Excerpt from Freedom Summer

by Doug McAdam


“America on the Eve of Freedom Summer”


“Nothing in the experience of most of the volunteers could have prepared them for what they were to find in Mississippi. This was certainly not any version of America they had been raised to believe was even possible. Indeed, the very existence of Mississippi constituted a powerful challenge to virtually all aspects of the volunteers’ generally sanguine view of the world....Convinced of their collective potency, the volunteers found in Mississippi a monument to the political and economic impotence of most of its citizenry. Finally, to the extent that the volunteers continued to believe in law and justice as the cornerstones of life in the United States, they could hardly have been prepared for the pattern of official lawlessness and violence that was Mississippi’s heritage.

...In 1960, 68 percent of all blacks in Mississippi continued to live in rural areas. The comparable figure for blacks outside of Mississippi was only 39 percent. In the same year, more than a third of all black Mississippians - or twice the percentage for the rest of the South - were engaged in farming.

            With rural farm employment came all the concomitants of the traditional “way of life” for black Mississippians. One of the defining qualities of that “way of life” was grinding poverty. Median nonwhite family income averaged just $1,444 in 1960, lowest in the United States, and barely a third of the average for Mississippi whites (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1963). This meant that 86 percent of all nonwhite families in the state were living below the official federal poverty level. Nor did educational statistics offer much hope of any quick way out of the economic trap that most black Mississippians found themselves in. As of 1960, the median number of years of school completed by all blacks over the age of twenty-five stood at just six. The comparable figure for whites was eleven years. Even more dramatic were the figures for high school completion. While 42 percent of all whites had finished at least twelve years of school, only 7 percent of the black population had managed to do so. Given the economic pressures on black families, the low levels of schooling are hardly surprising. Nor did state officials do anything to discourage the pattern. Consider that in 1964 the average state expenditure for education was just $21.77 per pupil as compared to $81.86 for every white pupil....

            No less depressing was the quality of life for Mississippi blacks on the eve of Freedom Summer. As of 1960, infant mortality rates continued to run two times higher than the rate for Mississippi whites and nearly 250% higher than the national average for whites. Two-thirds of the 207,611 housing units occupied by blacks in the state were judged in 1960, to be “deteriorating” or “dilapidated”. Nearly half of these units-100,148-lacked piped water; two-thirds were without flush toilets.

            This grim litany of impoverishment and inequality was maintained well into the 1960s through a combination of wholesale black disenfranchisement and, when necessary, white violence. The absence in Mississippi of the type of mass civil rights protest that had occurred in the other Deep South states testified to the effectiveness of the system.

            Nowhere were racial restrictions on voter registration more zealously applied. The result was by far the lowest rate of black registration in the South-6.7 percent-and a number of interesting anomalies. For instance, in 1962 there were five counties in the state with black majorities and yet not a single black registrant. At the other extreme, Coahoma County boasted a white registration rate of 96 percent. Such statistical anomalies reflected the utter seriousness with which the “proper authorities” sought to maintain white supremacy. And when “custom” and subtle forms of intimidation did not deter blacks from trying to register, there was always violence. ...In fact the entrance of SNCC field workers into the state in the fall of 1961 had only occasioned more violence. One of those field workers, Bob Moses, was himself the target of an assassination attempt. It took place just outside Greenwood, Mississippi, on February 28, 1963. Howard Zinn recounts the incident:

            “A 1962 Buick with no license tags had been sitting outside the SNCC office all day, with three white men in it - nothing unusual for SNCC. As (the field workers) pulled away, the Buick followed. They stopped at a filling station for gasoline, and the Buick followed and circled the block. Then they headed out on the main highway toward Greenville, all three sitting in front: Jimmy Travis at the wheel, Bob Moses next to him, Blackwell on the outside. It was about 10:30p.m., and there was a good deal of traffic on the road. As the traffic began to thin, the Buick pulled up alongside and then came the deafening sound of gunfire. Thirteen 45-calibre bullets ripped through the car shattering the front left window, missing Bob Moses and Randolph Blackwell by inches, smashing through the window on the other side. Two bullets hit Jimmy Travis. The Buick sped off, and Moses grabbed the controls to pull the car to a stop as Travis crouched in his seat, bleeding.”

