See 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer
Events for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer for web links.
The Mississippi Summer Project was a wide range of educational, political and social programs designed to reach down into every Black community to organize and train the people to lead themselves. Some of the programs were the Freedom Schools, the Community Centers, the Adult Literacy Project, the Work-Study Project, the Mississippi Student Union, the Freedom Vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the Food and Clothing, Welfare Program, the Freedom Libraries, and the Voter Registration Campaign. What had begun with only a few SNCC workers and a "mock election" vote to educate the disenfranchised Negro's of Mississippi to the use of the ballot had grown into a radical, grassroots movement to develop alternative organizations and institutions which would be more responsible to the needs of the local Negro communities, existing outside the white society.
Implicit in the building of this movement was the idea of a counterstructure composed of institutions and groups bound by deeper understandings of inter-relationships, organization, work, identity and aims-facts which would more realistically meet the needs of the vastly neglected Black people of Mississippi. The primary aim was not to integrate the Negro's into the existing white power structure but to organize them into a durable structure of their own which could enable them to achieve the kind of changes they needed and desired.
A project of this nature was dependent for its development on a number of factors, not the least of which was the commitment of thousands of people, inside and outside the state, either by direct involvement in the project itself or by the indirect involvement of being a contributor in one way or another. This widespread participation was necessary because of the wide range and scope of the Mississippi Summer Project; from the beginning, it was a developing movement, and only incidentally an organizational effort. It was a movement committed to certain ideals ( e.g., the refusal to accept the Convention's compromise at Atlantic City), rather than to a set of fixed goals achieved through conventional direct action protest. Therefore, it was necessary for the rest of America to be brought into the struggle with something more than a verbal commitment: they had to be willing to work from the bottom and be ready to involve themselves in the movement's evolving ideals.
To this extent, it was not the usual type of civil rights drive; and for this reason, it was one of the most significant developments in the history of the civil rights movement. The movement which was started in Mississippi to transform that state didn't confine itself to the geographical limits of the state. It created an intense involvement among thousands of people, inside and outside the state, with a growing concern for social justice and political change, to an extent that no other "movement" had ever involved them. The furor created in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 erupted at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, led to the Congressional challenge in Washington, D.C., and ignited similar student activists on college campuses throughout the country.
Several obvious factors were instrumental in making the project the unique achievement it was. The first one which comes to mind that 85 per cent of the hard core staff were members of the youthful; militant, uncoordinated Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who gave to the project their dynamic character and approach.
Secondly, I should point to the fact that it was an unusual coalition of the national civil rights organizations with the local civic, religious, social and political groups in the state working together in the name of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). This fact had an attractive influence upon the people of Mississippi and the general public-at-large, especially among the middle classes. I give most of the credit to the total impact of the thousands of student volunteers, artists, skilled workers, laborers, professional people, educators, politicians, and others who went to Mississippi to work, to see, and to investigate. Over 1700 persons worked in the state who came from every region in the United States, including some who came from foreign countries as far away as England, France, and Germany. They worked with one condition: every volunteer and staff worker would train a Mississippian to do whatever work he was doing and eventually work himself out and the Mississippian in.
Within the state over 100,000 local people participated in the civil rights movement, including a few whites. Throughout the state, Black communities formed voter registration groups, such as the Ruleville Voters' League, the Tupelo Progressive Democratic Club, and the Hattiesburg Voter Registration League to educate themselves to the responsibilities and rights of democratic citizenship. At their regular political meetings you would hear enthusiastic discussion on decision-making in a democracy: who decides? where should the ultimate decision-making power reside?; in the people, or at the top? In most of the project areas local Negro's did their best to organize forms of assistance for the project workers to provide them with shelter, food and protection.
In Jackson, Mississippi, a group of Negro women formed an organization called Women's Power which provided clothing for the small number of Negro children who integrated public schools for the first time in that city. Also, they provided the Jackson project workers with one free meal every day for several months which they cooked and served in two different churches.
The most dramatic sign of all was their response to the Freedom Election: over 80,000 people voted in that election, casting their "mock ballots" for the leaders of the MFDP, the party they formed and led. They responded with the attitude that theirs was the real election and the regular election was the mock election.
Working side by side with the local people were the volunteers, who learned as well as taught; the relationship was one of reciprocal stripping and discovery. Many of them returned home to form pockets of concern and activity for the civil rights movement within their communities. One young volunteer urged her parents and the people in her community to form a Pittsburgh Friends of COFO to support the project, which, subsequently, shipped several trucking vans of food, clothing, office supplies and other useful equipment to Mississippi. A group of artists in Pittsburgh, inspired by the Friends of COFO, raised a large sum of money for the project work. A Union County, N.J., teacher who taught at the Freedom School in Holly Springs, Mississippi, was the impetus for her home county which adopted Benton County in Mississippi, and they provided funds for the teacher in order that she might continue her work there. A group of teachers from New York City returned home and organized assistance within the United Federation of Teachers in New York State.
