Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Long, Hot Summer in Mississippi

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe the violent resistance of whites in Mississippi to a civil rights campaign called "Freedom Summer."

A younger generation of black protestors was not content to wait upon the slow workings of the United States Senate. The NAACP, representing an older generation, fought segregation through a series of lawsuits. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) sought to defeat Jim Crow through political lobbying, negative publicity about Southern discrimination, and acts of non-violent resistance, such as sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. With a younger membership, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) favored direct action against injustice, led by local civil rights campaigners. SNCC’s membership resented King and other civil rights “celebrities” they accused of swooping in at the end of a campaign and claiming credit for the hard grassroots work of locals.

Seen as reckless by the older peers, SNCC members marched directly through the gates of fire, continuing their voter registration campaign in Mississippi in spite of past bloodshed. John F. Kennedy’s administration had been lukewarm about civil rights demonstrations, fearing that Southern segregationist Democrats would withhold support of the domestic and foreign policy agendas. To the Civil Rights Movement’s surprise, the president’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, signaled in late 1961 that he would help groups like SNCC receive financial support from liberal charities such as the Taconic Foundation if the civil rights organizations focused on voter registration in the South.

Michael Phillips is the author of "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001" published in 2006, and "The House Will Come To Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics," co-written with Patrick Cox and published in 2010 by The University of Texas Press.

Worried that its mild civil rights record guaranteed that Kennedy would lose Southern states to the Republicans in the 1964 re-election effort, the administration no doubt hoped that an increase in the number of friendly black voters in states like Mississippi would provide a counter to white segregationists. Many in SNCC feared the White House was using them, but the cash-strapped group found Bobby Kennedy’s offer one they couldn’t refuse. SNCC, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) launched the Voter Education Project in April 1962.

More than $870,000 (about $5.5 million in today’s dollars) poured into the Voter Education Project from the Taconic Foundation, the Stern Family Fund and the Field Foundations. Over the next two years, the project registered for the vote more than a half-million African Americans in the South, but the overwhelming majority of these voters lived in big cities. The large numbers of rural southern blacks remained largely unregistered, and in Mississippi, the project had added only 4,000 new voters. Just under 400,000 African Americans remained unregistered there. In rural Pike County, just 200 of 8,000 eligible African Americans were on the voter rolls. In Walthall County, not one of 2,500 blacks had registered, and Amitie County recorded just one registered black voter. By 1964, even though African Americans made up 42 percent of the total population they comprised only 6.7 percent of registered voters.

Mississippi became a focus of the registration drive. Having seen so many African Americans injured or killed over civil rights, and a victim of an attempted murder himself, Bob Moses in the fall of 1963 invited the participation of white students from colleges like Harvard, Yale and Stanford. His vision of a nation transformed into a “Beloved Community” included blacks and whites. Moses moved ahead with plans for a “Freedom Summer” in 1964, in which hundreds of white volunteers would join black activists to increase the number of African American voters across Mississippi. Most of the 900 student volunteers who arrived from out of state for the campaign were well-off white students from elite universities.


Civil rights dominated the headlines in 1964. The 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, banning poll taxes, had been submitted to the states in 1962 and was ratified by the states January 23, 1964. Meanwhile, during Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” volunteers not only registered black voters but set up 30 “Freedom Schools” to offer children an alternative to the state’s dilapidated, underfunded Jim Crow schools. On top of reading, writing and arithmetic, college students taught their young black students black history, and lessons on the importance of voting and the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement. CORE and other groups also helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) as an alternative to the white supremacist state Democratic Party. The MFDP held separate primaries and elected an alternative slate of delegates to the Democratic National Convention to be held in the summer of 1964. The MFDP would challenge the credentials of the all-white, segregationist delegation during the convention and demand that the national Democratic Party recognize its integrated slate as the legitimate representatives of Mississippi.

Michael Schwerner, 24, was among the white men and women who responded to Bob Moses’ call to bring democracy to Mississippi. A native of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and a CORE volunteer, Schwerner had already registered African Americans in Meridian, Mississippi, when he returned to that state for Freedom Summer. By the time of Schwerner’s arrival, SNCC’s research department had recorded 150 incidents of violence and intimidation against civil rights workers in the sate that year. Meridian’s only rabbi urged Schwerner to leave, telling the social worker that local whites already referred to him as “that goddamned bearded atheist communist Jew.” Schwerner was not helping blacks, the rabbi claimed, but he was harming the state’s Jews who could become a target of violence if they were seen as friendly to the civil rights. Schwerner stayed and was joined by a local African American man, James Chaney, a 19-year-old high school dropout drawn to the civil rights movement in spite of his family’s fears, and Andrew Goodman, a Queens College anthropology major from New York who had never before been in Mississippi.

