In the summer of 1964, nearly one thousand people—the vast majority of them northerners—went to Mississippi to help register African American voters and participate in the civil rights movement in the most intransigent stronghold of Jim Crow. This group was largely white and liberal, and perhaps 650 of them were college students. The effort was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coordinating group for the four main civil rights organizations operating in Mississippi: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality...
In the summer of 1964, nearly one thousand people—the vast majority of them northerners—went to Mississippi to help register African American voters and participate in the civil rights movement in the most intransigent stronghold of Jim Crow. This group was largely white and liberal, and perhaps 650 of them were college students. The effort was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coordinating group for the four main civil rights organizations operating in Mississippi: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the NAACP. The Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, as the effort became known, was an attempt to bolster the ranks of the movement in Mississippi and more important, to attract the attention of the federal government and northern media to the oppressive and violent conditions facing African Americans in Mississippi.The planning and debates over Freedom Summer occurred at the end of 1963 and into the winter of 1964. The initial debates were contentious because many with a long history in the Mississippi movement feared both that northern whites would take over leadership positions and that whites organizing next to African Americans would incur even greater ire from the state's segregationists. Many experienced Mississippi organizers knew, though, that Mississippi would not garner national attention so long as only African Americans were experiencing the violence endemic to the state. Indeed, there was no question that a large contingent of white students from elite colleges, some of them the children of politicians, government functionaries, and members of the media, would gain national publicity for the movement in Mississippi, as well for the atrocities perpetrated daily in the state.The violence of Mississippi was demonstrated to the northerners who had come south, as well as to the nation, almost immediately that summer. On 21 June, James Chaney, an African American CORE organizer born in Meridian, Mississippi, and two white Jewish Americans from New York—Michael Schwerner, who had come to the state to work with CORE the previous January, and Andrew Goodman, a newly arrived Freedom Summer volunteer—set out from Meridian to Neshoba County, one of the geographical centers of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan. They went to investigate the reported burning of a church near Philadelphia in Neshoba County. The trio was arrested that afternoon by a local deputy and released later the same day, only to be turned over to a Klan mob. The three were then murdered and buried under a local dam; their bodies were found two months later. The murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman provoked international outrage while simultaneously demonstrating the overwhelming violence that the civil rights movement met in Mississippi.Indeed, despite the newfound attention from the federal government and media that the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman generated, the summer of 1964 was the most violent in Mississippi since the aftermath of the Civil War. In addition to the killings in Neshoba County, that summer there were at least three other civil rights–related murders, as well as more than eighty beatings of activists. There were also countless bombings and shootings of homes and churches, and more than one thousand movement participants were arrested.Despite the violence that greeted it in Mississippi, Freedom Summer made major inroads by establishing Freedom Schools and community centers and by registering thousands of voters. The largely white volunteers who came south were helpful in focusing national attention on the movement in Mississippi. Often staying in crowded houses with local African Americans, they maintained long-term friendships with these families and were received happily and with open arms. At the same time, the fears of many African American movement veterans that inexperienced and naive northern whites would try to exercise leadership roles as a result of their class position were occasionally realized, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of many movement veterans. Similarly, organizers’ fears over interracial sex on the part of volunteers became an ongoing theme in remembrances of that summer, despite a paucity of historical evidence that it was a frequent occurrence.On the whole, though, the majority of those who came to Mississippi were idealistic and capable, and their work in the summer of 1964 was helpful to the civil rights movement and influenced its future course. The increased government and media attention brought by the presence of the volunteers helped lead to new strategies that were more national in scope, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and congressional challenges to the seating of segregationist delegations. Finally, the volunteers were also helpful in reestablishing the movement in such strongholds of Jim Crow as the Mississippi city of McComb, achievements that despite their seemingly local importance helped transform the lives of many Mississippians.
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