“The methods have become more sophisticated, but the broader issues are still in play,” said Jim Kates, one of the Freedom veterans who, along with others, returned to Mississippi to assist Ms. Bennett and the other young organizers.
A Lesson of Fear and Hope
Part of what made Freedom Summer, first called the Mississippi Summer Project, so successful was that it exposed the horrors blacks faced trying to assert basic citizenship. Those experiences were exported to the masses in stark news dispatches. The volunteers, recruited by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality activists, trained at an Ohio college, then traveled some 800 miles south by bus or car.
At great personal risk, hundreds of black families hosted the volunteers in their homes. In turn, the volunteers met at black churches, to distribute registration information, helped to fill out forms and escorted them to the courthouses.
The veterans remembered a summer wrapped in fear but also hope. The volunteers were harassed by both the police and white residents. They were arrested and jailed. Beaten. Firebombed. And they were murdered. In the first week of the project, three activists — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — were abducted and shot just outside Philadelphia, Miss. Their corpses, brutalized and buried, were discovered two months later.
“You never really felt safe. And you never knew if some kind of harassment was going to turn into something more,” said Benjamin Graham, 73, who left the University of California, Berkeley, to spend that summer in Mississippi.
Mr. Graham, who later became a doctor specializing in internal medicine, still remembers with chilling clarity lying in bed one summer night in the house of a Batesville family. It was his first night back in Mississippi after a quick return trip to California. Suddenly, around 2 a.m. his chest began to tighten. His breath had shortened and he was wheezing.