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

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 85: Why was the summer of 1964 pivotal in the fight for civil rights?

Tomorrow night, you will have an opportunity to experience “Freedom Summer” the way my family did: on television. Only back then, we didn’t know whether civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner would be found alive down in Mississippi. We also didn’t know whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (our subject next week), without badly needed voting-rights protections, would begin to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a new American racial order, following a hundred years’ war between advocates for full and equal black citizenship and the architects of all the snares that had hampered black progress since the collapse of Reconstruction in 1876. What we did sense was that the movement had grown younger, more radical, more diverse and increasingly powered by what Robert “Bob” Parris Moses, the pivotal planner of Freedom Summer, has called “ ‘We, the people’ force.”

Before Sly and the Family Stone released their hit song “Everyday People,” the volunteers of Freedom Summer lived the philosophy behind it—school by school, vote by vote, blow by blow. Moses—truly one of the heroes in the history of the African-American people—compared “the language” animating this noble effort to that “of the ocean, the everyday language of everyday people.” And when its wave crashed in Mississippi in June, July and August of 1964, the reverberation was so loud and deep that we could hear it and feel it all the way up in the Allegheny Mountains surrounding my small hometown of Piedmont, W.Va.  

One thing was for sure: None of us would ever be the same. Nor would America. To me, Freedom Summer’s greatest legacy is the counterintuitive philosophy behind it. After decades of a “top down” organizing strategy, Moses and Ella Baker flipped the script, galvanizing everyday people to learn and lead themselves. And it is—it always will be—a blueprint for change. 

The Roots of Freedom Summer

Local branches of the NAACP led the way in Mississippi, beginning in the 1950s, with Amzie Moore, Aaron Henry and Medgar Evers (who would be assassinated in his own driveway) in the forefront. The mountains those pioneers had to climb were steep and jagged. African Americans in Mississippi, when they had jobs, were typically stuck working as sharecroppers or domestics, and they lived in a segregated society without any political power. “In 1962,” Lisa Clayton Robinson notes in her entry on Freedom Summer in Africana“only 6.7 percent of African Americans in the state were registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the country.” And, as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till demonstrated, white violence was an omnipresent threat.

Organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) started pouring into the state in the early 1960s. As President John F. Kennedy said about the country as a whole, “ … the torch ha[d] been passed.” Among the young new leaders, none played a more pivotal role than the brilliant but soft-spoken visionary Bob Moses, in Mississippi to spearhead a voter registration drive. Moses may not be as well known to the wider society today as King is, but he should be. Without him, there would have been no Freedom Summer, and without Freedom Summer, there would have been no Voting Rights Act a year later.

Born in Harlem in 1935, Moses grew up the son of an armory janitor and a mother who made a point of checking books out of the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch (now the Schomburg Center) every Friday. A graduate of Stuyvesant High School and Hamilton College in New York, Moses was well on his way to earning his Ph.D. at Harvard in the late 1950s when his mother died and his father was hospitalized. On leave, Moses taught math at the Horace Mann School in the Bronx, when he began collaborating with civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who encouraged him to take a more active role in the movement. Moses wanted to make a difference in the lives of others—not by standing out, but by helping others help themselves. Besides Rustin, Moses’ mentors included the dynamic Ella Baker, Amzie Moore and C.C. Bryant, and he counted among his influences the pacifist teachings of the Quakers and the writings of the French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus.

The Council of Federated Organizations