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Eyes on the Prize - #5 - Mississippi, Is This America, 1962-1964--VIDEO:
Sunday Review | OPINION
When Civil-Rights Unity Fractured
By PENIEL E. JOSEPH
JUNE 28, 2014
New York Times
FIFTY years ago this month, more than a thousand predominantly young, predominantly white volunteers arrived in Mississippi to help local blacks register to vote. “Freedom Summer” is remembered as both a high point of interracial democratic activism and a low point in racial violence, most notably in the brutal murder of three civil rights workers, two of whom were white.
Yet Freedom Summer was also a historical hinge point — a pivotal moment that helped fracture the civil rights movement’s tenuous unity and spur black political radicalism. In many ways the divisions that manifested themselves in 1964 are still with us today, and any attempt to build new interracial coalitions will have to first wrestle with their legacy.
White veterans of Freedom Summer recall the time as a life-changing event in their personal involvement in the movement, the apotheosis of their vision for biracial, harmonious activism. And the experience did inspire many students to stay in the state afterward and work for groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (also known as the S.N.C.C.). Others, most notably the free-speech activist and Berkeley student Mario Savio, took lessons learned that summer back to their own campuses, seeding the fledgling student movements that would grow to a revolutionary fervor by the end of the decade.
But many black activists saw things quite differently. Not that they didn’t appreciate the voter-registration work being done. But whereas whites tended to see that as an end in itself, a strike against the white power structure in Mississippi, blacks tended to see activism in Mississippi as a means toward a larger goal of confronting racism on a national scale — a path that would take them from the Delta to the Democratic National Convention, held that summer in Atlantic City.
The vehicle for reaching that goal was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an independently organized project led by the sharecropper turned activist Fannie Lou Hamer. With the newly registered black voters as its base, the party planned to challenge the “regular,” all-white Democratic state delegation at the convention, and dare the national party — and President Lyndon B. Johnson — to deny them.
One of the key figures behind the party was Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture). As part of Freedom Summer, he led interracial groups of student volunteers from Greenwood, Miss., which served as a base for the S.N.C.C.’s sprawling efforts throughout the Delta, one of America’s poorest and most racially segregated regions. But he also spent parts of the summer organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a tedious process made even more difficult by harassment, cross burnings and the constant threat of violent reprisals.
That summer shaped Carmichael, long before he became a household name and a synonym for black radicalism. In 1964, at just 23 years old, he had set himself up as an ambassador of sorts, hosting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., coordinating with veteran local activists and recruiting the most promising white volunteers to continue on after the summer.
But Freedom Summer ultimately broke Carmichael’s heart. Yes, voters were registered by the thousands. But as many white volunteers headed home, their spirits lifted by the experience, Carmichael, Hamer and the rest headed to New Jersey, to see if all that work would pay off.
It didn’t. Thanks to the personal intervention of President Johnson — through the Minnesota senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a close ally of the civil rights movement — the convention leadership thwarted the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party’s demands. The discussion between black activists and their liberal allies devolved into a screaming match over a proposed compromise to give the activists two at-large convention seats — which they rejected.
The behavior of the S.N.C.C.’s white liberal allies at the convention helped to sour the black activists’ support for interracial political alliances. White liberals interpreted the rejected offer as the sort of necessary, if unpleasant, compromise that formed the bedrock of democratic politics. Blacks, most potently Carmichael, viewed the proceedings as an enormous betrayal of the very ideal — one person, one vote — that they had gambled their lives on in Mississippi.
The black radical politics of the 1960s and subsequent decades had roots long before 1964. But it was amplified by the events of that summer, precisely at the moment when a new generation of young activists and intellectuals like Carmichael were coming into their own, and those events sent them in a direction far beyond the nonviolent political vision outlined by King a year earlier during the March on Washington.
Instead of biracial politics as an end in itself, power, through local political organizing outside of either major political party, would be Carmichael’s mantra over the next two years. It was in Mississippi in 1966 that he unleashed his controversial call for “black power.”
The emergence of black radicalism in the late 1960s, and the rift in the biracial coalition, is often interpreted as a product of the movement’s shift from the Jim Crow South to the urban North. But the experience in Mississippi and Atlantic City demonstrates how much more complicated the story really is.
It also captures one of the difficulties in forming and maintaining biracial coalitions, as true today as it was 50 years ago: White and black activists will often see the same situation very differently.
But above all, that experience shows why the white version of Freedom Summer — local and minority politics mediated through major political parties — was inadequate. Instead, the grass roots had to accumulate its own power, which 50 years later remains Freedom Summer’s most enduring legacy.
Peniel E. Joseph is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University and the author of “Stokely: A Life.”
Freedom Summer: Looking Beyond Racial Lines
JULY 3, 2014
To the Editor:
As it happens, we both just attended a four-day commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the project. Mr. Joseph argues that it was the different experiences of blacks and whites in the Summer Project that laid the groundwork for black nationalism.
