Tonight’s Freedom Summer Initiative will celebrate the progress that has occurred over 50 years since civil rights volunteers waged a bloody and courageous campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. Tonight’s event also will ask the crucial question, where do we go from here?
The program will be held at Rock Hill’s Emmett Scott Recreation Center, 801 Crawford Road, from 7 to 9 p.m. Youth activities will take place at St. Mary Catholic Church’s Bannon Hall, 902 Crawford Road.
Much of the program will be a look back at the struggle that occurred 50 years ago during the summer President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Civil rights workers, following in the footsteps of the Freedom Riders, who had ridden buses through the South the summer before in support of equal rights, traveled to Mississippi to register black voters.
The out-of-state volunteers, many of them white, joined forces with grass-roots activists in Mississippi to challenge Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from registering and to help raise awareness of the racism that infested much of the deep South at the time. During the summer 37 churches and 30 black homes were bombed or burned.
Four civil rights workers were killed, including James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white civil rights workers from New York. Their disappearance prompted federal intervention by the FBI, which launched a search for the missing men.
Seven weeks later, their bodies were discovered buried in an earthen dam. The investigation determined that, after being arrested by a local sheriff who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the three men had been abducted by Klan members, tortured and killed.
The incident focused national attention on the Freedom Summer project. And while volunteers succeeded in registering few black voters, the effort was a seminal moment in furthering the civil rights movement and raising the consciousness of Americans about the struggle of blacks in the South.
Tonight’s local Freedom Summer Initiative will center on voters’ rights and the importance of what occurred in 1964 and thereafter, with a special focus on teaching young people this important piece of history. The program will include state Rep. Bakari Sellers, the Democratic nominee for S.C. lieutenant governor, state NAACP President Lonnie Randolph, Kimberly Johnson, author of “No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9,” and other local speakers.
Retired Rock Hill Police Chief John Gregory, the city’s first black chief, said the goal of organizers is to be upbeat and informative. But he also noted that this initiative represents a “place to start” in discussing how to make progress toward a better society.
In other words, there’s still work to be done. At a time when subtler forms of voter suppression once again are on the rise in some states, we can’t say the civil rights movement has completely fulfilled its objective.
We hope that programs such as this local initiative and other retrospectives on Freedom Summer will help remind all Americans of the sacrifice entailed in enacting the Civil Rights Act and, even more importantly, of the need to remain vigilant in ensuring equal rights for all.