Freedom Summer: 50 years later
July 14th, 2014
Omaha, NE– The summer of 1964 is one Samuel Walker will never forget.
He was a senior at the University of Michigan browsing the newspaper for a movie when he came across an ad for an event featuring civil rights activist Bob Moses. Moses was in town to talk about the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign to register African American voters.
Walker quickly joined the movement that is also referred to as Freedom Summer.
“We arrived literally in Mississippi the morning of June 21– the four of us in a car. We had New York City plates and of course everybody knew that was a red flag that you were an outsider. We were the outside agitators as the locals liked to call us,” he said.
Walker and his colleagues were stationed in Gulfport, Miss. Although he describes it as the safest part of the state at that time, it was a very different picture in other parts of Mississippi.
“But 30 minutes north and halfway to Jackson, Miss., it was really almost a medieval type of town. Other parts of the state were very, very dangerous. Up in the northwest corner is what’s called the Delta. The southwest area..Macomb very, very dangerous. And of course the murders occurred in the sort of central east part of the state,” Walker said.
The summer project was only six-weeks long, but Walker returned to Mississippi after graduation in January 1965. He continued helping African Americans register to vote until August 1966. He said the experience was transformative.
“It was clear to me that they were scared—legitimately. They were going to face the consequences and they knew the consequences included losing their job, harassment, getting your house shot at or even getting killed. It’s a powerful experience to be talking to someone face-to-face looking in their eye and just seeing the fear in their eye,” Walker said.
Walker said Mississippi was considered the one state that the civil rights movement was unable to crack. He said the thinking that summer was if we can crack Mississippi, we can make progress anywhere.
“We have in fact made considerable progress in civil rights. Mississippi today for example and for a couple of decades has more African American elected officials than any other state. That’s just huge progress in terms of making this really a democratic society. The kind of Klan violence is gone. We have a lot of racism. At the same time we have a lot of race problems that are still with us,” he said.
Walker said civil rights issues are more complicated now than they were in 1964. He said there are many people still working on the voting rights issue as well as mass incarceration, which was not an issue 50 years ago.
“The lesson that I learned in summer of 1964 is that you just have to keep fighting it. As the immediate problem changes, you have to adapt and think up new strategies and new ways to address them,” Walker said.
Walker said his time spent in Mississippi has shaped his outlook of the world and paved the way for his career. He is professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He also served as an expert witness for New York’s stop-and-frisk case and has authored numerous books on police accountability.
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