Fighting Voter Suppression: Living the Legacy of Mississippi Burning 56 Years Later
October 29, 2020
By Sister Jan Hayes
On June 21, 1964, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Clan in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The three young men—two white and one Black, all in their 20s—were working with the Freedom Summer Project to register African Americans to vote. They had spent the afternoon investigating the burning of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in the community of Longdale, a possible location for a Freedom School, before the KKK pulled their car over then abducted and brutally killed them. Their bodies were buried in an earthen dam a few miles from the church. The FBI’s investigation of this case was reenacted in the 1988 film Mississippi Burning. This year marks the 56th anniversary of their deaths.
Civil rights activists have secured many gains since 1964, one of the most notable being the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite this progress, however, many of the same voter suppression techniques used then are resurfacing today. Today, there are still those who would like to stop persons of color and those who are economically poor from exercising their legal right as citizens to vote, a basic tenet of a democratic society. Not only do they want to halt the forward progress that has been gained in voting rights, they want to turn back the clock to erase it. Across the United States, state legislatures and political leaders have enacted restrictive laws that criminalize the submission of incomplete voter registration forms via voter-registration drives. They are eliminating polling locations in communities of color and on college campuses. The governor of Texas has limited absentee ballot drop boxes to one location per county, making it difficult if not impossible for persons with limited transportation to use them; that restriction was upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arbitrary voting barriers, such as requiring voter IDs but rejecting student IDs, are preventing more people from participating in our elections.
The fact that these obstacles are being created during a pandemic only adds to the tragic nature of this situation. People of color and those who are economically poor have suffered more deaths per capita from Covid-19 than any other group of Americans. Many are frontline workers who take public transportation to work, putting them at greater risk of infection. Many have inadequate housing, and their access to health care is often limited. People in these communities have also experienced a disproportionate number of job losses and the closures of their single-proprietor small businesses.
This return to Jim Crow-era voter suppression techniques during a time of intense suffering is unconscionable. It directly violates Mercy’s Critical Concerns and the consciences of caring Americans everywhere. It must be met with an equally determined effort on our part to push back against it.
Mercy’s Critical Concerns call each of us to speak out against voter suppression and to be examples of activism and hope for the next generation. I screen Mississippi Burning in my undergraduate ethics in the media classes at Webster University and tell my students about James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and the many other young people who were Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The members of Generation Z who are in my classroom are part of the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history. They are familiar with the environmental activism of Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, the call for the education of the girl-child by Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai and the insistence on reasonable gun regulations by American activist David Hogg and his classmates who survived the 2018 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Many of them have taken to the streets with other members of their generation in Black Lives Matter protest marches.
No one could have imagined what our country would look like 56 years after the Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner murders. Today, we find ourselves still fighting for the right of the economically poor and people of color to participate actively in our democracy and elect representatives who align with their values. We must embrace our future while never forgetting our past. And we must continue to live the legacy of the men and women who fought and died for our rights so those who come after us can reap the benefits of a stronger and more vibrant democracy.