In the summer of 1964, hundreds of privileged, white college students from some of America’s most exclusive institutions traveled to Mississippi to help break the stranglehold of segregation in that part of the country — primarily by registering black people to vote.
Idealistic and naïve, these students had no idea what they were getting into, or what kind of hatred and violence they were up against.
Freedom Summer, a documentary premiering on PBS’s American Experience tonight, June 24 (check local listings), the 50th anniversary of the fateful time, is the inspiring and sometimes frightening story of that summer, told through the voices of people who lived through it.
(MORE: Remembering and Reimagining Aug. 28, 1963)
A Rigged Voting Process
Based on Bruce Watson’s book, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season that Made Mississippi Burn and America a Democracy, the documentary sets the stage by describing what Mississippi was like in the early 1960s. In 1963, only 6.7 percent of black adults in the state were registered to vote. And if any of them ever actually tried to exercise their right to vote, they risked losing their jobs, having their home repossessed or worse.
Fear of reprisal kept many black voters away. But the process was also rigged, because any black person who wanted to become a registered voter had to take a “literacy test” that was virtually impossible to pass.
“The state of Mississippi deliberately kept black people uneducated and ignorant, then turned around and made education a requirement in order to participate in the political process,” says one of the volunteers in the film.
Furthermore, an all-white organization called the Citizens Council (whose motto was “States rights. Racial integrity.”) arrested blacks who tried to register and harassed white people sympathetic to their cause. Acting in the belief that they were fighting to preserve the way of life with which they grew up, these unapologetic racists would use any means necessary to prevent black people from voting — including arson, starvation, terrorism and murder.
(MORE: Growing Up White During the Early Days of School Busing)
A Chilling Visit to the Past
Freedom Summer doesn’t just include interviews with activists and volunteers; it also contains interviews with former Citizens Council members as well as chilling footage of leaders and politicians in Mississippi spewing the sort of racist rhetoric that was typical at the time.
Freedom Summer, itself, actually began in June of 1964, after a three-year effort by the predominately black Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had proven ineffective.
The idea behind Freedom Summer was for the SNCC to combine forces with the army of volunteers from the North and organize a statewide voter-registration and education campaign.
The fact that most of the volunteers were young white college kids did not sit well with SNCC, however. The situation was so volatile that, the documentary says, many SNCC members thought, “These people are going to get us killed.”
Three of the first volunteers to arrive in Mississippi immediately went missing — and, after their burned-out car was found in a swamp, were presumed dead. The hundreds of volunteers who arrived afterward were told explicitly that they might not survive the summer.
Yet they came anyway, because, as one former volunteer explained, they thought: “How bad could it be?”
Very bad, as it turned out.
‘I Expected a Bullet to Hit Me’
“I saw in Mississippi a white population that I had never even imagined existed,” recalls former volunteer Linda Wetmore Halpern of the day she arrived. “The vile, absolute hatred in their eyes when they saw us coming — it scared me.”
Halpern was threatened by a group of men who harassed her, threw a rope around her neck and led her down a dirt road behind their truck before releasing her.
More than 700 volunteers were placed around the state, most of them living with black families in the poorest backwaters of the state. They set up “freedom schools” to teach kids and adults about black history and the Constitution.
They traveled door to door, trying to convince a frightened population to take control of their future through the simple act of voting. And they did it fearing that they, too, could be the next to die.
“There were always moments when I wondered if I could make it through that day, and then through the next one,” one volunteer recalls. “In my mind, I expected a bullet to hit me.”
A Groundswell of Support
Yet, despite the tension and fear, the stories that emerge from those who were there are full of hope and gratitude. According to Watson, “The beauty of Freedom Summer was the tenacity shown by the local people and the volunteers by staying on and on despite the violence, despite the threats, despite the three bodies.”
Those bodies were found in August, in a shallow grave. Rita Schwerner Bender's husband, Michael, was one of them. Interviewed extensively in the documentary, Schwerner Bender spearheaded a relentless campaign to find out what happened to Michael, bringing in the FBI and sparking a national media frenzy.
Aware of a groundswell of national support behind their cause, activists in the state formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, whose mission quickly became to unseat the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
(MORE: 1964: The Year America Lost It)
The fascinating coda to Freedom Summer takes place at the 1964 Democratic convention. Using audio from President Lyndon Johnson’s archives, we hear the president expressing his fear that the Mississippi Freedom campaign is going to derail the convention and fracture his support in the South.
We then hear Johnson, playing hardball politics, recruit Sen. Hubert Humphrey to quell the uprising at the convention — threatening that if he fails, Humphrey will not be his pick for Vice President.
Johnson’s biggest foe was an unlikely but powerful one. Her name was Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper from Mississippi whose impassioned testimony at the convention scared LBJ so much that he trumped up an impromptu press conference at the White House to prevent her speech from being televised.
The tactic backfired when the bogus press conference became the story and networks replayed Hamer’s mesmerizing performance over and over again to a national audience.
In the end, LBJ’s tactics did not fail, however. The Mississippi delegation went home empty-handed, LBJ was re-elected and Humphrey became his Vice President.
But the following year, Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, then the Voting Rights Act, one of the key provisions of which was to eliminate the “literacy test” that had prevented so many black people from registering to vote in Mississippi.
By the end of 1965, 65 percent of eligible black people were registered to vote in Mississippi and the Jim Crow laws that had kept the South segregated for almost 90 years were abolished.
Freedom Summer captures with remarkable immediacy the three-month period in American history — from June to August 1964 — that forced these radical changes. The interviews with volunteers who participated in Freedom Summer are spliced with photos and video footage of their younger selves 50 years earlier, creating a connection to the truth that is as undeniable as it compelling. It’s not hard to imagine what these people went through — but it is hard to fathom that it was ever necessary.
Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.