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Freedom Summer: How Civil Rights Activists Braved Violence to Challenge Racism in 1964 Mississippi

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Hundreds of people marched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Day. On Jan. 22, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists marched around the Forrest County Courthouse in support of black voting rights. The rally was the beginning of a historic year in Mississippi. Months later, civil rights groups launched Freedom Summer. More than 1,000 out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register voters and set up what they called “Freedom Schools.” Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The period also saw the murders of three civil rights activists — Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Events are being held across Mississippi in 2014 to mark the 50th anniversary of this historic year. We are joined by Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary, “Freedom Summer.” An Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow, Nelson’s past films include “Freedom Riders” and “The Murder of Emmett Till.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Hundreds of people marched in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Day. On January 22nd, 1964, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists marched around the Forrest County Courthouse in support of black voting rights.

The march was the beginning of an historic year in Mississippi. Months later, civil rights groups launched Freedom Summer. Over a thousand out-of-state volunteers traveled to Mississippi to help register voters and set up Freedom Schools. Out of Freedom Summer grew the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that challenged the legitimacy of the white-only Mississippi Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Events are being held across Mississippi this year, in 2014, to mark the 50th anniversary of this historic moment.

Here at the Sundance Film Festival, a documentary entitled Freedom Summer, directed by Stanley Nelson, has just premiered. This is a trailer for the film.

JUDGE TOM P. BRADY: I don’t want the nigger, as I have known him and contacted him during my lifetime, to control the making of a law that controls me, to control the government under which I live.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t think people understand how violent Mississippi was. If black people try and vote, they can get hurt or killed.

FREEDOM SUMMER VOLUNTEER: You’re not a registered voter, you’re not a first-class citizen, man.

UNIDENTIFIED: They would say, “You’re right, boy. We should be registered to vote. But I ain’t going down there and messing with them white people.”

BOB MOSES: We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 students from all around the country who will engage in Freedom Schools, voter registration activity, and open up Mississippi to the country.

GOV. ROSS BARNETT: We face absolute extinction of all we hold dear. We must be strong enough to crush the enemy.

REPORTER: The three civil rights workers who disappeared in Mississippi last Sunday night still have not been heard from.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was always in the back of everybody’s minds that bad things were going to happen. But if you cared about this country and cared about democracy, then you had to go down there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Freedom Summer. The film’s director, Stanley Nelson, joins us here in Park City, Utah, the Emmy Award-winning MacArthur genius fellow. His past films include Freedom Riders, The Murder of Emmett Till.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. So, you did Freedom Riders, and we sat here in Park City and talked about that with some of the Freedom Riders. Talk about this historic year and your documentary that focuses on the summer months of 1964.

STANLEY NELSON: Well, in the summer of 1964, it was decided to send a thousand young people, mostly white college students, down to Mississippi to help register people to vote, have Freedom Schools and to challenge the Democratic Party in Atlantic City. And that was historic, because Mississippi was thought of as this place that you didn’t go; you couldn’t go to Mississippi, you know; you had to challenge what was happening in Mississippi from the outside. So it was a move made by SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a couple of other organizations to really say, “You know, no, we can work in Mississippi, and we’re going to do it in the summer of 1964.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip. This is from Freedom Summer. It begins with civil rights activist Bob Moses and Julian Bond discussing the plan for Mississippi Summer.

BOB MOSES: What really is important is that they get down and kind of just melt away into the black population. If we could just get everybody through the entry point and into the community, the black community will house them and also harbor them.

JULIAN BOND: The genius of the Freedom Summer is that these volunteers were spread all over the state. The Freedom Summer workers are everywhere. They’re in almost every little big town. Almost every place where you can go, they are there.

REPORTER: Yesterday, the first 200 civil rights workers arrived in Mississippi and fanned out over the state. Another 800 will follow. The students were assigned living quarters in Negro homes from a central office.

