It is hard to believe what life was like for African-Americans living in Mississippi and other parts of the South in 1964. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend that there were state and local governments within the United States that enforced segregation through physical repression and terrorist activity. But that was true as late as 1964. That summer, the Freedom Summer, the truth about the brutality of the “Jim Crow” South could no longer be denied or ignored.
In 1964, the Congress of Racial Equality, working with the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recruited thousands of civil rights activists, many of them students from northern states, to go to Mississippi to engage in a coordinated effort to register African-American voters. At that time only 6.7 percent of eligible African-Americans were registered to vote, primarily because of intimidation that ranged from being fired from jobs to physical threats, beatings, and fire bombings, and because of barriers such as literacy tests that even African-American voters with doctorates could not pass.
Freedom Summer caused an uproar among Mississippi’s white residents. Led by the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens’ Councils, African-American churches were burned and homes were firebombed. Mobs beat volunteers. More than 1,000 volunteers were arrested. But most shocking was the brutal murder of three of them: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The search for their bodies and the arrest of police officials who participated in or were complicit in the murders riveted the nation. The public outrage over the events of the Freedom Summer and over the vicious police attack the next summer on voting rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala., on the Edmund Pettus Bridge led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That law, in tandem with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, eliminated de jure segregation in the United States.
com pines cwpb Lester A. Pines, U.W. 1974, is a partner in Cullen Weston Pines & Bach LLP, Madison, leading its trial and appellate practices. He also is an adjunct faculty member at the U.W. Law School and a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers.
But there was never universal acceptance of the scope of the Voting Rights Act, particularly the requirement that states and municipalities with a history of suppressing African-American voters had to pre-clear any changes in voting rules or regulations that had the effect of inhibiting voting on the basis of voters’ race, color, or membership in a language minority group. Ultimately, almost 50 years after Freedom Summer, the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2021 (2013), found the law’s pre-clearance provision to be unconstitutional.
It remains to be seen what the effect of that decision will be. But undoubtedly there is an effort in many states, including Wisconsin, through restrictive voter I.D. provisions and limitations on early voting, to make it harder for citizens, especially poor people, to vote. In the future, as state legislatures consider laws that make voting more difficult, we should reflect on the efforts of the Freedom Summer volunteers and the brave Mississippians who stood up to the terrorist state of Mississippi and put their lives on the line so that everyone could have the opportunity to exercise that most fundamental right: the right to vote.