50 Years Later: Freedom Summers And Robert Williams Black Self-Defense, 1964 And 2014


Robert and Mabel Williams

Fifty years ago, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), two of the most of important organizations in the history of the United States, established the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) to launch Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

Freedom Schools, Freedom Centers and Freedom Houses were established throughout the state and blacks organized to a greater extent than at any time since Reconstruction.

Central to Freedom Summer was a campaign to break down the barriers to black participation in the political process. Those barriers included the poll tax and literacy tests and resulted in the vast majority of Southern blacks being disenfranchised. The barriers were steadfastly enforced, often through state and officially sanctioned vigilante terror. Since blacks outnumbered whites in many electoral districts, black disenfranchisement was essential to the long reign of reactionary Dixiecrats like John Stennis, Theodore Bilbo, John Rankin and James Eastland.

Because blacks in such large numbers were barred from voting, COFO rightly claimed that the white supremacist contingents in Washington and local statehouses had been elected illegally. They formed the Mississippi Freedom Democrats and brought the struggle to the 1964 Democratic Convention where they were knifed in the back by Lyndon Johnson, with the capable assistance of progressive icons Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and Bayard Rustin as well, alas, as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

To assist with Freedom Summer, COFO put out a call to mostly white students from prestigious colleges and universities in the North in an effort to use the racism of the system against itself. Vigilante and police terrorists were far less likely to attack white Northerners, COFO reasoned, and if they did the nation would not ignore the violence the way it had ignored the wanton killing of black people for so long.

Freedom Summer had barely begun when local terrorists proved they were indeed as willing to kill white interlopers when two white activists, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were murdered along with James Chaney, an African-American member of the local CORE chapter.

Had only Chaney, who was hideously tortured before he was murdered, been killed, the business of America would have gone on with nary an interruption. Because two white Northerners were also killed, however, the nation focused its attention on Mississippi for much of the summer. Adding further to the horror was the discovery of the bodies of two other murdered black youths in the same lake where Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman’s bodies were eventually found.

One enduring myth is that the Black Liberation Movement in 1964 was entirely pacifist. In fact, armed men and women played a prominent role in Freedom Summer and the movement as a whole, as historians Akinyele Omowale Umoja and Charles Cobb, Jr., among others, have documented. Though they were unable to save Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, the armed locals undoubtedly prevented others from meeting the same fate.

Perhaps the best-known advocate of armed self-defense was Robert Williams, head of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the face of continuous state and paramilitary violence, Williams insisted that black people had the right to defend themselves by, in the words of Malcolm X, “any means necessary.” The repression Williams faced as a result was relentless and he eventually sought refuge in Cuba.

Fifty years after Freedom Summer, reactionary politicians who walk in the footsteps of Stennis, Bilbo, Rankin, Eastland and their Ku Klux Klan brethren work overtime to strip black people of their voting rights. Once again, the former Confederacy is ground zero, though the effort is a nationwide phenomenon, The Dixiecrats are long gone and the reactionaries today are Republicans who know black people virtually never vote Republican, so they have concocted the nonexistent problem of voter fraud to constrict the electorate. Despite nonstop propaganda from media outlets like Fox News and millions of dollars expended on “investigations,” virtually no cases of voter fraud have been uncovered. The reactionaries remain undeterred, however, and plow forward with eliminating same-day registration, closing polling places, doing away with easy access voter ID laws, redistricting and other moves that would make Bull Connor and Ian Smith proud.   

As in 1964, there is concerted resistance, most notably the Moral Monday protests that began last year in North Carolina and were held every Monday while the state legislature was in session. As many as 10,000 people turned out and, as with the freedom struggles of fifty years ago, civil disobedience was employed and 924 people were arrested. The Moral Monday movement spread to South Carolina, where it’s called Truthful Tuesdays, as well as to Georgia, Tennessee and other states.

Also like 1964, there have been spirited protests against ongoing police, legal and vigilante terror against blacks, most notably after the acquittal of vigilante killer George Zimmerman. Organized protest also led to the freeing of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Florida imprisoned after firing a shot into the ceiling of her house to ward off her abusive ex- husband. Though she injured no one and lives in the same state where Zimmerman walked because of a Stand Your Ground law, Alexander faces 60 years in prison when her re-trial convenes later this year. Resistance is by no means limited to the South, as the effort to end the neoliberal destruction of the mostly black city of Detroit and the successful campaign to rid New York of the racist practice of Stop and Frisk illustrate.

Before the latest attack on voting rights, the United States already ranked disgracefully low among nations of the world in voter turnout. That reactionary forces are carrying out a well-funded, relentless assault to further erode voting rights goes beyond disgraceful to the criminal. Liberals and Democrats are complicit in this assault eveb with a black President.

As always, that leaves it to the people to carry forward Freedom Summer 1964 and the spirit of heroes Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Ella Baker, Dave Dennis and so many others through 2014 and beyond, to as many summers, winters, falls and springs as it takes to make this a free society. 
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z Magazine, The Indypendent, Counterpunch and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at [email protected]


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