Today, the phrase “Freedom Summer” has a romantic tint, colored in idealism, shaded in glory: a noble moment of grandeur when blacks and whites from Mississippi and beyond united in a brave effort to fight segregation and register blacks to vote.
But a half-century ago, the effort known formally as the Mississippi Summer Project was both audacious and dangerous. Three civil rights workers were ambushed, kidnapped and killed. Another died in a car crash. Scores of Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten. Three dozen churches were bombed or burned. The granite walls of resistance were only barely penetrated. And when the summer ended, the progress that we today regard as inevitable still seemed impossible.
But 50 summers on, we now recognize that this was one of the signature episodes in America’s long story of racial strife and racial reconciliation.
It was a movement that was multifaith and multiracial but not really multigenerational. It was a youth campaign with almost no equal, except perhaps the flood of anti-war college students into New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy’s presidential effort four years later — and there the principal obstacle was frigid temperatures and the only danger was icy stares.
This month, the anniversary of the movement’s start will bring forth a flood of testimonials but almost no reappraisals, for the effort was so pure in its purpose, so righteous in its goals, so wholesome in its intentions that, even in our contemporary culture of criticism, hardly anyone can condemn this mobilization of idealism.
As for the three who were abducted and then murdered, they are rightly remembered as martyrs to a sacred cause, and they are often remembered, surnames only, as if their names were the tolling of a bell: Chaney, Goodman, Schwerner.
The summer project was born out of despair, even desperation. Mississippi was an isolated backwater of the Deep South, a world unto its own, determined to remain that way, to retain its ancient outlook, folkways and viewpoints, and to resist even the most tentative movements toward racial integration.