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50 years later, ‘Freedom Summer’ leaders recall pivotal fight against discrimination

June 24, 2014 at 6:32 PM EDT
A new documentary “Freedom Summer” looks back to the deeply segregated Mississippi of 1964, and the young people who came from around the country to lend a hand in the struggle against racism. For a look back at the moment, Gwen Ifill is joined by Freedom Summer coordinator Robert Moses, Freedom Summer volunteer Rita Schwerner Bender, as well as director of the film, Stanley Nelson.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In a ceremony on Capitol Hill today, congressional leaders commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act by bestowing the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Now we remember another pivotal moment that year in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. The events that took place that summer that changed not only the place where activists converged, but the entire country.

Gwen has our look back.

GWEN IFILL: For 10 weeks in the summer of 1964, well over 1,000 college students, black and white, from around the country volunteered to go to deeply segregated Mississippi to register black voters, teach young people and create a new political party.

Along the way they encountered hostility, violence, arrest, and even murder. Fifty years later, “Freedom Summer,” a new American experience documentary airing on most PBS stations, tells their story.

Stanley Nelson wrote, produced and directed “Freedom Summer,” which also features two key players from that time, Robert Moses, then a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the organizer of Freedom Summer, and Rita Schwerner Bender, an organizer whose husband, Michael Schwerner, was one of three civil rights workers killed when they went South to investigate the burning of a black church.

Stanley, when you got — when the organizers got to Mississippi, 90 percent of eligible black voters weren’t able to vote, and you were drawn to the story, even though you kind of knew about it. Why?

STANLEY NELSON, Director, “Freedom Summer”: Well, I kind of had heard the story a little bit, but I didn’t know it.

And I think, you know, it was the opportunity to really take one piece of the civil rights movement and really just get into it. And I also think it was just a really important story, because it was about voting rights, which is now doubly important in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Stanley, I want to take you back to the beginnings of this movement through the eyes of your documentary, a portion of which deals with Robert Moses and how he came to be involved in this. Let’s take a look.

JULIAN BOND, Former Chairman, NAACP: The common theory about Mississippi was that you could not attack Mississippi from the inside. It had to be attacked from the outside. You had to stand away and say, this is an awful place and it ought to fix itself.

But Bob Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee said, no, that’s not true. We can do it ourselves.

BRUCE WATSON, Author, “Freedom Summer”: Bob Moses was a high school teacher in New York City. He went South in 1960, originally just feeling he had to go, had to get involved. SNCC sent him to Mississippi. He started going around on his own in the rural areas, where people simply didn’t go and challenge the status quo.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON, D, Washington, D.C.: What made him stand out was only his sheer courage, but his calm courage. I can’t tell you that Bob Moses was afraid, because he never showed it. He just went about his work, and there was this — this calm sense of mission.

IVANHOE DONALDSON, Organizer, Freedom Summer: Bob went over there by himself in 1961, and by the end of ’61, maybe there were five or six people in the state. In ’62, maybe there were 18, 19. And in ’63, maybe there was 23, 24. When we would have a staff meeting, we would all fit in one little room.

ROBERT MOSES, Coordinator, Freedom Summer: Young people working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as we call it, are characterized by restless energy. They seek radical change in race relations in the United States. Their world is upset. And they feel that if they are ever going to get it straight, they must upset it more.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Moses, aside from being incredibly young in those old photographs, looking back on it now, did you have any idea what you were getting into?

ROBERT MOSES: No, in the sense that I didn’t have a real sense of history. So, I had no idea that we were getting into what I think of as a constitutional era and a turning point in the constitutional eras of this country.

GWEN IFILL: So, why did you do it?

ROBERT MOSES: Actually, I just followed my footsteps. When the sit-ins broke out, I knew I had to get involved.

GWEN IFILL: But why Mississippi? That seemed to be the most dangerous possible place to go.

ROBERT MOSES: Well, Mississippi had set itself up, right, throughout the country’s history.

It set itself up the next year, when the Freedom Riders went through. Mississippi said, you can come in, but you can’t get out. So, Mississippi kind of charged itself with being the real obstacle to overcome. It has done that.

GWEN IFILL: Well, certainly, one of the most attention-getting in the pall that was thrown over the movement was the murder of the three civil rights workers, Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney. And that drew Rita Schwerner Bender into this. Let’s take a look a little bit about her involvement.

MAN: In Meridian, the wife of missing Mickey Schwerner, Rita Schwerner, flew from Oxford.

JULIAN BOND: Rita Schwerner plays an important role here. This is her husband, after all, who is the leader of the three missing men. And she puts a face on them. And she plays an enormous role in making this seem like these are real people and we need to pay attention to these real people whom something terrible has happened to.

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER, Volunteer, Freedom Summer: They’re being held somewhere or something happened. And I am going to find the answer. If this means driving every back road, every dirt road, every alley in the county of Neshoba, I will do it.

