Modern history


“Give unto Them Beauty for Ashes”

For the rest of the twentieth century, Mississippi struggled to put the past in its proper place. The lessons were bitter, and some refused to learn them. In the years following Freedom Summer, rancor and hatred reigned. Torn between nonviolence and a surging militance, blacks split into factions, arguing about everything, even funding for child care. Marches continued, and cops continued roughing up marchers. The Klan rallied in public, plotted in private, and made a last-ditch stand for its ludicrous lost cause of white supremacy. But with time, the state haunted by the Civil War surrendered to the inevitable future. Old customs died out with old people, and new generations found neither the energy nor the hatred needed to prop up Jim Crow. The past, in defiance of William Faulkner’s cautionary adage, came to be past. Like some cantankerous grandfather, Mississippi’s cruel legacy of war and Reconstruction, segregation and lynching, night riding and shotgun justice, was relegated from the kitchen table to the back porch. There it no longer required constant vigilance, let alone violence.

Even as Mississippi shed timeworn ways, life remained hard. Air-conditioning tamed the savage summers, while industry drew thousands from the land. New highways—asphalt and electronic—linked remote hamlets, bringing fresh faces and ideas, yet Mississippi remained America’s poorest state. Touring the Delta in 1967, Robert Kennedy visited sharecroppers’ shacks, reached out to touch starving children, and came away stunned. “My God,” he said, “I did not know this kind of thing existed. How can a country like this allow it?” More machines picked cotton and more field hands fled, leaving the land dotted by empty shacks. Hurricane Camille splintered the Gulf Coast. The river rose and fell, but the price of cotton never returned to what it had been. And through it all, decade by decade, a halting progress accumulated until by the new century, Mississippi had achieved a racial reconciliation few states or countries can match. But the first steps came on a minefield.

By mid-September 1964, another “lay-by time” was over. August’s gauze lifted, leaving a stark and flaxen beauty across the land. Crisp air smelled of smoldering leaves. Even the swamps seemed magical, tinged in gold and green. Black schools in the Delta closed, sending students and their parents back into the fields. To whites, the field hands in their cloth caps and overalls seemed as perennial as the goldenrod blooming beside the roads. So it had been for more than a century, but it would not be so for long.

Autumn soothed the scars of summer, yet ten weeks of tension had frayed nerves to a nub. Many volunteers had thought they were used to the stress, but when they returned home, they discovered that they would never return home. Not for the rest of their lives.

Among SNCC staff, bitterness over Atlantic City mixed with relief. “The longest nightmare I have ever had,” as Cleveland Sellers called Freedom Summer, was over. Some eighty volunteers were staying on, but with the rest gone, SNCCs could go back to helping locals shine their own lights. Or could they? “At the end of summer, I knew I had been right in opposing the project,” Hollis Watkins remembered. “Trying to reactivate and get people motivated was much, much harder.” And along with enervating blacks, Freedom Summer left white Mississippi filled with shock, shame, and outrage.

In September, six more churches went up in flames. Another black body was pulled from a river. South of Jackson, the Klan went on a rampage, bombing the mayor’s home in Natchez and the Vicksburg Freedom House where Fran O’Brien had taught. And in McComb?

On September 9, McComb COFO director Jesse Harris wrote the Justice Department: “If the present increase in violence is not halted, it is almost certain that within the coming weeks there will be a civil rights worker killed in Pike County.” No protection was offered. Whenever COFO called the FBI to complain about police harassment, they were told that McComb cops “are very fine people and you shouldn’t criticize them.” Free to strike at will, the Klan terrorized the city. Bombs hit another church and a preacher’s home. Thugs beat volunteers in broad daylight. Pickups circled the Freedom House nightly, while police set up roadblocks, arresting dozens of blacks on charges of “criminal syndicalism.” And there were more bombs, midnight explosions splintering homes, spreading terror, steeling the black community.

While McComb approached a state of siege, Americans inspired by Freedom Summer shone their own lights on Mississippi. Volunteers’ parents continued to meet, raise funds, and send them south. Pharmaceutical companies shipped vitamins and first aid kits. Public schools across America adopted Freedom Schools, sending books and supplies. And with nearly three dozen churches destroyed, congregations responded to a “Committee of Concern.” Formed by Mississippi clergy, black and white, the committees campaign collected $10,000 in its first week, enough to begin building. The title of the committee’s campaign, “Beauty for Ashes,” came from the biblical book of Isaiah: “The Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek . . . to give unto them beauty for ashes. . . .” By Christmas, college students were giving up their vacations to build churches in Mississippi.

