Images from the PBS documentary "Freedom Summer." (Courtesy PBS)

After watching the PBS documentary Freedom Summer in June, Anne Rooney and her husband, Rich Means, felt compelled to do something to make others aware that 50 years ago people had died in the struggle to register voters in Mississippi and to alert their friends and neighbors that the gains made a year later in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were now being eroded.

The ad hoc committee they formed borrowed the 1960s term “teach-in” to describe the event they scheduled for Oct. 19, which they are calling “50 Years after Freedom Summer: Civil Rights Progress and Voting Rights Reversals.” 

The teach-in, which is co-sponsored by Unity Temple, Oak Park Temple, the League of Women Voters and Americans for Democratic Action, along with 24 other faith and advocacy organizations in the area, is free and open to the public.

According to PBS’s online summary of Freedom Summer, “In 1964, less than 7% of Mississippi’s African Americans were registered to vote, compared to between 50 and 70% in other southern states. … In 1964, a new plan was hatched by Bob Moses, a local secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). For 10 weeks, white students from the North would join activists on the ground for a massive effort that would do what had been impossible so far: force the media and the country to take notice of the shocking violence and massive injustice taking place in Mississippi.

“After the first week, the volunteers learned that three members of their group — Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney — had gone missing in Mississippi. … On Aug. 4, 1964, the bodies of the three missing men were finally found, buried beneath an earthen dam. But despite the brutal murders, volunteers and locals were more committed to their cause than ever.”

What alarms Rooney and Means is the recent Supreme Court decision gutting the 1965 Voting Act and the subsequent erecting of what they feel are intentional barriers to participation in voting. Responding to states like Wisconsin which claim that requiring IDs in order to vote is an attempt to reduce fraud, Means, who is an election attorney in private practice and who was the head of the Cook County Election Fraud Unit of the State’s Attorney’s Office, said fraud is rarely committed by individuals and this is a thinly veiled attempt to create barriers to voting.

“They are creating structures, barriers that don’t need to be there,” declared Rooney. “That’s why we feel so passionately about this. People died for the right to vote, and it’s being chipped away in the name of something that sounds innocuous like voter ID.”

“This teach-in will be a reminder of how important our sacred right of voting is,” said Unity Temple’s pastor Alan Taylor. “Voting is not meaningless.” 

Freedom Summer remembered

Oct. 19

Part One

1:30-3:30 p.m.: Screening of the PBS documentary Freedom Summer

Oak Park Temple, 1235 N. Harlem Ave.

RSVP at 708-386-3937

Part Two

4:30-7 p.m.: Panel presentation and interactive discussion

Unity Temple, 875 Lake St.

Chronicling the progress of civil rights legislation since the Freedom Summer and the most recent attacks on the right to vote as well as a discussion of steps needed to resume progress

Panelists: 

Timuel Black, Chicago civil rights activist and historian

Thomas Armstrong III, an original Mississippi Freedom Rider

David Orr, Cook County clerk

Judith Browne Dianis, Advancement Project’s Voter Protection Program

Donald Register, retired minister and longtime civil rights activist

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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