Modern history



And the problem of living as a Negro was cold and hard. What was it that made the hate of whites for blacks so steady, seemingly so woven into the texture of things? What kind of life was possible under that hate? How had this hate come to be?

—Richard Wright, Black Boy


In the fall of 1963, America was suffused with an unbearable whiteness of being. Confident and assertive, the nation rode an unprecedented wave of prosperity. The engines of the American economy were at full bore; the young, handsome president was well liked and respected. The enemy was unmistakable—a mushroom cloud, a bald bully banging his shoe at the United Nations, a worldwide threat that had to be contained. Americans drove two-thirds of the world’s cars and held half the world’s wealth. Cars were big and beefy, with fins, flamboyant taillights, and loud engines under expansive hoods. Jars of Miracle Whip and loaves of Wonder Bread were in most kitchens; Marlboros and Kents were advertised on TV, and half of all adults smoked a pack or more a day. Only one or two cities had enclosed malls. Ninety-nine percent of homes had TVs—almost all black and white—yet none received more than seven channels. These featured “a vast wasteland” of Westerns, medical shows, and silly sitcoms. Not a single program showed a dark face in any but the most subservient role. In the halls of Congress and in city halls across the nation, all but a few politicians were as white as the ballots that elected them. Yet from this ivory tower, the future could be spotted.

That fall in Southeast Asia, American advisers sent back discouraging reports, causing President Kennedy to consider ending involvement in Vietnam. College students strummed folk songs, their younger siblings danced to syrupy pop music, but off in England a shaggy-haired rock band was riding a wave of frenzy that would soon sweep across the Atlantic and sweep away old mores. Across the South, blacks were marching into police dogs and fire hoses, demanding decency and human rights. But the most significant signpost in the autumn of 1963 arose in the nation’s poorest state. There, on a November weekend shortly before events in Dallas began to change everything, thousands of bone-poor citizens gave America a long-overdue lesson in democracy.

Mississippi’s official ballot listed Republican and Democratic candidates for governor. Yet in a southern state still voting as if Lincoln headed the GOP, the election was never in doubt. Everyone knew Democrat Paul B. Johnson, following in his father’s footsteps, would be the next governor. White voters admired how, as lieutenant governor, “Paul Stood Tall Last Fall,” blocking a black man’s entry to the state university. White voters relished Johnson’s sneers at the most hated politicians in Mississippi, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, whose federal troops, so the story went, had incited the integration riots at “Ole Miss.” White voters sniggered at Johnson’s joke that NAACP stood for “Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons, and Possums.” And on November 5, white voters comfortably elected “Tall Paul.” But that Tuesday, whites were not the only voters in Mississippi.

From the buff sands of the Gulf Coast to the cotton fields of the Delta, a parallel election was held, a black election, a “Freedom Election.” In little wooden churches with majestic names, whole congregations rose from the pews. While gospel choirs chanted—“We-ee shall not, we shall not be moved”—men and women slipped “Freedom Ballots” into wooden boxes. In cafés sweetened by the smell of cornbread, withered hands marked Xs beside “Aaron Henry—Governor” and “Reverend Edwin King—Lt. Governor.” On teetering porches, black men in overalls and black women in gingham spoke with students from Yale and Stanford recruited for this prelude to “Freedom Summer.” Nodding politely, calling their clean-cut guests “sir,” lifelong sharecroppers learned that voting did not have to remain “white folks’ business.” And thousands, forging raw democracy out of Mississippi’s red clay, cast “Freedom Votes” in beauty parlors and grocery stores, in barbershops and pool halls. Yet thousands more were far too terrified to risk anything so dangerous as voting.

Throughout that weekend, fear had quickened the pulse of Mississippi. Much more than a governorship was being decided. In a “closed society” where segregation ran as deep as the fertile soil of the Delta, black and white agreed on little, yet both knew that voting equaled power. Elsewhere in the South, blacks had begun to register—44 percent in Georgia, 58 percent in Texas, 69 percent in Tennessee—but in Mississippi just 6.7 percent could vote. So long as they remained “second-class citizens,” blacks knew they would remain powerless. And whites knew that if “our colored” registered en masse, or worse, if they were led to courthouses by “goddamned NAACP Communist trouble makers,” all the nightmares recounted by grandparents would return. Just as during Reconstruction, “Niggers, Alligators, Apes, Coons, and Possums” would run Mississippi, sweeping away white power and all the peculiar institutions of segregation on which it rested. “Citizens,” remembered an unrepentant Klansman, “not only have a right but a duty to preserve their culture.” In 1963, no one needed to explain this in Mississippi. The brutality that fall weekend was swift, spontaneous, and as blunt as a fist in the face.

