It’s been a year of anniversaries. Muhammad Ali (when he was Cassius Clay) knocking down Sonny Liston. The Beatles invading America. Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act.
And Freedom Summer.
What came to be known as Freedom Summer was actually a program called the Mississippi Summer Project. It’s also a documentary by Stanley Nelson that’s been running on PBS. Nelson’s film is stirring in many ways. It’s an important piece of American social history that, in looking back, is also a cautionary tale about a vein in our politics that keeps on throbbing.As Nelson’s film reminds, less than seven percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote in 1964, even though they accounted for roughly half of the state’s population.
Efforts by local civil rights workers to register more blacks to vote were met by organized intimidation and violence. The tactics used were so extreme, and so blatant, it was as if Mississippi had turned itself into another country, a country dedicated to the preservation of white racial supremacy.
Freedom Summer brought 700 white northern college students into Mississippi for 10 weeks to help register people to vote and conduct summer classes in African American history and culture. Most of all, it was hoped these students would act as shields, that their presence would, in effect, shame white racists into letting people have the rights they were owed under the Constitution.
Instead, Mississippi acted as if it were under a state of siege. In April, the Ku Klux Klan staged a mass burning of 61 crosses in towns across the state. Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered. Other Freedom Summer volunteers were terrorized.
It is now easy to see the Mississippi white establishment’s behavior in 1964 as a hateful overreach. They not only tarnished the state’s reputation throughout the rest of the country, sentencing it to seemingly permanent socio-economic backwater status; they also lost the power they were so intent on keeping — today, a majority of Mississippi’s elected officials are African American.
But what is just as easy to overlook is the role that a strident belief in states’ rights played in encouraging many Mississippi whites to pursue their self-destructive path. Like their Confederate forebears, they considered the Constitution and Bill of Rights provisional documents they could choose to ignore.
Black Mississippians worried that the northern students who volunteered for Freedom Summer were in for a shock; that nothing could prepare them for how different Mississippi really was from the rest of the country. If you see this film, you can understand their fears.
You might also be reminded of our latest crop of politicians — those who make states’ rights a reason to deny some of us health care benefits, a decent wage, or the chance to marry someone we love. Freedom Summer leaves you wondering how it is states’ rights wound up being just another way for some people to holler, “No!”Click here see Freedom Summer.