Tragedy and Triumph: The Summer of 1964

Sherwin Markman.
Sherwin Markman
Sherwin Markman.

Tragedy and Triumph: The Summer of 1964 - A Fifty-Year Remembrance

A Fifty-Year Remembrance

by Sherwin Markman
Former Special Assistant to President Johnson
Sermon, Unitarian Universalist Church, Chestertown, Maryland
May 18, 2014

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, it is altogether fitting, on this Sunday at the cusp of summer, that we turn our thoughts back fifty years to the summer of 1964 when a race of our people was pillaged and murdered as they rose up, and, with the help of some of the rest of us, began to overcome.

Their wait had been long. Since the American Civil War and the enactment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the struggle for equality had lain mostly dormant, punctuated only by fitful lurches, some of them backwards, so painfully illustrated in 1896 when the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson decreed that “separate but equal” was sufficient for black Americans.

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, organized resistance to injustice began to stir. Led by Martin Luther King, it was intended to be a non-violent revolution. Tragically, it was not so received by those who anointed themselves as the guardians of so-called White superiority. Thus it was that on May 4, 1961, a bus full of Dr. King’s Freedom Riders was bombed in Aniston, Alabama while others were beaten in Birmingham and Montgomery.

The violence continued throughout 1961 and 1962.

In 1963, on May 3, police dogs attacked marching children in Birmingham; on June 2, NAACP leader, Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi; and on September 15, four schoolgirls were killed when another church was bombed in Birmingham.

These are but a few examples of the lawless racial rage that radical whites perpetrated, generally with impunity, throughout the American south.
And yet, Dr. King’s voice continued to ring out above the din. So it was that on August 28, 1963, he elevated all of us when he uttered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Thus, we come to the fifty year ago summer of 1964.

In February of that year, Robert Moses led a coalition of African-American civil rights groups in a bold and dangerous plan to mount an organized drive to register black voters in Mississippi, the most oppressive state in the nation, where only 6.7% of eligible black citizens were registered to vote. The massive effort was called “The Mississippi Summer Project”.

At almost the same time, a figurative world away in Washington, D.C., another beacon was ignited. During May of 1964, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson initiated negotiations with Republican Senate Leader Everett Dirksen. Johnson’s intention was nothing less than to bring about the enactment of the first major civil rights legislation since the Civil War; to, for the first time in the United States Senate, override and defeat the previously unbeatable anti-civil rights Southern and conservative filibusters.

Johnson intended to outlaw the all-pervasive southern practice of discrimination against blacks in public places and facilities. To do that, Johnson needed 66 votes in the Senate; to do that he needed Republicans; and to do that he needed Everett Dirksen.

During that same month, Johnson told Richard Russell, his dear friend and former mentor—and the leader of the Southern filibusters—that, without civil rights legislation and perhaps even with it, “there will be a bunch of killings this summer”. Russell, unmoved, stated that, if Johnson went forward with the legislation, “you will not only lose the election, you will lose the South forever.” LBJ’s quiet response was, “Well, Dick, if that’s the price I have to pay, so be it.”

The ferocious filibuster continued for 57 days. Then, on May 13, 1964, fifty years ago last week, Everett Dirksen rose on the floor of the Senate to proclaim: “No army is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” Then, on June 10, Lyndon Johnson—with the critical assistance of Everett Dirksen—engineered a Senate vote of 71 to 20, and, for the first time, an anti-civil rights filibuster was broken.

Ten days later, on June 20, the Mississippi Summer Project was launched. Over 1000 volunteers descended upon Mississippi and began a massive effort to register the disenfranchised black voters of that state.

Tragedy struck immediately. On the afternoon of June 21, the second day of the summer project, three young volunteers—Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwermer, and James Chaney—drove down Highway 19 in Neshoba County, Mississippi. As they entered the town limits of Philadelphia, Mississippi, they were stopped by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who charged them with speeding and took them to the county jail. There they were held until 10 P.M., and then released.

As they drove away, they were closely followed by Deputy Price, who was a member of the White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan.  Earlier, those White Knights had held a meeting where they had been told that they were being subjected to a “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi”. Now, a mob of those Klansmen lay in wait for the three boys. When the boys reached them, they were instantly surrounded, dragged from their car, mercilessly beaten, and brutally murdered. Their car was then burned and their smashed bodies hidden in a remote earthen dam.

The disappearance of the boys was immediately noticed by their colleagues, but all calls to Mississippi authorities were met with denials of any knowledge. When a public outcry was made, the Mississippi newspapers dismissed the story as liberal propaganda. In that, they were merely following the lead of their governor and their senator, James Eastland, who can be heard on a recorded telephone call telling President Johnson that the entire affair was a “hoax”.

