Sunday, January 20, 2008

Freedom Summer: Blacks Voted Under Intense Persecution

1964 -- 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.

See rest of the Eyez On the Prize Timeline

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