Revisiting 'Freedom Summer'


Its two-week training event for student volunteers began on June 14 at the Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio (now part of Miami University). By its conclusion, as noted above, the Civil Rights Act was a fait accompli, and the three murder victims had gone missing. So why, especially given the clear and present danger, would Freedom Summer's leaders not have decided to give the movement's crowning legislative achievement a chance to work? I would argue, given the subsequent activities of many involved, particularly Che Guevera fan and African dictator-loving black segregationist Stokely Carmichael, that many of them had no desire to see the improvement in race relations the act aimed and seemed destined to foster.

It's not as if the federal government stood still after the act's passage. In a late-June op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Schenkkan showed that President Lyndon Baines Johnson went all-in with tangible enforcement:

Jim Crow began to die, in part because LBJ well understood that passing laws was one thing and enforcing them quite another. Just as he had been determined to muscle the bill through Congress, Johnson was determined to see the law carried out by every executive power at his command.

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Swift directives from the White House to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to cease giving federal dollars to segregated hospitals transformed facilities overnight.

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[A] quick ruling by U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel announced the withholding of federal funds ($4 billion) from school districts in 17 long-segregated states. In one year, there were more public school desegregation commitments than had been achieved over the previous decade.

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In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow.

Schenkkan then made a serious historical error when he claimed that "six days later, Watts erupted in violence, the first in a series of urban riots" after the law's passage. That just isn't so. Watts wasn't even close to the first.

It's important to note that there were no significant race riots in the U.S. for 19 years until the summer of 1963 in Birmingham. There was absolutely no reason to expect serious outbursts of violence after the Civil Rights Act's passage.

But there were several. The first took place just two weeks later, when New York City's Harlem burst into flames in an event described by what would become the "black power" movement as "the line in the sand to every ghetto in the country." Over the next six weeks, race riots spread to six other cities, four of which just so happened to be easy driving distance from New York.

Is it a just an odd coincidence that many of those involved in Freedom Summer who ended up leading a "black power" movement which actively encouraged the 1960s race riots had significant Gotham and Harlem connections?

Is the conventional wisdom that the 1960s race riots and the fractured race relations and white flight to the suburbs they caused were simply manifestations of long-simmering black community frustrations triggered by specific events, or were they proactively fueled by people determined to ensure that the legitimate civil rights movement's milestone accomplishment would not work out as hoped, and that race relations would not improve?

Questions such as these are why I wrote earlier that objective historians need to take a very hard second look at that era. This cadre would appear not to include Josh Zeitz. He might not be inclined to brag about what he might find.