Fight for Voting Rights in Mississippi Turns 50

Updated 9 weeks ago Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
Voting rights was a priority of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. The struggle to secure these rights achieved real traction and impact in the early 1960s. While the Jim Crow South was rife with voter suppression, there was no place more in need of voting reforms than Mississippi. Although black Mississippians comprised nearly 50 percent of the state’s population in 1960, less than 7 percent of its eligible black constituency was registered to vote, representing the lowest percentage in the union. In some counties, no blacks were registered to vote. Despite ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment ninety years early, terrorist tactics – from fear and intimidation to beatings and lynchings – prevented blacks from exercising their constitutional right to vote.  Later, legislation in several states, i.e., the passage of state constitutional amendments beginning in 1890, severely restricted black voter participation – through measures such as poll taxes, background checks and literacy tests. By 1960, the southern black population had been politically disenfranchised for almost a century.  

To effect social and political change for equality in voting, civil rights leaders understood that the Movement needed to challenge the status quo of racial intolerance being advanced by groups like the Citizens' Councils, a national network of pro-segregationists formed in 1954 following the Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. The mission of Citizens’ Councils was to preserve white power and oppose racial integration. To protect the voting rights of black citizens, the deep-rooted white segregationist and supremacist establishment, which considered African Americans second-class citizens and preserved this racist ideology with violence, had to be confronted directly. It was decided that there was no better place to embark on this monumental task than Mississippi, arguably the country’s poorest and most violent and segregated state.
In 1961, building on the service and sacrifice of countless civil rights workers in initiatives aimed at ending racial segregation and unjust voting restrictions, Robert (Bob) Moses, a local field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), became the head of SNCC’s voter education and registration operations in the state. Moses’ seminal leadership over the next couple of years was instrumental in the formation of strong coalitions among SNCC leaders and other civil rights leaders as well as sympathetic whites. In 1963, Moses and SNCC carried out a mock election called "Freedom Vote," with the intention of demonstrating both the will of black residents to vote and that in the absence of violence and unfair administrative red tape they would be participating in the electoral process. To accommodate interested black Mississippians, organizers opened polling places in black churches and businesses all over the state, including in Jackson, the state capital and final stop of the “Freedom Rides” of 1961. For most, this was the first time in their lives they felt empowered to contribute to a free, democratic institution. Tens of thousands voted.
In January 1964, with media and law enforcement officials looking on, a former sharecropper turned civil rights activist named Fannie Lou Hamer helped lead a march of voting rights activists in front of the Forrest County courthouse in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The demonstration was organized to protest discriminatory tactics of the County Registrar and his cronies which prevented blacks from registering to vote. It marked the state’s first Freedom Day (of many to come) and the beginning of what would become a momentous and historic year for direct action, democracy and social justice in Mississippi.
On June 20, 1964 – eight days after the one-year anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson – a massive nonviolent campaign was launched with an ambitious agenda to challenge white domination and end segregation by registering black citizens to vote.  The ten-week voter registration drive known as the Mississippi Summer Project, or Freedom Summer, was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). The COFO was comprised of SNCC as well as the Mississippi branches of the three other major civil rights organizations: the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The heart and soul of the Project was the more than 700 out-of-state volunteers, most of whom were economically privileged young white student volunteers from Northern colleges. They were trained in nonviolent techniques and joined hundreds of local and regional activists who provided much-needed support and guidance.
The spirit and resolve of the Project was tested at the onset when three young volunteers (a black Mississippian, James Chaney, and two white northerners, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner) went missing near Meridian, Mississippi. Their bodies were discovered six weeks later in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been kidnapped and killed. It was later learned that members of the local police and Klu Klux Klan were responsible for the slayings. The criminal act of terror, however, had the opposite effect intended. From the day the three youths went missing, to the time their fate was learned, to the end of Freedom Summer, the incident emboldened Project organizers and developed into a rallying cry for action, both in the state and across the nation.
Voter registration was the primary goal of Freedom Summer. Organizers recognized that the effort would require a set of strategic approaches, especially education. To address the racial inequalities in Mississippi's educational system and to assist communities pass the literacy requirement of the state’s voter registration process, roughly 40 “Freedom Schools” were started in towns and cities throughout Mississippi. School organizers and teachers, many of whom were white college students, held that a basic quality education gave individuals and communities the power and voice needed to be effective agents of social change. The curriculum included the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), as well as civics, black history, civil rights philosophy, and leadership skills. At night, the schools became centers for political meetings where strategy was discussed. With approximately 3,000 students, the Freedom Schools drew more than three times the expected enrollment. The success of the schools went beyond Freedom Summer, ins
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