At the conclusion of his 2014 keynote address on guarantees enshrined in the Constitution but historically denied to African Americans, Bob Moses – freedom rights activist, educator, and MacArthur Genius award winner – summarized the state of the nation thus: “And we are a country that lurches. We lurch forward and backward, forward and backward. And so we’re lurching right now. We’re lurching backwards. And the question is whether we will gather strength to lurch forward as we approach our third three-quarters of a century.”
That sober assessment was the culminating statement of a 2014 Library of Congress symposium, documented in a webcast, entitled Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964: Memory, Legacy & the Way Forward. The symposium commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of one of the signal events in the African American freedom struggle – the campaign to secure voting rights and political participation for African Americans in Mississippi. The symposium got underway with the official launch of the website for the Civil Rights History Project (CRHP), a national oral history collecting initiative of the Library and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was followed by a panel discussion that highlighted the perspectives of four members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the vanguard, college-student led coalition that was instrumental in organizing the campaign and many other mass actions for freedom, justice and equality for African Americans during the modern civil rights era. The discussion featured Moses, sisters and native Mississippians Dorie Ladner and Joyce Ladner, and Charles Cobb, each of whom reflected on coming of age during the the political and social turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s and how those experiences led to their life-long involvement in freedom politics through SNCC activism. It was moderated by Wesley Hogan, historian and Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (more on the panel below).
Bob Moses’ profound keynote address articulated the structural dis-enfranchisement of African Americans in Mississippi which allowed African Americans only a sharecropper’s education, and nothing else. In the south, possessing only a sharecropper’s education was a guarantee of illiteracy, which further guaranteed denial of the individual’s right to vote by the voting registrar and the courts: “Sharecropper illiteracy, which was established after 1890, right, after 1875, during the period after reconstruction – right down to the Civil Rights Movement, is the subtext of the right to vote.” In Moses’ telling, this structural barrier is no mere artifact, but remains in force in the present day across the country, and not just in Mississippi. In his view, “the huge issue for the 21st century is the issue of whether the country — whether we will gather ourselves together in the country and decide that all the children in the country are also our own, and whether we will figure out that we — actually need to have — lift the issue of public school education to the level of the Constitution. [We need to demand] that there should be a constitutional mandate for educating all of the children in the country.”
His address reminded us that among the leading civil rights organizations that championed the cause of equality and justice for African Americans in the 1960s, SNCC stood apart from others, like the well-established NAACP and the SCLC. One prominent reason was that its members made a sustained commitment to live and work in communities on a long-term basis in an effort to strengthen and support the emergence of local leadership and help develop self-sufficiency in several realms of daily life. In the words of the late Julian Bond, who served as Communications Director for SNCC (1960-65), the organization “created an atmosphere of expectation and anticipation among the people with whom it worked, trusting them to make decisions about their own lives. Thus SNCC widened the definition of politics beyond campaigns and elections; for SNCC, politics encompassed not only electoral races, but also organizing political parties, labor unions, producer cooperatives, and alternative schools” (Bond, pp.27-28). It was only after several years of slow, patient organizing with local communities throughout the South that SNCC, in coordination with local citizens and other civil rights organizations, launched the Freedom Summer project by bringing “one thousand, mostly white, volunteers to Mississippi for the summer of 1964. They helped build the new political party SNCC had organized, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP); registered voters; and staffed twenty-eight “Freedom Schools” intended by their designer, Charles Cobb, ‘to provide an education which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives, and ultimately new directions for action.’” (ibid, pp.21-22).
The conversation among the panelists touched on several of the topics noted above, and also included an eye-popping story from Bob Moses that before he committed himself to the freedom struggle as young college graduate, he was tutor to the recalcitrant teenage pop star, Frankie Lymon, who gained fame with the doo-wop classic, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1956)”! That whimsical anecdote aside, a recurring theme of the discussion was activists’ sense of vulnerability in the face of the real and constant violence directed against them and the local African American citizenry. The discussion made it apparent that of the many signature actions that SNCC planned and executed to break apartheid and white supremacy in the American South, “Mississippi Freedom Summer” was a particularly fraught initiative. This was so given the legacy of structural racism, voter intimidation, racial terror, and Jim Crow laws that brutally supressed African American participation in social and political life in the state. Opposition to “outside agitators” by white residents was coupled with the open hostility of local (and often, federal) law enforcement authorities towards activists.
The complicity of the law with racist terrorists is graphically illustrated in the Herblock cartoon, which features a menacing snake whose head is shaped like a Klansman’s hooded robe. However, such wider acknowledgement of the reality on the ground was a rare thing when it came to the violence directed at African Americans. Charles Cobb emphasized the point when he noted, “I think people today don’t have a real sense of how violent that state was…how murderous that state was. And one of the problems I acknowledge – despite whatever misgivings I might have had about the freedom summer [project]- was the country just was not paying any attention to it. Nobody cared about what was unfolding in Mississippi.” The panel didn’t dwell on SNCC’s strategy of having white college students on hand to both focus national attention on Mississippi and act as a protective shield against racial terror for the African American activists. Indeed that strategy came into question at the very outset of Freedom Summer with the abduction and murders of SNCC workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney in June 1964. The impact of the news on student volunteers like Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons was profound. In Simmons’ interview for the CRHP she recalled the sense of shock she and her cohort felt and the dawning realization of the peril they too faced.
The roll call of mentors and friends who were murdered because they dared to assert their rights as first-class citizens – Louis Allen, Medgar Evers, and Hebert Lee – was a stark reminder of the ultimate costs many paid to attain a just and democratic society before, during and after Freedom Summer. The recollections of Dorie and Joyce Ladner on this topic are especially poignant. Listening to the discussion again, I was reminded of SNCC activist Chuck McDew’s interview for the Civil Rights History Project, in which he matter-of-factly noted: “We knew there was going to be a blood price that had to be paid and that we were going to pay it. Pay it we would…but we’d change this world…this country…also.”
That they did.
Bond, Julian. SNCC: What we did, Monthly Review; Oct. 2000; 52(5):14-28.