Mississippi -- Freedom Summer
To locate these two communities (
north of Jackson and McComb south of )
access this map: https://www.mapsofworld.com/usa/national-parks/mississippi-national-parks.html. Jackson
On July 2nd, President Johnson signs into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some Movement battlegrounds segregation of public facilities begins to collapse. The
community defies Klan threats by agreeing to end "white-only"
policies. In St. Augustine Albany, Blacks are served instead
of arrested, and SCLC holds its convention in with Dr. King and other Black
ministers staying at the brand-new Parliament House hotel. But in Birmingham Selma, whites violently attack young Blacks who dare to
defy the color-line, in
the Robert E. Lee hotel converts from a public facility to a "private
club" rather than admit Blacks, and across the South deeply entrenched customs
of racial segregation remain in place until they are directly challenged. As
the old saying goes: "Where the broom don't sweep, the dirt don't
In many ways,
epicenter of Freedom Summer activity. It is the heart of the Delta where the
majority of projects are located, and SNCC's national office is temporarily
relocated there from Greenwood .
Here, the strategic priorities are clear — voter registration, community
organizing, and building the MFDP [Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party] towards the challenge at the Democratic
Convention in Atlanta .
Human and financial resources are stretched desperately thin. Sit-ins to test
the new Civil Rights Act divert organizer time and attention, cost bail money,
and inevitably result in activists languishing in jail. Atlantic City whites are already enraged over
the "invasion" of "race-mixers" and "agitators,"
to say nothing of Blacks socially interacting with white activists,
particularly young white women. Movement leaders fear that direct-action
protests for hamburgers and library cards will intensify both violent
retaliation and police repression. But "freedom is in the air,"
courage is contagious, and the daily humiliations of
"white-only/colored-only" cry out for defiance (McGhees 53). Mississippi
From the beginning, with the first voter-registration effort in McComb after the Freedom Rides SNCC's
strategy has been based on two premises: First, that the primary goal must be
achieving political power for Blacks, which requires voter-registration.
Second, that most Afro-Americans in the state cannot afford to patronize white
restaurants or theaters, so integrating them is at best merely symbolic. But
there is a long-standing disagreement between those who argue that integration
efforts provoke so much white violence and state repression that
voter-registration is crippled, and those who believe that defiant action by
young people awakens courage in adults, helps them rise above their fears, and
encourages them to register. That may be true, argue others, but staff and
volunteers languishing in jail cells can't canvas or organize and diverting
desperately need funds to bail them out weakens the central effort. Mississippi
But after passage of the Act, young Blacks across the state are eager to defy segregation and exercise their new rights. They want to "spit in the eye" of white racists by integrating hamburger joints and movie theaters. Three years of Movement activity have filled them with courage and now they believe the law is on their side.
Whites, however, are already enraged by the mere existence of Freedom Summer and further inflamed by Johnson signing the Act. In
and other communities, carloads of armed thugs prowl the streets looking for
trouble, some are members of the Sheriff's posse, some are outright Klan. One
of these "auxiliary" deputies is Byron De la Beckwith, and everyone
in Greenwood , Black and white, know that he
murdered Medgar Evers. Leflore County
The question is thrashed out in meeting after meeting. The majority of SNCC staff agree with Bob Moses that they have to remain disciplined, stick to the plan, and not let themselves or the Movement become distracted. But some staff and some summer volunteers argue that it was the sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the early 1960s that sparked and energized the Movement and that if the Civil Rights Act is not tested and enforced immediately it will wither away and become just another unenforced law. By and large, adults in the community agree that now is not the time for integrating lunch counters. But young activists not yet old enough to vote are restless, in some communities they take independent action on their own, and when they are arrested or beaten a portion of Movement time and resources has to be diverted in response. Yet at the same time, their courage and defiance does encourage and inspire their elders.
