Mississippi Freedom Summer – A Personal Account
By David Kotz
In the summer of 1964 – fifty years ago this summer – the civil rights movement launched a bold project aimed at defeating racial segregation in its stronghold in the deep south state of Mississippi, a project in which I participated. African-Americans were about a third of the state population. They faced job market segregation that restricted them largely to menial, low-paying jobs, channeling many of them, adults and children, into back-breaking cotton-picking jobs once performed by slaves. The separate schools for their children had little funding and delivered not much education. Only a handful had been able to register to vote. This racial caste system was enforced by official and private violence directed at anyone who challenged it.
Most of Mississippi’s white population was also poor, as the state came in last on many measures of economic welfare and public health. However, the false promise of racial superiority, played on by politicians, kept low-income whites reliable supporters of the system. Any white person who questioned the system was ostracized, and some who did were driven out of the state. Meanwhile, the real beneficiaries of this system were the rich white plantation owners who were assured cheap labor with no rights on the job.
Gaining the franchise for black people was seen as a key step toward overturning segregation in Missisippi, in light of the black majority in many areas of the state. Since the early 1960s efforts by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to organize black Mississippians to register to vote were unable to overcome the resistance of the Mississippi power structure. Those who tried to register were threatened with loss of their job, violence, or death. In one famous incident in September 1961, a state legislator, E.H. Hurst, shot and killed Herbert Lee, a black dairy farmer and father of nine children in the town of Liberty, in response to Lee’s activism encouraging black people to register to vote. Despite the event being witnessed by a dozen people, no charges were filed.
SNCC decided a new tactic was needed to crack the resistance of Mississippi’s power structure. Organized by SNCC in coalition with another militant civil rights group, the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Mississippi Summer Project – later known as Mississippi Freedom Summer – recruited some 800 northern and western college student volunteers to go to Mississippi for the summer. The students would work on voter registration as well as education, setting up “freedom schools” throughout the state for black children. The subtext of the project was to force America to face the oppression and violence in Mississippi, resulting, it was hoped, in political pressure that would force change on the state.
As a 21-year old college student, I was among the hundreds of summer volunteers in the Mississippi Summer Project. In June 1964 I attended the first orientation session for project volunteers in Oxford, Ohio. At that session I was selected to work in the city of Meridian. On June 19, seven of us left for Mississippi in a station wagon: Jimmy Chaney, Andy Goodman, Micky Schwerner, myself, and 3 other summer volunteers. Schwerner was the Meridian project director, Chaney a local activist, and Goodman a college student summer volunteer from Queens College in New York City. The three would be murdered the next day by a group of law enforcement officials and private citizens.
We arrived in Meridian on June 20, 1964. The next morning Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman left to go to neighboring Neshoba County to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Church, which had occurred while we were in Ohio. When the three did not return by 4 P.M., the designated return time, the four of us left behind began calling the local jails in Neshoba County. When we called the jail in the county seat Philadelphia, we were told that the three civil rights workers had not been seen – a lie, since in fact at that moment the Deputy Sheriff was holding the three in his jail.
A short while later, following the advice of the project central office in Jackson, we called the Justice Department in Washington and spoke with John Doar, who was in charge of Civil Rights enforcement. (Mr. Doar later became nationally prominent as the chief attorney for the Watergate Commission.) We asked him to instruct the FBI to call the local jails. He refused to do so, stating that he could not act until 72 hours had passed, since that was the time that must elapse before a missing persons report can be filed. We told him that this was not a case of someone walking out after a marital dispute, that 3 civil rights workers were missing in a part of Mississippi known to have Ku Klux Klan activity. We begged him to order the FBI to call the local jails. He continued to refuse.
Had John Doar done as we asked, the resulting FBI phone call to the jail in Philadelphia might well have caused Deputy Sheriff Price to hesitate to carry out his plan to take the three civil rights workers out the next morning and murder them. We will never know.
From these events, I learned that the system of racial segregation in Mississippi, and in the rest of the South, with its racial injustice, economic injustice, and violence, was not based just in Mississippi and the South. It was part of the system of power in the U.S. John Doar’s refusal to order the FBI to make those phone calls was a reflection of the fact that the national power structure was reluctant to intervene in the segregationist system, because of the tie between the Southern Democratic Senators and the National Democratic Party leadership at that time.
The disappearance of the three civil rights workers, whose bodies were not found until early August, did not deter the summer project workers. We continued our work through the summer, teaching in freedom schools and organizing a challenge to the official Mississippi delegation to the Democratic Party national convention in August of that Presidential election year. That challenge enabled Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper and civil rights activist, to give electrifying testimony before the Credentials Committee of the convention. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing the effect of the eloquent Ms. Hamer’s coming testimony on his re-election campaign, hastily called a press conference to interrupt the national television coverage of her presentation. Despite the absence of an internet or Youtube, her testimony found its way into the media in the following days.
SNCC’s strategy was successful. America was forced to confront the existence within its borders of a violent and repressive racial caste system. The Mississippi Summer Project played a significant role in forcing the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in the following year, which finally broke the back of legal segregation. Once Mississippi had large numbers of black voters, the calculus of politicians changed, and the system could not survive. Legal segregation came to an end. Ordinary people – sharecroppers, domestic workers, janitors – had stood up, together with their outside student supporters, and changed society.
The sacrifice made that summer fifty years ago by the three murdered civil rights workers, together with the example of the African American people of Mississippi rising up against their oppression, inspired many of my generation to dedicate their lives to ending racial injustice, economic injustice, and violence. These problems have continued to fester in our country and our world, from the Vietnam War up until today. This job is not over. We still need to work to build a different world of racial equality, economic justice, and peace. To do so, we must relearn the lesson that ordinary people have the ability to change the world when they stand up together.