Freedom Summer in 1964 and Voting Rights Today

To the Teacher: 

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer, an effort by civil rights groups to register African American voters in the Deep South. One year after Freedom Summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson voted into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave the federal government the power to oversee voter registration and elections in counties where discrimination had historically occurred. 
 
Despite the historic progress spurred by campaigns such as Freedom Summer, challenges to voting remain to this day in the United States. In the past year several states, including North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio, have passed laws making it more difficult to vote. Critics argue that measures such as voter ID requirements and the elimination of same-day registration have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. These policies, and challenges to them have reignited debate about how to protect the voting rights of historically disenfranchised people.
 
This lesson consists of two readings. The first reading reviews the history of the Freedom Summer project, which took place 50 years ago. The second reading discusses some of the challenges to voting rights that we face today. Questions for discussion follow each reading.
 

Student Reading 1:
Freedom Summer at 50

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Freedom Summer. This initiative was a collaborative effort by several civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to register voters in the Deep South. The campaign focused on Mississippi, the state with the lowest percentage of African Americans registered to vote at the time, and it took place in the context of Jim Crow segregation and the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. One year after Freedom Summer, President Lyndon B. Johnson voted into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave the federal government the power to oversee voter registration and elections in counties where discrimination had historically occurred.
 
An essay by the Wisconsin Historical Society describes the intent of the Freedom Summer project:
 
Freedom Summer was a nonviolent effort by civil rights activists to integrate Mississippi's segregated political system during 1964.
 
Planning began late in 1963 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) decided to recruit several hundred northern college students, mostly white, to work in Mississippi during the summer. They helped African-American residents try to register to vote, establish a new political party, and learn about history and politics in newly formed Freedom Schools.
 
 
In a February 4, 2014 article for USA Today, Deborah Barfield Berry describes how Freedom Summer activists aimed to overcome Jim Crow restrictions on voting in Mississippi:  
 
"If you wanted to change the face of the nation, you started where the problems were the worst," said [Marion] Barry, 77, [the first chairman of SNCC and now a] city councilman in Washington. "You crack that, you can crack anything. That was our philosophy. We were fearless. We were the revolutionary storm troopers." ….
 
It was a dangerous mission, in a state where whites vehemently and violently opposed change. Murders, lynchings and beatings were used to intimidate blacks and keep in place segregation in schools and other public places. Student activists, led by SNCC, the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality, were determined to challenge voter registration requirements — such as poll taxes and literacy tests — intended to prevent blacks from voting.
 
"It's a moment in history where all these people came from all across the country: lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, activists, historians," said Robert Moses, 79, who headed SNCC's Mississippi operation and now runs the Algebra Project, a non-profit education program in Massachusetts. "They just converge for a brief moment in time and make something happen that nobody thought could happen."
 
 
While most of the key organizers for Freedom Summer were African American, they consciously chose to recruit an interracial group of volunteers, including many white college students from the North. As Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy explains in a July 26, 2010, article for Slate, they did this with an awareness of racial biases, including the biases of the media:
 
Frustrated by the inattentiveness of politicians and journalists when it was "only" black activists who were being brutalized, leaders in SNCC suspected that the response would be different if white youngsters were hurt. They proved to be correct. White activists received much more coverage than their black peers. The contrast was so blatant that it prompted Ella Baker, a formidable elder amongst the dissidents, to remark that they must carry on "[u]ntil the killing of black mothers' sons is as important as the killing of white mothers' sons."
 
 
Starting on June 14, 1964, the first group of about 1,000 recruits arrived at a training site to learn how to register voters, teach literacy and encourage political participation among local residents. 
 
On June 21, just one week later, tragedy struck when three civil rights activists were murdered. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were arrested and detained by police while investigating the burning of a church. Police released them several hours later on the outskirts of town, where members of the Ku Klux Klan were waiting. The Klan members abducted and murdered the activists.
 
This tragedy quickly drew national attention. The FBI became involved, launching a major investigation and search for the bodies, which were not found until six weeks later.
 
Some Freedom Summer volunteers, scared by the murders, decided to go home. However, the majority stayed, more determined than ever. Volunteers created 41 Freedom Schools, which taught both traditional subjects (such as reading and math), and subjects meant to politicize participants (including leadership skills and black history).
 
Over the course of the summer, some 17,000 African Americans challenged racist restrictions by attempting to register to vote. Their actions highlighted the systematic violations of federal law that were taking place in Mississippi as citizens were routinely denied their Constitutional rights. 
 
 
Americans all around the country were shocked by the killing of civil rights workers and the brutality they witnessed on their televisions. Freedom Summer raised the consciousness of millions of people to the plight of African Americans and the need for change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress in part because lawmakers' constituents had been educated about these issues during Freedom Summer.
 
Today Mississippi is the state with the largest number of black elected officials in the country. Freedom Summer continues to be an inspiration for anti-racist activists. 
 

