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Mississippi Freedom Summer (Summer 1964)
Picture Credits: Wisconsin Historical Society
In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.   

Today we honor the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project. “In 1964, civil rights organizations including the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a voter registration drive, known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, aimed at dramatically increasing voter registration in Mississippi. The Freedom Summer, comprised of black Mississippians and more than 1,000 out-of-state, predominately white volunteers, faced constant abuse and harassment from Mississippi’s white population. The Ku Klux Klan, police and even state and local authorities carried out a systematic series of violent attacks; including arson, beatings, false arrest and the murder of at least three civil rights activists.”

"On the project's first day, June 21, three workers (James Chaney, [Michael] Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) were kidnapped and murdered." Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman went missing "...while visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a church." "The abduction of the three civil rights workers intensified the new activists’ fears, but Freedom Summer staff and volunteers moved ahead with the campaign." "The case was drawing national attention, in part because Schwerner and Goodman were both white Northerners. [Michael] Schwerner's wife Rita, who was also a CORE worker, tried to convert that attention to the overlooked victims of racial violence...Throughout July, investigators combed the woods, fields, swamps, and rivers of Mississippi, ultimately finding the remains of eight African American men. Two were identified as Henry Dee and Charles Moore, college students who had been kidnapped, beaten, and murdered in May 1964. Another corpse was wearing a CORE t-shirt. Even less information was recorded about the five other bodies discovered." 

"The search for [Chaney's, Schwerner's, and Goodman's] killers dominated the national news and focused public attention on Mississippi until their bodies were discovered on August 4." "[On] August 4...their decomposed bodies were uncovered beneath an earthen dam. The autopsy revealed that Goodman and Schwerner had been killed by single gunshots to the head. Chaney had been brutally beaten before being shot. The Justice Department subsequently indicted 19 people, including police officers and members of the Ku Klux Klan for their involvement in the murders. Only seven of those indicted were found guilty. The case raised new support for the civil rights cause as a result of the death of two young white men. Individuals who did not know that violence could touch the white community were shocked at the brutality of the killings, and thus widespread support began to pour in for the Mississippi group."

"Americans all around the country were shocked by the killing of civil rights workers and the brutality they witnessed on their televisions. Freedom Summer raised the consciousness of millions of people to the plight of African-Americans and the need for change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress in part because lawmakers' constituents had been educated about these issues during Freedom Summer."

Click the button below to learn more about Mississippi Freedom Summer, including an in-depth look at:

  • Why Freedom Summer happened; 

  • Who participated in Freedom Summer (such as Robert Moses, Dave Dennis, Julian Bond and Mary King, Lawrence Guyot, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray);

  • Who the key people were who were involved in Freedom Summer;

  • What the goals of Freedom Summer were;

  • Who opposed Freedom Summer;

  • What happened during Freedom Summer;

  • What Freedom Summer accomplished; and,

  • What happened after Freedom Summer.

Freedom Summer Fun Facts:

  • “Mississippi was chosen as the site of the Freedom Summer project due to its historically low levels of African-American voter registration; in 1962 less than 7 percent of the state's eligible black voters were registered to vote.”  
  • “’Freedom Summer’ is a term invented after these events occurred. At the time, participants usually called it the Mississippi Summer Project.”    

  • "Voter registration was the cornerstone of the summer project. Although approximately 17,000 black residents of Mississippi attempted to register to vote in the summer of 1964, only 1,600 of the completed applications were accepted by local registrars."
  • One of the goals of the Mississippi Summer Project was to open community centers. “These were opened in existing buildings or new ones erected from scratch in order to provide child care, library books, meals, medical assistance, and other services denied to segregated black neighborhoods.” (emphasis added)
  • “A number of groups opposed the project [,such as:]

    • Mississippi's Elected Officials- Officials in Mississippi at all levels denounced the Summer Project. Its senators and governor publicly refused to obey federal integration laws, the state police nearly doubled in size, legislators passed new laws prohibiting picketing and leafleting, and local sheriffs and police chiefs expanded their forces and acquired new weapons

    • Business Leaders- Businesses banded together in white Citizens Councils to coordinate punishment of African-Americans who participated in Freedom Summer. They foreclosed mortgages on black residents' homes, fired workers from jobs, banned customers from shopping in stores, and shut down food pantries for the poor

    • White Supremacy Groups- Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan inflicted violence on black residents and civil rights workers. Between June 16 and September 30, 1964, there were at least 6 murders, 29 shootings, 50 bombings, more than 60 beatings, and over 400 arrests of project workers and local residents.”

    (emphasis added)

  • Many of those who helped organize and who staffed the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project “…went on to important careers in public service. John Lewis of SNCC[Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was elected to the U.S. Congress, Mary King of SNCC oversaw the Peace Corps and Vista under President Carter, and her colleague Julian Bond headed the NAACP after serving many years in the Georgia legislature. Other staff became influential professors, attorneys, and civil servants. Many of the northern volunteers went on to start or to lead important anti-war, women's, and gay rights organizations. For example, voter registration worker Mario Savio started the Berkeley Free Speech Movement; freedom school teacher Chude Pam Parker Allen helped organize women's liberation groups in New York and San Francisco; and Barney Frank, a volunteer in the Jackson office, became one of the nation's first openly gay politicians in the U.S. Congress. Many others devoted their careers to legal or social services for the disadvantaged.” (emphasis added)
Recommended reading:  

Recommended Photo Galleries:  
Click on the video screenshot below to hear "a report from Charleston, South Carolina, [which] describes heavy voter turnout at the state's primary election on August 10, 1948. For the first time since the Reconstruction era, African-Americans were permitted to vote in a Democratic primary, after a federal judge ruled their exclusion unconstitutional.”

Note from the author: What struck me most about this audio wasn’t the report itself, but the language the announcer used to tell it when he was describing African-Americans vs. Caucasians.