Explore the major events of 1964's Freedom Summer, when hundreds of volunteers from across the country traveled to Mississippi in a historic effort to shatter the foundations of white supremacy in what was one of the nation's most viciously racist, segregated states. "Freedom Summer" premieres June 24 on PBS American Experience. 

February 1962

As Mississippi Field Secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committe (SNCC), Bob Moses reactivates the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)--originally founded in 1961--as an umbrella organization bringing Mississippi branches of the Conress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and SNCC together to work primarily on voter registration. 

bob moses
Steve Schapiro

Bob Moses
Fall 1963

Bob Moses proposes a summer voter registration project involving hundreds of norther student volunteers coming into Mississippi. Local civil rights activists debate the plan hotly--many fear an influx of white northerners could undermine local black leadership. 

February 9, 1964

COFO formally authorizes the Mississippi Summer Project, which will focus on three main initiatives: voter registration, Freedom Schools and community centers, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. 

March 20, 1964

COFO officially launches the Freedom Summer Project through a one-page press release. This also kicks off the volunteer recruitment process, with SNCC leaders touring Northern campuses and distributing brochures. Applicaitons will start arriving in April, and will amount to nearly 1,200 by June.

teacher and students
Ted Polumbaum

Freedom School Teacher and Students
March 21, 1964

The National Council of Churches hosts a Freedom School planning conference in New York, NY. Organizers develop a three-part curriculum. The academics focuses on reading, writing, arithmetic, and "stimulating a student's interest in learning." For citizenship, each student is encouraged "to form opinions about the various social phenomena that touch him, to learn about his own particular heritage as a Negro, and to explore possible avenues for his future." Recreation includes dancing, sports, arts and crafts, music, and other opportunities for students to "express themselves in new ways." 

April 26, 1964

SNCC spearheads the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at a meeting in Jackson, MS. Originally, the MFDP is created to provide further evidence that blacks in the satte would participate in the political process if given the opportunity. However, as they gain support throughout the summer, they focus their efforts on unseating the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party delegation at the Democratic National Convention in August. 

May 1964

Members of SNCC select more than 700 volunteers for Freedom Summer, and mail the acceptance letters by mid-May. The majority of students are from the top 30 universities in the United States; 123 students hail from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton alone. 

June 2, 1964

Four MFDP candidates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, John Houston, and Rev. John Cameron, run in the Mississippi Democratic Primary elections for Senator and three House seats. With the majority of eligible black voters denied the opportunity to register or vote in Mississippi, white candidates from the Mississippi Democratic Party easily defeat the four MFDP candidates. The MFDP considers these losses to be evidence that the Mississippi Democratic Party is politically discriminatory.

volunteer training
Newseum/Ted Polumbaum

Training in Oxford, OH
June 14, 1964

The first group of Freedom Summer volunteers arrives at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio for orientation. Among other things, Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) workers stress the danger and potential for violence in Mississippi, and they instruct volunteers on the many safety precautions they will need to take during the summer project. 

A second group will train from June 21-28.

June 20-21, 1964

The first 250 Summer Project volunteers arrive in Mississippi to begin voter registration efforts. 

missing poster
Federal Bureau of Investigation

FBI Missing Poster
June 21, 1964

Civil rights workers James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman travel to Meridian, MS to investigate the burning of the Mt. Zion church and the beating of three members of the congregation. After leaving the church, the three men are arrested by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price for a traffic violation outside of Philadelphia, MS. When they are released from jail late that night, it is the last time they are seen alive. 

June 23, 1964

Investigators locate the smoldering CORE station wagon Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were driving when they went missing near Philadelphia, MS. The mens' bodies were not in the car. 

Week of June 28, 1964

Three hundred Freedom School and community center workers arrive in Mississippi after completing the second orientation in Oxford, OH. 

rita schwerner

Rita Schwerner
June 29, 1964

President Lyndon Johnson meets with Mickey Schwerner's wife Rita and SNCC worker Bob Zellner in the Oval Office. Rita Schwerner confronts the President, demanding that he send 5,000 federal marshals to Mississippi to search for the missing workers. "Mr. President," she says, "This is not a social call. I've come to find out where my husband is." 

Late June

By the end of June, roughly 500 Freedom Summer volunteers and staff are at work in 25 locations around Mississippi. 

July 1, 1964

By the beginning of July, Mississippi has had five bombings, four murders and dozens of attacks on civil rights workers. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964
LBJ Presidential Library

Signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964
July 2, 1964

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark bill that outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The powers given to "enforce the constitutional right to vote" are weak at first, but are supplemented in later years. 

July 2, 1964

The first Freedom Schools in the state open in Clarksdale, Holly Springs, and Vicksburg.

July 10, 1964

The FBI opens its first Mississippi field office in Jackson. In the coming days, more than 200 FBI agents will join the search for Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, whom investigators believe crossed state lines. Agents combed through 10 counties and recovered the bodies of eight other black men during their search. 

July 14, 1964

Volunteers are arrested in Drew, MS for distributing leaflets promoting Freedom Day. 

