Are These the Heirs to Freedom Summer’s Legacy? 

A set of modern activists, politicians and organizations seem to embody the spirit of 1964’s famous battle for voting rights. Each of them, in their own way, reminds us of those who did this work half a century ago.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during an East Room event at the White House Feb. 15, 2011.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is presented with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama during an East Room event at the White House Feb. 15, 2011. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 1964 the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee launched the Freedom Summer campaign in an effort to increase African-American voter registration in Mississippi against fierce racist opposition.

The campaign gave rise to scores of leaders who played pivotal roles in the civil rights movement. Many of them, including longtime Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was then chairman of SNCC, paved the way and set examples for modern activists and advocates for voting rights and civil rights generally.  

Indeed, it’s been argued that many of today’s battles are similar to those fought 50 years ago, especially in the area of voting rights. So it’s no surprise that these modern-day leaders, each in his or her own way, remind us of those who came half a century before them.

1. President Barack Obama

There’s no question that the White House is a simultaneously powerful and challenging place to be when you want to advocate for social justice. Much like President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, President Obama is a strong ally for today’s civil rights issues, including voting rights and marriage equality. “Because of the civil rights movement and because of the laws President Johnson signed, new doors of opportunity and education swung open for everybody. Not all at once, but they swung open,” Obama said in April on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

2. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

In the tradition of one of his predecessors, Robert F. Kennedy, who equated voting rights with racial justice and helped create the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Holder is a strong force within the Obama adminstration for civil rights. He’s been lauded for his efforts in the area of voting rights (including for convicted felons) and in other areas that weren’t hallmarks of Freedom Summer but would certainly make his civil rights forefathers proud—like his effort to reduce the mass incarceration of African Americans.

3. Rep. John Lewis

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