On Halloween night, a Yale student stopped for gas in Port Gibson. A century earlier, Union troops had entered Mississippi through this same small town whose gorgeous mansions General Ulysses Grant found “too beautiful to burn.” Now in the eyes of locals, another invasion had begun. The “goddamn Yankee” was easy to spot—a white blond-haired stranger in the same car as a black man and woman. Ordering the white man out of the car, four men pummeled him to the pavement, then circled, fists coiled, kicking, pounding. Heads turned, but no one intervened. When the bloodied man climbed back in the car, the thugs followed it for miles along dark roads. Two days later, the same strangers—the men only—were spotted again.

On a warm Saturday morning, the two Freedom Election workers headed north out of Natchez to distribute campaign fliers. Suddenly, a shiny green Chevy Impala pulled behind them. In his rearview mirror, the driver saw two white faces. He made a U-turn, but the Chevy followed, riding his bumper. Heading south past farms and fields, the two cars sped up. Twice the Chevy pulled alongside, but twice the lead driver, who had raced hotrods in high school, roared ahead. The Chevy stayed right on his tail. Engines groaning, gravel flying, the cars soon topped one hundred miles an hour. Finally, the Chevy pulled even and forced the strangers’ car into a ditch. This time the locals had a gun. Ordered out of his car, the driver paused—then punched the accelerator. The car lurched back onto the road. A bullet shattered the rear window. Another tore into a side panel. A third grazed the rear tire. Running red lights, weaving into oncoming traffic, slowing as the tire lost air, the driver finally ducked down a side road as the Chevy roared past.

All that weekend, similar welcomes met “agitators” throughout Mississippi. Up north in Tate County, shots narrowly missed a Freedom Election worker. Down south in Biloxi, a rock-throwing mob broke up a Freedom Election rally. In Yazoo City, gateway to the Delta, cops closed down another rally. Before the weekend ended, seventy election workers had been arrested. Charges ranged from disturbing the peace to driving cars too heavy for their license plates. Roughed up or just told to get out of town, the students got a strong taste of how the law worked in Mississippi in 1963.

The terror nearly succeeded. Organizers had hoped 200,000 blacks would cast Freedom Votes. Not counting ballots confiscated by cops, 82,000 did. Organizers hoped to use the parallel ballots, legally binding under a Reconstruction-era law, to challenge the official election. No one expected the challenge to succeed, but each Freedom Vote signaled a change in Mississippi. Centuries of bowing and scraping, centuries of pleasing “Mr. Charlie,” centuries of “yassuh” and “nossuh,” had come to their final days. But the Freedom Election also stirred embers as old as the Civil War, or as it was still called in Mississippi, “the War for Southern Independence.” Come 1964, Mississippi would be swept by a racial firestorm. The long and vicious year centered around what organizers called the Mississippi Summer Project. The rest of the nation came to call it Freedom Summer, and it would pit the depth of America’s bigotry against the height of America’s hopes.

Ten weeks before Mississippi elected its new governor, a quarter million people had flocked to Washington, D.C., to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak of his dream. As the multitude gathered near the Lincoln Memorial, pollsters had fanned out across the country. The Harris Poll on race, taken during a summer of shocking violence across the South, suggested how remote King’s dream remained. Along with the stark income gap—blacks earning just 56 percent of what whites earned nationwide—a sizable majority of whites disliked, distrusted, and struggled to distance themselves from blacks. Some were cautious: “It’s a rotten, miserable life to be colored.” Others were blunt. “We don’t hate niggers,” a smiling San Diego woman said. “We just don’t want them near us. That’s why we moved from Chicago.”

While King’s soaring baritone described his dream that “one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” 71 percent of whites said, “Negroes smell different.” While crowds cheered King’s hope that someday his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” half of those polled claimed, “Negroes have less native intelligence.” And as King rose to a crescendo, dreaming of a time when “all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands,” 69 percent said, “Negroes have looser morals,” three of every four said, “Negroes tend to have less ambition,” and 90 percent said they would never let their daughter date a Negro.

“Negroes are oversexed,” a Nevada man said. “They’re wild.”

“I don’t like to touch them,” a Pennsylvania woman admitted. “It just makes me squeamish.”

Revealing prejudice from sea to shining sea, the poll also documented what northerners loved to crow about—that racism ran rampant in the South. There, 73 percent thought blacks less intelligent, 88 percent thought they “smelled different,” and 89 percent thought they had “looser morals.” The numbers were not broken down by southern state, but everyone knew where the deepest prejudice festered. When Medgar Evers was gunned down in Mississippi that June, the head of the NAACP had not even feigned surprise. “There is no state with a record which approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality, and racial hatred,” Roy Wilkins said. “It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.”

