“The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” – William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun”
“Southern Justice – Murder in Mississippi” – Norman Rockwell
James Earl Chaney was 21 years old. Andrew Goodman was 20. Michael Schwerner was 24. The three young men traveled to Mississippi 50 years ago this week to participate in Freedom Summer, a project organized by the Mississippi branches of four civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the NAACP. The project attracted hundreds of young people from around the country to Mississippi to help register black Mississippians to vote, despite the likelihood they might be assaulted, beaten, and possibly killed.
On June 21st, 1964, the three young men had been in the state only a day when they met in Meridian, Mississippi, and climbed into a car to investigate the burning of the Mount Zion Methodist Church, in Longdale. They were stopped in Philadelphia, arrested for speeding, and jailed. They were released about 10 p.m. and drove into a carefully planned Klan ambush. They were taken to a remote location and executed, their bodies buried in an earthen dam, to be discovered several weeks later.
Eleven days after the murders, President Johnson would sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Ground-breaking as that legislation was, it did not include the right to vote. That required the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed into law August 6, 1965.
It appeared the sacrifices of the men, women, and children who’d had dogs and firehoses turned on them, who’d been harassed and jailed, who’d seen their houses and churches burned, who had been threatened, beaten, blown up, shot, and lynched, might have brought the nation to a great epiphany, with the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” finally fulfilled for every American. In 1966, Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts, would become the first popularly elected African-American Senator. A year later, Johnson would make Thurgood Marshall, who had argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, the nation’s first African-American justice on that court.
But both major political parities had already shown why the optimism needed tempering. In July, 1964, the Republicans met in San Francisco and nominated Barry Goldwater for president. Delegates from the Party of Lincoln also voted down a civil rights plank in their platform. In August, in Atlantic City, Johnson maneuvered to prevent the seating of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the convention so as not to enrage the Southern racists in his party, who he feared could bolt and perhaps cost him re-election.
The powers of regression nursed their grudges over decades and struck back whenever opportunities presented themselves. Four years after Freedom Summer, Richard Nixon would deploy his infamous “Southern Strategy,” an effort to appeal to white racists and short-circuit the third-party challenge from the Right by Alabama Gov. George Wallace. It didn’t work; Wallace won Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, but Nixon still scraped by with a win and set the tone for his party’s language and tactics on civil rights in the future.
The Democratic party had an ugly legacy of racism; they grew out of it. The Republican party had a legacy of support for civil rights; they repudiated it.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan, the Republicans’ freshly minted presidential candidate, made his first campaign stop, with the encouragement of a young Congressman, Trent Lott, just a few miles from Philadelphia, and told the cheering crowd he believed in “states’ rights.” Some have dismissed any suggestion of racism in Reagan’s remarks, saying he was just referring to his beliefs in small government and federal over-reach. That’s patently ridiculous. Reagan was a smart politician; he knew the code words, and he knew exactly what meaning his audience, and millions of Southern voters, would take away from his speech.
This was not the only instance where racist code would appear in one of the candidate’s speeches. He made much of a Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” and talked about “young bucks” buying steaks with food stamps.
So, a short distance from where three young men were murdered for their belief in individual freedom, Reagan spat on them.
Lott, by the way, would later refuse to support a Congressional resolution honoring Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. He would eventually be brought down by his remarks praising Sen. Strom Thurmond, the racist who did bolt the Democratic party twice, once in 1948, to run for president as a “Dixiecrat,” and in 1964, to become a Republican.
Meanwhile, the effort to roll back voting rights continues. Opponents of those rights achieved a major victory last year, when the Republican majority of the Supreme Court cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act. Many states, particularly Southern states, lost no time enacting laws aimed at making it harder for minorities and the poor to exercise their franchise.
Supporters of voter suppression laws claim they are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but that claim is absurd on its face. The Brennan Center at New York University has conducted extensive study and analysis of claims of vote fraud and found them false.
Voting is not a privilege; it’s a right. It’s the fundamental right of a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to protect that right, not restrict it. Whether our public institutions will again rise to the challenge and stop the wave of regressive efforts to throw obstacles in the path of people who want to exercise their franchise remains to be seen. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and their compatriots who risked and sometimes lost their lives in the struggle for democracy and individual freedom, await the outcome.