Fifty years ago, Andrew Goodman, a 20-year-old anthropology major at Queens College, went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. His first stop was Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he and Mickey Schwerner, a 24-year-old graduate student in social work at Columbia University, and James Chaney, a 21-year-old volunteer with the Congress for Racial Equality from Meridian, Mississippi, were sent to investigate a church burning. Schwerner and Chaney had spoken at Mount Zion Methodist Church over Memorial Day, urging local blacks to register to vote.
In 1964, only 6.7 percent of African-Americans were registered in Mississippi and not a single one in Philadelphia’s Neshoba County. The fight for voting rights was the reason Goodman traveled to Mississippi. “He just thought it was unfair that an American citizen of voting age was restrained and stopped from voting,” said his younger brother, David.
On June 21, 1964, the young civil rights activists were arrested by the Neshoba County police and then abducted by the Klan. Their bodies were found forty-four days later in an earthen dam. Goodman and Schwerner, both white, had been shot once. Chaney, who was African-American, had been mutilated beyond recognition. Martin Popper, the attorney for the Goodman family, called it “the first interracial lynching in the history of the United States.”
The murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were the starkest example of the brutality the Freedom Summer volunteers encountered from local whites. Freedom Summer “produced almost as many acts of violence by local whites as it did black voters,” wrote historian David Garrow. Mississippi didn’t change until Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. “A lot of people lost their lives getting that Voting Rights Act into place,” said David Goodman.
The legislation eliminated the literacy tests and poll taxes that for so long prevented blacks from registering to vote in Mississippi and other Southern states, and made sure those states didn’t adopt new voter suppression tactics in the future. The VRA transformed Mississippi and the rest of the country. Today, the Magnolia State has more black elected officials than any other state.
The fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer happens to coincide with the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Supreme Court’s conservative majority invalidated Section 4 of the VRA on June 25, 2013. As a result, states like Mississippi, with the worst history of voting discrimination, no longer have to clear their voting changes with the federal government.
Section 4 provided the formula for covering states that had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the VRA (known as “preclearance”). Chief Justice John Roberts struck down Section 4 for two reasons: it was based on outdated data from the 1960s and 1970s, he argued, and violated what he called the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among states. Though Roberts conceded “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” he stated that the “extraordinary measures” of the VRA were no longer justified.