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“Operation Mississippi Freedom”: When State-Sponsored Terrorism Was American

by Robert S. McElvaine on Jun 16, 2005

Robert S. McElvaine

At a time when the president of the United States has the nation involved in an open-ended War on Terror, a trial now underway in Mississippi takes us back to a time when state-sponsored terrorism existed in the United States.

The trial of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman focuses attention on an era, only four decades ago, when those employing terror against outside forces they saw as invaders were inside the United States. On the surface, the goal of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 sounds almost identical to that which President Bush established (after his original professed war aim of seizing weapons of mass destruction vanished) for his war in Iraq: bringing freedom and democracy to a closed society.

The 1964 Summer Project might reasonably have been called Operation Mississippi Freedom. Even if the avowed objectives of the outsiders in 1964 and today were similar, the means they employed to try to achieve those ends were radically different. That difference points up the wrong-headedness of the Bush policy in Iraq.

The outsiders, joined by many blacks and a few whites in Mississippi, sought to bring freedom and democracy to this state peacefully. The use of military force to improve the situation of African Americans had been tried a century before, in the 1860s. The result was more than a half million people killed. Slavery ended, but freedom and democracy lasted only during the period of military occupation that followed the Civil War. Little more than a decade after the end of that terrible war, the occupying forces were gone, and the undemocratic elements had been restored to their dominance and oppression.

In Mississippi in 1964, violence came from the state itself, as well as from terrorist groups and individuals who acted with well-placed confidence that the state would not punish them for their crimes. During that summer there were 65 bombings or burnings of buildings, including 35 churches and numerous homes in this state. McComb, Miss., came to be known that summer as the bombing capital of the world, a dubious distinction that Baghdad now holds. Six civil rights workers in the state were murdered and at least 80 were the victims of beatings, in many cases by the police.

Much as the self-professed religious Muslims associated with al-Qaida today do not hesitate to bomb mosques, Mississippi Klansmen bombed churches while claiming to be good Christians. A solemn, determined Spirit of Christian Reverence must be stimulated in all members, Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the Mississippi Klan, declared as he outlined a four-stage plan culminating in extermination.

Abuse of black prisoners and white civil rights workers was the norm. At Parchman State Prison Farm, civil rights workers were left naked in 40-degree weather with the windows open and fans blowing on them. They were also force-fed laxatives.

Especially striking is the fact that at a time when Mississippi saw itself as the place that held women in the highest esteem, many women in the civil rights movement were severely beaten while in police custody. Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous, riveting testimony before the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, for example, recounted the brutal beatings with fists and clubs administered to her and three other women by assailants including a sheriff, a police chief and a state trooper in the jail in Winona, Miss., the previous year.

As Americans continue to debate the wisdom and possibilities of success of Operation Iraqi Freedom, we should compare the means and results of the two attempts to achieve analogous results in the American South. The total number of people killed in the nonviolent, nonmilitary struggle to bring freedom and democracy to the South in the 1960s was, by the count of the names inscribed on Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., 40. And the nonviolent effort succeeded, as the belated indictment of Killen — the latest in a series of Southern atonement trials — reconfirms.

These different outcomes from efforts to spread democracy and freedom through violent and nonviolent means should tell us that we are choosing the wrong methods for promoting these estimable goals. Perhaps only when violence fails will we return to the tactics of the Mississippi freedom movement.


Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of "The Great Depression."