(USA TODAY) -- For many young civil rights workers in 1964, there was no better
place than Mississippi to challenge a system that kept blacks voiceless
The state had one of the largest black
populations in the South, yet fewer than 5% of blacks there were
registered to vote, according to the Joint Center for Political and
Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. In some counties, not a single
black person was registered.
"Mississippi was the last bastion of
apartheid," recalled Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, who as a
young man was the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC). "Mississippi was famous for the exploitation and the
destruction of black people."
MORE HISTORY: Civil Rights in America: Connections to a Movement
STORY: Congressional honor sought for 1964 martyrs
you wanted to change the face of the nation, you started where the
problems were the worst," said Barry, 77, now a city councilman in
Washington. "You crack that, you can crack anything. That was our
philosophy. We were fearless. We were the revolutionary storm troopers."
year marks the 50th anniversary of "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi,
when Barry and other civil rights workers took shelter with sympathetic
residents in small towns and rural counties while helping blacks
register to vote.
It was a dangerous mission, in a state where
whites vehemently and violently opposed change. Murders, lynchings and
beatings were used to intimidate blacks and keep in place segregation in
schools and other public places. Student activists, led by SNCC, the
NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, were determined to challenge
voter registration requirements - such as poll taxes and literacy tests -
intended to prevent blacks from voting.
"It's a moment in history
where all these people came from all across the country: lawyers,
doctors, teachers, students, activists, historians," said Robert Moses,
79, who headed SNCC's Mississippi operation and now runs the Algebra
Project, a non-profit education program in Massachusetts. "They just
converge for a brief moment in time and make something happen that
nobody thought could happen."
'A major national event'
Freedom Summer was a key turning point in the civil rights movement and helped lead to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
was a major national event, and it had an impact on shaping public
opinion on civil rights nationally," said David Bositis, a senior
analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"Freedom Summer was important because it brought to the North what was
going on in Mississippi."
SNCC workers went north, mostly to
universities and big cities, to recruit volunteers. Soon an army of
volunteers, many of them white college students, headed to Oxford, Ohio,
for training in nonviolent protest.
Barry, then a student at Fisk
University in Nashville, said organizers hoped that the involvement of
white volunteers would attract national media attention and pressure the
establishment to support change. "There were all kinds of atrocities
going on," said Barry, who was born in Itta Bena, Miss. "The media
wasn't covering it that much."
Heather Booth was a freshman at the University of Chicago when a recruiter visited campus.
thought how wonderful it was to be involved in the civil rights
movement when you're fighting for things we believe in and alongside
others," recalled Booth, 68, who raised money for her trip by knocking
on doors on campus and back home in New York.
Volunteers relied on
the generosity of Mississippians to house and feed them. Often, those
locals helped at great risk of losing their jobs - and, in some cases,
"So many of them opened their arms to us," remembered
Wallace Roberts,72, who left behind a family in Massachusetts to
volunteer. Roberts helped start a "Freedom School" in Shaw, Miss., one
of about 40 such schools around the state where blacks were taught math,
reading and black history and encouraged to be active citizens.
Intimidation and strategy
and Booth stayed briefly with civil rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer, who
played a key role not only in organizing Freedom Summer, but also in
leading the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which fought for
representation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic
Six weeks after Roberts arrived in Mississippi, he and other
protesters, including students, went to the courthouse in Cleveland,
Miss., to hand out leaflets and urge residents to register to vote.
Roberts remembers white men in khaki pants and white helmets surrounding
the building. "They just watched. They were there to intimidate us,"
recalled Roberts, who is writing a book about the U.S. nursing home
industry. "It was a way to instill fear."
Protesters were jailed and questioned by FBI agents. As he and other
volunteers were trained to do, Roberts said he called his wife, who then
called his congressman, who called county officials in Mississippi.
Soon, he was released.
"That was the strategy that made a lot of difference," Roberts said.
the protests were nonviolent, Freedom Summer was still marked by
violence, including the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney,
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the case that inspired the movie Mississippi Burning.
Although there had been other murders, the deaths of the three men in
June 1964 - Goodman and Schwerner were white, Chaney black - drew
national media attention.
Booth said she was "horrified" by the
news, but it made her even more determined to go to Mississippi. "It
reinforced how people are living with such terror and brutality every
day," said Booth, a co-founder and president of the Midwest Academy,
which trains activists and organizers. "If my going meant that I could
help support a real freedom struggle ... then I wanted to go."
McComb, Miss., where SNCC began its efforts, Moses said Webb Owens, then
a treasurer for the local chapter of the NAACP, would take him to black
churches and businesses to ask for money to support the project.
"It was people like that who provided the foundation, the soil in which a movement could grow," Moses said.
A difference seen today
activists say they were not able to register as many blacks as they
wanted that summer, the movement nevertheless made a difference.
Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state. In
1970, the state had 95 black elected officials, according to the Joint
Center. In 2004, it had 950.
By 1968, voter registration among
blacks had jumped to 60%, up from 5.8% in 1960, the Joint Center said.
In 2012, about 90% of blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote,
according to census data.
Euvester Simpson, then a senior high
school student from Itta Bena, had watched her parents and others in her
community endure enough segregation and racism.
"It was like this
was what I was waiting for all my life," said Simpson, 67, now a board
member for the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, which
is planning commemoration events this year. "I knew I wasn't going to
live the way my parents did."
Simpson's most memorable moment came
in 1965, when her parents registered to vote for the first time. "They
were so proud and so thankful for the movement," she said.
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