In 1964, nearly 1,500 volunteers — largely university students — took part in a novel campaign to bring democratic government to Mississippi. Their goal was to help black residents of the state exercise a basic right of citizenship: the vote. The campaign was known as “Freedom Summer,” or the “Mississippi Summer Project.”
This summer, on the 55th anniversary of that initiative, there is a need for a new generation of volunteers to promote democracy in Florida. A “Florida Summer Project” could help register about 1.4 million former prisoners whose voting rights have been restored.
Last November, Florida enacted Amendment 4 to the state constitution — one of the largest expansions of the franchise in modern history. It reinstated the right to vote to people who had paid their debt to society. Amendment 4 was a nod to the sense of basic fairness; in addition, it was an acknowledgement that the purging of “returning citizens” from voting rolls harmed the political influence of minority and poor communities.
About one-third of the class are African-American men. Their fates in the criminal justice system were influenced by conservative forces with an interest in stifling minority group voting power. The mean strategy was documented in the 2015 study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, “50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics.”
The study found that “many states disenfranchise former offenders after they have completed their sentences, and as a result, 7.7 percent of black adults are disenfranchised nationally, including 22 percent of black adults in Kentucky and 23 percent in Florida.” The consequence of decades of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement of ex-offenders created conditions of voter exclusion reminiscent of Jim Crow laws.
The passage of Amendment 4 opened the door to reform, but people still must be located and registered. Already, conservative Florida politicians looked to blunt the new law by slow-walking the registration process. To protect voting rights, returning citizens are scheduled to rally today at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee. They intend to press legislators to honor Amendment 4, according to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Students may be in a unique position to supplement the efforts of under-resourced organizations and help advance the voter registration project. Such activity is in the tradition of college student activism: The Mississippi Summer Project was sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) between June and August of 1964.
The goal was to transform a state voter registration drive to a national cause for citizenship and equality. That summer, volunteers black and white organized to help 17,000 residents prepare for a notoriously discriminatory registration process. Less than 10 percent of the applications were accepted by local authorities, and only a few hundred people were allowed to vote.
Volunteers opened 41 makeshift “freedom schools” that offered courses in reading, writing, math, history and civics to about 3,000 students. They staffed centers that provided medical care, child services and free meals. And they helped to create an alternative political party to challenge the legitimacy of the recalcitrant state Democratic Party.
More than 60,000 black residents risked jobs and lives to attend political meetings and elect delegates to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sent an interracial delegation to represent the state at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that year. The delegation failed to win recognition, however, because the national party was beholden to the interests of southern segregationists.
Many people took exceptional risks to participate in Freedom Summer. On June 21, 1964, three men were abducted and murdered; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner became martyrs to the cause of racial equality. Before the project’s end, the brutal reaction of state authorities and vigilantes resulted in six murders, 400 arrests, 29 shootings, 50 bombings and 60 beatings.
Freedom Summer was considered one of the more poignant demonstrations of interracial cooperation of the era. Student volunteers worked with thousands of poor residents, gained the admiration of people across the country, and furthered the case for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Today, we need a similar effort in Florida. The rally in Tallahassee is the debut of a registration drive that will extend through the summer and beyond. Students and others interested in helping to locate and register returning citizens can contact Florida voter agencies for more information.
The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is the primary advocacy organization with an instructional website and phone line. The Florida League of Women Voters is supporting the returning citizen registration drive as well. What is at stake is the future direction of democracy in the Sunshine State.
Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African-American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African-American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”