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  • Writer's pictureFr. Vili Lehtoranta

Freedom Summer 60 Years Ago

1. The Term “Freedom Summer”

This June is the 60th anniversary of the start of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Freedom Summer was a nonviolent effort by civil rights activists to reform Mississippi’s political system, dominated by the Democratic Party. On the project’s first day, June 21, 1964, three civil rights activists (James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman) were kidnapped and murdered. The search for their killers dominated the national news and focused public attention on Mississippi until their bodies were discovered on August 4.

On the summer of 1964 both black and white activists campaigned to give black citizens of the United States their full civil rights. These rights were guaranteed by the US Constitution, but denied by the Democratic state leaders, especially in the South. In many states, blacks were kept under oppression and without right to vote by a system called segregation, and Democratic governors were determined to retain things as they were.

A nervous black girl sits in the front row in her newly integrated class in Tennessee in 1957 (Photo: Don Cravens - LIFE Images)

Though the Freedom Summer project was a political event, it is connected to the teaching of the Catholic Church about the original brotherhood of the human race. The idea that some human races are inferior to others was condemned as “perversity” by Pope Leo XIII in his 1888 encyclical In Plurimis. Instead the Pope emphasized that all men must promote mutual kindness and respect, because the likeness of God is stamped upon us all.

In November 1958 the Catholic Bishops of the USA held a synod at the Catholic University of America, and issued a statement titled Discrimination and the Christian Conscience. The Bishops condemned the oppression of blacks, and said: “Legal segregation, or any form of compulsory segregation, in itself and by its very nature imposes a stigma of inferiority upon the segregated people.” The bishops also asserted that segregation is a violation of “the Christian view of man's nature and rights,” and that the American blacks “wish an education that does not carry with it any stigma of inferiority. They wish economic advancement based on merit and skill. They wish their civil rights as American citizens. They wish acceptance based upon proved ability and achievement. No one who truly loves God’s children will deny them this opportunity.”

2. Background to the Mississippi Race Relations

Mississippi had become the 20th state on December 10, 1817. Before the Civil War the rural white residents supported the Democratic Party. Their hero was President Andrew Jackson, who opposed large federal structures like national banks while supporting the move of Indians off from the lands desired by US citizens. On the other hand, the wealthy Mississippians from the plantation areas along the Mississippi River usually supported the Whig Party.

After Abraham Lincoln won the presidency, the Mississippi State Convention at the Capitol in Jackson declared its secession from the United States on January 9, 1861. The spectators in the balcony handed a Bonnie Blue flag down to the state convention delegates on the convention floor, and one was raised over the state capitol building in Jackson as a sign of independence. Later that night, residents of Jackson paraded through the streets under the banner. Harry McCarthy, a Catholic Irish playwright who observed the street parade, was inspired to write the Confederate song The Bonnie Blue Flag.

After the lost Civil War almost all of the state’s whites joined forces in support of the Democratic Party. The white Mississippians held a grudge and hatred against the North, especially to those opportunistic Northerners who came to live in the state and were exploiting the local people for their own financial and political gain. Branded as carpetbaggers, these individuals sought to promote Republican politics and the Republican party, and the right of the blacks to vote and hold office. Therefore white Mississippians saw both the Republican party and the blacks as their enemies.

The post-Civil War constitution of 1868 abolished slavery and also extended an array of civil liberties to all citizens, including limited property rights for women. Seats in the legislature were apportioned based on the number of eligible voters in districts. The constitution also established free public education throughout Mississippi, and the governor held the power to appoint judges. Ratification sealed Mississippi’s return to the Union in early 1870.

The 1870 state legislature convened with 110 Republicans, 35 of them black. After the US Congress had ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the state legislators moved to fill those Senate seats left vacant by the secession (in those times it was the state legislators who elected and sent Senators to the US Congress). One Senate seat went to Hiram Revels, who became the first black person to serve in the US Senate. John R. Lynch became the first black Speaker of the state house and then the first black Mississippi congressman. Over the seven years, black Republicans won election as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and superintendent of education. The 1874 legislature boasted 64 black Republican members, a black Speaker of the house, and a black President of the Senate.

