The Civil Rights Act Turns 50: A Journey Into Freedom Summer, Mississippi 1964

Fifty years ago during the summer of 1964, student volunteers arrived in Mississippi to challenge the state’s institutionalized voting discrimination. It became known as Freedom Summer. The events and key figures involved during that time followed right on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the pivotal Civil Rights Act on July 2nd.
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Fifty years ago during the summer of 1964, student volunteers arrived in Mississippi to challenge the state’s institutionalized voting discrimination. It became known as Freedom Summer. The events and key figures involved during that time followed right on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the pivotal Civil Rights Act on July 2nd.

I'm going down to Mississippi. I'm going down a Southern road. And if you never see me again, remember that I had to go. Remember that I had to go...

Fifty years ago during the long hot summer of 1964, more than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers from groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), took the dangerous journey down to Mississippi to increase voter registration among its black citizens. At the time Mississippi was one of the country’s most segregated states that held fast to a history of institutionalized discrimination and violence.

"I knew it was going to be bad. I didn't dream for a minute that people would be killed," recalls Dorothy Zellner, an organizer of the SNCC. "But it was always in the back of everybody's mind that something, that things, bad things, were going to happen. So it was terrifying. But if you cared about this country and you cared about democracy, then you had to go down there."

The vast majority of the volunteers were college students who would organize and canvass door-to-door in black communities fanned out across the state. In “Freedom Schools,” the volunteers educated communities about black history, culture, voter literacy, and civics. They also aimed to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the National Democratic Convention.

Voting in Mississippi Prior to the Voting Rights Act

In order to cast a vote in Mississippi during this time, African Americans had many hurdles to overcome: completing a 21-question form, paying a poll tax, and reading and interpreting (to the registrars' satisfaction), any one of the 285 sections of the state constitution the registrar selected. The voter registrars had complete power to pass or fail any voter applicant. Because most black Mississippians were illiterate and simply couldn’t afford to vote, less than 7% of the population was registered. But voting requirements were only part of the picture. In some counties, applicants’ names would appear in the newspapers after attempting to register. There was tangible fear of retribution – the loss of one’s job, being evicted from one’s home, banks calling in loans for small businesses, and threats of violence against the person and their family. In some cases, a sheriff would walk into a polling station to intimidate potential voters.

The Murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner

In the weeks leading into the summer of 1964 and with the arrival of the student volunteers, Mississippi passed new ordinances, obtained armored riot control vehicles, cage trucks (in anticipation of arresting volumes of people), and searchlight trucks to patrol. On June 15, 1964, the first couple hundred volunteers arrived in Mississippi. Not a week later on June 21, 1964, three of them, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner disappeared. Six weeks later, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam—Goodman and Schwerner had each been shot in the heart, while Chaney, the black student, was beaten and shot three times.  

The young men's murders outraged the rest of the nation and galvanized support for the cause, and attendance to voter registration meetings across Mississippi increased with newfound unity.

Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer testifying in Atlantic City, 1964. (Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common

With renewed sense of purpose, citizens came together to create the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a challenge to the established all-white Mississippi delegation. Out of the 68 delegates chosen for the MFDP, only four were white. The delegates traveled to Atlantic City to attend the Democratic National Convention and held daily vigils to shed light on the injustices happening in their state.

While inspirational speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer testified on behalf of African-Americans' plight, their goal of replacing the established democratic delegation failed at the convention, but their mission continued. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

As the divisive events of Mississippi were unfolding, President Lyndon Johnson watched the developments closely. Besides his fear of losing support from the established Southern delegations, some of his advisors were admonishing him not to waste his time supporting a "lost cause." 

“What the hell’s the presidency for?” he replied.

Civil Rights Act 1964 Photo

LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with MLK in attendance. (Photo: Getty Images)

On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Considered to be one of the most important domestic legislative achievements in American history, the law abolished literacy tests and established Federal supervision of voting. It also outlawed racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and public facilities.  

In 2013 the United States Supreme Court gutted much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was one of the major features of the Civil Rights Act. In doing so, states, are now free to change their election laws without federal government approval.