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Why we need a second Freedom Summer in 2014

Fifty years ago, Freedom Summer organizers risked their lives for civil rights. Today, we need the courage to ensure their efforts are not rolled back.
Voter registration rally in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1964.
Voter registration rally in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1964.

“The school is an agent of social change. Students must know their own history.”

Those were the first two of five goals laid out by the founders of the Freedom Schools, a core program of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. During that sweltering southern season – temperatures averaged in the high 80s from June through September – civil rights workers promoted political participation through voter registration and community education.

At great personal risk to themselves and their families, organizers opened thirty makeshift schools across the state, taught by volunteers and attended by students of all ages. The lesson plan? Learn your history, and transform your anger into action.

As students of the civil rights era, we need to heed this example and learn our own history. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is being commemorated with three days of events at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. But the celebratory nature of this week must not leave the impression that victory was inevitable, or that the days of voter suppression and institutional racism are only in the rear view mirror. If anything, the visceral reminder of our history should inspire a Freedom Summer for 2014.

The 1964 Freedom Summer was a response to decades of voter suppression and political disenfranchisement. Southern states had spent the better part of a century honing the dark art of racial exclusion through poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow tactics. By 1962, only 6.7% of eligible blacks in Mississippi were registered to vote.

The movement was massively successful in drawing attention to civil rights abuses. The organizers’ message of education and empowerment struck a nerve with Americans of all backgrounds, supercharging the larger civil rights movement and leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the following year.

Fifty years later, the Voting Rights Act is in limbo, with key portions struck down by the Supreme Court. Inevitably, voter suppression has once again reared its ugly head. Since 2011, a number of state have introduced laws to make voting more difficult, with the burden usually falling on poor people and communities of color. This year alone, Wisconsin and Ohio have passed laws to cut early voting, while North Carolina has gone forward with a suppressive voter ID law. Some of these laws are set to take effect for the 2014 midterm elections – now seven months away.

The question remains: Will the civil rights organizers of today respond with a sustained push for voter registration to overwhelm the tide of voter suppression?

Midterm elections historically have a low turnout. Progressives cannot count on the same level of excitement as in 2012, when President Obama was on the ticket and voter suppression outrages were fresh in voters’ minds. In this off-year, there is a greater danger that organized money on the right can overpower organized people on the left.

That is why I am so grateful for the upcoming Freedom 50 movement. From June 25-29, veterans of the original Freedom Summer movement will lead events around the country to once again educate and inspire their communities about civil rights. They will focus on the same issues they focused on back in 1964 – voting rights, education, workers’ rights and access to health care.

As Derrick Johnson, one of the organizers and President of the Mississippi NAACP, told me, “We want to have a direct impact on policy and also pursue the political goal of increasing the number of African Americans who are registered and engaged.”

School is back in session.

Freedom Summer organizers risked their lives and transformed our nation for the better. Today, we need to summon the courage to ensure their efforts are not being rolled back. History has taught us that we can be powerful agents of social change when we organize, agitate, and -- most importantly -- vote. The summer of 2014 will be an important test for the cause of freedom.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the former president and CEO of the NAACP.