The civil rights movement really was a cluster of often barely coordinated grassroots efforts waged across the U.S. If it succeeded in transforming the country, it was the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 that irrevocably changed the civil rights movement.
What happened in Mississippi in 1964 altered the tactics, attitudes and social framework of the movement; it energized thousands of new activists even as it frustrated veterans; it led to direct political action with the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, then shattered whatever optimism about democracy remained among members of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality, tipping the balance between cooperation and confrontation.
That year left some dead, many damaged and many more confused about the profound discrepancy between the country's declared values and its actions. It was the crucible that blended, hardened then reordered both a population of activists and the communities from which they came.
This history will be recounted Tuesday by the PBS show "American Experience," which presents "Freedom Summer," airing 9-11 p.m. on South Carolina ETV channels. The show features interviews with many civil rights organizers, including Dave Dennis, a leader of CORE and co-organizer of the Mississippi Summer Project who now lives with his wife in Summerville. Since 1992, he has directed the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project, a math literacy organization founded by fellow civil rights veteran Robert Moses.
In a recent interview, Dennis recounted his experiences in the first half of the 1960s, expressed a profound sense of guilt over the deaths of three civil rights workers and wondered about the fate of the poor residents of Mississippi who mustered the courage to vote, or to try to vote, facing down the threats and curses and bottles and spittle of their opponents.
Dennis, who was born and raised in Shreveport, La., graduated from Southern University with Hubert Brown, who would later become known as H. Rap Brown, the fiery chairman of SNCC in its late years. Dennis was not very interested in the civil rights movement until 1961, when Doris Castle convinced him to attend a CORE meeting on the Dillard University campus.
He took part in a lunch counter sit-in and was arrested for the first time, spending a week in jail, steaming with the anger injustice provokes. It was this experience that transformed Dennis into an activist.
In May 1961, CORE organized the Freedom Rides, a protest meant to force federal and local officials to abide by a new desegregation law based on the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. The first riders planned to travel from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, but they encountered trouble along the way, starting in South Carolina where John Lewis was beaten at a Rock Hill bus station. In Alabama, mobs attacked the two buses, injuring many of the riders and putting a stop to the effort.
But mob violence could not be allowed to stop the Freedom Riders, they agreed at a contentious meeting. The effort would resume. Dennis, who had assembled a medical team and arranged for housing in the Big Easy, assumed his place on the first bus.
"At that meeting, that's when I became committed," Dennis said. "It's like getting religion. I knew that this was a lifetime commitment to civil rights."
This time, the riders got farther, despite threats of ambush, despite the mobs that gathered at bus stations. "Most people didn't think they'd make it as far as Jackson (Miss.)," Dennis said. But the National Guard had been deployed, helicopters flew overhead, state troopers manned the border. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had made sure that no bus would be set aflame again.
Nevertheless, at the Jackson bus station, riders were escorted to the paddy wagon that took them to the state penitentiary, infamously known as Parchman Farm.
The following year, voter registration became the movement's emphasis in the South as CORE and SNCC began to push for more grassroots organizing and less short-term protest. Dennis became CORE's leader in the region and served as co-director of the committee assigned to reorganize the Council of Federated Organizations in Mississippi. COFO included CORE, SNCC, the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
By early 1963, the Mississippi voter registration project was revving up, and local whites were getting nervous. In June, NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway, just hours after he joked with Dennis about the increasing dangers. Threats made to Louis Allen, a resident of Liberty, Miss., were heating up, too. Allen had witnessed the murder of Herbert Lee in 1961 at the hands of a white legislator. At the urging of SNCC leaders, Allen testified in the case, and he complained publicly about the intimidation and harassment of Sheriff Daniel Jones. In January 1964, Allen was killed.
The violence startled activists who gathered for another meeting that month in Hattisburg to discuss plans for Freedom Summer. It was decided that students on various campuses across the country would be recruited to help.
About 700 volunteered, many white, joining SNCC and CORE activists already present in Mississippi. The volunteers were trained then deployed to different parts of the state. They set up Freedom Schools, they taught civics to local populations, they provided registration information, they escorted people to town to fill out the forms (and take the literacy tests) and they acted as witnesses and protectors.
