Ron Radosh says Peniel Joseph's leftwing bias distorts what happened in Freedom Summer

Historians in the News

Ron Radosh is a PJ Media columnist and Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer of 1964: 1000-plus white volunteers went South to Mississippi to help local African-American citizens register to vote, a right they had largely been prevented from executing since the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction. PBS recently aired a major documentary on the effort; the summer indeed is worthy of remembrance.

There is, however, one major myth about Freedom Summer that has stuck and which has been repeated many times. The myth comes from two quarters: the American left, and the proponents of black nationalism that emerged soon after the Freedom Summer, promulgated by the late Stokely Carmichael (who later changed his name to Kwame Ture), who first developed the rallying cry of “black power.”

This past Sunday, the New York Times allowed its op-ed pages to be taken over by one of these mythmakers: Professor Peniel E. Joseph, who leads a “Center for the Study of Race and Democracy” at Tufts University and who authored a recent biography of the black radical leader titled Stokely: A Life.According to Dr. Joseph, the fracturing of the civil rights movement after Freedom Summer took place because the white liberals in the movement eventually sold the blacks out by refusing to confront “racism on a national scale.”

They did this by supposedly hampering black activists from creating a non-segregated independent party that could gain recognition and replace the all-white Democratic Party Mississippi delegation at the coming Democratic National Convention. That group, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), was led by former sharecropper and local black activist Fannie Lou Hamer, who — in a dramatic TV appearance before the Democratic Convention’s Credentials Committee — told her own story of deprivation and suffering that black people like herself were experiencing in the deep South in that time....

The details are complex, but those interested can find it in the chapter “Atlantic City, 1964” in my book Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996. The reality was that the compromise included the pledge that all future Democratic conventions could not include segregated delegations from any state. It was obviously a win, so much so that even SNNC’s most revered leader, Bob Moses, first accepted the compromise until radical elements in his group threatened his leadership position. James Forman, an SNCC leader who was said to be a secret member of the American Communist Party, said that “idealistic reformers” had no choice but to become “full-time revolutionaries.”

These moderates wanted a unity of whites and blacks on behalf of a national momentum to gain blacks the right to vote in Mississippi, including federal registrars sent to Mississippi to enforce the civil rights of black voters and passage of a national Voting Rights Act by Congress. Black nationalists like Carmichael and James Forman claimed they alone “stood with the people” and those of the lowest economic classes, who wanted a real social revolution. The two men fired Joe Rauh as their counsel, and took on lawyers from a Communist front group: the National Lawyers Guild....

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