Terry Gross |
Friday, August 21, 2020
Freedom Summer, now streaming on PBS, focuses on the 1964 movement to get Black people to vote in Mississippi. Director Stanley Nelson and organizer Charles Cobb discussed the film in 2014.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. As debates rage about voting access in the November election, we’re going to recall another time, more than a half century ago, when securing ballot access could be a life-or-death matter. Right now PBS is streaming the documentary “Freedom Summer” about the movement in 1964 to open the polls to African Americans in Mississippi in an era of entrenched segregation.
Freedom Summer was organized by SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which recruited 700 college students, mostly white students from the North, to come down to Mississippi and help African Americans register to vote. The organizers, the students and the Black people trying to register were all risking their lives. Just as “Freedom Summer” was beginning, two white participants – Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – and one African American organizer, James Chaney, were murdered by racists.
We’re going to listen to the interview Terry recorded in 2014 with Charles Cobb, one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, who went on to become a journalist and author, and with the director of the film, Stanley Nelson. He also directed documentaries about the Freedom Riders, Marcus Garvey and the murder of Emmett Till.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Stanley Nelson, Charles Cobb – welcome to FRESH AIR. Charles Cobb, you were a part of Freedom Summer. What was the idea behind Freedom Summer?
CHARLES COBB: To bring the country’s attention on Mississippi. We had been working in the state for two to three years pretty much full time, meaning those of us with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. And we decided to bring the country’s children to Mississippi. And…
GROSS: And when you say the country’s children, you mean college students.
COBB: Yeah, the country students. We knew the people who would be coming would be mostly white and that the country would be concerned.
GROSS: Because there were white, middle-class students there, the press…
COBB: And danger.
GROSS: …The press would be paying attention.
GROSS: Government officials would be paying attention.
COBB: Would be paying attention.
GROSS: 1964 is the summer of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. It’s also the summer – July 2, to be precise – that President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law. So that begins the official desegregation of the South. Why was the emphasis in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer on voter registration as opposed to desegregation? I mean, this was the era of lunch counter sit-ins, of other movements to try to desegregate the South.
COBB: Most of the civil rights leadership in the South had come to the decision, even long before we even got involved in a place like Mississippi, that voter registration was the most important thing to do. In a state like Mississippi that’s primarily rural – weren’t that many places to desegregate, unless you’re talking about a gas station bathroom. Voter registration was the consensus that existed in the Black South about what was important to do. And that was taking place not just in Mississippi but in Louisiana and other parts of the South.
GROSS: Stanley Nelson, your film points out that, within SNCC, this idea of bringing down white, middle-class students from the North to help lead voter registration drives in Mississippi was actually controversial. It was controversial within SNCC. And, Charles Cobb, in fact, early on you opposed the idea of Freedom Summer.
GROSS: You opposed bringing down white students from the North. What was the problem that you and some other members of SNCC had with this idea?
COBB: I think the – our objection or opposition to the summer project unfortunately has been racialized more than it should be. We were fundamentally opposed to bringing a large number of college students from the outside into Mississippi essentially because we felt that we had been spending the last two or three years trying to cultivate grass roots that were still very fragile and that this large number of students would essentially trample on those grass roots.
They could do things more efficiently, and while that’s good in one sense, it also takes possession of the movement away from the local people in another sense. We were organizers, not leaders, and our main concern was cultivating local leadership. And we were nervous about what it would mean to have a thousand Northern college students. And we were talking around that number of a thousand right from the beginning – come down South.
GROSS: Funny thing is, you were from the outside, too. You weren’t from Mississippi; you were from Massachusetts (laughter).
COBB: Exactly. Mrs. Hamer – when I voiced objection, Mrs. Hamer – Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer…
GROSS: Fannie Lou Hamer, yeah.
COBB: …Backed me up against the wall and said, well, Charlie, I’m glad you came down here. What’s the problem with other people coming down here? Now, what can I say to that? Well, nothing.
