The Summer Of Our Discontent

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On the first day of summer in 1964, three young activists piled into a blue station wagon in Meridian, Mississippi, and headed into Klan country. Across America, it was Father’s Day, a lazy holiday of picnics, barbecues, and doubleheaders. Transistor radios blared early Beatles hits. TV commercials urged motorists to “Put a Tiger in Your Tank.” High above in Air Force One, President Lyndon Johnson flew home from California, content with the state of the union. The economy was booming, inflation was at 1.2 percent, and gas cost 30 cents a gallon. Two days earlier, after the longest filibuster in Senate history, the civil rights bill introduced a year earlier by slain President John F. Kennedy had finally passed. But Mississippi was on a hair trigger: it was on the verge of a savage summer, a violent season so radically different, so idealistic, so daring, that it would redefine freedom in America.

Before leaving Meridian that Sunday, the three volunteers were issued strict instructions. Their journey would take them into rural, redneck Neshoba County, where an arsonist had recently torched an African American church. As two whites traveling with one black, they could expect to be followed, chased, and possibly arrested. If anything went wrong, they were to call the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) office in Meridian. If they did not return or phone in by 4 p.m., someone would start calling jails, sheriffs, and the FBI. Just before climbing into the station wagon, the black man told his kid brother that they’d go for a drive when he returned.

Although it has since achieved a racial reconciliation that rivals South Africa’s, in 1964 Mississippi was synonymous with brutal racial dominance. “Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn,” singer Nina Simone crooned. The nation’s poorest state was where 14-year-old Emmett Till, accused of wolf whistling at a white woman, was tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. A black student’s enrollment at the state university had caused armed whites to pour into Oxford; Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sent in federal marshals in troop trucks, sparking an all-night riot that left two dead and dozens wounded. Mississippi was also where a sniper’s bullet had felled NAACP leader Medgar Evers, where not quite 7 percent of blacks could vote, and where shotguns blasted the shacks of those who dared to register.

Years of peaceful protest had been met with bombings, beatings, and simple murder. And the rest of the country didn’t seem to care. With Martin Luther King Jr. focusing attention on the southern cities, Mississippi remained a neglected outpost of civil rights, too removed, too rural, too simmering with hatred to offer the slightest hope. Everybody knew Mississippi was just too dangerous to mess with. Everybody, that is, except a soft-spoken janitor’s son with a surname straight from an old spiritual:

Who’s that yonder dressed in red?

Let my people go.

Must be the children that Moses led.

Let my people go.

Bob Moses had not set out to become a leader, let alone a legend. Growing up in Harlem, he had followed his intellect to Hamilton College and then earned a master’s degree in philosophy at Harvard. More comfortable discussing existentialism than civil rights, Moses seemed destined for a career as a teacher. But in 1960, while teaching math at a New York prep school, he came across a photograph of four black men seated at a lunch counter in North Carolina. Moses studied the image of that first sit-in for hours. “Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing,” he would recall. “This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life.”

A few months later, Moses headed south, first to work for King in Atlanta, then into Mississippi. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference had not dared to work in the Magnolia State, but Moses pushed into its deepest corner, alone. He soon developed an icy calm that inspired and amazed those he encountered. Leading locals to courthouse registrars, Moses was beaten bloody, jailed, shot at. He saw colleagues gunned down, black bodies floating in muddy rivers. Yet such savagery scarcely made headlines beyond Mississippi’s borders. America’s indifference, Moses said, “makes it clear that the Negroes of Mississippi will not get the vote until the equivalent of an army is sent here.” In the winter of 1963 he began to work out what this army must be. What if, instead of Mississippi’s black folk struggling in isolation, hundreds of college students poured into the state? What if they spent an entire summer registering voters, teaching in Freedom Schools, running Freedom Houses? Wouldn’t white America pay attention then?

Moses’ colleagues in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) did not share his enthusiasm for Freedom Summer. They had already risked their lives to organize in Mississippi and borne the brunt of its violence. Now a bunch of preppy college kids with names like Pam and Geoff were to arrive en masse, overwhelming budding projects, grabbing headlines, then going home.

In meetings that raged past midnight, SNCC argued over Freedom Summer, but by early spring Moses and other speakers were recruiting on campuses from Stanford to Harvard. Their harrowing tales stunned students. Crosses burning in the night? Men and women beaten in police custody? Shotguns and bullwhips? Was this America?