Specifically, he argues that achieving voter registration goals of white volunteers revealed breaches with a black empowerment agenda pursued by blacks. In fact, voter registration remained all but impossible until after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And although factions existed, to be sure, they were not specifically racial ones and not along the lines he describes.
First, there was no “white” agenda before or after the Summer Project. Many volunteers, like one of us, Marshall Ganz, thought the project was meant to support empowerment of local communities by putting a stop to the terror that made any kind of organizing so difficult, and that this was a key step in a broader assault on institutionalized racism in America.
Second, the Summer Project also focused on organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, a key step in breaking through barriers to voter registration and full black participation in politics and public life.
Third, the leadership of the white liberal establishment that supported President Lyndon B. Johnson by urging compromise on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention were joined by black colleagues — and received as much criticism from white volunteers as from black organizers.
The Summer Project was a complex event, with many strengths and weaknesses, and its consequences were anything but unmixed. This merits serious analysis and discussion. But applying an overly simplistic racial lens is disrespectful of the event and the people who took part.
Mr. Ganz is a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mr. Bond, the civil rights leader, is professor emeritus at the University of Virginia.
The Upshot Page
New York Times
Fifty years ago this week, three young civil rights activists — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — vanished in Neshoba County, Miss.
That same week, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate and was on its way to President Lyndon Johnson for his signature. Mississippi had been seething with death threats against young men and women who had come to register African-American voters in what they called “Freedom Summer.” Goodman and Schwerner were white New Yorkers, Chaney a black Mississippian.
Thanks to Johnson’s secret taping system, we can go back to that moment and hear the president and those around him reacting to the terrible news.
“What do you think happened?” L.B.J. asks his assistant legal counsel, Lee White. “Think they got killed?”
White replies: “This morning they had absolutely no trace. As far as they’re concerned, they just disappeared from the face of the earth.”
Johnson recalls that in preparation for Freedom Summer, he had asked J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director, “to fill up Mississippi with F.B.I. men and infiltrate” the Ku Klux Klan and other militant segregationist groups — “that they haul them in by the dozens.”
“The only weapon I have for locating them is the F.B.I.,” he says. “I can’t find them myself.”
He scoffs at the suggestion by his growing political rival, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that the president visit with the missing young men’s parents. “I’m afraid that if I start housemothering each kid that’s gone down there and that doesn’t show up, that we’ll have this White House full of people every day, asking for sympathy,” he tells Kennedy’s deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach. “And congressmen too, because they want to come over and have their picture made and get on TV.”
Asked what he thinks befell the young men, Katzenbach says they probably “got picked up by some of these Klan people.”
Johnson asks, “And murdered?”
“Or else they’re just being hidden in one of those barns,” Katzenbach says. “And having the hell scared out of them.”
When L.B.J. calls Senator James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat and a well-known segregationist, Eastland makes it clear he is anything but sympathetic to the young men’s plight.
“I don’t believe there’s three missing,” he sputters. “I believe it’s a publicity stunt.”
Then Hoover calls the president to report that the F.B.I. has found the Ford station wagon that the three had been riding in. “The car was burned,” he says, “and we do not know yet whether any bodies are inside of the car because of the intense heat that still is in the area of the car.
“Apparently what’s happened — these men have been killed. … This is merely an assumption — that probably they were burned in the car. On the other hand, they may have been taken out and killed on the outside.”
“Or maybe kidnapped and locked up,” Johnson says.
Ruefully, Hoover says, “I would doubt whether those people down there would give them even that much of a break.”
Soon the president realizes he must see the young men’s relatives, but wants it done quietly. “Tell them to just come down to your office, and come in that side door,” he instructs Lee White. “Tell them what-all we’ve done, and let me come over and say a word. And I just ought to tell them we’ve found the car.”
White says, “That’s going to be rough.”
When Goodman’s parents and Schwerner’s father entered the Oval Office, Goodman’s mother, Carolyn, heard L.B.J. talking to Hoover about finding the car. She later recalled, “I wanted to leap toward his desk and shout: ‘Tell me quickly. Are they all right?'”
Johnson took her hand and described the flaming wreck, saying, “Ma’am, we’ll do everything we can.”
But on Aug. 4, 1964, the remains of the three brave men were discovered under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. Chaney had been shot three times and bludgeoned, the other two shot through the heart.
Twenty-one Ku Klux Klansmen and local law enforcement officials were accused by the F.B.I. in the case, but the Mississippi authorities would not prosecute for murder. Instead, the federal government was reduced to prosecuting 18 for denying the three victims their civil rights; seven were found guilty, and each served less than six years.
Edgar Ray Killen, a Klansman accused of supervising the murders, stayed free until 2005, when, at the age of 80, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian, is the author of nine books and a contributor to NBC News and “PBS NewsHour.” Follow him on Twitter at @BeschlossDC.
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