Hiram R. Revels (1827-1901), the first Black member of the US Senate

In 1875 the Democrats used fraud and intimidation to wrest control of the state government from the Republicans. When they assembled in early 1876, they removed from office the white Republican governor, Adelbert Ames, and two black Republican officials, Lieutenant Governor Alexander K. Davis, and superintendent of education T. W. Cordoza.

In 1890 the Mississippi officials were alarmed by the possibility that Congress would pass a bill authorizing federal supervision of state and local elections. Governor John Stone approved a legislative call for a constitutional convention to draft a new constitution. In the 1890 assembly the Democrats held 134 of the 137 seats. Among the Republicans was the lone black delegate, Isaiah T. Montgomery.

For ten weeks the delegates pursued the Democratic agenda. Like other southern constitutions of the time, Mississippi’s 1890 constitution prescribed common voting qualifications, but also added a cumulative poll tax and a literacy test. No citizen could vote without paying two dollars and showing valid receipts for the previous two elections. Nor could a person vote without being able to interpret a passage from the state constitution, chosen at the discretion of a polling registrar. The convention approved the 1890 constitution by a 129-8 vote. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger offered one hundred dollars in gold to anyone who truly understood the lengthy and complex document. No one ever claimed the reward.

By suppressing the black vote, the Democrats in effect made Mississippi a one-party state. In elections, the Democratic primary was the real contest, and the winner ran unopposed in the general election, so therefore winning the Democratic primary was considered tantamount to election. In fact, in most of the statewide elections, the Republican party did not even bother to run a candidate. In the gubernatorial elections, the man who had won the Democratic primary, therefore got 100 percent of the votes.

In 1894 the Mississippi Legislature authorized the new state flag that incorporated the Confederate battle flag in its canton. This flag consisted of three equal horizontal triband of blue, white, and red, with the canton of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. The 13 stars on the state flag officially represented “the number of the original states of the Union,” though they were really thought to have been for states that seceded from the Union, plus Missouri and Kentucky, which had had Union and Confederate governments.

3. Start of the Civil Rights Battle

In July 1954, following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional, a small grassroots organization was formed in Indianola, Mississippi, to mount organized resistance against integration. It represented the first of the Citizens’ Councils, and was the first in a wave of chapters throughout Mississippi that sought to maintain segregation, usually under the banner of “states’ rights.” The Citizens’ Councils (also known as the White Citizens’ Councils) soon became one of the South’s most recognizable and active white resistance organizations. The Mississippi politicians in the state legislature even approved and ratified a constitutional amendment that would abolish the public school system, though it was never enacted.

The Citizens’ Council primarily mobilized white business and civic leaders to commit to maintaining racial segregation in their communities through economic pressure. White employers could exercise their economic power over black employees, for example, as a way to discourage them from working for integration or voting rights. Council leaders throughout Mississippi emphasized this method over violent or illegal means, distinguishing their methods and members from those of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations. This reputation led many Council opponents to label the organization as “the uptown Klan.”

Moreover, civil authorities and the Citizens’ Councils sought to influence church racial policies. Any church leaders who wished to integrate their congregations, faced a risk to have their church members arrested, charged with “disturbing public worship.” The arrests usually occurred on the church steps after those testing the segregation barriers refused to leave the premises. The Mississippi Register, a Roman Catholic publication, once warned in an editorial that the police power is overstepping its bounds to an alarming degree. “Is it mere coincidence,” the paper asked, “that the white Citizens Councils’ declared intention to save the churches has been paralleled by overt action on the part of city officials to interfere in church matters?”

In the summer of 1961, more than three hundred Freedom Riders were arrested and incarcerated in Mississippi’s jails. Many civil rights activists cite this period as pivotal in establishing freedom songs as an important tool for demonstrators. Their extended confinement resulted in the expansion of the freedom song repertoire, as they modified existing civil rights songs and created versions of folk or popular songs that applied to the movement. One of the famous freedom songs was based on the spiritual “Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Round” and re-christened as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” It became an American civil rights era anthem, sung during demonstrations for civil rights.

