Voting, Mississippi and Freedom Summer

Jun. 29, 2014 @ 11:16 AM

The irony of black voters in Mississippi rescuing long-time Republican Sen. Thad Cochran from incongruous defeat last week in his runoff against upstart tea party favorite Chris McDaniel cannot be overstated -- especially as many remember Freedom Summer of 50 years ago.

It was Freedom Summer, also called the Mississippi Summer Project, that shone a spotlight on the indignity and unfairness of voter suppression in the South. What happened in Mississippi that summer, including the murders of three voting rights activists -- two of them white -- galvanized public opinion and helped push through passage of the Voting Rights Act the next year.

In Tuesday's runoff, Cochran pulled off the upset of McDaniel, who had topped him in the primary by nearly 1,400 votes, by appealing to Democrats, primarily blacks. They could vote in the race because of the state's open primary system. In open primaries, available in at least 19 states, voters can participate in a party's runoff as long as they had not already cast a ballot in the other party's primary. State law provides closed primaries in North Carolina but both parties have opened their primaries to unaffiliated voters who may choose on Election Day.

For black Mississippians who went to the polls Tuesday and voted for Cochran in the Republican primary runoff, the decision made sense. Cochran was the lesser of two evils.

Sure, the six-term Cochran remains a staunch conservative who hasn't focused on the interests of black constituents. But he at least doesn't publicly long for the good old days of the Old South nor flaunt his love for the Confederacy as McDaniel has.

Cochran won the runoff by less than 7,000 votes and though most of his votes came from Republicans, the winning percentage came from counties where the population was mostly black including Humphreys where more than 74 percent are black Mississippians.

Humphreys provides the true irony. In the 1950s and '60s, Humphreys was one of the Mississippi counties where the fight for black voting rights played out the fiercest. One seminal event is memorialized in granite on the Civil Rights Memorial designed by noted artist Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Memorial.

The circular marker takes note of 40 martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, people known to have been murdered for their civil rights activities. Notable among them was the Rev. George Lee, one of the first black people registered to vote in Humphreys County. He was killed on May 7, 1955, in Belzoni, Miss., for using his pulpit and his printing press to urge Mississippians to vote. He had refused when white officials demanded he stop his voter registration efforts.

Mississippi names appear a lot among those martyrs listed on the memorial. The reason for their deaths often centered on voting rights activities.

Voter intimidation and terrorism were rampant across Mississippi during those days, so much so that less than seven percent of Mississippi blacks were registered to vote in the 1960s though they constituted nearly half the state's population. That percentage of registered black voters was the lowest in the country.

Given that, it was hardly surprising that Mississippi became the focal point of Freedom Summer in 1964 and a concerted campaign for black voting rights.

Young whites and blacks converged on Mississippi, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups in a summerlong effort to register voters and operate Freedom Schools to educate black youngsters. The project got off to a tragic start with the killings of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Miss., who were reported missing on June 21. Over the course of the the 10-week program, 80 Freedom Summer workers would also be beaten, more than 1,000 would be arrested, four would be critically wounded, and nearly 40 churches would be bombed and burned, as well as at least 30 homes and businesses.

The bravery and steadfastness of all those who participated in Freedom Summer demand acknowledgment and praise.

Over the last few years, several states -- including North Carolina -- unfortunately have put in place voting restrictions, seeking again to suppress the vote of blacks as well as Hispanics. Seven of the 11 states with highest black voter participation now have new laws restricting voting.

Freedom Summer reminds us of the price many paid in securing voting rights, and why many are fighting again to ensure they're not taken away. This week, Thad Cochran should be able to appreciate the battle 50 years ago to secure those rights for black Mississippians. Because blacks have the right to vote today, he will likely retain his seat in Congress.