By Cynthia Pease
Mississippi was said to be the hardest nut to crack in the movement to register black voters. If a voter registration drive could succeed there, it could succeed anywhere.
Of course, this also meant that the resistance there would be fiercer than resistance elsewhere. Indeed, the Freedom Summer project of 1964 led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, which was responsible for numerous murders, fire bombings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation in a short period of time and making it difficult for blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests were required for blacks but not for whites, with often ridiculous questions that no one could have answered. The tests were obviously structured so that blacks would not be able to pass them. Poll taxes were also part of registering to vote, which kept poor blacks from even attempting to register.
White Citizens Councils had been the main “nonviolent” force for enforcing Jim Crow practices of segregation and denial of voting rights to blacks in Mississippi. But when word of the Freedom Summer Project to send thousands of white students (or “nigger-loving Jews and Commies” to the WCCs) to Mississippi to hold Freedom Schools and teach blacks what they needed to know to register to vote came to the ears of the white supremacists, they knew something stronger was needed.
The portrait of Sam Bowers drawn in Murder in Mississippi by Howard Ball is chilling. It may not be surprising that the name of his jukebox and vending machine business was Sambo Amusement Company. He thought of himself as a pure Christian, yet his hatred of Jews as well as blacks indicates that he never understood that Jesus was a Jew and most certainly not white as Bowers understood whiteness. Infidels were to be murdered, according to Ball, not forgiven or converted. “If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it is to be done with no malice, in complete silence, and in the manner of a Christian act,” he is quoted by Ball as saying.
Bowers’ intolerance was rewarded with being named Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK in February 1964. Between February and June, membership in the KKK grew to between 5,000 and 6,000.
Whether calling themselves the White Citizens Council or the Ku Klux Klan, white Mississippians had never been averse to using violence. Emmett Till died in Mississippi in 1955; Medger Evers of the NAACP was assassinated in 1963; Vernon Dahmer, also an NAACP official, would be burned to death by the Klan in 1965. James Meredith survived being shot in 1966 several years after he was the first black student to be enrolled at “Ole Miss”; his enrollment necessitated heavy federal protection from mobs of angry whites.
Charges have been made that the only reason the FBI investigated these murders so tirelessly was because two of the victims were white. And that may well be, but the black activists who started the Freedom Summer project were very clear that they wanted white students to go south because they knew that would draw attention to the situation. Black people had been dying left and right trying to work for civil rights, but little attention had been paid by the rest of the country. They needed leverage, and white was the leverage.
The White Citizens Council knew all about, and indeed had infiltrated, the Freedom Summer training camp in Oxford, Ohio. With the revitalized Klan growing every day, by June 1964 the time was ripe for the murders that drew the most attention in that bloody season, those of three young voter registration workers, two white and one black. Ironically, the fates of Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman played out in a Mississippi town called Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.