Tonight a few of us on the board attended a documentary screening in Bronfman, “Mississippi: Is This America? (1963-1964)”, which is part of PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize” Civil Rights series and a discussion on the topic of Nonviolence versus Violence in terms of the Freedom Summer of 1964. Chris Williams, along with myriad other college students, went down to Jackson, Mississippi in 1964 to register black voters and now ironically lives here in Williamstown and was able to share his story with us.
About 20 years after the fall of Reconstruction in 1890, Mississippi created a series of eligibility requirements for voters specifically aimed to disenfranchise blacks and poor whites with poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. In a state with a ratio of roughly four blacks to one white, Mississippi effectively reversed the voting strength of black voters with fear and bureaucratic red tape.
In order to end this stark voter suppression, The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, but by that time, the KKK and other racist groups violently campaigned to preserve their segregated, white-dominated society and power structure. Perhaps the best-known victims are James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
On the first day of the Freedom Summer, June 21st, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner went out to investigate a black church bombing in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and were arrested later that afternoon on alleged traffic violations and held into the night. Their release from jail was the last time they were seen alive before their badly decomposed bodies were discovered under a nearby dam six weeks later. Goodman and Schwerner had died from single gunshot wounds to the chest, but Chaney, the only black of the group, was also savagely beaten.
What is more disturbing than that tragic story is that history seems to be repeating itself in Mississippi as the state’s Voter ID Law divides blacks and whites all over again. Mississippi voted in favor to amend the state’s constitution that requires voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls, which was seen as a strong public affirmation of the Republican initiative.”The future of the South is rushing to the past,” says Rickey Hill, a professor of black politics and theory at Mississippi Valley State University. “If you look at the new immigration laws proposed throughout the South and the voter ID laws, which amount to racial disenfranchisement, and you take these things together, what we are seeing in the American South is a racial redemption”.
While it can be hard to tell the difference between racial and partisan politics, in Mississippi there is a very clear racial dimension to this when we remember historical context. Democrats have complained about the wave of new election and voter ID laws across the country as a “continued assault on key Democratic voting blocs, including black and Latino voters” voting blocs which will be key for 2012 elections.