DAISY HARRIS: When Charles and Bill came by the house and told us that they need some homes for the civil right workers to live, I said, “Well, I don’t have that much room.” I said, “But yeah, we’ll be happy to do it, you know.” And then I told my husband about it. He said, “Yeah, they can stay here.” I felt that the time had come to make—help make a change. I had three sons, and I didn’t want them to go through what I had gone through and what I had seen. So, I was determined to help make a change. I said, “Well, they’ll have to take the twin beds, and the boys have to double up.” They were happy over to know that somebody was coming from—all we had to do is say “from North.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from the new documentary, Freedom Summer, that’s just premiered here at Sundance. At the end of the clip, we heard from a local Mississippi resident named Daisy Harris. Stanley Nelson, talk more about the role of Bob Moses, Julian Bond and Daisy Harris.

STANLEY NELSON: Sure. Well, Bob Moses went down to Mississippi in 1961, when everybody was saying, “You can’t go to Mississippi.” And he goes down to Mississippi pretty much by himself and goes to rural Mississippi and is knocking on doors trying to register people to vote. And he is very unsuccessful, actually, in getting people to actually—he gets some people to go down to the courthouse, but when they get to the courthouse, very few are actually registered. He’s joined by more SNCC workers, more activists, and they do the same thing, but they’re not very successful. So they come up with this plan to draw attention to Mississippi by bringing this thousand students down there in the summer of 1964.

One of the big things, of the important things that happened was that the white kids who go down to Mississippi, there’s nowhere for them to stay. They have to stay in the black community. So they had to get volunteers, local residents of Mississippi, to volunteer to house these people. And it was such an incredibly brave thing to do, because not only did they have to take the brunt of the violence that came with Freedom Summer, but they had to stay after. And so, you know, people like Daisy Harris were just amazingly brave in what they did.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that summer, the murder of the three civil rights activists. And we talk about three, but there were many other murders, of course.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, right. There had been many murders in Mississippi. But the first day of Freedom Summer—it was actually before the first day. So, all the volunteers went to a training program in Oxford, Ohio, and so they were there being trained, and there was news that a church had been bombed in Mississippi. So three of the workers go down there early, a day early, to check on the bombing, and they immediately disappear. And that kind of cast a shadow over the whole summer, because for most of the summer they were missing. You know, nobody knew what had happened. People in the movement, people—the SNCC workers, people in the movement, they said they knew immediately when they disappeared that they would never be found alive.

AMY GOODMAN: And they were Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.


AMY GOODMAN: We have a clip from Freedom Summer beginning with Dave Dennis, who led the Congress of Racial Equality operations in Mississippi, speaking at James Chaney’s funeral.

DAVE DENNIS: I want to talk about is really what I really grieve about. I don’t grieve for Chaney, because the fact I feel that he lived a fuller life than many of us will ever live. I feel that he’s got his freedom, and we’re still fighting for it.

BRUCE WATSON: Dave Dennis’s speech was a turning point in the summer, because everybody wanted him to say the usual things that you would say at a funeral, and Dave Dennis just couldn’t do it. He challenged the people at the memorial, and he challenged the whole movement.

DAVE DENNIS: You see, we’re all tired. You see, I know what’s going to happen. I feel it deep in my heart. When they find the people who killed those guys in Neshoba County…

All of the deep emotions, things I’d been going through leading up to this particular moment, began to come out, boil up in me, you might call this. And then looking out there and seeing Ben Chaney, James Chaney’s little brother, I lost it. I totally just lost it.

Don’t bow down anymore! Hold your heads up! We want our freedom now. I don’t want to have to go to another memorial. Tired of funerals. Tired of it! Got to stand up!

AMY GOODMAN: The funeral of James Chaney. Their bodies were found August 4th in Mississippi, in Philadelphia, Mississippi.


AMY GOODMAN: Why it was so controversial so many years later when President Reagan, then running for president, launched his presidential campaign speaking there in Philadelphia, but not addressing that issue.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, right. Well, that was kind of a slap in the face to a lot of people who understood the civil rights movement’s history, was, you know, why do it there? You know, what is he saying by doing that? So it was very strange.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of presidential politics, it was that summer, too, 1964, of the Democratic convention in Atlantic City. Let’s turn to Fannie Lou Hamer speaking at that convention in Atlantic City.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964, Democratic convention. Talk about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer.

