Mississippi was the epicenter of the struggle for racial justice in 1964. It was a state in which an overwhelming majority of Black residents were barred from voting or holding office. It was the site where young Chicagoan Emmett Till had been murdered nearly a decade before and state NAACP leader Medgar Evers was yet another victim of vigilante violence. Black Mississippians had long endured and resisted the violence of the Jim Crow South. The four-year old civil rights organization, SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and the umbrella organization, COFO(Council of Federated Organizations) were anchors for the 1964 organizing effort. Freedom Summer ( also referred to as the Mississippi Project) welcomed young volunteers from around the country to engage in voter registration and education programs in the state during 1964. The volunteers, nearly 1,000 of them, received training in non-violent civil disobedience at what is now Miami University of Ohio, before they went South. But non-violence training was no protection for the violence they would encounter. At the outset of the summer, four civil rights workers – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney – were abducted and brutally murdered by local white supremacists, their bodies were not found until August.
By August a political mobilization spearheaded by SNCC under the leadership of local Black activists formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The southern-based struggle migrated north at the end of the summer when MFDP strategically confronted the national leadership of the Democratic Party at its Atlantic City convention, protesting the persistent exclusion of Black southerners from voting and primaries. The results of that confrontation, and sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer’s now historic speech on the conference floor, did not end racism, but it altered the nature of American democracy and political discourse in significant ways. The 50th anniversary of that historic summer offers an opportunity to examine how we collectively remember that historic moment and how it can serve as a catalyst for discussions of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called, ‘the fierce urgency of now.’
This summer there will be numerous commemorations of Freedom Summer, most notably in Mississippi in June. However, Chicago is an important site for this convening, not only because of the city’s own ‘freedom’ movement but because a number of Chicagoans went south in 1964, hosted southern-based organizers and leaders, and raised funds to support the campaign in Mississippi. Chicago was also a primary destination point for many Black Mississipians during the Great Migration and thus maintained a special connection to the state and its people. The Social Justice Initiative at UIC will host several projects (in partnership with other UIC units and community-based organizations) related to promoting a deeper understanding of the significance and legacy of Freedom Summer ’64 as well as its relevance to social justice activists today, especially young people.