D-Day for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States
On June 21, 1964, three students fell to KKK violence in Mississippi, prompting an invasion of civil rights workers
CIVIL rights workers of the 1960s, traveling back to Mississippi this summer for a homecoming sponsored by the Mississippi Community Foundation, an organization of veterans of the movement, will find a state much changed, but with its major racial and economic problems still unresolved.
Thirty summers ago, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, the state of Mississippi was preparing for an ``invasion'' by hundreds of young men and women, mostly white students from northern colleges. Invited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other civil rights groups, these volunteers planned summer vacations teaching in Freedom Schools, working in community centers, and canvassing for the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
White Mississippi responded to this display of youthful idealism like a state under siege. The legislature limited freedom of speech and assembly. Police added personnel. Weapons sales and Ku Klux Klan memberships boomed.
Given such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that ``Freedom Summer'' began on a somber note.
The tragic journey of James Claney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman into the heart of Klan country on Sunday, June 21, 1964, is the most depressingly familiar story of the Mississippi movement. Arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price shortly after 3 p.m. and held in the Philadelphia jail, they were released at about 10:30 that night. Ten miles out of town Mr. Price stopped them again and turned them over to a mob. Klansmen executed the young men gangland style and buried their bodies in a dam under construction in a remote area of the county.
The murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman provoked international outrage, providing the Mississippi movement with the visibility needed to convince a reluctant federal government to act against the Klan. Still, the summer of 1964 saw the most violent display of white lawlessness in Mississippi since the final days of Reconstruction: 1,000 arrests, 65 buildings bombed, including 35 black churches; and in addition to the Neshoba lynching, at least three other murders.
In spite of this reign of terror, organizers moved ahead. The Freedom Summer enabled SNCC and CORE to expand into new areas of Mississippi, bringing into the movement thousands of blacks who had not previously engaged in civil rights activity. The summer of 1964 also persuaded the state's white elite that continued violent resistance to federal law would lead to political anarchy and economic devastation. White Mississippi no longer spoke with a single voice, as business leaders grudgingly called for compliance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for peaceful acquiescence to a court order calling for desegregation of a handful of public schools in the fall of 1964. Years of struggles remained, but by holding firm in the face of terror, black Mississippians and their allies had cracked open Mississippi's ``Closed Society.''
LATER this month many of those allies will travel back to Mississippi to a ``homecoming.'' This reunion has been organized by the Mississippi Community Foundation, established in 1989 by veterans of the Mississippi movement. Those returning for the first time in 30 years will find a state that has changed, but with its major racial and economic problems still unresolved.
The most visible changes are in politics. In the 1970s and 1980s - long after most of the black and white SNCC and CORE organizers had left the state - local people continued to organize their communities. By 1992 Mississippi boasted over 825 black elected officials, more than in any other state. Forty-two African-Americans sit in the Legislature, and a movement veteran, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), now represents the Mississippi Delta in Congress.
Yet the Mississippi movement failed to bring about the social revolution the activists envisioned. Whites still hold most positions of real political power and dominate economic life. Despite significant gains by the small black middle class, poverty remains endemic: In 1990 more than half the state's black children still were living in poverty. And while the legal barriers to equality have been swept aside, racism remains a fact of life.
SNCC activist Bob Moses once said that the Freedom Summer movement ``brought Mississippi, for better or worse, up to the level of the rest of the country.'' That was no small achievement. It also reminds us of the distance still to be traveled. 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.