4. The Rise of the Mississippi Republicans

In 1957, US Congress began to enact the first civil rights laws since the Reconstruction Era. By the time of the 1959 state elections, Mississippi white Democrats acted to put a stop to this and elected Ross Barnett as governor. The Democrats were not challenged in general elections and Barnett ran unopposed. He was a staunch supporter of segregation laws. In the 1960 presidential elections he refused to support John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon. The state Democratic party declared, in its platform, to “reject and oppose the platforms of both national parties and their candidates” after the 1960 Democratic National Convention adopted a civil rights platform.

Mississippi’s few Republicans believed that both national parties took the South for granted – or, more precisely, wrote it off – and sought to reverse this. For decades the Republican party had been almost extinct in the South. Prentiss Walker, who would in 1964 become the first Republican to be elected to the House of Representatives from Mississippi in the twentieth century, told a story, repeated by Ronald Reagan, about his first campaign. He dropped in on a Mississippi farm and introduced himself as a Republican candidate. The farmer’s eyes lit up, and he said: “Wait till I get my wife. We’ve never seen a Republican before.” When he was back with his wife, he asked if Walker would give them a campaign speech. Walker looked around for a podium, and the only thing available was a pile of manure. He stepped up on that, made his speech, and won them over. They told him it was the first time they had ever heard a Republican, and Walker replied: “That’s okay. That’s the first time I’ve ever given a speech from a Democratic platform.”

Republicans achieved their earliest tastes of success in Mississippi in 1963, when Rubel Phillips, a lifelong Democrat from Alcorn County, was recruited to switch parties and run for governor as a Republican. The Democratic primary was won by Lieutenant Governor Paul B. Johnson Jr., who refused to debate Phillips and expressed irritation over the fact that he even had to face a Republican challenger. Like Johnson, Phillips also used country musicians in his campaigns. He declared himself a “redneck,” and the Republicans sang to the tune of “Reuben, Reuben, I’ve Been Thinking” the refrain:

Rubel, Rubel, We’re all rebels,

Fighting for our native land,

Against the Kennedy carpetbaggers,

Bobby, Jack, and all the clan.

Phillips surprised even the most optimistic projections by earning almost 40 percent of the vote. The news got even better in 1964, when the Republican National Convention named Senator Barry Goldwater as the party’s candidate for President. On June 19, by a vote of 73-27, the Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill, and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on July 2, two weeks before the Republican convention. Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Bill, objecting specifically to the public accommodations and employment parts of the bill. He called them an usurpation of power by the federal government and said their putting into practice would end up into “the creation of a police state.”

Goldwater was considered a war hawk, a hardliner against the Soviet Union and threat to Communism. As a Senator from Arizona, he had voted against President Kennedy’s 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which had banned all but underground nuclear tests. Goldwater said that if he were elected President, he would seek to extract concessions from the Soviet Union by threatening to break off diplomatic relations, and that he would renounce the treaty “if it appeared to our advantage to test in the atmosphere.”

The Republican party was the party of Lincoln, and right after the Civil War, most black voters were Republicans. The black exodus from the Republican Party had already started in the 1930s, during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term. In 1964, Goldwater was a welcomed signal to many disgruntled, white southern voters, but also a disturbing message to the black ones. Black voters now believed that Goldwater and the Republican Party were opposed, not just to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, but also to the Civil Rights movement in general. Therefore the Republican choice of Goldwater in 1964 drove black voters into the Democrats’ arms.