The issue is most acute in
which has been a center of Freedom Movement activity since early 1962. It comes
to a head after national NAACP leaders swoop into town accompanied by reporters
and FBI agents. They integrate a few upscale establishments to great media
acclaim and then drive off. Afterwards, no one, not even SNCC, can restrain Greenwood 's Black youth
from direct action at "white-only" establishments (Direct 27-29) Greenwood
Silas McGhee, 21, is Chair of the
NAACP Youth Council's Testing Committee. His brother Jake is Assistant Chair.
On July 5th, Silas walks three miles from his family's farm to the Leflore
Theater in Greenwood .
Defying a century of rigid segregation, he takes a seat on the
"whites-only" main floor rather than the "Colored" balcony.
He is attacked and harassed. The cops haul him home with a warning. When his
brothers ask why he went by himself he tells them, "Well, you wasn't
nowhere around when I decided to go. I just went." Greenwood
The McGhees are a tight-knit family and they're not known for backing down. Silas's mother and brothers join him in action and the cops discover that arresting the McGhees just makes them more determined.
Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) narrates: “The rest of July was a running battle between the McGhees, the theater, the mob, and the cops. ... Silas and his brother Jake kept going back to the theater. Five or six times. Each time when they tried to leave, a mob greeted them. ... Another night Jake and Silas went back to the movies, but this time when the mob formed, a towering (6'8"), linebacker-built paratrooper in full dress uniform appeared and faced down a member of the mob. Turned out it was their older brother, Clarence (Robinson), a decorated Korean War veteran on active duty at
A trained American fighting man, taking leave to come defend freedom, democracy,
the Constitution, and his younger brothers in his hometown. Then he got himself
jailed for assault.” Fort Campbell, Kentucky
On Monday evening, August 15, after being released from jail, Silas is resting in a car outside of Lulu's Cafe on Avenue H in the Black community. Rain is pouring down and the night is dark. Two white men in a car drive slowly by, they shoot Silas in the head and speed off. SNCC field-secretary Bob Zellner and summer volunteer Mark Winter strip off their shirts to try to stop the bleeding. With volunteer Linda Whetmore Halpern, they rush Silas to the segregated
public hospital. Cops at the
hospital won't let them in because they're using the "wrong"
entrance. They drive around back to the other door, but the cops again bar them
— this time because Bob and Mark are not wearing shirts. Linda has to go in
alone, her blue dress drenched red with blood. She gets a stretcher and brings
Silas inside. Greenwood
The white doctors in this tax-financed hospital won't treat a wounded Black man, so Dr. Jackson — the only Black MD in
— is summoned. While he works to save Silas's life, officer Logan of the Greenwood police
department tells another cop "Well, they finally got that nigger
Silas!" Other cops make it clear that if Silas doesn't die on the operating
table he'll be killed during the night. As soon as Silas is stabilized,
Movement leaders arrange to have him transferred to a hospital in Jackson (McGhees
The shooting of Silas McGhee halts neither the McGhee family nor the work of the Freedom Movement. Voter registration and building the MFDP continue, as do efforts to implement the Civil Rights Act (McGhees 57)).
Back in the Fall of 1961, the McComb voter-registration project — SNCC's first — was temporarily suppressed by Klan violence, the brutal murder of Herbert Lee, economic retaliation, the expulsion of more than 100 high-school student protesters, federal indifference, and the incarceration of the SNCC staff on trumped up charges. But SNCC has neither forgotten, nor abandoned McComb. In the Fall of '63, SNCC workers briefly return to mobilize support for the Freedom Ballot, and again in January of '64 for voter-registration classes. But Klan repression is unrelenting, threats and intimidation are constant, night-riders shoot up Black homes and businesses, and on January 31st Louis Allen who witnessed Herbert Lee's murder is assassinated.
As they begin planning the Summer Project in early 1964, SNCC activists are determined to re-establish a permanent Freedom Movement presence in McComb. They know with dead certainty that doing so means a showdown with the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the United Klans of America, the two KKK factions who have turned the Pearl River area of Southwest Mississippi into "Klan Nation."
