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Monday, July 7, 2014

Risking Everything

Author looks back at the Freedom Summer

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It was a vicious and violent beginning to a summer that would forever change the course of American history. On June 21,1964, three civil rights workers were shot and killed by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and local law enforcement in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Targeted and murdered because of their involvement with the Mississippi Summer Project, a concentrated, nonviolent effort to challenge the institutional segregation of Mississippi’s political system during the summer of 1964, the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner received extensive national press coverage, helped educate more naïve American populations of the deep-seated racism and senseless violence residents and volunteers faced.

Contemporarily referred to as the Freedom Summer project, the Mississippi Summer Project organized Freedom Schools, voter registration workshops and public demonstrations with the help of thousands of Mississippians and hundreds of northern volunteers over a period of nine weeks. Among those brave volunteers were students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The Wisconsin Historical Society has one of the largest civil rights research collections in the country, and the reason for this is that 50 years ago, UW students were requited to collect private papers in Mississippi and all over the south,” explains Freedom Summer traveling exhibit organizer and WHS deputy director of library archives, Michael Edmonds. “With the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer coming up, we decided to digitize the papers that they collected in 1964. We’re almost done doing that, and the website went live with thousands of pictures and other documents a year ago.”

Noted for its uniqueness, the Freedom Summer traveling exhibition has been celebrated for the personal nature of many of its featured materials. Edmonds selected the pieces from thousands of documents and with the assistance of the Jane Bradley Pitt Foundation; the Wisconsin Historical Society took the exhibit on tour. “The traveling exhibit has been viewed by about 4,000 students, teachers and parents in Milwaukee, and along with it there’s a website that also has lesson plans for teachers,” says Edmonds. “It was immediately successful, we thought why we don’t put it in more public venues, libraries for instance, when school isn’t in session?”

Presently on display at the Milwaukee Public Library through July 18, the Freedom Summer exhibit enhances the central library’s existing American Civil Rights Era collections and resources, according to Milwaukee Public Library librarian and non-fiction selector Tom Olson. “It is important to remember the price that was paid for the right to vote, which is recounted in many of the items in our collection on the Civil Rights Movement,” Olson said. “The library provides many unique cultural experiences and materials that pay homage to significant milestones in our local, national, and world’s history. We encourage residents to come and learn more about this time in history and why one of the nation’s premier research collections on the Civil Rights Movement ended up in Wisconsin by seeing the exhibit and attending the Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader companion book talk on July 12.”

Published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and edited by Edmonds, Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader features a collection of 44 photographs, announcements, lists, personal letters and guidelines selected from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s extensive collection of Civil Rights era documents. Divided into seven chapters, which range in scope and focus from the extreme segregation that precipitated the Mississippi Summer Project to the tactics of the opposition, “Risking Everything” thoughtfully presents documents ranging from the 1964 campaign posters of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party candidates to deposition of Fannie Lou Hammer, an African-American woman who was jailed and viciously beaten after attending a voter registration workshop during the summer of 1964.

After weeks of coordinated action and persistent violence from the opposition, the Mississippi Summer Project officially ended on Aug. 21, and as northern volunteers returned home, the majority of Freedom Summer leadership and the attention of the national media soon followed. “By fall, the organizers of Freedom Summer were exhausted, disappointed, and angry. Despite all they’d done, Mississippi’s white-supremacist regime was as deeply entrenched as ever,” Edmonds writes.

But despite the betrayals and setbacks, The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued to plan into the winter of 1964 and the spring of 1965, holding a retreat the following November to consider the movement’s future actions  “Nine months later, on Aug 6, 1965, after even more murders and televised violence in Alabama, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act,” explains Edmonds in the seventh chapter of Risking Everything.

“It outlawed literacy tests and other traditional ways of excluding black voters and authorized federal registrars to work in county courthouses wherever discrimination could be proved,” Edmonds re Within a few weeks, more than 40,000 new black voters had registered in Mississippi. By the end of 1966, most eligible African Americans in the South were registered. In the next elections, the century-old system of government sponsored racism crumbled.

The Wisconsin Black Historical Society will host the Freedom Summer exhibit Aug. 11-29. To learn more about the Freedom Summer exhibit or to view the digitized collections visit http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:1474.