June 20, 2014 | By Dr. Wesley Arden Dick, Professor of History
The 1960s were a tumultuous time and the Civil Rights Movement, both its accomplishments and its failures, defined the decade. Following the Sit-In Movement of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Movement (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) turned to voter registration as a key to challenging the South’s Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans.
In the summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Movement focused on Mississippi where fewer than 7% of African Americans were registered to vote. Their campaign to change MIssissippi was called Freedom Summer. Black college students had played the key role in the sit-ins and in the formation of SNCC. Freedom Summer included an influx of northern white college students. For defenders of Mississippi’s segregated status quo, the Freedom Summer volunteers were an invading army threatening the southern way of life, and the Mississippi “good ole boys” were determined to defend their way of life “by any means necessary,” including the use of violence.
Those of us of age in 1964 remember when we heard the news that three civil rights workers, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, had gone missing as Freedom Summer was just under way. June 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the shocking news. While those in the civil rights community presumed that the three had been killed, it was not until August 4 that their bodies were discovered buried in an earthen dam. Volunteers Schwerner and Goodman, white, and Chaney, Black, had become martyrs in one of America’s proudest crusades. The three, who were investigating the burning of a Black church, had been kidnapped and murdered by a modern lynch mob that included law enforcement officials.
On the Civil Rights South Seminar travels led by Julian Bond, Albion’s 2014 Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation speaker, I have had the haunting experience of visiting the actual location in Mississippi where the three young men were beaten and shot to death. As communications director for SNCC, Julian Bond was part of Freedom Summer. Dr. Cleveland Sellers, Albion’s 2013 MLK, Jr. Convocation speaker, was also part of SNCC and Freedom Summer. In his memoir, The River of No Return, Sellers describes searching for the bodies and the atmosphere of terror and fear in Mississippi.
On June 18, I had the opportunity to participate in a WKAR preview and discussion in East Lansing of the upcoming PBS American Experience film entitled “Freedom Summer,” which will air Tuesday, June 24 on WKAR at 9 p.m. I recommend it to those who remember the 1960s and also to later generations and our current students. The film is a compelling portrayal of the price paid for voting in America and a reminder that all of us have a civic responsibility to “form a more perfect union.” The story of Freedom Summer is painful, but inspirational.