Black History Month: Remembering Freedom Summer of 1964 and its impact on Mississippi

Updated: Feb. 4, 2021 at 11:22 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - In honor of Black History Month, we are shining a light on Freedom Summer.

It’s a movement that emerged in Mississippi during the summer of 1964, challenging the Jim Crow culture in the Deep South.

In the early 1960s, the Magnolia State had one of the lowest percentages of African-Americans who were registered voters.

“An estimation was about 6.5 percent of the eligible Black voters in Mississippi were registered to vote,” said Dr. Leslie McLemore, who was a paid staff member with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was a part of Freedom Summer.

McLemore was one of the few Blacks who were registered.

During that time, he said African-Americans were met with voter suppression, intimidation and other obstacles such as literacy tests whenever they tried registering. The Walls, Mississippi, native recalls one of the scare tactics he encountered.

“They would publish your name in the newspaper to really end up intimidating you,” he said. “They would let the good white people know that Leslie McLemore in Walls, Mississippi, has attempted to register to vote, and we’re going to publish his good name in the local newspaper for the next two weeks, so if you want to intimidate him and intimidate his family you could do that because his name appeared in the local newspaper.”

In an effort to tackle voter suppression, the Council of Federated Organizations, also known as COFO, organized the Freedom Summer Project.

COFO was a coalition of the state’s four major civil rights organizations: SNCC, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Freedom Summer had three objectives:

· Creating community centers to help increase voter registration.

· Opening Freedom Schools to give African-Americans a place to learn about their voting rights, as well as academics such as literature and history, to name a few.

· But most importantly, to register Black voters.

In the summer of 1964, hundreds of volunteers, majority being white college students or ministers, came from all over the U.S. to be a part of the growing movement, including Reverend Rims Barber.

He traveled from Iowa and was assigned to the Canton area.

“When I got off the bus in Canton the cops met me,” said Barber who helped African-Americans become registered voters. Barber said he and others were met with tension and scare tactics for trying to empower and register African-Americans.

“We went to jail, I’ve been to jail in several places,” Barber explained. “I’ve been harassed by mobs, I’ve had molotov cocktails thrown at my place where I lived, I’ve been shot at three times.”

Barber said their fight for the right came at a violent and deadly cost.

He reflects back to June of 1964 in Neshoba County when the disappearance of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, gained national attention.

“They had had a meeting at this church in Neshoba County, and because of that the Klan came and burned that church (Mt. Zion),” he recalled. “The three workers came to see what was going on and to talk to the people who were the leaders of that church that got burned. It was then that they got accosted by the cops, jailed, and then released to the Klan.”

Investigators began searching for the men. More than a month after their disappearance, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam. Devastation quickly spread and impacted everyone involved in the movement.

“It brought, obviously, international attention to what was going on in Mississippi, but for those three young men to sacrifice their lives for the right to vote was just a part of this long history of intimidation and violence in Mississippi,” McLemore expressed.

With the attention now centered around the disparities African-Americans were facing, another issue arose. Many had concerns with the Democratic Party, claiming it was segregated and prevented Blacks from running.

As a result, African-Americans created their own party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

McLemore was one of the founding members of the executive committee of MFDP, which was formed in April of 1964. The party gained national attention when it went to the DNC in Atlantic City, New Jersey that summer making a plea to have its members get seated.

Unfortunately, the party didn’t get any seats. However, McLemore said there was still a victory gained during the convention. They were given the right to vote and participate in future conventions.

“Although the Freedom Democratic Party was not formally seated, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Convention promised that in the future that they would not seek any lily white segregated delegation moving forward,” said McLemore.

At first, the movement didn’t see the large number of blacks become registered voters like organizers hoped, but they remained persistent. That persistence paid off.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The legislation did away with literacy tests, poll taxes and other barriers that prevented African-Americans from registering to vote. Barber credits their work during Freedom Summer for the legislation being passed.

“It was a joyous moment and we immediately started going to the federal registers to try and register to vote, because that was easier,” said Barber. “It was not the long complicated form that the county people had.”

Decades later, these leaders are proud to see African-Americans, especially young ones, exercising their right to vote today but they believe the job is still unfinished.

“There was a victory in 1965,” said McLemore. “We have the highest number of Black elected officials in Mississippi than any state in the union, but there is still work to be done,” said McLemore. “There are still extra legal devices and there are still ‘legal devices’ that are trying to keep Black people from fully participating in the Mississippi political system in 2021.”

“We’ve got mail-in voter registration now and it works,” said Barber. “People can register and they can vote. We’ve come a long way, still got a ways to go, but we’ve come a long way.”

Today in 2021, there are more than 20 active Freedom Schools throughout the state, stemming from the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964.

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