But Freedom Summer’s wounds could not be confined to Mississippi. Back at her Oregon college, Fran O’Brien was restless and angry. The once demure teacher now argued with old friends who seemed to have become bigots. No one understood what Fran had been through, but no one failed to notice her testiness. “I didn’t realize yet that it was because I was a different person, so my whole senior year was confusing,” she remembered. Fran talked about the children of Mississippi but told no one about being beaten by Klansmen. She did not even tell herself. And so the horror festered, leaving her alone, aloof, and strangest of all, dreaming of returning to Mississippi the following summer. A similar estrangement could be found at colleges around the country.

In Chicago, Len Edwards, the congressman’s son, was back at law school. One evening at a bar, friends were talking about the Cubs, about “girls,” about the Johnson-Goldwater race, when someone asked, “Well, what was happening down there in Mississippi?” Edwards managed to get out two sentences, “and I started crying, I just burst out crying.” In North Hanover, Massachusetts, Linda Wetmore found “everything was awful.” Wetmore’s arrest during Greenwood’s Freedom Day had been on the front page of the Boston Globe. Back home she found herself notorious. At church, someone asked her, “You’re telling me you’d want to live next door to a nigger?” Her boyfriend came over to say, “I could never kiss anybody who’d kiss a black man.” Wetmore had not kissed any black men, but she replied, “Then I guess we can’t go out anymore.”

Studying returned volunteers, psychiatrist Robert Coles saw signs of “battle fatigue . . . exhaustion, weariness, despair, frustration and rage.” Many volunteers wanted to talk about Mississippi, but how could they describe a sharecropper’s shack? A Mississippi jail? Madhouse summer nights of pickups and shotguns and flaming crosses? Some spoke to service clubs, but many more refused to talk to anyone. First in hometowns, then back on campus, their white world seemed so isolated, so pointless. Summer had immersed them in a movement, swarming with people, anointed in spirit, struggling for others. And now they were asked to resume their studies, to go to parties, to focus on careers. There was simply no way to explain this to friends, to parents. One mother lamented, “Our very normal, bright young child has changed.”

Many spent long hours in their rooms. Guilt over leaving Mississippi blacks—“the best people I ever met”—overwhelmed them. When they went out, they found themselves dodging whites and drawn to any passing black face. Politics was a distant drone from an America whose talk of equality seemed laughable. “I went from being a liberal Peace Corps-type Democrat to a raging, maniacal lefty,” one volunteer recalled. Decades later, sociologist Doug McAdam, surveying some 250 volunteers, found that Freedom Summer had moved two-thirds leftward and crippled respect for authority. In just ten weeks, 42 percent lowered their estimation of the president, 40 percent lost esteem for Congress, half for the Justice Department, and nearly three-quarters for the FBI. In the fall of 1964, this sea change spearheaded a generational challenge to America, a challenge that began on a single campus.

On October 1, a crowd at the University of California at Berkeley surrounded a police car holding a student arrested for handing out CORE leaflets. For the next thirty-two hours, the car sat trapped by swarms of students, many singing Freedom Songs, while one after another jumped on its roof and spoke about free speech. The most eloquent speaker, the one who would speak throughout that fall about the connections between Mississippi and Berkeley, had just returned from McComb. Before the summer, Mario Savio had impressed a SNCC interviewer as “not a very creative guy . . . [who] did not play much of a leadership role.” But back at Berkeley, Savio was on fire with summer memories. He remembered staying up late in Ohio talking about Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. He recalled being chased by angry whites in Jackson, hearing the bombs in McComb, talking in sharecropper shacks. “Can I now forget Mississippi?” he wondered. “In other words, was that my summer job? ”

With Savio leading the protests, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement kept students protesting through December, culminating in a sit-in that closed the administration building. Inspired by Berkeley’s call for free speech, student protests soon broke out across America—against the war, the draft, the patriarchy. And in the forefront of each were veterans of Freedom Summer: who had seen democracy denied, who had watched “the law” subjugate an entire people, and who had come home angry and disillusioned. For the rest of the 1960s, Mississippi would remain their benchmark of injustice, the place where one generation’s American dream went to die. Time and again, 1960s spokesmen—not just Mario Savio but Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler, and others—would refer to Mississippi as the school where they had learned to question America. And as protests became increasingly shrill, bewildered parents would ask why their children seemed so cynical about their country. The answer was easy. The children had been to Mississippi.