The forces of white-supremacy are of the same opinion.
sheriff R.R. Warren tells a meeting of Americans for the Preservation of the
White Race (APWR) that he expects a "long hot summer" and that he may
need to recruit their assistance if law enforcement is unable to suppress the
COFO "threat." Rumors swirl through the white community that Black
men identified by white bandages on their throats have been specifically
assigned to rape white women. Parents are warned to know where their small children
are at all times. Sales of guns and ammunition spike upward, and Klan
membership soars. The oilman who financially backs the Klan has easy access to
dynamite, and on the night of June 22nd — 24 hours after the lynching of
Chaney, Schwerner, & Goodman — explosions blast through the Black
community, damaging the home of NAACP leader C.C. Bryant who grabs his rifle
and fires back at the bomber's car. Pike County
Initially, COFO leaders judge Southwestern Mississippi too dangerous for the highly visible northern white students, so the McComb and
projects are put on temporary hold
until the situation stabilizes. By early July, FBI agents have flooded into the
state and the news media is providing extensive coverage of the search for
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman so COFO decides to risk restarting the McComb
project. Led by SNCC organizer and former McComb activist Curtis Hayes (today,
Curtis Muhammad), the first contingent of Freedom Summer workers arrive on July
They open a COFO freedom house on Wall Street in the Black community. Two nights later a dynamite bomb damages the house, injuring Curtis Hayes and volunteer Dennis Sweeney. The FBI "investigates" and does nothing. Over the following days, Black churches are burned in Pike and Amite counties, SNCC field secretary Mendy Samstein is attacked and beaten on a McComb street, and the home of C.C. Bryant's brother is bombed. With no protection from police or the federal government, local Blacks active with the Movement stand armed guard each night against Klan bombers and night riders.
Except for a core of dedicated and courageous activists like the Bryants, Aylene "Mama" Quin, Webb Owens, Willie Mae Cotton, Ernest Nobles, Joe Martin, and a handful of others, fear is pervasive in McComb's Black community. No churches are willing to open their doors for mass meetings, voter-registration classes, or Freedom Schools. The few Blacks who dare the short trip to the county courthouse in Magnolia on voter-registration days face threats of violence and economic retaliation. COFO canvassers are hard pressed to find any willing to take that risk.
But as it was back in '61, it's the Black youth who stand up and move forward. With no church or other building open to it, the
meets in the dirt yard of the bombed freedom house. Joyce Brown (16), a McComb
Freedom School Freedom School
student-teacher pens The House of ,
a poem addressed to the community's adults that reads in part: Liberty
I asked for your churches, and you turned me down,
But I'll do my work if I have to do it on the ground,
You will not speak for fear of being heard,
So you crawl in your shell and say, "Do not disturb,"
You think because you've turned me away,
You've protected yourself for another day.
— Joyce Brown.
Young activists and COFO organizers circulate her poem throughout the Black community and the elders respond. A church opens its doors to the Freedom School and soon more than 100 students overflow the space — some of them the younger sisters and brothers of the those who had protested and been expelled from Burgland High three years before. "The
is inspiring the
people to lend a hand in the fight," reports school director Ralph
Featherstone. "The older people are looking to the young people, and their
courage is rubbing off." Freedom
Ten Black businessmen secretly gather in Aylene Quin's South of the Border cafe. Inspired by Joyce Brown's poem, they form a movement support committee and contribute $500 (equal to $3,700 in 2012) towards buying land and materials for a community center that will become a movement headquarters. Soon churches open their doors to mass meetings and attendance begins to grow. Local families contribute food and money to support the COFO staff and volunteers.
The McComb Movement calls for a mid-August "Freedom Day," an attempt to get as many people as possible to attempt to register at the courthouse in Magnolia. Klan opposition is fierce — crosses are burned, threats of violence and economic retaliation increase, and two dozen cops raid the freedom house in the middle of the night — looking for "illegal liquor" they claim [McComb is a "dry" city]. Back in 1961, the 2nd floor of the Black-owned Burgland Market was used for "Nonviolent High," the precursor freedom school for the expelled high-school students. On August 14, 1964, the building is bombed. Undeterred, several hundred Blacks attend a Freedom Day rally in McComb, and on August 18th, 23 Black men and women manage to take the voter- test at the courthouse in Magnolia. Their applications are denied by registrar Glen Fortenberry. None are registered to vote.
