How civil rights activists risked their lives to change America in ‘freedom summer’

1964s voter registration drive mobilised black people in Mississippi, using skills quickly adopted by protesters against Vietnam. Participants recall the souths bigotry and their bid to shape a new society

Barack Obama (born in 1961) wrote in his memoir The Audacity of Hope: Ive always felt a curious relationship to the 60s. In a sense, Im a pure product of that era. Obama came of age after the dust settled and, like many members of his generation, he is unscarred by the decades political and cultural wars, yet a direct beneficiary of them.

Your opinion of the 60s today whether you think the rebellion pushed the US towards Shangri-la or Armageddon may depend on your political views. Former president Bill Clinton (born in 1946 and a Yale Law School student of Charles Reich) describes this divide: If you look back on the 60s and, on balance, you think there was more good than harm, then youre probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, youre probably a Republican.

What follows is an oral history, the core of which comes from interviews I conducted between 2012 and 2015 with members of the Vietnam antiwar movement of the late 60s.

Born in 1963, I approached each interview as an intergenerational exploration into a decade that I was too young to know, but which always fascinated me. I grew up in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s; my earliest political memories are of feminist and antiwar activist Bella Abzugs election to the House of Representatives in 1970, and the first African American woman to run for president, New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, in 1972. Photos of these two pioneers covered the walls of my Upper West Side bedroom. They were my hometown heroines.

When I graduated from high school in 1981, at the dawn of the Reagan Revolution, former hippies such as Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had become ice cream entrepreneurs, and California kids who had taken LSD in high school were starting personal computer companies in the Bay Area. Some members of the New Left switched to the right, but most dropped their radical ideals and adopted more centrist liberal ones.

When I went to college, I didnt think twice about co-ed dorms, womens and African American studies departments, tenured female professors and premarital sex. Wars were being fought covertly, the draft would never come back and the streets were mostly quiet, except for those of us who protested against apartheid in South Africa. When I graduated in 1985, free to pursue the career of my choice, I still felt I had missed the party. The turmoil and passion of the 1960s was a hazy memory and even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much. Why had so many people just 15 years before taken to the streets and sacrificed their lives, their livelihoods, their comfort, even their sanity?

The roots of the Vietnam antiwar protest movement can be traced to the American crusade for civil rights. In August 1964, Congress authorised the use of troops in Vietnam in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incident the alleged North Vietnamese attack on a US naval ship. That same month, civil rights workers were putting their lives on the line for voter registration in the Mississippi Summer Project. Seven months later, on Sunday 7 March 1965, John Lewis and 600 protesters were filmed being beaten as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, at the start of their march to Montgomery for voting rights; the images of the attack on a nonviolent protest vividly dramatised the stakes of the struggle. Just one day after Bloody Sunday, the first US combat troops landed in Vietnam. I dont see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cant send troops to Selma, Alabama, Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), remarked.

The military draft exploded soon after, ultimately calling 2.2 million men to fight in Vietnam. Skills learned on the battleground for racial equality in the south mass civil disobedience and grassroots organisation were soon employed in the new campaign against the war in Vietnam. In reaction to the disproportionate number of black soldiers being killed in Vietnam, SNCC activists organised one of the first anti-draft demonstrations, at the Atlanta induction centre in 1966 and coined the slogan Hell no, we wont go! The war over there was soon to become a war over here.

David Harris

(Stanford student, draft resistance organiser and ex-husband of protest singer Joan Baez, later journalist and author)

I came from Fresno, California, where I was Fresno high school boy of the year in 1963. Several weeks after I got to Stanford, there was a meeting about volunteers going to Mississippi. This was the first time that the black students in Mississippi had issued an invitation to white students to come down and they invited students from Stanford and Yale. In the fall of 64, I started classes and was meeting my girlfriend for dinner and she said: I was at a meeting. Theres a car going down to Mississippi tomorrow.

They were running a parallel election in Mississippi called the Freedom Vote, to show what would happen if black people were allowed to vote, and they needed volunteers, so I said: Im going. I told my brother to call my parents after I was gone and I got a seat in the car and left that night.

Two days later, we were in Mississippi. I was worried about missing the great adventure of my time. You didnt have to have an ideology or politics to go to Mississippi in those days. You just had to have values.

That summer of 64 we had all been watching what was going on in Mississippi, so it was a no-brainer for me. Campaigning for the right of black people not to be lynched for trying to vote was a pretty easy call. So I went. I was 18 years old.

Wesley Brown

(Black Panther, draft resister, novelist, playwright, teacher)

My family moved to East Elmhurst, right near LaGuardia airport [in New Yorks Queens], in 1952. It was formerly an Italian neighbourhood, but as more blacks moved in, of course, the whites made their departure. By 1955, it was nearly an all-black neighbourhood. These were working-class blacks trying to move up. They saved their money like my parents, and bought a home, and tried to enter the lower middle class. My father was a machinist at a tool and die factory in the Bronx, where he worked for about 40 years.