On June 21, the three traveled to investigate a report that Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the spiritual home of a black congregation, had been torched by white supremacists. The local Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council closely monitored the trio’s movements, and Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a Klansman, arrested them for alleged speeding. While held in the county jail in Philadelphia, the three were not allowed to make phone calls. Meanwhile, Price arranged for Klansmen to ambush them after they were released from jail. Around 10:30 p.m. Price let the activists out of their cells and told them to leave town. Price followed them in his squad car and, after crossing the town limits, he pulled them over.

A Klan ambush party then yanked Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman out of the car. The mob chanted, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, if you stayed where you belong, you wouldn’t be here with us.” One man said, “So you wanted to come to Mississippi? Well, now we’re gonna let you stay here. We’re not even gonna run you out.” When Schwerner was pulled from the car, a man with a pistol said, “You still think a nigger’s as good as I am?” before shooting the civil rights worker in the chest. The Klansmen savagely beat Chaney. A doctor who later examined the body of the young African American said that in his 25-year career he had “never witnessed bones so severely shattered.” The Klansmen fatally shot all three and buried their bodies in an earthen dam.

Nationwide shock over the disappearance of two white men active in civil rights moved President Lyndon Johnson to insist that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover dispatch agents to find the missing activists. Hoover, who had not hired an African American for any job other than custodian or driver in his four-decade tour as FBI director, had contempt for the civil rights movement and particularly despised Martin Luther King, whom he suspected as a communist agent. FBI agents had infiltrated the Klan and other racist groups in the South and frequently failed to warn the targets of planned violence or pending danger. Hoover initially resisted involvement, but when President Johnson insisted, the agency director dispatched scores of agents to Mississippi.

Weeks passed, and Mississippi Gov. Paul Johnson suggested that the disappearances were a hoax designed to generate sympathy for the civil rights movement. The governor suggested the three men were hiding in communist Cuba. After being paid $25,000, an FBI informant told agents to look for the bodies in the dam at the Bogue Chitto Swamp. Navy divers and FBI agents found not only the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, but also the corpses of seven other black men murdered by whites and dumped there over the years.

In a press conference, Michael Schwerner’s widow, Rita, noted that the FBI never would have become involved in the case if all three victims had been black. "My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain,” she said. “ If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded."

State and local authorities refused to charge the perpetrators with murder, so the U.S. government secured federal indictments against Price, Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and 16 other defendants. They were charged with depriving Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman of their civil rights. A jury found seven of the defendants, including Price and Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, guilty on October 20, 1967. Authorities released all those convicted within six years. After an investigation by a Mississippi journalist and by high school students competing in a National History Day contest, enough evidence was uncovered to lead to the arrest and conviction for murder of another killer, preacher Edgar Ray Killen, in 2005. Killen, then 80, received a sentence of three consecutive 20-year sentences.


It was a long, hot, and bloody summer. During the “Freedom Summer” campaign, arsonists frequently burned down Freedom Schools and the homes of the volunteer staff. In total, police arrested more than 1,000 black and white volunteers, at least 80 civil rights workers suffered beatings at the hands of law enforcement officers or angry white mobs, and at least 37 black churches and 30 black homes and businesses were firebombed or torched during that Mississippi summer. Volunteers lived with high stress day and night, and would later report symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. One volunteer recalled, “wondering whether someone was going to sneak in and dynamite you or fire-bomb your home. Always checking your car before you got in it, because you were worrying whether someone stuck a piece of dynamite under it. Always making sure your tires were in good condition, because you never know, you may have to race up the road at night.”

The murders of the three young men in Mississippi turned public sentiment strongly in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For many African Americans, however, the case also served as a reminder that the white establishment valued white life much more than black life. Soon, black activists in large numbers would part from their white allies and seek a separate black identity that rejected what they saw as the sick values of white society. “I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men,” said CORE activist David Dennis, angry tears streaming down his cheeks, during the funeral for James Chaney. “I’ve got vengeance in my heart tonight . . . If you go back home and sit down and take what these white men in Mississippi are doing to us . . . if you take it and don’t do something about it . . . then God damn your souls.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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