Freedom Summer and the unfinished work of the civil rights movement

Activists Mary King and Julian Bond reflect on the past, present and future of the civil rights movement in the US.

A 1965 photograph of a couple in the Mississippi Delta arriving to register to vote [Copyright: Mary Elizabeth King]

You can’t think that the civil rights movement was only Martin Luther King. It was a wide variety of people, black and white, young and old,” explained US civil rights leader Julian Bond.

Bond was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. For several years, he worked alongside activist Mary King, handling communications, which sometimes played a life-or-death role for the movement.

“Public understanding was crucial to our strategy,” King notes. 

“Without national exposure and galvanising public opinion, how would the American people, including many white southerners, understand how the machinery of injustice was tyrannising black people in the South? We wanted a nationwide awakening, which, through massive disapproval and targeted pressure on the federal government, would weaken the structures of systemic racism that kept black people in a state of slavery without the chains.”

Bond has spent the last several decades working for civil rights, and has served as the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as a member of the senate in his home state of Georgia. King later served in the Carter administration, has written eloquent books on the social power of nonviolent civil resistance, and currently serves as a professor of peace and conflict studies in Costa Rica with the University for Peace.

During the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, a campaign to get more African Americans registered to vote in the state, Bond and King intensively sought to get out the news from major civil rights programmes in many of the retrograde state’s 82 counties. Some 1,000 volunteers from across the nation were recruited to aid those efforts, and they helped to register African American voters, taught in 38 “freedom schools”, built community centres, and organised a parallel political party that was not racially exclusive. My question is: 50 years later, what strides have been made, and what is still left undone?

Civil rights movement

For some, the election of the first African American president ushered in the so-called post-racial era in the United States. But anyone who walks across our towns and cities, who passes through the ghettoised neighbourhoods and schools where many African Americans still live, knows that this is not true. The problem is that people aren’t walking around cities any more. They zoom by in big cars on their way to post-racial gated communities, but they have forgotten what it means to walk in a city, to know its inhabitants and their plight.

For Bond: “The civil rights movement today is different than the civil rights movement of yesteryear, unlike and alike at the same time. Different in the sense that in the 1960s, you had an army of younger people, and older people as well, fighting in rural Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and other states, trying to fight for constitutional rights that black people living there did not possess.”

“And these rights were won – the right to register to vote, the right to go to particular schools, and the right to use public accommodations. Yet they weren’t won completely. There’s still much more to be done. And it’s the finishing of the earlier work that we’re undertaking now. The difference is we don’t have this same army of people doing it today as we did then, and we badly need to have more people saying, ‘Sign me up, let me spend a week, or two weeks, or a month or longer at this work.’ A modern-day Freedom Summer needs to be undertaken.”

It is time for citizens to take a collective look at the nation and at the way race continues to divide us. We can do this thoughtfully, in conversation, and full of hope, but the point is that the work that was started 50 years ago must continue.

For those interested in the continued work of justice, King advises that: 

“It’s extremely important that people come into social movements for something larger than themselves. The sense that you are part of something that has much more at stake than yourself or your own involvement is one of the secrets of why nonviolent action movements in the last 100 years have confronted the greatest powers of their times, some of them extremely heavily armed, and have been able to win. I have tried to remain faithful to the larger purposes of the civil rights movement, which meant a society grounded in justice.”

Bond and King have lived their lives in service to the ideals of the movement.

If Bond and King are right, the US has turned away from the work of equality: An October 2012 Supreme Court decision struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Recent political and social events prove that there is no reason to believe that racism is dead. There are the sensational incidents of racism such as when Clippers owner Donald Sterling was recorded saying he didn’t want black people at his games. And then there are the daily injustices like being denied housing, as was reported in a recent episode of This American Life on racial profiling in the housing market.

A post-racial society?

If anything, racism has become such a pervasive element of society that many no longer recognise it. Many of us look out at a sea of white faces on TV and in newspapers, and we think they are diverse. Bond argues: “We are not in a post-racial society. We are in a racist society, and that racism is evident every place you go and almost every time you pick up a newspaper. You can see it. Every time you look at a TV, there it is for you. To believe that this era has passed is nonsense.”

Witness – Dream for a City

Bond asks why and how the US has reached a place in which it is almost impossible to have a conversation about race in the country.

His answer is that at some point, “we as US citizens ceased being engaged and stopped doing the work, stopped taking part in the act of dialogue that began during the civil rights movement”.

Indeed, our young people are too strapped with college debt to set their careers aside and take on volunteer work as Bond and King did.

According to a recent Washington Post article we now face the “largest pile of debt burdening Americans […] $1 trillion in student loan debt, more than all the credit card debt in the United States”. A society that doesn’t allow its youth and dreamers to take on the hard work of societal change is impoverished in ways that cannot be quantified.

Bond sees the anniversary of Freedom Summer as a call to a new generation of activists: “This should be a collective experience. It should be a remembrance of people of all races and colours struggling both together and separately to fight against racism. There were enormous victories won 50 years ago, so we can’t play them down. But not enough was done. Not enough effort was made. We need to find young people who will take our places and continue.”

What is truly powerful about the idea of a modern day Freedom Summer is that we know that movements have a domino effect. For King: 

“The civil rights movement, and, in many ways SNCC in particular, were tinder for a national mobilisation to end the war in Vietnam. This contributed to the last push for ending European colonialism. They also helped to spark the environmental movement and the modern women’s liberation movement. This is not to say that there were no other forces at work. It is, rather, that social movements have a tremendously potentiating effect.”

On the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, we need to remember what was accomplished, but also that the job was left unfinished. Young and old alike, we need to re-engage in the politics and poetics of justice, to begin walking in our cities again to see where and how our brothers and sisters live, to remember what it means to work together for equality.

Alice Driver is a writer who explores issues of gender, women’s rights, and human rights with a focus on Mexico. 

Follow her on Twitter: @aliceldriver