COBB: So I said, yes, ma’am.
COBB: And let it go. What meant was, obviously, that I might have objections to the summer project, but I wasn’t going to fight Mrs. Hamer over this or any – all the people who opposed the summer project were organizers. All – every single local person – and I mean every single local person we worked with – was for the summer project. And we weren’t going to fight the local people. You can’t organize people and say, you have a right to take control of your life, and then turn around and say, well, I don’t like your decisions, so I’m not going to work with you.
GROSS: And you mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer as being the person who changed your mind. Stanley Nelson, what is Fannie Lou Hamer’s importance in Mississippi’s Freedom Summer?
STANLEY NELSON: Well, I mean, Fannie Lou Hamer was essential. I think one of the reasons why she was essential was, you know, she had been a sharecropper, and she was a Mississippian. And, you know, she – as Bob Moses says in the film, you know, she had Mississippi in her bones. That’s who she was. And so besides, you know, being a great speaker, a great leader, a great singer, she was also one of them, you know, one of the local people. They saw one of their own. She had lived the consequences of trying to vote. You know, she goes to register to vote and is kicked off her property and loses her livelihood just for the sheer act of trying to register to vote.
GROSS: Stanley Nelson, can you talk about how SNCC recruited students from the North?
NELSON: Yeah, I think that, you know, very early it was decided that – to bring down 700 to 1,000 students, and they went about recruiting in different ways, mainly from – as my understanding, from college campuses. So one person in the film, a woman, you know, said she just saw a poster up on – at her college campus and then went to a meeting and signed up.
One of the things that we show in the film – we found this great footage of, actually, you know, them – SNCC and CORE doing interviews. And so people had to go through an interview process because they really understood that this was going to be dangerous. And they had to get a core group of people to go down who also understood that this was going to be dangerous. You know, I think somebody says in the film they didn’t want a bunch of kooks, you know, down there who were going down there to try to save the world; they wanted people who could, as best as possible, you know, understand the dangers and understand what was going to go on down there in Mississippi.
GROSS: So there were training sessions held for the students who were going to go to Mississippi. Give us a sense of what the training sessions are like. What advice did the SNCC organizers have for how to deal with danger?
COBB: Well, mainly, we could show people how best to try and protect yourself from actual physical – what to do if you’re attacked by a mob, how to cover your body, how to protect somebody you’re with without, you know, engaging in fistfights or whipping out a pistol or something like that. We could show people how to do that. We had some experience in that because we all came out of the sit-in movement and were used to being surrounded by mobs of hostile whites. We could also tell people how to move in communities. And a particular concern to us was if these volunteers would move in a community in such a way as to endanger local people. Like a Black guy – because this happened on my project – a Black guy and a white girl holding hands walking down the streets of the town not only endangers them but endangers the community. So we could teach people how to do that.
GROSS: Or how to not do that.
COBB: Or how to not do that, yeah. How to not do that, yes.
NELSON: Yeah, there was actually – I mean, it was so dangerous that there was actually a list of some do’s and don’ts that I found to be…
NELSON: …You know, really fascinating, you know? Don’t stand – you know, at night, don’t stand with your back at the door of a house with the lights on, you know? Don’t let people pass you on the highway – those kind of things, you know, which for me, as a filmmaker, showed, you know, visually, the danger that was there.
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the 1964 struggle to achieve voting rights for Black citizens in Mississippi. It’s the subject of the documentary “Freedom Summer,” directed by our guest Stanley Nelson. It’s now streaming on the PBS website – pbs.org. Our other guest, Charles Cobb, was one of the organizers who led the effort. We’ll get back to their conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, “INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re listening back to an interview from our archives about the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the drive to support voting rights in Mississippi during the summer of 1964. SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, brought 700 students from the North, mostly white students, to Mississippi to help register people to vote, but also to focus the attention of the nation on the violent racism in the South. That effort is the subject of the 2014 public television documentary “Freedom Summer,” which is streaming on the PBS website. Our guests are the filmmaker Stanley Nelson and Charles Cobb, who was one of the organizers of Freedom Summer. They spoke with Terry in 2014, when the film came out. It was the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: During the training sessions, three of the people associated with Freedom Summer were murdered – Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white Northerners, and James Chaney, who was African American and a member of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality. Stanley, do you want to tell the story of what happened to them – of who they were and what happened?
