The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer project involved over 1,500 mostly white, mostly Northern college students working for civil rights. Young, idealistic Jews were highly represented. They worked as teachers at Freedom Schools educating black Mississippians and attempted to register black Mississippians to vote. Doing both of these tasks proved dangerous for the white and black volunteers organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Many black Mississippians suffered imprisonment, beating, firing, or murder just for registering to vote. Risking Everything: A Freedom Summer Reader edited by Michael Edmonds is a compilation of SNCC documents archived at the Wisconsin Historical Society released on the 50th anniversary of the project together with a traveling exhibition.
Just as the project began, three civil rights workers were killed by the Ku Klux Klan while investigating a black church burning. Two of those three men, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were Jewish. The book is divided into seven sections: Before Freedom Summer; Debates, Preparations, Training; Opposition and Violence; Voter Registration; Freedom Schools; The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party; and After Freedom Summer, a report by black reporter Louis Lomax, who researched and wrote a long article on the murders of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and 1964 Klan newsletter accusing Freedom Summer volunteers of being Communist inspired, if not directly controlled by the Soviet Union. The hate group groused about integration, picking on Jews as much as blacks.
The book is worthy for showing the complicated organization that went into the multifaceted project on a large scale and on the small scale, and the day-to-day impressions of the volunteers themselves.
A letter home from Illinois student Robert Feinglass captures his encounters with the poverty, fear, and oppression of the Mississippi residents: It is the most stimulating, satisfying work I have ever done. Nothing is ever enough; there is no such thing as a job finished: there is only progress. We are involved here in a process of uniting, joining, becoming a mutually interested community. The song says it well: we shall overcome.
Dina Weinstein is a Richmond, Virginia-based writer.