Fifty years ago this week on Aug. 4, 1964, the bodies of three courageous freedom fighters—James Chaney, 21, Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24—were found buried in a dam near Philadelphia, Miss.
Like hundreds of other youth organizers from around the country, they came to flood Mississippi to register African-American voters in what is remembered as the largest collective-registration and voter-mobilization effort that the South had ever seen. Also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, the initiative influenced the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and set a precedent for voter-engagement efforts extending to this day, and we remember it as a powerful moment in civil rights history. With a lasting and triumphant legacy, the movement was also marked by sustained violence.
If not for vicious violence, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner would likely be alive today, all in their early 70s. And they would have likely reunited with their peers for the Freedom Summer 50-year anniversary conference that was held at Mississippi’s Tougaloo College at the end of June.
They would also likely be voting this coming November, and encouraging others to vote as well.
While their lives were tragically taken, today we have much to learn from their legacy. United by a common commitment to shatter the foundation of white supremacy and forge an equal democracy, each sacrificed their lives for these beliefs. Their legacy of courage, determination and coalition building is honored by movements forming today across the nation.
And a new generation of civil rights leaders is rising.
In North Carolina, for example, the state’s NAACP Youth & College Division is leading Moral Freedom Summer as part of the statewide Forward Together Moral Movement. This summerlong program has deployed youth organizers in counties across North Carolina to fight against the state Legislature’s regressive agenda by getting people ready to vote in November. The organizers are also training other grassroots leaders to serve as change agents in the South.
This summer also marked the formation of Freedom Side, a national network of youth leaders from the Dream Defenders, United We Dream and more than two dozen other organizations at the forefront of this generation’s racial-justice movement. Freedom Side is supporting locally led campaigns in Mississippi, Florida, Texas and Ohio to advance participatory democracy, education equity, voting rights and the decriminalization of young people of color. Freedom Side is committed to developing new leaders, registering voters, raising political consciousness and shifting mainstream perceptions of youth of color.
As part of Freedom Side’s summer organizing, the Ohio Student Association is mobilizing voters between the ages of 18 and 35 to vote in the upcoming midterm elections to directly challenge a public policy agenda that is negatively impacting young people of color. In Florida, Dream Defenders is focusing on stopping the criminalization of young people of color, including that state’s “Stand your ground” law and schools that have become pathways to a flourishing juvenile-justice system that is entirely run by for-profit corporations.
In Mississippi, led by the grassroots organization Better Schools, Better Jobs, volunteers are mobilizing to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to make free, public education a constitutional right and to fully fund public education in the state. And in Texas, United We Dream, a national network of undocumented young immigrants, is leading efforts to educate and mobilize thousands of Latino voters with immigration-reform policies in mind.
Fifty years after the 1964 Freedom Summer, there is still much work to be done toward establishing equal rights for all people. From Mississippi to Ohio, North Carolina to Florida and Texas, young people are continuing to stand up to systems that undermine or devalue their lives, their voices and their votes. Yet as young people push forward in the fight for racial justice, we must never forget those who paid in blood to ensure that their voices could be heard. Today we pay homage to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner as we build on their legacy of standing for racial equity and just democracy.
Malaya Davis is a Northeast Ohio regional organizer for the Ohio Student Association. Follow her on Twitter.
Scott Roberts is senior campaign manager for the Advancement Project. Follow him on Twitter.
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