Civil Rights Movement: The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party

For many of us growing up in the 50’s and
60’s as the Civil Rights Movement began, much of it we saw on television as distant
news. It didn’t affect me as a young white high school student. When I was a sophomore
in college in Baltimore, Maryland, which was a border state that still had segregation
in many places, as I became aware of the discrimination that existed right around me, it seemed so
unfair and so un-American. Injustice touched me personally. I believed in the American
dream. I believed in the Declaration of Independence, a beautiful document that just seemed unfair
that not everybody had the benefits of it. I heard that there was a group forming to
go to Mississippi the following summer in 1964. And Mississippi was the most segregated
state in the country. When blacks in Mississippi are arrested, beaten, or even killed, no one
seemed to be paying attention. But when white students were, it got the attention of the
country on Mississippi. So in the summer of 1964, I joined what became the Mississippi
Summer Project. The goal of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project was first and foremost to increase
the African American voter registration in Mississippi. It was a dangerous place for
anyone who was opposing the status quo when it came to race relations. Two days before
I arrived in Mississippi, 3 of our colleagues – Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew
Goodman – were arrested, released into the custody of the Klu Klux Klan and were brutally
murdered that night. Two days later I arrived and when a colleague, another Civil Rights
worker, and I were on our way to our office, we were arrested simply for walking down the
street; 2 whites in a black neighborhood walking down the street. My co-worker said to me,
“Do you think they’re going to kill us?” and I said, “Maybe.” because that’s
what happened. I will never take the right to vote for granted because I remember how
the people I worked with and the people I lived with risked their lives, and in some
cases lost their lives, because the right to fully participate as an American citizen
was that important to them. I remember on one occasion when we were having our Mississippi
Democratic Party Precinct meeting, a 35 year old black man, who was a sharecropper all
his life, and when it came his turn, even though he could hardly read, he read off a
piece of people, “I place in nomination the name of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey
to be president and vice president of the United States.” There were tears in his
eyes because it was the first time in his life that he was getting to participate as
a full honored citizen in a democracy and I can never forget that. When I think of the
years, the half century, between when I was involved in the civil rights movement and
today where we have Barack Obama as the president of the United States, it just underscores
for me how slowly history moves and hopefully moves in a positive direction. A production
of the University of Rochester. Please visit us online and subscribe to our channel for
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