Freedom Summer was an important event in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.
In the racially-segregated South, African Americans were subjected to repressive legislation and local intimidation that enhanced their disenfranchisement. The right to vote for African Americans developed into a major issue within the South as most African Americans were either not permitted to vote due to restrictions, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, or they were too daunted by white retaliation to attempt registration. During the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, an emphasis was placed upon black voter registration in order to reduce the amount of influence white representatives held in the southern Democratic Party. Multiple civil rights organizations, including The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collaborated to devise a strategy that would promote black suffrage while enhancing media attention towards the issue. The plan they organized was a summer program in which Northern college students would travel down and reside within the South and, with the help of local activists, pursue voter registration and community connection. Historically, the state of Mississippi typically had the lowest levels of African-American registration, such as in the 1962 election where only about seven percent of the eligible black voters were registered. Therefore, most volunteers would be sent into Mississippi to attempt to reduce the stronghold of the segregation epicenter.
Around 800 students, generally whites of middle-class standing, gathered in Oxford, Ohio, where they were trained in voter registration, teaching literacy and leadership techniques, non-violent resistance, and promoting the cause of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP was aiming to attract enough support to challenge the all-white democratic delegation that would participate that summer in the Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Caucasian demographic of the volunteers was part of a strategy to attract national attention to the abuses of Mississippi system. The volunteers were also prepared for the intense southern racial conditions that would engulf them throughout their program. They were requested to read books that dealt with past activists’ experiences, including the narrations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and letters were delivered to all volunteers detailing the risks of participation, including incarceration, directed violence, and intimidation.
In early June 1964, two-hundred volunteers departed for Mississippi from Oxford. Just a few days later, three of these activists went missing: James Chaney, Michael Schwerener, and Andrew Goodman. The trio was exhumed from an earthen dam six weeks later. Their murder made national headlines. Organizers emphasized the risk of volunteering and gave everyone an option to withdraw, however most of the participants remained. When volunteers arrived in Mississippi they were surrounded by hostilities and white intimidation. Throughout the summer, more than 1,000 black and white volunteers were arrested, over 80 activists experienced physical beatings, and 30 black-owned homes or businesses, as well as 37 churches, were burned to the ground.
The Freedom Summer of 1964 faced a number of other hardships. Black activists were upset because they were unsure if all the publicity was solely due to the two white activists who were murdered, as opposed to what the attention would have been like if all three victims had been black. Also, the investigation into the killings of the three activists was relatively unhurried which frustrated many volunteers who desired an increase in federal protection. Additionally, the nonviolent Civil Rights movement as a whole was being ideologically challenged by the more militant, anti-assimilation Black Power movement that was emerging at the time.
Despite these internal and external pressures, the Freedom Summer program brought about some change that reduced the extreme marginalization of African Americans. Volunteers organized a massive state-wide campaign endorsing black suffrage participation. Their efforts were successful in encouraging 17,000 blacks to register to vote, though due to legislative restrictions only 1,600 of these registrations were approved. Furthermore, through the efforts of the Freedom Summer activists, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party gained more than 60,000 supporters. The MFDP helped increase the national recognition of the movement when it challenged the standing Democratic delegation from Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The Freedom Summer was also successful in establishing a potent community connection within the black population. The goals were to develop black-owned institutions and coalitions, as well as to organize a new educational option for all African Americans. Volunteers established more than 30 new “freedom schools” for local African Americans to attend. These facilities provided African Americans of all ages instruction without any racial bias. Freedom school students were taught the basic curriculum of math, science, and English as well as a review in literacy. They were also exposed to the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, African-American history, and skills needed for leadership. The original hope was to enroll more than 1,000 African Americans who could be trained through this system to continue the program once the northern volunteers returned home. That summer, the freedom schools educated more than 3,000 African Americans.
Ultimately, the Freedom Summer program was successful in gaining national media attention not just for Mississippi, but also the entire southern disenfranchisement of African Americans. Legislation would follow throughout the succeeding years to reduce the ostracism, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Furthermore, southern African Americans were strengthened in their resolve to strive for equality instead of remaining fearful of white retaliation.