DOROTHY ZELLNER, Organizer, Freedom Summer: The press swarmed all over her. And I think they wanted her to cry and they wanted her to be a new widow, that they would capture her at the moment of her widowhood. And she wouldn’t play.

RITA SCHWERNER: I personally suspect that if Mrs. — Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippian Negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance, that this case, like so many others who have — that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed.

GWEN IFILL: Rita Schwerner Bender, I have to ask you the same question I asked Bob Moses, which is, did you know what you were getting into?

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER: I don’t know, on one level, that any of us quite knew what we were getting into.

Mickey and I had gone down to Mississippi in January of 1964. I think that — that the people who really knew what this was all about were the people who lived in that state and had put up with or not put up with, but experienced, the violence and the threats and the brutality and the murders in all the years since Reconstruction.

GWEN IFILL: But, on some level, you knew that being — that, as a white woman from somewhere else, that you were going to be able to get attention for your cause in a way that maybe the people who lived in Mississippi could not?

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER: I’m not sure that — I’m not sure that I thought about it quite that way.

It’s hard, looking back, to say that was a motivating factor. I’m not sure that it was.

GWEN IFILL: But you were able to get into the White House to meet LBJ and to tell him to look for your husband.

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER: Yes, but that was after the three of them were missing, and there was enormous attention. And the enormous attention was because two of the three men were white. Nobody had paid very much attention, either on a national level or locally, with the murders of black men and often children who had been — Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the entire country.

I think there was something over 500 that were documented. And there were probably many more that never made any kind of recognition.

GWEN IFILL: Stanley, as you look at this documentary, you talk a lot about, obviously, the Freedom Summer and volunteers who went South, but also the political piece of this, which was a huge piece of this, with Fannie Lou Hamer.

And, by the way, you had a lot of really interesting footage of Fannie Lou — Fannie Lou Hamer speaking that I have never heard before.

FANNIE LOU HAMER, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party: Eighteen of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola with — by policemen.

GWEN IFILL: That turned into a political uprising as much as a social uprising.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes, well, I think one of the parts of Freedom Summer that sometimes isn’t talked about was the whole challenge, yes, to the Democratic National Convention, the idea that Mississippi would send a separate delegation to the convention, that, basically, the black people would send a separate delegation that would challenge this all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964, which was, of course, to nominate — when Lyndon Johnson was going to be kind of nominated.

He wanted it to be a coronation. And…

GWEN IFILL: He shut it down.

STANLEY NELSON: Yes.

And it’s one of the most incredible pieces of the film, because one of the things that happened that we were really shocked to find in making the film was that Lyndon Johnson recorded all his phone calls. And so there’s audiotape of him kind of wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to kind of stop this alternate delegation to the convention. And it’s just amazing.

GWEN IFILL: Bob Moses, as you look back 50 years later, do you think that you awakened a sleeping giant? I mean, the Voting Rights Act came to be the very next year. You got certainly a level of attention paid to something that people had been ignoring for so long.

ROBERT MOSES: So, to tell you the truth, I now think what we did as capping a constitutional era, right.

And so it was a constitutional era in which white supremacy and black subordination ruled, not just in Mississippi, but across the country. And so we were part of the events that actually brought that constitutional era to an end. Right? I’m not going to say what era we’re in now, right, but that constitutional era is over.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Rita Schwerner Bender, then, what era are we in now?

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER: Well, I’m not sure what title I would give it, but I would say it’s very troubling that, after all of the years of struggle, after the significant changes that occurred, the right to vote we thought was one, issues of education denial we thought were going to be dealt with, and now we have a Congress and a Supreme Court that absolutely will not pay attention to the needs of the country.

GWEN IFILL: Stanley Nelson, as you complete this project, and as PBS viewers get to watch it, what do you hope that they take away from this moment, that there are things that we can accomplish that we don’t think we can, or that that was a nice moment that has now passed?

STANLEY NELSON: Right.

You know, I have made a couple of historical films. And I never want them to be this kind of nice historical…

GWEN IFILL: Mm-hmm.

STANLEY NELSON: I mean, the only reason to make these films and to look at them is how they inform the present. And I think that’s really important, you know, for us to understand that these people who were really young, most of them, you know, at that point, you know, made changes in this country.

And they made changes because they took the power to change. They just did it. And it still can be done today. You know, there’s movements that exist. It’s not like there’s nothing there for people to be part of. And it really shows the power that we have and the power that young people have in this country.

The one thing I always say is, I don’t know of any movement anywhere in the world where it’s been kind of an old people’s movement. It’s always young people. And that’s who I hope this film really influences.

GWEN IFILL: Rita Schwerner Bender, Robert Moses, and Stanley Nelson, producer/writer/director of “Freedom Summer” that’s airing on PBS, thank you, all, very much for your contributions.

RITA SCHWERNER BENDER: Thank you.

ROBERT MOSES: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “American Experience” will be airing “Freedom Summer” on most PBS stations this evening. Check your local listings.

Online, listen to interviews from those who were there and from today’s students who are studying that struggle 50 years later.