Commentary: 50 Years Later - Freedom Summer 1964

Jul 11, 2014

Students protesting in Mississippi

"All my life I've been sick and tired. Now I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired." - Fannie Lou Hamer

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a campaign to open the polls to African-American voters in Mississippi, which became a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights era. The summer marked a turning point in ending white supremacy in the state and decades of isolation in the Deep South for black voters ahead of the 1964 elections. Commentator and Murray State history professor Dr. Brian Clardy reflects back on Freedom Summer and its legacy 50 years later.

Fifty Years Later: Freedom Summer 1964

By Dr. Brian K. Clardy

In the months after the tragic bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, racial tensions in the United States were at a disturbing high. The murder of four little girls in Alabama and the assassination of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi that previous June had set the country on a dangerous path towards division, anger, and anxiety.

1964 was an election year.

And as it was a custom in many parts of the Deep South, thousands of African American voters would continue to be disenfranchised. However, a group of college students from the North would join with progressive African American activists in the South to register blacks to vote in a southern state where resistance was at its most violent: Mississippi.

Here, an irresistible force met an immovable option as members of the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, and various vigilante groups joined forces to exact their vengeance on those “agitators” who dared to upset what they viewed as the “southern way of life.” The burning of black churches, road side shootings, and official harassment from law enforcement authorities were but a myriad of tactics that were used to dissuade blacks from registering and to attack those activists who were considered communist race traitors. The murders of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in Neshoba County, Mississippi brought international attention to the issue of racial violence and eventually their murders were convicted, albeit in Federal court on civil rights violations instead of homicide.

While the summer of 1964 was steeped in violence, there were heroes……….and heroines………..who asserted their dignity in a manner that caused the nation and the world to take notice.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Credit Library of Congress

One of those leaders was Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Hamer had been a worker on a cotton plantation in Sunflower County, Mississippi…..where extra legal violence against blacks who dared violate the social order was common. Inspired by a sermon by the Reverend James Bevel, she became an activist. One day in 1963 she was arrested in Mississippi and repeatedly beaten while in police custody. This savage attack caused Hamer to become more involved in the civil rights movement. And in the summer of 1964, she became one of the leaders of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the seating of the all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

In her riveting testimony before the Credentials Committee, Hamer detailed her story as well as those of African Americans who were the victims of systematic racism and hatred.

She said:

"All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

It was the anguished battle cry heard round the world.

The effects of Freedom Summer did not end with the turning of the calendar. There were more incidences of protest, more violent resistance, and more recriminations. But in the end it paid off. President Lyndon Johnson signed a strong Voting Rights Act in 1965 that had bi-partisan support.

Fifty years later we remember those acts of courage and heroism. We remember how Americans fought for the right to be Americans and how today’s diverse, free, and innovative society have been a great and lasting result.


Dr. Brian Clardy is an Associate Professor of History at Murray State University and is the host of Cafe Jazz, Wednesday nights on WKMS.

NPR's Extended Feature on Freedom Summer

Watch the PBS Documentary "Freedom Summer: