The SNCC’s leaders believed that any violence against their young volunteers, since they were from the North, would spark even more outrage than usual among northern whites. Indeed, hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers were beaten, bombed, shot at, or arrested over the course of the campaign. Several even lost their lives. In the most infamous case, FBI agents uncovered the bodies of three volunteers killed by Ku Klux Klan members near Meridian, Mississippi.

Despite the violence, the Freedom Summer campaign succeeded. Volunteers registered tens of thousands of black voters, many of them under the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). More important, the continued violence attracted increased attention and further awakened northerners to the plight of southern blacks.

The Election of 1964

Black leaders from the new Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party traveled to the Democratic National Convention in 1964 to support Johnson and promote further civil rights legislation. Democrats, however, including Johnson, refused to allow the delegates to speak and refused to recognize the party. Although Johnson still supported the civil rights movement, he feared that incorporating the MFDP into the Democratic Party would prematurely alienate conservatives and end any chance for more protective rights legislation. Although Johnson understood party politics well and his fears were justified, many MFDP activists, who thought of Johnson as an ally, were outraged. Despite the slight, blacks continued to support Johnson, who captured more than 90 percent of the black vote in the election of 1964. Just as important, Democrats also won control of both houses of Congress.

The Selma Campaign

In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC, and the SNCC launched yet another campaign to provoke southern whites, this time in the city of Selma, Alabama. The activists chose Selma because although blacks outnumbered whites in the city of nearly 30,000, only several hundred were registered voters. Tens of thousands of black protesters petitioned for the right to vote outside Selma City Hall, without success. Then, when the protesters marched peacefully from Selma toward the governor’s mansion in Montgomery after a Sunday church sermon, heavily armed police attacked the protesters with tear gas and clubs, injuring and nearly killing many and arresting thousands. The violence was highly publicized, and “Bloody Sunday, as the media dubbed it, shocked Americans in the North more than previous injustices.

The Voting Rights Act

The events in Selma also angered President Johnson, who immediately summoned Congress in a special televised session, requesting strong legislation to protect black voters. An equally angry Congress overwhelmingly passed the epochal Voting Rights Act in 1965. The new law banned literacy tests as a prerequisite for voting and sent thousands of federal voting officials into the South to supervise black voter registration. As a result, the black voter registration rate jumped dramatically, in some places from less than 10 percent to more than 50 percent. In effect, the Voting Rights Act finally accomplished what Radical Republicans had intended with the Fifteenth Amendment nearly a century earlier, in 1870. Although the Voting Rights Act did not end segregation, it began a positive transformation in the South.

Popular pages: The Civil Rights Era (1865–1970)