In the summer of 1964 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a Mississippi coalition of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), invited northern white college students to spearhead a massive black voter-registration and education campaign aimed at challenging white supremacy in the Deep South. This campaign, which became known as Freedom Summer, was the culmination of COFO's efforts to attack black disfranchisement in Mississippi. COFO had been formed in 1962 in response to the Kennedy administration's offer of tax-exempt status and funding from liberal philanthropies to civil rights organizations that focused their activities on increasing black voter registration. The considerable success of COFO activists in sparking the interest of black Mississippians in voter registration during the summer of 1963 prompted them to propose an entire summer of civil rights activities in 1964 to focus national attention on the disfranchisement of blacks in Mississippi, and to force the federal government to protect the civil rights of African Americans in the South.
The SNCC played the largest role in the project and provided most of its funding. Robert Moses of the SNCC was the guiding force behind the summer project, and the overwhelming majority of COFO staff workers were SNCC members who were veterans of the long fight for racial equality in Mississippi.
Approximately a thousand northern white college students, committed to social change and imbued with liberal ideals, volunteered to participate in the Freedom Summer campaign. Under the direction of SNCC veterans, these volunteers created community centers that provided basic services such as health care to the black community and initiated voter education activities and literacy classes aimed at encouraging black Mississippians to register to vote. SNCC activists also directly challenged the segregated policies of the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party by supporting the efforts of local black leaders to run their own candidates under the party name Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP efforts encouraged over seventeen thousand African Americans to vote for the sixty-eight delegates who attended the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in the summer of 1964 and demanded to be seated in replacement of the regular Democratic organization. The MFDP challenge, though unsuccessful, focused national attention on Mississippi and propelled Fanny Lou Hamer, a local activist, into the national spotlight.
Another focus of the Freedom Summer was institutionalized educational inequities in Mississippi. Thirty COFO project sites created "Freedom Schools," administered under the direction of Staughton Lynd, a white Spelman College history professor, to provide an alternative education to empower black children to challenge their oppression. These schools provided students with academic training in remedial topics, as well as in more specialized subjects such as art and French. A key goal of the schools was to develop student leadership and foster activism through discussions about current events, black history, the philosophy behind the civil rights movement, and other cultural activities. Despite the overcrowding and the perennial lack of facilities, over three thousand African-American students attended the Freedom Schools.
Violence framed the context of all COFO activities and created a climate of tension and fear within the organization. White supremacists bombed or burned sixty-seven homes, churches, and black businesses over the course of the summer, and by the end of the project, at least three civil rights workers—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—had been killed by southern whites, four had been critically wounded, eight hundred had been beaten, and over a thousand had been arrested. The reluctance of the state government to prosecute the perpetrators of these acts of violence and the failure of the federal government to intervene to provide protection
for civil rights workers left many activists disillusioned about the federal government's ability or desire to ensure racial justice.
The impact and legacy of the Freedom Summer stretched far beyond the borders of Mississippi. Many Freedom Summer programs lived on when the project ended and COFO disbanded. Freedom Summer community centers provided a model for federally funded clinics, Head Start programs, and other War on Poverty programs. Freedom Schools served as models for nationwide projects in alternative schooling. The barriers to black voting uncovered and publicized during the summer project provided stark evidence of the need for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made literacy tests and poll taxes illegal.
The Freedom Summer facilitated the development of a radical new political consciousness among many white volunteers, who found the summer to be a powerful experience of political education and personal discovery. At least one-third of the volunteers stayed on in Mississippi to continue the struggle for black equality. Many volunteers who returned to the North were disillusioned with the promises of the federal government and became activists in the New Left and the antiwar movement. Mario Savio, a Freedom Summer veteran, emerged in the fall of 1964 as the principal spokesperson of the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley, a key event in the emergence of the New Left.
The Freedom Summer experience was also an important catalyst for the women's liberation movement. Group consciousness of gender oppression among white women grew markedly during the summer as male volunteers were assigned more visible organizing tasks. In November 1964, at a SNCC staff meeting in Waveland, Mississippi, Mary King and Casey Hayden, two white staff members, presented an anonymous position paper criticizing the enforced inferiority of women in the Freedom Summer project and their exclusion from the decision-making process. This memo was one of the first discussions of the issues that would form the basis of the emerging women's movement within the New Left.
The experience of the Freedom Summer also radicalized black civil rights workers—though in quite different ways from white radicals. The summer helped steer black radicals in the SNCC away from interracial movements and toward a suspicion of white participation that came to characterize the Black Power movement. Subsequent debates in the civil rights movement about the doctrine of interracialism were fueled by what the Freedom Summer revealed about the successes, and inherent limitations, of interracial civil rights activity. From the inception of the project, some black SNCC activists contested the Freedom Summer's premise that national attention could only be garnered by exposing white people to the violence and brutality that black people faced daily. These blacks were veterans of the long battle with white racists that the SNCC had waged in Mississippi since 1961, were increasingly skeptical of liberal politics, and believed that the presence of white volunteers—who often tended to appropriate leadership roles and interact with black people in a paternalistic manner—would undermine their goal of empowering Mississippi blacks and hamper their efforts to foster and support black-controlled institutions in Mississippi. Tensions and hostility between black and white COFO activists were further inflamed by interracial liaisons that were often premised on the very racial stereotypes and misconceptions that they sought to surmount.
However, the Freedom Summer's most enduring legacy was the change of consciousness it engendered among black Mississippians. The Freedom Summer succeeded in initiating thousands of African Americans into political action, providing thousands of black children with an antiracist education, and creating such black-led institutions as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Fannie Lou Hamer provided a fitting testament to the impact of the Freedom Summer when she stated in 1966, "Before the 1964 summer project there were people that wanted change, but they hadn't dared to come out. After 1964 people began moving. To me it's one of the greatest things that ever happened in Mississippi."
See also Chaney, James Earl; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; Moses, Robert Parris; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
Cagin, Seth, and Philip Dray. We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
Martinez, Elizabeth Sutherland, ed. Letters from Mississippi. Brookline, Mass.: Zephyr Press, 2002.
Weisbrot, Robert. Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement. New York: Norton, 1990.
robyn spencer (1996)