STANLEY NELSON: Well, one of the things that was done in Freedom Summer was to register people in this new party called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And the thing about that was, all you had to do was sign your name on a piece of paper. You didn’t have to go down to the courthouse. You didn’t have to expose yourself to this violence, these repercussions that could happen from actually going to the courthouse to register. So they formed this new political party that—where they registered 60,000 to 80,000 people to be part—because one of the things that was said was that black people didn’t want to vote. That’s why black people couldn’t vote: They didn’t want to vote. And one thing, you know, we have to understand about Mississippi that made Mississippi unique was, African Americans were 50 percent of the population in Mississippi, but only 6.7 percent were registered to vote.

So, they went down to Atlantic City—went up to Atlantic City to challenge the Democratic Party and say, you know, “We should be seated as the delegation from Mississippi, because we are integrated. There’s black people and white people in our party, in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The all-white delegation from Mississippi has not let any black people become part of the delegation. So seat us instead.” So, they did this incredible, passionate plea to be seated. And they had Martin Luther King spoke. They—Rita Schwerner, Mickey Schwerner’s wife, spoke, who was now known to be dead. But the final speaker, the big speaker, was Fannie Lou Hamer. And that’s a little bit of her speech that you saw there.

AMY GOODMAN: You did Freedom Riders, that remarkable documentary. You’ve now just finished Freedom Summer. You’re steeped in this civil rights history. What surprised you in doing this documentary?

STANLEY NELSON: I think one of the most surprising things to me was Lyndon Johnson and Lyndon Johnson’s reaction to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. You know, there’s an interview that we do with Taylor Branch, who says that, you know, Lyndon Johnson had kind of a mini nervous breakdown because he was so scared that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would disrupt the convention. And Johnson really thought that Bobby Kennedy had this whole plan: If the convention was disrupted, then Bobby Kennedy was going to step in and take the nomination from him. And so, he—

AMY GOODMAN: Because this is a year after the assassination—not even—


AMY GOODMAN: —a year after the assassination of John Kennedy.

STANLEY NELSON: Right. And anybody who was around at that time, you know, knows that that is preposterous, that—you know, I mean, Lyndon Johnson was kind of this hero at that point, because he took over the presidency. But he really felt that that would happen. And so, he’s behind the scenes, you know, trying to destroy the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But even more amazingly, he’s tape-recorded all his phone calls where he talks about this stuff, you know, very candidly and openly, about how he’s going to maneuver. And, you know, “Don’t put my name in it. Don’t let them know that I’m doing it.” So, I mean, his role in that is really something that’s hard to be believed.

AMY GOODMAN: Gives a speech when Fannie Lou Hamer gives her speech—


AMY GOODMAN: —so that the press will cover him.

STANLEY NELSON: Right, right. So—go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Just a little correction: Before, when I said about President Reagan, he—the speech he gave August 3rd, almost the same day, years later, that the bodies of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were found, was right after the Republican convention in 1980, when he was nominated, and he was launching, you know, his run for the presidency as the Republican candidate. So, finally, with Freedom Summer, where do you plan to go with this? This is going to be broadcasting on—as part of the American Experience series?

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah. It broadcasts on June 24th in the summer, you know, this summer, so that’s going to be a big deal. We’re going to go everywhere we possibly can. We’re going to do a big thing in Mississippi. This is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, so there’s already all these events happening. And, you know, one of the things we did with Freedom Riders was kind of go wherever we can to show the film. We want to show the film to young people. I think it’s really important that young people understand how hard people fought for the right to vote. And some of those rights are being taking away from us today, and some people just don’t vote, you know? A lot—a big portion of this county just doesn’t vote. So we really want to get this film out to young people and get it wherever we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stanley Nelson, thanks so much for being with us, award-winning director of the new documentary, Freedom Summer. It’s airing on PBS’s American Experience on June 24th. His other films include Freedom Riders and The Murder of Emmett Till.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Through [a] Lens Darkly. Stay with us.

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