24 November 2014

This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of several extraordinary events in American history – which the national media and, more curiously, the African-American political establishment have largely ignored.  These events fundamentally reshaped America’s political landscape regarding the politics of race.

In the summer of 1964, about one thousand, mostly white college students traveled to Mississippi as volunteers, assisting civil rights workers there to register thousands of African Americans to vote.  Among their number was Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate in 2000.  The effort, termed “Freedom Summer,” captured the imagination of the nation and the world at that time. 

Why Mississippi?  To understand the symbolic significance of this voting rights campaign, one had to appreciate this southern state’s unique position as the paramount site for white racism in America for more than a century.

In 1890, following the demise of Reconstruction, Mississippi had become the first Southern state to hold a constitutional convention, solely for the expressed purpose of eliminating African Americans from the statewide electorate.  Subsequently, decade after decade, by one means or another, including intimidation and terror, most black Mississippians were kept from voting.  Political disfranchisement and intimidation were only one aspect of Mississippi’s brutally unequal environment for African Americans.  In 1960, the median non-white family income in Mississippi was only $1,444, lowest in the fifty states, and roughly one-third that of white family income in the state.  In terms of public education, the average annual state expenditure per black student was $21.77, compared to $81.86 per white student.  In Black Belt counties dependent on cotton production, expenditures for blacks’ educational needs were significantly lower than statewide averages, sometimes under $1.00 per pupil per year.  Statewide, only seven percent of all black adults had graduated from high school as of 1964.

This was the political and socioeconomic context for the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964.  For several years in the early 1960s, a coalition of civil rights organizations, most prominently the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the NAACP, had led successful voter education and registration efforts in parts of the state.  SNCC leader Bob Moses was one of the principal architects for these efforts.  Building on these limited gains, Moses proposed a bold, but risky, maneuver.  Hundreds of white, mostly upper- and middle-class college students, would be recruited as volunteers during the summer of 1964 to assist efforts by civil rights workers to register blacks and to establish “freedom schools,” highlighting the problems of educational inequality. 

Moses also astutely recognized that the presence of large numbers of white young people coming from upper- and middle-class white households from the North would attract the coverage of national media – which it did.  As young Northern whites poured into the state, local racists almost went into a frenzy, denouncing the “invasion” as “Communist-inspired.”

The sacrifices these brave, idealistic students made in the struggle for African-American freedom, and the human costs extracted, were enormous.  Just ten days into the project, three participants – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner – were brutally murdered by white supremacists.  By late August 1964, four project volunteers had been killed, four others critically wounded, 80 physically beaten, and one thousand arrested.  During the Freedom Summer, 37 black churches were firebombed and burned, and thirty black-owned homes and businesses were destroyed. 

However, the Freedom Summer highlighted the struggle for voting rights and social justice for blacks in the Deep South as never before.  Within the next year, pushed by the Johnson Administration, Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  The effects of its passage and implementation across the South, and especially in Mississippi, were dramatic.  In August 1965, only 6.7 percent of Mississippi blacks were registered to vote.  By August 1967, 59.8 percent of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered, the highest percentage of black registered voters anywhere in the region.

The tragic aftermath of Freedom Summer in Mississippi today is found in the disturbing disfranchisement of African-American voters in that state, due to unfair election restrictions.  In Mississippi, residents convicted of a felony lose their right to vote for the remainder of their lives.  By 2000, about one-third of the state’s black male voters were ineligible from voting.  A similar situation exists in many other states.  Until several years ago, both the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus were slow to recognize the serious erosion of black voting power due to these restrictions on ex-prisoners.

It’s time for another Freedom Summer – not only in Mississippi, but in every state where thousands of African Americans are unjustly kept from exercising their democratic right to vote, due to their former criminal records.  A person convicted of a crime does not cease to be a citizen.  The Constitutional right to vote should not be taken away from any American citizen.  A massive civic education and voter mobilization campaign to restore the elective franchise to millions of blacks who have lost their voting rights must be initiated now.  Let every summer be a “Freedom Summer,” until every American citizen can vote.