As volunteers struggled to cope with an unbearably white America, several SNCCs decided they had to leave Mississippi, if only for a few weeks. Racial tensions were rising. Staffers were working without paychecks. SNCC’s Sojourner Fleet cars, after a summer of racing volunteers and staffers around Mississippi, were now lost, wrecked, scattered around the country. A year earlier, SNCC leaders would have faced down these problems, but Freedom Summer had left them even more exhausted than the volunteers.

On his visit to Greenwood in August, Harry Belafonte had seen the emotional toll. Handing over $60,000, the singer made a deal. SNCC could have another $10,000 if leaders agreed to an all-expenses-paid trip—to Africa. On September 11, Belafonte and eleven SNCCs, including Bob and Dona Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, and James Forman, flew from New York to the new nation of Guinea. Shortly after they arrived in the palm-shaded, whitewashed capital of Conakry, President Sékou Touré summoned them to his palace. When the invitation came, Fannie Lou Hamer was taking a bath. “I’m definitely not ready to meet no president,” she said. But an hour later, she stood in an opulent palace, in awe. Here was a Delta sharecropper, her recent speech cut off by LBJ, now being kissed on both cheeks by another president, enveloped in his white robe, praised in his flowing French.

For ten days, the frazzled Mississippi veterans soaked up the rarefied air of a nation where blacks ran everything. The trip, Hamer later said, was “the proudest moment of my life. I saw black men flying the airplanes, driving buses, sitting behind the big desks in the bank and just doing everything that I was used to seeing white people do.” Hamer was particularly taken by African women—“so graceful and so poised. I thought about my mother and my grandmother.” From Guinea, two SNCCs went on to Kenya where they met Malcolm X, but the rest returned home to sort through the residue of Freedom Summer.

SNCC’s “beloved community” was coming apart. Once a handful of the bravest and boldest, SNCC suddenly had four hundred staffers, 20 percent of them white. Bob Moses saw racial resentment “welling out like poison.” Too many blacks called whites smug, superior, condescending. Too many whites saw blacks as slow or lazy. With the majority of holdovers being white women, sexual tension flared. “The Negro girls feel neglected because the white girls get the attention.” Black women on her project, one white woman wrote, “just seemed to hate me.” SNCC was also nagged by the future. Should it become a structured CORE-like organization? Or should it remain a freewheeling movement whose members “do what the spirit say do”? What should SNCC’s position be on urban riots? On Vietnam? On Third World movements? And did anyone have the energy to plan for the summer of ’65?

On November 5, 160 SNCC staffers gathered at a church in the seaside town of Waveland, Mississippi. James Forman opened the conference by calling SNCC “a band of brothers.” “We must decide if the circle will be unbroken,” he concluded. “If we remain a band of brothers, a circle of trust, we shall overcome!” But few Freedom Songs followed. Slumped in folding chairs, black and white seemed more at odds than ever. Hands went to hips, brows furrowed, and irritation punctuated every weary sigh, every roll of the eyes. SNCCs had often boasted of being “many minds, one heart,” but now, even hearts were at odds. Disputes broke out over the smallest details. One morning, SNCCs squared off with baseball bats and pool cues. The issue? Cafeteria meal tickets. SNCC, Forman noted, was suffering from “too many people high on freedom, just going off and doing what they want.”

In bungalows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the rancor continued after hours. Class remained a rut, race a chasm in the road ahead. And there was a new obstacle—gender. One of many position papers presented was “Women in the Movement.” The paper outlined how men in SNCC excluded women from top decision making, relegated them to typing and stenography, and treated even female staffers as mere “girls.” Just as “the average white person doesn’t realize that he assumes he is superior,” the authors wrote, “so too the average SNCC worker finds it difficult to discuss the woman problem because of the assumption of male superiority . . . This is no more a man’s world than it is a white world.”

As the authors had expected, the paper “hardly caused a ripple.” Yet “Women in the Movement,” written by SNCC veterans Casey Hayden and Mary King, would ripple far beyond the Mississippi beach town. Revised and expanded, the SNCC paper became a founding doctrine of the burgeoning women’s movement. When later read at a Students for a Democratic Society meeting, it would lead women to walk out and form their own caucus. Circulated among friends, the King-Hayden manifesto would lead to women’s consciousness-raising circles, many led by Freedom Summer veterans.

