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'Freedom Summer' of 1964 was mission in hostile territory

3:26 PM, Feb 4, 2014   |    comments
Bruce Solomon, a 24-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., teacher and one of a hundred of volunteers in the 'Mississippi Freedom Summer Project,' teaches a class for young African Americans at a freedom school on Sunday, Aug. 23, 1964 in Jackson, Miss. Classes throughout the state have been set up by the young workers in churches and homes.
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(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 and disenfranchised.

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."

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"If 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."

This 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.

"It 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.

"I 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, their lives.

"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

Roberts 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 City.

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.

Though 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."

In 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

While activists say they were not able to register as many blacks as they wanted that summer, the movement nevertheless made a difference.

Today, 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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