Freedom Summer: The Revolutionary Movement to Register Voters
Sometimes a look into the past helps us to understand what's happening now
On June 24th, 1964 the state of Mississippi was “invaded” by an army of young women and men looking to “stir up trouble”. They crossed the state lines with the sole intent of shaking up the status quo and doing it in a way that would change the trajectory of history forever. Their plan to make this happen was a simple, but ambitious, one. They wanted to go into the heart of the south with the sole purpose of registering African-Americans to vote. For ten weeks, over 1,000 college students, black and white, inundated Mississippi looking to be the spark that would ignite positive change. By working to empower the disenfranchised group of black Mississippians, these young civil rights activists changed the future of our country forever, or at least we all thought.
What Was The Freedom Summer:
Freedom summer was broken down into three different sections: voter registration, Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
This was probably the most well-known aspect of Freedom Summer. The plan was simple; freedom organizers spread all over the state of Mississippi and would spend their days canvassing neighborhoods convincing African-American Residents to register to vote. At the beginning of the campaign, just 6.7% of all African-Americans were registered to vote. Most people in the black community were either unable to pass the rigorous voter registration test or not interested in the inevitable backlash from the white community.
We are going to talk about a lot of things: about Negro people and white people, about rich people and poor people, about the South and about the North, about you and what you think and feel and want. . . . And we’re going to try to be honest with each other and say what we believe. . . . We’ll also ask some questions and try to find some answers. The first thing is to look around, right here, and see how we live in Mississippi.
Freedom Schools, while not as well-known as the rest of the movement, was probably the most important leg of the movement. In these schools, community members would receive lessons in all of the things that Mississippi schools refused to teach them. Children were taught about African history, African dance, African literature, and civic skills. The defining aspects of Freedom Schools were the resources that they provided. At the time, blacks were not allowed to visit the library. The Freedom Schools brought in books from black authors, teachers, and resources to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to learn. They engaged in honest conversations and brought value to the communities in a way that the Mississippi public school system had not.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP):
The Freedom Democratic Party was the political party created by primarily African-American organizers within the Freedom Summer movement. It was done in collaboration with the Students Non-Violent Coalition Committee and Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). The goal of MFDP was to challenge the authority of the white (only) Mississippi Democratic party. “They challenged the right of the Mississippi Democratic Party’s delegation to participate in the convention, claiming that the regulars had been illegally elected in a completely segregated process that violated both party regulations and federal law, and that furthermore, the regulars had no intention of supporting Lyndon B. Johnson, the party’s presidential candidate, in the November election. They asked that the MFDP delegates be seated rather than the segregationist regulars.”
Results of Freedom Summer:
Much can be said about the people involved in Freedom Summer. Before the campaign, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of blacks who were eligible to vote, mainly because of a voter registration process that required blacks to complete a 21 question registration form which was graded to the satisfaction of the white clerk at the office as well as a question on any of the 285 sections of the States Constitution.
The ten weeks of Freedom Summer were not greatly successful in registering voters. However, the movement was able to garner media attention to the problems in the south — something that had proven to be difficult, if not impossible, for quite some time. Freedom summer can also be credited for helping to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. A bill that was signed into law geared towards putting a stop to the discriminatory voting policies that states like Mississippi used to suppress the black vote. And by the end of 1969, more than 60% of all African-Americans in the South were registered to vote.
It has been 50 plus years since those students traveled to Mississippi to fight for the voting rights of African-Americans. It is for this reason that we reflect on the legacy of their efforts. The actions of those organizers put a spotlight on the horrors in Mississippi and risked a lot to do it.
Over fifty years later, it is not clear if America has learned from its past mistakes. In the last two years, the Conservative Right with some assistance from the United States Supreme Court has incorporated a political strategy that has made registering to vote in some states as hard, if not harder, than it was 50 years ago. Under the guise of trying to prevent voter fraud, many in the Republican Party have pushed forth legislation requiring I.D.’s to vote and barring college students from being able to vote in communities where they live while attending school. In a study done by the Brennan Center:
Image Source: Brennan Center
States that passed restrictive voting laws.
Since 2011, at least 180 restrictive bills have been introduced in 41 states, there are currently, 27 restrictive bills pending in 6 states as well as 25 laws and 2 executive actions passed since the beginning of 2011 in 19 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin. At least 16 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration mobilization efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, the bill that Lyndon B Johnson signed into law to protect at-risk groups from voter suppression, was struck down by the Supreme Court. The protections that they were promised over 50 years ago were all but nullified allowing states to implement voter I.D. laws that disproportionately affect people of color.
Outside of voting rights, the battle for equality in the south can also be called into question. One of the chief issues in the segregated south was the unfair treatment that blacks faced. While most people will tell you that America has come a long way since those days, raw data paints a very different picture in regards to the treatment of African-Americans, particularly in the south. Among the many disparities, black children continue to lack the same amount of support that their white counterparts receive in regards to quality teachers.
According to information from the 2007–2008 SASS, schools with a majority of black students are less likely to have teachers who are certified in the subjects they instruct.
In a report done by the Center for American Progress, it was found that low-income students of color generally receive less effective teachers and are most likely to have teachers with less than two years of experience. These numbers point to issues that were no longer supposed to be problems that this country faced. They were assumed to have been won in battles fought by civil rights leaders and community organizers, but as income inequality increases in this country, the same issues that almost tore this country apart before continue to creep back up.
As the story of these brave activists fades into white-washed history books, the sons and daughters of white supremacists and racists that our activist in Freedom Summer fought so hard to vanquish are carrying the torch of prejudice. There is no better example than the supreme court’s decision to kill the civil rights act. A historical piece of legislation that literally cost lives to get passed was struck down by a single vote. And with it decades of protections for minority groups across the U.S. My only question now is; what are you going to do about it?