Yet in Waveland, the conference continued as if nothing had happened. After a few days, several members, disgusted by the “brutally aggressive hostility,” walked out. Others kept bickering. Returning to their projects, staffers found more disarray. Rumors of an impending “coup” swept through SNCC. Volunteers sat at typewriters banging out long lists of gripes. Whites lashed out at “bullshitting Negroes.” Blacks refused to “take orders from white folks!” Project directors saw workers wandering in and out of offices. One wrote, “Typical day: Rise at noon, eat, get the mail, drive around, eat, play cards, watch TV and spend the rest of the evening and night drinking at the local café.” Muriel Tillinghast, who had moved to Jackson to run the COFO office, saw SNCC “morphing into a different kind of organization, but we didn’t know where we were going. Many original SNCCs didn’t embrace the change. They thought we would never be the same and that was true.”

Within six months, Bob Moses would resign from SNCC and leave Mississippi. Within a year, many SNCCs would no longer be on speaking terms. Within two years, new SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, arrested again in Greenwood, would lead a crowd in a hypnotic chant: “Black—Power! Black—Power!” Fannie Lou Hamer was one of many baffled by the new militancy. Addressing a SNCC dinner, Hamer lamented that her old peers had become “cold.” Beyond cold, many were carrying guns, even to meetings. It was not long before SNCCs gathering in upstate New York would argue till 2:00 a.m., and then, against Carmichael’s wishes, narrowly vote to expel all whites. When Hamer’s words were invoked against such segregation, one member noted, “Mrs. Hamer is no longer relevant.”

With Moses and other gentle militants gone, SNCC surrendered to rage and resentment. Focus shifted to urban ghettos where the enemy was not the local sheriff but police raids and FBI surveillance, where arrests were not for leafleting but for inciting riots. Endorsing Third World movements, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, SNCC lost much of its white liberal funding. “Black Power,” recognized by Martin Luther King as “an unfortunate choice of words,” made SNCC a lighting rod for white backlash, while “Stokely Starmichael” made SNCC as much talk as action. Too much of the talk, Julius Lester remembered, featured “a growing litany of hatred.” And the only thing anyone in SNCC agreed upon was that Freedom Summer had both cracked Mississippi and shattered the circle of trust.

While SNCC unraveled, the FBI finally cracked the Klan in Mississippi. The first fissure opened two weeks after Freedom Summer, when a Klansman broke his vow of silence. Wallace Miller had joined the Klan less to fight integration than to fit in. “I got the feeling that anyone who wasn’t a Klansman wasn’t anything,” he told the FBI. But the chubby cop, best known for his barbecue skills, had not counted on covering up murder. Meeting agents in a restaurant, Miller told of a Klan gathering in May where “one of the boys” announced, “We’ve got to get Goatee.” He told how the extermination order on Mickey Schwerner had soon come from the Klan’s Imperial Wizard. He revealed that the Mt. Zion Church had been burned to lure “Goatee” into Neshoba County, and he gave the first inside account of what really happened on the night of June 21.

Precisely as Deputy Cecil Price had said, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been released at 10:30 p.m. But Price had not watched their taillights disappear—he had led the chase. Overtaken by three cars, the station wagon had finally pulled over on Route 19. The three were taken up a dirt road, murdered in cold blood, buried beneath the dam. Two Klansmen were supposed to take the station wagon to Alabama and burn it, but for some reason did not. Officer Miller also gave the FBI the name of the man who shot Goodman and Schwerner. But when asked for more, he refused. He had told all he dared. It might not be enough to convict anyone, but could it lead to an indictment?

The FBI hoped Mississippi might press murder charges, but Governor Paul Johnson refused, even when more evidence was gathered. The state attorney general saw no point in a Neshoba County trial, where the judge and several jurors would probably be Klansmen. And Johnson balked, lest his constituents think “[Martin Luther] King was calling the shots.” So on the first day of autumn, Judge O. H. Barnett, cousin of former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, convened a federal grand jury in Biloxi. “Now is the time for the government to put up or shut up,” the judge announced. Because murder is not a federal crime unless committed on federal property, the grand jury could only weigh indictments for civil rights violations. With denial still rampant in Mississippi, any indictment would be a landmark. But when the grand jury subpoenaed FBI agents, J. Edgar Hoover, unwilling to scare off future informers, refused to let his men testify. The grand jury, complaining that “our investigation has been curtailed, and in fact stymied” by the FBI, failed to issue indictments in the Neshoba killings. The case dragged on. The FBI went looking for more informants, men who could, as J. Edgar Hoover boasted, “put the fear of God into the Ku Klux Klan.”

