Oxford,Ohio Ceremonies Mark 50th Anniversary of Freedom Summer

Jun 20, 2014

This month marks the 50th anniversary of one of the milestones of the Civil Rights Movement. Cheri Lawson reports on the history and legacy of Freedom Summer with roots in southwest Ohio.

In June of 1964 hundreds of young people, gathered on the campus of the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, which is now part of Miami University. They came for training in what was called the Mississippi Summer Project with a goal of launching a voter education drive and providing other services for disenfranchised African Americans in Mississippi.  Jacky Johnson, archivist for the Western College Memorial Archives, says between seven and eight hundred students and other volunteers, most of whom were white, took part in the training.

Johnson: Some of the sessions were talking about and teaching the students how to register voters , how to go door-to-door in Mississippi and knock on doors and ask people to put their lives on the line and to vote.

Johnson says Mississippi was the poorest state in the nation. African Americans there were denied the right to vote and access to an education equal to that of whites.

Johnson: Some of the sessions  from the weeks were devoted to Freedom Schools. They were  teaching the students how to teach in freedom schools in Mississippi.

The volunteers were also taught how to protect themselves non-violently .

Johnson: Because when you went to Mississippi you were going into another part of the country that people didn’t really recognize . Because the average college student who traveled from the north to Western, they lived in suburban America. Some of them weren’t aware of how brutal life was in Mississippi. So when they came here and they were told to get yourself in the fetal position, protect your head, protect your limbs, protect parts of your body they didn’t really understand it.

They didn’t understand, Johnson says, until three of the Freedom Summer participants, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, were abducted and murdered.  Johnson says those deaths brought media from across the country to Oxford. The nation was paying attention.

Rick Momeyer, professor emeritus at Miami University who was also a project trainer, is standing near the Freedom Summer memorial where three trees are going to be planted as a tribute to Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Momeyer says in 1964 the nation wasn’t paying attention to what happened to black people in the south or anywhere in the country.

Momeyer:  Until it was white people who were exposed to some of these risks there probably wasn’t going to be any attention paid. While there was no intention or desire that anybody be injured, I think veterans of the movement were well aware that it’s only when people who were more readily cared for by the population of America were in harms’ way that anybody would pay attention.

Momeyer says the deaths changed the second week of the training in Oxford.
Momeyer: It made the training very real very fast . It was immediately apparent that there were real risks and dangers and that they should learn how to take care of themselves and each other.

In 2004, Miami University theater professor Ann Elizabeth Armstrong collaborated with six students to create the Freedom Summer Walking tour. Armstrong says the tour is designed to simulate the experience of the volunteers in 1964. She says this 50th anniversary is an emotional time.

Armstrong: It’s a very deep kind of education . It’s a kind of putting yourself in the shoes of someone else. In their case they were putting themselves in the shoes of the people in Mississippi. And it’s so powerful when  we put ourselves in the shoes of them. It’s equally powerful.

Armstrong has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a prototype for a mobile app and web-based game to help pass the story of  Freedom Summer down to the next generation.

Several events will mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer including  a ceremony on the Oxford campus Friday.