The following week, local activists, SNCC staff, and summer volunteers head north to
MFDP Challenge to the Democratic Convention. On the night of August 27-28, as
the betrayed MFDP delegates are bitterly making their way back to Atlantic City , a bomb
explodes near the home of Willie and Matti Dillon in McComb. She is active in
the MFDP, two of their children attended the Mississippi ,
and Willie repaired a COFO car. Freedom School
Sheriff Warren warns them, "If you don't cooperate with us more than the COFOs, more then [the bombing] is going to happen to you." Warren and FBI agent Frank Ford accuse the Dillons of planting the bomb themselves, then arrest Willie Dillon for "operating a garage without a license" (for fixing the COFO car) and "stealing electricity" because he had rigged a temporary flood light in defense against Klan night riders. He is quickly tried without a lawyer and sentenced to a $600 fine (equal to $4,400 in 2012) and nine months in jail.
By the end of August, the Black community in McComb has endured more than a dozen bombings since the start of Freedom Summer in late June …. As August ends, most of the summer volunteers return to school and with their departure media interest declines. The FBI takes the opportunity to reduce their 16 agents to 4. This further emboldens the Ku Klux Klan who rest secure in the certainty that they are immune from arrest by both local and federal law enforcement.
But SNCC organizers Jesse Harris, Mendy Samstein, and Cephus Hughes, the Rev Harry Bowie from the Delta Ministry, and several summer volunteers remain in McComb. Along with local leaders like the Bryants and Aylene Quin, they are determined to keep the movement moving forward.
Mama Quin is kind and good to everyone, but more than that, she is a towering figure of strength. She can't be intimidated. Three years ago she was one of the first to welcome Moses and lend him and the SNCC workers her support. Her cafe has always been open — despite the threats. And this summer, again she leads the community. She serves Black and white, night after night.
On August 30, the cops plant illegal liquor in Mama Quin's cafe and then arrest her. The white landlord evicts her, and the cafe is closed. Violence and beatings continue. Unable to intimidate Movement leaders, the Klan expands their terror campaign to Blacks who have never been involved in civil rights activities, bombing their homes and businesses to turn them against the Freedom Movement. SNCC writes to
pleading for federal intervention. The Justice Department does nothing. Washington
On the night of September 20, a bomb shatters Aylene Quin's home injuring her children. A second dynamite blast destroys the wood-frame
which had opened its doors to freedom meetings (when the congregation
reconstructs the church they build it with fire-proof brick). Several hundred
angry Blacks, many of them armed, pour into the streets, throwing rocks at the
cops and threatening retaliatory violence. Only the desperate efforts of COFO
organizers and local activists to calm the crowd avert a blood-bath as 100
heavily armed Society Hill
Baptist Church Trooper swarm into
Sheriff Warren accuses Mama Quin of planting the bomb that destroyed her home and almost killed her young son and daughter. Dozens of Black leaders, activists, and students are arrested. Many are charged with "criminal syndicalism" — a new state law that prohibits public speaking and political organizing by "subversive" groups. Almost 150 state troopers — one-third of the entire state force — are stationed in McComb. They are an occupying army sent to suppress the Black community. The number of Blacks arrested on various bogus and illegal charges tops 200. The number of Klansmen arrested for terrorism and bombings remains at zero.
With money from the National Council of Churches, SNCC/COFO sends Mama Quin, Matti Dillon, and Ora Bryant — all bombing victims — to
to meet with officials and the national press. The Justice Department brushes
off the three women with their usual, "doing all we can," platitudes.
