(click on a thumbnail for a larger version of the picture)
Students gather at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio
Singing freedom songs on campus
The police search for the missing volunteers
Students getting ready to leave Western to Mississippi
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks at the Democratic National Convention
Fanny Lou Hamer, also at the Democratic National Convention, asks, "Is this America?"
The memorial on Western campus today
Zeke Runyon - May 2001
"You talk about fear- it's like the heat down there, it's continually oppressive. You think they're rational. But, you know, you suddenly realize they want to kill you."
- Freedom Summer by Sally Belfrage.
"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice." 4
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have a dream speech, 1963.
In the 1960s and before, blacks in Mississippi had no representation in their governments. They were poor and uneducated. Mississippi was a "terrorist state" according to Richard Momeyer, then a field secretary from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The people running the Mississippi government only knew how to rule by force.2
Civil rights leaders wanted to focus national attention on Mississippi, to show the people of America it was wrong. In June of 1964, Bob Moses, a young SNCC organizer, announced a project called "Freedom Summer." Upwards of 1,000 student volunteers from colleges all over the country would gather in the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, for training. The students would then go to Mississippi to register black voters, gaining support for the new Mississippi Freedom democratic party.1
Other goals of the project would be to help educate young black children using "Freedom Schools" and setting up community centers that hosted arts and crafts activities, recreational activities, a library, health services, and day care services.3 Mississippi newspapers called the project an "invasion." William Simmons of the Citizen's Council called it a "Second Reconstruction."1
It was completely accidental that the training for the project was held in Oxford. It was originally planned to be in Berea, Kentucky, but Berea College backed out at the last minute, according to Momeyer, now a professor in the honors program at Miami University. The president of the National Council of Churches knew the president of Western College for Women in Oxford, and asked if Western would like to host the gathering. Western indeed wanted to sponsor the trip, contrary to Oxford's newspaper editorials against the decision.2
The training sessions included workshops on non-violence and how to teach children basic math, reading, and black history. Some of the white volunteers needed to be taught black history too, since that wasn't part of their education.2
The first group of students left on Saturday, June 20, 1964. Three student volunteers, Andrew Goodman, a student from New York, Michael Schwerner, also from New York and James Chaney, a native black Mississippian, left to investigate a church burning the next day. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, a police officer pulled them over for speeding and arrested them. They were released from jail around 10:30 that night. That was the last time they were seen alive.1
Richard Momeyer, then a summer volunteer, said that back in Oxford, Bob Moses gathered everyone into Kumler Chapel on the campus and told the volunteers to assume that the three were killed. This changed the overall mood of the project in Oxford that week. It was the "stark, brutal, in your face" truth says Momeyer. The students were very scared, but they knew that this was only a new reason to fight harder.2
The volunteers did keep pushing on, despite the setback, and had gathered around 60,000 black Mississippians to join the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). The MFDP was founded to challenge the authority of the white regulars that represented Mississippi and allow its citizens to have true representation in the 1964 Democratic National Convention.1
It was not easy for blacks to register to vote. At the courthouse, you would have to fill out a 4-page, 20-question application including an oath. It was also required to copy any section of the Mississippi constitution and write a reasonable interperetation of the copied section to the registrar's content. The decision made by the regestrar was final and could not be appealed.3
Meanwhile, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a search to be conducted mostly by FBI agents in Mississippi for the missing three. Six weeks passed since the dissapearance and on August 4th, the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were found buried together in an earthen dam.1
Quickly, the nation's attention turned to the case. Rita Schwerner, Michael Schwerner's wife, said, "I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney, who is a native Mississippian negro, had been alone at the time of the dissapearance, that this case like so many others that have come before, would have gone completely unnoticed."1 More than a dozen black Mississippians' bodies were found during the search for the three summer volunteers.2
In August it was the time of the National Democratic Party's convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The MFDP sent delegates to attempt to represent the state of Mississippi. When they arrived, they were confronted by the white delegates who usually represented Mississippi in the convention. Who would represent Mississippi? The credentials committee would decide in a nationally televised hearing on Saturday, August 22.
Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer represented the MFDP in the hearing and asked in her speech, "Is this America?" President Lyndon Johnson feared that if the nation heard her speech, that the American people would be for the MFDP, and as a result, he would not be re-elected, so he requested television air time for a press conference to stop the coverage of the hearing.
The credentials committee ruled that the MFDP shouldn't represent Mississippi. Then, as a last attempt, some MFDP delegates tried to take the seats that the white regulars weren't occuppying, but they were refused. Even though the MFDP wasn't ever seated, it changed the Democratic party forever.1
Freedom Summer didn't have a satisfying immediate result, but it brought change to Mississippi in the long run. Today, Mississippi has more elected black officials than any other state in the nation.2
In April of 2000, a memorial was dedicated on the Western campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, to commemorate the efforts of the college volunteers to help the black people of Mississippi. May their efforts never be forgotten.
1. Eyes on the Prize, prod. Blackside, Inc., dir. Orlando Bagwell, 1995, videocassette, 120 min.
2. Dr. Richard Momeyer, former SNCC field secretary, Personal Interview, 8 May 2001.
3. Belfrage, Sally. Freedom Summer. The Viking Press: New York 1965.
4. "I have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr." National Civil Rights Museum. Retrieved May 15, 2001 from the National Civil Rights Museum on the World Wide Web: http://www.mecca.org/~crights/dream.html.