James Jordan was a balding, middle-aged construction worker known to agents as a “floater,” a “hustler.” Jordan had moved to Gulfport to get a job, but the FBI tracked him there in mid-October. He soon learned that agents knew all about his role in the killings. A fellow Klansman had told them. Jordan said nothing at first, but five subsequent interrogations got tougher. “I’m going to see your ass in jail,” an agent told Jordan. Offered $3,500 and federal protection, Jordan finally told all he knew. And the FBI, after spending more than $800,000, after interviewing a thousand locals and nearly five hundred Klansmen, finally learned the darkest details from the first night of Freedom Summer.

The sun was setting but the June evening was holding hot and humid when word went out from the Neshoba County jail—“Goatee” was in custody. Klansman Edgar Ray Killen hurried to the Longhorn Drive-in on the edge of Meridian to gather a lynch mob. “Killen said they had three civil rights workers in jail in Philadelphia and that they needed ‘their asses tore up,’ ” Jordan told the FBI. The job had to be done in a hurry because the men, held on a minor charge, would soon be released. One man hurried to a pay phone. Others hopped in a car to gather Klansmen who did not have phones. Killen, a short, scrawny man known as “The Preacher” because he occasionally spoke from local pulpits, said they would need gloves. At a Klansman’s grocery store, the men got six pairs, brown cotton. A Klansman’s trailer park became the rendezvous point. The men would meet there, then head for the jail. Everyone should bring guns.

It was not every day a klavern carried out an extermination order, and as volunteers settled in for their first night in Mississippi, more than a dozen Klansmen converged on the silent streets of Philadelphia. The killers were a random lot—the preacher, assorted truck drivers and contractors, Neshoba County’s former sheriff, cops young and old—but all shared their Imperial Wizard’s fanatical resolve to get “Goatee” and repel “the nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.”

At 9:00 p.m., three cars and a pickup parked outside the courthouse. One man entered the jail and returned with the news: “Goatee,” some other white man, and a nigger were still behind bars. Killen led his crew to a dark street within sight of the jail, then had the group drop him at a funeral home as an alibi. The men came back downtown and waited until a fat old cop came up. The three were gone, he said, headed south on Route 19. Three cars set out in pursuit. They were soon joined by Deputy Cecil Price in his patrol car, chasing the fleeing station wagon over roller-coaster hills, faster and faster. All the cars were roaring at a hundred miles per hour when James Chaney finally decided to pull over. No one ever found out why.

Price ordered the men out of their car and into his. Strobe-lit by his red light, Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney piled into the backseat. Blinding headlights from behind told them that this time they would not get off with a speeding ticket. One Klansman drove the station wagon, following Price and other cars back toward Philadelphia.

Roads in Neshoba County do not merge; they cut away from the highway, plunging into forest and thickets. Price abruptly turned onto a narrow slash of gravel known as Rock Cut Road. Passing two houses, the cars headed through cut clay banks surrounded by woods. Jordan waited on the highway, then drove up Rock Cut Road. Approaching, he heard muffled voices. Engines stopped. Car doors slammed. Then came “a volley of shots.”

The bodies were tossed into the station wagon. “Everyone follow me,” one man said. “We’ll go the back way.” The convoy of cars drove to the dam where the men got out and stood in the warm night, smoking, talking. “Someone go and get the operator,” one finally said. Twenty minutes later, the murder party heard the grinding of a bulldozer. “They will be under twenty feet of dirt before it is all over,” one man said. Someone asked about the station wagon, and when the bulldozer fell silent, several men went to a garage on Route 19, where the owner of the dam site filled a glass jar with enough gasoline to burn it. After swearing each other to silence, the men went home. Mississippi had been redeemed again. “Goatee” and his friends would never be found. Everyone would soon forget them.

Seeking evidence, FBI agents had not asked James Jordan the questions a parent or a wife might have. When had Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney realized they were in the hands of killers? As the chase accelerated, had Goodman remembered what he had told a friend—“I’m scared, but I’m going” ? Did Schwerner recall the threats—“That Jewboy is dead!” Did Chaney remember his mother asking, “Ain’t you afraid? ” What had the three said to each other as they rode in the back of the police car? What had they thought when they felt the car lurch off the highway and onto the gravel?

