What Was Freedom Summer?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A new documentary reminds us of an old fight, with contemporary relevance. 

Aaron Henry at the Democratic National Convention of 1964. Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress

The arrival of activists such as Moses angered white Mississippians. NAACP leaders also were upset, fearing the newcomers would take control of the local movement they had been building. To make peace, Moses helped to form a new group, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), which brought together SNCC, CORE and the local NAACP branches, as well as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and local community groups.

Determined to open a new front against Jim Crow in Mississippi, Moses and fellow COFO leader Dave Dennis hoped to recruit Northern white college students to the crusade. Again, they aroused suspicion from other movement leaders who were concerned that bringing in untrained white workers would divert attention from local needs. And it could prove quite dangerous. But the COFO plan was precisely about that: attracting attention, as Dennis explained in Howell Raines’ 1974 oral history My Soul Is Rested: “[T]he death of a white college student would bring on more attention to what was going on than for a black college student getting it. That’s cold, but that was also in another sense speaking the language of this country.”

The COFO leaders voted in favor of the summer project in January 1964. But the problems of bringing in white volunteers were immediately apparent. At an orientation meeting in Oxford, Ohio, whites laughed at the buffoonish image of a violent white sheriff. SNCC workers were incensed, with one warning, “Just wait until they break your head in,” as John Dittmer relates in his 1994 book Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Others feared that white college students would intimidate local activists. As SNCC leader James Forman recalled, according to Dittmer: “One of our project directors … began to feel ashamed of the fact that he had completed only the sixth grade in school and told people he had graduated from college.”  

Dittmer profiled the average Northern volunteer as “white, affluent, politically liberal, and enrolled at a prestigious university. Just how many volunteers worked in Mississippi is subject to conjecture, for COFO never compiled a final tally. … Probably no more than 650 students worked in Mississippi, and not all of those people worked all summer.” For the most part, as Doug McAdam writes in his 1988 book Freedom Summer, “the volunteers lived in communal ‘Freedom Houses’ or were housed by local black families who refused to be intimidated by segregationist threats of violence.”

Dittmer provides a specific example of a white volunteer living with a black family in Holmes County: “After one bombing scare Margaret Rose, a white freedom school teacher, reported that the family she was staying with ‘were up all night, Mr. on the road patrolling with his new rifle and Mrs. walking from room to room in the house with a shot gun, peering out of every window.’ Later Rose looked into the bedroom where one of the children lay sleeping, and ‘on the bed next to her was a large shot gun, waiting.’ ”

As McAdam relates, on July 30, 1964, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger published an editorial titled “Mississippi Invasion,” incorrectly blaming the influx of Northern volunteers on the Communist Party: “Those who know the ways of propaganda, especially of a Communist nature, probably correctly suspect that idealism of some college youngsters has been taken advantage of by some very hard boiled left-wingers and Communists who know exactly what they want to do—stir up trouble in the South.” 

In this climate, Freedom Summer began with horrific violence. Activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner disappeared June 21 while investigating the burning of a church in Philadelphia, Miss. Chaney was an African American from Mississippi, and Goodman and Schwerner were white Jewish men from New York. And the violence was widespread. As Charles Payne writes in his 1995 book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, “In just the first two weeks of the summer project, in addition to the [murders], there were at least seven bombings or fire-bombings of movement related businesses and four shootings and a larger number of serious beatings.”  

It wasn’t until Aug. 4 that the tortured, brutalized bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were discovered buried in a dam—slain by Klansmen with the knowledge of local police officers. Thirteen years old at the time, I became convinced that the deep South was a black hole from which the brave did not return. But there was soul force there, too. And, as it would turn out, nobody was going to stop it.

Freedom Schools

COFO activism during Freedom Summer proceeded along two tracks: freedom schools and voter registration drives. Freedom schools were the brainchild of Howard University student and SNCC leader Charles Cobb, who interpreted the mission of the schools broadly. In a 1963 proposal, he described his vision of “an educational experience for students which will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities, and to find alternatives and ultimately, new directions for action.” One can almost hear the voice of the great historian Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week in 1926, working through him.