OPINION: It’s time to duplicate the best of Freedom Summer (1964)

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The Summer of 1964 was one of those times when it seems that the stars were perfectly aligned for the democratic advancement of African American people. There was a friendly federal administration in office; thousands of young activists were willing to descend upon Mississippi to work in the movement. Then Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the stage was set for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, opening the door for the election of many Black political officials, including mayors, county supervisors, state legislators, and congresspersons. 

Yes, as we look back, we honor and recognize the heroes and heroines of the day. Many people, in fact, long for what they consider “the good old days.” While it is important to remember and celebrate those who paved the way, we need to be clear-eyed about then and now. Freedom was not free then and it is not free now. The stars did not align themselves then; the people aligned things themselves through their organizing and activism.

On the one hand, people like Medgar Evers, Vernon Dahmer, and Rev. George Lee had given their lives. Others had been beaten, arrested, and driven out of their communities. None of the people who received those treatments had deliberately sought out their fates. Yet, they were courageous enough to do what in their souls they felt had to be done. 

The society in the 1960s demanded such courageous heroes and heroines. Today, many feel that the socio-political climate is becoming much the same as in the 1960s, if not worse. The white nationalist agenda of Donald Trump’s followers is simply a re-incarnation what had been in place by such past racists as Jefferson Davis, Theodore Bilbo, and James Eastland. The question, therefore, becomes, “Are there leaders and groups who are willing to display the courage and skills to stop Trump-ism in its tracks”? “Who is willing to sacrifice to duplicate the Summer of 1964”?

Accompanying the heroes and heroines in their work, there was the brilliant idea of uniting the efforts of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Congress on Racial Equality, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference into what became the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). They may have had internal disputes but were united enough to enable them to “force” the National Democratic Party to open up its structure and become a champion for the movement. It brought to the streets and to the polls many who had previously given up and accepted Jim Crow for themselves and their offspring. Many were out clamoring for “Black Power.” They were saying it loud, “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” 

Action such as undertaken by COFO would certainly be useful today in organizing and encouraging people to become fully politically active. If we are not careful, we could lose the opportunity to help shore-up the gains of 1964. Action is needed today in places as different as the Mississippi Delta, the Gulf Coast, the Jackson metropolitan area, DeSoto County, Natchez, and the Piney Woods area. If one wants to duplicate the best of the Summer of 1964, he/she must step forward to engage in this work, not in an egotistical manner, but as a soldier united with other soldiers. 

In 1964, many Black Mississippians were oppressed by Jim Crow policies and practices, but they dreamed and they worked. They raised up and supported local leaders and organizations. They welcomed outside allies and sought the assistance of the federal government. Even as they did so, however, it was no bed of roses. The environment was deeply Jim Crow in every respect. We point this out so that nobody wanders blindly into political activism but enters with the dream of and quest for full freedom and democracy, knowing that success may require great sacrifices. We are fighting today against the rise of the same kind of racial intolerance as was the case in 1964.

For both Black and white people, a life of political activism may well mean the loss of economic benefits, being by-passed for political or professional opportunities, experiencing diminished popularity, or even the loss of family and friends. The reward, however, is realizing that he/she has put forth his/her best effort to advance humankind and has treated everybody as he/she would want to be treated. The human reward for helping duplicate the best of the Summer of 1964 is surely a clear conscience and satisfied mind. What is more, history may also include their name alongside the likes of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ida B. Wells, Hollis Watkins, Henry Kirksey, Gladys Noel Bates, Unita Blackwell, and T.R.M. Howard.

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OPINION: It’s time to duplicate the best of Freedom Summer (1964)

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 30, 2024