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1964’s Freedom Summer Offers a Model for the Voting Rights Work We Need to Do

I was part of Freedom Summer in 1964. Sixty years later, with voting rights under attack, I see how we need another.

Marchers lead chants during the Black Voters Matter's 57th Selma to Montgomery march on March 9, 2022, in Selma, Alabama.

The day after I graduated from college, I jumped into a car with my roommate and another friend and headed south to Mississippi. We were in good spirits after graduation, but we were in a racially integrated car and sensed danger on the road. A year earlier, three young people with the same destination for the same reason in the same season had been shot and killed. That had been the worst tragedy of what we now celebrate as Freedom Summer.

Freedom Summer, 1964, was a landmark civil rights project to bring multi-racial democracy to a state infamous for its racism and violent denial of Black voting rights. Organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as well as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and led by the legendary civil rights activist Bob Moses, Freedom Summer brought hundreds of Black and white young people into mainly rural areas all over Mississippi. The main goal was to register thousands of Black people to vote and to end Confederate fascism — a system of caste or race-based tyranny that prevented democracy before the Civil War and was resurrected in the Jim Crow regime after Reconstruction.

Freedom Summer tried to register about 17,000 Black voters, but only 1,600 were accepted by the white registrars. Mississippi politicians and election officials, alongside the Ku Klux Klan, violently resisted. Two white civil workers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, arrived in Mississippi in mid-June, 1964, exactly a year before I arrived with my friends. Schwerner and Goodman met James Chaney, a local Black activist who worked with them, but the three disappeared when investigating a church burning. They were found murdered a few weeks later, memorialized on August 4, 1964, by Martin Luther King Jr., who had come to Mississippi and described the deaths as “an attack on the human brotherhood taught by all the great religions of mankind.”

Freedom Summer helped unleash a major effort to bring democracy to Mississippi. Voting rights were seen as part of an educational, economic and political transformation. Voting rights activists helped establish 41 freedom schools for more than 3,000 young Black people, helping provide literacy, history and organizing skills that would allow the struggle to continue.

It would take my Freedom Summer in 1965 to move closer to the first new phase of multiracial democracy. In that summer, I lived with a Black family for several months and continued the voting rights and education work begun in 1964. Like the 1964 workers, we faced constant violence, arrested by the police the first day and followed by armed men who once managed to get into our car and tried to strangle us. Despite this violence, we succeeded in registering thousands of new Black voters, and in 1965 we had won enough national support that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act before summer’s end. It was the most comprehensive voting rights act passed since Reconstruction, outlawing “abridgement” or “denial” of voting rights to any racial or minority group in every state.

I never imagined then that 60 years later, we would desperately need another Freedom Summer, this time to create multiracial democracy across not just the South but the entire nation. Once again, we face election denialism, white Christian nationalism and a revived American fascism. We need Freedom Summer more urgently than 60 years ago, because now we face an election that could be our last — and will take years of new Freedom Summers to win and get real democracy.

Fortunately, civil rights groups, voting registration and turnout campaigns, educators and social justice activists are seizing the moment. As we approach a presidential election that threatens to bring back Jim Crow, the memory of Freedom Summer is helping inspire a new surge of multiracial voting rights and “democracy movements.” Today, two different organizations and 2024 campaigns inspired by Freedom Summer are applying its lessons.

Black Voters Matter (BVM) embodies Freedom Summer’s belief in the power that can be tapped among the most disenfranchised Americans. Like SNCC, Black Voters Matter is a voting rights “democracy movement” rooted in the Deep South. Two Black activists, LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, founded BVM in 2016 after years of experience in community organizing, civil rights and get out the vote pro-democracy activism.

Brown’s 1998 youthful race for office in Alabama was targeted by local racist sheriffs, who impounded many of her votes and “forgot” to count them, leaving her “feeling so powerless” in a rigged election, and she soon began to realize “how common it was to … steal these elections … and no one was held accountable,” according to the Harvard Gazette. She was going to change all that.

BVM has now created the Movement Voting Project (MVP) to turn out 2024 voters in nine key swing states, 40 of the most competitive House districts and key down-ballot races involving control of state legislatures. What is most reminiscent of Freedom Summer is the fervent grassroots philosophy and optimism. Many of today’s seemingly powerless Southern rural Black communities have “remnants of the civil rights movement” that help inspire current activism, Brown wrote for The New York Times. She noted that BVM’s local partners in the rural deep South are often Black women who know their community well and have the ties and know-how to motivate their neighbors to become voting activists.

Brown talks about SNCC in her work — emphasizing in her Times piece that you can’t “parachute in” but really have to get engaged with local folks to make a difference. This is what Freedom Summer did; I lived with a Black family for the entire summer and got to know their circle. As a community and civil rights organizer, Brown clearly loves the Freedom Summer model, and understands that the way to mobilize voters is to join in and know their culture.