Queens at that time was called Gods country. If you could get out of the projects and buy a house in Queens, you were on your way. It was a very solid, tightknit community where parents wanted to make a better life for their kids. In fact, Eric Holder, President Obamas first attorney general, lived on our block. My sister used to babysit him and his younger brother, Billy. So it was that kind of neighbourhood. Everyone was trying to do the right thing, be responsible and trying to make a way for themselves and their families. And, of course, that leads to a certain amount of conservatism, a wish not to stir things up.


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A freedom marcher lies unconscious in Selma, Alabama, after being attacked by the police. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

These were black folks who knew their history, because they were only the second generation born after emancipation. My fathers grandmother was born into slavery and he knew her. She would show him her thumb, which was all splayed out and deformed, because when she did something that the overseer didnt like, he would take a razor blade and split her thumb open, and it would never heal sufficiently before he would open it up again. My father was born in North Carolina and was the tenth of 12 children. These black folks knew what this country had been through with slavery and segregation and they werent prepared for their children being boisterous and assertive in a way that they couldnt afford to be.

DH Four of us were working together in a team trying to register people for the Freedom Vote, in the black part of a town called Lambert. After working all morning, we came back to where the car was parked and the three guys wanted to go to the post office to mail some letters and I said: Ill stay here by the car. Im standing by our car and up pulls a pickup truck with two white guys in it. They get out. Ones got a shotgun; the other ones got a pistol. The guy with the shotgun sticks it right up against my nose and says: Nigger lover, Im giving you five minutes to get out of town before I blow your head off. Im an 18-year-old Stanford student. Well, what do you mean? Who are you? And he just says: Nigger, I said five minutes. At that point, the other three guys came back, took one look at the situation and we all jumped in the car and left Lambert, Mississippi.

WB I remember vividly the photographs in Jet magazine of Emmett Till in his casket in 1955. His mother wanted an open casket so people could see what was done to him his misshapen face that was bludgeoned into nonrecognition.*

And I remember watching those kids in Little Rock in 57 trying to go to Central High and Eisenhower finally getting the National Guard to come in, so that they could go to school without being killed.

The memory of those images and the virulent hatred directed at those kids was indelible for me. And, of course, there were the Freedom Rides, the lunch counter sit-ins [in whites-only cafes and bars], and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. We got our first television in 1949, so all of these images were a part of my coming of age.

An FBI poster seeking information as to the whereabouts of three civil rights campaigners. Photograph: MPI/Getty Images
DH We learned how to organise by working with SNCC in Mississippi, and perhaps much more important was the spirit of Mississippi; there was a kind of inspiration in the heroism of the black people in Mississippi. Its really hard to recapture what that was like. For example, we were working in Quitman County; the county seat is called Marks. There was a 75-year-old black woman there who walked into the registrar of voters office and said: I want to register to vote. They arrested her, threw her in jail, tortured her with an electric cattle prod and then released her from jail. She walked out of jail and down the street to the registrar of voters office and said: I want to register to vote. These are people whose names are lost to history, but when you have that kind of encounter, somehow you get a whole new perspective on whats of value and how to behave in the face of oppression and the strength that any single person or a group of people can bring with their own will.

The third thing that came out of Mississippi was the experience of seeing America from a different perspective. You see what was being done to black people for simply trying to exercise the rights that we supposedly won with hard-fought battles a hundred years ago. And to see not only that that was going on, but how the rest of the country had turned a blind eye to it and talked bullshit about the southern way of life and courtly manners. Isnt it sweet? These were mean, vicious, narrow-minded people, who were standing on the backs of people who were helpless to fight back. And everybody in America let that happen. So suddenly, you come back from that and you cant look at it the same way.

It was precisely that perspective that brought the Vietnam war into focus.

WB So I was at SUNY Oswego [a State University of New York campus] in January 1965, on Lake Ontario, in central New York, and some SNCC workers came to speak.

I was already feeling that I wanted to be a part of something that was going on that I felt would make a difference. I was about 20 years old at that point. Their visit changed my life in many ways and I decided to go to Mississippi.

My parents couldnt believe that I would put myself in harms way, given what had happened in Mississippi the year before. They left the south in the 30s, as many blacks did, because of the Depression, to find work in the north as part of the great migration. They couldnt believe that I would return to a place that they left.

I remember taking a port authority bus in June of 1965 to Memphis, about a 28-hour bus ride, and then having to get another bus to Holly Springs, Mississippi. So that began the four months I spent in northern Mississippi, right near the Tennessee border, working on voter registration.

