Freedom Summer began 50 years ago this season with a terrifying act of oppression. Attorney Martin Popper called it “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.”
The brutal June 21, 1964 murders of young activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner were committed to send a message. And the murderers—including Ku Klux Klan members—were committed to sending that message in the most clear and impacting way. That’s what a lynching is all about.
With more than 700 young people—overwhelmingly white, most from the North, many from Ivy League schools—poised to follow Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner to Mississippi in the summer of ’64 to try to make a difference, the message here was clear: Don’t even think about it.
This summer of commemoration, as we consider the benefits of so much sacrifice and the challenges that continue, it is vital that we reflect on that message. Hate crime is about bias more than hate, and about power more than bias.
The fight to register black voters in Mississippi was about power, which we are still grappling with today in a “post-racial” America as critics charge lawmakers in several states of acting to suppress the political power of the marginalized.
The events of 1964 started us down the rocky and bloody path to ultimate passage of the Voting Rights Act a year later. The 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer has crashed head-on into the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision that invalidated a key protection of the act.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote last June for the 5-4 court majority in Shelby County v. Holder, citing a “post-racial” rationale for ruling against federal intervention in state voting regulation. This “preclearance” provision, which requires the federal government to approve any changes in voting procedures, was in place for nearly 50 years so states with a history of denying voting rights didn’t back step. But no need for that now. “Our country has changed,” we were told.
Let’s just take a look at how things have changed. Starting right there at the court. There were no African Americans sitting on the Supreme Court in 1964. Now there is, well, there is Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority in Shelby, and against continuing the voting-rights protection. Change. Obviously, Thomas’ rise to the bench is a change that has made quite an important difference. After all, in the many 5-4 splits we see in court rulings, one man, one vote clearly can tip the scales.
People in Mississippi—particularly KKK members—were doing their own math back in 1964 when they engaged in a campaign of massive resistance to the black vote. Everything from poll taxes and literacy tests to economic reprisal, intimidation and even murder. Ultimately, it was a reign of terror.
The stakes were high. In the entire state of Mississippi, less than 7 percent of the black population was registered to vote. In a number of Mississippi counties back then, there were no black registered voters. In several of these counties, black people actually were in the majority, which means they could have held some measure of political power simply by gaining the vote.
In a zero-sum view of the world, though, gains for African Americans would mean losses for whites. It was about power. This was the case in most of the 15 states that would come under the preclearance requirements of the Justice Department—the requirement the Supreme Court has ruled we no longer need, because, of course, things have changed.
Still, some things remain unchanged. Like racial disparity. Like cynical power politics that maintain racial disparity.
African Americans in Mississippi still earn only half the income of whites. And, while they do hold more than a third of the elected offices, they don’t hold any statewide offices in Mississippi.
Clearly, the need for change continues.
So let’s look at how change continues. How things changed after the Supreme Court decision.
An analysis by Mother Jones magazine showed that 8 of the 15 states affected by the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act implemented voting restrictions following the court’s ruling. Within two hours of the announcement of the ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott moved to implement that state’s voter identification requirement.
Only the year before, a similar attempt was struck down by a federal court in Texas, which ruled that the state’s ID laws unfairly burdened traditionally marginalized groups. That ruling came right after another federal decision, this one stating that the Texas Legislature had discriminated against African Americans in redrawing electoral district maps.
After the Republican-sponsored Texas voter ID law, one by one, Southern states began modifying elections laws in ways that could limit black participation and the electability of Democrats.
Apparently, these states are eager for change to keep things the same.
Race is only part of the story. But the truly contextual story is all about power. It is about attempts to enact laws that have a disparate impact on racial groups that tend to vote against the party in power. Period. Empowering people—not political parties—is the motivation behind this year’s Voting Rights Amendment Act to reinstate protection stripped away by the Supreme Court. The measure is still pending in Congressional committees.
The murders of Freedom Summer activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner for attempting to organize the black vote in Mississippi were committed by individuals who were racist. But even these KKK members—some who wore sheriff’s uniforms instead of sheets and hoods—were acting as enforcers of a power structure. One that had no room for power sharing.
Goodman family lawyer Mark Popper called the deaths of African-American Mississippian Chaney, and Jewish New Yorkers Goodman and Schwerner an “integrated lynching.” A hate crime. A power crime. In 1964 terms it was about maintaining “a way of life.” In our “post-racial” America, as we see reported hate crimes spike, it might be referred to as “taking back America.”