Martin Luther King Jr.: His Legacy as Seen Through the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project

by Roberta McCutcheon

Background

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 21, is celebrated by Americans each year to remember and recognize the life and work of the man. Martin Luther King Jr., however, represents far more than the contributions of a single individual. He is the symbol of a movement that included varied organizations and wide support. Understanding the broadness and diversity of the Civil Rights Movement is an important way of honoring both the man and his cause. Using the classroom as an historical laboratory, students can use primary sources to research, read, evaluate, and understand the goals of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, and the murder of three CORE volunteers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Objectives

  • Students will examine primary documents and factual references to analyze the history of CORE and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project.
  • Students will be able to identify the major events in the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Students will be engaged in historical research and the critical analysis of events that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
  • Students will be able to examine the effects of Reconstruction and Supreme Court decisions on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Student Exercise One

Have students research the organization and goals of CORE and the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. General accounts may be found at these and other sites:

Research the following: literacy tests, poll taxes, and Supreme Court decisions on the Fifteenth AmendmentReese v United States (1876) and Williams v Mississippi (1898). General information can be found at these and other websites:

Discussion

How did southern state governments respond to the Supreme Court decisions in Reese v. United States and Williams v. Mississippi? How were the goals of CORE’s Freedom Summer Project related to these decisions?

Student Exercise Two

Have the students work in groups to research the events of June 21, 1964, in Neshoba County, Mississippi, and the investigation, the indictments, and trial that resulted from the events (US v. Price et al.) The following websites provide general information:

In order to determine the kind of information they need to deepen their understanding of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964, students should identify the important historical questions they want to ask.

Questions might include:

  • What was the nature of race relations in Mississippi in 1964?
  • What were the goals of CORE?
  • Why did CORE target Mississippi for its Freedom Summer Project?
  • Why did northerners join CORE?
  • How was the investigation of the murders of Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner conducted?
  • How do the indictments and trial help us to assess the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement? Why is this trial being revisited?

Have students rewrite or add a section to their textbook accounts of the Civil Rights Movement that includes the lives and deaths of the three CORE volunteers (Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner). Have the students use what they have written to enlighten and enrich the class’s understanding of the history of the movement.

Essay

To what extent do the events surrounding the murders of the three CORE volunteers help us to understand the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964?

Student Exercise Three

Have students research the biographies of CORE volunteers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Biographies may be found on these and other websites:

Discuss a strategy for identifying significant information in the biographies. The students should formulate questions they might ask about Cheney, Goodman, and Schwerner. For example:

  • Where and when were they born?
  • What were their family histories and religions?
  • What historical events affected their lives?
  • What common experiences did they share?

Discussion Question

In what ways does the biographical information on the three CORE volunteers help us to understand the following recent statement by Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore:

“The problem with [the Mississippi Burning] case is that we didn’t do anythingwe didn’t investigate it; we didn’t prosecute it.”

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