For all its natural beauty, its proud heritage, its subsequent racial progress, Mississippi in 1963 was a mean and snarling state, run by tight-lipped politicians, bigoted sheriffs, and cops “not playing with” anyone who crossed them. Mississippi’s mounting brutality had disgraced many of its own citizens. “During the past ten years,” native son and novelist Walker Percy wrote, “Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane.” Across America, Mississippi had become a symbol of racial terror. Singer Nina Simone crooned, “Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn,” and nightclub comedian Dick Gregory never missed a chance to mock the state. Seems he was fired from a Chicago post office, Gregory told audiences, for putting letters to Mississippi in a sack marked “Foreign Mail.”

In the twenty-first century, the joke would fall flat. Modern Mississippi, having achieved a racial reconciliation to rival South Africa’s, has more black elected officials than any other state. Even its former Klan enclaves boast black city councils, black mayors, black police chiefs. But in 1963, for nearly a million blacks too broke, too rooted, or too beaten down to follow Highway 61 north, life in Mississippi was no joke. Before Freedom Summer and the changes it jump-started, Mississippi was a place where a black body floating in a muddy river was “as common as a snake”; spies and informers working for the state kept dossiers on 250 organizations and 10,000 individuals backing integration; black sharecroppers picked cotton from “kin to cain’t”—from sunup, when you “kin see,” to sundown, when you “cain’t”—for three dollars a day; civil rights workers were routinely arrested and beaten while cops laughed off charges of “police brutality”; and the slightest tremor of racial equality unleashed shock waves of raw brutality.

The violence had most recently touched down in Greenwood, a small city in the cotton fields that boasted of being “the long staple cotton capital of the world.” Though the majority of Greenwood’s residents were black, whites owned 90 percent of everything. Fine mansions and stately oaks earned Greenwood’s Grand Boulevard the title “America’s Most Beautiful Street.” But rows of decrepit shacks stood on “the other side of the tracks,” and all public facilities—pools, drinking fountains, even popcorn stands—were segregated. A tired joke said that Greenwood had one black voter, but no one could find him. In the summer of 1962, enraged whites beat back a voting drive with mass arrests, drive-by shootings, and Molotov cocktails torching black homes. When dozens continued marching to the courthouse, when no number of cops flailing nightsticks could stop them, county officials used a more elemental weapon—hunger. As winter approached, they seized federal allotments of rice, flour, and dried milk that helped many sharecroppers survive the lean season. Across Leflore County, as temperatures plunged below zero, thousands were left “neckid, buck-barefoot, and starvin’.” Only a “Mississippi airlift,” activists driving tons of food into the Delta, averted a famine. Still, one infant died of starvation, and two sharecroppers froze to death. As spring approached in 1963, blacks marched to the courthouse in greater numbers. Whites fired point-blank into cars. Firebombs gutted the movement’s headquarters. A snarling police dog tore into a line of marchers. By summer, with just thirteen new voters to show for all the arrests, all the violence, the Greenwood movement stalled.

Mississippi stood at a crossroads. Years of peaceful protest had been met with bombings, beatings, and simple murder. And the rest of America did not seem to care. With Martin Luther King focusing attention on southern cities, Mississippi remained a neglected outpost of civil rights, too removed, too rural, too simmering with hatred to offer the slightest hope. In the wake of the fall’s Freedom Election, a new tactic was needed. The election’s architect, a man so saintly he was often compared to Jesus, labored to find that tactic. The Freedom Election, Bob Moses said, “makes it clear that the Negroes of Mississippi will not get the vote until the equivalent of an army is sent here.” Finally, the idea blossomed.

What if, instead of Mississippi’s black folk struggling in isolation, hundreds of college students from all across the country poured into the state? Wouldn’t America pay attention then? And what if, along with registration drives, these volunteers staffed Freedom Schools, teaching black kids subjects their “separate but equal” schools would never teach? Black history. Black literature. The root causes of poverty. What if, in the spirit of America’s new Peace Corps, this “domestic Peace Corps” set up Freedom Houses all over Mississippi, with libraries, day cares, and evening classes in literacy and voting rights? And what if, at the culmination of the summer, delegates from a new Freedom Party went to the Democratic National Convention to claim, beneath the spotlight of network news, that they, not Mississippi’s all-white delegation, were the rightful representatives from the Magnolia State? “Before the Negro people get the right to vote, there will have to be a massive confrontation,” said twenty-four-year-old John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, “and it will probably come this summer. . . . We are going to Mississippi full force.”

