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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Freedom Summer

1964

"People were threatened, folks was put in jail just because we wanted people to try to register to vote."
—Unita Blackwell, voter registration worker

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In Mississippi, civil rights activists stage what many locals call an "invasion." Local NAACP leader Amzie Moore asks SNCC organizer Bob Moses to open offices in the state. Their program brings volunteers, including many white students from the North, to join local efforts at voter registration and education.

Blacks had been denied access to the vote and intimidated in many ways. The state's political leadership, controlled by the segregationist Citizens Council, had been preventing blacks from registering to vote. The state had passed new voting laws to make registration even harder, and dependent upon local officials, who could register whites and reject blacks at will.

In the state capital, Jackson, NAACP state field secretary Medgar Evers had organized a boycott of downtown stores. Hundreds of protesters were arrested in June 1963, with the mayor taking a hard line against them. Late on the night of June 11th, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy went on television asking Americans to support his civil rights bill, Evers was assassinated in his driveway. The murder weapon was traced to Citizens Council member Byron De La Beckwith, who would be tried twice and acquitted by all-white juries. (In 1994, when evidence emerged of improper trials, prosecutors would re-try Beckwith. Sentenced to life in prison by a mixed-race jury, he would die there in 2001.)

Freedom Summer recruits train in Oxford, Ohio, and leave for Mississippi on June 20th, 1964. On the 21st, three organizers, all under age 25, disappear while investigating a church burning. The bodies of James Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white Northerners, will be found buried together on August 4th.

Meanwhile, volunteers register voters for a new political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Despite the tense climate, over 60,000 people join. In a presidential election year, the MFDP sends its own racially inclusive delegation to the Democratic National Convention, challenging the segregated delegation sent by the state's established Democrats. The nation watches a televised hearing on August 22 to determine which delegation will represent the state. The MFDP's Fannie Lou Hamer commands attention with an impassioned pitch for inclusion. But President Lyndon Johnson cuts off television coverage to end the divisive testimony and keep white Southerners in the party. In the end, the MFDP is not seated, but their presence and the moral strength of their argument impact national politics.

Context

Other Events: Late 1964

The United States begins bombing North Vietnam, but President Lyndon Johnson pledges he won't "send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian boys should do for themselves."

Johnson begins a "war on poverty" at home and wins re-election over Republican Barry Goldwater in a landside.

The Surgeon General links smoking and cancer, and cigarette packages start displaying warning labels.

Ten thousand people meet the Beatles at the airport when they arrive in New York.

China explodes an atomic bomb.

Zip codes are introduced.

Press

The New York Times, May 30, 1964

Mississippi is Gripped by Fear of Violence in Civil Rights Drive

Mississippi has assumed the air of a besieged fortress in the face of an impending civil rights campaign...

...Law-enforcement agencies have joined in a program of para-military preparations.

White residents are being urged to ignore civil rights demonstrations with the assurance that officials will deal firmly with any challenge to the state's racial codes and customs.

The Legislature has passed a series of bills aimed at defeating what many whites refer to as "the coming invasion..."

..."There's something badly wrong here," observed E. W. Steptoe, Sr., as he sat in the neat though unpainted living room of his tar-papered home on his 240-acre farm in Amite County, on the Louisiana state line.

"I don't know what the Negro could be doing to displease the white people," he continued. "Looks like they're trying to do everything to satisfy them."

"They're not asking for nothing out of reason -- just the vote," he said...

...The abundance of official steps taken to oppose the Freedom Summer campaign has failed to satisfy many white Mississippians. Their concern was apparent at a meeting this week of Americans for the Preservation of the White Race, held in the courtroom of the Rankin County Courthouse in Brandon.

The main speaker...was Shelby Brewer, a manufacturer of automobile tire boots. Mr. Brewer fingered a small black Bible as he told two jokes about Negroes. He then attacked President [Lyndon] Johnson, saying that, while the President had asked for $125 million to fight Communism in South Vietnam, he had done nothing to fight Communism in the South....

..."He has encouraged Martin Luther King, the nigger general who has declared war on all white people, to continue his fight..."

...Both Mr. Brewer and Mr. [Arsene] Dick stressed nonviolence. However, Mr. Dick said, "A man today who hasn't got a gun in his house is a fool."

A grim-faced mechanic standing nearby broke in to say of Negroes, "We ought to get shed of all of 'em. We ought to shoot 'em all..."

...Mr. [Archie C.] Curtis was asked what he thought was behind the violence in southwestern Mississippi.