Lyndon Johnson, who had succeeded John F. Kennedy as President after the latter’s assassination in November 1963, was determined to win the 1964 Presidential election, and he was determined to win big. Doyle Dane Bernbach, a Manhattan-based advertising company, produced several TV ads for Johnson, to promote Johnson as the standard-bearer of progressivism and civil rights, all the while presenting Goldwater as a dangerous extremist. The ads included one featuring a little girl licking an ice cream cone, while a female announcer spoke ominously: “Now, children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn’t have any strontium-90 or cesium-137.” This was a reference to a fallout from atmospheric nuclear testing and how it might enter the food supply. The voiceover further proclaimed that “there’s a man who wants to be president of the United States ... he wants to go on testing more bombs,” meaning Goldwater’s vote against the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Another nuclear-related ad, featuring a pregnant woman and her daughter, tacitly warned of the risks of birth defects from a radioactive fallout, but it was ultimately deemed too controversial to air at the time.

In the election of November 3, Johnson defeated Goldwater in a landslide. But in the South, Goldwater’s campaign was a huge success. He carried Mississippi with more than 87 percent of the total vote. His stunning victory allowed his coattails to help an unknown Republican candidate for Congress in Mississippi’s 3rd District, Prentiss Walker, to defeat the Democratic incumbent Arthur Winstead.

5. The Terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan was formed by the Confederate veterans to fight against the reconstruction policies of the Republican party. In 1870, a federal grand jury determined that the Klan was a “terrorist organization” and it was broken as a group by 1872.

In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s epic movie The Birth of a Nation was released. That movie, though it was sympathetic to the North and Abraham Lincoln, glorified the resistance of the Ku Klux Klan and its endeavors. Inspired by the movie, an Alabama Methodist minister William Joseph Simmons re-founded the Klan, and declared himself the “Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” The original idea of Simmons was to keep the new Klan as a fraternal organization, dedicated to the Southern heritage, but he was ousted in 1922 by Hiram Evans. Evans reformed the KKK to a modern terrorist group, which attacked not only blacks, but also Jews and Catholics.

In the fall of 1963, an organizer for the Louisiana-based Original Knights of the Ku Klux Klan arrived in Natchez, Mississippi. There he recruited approximately three hundred Mississippians to his organization. Infighting soon resulted, however, and the Klan state officer Douglas Byrd was expelled from the group. He then promptly recruited two-thirds of the group’s Mississippi membership into his new organization, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. In April 1964 Sam Holloway Bowers assumed leadership of the White Knights, and transformed it into a militant and highly secretive organization. The Mississippi Klansmen displayed shocking brutality, perpetrating hundreds of burnings, bombings, and other violent acts, including at least ten murders.

Mississippi was a battleground of the Civil Rights movement during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The Freedom Summer Project began with a two-week training session at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio. One week focused on voter registration, while the other provided guidance on working with the freedom schools. Volunteers also participated in workshops and heard speeches by veteran civil rights workers.

Mississippi’s whites greeted the arrival of the summer volunteers with violence. The influx of civil rights workers associated with the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration project increased the urgency of the White Knights’ mission. Membership in the Klan grew rapidly, peaking at an estimated six thousand members spread over 52 “klaverns” (chapters) statewide. Bowers was clear that the group would use “force and violence when considered necessary,” and throughout that summer the White Knights engaged in hundreds of acts of intimidation, including the burning of 44 black churches.

6. The Freedom Summer Murders

It was Philadelphia, Mississippi, which was the scene of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, in June 1964. Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been working with the Freedom Summer campaign by attempting to register blacks in Mississippi to vote. Chaney was a black Catholic from Mississippi, and Goodman and Schwerner were both Jewish. Their campaign office was in Meridian, and on June 21 they left the office to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Methodist Church, a black church where some members had agreed to sponsor a freedom school.

The current Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi

After visiting the church community, the three civil rights workers headed to Philadelphia, which is the seat of Neshoba County. The Sheriff of the county was Lawrence Rainey, who had been elected in 1963. Rainey, previously a police officer in Canton and Philadelphia, had campaigned with the promise to “take care of things,” a phrase which white residents of Neshoba County understood to mean preserving white supremacy. Black residents interpreted those words to mean that law enforcement officials would escalate the level of violence against black citizens. Soon after Rainey became sheriff, Cecil Price, who had worked with Rainey in Canton, was hired as the deputy and he quickly gained a reputation for being hard on blacks. Within his first year on the job, two black residents were killed while Price was arresting them.

