Freedom Summer, 56 Years Later

Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, an Archivist in Research Services at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

When I started researching the 1964 Freedom Summer Movement a few weeks ago, I thought it would be an interesting project to expand my knowledge about that important moment in history 56 years ago. Never in my wildest imagination did I guess it would turn into background context for the civil unrest that’s happening at the very moment I write this post. News segment after news segment over the past few weeks, have made it painfully clear that we find ourselves yet again in the throes of an incendiary summer. 

The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which was a group of Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), began organizing a movement regarding voting rights in the summer of 1964. One thousand out-of-state volunteers came together with thousands of Black Mississippians that summer. Their mission was simple, to increase African American voter registration numbers in Mississippi. What was not so simple, were the practices and policies that southern states used time and time again to turn away, disqualify or physically beat back African Americans from the voting polls. 

It was also no coincidence that this movement started very shortly before the 1964 Democratic Convention was to take place. During that summer the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was formed with the hope of increasing representation at the convention and giving testimony about the grave mistreatment of African Americans who tried to register to vote; records related to this are found in the series Organizational, Research, and Campaign Records, 1960-1968 (NAID 1503898) Collection LBJ-DNC.

The Freedom Summer project resulted in various meetings, protests, freedom schools, freedom housing and even freedom libraries. The freedom schools, sometimes conducted outside under Mississippi trees, educated African Americans not just on the curriculum found in voting qualification tests but also on African American history which was often ignored in traditional classrooms. The freedom houses were packed with students, activists, and supporters who had nowhere else to stay because of prejudice against the movement. In turn this created an environment where likely for the first time people of different colors, backgrounds, cultures, and ideologies lived together. Freedom libraries were set up to give African Americans free access to literature they might not ever have had otherwise. 

Ruins of the Mt. Pleasant Society Hall in Gluckstadt, Mississippi, Destroyed by Fire on August 11, 1964
Ruins of the Mt. Pleasant Society Hall in Gluckstadt, Mississippi, Destroyed by Fire on August 11, 1964 (NAID 2173234), RG 233

However, this movement was not well received by local officials and residents of the state. It is believed that 1,062 people were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, 30 Black homes or businesses were bombed or burned, 4 civil rights workers were killed, and at least 3 Mississippi African Americans were murdered because of their involvement in this movement. The violence and danger of Freedom Summer even reached President Johnson’s Daily Diary – when Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to contact the President about the disappearance of the workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney.

LBJ daily diary entry excerpt regarding a call from Martin Luther King about disappeared civil rights workers
Excerpt from President’s Daily Diary Entry June 25, 1964 (NAID 192442), LBJ-PJDD

This destruction and violence gained nationwide awareness in a way few events in history had before it. Two factors were significant in creating this novel or new national coverage. The first factor came in the form of advancement in technology; news cameras were able to broadcast events of the movement like never before. The second came from an increase in white activists participating. These combined factors spread the message of the movement across the country. 

It is eerily similar that two factors again are contributing to an increase in the awareness and size of support for the civil unrest today. The first factor comes in the form of advancement in technology, phone cameras are able to broadcast police brutality, racial discrimination and violence like never before. The second comes from an increase in white and other non-African American supporters joining in the current day protests. These combined factors are spreading the message and pain that are at the root of this modern day movement across the world like never before.

In July of 1964 due to the increase in awareness of the civil rights movement and pressure from supporters across the nation President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The following year saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

first page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Public Law 88-352], p1, July 2, 1964 (NAID 299891), RG 11

Only time will tell what will come at the end of this historic summer. One can only hope for a change in perhaps more than just legislation, but also in heart and mind so that we don’t find ourselves yet again in the midst of an incendiary summer some 56 years into the future. 

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