Many of Mississippi's white residents deeply resented the outsiders and any attempt to change their society. Locals routinely harassed volunteers. Newspapers called them "unshaven and unwashed trash." Their presence in local black communities sparked drive by shootings, Molotov cocktails, and constant harassment. State and local governments, police, the White Citizens' Council and the Ku Klux Klan used murder, arrests, beatings, arson, spying, firing, evictions, and other forms of intimidation and harassment to oppose the project and prevent blacks from registering to vote or achieving social equality.
Over the course of the ten-week project:
Violence struck the campaign almost as soon as it started. On June 21, 1964, James Chaney (a black CORE activist from Mississippi), CORE organizer Michael Schwerner, and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman (both of whom were Jews from New York) were arrested by Cecil Price, a Neshoba County deputy sheriff and member of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They were held in jail until after nightfall, then released into a waiting ambush by Klansmen who abducted and killed them. Goodman and Schwerner were shot at point blank range. Chaney was chased, beaten mercilessly, and shot three times. Reported on TV and on newspaper front pages, the triple disappearance shocked the nation and drew massive media attention to Freedom Summer and to "the closed society" of Mississippi.
As soon as the men had turned up missing, SNCC and COFO workers began phoning the FBI asking for an investigation. FBI agents refused, saying it was a local matter. Finally, after 36 hours of foot-dragging by the FBI, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered an investigation and FBI agents began swarming around Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been arrested. For the next seven weeks, FBI agents and sailors from a nearby naval airbase searched for the bodies, wading into swamps, hacking through underbrush. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover came to Mississippi on July 10 to open the first FBI branch office there. Throughout the search, Mississippi newspapers and word of mouth perpetuated the common belief that the disappearance was "a hoax" designed to draw publicity. But on August 4, 1964, the three bodies were found buried beneath an earthen dam.
With participation in the regular Mississippi Democratic Party blocked by segregationists, COFO established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as a non-exclusionary rival to the regular party organization with the intention of having the MFDP recognized by the national Democratic Party as the legitimate party organization in Mississippi.
When the forces of white supremacy continued to block black voter registration, the Summer Project switched to building the MFDP. Though the MFDP challenge had wide support among many convention delegates, Lyndon B. Johnson feared losing Southern support in the coming campaign and he prevented the MFDP from replacing the regulars.
In addition to voter registration and the MFDP, the Summer Project also established a network 30 to 40 voluntary summer schools – called "Freedom Schools" – as an alternative to Mississippi's totally segregated and underfunded school system. Over the course of the summer, more than 3,500 students attended Freedom Schools which taught subjects that the public schools avoided such as black history and constitutional rights.
Freedom Schools were held in churches, on back porches, and under the trees of Mississippi. Students ranged from small children to elderly adults, with the average age around 15. Most of the volunteer teachers were college students. Under the direction of Spelman College professor Staughton Lynd, the goal was to teach confidence, voter literacy, and political organization skills as well as academic skills. The curriculum was directly linked to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. As Edwin King, who ran for Lieutenant Governor on the MFDP ticket, stated, –Our assumption was that the parents of the Freedom School children, when we met them at night, that the Freedom Democratic Party would be the PTA.–
The Freedom Schools operated on a basis of close interaction and mutual trust between teachers and students. The core curriculum focused on basic literacy and arithmetic, black history and current status, political processes, civil rights, and the freedom movement. But the actual content varied from place to place and day to day according to the questions and interests of the students.
The volunteer Freedom School teachers were as profoundly affected by their experience as were the students. Pam Parker, a teacher in the Holly Springs school, wrote about of experience:
"The atmosphere in the class is unbelievable. It is what every teacher dreams about – real, honest enthusiasm and desire to learn anything and everything. The girls come to class of their own free will. They respond to everything that is said. They are excited about learning. They drain me of everything that I have to offer so that I go home at night completely exhausted but very happy in spirit..."
Though Freedom Summer failed to register many voters, it had a significant effect on the course of the Civil Rights Movement. It helped break down the decades of isolation and repression that were the foundation of the Jim Crow system. Before Freedom Summer, the national news media had paid little attention to the persecution of black voters in the Deep South and the dangers endured by black civil rights workers, but when the lives of affluent northern white students were threatened the full attention of the media spotlight was turned on the state. This evident disparity between the value that the media placed on the lives of whites and blacks embittered many black activists. Perhaps the most significant effect of Freedom Summer was on the volunteers themselves, almost all of whom – black and white – still consider it one of the defining moments of their lives.
The structure of the civil rights movement remained after freedom summer. In September and October, leading up to the November election, a series of repressive events occurred. Nuisance arrests; beatings; church burnings continued. Long term volunteers continued to staff the COFO and SNCC offices throughout Mississippi. After the flood of summer workers in 1964, it was decided that projects should continue in the following summer, but under the direction of local leadership. In the following summer, and thereafter, the priorities for action were set by locals.
Among many notable veterans of Freedom Summer were Heather Booth, Marshall Ganz, and Mario Savio. After the summer, Heather Booth returned to Illinois, where she became a founder of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union and later the Midwest Academy. Marshall Ganz returned to California and worked for many years on the staff of the United Farm Workers, later taught organizing strategies, and in 2008 played a crucial role in organizing Barack Obama's field staff for the campaign. Mario Savio returned to the University of California, Berkeley, where he became a leader of the Free Speech Movement.
Back in Mississippi, controversy raged over the three murders. Mississippi refused to indict anyone but the FBI continued to investigate. Agents infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and paid informers to reveal secrets of their "klaverns." In the fall of 1964, informants told the FBI all about the murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and on December 4, 19 men were arrested. All were freed on a technicality, starting a three-year battle to bring them to justice. Finally, in October 1967, the men, including the Klan's Imperial Wizard who had ordered the murders, went on trial in a federal courthouse in Meridian. Seven were ultimately convicted for federal crimes related to the murders. All were sentenced to 3–10 years but none served more than six years. Still, it marked the first time since Reconstruction that white men had been convicted of civil rights violations in Mississippi.
The nationwide shame created by Freedom Summer continued to haunt Mississippi, even as the state made halting racial progress. Blacks were given the vote in 1965 with the federal Voting Rights Act but made little progress as Mississippi's legislature passed several laws to dilute the power of their votes. Only with Supreme Court rulings and more than a decade of cooling did black voting become a reality in Mississippi. The seeds planted during Freedom Summer bore fruit in the 1980s and 1990s when Mississippi elected more black officials than any other state. Today, thanks to Freedom Summer and the MFDP, nearly every major city in Mississippi has a black mayor, black city councilmen, black policemen, judges, and other officials.
Further investigation of the Freedom Summer murders finally led to another trial in 2005. As a result of investigative reporting by Jerry Mitchell (an award-winning reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger), high school teacher Barry Bradford, and three students from Illinois (Brittany Saltiel, Sarah Siegel, and Allison Nichols), Edgar Ray Killen, one of the leaders of the killings, was finally indicted for murder and later found guilty of three counts of manslaughter. The Killen verdict came on June 21, 2005, the forty-first anniversary of the crime. Killen's lawyers appealed the verdict, but his sentence of 3 times 20 years in prison was upheld on January 12, 2007, in a hearing by the Supreme Court of Mississippi.
Many who worked in Freedom Summer, however, are not satisfied with the prosecution of Killen. They note that five men convicted in 1967 of civil rights violations stemming from the murders are still living and should be brought to trial for murder. Only when that happens, they say, will Freedom Summer be over.
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