Freedom Summer had just begun, and hundreds of white, Northern college students had volunteered to do civil rights work in Mississippi as news broke that three men—Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, a 24-year-old full-time activist for the Congress of Racial Equality; James Chaney, a local, 21-year-old CORE activist; and Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old Freedom Summer volunteer—had disappeared in Neshoba County, Miss.
In the days after they went missing, the national media descended on Mississippi to report on the subsequent investigation, but when Michael’s wife, Rita Schwerner, was interviewed about the disappearances, she turned the tables on them, quietly stating, “It’s tragic, as far as I’m concerned, that white Northerners have to be caught up in the machinery of injustice and indifference in the South before the American people register concern,” noting that “if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippian Negro, had been alone at the time of the disappearance, that this case, like so many others that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed.”
A prescient—and powerful—observation.
This week, as we commemorate the three young men who lost their lives at the start of Freedom Summer 50 years ago, it’s wise to remember not only the injustice of their deaths but also the race-based calculus that determined whether or not the national media would report on violence in Mississippi. We should also heed Rita Schwerner’s call to remember not only her husband but also those who had gone before—and who would come after—and the wider context of the fight for freedom in Mississippi for which they gave their lives.
Many of the iconic moments of the movement celebrated in our popular memory had already taken place by the summer of 1964. Rosa Parks had resisted on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and sparked the boycott that launched Martin Luther King Jr. into prominence. The Little Rock Nine had faced down mobs in order to desegregate Central High School. College students throughout the South had sat in at lunch counters to protest the exclusion of black patrons. Black children in Birmingham, Ala., had faced down dogs and fire hoses to desegregate their city. King had already shared his dream with America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 had passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was well on its way to being passed by the Senate.
However, the movement had not conquered Mississippi, a state where 539 black people had been lynched since the close of Reconstruction. Most of the movement up until that point had focused on dismantling segregation in schools and public facilities and relied on national media to draw attention to ongoing racial inequity and violence. But dismantling urban segregation did little to improve the economic deprivation faced by sharecroppers on rural plantations or to provide safety and economic mobility for black landowners. Instead, sharecroppers needed new policies that would challenge unfair labor conditions, and black landowners needed elected officials who would serve and protect them just as they did their white neighbors.
Black Mississippians who wanted to dismantle the strictures of the particular kind of white supremacy that they faced would have to fight for their right to vote, and Freedom Summer would be the culmination of years of efforts to make sure that the victories of the movement would be felt in Mississippi, too.
Efforts to make change in the 1960s began in earnest when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Bob Moses arrived in Mississippi to start organizing a voting-rights campaign in the summer of 1961. He tapped into the existing networks of resistance grounded in the activism of black veterans of World War II, men like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers. This early generation, who had long faced a violent onslaught when challenging “whites only” democracy, shared what they knew with Moses and SNCC.
SNCC, working with existing organizations as part of the Council of Federated Organizations, or COFO, worked valiantly for voter registration. And black Mississippians like Fannie Lou Hamer and Herbert Lee emerged as leaders willing to work with this new generation of activists and inspire their friends and neighbors to get involved. But the pushback from white supremacist organizations like the White Citizens’ Councils and corrupt police and county sheriffs was hard to bear.
Hundreds, including SNCC activists, were beaten and jailed. Hamer and a group of female activists were mercilessly beaten and sexually assaulted in the Winona, Miss., jail. Lee was murdered in broad daylight by E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state legislator who had, at one time, been his childhood friend. Five others were killed, and yet the media failed to rally to the side of the Mississippi campaign. Only the murder of Evers, who was assassinated in the driveway of his Jackson, Miss., home as he organized NAACP efforts to contest segregation in the city, drew national media attention.