The station wagon of the three activists had barely passed the Philadelphia city limits when one of its tires went flat. Deputy Sheriff Price started to follow them, arrested them and took them to the Neshoba County jail. The three were released from the jail shortly after 10 PM, and Price kept on following them. The activists left the city limits, and continued toward Meridian. Price continued pursuing them in his police car. He then stopped them and escorted them back in the direction of Philadelphia. They were stopped at a secluded intersection, where the three men were shot by Klan members.

After the victims had been murdered, they were quickly loaded into their station wagon and transported to a Philadelphia farm. There their bodies were buried in an earthen dam, which was under construction for a farm pond.

The disappearance of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner captured national attention. After the men were reported missing, the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI Office in Meridian, run by John Proctor, to begin a preliminary search. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy escalated the search and ordered 150 federal agents to be sent to Meridian. On June 23 the FBI agents found the remains of the burnt-out station wagon, but no bodies. The charred car led the FBI to name the case “MIBURN,” for Mississippi Burning.

The station wagon of the three murdered Freedom Summer activists

By the end of the first week, all major news networks were covering the disappearance of the three activists. President Lyndon Johnson met with the parents of Goodman and Schwerner in the White House, and used the outrage over their deaths to gain passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he signed on July 2. Meanwhile the Mississippi officials resented the outside attention. Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, who was a member of the White Knights, said of the three activists: “They’re just hiding and trying to cause a lot of bad publicity for this part of the state.” Governor Paul Johnson dismissed the concerns, saying the young men “could be in Cuba.”

The bodies of the activists were discovered on August 4, 1964. An informant (referred in the FBI reports as “Mr. X”) passed along a tip to the federal authorities. Because Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the killers for murder, a state crime, the federal government charged 18 individuals with conspiring to deprive the three activists of their civil rights (by murder) in November 1964, among them Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Sheriff Price. The government attorneys secured indictments against the conspirators from a federal grand jury in Jackson. But on February 24, 1965, Federal Judge William Harold Cox, an ardent segregationist, threw out the indictments against all conspirators other than Rainey and Price on the ground that the other men were not acting “under color of state law.”

Sheriff Lawrence Rainey being escorted by two FBI agents to the federal courthouse in Meridian, October 1964

In March 1966, the Supreme Court overruled Cox and reinstated the indictments. In October 1967 Cecil Price, Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, and 5 other men were found guilty. Sentences ranged from three to ten years. After exhausting their appeals, the seven began serving their sentences in March 1970. Sheriff Rainey was among those acquitted. In February 1989 he filed a lawsuit against Orion Pictures, which had just released the movie Mississippi Burning, which depicted the investigation of the Freedom Summer murders, claiming defamation and invasion of privacy. Rainey alleged that the filmmakers portrayed him in an unfavorable light. His lawsuit was unsuccessful. He dropped the suit after Orion’s lawyers threatened to prove that the film was based on fact, and that Rainey was indeed suspected in the 1964 murders.

Many other civil rights activists suffered less lethal violence and degradation during the Freedom Summer of 1964. The Mississippi State Advisory Committee cataloged 164 civil rights complaints, 52 beatings or injuries, 250 arrests, 4 gunshot wounds, and 13 black churches destroyed by fire. The violence made the Freedom Summer Project a memorable media story. But by the summer’s end, 1,200 Mississippi blacks had registered to vote, and 41 freedom schools and community centers had been established. Because of the media attention received by the civil rights workers, the Freedom Summer Project became in many ways the most significant aspect of the Mississippi civil rights movement.

