The Mississippi Summer Project and the Closed
by Joe White
(Freedom Summer Volunteer, from U.C. Berkeley)
Originally published in U.C. Berkeley Campus
CORE-Lator, September, 1964
See 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer
Events for background & more information.
See also Freedom Summer
for web links.
[The first portion of
this articles was written prior to the Democratic Party national
convention in Atlantic City where the liberal wing of the party betrayed
the Mississippi Freedom Democrats (see
MFDP Challenge to the
Democratic Convention). The second part was written
The "official Bible" of the Mississippi Summer Project is
Mississippi: the Closed, Society, by James W. Silver. Ironically,
Silver is Professor of History at 'Ole Miss, the natives' affectionate
name for the University of Mississippi. Professor Silver's main
hypothesis is that since 1875, Mississippi has been tightly controlled
under white supremacy, political conservatism, states rights, and
religious fundamentalism. The net effect of this crop of ideological
weeds has been to turn the state into a closed
society — closed in a number of ways. Obviously the
opportunity for Negroes, and for that matter many whites, to earn a
decent living and lead a life of reasonable peace, comfort, and dignity
is closed. But what Mr. Silver is worried about most of all is a state
of mind; specifically, the ability of white
Mississippians — which by turns puzzles and enrages the
outside world — to take the position, "We're right,
the rest of the world is wrong, and that's all there is to it."
As a summer volunteer doing research and field work in agricultural
economics, I had the opportunity to talk to Mississippi bureaucrats and
can report that the Silver thesis is all too valid. A civil rights
worker trying to elicit information from a state agency will usually be
given a runaround if he is so naive as to identify himself as being
connected with COFO. (The initials stand for the Council of Federated
Organizations — CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and Martin Luther
King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference — who
are jointly running the Mississippi Summer Project.) Or else he will
receive evasive responses, the substance being that everything is just
fine in Mississippi.
For example, during the course of an interview I had with two
bureaucrats in the Mississippi Cooperative Federation, I revealed that I
was one of "those outside agitators." One of the two men refused to
speak with me further; the other was civil enough to continue the
interview, but it was impossible to get straight answers from him. He
assured me that Negroes did business with and participated in farmers
cooperatives in Mississippi. But when I asked him whether he considered
this to be an encouraging sign of biracial cooperation in a state where
the United States Agriculture Department maintains separate county
extension agents for white and Negro farmers, he warned me that the
Mississippi Cooperative Federation was strictly a business enterprise
and was not about to go on any crusades.
Moreover, he was empathetically unenthusiastic about organizing new
coops, which was why I had come to him in the first place, (Mississippi
has the weakest farmer coop movement of any agricultural state.) Indeed,
why should anyone want to start coops? As everybody knows, things are
great — never been better — in
If a civil rights worker does not identify himself as such, the chances
are he will get the information he is looking for. An agricultural
economist on the State Agriculture and Industry Board was most helpful
in providing me with statistics when I told him I was writing a thesis
for the University of California.
But he too was suspicious of me because I was an outsider (official
Mississippi being as anxious about its "image" as a teenage girl). He
asked me what I thought about the state's social system. "It's not
perfect," I replied. He then produced the latest FBI figures on major
crime, which revealed that Mississippi had the lowest crime rate in the
country. "Don't you think there is a correlation between the social
structure and a low crime rate?" he asked triumphantly. I said I was
sure that there was a correlation between Mississippi's crime rate and
the figures. For in Mississippi there are four codes of justice to cover
four possibilities: (l) crimes by whites against whites, (2) Negroes
against whites. (3) Negroes against Negroes, (4) whites against Negroes.
How many crimes in categories (3) and (4) are reported is anybody's
guess. Since January 1964, at least six Mississippi Negroes have been
The mentality of the closed society pervades all public life in
Mississippi. The State Democratic Party boasts of its separation from
the National Democratic Party. It proclaimed in a recent election
pamphlet, "We do not have to belong to and participate in an integrated
national party." When the FBI re-opened its Jackson office shortly after
James Chaney, Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were murdered, Gov. Paul
Johnson announced on TV that the FBI was re-opening the office not
because state and local authorities were unwilling and unable to
safeguard people's lives, but because Mississippi was becoming so
prosperous (the state has the lowest per-capita income in the country)
that organized crime "wanted in" on the Mississippi bonanza.
The spirit of delusion was evidently contagious, since J. Edgar Hoover,
who had come down to Mississippi to check up on the search for the then
missing bodies, wholeheartedly agreed with Johnson. Almost all the daily
papers have denounced the summer volunteers as outside agitators,
communists and beatniks. In reality, the Mississippi Summer Project is
quite "square" by Berkeley standards. Finally, summer volunteers have
been angrily. refused entrance into white churches.
How successful has the Summer Project been in breaching the closed
society? Of course it is impossible to evaluate conclusively one battle
in a war which has just begun. On the other hand, changes are already
apparent. A fact easily overlooked is that the very existence of
Northerners and Westerners in the state has forced the white community
to recognize that, however much they might like to, they can't
completely divorce themselves from the outside world.