July 16, 1964

Freedom Day, a large coordinated push for voter registrations, is held for the Second Congressional District of Mississippi. In Cleveland, MS, 40 people attempt to register to vote and 30 people picket. In Greenwood, MS, 111 black residents, SNCC workers and Freedom Summer volunteers are arrested

Silas McGhee, Chair of the Greenwood NAACP Youth Council's Testing Committee, is beaten by three white men as he walks home after Freedom Day. McGhee escapes and reports the incident to the local FBI office. 

July 22, 1964

Martin Luther King, Jr. visits Jackson and Vicksburg, Mississippi to show support for the Freedom Summer project and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. 

July 23, 1964

The FBI arrests three white Greenwood, MS residents for "conspiracy to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate" Silas McGhee. It is the first arrest of its kind under the new Civil Rights Act. 

August 1, 1964

In a head-on auto collision, Wayne Yancey, a black volunteer from Chicago, is killed and the driver of the car, SNCC worker Charlie Scales, is seriously injured. At the local hospital, doctors refuse to treat Scales. When Freedom Summer organizers attempt to bring Scales to Memphis, TN for urgent care, local authorities will not allow him to leave, saying he is under arrest for killing Yancey. 

Eventually, Scales is allowed to go to Memphis and will be airlifted later to Chicago to recover. 

Missing workers found
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Missing workers found
August 4, 1964

Acting on a tip, authorities excavate an earthen dam at the Old Jolly Farm near Philadelphia, MS and discover the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. The farm was located about six miles south of the jail where the three workers were last seen. Goodman and Schwerner were each found with one bullet hole, while Chaney had three bullet holes and appeared to have sustained multiple severe injuries prior to his death. 

August 6, 1964

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) holds its statewide convention in Jackson, MS and elects 68 delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ later that month. Among the delegates are Fannie Lou Hamer, E. W. Steptoe, Winson Hudson, Hazel Palmer, Victoria Gray, Rev. Ed King, Aaron Henry and Annie Devine. 

For most Freedom Summer volunteers, the convention is the climax of their political activities that summer as only a few volunteers would get to travel with the delegates to Atlantic City.  

August 7, 1964

At the memorial service following Chaney's burial, the head of the Mississippi CORE staff, Dave Dennis gives an impassioned and angry eulogy urging the attendees to "Stand up! Hold your heads up! Don't bow down anymore! We want our freedom now!"

August 8, 1964

Seventy-five high school-age students from Freedom Schools across the state attend a Freedom School Convention in Meridian, MS to review the summers accomplishments and pass resolutions regarding voting rights, public accommodations, housing, education, job discrimination and more. The meetings are run by the students with their teachers -- Freedom Summer volunteers -- merely observing. Volunteer Cornelia Mack wrote home about the students at the Convention: "Their enthusiasm is contagious, their determination thrilling and almost frightening." 

August 16, 1964

In McComb, Mississippi, 24 police officers raid the local COFO office searching for illegal liquor. They sort through the workers' letters and other civil rights materials, but find no alcohol. 

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer
August 22, 1964

Members and supporters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) testify before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention. Their goal is to persuade the Committee to seat the integrated MFDP as the state's representatives in lieu of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party. 

President Lyndon Johnson knows he needs Southern Democrats' support in his bid for re-election and works to block the MFDP from being seated. When Fannie Lou Hamer testifies about her experiences in Mississippi, it is so powerful that Johnson announces an impromptu press conference to preempt the television networks from broadcasting Hamer's speech. The plan backfires when the major news networks broadcast Hamer's testimony in its entirety on their eventing programs. 

August 26, 1964

Under pressure from President Johnson and other influential supporters, the Credentials Committee declines to seat the MFDP. Instead, they offer a compromise that would seat the regular Mississippi delegation and two delegates from the MFDP. 

The MFDP rejects the compromise. Fannie Lou Hamer says of the offer, "We didn't come all this way for no two seats!"

October 31 - November 2, 1964

At a "Freedom Vote," more than 68,000 people cast their votes for Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, and Aaron Henry to represent them in Congress. The vote was organized by Freedom Summer Project leaders to prove that the black population in Mississippi, if given the opportunity to vote, would do so in large numbers. 

The MFDP will eventually use these results to argue that the current Mississippi representatives should not be seated in Congress as they were not fairly elected by the majority of the state's voters. 

November 3, 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election, beating out Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater. Johnson wins by a landslide with 486 electoral votes. Goldwater had 52 electoral votes and carried just six states: Arizona, his home state, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. The five southern states primarily voted Republican in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, which had passed in July.

LBJ and Voting Rights Act of 1965
LBJ Presidential Library/Yoichi Okamoto

Signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965
August 6, 1965

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. The act prohibits discriminatory voter registration practices and allows the federal government to send its own registrars to local courthouses to help enforce the new law. 

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Whether in politics or popular culture, civil liberty or civil rights, 1964 saw a lot of change. What event or set of events do you think had the biggest impact on the year, on American society, or on America as we know it today?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • DIG: Robert & Marjie Kargman and the Brian A. McCarthy Foundation (Freedom Summer)
  • Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
  • NEH
  • Yawkey Foundation