Jimmy Travis survived the shooting attack. Others involved in the SNCC effort were not so fortunate. One was Herbert Lee, the first black from McComb to attempt to register to vote as part of SNCC’s efforts there. The reward for his efforts: death at the hands of a Mississippi legislator named E.H. Hurst. The coroner’s jury of the county labeled the killing as “justified on grounds of self defense”.    



            ...The roots of the Summer Project are to be found in the strategic stalemate that confronted SNCC’s Mississippi operation in the fall of 1963. For all the courage, hard work, and sacrifice its field workers had expended in the state since 1961, the organization had achieved few concrete victories. They had been able to persuade only a small number of prospective voters to try registering, and had succeeded in registering only a fraction of these. Three factors had combined to limit the effectiveness of SNCC’s campaign in Mississippi. The first was simply the state’s intransigence to any form of racial equality. The second was the absence of any aggressive federal presence in the state that might have blunted the effectiveness of state resistance. The third was SNCC’s inability to generate the type of publicity that Martin Luther King, Jr. Had used so effectively elsewhere in coercing supportive federal action.

            Saddled with these three impediments, SNCC found itself with few programmed options in Mississippi. Its attempts to register black voters had been notably unsuccessful. The type of systematic campaigns that had elsewhere succeeded in desegregating lunch counters and other public facilities had long been regarded as too dangerous to undertake in Mississippi. Yet to abandon the state was unthinkable. To do so would have given segregationists a major symbolic victory and threatened SNCC’s reputation as the toughest, most courageous of the civil rights organizations.

            ...The SNCC braintrust grasped at a straw of a plan offered it by Allard Lowenstein. ...Lowenstein proposed a protest vote to demonstrate the desire of blacks to participate in the electoral process.

            ...The basic idea called for SNCC fieldworkers to conduct a mock gubernatorial election among Mississippi’s black population. The first step in the process took place in August with the casting of protest votes in the regular state Democratic primary. In all, some 1,000 blacks cast votes in the election, principally in Greenwood and Jackson. Encourage by these success of the primary campaign, SNCC, under the direction of Bob Moses, set about planning for the regular gubernatorial election in November. Two changes were proposed and approved for the fall campaign. First, blacks would be asked to vote, not in the regular election, but in a parallel “Freedom Vote” designed to minimize the potential for violence, and thereby insure maximum voter turnout. To give Mississippi’s black population someone to vote for, a slate of “freedom” candidates was selected, headed by Aaron Henry, the president of the Mississippi NAACP, and Toogaloo College’s white chaplain, Ed King. Finally, to offset the increased need for staff during the “Freedom Vote” campaign, the decision was made to import Northern college students for the duration of the project.

            ...Their presence had also insured a great deal of favorable publicity for SNCC as well as the campaign itself. ..

            Back in Mississippi, Bob Moses wasted little time in proposing an ambitious extension of the Freedom Vote campaign. ...the idea of bringing

an even larger, though unspecified, number of white students to Mississippi for the summer of 1964 was raised. ...SNCC’s Executive Committee next took up the plan at its December 30 meeting. There, veteran SNCC staffers, such as James Forman, Marion Barry, and John Lewis gave moses’ proposal the strongest endorsement it had yet received. The committee approved a motion by Barry calling on SNCC “to obtain the right for all citizens of Mississippi to vote, using as many people as necessary to obtain that end

            ...In a 1964 interview, Bob Moses put the matter a bit more obliquely when he remarked that “these students bring the rest of the country with them.  They’re from good schools and their parents are influential. The interest of the country is awakened and when that happends, the government responds to that issue”.    


Voter Registration

            ...Originally, the plan was simply to use large numbers of white students...to register as many black voters as possible. However, as long as the state Democratic party was effectively closed to blacks, it was unclear how beneficial the simple registration of voters would be. To address the problem, SNCC spearheaded the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at a meeting held in Jackson on April 26, 1964. THE MFDP then selected and ran a slate of candidates in the June 2 Democratic Primaries for Senator and three House seats. Not surprisingly, all four of the MFDP candidates (Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, John Houston, and the Rev. John Cameron) were soundly beaten. So, following the primary, they obtained and filed the necessary number of signatures to be placed on the November ballot as independents. The Mississippi State Board of Elections rejected these petitions. ...If they were to be shut out of regular electoral politics in the state, they would conduct a mock election to challenge the Mississippi Delegation to the August Democratic National Convention to be held in Atlantic City.

