Ron Radosh

Freedom Summer: The Leftist/Black Nationalist Myth of Its Legacy

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964: 1000-plus white volunteers went South to Mississippi to help local African-American citizens register to vote, a right they had largely been prevented from executing since the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. PBS recently aired a major documentary on the effort; the summer indeed is worthy of remembrance.

There is, however, one major myth about Freedom Summer that has stuck and which has been repeated many times. The myth comes from two quarters: the American left, and the proponents of black nationalism that emerged soon after the Freedom Summer, promulgated by the late Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture), who first developed the rallying cry of “black power.”

This past Sunday, the New York Times allowed its op-ed pages to be taken over by one of these mythmakers: Professor Peniel E. Joseph, who leads a “Center for the Study of Race and Democracy” at Tufts University and who authored a recent biography of the black radical leader titled Stokely: A Life. According to Dr. Joseph, the fracturing of the civil rights movement after Freedom Summer took place because the white liberals in the movement eventually sold the blacks out by refusing to confront “racism on a national scale.”

They did this by supposedly hampering black activists from creating a non-segregated independent party that could gain recognition and replace the all-white Democratic Party Mississippi delegation at the coming Democratic National Convention. That group, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), was led by former sharecropper and local black activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who — in a dramatic TV appearance before the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee — told her own story of deprivation and suffering that black people like herself were experiencing in the deep South in that time.

As Joseph and others argue, white liberals — led by Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota — thwarted the MDFP’s demands, proposing a compromise that did not entail disqualifying the all-white Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi, and instead offering them only two at-large convention seats. The MDFP rejected this offer, despite it having been accepted by Martin Luther King, Jr., Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s counsel and civil rights activist Joe Rauh, civil rights leader and organizer of the March on Washington Bayard Rustin, and UAW chief Walter Reuther. The consequences, writes Joseph, were that black civil rights activists led by SNNC’s Stokely Carmichael soured on white liberals and turned against interracial political alliances.

In a short time, whites were pushed out of what had been the interracial SNNC. Instead, Carmichael and his followers adopted the position of creating a new black power movement that sought black freedom through all-black political parties, and by resorting to a strategy associated later with the Nation of Islam’s (NOA) New York City leader, Malcolm X, who called for obtaining freedom “by any means necessary.”

They rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of adherence to both interracial coalitions and non-violence, and their action marked the start of a new black radicalism, epitomized by both the NOA and the all-black revolutionary group founded in San Francisco, the Black Panther Party (BPP) led by Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver.

That, to Professor Joseph, is “Freedom Summer’s most enduring legacy.” It is obvious that Professor Joseph believes that is a good thing.

Professor Joseph ignores the horrendous legacy of black radicalism, that of the birth of identification by the black leftists and black nationalists with the worst repressive Marxist and theocratic third-world regimes — Carmichael, for example, loved both Qaddafi’s Libya and Fidel Castro’s Cuba. He also ignores the thuggery and murderous activity of the BPP, and the anti-Americanism of Malcolm X that he persisted in holding even after he left the NOA and stopped viewing white people as “white devils.”

But it is Professor Joseph’s claim that white liberals sold out the blacks at the 1964 Democratic Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that is especially mistaken.

The details are complex, but those interested can find it in the chapter “Atlantic City, 1964” in my book Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996. The reality was that the compromise included the pledge that all future Democratic conventions could not include segregated delegations from any state. It was obviously a win, so much so that even SNNC’s most revered leader, Bob Moses, first accepted the compromise until radical elements in his group threatened his leadership position. James Forman, an SNCC leader who was said to be a secret member of the American Communist Party, said that “idealistic reformers” had no choice but to become “full-time revolutionaries.”

These moderates wanted a unity of whites and blacks on behalf of a national momentum to gain blacks the right to vote in Mississippi, including federal registrars sent to Mississippi to enforce the civil rights of black voters and passage of a national Voting Rights Act by Congress. Black nationalists like Carmichael and James Forman claimed they alone “stood with the people” and those of the lowest economic classes, who wanted a real social revolution. The two men fired Joe Rauh as their counsel, and took on lawyers from a Communist front group: the National Lawyers Guild.

Rauh believed that it was “immoral to take help from Communists,” and said that the compromise was rejected because of “Communist influence … evident at the convention in Atlantic City.”

When Peniel Joseph argues that the black movement was betrayed, he is echoing the position taken by the black radicals in 1964. Dr. Joseph argues that “the white version of Freedom Summer — local and aminority politics mediated through major political parties — was inadequate.” He and the radicals in 1964 were wrong. The compromise solution would have worked, and its acceptance by the black mainstream and moderates indicated they understood that the all-white Democratic Party of the Solid South was essentially over.

By the publicity afforded the MFDP, Joe Rauh wrote to a friend, the black movement along with white trade unions and black churches had achieved a success “far beyond anything that could have been anticipated a month or two earlier.” As Rauh and others said, their coalition with white liberals led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the decision of the Democratic Party that all-white delegations would no longer be tolerated at Democratic conventions. In attaining this, the rights of Southern blacks in Mississippi had received new legitimacy.

Rejecting the view that Freedom Summer had reached its major goals, the black Left argued that they could not “rely on their so-called allies,” and hence the entire American system had to be brought down, not just segregation. Carmichael created a new all-black party in Lowndes County in Mississippi, named the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, whose ballot symbol was the Black Panther. In the local elections, the ticket was rejected by the black population in Mississippi, who had decided the hope for change lay in the national Democratic Party purging its racists, and not in the radical MFDP. In taking this route, it should be noted that today Mississippi now has more black representatives than any state in America.

The radical path of which Prof. Peniel Joseph writes “50 years later remains Freedom Summer’s most enduring legacy” was wrong, and his conclusion reflects only his personal left-wing proclivities.