Who Were the White Folks of Freedom Summer?

From SNCC leaders to Freedom School organizers, these are their stories.

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Michael Schwerner and Adam Goodman    

Wikimedia Commons

It’s well-known that 1964’s Freedom Summer, as it came to be called, was an interracial effort, with many white college students joining African Americans to register voters in Mississippi. It was the murder of three civil rights activists—two of them white—by members of the Ku Klux Klan that sparked national outrage and drew national attention to the struggle for access to the ballot. Ironically, thanks to a racially biased press, it was those murders and the presence of nonblack activists that many believe earned the work the headlines it deserved. From Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders to Freedom School organizers, here are some of these activists’ stories:


1. Heather Booth

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Heather Booth

Courtesy of Northern Illinois University

In 1964 Heather Booth was a freshman in college when she decided to travel to Mississippi to join the Freedom Summer Project. Booth had been an active member of SNCC before joining the project. She went on to become the founding director of the Midwest Academy, a training organization for activists. Booth also became the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund. Considered one of the most notable alums of Freedom Summer, she is currently vice president of USAction.

2. Dr. June Finer

During Freedom Summer, June Finer worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights, which provided emergency care for volunteers and activists in Mississippi. She also worked as MCHR’s Southern coordinator the following summer. Under her leadership the organization dispatched medical volunteers to provide medical observation at protests and document the injuries of protesters.

3. Frank Cieciorka

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Courtesy of Bobbi and Frank Cieciorka

Frank Cieciorka was a well-known graphic designer known for drawing images for leftist organizations and movements. During Freedom Summer, he volunteered as a field secretary for SNCC. Cieciorka also assisted in organizing the racially integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party while in the state for Freedom Summer. He continued teaching in Freedom Schools throughout the South. In 1965 he co-wrote Negroes in American History: A Freedom Primer (pdf). Cieciorka died in 2008 at age 69.

4. Mary King

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Mary King

Courtesy of Mary King

Mary King ran SNCC’s communications from 1963 to 1964, based in Atlanta. In 1964 she continued to work on SNCC’s communications  in Jackson, Miss. Her office was responsible for contacting jails when activists were arrested, contacting the media on SNCC’s behalf and publishing SNCC's newspaper, the Student Voice.

5. Miriam Cohen Glickman

Miriam Cohen Glickman was one of the first white women to do field work in the South. She was on staff with SNCC during Freedom Summer and also taught adult literacy classes. While working in Meridian, Miss., she was assumed to be “bright,” another term for light-skinned black Americans. Tensions about white workers in SNCC eventually forced Glickman out of the organization. She went on to become an educator and currently lives in California.

6. Casey Hayden

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Casey Hayden    

Courtesy of Washington University

A leading activist during Freedom Summer, Casey Hayden worked with Bob Moses to organize the voter-registrations drives. Hayden was in Jackson when James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner disappeared. She is the co-author of Deep in Our Hearts: Nine White Women in the Freedom Movement.

7. Howard Zinn

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Howard Zinn    

Wikimedia Commons

Renowned historian Howard Zinn was working as a professor at Spelman in 1964 and lent his efforts to the Freedom Summer Project, becoming an active champion of civil rights. Zinn went on to publish the critically acclaimed A People’s History of the United States. Zinn passed away in 2010.

8. Constance Curry

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Constance Curry

C-SPAN 2 screenshot

Constance Curry, who in 1960 became the first white woman appointed to SNCC’s executive board, was an active organizer during Freedom Summer and continued her civil rights work throughout the South into the 1970s.

9. Marshall Ganz

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Marshall Ganz

Wikimedia Commons

Marshall Ganz left Harvard before graduating to volunteer for Freedom Summer. He became a leading organizer and helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, along with people such as Frank Cieciorka. Ganz also continued to work as a field secretary for SNCC. One of the most notable participants in the Freedom Summer movement, he would go on to do organizing work with Cesar Chavez. Ganz has been credited with creating the successful grassroots organizing model that the Obama campaign utilized during the 2008 election. He currently lectures at the Harvard Kennedy School.

10. Mario Savio

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Mario Savio

Wikimedia Commons

A well-known leader of the 1960s Free Speech Movement, in 1964 Mario Savio participated in Freedom Summer as an organizer and educator of the Freedom School located in McComb, Miss. After Freedom Summer, Savio continued numerous organizing efforts. He died in 1996.

11. Michael Schwerner

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Michael Schwerner

Wikimedia Commons

Schwerner’s murder, along with that of fellow Congress of Racial Equality organizers Chaney and Goodman, was the catalyst for the Freedom Summer movement. Schwerner, an active civil rights organizer in his hometown of New York City, led a local chapter of CORE on the Lower East Side, known as “Downtown Core.” The increasing unrest in the South influenced Schwerner and his wife, Rita, to move to Mississippi to work for CORE’s national office. Bob Moses assigned Schwerner to work as an organizer for the community center in Meridian. Schwerner became the first white person to take a permanent post outside of Jackson. On June 21, 1964, he was murdered after leaving Meridian to investigate a church burning in Philadelphia, Miss.

12. Andrew Goodman

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Andrew Goodman    

Wikimedia Commons

Goodman volunteered, along with Schwerner, as a member of CORE. Goodman left his native New York City to train in civil rights activism at Western College for Women (now part of Miami University, located in Oxford, Ohio). Goodman worked with Schwerner and Chaney as a community organizer in Meridian. He, too, was murdered after leaving Meridian to investigate a church burning in Philadelphia.  

Diamond Sharp is an editorial fellow at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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