The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer: The struggle continues

—Akinyele Omowale Umoja

In late June, hundreds will convene in Jackson, Mississippi to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. The 1964 Freedom Summer was one of the most courageous campaigns for freedom in the history of the United States. It built upon heroic work of Mississippi human rights activists who labored without much national media attention and support or protection from the federal government.

After emancipation from enslavement, Black Mississippians were denied basic human rights through a system of white supremacy and racial terror. Mississippi’s state leaders unashamedly promoted and supported Jim Crow apartheid in the state, which included denying voting rights of people of African descent, 42% of its population. Racial violence was a major force in maintaining white supremacy in Mississippi and other southern states.

In the early 1950s, an indigenous network of African-American activists emerged under the banner of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With the guidance of movement veteran Ella Baker, young Robert Moses, a Harvard graduate, came to Mississippi in 1961 on behalf of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Moses began to recruit Mississippi Black college students and youth to organize for voting and human rights in the state, in coordination with the network local Black freedom fighters. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) soon joined Moses, SNCC, and local NAACP chapters in the effort to secure voting rights in the state.

The white supremacist power structure responded to the upsurge of Black activism with an increased campaign of racial terrorism, harassing, repressing, and in some cases, assassinating local Black activists and movement supporters. The terrorism in the state, which drew almost no attention from the media, inspired the singer Nina Simone to title a protest song “Mississippi Goddam.”

To overcome the ongoing campaign of terror, Bob Moses proposed an intensive campaign known as the Mississippi Summer Project. The project would organize a racially-inclusive Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), organize voter registration, and establish a network of Freedom Schools to educate Black children in literacy, math, and African-American history. Given the lack of media attention and the government’s failure to act, Moses advocated bringing in hundreds of white college students to volunteer in the summer project. The national news media and powerful government officials would pay attention if their sons and daughters were in racist, violent Mississippi.

The national leadership embraced Moses’ proposal (despite opposition from the majority of Black Mississippi SNCC organizers)—and in 1964, hundreds of Black and white volunteers from around the United States arrived in segregated Mississippi to confront white supremacy.

The Freedom Summer did not deter violence. On the eve of volunteers coming to the state, three members of CORE—James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andy Goodman—disappeared and were ultimately found murdered in Neshoba County. Over one thousand activists were arrested in the state between June and October that year; 37 churches were bombed or burned to the ground; and 15 people were murdered, due to white supremacist violence. Local Black communities re-doubled their efforts to provide protection for activists and volunteers; some formed roving, armed patrols to protect their neighbors from attack. Activists from nonviolent organizations even picked up arms to join local Blacks in protecting the community.

The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) presented a persuasive challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. MFDP leader and spokesperson Fannie Lou Hamer, an activist Black sharecropper, powerfully described, to the U.S. and the world, the violent terror of Mississippi. Hamer passionately illustrated her experience of being evicted from the plantation where she and her husband worked, incarcerated, and brutally beaten for attempting to register to vote.

The National Democratic Party and its leader, President Lyndon Johnson, chose to maintain its relationship with the pro-segregationist Mississippi delegation. The MFDP was offered a compromise of two seats within the pro-segregationist delegation. This compromise was rejected by the MFDP. The national Democratic Party leadership realized the potentiality of the MFDP challenge, particularly as the freedom struggle was winning the fight for voting rights. This led to the undermining of segregationist policies in the Democratic Party in the South and the inclusion of Black people.

On the other hand, some SNCC and CORE activist chose not to rely on political parties, but instead to move in an autonomous direction calling for independent Black political organization. Some began to focus on grassroots, economic development through cooperatives. Fannie Lou Hamer and other activists in the historic Mississippi Delta initiated the cooperative Freedom Farms. The call for Black political self-determination or “Black Power” was also complimented with a call for self-defense particularly since the federal government could not be relied upon for protection, echoing the sentiment of local Mississippians, many from previously nonviolent organizations embraced the advocacy and practice of We Will Shoot Back!

The legacy of a system of apartheid and white supremacy manifested in contemporary institutional racism stills effects Black Mississippi. With it large Black population, Mississippi is the poorest state in the U.S. In Jackson, the state capital, a movement has emerged for grassroots Black politics. Jackson is 80% Black, the second highest African-American population of any major city in the U.S.

The People’s Assembly was organized in 2008 in the city’s Ward 2 to elect revolutionary Attorney Chokwe Lumumba to City Council. Born and raised in Detroit, Lumumba had first came to Mississippi in 1971 as a member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) in 1971. The RNA desired to establish in an independent, Black government and socialist economy in the Deep South, including Jackson and the Black majority counties of Mississippi. Lumumba later became the Chairman and co-founder of the pro-Black self-determination, pro-socialist New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM). He also worked to bring Bryon De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers to justice and for a Black agenda for city’s first Black Mayor. Lumumba identified himself as a “Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” and was a card-carrying member of the MFDP, not the state Democratic Party, which he associated with the legacy of white supremacy.

After Lumumba was elected with 63% of the vote to the Jackson City Council in 2009, the People’s Assembly continued to organize task forces around youth and economic development, educational policy, and improving the ward’s infrastructure, as well as providing direction for the councilman in his voting on the city’s legislative body. This formula served as the model for Lumumba’s election to the city’s Mayor in 2013. In the runoff of the Democratic primary, he earned 58% of the vote while his opponent rose five times of Lumumba’s campaign fund. Lumumba received 86% of the vote during the general election. With this mandate, he planned to expand the People’s Assembly citywide and institute a plan of worker-managed cooperatives to reinvigorate the city’s crumbling economy. Lumumba consciously tied himself to the Mississippi Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Lumumba’s untimely death in February 2014, eight months after his inauguration to Mayor, is a setback to his initiatives and the agenda of the Assembly. But the struggle continues. The People’s Assembly is still building citywide and in May 2014, a Jackson Rising New Economies conference announced Cooperation Jackson, an initiative to organize worker-managed cooperatives in the city as a model for impoverished Black communities in the state.

As we commemorate 1964 Freedom Summer, we must not ignore the continued fight for Black self-determination, democracy, human rights and economic justice in the Mississippi and the U.S. The People’s Assembly and Cooperation Jackson represent contemporary manifestations of this fight and a continuation of the promise of Freedom Summer. Let us not forget: in Mississippi, the struggle for freedom continues!

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).