Still here, still struggling, still fightingBy Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: Jul 2, 2014 - 1:00:46 AM
Fifty year anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer brings refl ections on progress, setbacks and commitments to have youth continue the battle
JACKSON, Mississippi (FinalCall.com) - After trudging for 50 years along arguably the most dangerous, yet most productive trail of the Civil Rights Movement’s long road toward freedom, 1,500 veterans of Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer reunited on the campus of Tougaloo College here in late June, to formally plot the movement’s progress and—with 700 delegates to a simultaneous Youth Congress—to strategize for its future.
It’s Choctaw name means “Father of Waters.” The Mississippi is the longest river in the United States. It rises in northern Minnesota, near Canada, and twists for 2,350 miles, draining from 31 states before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, Louisiana.
The home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, William Faulkner and Richard Wright, when it comes to race relations, Mississippi exists in another dimension of Black and White reality. Lyndon Johnson was president when he observed that “You could say there are three principalities. There’s America. There’s the South. And then there’s Mississippi.”
From 1870 when the Reconstruction after the Civil War ended with the withdrawal of federal troops, until 1946 after the end of World War II, more than 600 Black men were murdered by Whites in the state, most without anyone even being brought to trial, let alone convicted.
Freedom Summer was 1964 when young Black and White people, organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) descended on Mississippi, determined to help break down American apartheid in the state judged to be the worst in the union on race relations.
Freedom Summer veteran Hollis Watkins recalled that “a Black man could be beaten for not stepping off the sidewalk to let a White person pass. Many were murdered for looking into a White woman’s face. That was called ‘eyeball rape.’ ”
Mr. Watkins is a veteran of the movement who got involved in 1961, and he pointed out that it was veterans of World War II who first decided that after fighting for “democracy” overseas, it was time they had it here in Mississippi. That is an important distinction between the way the Civil Rights movement was fought in Mississippi and in the rest of the South. Rather than concentrating on desegregation and public accommodations, the movement in Mississippi was nearly always a struggle for equal access to the ballot.
In fact, conferees recalled, a mass demonstration attended by 7,000 to 10,000 Blacks was first held in the state in 1951, committed to gaining voting rights.
Now, in 2014, 50 years after that epic summer, which produced a stunning political turnaround—Mississippi is the state with the largest number of Black elected officials—the conditions on the ground still resemble the way things were in 1964.
The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party crushed the stranglehold on Southern politics held by “Dixiecrats,” Democratic office holders who ruled Congress based on their seniority because despite their national agenda, back home their ideology was segregation, segregation, segregation.
At home Blacks were not allowed to register to vote simply because they were Black. Often they were given so-called “literacy tests,” in which, often illiterate White registrars asked imponderable questions like: “How many bubbles are on a bar of soap?” Many, many, many people were fired from their jobs for trying to register to vote. They were beaten, and some were brutally murdered.
In the 50 years since the original Freedom Summer, the “long road to freedom and racial reconciliation,” has removed the overt symbols of American apartheid, and put a Black president in the White House, and with his election, wholesale efforts to therefore deny that racism/White supremacy remain in this country. But in the Magnolia State, where the “official” Black population is 40 percent of the total, little, except the party label has changed.
Both sitting U.S. Senators are conservative White Republicans. In 1964, both were conservative White Democrats, or “Dixiecrats.” And today, because state legislators packed the Second Congressional District with many of the Black voters from The Delta in the North to South of Jackson more than 100 miles away, only one of five seats in the U.S. House has a Black Representative—Bennie Thompson, a Democrat and former chair of the Homeland Security Committee.
Ironically, in a Senate run-off election between Sen. Thad Cochran and his ultra-conservative Tea Party backed opponent, which happened while the Freedom Summer 50 conference was going on, it was Black crossover votes in the state’s “open primary” system, which enabled Mr. Cochran to hold off his radical right-wing challenger.
Bob Moses is credited with devising the voting rights strategy in Mississippi. Shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1961 he went to Mississippi and started working, up and down the state, awakening local residents to the need for equal ballot access. Dr. Joyce Ladner, former president of Howard University, and her sister Dorie Ladner were young students from Hattiesburg, when they heard the call.
“It was so dangerous back then, we really didn’t think a lot about living the next day, because every time we went out on a demonstration or try to register someone to vote, you didn’t really know whether you were going to be beaten, or (if) the house you were staying in would be bombed or burned, or whatever,” Dr. Ladner told The Final Call. “So living (50 years past Freedom Summer) is one thing. The other is to say that we’re still here and we’re still struggling. Still fighting.
“The reason we’re here, far more than to reminisce is to talk about what we have to do on worker’s rights, on voting rights, to make sure that these rollbacks in voting rights really cannot stand. Back in ’63 and ’64 I thought that once we got the right to vote it was engraved in stone. As a 19-year-old I had no idea that it would be challenged and in many cases chipped away at,” Dr. Ladner continued.
Albert Sykes is convener of the Youth Congress. He told The Final Call that members of his generation are indeed ready to take on the mantle of leadership. “We have folks from Boston, Michigan, New York, California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland. People are coming from various places around the country, as well as both high school and college age young people from Mississippi.”
Despite surprising opposition from within the Civil Rights community itself, “the way that the young people are showing up is exactly what Bob Moses talks about when he talks about ‘the demand side.’
“Young people showing up like this gives me the indication that they are ready to make the demand for things to change, and for them to be a part of creating that change, versus bringing them and sitting them down in front of talking heads who are supposed to tell them what to do. I think that they (are) demonstrating that they are ready to think and learn and do for themselves,” Mr. Sykes said.
