Why 2014 Should Be Another Freedom Summer

Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price watches marchers as they pass through Philadelphia, Miss., during a memorial for th
Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price watches marchers as they pass through Philadelphia, Miss., during a memorial for three slain civil rights workers, June 21, 1965. Price is charged with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the three Freedom Summer activists slain by Klansmen in 1964. Seven Ku Klux Klansmen were convicted of federal civil rights violations in the deaths and sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to ten years; none served more than six years. (AP Photo/Jack Thornell)

During this very week 50 years ago, Americans -- many of them students and young folks -- gathered in the state of Mississippi alongside civil rights leaders, activists, local citizens and others as they collectively engaged in an extensive voter registration project. Freedom Summer, as it was aptly titled, helped change the course of this nation. Because of Mississippi's horrendously low black voter registration rate, this state became symbolic of the larger systemic issue of voter disenfranchisement across the country. Today, 50 years on from that historic summer, we are facing many of the same challenges in a host of states. After so many marched, organized, petitioned, registered voters, and risked their lives and livelihoods -- and some even died -- how do we as a country allow their victories to be stripped away before our very eyes? If there was ever a time to have a renewed Freedom Summer, that time is now, in 2014.

In all my years of civil rights work, I never thought I'd see the day that the Voting Rights Act would be effectively gutted and transformed. Last year the Supreme Court did just that when it declared Section 5 of the Act (which requires areas with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before making voting changes) unconstitutional. States have effectively been able to institute new requirements and make new regulations without federal approval -- and you'd better believe they have been busy doing so. While there has been pushback against this and other measures to block voters from the polls, at least 19 states have enacted harsh voting requirements like new ID laws. Making it more difficult for blacks, the poor, the elderly and other minorities to participate, these laws have caused us to regress as a society and forget about the goals of that Freedom Summer 50 years past. It is up to us to put an end to these draconian measures. We must urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 and restore protections for our right to vote.

When heroic Americans like Bob Moses, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and many others sacrificed so greatly during Freedom Summer, we must ensure that their work lives on. We must conduct similar voter registration drives, especially in the 19 or so states that have instituted harsh new voting laws. If we fail to challenge these injustices today, we will do a disservice to all those who fought and died before us. I often say that we have a lot to celebrate, and we have undoubtedly made tremendous gains, but much work remains. It's time to stop living in denial and look beyond our own individual interests. The fate of our very democracy is at stake.

As we mark the half-century since Freedom Summer, we have a tendency to rejoice prematurely. We have gone from people being murdered over voting rights to watching the first black president and attorney general in office. That is an undeniable achievement. But before we pop the cork off champagne bottles and celebrate, we have some unfinished business. In many of the areas that made up the Confederacy some 150 years ago, we now see right-wing Republican legislatures that are attacking everything from voting rights to same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose. We are witnessing outright resistance against civil rights gains like affirmative action. And in states with new voter ID laws, we're seeing a concerted effort to limit if not suppress the minority vote.

It is my firm belief that we ought to acknowledge and appreciate how far we've come, but only as we continue to push for change in the clear areas where we have remaining challenges. Those who struggled and sacrificed during Freedom Summer were often criticized as troublemakers, but they knew that they were fighting on the side of justice. When people raise issues and organize around causes today, they too will be scrutinized as somehow stirring trouble. But when you are aligned with equality and progress, that just becomes part of the journey; it should never deter anyone.

As we continue on this road together, we can celebrate our victories, but to act as if we've arrived is premature. The aircraft is not at the gate of true freedom. It hasn't even landed on the tarmac yet.