NELSON: Yeah. Mickey Schwerner had been in Mississippi for months before as an organizer. James Chaney was a local African American Mississippian who was also a part of CORE and an organizer. They had gone up to Oxford, Ohio, to the training and there met Andrew Goodman. A church was bombed in Mississippi, and they decided – James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner decided to go down early and to see what happened because that was in the area they were working. Andrew Goodman went with them because he was going to be working in that area. And this was, I think, a day before the rest of the group was going to go down to Mississippi. So this was really even before the actual Freedom Summer had started. And they went down, and the day after they went down there, they disappeared.
GROSS: And then, eventually, their bodies were discovered. And, Charles Cobb, can you tell us the effect that that had on the plans for Freedom Summer? I mean, before it had actually really begun, three people are murdered – just an example of the violence, the hatred and the danger that faced all the people who planned on going to Mississippi.
COBB: Well, you know, it affected the volunteers more than us. As soon as we heard – and we were all in Oxford, Miss., that Mickey and “Jimmy” James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were missing. We assumed they were dead because Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney were experienced organizers. They would not have been silent for that long a period of time unless they were prevented from getting in contact. So we assumed they were dead. And the volunteers picked up on this right away, and we had conversations with them about – I mean, sadly – I mean, it was an example of what we had really been talking to the volunteers about before the three were missing, that you are going into a murderously violent state, and you have to understand that the danger affects you every day, all day long.
The missing workers drove that point home because we were quite frank telling the volunteers, we think they are dead. And that, for lack of a better word or phrase, sobered up those volunteers. And it also had an effect on the project because, as you might expect, it alarmed their parents. And their parents began calling the congressman and began calling, if they could, the White House and say, you better make sure that our kids get out of Mississippi alive.
GROSS: So once everybody gets to the South, everybody from Freedom Summer, the white students move into the homes of African Americans. They’re living in the Black community there. It’s the only safe place for them. But they’re exposed to a way of life and a kind of poverty, in many cases, that they’d never seen before. Stanley Nelson, you interviewed a lot of the students who had come – a lot of the people who were students in 1964 and came down for Freedom Summer. Tell us a little bit about what they were exposed to that opened up their eyes about what life was like for African Americans in Mississippi, in rural Mississippi.
NELSON: Right. You know, as you said, there was no place else for them to stay. I mean, you know, there were no hotels. They couldn’t stay in a hotel. They really had to stay with the African American community and live as the African American community lived. But I think one of the things that was so striking about the way they lived is, you know, they couldn’t go back to the white community. It wasn’t like, OK, we’re just staying – you know, we’re staying at some Black people’s houses, and, you know, now we can be white people again. You know, they were in a series of mostly small towns. Everybody knew who they were and why they were there.
They were looked at in the same way as African Americans or worse. You know, they couldn’t just bop downtown and go to a white bar for the night and do that. No, they were in constant danger, constant scorn, ridicule and faced, you know, real physical dangers, too. But I think, also, it’s a psychological piece of, you know, something that’s very rare for white folks in this country to experience, to be part of an African American community and not be able to get out of it when they want to.
GROSS: Do you think that this was a revelation to some Black people in Mississippi that not all white people were racist?
COBB: Yes, I think so.
NELSON: I think – yeah, I think for so many Black people in the community, as they say in the film, this was the first time they were exposed to white people who had kind of come to help them and who were not racist and who had very different opinions. So it was a revelation, I think, to many of the Black people in the community. And for some, especially for some of the younger people, it was a life-changing experience.
