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“When you’re in Mississippi the rest of America doesn’t seem real. And when you’re in the rest of America, Mississippi doesn’t seem real. ” – Bob Moses, Mississippi Freedom Summer Director

Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary

The Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964 was born of necessity. The ranks of civil rights workers in the state were being devastated and the nation needed to pay attention. The proposal to bring hundreds of college students into Mississippi for the summer to work as voter registration and Freedom School volunteers was controversial. Opponents worried that the mostly white students didn’t know the state, might distract from building grassroots leadership and could provoke even more retaliation from Mississippi segregationists. But according to civil rights veterans who convened the 50th Anniversary gathering of Mississippi Freedom Summer in Jackson this past June, it was the local leaders, like former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, who strongly supported the idea.

When I traveled to Mississippi by Greyhound Bus in the 1960s, it felt as though I were entering a foreign country. A country where blacks and whites could end up dead for appearing together in public; where registering to vote could lead to the firebombing of your home; and where it was a crime for black men to look directly into the eyes of white women. Speaking at the reunion, former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Bob Moses said that Mississippi was a law unto itself at that time, defying the Constitution and the federal government, and leading the country in racism and resistance to progress.

Civil rights veteran Hollis Watkins, the youngest of 12 children and chairman of the anniversary planning committee, emphasized that Freedom Summer was part of a continuum of struggle that went back to slavery. That struggle was augmented by the 80,000 black World War II veterans who came home to Mississippi after the war to find they couldn’t enjoy the freedoms they had fought abroad to protect. Many of those veterans, along with local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) members and other grassroots leaders across Mississippi, housed and supported the younger generation of civil rights organizers who came to the state in the early 1960s. In describing that era, Moses said, “They gave us the crawl space to do what we did.”


Crawl space maybe, but anyone fighting to change the Mississippi segregationist status-quo faced unspeakable state-sanctioned abuse and violence. During a startling Tribute to Those Murdered and Martyred in Mississippi, we were asked to remember those civil rights activists murdered between the late 1940s and 1966 – “the strong black bridges we crossed over,” as speaker Judy Richardson described them. Slowly the name, face and birth/death dates of each person were projected on a large screen for us to acknowledge. As the names and faces added up to well over 200, the audience felt the heavy burden of suffering and loss. For nearly all of those killed, we learned that their killers were never convicted.

It was into this environment that volunteers were invited to spend the summer of 1964 with the hope that their parents, ministers, friends, local newspapers and neighbors would finally have a reason to care about conditions for black people in Mississippi. My own mother was moved to collect money, clothing and supplies, as well as to forward my letters demanding federal intervention to the L.A. Times and our local Congressman.

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The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary gathering was a way to make sure that Mississippi’s civil rights history is defined by those organizers and local leaders who made it.

But the Mississippi Reunion was not just about the past. Of the 1,200 people attending, 450 were young activists from across the country with their own workshops and trainings in organizing, political advocacy and mobilization. (The youth organized an energetic demonstration to support 4,000 Nissan workers in nearby Canton, Mississippi who are fighting to form a union). Another 500 participants were civil rights veterans in their 60s, 70s and 80s. And the rest were teachers, academics, filmmakers and writers exploring the civil rights era, or others anxious to reconnect with the history. The afternoons of the five-day gathering addressed such current challenges as laws limiting voting rights, health disparities, workers’ rights and inequality in education — showing, as civil rights veteran Tim Jenkins asserted, that “Freedom Summer has no beginning and no end.”

So what was the impact of Freedom Summer? According to historian and writer Taylor Branch, “The movement opened up freedom for a lot of different people. It proved that the race issue is at the heart of the promise and the problem of the United States. By pushing on the gates of freedom on the race issue, Freedom Summer opened it up for everyone.” But he emphasized that “for every push forward there is an effort to misremember the movement and what it meant for the whole country.”

The Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary gathering was a way to make sure that Mississippi’s civil rights history is defined by those organizers and local leaders who made it.

[dc]“O[/dc]ur mission was to transform people from subjects to citizens . . . lay another axe at the foot of the tree of inequality,” Jenkins said. “In Freedom Summer we moved beyond sentiment to moral action — moral action as an alternative to politics and commerce,” Jenkins declared. “These dry bones of our departed must be given life,” by continuing the unfinished work of that movement.

vivian rothstein

To connect with the Mississippi Freedom Summer Movement visit

Vivian Rothstein
Capital & Main