The idea haunted a state still haunted by the Civil War. Mississippi had long been a land of stark contrast—red clay and green grass, mansions and shacks, folks as pleasant as flowering magnolias, folks as mean as swamp snakes. But Freedom Summer, while it brought out the best in America, brought out the worst in Mississippi. When word of the summer project leaked, it sparked rage and resentment not seen in America since Reconstruction. Mississippi newspapers warned of an “invasion.” Governor Johnson denounced the “invaders” and their “dastardly scheme.” “We are going to see that law and order is maintained,” the governor said, “and maintained Mississippi style.” The capital city of Jackson beefed up its police force with shotguns, teargas, and a tank, a six-ton armored vehicle with room for a dozen cops. “This is it,” Mayor Allen Thompson said. “They’re not bluffing, and we’re not bluffing. We’re going to be ready for them. . . . They won’t have a chance.” Rural residents also steeled themselves, Mississippi style.

In small towns with lilting names—Holly Springs, Picayune, Coffeeville—people proud of their southern hospitality seethed at the thought of summer. How dare these “beatniks,” ignoring their Harlems and their Roxburys, invade Mississippi to tell the entire state how to deal with race! In tranquil town squares, where skinny men in suspenders sat on storefront benches, where women in sunglasses and sundresses promenaded beneath covered sidewalks, the majority of whites believed Mississippi had no “Negro problem.” “We give them everything,” Greenwood’s mayor said. “We’re building a new swimming pool. We work very close with the nigger civic league. They’re very satisfied.” For nearly a decade, white Mississippi had watched with dread as integration came to Montgomery, Little Rock, Greensboro, Nashville . . . And now this army of northerners was poised to overrun their state, to change “our way of life.” Word had it the “invaders,” including white women, would be living in Negro homes! Visceral fears of “wild” Negroes, of “carpetbaggers,” of the “mongrelization” of black and white, brought generations of hatred bubbling to the surface.

In Mississippi’s most remote hamlets, small “klaverns” of ruthless men met in secret to discuss the “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” They stockpiled kerosene, shotguns, and dynamite, then singled out targets—niggers, Jews, “nigger lovers.” One warm April night, their secret burst into flames. In some sixty counties, blazing crosses lit up courthouse lawns, town squares, and open fields. The Klan was rising again in Mississippi. Like “White Knights,” as their splinter group was named, the Klan planned a holy war against the “dedicated agents of Satan . . . determined to destroy Christian civilization.” The Klan would take care of business, a recruiting poster said. “Get your Bible out and PRAY! You will hear from us.” Finally, as swamplike humidity spread and the noonday sky seemed to catch fire, summer arrived.

Before it was over, all of America would focus on Mississippi. TV and newspapers would tar and feather the state. Hundreds of doctors, lawyers, and clergymen would come to help student volunteers. Folksingers, Hollywood stars, and Martin Luther King himself would flock to Mississippi, where whiplash violence was shredding the social contract. Thirty-five churches would be torched, five dozen homes and Freedom Houses bombed, and Mississippi would become synonymous with murder. The FBI would give a code name to its investigation, one that eventually named a movie whitewashing the agency’s role—“Mississippi Burning.” But Freedom Summer was more than the sum of its violence.

That summer, the complexion of America began to change. President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act, and slowly, grudgingly, “Whites Only” signs vanished across the South. Urban riots ended racial complacency in the North. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution plunged America deeper into Vietnam. And at summer’s end, a black sharecropper taking the microphone at the Democratic National Convention nearly ended the political career of the president of the United States. Meanwhile in Mississippi, several hundred students and their host families showed Americans, black and white, how to treat each other with uncommon decency.

That summer, whites hosted in black homes marveled at people who, after lifetimes of degradation, openly shared faith, food, and hope. That summer, Mississippi blacks met whites who shook their hands and spoke to them as equals. “Nobody never come out into the country and talked to real farmers and things . . . ,” Fannie Lou Hamer remembered. “And it was these kids what broke a lot of this down. They treated us like we were special and we loved ’em.” Waking each morning to a rooster’s cackle, the smell of biscuits baking, the sizzle of something frying, suburban students discovered “the other America,” the neglected nation of dirt roads and distended bellies, of tumbledown shacks and outhouses askew. Teaching in makeshift classrooms, volunteers learned the human cost of racism. Canvassing voters porch by porch, they tested their faith in democracy. And when it was over, shaken by violence, inspired by courage, aged years in just one season, veterans of the summer project went home to face down the nation they thought they had known.

“Mississippi changed everything for anyone who was there,” volunteer Gloria Clark remembered. Most were quick to say they were not heroes, not when compared to those who risked their lives just to vote. The volunteers merely dropped in for a summer, then went home to question America. Some would spearhead the events that defined the 1960s—the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement. Others, spreading ideals absorbed in Mississippi, would be forever skeptical of authority, forever democrats with a small d, and forever touched by this single season of their youth. But first, they had to survive Freedom Summer.

You who live in the North: Do not think that Mississippi has no relevance to you. . . . My Mississippi is everywhere.

—James Meredith

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