I’ve been reading Freedom Summer, a book about the summer of 1964 when 700 college students went to Mississippi to help African American citizens register to vote. This was a time when poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as intimidation, assault and murder, were routinely used to deny Black citizens not just the right to vote, but also their humanity. Though Black citizens were the majority of the population of Mississippi, few voted and none held public office. I cry almost continuously as I read the book because of the atrocities described.
I’m also crying because the book is about my coming of age. When I recall the sixties, I remember the disillusionment I suffered as a young adult because of the Vietnam War, but reading the book reminds me that my disillusionment had more to do with social injustice and inequality in general. And, it was this disillusionment that made so many of us want to do something to help alleviate other’s suffering.
When I was a high school student in California, the state became one of the first to enact a fair housing law, the Rumford Act (Proposition 14). At the time, housing in the US was racially segregated. The Rumford act was passed in 1963, but repealed the following year. It was not until the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act that segregated housing was legally laid to rest in the US.
We debated about racism and racial segregation in high school and I participated in a panel discussion of teens that was later published in a Catholic magazine. In college, I wrote a paper comparing St Thomas Aquinas’ idea of the Common Good with the Rumford Act.
It’s probably hard for those of you younger than I to imagine a time in America when schools, housing and bathrooms were segregated by race. I remember riding the train from Florida to Wisconsin on my way to my first year of college and seeing White Only bathroom signs from the train window. In college we boycotted the Elk’s Club in Milwaukee, where our college dances were held, because they admitted only whites.
The inequities that fueled the Civil Rights Movement were kindling for the growing dissatisfaction with The Vietnam War. In fact, it can be no coincidence that Martin Luther King was assassinated April 4, 1968, on the one year anniversary of his speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” in which he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of spiritual uplift is approaching spiritual death.” If you have not heard this speech, please take the time to do so. It will blow your mind.
I bring all this up because Freedom Summer’s strategy of organize, educate and mobilize as well as Dr. King’s message of social justice and economic equality are up again. Something familiar is in the air. The Occupy Wall Street movement is reminiscent of the mood of the sixties. There is disillusionment among the people and discontent breeds change. At such a time, it helps to know our history. While there are big problems yet to solve, it’s good to remember how far we’ve come since Mississippi. As one of the Freedom Songs (see below) says, “Freedom is a constant struggle.”
Check out the PBS Special about the Civil Rights Movement: Eyes on the Prize
Here are two great albums of classic protest songs:
Barbara Dane and the Chamber’s Brothers
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs
Tags: assassination, Barbara Dane, Beyond Vietnam, Black voting rights, Chambers Brothers, Civil Rights Movement, Common Good, Elk's Club, Eyes on the Prize, Federal Fair Housing Act, Freedom Summer, literacy tests, Martin Luther King, Milwaukee, Mississippi, Occupy Wall Street, poll tax, Proposition 14, racial segregation, Rumford Act, Sing for Freedom, Thomas Aquinas, Vietnam War