Michael Schwerner and his wife Rita had been sent to Meridian to set up a community center under the auspices of CORE. Before long, they would take over the field office, assisted by Mississippi native James Chaney and others. On Memorial Day, Schwerner and Cheney addressed a gathering of blacks at Mt. Zion Methodist Church to urge them to register to vote. The church sat on a rural road east of Philadelphia and hosted a SNCC Freedom School.
In June, the Schwerners were joined by Andrew Goodman, an activist from New York. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney drove up to Ohio to join the CORE/SNCC orientation meeting in mid-June, but after Mt. Zion was burned to the ground on June 17, they returned to their assignments to investigate.
The chronology of events is telling: The Summer Project was announced in January; the next month, on Feb. 15, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi held its first meeting. Klansmen proceeded to burn crosses and churches across the state that year. Mt. Zion was one of more than 30 church buildings firebombed in 1964. The day before the attack, Klansmen had harassed church leaders. Spies engaged by the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission kept track of these and other Northern interlopers.
The commission was comprised of government and ex-government officials and had strong ties to state law enforcement and the white supremacist Citizens' Council. It received information about the civil rights workers, including what vehicle they were driving and its license plate number, then passed that information to the Neshoba County sheriff.
Driving in Dennis' station wagon, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were stopped on a country road, arrested, jailed, then released in the evening and told to leave Neshoba County.
Dennis said he had met the trio just before their excursion, then traveled home to his mother's to take care of a terrible cough. As a result, he wasn't there to help them transfer from jail to a safehouse.
"I feel guilty I wasn't there," Dennis said. "Nobody had their back, and that's something I've never forgiven myself for."
On their way back to Meridian, the three civil rights workers were intercepted by Klansmen in two cars, shot and killed, then buried in an earthen dam at Old Jolly Farm. It would take nearly two months for the FBI to locate the bodies.
In Oxford, Ohio, word came to Bob Moses on the morning of June 22 as he was addressing the large gathering of volunteers. "Yesterday morning, three of our people left Meridian, Mississippi, to investigate a church burning in Neshoba County," he said, softly. "They haven't come back and we haven't had any word from them."
The risks of the Summer Project - the violent nature of Mississippi and the human cost of the endeavor - now were becoming evident. South Carolina native Cleveland Sellers and the others quickly travelled to Mississippi and focused initially on a search mission. Five search teams were assembled. Sellers joined Stokely Carmichael, Charlie Cobb, Ralph Featherstone, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Gwen Gillan and a few others.
"The procedure was always the same," Sellers wrote in his memoir. "Piling from the truck at 1:30 or 2 a.m., we would fan out. Walking slowly and almost never talking, we searched swamps, creeks, old houses, abandoned barns, orchards, tangled underbrush and unused wells. Most of us used long sticks to probe the many ditches and holes we encountered. When the sticks proved inadequate, as they frequently did, we had to feel about in the dark with our hands and feet."
On the third day, they gave up their search. Law enforcement authorities probably had caught wind of the effort and were starting to make some noise.
As the federal investigation ramped up, civil rights workers began to turn their attention to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. There, they would demand the unseating of the fraudulent, all-white Mississippi delegation, but their efforts would be scuttled by Lyndon Johnson and party officials. The sense of betrayal that ensued, along with accumulated frustrations would soon lead to the expression of a new ideology called "Black Power."
On Aug. 4, the brutalized corpses of Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman were discovered.
Dennis recalled how volunteers struggled with anxiety and fear that summer. One had a breakdown, others forged ahead stoically. Many likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, he speculated.
"We'll never know the (true) casualty rate," he said.
And what happened to the courageous poor, the black residents of the rural South who dared to challenge the system? What happened to the old couple who came to town in their horse-drawn carriage and slowly ascended the steps of the government building? Did they succeed in registering to vote? Were they turned away? Did they pass the literacy test?
Dennis will never know.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
This June 1964 FBI photograph of the CORE station wagon Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were driving at the time of their disappearance was presented into evidence in June 2005, in Philadelphia, Miss., during the trial of Edgar Ray Killen. The car was discovered at the Bogue Chitto swamp some 13 miles northeast of Philadelphia.×
Dave Dennis, a resident of Summerville, was a CORE leader in the early 1960s and led the organizing effort for the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964.×
Cleveland Sellers, a South Carolina native and organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, prepares protestors in advance of a civil rights march in Mississippi. (Photo provided by Cleveland Sellers)×