By Susie Allen
Photo by Ted Polumbaum, courtesy of the Newseum
“ The big lesson is, if you organize, you can change the world.”
—Heather Booth, AB'67, AM'70
Freedom Summer participant
Don't call me the brave one for going
No, don't pin a medal to my name
For even if there was any choice to make
I'd be going down just the same
—Phil Ochs, “Going Down to Mississippi”
In the spring of 1964, civil rights activists with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups visited college campuses across the country. They urged students to flood the state of Mississippi for a two-month voter registration and education campaign.
Heather Tobis Booth, AB’67, AM’70, was among those at the University of Chicago who answered the call for volunteers.
“I had been brought up to believe we were in a society that should treat people equally,” she says. Her parents had taught that “we shouldn’t just say the words—we should work to make it happen.”
A Chicago Maroon article from 1964 indicates that at least 12 UChicago students were among the approximately 1,000 volunteers who partnered with local activists during the Mississippi Summer Project—also called Freedom Summer.
Looking back, alumni involved in Freedom Summer say it deepened their commitment to social justice and shaped their lives in lasting, if not always straightforward ways. They formed bonds with black civil rights activists and gained additional respect for the bravery of everyday people trying to claim their rights. Leaving Mississippi, “I felt we had accomplished a great deal,” says Peter Rabinowitz, AB’65, AM’67, PhD’72.
Yet he struggled with the knowledge that his work was left unfinished. To this day, Rabinowitz worries he should have done more. “I felt guilty that I didn’t stay.”
For Booth, who spent her career as an activist and educator for organizations including the NAACP, “The big lesson is, if you organize, you can change the world.”
Their impact was clear: In just 10 weeks, Freedom Summer resulted in about 17,000 black Mississippians attempting to register to vote. The effort brought national attention to the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters and helped to pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
'A long road down to Mississippi'
Once in Mississippi, volunteers like Booth and Rabinowitz were tasked with registering new voters, staffing community centers, and educating high school students in “Freedom Schools.”
These peaceful activities made volunteers targets of local law enforcement and violent attacks by the Ku Klux Klan. Arrests and fire bombings were a regular part of life for civil rights workers in Mississippi. SNCC organizers carefully screened applicants to the summer project to find those with the maturity to handle the heavy responsibility of the work.
Rabinowitz, whose father was a prominent civil rights lawyer, had been involved with the movement since junior high. He was tasked with teaching in a Freedom School, but had no idea what he would be asked to teach.
What he found was a group of high school students hungry to learn material that was not available in their segregated schools. Somewhat to his surprise, Rabinowitz’s students asked to study French.
It was a point of pride for students who had been told they would never need the language. “French was something that was taught in white schools but not in the black schools,” he explains. “This was something that had been kept from them.”
Rabinowitz taught his students elementary French and exposed them to the works of Jean-Paul Sartre. In so doing, he hoped to “convince them they were just as smart as anybody else.”
Booth spent the summer traveling through the cotton fields of rural Mississippi to register new voters. Many of the people she met lived under extreme poverty. Still, “they opened their homes and their hearts to us,” she says.
Steve Goldsmith, AB’66, continued Booth’s work in the fall of 1964 as part of the Freedom Vote effort. The Freedom Vote was a mock election designed to demonstrate the power of black voters, who were still being prevented from participating in national elections. As part of the get-out-the-vote efforts, “we were going door to door, from little shack to little shack, down little village roads,” Goldsmith recalls.
Like Booth, he was struck by the enthusiasm of the people he encountered in his work. “They wanted to vote, but they had been so suppressed.”
More than 68,000 people cast ballots in the 1964 Freedom Vote.
Working amid danger and terror
Throughout the summer, Northern volunteers were sheltered by the Mississippi black community. They stayed with black families, worked with black leaders of SNCC and other local organizations, and, for safety reasons, rarely ventured into white parts of town.
The culture shock could be intense. Goldsmith remembers a seasoned SNCC organizer taking him aside after he ate a sandwich in front of other workers and volunteers. He was told that in some impoverished parts of Mississippi, “you never eat in front of somebody else, because you don’t know if they’ve eaten today.”
From the student volunteers to the experienced SNCC organizers to the local families supporting the cause, everyone involved in Freedom Summer was united by the shared danger they faced.
The murder of three Freedom Summer volunteers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—reminded everyone of the high stakes of their work.
Rabinowitz knew both Goodman and Schwerner personally. He had chosen a project in Meridian, Miss. specifically to work with them. Learning of their disappearance “didn’t give me pause, but it sure terrified me,” Rabinowitz said. The case of the three missing workers gained national attention into July, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The three men’s bodies were found on Aug. 4, 1964.
Traveling in integrated cars posed a constant risk. Booth remembers hiding on the floor of a car to avoid being seen with black volunteers. She was briefly arrested early in her stay in Mississippi and spent several hours in jail before being released.
Yet Booth argues the dangers faced by Freedom Summer volunteers were far less severe than those faced by the new voters they registered.
“It was an act of courage and bravery and commitment to vote when they knew their lives might be threatened, their jobs might be threatened, they might be beaten,” she says.
“They weren’t going back to a safe place at the end of the summer.”
A new commitment to social change
Rabinowitz, now a professor at Hamilton College, says his Freedom Summer experience helped affirm his desire to go into education. His time in Mississippi was an early example of a belief that has shaped his life: “I am someone who really believes that good education changes you,” he says.
When Booth returned to UChicago, “I threw myself into the work of raising funds, spreading the message, working for the Civil Rights Act, working for changes on campus,” she says.
The ongoing fight for racial equality became her life’s work. Among many other efforts, she was in 2000 the founding director of the NAACP’s National Voter Fund, an effort aimed to educate and empower black voters.
Looking back, she says, Freedom Summer “increased my commitment to continue that struggle.”
Originally published on August 11, 2014.