The vote today in Mississippi had special resonance for me. It was 44 years ago this month that I decided to participate in Freedom Summer in the Magnolia State, registering black voters. After training at the Summer Project in Ohio, I traveled by bus to Jackson, arriving with a handful of others the fourth week of June.
Four days earlier three young men had gone missing – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Goodman and Schwerner were New York Jews. Chaney was from the deepest shadows of the segregationist South, a black Mississippian. I might have shaken hands with one of them at our training. But if somebody had asked me to pick them out of a crowd on that early summer day in 1964, I couldn’t have. A few days later, everybody knew who they were. 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.
Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney 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 and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee I had joined 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 bus strikes, and diner sit-ins and Freedom Rides that had begun 10 years before, 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.
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 several bodies, including that of a 14-(or so)-year-old African American boy wearing a CORE tee shirt. He was never identified. 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 Klan nightriders 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 44 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 of the Freedom Democrats played a part in crushing American apartheid forever. And today, the success of a Barack Obama in the state’s Democratic primary will consolidate that victory and take us one more step, though certainly not the final one, toward stomping out racism.
[Elements of this Diary appeared at Daily Kos in 2004.]