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50 Years After Freedom Summer: Irony in Mississippi


Thousands of African-Americans, who likely vote Democratic in most elections, crossed the line this week to support Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi in his narrowly successful effort to fend off a strong challenge from a Tea Party primary opponent.


Cochran, last year, applauded the Supreme Court's decision cutting the heart out of the Voting Rights Act.


The Irony Meter goes off the scale.


It was 50 years ago this month that Freedom Summer, the drive to get African-American citizens of Mississippi registered to vote, a right they had been essentially denied for most of a century, took place.


Freedom Summer began with deadly violence. James Earl Chaney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 20; and Michael Schwerner, 24, were murdered in a carefully-orchestrated Klan ambush. On June 21, 1964, the three young men climbed into a car to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, in Longdale. They were stopped in Philadelphia, arrested for speeding, and jailed. They were released about 10 p.m. and essentially escorted by a deputy to their deaths. They were taken to a remote location and executed, their bodies buried in an earthen dam, to be discovered several weeks later.


Eleven days after the murders, President Johnson would sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Ground-breaking as that legislation was, it did not include the right to vote. That required the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law August 6, 1965.


Back then, it appeared the sacrifices of men, women and children who'd had dogs and fire hoses turned on them, who'd been harassed and jailed, who'd seen their houses and churches burned, who had been threatened, beaten, blown up, shot, and lynched, might have brought the nation to a great epiphany, with the promise of universal "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" finally kept.


But both major political parties quickly showed the optimism needed tempering. In July, 1964, the Republicans met in San Francisco, nominating Barry Goldwater for president. Delegates from the Party of Lincoln also voted down a civil rights plank in their platform. In August, in Atlantic City, Johnson maneuvered to prevent the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the convention so as not to enrage Southern racists in his party, fearing they would bolt, as they had done in 1948, and perhaps cost him re-election.


The powers of regression nursed their grudges over decades and seized opportunities to turn back freedom's clock. Four years after Freedom Summer, Richard Nixon deployed his "Southern Strategy," an effort to appeal to white prejudices and short-circuit the third-party challenge from the Right by Alabama Gov. George Wallace. It didn't work -- Wallace won Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia -- but Nixon pulled out a win and set the tone for his party's language and tactics on civil rights in the future.


Latent racism knows no party lines, but Democrats, as a party, grew out of an ugly legacy on civil rights. Republicans, as a party, turned their backs on their own legacy of support in favor of appealing to whites' prejudices.


In 1980, Ronald Reagan made his first campaign stop, with the encouragement of a young Congressman, Trent Lott, just a few miles from Philadelphia. He told the cheering crowd he believed in "states' rights." Some have dismissed suggestions of racism in Reagan's remarks, saying he was referring to his beliefs about small government and federal over-reach. That doesn't even pass the straight-face test. Reagan was a smart politician; he knew the code words and the meaning his audience, and millions of Southern voters, would take away from his speech.


It was not the only instance where racist code would appear in one of the candidate's speeches. He gave the public images of a Cadillac-driving "welfare queen" and talked about "young bucks" buying steaks with food stamps.


So, not far from where three young men were murdered for their belief in individual freedom, Reagan spat on them.


Lott would later refuse to support a Congressional resolution honoring Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. He would eventually be brought down by his praise for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who led the exodus from the Democrats in 1948, to run for president as a "Dixiecrat," and later became a Republican.


Meanwhile, the effort to roll back voting rights continues. Opponents achieved a major victory in the Supreme Court's ruling last year. Several states, including Mississippi, lost no time taking steps aimed at making it harder for minorities and the poor to exercise their franchise.


Supporters of voter suppression laws claim the laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, a claim charitably described as absurd on its face. The Brennan Center at New York University has conducted extensive study and analysis of claims of vote fraud and found them by and large false.


Voting is not a privilege; it's the fundamental right of a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to protect that right, not restrict it. Federal judges had stepped in to block efforts to restrict voting in states like Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio until the Supreme Court handed down its ruling. Whether our public institutions will rise to the challenge and stop the wave of regressive efforts to throw obstacles in the path of people who want to exercise their franchise remains to be seen. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their compatriots who risked and sometimes lost their lives in the struggle for democracy and individual freedom await the outcome.


Perhaps Sen. Cochran will also pause to consider Freedom Summer's legacy and the price that was paid to make it possible for those votes that saved his political career to be cast.