1964 at 50: Remembering and Reassessing the Mississippi Summer Project


1964 at 50: Remembering and Reassessing the Mississippi Summer Project

One of my favorite sessions I attended at the 2014 Organization of American Historians meeting was ‘1964 at 50: Remembering and Reassessing the Mississippi Summer Project.’ Fortunately American History TV (a.k.a. CSPAN-3) recorded the event and you can view the session in its entirety here. Below is summary information about the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project and a short bio for each of the panelists.

I wish each of the panelists had more time to share their experiences.

Panelists: Rita Bender, Charles Cobb,  and Dorie Ladner

The year 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. During that tumultuous summer, which saw both the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the first in a long series of ghetto insurrections, some 800 college students came to Mississippi at the invitation of the Congress of Federated Organizations (COFO), in a concerted campaign to awaken the federal government, and the nation as a whole, to the violent racial oppression that still prevailed in the last great citadel of Jim Crow. The summer produced both triumph and tragedy: the launch of Freedom Schools but also the murder of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman outside Philadelphia, Mississippi; the passage of the Civil Rights Act but also the bitter disillusionment sown by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s unsuccessful challenge at the 1964 Democratic National Convention at Atlantic City. This panel brings together veterans of the Summer Project to reflect on its history, legacy, and lessons. James T. Campbell, Edgar Robinson Professor of History at Stanford University and author of a forthcoming book on the Mississippi Movement in History and Memory, will moderate.

Rita Bender was a member of CORE in New York City, where she participated in the campaign against discrimination in the building trades. In January, 1964, she and her husband Michael Schwerner went to Mississippi as field staff for CORE. They were assigned to Meridian, where they worked as community organizers, developing a community center and participating in voter registration efforts. After the murder of her husband, Bender continued to work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in its credentials challenge at the 1964 Democratic Convention, and later in its challenge to the seating of Mississippi’s congressional delegation. Bender graduated from Rutgers Law School in 1968, and continues to practice law and to teach. She and her present husband, Bill Bender, taught at the University of Mississippi in 2009-10, and they are currently teaching a course on the deliberate denial of education at Seattle University School of Law.

Charles E. Cobb, Jr. came to Mississippi in 1962, after finishing his freshman year at Howard University. He became a field secretary for SNCC, a position he held until 1967, working chiefly in Sunflower, Washington, and Leflore Counties. It was Cobb who proposed the creation of “Freedom Schools,” one of the signature initiatives of the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. After leaving Mississippi, he became a journalist, working as a staff member at National Public Radio and the National Geographic Society and as senior writer and diplomatic correspondent at AllAfrica.com. Currently a visiting professor in Africana Studies at Brown University, Cobb is the author of Radical Equations: Civil Rights From Mississippi to the Algebra Project (coauthored with Robert Moses), On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Right’s Trail, and the forthcoming This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.

Dorie Ladner was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she became active in the local youth chapter of the NAACP. After finishing high school, she enrolled at Jackson State University, where she and her sister Joyce were mentored by Medgar Evers, chief field secretary of the NAACP in Mississippi. Expelled from Jackson State, she began working with SNCC, serving as project director in Natchez and as a founding member of COFO. After leaving Mississippi, she continued to work as a community organizer, first in St. Louis and later in Washington DC, where she earned a Masters degree in Social Work, a profession she practiced for thirty years before her retirement. Ladner has the distinction of having participated in many of the signature marches of the Civil Rights movement, including the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, and the Poor People’s March of 1968.