Celebrating Freedom Summer, 50 years later
Published: Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 01:10
In the summer of 1964, over 800 volunteers banded together to train, inspire and prepare to register African-American voters in the South in a movement called Freedom Summer.
What students may not know is that Freedom Summer was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, and it happened on Miami’s campus.
Next year, Miami will celebrate the 50th anniversary of this movement in a yearlong university wide series of events, including a lecture by esteemed journalist and alumnus, Wil Hayood, leading up to a national conference near the end of 2014.
When the volunteers met the summer of 1964 at Western College for Women now known as Western Campus, their goal was to overcome the social issues of the racial South, particularly in Mississippi, as violence and injustices toward African-Americans were often ignored.
According to the website for next year’s Freedom Summer Conference, this orientation included “educating and registering African-American voters, establishing Freedom Schools to teach youth core subjects while emphasizing black history and citizenship skills and building community centers that offered healthcare, recreation and necessary social support systems.”
Jacky Johnson, Western College Archivist and chair of the Freedom Summer 2014 Planning Committee, explained volunteers had to learn to resist impassioned violent behavior, and were given nonviolent resistance training to aid them.
“Volunteers were taught how to resist and put their bodies into balls to protect themselves and their extremities from injury if they were being clubbed or beaten,” Johnson said. “They weren’t supposed to fight back.”
According to an article on the PBS website titled “The Freedom Summer Killings,” some volunteers had to put their training to use.
On the warm, summery morning of June 20, 1964, three volunteers who had completed their orientation — James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — left Oxford and headed down to Mississippi to register to vote. The next day, they drove to Philadelphia, Mississippi intending to inspect a church that was burning.
A local sheriff stopped the trio for alleged speeding and held them in a county jail until late at night when they were later released.
As the three were driving away, as many as 22 Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members were hot on their trail.
The KKK members stopped the car and murdered all three.
Goodman, a white Freedom Summer volunteer and Schwerner, a white organizer from New York, were shot right on the spot. Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi, was brutally beaten before he was shot.
All three were then buried under 15 feet of soil on a farm in southwest Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies were not found until six weeks later.
According to a Western Archives document, Rita Schwerner, Michael’s widow, said the death of her husband and Goodman sparked a fire in the hearts of the American people.
“If he [Schwerner] and Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths,” Schwerner reportedly told the media. “It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm has been sounded.”
The state of Mississippi convicted KKK leader Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter and sentenced him to 60 years in prison. The state also convicted seven of the 18 that were charged with violating the civil rights of the trio and sentenced them to six years in jail.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the volunteers who worked toward this cause, especially those who lost their lives, Miami is throwing a yearlong university wide celebration called Celebrating Freedom.
President David Hodge expressed his enthusiasm for this memorialization and encouraged all to perceive it in a positive light.
“What we didn’t want to happen was that we would look back [on the Civil Rights Movement] in sorrow or grief,” Hodge said. “That’s why this event is titled ‘understanding the past, building the future.’ It’s really to recognize how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go. This is a very special time here at Miami.”
Already, Miami has welcomed Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), who spoke about the Civil Rights Movement and Humanities.
The university has also welcomed Judi Hampton, an alumna of Western College and President of Blackside Inc., the production company that produced the award-winning PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” to talk about the media’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
The next events will be Nov. 4-5 featuring Wil Haygood.