The civil rights movement by the mid-1960s had made significant strides in attaining racial equality and social justice but there was still voter discrimination at the polls, particularly in the South.
The Freedom Riders had had their historic bus rides in the Jim Crow states. Martin Luther King Jr. had given his famous speech, “I Have a Dream”. Schools have been desegregated. But African Americans in the South faced the difficulty of exercising their franchise. They had a presence but had no voice in policies affecting them, according to History.
Some of the systemic challenges structured to disenfranchise Black voters included poll taxes and literacy tests. The bigger impact was that the low political participation inadvertently affected the demands made by the civil rights movement.
The Freedom Summer project selected Mississippi as the focal point of its campaign because of the low voter registration among African Americans. The data showed that in 1962, the voter roll had less than seven percent of eligible African Americans who were capable of voting. The Freedom Summer project sought to shore up the number of African Americans who will register to vote in Mississippi.
The project garnered cross-board support with over 700 white volunteers offering their help to change the paradigm where Black voters were harassed and discriminated against at the polls.
The Freedom Summer project was the brainchild of civil rights groups such as the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the local Council of Federated Organizations. Despite its non-violent stance, the Ku Klux Klan and federal law officers attacked members of the project. The regular assaults, arrests and killings were widely publicized by the media.
The organizers of the Freedom Summer project were not perturbed in their desire to ensure Black voters were registered. In the end, 1,062 volunteers were picked up by law enforcers, 80 of them were assaulted while churches, homes, and black-owned businesses were torched or bombed. Four civil rights workers lost their lives and at least three Mississippi African Americans were murdered because of their involvement in this movement, according to National Archives.
Before they began the advocacy, the Freedom Summer volunteers were psyched to expect violent confrontations but in all, they must not deviate from their non-violent stance. They were told they could be arrested, so they must have enough money on them to pay for their bail. They were psychologically prepared for the worst and made to read the experiences of other freedom fighters.
They pushed despite the attacks to register Black voters and established local networks to continue the advocacy. The impact of the campaign was not readily visible in Mississippi. In the summer of 1964 when 17,000 Mississippians tried to vote, only 1,200 got the chance to do so.
However, in July 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act following the increasing campaign by the Freedom Summer workers. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed.