On June 21, 1964, three Americans working to register voters in Mississippi were brutally murdered by KKK members. Their bodies were found 6 weeks later.
The murders were among the most gruesome acts of a summer marked by violence; as America began to come to terms with its racist past and hateful present.
It was Freedom Summer, a remarkable effort led by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC. It was a summer which transformed our nation, though, more than 50 years later, we still have some transforming to do.
For details on this effort, which brought over 1,000 volunteers – mostly white, liberal, college students – to Mississippi to register African American voters, I highly recommend Doug McAdam’s excellent book, Freedom Summer, which thoughtfully details the selection of volunteers, their experiences, and the impact of the summer.
But today, 52 years after the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, I find myself reflecting on what has changed – and how much further we still have to go.
All the Freedom Summer volunteers faced significant violence. McAdams notes that over the course of the 10-week voter registration campaign 1,062 people were arrested, 80 of the Freedom Summer workers were beaten, and 67 black churches, homes, and businesses were bombed or burned.
Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were arrested. For speeding. They were denied the right to make phone calls, and civil rights organizers who called the jail looking for them were told the three men were not there. After they were released at about 10pm, the deputy sherif and Klansman who had arrested them followed them in his car – eventually forcing them out of their own car an into his. The Sherif’s deputy then drove the three to an isolated area where they were murdered.
Chaney, a black volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was savagely beaten. All three were shot.
I’d like to think something like this couldn’t happen today, but to be honest, I am not entirely sure. If I read this story in the news today, I would be saddened, but not surprised. People of color face so much violence in our communities – more, I’m sure, than I can truly appreciate.
Freedom Summer transformed our nation because it served as a wake up call for white America. When it was their sons and daughters being jailed, beaten, and murdered they could no longer ignore the deep injustice and atrocity faced every day by black people in the south.
This is exactly what the black civil rights activists who organized Freedom Summer had in mind. They’d been working for justice for decades, but when it was black bodies dying, the sad truth was – nobody cared.
Bringing white volunteers to Mississippi for Freedom Summer put America’s violent, racial injustice on the front page of the news. The nation suddenly cared.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act – which was effectively gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court vote – was a landmark showing just how much we, as a nation, had changed.
But there is so much more work to do, and we have even lost some ground.
Before Freedom Summer, the injustice faced by black Americans was largely invisible to the mainstream. The experience of blacks in places like Mississippi had no effect on the lives of their white, Northern peers. And, as is commonly charged of white, Northern racism – before Freedom Summer, white liberals could comfortably pretend the problem simply wasn’t there.
When Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two nice Jewish boys from New York, were murdered by klansman, when for ten weeks the news was full stories of white Northerners being arrested and beaten registering voters – it became clear that something needed to change.
But there has been so much death already – so many people of color dead at the hands of police or others who felt the need to ‘stand their ground.’ I’d hope it wouldn’t take even more death to galvanize our nation to change.
The deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were horrific – and I wish they been the last.