Fifty years ago, a coalition of organizations initiated the Mississippi Freedom Project, more popularly known as Freedom Summer. In the summer of 1964, hundreds of organizers descended on the South from cities in the North and bubbled up from local communities to engage in what would become a massive, multi-year effort to expand the vote for disenfranchised African Americans under the thumb of the Jim Crow laws of the day. Though stained by the wave of horrific violence that brought about the tragic murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia and Mississippi, Freedom Summer stands as another example of the power of grassroots organizing. This historic effort has undoubtedly set the standard for high level voter registration campaigns that shift the balance of political power.
Today, 50 years later, in the face of persistent large numbers of unregistered black voters and a new era of voter suppression, organizers are choosing to remember the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer through action. Last week, Ben Jealous and the Center for American Progress released a new report titled, “True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,” reflecting on the success of the Freedom Summer, and pulling out key lessons that may be utilized to fuel contemporary efforts to register new voters and build new progressive voting coalitions.
For years, Democratic and progressive organizations have all but ceded the South, leaving a block of electoral votes, and any number of federal, state and local elective offices on the table. Southern states, particularly those in the Black Belt, have been battered with a Southern strategy initiated by Richard Nixon and championed by conservative political luminaries following in tow. But those with a key eye to the future will note that something special is happening. A long-standing presence of African Americans, the children and grandchildren of the “Great Migration,” are rapidly returning home and emerging among a number of minority populations thus lending Southern states an opportunity to shift the balance of power in the South again.
According to Jealous, organizers should see these large demographic shifts and the opportunity gap between the eligible unregistered and the fully enfranchised as a chance to employ some of the greatest lessons from the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer – voter registration to fight voter suppression, coalition politics, and the notion that the work should be a part of a longer and dynamic campaign.
In 1964, after decades of poll taxes and violent intimidation, just 6.7 % of eligible black voters were actually registered to vote. By 1970, emboldened by the full weight of the campaign, made up of allied organizations and anti-racist coalitions between Northern whites and local black activists, 1.7 million voters were registered across the region, lifting the percentage of registered black voters to nearly 60% and elevating a new class of black elected officials.
New concentrated efforts to register voters, employ dynamic voter educations programs, and find consensus across diverse racial lines will open Southern states to movements from the blood red tint of electoral maps to competitive models that pull political rhetoric and public policy from the extreme-right and reveal new, more inclusive visions of the South. For that to happen, we have to be prepared to do the work of organizing local communities, sharing compelling narratives that accurately describe what’s at stake, and encouraging more women, young people, and people of color to run for office.