Civil rights veterans plan to honor the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer project by taking on an even bigger challenge: Turning the South’s red states blue.
Actually, they don’t express it in terms that are quite that partisan. Whether the states turn Democratic blue or stay Republican red is less important than how much black voters and other voters of color are able to participate in the decision.
Fifty years ago this month, a coalition of major civil rights organizations launched Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, to register African-American voters in Mississippi.
The event is sadly stained by a great tragedy. Three civil rights’ workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, were abducted and killed on the night of June 21, 1964, by members of Ku Klux Klan and the local police departments. National outrage over their deaths helped to ease passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Much has changed for the better in the South and elsewhere, thanks to such efforts. Dozens of blacks and other nonwhites from both parties have been elected to offices for which they earlier would not have been allowed to vote.
Yet there has been some slippage in those numbers in recent years, say movement veterans who will be gathering at the “Freedom 50” conference with younger activists this month in Jackson, Miss.
A new report released in conjunction with the conference by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington-based think tank, tallies how voter registration rates for minorities in the South still lag behind that of whites, even though there are more than enough unregistered nonwhites to shift the balance in many statewide elections.
“Registering just 30 percent of unregistered black voters would yield enough new voters to upset the balance of power in North Carolina and Virginia in presidential or midterm election year,” the report’s author, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who is now a senior fellow at the center, said in a telephone interview.
The report, titled “True South: Unleashing Democracy in the Black Belt 50 Years After Freedom Summer,” concludes that in many of the 13 “Black Belt” states in the study, registering just 30 percent of eligible unregistered minorities could shift the political calculus, because of racially polarized voting patterns.
An impossible dream? I might be willing to dismiss Jealous and his allies more easily were it not for the recent electoral upsets that have turned conventional racial, political and media wisdom on its head.
For example, when conservative Republican primary voters in Virginia surprised the experts by unseating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, it exposed how news organizations can be no less isolated by the bubble of their own reporting than politicians can be blinded by the admiration of their own supporters.
Similarly, Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign narrative could be titled “Honey, We Forgot the Minorities.” He won 59 percent of the white vote, exit polls show. But because of to demographic shifts and a black turnout rate that was larger than whites for the first time, a large white conservative turnout no longer was enough to stop President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Whether the winner comes from the left or the right, I am not displeased to see voters defy the expectations of pollsters, politicians and media pundits. Election surprises reassure us that we are not Cuba, China or some other system in which election outcomes are predetermined by political insiders.
It also reinforces the message that, despite the influence of big lobbyists and big money, everyone’s vote matters. That was the motivating message behind the original Freedom Summer, and the need to protect the voting rights that were won by that movement has not ended. If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, as the old saying goes, so is the eternal need to protect voting rights — and to vote.
Whether a renewed Freedom Summer effort registers as many new voters as the original one did remains to be seen. But as some politicians have learned to their dismay, you should never underestimate the ability of voters to surprise you.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.