God's Politics

The “Mississippi Freedom Summer” in 1964 was one of the most significant nonviolent campaigns in history, conducted in the face of incredible hatred and violence. Under the direction of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, hundreds of young volunteers – men and women, black and white – faced death on a daily basis. Black-owned homes, churches, and businesses were firebombed; volunteers were arrested and beaten; some lost their lives – including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The summer of 1964 produced both heroes and villains. Two stories in Thursday’s New York Times highlight that.

One of the heroes, Mendy Samstein, died yesterday at the age of 68. The Times reported:

Mendy Samstein, 68, Dies; Championed Civil Rights – “Mendy Samstein, who left graduate school to put himself in the forefront of the fight for black voting rights in Mississippi, enduring bombings and beatings in the crucial summer of 1964, died yesterday … Mr. Samstein abandoned his pursuit of a doctorate in history to join the historic turmoil in the South and became known as an adept organizer and pull-no-punches speaker. He helped recruit and deploy the more than 800 college students, mainly white, who traveled from many states to rural Mississippi towns, mainly black, as part of the Mississippi Summer Project in 1964. He became a full-time organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Stokely Carmichael, who later became the group’s chairman, called him “one in a million.”

And, along with the highly publicized violence against civil rights volunteers, there was vicious violence against ordinary folks. Just a few pages away was this story about an arrest in the murder that summer of Henry H. Dee and Charles E. Moore, both 19:

Mississippi Man Arrested in Killing of 2 Blacks in ’64 – “A 71-year-old man was arrested Wednesday in Mississippi on federal kidnapping charges stemming from the 1964 killing of two black teenagers who were tied to trees, whipped and drowned.”

It was truly a summer that brought out the best and the worst in America.

Duane Shank is senior policy adviser for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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