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Don Robinson column: Freedom Summer 1964

The civil rights movement came to a head a half-century ago, during the summer of 1964. I was a graduate student and spent most of that summer in Mississippi. While largely a spectator, speaking to gatherings of white people (church groups, Rotary Clubs and the like), I saw enough to give me a sense of what was at stake.

It had become clear in the early 1960s that the nation was headed for an explosion over race relations. It had been almost a decade since the Supreme Court had banned segregation in public schools, but black people were still being treated like dirt at public lunch counters. Blacks, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a March on Washington in August 1963. King’s speech would propel him to the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, but in Congress, liberals battled southern Democrats, whose seniority gave them control over the key committees. It was a desperate struggle.

What changed the balance, forever, was the decision by young blacks to confront the beast of race hate in its American lair, the Deep South. Their stunning actions — refusing to take seats in the back of the bus, “sitting in” at lunch-counters — moved the nation and forced Congress to act. Its first major achievement was the passage of a law outlawing discrimination in public accommodations.

That summer, leaders of the movement were ready for even more radical action: a drive to get blacks registered to vote, not in northern cities, but deep in the heart of the segregated South. It was a brilliant tactic. Anyone who acknowledged that blacks were human and American could not resist it. Those who did were pitting their way of life against the central promises of American politics.

On a night in early July, I got wind of a meeting at a sharecroppers’ bunk-house in Greenwood, a sweltering town in black-soil cotton country. We were the only white folks there that night, and we never opened our mouths.

The topic before the house was how the movement should respond to President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expected to occur the following day. The passage of that law had been one of the great legislative achievements of American history. Its central provisions outlawed racial discrimination in such “public accommodations” as trains, buses, restaurants and swimming pools.

The debate that night was about tactics. Should blacks test the law by “sitting in,” or should they stick to their business, voter registration? The debate was intense, sometimes heated, and it continued, off and on, for several hours. In the end, though, the group came to a consensus: Don’t get distracted. Let others test the new law.

We were playing for higher stakes: a major voice in the nation’s politics. The road to that goal required getting folks to register to vote, one at a time. The struggle would be dangerous, not only for themselves — the recent murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were on everyone’s mind — but for the black people of Mississippi, whose lives and livelihoods were at stake.

That night it became clear that racial justice in America was a matter of time. It would certainly not come quickly or easily. But the drive in that direction, led by a large and growing band of remarkable black women (Fanny Lou Hamer, Marion Wright, Eleanor Holmes ...) and men (Bob Moses, Stokely Carmichael, Vincent Harding, Charlie Cobb, Ralph Abernathy ...), would not and could not be stopped.

The short-run results of Freedom Summer 1964 were bitter, not triumphant. The leaders organized themselves into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and traveled by buses to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. There, before the convention’s credentials committee, they challenged the regularly elected delegation. Despite brilliant testimony by Fanny Lou Hamer, the established party leaders (President Johnson, Senator Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther) offered only a lame compromise (seating two token MFDP delegates), which the folks from Mississippi quickly rejected. A more satisfying response came four years later, at the party’s explosive 1968 convention in Chicago, where Mississippi’s seats, all of them, were awarded to the MFDP delegation.

Very soon President Johnson’s dire prediction, that the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would mean the death of the Democratic Party in the South, began to come true. Eventually, however, we would have a black politician in the White House, slugging through the dog days of his second term. One day a white Republican politician from Mississippi would depend on mobilizing black voters to retain his seat in the U.S. Senate.

We have come an unimaginably long way from that tumultuous night a half-century ago.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at drobinso@smith.edu.

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