On the last Tuesday in June, six-term Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran narrowly won a hard-fought Republican run-off election against his virulently anti-government Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel. The reason, the pundits quickly concluded, was an unprecedented surge in black Democrats—some 13,000 or more—crossing over to support Cochran. “It should send a message,” said retired school principal Ned Tolliver. “It shows that we have the power to elect who we want to elect when the time is right.”
Around the time the polls closed, a very different view of Mississippi was playing out on PBS, in the form of the documentary Freedom Summer. A gripping account of the 1964 movement that brought hundreds of college students to register black voters, the film is part of a flood of fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of that epic struggle. In grainy black-and-white footage and interviews with the heroic Americans who risked beatings, firebombings and even death, the film reminds us of the long struggle of African-Americans for the vote and celebrates those who made it possible.
There’s much to celebrate. Mississippi, where only 28,000 blacks were registered to vote in 1963, now boasts more black elected officials than any other state—including the recently re-elected mayor of Philadelphia, scene of the brutal 1964 murder of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.
The White and Colored signs have long since come down, and a black man now sits in the Oval Office. But fifty years after Freedom Summer, America faces the greatest assault on voting rights since the Jim Crow era, with the Supreme Court eviscerating the Voting Rights Act last year and twenty-two states passing new voting restrictions since 2010. Poll taxes and literacy tests have been replaced with burdensome new laws that keep 3.7 million eligible black voters unregistered across the South. And an estimated 2.6 million ex-felons—including nearly 8 percent of all black adults—are barred from voting, despite having served their sentences.