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[This diary appeared at Daily Kos on June 21, 2011. A slightly different version appeared in June 2004.]

[Fifty] years ago today, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing in Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner were New York Jews. Chaney was from the deepest shadows of the segregationist South, a black Mississippian. They were part of Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters in the Magnolia State organized by a coalition of four civil rights groups, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress for Racial Equality, the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

When I heard about Freedom Summer, I decided to join SNCC and the Freedom Summer registration project. In March, I trained with others in Ohio. In the fourth week of June, I arrived with a handful of others in Jackson, Mississippi. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney had been missing for just four days when we arrived. It was widely assumed they were dead. Six weeks later, as a result of an intense federally coordinated manhunt that must have had FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover grinding his molars into dust, authorities pulled the three men’s bodies from an earthen berm.

(Continue below the fold for more.)


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The three were members of the Congress on Racial Equality, a mixed-race organization which was fighting to ensure that black Americans got the rights they had been constitutionally granted nearly a century previously after tens of thousands of their ancestors bled for their freedom wearing the Union uniform. CORE, SNCC and the other civil rights groups backed the radical notion that the Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments mean what they say.

Opposed to them, in theory and practice, was an array of powerful Southern officials. The progenitors of their ideology had replaced slavery with a sort of secessionism without war. They called it Jim Crow, an almost mythic name with which to euphemize American apartheid. A system in which uppity nigras got whupped for exercising rights every citizen was supposedly guaranteed. Sometimes the whupping ended up with a noose and a bonfire.

Like the earlier bus strikes, and diner sit-ins and Freedom Rides, the tactics of Freedom Summer had both a real and symbolic value. Our job was to persuade black Mississippians to register to vote. The presence of outsiders, especially white outsiders, was seen as a way to focus more attention on the situation from parts of the nation — and the media — where Jim Crow’s consequences were more likely to be viewed with distaste, disgust, or rage.

Every day, two-by-two, we went door to door cajoling black men and women to gather up the courage to come with us and demand their constitutional right to cast a ballot. We didn’t get many takers. Some people wouldn’t let us in their house. Others wouldn’t let us on their property. They were scared, and justifiably so. After the summer, most of us were going back where we came from and they were staying in Mississippi, no longer officially accounted for as 3/5ths a person, but legally kept from being whole.

My partner and I, Charly Biggers, who had been a Freedom Rider in 1961, registered seven people all summer, and that was only because Charly was one of the best talkers I ever met. Some volunteers didn’t register anyone. Many of us were arrested, often more than once. Charly and I shared a cell for two days with an activist from Massachusetts named Abbie Hoffman. He made us laugh the entire time. When the summer was over, out of 500,000 eligible blacks, Mississippi had 1,200 new black voters.

Not many, we thought, but a victory, nonetheless.

Unlike the impression one might get from watching the deeply flawed whitewash Mississippi Burning, J. Edgar Hoover was no friend of the civil rights movement. A gentleman racist himself, he had strongly suggested in a report about racial tensions to Eisenhower in 1956 that the NAACP was “overzealous” and that communists had strong influence among civil rights leaders. His record of smearing and spying on civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, are well-documented.

The Kennedy Administration had its own reasons for trying to keep the Freedom Rides of 1961 from going forward. But when it became apparent the riders would not back down, the FBI was ordered to become involved. Instead of doing something public, transparent and pre-emptive of the Southern establishment’s violent response to any challenge of Jim Crow, Hoover took the secret police’s usual approach and spied on the dissidents. Nothing was done to stop Freedom Riders from being beaten up, firebombed and generally terrorized.

Informed by a KKK snitch, the FBI knew beforehand that violence would break out in Birmingham. Even though agents knew that one police official regularly passed on information to the Klan, the bureau let the Birmingham cops in on some details about the Freedom Riders' schedule. Later, the bureau’s indifference got too little credit when four little girls were blown up in a Birmingham church basement. The FBI might just as well have been a charter member of the good ol’ boy network when it came to Jim Crow.

Herbert Lee, murdered in 1961
for trying to register to vote.
It is bitterly illustrative of the white privilege of the time that the feds didn’t see fit to intervene when violence had accompanied previous voter registration efforts. Voter registration meetings were broken up by white citizens, often watched, sometimes led, by deputies. On September 25, 1961, Herbert Lee, a 52-year-old farmer and father of nine who had attempted to register to vote, was shot and killed by E.H. Hurst, a white member of the state legislature from the ironically named Liberty, Mississippi. The sheriff and others intimidated black witnesses to testify that Lee had threatened Hurst with a tire iron. Hurst was acquitted on the same day he killed Lee in an Amite County courtroom brimful of armed white men.

One of the black witnesses, Lewis Allen, later said he had lied to protect himself and his family. He was soon being harassed by the police. Three weeks after Lee was murdered, Allen was blasted to death with buckshot in his driveway.

When Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner disappeared, however, Bobby Kennedy “urged” Hoover to get a serious investigation going, and he did. The FBI search turned up eight bodies, including that of a 14-year-old African American boy wearing a CORE tee shirt, Herbert Oarsby. It is said that, eventually, the FBI interviewed 1,000 Mississippians about what happened to the three men before finding where the bodies were buried.

By the time the three bodies were dug up six weeks after their disappearance, the national attention given to what everybody had known from the beginning was more than a “disappearance” made the failure of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the Atlantic City Democratic Convention in August all the more infuriating. While the regular, all-white Mississippi Democratic Party had already begun its break with the national party after the Civil Rights Act passed that summer, Lyndon Johnson feared further losses in the South and chose to offer a ludicrous compromise that made nobody happy and was an affront to justice.

At its most basic, Freedom Summer was about stopping the ruthless terrorism at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, the killing of Americans who were merely trying to exercise their rights and ending the intimidation of others who were too afraid to even try to secure their rights. The murder of the three civil rights workers was no anomaly but took place amid other murders in the context of protests led by courageous African Americans, some of whom were also murdered. The violence didn’t end just because of the national spotlight shone on Mississippi, a focus that would not have occurred had two of those young men in 1964 not been white. Black lives simply weren’t worth as much as white. And some Mississippians figured they’d continue with the old ways once the “outside agitators” and national media went home.

They were, to some extent, right. From June that year until January of 1965, Ku Klux Klansman burned 31 black churches in Mississippi. And, although some men were convicted and sentenced to short terms in prison made even shorter by parole, it took another 41 years before Edgar Killen, the Klan kleagle who recruited the murderers, was convicted of manslaughter on the anniversary of the day the three men disappeared.

Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman didn’t end racism, didn’t make everyone equal, didn’t bring down Jim Crow by themselves. But they, like others in Mississippi, did give their lives for freedom, which American myth and reality deems the most patriotic of acts. That summer [50] years ago, the courage of hundreds of local blacks, the three murders, the publicity given to the voter registration drive, and the confrontation at the Democratic National Convention by the Freedom Democrats played a part in crushing American apartheid forever. Forty-four years later, the seeds planted that summer came to fruition as Barack Obama won the Mississippi primary.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Sat Jun 21, 2014 at 12:49 PM PDT.

Also republished by Black Kos community, Support the Dream Defenders, and Barriers and Bridges.

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