            For volunteers, this meant they would be involved in two parallel tasks: persuading blacks to attempt to register as official voters and “freedom registering” voters on behalf of the MFDP. Freedom registration forms could be filled out in the applicant’s home; official registration meant a trip to the courthouse.

            ...The fact that about 17,000 blacks traveled to the courthouse attests to the persistence of the volunteers and the extraordinary courage of those attempting to register. Although only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by state registrars, the lonely trips to the courthouse proved to be a major step toward the democratization of voting in Mississippi and throughout the South. The many instances of delay, obstruction, and harassment of the applicants were duly recorded by the volunteers, thus providing the evidence for several important voter discrimination suits. In addition, the inequities uncovered over the course of the summer helped to dramatize the need for legislation and therefore to generate momentum on behalf of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

            Just as important as these formal political consequences was the effect this activity had on the black community...In many communities, newspaper editors did their share for the old order by printing daily lists of those attempting to register, thereby making the names of the registrants available to anyone who might be inclined to take offense at such a brazen act of defiance. Historically, the publication of such lists had been enough to deter all but the most courageous, or craziest, blacks from trying to register to vote. But as more and more people donned their Sunday best for the trip to the courthouse, a curious thing happened: the daily newspaper lists of those registering to vote were transformed from an effective means of social control into a vehicle for gaining prestige in the black community....

            In the case of the MFDP, the act of registering voters was only the first step in a long process that eventually took black Mississippians and some of the SNCC leadership to the Democratic National Convention and later to the halls of Congress. ...The delegate selection process reached its climax on August 6 at the state convention in Jackson. There sixty-eight people (including four whites) were elected to represent the disenfranchised voters of Mississippi at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.


Freedom Schools

            In planning for the Summer Project, the SNCC staff was smart enough to realize that the oppression of Mississippi’s black population depended on more than restricting access to the political system. An elaborate array of caste restrictions and institutional inequities also contributed to the maintenance of the racial status quo. Among these was Mississippi’s separate but clearly unequal school system. ...The fact that Mississippi was one of only two states without a mandatory education law merely underscored the lack of importance accorded public education. So too did other bits of evidence. At the time of the fall cotton harvest, many of the black schools in the delta were routinely closed to take advantage of the cheap source of labor the students provided. Within the classroom, curriculum content was carefully controlled. State-selected textbooks glorified the “Southern way of life” and made no mention of significant achievements by black Americans. In some districts, school superintendents even forbade the history of the Reconstruction period from being taught in the black schools. The Freedom Schools were an effort to counter the obvious inequities and insidious political messages inherent in this system.

            The chief architect of the Freedom Schools was veteran SNCC field secretary Charlie Cobb. Drafted in the fall of 1963, Cobb’s proposal called for the establishment of Freedom Schools “to provide an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately new directions for action.”  To put the necessary curricular flesh on the bones of Cobb’s proposal, the National Council of Churches sponsored a March, 1964 meeting in New York City. There, educators, clergy, and SNCC staff members hammered out a basic curriculum for the schools emphasizing four principal topic areas: 1) remedial education, 2)leadership development, 3) contemporary issues, and 4) nonacademic curriculum.  This basic framework was modified again following the appointment of Staughton Lynd, a history professor at Spellman, as director of the Freedom School program. ...1) academic work, 2) recreation and cultural activities 3) leadership development. ...

            By any standard, the Freedom Schools were a success. Where project staff had hoped to attract 1,000 or so students, between 3,000 and 3,5000 showed up. This in the face of a lack of facilities, the fears of black parents, and considerable violence directed at the schools. In McComb, seventy-five students showed up for classes the morning after a bomb leveled the church that had been serving as their school. Classes were held on the lawn in front of the smoldering church while younger children played in the ruins.”