Remembering Freedom Summer 55 Years Later
Joan & Loki Mulholland
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) continues its Freedom 55 Programming Series this spring as part of its year-long commemoration of the 55th anniversary of Freedom Summer, an integral milestone in the nation’s civil rights history.
“Being an institution focused on the continual struggle for human rights, it’s important that we further this discussion and honor all freedom fighters,” says Jacqueline Dace, NURFC deputy director. “Focusing on Freedom 55 not only allows us to reveal and investigate the historical perspective and the lasting legacy, it also provides us the opportunity to review the strategies developed during the civil rights movement that continue to impact contemporary freedom and social justice efforts today.”
The Freedom 55 commemoration features the Freedom Lecture Series (previously known as the John & Francie Pepper Lecture Series), panel discussions, book signings, film screenings, musical performances and much more.
A discussion titled “Remembering Emmett Till,” with award-winning filmmaker Keith A. Beauchamp, launched the NURFC’s Freedom 55 campaign Feb. 21. Excerpts from the 2005 film “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” produced and directed by Beauchamp, were shown throughout the discussion.
Emmett Till was the 14-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi. “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till” revisits the public outrage that followed Till’s kidnapping and brutal murder, and also recognizes the bravery of Till’s family in standing up to racism in the Deep South. Full screenings of the film were also shown on two other occasions in February in the Freedom Center’s Harriet Tubman Theater.
“The murder and mutilation of Emmett Till was the impetus expressed by many veterans of the Civil Rights Movement as to why they became active,” says Dace. Sharing Beauchamp’s perspective about Till’s death offered a clearer understanding of how and why it inspired so many to participate in the Freedom Summer movement.
Freedom Summer Revisited
It was the summer of 1964, and the Mississippi Summer Project – later dubbed Freedom Summer – recruited upwards of 700 middle-class, mostly white college student volunteers who were making their way to Mississippi to join civil rights activists in a non-violent effort to integrate Mississippi’s segregated political system and increase voter registration among African Americans.
Residents and volunteers were met with unimaginable violence, including murders, bombings, kidnappings and torture.
“The number of African Americans on voter registration rolls was low because they were restricted from being able to vote,” Dace says. “Jim Crow laws were still in effect, requiring African Americans to pay a fee in order to vote, and fear and intimidation, of course, were keeping people from voting. So, Freedom Summer was a way to encourage Mississippi residents to register to vote and to show them how to become more active participants in the voting process.”
In preparation for the Mississippi Summer Project, hundreds of student volunteers gathered on the campus of Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (now Miami University) for two, one-week orientation sessions from June 14 through June 27.
The project was barely underway in Mississippi when three volunteers – James Chaney, Michael H. Schwerner and Andrew Goodman (the first one mentioned was black and the other two were Jewish) – were kidnapped and murdered. Their murders were a combined effort, planned and directed by members of the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office; the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department; and the Ku Klux Klan.
Because the murders and other acts of horrendous violence were covered on national television, the country, for the first time could not ignore its civil rights problems, and the resulting public outrage eventually spurred Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, according to Dace, is a “museum of conscience” and an institution where conversations about civil rights, unity and freedom are constructed, not just responded to. “We provide the platform for looking at, interpreting and analyzing these issues. We take the lead in being the place for these conversations to be held. For us, it’s not a subset of our mission, it is our mission.”
Dace, who hails from Centreville, Illinois, formerly served as the director of internal affairs at the National Blues Museum in St. Louis. Prior to that, she was the project manager for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson; collections manager at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; curator of African American history at the Missouri Historical Society and adjunct professor of Afro-African American Studies at Washington University, both in St. Louis.
“As someone who studied and taught the civil rights movement, being able to actually meet those involved in it when I worked in Mississippi – hearing their stories firsthand – gave me a whole different appreciation for the movement,” Dace says. “I thought I knew civil rights, but being immersed in it gave me a ground-level Ph.D. in the subject.
“One of the reasons I wanted to bring these people here is, I know what it did to me to hear their stories firsthand, and it changed my knowledge and perception. I want others to experience the same thing, and I further want to show respect to these important historical figures, whose names many people don’t know. They were crucial in the things that are still happening today.”
Freedom 55 Lecture Series
The lecture series began March 14 with Charles E. Cobb Jr., professor, award-winning journalist, former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the major civil rights movement organizations of the 1960s and author of “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.” His book explores the paradoxical relationship between the nonviolent civil rights struggle and the long history and vital role of armed self-defense in the survival and liberation of black communities. Cobb, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, is an inductee of the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame.
Upcoming Freedom 55 lectures include:
David J. Dennis, Sr. and Robert “Bob” Moses, June 27 – Dave Dennis was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC; and a co-director of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the major civil rights movement organizations operating in Mississippi that helped lead training for Freedom Summer. Bob Moses, educator, a MacArthur Fellows recipient and civil rights leader, was also a leader of SNCC, director of COFO, and led training during Freedom Summer. He is also the founder of the Algebra Project, a national mathematics literacy effort aimed at helping low-income students and students of color successfully achieve mathematical skills that are a prerequisite for a college preparatory mathematics sequence in high school.
Jerry Mitchell, September 19 – Investigative reporter and only the second investigative reporter to receive the $500,000 MacArthur Genius Award for extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. Mitchell was instrumental in the opening of multiple civil rights violation cases that led to convictions.
Music Moved the Movement
Music Moved the Movement is a program series featuring musical artists and civil rights activists. This three-part series consists of a panel discussion on Thursday evening followed by a Friday night concert. The program focuses on the societal conditions that were in place prior to, during and after the civil rights movement, with each program focusing on a particular musical genre that emerged from a generation growing up within a segregated culture in the Deep South.
According to Dace, the concerts, supplemented by the panel discussions, bring to light how societal issues of the modern civil rights era were expressed through music, and how music aided in empowering all involved. The program will further reveal the thread that links the Civil Rights Movement to Blues, Jazz and Gospel genres, and includes individuals who lived the experience.
Blues artists Bobby Rush and Marquise Knox will be featured during a panel discussion Thursday, April 18, at the Harriet Tubman Theater. The event will include a reception from 6 to 6:45 p.m., followed by a moderated discussion from 6:55 to 8:10 p.m. and question and response session from 8:20 to 8:30 p.m. The concert featuring Marquise Knox and local blues artist Ben Levin will be held Friday, April 19, at 7 p.m. in the Grand Hall.
Freedom 55 Film Series
On Thursday, June 6, at 6 p.m., Loki Mulholland, a movie producer and son of civil rights activist and Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, will be on hand for a showing and discussion of the film, “The True Story of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.” Joan spent time on death row at Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm; served as secretary of SNCC; participated in sit-ins; helped organize the historic March on Washington; and helped with orientation for Freedom Summer volunteers.
Honoring African American Quilt Artists
Another exciting attraction sponsored by NURFC as part of the Freedom 55 commemoration is a quilt exhibition titled “We Who Believe in Freedom,” presented by Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi. The exhibition opened April 6.
Described as “remarkable and tireless,” Mazloomi – a historian, independent curator, author, lecturer, artist, mentor and facilitator – was originally trained as an aerospace engineer. In the 1980s, however, she began focusing her energy on showcasing the many unrecognized contributions of African American quilt artists.
Mazloomi founded the African-American Quilt Guild of Los Angeles in 1981, the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN) in 1985; and she has been at the forefront of educating the public about the diversity of interpretation, styles and techniques among African American quilters, educating a younger generation of African Americans about their own history through quilts created by WCQN members.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is located at 50 E Freedom Way, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, visit www.freedomcenter.org