Some things in life are unforgettable. I’ll never forget, when I was 11 and living in Southern, N.J., watching a CBS documentary called “The Search in Mississippi” with my parents in 1964. On the show, Walter Cronkite reported on the search for three volunteers with the “Freedom Summer Project,” a campaign to register African-American voters in Mississippi, who had disappeared. One of the volunteers, James Chaney, 21,was black and from Mississippi. The other two volunteers – Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, were white New Yorkers. They were among the hundreds of volunteers, black and white, who’d risked their lives to go to Mississippi that summer to non-violently fight for the right to vote for African Americans. “They’ve probably been murdered,” my Dad said, choking up, about the volunteers who’d been missing.
Unfortunately, my Dad was right. They were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Miss. on June 21, the first day of Freedom Summer. Forty-four days after they disappeared, their remains were found.
“This is a wonderful town,” Goodman wrote on a postcard he mailed to his parents on the day he was murdered, “Our reception was very good.”
This summer is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. Like many such anniversaries, it’s bittersweet.
In 1964, voter suppression efforts targeting African Americans were among the highest in the country. In 1962, fewer than 7 percent of black people in Mississippi were registered to vote and there had been 539 lynchings of African Americans from 1882 to 1964. Over a 10-week period that summer, volunteers — black, white, Jewish and Christian — put their bodies on the line. They were beaten and put in jail. The amount of fear and intimidation that they endured is impossible to adequately convey or imagine.
The beatings and murders of African Americans hadn’t received much publicity. The bodies of eight other black men were found with the remains of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. But, because Goodman and Schwerner were white, their murders enraged the nation and were covered widely in the media. President Lyndon Johnson and Congress used this outrage to pass the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Freedom Summer volunteers established more than 40 Freedom Schools. The schools taught math, reading, black history and other subjects to more than 3,000 African-American students in Mississippi. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. These successes are a wonderful vindication of the Freedom Summer Project — a non-violent, social justice movement. If only these victories had not come with unjust bloodshed and loss of human lives.
More important is that so much more needs to be done before justice will be achieved. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. After that, “immediately a number of states moved to implement laws that would essentially reduce voter turnout among minority groups,” wrote David Goodman, Andrew Goodman’s brother, in a commentary for fdlreporter.com.
Today, half a century on from Freedom Summer, people worldwide, including members of the LGBT community, are still fighting for equality and justice. In the fight for same-sex marriage, the right to vote is vital.
“As a young, black, queer woman who directly benefits from the legacy of Freedom Summer, I commit to working towards a justice for all people that is yet to be realized,” Human Rights Campaign Youth and Campus Outreach Assistant Samantha Master, wrote on the HRC website.
This summer, the LGBT community has been marking the Freedom Summer 50th anniversary. HRC is organizing a Moral Freedom Summer voter registration campaign. This week (June 23-29), Master and other LGBT leaders, have been featured at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference in Jackson, Miss.
In 1964, the young women and men of Freedom Summer “had the courage to go to the lion’s den and try to scrub the lion’s teeth,” Maya Angelou said.
The struggle for justice continues. I hope we have the courage to go to the lion’s den.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.