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Michigan Senate honors 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer

The Freedom Summer murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and a Black Catholic Mississippian in James Chaney, occurred on June 21, 1964.

Victims of the Freedom Summer murders on a 1964 FBI poster. (The Andrew Goodman Foundation/Facebook)

by Jon King, Michigan Advance

The Michigan Senate on Thursday commemorated the anniversary of Freedom Summer and the role played by Michiganders.

Senate Resolution 134, sponsored by state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), a Black Catholic, honored the effort in the summer of 1964 to recruit volunteers from across the country to come to Mississippi and help register Black residents to vote. 

Michigan State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) speaks at the state Capitol on Oct. 2, 2021 (Allison R. Donahue)

“It is necessary to acknowledge the 60th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Michigan not only because the legacy continues to inspire work towards equity and justice, but because Michigan has long been a national leader in voter registration, election turnout, and election security,” said Geiss.

“The fight to secure the right to vote and dismantle systemic racism and discrimination continues to be an ongoing struggle in many parts of the country.” 

Organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the initiative’s leaders made a strategic decision to have almost all of the out-of-state volunteers be White in order to draw national attention to the brutality and corruption that dominated Mississippi. That brutality was noted by the resolution.

“Many civil rights activists in Mississippi were beaten, shot, and murdered, including Medgar Evers,” it stated. “African Americans were effectively barred from holding any elected office, serving on juries, and from registering or voting without facing possible violence …”

Those who volunteered recognized that they would be facing violent resistance, and in fact, two student volunteers and four Mississippi residents were murdered; the most notable was the trio of Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, who worked for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Andrew Goodman, one of the hundreds of college students from across the country who volunteered to come to Mississippi that summer. Schwerner and Goodman were Jewish New Yorkers, while Chaney was a Black Catholic from Mississippi.

All three disappeared on June 21, 1964, near the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, after being pulled over by local police. A massive search ensued involving more than 200 FBI agents that resulted in their bodies being found weeks later in an earthen dam. All three had been shot. Eight men, including a deputy sheriff, were eventually convicted for their role in the murders

Eighty volunteers were also brutally beaten over the course of that summer, 37 churches were firebombed or burned, and at least 30 Black homes and businesses were destroyed. 

According to the resolution, the volunteers included over 75 Michiganders, 1,000 student volunteers from northern colleges and universities, 254 clergy, 169 attorneys, and 50 medical professionals, as well as a staff of over 120 Mississippi residents.  

The efforts and sacrifices of COFO and their volunteers resulted in about 10% of the 17,000 Black voters who attempted to register to vote being successful. Meanwhile, Freedom Schools in rural counties were attended by 30,000 students, and over 50 Freedom libraries were established to provide adult literacy classes.

Perhaps the most significant achievement was an election held by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, in which 60,000 state residents voted to select an integrated slate of delegates to challenge the segregated state party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City. While they ultimately weren’t successful, their resistance to the institutional racism within the party paid off in 1968, when they were seated.

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Editor's note: Information has been added on the religion of Geiss, as well as the victims of the Freedom Summer murders in Mississippi.

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