Freedom Summer: Violence and nonviolence

Lee A. Daniels | 8/4/2014, 9:44 a.m.
Fifty years ago this Monday, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement’s Mississippi Freedom Summer project and a month ...
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His most recent book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America. He collaborated with Rachel Robinson on her 1998 book, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait. NNPA

(NNPA) – Fifty years ago this Monday, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement’s Mississippi Freedom Summer project and a month after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a federal search party confirmed the grim belief that had coursed through the civil rights community the previous six weeks.

In an earthen dam in the Neshoba County, Mississippi, countryside they found the bodies of the three civil rights workers who had been kidnapped and murdered six weeks earlier by nearly two dozen local police officers and Ku Klux Klan members.

The men – James Chaney, Michael (Mickey) Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – had “gone missing” the night of June 21, when they had driven to the county to investigate the report of a Black church being burned by the Klan. When they failed to report by the next morning, colleagues at the project’s headquarters began making the telephone-call alarms that ultimately reached all the way to the U.S. Justice Department and the White House.

Segregationists had sneered throughout late June and July that the men’s disappearance was “a publicity stunt.” But, in fact, from the moment the first alarms were sounded there was no rational reason not to know the worst had happened.

Eventually, the F.B.I. implicated 21 local police and Klansmen in the crime. However, state prosecutors refused to indict them on kidnapping and murder charges. Instead, only seven would be found guilty of violating the victims’ civil rights, and each served less than six years in prison. It wasn’t until 2005 that 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, the ringleader, was indicted and convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to 60 years.

In one sense, the murder of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner underscores an often-overlooked truth about the Black freedom struggle during the early 1960s. That is that the more apparent it became that Jim Crow was about to fall, the more vicious the White extremist violence became. Indeed, each of the years 1963, 1964 and 1965 brought a shocking display of the murderous cruelty that underlay the white-collar segregationist chant about “states’ rights” and “the southern way of life”: the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963, that killed four young girls; the murder of the three civil rights workers the following June; and the Feb. 18, 1965, murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Marion, Alabama, by State Trooper James Fowler and March 1965 “Bloody Sunday” police riot in Selma, Alabama.

Those incidents also reinforced the worldwide, sharply contrasting view of the Civil Rights Movement as a saintly campaign full of heroic people committed to nonviolence and willing to face even death in the pursuit of civil rights for Black Americans.

Much of that assessment was and remains true. The movement was an extraordinary display of mass discipline and commitment to nonviolent protest, and many of the people in it acted heroically. But, as Charles E. Cobb Jr. makes clear in his important new book, the Civil Rights Movement during these years in the Deep South was more complicated than that – because the nonviolent campaign there was in many instances supported by the implied or overt possibility of “armed resistance” to White violence. The book’s title – This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible – makes the point.