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FREEDOM SUMMER OF HOPE IN 1964
Author: Gregory Clay

The code name for the case was “MIBURN.”
The translation for the code was “Mississippi Burning.”
The year was 1964.
The mantra: What time is it?
Freedom Time.

The Ku Klux Klan, the most vile domestic terrorist organization of the 1960s, accosted three civil rights workers while they were driving near Philadelphia, Miss. The workers’ offense: trying to register southern black folk to vote and leading boycotts of segregated establishments. Their names: Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman.

The date: June 21, 1964.
This was Freedom Summer.

It was a time when approximately 1,000 college students — mostly white northerners, many of them Jewish — took their final exams to end the spring semester, then teamed up with local black citizens working with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Their main mission for three months: register black residents in the Deep South to vote during a time when that basic, constitutional right was denied in many backwoods areas.

Suddenly, the three civil rights workers had disappeared.
Suddenly, their head shots were displayed on perhaps the most famous missing-persons posters in the history of the United States. Robert F. Kennedy, then-Attorney General in the U.S. Justice Department, ordered the FBI to investigate. On June 23, a blue station wagon was found — burned to a crisp with no sign of the three civil rights workers.
Hence, the FBI’s “MIBURN.”

This case aroused anger and shock nationwide, while taking a noble cause to higher level. The fact that two young white males — Chaney was black — were murdered showed the United States that the civil rights movement wasn’t just a black thing. This case was about America.

Fifty years ago, this was Freedom Summer:
—A massive voter registration drive focusing on black people in the Deep South,
—The brutal assassinations of three determined civil rights workers,
—The signing of the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson,
—A summer concert tour by The Beatles from England against this volatile backdrop in the South, as the Motown melody emanated from the forefront.

This is how segregation was promulgated in the South in ‘64: Say you were riding a train from Chicago to Birmingham, Ala. When the train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, the conductors erected the “colored” and “white” signs, then pulled the curtains to separate the races. Take your places, everyone.

With that legacy, Freedom Summer was the intersection of tragedy, optimism, excitement, drama, hope, angst and idealism. That summer spawned movies — including “Mississippi Burning,” starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI agents, in 1989 — to monuments dedicated to the three martyrs killed, all in their 20s. Famed painter Norman Rockwell produced a brilliant artwork of the three civil rights workers titled: “Southern Justice (Murder in Mississippi).”

When the decayed bodies of the trio were discovered in an earthen dam, Schwerner’s wife, Rita, boldly expressed her anger on the sociology of the times on Aug. 4, 1964: “My husband, Michael Schwerner, did not die in vain. If he and Andrew Goodman had been Negroes, the world would have taken little notice of their deaths. After all, the slaying of a Negro in Mississippi is not news. It is only because my husband and Andrew Goodman were white that the national alarm had been sounded.”

Rita Schwerner Bender (she’s remarried), now an attorney with the law firm Skellenger Bender in Seattle, was an undergraduate student at New York’s Queens College when she joined CORE in Mississippi to give the native southern black folk a major assist. She recalled the painstaking efforts of their cause. “Still, it took years for the black residents in the South to vote,” Schwerner Bender, now 72, said during an interview. “It was a gradual thing. Things changed when the Justice Department finally started getting serious about it.”

Fifteen days after the grisly discovery of the civil rights workers’ bodies, The Beatles brought a new sound from England, a new look and a new attitude for their first U.S. summer tour. They had an impact in multiple ways. Jerry Mitchell is an award-winning investigative writer for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi. He has been hailed as “the South's Simon Wiesenthal” because his dogged investigative reporting has led to the convictions of numerous Ku Klux Klan members who previously had escaped prosecution decades earlier. While Wiesenthal hunted Nazis from World War II, Mitchell hunts KKK members from the era of the civil rights movement.

Today, he reminisces about the music, the mood and the movement. “The Beatles came along and swept up young white people into this youthful movement,” Mitchell explained. “It began to wake up them up. The Beatles introduced young whites to American music, meaning they introduced young white kids to black music. They sang songs by black artists.”

For instance, remember The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout,” which vaulted to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in ’64. That song had first become a chart hit in 1962 by the Isley Brothers, a black group. The Beatles, who refused to perform before segregated audiences in 1964, always acknowledged them before singing it at concerts. Many white Beatles fans started checking out some of the black artists the Beatles admired, such as Chuck Berry --- and the magic of Motown.

“Even the white southern kids,” Mitchell said.
The timing of these events was a veritable Perfect Storm.

“You had the push of the civil rights movement, Freedom Summer, the mood of the country, the music of the country, especially Motown, (activist singer) Bob Dylan and President Johnson — all of these factors leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964,’’ Mitchell recalled. Wrote Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines, in a commentary for CNN this year: “My father, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act on my 17th birthday. The only handwritten note I have from my father was his birthday letter written at 12:10 p.m. that day. Daddy didn't have time to go to the pharmacy to buy a Hallmark card. At 6 p.m., he was signing a bill into law that would liberate my generation from the shackles of legalized apartheid. It was the best birthday present anyone could ever receive.”

President Johnson, in some respects, was a walking contradiction. He was a 6-foot-4 tower of a man from the Texas hill country who often used the n-word — even to black people’s faces. He could be intimidating and cajoling. He could work the pork-for-votes circuit. And he could pass a landmark civil rights bill as part of his “Great Society” program. As civil rights leader Andrew Young told CNN before the historic Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Library in April: “There was almost nobody in the house or the Senate that he had not done a favor for.” He would give an enemy and friend alike the “Johnson Treatment,” which meant he used his powerful presence to either criticize you to death or charm you to life.

Often times, that meant speaking nose to nose like the Leaning Tower of Pisa and poking finger to chest with Congress members. That gravitas helped Johnson promote his compassionate social agenda. Said Young, “He had been poor. Johnson had lived it and felt, I think, guilty enough and had had enough pain about his own hardship and poverty as a Texas schoolteacher.” Added Schwerner Bender, “The civil rights movement gave President Johnson religion.” President John F. Kennedy initiated the civil rights bill before his assassination in 1963.

Johnson made it his mission to complete it with all his patented powers of persuasion. The bill passed the Senate on June 19 by a vote of 73-27; it passed the House of Representatives by 289–126 on July 2, the same day Johnson signed what was termed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Afterward, Johnson turned to his left shoulder, looked up, then shook the right hand of a standing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who shed a tear.

The keynote portion of the sweeping Civil Rights Act essentially outlawed segregation in public accommodations. But it also helped many whites by preventing companies from firing women workers who became pregnant, and making male-only job notices illegal. Roger Wilkins, the first black assistant U.S. Attorney General, served in the Johnson Administration. He recalled, “Johnson often said that he wanted to finish what (President Abraham) Lincoln started.”

And what was that, he was asked? ”Equality for everybody; it was a big thing with him.”
Again, what time is it?
Freedom Time.
That’s Freedom Summer, 1964.

---

 


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