GROSS: So we know – we talked a little bit about how the white students were trained about what to expect, what not to do, how to defend themselves in Mississippi. At the same time, the white authorities in Mississippi, they were gearing up for Mississippi summer. What did they do?
NELSON: When the white community heard that this Freedom Summer was going to happen, I think in some ways they overreacted completely. In Jackson, Miss., the city bought a tank that they armed. You know, they increased the jail capacity. They were really ready for riots, and they wanted to portray it that way, as that – you know, these people were going to come down and make trouble and cause riots and really disrupt their way of life. So that’s how they looked at it.
Also, you know, the Klu Klux Klan – which had kind of been silent for a long time in Mississippi – starts to rise again. You know, in Mississippi, there was a thing called the Citizen’s Council, which somebody described as the uptown Ku Klux Klan, that was made up of businessmen. And, you know, in some ways, the Citizens’ Council had convinced Mississippians, well, you don’t really need the Klan; you know, you’ve got us. We’ve got the police. We’ve got all these things in place that will hold Black people back and make sure that Black people don’t get rights and don’t get the right to vote. When Freedom Summer started, I think that then the Klan starts to take a bigger role in Mississippi than it had before.
GROSS: So, you know, one of the goals of Mississippi Freedom Summer was to register African American people to vote. But it was hard to do. People were afraid. What were some of the things they were afraid of if they actually registered to vote?
COBB: Well, they were afraid of getting killed. They were afraid of economic reprisal or even being run out of their counties or towns. They were afraid of, if they did register – make an attempt to register to vote, they were afraid of reprisal being directed at family members, relatives, friends. So there were a range of fears around voter registration, which kept the registered numbers very, very low, even during the summer in Mississippi, which is what led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and a whole chain of events.
DAVIES: Our guests are Stanley Nelson and Charles Cobb speaking in 2014 with Terry Gross. Nelson directed the documentary “Freedom Summer,” which is now available for streaming on PBS. Cobb was the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Organizing Committee in Mississippi during the 1964 drive for voting rights. Here’s a recording led by one of Freedom Summer’s most famous organizers, Fannie Lou Hamer. It was recorded in Greenwood, Miss., in 1963, one year before Freedom Summer. I’m Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. All right. Paul and Silas bound in chains. Let my people go. Had nobody for the gold out there. Let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. Paul and Silas began to shout, let my people go. Jail opened, and they walked out. Let my people go. Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to let my people go. Who’s that yonder dressed in red? Let my people go. Must be the children that Moses led. Let my people go. Go tell it…
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2014 interview about Freedom Summer, a movement in 1964 to open the polls to African Americans in Mississippi. Freedom Summer was organized by SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which brought down about 700 students – mostly white students – from the North to help register African Americans to vote. Racism was so institutionalized in Mississippi that it was dangerous for Black people to register. The presence of the white students helped focus national attention on what African Americans were facing.
Terry spoke to Charles Cobb, one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, and with Stanley Nelson, who directed a documentary about Freedom Summer now streaming on pbs.org. Nelson explained how Freedom Summer led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
NELSON: 1964 was a presidential election year, and Lyndon Johnson would be nominated for the presidency in Atlantic City. So the idea of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was to take an alternate delegation to the convention in Atlantic City and try to obtain the right to be seated as opposed to the regular delegation from Mississippi. The regular delegation from Mississippi was all white. There was no way an African American person could become part of that delegation, and that was against the rules of the Democratic National Convention. So the idea was we will take our own delegation, which is integrated. And we’ll take that and get a hearing at the Democratic National Convention and be seated as the delegation from Mississippi instead of what was called the regular delegation, the all-white delegation.
GROSS: Charles Cobb, did the members of SNCC who organized Mississippi Freedom Summer think that the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would actually be seated at the Democratic convention and be allowed to replace the official Mississippi delegation? Did you see it as a more symbolic action, or did you think, you know, we have a chance in the real world of politics this might actually happen?
