Fifty years after the Mississippi Freedom Summer, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) will return with the event’s other organizers to commemorate one of the signature events of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It’s more than just a sentimental journey, although it’s certainly that,” Norton said of her trip, scheduled for the weekend of March 7. “Those summers were the highlight of my life.”
Those times were much more turbulent, the lawmaker said. As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Norton was recruited to help organize Freedom Summer, an initiative aimed at registering and mobilizing voters in Mississippi. The state was then known as a “terrorist state,” where segregationists systematically disenfranchised Blacks, often by violent means.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers had just put Norton onto a bus, she said, when he was assassinated on June 12, 1963. Almost immediately upon arriving in Mississippi, the then-law student was recruited to help get a severely beaten Fannie Lou Hamer out of jail.
Over the next year, Norton continued to organize and train volunteers for the massive voter registration effort slated for the summer of 1964. She was an author of the brief for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to the all-White Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and she ran the outreach operation to get recognition for the Freedom Democratic Party to replace the “Jim Crow” delegation.
The backlash from Mississippi’s “terrorists” was severe, including the abduction and slaying of three activists, two White and one Black, but the impact of the Freedom Summer efforts was far-reaching, Norton said.
“During Freedom Summer, we lost three civil rights workers—James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—but the civil rights advances since then showed they did not die in vain,” Norton said in a statement.
The project’s voter registration efforts helped create momentum for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It also brought attention to Mississippi’s segregated education system by establishing 41 Freedom Schools, where more than 3,000 young Black students learned math, reading, and other traditional courses, as well as Black history, the philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement, and leadership skills, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.
On March 7, Norton and more than 20 other Capitol Hill lawmakers will be welcomed in Clarksdale, Miss. at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, where they will learn about the music that emerged from the Delta. They will then travel to Ruleville, Miss. and Money, Miss. and will attend programs on Hamer, one of Norton’s mentors, and Emmett Till.
On March 8, the delegation will tour the Medgar Evers Home Museum and other Jackson, Miss., sites, and will attend a program with the Mississippi Veterans of Civil Rights Movement at Tougaloo College, where Norton will participate on the panel. On March 9, the delegation will travel to Selma, Ala., and visit churches and historic civil rights landmarks.
“What this trip will do is help me understand what we achieved in the South, particularly in Mississippi,” Norton told the AFRO, “but it will also reinvigorate me as we fight for that kind of progress here in the District.”
For years the District of Columbia has been fighting for self-determination and autonomy and for the rights of its citizens. Though District residents pay taxes they do not have a vote in Congress, an injustice Norton called a “stark and shameful leftover business of the civil rights movement.”
“My work in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi was the best preparation for representing the District of Columbia…because it is such an uphill battle,” Norton said. She said Freedom Summer is a reminder that, “This country never gave anyone anything, but with struggle you can accomplish anything.”