Thirty years after Mississippi's 'freedom summer'

THIS SEASON marks the 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and the lessons of that summer apply today, as we all confront a nationwide epidemic of violence.

In 1964, more than 1,000 Northern college students -- mostly white but some black -- went south to Mississippi. There they helped veteran civil rights workers rekindle a campaign to register black voters threatened by white-supremacist terrorism.


Freedom Summer was the brainchild of Robert Moses (of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and David Dennis (of the Congress of Racial Equality). They had worked for more than a year to register black Mississippians to vote, and throughout they had been attacked by white supremacists who did not hesitate to use violence and intimidation.

The toll of the soul-numbing beatings, murders, and church bombings was clear: Of the 400,000 black adults in the state, only 80,000 voted in the election of 1963.


I was not even in the South in 1964, and I was aware of only a tiny proportion of the deaths, but I remember the slaughter vividly. The killings that nauseated me most occurred in Alabama in 1963: the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls in Sunday school. Many Americans recall that attack, but so many bombings went unpunished in Birmingham that the city acquired the name "Bombingham."

In fact, there was little justice for much of the violence against black Americans. In 1955, Emmett Till had been brutally murdered in Mississippi; his killers were acquitted. Martin Luther King Jr.'s house was bombed during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955; there were no arrests. In 1963, Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway in cold blood; his killer was freed by two courts. Many, many more were lost, without their deaths bringing the franchise any closer.

By 1964, civil rights workers realized that even though blood was flowing like rivers, the blood of black people meant little to American public opinion. Bob Moses and David Dennis concluded that the background of the activists would have to change before American public opinion would pay attention to the body-count. Middle-class whites would have to be involved.

Freedom Summer began with death: the assassination of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Chaney was black and from Meridian, Goodman and Schwerner were Jews from New York. Moses and Dennis were right: There was wide press coverage as white-supremacist terrorism leapt over the color line and into full view.

As the summer progressed, white civil rights workers were harassed and hounded as they and their black co-workers managed to register only 1,200 black Mississippians to vote. The whites attracted press coverage but did not neutralize racist slurs and assaults. The students in Freedom Summer began to learn that when black life is cheap, the value of life in general is discounted.

This is the lesson that all Americans must learn if we are to stem the gruesome tide of violence at our doorstep. Part of that lesson includes a historical reckoning, which is under way.

Although there has not been a conviction in the Emmett Till murder, in 1977, Robert Chambliss was convicted for the Sixteenth Street Church bombing. Last winter, Byron De La Beckwith was finally convicted after his third trial for the murder of Medgar Evers. In Florida, the descendants of the victims of the Rosewood massacre of 1923 -- a week-long racist attack on an entire town of African Americans -- are seeking compensation.

If Americans can come to terms with the racist violence in our past, we can come to terms with violence, period. We can face up to family violence and stranger violence, to spouse abuse and child abuse and drive-by killings. Perhaps it's time for a new Freedom Summer, a campaign for freedom from violence in every state, city, town and household of the United States. As it was 30 years ago, Americans of all races will need to take a part, because, as it was 30 years ago, we all stand to gain.


Nell Irvin Painter teaches American history at Princeton University.