Image: Voter Registration at a Beauty Shop, Mississippi, Charles Moore, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.
At a recent event at the Library of Congress introducing the online component of the Civil Rights History Project, civil rights veterans gathered to remember Freedom Summer of 1964. They were Robert Parris Moses, the director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project and later founder of The Algebra Project, Charlie E. Cobb, Jr. a field secretary of SNCC, international journalist and a lecturer at Brown University, and Dorie Ladner and Joyce Ann Ladner, sisters born in Mississippi who had deep involvement with civil rights groups in the South. Fifty years have passed. They have lived varied lives, but have never forgotten they had a purpose to make life better for everyone. These voices and many more are part of the Civil Rights History Project, a collection initiated through congressional law, by the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I’m stepping across that line. I want to change Mississippi.”
—Dorie Ladner on why she participated in Freedom Summer
As I listened to veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 recall that horrific time, I renewed my admiration for them and all of their compatriots who had fought so hard and risked so much for freedom and human rights.
Image: Voting rights advocate, Fannie Lou Hamer, is shown picketing in front of the Forrest County Courthouse. Later, Hamer’s group, the Mississippi Freedom Party, would challenge the official delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
What was almost miraculous to me was that so many survivors were alive to tell their stories. And what was equally revealing was that these survivors not only looked back with a firm sense of personal accomplishment but also were emphatic that the fights of the 1960s were only one season in America’s long struggle with racial justice. I was thinking about those young lives, and how the National Museum of African American History and Culture must now make sure that the ordinary heroes of the Freedom Movement have names and that their deeds are remembered. Names such as those who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom and justice in the tragic season of the murders of Medgar Evers, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, Jimmy Jackson, and the four young girls in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. At one point, as she and her fellow panelists recounted these wrenching losses, Joyce Ladner began to cry. She remarked that it had taken her 60 years to let herself do so. The sorrow she and her fellow activists endured has never really retreated, no matter how gratifying the journey that followed. I thought about how those teenagers dealt with the deaths of mentors and friends—the people who risked their lives and lost their lives.
I thought about my own family. My Washington home, as my Atlanta home, centered on the civil rights movement and was a whirlwind of activity. My father, M. Carl Holman, had mentored so many of the activists in Atlanta and had just joined the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The protégés of “Uncle Carl” arrived at our home, looking for advice and strategy from Dad, a breather from the unknowns of Sunflower County, and good cooking from my mother, Mariella. I think Charlie Cobb, who had inherited the principles of being “a race man” from his minister father, summed it up when he talked about traditions practiced by the entire civil rights family. The conversation of the day, even at the breakfast table, was what we can do about equality for black folks.
Image: Voter Registration at a Kitchen Table, Mississippi, Charles Moore, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The speakers recalled what the federal government and sympathetic whites did to help protect the freedom fighters. Someone described Marian Wright saying at one point “I need a phone, I need a phone. I need to call the Attorney General.” I started thinking about supporters such as John Doar, Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights, Eugene Patterson, executive editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ralph McGill, editor and publisher of The Atlanta Constitution and many others who were critical bulwarks, committed to supporting these teenagers, young adults and older mentors in a life and death struggle for human rights.
I will especially remember from that afternoon the wisdom of Bob Moses, who spoke of “constitutional people” versus “constitutional property” and how the 14th and 15th Amendments are still being wrestled with. Bob said, “We are a country that lurches. Will we figure out how to lurch forward and expand the reach of the preamble?” It is an unfinished task, even after a journey of three centuries of lurching.
About the Freedom Summer:
The nation is looking back on this, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign launched in June of 1964 to register as many African American voters as possible in the state with the lowest black voter registration in the country – fewer than seven percent of Mississippi’s black, voting age residents were considered eligible to vote.
Volunteers organized by CORE, SNCC, COFO and the NAACP gathered in Mississippi by the thousands. They and the work they were doing were met with sharp resistance … drive-by shootings, beatings, arson, unwarranted arrests.
Over the course of a ten-week period, 37 churches and 30 African American homes and businesses were either bombed or burned. No one is sure how many voting rights workers were killed. Among the dead were James Chaney, a black CORE worker from Mississippi along with CORE organizer Michael Schwerner and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, two Jewish civil rights workers from New York. They disappeared on June 21, 1964; nearly two months later, on August 4, their bodies were found beneath an earthen dam. During an FBI investigation ordered by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the bodies of eight other black men were found.
By Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture