Fannie Lou Hamer remains a symbol for her role in the Freedom Movement
African American History Month Series
During the summer of 1964 over 1,000 student volunteers along with rank-and-file workers and professionals from the northern and western cities of the United States traveled to Mississippi and Southwest Tennessee to assist African Americans in their decades-long struggle to acquire the right to vote.
This effort became known as “Freedom Summer” where students and other volunteers worked alongside tens of thousands of African American youth, farmers and workers in a massive effort to both build an independent political party in Mississippi and to break down barriers to universal suffrage.
Ideas for the Freedom Summer project grew out of various campaigns for civil rights over the previous four years. On February 1, 1960, four African American students from North Carolina A&T College sat in at a white-only lunch counter sparking similar demonstrations throughout the South and support actions throughout the country.
Later in April 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed with representation from various campus organizations throughout the South and affiliates in the North and West. SNCC established a field staff and began to dispatch organizers to various locations throughout the South to work on voter registration and desegregation campaigns.
By 1963 the Civil Rights Movement had experienced a renewed sense of urgency with mass demonstrations in Birmingham and many other cities during the spring and summer of that year. Hundreds of thousands would gather and march in Detroit in June and Washington, D.C. in August demanding the passage of a federal Civil Rights Bill guaranteeing the total abolition of racial segregation in education, housing and public affairs.
A project called “Freedom Vote” was organized in Mississippi during the fall of 1963 where African Americans were encouraged to participate in order to illustrate the mass sentiment in favor of voter registration. The success of this program led to the announcement of a plan to recruit approximately 1,000 volunteers to come to Mississippi during the summer of 1964 to expose the systematic racism that prevented African Americans from voting and participating in segregated political parties and public institutions.
The Freedom Summer project in Mississippi was coordinated by a coalition of organizations including SNCC, the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the Mississippi Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others. The alliance was called the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and was initially formed in 1962 with leaders such as Bob Moses of SNCC and Aaron Henry of the NAACP.
The Role of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)
A leading figure in events during Freedom Summer was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who had been working since 1962 in voter registration campaigns and as an organizer for SNCC. Hamer, who was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi into a family of sharecroppers, after registering to vote was immediately fired from her job and evicted from a plantation in Ruleville.
In 1963, Mrs. Hamer was arrested after attending a voting rights workshop and beaten severely by police at a jail in Winona, Mississippi. She suffered injuries so lethal that her kidneys were permanently damaged.
By 1964, Mrs. Hamer was elected as Vice-Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), an independent political organization formed during that summer in response to the racial exclusionary policies of the official Democratic Party of the state. Although a massive amount of work was carried out to register African Americans to vote, reports indicate that as few as 1,200 were able to successfully complete the process due to intimidation and violence prevalent in the state.
The Civil Rights activists in Mississippi and their volunteer allies were subjected to arbitrary arrests, beatings, church bombings and lynching. Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney were kidnapped and brutally murdered in Neshoba County during the first week of the summer project.
The three Civil Rights workers’ bodies were not found for six weeks. During the course of the search for their remains, bodies of other African Americans, some of whom were Civil Rights activists, were unearthed and found in rivers including Charles Eddie Moore, Henry Hezekia Dee, 14-year-old Herbert Oarshy and at least five others.
Nonetheless, other accounts of the summer revealed that as many as 80,000 people joined the MFDP. The party elected delegates to the National Democratic Convention that was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey that year and attempted to unseat the all-white official state delegation.
A direct appeal to the national credentials committee of the Democratic Party by Mrs. Hamer was carried live on national television. When she began to testify about the horrors of living as African American political activists in Mississippi, she noted that, “we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives are being threatened daily.”
The power of her testimony worried the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He immediately called a live press conference to have Mrs. Hamer removed from national television.
Even though her testimony was preempted during the day, it was later shown that same evening in full. Faced with a political crisis during an election year, where the African American vote was crucial to the Democrats remaining in the White House, the Johnson administration attempted to strike a compromise by allowing two delegates from the MFDP to be seated at-large while the all-white delegation from Mississippi were allowed to maintain their credentials and seats.
This compromise was rejected by the MFDP despite the pledge by the Democratic Party leadership to ban all-white, racist delegations in future conventions. The MFDP delegation continued to protest and attempted to seize seats assigned to the all-white delegation from the state.
Mrs. Hamer would run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1965 and continued activism until her death in 1977.
Freedom Summer Project in Southwest Tennessee
In Fayette County, Tennessee, a cotton-producing area on the border with the Mississippi Delta, one of the first voting rights struggles of the Civil Rights era was initiated in 1959. When African Americans had attempted to register in mass during 1959-1960, hundreds of tenant farmers were put off the land owned by wealthy white farmers where they had worked for decades.
Fayette and neighboring Haywood Counties had been large-scale cotton producers going back to the antebellum slave period where by the conclusion of the Civil War, African Americans outnumbered whites substantially. Consequently after Emancipation and during the Reconstruction era, African Americans elected local and state representatives in these counties who served through the 1880s when they were forced out due to Jim Crow and Black Code segregation laws instituted by former slave owners who systematically prevented African Americans from voting, serving on juries and having access to public life.
A Tent City was established during the winter of 1960 in both Fayette and Haywood Counties which received national media attention. Material assistance came in from around the country while SNCC, CORE, the NAACP and other organizations provided support for the local organizers who formed a group called the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League (FCCWL) and the Haywood County Civic and Welfare League (HCCWL).
By 1963, Charlie Haynie, a Cornell University graduate student and peace activist, visited Fayette County and made contacts with local organizers such as Mr. and Mrs. John and Viola McFerren, leaders of the FCCWL. Haynie would return to Cornell and play a leading role in recruiting dozens of students to participate in a voter registration and outreach program during the summer of 1964.
The students assisted Fayette County residents through political education and mass mobilization in preparation for an election for Sheriff and Tax Assessor. Two candidates, L.T. Redfearn, a progressive white farmer, and Rev. June Dowdy ran for the positions respectively.
Although the elections were stolen, the experience added impetus to the struggle in the region which expanded in successive years well into the early 1970s. Events during 1964 led to a massive school desegregation campaign beginning in 1965.
The Significance of Freedom Summer Five Decades Later
There are many lessons to be learned from the events of 1964 in the South. Although the first Civil Rights Act was passed since 1875 that summer and the following year, the Voting Rights Act became law, there are still attacks being made on these gains in the current period.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Also in1964, the Johnson administration declared a “War on Poverty” without attacking the fundamental structures of capitalism which is at the root of underdevelopment, joblessness and hunger.
A new generation of youth must take up the struggle for the full realization of racial equality and the right to self-determination for African Americans and all oppressed nations in the U.S. Absent of a concerted, organized and protracted struggle every gain won through the Civil Rights Movement will be taken away by the ruling class.
Mr. Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor, Pan-African News Wire, is one of the frequent contributors for The 4th Media.