- Historic Sites
The Summer Of Our Discontent
Although marred by the grisly murders of three young activists, the Freedom Summer of 1964 brought revolutionary changes to Mississippi and the nation
Summer 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 2
All spring, Mississippi hunkered down for the worst. From the moment Freedom Summer was announced, police began stockpiling tear gas, shotguns, and electric cattle prods. The legislature doubled the state police force and banned picketing, leafleting, and assembly. As summer neared, rumors fanned the fears. Not just a few hundred, but 30,000 “invaders” were coming! Whites would be living with blacks ! Northern “beatniks” would be telling Mississippians how to treat “our colored.” And in remote hamlets, newly recruited Klansmen armed for a holy crusade against “the nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” In Jackson a huge armored tank waited at police head-quarters. At the nearby county fairgrounds, local authorities had created a holding camp large enough to house thousands of prisoners. Writer Eudora Welty nervously watched this buildup from Jackson and wrote a friend, “I hear that this summer all hell is going to break loose.”
In mid-June, the first 250 Freedom Summer volunteers arrived with backpacks and guitars at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. Who were these beatniks, these invaders? Many were sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors, CEOs, even a congressman, but just as many were the children of teachers, social workers, and ministers. Dozens came from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, but the rest came from every corner of the country: from Tenafly, New Jersey, and Prairie City, Oregon; from Flint, Michigan, and Peoria, Illinois; from Del Rio, Texas, and Vienna, West Virginia. Schooled during the cold war, inspired by JFK and his Peace Corps, the vast majority were true believers in
American idealism. Some had been soured by the Bay of Pigs or darkening reports from Vietnam, yet all clung to the hope that whenever America fell short of its principles, its young people could restore them. But few had ever been to Mississippi. They had one week to prepare.
The volunteers’ training in Ohio was part education and part shock treatment. In workshops led by SNCC members, they studied Southern history, debated nonviolence, and learned to take beatings by dropping to the ground and assuming a fetal position. They were shocked by SNCC’s accounts of what they would be facing. Raised to believe that “the policeman is your friend,” volunteers learned about Mississippi’s law enforcement practices: “They take you to jail, strip you, lay you on the floor, and beat you until you’re almost dead.” SNCC’s stories, a volunteer wrote in his journal, “just scared the crap out of us.”
On the last night of training, Bob Moses stood before the full assembly, urging anyone who might be uncertain to go home. Only a handful did. The following afternoon, after locking arms and swaying to the rhythms of freedom songs, the rest boarded buses. The singing continued as the buses headed deeper into the South. “We hit the Mississippi state line at midnight,” one volunteer recalled, “and the bus went silent . There was no turning back now.”
That first day of Freedom Summer was unlike any in American history. Breaking down a century of Jim Crow, 250 volunteers fanned out across the state. In small towns with lilting names—Harmony, Hattiesburg, and Holly Springs—black families welcomed the first whites ever to set foot on their porches: “It’s a right fine Christian thing, a fine thing that y’all have come here,” noted one resident. Wherever they went that Sunday, volunteers noticed themselves being noticed. Host families showed them off—“Have you seen my girls yet?” Old women stopped “girls” to touch their skin, calling them “skinny” or “pretty.” Hands waved from porches, smiling faces leaned out of windows. From every soul crushed into the Mississippi soil, the same feeling emerged. “I’ve waited 80 years for you to come,” the gray-haired son of a slave told one volunteer.
The welcomes continued all morning and into the afternoon. But as the day crept toward 4 p.m., the three men in the station wagon did not return from Klan country. The phone in the Meridian CORE office did not ring. When the deadline passed, calls went out to sheriff’s offices, jails, and, by late evening, the lone FBI agent in Jackson. The names of the missing were Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
Jovial, fearless, and fiercely idealistic, “Mickey” Schwerner had come to Mississippi months before Freedom Summer to open Meridian’s first Freedom House. While his wife, Rita, read stories to kids, Schwerner took teenagers for rides in his Volkswagen, speaking of freedom and a better future. “More than any white person I have ever known,” a co-worker remembered, “he could put a colored person at ease.” But the Schwerners soon received death threats—“That Jew boy is dead!” They had to move, and move again, when host families felt their homes were targeted. By late spring the Klan had set its sights on the “Jew boy” they nicknamed “Goatee.” Schwerner was the sole target of the Klan’s “elimination order.” His two friends just happened to be in the way.
Before he met Schwerner, James Chaney had drifted from job to job. Raised black and poor in Meridian, he had been cowed into silence. Then one afternoon he dropped into the new Freedom House and kept coming back, emboldened by the gregarious Schwerners. Soon Mickey and Chaney, whom Schwerner called “Bear,” were inseparable. In June Chaney accompanied Schwerner and his wife to the Ohio training program, where they were impressed by the dedication of one particular volunteer, Andrew Goodman.