The Summer Of Our Discontent


The heart of Freedom Summer thrived in the Freedom Schools. A thousand students had been expected; twice that many showed up. Some classes met in crumbling shacks, others in dingy church basements, yet in each school, hands waved to be called on, backyard games resembled dances, and lessons were as revolutionary as the summer itself. Freedom School students piled onto the floor to reenact the dread Middle Passage voyages. They churned out school newspapers, ate up their first exposure to black history, and questioned, questioned, questioned. A few Freedom Schools were bombed, and others burned. Classes continued outside, under trees.

On August 4, after nearly seven weeks of intensive searching, FBI agents stood atop a huge earthen dam in Neshoba County. Shortly after 8 a.m., a dragline bit into the dam’s midsection. As the temperature climbed past 100 degrees, the digging continued. By 3 p.m. the dragline had cut a V-shaped gash almost to ground level. Blue-green flies swarmed around the cut, and a foul smell filled the air. Vultures circled overhead. One agent spotted a black Wellington boot sticking from the earth. Two hours later the agents had uncovered a jean-clad leg, a hand with a wedding ring, and finally a shirtless torso bearing a bullet hole under one armpit. Agents discreetly phoned in the news: “Reporting one WB” (one white body). Within the hour, two more bodies were found. Joining Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and numerous unknown lynching victims, Mississippi had three more martyrs.

But how, after 44 days, did the FBI suddenly know where to look? Most locals suspected a payoff. Suspicion focused on anyone with a new car, barbecue, or hunting rifle. The name of the source did not come out until 2005, and still hasn’t been proven. This much is certain: throughout July, inspector Joseph Sullivan, a burly, crew-cut Bureau veteran, met with a Mississippi highway patrolman he nicknamed “Mr. X.” No one knows who told Mr. X where the bodies were, but over a steak dinner in late July he told Sullivan. Whether he received payment—said to be $30,000—is still disputed. Yet no one disagrees that the discovery of the bodies disgraced Mississippi in the nation’s eyes, newspapers denouncing it as “a blot on the country.” Writer Willie Morris recalled feeling that his home state had “hit the bottom of the barrel with these three murders,” and that reconciliation would take decades. Meanwhile, in Harmony, Hattiesburg, and Holly Springs, Freedom Summer shifted focus.

By mid-August, all attention was on the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where a new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) would demand to be seated in lieu of the state’s all-white delegation. As the convention approached, Martin Luther King Jr. came to Mississippi to speak for the MFDP. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte snuck into the state, handing over a satchel of cash for charter buses to the convention. By the time the buses departed, hope had never been higher. In Atlantic City Fannie Lou Hamer gave an electrifying speech on national TV. Recounting her brutal beating after registering to vote, Hamer laid down a challenge: “If the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now , I question America!” Telegrams of support poured into the White House. But Lyndon Johnson, fearing a full Southern walkout, dangled the vice presidency before Hubert Humphrey, perhaps the civil rights movement’s most active friend on Capitol Hill, convincing him to force a compromise. Two seats “at large” were offered to Freedom Democrats, who quickly rejected such “back of the bus” treatment. “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats,” Hamer said. It was a long bus ride back to Mississippi. Freedom Summer was over, but its legacy proved to be just beginning.

That fall Freedom Summer volunteer Mario Savio led the campus Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. Other veterans soon spearheaded the antiwar movement and the women’s movement. Again and again they spoke of Freedom Summer as their schooling in grassroots democracy. And as the “children that Moses led” spread his lessons, the long arc of justice slowly stretched toward Mississippi.

Meanwhile, FBI agents were infiltrating the Klan to learn precisely what had happened on that first night of Freedom Summer. How Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been released at 10:30 p.m. How carloads of Klansmen had raced after them down Highway 19. How they had been pulled over, thrown in a patrol car, and taken up a dark gravel road. And how one Klansman yanked Schwerner out of the back seat, spun him around, and shouted, “Are you that nigger lover?”

“Sir,” Schwerner replied, “I know just how you feel.”

The Klansman put a bullet through Schwerner’s chest, then went for Andrew Goodman. He jerked Goodman out of the car and gunned him down without a word.

James Chaney watched from the back seat. After joining CORE, he had told his mother, “I believe I done found an organization that I can be in and do something for myself and somebody else, too.” But his mother, who had raised five children on $28 a week, knew Mississippi better.

“Ain’t you afraid of this?”

“Naw, Mama, that’s what’s the matter now. Everybody’s scared.”

Dragged out of the car, Chaney scrambled into the darkness. Three shots laid him in a ditch. The bodies were thrown into the blue station wagon and driven to the dam site, where a bulldozer waited.