Just as Black History Month was getting started, I had the opportunity to attend the screening of a new documentary that’s coming out in a few months. Freedom Summer is about the hot, violent summer of 1964, when over a thousand college students from around the country converged on Mississippi. Among other activities, they got African American adults registered to vote and helped launch a new, integrated political party, which went to the Democratic National Convention and challenged the all-white delegation there.
The Freedom Summer represented a major sea change in the Civil Rights Movement, and I’ve been thinking a lot about its lasting effects as Black History Month has gotten underway. This year’s theme, “Civil Rights in America,” is a nod to that long-term impact and to the fact that black history is really a shared history here in the United States. Here are four ways the Civil Rights Movement continues to affect us all today:
1. The Voting Rights Act – Then: At the end of the Freedom Summer, a group of disenfranchised black Mississippians – supported and organized in part by the volunteer students – walked into the Democratic National Convention and challenged the status quo. The next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination in voting and is considered the most effective civil rights statute enacted by Congress. Of course, the Freedom Summer participants were a fraction of the thousands of people pushing for this, but their concentration on getting Mississippians registered to vote left its mark. Since the 1980s, Mississippi has elected more black officials than any other state.
Now: Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires nine states with histories of racial discrimination to get clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court to make any voting law changes. Within 24 hours, five of those states had already moved ahead “with voter ID laws, some of which had already been rejected as discriminatory under the Voting Rights Act,” reported Frontline. Given that voter ID laws profoundly impact poor, minority and elderly voters, the fight for full enfranchisement continues.
2. Community Involvement – Then: The Civil Rights Movement remains one of the most effective models for mobilizing communities toward a common cause. One of the features of the movement was how diverse the activists were for the times. The well-off worked alongside those living in poverty. Women worked to ensure that they were represented in all activities that were undertaken. And, of course, the activists working towards racial integration had to be integrated themselves. Full participation was both the ends and the means of the movement.
Now: Organizers and policymakers see the value of informing and engaging the broader public. By winning hearts and minds, they are raising the financial and social capital needed to win elections, change laws and significantly influence public opinion. Additionally, it has been really exciting to see new conversations taking place online around recognizing privilege and the impact it can have – both negative and positive – on activism. Last year, Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote this really thoughtful piece on “explaining white privilege to a broke white person.”
3. Political Representation – Then: In the early 1960s, nearly half of Mississippi’s population was black, but only about five percent of adults had been able to register to vote, making it impossible for the “official” delegation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to truly represent the residents of Mississippi. That’s why the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) went to the convention to challenge the all-white delegation.
Now: Today, 19 percent of members of Congress are women. Eight percent are African American, seven percent are Hispanic or Latino, and two percent are Asian/Pacific Islanders.[i] All of these numbers are well below representation across the US population. Additionally, the median net worth of Congress is $1,008,767,[ii] while the median net worth of the American family is estimated at $77,300.[iii]
At the federal level in particular, we are nowhere close to true representation. Fortunately, organizations like EMILY’S List are encouraging and supporting women and minorities who want to run for office. And campaign finance reform like Clean Elections laws are making it possible for candidates who aren’t wealthy – or connected to a network of wealthy donors/influencers – to run for office.
4. Giving a Voice to the Voiceless – Then: The highlight of the Freedom Summer documentary was that it included Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony to Democratic Party officials when black Mississippians were trying to secure their representation at the DNC in 1964. Hamer was a sharecropper who was fired and forced out of her home after she registered to vote. Undeterred – even after being beaten to near death by police – she traveled the state organizing Mississippians and taking on a leadership role in the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Hamer’s emotional testimony and plea for blacks to be treated as “first-class citizens” visibly moved the committee that was to decide whether or not the MFDP would be included in the convention. A few incredible things happened during her testimony (you’ll have to watch the documentary to get details!), but suffice it to say that a black woman from rural Mississippi who’d spent her life in poverty had a profound effect on people across the country – including the President. She went on to run for Congress, secured childcare and family services for others living in poverty, and helped launch the National Women’s Political Caucus. The Civil Rights Movement helped women like Hamer, Rosa Parks and Viviane Malone Jones find and raise their voices.
Now: At first glance, these voices may seem like they are vulnerable, inexperienced or unexpected. But the women to whom they belong have incredible power, and are often well-equipped to help create and implement solutions to problems about which they have first-hand knowledge. Today, we are moved to action by the words of women like Malala Yousafzai, Naquasia LaGrande, Zerlina Maxwell and Laverne Cox, among many others.
When organizations like Washington Area Women’s Foundation continue to ensure that all women have a seat at the table and a forum for their voices, we, too can help create the sea change that transforms our community and carry on a legacy that has had a tremendous impact on our shared history.
Photo: Fannie Lou Hamer testifies before the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.