The Mississippi Summer Project and the Closed Society
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 afterwards.]

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 Mississippi.

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 murdered.

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 discrimination.

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 rights struggle.

Addendum (written after the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City)

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.

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(Labor donated)