Freedom Summer of 1964: Campaign & Summary

Instructor: Jason McCollom
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, northern white college students traveled to Mississippi to spearhead a voting drive for African-Americans. Read about the Freedom Summer and the violence activists confronted, and take a quiz.

Background of the Freedom Summer

What if someone you knew needed help? You would probably try and help them. But what if you found out that, in helping, you would be putting yourself in danger? At the least, while you assisted your friend, other people would intimidate you, and it's likely you would suffer physical violence. You could even lose your life helping out. Would you still do it?

This was the exact dilemma faced by the volunteers of the Freedom Summer of 1964. On the one hand, these volunteers wanted to conduct an African-American voter registration drive in Mississippi, where only about 5% of blacks were registered to vote, the lowest number in the country. There was also a long tradition of black disfranchisement (voter suppression) and white terror against Mississippi blacks - white residents and leaders would resist, often violently, any attempted change in the status quo.

The Freedom Summer

Robert 'Bob' Moses, the leader of the civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Dave Dennis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) created the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project to do two things. First, northern white college students would head south to Mississippi to help African-Americans register to vote. Second, these volunteers would establish Freedom Schools in rural areas, where blacks would learn about southern racial history and the process of voter registration. These schools would also be where children could receive a basic education.

It was not an accident that the Freedom Summer Project courted white, college-aged volunteers. As Dave Dennis bluntly explained, 'The death of a white college student would bring on more attention to what was going on than for a black college student getting it. That's cold, but that was also in another sense speaking the language of this country.'

In June 1964 the Freedom Summer activists went to Ohio to learn about the strategy of nonviolent resistance as well as the racially motivated violence they would encounter in Mississippi. Upon hearing of the potential for violence, some volunteers gave up and went home. But others, about 1,000 in all, boarded buses and headed south. On learning about the motives of the Freedom Summer, writer Eudora Welty of Jackson, Mississippi, said 'this summer all hell is going to break loose.'

Violent Resistance to the Freedom Summer

Welty was right. Whites in Mississippi massed extra police forces, tear gas, electric cattle prods, and firearms. Several Freedom Summer activists were murdered, dozens were beaten, and hundreds arrested and subsequently mistreated in jail.

Local black leader Fannie Lou Hamer was severely beaten in a Winona jail. Also a lay preacher, she told volunteers, 'God is not pleased at all the murdering, and all of the brutality, and all the killings for no reason at all. God is not pleased at the Negro children in the State of Mississippi suffering from malnutrition. God is not pleased because we have to go raggedy each day. God is not pleased because we have to go to the field and work from ten to eleven hours for three lousy dollars.'

Fannie Lou Hamer
fannie lou hamer

The Ku Klux Klan kidnapped and killed three white Freedom Summer volunteers: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. As authorities searched for them in swamps and rivers, they uncovered the bodies of eight more black men. One Freedom Summer activist said the murders marked 'the end of innocence,' after which 'things could never be the same.'

Missing persons poster created by the FBI in 1964 shows the photographs of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner
ms 1964 missing civil rights workers

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