Voting rights veterans share lessons with new generation of activists: ‘Build on the foundation’

Freedom Summer registered hundreds of Black people to vote in Mississippi in 1964 in defiance of Jim Crow laws

In the early 1960s, Charles McLaurin served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), laying the groundwork for a massive voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer. That historic summer of 1964, young people from across the country poured into the state to help register Black people to vote, a campaign that energized the US civil rights movement and exposed Mississippi’s racial terrors.

“In 1962, there was not a single Black elected official in the whole state and Mississippi only had about 5% of the Black population registered to vote,” said McLaurin, flanked by his former SNCC colleagues Freddie Biddle and Hollis Watkins at a recent conference commemorating the organization’s founding in 1960.

Today, Mississippi has Black elected officials, but it also has some of the most restrictive voter laws in the nation in a state that has the largest proportion of Black voters at 38%. While SNCC is no longer active, the conference’s goal was to share organizing lessons from the past to further the fight to vote today as states across the country enact voter suppression laws that are undoing the gains, earned in blood, of the civil rights movement.

Then, as now, youth are key, Watkins said.

“One of the things, based on what I saw in the early phases of the civil rights movement is, if we, the older ones, will step over to the side and become ones that help, the young people will get it done. And the reason I know is because I used to be a young person,” Watkins said during a panel on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Neshoba county deputy sheriff Cecil Price watches marchers as they pass through Philadelphia, Mississippi, during a memorial in June 1965 for three Freedom Summer activists by Klansmen in 1964.
Neshoba county deputy sheriff Cecil Price watches marchers as they pass through Philadelphia, Mississippi, during a memorial in June 1965 for three Freedom Summer activists killed by Klansmen in 1964. Photograph: Jack Thornell/AP

The Freedom party sought to unseat the state’s ruling, all-white Democratic party at a time when Black Mississippians faced a litany of tactics to prevent them from voting, from outright intimidation to impossible literacy tests.

“The white supremacists would like to make it seem like it’s different [today], what they put us up against, all those years until the Voting Rights Act [of 1965],” said Judy Richardson, a former secretary at the national SNCC headquarters who helped organize the conference. “Saying that you can’t give water to someone in a line after you have closed umpteen voting locations. It’s no different from somebody at a poll saying, ‘How many bubbles in a bar of soap?’ The tactics are very similar in terms of what the aim is: to nullify our vote and ultimately stop from sharing power, because it is all about power.”

Today, Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the New Georgia Project and other voting rights groups are tapping the organizing framework used by SNCC and other civil rights organizations to develop a grassroots campaign to register and educate voters. Invigorating Black political power through in-depth civic and voter education was the root of SNCC’s approach. During Freedom Summer, SNCC established schools to teach civics, but also reading, math and other subjects. The organization’s work was grounded in speaking to the issues of individual communities.

Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, who participated in the SNCC conference, says in Georgia, like Mississippi in the 1960s, her group is training organizers to go into communities and educate voters in preparation for the election season. Nearly 1,000 Georgians are under investigation for violating five new voting-related laws in the state.

Part of what made SNCC so effective was coalition building with local leaders, Ufot said in an interview after the conference. “I subscribe to the gospel choir theory of organizing. The reason they can hold a note for so long, so powerfully, is that each individual vocalist is doing what they can when they can. They are doing their part,” she said.

Members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee protest the jailing of almost 1,000 persons in Jackson, Mississippi, outside federal courthouse in New York on 23 June 1965.
Members of the Congress of Racial Equality and the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee protest the jailing of almost 1,000 persons in Jackson, Mississippi, outside federal courthouse in New York on 23 June 1965. Photograph: Jacob Harris/AP

In the 1960s, however, building interest within Black communities was not always easy, SNCC veterans said.

“We got the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SCLC and all of these organizations and put them under an umbrella called COFO,” McLaurin explained, naming the leading civil rights groups of the time. COFO, or the Council of Federated Organizations, was an easier way to organize Mississippi’s Black citizens around voting rights. “Over the years, white people and the power structure had stigmatized our organizations to the point a lot of Blacks were afraid to identify with it.”

Through COFO, organizations were able to pool resources for several civil rights causes, including voting. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was founded through this coalition, which eventually brought the necessary national attention to the state to move the needle closer to equal voting rights for Black residents.

Richardson, who supported the organization’s voting rights efforts in Lowndes county, Mississippi, said coalition building was critical. “It was about having a coalition. Having allies in place, the good-intentioned white people, the community leaders, and the everyday Black people down in Mississippi. That is how we kept pushing forward and achieving our goals,” Richardson told the Guardian.

What most inspired Richardson was the everyday people who took a stand, despite losing their livelihoods and having their lives threatened.

Robert ‘Bob’ Moses, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) project director in 1964, discusses the importance of Freedom Summer 1964 during the 50th anniversary conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.
Robert ‘Bob’ Moses, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) project director in 1964, discusses the importance of Freedom Summer 1964 during the 50th anniversary conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Photograph: Rogelio V Solis/AP

“For me, it wasn’t the March on Washington. It was going to Hattiesburg [Mississippi] and these small communities and seeing you’ve got 80,000 Black folks who say we really do want to vote,” said Richardson. “Eighty thousand Black folks who have seen their sisters and nephews, neighbors and all these folks beaten, killed and all kinds of violence throughout their community. And yet still 80,000 of them saying, ‘We don’t care; we are going to try and register to vote.’”

While the names of some organizers have become more well known, they did not set out to garner recognition. Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously said at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired’, got her start as an organizer when she applied to vote. At the time, she was living on a plantation in Mississippi.

“The plantation owner told Fannie Lou Hamer that if she wouldn’t go back to the courthouse and withdraw her application to vote that she would have to leave,” said McLaurin. “So, Fannie Lou Hamer left the plantation and came into Ruleville, and she became one of the most important leaders in the effort to register to vote.”

Ufot says she is part of that legacy.

“I am in a long unbroken chain of freedom fighters. I am excited to make sure the America, and the world our ancestors fought for is something we haven’t given up on,” she said. “I think that there are so many opportunities for us to lead in this moment, for us to build upon the foundation our SNCC veterans have laid for us.”

Carlisa N Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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