A few weeks after James Jordan signed his confession, another informant filled in final details. Auto parts salesman Horace Doyle Barnette remembered Preacher Killen saying, “We have a place to bury them, and a man to run the dozer to cover them up.” He described Cecil Price clubbing James Chaney with his blackjack, and sketched a grisly murder scene complete with final words. James Jordan, it seemed, had not heard shots in the distance. He had ridden “shotgun” with Deputy Price while the three sat in the back. The car had skidded to a stop along Rock Cut Road. Racing up and opening the rear door, Wayne Roberts, a man so volatile he had been dishonorably discharged from the marines, had yanked Schwerner out and spun him around.

“Are you that nigger lover? ” Roberts shouted.

“Sir,” Schwerner replied, “I know just how you feel.”

Roberts, his left hand gripping Schwerner’s shoulder, put a bullet through his chest. Schwerner fell facedown in the ditch. Seconds later, Roberts yanked out Goodman and, without a word, killed him with a single shot. Just then, Jordan got out of the car, saying, “Save one for me!” Jordan dragged out James Chaney, who scrambled to get away. Three shots gunned Chaney down. “You didn’t leave me anything but a nigger,” Jordan said, “but at least I killed me a nigger.” Back in Philadelphia, the killers met with Sheriff Rainey.

“I’ll kill anyone who talks,” Rainey told them, “even if it’s my own brother.”

On December 4, 1964, Christmas decorations adorned the streets of Philadelphia when, beneath gloomy skies, sixty FBI agents fanned out across Neshoba County with arrest warrants. The accused, including truck drivers, farmers, cops, and the owner of the burial site, were taken from cafés, farm-houses, and trailers. Sheriff Rainey and Deputy Price, their boots caked in red clay, returned from a raid on a moonshine still to find agents waiting at the courthouse. Rainey asked to see the warrant. Both men handed over guns and badges. Like others arrested that morning, both carried startling amounts of cash—Price, $403; Rainey, more than $1,100. By afternoon, nineteen men sat in the Meridian courthouse, talking amiably. In front sat Sheriff Rainey, legs crossed, enormous chaw in his cheek, dipping tobacco from a pouch labeled “RED MAN.” Someone cracked a joke. Price smiled, Rainey guffawed and a Life photographer snapped a famous photo that came to symbolize the southern redneck—smirking at the charge of murder, or even a “civil rights violation.” Six days later, Rainey’s arrogance was rewarded.

At a preliminary hearing on December 10, Meridian’s federal commissioner, a schoolmarmish woman, ruled the latest Klan confession “hearsay”—and dismissed all charges. Shaking hands, slapping each other on the back, all nineteen men went free. “Ol’ Rainey could be elected governor now,” a man outside the courthouse said. The Justice Department filed new charges on New Year’s Day.

Throughout 1965, Mississippi was torn between law and custom, past and present. In Neshoba County, Sheriff Rainey and his plump deputy were more popular than ever. Cecil Price was talking about running for sheriff when his boss’s term expired. Locals doubted the two lawmen or anyone else would ever be convicted. Elsewhere, Klansmen met in open rallies drawing hundreds. Crosses still blazed at night. COFO’s office in Laurel was burned to the ground, and its offices elsewhere had electricity cut off, windows shot out. Yet shame was finally bringing moderates out of hiding.

Years later, writer Willie Morris remembered “a feeling that we hit the bottom of the barrel with these three murders in 1964.” Following Freedom Summer, investment in Mississippi plummeted. Tourism on the Gulf Coast was cut in half. “I favor dropping an atom bomb on the state of Mississippi,” an Ohio man wrote Time after the Neshoba indictments were dismissed. “I am ashamed that such a savage state exists in the country.” America’s disgust was summed up by Phil Ochs’s ballad, written after his week in Mississippi and debuted to stomps and cheers in a Greenwich Village nightclub.

Here’s to the state of Mississippi, 

For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines, 

If you drag her muddy rivers, nameless bodies you will find. 

The fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes, 

And the calendar is lying when it reads the present time. 

Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of, 

Mississippi, find yourself another country to be a part of.

Faced with economic reprisals and nationwide scorn, a critical mass in Mississippi realized they had no choice but to topple what one Jackson lawyer called “that wall of Never.”

