—F. Michael Higginbotham
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”
The famous line from the song “Summertime,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, captures how I feel when I reminisce about most summers gone by. Playing little league baseball, swimming at the beach or local public pool, or roasting marshmallows over the open fire, playing team tag under the stars, and gazing at fireworks on the 4th of July, all represent the best of what an American summer should entail. Yet, the summer of 1964 brings up very different images of America’s past.
In the summer of 1964, major civil rights organizations implemented a plan to significantly increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Officially called the Mississippi Summer Project but popularly referred to as Freedom Summer, the initiative was a bold step to directly tackle racial exclusion in the political process in a state with, arguably, one of the worst civil rights records. Due to discriminatory laws and practices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, economic punishments, and physical intimidation, black registration in Mississippi was at 6%, the lowest of any state. The plan involved over one thousand volunteers, mostly white college students from northern universities, working closely with civil rights workers and leaders in the Mississippi black community, facilitating black voter registration.
From the onset, most white Mississippians resented any attempts to increase black voter registration, or to alter the racial status quo in any way. During the course of the two and a half month project, massive and often violent resistance occurred, including bombings and burnings of black churches, businesses, and homes; arrests and beatings of volunteers and aspiring registrants; and the murder of four civil rights workers and three state residents. These resistance efforts were successful at dissuading black Mississippians from registering.
While few additional voters were registered during Freedom Summer, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi helped to focus attention on racial barriers to voting rights throughout the South. Recognition that Mississippi was not an aberration but rather a reflection of widespread exclusion of black voters throughout the south, and in some parts of the north, helped further efforts by civil rights groups and leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Lyndon Johnson, to secure passage of voting rights protection on a national scale. The result was the Voting Rights Act (VRA), enacted in 1965, the most democratizing piece of legislation ever passed.
In signing the law, President Johnson termed it “a monumental law in the history of American freedom.” He was right. In less than four years after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. In Mississippi, for example, black registration increased from 6% to 66%.
Certainly substantial progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Much is owed to those brave young participants in Freedom Summer who helped bring attention to the broken promises of democracy for thousands of Mississippi blacks. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an effective VRA. Anything less would diminish the meaning of Freedom Summer.
F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).