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. According to the reading, what were the major goals and initiatives of Freedom Summer?
 
3. Who participated in Freedom Summer? What was the significance of bringing together an inter-racial group that was not from the local area?
 
4. Those who volunteered for Freedom Summer risked their lives, and indeed three activists were murdered. Was it responsible for civil rights organizations to send outside volunteers into a dangerous environment? Explain your position.
 
5. What were some of the changes that resulted from Freedom Summer?

 

Student Reading 2:
The Ongoing Battle to Protect Voting Rights

Despite the historic progress spurred by campaigns such as 1964's Freedom Summer, challenges to voting remain to this day in the United States. In the past year several states including North Carolina, Texas and Ohio have passed new laws making it more difficult to vote. Critics argue that measures such as voter ID requirements and the elimination of same-day registration have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. These measures – and challenges to them – have reignited debates about how to protect voting rights within historically disenfranchised populations. 
 
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 included a section that made it illegal for states with a history of voter discrimination to pass laws that change voter registration requirements without approval from the federal government. However, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the Shelby County v. Holder case that conditions in these areas had changed since the earlier law was passed, making the previous formula for federal oversight of elections unconstitutional. As reporter Dana Liebelson wrote in an April 8, 2014 article for Mother Jones magazine:
 
When the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to overturn a key section of the Voting Rights Act last June, Justice Ruth Ginsburg warned that getting rid of the measure was like "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet." The 1965 law required that lawmakers in states with a history of discriminating against minority voters get federal permission before changing voting rules. Now that the Supreme Court has invalidated this requirement, GOP lawmakers across the United States are running buck wild with new voting restrictions.
 
Of the new measures being passed, one major type is the “Voter ID law.” These laws typically require that people bring state-issued identification when they go to vote. Defenders of these laws argue that they help to reduce fraud. However, there is little evidence that such fraud exists to begin with. In a November 5, 2012 ProPublica article, Suevon Lee writes:
 
There are "very few documented cases [of fraud]," said UC-Irvine professor and election law specialist Rick Hasen. "When you do see election fraud, it invariably involves election officials taking steps to change election results or it involves absentee ballots which voter ID laws can't prevent," he said.
 
An analysis by News21, a national investigative reporting project, identified 10 voter impersonation cases out of 2,068 alleged election fraud cases since 2000 – or one out of every 15 million prospective voters.
 
While Voter ID laws do little to prevent fraud, their main impact is to disenfranchise people who are legally allowed to vote. Moreover, these laws disproportionately affect low-income people, people of color, and the elderly. Obtaining an ID can not only be time consuming, but the fees associated with it can be onerous for vulnerable populations. As Suevon Lee explains:
 
Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome, with even free state ID requiring documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25 in some places. According to a study from NYU's Brennan Center, 11 percent of voting-age citizens lack necessary photo ID while many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices….
 
Attorney General Eric Holder and others have compared [Voter ID] laws to a poll tax, in which Southern states during the Jim Crow era imposed voting fees, which discouraged blacks, and even some poor whites -- until the passage of grandfather clauses -- from voting.
 
Given the sometimes costly steps required to obtain needed documents today, legal scholars argue that photo ID laws create a new "financial barrier to the ballot box."
 
The increase in laws that make voting more difficult has led to a call for renewed activism to protect peoples’ right to vote. As Benjamin Todd Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, argued in an April 9, 2014 article for MSNBC:
 
[Freedom Summer] was massively successful in drawing attention to civil rights abuses. The organizers’ message of education and empowerment struck a nerve with Americans of all backgrounds, supercharging the larger civil rights movement and leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the following year.
 
Fifty years later, the Voting Rights Act is in limbo, with key portions struck down by the Supreme Court. Inevitably, voter suppression has once again reared its ugly head. Since 2011, a number of state have introduced laws to make voting more difficult, with the burden usually falling on poor people and communities of color. This year alone, Wisconsin and Ohio have passed laws to cut early voting, while North Carolina has gone forward with a suppressive voter ID law. Some of these laws are set to take effect for the 2014 midterm elections – now seven months away.
 
The question remains: Will the civil rights organizers of today respond with a sustained push for voter registration to overwhelm the tide of voter suppression?  ….
 
Freedom Summer organizers risked their lives and transformed our nation for the better. Today, we need to summon the courage to ensure their efforts are not being rolled back. History has taught us that we can be powerful agents of social change when we organize, agitate, and – most importantly – vote. The summer of 2014 will be an important test for the cause of freedom.
 
 

For Discussion: 

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. What did the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder decide? How did dissenting justices such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg respond to the majority decision? 
 
3. According to the reading, what are Voter ID laws? Why do defenders of these laws think they are necessary? 
 
4. Why might these laws disproportionately impact low-income and minority voters?
 
5. Do you believe that it is necessary for another campaign such as Freedom Summer to take place today? Why or why not?
 
 
Research assistance provided by Yessenia Gutierrez