After more than a dozen bombings, McComb had finally fought back against the Klan. In November 1964, sensing that the life of their community was at stake, embattled citizens pooled $5,000 in rewards for information about bombings. Business and civic leaders formed Citizens for Progress, calling for “equal treatment under the law for all citizens regardless of race, creed, position, or wealth.” And on November 18, FBI agents and highway patrolmen watched as a black man was served a bowl of gumbo in a restaurant on Main Street. “The waitress smiled and said, ‘Thank you,’ ” noted C. C. Bryant, who had welcomed Bob Moses in 1961. “She even asked us to come back.” A few hours later, blacks desegregated McComb’s Holiday Inn, Woolworth’s, Palace Theater, bus station, and Continental Motel.

In the year following Freedom Summer, similar harbingers of an edgy change surfaced across the state. Forced by federal lawsuits, schools in Jackson, Biloxi, Clarksdale, and Leake County desegregated first-grade classes. In response, all-white private schools, known as “seg academies,” began to spring up wherever integration seemed near. Many had long waiting lists. Two blacks enrolled at Ole Miss, but no one rioted. Early in 1965, the Mississippi Economic Council called for full compliance with the Civil Rights Act, and Governor Paul Johnson praised the position. But good intentions mouthed in Jackson had never meant much in the Piney Woods or the Delta. Full democracy would come to Mississippi only by federal law, or the threat of intervention. As another long hot summer loomed, as Congress inched closer to passing LBJ’s Voting Rights Act, Governor Johnson urged the state legislature to concede the inevitable by removing barriers to black registration. During the debate, cops arrested more than a thousand marchers, herding them into pens at the state fairgrounds. But in the end, the legislature complied. The Jim Crow relics—poll taxes and literacy tests—were finally put to rest. And to everyone’s surprise, voters approved the change in a statewide referendum.

In July 1965, four summers after Bob Moses came to Liberty, Mississippi, the town had its first Freedom Day. SNCC staff had organized for months in preparation, and by 9:00 a.m., the line to register stretched from the courthouse—where Moses had been beaten—all the way to the sidewalk. The sheriff approached. “Okay, who’s first?” he asked. A shriveled farmer stepped forth and said softly, “Me.” Twenty-two people filled out forms that day in Liberty. All twenty-two passed the test. Within a month, two hundred more were registered, including the widow and oldest son of Herbert Lee.

The following month, a further challenge to Mississippi’s old order came to a head on Capitol Hill. Shut out of the 1964 election, when Mississippi gave Barry Goldwater 87 percent of its vote, Freedom Democrats had quickly filed a formal challenge in Congress. Mississippi’s all-white congressional delegation was not duly elected, the challenge claimed, because blacks had been systematically disenfranchised. When the challenge was introduced on the floor of the House, 149 congressmen supported it, not enough to win but enough to shake the assurance of Mississippi. Congress then gave Freedom Democrats time to gather affidavits proving voter discrimination. William Kunstler put out a nationwide call for lawyers and more than a hundred came to Jackson. Depositions describing voter fraud, beatings, and shootings were taken throughout Mississippi. Rita Schwerner returned to roam the state getting affidavits notarized. Federal hearings in Jackson stunned commissioners who listened as blacks told of terror inflicted on them just for registering to vote.

By the end of summer, Kunstler’s team had assembled more than ten thousand pages of testimony. As he prepared to submit his evidence, Kunstler saw “a lawyer’s dream case. Almost everyone in the United States conceded that Negroes could not vote in Mississippi.” On September 17, 1965, the challenge was finally heard before a congressional gallery packed with Freedom Democrats. Nearly five hundred had come to Washington, D.C., to hold a silent, all-night vigil outside the Capitol. On the morning of the debate, Freedom Songs broke out. Then dozens of sharecroppers and maids, barbers and cooks filed into the House chamber where three MFDP candidates, Fannie Lou Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine, were seated below them, the first black women ever allowed on the House floor. But when the challenge was finally heard, southern congressmen argued that if Mississippi’s delegation was unseated, “every congressman from the Potomac to El Paso can expect the same.” After two hours of debate the vote was finally taken. One hundred and forty-three congressmen supported the challenge, 228 opposed it. Speaking to the crowd gathered outside the Capitol, Fannie Lou Hamer broke into tears. “I’m not crying for myself,” she said. “I’m crying for America.”

Yes, Mississippi was, but Mississippi is, and we are proud of what we have become.

—Myrlie Evers Williams

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!