by David M. Shribman
Today the phrase “Freedom Summer” has a romantic tint, colored in idealism, shaded in glory: a noble moment of grandeur when blacks and whites from Mississippi and beyond united in a brave effort to fight segregation and register blacks to vote.
But a half-century ago, the effort known formally as the Mississippi Summer Project was both audacious and dangerous. Three civil rights workers were ambushed, kidnapped and killed. Another died in a car crash. Scores of Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten. Three-dozen churches were bombed or burned. The granite walls of resistance were only barely penetrated. And when the summer ended, the progress that we today regard as inevitable still seemed impossible.
But 50 summers on, we now recognize that this was one of the signature episodes in America’s long story of racial strife and racial reconciliation.
It was a movement that was multifaith and multiracial but not really multigenerational. It was a youth campaign with almost no equal, except perhaps the flood of anti-war college students into New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential effort four years later — and there the principal obstacle was frigid temperatures and the only danger was icy stares.
This month, the anniversary of the movement’s start will bring forth a flood of testimonials but almost no reappraisals — for the effort was so pure in its purpose, so righteous in its goals, so wholesome in its intentions that, even in our contemporary culture of criticism, hardly anyone can condemn this mobilization of idealism.
As for the three who were abducted and then murdered, they are rightly remembered as martyrs to a sacred cause, and they are often remembered, surnames only, as if their names were the tolling of a bell: Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner.
The summer project was born out of despair, even desperation. Mississippi was an isolated backwater of the Deep South, a world unto its own, determined to remain that way, to retain its ancient outlook, folkways and viewpoints, and to resist even the most tentative movements toward racial integration.
Listen to the testimony of Dorie Ann Ladner, born in Hattiesburg, drawn into the civil rights movement by the murder of Emmitt Till, expelled from Jackson State College for her activism and instrumental in Freedom Summer:
“This was a very important part of our history because blacks were being killed, segregation was at its highest peak, we could not get public utilities, we could not try on clothes in stores, our education was very poor,” she said in a conversation this spring. “We were not treated like human beings.”
This sense of hopelessness led her to support bringing outsiders to the state, surely to bear witness, perhaps to spur change. “We thought that college students from outside would bring along their parents, and their parents would bring along congressmen, and congressmen would bring along the federal government,” she said.
Not all the outsiders were white. Some were like Charlie Cobb, born in Washington and reared in Springfield, Mass., but with farm roots in Mississippi. He was field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time. This is his testimony, rendered on the phone this spring:
“Freedom Summer focused for the first time the attention of the nation on Mississippi. The idea was to bring the nation’s children — mostly white, mostly middle-class or upper-middle-class children, many from politically connected families — to Mississippi and, as a result, the nation did look at Mississippi. That experience not only changed the students. It also changed the nation.”
And it had vast political impact, eroding Dixiecrat control of Democratic Party, itself buttressed by a one-party system in Mississippi that gave the region outsized power on Capitol Hill and outsized influence on civil rights.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)