From 'Freedom Summer' to the winter of our discontent

From 'Freedom Summer' to the winter of our discontent
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In June of 1964, nearly a thousand mostly white students trekked to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer. Their goal for the Mississippi Summer Project was simple: register African-American voters in a Deep South state with a history of segregation, racism and the vestiges of slavery.

As students congregated, white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and racist law enforcement officers retaliated in brutal fashion; the violence that erupted included the murder of students Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, whose bodies were found not far from Philadelphia, Mississippi, six weeks after they arrived.

Freedom Summer was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations, a coalition of civil rights groups that included the prominent Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, as well as the NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These groups invited students to help liberate oppressed African-Americans in a state where fewer than 6 to 7 percent of those eligible to vote were registered.


At the end of the summer, much had been achieved to draw attention to U.S. apartheid in Mississippi — including the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with civil rights legends Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Lawrence Guyot and Bob Moses, among others. Despite the advances, however, only about 1,200 people were added to the voting rolls.  

This was not the first time that those in power actively suppressed and disenfranchised African-Americans’ voting rights. If we dig deeper into the state’s history, we can have a better understanding of continued attempts to shackle the vote.

Things started out well during Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). With passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (except in prisons) and then the 14th and 15th Amendments, African-Americans rushed to register to vote in Mississippi. Indeed, throughout the South, more than 700,000 African-American males registered to vote — their party of choice, the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Women would not gain the right to vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

During this period following the Civil War, voters elected more than 226 African-Americans to office in Mississippi, including three congressmen and U.S. Sens. Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram Revels, the first African-American senator who filled the seat vacated by former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. I must also mention John R. Lynch, who became House speaker in the Mississippi state legislature and later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nor can we forget former Mississippi Lt. Gov. Alexander K. Davis.

While in office, African-American politicians “provided for more universal suffrage by removing property requirements for voting,” note the authors of a 1972 article for Notre Dame Law Review. These politicians sought to end debt imprisonment and cruel punishments such as whipping or branding persons, and to reduce the crimes for which execution was allowed. They  established the first statewide systems of free public schools — benefiting all Americans, regardless of their ancestry.

Unfortunately, everything changed with the presidential election of 1877. Reconstruction in the South ended as a key compromise to secure the presidency for Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden, who won the popular vote. With federal troops removed from the South, former Confederates, white nationalists and wealthy southerners began the process of disenfranchisement through social stigma, violence, legal strategies, black codes and other means.

With its 1890 constitutional convention, Mississippi became a model for other states committed to disenfranchising the black vote. The fourth constitution, created by mostly Democrats, was written to use disenfranchisement for crimes more likely to be committed by African-Americans (who at that time were widely accepted as less violent than whites). This white backlash is captured in Andrew L. Shapiro’s 1993 article for Yale Law Journal, “Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy.” Disenfranchisement occurred for “furtive offenses” such as burglary, theft, arson and obtaining money under false pretenses, but the “robust crimes of whites,” which included robbery and murder, or “crimes in which violence was the principal ingredient,” were not cause for disenfranchisement.

The purpose of the Mississippi convention was clearly stated by the convention president, S.S. Calhoon: “We came here to exclude the Negro.”

Through the implementation of poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, Mississippi cut the percentage of black voting-age men who registered to vote from more than 90 percent during Reconstruction to less than 6 percent in 1892, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation.

Many wonder why African-Americans today remain somewhat partisan toward the federal government. From a black perspective, the crucible of democracy — the vote — meant nothing without the backing of federal troops against others who call themselves American but do not truly believe in democracy.

The massive strategies for voter suppression would continue to dilute the African-American vote to the point where, during Freedom Summer, the idea of true democracy remained a distant one for Mississippians of darker hues.

Democracy became a partial reality with passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but with the dismantling of this law in Shelby County v. Holder, southern states returned to their old ways and began implementing laws designed to suppress the vote of African-Americans and Latinos.

Today we look back to Freedom Summer from our vantage point in a winter of discontent — where the African-American vote remains under heavy threat in states that attempt to embed racism within the redistricting process. Those leading the country seek to find the mythological unicorn of voter fraud while the elephant in the room (suppression) stares them in the face.

Mississippi — which has more African-Americans per capita and more black elected officials than any other state — has not elected a black candidate to statewide office in the more than 140 years since Reconstruction.

History repeats itself, if we allow it. The NAACP stands committed to ensuring that the wholesale dismantling of the black vote that occurred after Reconstruction will not happen again.  

Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP, America's largest and original legacy civil rights organization. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP.