Boston Public Radio Podcast
3:47 pm
Tue July 1, 2014

When Remembering The 'Freedom Summer,' The Truth Is Black And White

Aaron Henry (center) seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City.
Aaron Henry (center) seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City.
Credit Warren K. Leffler / United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

Fifty years ago this month, the "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi demonstrated both the heights of democratic activism and the depths of violent racism. But history is often written from the perspective of the powerful, and in American history that perspective is usually white. For the many black activists who participated, the Freedom Summer's legacy reveals hard lessons about the fraught history of biracial coalitions.

Peniel E. Joseph, director of Tufts University's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, joined Margery and Jim on Tuesday to discuss what the Freedom Summer did — and didn't — accomplish. Joseph previously wrote about the topic in an Op-Ed column for The New York Times last week.

"For white Freedom Summer volunteers ... this becomes a high point in their conception of the Civil Rights movement," Joseph said. "For black activists, it meant something different. The Freedom Summer showed them the price of freedom and democracy in the United States."

While undoubtedly important, that summer's objective was not just about exercising local voting rights but a larger mission to confront racism in national politics. In this context, Freedom Summer was far more radical, and far less of a clear victory than what we might think.

The vehicle for this larger movement, Joseph said, was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by famed sharecropper-turned-activist Fannie Lou Hamer and others, including a 23-year-old Stokely Carmichael.

Using newly-registered Southern black voters as its base, the party's plan was to challenge the established (and almost exclusively white) Democratic Party at that summer's Democratic National Convention in New Jersey. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (S.N.C.C.), which had several white liberal college students in its ranks, was an ally. 

It was in Atlantic City that the fundamental differences between both organizations came to a head. After tense debates that erupted into shouting matches at points, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party left without voting delegation seats and its leaders were largely frustrated by how they had been rebuffed. 

Whereas the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party viewed anything less than total acquiescence to its demands as inadequate, the comparatively white, liberal members of the S.N.C.C. were willing to compromise with the convention's leaders. 

"When we think about the deal they were offered, it was not just a compromise but a betrayal of the whole 'one person, one vote' idea," Joseph said.

To listen to the complete interview, click here:

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