Mississippi civil-rights activists are preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer in 2014. Some say race relations might’ve improved, but people must remain vigilant to protect voting rights.
“The struggle to make democracy work still continues,” Frank Figgers, vice chairman of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement Inc., said Friday at Tougaloo College in Jackson.
In 1964, thousands of people descended on Mississippi to help with voter registration and to provide education programs for black residents who had been systematically denied full rights as citizens. The work was dangerous.
On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed in Neshoba County. Their bodies were found weeks later in an earthen dam. Chaney was a black man from Meridian, Miss. Schwerner and Goodman were white men from New York.
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One of Chaney’s sisters, the Rev. Julia Chaney-Moss, of Willingboro, N.J., was 17 when her 21-year-old brother was slain. He had already been involved in civil rights work for years, traveling into rural areas and making contact with local pastors. She recalled that he would sit in the living room with the lights off, concerned that his activities could make his family a target.
“My brother’s motivation was always that burning question that I think he asked himself at about 16 or 17 years old: `Why do we have to live this way?’ We, as a people,” Chaney-Moss said Friday at Tougaloo.
Asked if she sees changes in society, Chaney-Moss, an interdenominational minster, said: “The more things change, the more they generally stay the same…. I would like to see a world where every one of us can respect each other.”
Schwerner’s widow, Rita Schwerner Bender of Seattle, sent a letter that was read aloud Friday at the school, where more than two dozen people gathered to discuss the Freedom Summer commemoration. Bender, an attorney, wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court on a split vote a few weeks ago “eviscerated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, purchased with so many years of blood and tears.”
“We know that people of color and immigrant populations increasingly are being targeted by devious schemes to eliminate their opportunity to vote, and thus to deprive the growing majority of participation in the governance of our country,” Bender wrote.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said Freedom Summer “shook the Dixiecrats and shook the world.”
“Let’s get ready to pass those batons to the young people who are coming before us with the correct perspective of what has actually happened in history so that we can shape from this civil rights struggle a real human rights struggle which will vindicate our struggle here, which will vindicate the struggle of oppressed people throughout the world,” Lumumba said.