One of the most interesting examples of sacrifice and dedication was shown by a man who was not a volunteer in the usual sense of the word as I have been using it here. He was a Catholic priest from White Plains, New York, who desired to do whatever he could. Located in the basement of his home was a small, complete print shop which he offered to donate to COFO. We accepted. Not only did he crate each piece of equipment and pay for its shipping, but he voluntarily went to Mississippi to install the equipment and to train several young Negroes to operate the shop. Later, he was instrumental in organizing several fund-raising affairs to raise money for larger printing equipment and a year's supply of paper. He helped form the Mississippi Assistance Project, one of the most massive contributing organizations of its kind. They contributed money and shipped several railroad boxcars of every conceivable item the project could use. MAP sent eleven of its people to Memphis, Tennessee, from which point the railroad shipment was distributed by five Hertz trucks to all the Freedom Projects in Mississippi, over a period of three days. Included in the group of eleven were a dentist, a writer, a lawyer, a banker, several students, and a doctor.
Another large and well-organized assistance group was the Minnesota Task Force which included in its membership the State Attorney General, the Mayor of St. Paul and Minneapolis, State Senators and Representatives, businessmen, rabbis and clergymen. They succeeded in raising a substantial amount of money and supplies, including vehicles.
Other individual people and organized groups expressed their commitment by giving whatever they had to offer. A fight promoter sent a large carton of boxing headgear. A pharmaceutical company sent several cartons of vitamin pills and a crate of first-aid kits.
A seafarer's union in California offered to provide free shipping to any coastal area in Mississippi. Several Teamster locals gave free trucking to various projects in the state. Rae Branstein, Secretary of the National Committee for Rural Schools, sent boxes of new dungarees and lumber shirts to be distributed among the children of Mississippi. Many national magazines donated subscriptions to each Freedom project, and some newspapers regularly sent great quantities of each issue. Bookstores donated multiple copies of specific titles requested. The Committee of Concern, set up by Quakers and representatives from the National Council of Churches, organized to rebuild burned and bombed churches. A group of college students spent their Christmas vacation rebuilding a burned church. A carpenter raised enough funds in California to go to Mississippi and build a Community Center, from the ground up, in Holmes County, A Negro electrician from Chicago did the electrical wiring in the Holmes County Community Center, and installed fluorescent lights in the Jackson headquarters. Even foreign embassies, mostly African, sent materials pertaining to their countries, such as books, maps, records, etc.
These were some of the more conspicuous forms of commitment which I have detailed, but people in cities all over the country responded to the struggle to crack the citadel of racism in America. Many northern colleges had organized assistance projects functioning on their campuses. ...
We can cite a few achievements, both tangible and intangible [ of the summer of 1964 ] .For instance, some of the volunteer workers and some of the staff workers saw the need for other forms of social action, either in the south or on their campuses or in their communities. One volunteer returned to the Berkeley campus and was instrumental in starting the Free Speech Movement. Other volunteers are working in the growing protest movements on other campuses. Others have become part of the growing Southern Student Organizing Committee, a group of southern white students who have patterned themselves after SNCC. Some have returned to northern cities to do grassroots organizing in the ghettos; former Freedom School teachers are now in the process of developing Freedom Schools in New York City.
Three SNCC workers left the state to develop the Free Southern Theater to provide real theater for those in the Black Belt who have no theater. In the way of legislation, there is the Civil Rights Bill, the pending Voting Bill, and the pending legislation curbing the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, with the possibility of getting Federal protection for civil rights workers.
The participating organizations themselves were stimulated to extend themselves into other areas, and into other forms of action. The Medical Committee for Human Rights has expanded considerably and has started recruiting more doctors and nurses. They have purchased mobile hospital units to use in the Deep South; and plans have been discussed for the building of clinics in Mississippi. More lawyers are entering into the struggle. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are expanding their base of operations. The Congress of Racial Equality staff working in Mississippi submitted plans to the National Action Council for the creation of a Southern Regional Office which would operate over a wider area in the Deep South. SNCC has started the new year with plans for a Blackbelt Project and a People's Conference to discuss new methods and goals.
The Mississippi experience raised some important questions which need to be answered. Do we continue working inside of, or outside of the existing institutional structure? Can a similar program be activated in northern ghettos? What is the future of the FDP idea and the Freedom Schools? How can we further expand and utilize direct action and civil disobedience as they were used in Atlantic City and Washington, D.C.? How can we force the public into a critical reexamination which will extend into every phase of human endeavor? What is the future role and direction of the entire civil rights movement, beyond the present attack on racism?
Perhaps, as in Mississippi, the thing to do is enter into every block, every neighborhood, every community and ask the people; get them to speak for themselves. If nothing else, Mississippi has shown that a real grassroots movement is possible, if it has its base in those who have been neglected the most.
Copyright © Eric Morton, 1965.