60 Years After Freedom Summer: Here’s a GIF History of the Mississippi Summer Project

“We were doing these voter registrations and getting beaten up.”

4 min readJun 14, 2024


Sixty years ago today, over 1,000 volunteers from across the country began their training to participate in the “Freedom Summer Project,” a student-led initiative to register Black voters in Mississippi.

The project was the brainchild of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary Bob Moses, who began recruiting out-of-state college students from the north in February of 1964.

Moses had two goals for the project: to register Black voters in Mississippi—where only 6.7 percent of eligible Black voters were registered in 1964—and to bring the nation’s attention to the violent tactics used by white Southerners to disenfranchise Black voters in Mississippi, the epicenter of white supremacist violence and terrorism in the South.

The months before the project were violent. According to NPR, “local sheriffs in southwest Mississippi reported 16 abductions and beatings of Black men in February of 1964.” Ku Klux Klan membership in the state also surged that year, reaching upwards of 10,000. On April 24, 1964, the Ku Klux Klan orchestrated 61 simultaneous cross burnings across the state, sending a message that the group was “prepared to use violence to fight the Civil Rights movement.”

Despite the Ku Klux Klan’s threat, SNCC was able to recruit 1,000 out-of-state college students for the project, half of whom were Ashkenazi Jews from the north. The volunteers were trained that summer not only to register Black voters, but also to teach civics, arithmetic and Black history at so-called “Freedom Schools” across the state.

Just one week after the project started, on June 21, 1964, three dispatched volunteers — James Chaney, a Black Mississippian, and two Jewish northerners, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — went missing while investigating the burning of a Black church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The news of their disappearance shocked the nation, drawing national media attention to the project and the violence faced by Black voters in the South.

Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman’s disappearance also caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson, who ordered an extensive search by federal agents and invited the families of the three missing volunteers to the Oval Office.

Forty-four days after their disappearance, the murdered bodies of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found on a farm outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. An investigation revealed that the three were abducted and murdered by local members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Twenty-one Ku Klux Klan members and law enforcement officials were apprehended by the FBI after Mississippi officials declined to prosecute the men for murder. According to the New York Times, seven of the 21 were found guilty of violating Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner’s civil rights by murder; each served less than six years.

Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of Michael Schwerner, told reporters in 1964:

“We all know that this search with hundreds of sailors is because Andrew Goodman and my husband are white. If only Chaney was involved, nothing would’ve been done.”

Mississippi Freedom Summer Project organizer Dave Dennis delivered an impassioned eulogy at Chaney’s funeral, calling on leaders on Capitol Hill to act to protect Black voters in the South.

News of the three’s murder sparked national outrage, propelling legislators to pass federal voting rights legislation the following the year in the form of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Freedom Summer Project volunteers left a lasting legacy in the state after the summer, despite continued violence from white residents. Project volunteers established 41 Freedom Schools across the state, teaching some 3,000 students, both young and old. 17,000 eligible Black voters attempted to register to vote that summer; only 1,600 applications were accepted.

Perhaps the project’s most lasting legacy in the state was the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was created by Moses, James W. Wright, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker in opposition to the state party’s all-white delegation to the Democratic National Convention.

Hamer, the vice-chair of the MFDP, traveled to the DNC in August to deliver testimony on the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Mississippi and argue for the MFDP to be seated as delegates. Here’s what she said:

“All of this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens, and if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

Hamer’s testimony and the MFDP’s actions led to lasting change in the Democratic Party: in 1968, the party adopted a clause banning racially segregated delegations, allowing Hamer to be a member of the first integrated delegation from Mississippi.

60 years later, the fight for full voting rights continues as leaders call on Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act amid a wave of restrictive voting laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states enacted 17 restrictive voting laws in 2023.

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