An integrated car in downtown Jackson still gets its share of dirty
looks and shouted epithets, but the sight is becoming so frequent that
the die-in-the-last-ditch white supremacist must feel himself
beleaguered. Among the white college students there is, along with
hostility, a measure of curiosity. The Association of Tenth Amendment
Conservatives, an 'Ole Miss student group. took it upon themselves to
visit the Freedom House at Ruleville. They talked for about an hour and
went away exposed if not convinced. Students at Mississippi Southern
University in Hattiesburg have made similar overtures.
Aside from the reports of violence (which occur at the rate of at least
a dozen incidents per day) the aspect of the Summer Project which has
attracted the most publicity has been the formation of the Mississippi
Freedom Democratic Party. Its structure parallels that of the State
Democratic Party, but in two respects is radically different. First, any
resident of Mississippi of voting age — white or
Negro — may join the FDP. Second, the FDP is pledged to
support Lyndon Johnson. FDP delegates will go to the Democratic National
Convention and demand to be seated by virtue of being the "loyalist"
Democratic organization in Mississippi.
If the FDP delegation is seated — at this writing the
chances range from "not bad" to "very good", the effect will be that
Mississippi voters will be able to rejoin the National Democratic Party.
This might turn out to be something of a mixed blessing, since the
Democrats' position on civil rights and other problems besetting
Mississippi, has been less than ideal. If, on the other hand, the FDP's
demands are totally rejected, its raison d'etre will be
undermined and its future jeopardized.
Until Negroes are allowed to register for the vote in large numbers,
Mississippi will remain a closed society, and unfortunately, COFO
workers do not occupy the position of voter registrar in any of
Mississippi's 82 counties. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a help, but
does not go nearly far enough, since it does not provide for Federal
Referees to register voters in counties with a demonstrable pattern of
Nevertheless, the day of reckoning is fast approaching for the whites
who run Mississippi politics. They will have to choose between complying
"with federal court orders to register Negro voters (thus ending their
political reign) and defying the courts (thus risking federal
intervention and possibly occupation). The Mississippi Summer Project of
1964 has proceeded on the assumption that federal intervention was not
forthcoming, an assumption which turned out to be tragically correct.
The price of Washington's inactivity has been three lives and few voters
registered. The possibility that the Mississippi Summer Project is only
a beginning and that the strength of the national government may be
required to crack Mississippi must be faced by everyone in the civil
Addendum (written after the Democratic Convention in Atlantic
People in the civil rights movement would do well to be extremely
skeptical of the liberal assertion that the seating of two members of
the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation as "delegates at
large" represents a civil rights victory. The argument runs that the
Freedom Democratic Party people had no legal case at all, but rather a
moral case; and that the Democratic National Convention's unprecedented
decision to create delegates at large and a watchdog committee to see
that the Mississippi State Democratic Party allows Negroes to
participate in Mississippi politics will in the long run bring civil
rights to Mississippi.
Let's examine the facts. In the first place the FDP based its claim to
official recognition on the contention that it was the Democratic Party
in Mississippi explicitly pledged to the support of the Democratic
ticket. This contention is indisputably correct. The Mississippi State
Democratic Party publicly boasts that it is not bound by the national
party and in fact Democratic electors in Mississippi did not cast their
votes for John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Secondly, the FDP is accused of not following Mississippi law to the
letter by not holding convention in each of the state's 82 counties.
True enough. What was not reported on the TV is that in some sections of
Mississippi it is still impossible for civil rights workers to move in
even relative safety and that any Negro in these areas who so much as
attempts to register to vote, much less organize a political party, is
taking his life in his hands.
It is also true that the FDP did not follow the law which states that a
political party must advertise its conventions in local newspapers. How
indeed could they, when the papers refused to accept their ads because
"the Freedom Democratic Party is not a legal political party."
Someone who faithfully watched the TV also did not learn that the
members of the "regular Mississippi delegation, suddenly so concerned
about legality, devote their political lives to evading and ignoring the
law of the land, that registered Negro voters were turned away from the
regular State Democratic Party Conventions, and that only 6.3 per cent
of Negroes eligible to vote in Mississippi are registered.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party regulars persisted in their analysis
that somehow the FDP had no legal claim to be seated. I would argue that
they were using the issue of legality as a smokescreen to cover their
fears — the fear that Lyndon Johnson would lose the
entire South were the Freedom Democrats seated, the fear of the "white
backlash," and the fear of calling white supremacists by the right name.
Considering the eagerness of the liberals to compromise (the California
delegation is a good example) one might reasonably ask what was behind
the idea of organizing a political party in Mississippi loyal to
Johnson. The answer is that many people in COFO assumed that because the
Democratic party is the more liberal of the two major political parties,
the civil rights movement must work within the Democratic party and
loyally support it in the hope that the Democrats would throw out their
southern, white supremacist wing and that a truly liberal party would
emerge. This was not an unreasonable hypothesis, and 1964 provided a
fine year to test it. The results are clear enough. The Democratic Party
proved no more willing to seat the FDP delegation than to provide
Federal protection for civil rights workers in the South, Federal
referees to uphold voting rights, or courageous leadership in the face
of the so called backlash. The civil rights Movement now must critically
reexamine its political perspective.
Copyright © Joe White, 1964.