COBB: I think most of the delegation felt they would be seated, and many in SNCC and CORE felt the delegation would be seated. Our lawyer Joe Rauh, famous Democratic Party lawyer, was encouraging on this point. If you can get the story out, you will be seated. And I think the delegation would have been seated except that Lyndon Johnson pulled all his political levers ruthlessly to force sympathetic Democrats from the North and from the West in particular to back away from the MFDP.
NELSON: Let me add something about the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the convention. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party got what it wanted at the convention. It got its hearing at the convention, and it had an incredible lineup, which was televised from the convention. So Martin Luther King spoke in favor of the Mississippi Democratic Party. Rita Schwerner, whose husband had recently been killed, spoke. And Fannie Lou Hamer was kind of like the cleanup hitter. She was the final speaker who spoke eloquently about what it meant to be an African American Mississippian and denied her rights. And they really won the day. I mean, they had won. They had swayed the convention to their side until Lyndon Johnson stepped in.
GROSS: What did President Johnson do to prevent – to try to prevent the Mississippi delegation from being seated at the convention?
COBB: He threatened people. He said, you know, you want to be a judge? Not if you support the MFDP. He used Hubert Humphrey as his hatchet man, in fact, dangling the vice presidency over Hubert Humphrey’s head, saying, you want to be vice president, the vice presidential candidate? You help me squash this challenge by the Mississippi Democratic Party. He used the labor unions. Walter Reuther told Martin Luther King, if you back the MFDP, don’t look for any more money from us. To Martin Luther King’s credit, he never backed away from the MFDP.
This is a political ruthlessness that’s not unusual in American politics. You’ve seen it with Tammany Hall politicians, you saw it with the Dick Daley political machine, and you’ve seen it in Boston and other places. It’s that kind of political ruthlessness that was brought to bear at the 1964 Democratic Party national convention to make sure that that MFDP Freedom Democratic Party delegation didn’t get seated.
GROSS: What is your understanding of why LBJ didn’t want the alternate delegation seated? He had already signed the Civil Rights Act. He worked really hard to get that passed. So what was his fear?
NELSON: Well, I think, you know, LBJ was a complicated man. You know, he wanted the Democratic National Convention to be kind of a coronation, you know, of him and for it to go very, very smoothly. From all indications, he was really paranoid that, you know, Bobby Kennedy had a plan and that any disruption in the convention would then allow Bobby Kennedy to enact his plan. And his plan then would be to kind of seize the momentum and somehow place himself in position to get the nomination for the presidency of the United States. It’s ridiculous, but from multiple sources that we interviewed in the film, that was part of Johnson’s thinking.
GROSS: So a compromise was reached. What was the compromise?
NELSON: I don’t think a compromise was ever really reached. And, Charlie, you should probably speak on that.
GROSS: A compromise was proposed. I’ll put it that way.
COBB: No, it wasn’t proposed.
GROSS: It wasn’t proposed?
COBB: It was announced.
GROSS: It was announced. Oh, OK.
COBB: It was announced.
COBB: Bob Moses; Fannie Lou Hamer; Ed King, who was a member of the delegation; Aaron Henry, who was the head of the delegation; several other people were in conversation in Hubert Humphrey’s hotel suite about a compromise. Edith Green, who was a congresswoman from Oregon, had put a very serious proposal on the table, saying that each delegation would be asked to swear loyalty to the Democratic Party and to the presidential nominee that emerged out of the convention. And delegates who swore that would be seated both from the MFDP and the all-white because the Mississippi delegation had come to Atlantic City, the Democratic Party National Convention having announced their support for Barry Goldwater, precisely because – and that’s one of the aftermaths of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
What happened during this meeting was somebody knocked on the door and said, turn on the television and look. And there was Walter Mondale announcing a compromise. Now, that compromise had not been discussed with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the compromise he announced was that the Democratic Party was prepared to seat two Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegates as honorary delegates. And then they proceeded to name who those delegates would be – Fannie Lou Hamer and Edwin King, and they would be given some kind of special status at the convention. Well, what irritated the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party people was that, one, they presumed to name who the two delegates would be and, B, that they had announced this compromise without discussion.