Initially, the FBI was reluctant to intervene, calling the matter “a local affair.” But President Johnson was having none of that.  He ordered J. Edgar Hoover to flood Mississippi with agents.

The search for the missing boys was massive. Within days, their car was discovered, but their well-hidden bodies were not found in their earthen tomb until August 4.

These three brutal murders were only the beginning of death and violence during that fifty year ago summer: One more volunteer was slaughtered; three Mississippi blacks were killed as they attempted to register; 80 volunteers were badly beaten, some critically wounded; 1062 volunteers were arrested; 37 churches and 30 African-American homes were burned or bombed.

Yet, in Washington, great changes were afoot. On July 2, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, thus, at long last, decreeing the end of racial segregation in public facilities throughout America.

Still, during that fateful summer, tragedy marched shoulder to shoulder with triumph. In Mississippi, the violent resistance remained implacable. Little headway was made, and even the minimal registration achieved came at what proved to be intolerable costs in misery and pain. Thus it was that, in July, the Summer Project leaders decided to turn their focus toward another objective: They formed an alternative and non-segregated Democratic Party which they called the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Its purpose was to unseat and replace the wholly segregated and all white regular Democratic Party delegation at the upcoming August National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

But, as those leaders shifted the Summer Project’s energies from Mississippi to Atlantic City, they also created a new (although secret) adversary: One of the strongest willed politicians America had ever seen: Lyndon Johnson. This was not because LBJ did not sympathize with their cause—he did. His opposition came because, unknown to them, he saw their newest effort as a potentially mortal threat to his own nomination and election as president in his own right. Rightly or wrongly, Johnson was convinced (and not without cause) that the man he feared most—Bobby Kennedy—was determined to defeat and replace him; that, if the Freedom Party came to the convention floor with their emotional and righteous cause, it would divide and disrupt the convention, create a stampede to reject the regular Democratic establishment nationwide—and thus Johnson—which would, in turn, hand the coveted prize to Kennedy, who already commanded the emotional hearts of all those who believed that he was the natural and deserving heir to his slain brother’s legacy.

Thus, in Johnson’s mind, he faced a painful dilemma: He must prevent a floor fight regarding the Freedom Party while, at the same time, he must not antagonize either the liberal northern or the traditional southern wings of his Party. Most of all, he must not be perceived as directly opposing the efforts of the Freedom Party. It was, therefore, imperative that some sort of compromise be negotiated. In Johnson’s eyes, it mattered not what form the compromise took, only that one be reached.

In the end, after five days and nights of intense negotiations, in which I participated on behalf of the President, an agreement was hammered out: Several Freedom Party delegates would be seated, not as delegates from Mississippi but as delegates ‘at large’; the regular segregated delegation would be required to take a ‘loyalty oath’ to support the Party’s platform and nominee (which, as we knew, they would never do); and, henceforward, no segregated delegation would be seated at any future Party convention. This compromise received—but only momentarily—the support of the Freedom Party. But that brief moment was enough to enable Johnson’s lieutenants, including me, to force the agreement to the floor of the Convention, which adopted it by voice vote and without debate.

I am not particularly proud of my role because, although the solution solved LBJ’s dilemma and boded well for the future, it also meant that the entire Summer Project ended with failure to register voters in Mississippi and only blunted success in Atlantic City.

Though it might be said that the Summer Project finished not with a bang but a whimper, the fact is that summer laid the essential foundation for greater things ahead: For Lyndon Johnson, having secured his nomination and later his landslide election, found the political will and strength to secure the enactment, on August 6, 1965, of what is, to me, the greatest single piece of civil rights legislation: The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law which changed the political face of America.

Of course, the struggle goes on. The full equal rights—and not just voting rights—of African-Americans are not yet fully secured, and not just in the South. The heavy hand of the current reactionary Supreme Court majority has seen to that. Moreover, our nation’s eyes and hearts have now been opened to the equality needs of so many others: women, gays, Hispanics, the entrapped poor.

I believe that we must learn to accept and even celebrate our nation’s growing diversity; a diversity that mirrors the diversity of humankind itself.

I believe that all of us here and elsewhere have a solemn responsibility, not only to remember that summer of 1964, but to forge ahead with our never ending struggle for equality and justice.

I believe, as Edwin Burke wrote, that “Society is a covenant between the dead, the living, and the unborn.”

And, as Walt Whitman informed us, “The strongest and sweetest songs remain to be sung.”

I also believe that.