Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Freedom Summer": The story of civil rights volunteers in Mississippi in the summer of 1964

The AFI Docs screening of “Freedom Summer” today at the Naval Archive in Washington as part of AFI Docs was indeed a sellout. There was a robust QA with the director Stanley Nelson and with five of the original 1964 volunteers, now in their 70s, who had worked.   The film will show on PBS American Experience on Tuesday, June 24.

In the summer of 1964, I was preparing to return to college full time and stop working in my first ever wage earning job, and still rather naïve as to what really went on in a lot of the world.  The newspapers reported the murders in Mississippi of three civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, describing them as three “fine young men”.  But the newspapers didn’t describe the level of racial hatred among whites in some parts of the South and they didn’t explain the politics over poll taxes, literacy requirements, and access to the polls.

Put bluntly, southern whites feared that if blacks could vote, they would get into office, take over and evict whites from their ante-bellum inherited properties. 

Mississippi had entered its own world legally, passing strict voter registration laws to keep out blacks after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.  Police and sheriffs were widely corrupt and colluded with white violence to keep blacks out.  There was an attitude that when a black person passed a white man on the street in Mississippi, he was supposed to tip his hat in deference.  That point was made in the opening minutes of the film.
The Freedom Project recruited hundreds of volunteers from the North, most of them white college students and recent graduates, to go down and live in the homes of rural Mississippi black families, and live the lives of black people (taking orders from them) as they went around and ran classes helping black voters learn how to pass the tests.  They “walked the walk”.  I’m reminded of more recent drives of various churches, to send youth and college teams down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or to other countries in Central America – some of them becoming more dangerous – to work on missions or various local projects.

The African-American hosts, then, offered what a local Arlington VA church (Trinity Presbyterian) calls "radical hospitality" -- with a twist.  (Check the label on my main blog.)
During the QA, one volunteer made the point that the three civil rights workers didn’t “give their lives”.  Their lives were taken.

The official site  is here (PBS amd Firelight Media).

Toward the end, the film traces the effort of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat the regular white delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.  The film shows tapes of Lyndon Johnson’s political maneuvering to save himself.  But in 1965, Johnson would support the Voting Rights Act, which some say turned over the South to the Republican Party for forty years.  Johnson’s own language on the tapes often sounds racist.

Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African Americans in state and local government positions and in office of any state.
I visited Philadelphia MS myself in 1985 and was around Tupelo one night in May this year, after the tornado.  

Update: June 25, 2014

Jim Moran writes that SCOTUS undermined the Voting Rights Act with its ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, his op-ed here. Apparently the PBS airing did well last night. 

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