NELSON: Yeah, but also, you know, you have to be clear – so the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party would be given two delegates, which – what they were called is kind of at-large delegates.
NELSON: And the Mississippi – the regular delegation from Mississippi would retain its 68 delegates.
GROSS: You mentioned the fear of Southern Democrats. Was that another reason, do you think, why LBJ was so concerned about the Mississippi alternate delegation?
COBB: Well, he was concerned – and this had been a continuing concern in his administration, particularly after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – that the Democratic Party was losing the Southern Dixiecrats. And remember, as I said, the Mississippi delegation had come to the convention having already announced, Democrats or not, their support for Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate.
NELSON: Who was the Republican candidate.
NELSON: He was the Republican candidate.
COBB: So Johnson – I understand it, you know, from a strictly political sense. I mean, Johnson saw the Democratic Party losing the entire Southern wing of the Democratic Party, and he was right in that ’cause they – he did. The party did lose that entire so-called Dixiecrat wing.
GROSS: So the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the alternate delegation, refused this compromise. So no one from that alternate delegation was seated with the official Mississippi delegation. Charles Cobb, looking back on 1964 and Mississippi Freedom Summer, what do you think the outcomes were? What were the gains?
COBB: One important gain was the challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party changed the national Democratic Party. It’s out of this challenge that you get what are now known as the McGovern rules, which expanded the participation of women and minorities in the Democratic Party. And I think attitudes were changed in Mississippi. People saw that it was possible, in a wider sense, to struggle against white supremacy, and it changed the attitude of those students who participated in that. Mario Savio, who would shortly lead the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in California, was a volunteer in Mississippi. So was Barney Frank. I think it changed the attitude of these young people who came South. And it’s interesting to note in passing that a number of them have stayed in touch with these communities that they worked in in 1964.
GROSS: The following year, 1965, Congress passes – President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. Do you see a direct connection between the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Mississippi Freedom Summer?
COBB: Yes. With Dixiecrats fleeing the Democratic Party, the obvious way to go would be to take advantage of the potential – Black voting potential that existed in the South. I think the Democratic Party and Lyndon Johnson, specifically, recognized the reality that their old world of Dixiecrat power was gone.
GROSS: So you see the Voting Rights Act as being realpolitik in a way, like a practical thing.
COBB: Yes, yes.
DAVIES: Our guests are Charles Cobb, one of the organizers of Freedom Summer, and Stanley Nelson, who directed the 2014 documentary “Freedom Summer,” which is available for viewing on the PBS website – pbs.org. We’ll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. If you’re just joining us, we’re talking about the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, when 700 college students from the North came to Mississippi to organize for voter registration rights. Our guests are Stanley Nelson, whose 2014 documentary “Freedom Summer” is now streaming on the PBS website, and Charles Cobb, one of the organizers. Terry Gross interviewed them in 2014.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: What did the Voting Rights Act, which was passed in 1965, do to help African Americans actually get the right to vote in the South?
COBB: Well, it dramatically expanded the number of voters. The place I’m tempted to point at – out is not Mississippi but Lowndes County, Ala., which had no Black registered voters at the beginning of 1965, and Black voters formed a majority of the voting population at the end of 1965. Something similar was unfolding in – really changed the political face – in Neshoba County, Miss., which we’ve been talking about. Philadelphia, Miss., has a Black mayor who’s serving his second term now. Jackson, Miss., where Allen Thompson came up with Thompson’s Tank to protect the white citizens of Jackson from these invader – Jackson, Miss., now has a Black mayor. So there’s still a lot of issues that have to be dealt with, but you really do have to acknowledge – I think the political face of Mississippi is changed.