"They are trying to cower Negroes down so that they won't take part in demonstrations," he replied. "The colored people here are not free," he continued. "They don't feel free to go to public meetings at night..."

The New York Times, June 14, 1964

South Girds for Crisis
Massive Assault on Racial Barriers Planned for This Summer Creates Atmosphere of Tension

...Even the assurance of repressive law enforcement has failed to calm the fears of whites in some areas. Much of their anxiety results from rumor and misunderstanding. But it is nonetheless real.

The depth of this misunderstanding and apprehension is reflected in the reaction of many white Mississippians to the coming "Freedom Summer" operation. The project calls for a statewide program of voter registration drives, special academic training for Negro youths, adult citizenship classes, political action, a survey of the state's political and economic structure and a study of white attitudes...

...Probably the best that can by hoped for realistically in the Deep South's pockets of defiance...is a peaceful stalemate. There can be no substantial, lasting progress here so long as whites see signs of hope elsewhere that the nation will eventually tire of the civil rights controversy and leave them to resolve the issue in their own way, as was done in 1877.

The Birmingham Post-Herald, August 7, 1964

5 Bullets in 3 Bodies
Study Shows, Shot From Front

FBI agents fanned out around Old Jolly farm today, questioning residents for clues to who killed three civil rights workers and buried them in a red dirt dam.

The FBI said it believed the three were victims of abduction and murder but steadfastly refused to confirm or deny widespread rumors of imminent arrests...

Private pathologists in Jackson identified the bodies of Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, both white New Yorkers. The third body is apparently their Negro companion, James Chaney, but sufficient scientific background on Chaney has not yet permitted the FBI to confirm the identity officially...

The Boston Globe, August 7, 1964

Editorial: Mississippi's Conscience

Some Mississippians who knew better mocked the search for the three missing civil rights workers, saying it was only a hoax. Now a nation horrified by mass racial violence in the North is stunned anew by the finding of the three bodes. This was cold-blooded vicious murder, the ultimate act of extremists...

...The next step must be the capture of the killers and their conviction by a jury -- in a state whose concept of proper justice in such cases has often been less than reassuring...

...It is hard to believe that the majority of the white community in Mississippi and its neighboring states are so monolithic that they are not torn by guilt.

The three were slain for helping Negroes make a reality of the right to vote. It was a lynching, in an atmosphere that only the people of Mississippi themselves can purge. The crime is on their conscience. They will have to live with it, and face the condemnation of an outraged world.

Music

Mass Meeting and Prayer
Songwriter: Hollis Watkins
Performed by: Hollis Watkins
Listen to the Music

This Little Light of Mine
Songwriter: Traditional gospel song
Performed by: Betty Fikes
Listen to the Music

One of the voter registration activists in Mississippi during Freedom Summer was Hollis Watkins, freedom singer and native Mississippian. He explained, "If you sang with people, then you could talk about voter registrations." Music was a way of life for the people he was trying to reach, a "natural entrée into the hearts, souls, and minds of black people in presenting and offering something that was not foreign to them."

"Mass meetings would generally start... with people singing songs -- spiritual songs, singing freedom songs -- and it was really kind of a warm-up thing to get people involved, to get people to relax." In a recording of a "Mass Meeting and Prayer" Watkins demonstrates the power of song.

One of the most popular freedom songs, "This Little Light of Mine" summed up the process and the power of an individual's commitment to change.

This commitment could not be taken lightly. In the early years of the movement, it could mean persecution or even death. In later years, activists like those who set out to improve Chicago's housing situation didn't face as dire consequences, but they still took financial, political, and even physical risks. The song's lyrics confirmed a person's departure from accepting the world as it was and his or her decision to act.

This little light of mine,
I'm going to let it shine,
Every day, every day,
Every day, every day,
Gonna let my little light shine.

As the light spreads -- and other voices join in -- the light begins to illuminate the darkest corners of the country. This call and response version of the song reinforces the idea that one "voice" -- literal and metaphorical -- can be the start of something bigger.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Freedom Summer
Duration: 1:39 min
Watch the Video

This collection of clips shows Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in two environments: in the church and at the end of a protest. In the first, King is poised and comfortable, in his element as a minister. The Freedom March ends with another oration by King. This time, he is clearly tired and speaks wearily, but he still engages his audience.

The footage begins with a SNCC worker discussing the attitudes of Mississippi's black population, whom SNCC hopes to reach with the voter registration campaign.

Next, clips show activists meeting with potential voters.

In the next clip, Mayor Charles Damon decries integration.

The last footage is of a woman describing how assailants fired into her house, wounding her grandchild.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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