According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If societal struggles are subject to laws similar to the world of physics, here is a reaction to the nationwide restrictions on voting — revive Freedom Summer 1964.
From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, America experienced a revolution in the legal rights of Black citizens, sometimes through the power of non-violent protests, too often in response to horrific state-sanctioned violence. In most of the momentous events that constituted the modern civil rights revolution, students and young people led the way.
In 1960, four courageous Greensboro, North Carolina, Black college students sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. As required by law at the time, they were denied service because of their race. Their plan was to not leave until they were served, despite the expectation of white supremacist physical assault. Somehow the brave pioneers survived, and the sit-in movement spread throughout the South.
In May 1961, the first two buses of Freedom Riders arrived in Alabama in a daring effort initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions mandating desegregation of interstate transit. Nearly half of the original CORE Freedom Riders were college students. The first bus was fire-bombed outside Anniston; the second was met at the Birmingham Trailways terminal where several Riders were beaten by a mob of Klansmen, under the watchful and approving eyes of local police.
The battered Freedom Riders were forced to abandon their planned bus ride to New Orleans. But students at Fisk University and other historically Black schools in Nashville — under the leadership of a young student named Diane Nash — refused to permit failure. Training more than 400 volunteers from around the country, scores of freedom buses were dispatched, primarily to Mississippi, where young activists filled the state’s jails and prisons.
The following year, 1963, John Lewis and Bernard La Fayette, leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and former college roommates, organized a voting rights campaign around Selma. In the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, they and a band of “foot soldiers” created so much “good trouble” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) eventually built a voting rights campaign that led to the march from Selma to Montgomery that set the stage for the Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965.
The triumph of voting rights legislation would not have been possible without the example set by the student volunteers of the Freedom Summer campaign a year earlier. In 1964, nearly a thousand students from across the country devoted their summer to the difficult and dangerous work of registering Black voters in Mississippi.
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Freedom Summer volunteers came to Mississippi risking life and limb. One of them, Queens College student Andrew Goodman, along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, was murdered by local police on his first day in the state. Now, more than a half century later, we face a coordinated assault on voting rights every bit as anti-democratic as that faced by the Freedom Summer volunteers. Young Americans who will inherit whatever form of democracy can be sustained, can come to the aid of a democracy in grave danger of dissolving into autocracy.
The assault on democracy and voting rights is so widespread, taking place in so many states, young volunteers can devote a summer, or perhaps even a full year, working for democracy in their home state or temporarily relocating to other states where voting rights are under attack. Florida, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio — the list of states goes on, and will continue unless the call to action is answered with determination to save our democracy. Students can apprentice themselves to community groups and church groups in states that have been targeted for voter suppression.
Groups on the ground can recruit people to host and provide housing for visiting voting rights defenders. They can organize volunteers to staff offices, register voters, assist with the application process to vote by mail, staff phone banks, and drive people to the polls on early voting days or Election Day. Everyone can be involved in resisting the metastasizing of undemocratic voting laws.
But this call for a new Freedom Summer is directed primarily toward to a new generation of high school and college-age Americans, urging them to accept the challenge of assuming the mantel of their courageous activist predecessors. What could be more fulfilling, or more important, than sustaining the legacy of Freedom Summer and voting rights campaigns of earlier generations by dedicating time to the defense of American democracy? What an opportunity to serve, to learn, to expand horizons. What an opportunity for young people, once again, to do great things for their country.
Raymond O. Arsenault was the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg until his retirement in December 2020. One of the nation’s leading civil rights historians, he is the author of several acclaimed books, including “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice.” He is currently writing a biography of the legendary voting rights activist John Lewis.
Howard L. Simon was the longest-serving state affiliate executive director of the America Civil Liberties Union, serving as Michigan director from 1974 to 1997 and Florida director from 1997-2018. He is an author of Florida’s 2018 constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to those who have completed their sentence for a prior felony conviction.