Editor’s note: This post is the third in a series of ongoing articles that cover a five-part lecture series presented by David Domke, professor and chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. The series is entitled “Marching to Selma: How MLK, LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement Changed the World.”
In Mississippi, the Magnolia Crucible, the third lecture in his five-part “Marching to Selma” series, David Domke began by informing his rapt audience that this lecture would not be an easy one. “I can’t possibly give a lecture that doesn’t have hope, but we will go through a difficult space to get there,” he warned.
To prepare the crowd for the evening’s journey, he asked everyone to sit quietly with eyes closed for 30 seconds. He then invited the crowd to
open their eyes and focus on a photograph of civil rights activist Medgar Evers projected on the screen at the front of the room. Evers was assassinated in 1963 in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi home three hours after President John F. Kennedy proclaimed on national television that he was introducing Civil Rights Act legislation to Congress.
As all eyes drank-in Evers’ direct gaze from the screen, a man’s voice rose from the center of the room singing Bob Dylan’s 1960s-era civil rights anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind”. The singer was later introduced as Mark Pearson, member of Seattle band, The Brothers Four. With just a few minutes of ceremony and song, Domke had deftly set the stage for his talk.
Mississippi – A Frightening Battleground
Domke explained that Mississippi, the “magnolia state,” had reached the “pinnacle of white supremacy” in 1964. The Mississippi Summer Project, later known as Freedom Summer, worked for 10 bloody weeks to change that distinction. Starting long ago, in the early 1800’s, Mississippi had implemented “innovative practices” over time to build and bolster white rule.
In 1890, for example, the state constitution disenfranchised blacks, denying their right to vote. In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation, white segregationists in the state created White Citizens’ Councils, which used violence and intimidation to counter civil rights goals and sought to economically and socially oppress blacks.
Mississippi was known for its high rate of lynching to terrorize and subjugate blacks over the course of 80 years. The brutal torture and murder of 14-year old Emmitt Till in 1955 in Money, Mississippi drew national attention to Mississippi’s pattern of lynching and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Till’s mother asked that his body be shipped back to his home in Chicago, where she opted to have an open-casket funeral. His body was on display for five days. Till’s mother said that, despite the pain it caused her to see her son’s dead body on display, she opted for an open-casket funeral in an effort to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”
Mississippi’s hardened stance on race and white supremacy led civil rights organizers to implement the Freedom Summer of 1964. Robert Parris Moses, commonly known as Bob Moses, or “Jesus” because of his calm demeanor and biblical name, was the principle organizer. He worked with a strong team of seasoned activists to bring the effort to life.
A Perilous Summer
Seven hundred college students, many from schools like Yale, Harvard, Oberlin, and University of California at Berkeley, participated in Freedom Summer. Before heading to Mississippi, they were trained by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members. They learned what security measures were necessary for survival and how to take a beating. They also learned how to organize voter registration drives and operate “freedom schools” and “freedom houses,” which offered summertime activities for black children.
On the first day of Freedom Summer, volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner vanished. Their bodies were later
found buried under an earthen dam – volunteers were terrified. Eventually 35 black churches were burned in Mississippi that summer, and five dozen homes and safe houses were bombed. Volunteers were beaten, harassed by police, arrested on fraudulent charges, shot at, and followed by pick-up trucks filled with armed men.
Volunteers also spent time among and lived with the black citizens of rural Mississippi during Freedom Summer. Many came to know Fannie Lou Hamer. The daughter of sharecroppers and the youngest of twenty children with humble roots, she rose to a place of prominence and influence in the civil rights movement. She helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which challenged the dominant force in Mississippi politics. She also was known to break into song and lead others to sing to help manage fear, endure difficulties, and ultimately persevere.
Marian Wright Edelman wrote in her introduction to This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1) by Kay Mills, “For those of us who worked in the civil rights movement, Mrs. Hamer was a towering presence. Standing up to the local white establishment was a hard, frightening, and dangerous step, and most people in her own community were too timid to do it. But Mrs. Hamer’s defining characteristic was her courage.”
Was the Freedom Summer successful? The volunteers registered fewer voters than they had hoped. But, their efforts did succeed in drawing the nation’s attention to Mississippi, its policies, and the plight of the African-American people there. Their work shone a light on longstanding problems.
In his book, Freedom Summer (2), author Bruce Watson quotes Georgia congressman John Lewis, who coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives during Freedom Summer, and who, during the 2008 presidential campaign, said: “Freedom Summer injected a new spirit into the very vein of life in Mississippi and the country. It literally brought the country to Mississippi. People were able to see the horror and evil of blatant racial discrimination. If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer, there would be no Barack Obama.” That’s evidence of an enduring legacy of the commitment and work of Freedom Summer volunteers and organizers.
Postscript: Mississippi U.S. District Judge delivers “breathtaking” speech
Earlier this month (February 2015), Mississippi’s U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves delivered an extraordinary speech during his sentencing of three young white men for the death of a 48-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson in a parking lot in Jackson, Mississippi. National Public Radio (NPR) called the speech “breathtaking” in “both the moral force of its arguments and the palpable sadness with which they are delivered.” See the speech in its entirety here: http://breachofpeace.com/blog/?p=612
The “Marching to Selma” lecture series continues at 7 p.m., Monday, February 23, with the final lecture in the series. All funds collected for admission to the lectures go to support students in the UW Department of Communication.
- Mills, Kay. 2007. This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer. University Press of Kentucky.
- Watson, Bruce. 2010. Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy. Penguin Publishing Group.