7. The End of the Civil Rights War

The Freedom Summer murders and the continued violence perpetrated by the White Knights sharply diminished the public appeal of the Ku Klux Klan. It also provided an opening for a rival Klan organization, the United Klans of America (UKA), to begin a Mississippi recruiting campaign. The UKA was headed by an Alabama car-tire salesman Robert Shelton, a talented organizer who had built his organization into the largest KKK outfit in the nation. Unlike the secretive White Knights, the UKA hosted large open rallies and cross burnings to recruit members and. publicly at least, shunned the sort of violence associated with Bowers.

The UKA mainly took members from the White Knights. During the summer of 1965, Shelton embarked on an ambitious string of public rallies, several of which drew audiences in the thousands, leading to the formation of seventy-four additional UKA klaverns across the state. By 1966 membership in the White Knights had been reduced to a few hundred, while several times that number had joined the UKA.

One of the local Freedom Summer workers was Vernon Dahmer, who owned a 200-acre farm, a grocery store, and two mills in the Forrest County. Dahmer directed music and taught Sunday school at Shady Grove Baptist Church and became a respected figure in the black community. His economic independence enabled him to support the civil rights movement without fear of white financial reprisals. He served several terms as president of the Forrest County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Dahmer initiated a registration campaign in Forrest County after President Johnson’s Voting Rights Act became law in 1965. He placed a county voter registration book in his store so that blacks could register without fear or intimidation and offered to pay the poll taxes of anyone who could not afford to do so. His activities infuriated the white supremacists, who targeted the activist for assassination.

During the early hours of 10 January 1966, two cars filled with White Knights Klan members attacked the Dahmer home. The Klansmen riddled the house and Dahmer’s nearby store with shotgun blasts and threw Molotov cocktails into the buildings. Dahmer grabbed a rifle and shot back at the assailants as his family escaped, suffering severe burns to his head, arms, and upper body. He died of smoke inhalation on January 11. President Johnson launched a federal investigation into the crime, leading to the arrests of fourteen Klansmen on arson and murder charges.

Governor Paul Johnson referred to Dahmer’s killers as “vicious and morally bankrupt criminals,” and district attorneys and juries became less reluctant to indict and convict Klan adherents. In addition, federal action, including a highly successful FBI campaign to infiltrate and neutralize the Klan, sapped the KKK’s resources. By the close of 1968, both the White Knights and the UKA were shells of their former selves. Despite sporadic attempts by Shelton to revive his organization with early 1970s recruiting drives, the Klan made headlines primarily in the courtroom. Besides having served prison time after the 1967 trial for the Freedom Summer murders, Bowers also weathered four mistrials in the Dahmer killing before finally being convicted of murder and arson in 1998.

Governor Johnson eventually adopted moderate policies, and asked the Mississippians to comply with the Voting Rights Act in 1965. He declared: “The day for a lot of bull-shooting is over.” Another issue that gained Paul Johnson popular appeal was his 1966 fight to repeal the prohibition on alcohol, a state law which for 48 years had been largely ignored by moonshiners. Also in 1966, Mississippi became the first state to reform its criminal abortion laws when it legalized abortion in some cases.

It was only in November 1991 when a Republican would become the first Governor of Mississippi since 1874, when Kirk Fordice would win 51 percent of the popular vote. Today the Mississippi Republican Party holds all the eight statewide offices as well as the majority in the Mississippi Senate. Republicans also hold both of the US Senate seats and 3 of the state’s 4 US House seats.

On June 9, 2020 lawmakers started drafting legislation to change the state flag. The action came after weeks of national protests following the murder of George Floyd, including a protest outside the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion on June 6. On June 28 the legislature passed a bill that relinquished the state flag, removed the old flag from public buildings, and established a commission to design a new flag that would be put to voters in a referendum. The bill required that the Confederate battle flag not be included on the proposed design, and that the motto “In God We Trust” be included. In the House, the bill was passed by 91 in favor and 23 against. In the Senate, the bill was passed with 37 in favor and 14 against.

In the November referendum, 71 percent of the voters supported the adaptation of the new state flag. It was then approved by the Mississippi State House of Representatives on January 5, 2021 and passed by the State Senate on January 6, 2021.

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