In a time of what seems to be increasing violence in American cities stemming from the left and the right battling over Black Lives Matter, it is almost refreshing and more unreservedly moving and inspiring to also look back at the struggles of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, particularly with the documentary “Freedom Summer,” which PBS has made free for streaming now from its website. First aired in 2014, it gathers historical footage and contemporary interviews from the efforts by mostly white students from up north who joined with Black organizers to bring full voting rights to Black people in Mississippi in 1964.
In other Southern states at the time, between 50% and 70% of Black citizens who were eligible to vote were registered, but in Mississippi, the figure was less than 7% – and whites in power were determined to keep it that way. Bob Moses, an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, believed bringing down the white students would force the news media to pay attention to the injustices whites foisted on every Black Mississippian.
Even before most of the white volunteers finished their training at a college in Oxford, Ohio, two, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, both from New York City, traveled to Meridian, Mississippi, to meet up with James Chaney, a Black Mississippi activist. On June 21, the three were arrested by a Neshoba County deputy sheriff, then released that night – and drove into a Ku Klux Klan ambush.
Organizers feared the three had been murdered but the truth did not surface until six weeks later. In the meantime, their disappearance made headlines. Schwerner’s 22-year-old wife, Rita Schwerner, went from Mississippi to D.C. and met with President Lyndon Johnson. “This is not a social call,” she told him. “I’ve come to find out where my husband is.” That night, Johnson taped a call he made to FBI head J. Edgar Hoover:
JOHNSON: I saw this Mrs. Schwerner this evening.
JOHNSON: The wife of the missing boy.
HOOVER: Yeah. She’s a communist, you know.
JOHNSON: No, but she acted worse than that.
HOOVER: Is that so?
JOHNSON: Yeah, she was awfully mean and very ugly. ... She wants thousands of extra people put down there ... I told her I’d put all that we could efficiently handle. And I was going to let you determine how many we could efficiently handle.
It is a breathtaking moment, for its pettiness and, yes, ugliness. Yet Johnson was the same man who signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which would do a good deal of what Schwerner and others died for – helping lead to 60% of Blacks in Mississippi registered to vote that year.
Rita Schwerner practices family law in Washington state these days. For the most part she is reluctant to speak about her own life, even about how she and Mickey met, because she believes it takes away from what Black Mississippians achieved – but she spoke with ProPublica on the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, in 2014. “How did I say those things (to Johnson)?” she asked rhetorically. “I guess the answer is, why not? They were true. What was Lyndon Johnson possibly going to do to me? In a way, I was very safe. ... It’s not that I hadn’t been taught manners.”
For Schwerner and other heroes of Freedom Summer, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, who also put the fear of God in LBJ (he hurriedly scheduled a press conference to try to preempt Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and failed), it was never primarily about manners. It was about justice – and sometimes those two are desperately at odds.