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Freedom Summer of 1964: Interracial Success Story

By Nicolaus Mills. Nicolaus Mills is author of ``Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964'' and ``Debating Affirmative Action.'' He is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in BronxvilleN.Y. / July 18, 1994



THIRTY years ago Mississippi Freedom Summer began. Along with many others who had done civil rights work in Mississippi during the 1960s, I returned there last month for ceremonies marking the anniversary.

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It was a time for nostalgia. But it was not, I believe, just nostalgia. It was the sense that the legacy of Freedom Summer remains relevant.

The idea behind Freedom Summer was to turn a spotlight on Mississippi so that the country could see the level of racism the state was organized to defend. Since 1961, under Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been doing civil rights work in Mississippi. SNCC had, however, received little attention from the media and virtually no protection from the federal government.

Freedom Summer was designed to end SNCC's isolation. A task force of a thousand volunteers, most of them white, Northern college students, was recruited to come to Mississippi and under a SNCC-led civil rights coalition to do voter registration, start Freedom Schools, and help build a political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democrats, open to all races. Without money, without political clout, without significant numbers, Freedom Summer would show that the segregationist laws keeping more than 90 percent of Mississippi's blacks from voting could be overcome.

IF we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country,'' declared John Lewis, SNCC's chairman in 1964 and today a Democratic congressman from Georgia.

Freedom Summer did not accomplish all that its organizers wanted. But it did, as John Lewis hoped, crack Mississippi and give new momentum to the civil rights movement in America.

Once Freedom Summer began, racial violence in Mississippi no longer went unreported. On June 21, when three civil rights workers - Mississippian James Chaney and Northerners Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman - disappeared, it was front-page news. President Johnson responded by sending the FBI to help search for them (44 days later they were found shot and buried under an earthen dam) and by calling for immediate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, languishing in Congress.

The July 2 passage of the Civil Rights Act, plus stepped-up federal involvement in Mississippi, increased the violence against Freedom Summer workers. By the end of August, in addition to the three deaths, there would be 80 beatings, 37 church burnings, and more than a thousand arrests. But the violence proved self-defeating. It showed the Mississippi that state officials hoped outsiders would not see, and it showed that no area in the Deep South was now beyond the reach of the civil rights movement.

In March 1965, when the Selma, Ala., crisis began, the country was ready for it in a way that it had not been ready for Freedom Summer. Selma transformed from a local voter-registration struggle into a national cause. The stage was set for Johnson to go before the country and press for the most far-reaching civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

By 1966 there were more than 130,000 registered black voters in Mississippi. By the early 1970s, 268,440 or 62.2 percent of Mississippi's eligible black voters - nearly tenfold the 6.7 percent figure for 1964 - were on voter rolls. In less than a decade, the most cherished goal had become a reality.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, ``I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Miss., young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered.'' Thirty years later, our remembrance of both the costs and the triumphs of Freedom Summer is all too hazy. The best-known depiction of Freedom Summer, Alan Parker's film ``Mississippi Burning,'' focuses on the FBI and ignores Freedom Summer workers and the black families who risked their jobs and lives to open their homes to the movement.

Today, we have largely given up on black-white alliances ever working again. Identity politics, especially in our largest cities, increasingly determines elections, and in colleges, the great recruiting ground for Freedom Summer, black and white students routinely distance themselves from one another, eating at separate tables, holding separate parties, making different demands on the school administration.

A return to Mississippi by a few hundred of us who were part of the civil rights movement cannot by itself reverse such polarization. We know that. Today the racial struggle that we played a part in continues - primarily as a battle for jobs and education. What the legacy of Freedom Summer shows is how vital to winning that battle black-white coalitions are: how much must happen before they can come into being, how easily the sensibility they embody is lost. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.