to be called “Freedom Summer,” was organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). These students, known as Freedom Riders because they rode buses from Ohio, risked their lives to trek to Mississippi, a highly segregated state at the time. As outsiders, they lived with black families throughout the state, immersing themselves in the local culture.
In June 1964, the threat of violence was pervasive. As a result, student volunteers were trained on how to anticipate violence: how to respond to a mob, how to cover their bodies if attacked, and how to protect each other without resorting to physical violence or the use of weapons.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, now a member of Congress representing the District of Columbia, was a law student in 1964 who worked to help train student volunteers. Norton witnessed violence firsthand while trying to help rescue noted civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer from a Mississippi jail. She said, “When I asked to see Miss Hamer, this storied woman leader of the civil rights movement in the South that she was to become, she had been beaten unmercifully by a black trusty. And [the white prison guards] told him, if you don’t beat her [hard enough], we’ll see just how you beat her and we’re going to beat you even harder.”
The most-remembered participants of the movement that turbulent summer were three young men. The first, Andrew Goodman, was a 20-year-old anthropology student at Queens College. Another was Mickey Schwerner, a 24-year-old social work student at Columbia University. The third was James Chaney, a 21-year-old volunteer from Meridian connected with the Congress for Racial Equality.
The three young men were sent to investigate the burning of a church in Philadelphia. On June 21, they were arrested by the Neshoba County police and then abducted by the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were later found in an earthen dam. The two white volunteers, Goodman and Schwerner, had been shot. The body of Chaney, an African-American, was mutilated beyond recognition. The act was labeled “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States” by Martin Popper, the attorney for the Goodman family.
The shadow of these murders haunted Mississippi for decades, and the incident was famously depicted in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. Ultimately, it would take 41 years for a Neshoba County grand jury to indict Edgar Ray Killen on three counts of murder for planning and directing the killing of the three men.
The fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer in 2014 coincided with another important date in history. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 – which provided federal oversight of the voting process in specified states – of the Voting Rights Act, passed in August 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson.
My interest in this segment of history was further piqued by a play I saw a few years ago in New York on Broadway called All the Way, with Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston portraying President Johnson. The Tony award-winning play chronicles the violence in the South during Freedom Summer and Johnston’s struggle to balance the tension between the Northern supporters who wanted him to take action against segregation in the South and Democratic supporters in the South who expected him to enact a laissez-faire approach to Jim Crow, the system of segregation which had been dominant in the South for about 70 years at the time.
Although I am too young to recall that way of life, I realize that five and a half decades is not that long when we speak of a radically different societal structure—essentially a caste system—and the injustices that accompanied it. Likewise, four decades is much too long in obtaining justice for three men who willingly gave their lives to try to improve the lives of fellow citizens. In the midst of controversy today, it is still important to remember those who sacrificed to help obtain freedom and justice for others. If some of us are lacking those guaranteed freedoms, then all of us are lacking.