DH Right after I got back from Mississippi came the first major escalations of the Vietnam war, when all of a sudden we went from adviser status to deploying full combat units there, and the rise to 600,000 troops began. I marched in my first antiwar march about six months after I got back from Mississippi.

My father was an officer in the army reserve for 20 years. My brother ended up a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division. Ive had ancestors in every war starting with the revolution. Like all my generation, I assumed that we would have a war to fight. We grew up watching Victory at Sea on television. But when the war that they had for us came, it was obvious this wasnt what I thought I would be doing. This wasnt about freedom or democracy or wearing white hats or helping people.

This was essentially keeping a bunch of scumbags in power and prolonging the French empire. Coming back from Mississippi, I could believe it.

WB A few days after my arrival, I was sent to Jackson, Mississippi, for a demonstration with the intent of filling up the jails. Within minutes of getting out of the car in Jackson, I was arrested and thrown into a field house with hundreds of protesters, because the city jails were full. Before bail was set, the lawyers were interviewing people and they asked me: Do you want us to get in touch with your family to let them know where you are? It was Fathers Day and this lawyer talked to my father and wished him happy Fathers Day for me. After I got out a week later, I contacted my parents and I let them know that I was OK. It was a very emotional and not a happy time for them.

Like any parents, my father and mother did not want their children to have to go through the things they had gone through when they lived in the south. They shared my beliefs but didnt want me to have to deal with the consequences of my beliefs. My father used to say: You cant get up in the face of the powers that be. You have to find a way to work around the system, but if you make too much noise and draw attention to yourself, youre just setting yourself up for a fall.

DH I considered myself part of the movement from the day I left for Mississippi.

What we call The Movement, capital T, capital M, was a commitment to justice and the values of democracy. They called us the New Left because it wasnt an ideology. There wasnt a specific politics attached to it. What it was was a set of values finding ways to express themselves.


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Young men burn their draft cards at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration outside the Pentagon in 1967. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

I was in marches, I was in rallies and demonstrations. But there was always the larger question of the conscription system. In that era, when any male turned 18, he had to go to the post office and register for the Selective Service System. When you registered for Selective Service, they gave you two cards. One was proof that you had registered and the other indicated your classification. Because under the Selective Service, there were various classifications, starting from 1-A, which meant you were cannon fodder, to you were going to get a notice soon in the mail saying: Report to 4-F, which meant you were physically unable to perform and therefore exempt. In between that, the largest one was 2-S, which was the student deferment. Anybody in college making, quote, reasonable progress towards a degree had a temporary exemption until they finished their education. So that was the system that covered all of our lives all of the male lives, anyway.

Always there was floating out there, what happens when they call your number? We, understandably, focused on that a lot. I mean, there were people going to graduate school so that they wouldnt get drafted. There were people getting married so they wouldnt get drafted, because early on, being married was an exemption. They werent going to draft family men. They thought if I want to take a year off and just go to Paris and write poetry, youre headed for the tall grass if you do that. This defined everybodys life.

WB After I left Mississippi and returned to college, I went to the school registrar with a friend and we asked that our student deferment classifications not be sent to the Selective Service, because we felt that it discriminated against blacks who didnt have the opportunity to go to college. The registrar went ballistic but honoured my request, and my classification was changed to 1-A, which meant I was subject to be drafted.

But because I had been arrested in Mississippi, my classification was changed to 1-Y, which meant that if you had an outstanding legal charge against you, you wouldnt be among the first who would be called.

DH What got me was a sense of moral responsibility; whether you like it or not, its your war. This is yours. You participate in a society; youre responsible for what the society does. I had read a lot about the Indian revolution and Gandhi and the use of satyagraha, or truth force.

I, like everybody, watched what was going on with the war, in which more and more people were doing things that Americans were never supposed to do.

Ultimately, we killed 2 million people, for Christs sake, and left God knows how many people crippled for life, including generation after generation. I got elected Stanford student body president at the end of my year, in 66. Nobody expected me to be student body president, including me.

Everyone put on their suits and ties and did whistlestop campaigns around the campus and I was in my movement uniform: blue work shirt, Levis, moccasins.

I had what passed for long hair in those days. It was over my ears.

That was considered amazing in those days. This was at the same time Haight-Ashbury was forming 30 miles north in <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>San Francisco.

There was this kind of lead cultural edge. I had one big musical rally for my campaign, in which, to get a sound system for the rally, we traded a lid of marijuana with Jefferson Airplane for the use of their system.

Part of our platform was ending co-operation with the war in Vietnam, legalising marijuana. We threw it all in there, because I didnt care. Hey, if I lose, I lose. Im counting on losing. I took 60% of the fraternity vote in the election. Go figure.

This is an edited extract from Witness to the Revolution by Clara Bingham. 2016 by Clara Bingham. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House

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