“I think Ella Baker said it best, when she said ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders.’ And some folks are so used to being strong leaders, and running statewide organizations or running national organizations, and they get so far away from emerging leadership, or they get directly in the way of emerging leadership, and so I’m so excited to see young people that’s ready to work the demand side and say, ‘We want to be there. We want to be part of the solution. We don’t want to be just a piece of the conversation, but we want to be a part of the action that has to come from the conversation.’”
Emily Chaney is a young White organizer who came to Freedom Summer 50 to learn how to apply the organizing techniques which were successful for the Civil Rights Movement to her work organizing youth in the rural Midwest. “I work all across the upper Midwest, in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, to help young people develop their own cooperative businesses,” Ms. Chaney told The Final Call.
“I’m here in Jackson for a few reasons. A lot is to learn, a lot is to pay homage, and also to think specifically around how to build out the cooperative movement, and how to build out youth power by using cooperatives. There are not a lot of youth in the cooperative movement, but there are a lot of youth in these movements.
Unlike 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Movement was on everyone’s lips, new building blocks must be laid now in order to get young people involved. Social media is far more important now than television, which was important 50 years ago. In addition the strategy must address a generation of people who were so excited—and who may have now become complacent—when President Obama was elected.
Tougaloo College may be an exemplar. Because of the school’s open support for the voting rights and other Civil Rights struggles, its charter and its funding were attacked—unsuccessfully—many times in the Mississippi state legislature. For that reason as well as many others, Dr. Beverly Hogan, the first female president of Tougaloo, declares proudly that her school is “Where history meets the future.”
Many Whites attended Freedom Summer 50, just as they were involved in the original drive, often driven to participate by their own understanding of church teaching. For their part, Freedom Summer leaders felt in 1964 that the racist police forces would not be so quick to beat young White youth as they had been to beat Blacks, especially in front of the national news media which had assembled there then.
They underestimated the depth of the hatred. The extra-legal, Ku Klux Klan vigilantes resorted to night terror. On June 21, 1964 they kidnapped and murdered Michael Schwerner, a well known New York City organizer; Andrew Goodman; and their Black colleague James Chaney. The men had been beaten and shot.
Ironically, in the desperate search before those three bodies were found in an earthen grave in Neshoba County, authorities dredged many lakes and ponds. They found body after body, after body of Black men who had previously disappeared without any public outcry.
A number of Klan members were eventually convicted on minor charges, with none serving more than six years in jail. It took 41 years before a murder conviction was handed down in that case, with former Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen found guilty of manslaughter in 2005. Most of the murders of dozens of Blacks in the 1950s and 1960s remain unsolved.
Still, Whites made their way to Mississippi to join the Freedom Summer campaign and many returned for Freedom Summer 50. John Wilkins is an Episcopalian from Texas who thought his Christian faith required him to stand up for equality for all. In 1964 he volunteered to go to Canton, Mississippi.
“I had gone to school for two years in Memphis, Tennessee,” Mr. Wilkins told The Final Call. “The longer I was there, the more uncomfortable I became at the intellectual dishonesty, of claiming to be a Christian school, while not letting certain Christians in if their skin wasn’t the right color. So, I just couldn’t perform intellectually and went back to Texas.
“There was a group that had an annual conference,” at his hometown in Texas, he recalled. “And I knew several of the people that were involved; it was a campus ministry coalition group. Several of them proposed that if I were willing they would sponsor me—subsistence basis—in Mississippi. Well, like certain offers from the Mafia, it was one I couldn’t refuse. It wouldn’t be faithful. Because, I didn’t see how I could faithfully—to the Lord Jesus—not do it.
“So I say, I followed Jesus to Mississippi,” Mr. Wilkins said.
And while the Nation of Islam supported Black separation into a state or territory of its own, not integration into the dominant White society, both the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan have been silent benefactors to traditional, integrated, Civil Rights organizations.
In 2013 at the Holy Day of Atonement, the anniversary of the Million Man March, held in Tuskegee, Alabama, the president of the nearly defunct Southern Christian Leadership Movement—which had been the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement base—revealed that Minister Farrakhan had quietly and without any fanfare or publicity, supported the group after 1999, paying its rent and other operating expenses for almost a year.
Similarly, in 1968, when SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were consolidating their gains at unseating segregated, all-White delegations to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Mr. Muhammad quietly sponsored the integrated Georgia delegation’s expenses to attend the convention, according to former Georgia state senator and former NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond.
Mr. Bond told The Final Call that he was in Chicago, having no success raising funds to bring his group to the meeting, when a man—probably then National Secretary John Ali, whose brother Michael Simmons was a prominent SNCC activist—told him, “My boss can help you. ‘Who is your boss?’ I asked him. ‘Elijah Muhammad,’ he said. I said, he would never give us money, ours is an integrated group. He told me to ask Mr. Muhammad and he arranged for me to have dinner at his home.” Mr. Bond’s account was corroborated by White author and Freedom Summer 50 veteran, Taylor Branch.
“I made my presentation and Mr. Muhammad asked everyone at the table, what should be done,” Mr. Bond recalled. “All of the women at the table said no, that we would waste the money. Some of the men said yes.
“Mr. Muhammad said, ‘We are not a democracy. We listen to the sisters, but the men make the decisions,’ and he gave us $3,000 to bring our delegation to the convention,” Mr. Bond concluded.