Freedom Summer activist graves
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In 1964, civil rights organizations including the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a voter registration drive, known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, aimed at dramatically increasing voter registration in Mississippi. The Freedom Summer, comprised of black Mississspians and more than 1,000 out-of-state, predominately white volunteers, faced constant abuse and harrassment from Mississippis white population. The Ku Klux Klan, police and even state and local authorities carried out a systematic series of violent attacks; including arson, beatings, false arrest and the murder of at least three civil rights activists.

Freedom Summer was a 1964 voter registration project in Mississippi, part of a larger effort by civil rights groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to expand black voting in the South. The Mississippi project was run by the local Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an association of civil rights groups in which sncc was the most active member. About a hundred white college students had helped cofo register voters in November 1963, and several hundred more students were invited in 1964 for Freedom Summer, a much-expanded voter registration project.

On June 15, 1964, the first three hundred arrived. The next day, two of the white students, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both from New York, and a local Afro-American, James Chaney, disappeared. Although their badly beaten bodies were not discovered for six weeks, certainty that they had been murdered swept the country and helped precipitate the passage of a long-pending civil rights bill in Congress. In Mississippi, the murders shook the project profoundly. Surrounded by threats and violence, the workers resented the lack of federal protection and the slowness of the investigation. Distrust grew between white and black workers; would the public outcry have been the same, some asked, if all three victims had been black?

The Mississippi project did establish fifty Freedom Schools to carry on community organizing, but it managed to register only twelve hundred Afro-Americans. Another blow came in August when, with the acquiescence of party liberals and civil rights leaders, the Democratic National Convention refused to seat a protest slate of delegates elected through COFO’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.

The events of Freedom Summer deepened the division between those in the civil rights movement who still believed in integration and nonviolence and others, especially young Afro-Americans, who now doubted whether racial equality was achievable by peaceful means. The civil rights movement continued to be active, but after 1964, it began to lose the hopeful solidarity that had infused its earlier years.

The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.