What was Freedom Summer 1964?

Written by Chiazam Agu.

When people think about the 1960s in the United States, they usually think about the Civil Rights Movement, which involved African Americans fighting for equal rights. One important, although less well-known, event in the fight for equal rights was the Mississippi Freedom Project of 1964, also known as Freedom Summer. This summer project brought in nearly 1,000 college student volunteers from Northern states to Mississippi, a state in the South, in which a majority of African Americans were not registered to vote. Black people in Mississippi experienced a lot of racism and threats from White people, and received even more when they tried to register to vote. Although legally they had the right to vote, African Americans could be fired from their jobs, threatened, attacked, or even killed for trying to express themselves politically.1 In addition to these unofficial ways that Black people were discouraged to vote, there were official barriers as well. For example, potential Black voters were given literacy tests that were extremely difficult to pass and potential White voters were not given any such tests. Even when African Americans successfully registered to vote, they still faced danger. For example, their names would be published in the local paper and this exposed them to people trying to retaliate against them because of it.

Freedom Summer organizers hoped to register a large amount of African Americans to vote in Mississippi, since 1964 was an election year. 2 They believed that voting would give African Americans a political voice and the ability to determine who would represent them in their communities. Because activists saw the possibilities that could result from an increase in voting, they wanted a large amount of volunteers to help register people.3 This possibility for change that could come from voting was also a reason that a large amount of White people from Mississippi tried very hard to stop African Americans from registering. In addition to voter registration, Freedom Summer volunteers could also teach at “Freedom Schools” to improve the literacy rates of African Americans in Mississippi, or volunteer at Community Centers.4 The organizations involved in organizing Freedom Summer were the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP, and Mississippi community groups.5 All of these groups worked to fight against racism during the Civil Rights Movement.

In order to attract student volunteers, the organizers sent out information sheets to different colleges, including Stanford.6 In these information sheets, students were given a history of what the voting rights struggle looked like in Mississippi since 1961 and what the risks of volunteering were. The risks included physical violence that could even result in death, having future educational or employment setbacks because of their participation, or jail time.7 Even with the warnings, there were a lot of eager students from the North ready to come down to the South and fight for civil rights.8 But not even the dangers listed in the information sheet could prepare Northern students for the reality of Mississippi.

During the first day of Freedom Summer, on June 21, 1964, trouble began. Three volunteers didn’t check in that night. One Black volunteer, James Chaney and two white volunteers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman had gone missing.9 The atmosphere among the volunteers changed from excitement to work for a civil rights cause to fear and the realization of the real danger they faced. Although it would be six weeks until the three volunteers were officially found dead, Bob Moses, the director of Freedom Summer, stated that he knew right away they had been killed.10 Moses and other organizers of Freedom Summer knew that White Mississippians lived in “a ‘closed society’ in which departure from the Mississippi Way of Life is not tolerated for a Negro or white,”11 Because of this, the response to Freedom Summer volunteers was almost guaranteed to be violent. The information sheet had already highlighted “the terror of [Mississippi’s] police state atmosphere” in which police and angry citizens could use violence against volunteers with no consequences .12 Therefore, the threat of physical violence and intimidation were realities that volunteers had to face. The violence received from Mississippians was in direct contrast to the principle of nonviolence used by Freedom Summer volunteers.13

The nationwide media attention that came after the three volunteers went missing started a large debate on race among Freedom Summer volunteers. Initially organizers wanted White volunteers in order to stop people from thinking voters’ rights was only an issue that Black people cared about and also to get more national attention. As the summer began, it became clear that the reasons why the country cared more when White people cared about civil rights is rooted in racism and the way that the country as a whole sees both Black and White citizens. John Lewis, the leader of SNCC, stated, “It is a shame that national outrage is aroused only after two white boys go missing,”.14 Other activists agreed that there would not be the any media attention if only Chaney, the Black volunteer, had gone missing. This was an example of how there was something deep within U.S. society that meant that the nation saw White people’s lives as more valuable than Black people’s lives and their deaths as more tragic. As the information sheet had suggested, Northern white volunteers’ sacrifice actually did increase visibility for Freedom Summer.15

When considering the fate of the three volunteers, Bob Moses and student volunteers had to decide whether their goal of registering Black people to vote was worth risking their lives and the lives of the people they were registering. After an emotional silence and reflection from the volunteers, the students decided that they believed deeply in the ideals of the project and that they would continue the fight against racism by continuing Freedom Summer.16 In addition to the missing volunteers, as the summer continued, volunteers experienced more difficulties. The majority of White Mississippians were opposed to their activism because they did not want to disrupt the “White power structure” they had built up.17 That meant they were committed to destroying the efforts of volunteers, mainly through continuing violence and threats. During Freedom Summer, over 1,000 people were arrested, 80 volunteers were beaten, over 30 churches were set on fire, and more volunteers and supporters were killed.18

Throughout the summer, the volunteers tried to register voters a large amount of voters. Over 17,000 Black people from Mississippi attempted to register, but only about 1,600 applications were accepted by the state.19 Mississippi residents dedicated to the “Mississippi way of life” used a variety of scare tactics, violence, and reinforced systems of oppression in order to stop African Americans from being able to vote. But Freedom Summer did bring national attention to the kind of racism that was happening in Mississippi in particular. Their efforts led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which works to prevent racial discrimination in voting, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson who said that the hard work of those doing Freedom Summer inspired him.20 In addition, the summer project created an environment where students could actively fight for Civil Rights at a young age. Many of these student volunteers went on to become dedicated to social justice and equality for the rest of their lives.21

1. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi,, 1964. http://www.crmvet.org/docs/fs64fact.pdf.
2. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
3. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
4. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
5. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
6. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
7. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
8. Michael Chandler, Freedom on My Mind, Documentary, directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford (1964).
9. Chandler, Freedom on My Mind
10. Chandler, Freedom on My Mind
11. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
12. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
13. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
14. Patricia Michelle Boyett, Right to Revolt: The Crusade for Racial Justice in Mississippi’s Central Piney Woods (Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2015), 101
15. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
16. Chandler, Freedom on My Mind
17. Information Sheet- Project Mississippi
18. Doug McAdam, Freedom Summer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 96
19. King Encyclopedia. “Freedom Summer (1964).” Stanford University.

20. King Encyclopedia. “Freedom Summer (1964).”