Freedom Summer, Then and Now

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This past summer was the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, where activists went to Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Amid the turmoil that resulted when such efforts started, major victories were achieved with one example being the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act protected the right of blacks to register and to vote.

Queens College is a part of the rich history of Freedom Summer with some QC students going to assist in Mississippi. Most notably, however, is the death of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan. It is why the tower near the Rosenthal Library is called the Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Clock Tower.

It should be noted that while there were gains that benefitted future generations, there are still serious setbacks. A prime example could be found in Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, a white police officer. In what is chilling, Brown’s body was left in the street for four hours after the shooting.

Members in the Ferguson community became angered by what was happening and marched in the streets for justice. The spirit of Freedom Summer was not identical to what happened in the city, but the clamor for a voice and respect was still the same.

Frederick Douglass, a famous American activist and abolitionist in the 19th century, famously stated “if there is no struggle, there is no peace.” What is happening today is a struggle to obtain the peace millions have wanted. It requires a change of the system with emphasis on the community and on tranquility.

Bernard LaFeyette Jr., a civil rights activist who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, wrote in his autobiography of activism in Selma, Ala., “the value of life lies not in longevity but in what people to give significance.”

As it was then in Freedom Summer, it is now that members of not only Ferguson, Mo., but those affected by systemic violence have the opportunity to bring change. What was accomplished by activists then and what activists in Ferguson are accomplishing now is significant. It is the spirit of change and correcting injustices that fuels such actions.

The memories of Freedom Summer, as told by some media outlets and activists who were around that time, provide a template for the future. This template is not definite as new problems arise. Yet, new activists can determine the narrative of what change they want for future generations just as people like Goodman wanted for us.

Every time the bell rings from the Clock Tower, it serves as a reminder for all of us that there is still a chance to “give significance” in someone’s life. It starts with determination to achieve peace.

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