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

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.