In the summer of 1964, more than a thousand students and other activists came to Mississippi to make a change. In the face of racism, and violent intimidation, these risk-takers launched a campaign to register African American voters in a state that historically excluded black people from voting. They also started schools, community centers, and health clinics throughout Mississippi to help the local population. And they brought the lessons of organizing and social change they learned back to their own communities.
The Mississippi Summer Project, more commonly known as Freedom Summer, turns 50 this year. And from June 25-29, the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc., the NAACP, and Tougaloo College are teaming up for <strong>Freedom50 – a conference to honor the legacy of that summer, while shining a spotlight on contemporary issues.
Repair the World talked with conference Co-Chair, Derrick Johnson, about the Freedom Summer’s foundational legacy, the role that young Jewish activists played in the summer of 1964, and the importance of thinking about the future of the movement.
What was the inspiration behind the Freedom 50 Conference?
We have had conferences before, but this one is unique. In addition to the anniversary, we have several individuals who were veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement who will be attending. They wanted to celebrate 1964 as a pivotal time in Mississippi and American history, but also acknowledge the work that still remains when it comes to education equality, voter access, health care, and worker rights. A lot of progress has been made in these areas over the last 50 years, but they are all still many issues. They want the conference to be a commemoration and a place where an intergenerational group can dialogue about where we are now.
Are most of your registrants from Mississippi?
We’re seeing people register from as far away as New York and Oregon, and as close as Jackson, Mississippi. The Freedom Summer organizers understood that in order to influence national politics and impact public policy, you have to make an impact locally. That’s truly what they did. So many social movements were born or strengthened from connections made that summer, from the progressive movement at Berkeley in California, to the labor movement and women’s movement. It was truly foundational.
Young Jewish activists also played an important role in the Freedom Summer.
It was the first time in Mississippi history when blacks and whites, and particularly Jewish people, worked together in the open – despite the threats and intimidation. For the Jewish community, young students could identify with the need to be a part of a progressive movement. They saw the fight as a part of their fight. And many of the relationships have lasted over time. At the conference, we’ll be working with Beth Israel Congregation and there will be lots of related Jewish programming. These collaborations feel very organic because you can’t tell the full story of the Freedom Summer without acknowledging this relationship.
What is on tap for the conference?
The sessions will primarily be focused on the four issue areas I mentioned: education equality, voter access, health care, and worker rights. They will be designed to be interactive with a focus on moving the conversations had at the conference forward after it ends. There is so much work to be done, so we want this to truly be a living conference.
How did you get involved?
I’m the State President of the NAACP, so I got involved through that connection. But I also served on the board of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement. Many of the veterans are getting older and I feel a sense of duty to ensure that they are appreciated and celebrated.
Why did you feel it was important to include a Youth Congress at the conference?
The veterans understand the importance and the energy of young people – they were the young people at one time, after all! Students and young people help propel discussions forward and so the
Youth Congress will offer space for them to explore. We don’t want young people off to the side – we want them fully incorporated at the conference. But it is also important to our value system to let them know how important they are for today and the future.