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The era of Freedom Summer and Medgar Evers may seem like long ago, but we shouldn't forget them

Jack Lessenberry

Whatever you think about the way society is evolving, there continues to be progress when it comes to human and civil rights and freedoms. Yesterday, Governor Rick Snyder signed two bills protecting the rights of breast-feeding mothers to nurse in public.  

True, this always should have been a universal human right, but progress doesn’t always come as quickly as it should -- nor for the right reasons. The governor, never eager to go out on a limb on social issues, said the bill would help prevent obesity.

Meanwhile, it seems increasingly likely that same-sex marriage will also be fully legal before very long. These have been hard-fought battles, as all struggles for civil rights always have been. But to the best of my knowledge, nobody has been threatening to kill anyone for breast-feeding. 

Yet I got a call last night from an old civil rights attorney who reminded me that we lived in a very different world half a century ago.

Dean Robb is up on the Leelanau peninsula now, still energetically practicing law at age 90. His son, who is 29, is now in law school, looking forward to joining his dad.

Dean wanted me to remind people that half a century ago this month, he and a few other Michigan lawyers and volunteers, including now-retired Detroit judge Claudia Morcom, were fighting a far more dangerous battle in a far more dangerous place.

They were in Mississippi, which historians of the time describe as a full-blown terrorist state. The occasion was 

The occasion was something called Freedom Summer, and their cause would attract the attention of America and the world.

something called Freedom Summer, and their cause would attract the attention of America and the world. What they wanted to do doesn’t seem very radical today, but it did to Mississippi at the time.

They wanted to register people to vote. Incredible as it may seem today, almost no black Americans were allowed to vote in Mississippi half a century ago. The summer before, Medgar Evers, a field organizer for the NAACP, had been assassinated.

Many of those who went down to Mississippi were attacked. Neither Dean Robb nor Claudia Morcom scare easily. That summer they were, Dean said, “scared, but not intimidated.” Morcom arrived in Mississippi 50 years ago this week on the very day three college students working for civil rights disappeared.

They were found six weeks later, buried under a dam. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been shot through the heart. James Cheney, who was black, had been tortured before he was murdered. Their cases became an international sensation.

What is less well known is that the bodies of eight other black men were found by searchers looking for Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney. The next spring, Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo was shot to death by the Ku Klux Klan during a Civil Rights march in Alabama.

Today, that seems centuries ago. Nobody has any trouble voting in Mississippi anymore. What nobody could know then was a little black boy who turned three the day the murdered civil rights workers were found, would today be President of the United States.

But that happened because people worked hard to change the world. I think we should remember that, and those who died, and honor them by always using our right to vote.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan. 

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