The Summer Of Our Discontent

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On December 4, 1964, the FBI rounded up a motley assortment of Klansmen, local truckers and farmers, Sheriff Rainey, Deputy Price, and another policeman. Because murder is not a federal crime unless committed on federal property or upon federal officials, the 19 men were charged with civil rights violations. For the next three years, federal prosecutors fought legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, in October 1967, the men were tried in Meridian. The prosecution relied on informants’ accounts; the defense tapped the bitterness still festering from Freedom Summer: “Mississippians rightfully resent some hairy beatnik from another state visiting our state with hate and defying our people.” During recesses, the accused smirked, confident that no Mississippi jury would convict them. They were wrong.

Seven men were found guilty, seven acquitted. The jury could not agree about the remaining defendants. Nevertheless, the verdicts still marked the first time since Reconstruction that anyone in Mississippi had been convicted of civil rights violations. Those convicted served sentences from three to 10 years.

Nearly 50 years after Freedom Summer, its legacy remains in dispute. Some SNCC veterans argue that the influx of volunteers derailed efforts to empower locals. Others note that, although just a few hundred voters successfully registered and the Freedom Schools did not endure, the savage season drew the country’s attention to Mississippi, forcing federal intervention. That summer, after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson ordered his attorney general to “write me the goddamn best, toughest voting rights act that you can devise.” The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965; within six months, 60 percent of Mississippi’s black citizens were registered to vote. Over the next few decades, Mississippi finally lived down its cruel legacies of segregation, lynching, night riding, and shotgun justice.

Today Mississippi has more African American elected officials than any other state. The list of cities with black mayors, council members, and police chiefs reads like a tour of Freedom Summer. In 2005 another ghost was laid to rest when a Neshoba County court convicted Klansman Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter for his role in the Freedom Summer murders. Five living members of the 1964 lynch gang remain free. Each June 21 in Meridian, marchers commemorate Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney by demanding further prosecutions.

The idealism and daring of Freedom Summer changed more than just the Magnolia State. Some see its influence extending all the way to the White House. “Freedom Summer injected a new spirit into the very vein of life in Mississippi and the country,” according to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was the SNCC’s chairman in 1964. “It literally brought the country to Mississippi. People were able to see the horror and evil of blatant racial discrimination. If it hadn’t been for the veterans of Freedom Summer, there would be no Barack Obama.”