An Astonishing Catalog of the Violence Committed Against “Freedom Summer” Participants in a Single Mississippi Town

The Vault
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Aug. 15 2013 12:15 PM

An Astonishing Catalog of the Violence Committed Against “Freedom Summer” Participants in a Single Mississippi Town

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This “Incident Summary” details acts of harassment, big and small, reported by civil rights activists and allies working in McComb, Miss. in the summer of 1964.

The “Freedom Summer” project (known at the time as the Mississippi Summer Project) was organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 1,500 volunteers—college students, clergy, attorneys, and doctors—spent the summer working throughout Mississippi. Activists hoped to register voters and drum up support for an alternative slate of candidates to challenge the entrenched Democratic congressional delegation.

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The incident summary shows how the summer of 1964 unfolded in one particularly dangerous place: the small city of McComb, an hour and fifteen minutes south of Jackson.

Volunteers and local citizens alike reported acts of harassment that ranged from outright assault (Rev. Russell Bennett, from California, “dragged from car and beaten by several men”) to lower-level obstruction and interference (“staff member Mendy Samstein arrested for ‘failure to yield right of way’ while driving local Negro children for voter registration canvassing”). In the month of September, there were seven bombings in McComb alone.

Despite threats of violence, 60,000 African-American residents of Mississippi participated in the Freedom Summer project. According to a report submitted to the US Commission on Civil Rights in 1965, one longtime McComb resident, Curtis C. Bryant, was the victim of no fewer than four acts of aggression in 1964: a cross-burning, bombings of his residence and business, and shots fired at his house.

In a 1995 oral history, conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi, Bryant told his interviewer about this period: “After Medgar Evers was killed [in 1963], I…had a fear of just any time…you were just a target. A man would be crazy to say he didn’t have fears.”

Those fears notwithstanding, Bryant continued to work for the local NAACP throughout the 1960s, remaining active through the 1990s.

The incident summary is part of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Freedom Summer Digital Collection. WHS archivists are sharing many more documents from the collection through their Facebook page. Thanks to the WHS' Sally Jacobs and Michael Edmonds for their help.

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