But news reports and their meetings with members of Congress generate enough
pressure that President Johnson meets with them privately. He's in the middle of
his campaign against Goldwater and reluctant to take any action that might stir
up more resentment among southern white voters, but he also fears that some
dramatic escalation of violence in McComb — the assassination of civil rights
workers or a violent confrontation between armed Blacks and the Klan/cops —
could damage his reputation. He expresses his concern but makes no promises. Washington
Meanwhile, more bombs explode at Black churches and homes in
The Delta Ministry mobilize clergymen from around the country to come to
McComb. Over the next three months almost 100 ministers respond, and with them
comes renewed attention from the national media. A dozen visiting ministers are
among the 30 people arrested at a second Freedom Day at the courthouse in
Magnolia and more are jailed for voter-registration efforts. Pike County
… the Black boycott of white businesses, the general sense of violence and tension, and renewed attention from the national media is depressing economic activity. The shopping district is deserted as both whites and Blacks avoid McComb stores. … Business leaders begin meeting to discuss the economic importance of perhaps expanding their concepts of "law and order" beyond suppressing Black protests to include the radical idea of halting KKK bombings.
On September 29, a rumor flashes through the state's white power-structure that the federal government may be on the verge of declaring martial law in McComb. Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson immediately meets with local officials. He informs them that he is going to mobilize the state National Guard into McComb to forestall federal action. The McComb and
leaders ask him to
hold off for two days to give them a chance to end the violence. Within 24
hours, Klan members are being arrested for the bombings. Within a day, 11 of
them are in jail and huge amounts of explosives, weapons, and ammunition have
been seized. Obviously, local, state, and federal law enforcement knew all
along who the bombers were. Pike
As described by author John Dittmer in Local People, the Struggle for Civil Rights in
, a sweet-heart plea bargain is quickly
granted to the terrorists: Mississippi
... they pleaded either guilty or nolo contendere to charges ranging from attempted arson to bombing. Under
law the maximum penalty was death, yet the presiding judge, W.H. Watkins, gave
the defendants suspended sentences and immediately released them on probation.
In justifying his leniency, Judge Watkins stated that the men had been
"unduly provoked" by civil rights workers, some of whom "are
people of low morality and unhygienic." The bombers, on the other hand,
were from "good families..." That afternoon, thirteen COFO staff
members were jailed on charges of operating a food-handling establishment (the
freedom house, where they lived) without a permit. On the same day federal
judge Sidney Mize rejected Willie Dillon's appeal to have his trial removed to
federal court. Judge Mize ruled as he did because "there is no hostility
among the general public in Mississippi to the Negro
Despite "punishments" that don't even amount to the mildest slap on the wrist, the sudden arrest of the Klansmen does accomplish three things. First, it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the authorities knew who the bombers were all along and could have stopped them at any time. Second, it puts the Klan on notice that the white power-structure wants the bombings to stop — and it does. The dynamiting of Black homes, churches, and businesses comes to an abrupt halt. Third, talk of martial law in McComb ceases. The press trumpets a great victory over the KKK.
But segregation, denial of voting rights, poverty, exploitation, and virulent racism still persist in McComb and
and the Freedom
Movement carries on. Dynamite has failed to break it, arrests haven't halted
it. The struggle for justice in "Klan nation" continues. In November,
McComb Blacks participate in another mock Freedom Vote to protest denial of
voting rights and lay the foundation for a MFDP Congressional Challenge (McComb
“Direct Action and the Civil Rights Act.”
Project. Civil Rights Movement
Freedom Summer Events. Web. https://www.crmvet.org/tim/tim64b.htm#1964fs Mississippi
“McComb — Breaking the Klan Siege (July '64-March '65).”
Mississippi Project. Civil Rights Movement History: Sumer Freedom
Summer Events. Web. https://www.crmvet.org/tim/tim64b.htm#1964mccomb Mississippi
“The McGhees of
(July-Aug).” Greenwood Mississippi
Project. Civil Rights Movement
Freedom Summer Events. Web.
Does Nothing.” Washington Mississippi Project. Civil Rights Movement History: Sumer Freedom
Summer Events. Web. https://www.crmvet.org/tim/tim64b.htm#1964fsreaction Mississippi