Brown also evokes Freedom Summer with her belief in “letting folks know that they are loved and that they matter,” reported the Harvard Gazette. “We don’t come to our community members like they are just votes to be rounded up or counted like jelly beans. We’re coming in as friends, with hugs and love.” In the spirit of Freedom Summer and specifically quoting Martin Luther King, she says: “We always tell people ‘Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.’”

Democracy Summer is another current voter and democracy movement inspired by Freedom Summer. It was founded by Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin, a constitutional lawyer known for his leadership in Congress against Trump’s January 6 coup attempt. Raskin has put together a multiracial voting rights campaign focusing on young people who remind me of my fellow activists 60 years ago. They are bursting with fervor to create a real democracy in the U.S. freed of caste and class, and they are mobilizing for all-out struggle to defeat Trump in 2024.

It is not surprising that Raskin founded this democracy movement. His father was Marcus Raskin, a prominent peace and democracy activist, who cut his teeth in the politics of the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements.

One of the earliest teachers at Democracy Summer was Bob Moses. Raskin knew what he was doing when he picked Moses, still a Freedom Summer legend. Moses helped SNCC create the many freedom schools run by Freedom Summer. Before he died in 2017, he bequeathed to Democracy Summer his updated voter rights and democracy curriculum for the newest generation.

Raskin highlights that this campaign is focused on economic democracy as well as political democracy. He has not only brought in teachers like civil rights heroes John Lewis and Marc Elias, today’s most prominent voting rights lawyer, but also labor leaders from the AFL-CIO and the Labor Heritage Foundation, who teach about the labor movement as foundational in building democracy. This is a curriculum focused on the both the racial caste and capitalist class hurdles to democracy, an idea animating SNCC and taught by Martin Luther King, who was assassinated while marching with striking garbage workers in Memphis in 1968.

After founding Democracy Summer as part of his own 2006 campaign for the Maryland State Senate, in 2018, Raskin decided that as Trump and MAGA rose his new “democracy school” had to take place every summer to help build “a full-blown pro-democracy, pro-voting rights” curriculum. By the summers of 2021 and 2022, after January 6, Democracy Summer expanded to partner with more than 100 democracy and voting organizations, and recruited over 1,000 high school and college students for summer democracy school. The students got an education in constitutional democracy tied to campaign work on voter registration, phone banks, door knocking and broader political activism. The students become community organizers, realizing they can only turn out the vote if they address issues vital in their community, from labor to health care to feminism and anti-racism. This is a page taken right out of the organizing manual of Freedom Summer.

The 2024 Democracy Summer begins on June 24 and formally runs to August 9, aiming “to play a decisive role in determining who will control Congress and the White House.” Volunteers do at least four hours of online seminars and workshops, and another 10 to 15 hours a week working in person in the voting campaigns of their local Democratic congressperson as well as the presidential campaign. As a Freedom Summer graduate, I can relate to a graduate of Democracy Summer whose testimony appears on the program’s website: “Democracy Summer was truly my most life-changing experience yet. I now hope and aspire to stay continuously politically active.”

BVM and Democracy Summer are just two of many pro-democracy campaigns rising to prevent Trumpism and American neo-fascism from winning in 2024 and beyond. Among the activists invited to speak at Democracy Summer are the Rev. William Barber, the founder of the modern Poor People’s Campaign originally started by Martin Luther King. In the spirit of Freedom Summer, Barber responded early to Trump’s second campaign for the White House, organizing in 2022 a huge nonviolent march of low-wage workers on Washington and to the polls, “targeting the red lights of closed polling places and redistricting and all forms of voter suppression,” as reported by Common Dreams. The Poor People’s Campaign’s march to the polls has been resurrected on an even larger scale in 2024, to “wake the sleeping giant” of low-wage workers and determine the outcome of the coming election. Focusing on the intertwined issues of capitalism, climate change, poverty and racism, this new Freedom Summer-style campaign is based on Barber’s view that “the path to electoral victory in this country goes through the 140 million poor and low-income people,” as quoted by Common Dreams.

This pro-democracy agenda is being joined by the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers (UAW), who are planning their own Freedom Summer-style voting rights campaign from now up to election day and beyond. Moreover, major pro-democracy and voting groups, such as the Progressive Turnout Project and MoveOn, are revving up the biggest voter turnout campaigns in their history this summer, reaching tens of millions of voters in a national emergency politics of Freedom Summer on a national scale. They are joined by literally hundreds of other regional and local voting and pro-democracy campaigns.

In Mississippi, it was so hot when I was organizing that I saw Coke machines on most people’s porches, where I rushed to quench my thirst. The Mississippi weather and politics were scorching hot. Climate change and MAGA politics have brought the same scorched earth and political terrain; the new 21st-century Freedom Summers will all be hot in both senses.

Young people will face heat — rising temperatures and fascist ghosts packing heat — the rest of their lives, and they need to massively mobilize in the 2024 campaign before it is too late. I now teach these students, but I love them as I did when I was one of them. And I have confidence that they will turn out in large numbers and find the same meaning in their fight for democracy, love and survival that I did in the first Freedom Summer.