GROSS: What were the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that changed things?
NELSON: One of the things the Voting Rights Act did was put certain areas under federal protection. So in Mississippi, before the Voting Rights Act, less than 10% of African Americans were registered to vote. A year after the Voting Rights Act, it was over 60%, and it’s risen since then. So the Voting Rights Act very quickly changed the makeup of the electorate in Mississippi.
GROSS: Lyndon Johnson is such an interesting figure in the history of the civil rights movement. And there’s a moment I want to play that you use in the film of a conversation that he has with the then-head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. And this is after Rita Schwerner, who was then the widow of Mickey Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi early on in Mississippi Freedom Summer, she meets with LBJ. And Stanley Nelson, what does she talk to him about?
NELSON: Well, she wants to make sure that the – that there’s a real effort to find her husband. At this point, her husband and James Chaney and Andy Goodman are missing, and they’ve been missing for the whole summer. And so it’s really colored everything in that summer. And she wants to make sure that the federal government is doing everything they can to find them because she knows, as everybody else knows down there, that Mississippi, the state government, is doing very, very little.
GROSS: And you point out in the film that she was very assertive in asking for this. She says, this isn’t a social occasion.; here’s what we need to get done.
NELSON: Rita Schwerner’s an amazing figure. I mean, she – when her husband goes missing, you know, she is in some ways driving this search. But she’s also keeping it – the focus on Mississippi and Freedom Summer. You know, she was always saying, I don’t want the story of my own suffering and what’s happening to me to take over the bigger issues. You know, she constantly says, you know, people have been – have gone missing for a hundred years in Mississippi, and my husband is one of them. I want you to try to find my husband, but I also want protection for the people who are in Mississippi now working.
GROSS: So I want to play a phone conversation that’s featured in your film between LBJ and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover after LBJ meets with Rita Schwerner. Here’s that conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LYNDON B JOHNSON: I saw this Ms. Schwerner this evening…
J EDGAR HOOVER: Yeah.
JOHNSON: …The wife of the missing boy.
HOOVER: Yeah. She’s a Communist, you know.
JOHNSON: No, but she acted worse than that.
HOOVER: Is that so?
JOHNSON: Yeah. She was awfully mean and very ugly. And she came in this afternoon. She wants thousands of extra people put down there and said I’m the only one that has the authority to do it. I told her I’d put all that we could efficiently handle, and I was going to let you determine how many we could efficiently handle.
GROSS: You know, I think that’s very interesting ’cause the first thing that happens is LBJ, after Hoover, you know, calls the Schwerners Communists, LBJ says, no, it’s even worse than that. She’s rude. She’s ugly. And then he says, but I told her, you know, that we’d put down as many people as we can to help out and that you – Hoover – I’d let you decide how many people we could spare.
So Charles Cobb, how do you interpret this conversation?
COBB: Well, I think Johnson felt that if he did anything, no matter how small, the right attitude should be gratitude. So he was upset with Rita because she didn’t come in here saying thank you very much for even paying attention. She said, this is what you got to do, Lyndon Johnson. That’s what he didn’t like about her approach to him. And that gives you some insight, I think, into how Johnson approached a lot of things beyond race or civil rights. There’s nothing in that little clip you played that surprises me.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
COBB: Thank you.
NELSON: Thank you so much.
DAVIES: Stanley Nelson is the director of the documentary “Freedom Summer,” which is streaming on the PBS website, pbs.org. Charles Cobb was a field secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and one of the organizers of the 1964 voting rights drive. They spoke with Terry Gross in 2014, when the film came out, 50 years after the events in Mississippi. Coming up, our film critic Justin Chang reviews the new film “Tesla” – not about the car but about the physicist and inventor that the car is named after. This is FRESH AIR.
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