Archive | August, 2014

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer

28 Aug
Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Group photo of students and volunteers with Richard Beymer at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer

An exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer is now on view in Olin Library, Gingko Room.

Remembering Mississippi Freedom Summer highlights primary source materials from the Washington University Libraries Film & Media Archive’s newly acquired Richard Beymer Collection and inaugural Henry Hampton Collection.The exhibit also celebrates the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) grant awarded to the Film & Media Archive in 2014 to preserve Beymer’s documentary A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer.

Best known for his roles as “Tony” in the film adaption of West Side Story (1961) and “Ben Horne” in David Lynch’s series Twin Peaks (1990-1991), actor Richard Beymer’s documentary film, A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer (1964) offers a rare portrait of segregated Mississippi during this historically significant time in American History. Beymer was one of the few filmmakers to spend significant time working with Freedom Summer volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a result, other documentary filmmakers frequently seek his footage. Most recently, filmmaker Stanley Nelson relied heavily on A Regular Bouquet when completing his film, Freedom Summer, which premiered in June 2014 on PBS. Beymer’s footage was also included in Henry Hampton’s seminal documentary series, Eyes on the Prize (1987). Featured in episode five, Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964) Hampton combined stock footage and first-hand accounts to retell the events of Freedom Summer.

Portrait of three boys during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Portrait of three boys during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964.  © The Richard Beymer Collection.

 

In 1964, civil rights activists launched Freedom Summer, a project in Mississippi to register black voters, provide educational opportunities, and build the movement for integration. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), an umbrella group of civil rights organizations that included SNCC working in Mississippi, issued a call for volunteers, and nearly 1,000 responded. After receiving training, the volunteers, mostly white, northern college students and recent graduates, joined the existing group of predominantly black activists.

Richard Beymer set out to film these activities in order to create a training tool for COFO’s future volunteers.  Comprised of testimonials from volunteers and Black Mississippi residents, A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer consists of rare and historically significant primary source depictions of segregated Mississippi against the backdrop of violent opposition. The film also includes footage of Freedom Schools, which provided instruction to over 3,000 black students. The schools directly challenged Mississippi’s segregated education system by offering instruction on black history and constitutional rights. Portraying the intimate relationship between teacher and student, the film includes interviews, class instruction, sing-alongs, and a discussion of the student-written Pleasant Green Magazine

Students at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

Students at a Freedom School during Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. © The Richard Beymer Collection.

The threat of racist violence haunted Freedom Summer from the beginning. On June 21, one week after the first volunteers arrived for training, three activists, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared. The FBI conducted a massive search and found their corpses on August 4. Despite the threat of violence, Freedom Summer volunteers engaged in door-to-door voter-registration efforts. Beymer filmed the registration drive and interviewed participants. One resident discussed the economic tactics used by segregationists: “When you put ‘By whom are you employed’ [on the application form], you’re fired by the time you get back home.” Mississippi officials rejected the vast majority of voter-registration applications submitted by African-American residents that summer. But the events of Freedom Summer increased public support for new civil rights legislation, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

When Henry Hampton made Eyes on the Prize one of his main goals was to include the voices of people who had not been recorded or widely recognized before. Many local activists in remote areas of Mississippi who had organized early on to gain voting rights, often at great risk, were featured in the episode Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964). Hampton interviewed Robert Moses and Amize Moore, two of the main architects and planners of Freedom Summer, Unita Blackwell, local activist who became one of the delegates in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), Casey and Tom Hayen, Freedom Summer volunteers, and Myrlie Evers, civil rights activist and widow of slain Mississippi leader Medgar Evers. Hampton also interviewed segregations, including William Simmons, a member of the Citizens’ Council—a pro-segregation organization that operated in Mississippi—to show what the prevailing political climate was like in Mississippi in 1964 and what the Freedom Summer volunteers had to combat. By interviewing people from both sides of the issue, Hampton brought a multifaceted portrait of Mississippi to viewers.

Together A Regular Bouquet: Mississippi Summer and Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964) create a complex portrait of life in Mississippi during Freedom Summer and an understanding of the social and political pressures that existed during this volatile period in our nation’s history.

 

 

“Is this America?” Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party

22 Aug

“If the freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America.  Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off of the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?”

–Fannie Lou Hamer

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech to the credentials committee of the Democratic National Convention. August marked the end of Freedom Summer, a campaign designed in words of Robert Moses to, “open up the state of Mississippi.” The efforts of Moses and other activists such as Amzie Moore, Dave Dennis, and Fannie Lou Hamer centered around attempting to change the voter registration system in Mississippi where in 1962 only 6.7% of African-Americans were registered to vote. In the summer of 1964 the Freedom Summer campaign was launched and volunteers from all over the country came to Mississippi to help register African-Americans to vote.

Fannie Lou Hamer was the daughter of sharecroppers and had been working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to try to expand voting rights for African-Americans in Mississippi. This was no easy task and people engaged in this work were often threatened, harassed or beaten by segregationists. Hamer was a member of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MDFP), a group that she and other activist formed in response to Mississippi’s all-white Democratic party representatives. The MDFP traveled to the national convention in Atlantic City in 1964 and demanded to be recognized and given voting privileges. Hamer gave an electrifying speech where she described an episode of shocking police brutality after she and her fellow activists were arrested in Winona, Mississippi on false charges. She was so compelling as a speaker that President Johnson called an emergency press conference to divert attention away from her and the MDFP’s demands which were not in line with his political agenda. Despite these efforts the speech was picked up and played on news programs and garnered a lot of support for the Freedom Party’s demands. Eventually the Democratic Party agreed to two votes for the MDFP, but Hamer and her fellow party members rejected that compromise.

Even though the MDFP didn’t meet their goal, Fannie Lou Hamer focused the attention of the nation on the appalling conditions that black Mississippians were forced to endure, and her honest and emotional speech remains a pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. You can hear Hamer’s speech in its entirety in the link above.